"Oh crap! I forgot my sweater – I'll be right back." Buffy turned to run back into the restaurant, but her latest soon-to-be-ex boyfriend stopped her with a touch on her arm.
"Let me get it," he offered. "You wait here and people-watch."
Buffy gave him her best fake smile and nodded her agreement. "Okay. I'll just stay here and watch… people…." Her voice trailed off as a familiar tingle went up the back of her neck. As casually as possible, she ran her eyes around the lobby of the hotel, seeking the source of the vampire vibes. She spotted the lean, muscular man just as the tingle ramped up into a signature that was, even after four years, both unmistakable and intimately familiar.
She'd barely breathed his name, but saw him stiffen and knew he'd heard her. She watched, almost with detachment, as he obviously tried to decide if he should bolt or turn around. Just as he made his decision and turned to meet her gaze, John emerged from the restaurant, sweater in hand.
"Here it is," he greeted her cheerfully. "We won't even be late for the party."
"I'm staying here," she responded, never taking her eyes off the slowly approaching vampire. "Something's come up. I can't go with you."
"What? When did that happen? You were fine with it just a few minutes ago – what kind of—" He stopped speaking when a man with piercing blue eyes halted a few feet away and cocked his head at the woman John thought of as his girlfriend.
"Hello, Buffy," the man murmured softly. "You're looking good, love."
"And you're looking surprisingly undusty," she snapped back, the bite in her words belied by the wonder and joy filling in her eyes.
Her date looked back and forth between the two suddenly mute people, waiting for an introduction. When none was forthcoming, he prodded gently.
"Buffy? Is this man a friend of yours?"
"Yes, John, he's an old friend. An old friend that I thought was dead." She still hadn't looked away from Spike's face, taking in the fact that he was trying to hide the way his eyes traced her face and body. "So, you'll just have to go to the party without me. I have some explanations to listen to."
The entire time she was speaking, she never took her eyes off Spike's face, searching for some sign that he was happy to see her. John shuffled his feet uncomfortably for several minutes, but when he realized Buffy wasn't going to say anything else to him, he mumbled something about calling her "tomorrow" and left the hotel lobby, completely ignored by his girlfriend and the strange man that she could not seem to take her eyes off.
"Shall we, pet?" Spike nodded into the dark bar attached to the hotel restaurant, and she docilely followed him into a small booth. When the waitress had taken their drink orders and returned with the filled glasses, there was nothing left to do but to discuss Spike's presence in the world and why he hadn't found a way to let her know he was alive.
Buffy had learned of his reappearance after the fall of Sunnydale only just in time to hear about the battle against the Senior Partners and the apparent loss of all involved. She'd mourned briefly for Angel and Cordy, then fallen into an angry depression when she understood that Spike had been back and no one had told her about it. For some reason she had found herself more stricken by this second "death" than she had been by the first one; almost as though the grief that had seemed so easy to deal with at that time, had been waiting to hit her even harder when there was a new reason for it.
As time went by and she went on with her life, the wrenching pain that she'd felt initially had subsided to a dull, persistent ache that she hardly noticed. She chalked it up to her usual good luck with men and love, and rarely thought about the missing vampire who had been such a big part of her life at one time. She became a serial dater – finding some reason to break up with every man she dated as soon as it looked like the relationship might be getting serious.
Now, the last man she'd told "I love you" was sitting across from her, looking as though he wished he were almost anywhere else. Only the way he looked at her when he thought her attention was elsewhere gave her the courage to stay in the booth and demand to know why he hadn't come to her.
"I don't understand. Why would you let me think you were dead? Twice?" Buffy's hands twisted her napkin, shredding the tightly woven cloth as she waited for his answer. Spike focused his gaze on the slender fingers mauling the cream-colored fabric and tried to find the words he needed. Before he could begin, Buffy abruptly spoke again, her tone horrified. "You really didn't think I meant it, did you? You thought I was lying when I said I loved you."
He sighed, grateful for a question to which he thought he had the correct answer.
