It's been a long eternity.

She can see it, even; even though she's still so pale and young and sweet. She's the slayer and he can see the world weighing down on her shoulders. He doesn't understand how she does it; but she does, and she doesn't shatter. She doesn't let herself lie in the muck. She is strength; she is forgiveness; she is clothes and friends and everything about the world that he's not allowed to live in; and he loves her for it.

But sometimes he hates her; hates her soft eyes and open heart and brave face. He would have considered the true Buffy Summers – Hemmery High cheerleader – a snack (part of him still does). She would be dead before the stake even landed in her hand, and worst of all, he would never have cared what he did to her.

She knows that; knows who he used to be and she doesn't care. She loves him for the now, and he can't understand why, because the now all seems to be her. Everything hurts, except Buffy, and that hurts even more because he knows nothing should stop the suffering. But she does, and it doesn't even matter that Xander says a million awful things to him (jealous teenage boy; Liam might have once been that); that Giles observes him carefully like a rabid animal; that he smells the fear coming off Jenny in waves (and he knows that there's something she's not telling them about him, but he lets it go. Whatever it is, he probably deserves it.)

It doesn't matter, of course, until he remembers it doesn't matter and the centuries come crashing back; burying him in the sand like a tsunami.

Then Buffy smiles. Smiles and holds him; kisses him; brings him to something that looks like absolution. He grasps for it carelessly; always misses, like a toddler trying to take its first steps (and he appreciates the irony; him, a centuries old creature; an infant). But she just cheers him on; promises him he can live in the sunlight with her (and he's pretty sure if he stayed, she won't be able to bear its rays either) and he prays that he will.

God isn't listening, but it's nice having the routine.

And he's scared – blindingly, mortifyingly petrified – that he'll be the one to break her. Not with blood and pain and blades, like so many blond girls once upon a time – he thinks he'll tear her soul out with his own, leave her hollow (the soul is every bit as vampiric as he is).

They're all waiting for the second shoe to drop, except Buffy. She just acts like everything can stay the same; like he can be her boyfriend, plain and simple. No-one has the heart to tell her otherwise (especially not him). This calling is taking so much from her, and sometimes he think this damaged mess with him, is all she'll ever be able to get. She deserves that much, and if it's killing her – well, she's not meant to make it past twenty anyway.

Darla would laugh (if he hadn't killed her). Seeing her great Angelus – her protege – reduced to fawning and panicking for this girl; a slayer. He remembers he killed a Romanian slayer once (although he never had the obsession with them that Spike did; guess it's different now); Darla would tell him to do it again. And he wants to. He wants to drain her dry and make her scream and share her with his whole family (Darla is dust. Spike is an enemy. Drusilla just looks like a cross and holy water now).

But then Buffy just looks at him, and his soul floods back more brutal than before. She tells him sweet lies that she believes and he wants to; that he was not that monster. That the creature who did those things, destroyed those people, was someone else.

The sting of her cross necklace pressed against his skin tells him otherwise.

There's nothing else to do however; he needs her. Because being with her is the only thing that ever makes him feel like he can survive, exist, do good. It's probably not true, but he'll never survive if he faces that. Buffy loves him, and he loves her; and she's lessening his burden and increasing it exponentially under the weight of her expectations that he won't ruin her.

He doesn't know how not to; that's the problem.

And she needs him too; she's a sixteen year old girl with hormones and a death sentence hanging over her head; it's all more and closer and trying so hard for the warmth. He can't remember how to push her away, to save her; even though he's known for a long time he shatters everything he ever dares to love (he still carries Cathy's ring with him; it was a present for his sixteenth birthday).

Then she's turning seventeen; it's the Judge and the arm and he has an excuse to run. He thinks he'll die without her, but she'll die with him, and the selfish part of him asks why that is better. She loves him and he wishes he could stay; he wants to hold her and stay on the surface. He's tired of lying in a coffin in Ireland.

Then she's in his bed; sweet and shivering and afraid. He's not warm for her, but she doesn't even care and he doesn't either. Maybe this, this is what he needs because in the second, he doesn't even think that she's dying and he's dead. She looks beautiful and he feels whole; the air doesn't feel like it's full of holy water vapor anymore.

He holds her after, and actually believe he can keep her. That they won't break. She doesn't look like she can be broken anymore; she looks like the glue that's binding him (and herself) together.

When he feels his crackling, spluttering soul escaping, running off to where it belongs; he wonders why he's even surprised.