There are three constants that Buffy can always count on.

It's been hours since the battle, hours spent dispatching the rest of the guards at the complex and setting an interested Illyria on the lamiabane barracks that Buffy had discovered in the other hallway and retrieving any documents that Orkanel had left behind. Kennedy does some impressive intimidation of one of the guards and gets even more information out of him, and Buffy is content to watch silently, a familiar warming presence at her side. Willow opts to follow the slayers though Illyria's portal and Dawn pushes for the same, tossing Buffy significant glances that she refuses to react to, and then it's only Buffy and Spike who remain to fly the ship back to England.

Constant Number One is that there are always vampires.

She awakens hours later against a hard, male chest that her body recognizes instantly, even if her mind takes a minute more. Her legs are tangled with his, his arm is tucked under her, and her head is pressed to the unbeating heart of the vampire that holds her. He stirs beneath her, and she realizes suddenly that he's been awake for a while.

Oh, yeah, and they're both fully clothed.

He gives her a sleepy smile. "'Lo."

"Hi." She sidles up against him, suddenly nervous again.

There had been an awkward pause back when they'd gotten back to the ship, one that had both of them looking anywhere but at each other and his bed. And she'd realized then just how much shewantedhim, more than ever before, to be wrapped in his embrace and he deep inside her murmuring words she'd never repeat outside of bed. She'd worried in the past that she wouldn't be able to control herself around him if their relationship had turned physical, that all that they'd worked for in friendship would fizzle away. Now she panics at the thought that sex will corrupt love instead.

This hadn't been about sex, last time, and it won't be now, so she'd climbed into his bed and shifted all the way to the side of it, leaving more than enough space for him to follow. And he'd crawled in right next to her, pulling her into his arms, and she had had nothing more to say but I love youagain, the words emerging with more and more ease each time she speaks them.

She had decided to be open-Buffy, honest-Buffy, and his eyes fill with quiet awe and adoration whenever she shows it. And if his only response is another kiss, one that leaves them both panting and heated and needy, so be it.

Even if it aches at her every time the words go unanswered. Even if now that it's a new day she's feeling unsure and torn about the whole situation, if the old dread is back in full force and his smile offers no reassurance. Even if she's developing a sinking feeling that they're trapped in the same rut as before, and he's a closed book to her insecurities.

She jerks away from him, almost defiant, and the laughter in his eyes at that is his only response. She narrows her own eyes at him. "What?"

He pulls her closer. "You're so bloody gorgeous," he murmurs, and there's immediately a warmth in her cheeks that silences her again.

"You're not so bad yourself," she says finally, unable to resist pressing a kiss against his jawline. One becomes many becomes a trail across his neck, and then desire is back in full force, leaving her wet and aching for him and grinding against evidence of his own need for her as he reciprocates with nimble fingers reaching under her shirt on an upward climb.

When they pull away from each other again, moments away from making another bad decision, he's regarding her seriously. "We should talk, love."

It's difficult to fight hope now, when she's already in his arms and yesterday's admission can't be retracted. And no matter how many times she warns herself that this won't end well, her heart stubbornly refuses to accept it. "Yeah." The ship bumps down right then, and she manages a smile. "After?"

"After," he confirms, and they emerge from the ship together minutes later, his fingers loose around her wrist in quiet possession that Buffy doesn't mind all that much today. It makes Xander roll his eyes as they blow past her friend basking in the sunlight- or what passes for it here- with Dawn snuggled against him, but one challenging glare from Buffy is enough to make him shake his head and nod grudgingly.

Faith is sitting up in the kitchen, eating a bag of chips and yelling at Angel, the latticework smudged grey against her skin. "I swear, if you don't stop hovering… B!" Her face lights up. "Spike! Please, get this idiot out of the room so I can actually enjoy that thing you call freedom!" But she's grinning as she says it, and the affronted look on Angel's face melts away as he meets her eyes.

"She won't sleep," he gripes to them, his gaze not leaving Faith. "She's talking about patrolling tonight. Tonight!"

"I've been doing nothing but lying in bed for weeks. No way in hell I'm spending any more time there." She shakes her head. "I can't believe I missed all the fighting."

"We'll try to save you some vicious slayer-killing demons to wrestle next time," Buffy says seriously.

"Might even let you get torn into a bloody mess," Spike agrees.

"Unarmed," Buffy clarifies. "You know, if that's what you really want."

