Beggar's Banquet II

In the basement Spike can hear everything in the house if he tries. The kitchen is closest and it should be the easiest room to hear people in, but the ductwork carries sound through metal to the basement, tinny and distorted, and in the kitchen people are moving, making sounds to compete with voices. He could hear the bathroom sounds. They are loudest of all, to the accompaniment of water passing through the refitted pipes that Buffy struggled to pay for last year. But his formative years were spent in an age where privacy was mostly a carefully maintained illusion. A conspiracy of silence. His mind was trained to ignore these things.

Her voice is unmistakable. It makes muscles under his skin jump when he hears it. That's his wake-up call. He rolls out of his cot and starts getting dressed in the freshly-laundered clothes that someone on washer duty left folded on the foot of his bed. He can tell by the scent that it was the English girl. There's no fabric softener smell to the clothes. She told him once that the smell of Downey and Bounce made her feel sick to her stomach.

People tell him things like that. He's not sure why.

His clothes from yesterday are on the floor and he picks up his jeans to unthread his belt. Dropping it on the bed, he goes through his pockets. There are a few crumpled bills, the receipt from the motel, and some change in one pocket. In the other, he finds the crystal. It isn't broken or re-usable according to Willow. He takes it out and feels the edges of it. The whiny girl makes jewelry and he briefly considers asking her to make something out of it, before slipping it into his pocket, dropping the jeans and smoothing his t-shirt down over his hips.

Then it's just a matter of fastening his jeans and threading the belt through the loops before he's finished dressing. There is a familiar stab of nervousness that makes him hesitate, running his hand over his hair to make sure there aren't odd bits standing up. He smokes, stalling a bit longer, and then he makes his way up the stairs into the kitchen only briefly, willing to evade notice.

He walks down the hall to the front of the house, drawn by her voice. She sounds tentative. He doesn't know what she is talking about, but it's not about the fight or training. That's a completely different voice, one that almost makes him want to roll his eyes at times, but it works. It's believable.

Xander is just inside the open arch to the living room. He's not quite leaning against the wall, but his hand is resting on the wood trim. Beyond him, Buffy is sitting on the arm of the couch, where she can swivel back and forth between Xander and Willow, who is on the couch and folding clothes.

Xander, Buffy, Willow. Over the years there were other people who made it into the pictures that are scattered around the house, but Xander, Buffy, and Willow are the points of reference. He knows that it is unusual for them to get any moment alone like this, and his presence will end the moment, rendering it awkward. They are talking, he realizes, about dating. About dates. Xander has one and he is trying, gamely, to look pleased about it, but he's still gun shy, post-Anya with a dash of always-Buffy. Buffy has a date, too. Spike schools his features into a mask of indifference while she shrugs and says in a voice that is almost girlish, a voice that makes him nostalgic for her teen years even if he wanted her dead then, even when it is directed at him, “It's just a date. A dinner date. No big. It might not be a date-date. It might be a work date.”

Willow's voice is deeper, smoothed out by contentment. “What are you going to wear?” She feeds Buffy a question that would appeal more to Buffy than to Willow.

“I don't know. What do you wear to the ambiguous date-date that might be a work-date?” she asked.

Willow shrugged. “I'm not the girl to ask. I'm date-less,” she pointed out, and then reached out to touch Buffy's hand when she started to say something reassuring. “It's okay.”

Willow's hair is loose today, falling on either side of her face in faded waves. It had never occurred to him that she colored her hair until she stopped and it went back to something between red and brown with some blond in there too. It was prettier and shinier when it was dark auburn, but it is beautiful like this. She's leaning forward, her face tilted up, and he is looking at her instead of Buffy when Buffy registers his presence. His name is a silky, startled yelp. He's heard it a million times before.

It draws a slight smile.

Harris visibly flinches. They've reached a rapprochement of mutual loathing that is based on their flawed understanding of each other. They are both very comfortable with the notion that they are never going to see each other past the roles that they have assigned each other. The two girls on the couch will never quite get it that this is the way Xander and Spike want things to stand.

Going for distraction from the potentially awkward moment that has arrived, Willow picks up a folded towel and presents it for inspection. “Look. We have clean towels,” she told him.

“Er—right, then,” his eyebrow lifted at the lame distraction maneuver. “Sounds like the others have plans tonight. Are you up for a little tripping over things on patrol tonight?”

“Only if there is non-generic ice cream involved,” she cast an apologetic look at Buffy and Xander. “I get the saving money thing, but generic ice cream? I'm all about saving the world, for Ben and Jerry's.”

“My little unemployed Willster,” Xander crooned. “You big mooch.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Point taken,” she allowed with the good grace of someone who knew that they were getting premium ice cream via a weekend fuck date.

