*Special thanks to my husband for coming up with the scanner part. When you read it, you'll know why I married him.*
Though Spike would probably never admit it to her, he loved Buffy most when she was punching him in the face.
Since she'd come back, the strength that he'd fallen for had dissipated. When she fought with him now, in their tainted foreplay, she didn't have her heart in it. Sometimes, nights when they were snogging on a chair in his crypt and her hands were anxiously tugging at his clothing, he considered pulling away from her, vamping out, and shouting, "The chip stopped working! I'm gonna kill all your friends! Mwahahaha!" Then the anger that he craved would rise up in her eyes, and she would be Buffy again, radiating lethal confidence with every blow, her body pure destruction, emanating the heady scent of power, going for the kill. And when they'd beaten each other for so long that their joints ached, and she landed on top of him, those slender legs pinning him to the ground, and she held a stake over his chest, he could sigh happily, smile, and say, "Just kidding, love."
If he wasn't sure that this scenario would end in a dusty Spike, he would've tried it long ago.
As they walked carrying armfuls of groceries towards her house, he noticed that she seemed better. While she wasn't exactly skipping and whistling, the dark cloud that hung over her face constantly had cleared, if only a little bit. He would've liked to think that it had something to do with him, but it didn't. She didn't need him to buy her food. If he hadn't been there, she still would've found a way. That's what she did: face the impossible and emerge from it with a smile and a witty remark. Lately it hadn't been easy for her, but she still did it. And it comforted him to think he was incidental in the process; that without him, she'd still be fine.
He looked over at her and imagined that he didn't exist, and the hint of contentment that danced on her face was only, purely Buffy.
She was beautiful when she didn't need him.
The silence that swirled between them with the early-morning wind was the most comfortable it had ever been. Without a discussion, they'd reached some sort of agreement, perhaps the first workable truce of their relationship, though neither of them could explain exactly what it was. The tension that usually filled their time together was almost unnoticeable. It had all become routine.
Normal people enjoy when life is mundane. It makes them feel accepted. It makes them feel safe.
But it made Spike feel itchy.
"Do you know why I love you?" he said bluntly.
He thought he heard a sigh and waited for her to break into the popular refrain of we-can-never-be-together-you-have-to-leave-me-alone. But instead, the edges of her mouth twitched with a hint of humor and she said flatly, "Because you're stupid?"
Spike considered this for a moment, and then grinned. "Yep."
When they reached the back door of Buffy's house, he placed the groceries down in the entranceway, cursing under his breath as he struggled to free his wrist from the handles of one of the many plastic bags. Buffy switched on the light and walked inside.
"Be seeing you then."
She turned to see Spike stepping backwards down the rear stairs.
Through the open door it was like two unlikely pictures lined up next to each other. One a bright kitchen, with its wide open spaces, yet walls and corners crammed with knick-knacks. The hallway was like an artery that led to the heart, promising warmth in its inner sanctum. But outside he stood at the threshold of a tar pit, the night so black behind him that the trees were invisible even as they rustled in the breeze, even as the horizon became tinged by the color of blood.
She wondered if the cliché was true: that the night was its darkest in the moments before the sun broke through, and then, in an instant, things could slowly begin to turn around, slowly become less frightening and more familiar.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
He pointed upwards. "Ya' know...sunrise, fire, painful horrible death."
"You could come in."
She'd expected the head-tilt wide-eyed puppy-dog look that she'd gotten so accustomed to lately, but instead was confronted by the raised-eyebrows deep-glare I'm-trying-to-see-into-your-soul expression that could only be remedied by a good old-fashioned face-punching.
"Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"Cause..." She clasped her hands in front of her. "Just 'cause."
The eyebrows went higher.
"I'm gonna punch you in the face," she threatened.
"I'm gonna like it," he immediately retorted. The gaze remained. "Why?"
She rolled her head back and sighed loudly. "I dunno. I guess because you bought me food and it seems rude not to give you some. Or....because you have a relationship with my sister, and I'd hate to deny her a male role model, no matter how incredibly weird he is." She met his eyes, which were still in evil-soul-crushing mode, and she broke into a pout. "Or because I hate cooking."
