~*~
Chapter 5

The woman was doing that infuriating laugh thing again. "I never specifically said you would earn your soul. I said you would have what you need and what you need is advice."

She grabbed the precious vial from his hand and before he could stop her she had poured it into the moat of holy water. Enraged, Spike went into game face and lunged at her.

"Ah ah ah! Manners! There was nothing but Mountain Dew in that vial anyway." She let Spike curse a while, he was better for it. "Did you really think there was a magical cure-all for Buffy's depression? It was sweet of you to risk everything to get it though. I'm sure she would be touched."

No soul, no cure in a bottle; Spike was feeling a right fool.

"Don't be so glum chum," the woman smiled. "I do have very good advice you know. The Powers care very much about Buffy's welfare. This hasn't been a game or exercise in futility."

"So what was it?"

"Proof."

"Proof!" He gave her a lowering gaze, "What did I prove to you then, that I'm a sucker for a good con game?"

"You proved nothing to us. We know you Spike, I told you that. The proof was for you. You've been rushing about acting on emotions and not thinking things through. I'd venture to say that until now you had not considered the changes you've undergone."

Spike was puzzled and it showed.

"You no longer want the people and lifestyle you once did even if you had the chip removed. You no longer have any desires for your sire. You've changed, Spike and needed to know it, be certain of it."

He was one thin inch away from a good sulk. "Fine, I'm a new man, check. How's that gonna fix Buffy?"

"You also know now that no matter the cost to you it will be paid if it's for her good. You didn't know that before did you?"

"Sure I did."

"And yet you acted without thought to her better good only making things worse!"

His crestfallen look earned him some sympathy. "Your intentions were good but you didn't think things through. To reach that last vial you had to make a thinking decision, weigh options, and each time you chose what you perceived to be in Buffy's best interests even when it resulted in great pain for yourself."

"When you return to her you will better be able to put aside self gratification and concentrate on actually helping her."

"That's why I need the bloody soul you crazy bint!" Spike sighed deeply. "How's a bloke supposed to know the right decision without it? Just ask Buffy; she's written a book on the importance of souls."

"Buffy needs you at her side, watching her back. It was intended for her to have just that sort of selfless help."

"Yeah, yeah, Angel the magnificent … got that memo."

"No, not Angelus. He cannot make the choices you can without his soul and he cannot be with Buffy without it either." This time her smile was a genuine and one of near affection. "You, however, have been making choices all along. It isn't as easy at times but you have shown you can do it even without that prompt from a soul. What makes you think a soul would help you heal your lady?"

"I'd know what to do to help her."

"If that is what it takes then why have those surrounding her, those who also love her but are soul intactus been unable to do so? Why was Angel unable to aid her when he clearly saw the need during their visit? He saw her depression, how lost she was upon resurrection but had no great soul given epiphany telling him what to do."

"So give it to me and I'll make better choices, I'm not that git."

"If we were to do that you would be sidelined; out of commission, filled with guilt and not effective at all." She needs you whole and hearty not wracked with remorse and self-doubt. A soul at this point will only cripple you. You will be so deep in your own grief and despair that you will be unable to even think of her much less help her."

Spike ran his hands over his face, more tired than he could ever remember being and suddenly filled with a nagging despair that he could do nothing for his Slayer after all.

"But is helping her the real reason you would seek such a thing?"

"What? Said so didn't I? Why else would I want a soul shoved in me?"

"Do you harbor the thought that if you had your soul she might be able to love you as she did your sire? She has often thrown your lack of soul in your face, is that the true reason for your quest?"

"Gave it some thought, sure, won't lie."

"You must decide what you truly want, Spike. Do you want to be there to help Buffy even if she is unable to return your love or to do you wish to return to doing all you can to possess her, wear her away until she makes a proclamation of caring? If you love her you will put aside your needs and see to hers."

That was the problem. "But what are her needs?" He was shocked at how small his voices sounded, how lost.

"Right now she is depressed, she has good reason. Only she can pull herself out of this pit of despair that life's difficulties and too many losses have caused her to dwell in. While she is struggling though she will need a friend, one who will let her simply be while encouraging her. You began that way upon her return and did quite well until you pushed for more. She will need someone strong to make certain she doesn't make fatal errors while she heals, a partner but not a sex partner, not yet at least. It needs to be more than that if it's to be real and lasting. Someone who can remind her of the lovely parts of living, make her want them again. You are ideal for that task. Even though dead you still revel in life…who better to help her remember?"

"So I do what? Just go back and let her use me as a punching bag?"

"No, that is enabling not helping. You go back and offer your help, love and support. You let her know that you ask nothing of her but to be there for her. Lay down ground rules one of which is that you be treated with respect. Make her see you, see beyond herself."

"But the soul…. How will I know right from wrong?"

"Tsk…you already know right from wrong you just haven't cared. Now you have reason to care, to try."