"No, pet. I didn't think you were lying. I know you meant it – and I know that I let you grieve unnecessarily and… and I apologize for that. It was inconsiderate of me not to let you know that I was back…" Ignoring her muttered "Inconsiderate?" he pressed on. "But, truthfully, love, by the time I was solid again, it had been months. You weren't mourning me anymore; you were dating, having fun. By that point I was as much a memory as poor demon-girl. There just didn't seem to be any urgent reason to let you know. I figured you'd find out sooner or later – or we'd run into each other somewhere—"
Buffy's confusion shone through the barely-suppressed anger.
"What the hell do you mean, I wouldn't have been mourning you anymore? I told you I loved you! Is that what you think of my ability to love? That I'm over it after a couple of months? And are you comparing the way I feel—felt about you to how I felt about Anya? I mean, yeah, she was one of us and I had long since forgiven her for… you know… but—"
"What did you have to forgi—oh. That."
"Wasn't her fault, love. You shouldn't have held it against her."
"Great. Just what I needed to hear. That it was all your idea to screw one of my friends. Thanks for sharing." She stared at him with controlled fury that did not quite manage to hide the pain beneath.
"Bloody hell, Slayer! It wasn't my idea either! It wasn't anybody's idea. It just happened – too much booze, too much pain – caused by humans, I might point out – and the two discarded demons offered each other some solace… and I can't believe we're even talkin' about this now. It was years ago and the poor chit is dead!"
"You're the one who brought up her name. Telling me I wouldn't miss you any more than I would her. What the crap? I loved you, you jackass. But I guess that doesn't – didn't matter to you. If it did, you would have told me you were alive; at least one of the times you came back, anyway," she finished, her voice trailing off from an outraged growl to more of a petulant mutter.
Shaking his head in disbelief that they could be fighting after only a few minutes of conversation, he struggled to find an explanation that wasn't going to make the situation worse.
"Of course it mattered—matters to me, Buffy," he began gently. "You know how much I wanted to hear those words from you. But by the time you said them, you'd already shown me how much you cared. You rescued me from the First, you had my chip taken out, you let me hold you when you needed comfort…. How could I not have known you cared?"
"Then what the...?"
"You cared for me, love. And that made me happy. Truly it did. I'm not denying that feeling like I was finally a part of your life, one of your friends – that it didn't give me warm fuzzies that you finally trusted me. But I'm still Love's Bitch. I would have wanted more – and I was too afraid of finding out that you didn't; too frightened of finding out that I was jus' another Scooby…." He paused and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, pet. I wasn't fair to you. You had a right to know I was alive and it was wrong of me to keep it from you just because I was afraid of getting hurt."
Buffy's forehead crinkled as she realized what he was saying. Her hands clenched into fists under the table and she fought to keep her voice even.
"And the last time? The time when I learned you were back and then dusted again all in the same hour? What did you think? That I wouldn't be mourning all over again? How could you do that to me, Spike? You promised you would never hurt me again. Remember? When you got your soul? You said you did it so that you'd never hurt me again. How is letting me think you were dead all these years not hurting me?"
"Thought you'd be over it, pet. You'd moved on – had yourself a new wanker of a boyfriend—" Buffy's snort of disgust at the reminder of her fling with the Immortal brought a reluctant smile to the vampire's lips before his expression turned sober again. "You didn't need me back in your life. 'Twas just easier to stay dusted this time. No explanations, no apologies, no having you find out that I came back… different."
"I like your hair that way." Buffy's apparent non-sequitur took a second to register; Spike frowned and reached for the soft brown curls that covered his formerly blond head. Then he caught the hopeful twinkle in her eye and shook his head slowly.
"Not what I meant, Slayer."
"No," she sighed. "I didn't really think it was." She twisted the abused napkin some more before raising her eyes to his and saying softly, "So, you came back and didn't love me anymore. That's your reason for not telling me you were alive? What did you think, Spike? That if you didn't love me, I would want you to stay dead? I'd like to think I've matured a little bit more than that – of course, you wouldn't know that, would you? Because you didn't bother to try to find me or call me or—" In spite of her best efforts, her voice began to rise and she stopped talking before it betrayed how much it hurt her to say out loud that she knew he didn't love her anymore.
