"She looks so frail."
"Well, yes, old age will tend to do that to you." Sean's subdued tone was much less sarcastic than his words indicated, but even so, there was an irritated whisper from the bed.
"I can hear you, you know. I'm dying – not deaf."
"Sorry, Mum," Sean said, moving quickly to her bedside.
"You look fine. Really," his sister added, moving to the other side of the bed. The tall matron with the gray streaks in her dark hair stroked the thin silver covering her mother's head and smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring manner.
"I look like what I am…an old, old woman who is dying a little bit at a time," Buffy managed to say with just the right amount of scorn. "Please don't pretend I'm not. If I didn't have enough sense to figure it out for myself, the steady parade of grandchildren would have given it away by now."
Her middle-aged "children" exchanged glances and sighed simultaneously.
"You are," Sean agreed softly, taking her hand in his and sitting down in a chair near the bed. "And we're going to miss you terribly. Can you blame us for trying to pretend otherwise?"
Buffy smiled at how much her London-raised son could sound like her former watcher – dead now for over thirty years—and responded kindly.
"I guess not. But pretending isn't going to change anything, is it?"
She gazed at her two well-loved offspring, seeing much of their father in their height and dark hair, but recognizing parts of herself in their hazel eyes, generous mouths and, in Joy's case, the slender bones of her tall frame. Even well into her sixties, Joy's elegant lines could make even jeans and an old sweater look like designer clothes.
"We did good," Buffy said suddenly. "Your father and I. We did good. Two smart, beautiful babies who grew up and had more smart, beautiful babies of their own." She beamed proudly and squeezed their hands. Even with her body barely clinging to life, there was enough strength in those hands to make Joy wince.
"You don't have to stay tonight, you know," she said when no one had moved or spoken for several minutes. "It's not like I'm going to croak the minute you walk out the door."
"We know, Mum," Sean said, his face settling into brooding lines that suddenly made him look much more like his father. "We're leaving in a little while."
"Probably as soon as it gets dark," Joy added unnecessarily. Sean's face remained carefully expressionless. For over a week, no matter who Buffy's visitors might be, they were gone by the time full darkness fell. If they thought they knew why Buffy insisted on being left alone every night, there was tacit agreement that no one would mention it or ask her about it.
Seeing the shadows gathering outside, Joy leaned forward and kissed her mother's forehead, resting her cheek against Buffy's briefly.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mom," she whispered. "I'll be bringing Jackie with me. She wants you to see the baby again before…"
"Before I can't see her anymore?" Buffy asked wryly. She understood only too well, that her impending death was causing grief for her family and loved ones However, after over ninety years of existence, most of them as someone who risked death on a regular basis, she was only too ready to allow her battered and worn out body to have the rest it deserved. As it was, her slayer healing had kept her vigorous and healthy much longer than she'd had any right to expect, but at long last, it appeared that time was going to win its battle with slayer blood's ability to repair damage before it could become permanent.
"I wish you'd quit saying things like that," Sean blurted, losing for the moment, his stoic expression. "You sound like you want to leave us."
Buffy sighed and closed her eyes wearily.
"Of course, I don't want to leave you," she said in a tone that indicated this was not their first conversation on the subject. "I love you all, very, very much. But I'm tired. I've outlived my expiration date many times over. You're grown-ups, your children are grown-ups - hell, some of their children are growing up already. Your father is gone. My old friends are long gone…" She paused, her mind going to a place that she didn't want Liam's children to follow it. "It's time," she finished as briskly as she could while feeling her energy draining away and her eyelids drifting shut. "It's time," she finished in an exhausted whisper.
Giving her brother a glare, Joy brushed her hand lightly over Buffy's hand and stood up.
"Get some rest, Mom. We'll see you tomorrow."
A slight nod was the only acknowledgement and her two remaining children quietly left the room, moving like much older people than they had seemed only moments before. They walked down the hall in silence, nodding at the young slayer who had, unbeknownst to Buffy, been stationed outside her door every night. The girl waved back, her bored expression saying clearly that she thought chances of a vampire appearing in a nursing home to attack a dying woman were so slim as to be impossible.
"Do you think he'll come?"
"It's what she's hanging on for," Sean responded as they reached the elevators. "She thinks he'll come."
"Tell me again why it's a good idea to have a slayer there to stop him? If it's what Mom wants before she dies?"
"Dad was very clear about it. He told me things…things you don't know. About the vampire. Did you know that he tried to kill Mom multiple times? And that he stalked her for years, after he couldn't kill her? Vampires live a long time. He won't forget, he'll come back."
She stopped and looked at her brother as though he'd grown another head.
"Dad told you all that?"
