Spike was following her. She should be used to it by now. It seemed like he was always her shadow. It used to drive her crazy, but today it gave her a sense of comfort. She was feeling pretty good right now and it was thanks to him and his words, his strength the night before. When everyone else-even her own sister-had thrown her out of her house, out into the deserted streets of Sunnydale, Spike had been there watching her back and offering her vows of love and loyalty.

The streets had been deserted except for roving Turok-Hans mindlessly killing all in their way, and the eyeless Bringers with the blood of slayers and potentials dripping from their knives. Funny how Buffy had opened her home and pantry to protect all those people crowding her out of her own home and yet she had been turned out with no worry that the Slayer was a prime target for the enemy from whom she had been sheltering them.

None cared save Spike. He had been the one to give her the confidence to follow her instincts again, to retrieve the scythe that might just defeat the First Evil and its army.

Oh, they had welcomed her back alright, but only after losing more of their number by following their newly elected leader, Faith. To give the other Slayer her due, she had not sought the position of leader. No, that had been Buffy's own Watcher, who at one time had loved her like a daughter, and the newcomer son of a Slayer, who had recently tried to kill Spike. They had been the ones to put Faith forward as the Slayer to lead the battle charge. How quickly her friends and her own flesh and blood had agreed.

'Not like I asked for the job of keeping everyone in the whole world safe, much less feeding them and letting them sleep everywhere in my multimortgaged house,' she mused as she stepped over yet another sleeping Potential on her way into the kitchen. 'I've never led an army before, so how is it my fault that it went south? Spike never blamed me and he was in that army too.'

Spike had been talking to her as they made their way through the obstacle course of sleeping bags that once was her living room, her sanctuary from death and pain. He was trying to make light of the night before. She could tell it was all coming from his insecurities, insecurities she had caused him to feel.

"It doesn't matter. You're back in the bosom; all's forgiven. Last night," he stepped in front of Buffy with a look on his face that was clearly a plea, for what she didn't know. "Last night was just a glitch. A bit of cold comfort from the cellar dweller." God, he looked so needy, so…scared. "Let's not make a thing out of it."

Quick empathy was never Buffy's strong suit, but he was so transparent that she knew he was silently begging for her to acknowledge that his comfort, his love had meant something to her, something real. 'God, I don't have time for this. I've got a war to win, the end of the world to stop. I haven't had time to even THINK about what he is to me or if I want him to be something to me.' She just could not go there. "Great, I have work to do."

Naturally that led to hurt feelings. For a vampire, he always wore his heart on his sleeve, so easily hurt! She knew that, had seen it for years, even if she hadn't admitted it to herself and never to him.

Finally, he broke the mood and diverted the conversation to the scythe in her hand. "That the thing the preacher man was so anxious to keep out of your mitts?"

She turned the implement in her hands, testing its weight. "That it is."

Spike turned and headed towards the back door. "Maybe I'll swing by the vineyard when you go and make sure he's sitting tight."

Once more Spike was there, watching her back, fighting at her side as an equal. Suddenly she didn't want him to leave yet, not on that note, not with things left unsaid. He was already at the door with a hand on the doorknob.

"You're a dope!" Maybe not the best way to start the conversation, but it fit their history.

He looked poleaxed. "I'm a what?"

She was nearly stuttering, completely out of her element. She was the one to start this and now that she had, she was at a loss as to what she wanted to say. No, she knew what she wanted to say, just not if she was ready to say it or ready to want to want to say it. Emotions and Buffy were so not mixy. She fell back on the familiar and went verbally aggressive. "You're a dope. And…and…and a bonehead." She fumbled around mentally for the word he had just called her. "And you're shirty!"

Spike hadn't a clue what had gotten up the Slayer's nose to be insulting him this way. He hadn't pushed her about the night before. He had just offered to go watch Father Fruitcake for her and now she was tossing out insults. "Have you gone completely carrot-top?"