Spike's shoulders slumped. It felt as if he were back to square one with no real path worked out to get where he needed to be.

The woman looked at him with sympathy reading reams in his dejected frame. "If in the future, when Buffy is whole again, you find that you wish you soul returned for your own reasons such as helping to find your way through the grey areas, then the soul will be yours. You've already passed the trials. Perhaps Buffy will be able to help you with the adjustment then as you will have helped her now. Right now giving you the soul would merely put yet another burden on you both."

"So the Powers are okay with their Slayer partnered up with an unsouled demon?"

"What do you think?"

~*~

Buffy was feeling much better, close to chipper in fact. She had the occasional nightmare, usually of being buried alive, but she was beginning to truly heal emotionally. She was still missing Spike more than she would ever have believed possible. She had even admitted it to the gang, Xander included.

Everyone was back home and life was finding its rhythm again for all of them. Xander and Anya had made peace but there would be no second chance for them.

It amused Buffy to notice a glimmer of something between her Watcher and the once-again demon. Perhaps she would be more than just a business partner one day. Good! Giles needed someone and Anya could use help keeping herself from sliding into the 'evil demon must be slain' category.

She found the mild flirting between her younger sister and Xander less amusing. Still if it didn't go beyond that until Dawn was old enough it might not be a bad combination. After all Xander wasn't exactly mature enough to qualify as an older man. Buffy was going to keep a sharp eye on both of them though until Dawn was at least eighteen.

Spike would have a cow at that development. Buffy figured she would have had to keep the protective vampire from making Xander literally neutered were he there to note the interest. It would be worth the annoyance of constantly intervening just to have him back.

Even Xander had finally come around to the acceptance of Buffy's desires. No more trying to talk her out of feelings she was only beginning to acknowledge to herself much less to the others. No more arguments about all the many virtues Spike was lacking. "So you're saying he's your Mr. Perfect?" Xander had been incredulous and had begun to tick off all of Spike's worst traits.

No he wasn't perfect she knew that but maybe she wasn't perfect for him either. But it was good at first between them, when they were friends, before it all went pear shaped. Now all she wanted was a chance to see how it could have been, maybe still could be, to get a do over. Surely the Powers owed her that at least.

Maybe she should contact Angel after all. Spike had been gone for months and she was worried sick. She might be up to handling a seething, jealous former lover if it got Spike back to her.

So lost in thought was Buffy that she crashed into someone without even knowing they were there. "Sorry, head in the clouds," she muttered then looked up and saw her own private blue skies staring back at her.

"You came back!" Spike found himself with an armful of sobbing Slayer.

"Never leave for good till I'm dust, Buffy." He stroked her back soothingly.

She resisted her impulse to hit him. No more of that! She was tired beyond the telling of taking her violence impulses out on Spike. "Where were you? You've been gone forever."

Spike chuckled, "Not quite forever, pet, though it felt like it at times. Spent a good bit of time this past month healing up enough to not scare the kiddies."

Buffy gasped; surely he hadn't been so injured by her that it had taken months to heal!

As usual he seemed to know what she was thinking without her saying a word, "No, love, not anything you did. Healed up right quick from that with a bit of help. Got a bit damaged on an old fashioned quest."

"Quest?"

"Had the idea that a soul might be the missing ingredient with us. Wanted to do right by you instead of always drivin you to the brink."

Buffy blinked tears away. "You'd do that for me even after… ?"

"I'd walk through hell, all the hells, just to see you happy. What's a soul? I'd be same handsome charming bloke I always was just with a side of remorse and misery." He smiled broadly. "No brooding like some I know. Can't undo the past after all."

Buffy looked at him with something like awe. "You have a soul?"

Spike kinda hated having to answer, to see the look change to the more familiar one of disgust and contempt. "No, still soul free. Did the quest but learned a lesson along the way. Soul'll still be waitin for later if you want me to snag it. I earned the bloody thing after all!"

"But why did you leave without saying anything? I thought you were dust, prayed you weren't." She nearly choked on the words. "Spike I'm so so sorry. I beat you and left you there. I did go back but you were gone and I didn't know what to think. I did look, all the time. I never stopped."

He felt dizzy. She cared! He hadn't counted on that much less her admitting it to him.

"Wasn't thinkin real clearly. Happens when I'm around you. All I can think about is the bloody ring of fire I'm always dancing on."

"Geez Spike, drama queen much? I've heard that song, mom loved Johnny Cash. I get it… you love me and it burns, burns, burns." Her voice became very soft and contrite, "I'm sorry I ever doubted your feelings, your love, too."

Spike was grateful that she had at last realized he wasn't deluded then chuckled, "Not the song pet, although it's fittin too. Thinkin more geological".

Once more Buffy heard crickets and she suspected Spike did too as the silence dragged on.