"We're very accommodating."

Faith rolls her eyes. "Oh, don't tell me it wasn't fun!"

"It was fun," Angel says grimly, and Buffy can see exactly what he classifies as enjoyable written in his eyes. She understands. She doesn't like it, but she understands.

Faith hits him playfully and turns back to the blond duo. "Thanks," she says, all humor gone. "You bailed me out big time. I owe you."

Words elude Buffy at the earnestness in the other slayer's eyes, the simplicity of the gratitude from someone she doesn't know how to respond to. Luckily, Spike has no such compunctions. "You put up with that big lunk," he retorts, nodding to a scowling Angel. "We owed you."

"Shut up, Spike." But there's no anger in Angel's voice, and when he turns to busy himself with the soup pot on the stove, Buffy suspects that it's more to hide his expression than for any other reason.

Faith moves to join him, and Buffy watches them quietly, slayer and vampire absorbed in their work and the simple peace that comes from a victorious battle. She leans against her own vampire and smiles.

"They seem close," Spike notes as they settle down on the couch together.


"You all right with that, love?"

She can hear the tension in his voice, the barely contained jealousy simmering just beneath the surface, and she reaches out to take the hand that isn't tucked behind her into her own. "Mostly," she admits. "I'm not going to say that a part of me isn't kind of…resentful, I guess? Wrong word. Uh…"

"Jealous?" he suggests, and it's a mark of how far they've come that neither of them pulls away, even at the edge in his words and the stiffening of his hand in hers.

She closes her eyes. "No. It's not something I want. I just have some issues with giving up things that…that used to be mine." She shifts to look up at him, her eyes tracing the contours of his face, reading the softness in his eyes. "Or still are. Are they?"

His face clears, and he lifts their joined hands to press a lingering kiss against her skin. "Always."

There are always vampires.

She works a late shift the next morning, having fallen asleep on Spike's couch in the middle of a conversation with Dawn the day before and awakening late in the night to find herself wrapped in Spike's arms in her own bed. She'd missed another full day of work without even calling, and the only way to appease Josh had been to offer double shifts the next day.

Much as she wanted to spend it with Spike, who hadn't even shifted when she'd crawled out of bed. They had things to talk about and maybe more, and she wonders if he's already left, frustrated, when she hasn't returned home yet.

The time away from him has given her insight, reminded her of what she's been afraid of all along. She's done this with him already, done the relationship where one is in love and the other isn't, where love and sex and violence mingle into something bitter and wrong. And she isn't as strong as he is. She can't come out of something like that with her heart intact. She's risked her heart enough during the past few days, and it's time to put up the barriers again.

It has to end before it begins in earnest. Before her love is twisted into something else.

Leanne is chattering in her ear about a failed date the night before when the door to the coffeehouse opens and two girls Buffy recognizes enter, looking healthy and happy and more than a little shy. She bolts from Leanne immediately to take the two slayers' orders. "Dawn gave you the antidote?"

Arianna nods, smiling. "You found it! I mean, I thought you would, but you really did!" She pats Tray's arm as though to reassure herself that the markings really are fading. "They didn't want to let us out until it all cleared up, but we were…convincing." She winks conspiratorially at Buffy.

"I'm sure," Buffy grins back, evoking even a reluctant smile from Tray. "Listen, I don't know if Dawn told you about-"

"Kennedy? Yeah." Arianna looks troubled for a moment. "I don't know if I'm ready to go back to being a slayer. Not when the world hates us and won't understand…but I've got Kennedy's number now. Just in case."

"Just in case," Tray echoes, but there's a longing in the more hostile girl's tone that startles Buffy even as hope rises up again. It's not a guarantee. It doesn't mean reunification. But it's a start.

"Friends of yours?" Leanne asks when they leave, and Buffy's left watching them from the window as they head across the street.

"Not really." But she still manages to irritate Leanne with her high spirits for the rest of the afternoon, easy satisfaction born from a world that's beginning to repair itself at last.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think that you actually got laid," Leanne grouches as they clean up after closing time. She looks up from her table suddenly, her eyes lit with realization. "Or maybe…"

Buffy turns around to follow Leanne's gaze to the door, and warmth spreads through her at the sight of the vampire waiting impatiently behind the glass entrance. "Oh. Right."

"Get out of here," Leanne orders her. "Josh is already gone for the night anyway, and if I have to spend another minute with you when you're this obnoxiously happy, I might have to slap you."