"Well, I had to read between the lines a little. He tried to make it sound like Mom actually wanted him around, but—"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Did Dad also tell you that the vampire you're so worried about was her first husband?"
"I suppose husband isn't really the right word. They never actually got around to getting married. When Dad showed up at her doorstep – human and asking her to marry him, there was a huge fight."
"And you know this...?"
"Mom told me once – I don't even know how many years ago, when I was crying over some boy or other. She told me that even when you think your heart's been broken forever, it mends, and you can love again and go on with your life."
"What the hell has that to do with the vampire?"
"They fought about Dad. He–the vampire–thought she wouldn't want him if she could have Dad, and they got into a screaming match. Hurtful things were said, and the vampire – Spike – stormed out. She refused to see Dad for months, expecting Spike to come back, but he never did and she finally started dating our father and fell back in love with him."
"Back in love?"
Joy gave him a sheepish smile.
"Um, yeah. Another story. They had a history. Before she met the other vampire. She wouldn't tell me much about it – just that they couldn't be together and she'd eventually fallen in love with the one you're so worried is going to show up here."
"Why wasn't I told any of this?" he said in an aggrieved tone.
"It was ancient history, I guess. You know neither one of them likes – liked to talk about their lives before we were born. The only reason she told me about Spike is that I screamed at her that she didn't understand how I felt because she was happily married and had never been hurt."
"And she told you she had?" He looked dubious.
"I thought for a second she was going to hit me," she responded. "I've never seen her look like that. Then she told me about Spike, and a little bit about Dad before he was human. And about some other guy who left her, and finding her mother dead, and…" She shuddered. "By the time she was done, we were both crying and I had forgotten all about the boy who dumped me."
"Okay, say you're right and she had a history with this guy – vampire. It was over sixty years ago. Why would he bother coming back now? It makes no sense, now that I know what he was in her life. I've always assumed he was some vampire that had sworn revenge or something and that's why Dad didn't want him near her."
"I don't know, either. I just know that at one time Mom loved him just as much as she did Dad, and if she wants to see him before she dies…"
He sighed and pushed open the door to the parking lot.
"Okay, I'll have the slayer pulled off duty tomorrow. It seemed kind of silly to me, anyway."
As they left the small nursing facility, still talking quietly while they walked to their cars, a shadow detached itself from shrubbery near the door and slipped inside before it could close.
The bored girl outside Buffy's door was engrossed in a video she was watching on her phone when she realized that her neck was tingling and had been for several minutes.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!"
She sprang to her feet, whirling around and staring up and down the seemingly empty hallway. She took a quick glance into the First Slayer's room, but saw nothing but the tiny figure curled up in the bed. Her body relaxed as she saw that nothing had been disturbed and there was no one else in the room. She turned around, almost convinced that she was imagining the tingles, and ran head first into a very solid chest.
Moving with a speed that told her she wasn't facing a fledgling, the intruder had her arms pinned before she could even think about drawing her stake.
"Fatal mistake, luv," he rumbled in her ear. "Should always have your weapons handy. Mine are."
From the bed, Buffy's voice rang out with a strength that astonished the bewildered young slayer.
"Let her go, Spike," she said clearly. "And, Lissa? Don't try to stake him, please. Why don't you go downstairs and get a snack?"
"I'll handle Mr Connor. He had no business risking your life like this without talking to me about it."
"Come on, Slayer," Spike grumbled. "You know I'm just playin' with her. Nobody risked her life."
"You know that, and I know that; but my son didn't." Buffy's tone and the expression on her face did not bode well for Sean's next visit. "And I suspect Lissa isn't sure about it yet, either."
"'s that right, pet? Are you afraid old Spike's gonna bite you?" He loosened his grip, jumping back with a laugh when Lissa snatched her stake from her back pocket.
"I'm not afraid of you," she hissed, stalking towards him.
"Best listen to her, luv," he said, his eyes alight with amusement and anticipation.
The confused girl stared back and forth between the grinning vampire and the glaring old woman – now moving as though intending to get out of bed and physically stop Lissa from staking Spike. Buffy gave a whimper as her attempt to pull herself up resulted in her hand sliding off the railing and hitting against the edge of the bed.
Without Lissa even realizing that he'd moved, Spike was around her and across the room, cradling Buffy's slight body and scolding her gently.
"Don't hurt yourself, love. Please. Just lie there and take that rest you've earned."
His free hand stroked a few stray hairs out of her face; Lissa watched in shock as a tear ran down his cheek. The grateful and loving smile on Buffy's face as she reached a trembling hand up to stroke the tear away finally broke through her conditioning and she dropped her hand, letting the stake dangle limply from it.
"I'll…" Neither of the two people now staring into each other's eyes with an intensity that was almost physically palpable paid any attention to her as she slipped out the door and walked down the hall. "I'll just go downstairs and get a snack," she muttered to herself.
