DISCLAIMER: We know they're Joss', right? Which really is a shame, because most of the time, we're so much nicer to them than he was.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy realized Spike's life was at stake and demanded Illyria take her to see Angel, where she broke up with the Immortal...

* * *

The house was quiet as she let herself in Giles’ front door. Buffy hesitated with her hand on the knob, listening for any sounds that might give someone’s presence away, but was greeted with only the faint hum of electricity and the street traffic filtering from the road. Behind her, the cab she’d brought home pulled away from the curb, and she glanced back in time to see Wesley watching her from the backseat window. Angel had insisted Wes go with her, while Illyria took him back to the house ahead of them and asked the others to give Buffy privacy. While she was grateful for his help, part of Buffy was surprised Angel gave it so readily.

She closed the door behind her. Of course, if he’d come back to get Spike out of the house so she couldn’t talk to him, she was going to have to kick his ass. And then she’d kick Spike’s for running away again.

“Spike?” she called out.

The front room was empty, as was the kitchen. Climbing the stairs, Buffy heard the faint sound of cheers and frowned as she followed them. She passed the bedroom she’d woken in and ended up in front of another room, its door slightly ajar.

“Spike?” she tried again.

A burst of maniacal laughter came through the door, followed by an electronic voice saying, “Target eliminated.” Spike’s muttered curses came immediately afterward, with a long sigh preceding his answering, “Yeah.”

Pushing the door open, Buffy saw Spike sitting on the end of a carefully made twin bed, his attention fixed on something behind the door. A game controller was in his hands, the black cord snaking between his legs and along the floor, but it hung loose, his fingers no longer manipulating the buttons.

“Hey,” she said softly. Her fingers gripped the edge of the door, unsure what to do with themselves, and her gaze strayed to the animated carnage on the TV screen. “Since when does Giles play Xbox?”

“Doesn’t. This is the junior Watcher’s room.”

“Oh.” This was harder than she’d thought it would be. She hadn’t anticipated that he wouldn’t be right in her face as soon as he saw her. “You woke up OK,” she tried again. “That’s good.”

Spike ducked his heads, toying with the control. “Yeah, well, didn’t have anything there holding me back.” He hit a button on the controller and the game fired up again. “Unlike some people.”

Though she knew she had that one coming, Buffy winced anyway. “Did you guys have any problems getting out? Riley didn’t pull a Die Hard and come back to give you a hard time, did he?”

“Last I saw, they were safe as houses,” he replied. “All in the van, all on their way back to the Hellmouth.” His fingers flew across the buttons, the rising volume from the television masking his tone. “Assume you’ll be packing back to Rome tonight.”

He wasn’t even looking at her. Why wasn’t he looking at her? Annoyed, Buffy marched over to the bed and snatched the controller from his hands, tossing it to the floor and out of his immediate reach. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Well, I was tryin’ to play my game, but since that doesn’t look it’s goin’ to happen…” Spike ran a hand through his hair before standing and pacing along the far side of the bed. “Don’t know what you’re expecting, Buffy. I thought we’d done our talking back at the high school, but then Angel pokes in his gob and says they’re all off and for me not to bugger things up—“

“I find it very hard to believe Angel used the word ‘bugger.’”

He stopped, squaring off with her for the first time since she’d walked in. “Well, if you must know, his phrase of choice wasn’t nearly as well turned as mine, no.”

“Because you’re the superior wordsmith.”

“Bloody right I am. Though to hear him go at it—“ Spike frowned. “You’re mocking me.”

Her lips twitched. “A little, yeah.”

He stared at her in disbelief, his thoughts visibly ticking behind his eyes. She knew he was confused, but hey, so was she. Equal footing here. She didn’t need his walls to make things even harder.

“Did Angel tell you I wanted to talk?” she asked.

“Just said you were comin’ back. Then Blue started off on something about squabbling like children and Angel got his knickers all in a twist and I pretty much stopped listening.” He gestured toward the game console. “Came up here to wait ‘cause watching Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em didn’t really suit my mood right now.”

“Meaning you’d rather beat the crap out of something instead.”

This time, he grinned sheepishly at her slight tease. “Well, yeah. You got the best of the fight back with FrankenFinn. All I got was the grand finale.”