She doesn't need any more convincing, and she's already yanking off her apron and heading for the door when Spike finally manages to pick the lock and push the door open. Then he's twisting her around and kissing her hard, tugging her into his arms and backing her against the wall to tighten his grip on her, leaving her gasping and whimpering into his mouth when they finally detach.

"Disgusting," Leanne sniffs, not bothering to disguise the envy in her voice.

Buffy grins. "Goodnight, Leanne."

She doesn't ask Spike about the kiss when they leave the building and head toward the graveyards, though it still has her mind spinning. Passion…they've always had it, and this is no exception. It doesn't mean anything more as long as he doesn't love her, and she needs to stop it. Now. Before she gets hurt even more. Before he gets hurt and leaves her for good.

"Long day," she says finally.

"Endless," Spike agrees. "Nearly went stir-crazy waiting for you all day. And you left your phone at home so I couldn't even reach you there."

She winces. "Right. I really need to stop doing that."

He bounces on his heels suddenly, his face lighting up with the delight she recognizes from one too many bar fights. "Oh, yeah. And I made dinner!" he announces, beaming. "You didn't have much in your cabinets-" And he levels a stern glance at her at that- "But I put together some of the grub that isn't spoiled and made a pie. …Sort of thing," he amends.

She tosses him a suspicious look. "Did you burn anything?"

"Just the pie," he says modestly. "But s'good! I tried it!"

She pokes him. "Spike, I came in last month and found you eating hot sauce from the bottle. With a straw. I don't trust your taste buds."

He sulks, head down, lower lip outthrust, and mumbles, "Angel made soup."

And now this abrupt burst of culinary interest makes sense. "Angel doesn't eat," she points out soothingly. "I'm sure it was a disaster."

He gives her a grudging, "Probably," appeased for the moment, and they keep walking together, a little too close to be casual, hands bumping against each other until he finally catches hers in his own nonchalantly and gives it a gentle squeeze. Her lips curve up in a soft smile despite herself, and while doubts threaten to sour the moment, she forces them away.

After we take care of this, she vows. Then I'll tell him I can't do it. Not now.

She feels a frisson of fear run through her when they turn toward the old construction area, and she grips his hand harder. "It's over there."

"Let me-"

"No." He's still bruised up from the battle, and she's spent the day on her feet, easily moving around with little residual pain in her legs. "We'll do this together, okay? I'll shoot, you stay unless it gets too close."

Terror builds again, and Spike hands her a crossbow from her weapons bag and pulls out an axe of his own. She aims. Waits.

And then the San Francisco lamiabane is tearing towards them, a mass of fur and fury and gnashing, fatal teeth bared at her. She draws her crossbow back, lining it up with the creature barreling toward her, aims, and fires directly at the underside of its throat. At the same time, Spike races forward, heedless of her irritated warning, dodges the thrashing beast, and levels a blow at the demon's neck that embeds his axe into its side.

The lamiabane lets out a startled snuffle, a low whine emitting from somewhere just below the axe, and promptly flops over on its side, dead. Spike yanks his weapon out of it, wincing disgustedly at the goo that covers it. "'S it just me, or are these things getting easier to kill?"

"Practice," Buffy says knowingly. "Also, sharp objects. Always of the good."

"Yeah." He wipes off the axe on the lamiabane's fur, cursing when it sticks to it instead. "Sodding demon."

"Well, maybe if you'd let me take care of it, like I told you to, you wouldn't be stuck with a filthy axe," she points out, not without some smugness.

He twists his neck to glare at her. "M'not your lapdog, Buffy. And I finished it off on my own, didn't I?"

"Sonot the point." She yanks the axe from his hand, bending the handle back to its storage position and tucking it into the weapons bag. "You can't just…you're injured!"

"S'my choice to make to fight," he says coldly. "Not gonna do what you say jus' because I'm back in your bed." He ducks out of pure instinct, dodging the fist she levels at him just as instinctively.

She spins around, throwing up her hands in sheer frustration. It's starting again. "I can't! I can't do this!" she barks. "Not again!"

"Oh, there'sa surprise," Spike scoffs, and she can hear the hurt in his voice, not nearly as strong as the resignation. And that shatters her even more.

"No. No, I really can't. I can't do this one-sided relationship thing when there's nothing else…" She stops, breathing heavily, tears of aggravated helplessness welling up again. "I'm not going back to that!"