"I am *not* cooking," Spike said as he entered and closed the door behind him.
"Come on," Buffy prodded. "It's easy."
He leapt onto the counter top and sat there defiantly. "If it's so easy, then why don't you do it?"
"Because it's hard," she whined.
As the blinds became lit with daylight, Buffy put away the groceries, ignoring Spike's presence until he went to light a cigarette and she sprayed him in the face with her new bottle of Lysol.
"Bitch," he muttered.
Buffy picked up the box of pancake mix and studied it. "Okay, so we need milk, water, eggs, okay, got all that." She frowned at the directions. "And a tablespoon of oil." She looked up at him. "What does that mean?"
"It means a tablespoon of oil, bitch."
"I mean, what kind of oil?" She opened one of the cupboards. "I have vegetable oil. But I think we just bought olive oil too." Her face darkened. "What if it means peanut oil? I don't have any peanut oil."
Spike groaned and snatched the box from her. "I know you were only in college for about three minutes, but you might have learned *something*."
"Guess I was too busy with stupid vampires chained up in bathtubs."
He glanced up from the box and smiled wickedly. "You know -"
"Death!" she warned.
He returned to the pancakes, but not before licking his lips in a way that made her cross her arms over her chest defensively. "Two cups of mix," he read, as he reached into one of the cabinets and took out a plastic drinking cup.
"No, you need a *measuring* cup, genius."
"Fine then. Where's your measuring cup?"
"I have no idea," she moaned. She put her hand to her forehead and leaned against the counter. "It's too bad that parenting doesn't involve any roundhouse kicks. 'Cause I'm *really* good at those."
"And I've got the loose teeth to prove it." Spike tore open the top of the box in one motion. "This cup'll have to do." He turned the box upside down, scowled when nothing emerged, and banged it with the heel of his hand. In an instant the countertop was covered in light brown powder, none of which had managed to fall into the cup.
With a shrug of defeat, Spike tossed the box aside, which spread the remainder of its contents over the floor.
"I make pretty good toast," Buffy suggested.
There was the soft sound of footsteps, and then Dawn appeared in the doorway. In the haze of sleep she looked younger than she really was, certainly younger than the lipstick-laden girl they'd rescued from teenage vampires not long ago. Her eyes seemed bigger when they were free from make-up, innocent almost, and Buffy wondered if she herself had ever had eyes like that.
"Hey," Dawn said through a yawn. She noticed Spike and her big eyes widened in both shock and appreciation. "Hey, Spike. What are you doing here? Did you guys patrol all night?"
"No, we went grocery shopping all night," Buffy told her.
"Even scarier." Dawn took a step towards the counter and noticed the powder that met with her fuzzy blue slippers.
"We were trying to make you pancakes," Buffy explained. "But we kinda -"
"Suck," Spike finished for her.
Buffy nodded. "We suck."
A smile spread over Dawn's face as she gazed down at the messy linoleum. "Thank you," she said softly. When she looked up, the grin was even bigger. "Thank you for trying anyway. I'll be fine with just the famous Buffy toast." She moved around them and towards the refrigerator. "Oh, and maybe some chocolate milk."
"Special Buffy breakfast coming up," she said, dropping two slices of bread into the toaster. "And I can put anything you want on it. Peanut butter, raspberry jelly -"
"Pig's blood," Spike suggested.
"Vampire dust," Buffy quickly added.
"Oh my god!" Dawn shouted, and Buffy turned just in time to be nearly tackled by her sister's hug.
"You remembered the juice I like!" Dawn squealed. "Thank you so much!"
"Oh," Buffy said. "Well, actually -" She was cut off when a large boot connected with her calf.
Spike smirked, ducked out of the range of her fists, and settled back atop the counter.
Dawn released her grip on her sister and poured herself a tall glass of the juice, grinning widely. "This is turning into a good morning so far. CranApple, toast, you two not killing each other." She sat on a stool to enjoy her drink and wait for the rest of breakfast. "So how was the supermarket?"