Spike laughed and explained, "The ring of fire. All the land round the Pacific's prone to volcanoes, earthquakes and the like 'cause everything's unstable. Bein' round you's like that. Can go years, decades, century or so almost peaceful….some of the most beautiful real estate in the world's in that ring, places most people dream of settin' down roots." He hugged her close and shuddered with emotion. "Then with no real warning the ground shakes and everything crumbles or an eruption like St. Helens happens and what was once a mountain looks like a nuclear bomb hit. No time to plan, not really. Oft times complete devastation. No way to plan for it either, not really. Have to either accept it can happen decide it's worth it or move far away."

"So you moved away from me?" Buffy was stricken. "But you came back even with me all shaky Buffy?"

"I like danger, thrive on it love, so I'm not movin'. Still gotta accept it's likely to destroy me in the end."

Buffy was befuddled, "Then why come back?"

"Cause lovin' you's the most beautiful, most desirable thing I've ever known. How's a bloke supposed to give up even the slightest chance of touchin' that beauty out of fear he'll burn?"

Buffy was too choked up to respond for quite a while. He still loved her and more deeply than ever it seemed. She had no idea how she got that lucky but was planning to keep things as stable and unshaky as possible rather than risk hurting him further.

"You said something about learning a lesson. Mind if I ask what that was?"

He smiled and bit his bottom lip before answering. "I learned that even old vampires can change, can choose. I'm no animal, Buffy. May not be a man precisely but have a mind and a heart even if it doesn't beat."

"You didn't have to go on some quest to find that out! I could have told you. I watched you change, Spike. I wouldn't have been with you at all if I hadn't seen that and believed in you." She remembered her harsh, ugly words that had said just the opposite. Time to undo some of the damage she'd done if possible. "I've learned a lot too, like not to say things I don't really mean and hurt people that I care about."

It was Spike's turn to blink back tears. Could she really be saying that she didn't just see the monster? "Buffy.."

Whatever he had been planning to say was lost in the kiss that came unexpectedly. Her mouth claimed his just as the whole girl claimed his entire being, with nothing held back.

No fleeting kiss of welcome this, no! This was one to be folded away in memory and taken out to be relived throughout eternity. Spike pressed her willing body tightly to him and deepened the kiss. Tongue met tongue in tender caress as hands read each other like Braille.

Buffy traced every healing wound as if her touch alone would heal, and it did, it did.

Foreheads met as Buffy grabbed some breaths in preparation for a second onslaught. Looking into his eyes she felt her heart stop. How could she have ever doubted that he loved? His every emotion was written there for her to see and what she saw was adoration.

She pulled his head lower and began to kiss him again, this time with infinite tenderness and a clear promise of love. This was not mere blind passion but the vow of forever sealed in the silence of lips forged together as firmly as their lives would ever be.

Unseen, the woman smiled and winked at her superiors high above. The couple had finally gotten on the right track together this time and all that fate had in store was open to them. They could choose, there was always free choice, but it looked like they'd make the right ones. In a blink she disappeared her mission accomplished, her daughter-Slayer in safe hands.

Spike took a step back and gasped for a breath he didn't really need. Buffy frowned, "Did I overstep?"

"Never!"

"Then why the pull back?"

"Just want to take it slow and easy this go round, pet. I'm not going anywhere. Want to do right by you, put you first this time."

"Don't you want me anymore?" Buffy felt a brush of the old insecurities.

"Not want you? Are you daft? I want you all the time but more than that, I want you to want me for the right reasons or not at all. I can live without anything but you, Buffy. I want you whole and happy and getting' what you deserve." His whole body was straining, fighting its need to gather Buffy in his arms and rushing her anywhere horizontal to push things further but he used his mind, made a choice. "That's what love is innit? Seein' to the others needs not lookin' for reward?"

Buffy smiled radiantly. The silly boy was going to need convincing and she knew just how to do it but first she had some lessons she'd learned to share as well.

"Remember how I said that in Heaven I was warm and safe and loved….seems I learned that all of that's here for me too if I want it and am ready. I can't deny you love me any longer and what you just said sounds like that heaven kind of love; unconditional, unselfish and overpowering in a good way. I also know that I was wrong when I said I couldn't love you. Every day you were gone I learned a lesson myself, that you complete me and that I am better, stronger and happier with you right here with me. I don't want to be some fault-line; I want to be a life-line. I may not be in heaven any more but I have a chance at a piece of it here, with you."

They say a person makes their own heaven. Well the one whose foundation was being laid for these two this night would withstand any amount of shaking and explosions. What they would choose to build on that foundation would be awesome and lasting, swaying with the shifts around them but never crumbling. In the end, Spike would have his soul one way or the other and Buffy would have her heart, no longer encased in ice shivering in fear but whole and free. Together they would make history, fulfill prophecy. Together they would be one. The One, the Chosen.

~fin