The vampire stared at her, watching the emotions play across her face –the pain she couldn't quite hide behind the always-quick anger, the sadness that had briefly disappeared from her eyes when she first saw him standing by the door, but that was now back with a vengeance, and something softer that he was almost afraid to identify.
"You daft bint," he managed to choke out as he began to realize that he was going to have to tell her and that it was going have more of an impact than he'd anticipated. His eyes searched hers, watching with resignation as the feelings, of which he'd caught just a glimpse, disappeared behind the Slayer's stony expression. Her chin came up and she met his look without flinching.
"There's no need to call me names. I'm sorry that you didn't think that you could be honest with me about it, but that's not my fault," she said stiffly. "I'm a grown-up now, Spike. I don't think the world revolves around me."
"You can't tell, can you?" he asked quietly, tilting his head to one side. "It made all the difference to you, and yet you can't even tell when it's gone."
"Oh, I think your behavior has made it pretty obvious. Didn't I just say that? You didn't love me when you came back, so you didn't bother to find me when your reason for doing it was gone. My love for you wasn't important anymore."
She threw down the shredded napkin and stood up, only her slayer training and her pride preventing her prickling eyes from embarrassing her.
"Buffy!" His panicked gasp as he reached for her, stopped her in mid-exit. "Buffy, don't leave, love, Please. I'm sorry. I'll tell you. I thought you'd be able to tell. I didn't know—just sit back down, pet. Please?" His whispered plea did as much as the grip on her arm to bring her reluctantly back to her seat.
"What?" She slumped into the booth with resignation; waiting for him to finish breaking her heart so that she could leave and mourn him… again.
"In the first place—" He stopped and tried to steady his voice. "I don't think I know how to stop loving you, so if that's what's got your knickers in a twist, just put it out of your mind. Nothin' I've done… or not done… has anything to do with my not loving you."
"No?" She cursed the needy, hopeful note that flavored the word, even as she raised her eyes to meet his firm expression.
She met his soft gaze with a suspicious glare, growling, "If this has been some 'I know what's best for you' noble gesture on your part…" She picked the knife from the place setting and began to play with it meaningfully.
"Buffy, my soul is gone. It didn't make the trip back with me."
He leaned back, placing his hands on the table, waiting for the inevitable reaction to his flat statement. He expected tears, anger, disappointment. What he didn't expect was her calm question.
"So, it is a stupid, 'I know what you want better than you do' thing?"
"Buffy, the part of me that allowed you to love me isn't there any more. I get that your feelings were more… intense than I realized, but that doesn't change anything. Those feelings—"
"Love," she snapped out, now using the knife to tap out a muffled staccato on the tablecloth.
Even as he prepared to break his own heart, he couldn't prevent the smile that her insistence brought to his face. "That love – it's for somebody who doesn't exist anymore. I stayed dead to you because the man you loved is gone. He is dead."
"He's been dead for a gazillion years. Hasn't been a problem before."
"Did you not hear me, Slayer? The soul – that precious, invisible… that thing that you couldn't love me without, it's gone. I don't have it any more."
She just glared at him, still rapping on the table.
"Um, Buffy? Slayer? This is the part where you kick me to the curb. Maybe with a 'thank you' for savin' the bloody world and a 'good-bye, good luck'."
She rolled her eyes; then slammed the knife down, denting the metal table under the cloth. She leaned towards him intently, forcing him to meet her glare.
"I don't think you heard me, Spike. I loved you. Long before you got that soul, I loved you. I trusted you. I trusted you to protect my family. I trusted you to watch my back in a fight. I trusted you to keep my secrets. I trusted you to love me – physically and… and not physically… at a time when I wasn't very loveable. And I learned to appreciate the man and the demon. They both loved me, and I knew that." She paused and took a shaky breath. "Don't get me wrong – I loved that you got a soul. But, I loved that you did it – not the soul itself, but fact that you loved me enough to get it for me. If you think that I can't love you without it, then… then… you're so stupid you should be dust!"