There's nothing from Spike, no response, no retort or denial or anything at all, and she can feel her eyes stinging at the silence behind her. "I can't lose you again," she whispers, and she walks away without a second glance back, even when she hears him murmur her name with a sort of hopeless confusion.

And there's Constant Number Three: At night, when she finally reaches her room with shoulders shaking from her turmoil, when she changes into pajamas and sinks into a bed that smells like Spike and useless hopes, she's alone. As always. And it's for the-

The door to her room slams open, and Spike stalks in, thunderous expression visible even in the darkness of her room. "Are you completely daft?" he demands.

She sits up, tugging her covers up around her. "Spike-"

He cuts her off. "What are you on about? One-sided? You said yesterday that you loved me, and now we're back to this?"

"I do love you!" The unfairness of the whole situation is beginning to sink in, transforming despair to outrage. "You're the one who spent years chasing me, and then decided to get over me the minute I showed interest in you. 'No, you don't?' What gives you the right to-"

"Get over you?" He shakes his head violently, moving with frightening speed to stand in front of her, eyes blazing. "You really are daft. What could have possibly made you think…how could you…" He sounds genuinely bewildered, so much so that she waits silently for him to continue. "Where have you been the past half a decade? Is it so impossible for you to fathom the level to which I'm besotted with you? What does it bloodytake for you to understand that I love you?" He isn't angry, not really, just aggravated and beseeching and perplexed. "How many times must a man tell you he loves you before you stop trying to sabotage yourself?"

And there it is, the words she's craved, the admission that she's wanted for so long that she's finding it impossible to believe that they're here now, unearned, undeserved, too easy to be true. "I'm not sabotaging myself!" she protests, letting her blanket drop and turning to face him. "I'm just… you love me?"

He crouches down to stare directly into her eyes. "You love me?" he echoes, and she can't muffle a sudden chuckle.

His eyes go wide with offense, and she hastens to explain. "It's just…we're both such idiots, aren't we? Dancing around each other, so convinced that we're not- when we are-"

He softens. "Yeah. Yeah, we are, pet." It's the most natural thing in the world for her to lean forward as he does, bringing their lips together in a soft kiss. "I love you, Buffy. You know that."

She thinks of the way he looks at her, takes care of her, lets her take care of him and love him and fight and bewith him. And it's impossible to doubt it anymore. "Love you," she murmurs, standing up to wrap herself in his embrace, her kiss pressed against his unbeating heart and his soft against the top of her head. "But…"

"None of that," he says, swift to stop her doubts.

"We fight all the time."

"S'fun. Turns me on." She can hear the leer in his voice.

"You don't listen to me."

"You don' listen to me."

"You spend half your time across the planet."

"'ll stop doing it every day. We can go out on your day off, yeah?" He smoothes her hair down. "Don't I owe you a trip to some tropical island somewhere?"

"But…" She's flailing now, searching for excuses, and they're both fully aware of it.

And Spike isn't known for his patience, so it comes as no surprise when he shoves her back onto her bed and demands, "Do you want me or not, Buffy?"

And it's so simple, when he puts it like that. "Oh, I want," she breathes, her eyes fixating on the black-clad chest she can see moving in and out as he contains his frustration. "I want- and I love!" she includes hurriedly. "I really, really love."

"Love," he murmurs, sitting beside her and pressing soft kisses down the side of her face. "What now?"

A part of her wants to pull off her top right there and then, to rip his clothes off of him and show him exactly how much she loves him with some tricks that she hasn't forgotten in all their years apart. But they have time and honesty now, two things they haven't really had since the moment Spike put on an amulet over three years ago; and that's a gift she's determined not to squander.

She laces her fingers through his. "Wanna go kill stuff?"

He takes advantage of the way she turns to face him to seize another kiss from her, one that she returns with fervent desire before he disengages himself to respond, his eyes shining with the awe and love that she knows is mirrored in her own. "Always."

That's all, folks. Much thanks to those of you here who've read and reviewed! I'd love to hear from you one last time!

Some Embers goodies:

nurfherder(dot)tumblr(dot)com/tagged/embers_comic is the beginnings of a comic version(!) of Embers.

And you can find a banner, book cover, and awards won over here: coalitiongirl(dot)livejournal(dot)com/tag/embers

Enjoy! :)