Though he was still too far away, Buffy wasn’t too bothered by it. Nobody had shouted yet, and he was actually looking at her now. Of course, nobody had said anything really important yet, either, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

“Do you mind if we go back to my room and do this?” Buffy asked. “I’m a little tired. And I don’t have an Xbox in there to distract you.”

Spike took a step toward her at her announcement about her physical state, but stopped short. Instead, he shoved his hands in his pockets and hardened his jaw. “If this is the grand kiss-off,” he said, “just say it and get it over with. I’m done with the bouncing around. Feel like a soddin’ pingpong ball.”

Buffy frowned. “Why do you think that’s what this is about?”

His brows shot up. “Mean other than the fact that you couldn’t be fussed to stick around to see if I woke up before traipsing across the city to check on your bloody boyfriend? Or that you couldn’t stand bein’ in the same room as me back at the Hellmouth, which is why you got snatched in the first place? Or how about because I haven’t even got a simple ‘thanks, Spike’ for goin’ through all this mess to get you back? Pick your poison, pet. Any and all are the same.”

There are was so much masked pain in his voice that it took Buffy’s breath away. She had known things had the chance to get ugly if she did this now – hence, her asking for privacy – but she hadn’t been prepared for how her actions looked from Spike’s perspective. She didn’t agree with him, and frankly, she thought he was deliberately looking for the bad in all of it, but saying so out loud would only mess things up worse than they already were.

So she said what she could.

“Thank you, Spike.” She began backing toward the door. “And for what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re safe from all this evil lawyer hullabaloo. That’s why I went over to Paolo’s, you know. Because Illyria told me about Wolfram & Hart’s price. It killed me to think I could lose you again when I only just got you back.” She reached the door and stepped into the hall. “I’m going to go lie down. If you want to talk…you know where to find me.”

Halfway to her room, Buffy almost stopped and looked back to see if he was following her. Only her pride kept her from doing so.

She left the door open, sinking into the mattress and curling up onto her side beneath the duvet. Her body still flamed from the temperature, and her eyes felt like they were going to vibrate out of their sockets, but her brain was too busy tilting every which way to allow her to sleep. Buffy stared at the wall, not seeing the fine print of the paper. Something had broken along her way to fixing things, and as per the usual, she had no idea how to make it better.

“Why are you here and not with him?”

His voice was soft, but its mere presence was enough to make Buffy roll over. In the doorway, Spike leaned against the jamb, watching her with guarded eyes. His hair was mussed from where he’d been running his fingers through it, and though his body seemed relaxed, she could tell by the tight cording in his forearms just how tense he really was.

“Because sticking around after you break up with somebody doesn’t do anyone any good,” she replied, matching his tone.

A flare of something appeared in his eyes, but almost as quickly, Spike tamped it down. “Hope you kicked the wanker to the door for what he did to you. You deserve better than that.”

“Maybe.” Easing up to a sitting position, Buffy hugged her knees. “I have a question,” she said. “And I think I need it answered before we go any further.”

“S’pose you answered mine all right,” came the careful response. “Go ahead.”

“Are you happy in LA?”

He didn’t move. He didn’t even twitch. “I’ve been worse.”

Buffy shook her head. “Are you happy? Do you like your life better with me out of it?”

There was still nothing more than the slide of his eyes as he contemplated his answer. She wished he wouldn’t remain so far away.

“It’s easier,” Spike finally said. “In Sunnydale, I spent a lot of energy tryin’ to suss out how best not to brass you off. Or how best to do it, depending on how bitchy you’d been to me lately. In LA, all I gotta do is look out for myself. Got a flat, got a way to annoy Angel on a daily basis, got some people who don’t make me feel like something they just scraped off their shoe. It’s just…different.”

It was as much as he was going to say. The silence that fell between them was heavy.

“I miss you, you know.” Buffy toyed with the duvet, pleating it between her fingers before letting it go and starting again. “I mean, life’s been good, except for the whole reliving the mistakes of my past part, but…when I saw you – well, not you, the other you – it just drove it all home. I know what you mean by easier. Because it was easier for me to just go on, day by day. Dealing with Dawn. The slaying stuff. And when I’d dream about you, it hurt, yeah, but I figured I could deal with it. I had to. What other choice did I have? Then I saw you again.” She looked up. “You you, not the other you.”

“And? What am I s’posed to do with that, pet?”

