Author's Note: I wrote this a few years ago for Seasonal Spuffy. Thought it was finally time to post it here. Thanks for reading, and hope you enjoy

Title: Muted (01/01)

Author: annapurna_2

Rating: Very mild R


She doesn't think she's dreaming. It isn't vivid enough for that. Life has taken on a muted tone these days. Colors a little less vibrant. Words a little less clear. The air she breathes is thick and stale, and nothing she touches seems quite real.

Only when she dreams is the world sharp and fierce again.

"Buffy."

His voice. Low and rumbling, with that hint of a soft caress that only he could instill in her name.

"Pet, look at me."

She doesn't want to. If she looks, he might be there. And how would she explain that when she's wide awake?

He'd died in the Hellmouth. Came back and died again in LA. Came back a second time through some prophecy she couldn't even pronounce. But there weren't any guarantees. Nothing that said he was here to stay. Living on borrowed time, maybe even more than her, and he'd finally reached his expiration date.

He'd been vulnerable. No more vampire strength. Still fast, still smart, still good at what he did. But no longer supernatural.

Why had she let herself forget that? She knows she should have been more watchful. Instead, she'd let him go alone because he'd tilted his head and smirked and vowed he would make short work of the piss-arse vampire that thought he could prey on their town.

It was Andrew who'd found his body.

"Buffy, love."

She doesn't know how long she can bear it. Hearing him this way. In her thoughts, in her dreams, in her very soul. She's starting to go just a little bit crazy.

It's only been five days. Not enough time to reconcile yourself to losing the love of your life for the third and final time. She figures she's entitled to be a little…what? Barmy? Is that what he'd call it?

But it's not a weakness she wants to admit out loud. So she composes her face, and locks down her heart, and wraps her mind up in a swathe of soft, cotton batting – the better not to feel.

"My fierce, stubborn girl. C'mon, now. Open your eyes."

She'd killed the vamp, but not before she'd made him suffer. She's not proud of it. It just is.

She'd torched his nest and hunted down all of his minions, one by one. Dusting them not for what they were but for being a part of the thing that had taken Spike away. Now, she can't stop killing. It's the only thing that keeps the pain at bay.

"Slayer."

Is that a note of irritation in his voice? It's the first time she's imagined that. It's enough to make her open her eyes, though she doesn't turn her head.

But it doesn't matter. She sees his hand, large and oh-so-familiar, resting on the arm of her chair. And now it's official. She's gone over the edge.

"There she is. That's my girl."

And, finally, she isn't strong enough to resist anymore.

"Spike?"

"That's right, love. I'm here."

"No." She shakes her head, frowning because he doesn't sound like the Spike she knows. Knew. There's more than a little uncertainty in that voice and maybe…a tinge of fear? "You… No."

"Reckon I know where I am, Buffy. Might help if you actually had a look."

She hears him mutter what sounds like "moment of truth" beneath his breath, and she frowns even harder. If she doesn't, she'll start to cry. Her head swivels, ever so slightly, and his face swims into view.

The frowning hasn't worked. She sees him through her tears.

"Sssh, sweetheart. None of that. Don't want to make my girl sad."

"I can't help it. You're dead."

Silence is her answer, and now that she's actually said it out loud she's terrified he'll vanish in front of her. She won't have even the ghost of his memory left. But instead, his face goes still and there's such sorrow in his eyes that it feels like a physical blow. He nods a little.

"Yeah. I'm sorry, love. I buggered it all up."

Oh, how she wants to lash out at him. Send him flying across the room and straight through the wall. Show him just how badly she hurts. But it's too much to contemplate, balled fist meeting empty air. So she sits and she waits, knowing it's only a matter of time. Aching because she can't keep even this shadow of him with her.

"I feel you," she whispers. "How can I feel you?"

His head tilts as he stares at her hands, two clenched fists resting uneasily in her lap.

"Don't follow you, love."

She touches her heart. "In here." The hand drifts down to settle on her gut. "And here." Fingers rise to brush her forehead. "Here, too. It tingles. Like it used to before…" Her brow crinkles as she thinks hard. "Do ghosts tingle?"

His eyes widen and his mouth opens, but this time no words escape. Then his fingers are closing around her wrist as he draws her hand to his face.

And it's smooth and firm and cold. Not warm, like the last night they'd snuggled together. Not warm, like it was when he'd buried it between her legs. Not warm, as it had been every day since she'd found him again.

Solid. Cold. Undead.

"Oh god."

She sees the uncertainty in his face now, along with the fear. And she finally understands. He doesn't look away, but there's an ill-fitting air of helplessness about him.

"Thought you knew, Buffy. Thought you caught on right away. Didn't want to break it to you like this, but Andrew said…" His hand abandons hers to rake a vicious path through platinum curls. Scowls fiercely as he mutters, "Sod it all, it's too soon. Crazy to be here."

She raises her other hand to capture his face, stares into his eyes. "It's gone." She doesn't have to say what. They both know.

But he says it anyway. "I'm a vampire again, love. Demon through and through. No chip. No soul. Just me, as I was."

She stares at him. Still can't quite take it in. Looks deep into his eyes and sees he's pulling further away from her with every second that ticks by.

"I love you." She tries not to sound desperate. Just a statement of fact.

He closes his eyes and swallows hard, a bitter smile curving his lips. "What you love is gone, Buffy. Don't know if I can get it back. Got to try, though. I know there's no place for me here without it."

She opens her mouth, but he's looking at her again. There's determination mixed with aching vulnerability in that gaze.

"Don't argue, slayer. You know I'm right. I've tried to be good, since I woke up. Tried to do what's right. But it's hard, you know? To suss out what that is. The urge to feed, to hunt and kill…it's there, pet, and it's never gonna go away. Sooner or later, you and I both know how that story ends."