She thrust out the scythe towards him and let the words pour. "Do you see this? This may actually help me fight this war. This MIGHT be the key to everything and the only reason I'm holding it is because of you!" Her voice softened as the memory of his tenderness and encouragement washed over her. "Because of the strength that you gave me last night."

Spike got that awed look again as if unfamiliar with any praise or thanks. Buffy blushed slightly realizing that might just be the case. How long had Spike been doing things for her, for all of them, without a single 'thank you' in return?

She sighed with weariness. "Look, I am tired of defensiveness and weird mixed signals. You know I have Faith for that." She pointedly ignored the incredulous look and snort that induced. "Let's just get to the truth here, okay? I don't know how you felt about last night, but I will not…."

Spike turned slightly in a protective manner and nearly whispered, "Terrified."

Buffy hadn't expected that. "Of what?"

He looked as frightened as he had just admitted to being. "Last night was…." She could see the courage leave him as he looked skyward. "God, I am such a jerk! I can't do this."

Something told her she couldn't let him just stop there. "Spike…."

He gulped and then continued, "It was the best night of my life." His eyes were filled with unshed tears. "If you poke fun at me, you bloody well better use that thing on me, 'cause I couldn't bear it. It may not mean that much to you, but…."

She was mesmerized. The air around them seemed charged with emotional energy. "I just told you it did."

Spike sighed. He was so bloody tired of this 'push and pull' routine. He'd been trying to not read anything into her actions like he had in the past. That had led to much badness. No, this time he was listening to her words and that was all. If he dared believe her actions, her tenderness, her seeking him out, it might lead to his end, because he couldn't go through that again.

"Yeah, I hear you say it, but…I've lived for soddin' ever, Buffy. I've done everything. I've done things with you that I can't spell, but I've never…," he gulped and lowered his head slightly. "I've never been close to anyone, least of all you. 'Till last night, and all I did was hold you and watch you sleep." He smiled tenderly at her, this woman he adored, this woman he yearned for like no other. "It was the best night of my life, so yeah, I'm terrified." An eternity of wanting love, wanting and needing closeness…. He had that one treasured memory now and he greatly feared losing it by having spoken forbidden sentiments.

Something in Buffy broke free. She understood just how much it had meant to him…far more than all their sexual acrobatics of the year past. She knew how much she had hurt him before, broken him to the point where he was more afraid of her words than her stake. "You don't have to be."

No one had ever looked at her with such intensity. It was as if he were seeking entrance to her very soul, searching for some holy truth only she possessed. "Were you there with me?"

"I was." She had to be honest; the words just bypassed every barrier, every locked door within her. Now she was the terrified one. 'God, I can't do this!' The walls started to go up. If her heart could have left her body to hide from truths that she didn't want to face, she would have happily opened her chest to allow it.

"What does that mean?" He needed it spelled out. This was THE moment of truth and all his chips were on the table.

Buffy paled. "I…I don't know." She could see Spike start to shut down. He could see it coming, another verbal stake to his exposed heart. "Does it have to mean something?"

She couldn't do it. In that moment, Spike realized she never would, not because she didn't feel anything, but because she didn't WANT to feel anything. There was no fighting that. Time to let the girl off the hook. "No, not right now." He couldn't look at her; it hurt too damned much.

'No, no, no!' The internal battle in Buffy was tearing her apart. "Maybe when…." She didn't want to have it go this way. She wanted time, that's all. Time to sort out how she really felt when there wasn't a disaster to stop. Time to figure out how much she was willing to risk again.

Spike looked at her then, his face a mask or at least she hoped that was all it was. "NO!" He put up a hand to prevent Buffy from saying or doing anything further. "Let's just leave it."

Later, there was always later. She'd make it all up to him later when there was time. "Okay."

Spike sighed out his last bit of hope and packed away his dreams. "We'll go be heroes," and he headed out the door.