In the room, Spike lowered Buffy to the bed and, at her weak tugging, carefully stretched himself out beside her, never taking his eyes off hers.
"I knew you'd come," she whispered, the energy she'd expended in trying to keep him from having to fight Lissa having sapped what little strength she had.
"You knew I would," he repeated, running his fingers over her face. "How could I not?"
With a sigh, she closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest, fitting against him as if the past sixty-five years had never existed. For long minutes they lay silent, only the slight rise and fall of her chest indicating that there was anything alive in the room. To an outside observer, it would have looked as though a dying woman was being held by a loving grandson. Only closer observation would have shown that the "grandson" was murmuring endearments and promises into the woman's ear, while his arms held her tightly and his hand skimmed along her back.
Buffy stirred lightly and tried to open her heavy eyelids.
"Right here, my love."
"Stay with me?"
"I love you, you know. I never stopped."
"I know. Had yourself a good life anyway, didn't you?"
"I did. I had a very good life." She twitched suddenly. "If you stayed away because you thought you knew what was best for me…"
He chuckled, his chest jiggling against her cheek.
"Know you better than to do that, sweetheart," he soothed. "I stayed away because I was so bloody brassed off at you. By the time I got over it, I figured you'd have given up on me. Was no sense in coming back once you'd married Liam. You didn't need to have your life complicated like that."
"I'm so sorry – those things I said? I'm sorry. I never meant to say them to you. You just make me so mad…"
"Always did wind each other up pretty good, didn't we?" he said, blinking against the tears that threatened.
"Nobody can fight like we can," she agreed, her voice trailing off as her eyes drifted shut again. Outside the window, Spike's hearing picked up the sounds of nearby traffic. From down the hallway he could hear Lissa explaining to the night nurse that Buffy had a visitor and didn't want to be interrupted. He reminded himself to thank the girl on his way out.
Buffy's breathing had become so light that it was barely perceptible. Only a vampire could have picked up on the small sighing sounds as she inhaled and exhaled. Her heartbeat was slowing and becoming more and more erratic as she relaxed in the arms holding her so carefully. Her mouth moved as she tried to speak, stopping, then starting again until she finally made a sound.
"What is it, love? What do you need?"
"I want…" her breath failed her and she struggled to get the rest out. "…one good day."
"Ah, Buffy, love. I—" He gave an agonized moan and buried his face in her hair.
"Please," she whispered. "It's what I want. To die the way a slayer should – with the vampire who loved me."
"Loves you," he choked out. "Loves you so much…"
"Then do it. For me. Let me go, Spike. I want to die knowing I gave you what I could."
Instead of answering her, he picked up her arm, examining it carefully until he found the barely healed hole from the IV the nursing staff had removed only the day before. Placing his lips over the bend in her elbow, he gently slid one fang into the hole, waiting until the blood flowed into his mouth before beginning to suck on it.
Buffy gave a satisfied sigh and relaxed into him. He barely noticed when her breathing ceased, only the decrease in blood flow told him that her heart was no longer pumping the still-rich slayer elixir. He gently removed his mouth, leaving a gentle kiss on the slightly bruised spot before tucking her arm under the warm flannel sheet.
Hours later, when a cautious Lissa peered into the room, she saw the vampire – that she now knew to be the famous/notorious William the Bloody – cradling Buffy's still body and crooning to her as tears flowed silently down his cheeks. Her slight gasp brought his eyes up to hers and told her that her nightly vigils were at an end. As she absorbed the calm grief in those eyes, she felt her own eyes filling.
"Give us another minute, luv. If you would?" he asked, his voice soft as though being careful not to wake the woman in his arms. "I'll just finish my 'good-bye' and be on my way. Why don't you go make some calls?"
Lissa nodded, unable to speak past the lump in her throat, and turned away, pulling out her phone as she walked down the hall. She decided, rather than alerting the staff – who would wonder how and why she knew that her charge no longer needed protection – that she would call the man who had placed her there.
By the time Buffy's family members had gathered at the nursing facility to verify that the matriarch of their rather large family had indeed finally passed to her reward, there was no sign that anyone else had ever been there. Lissa never saw the vampire leave, although a whispered "thank you, luv" had brought her spinning around, phone in hand to see nothing but a door swinging closed.
She shared what little she'd seen with Sean and Joy, leaving it for them to decide if there was any reason to mention it to anyone else. She accepted the family's thanks with a nod, anxious to leave before the tears prickling her own eyes could be noticed. She walked to her car, never seeing the dark figure standing on the roof of the building. Long after everyone had left, he remained, a leather-clad gargoyle watching over the empty parking lot.