He leaves the rest hanging as she wipes away the tears. Frowns and shakes her head. "What are you saying? We can't be together?"

His face grows hard, his gaze fierce and predatory. In the blink of an eye, he looks like what he is. A creature made to kill and possess.

"I'm not giving you up." He growls the words. Harsh. Unequivocal. "You're mine and I'll do whatever needs doin' to make sure of it."

Then his manner softens, and his inner William slips through just a bit. "But it's more than that. Lost a piece of me, Buffy, and I want it back. Can't be human again, but I can be a man. Your man…and my own. Not going to rest until I am."

She stares into his eyes. Thinks of all the things she could say, probably will say, once she's past the shock of his return. For now, all she can do is nod.

His demeanor softens even more, lips parting as the chiseled jaw unclenches. Icy blue melting into warm pools of adoration and, oh, how she's drowning in his eyes.

Then she's locked in his arms, lips fused in a desperate kiss that possesses and plunders, and part of her is furious because she can't remember how she got there. Her time with him is so infinitely precious that she's sick to lose even a second of it.

A thousand years later, he pulls away, drawing a breathless moan of protest from one or both of them. Impossible to tell. Another eon passes as his gaze caresses her, followed by a hand that carefully smoothes back the hair threatening to cover her flushed face.

"Don't know how long I'll be gone. But you'll be okay, yeah?"

He peers into her eyes, and she knows he's searching for the strength he needs to leave her. Looking for a way to say goodbye. That's when she realizes her world no longer dwells in muted shades of gray. Everything is sharp and painful and far too vivid for words.

He takes her silence as his answer.

He's halfway to the door before she shakes off the shock. His hand even touches the doorknob. Then she grabs him by the shoulder and slams him against the wall.

She means to tell him a thing or two, but her body pressed against his leads to things other than talking and it takes awhile for sanity to reassert itself. When it does, they're both half-dressed and gasping their way to completion, sprawled on the floor mere inches from the bed.

Even as married mortals, they'd found some things never change.

When their breathing slows and her cheek rests against the place where his heart once beat, she tells him she's coming with him. And she doesn't mean in a sexual way.

Instead of the expected protest, she gets a slightly hysterical giggle and then a resigned groan.

"Yeah. Figured as much. Thought maybe I could slip away before you set your mind to it, but knew it was a long shot. Married me a right little she-devil, didn't I?"

She lifts her head. Rests her chin on his chest. Squints up at him as if she can actually see the wheels turning inside that hyperactive brain of his. "So you're not going to argue with me?"

"Would it do any good?"

"No."

"Well, there you go. Be a waste of time, wouldn't it?"

"Never stopped you before."

He sighs. "Believe it or not, love, I can learn from my past mistakes." He looks into her face. Caresses her cheek with his hand and his gaze. "Question is, can you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" She'd been feeling all gooey and tingly again, but now she's…well, definitely not.

"Talkin' about trust, pet. You and I both know you weren't built to stand on the sidelines. But the fight's not always yours. Gotta step aside and let a man do what needs doin' no matter how bad it gets. Gotta trust me that much."

She knows she shouldn't but she can't help yelling just a little. "Like I trusted you not to get killed? That turned out so well. Everything was perfect and now it's gone."

She stops, but he doesn't say anything, and there's a little pang of remorse knocking at her door.

"Spike…that's not…you know I didn't mean…" She trails off because he's staring at her so intently. And because she's not quite ready to go there yet.

Apparently, though, he is. "I know what you meant, love. Truth hurts, but it's still the truth. And you're not wrong." He's moving now, gently easing her off as he tugs his clothing back into place. Scoops up his discarded shirt and pulls it on over his head. All the while never quite looking her in the eye.

And she knows it's finally time. Do or die. If she lets this moment slip away, she'll never get it back.

"Spike."

He stops moving but doesn't turn.

She can't be bothered to retrieve her own shirt. Just walks up to him and pulls his head down to hers. Kisses him with an aching tenderness that even their gentlest moments never equaled. Pulls back and finds the courage in his eyes.

"I don't care."

His voice is a whisper. "Buffy…"

"No." She moves in closer. "I don't. Maybe it's wrong. I would've thought so…once. But I don't know that Buffy anymore. It's not who I am now. It's not who we are."

She smiles, because how can she do anything else now that he's returned to her yet again. "I love you. Not the soul. Not some stupid idea of what you should be. You. Spike."

The tears brimming in her eyes make it hard to read his face but she feels his stillness. The wary watchfulness breaks her heart.

"Even before. When I didn't want to. When I couldn't even imagine it. I tried to keep you out, but you got in anyway. You grabbed hold and you wouldn't let go. When you finally did leave, after that night…it hurt. I know that's crazy. It doesn't make sense, but it did. I think maybe I loved you a lot longer than I ever wanted to believe."

She hurries on. Has to get it out before he does or says anything to stop her.

"I'm not saying it would have worked if you'd stayed, even if things hadn't gone so wrong. But you have to know, Spike, that I loved you. I love you now. And we can go get your soul back…or not. It's your choice. Whatever you decide, we'll find a way to make it work."

She waits for something. A sign. A word. But he stands and stares, and finally it's too much.

"Spike, say something or I swear—"

He doesn't let her finish the threat. It's hard to talk when you're locked in arms of steel and drowning in an endless kiss. Impossible to think with restless hands in intimate places.

But later, after they've found the bed this time, she'll marvel at the change an instant can bring. The way that life turns in the blink of an eye. Where colors are more vibrant. Where words are sharp and clear. Where the air she breathes is practically pristine.

And where everything she touches is wonderfully real.

FINIS