Buffy stared, eyes wide and heart pounding, at the space that no longer contained the vampire that had carved out such a big place in her life, in her heart. 'Later, I promise,' but she couldn't have said to whom the promise was made.

The Prattling Preacher lay halved at Buffy's feet. The scythe had proved its worth in that battle at least.

Angel had come! Time was running out on the world and her first love stood before her with gaudy jewelry in hand and offers of help for the first time since he had walked out of her life so many years before.

Buffy wasn't sure exactly what she was feeling about that offer. On one hand, she needed help, but somehow Angel's face wasn't the one she saw there when she pictured the battle to come. It felt odd, like putting on an old familiar pair of boots only to find they weren't so comfortable any longer; they just didn't fit right. She didn't know why she just knew that she didn't want him there in this fight. "No, you're not gonna be in this fight."

He cut in front of her and turned his hurt puppy eyes on her. "Why the hell not?"

God, he could look so hurt, so needy! What could she say? Buffy really didn't know why she wanted to turn down another good fighter just before facing what could be the last war, but she had to think of something to make him just leave. "Because I can't risk you." There, that should pacify him and solve the issue.

Angel was nothing if not persistent. "You need me in this." He was going to prove stubborn, she could see it in the set of his jaw.

"No," she tried again, "I need you gone."

"Why?"

Good question. Now if only she had a good answer. Angel was her dream, the great love of her life. She had always believed that to be her one truth and yet the kiss hadn't rocked her world as it once had. Having him there to fight at her side had once been the daydream she permitted herself whenever she bemoaned her loneliness and yet now she just wanted him to go back to L.A. If he stayed she could just see him huddled with Giles and Robin Wood discussing how Buffy should conduct this war, how she should lead. She could imagine the pep talks reminding her of her calling, her duty. She felt a sudden longing for someone who followed her lead when asked without question, who fought back to back, never expecting her to be anything more than what she was. When had she moved on? She couldn't tell him that or he'd never leave.

"If I lose, if this gets past Sunnydale, then it's days or even hours before the rest of the world gets sucked into hell. I need a second front, someone I can count on. I need you to run it."

She could see Angel stand a bit straighter thinking she still needed him to count on, to be the champion she could depend on to win the day. Still…there was something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Something decidedly unBuffy, or not the Buffy he knew and cherished. "Okayyyy," he crossed his arms and gave her his stern father look. "That's one reason. What's the other?"

Buffy tried to brush it off with a wide-eyed look of innocence and turned to leave the tomb. "There is no other."

Angel drew in a deep breath in exasperation and then he caught it, that scent! "Is it Spike?" Buffy stopped so quickly Angel nearly ran into her back. "You're not telling me something and I remember his scent pretty well."

Damn! If she'd had a clue that Angel would be strolling back into town she would have changed out of the clothes she had been wearing when Spike held her the night before. She rolled her eyes and opted for disgust. "You vampires! Did I ever tell you how gross it is with you smelling people all the time?" She began to walk away again.

"Is he your boyfriend?" The tone of amazed horror wasn't disguised at all.

Buffy remembered the last time Angel had butted into her love life. She hadn't checked HIS little black book, had she? "Is that your business?" she hedged.

Angel looked what Spike would have called gobsmacked. Buffy surely hadn't taken up with his idiot grandchilde, had she? Angel knew she had been depressed and a bit off her game after she returned from heaven, but NO woman chose SPIKE, certainly not over him! "Are you in love with him?" he sputtered in disbelief. "Okay, maybe I'm out of line, but this IS kind of a curve ball for me. I mean," he snorted in amusement, "This is Spike we're talking about here."

Buffy felt her back go up at the implication. "It's different! HE'S different." Her voice softened as if adding an unspoken plea for understanding. "He has a soul now."

Suddenly Angel devolved to something Buffy never anticipated having any view of: an adolescent! "OH" he rolled his eyes and looked heavenward, "Wellll," sarcasm dripped from each syllable. "That's great. Everyone's got a soul now."