With a sigh, Spike came in and sprawled in the chair next to the bed, picking at his nails. At least he wasn’t ready to walk out any more, Buffy thought.

“Would you have stuck around?” he asked. “If you hadn’t been in danger here and we couldn’t find a way to bring you back. Would you have wanted to try and make a life for yourself there?”

She had asked that question herself, so many times over the past twenty-four hours. It seemed weird hearing Spike voice it.

“I thought about it,” she confessed. “If that’s what I had to do, if I didn’t have other choices, then yeah, I would have figured something out.”

“Because of him?”

“Because I wouldn’t have another choice,” Buffy repeated.

“But him,” Spike pressed. “He would have been a part of that choice.”

“You want me to say I would prefer a life where you’re alive to one where you’re not? Yeah, Spike. I would. I told you that.”

“I’m alive here.”

“And I didn’t know that, did I? And it didn’t take me long after I did find out to figure out that it wouldn’t be the same.”

“But you had to think about it.”

Buffy threw her hands up in frustration and plopped back onto her pillow. “Jesus, Spike! You show up when I thought you were dead, and you expect me to be able to roll with that without blinking an eye? I’m sorry I needed more than five seconds to adjust to a walking, talking Spike instead of a big pile of dust at the bottom of the Sunnydale crater.”

Spike’s mouth tightened as he glared at her, the muscles twitching in his jaw. “He was only tryin’ to get into your pants, you know.”

“And that was different from you in the beginning how?”

He snorted in amusement, though he quickly scowled to cover it up. They lapsed into silence again, each lost in their own thoughts, though this time, Buffy didn’t think it was quite as bad as the last.

“You wanna know what the appeal was?” she asked. She didn’t wait for a response. “Other than the obvious that it was you and you’ve always pushed my buttons. It was seeing how trapped he was. It was seeing him take this really shitty hand he’d been dealt and making a life for himself, a life you would be proud of. He could have run away, or he could have hooked up with Adam, or he could have done almost anything else to survive. He didn’t.”

“You were proud of him.”

“I was. The same way I was proud of what you’d done. What you did that entire last year. How you stuck with us when you didn’t have to.” Pushing back the blankets, Buffy swung her legs over the edge of the bed so that she could face him directly. “I know you don’t believe me, but I meant what I said in the Hellmouth. And I still do.” She swallowed. “I love you, Spike.”

He lifted his gaze to meet hers, and for the first time since seeing him here, in the world of her creation, Buffy got a glimpse of something she had thought was long gone for her. They were the same powerful emotions that had terrified her so much those months after she came back from the dead, love and hope and admiration and lust all rolled up into one Spike-shaped package.

“So what does this mean?” His voice was subdued, his earlier anger gone. “You goin’ back to Rome?”

The corner of her mouth lifted. “Have to. I kind of left Dawn there. With Andrew in charge. I fear for her mental health.” When his eyes ducked again, she reached forward and rested a hand on his knee, fighting to keep it chaste. He felt solid and familiar and hers. “That doesn’t mean I have to stay there. I have to see Dawn through the rest of the school year, but maybe it’s time we think about going home. My Italian really sucks.”

Slowly, his hand slid forward until it covered hers. “Can’t keep you fitted in the same kind of shoes your ex can, you know,” he commented.

“That’s what absentee father guilt is for.” Lacing her fingers through his, Buffy pulled him as she scooted back on the bed, forcing Spike to come up on the mattress with her. Before he could pull away, she pressed her mouth to his in a soft, lingering kiss. “We can sort out the details later,” she said when they parted. “Right now, I just want to be silly and revel in the whole alive thing you’ve got going.”

“Nothin’ wrong with a bit of revelry.”

His eyes burned as they bored into hers. Then his mouth was back, his kiss hard and hungry, his hands tugging her against him. She didn’t resist, couldn’t resist, melting into Spike as she’d wanted for so long, and knew more certainly than she’d known anything in the past twenty-fours that this was right, no matter how hard it was going to be.

“I love you,” she breathed again as he pressed her back into the mattress.

Spike paused for a moment, pulling back to search her face. His mouth softened, almost smiling, as he brushed back a strand of hair from her cheek. “I know.”

That was all she needed to hear.

*************

Angel stood in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, staring at the tableau in front of him. The reactions at finding them like this ran rampant through his veins, hot and angry and hurt, but his features remained stoic. He didn’t even move when Wesley came up behind him.