She threw herself back in her seat, arms folded across her chest and lower lip sticking out. Spike was staring back at her, hope, despair and disbelief flitting across his expressive face. He mentally reviewed what she'd just said, deciding to fixate on her use of the past tense rather than allow himself to believe that she was saying she could still love him.
"So," he ventured, doing his best to sound only interested, not hopeful. "When you say you 'loved' me, you mean it wasn't the soul that did it?"
"No." Her response was short and curt, but when he continued to stare at her she relented and elaborated. "It wasn't the soul. The soul just made it okay for me to admit it – to myself, if not to anyone else. It seems like they already knew anyway, " she grumbled.
Buffy sighed. "You missed some stuff while you were brooding down there in the basement—"
"I do not brood!"
"Fine, while you were not brooding in the basement." She rolled her eyes again." The point is, what you missed is Giles and Willow – and who knows who else – telling me that I was 'still' in love with you. Like I had been for a long time and everybody knew it. Everybody except me, apparently."
"And me," he grumbled, shooting her a look from under his eyelashes.
"Oh, come on. You knew it too. You even tried to use it to—"
She broke off, visions of how he'd tried to "prove" it to her flashing through her mind. One look at Spike's stricken face and she knew he was remembering the same thing. She watched in fascination as the very same expression that his face had worn when she kicked him off her bruised body now settled on the face in front of her. Disgust and horror, shame and regret filled his eyes before he turned them away with a shudder.
"Good job reminding me why you wouldn't want to be around my unsouled self, Slayer," he managed to get out without actually breaking down. He blinked back the tears that were blinding him, determined to get out of the hotel as soon as he could see to do so.
"It might have worked, you know," she said softly, placing a warm hand over his clenched fist. "I mean, if I wasn't already mad at you about Anya and if that stupid vamp hadn't tried to break my back…"
"Don't," he gritted out. "Don't try to make it sound like it wasn't what it was. I tried to force you… I said I loved you and then I hurt you. I broke your trust, Buffy. That's why I got the soul. So I would never do anything like that to you again."
"I'm not saying it wasn't a bad thing to do, Spike. You did break my trust; and that sucked. That hurt worse than what you were trying to do to my body. But I forgave you – long before you came back with the soul, I forgave you. I saw your face. I knew you weren't going to forgive yourself. When you disappeared… I wasn't surprised. If Clem hadn't told me you left town, I would have been sure that you walked into the sun.…" She gave a shaky laugh. "I've never been so glad in my life to hear that another man had left me as I was to hear that you rode out of town on a motorcycle and not on a gust of wind."
"Shhh. Let me finish this. It might have worked, because I did let myself feel… something… when we… when you… when you were in me. Why do you think you got all those bites on your shoulders? I had to put something in my mouth to keep 'I love you' from falling out of it."
Spike's head fell back against the back of the leather-covered booth seat. "So, what you're sayin' is I bollixed it up again by not tellin' you I was back while you still loved me." It was a statement, not a question, and he didn't really expect an answer. He felt her hand leave his still-clenched fist and kept his eyes closed, not wanting to watch her walk away. He heard the rustle of her clothing as she slid out of her seat and forced himself to keep his eyes squeezed shut. When the cushion dipped under her weight, he started and his eyes flew open to find Buffy's face only inches from his.
"I'm saying that your plan to stay away from me because you were afraid I didn't really love you or that I couldn't love you without the soul, was just as stupid as any of your other plans. All you did was make me unhappy – and since you promised not to do that anymore, you've got a lot of groveling and kissing up to do before I forgive you this time."
"Kissing up, huh?" He ran a trembling hand down the side of her face, sighing when she leaned into his hand and closed her eyes.
"Up, down, around—"
"Can I start now?" His lips ghosted over hers, before accepting her breathless "Now would be good" as assent and deepening the kiss. When he finally pulled back from her, he felt her tremble as she whispered, "I almost forgot what a good kisser you are."
"Gonna spend the rest of my unlife reminding you."
"I promise, love."
The schmoopy end.