Buffy didn't want to get into this with anyone, Angel especially. Somehow his making light of what Spike did in getting a soul for her made her furious. That Angel couldn't see how unbelievably amazing such an act was boggled her mind. She had been surprised that Giles had not been too interested, but Angel was a vampire with a soul-he KNEW what that meant to Spike. "He'll make a difference."

Angel completely lost his battle with maturity then. "You know, I started it-that whole having a soul-before it was all the cool new thing."

Buffy stood gape-mouthed. Had Angel forgotten that HIS soul had come as a curse? He hadn't even asked how Spike had gotten his, what he had endured. Come to think of it, she hadn't pressed for too many details either. Angel was starting to annoy her majorly. "Oh my GOD, are you twelve?"

Angel was so angry he was starting to pace. "I'm getting the brush-off for Captain Peroxide. It doesn't necessarily bring out the champion in me."

Nope, he certainly wasn't acting like a champion OR a grown-up who chose to walk out of her life. "Are you just planning to drop in and go all Dawson on me every time I have a boyfriend?"

"AHA!" Angel pounced like a prosecutor on cocaine. "Boyfriend! You said it!"

"He's not." No, he wasn't, never really had been really. She wasn't sure what Spike was to her, but 'boyfriend' just didn't seem the right word. Boyfriends were who you dated, the ones you carved initials into wood with, the ones you made out with until your mom turned on the porch light and made him leave. Spike had never been her boyfriend and she wasn't sure what to call her feelings for him. "He's not. But he is in my heart."

She could feel the fury coming off of Angel in waves. "That'll end well," he barked.

Buffy blinked and felt the anger rise in her breast. What right did Angel have to critique her relationships, relationships he hadn't been around to see because he'd decided to leave. If he hadn't left, she might never have moved on to anyone else for him TO critique! "What was the highlight of OUR relationship? When you broke up with me or when I killed you? I'm well aware of my stellar history with guys, and NO, I don't see fat grandchildren in the offing with Spike, but I don't think that really matters right now."

She felt the anger drain at that thought. This may be the last time she ever saw Angel again. Why end things with harsh words? She moved closer to the irate vampire and sighed before letting out a chuckle at the ridiculousness of the entire conversation. "In the midst of all this insanity, a couple of things are actually starting to make sense. The whole guy thing, for one. I always thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn't make it work, but maybe I'm not supposed to."

Angel had a chill at the reminder that Buffy wasn't designed for a long life with anyone. "Because you're the Slayer?"

Buffy struggled to come up with a way to make sense of it. "I'm cookie dough, not done baking. I'm not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I'm going to turn out to be." She could see the confusion on Angel's face. Okay, maybe not the perfect analogy, but it did make sense. She had the right ingredients to be the woman who could be in a good, healthy relationship, but she had lots of maturing to do-if she lived long enough, that is. That was it, that was the time she had wanted when talking to Spike earlier and now with Angel.

That sobered her a bit. It wasn't likely that she would ever have that time. She was the Slayer. A short shelf life came with that package. If she waited until she fully matured to know her heart, she would never have any happiness. Actually, there would likely be no fat grandchildren in her future with anybody, maybe not even a future when you got down to it. Perhaps she wouldn't have that time she craved, but there WAS still time to grab some happiness while she still lived.

"Angel, one thing Spike has taught me is that I am more than just 'Buffy the girl' or just the Chosen One. You don't really know me, not anymore. You know the young girl who was still playing at being the big bad Slayer of all things scary and icky. I'm not her anymore. I've done too much, seen too much, felt too much. Spike knows the me that I am now, the me I'm becoming."

Angel didn't like where this was headed. "But this is Spike we're talking about. He's an idiot and a killer."

"He is oh so much more than a killer," Buffy started to defend him.