"It was good," Buffy replied. She took a plate from the cupboard. "Though there was this one tense moment when the checkout scanner interfered with the chip in Spike's head."
Dawn's mouth fell open in shock. "Something went wrong with Spike's chip?"
"Oh, don't worry," Buffy assured her as she handed her the toast and a jar of peanut butter. "I mean, yeah, the scanner messed it up, but instead of turning him evil, it turned him gay."
"What?" Dawn said.
"What?" Spike repeated. He leapt down off the counter and looked back and forth at both girls. "What are you talking about? I did not turn gay!"
Buffy put her hand to her mouth, but couldn't stop the giggles from breaking through.
"You bitch!" Spike shouted at her. He spun around to face Dawn. "I did *not* turn gay!"
"It's okay, Spike," Dawn said with mock sympathy even as her own laughter bubbled to the surface. "We're very accepting of alternative lifestyles in this house."
"I don't have an alternative lifestyle!" The veins in his neck bulged as he tossed off his jacket and assumed a fighting stance in front of Buffy, who was still chuckling into her palm. "That's it. You and me. Fight to the death."
"Can't," Buffy gasped out. "Laughing too hard."
Dawn finished her toast as Buffy tried to calm herself down. But every time her smiling eyes met with Spike's evil glare, she collapsed into a new fit of giggles.
"Can you believe it?" Dawn asked Spike. "Buffy actually made a joke. Next thing you know she'll be sleeping at night and smiling more than once a day."
Dawn's observation made Buffy's humor fade quickly. "Dawnie..."
"What?" She slid off the stool and deposited her plate in the sink. "I'm not complaining."
Buffy reached out and gently stroked a lock of her sister's thick hair. "I'm sorry....for how I've been. And I know I'm not gonna suddenly miraculously be the queen of happiness, but -"
"But it's getting better," Dawn said softly. "I know." She walked to the doorway and turned around to look at both of them, and somehow, in her slippers, t-shirt, and blue pajama bottoms with rubber duckies on them, she managed to almost look like an adult. "Don't worry; it'll be okay."
Buffy looked down at her hands. The dryness she'd noticed earlier had gotten worse, as she'd feared, but only a bit at the knuckles, leaving specks of hardened blood in the crevices of her skin. She hadn't bought any lotion, and her shift at the Doublemeat Palace today would only serve to further damage the fresh wounds.
She heard the shower turn on upstairs, and the shuffle of movement beside her as Spike took a step closer.
"I have to get some sleep," she said without looking up. "Gotta work later."
And Buffy wondered if maybe Faith was right. That there was no intimacy even in an act as personal as sex. That being naked physically was separate from being naked emotionally. That two bodies could bang together for hours on end and then move away from each other as if they'd never touched. That kisses and whispers and fluids could pass between them and yet pass on nothing beyond their tangible presence.
Because when his fingers brushed against hers, so lightly and so quickly that for a moment she wasn't sure it had actually happened, and yet left a tingling on her flesh, as if she could look down and see marks on her skin where that touch had just been (a thin line on her forefinger, a slightly shorter one on the next finger, and just a faint spot on the inside of her pinkie), and made her thick, chapped skin seem exceptionally soft in its reception of the sensation, it made her feel closer to him, even as he moved towards the door and stood there tentatively, ready to duck and bolt into the burning day.
She kept her gaze on her hands. "In two weeks when I get paid again I'll be okay with buying groceries."
Her eyes felt suddenly heavy. Earlier that night she had lied down in bed, nearly panicked in her desire to find rest, but they'd refused to close. And though she knew that her face appeared young, she imagined that her eyes were a hundred years older than the rest of her. She looked up at the demon in her kitchen and saw the same.
"Of course, it just won't be the same without the innuendos, insults, and dragging up of painful memories," she said.
"See you at the Super Food World then," Spike said.
Buffy nodded. And when the smoking form disappeared into the trees at the edge of her backyard, she walked up to her bedroom and fell asleep.
A huge thank you to everyone who wrote me kind feedback. It really, seriously touched me. Restored my faith in humanity and everything. And also, mmmmm self-esteem.
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