“Giles has asked whether or not we’ll be spending the night,” he murmured. “What do you want me to tell him?”

Angel hadn’t considered it. As soon as they’d returned to the house, he’d taken the stairs two at a time to find out what the hell had happened. He still hadn’t been able to tear himself away from the sight of Buffy and Spike asleep and spooning, Spike’s arm curled protectively around Buffy’s waist. At least it looked like they were still dressed.

“I suppose we should get back to LA,” he said quietly. “Hamilton is going to be waiting, and I’d prefer not dragging Giles any further into this mess than I already have.”

“What about Spike?”

“What about him?”

“Should I make…accommodation for him?”

Angel sighed. “I think Spike’s working on figuring out his own accommodations.” Reaching forward, he grasped the knob, pulling the door shut slowly, never taking his eyes from the sleeping couple. “Tell Giles we’ll be getting out of his hair. He’d probably rather talk with you than me anyway.”

For some reason, it was impossible to let go of the knob, though he knew he had to leave. He heard every beat of Buffy’s heart, how slow and even it was, how deeply she was sleeping, and every once in awhile, he’d catch a soft sigh. Those hurt the most. Because they weren’t all Buffy’s.

“Are you all right?” Wes asked.

“Not really.”

“You don’t want to stay so you can talk to Buffy? I’m sure her story is going to be fascinating.”

He did. He wanted to do more than talk. And her story would be a good one. But…

“She’s made her choice.” He released the knob and turned around. Wes stepped out of his way as he headed for the stairs, but at the top, Angel stopped. “On second thought, let’s stick around until tomorrow. Just in case.”

“Of course,” Wes murmured.

Angel resumed his path. He heard Buffy’s breathing all the way down the stairs.

*************

He stood still in the doorway, Tara bustling around to clear the debris from the bed. The room was a disaster, but it wasn’t that that made Spike hesitate. It was the scent of blood in the air, sharper than he remembered it being before, more alive. Not his, not Finn’s, and not Adam’s.

It was the Slayer’s.

Tara prattled on about the immediate high after the spell, how she still couldn’t believe that Adam was dead, about what they would do tomorrow to rally the others hiding away. It was important, Spike knew, but somehow, he couldn’t concentrate on her words, too distracted with his own thoughts to focus on hers.

She yawned, then giggled in embarrassment. “I guess Giles and Joyce aren’t the only ones wiped out from the spell,” she said. Her eyes were tired as she turned to Spike, her smile inviting. There was no resisting smiling in kind. “How about we call it a night? We can do the clean-up in the morning.”

Without a word, Spike sauntered toward her, grasping her upper arms and pulling her to him. Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he held Tara there for a long moment, absorbing her softness, taking comfort in her heat. “You rest,” he said when he finally let her go. “I need a smoke. I won’t be gone long.”

He felt her gaze on him as he gathered his cigarettes and lighter, but she didn’t speak until he reached the doorway again. “It’s OK to wish she was here to celebrate with us, you know.”

His step faltered, his fingers tightening around his lighter. “I won’t be long,” Spike repeated, and left before Tara could say another word.

He found himself in the blown-out cafeteria, leaning against the wall and staring up into the night sky. There were still faint traces of her scent up here, and he knew that if he went into the cooler, he’d probably be hard within seconds. But it was more tolerable, at least, less disturbing. And the night air gave his jumbled thoughts clarity.

Smoke curled around his head as he exhaled. There was chaos in the town tonight, Adam’s boys lost without their leader. It would take time to bring order back to everything, and the fight wouldn’t be easy. But it was possible, which was all that mattered.

If he stuck around for it. With the chip gone, Spike had his options back. He didn’t need to rely on the others for his livelihood any more. No more begging for table scraps. No more chains caging him like a rabid dog.

Only the bonds of family.

Dropping the cigarette, he ground out the red tip under the heel of his boot. Choosing to stay would be hard. There weren’t good chances of success. He might get dusted before seeing anything come to fruition.

There was a time when you would’ve been the first to pick up a sword and fight with me.

Spike smiled, her voice still filling his head. He might get dusted, but it would be one hell of a scrap.

As he turned to go back to his room, he caught sight of the freezer door and hesitated. “Here’s to fresh starts, Buffy,” he murmured before descending the stairs.

He didn’t look back.

THE END