"You forget, I know Spike better than anybody," Angel began, only to have Buffy cut him off.

"You don't know him either!" She took a deep breath. "You knew Spike the first twenty years he was a vampire and then maybe a few meetings when he came to Sunnydale. You haven't been around to see him grow, see him try. He was chipped and I used to tell myself that was why he wasn't the Big Bad anymore, but that wasn't it. He could still have killed us all, still have drained bodies brought to him by minions, but he chose to change. He messed up along the way, but he did try." She teared up at the memories of soulless Spike's many attempts to do right for her.

"You don't know what he's suffered, all for the love of me." She didn't want to go into detail; too much of that suffering had been at her hand or from her mouth. "He did the best he could and when that wasn't good enough, he went and earned his soul back, all for me."

And then she knew. She wasn't a lump of dough; she wasn't waiting for time or other experiences. She had been afraid, afraid Spike would be like all the rest who loved her and then left. It seemed laughable in light of their history. He was the one who NEVER left, even when she gave him every good reason to do so. He was the one she could trust!

"Angel, go back to L.A. I'll try to make sure you don't need to be a backup unit. I appreciate you coming and bringing this," she pointed to the amulet. "You have your life and I think I just realized I have one too; they just aren't together."

Angel dropped the necklace into her hands. He had seen the fleeting thoughts on her face and had pretty well guessed what she was thinking. He didn't want to actually hear the words though. "I'll go and start working on that second front. I hope I don't have to use it. Take care of yourself, Buffy. Make sure HE takes care of you too." He turned and left as quickly as he could so he wouldn't have to see her leave to go to him.

Buffy fairly flew home but stopped on the porch to catch her breath, to slow her heart a bit. This was it, the moment of truth. Spike once asked for crumbs and she had dithered with images of cookie dough. It was time to stop all the food nonsense and feed the real hunger, the hunger of questing hearts, needy souls. Time to grow up.

Spike was clearly in a snit. He was laying into the punching bag hard enough to almost knock it from the chain that secured it to the beam in the ceiling.

"So where's tall, dark and forehead?"

Crap! He knew about Angel. "Let me guess, you can smell him."

"Yeah, that and I also used my enhanced vampire eyeballs to watch you kissing him." Spike looked hurt. That wasn't an expression she ever wanted to cause again, not on him.

"It was a 'hello,' and also a mistake,"

"Most people don't use their tongues to say hello, or I guess they do, but…wait a minute…a mistake?" He looked befuddled.

"There were no tongues and he's gone. Really gone this time. As in 'a person from my past that I might see once in a while, but that's all' kind of gone. The 'not in my heart' kind of gone." Buffy looked him straight in the eye, wanting him to see the truth there.

"That so?" Spike feared to push this odd conversation, not sure where it was leading.

Buffy noticed the crudely drawn caricature of Angel on the punching bag and let out a burst of laughter. "One of these days I'm going to lock the two of you in a room and let you wrestle it out," she teased. "Yes, that's so."

Spike swallowed in nervousness and dared to walk towards her. "Doubt he took that well."

"Don't know, don't care. He's a big boy and he's the one that left." Buffy shrugged in nonchalance. "I think he already moved on but just held onto the memories too hard. Now he can let them just be memories and get on with it. And I can too."

Spike tilted his head and bit his lip. He still wasn't sure what she was driving at.

"We were talking earlier, before we went off to be heroes," she reminded him.

"Yeah," Spike said the word slowly and nodded.

"You asked what last night meant to me and I blew you off. I was scared, but I think I don't have time to be afraid anymore. I don't WANT to waste time." She laid a hand on Spike's arm and looked into his eyes, showing her soul, her heart to him at last. "It does have to mean something. It means everything. You need to know before we go meet the apocalypse du jour…Spike, I love you. I'm not good with words, but I really need you to know that's how I feel."

She then proceeded to prove that words would never be necessary, not between them.

~fin