Which wasn't going to come up. Xander's casual hate would take a decidedly uncasual turn if he had any idea of what was going on between Willow and Spike. What had been going on for nearly a month, and would probably go on a bit longer yet. He can feel the crystal in his pocket, floating harmlessly at the bottom of a linty pocket. He resented Buffy for keeping him a secret, but he knew exactly how he felt about her and he isn't so sure of Willow, so the weight of being a secret is almost pleasant, but not comforting. He thinks that it is the lack of shame attached to it, making whatever it is they have been doing less a secret than something private. Willow has picked up another towel to fold. He lets his gaze slip to the floor before anyone notices that he is paying an unwarranted amount of attention to her.

The uneasy silence that he anticipated has arrived and it settles around them with the scent of laundry detergent that clings to the basket of clean towels. It reminded Spike too much of last year. Buffy got off the couch, brushing past him to go up the stairs. He watched her go before he realized that his shift in attention from the floor to the staircase was being marked and measured by the two people left in the living room. Xander looked like he was going to say something. Willow looked like she wished he wouldn't.

Spike nodded to the pile of laundry. “When you are done with that, find me?”

“Hey! There's a shortcut through here to ice cream,” Willow said, giving him a sideways look.

They had just entered Calvin Cemetery. It was the smallest and least active of Sunnydale's seventeen cemeteries and Spike had paused inside the gates, willing to give it a pass until Willow stumbled into him.

She held onto his coat for a second to steady herself and then stepped back.

He worked his way through places that would have ice cream that she'd be willing to eat, and then frowned. “No, there isn't,” he disputed.

She linked arms with him. “Sure, there is,” she insisted, pulling him along with her. "I think it's over there, behind that monument,” she gestured vaguely in the direction of a World War I memorial obelisk dedicated by the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Sunnydale. It had a rather lovely inscription on it. ‘Called unknowing they went to the very gates of hell and shed the bonds of this surly realm for the Kingdom of God.'

It was a horrible war, more shocking, and more savage in its way than the Second World War. Dru had been fascinated by it. The sheer scale of the carnage. The savagery of unimaginable weapons. They spent the war years flitting around Europe. WW II wasn't as much fun for her. By then the airplane had become an imprecise and undiscriminating projection of threat. Falling bombs obliterated people and buildings and demons. Drusilla liked her killing up close and personal.

They skirted the monument and Willow paused, looking around as if she was trying to get her bearings. “It's around here, somewhere,” she said, casting him another sideways look.

She was checking to see if he was buying her shortcut story. He played along. “If we miss it, I can boost you over the fence.”

She was wearing what he thought of as one of her retro-hippy witch outfits, a longish smock of a dress with a handkerchief hem and sleeves that belled out below her elbows. It was part of her Tara era wardrobe that he thought she had packed away. The vegetable dye that had been used wasn't colorfast and it smelled. Her concession to patrolling was to put on a pair of orange sneakers. Her pink knee socks were a little saggy, bunching dispiritedly around one ankle.

He couldn't help but smile. She was relentless. Turning on the geek charm for him tonight. He might have missed it, but the pink socks were the tip off. Not even Willow's color sense was that impaired.

Buffy was on a date. He had made a point of casually running into her in the hallway outside her bedroom. He had a speech. It wasn't a long-winded, motivate-the troops-Buffy-style speech. It was short, heartfelt, and so cool that he wanted to heave. The whole time that they had been standing there he had been aware of Willow's not–quite-closed door. Kennedy was in there. He could hear her badgering Willow with questions about her magic.

It was hard to decide which conversation was more loaded with subtext, his take on the Scoobies slightly defensive ‘no big' or Kennedy's transparent efforts to command Willow's attention.

He was still in the hall when Kennedy came out, pausing to eye him with a smirk. “This place is like a soap opera,” she said.

He considered, briefly, wiping the smirk off her face by telling her that he had fucked her wanna-be girlfriend's brains out. An instinct for self-preservation—pissed-off witch, and insane carpenter—made him bite back the retort.

“You don't know the half of it,” he said instead, which was true.

Clearly Willow had heard his conversation with Buffy and was determined to be distracting company.

He slipped his hand in his pocket and curled his fingers around his crystal. When they woke up, things were back to normal. More or less. If she had seemed interested in a snog, he was pretty sure that he would have gone for it, but she got up, took a shower, and got dressed, sitting cross-legged on the bed while she detangled her hair, first with her fingers, then with a brush. He took a shower. When he came out, she was going through the unused contents of the brown paper bag.

He thought that it was a good time to apologize, but she had looked up at him and she didn't seem unhappy or sad, just thoughtful and a little curious. He had laid his hand along the curve of her cheek instead and asked her if he could walk her home.

It still amazed him that no one noticed that they were gone for a night and that she had come home with her mouth kiss-swollen.

The idea of her sneaker-shod foot and bubblegum-pink-swathed ankle dangling over his shoulder had a certain perverted appeal. She was bringing him to a crypt that he half recognized as one that he had considered and rejected in his search for the perfect crypt.

“There's no ice cream in there,” he told her.

She looked at him over her shoulder, blinking owlishly. “Access tunnel, silly,” she said with a small, smug smile. “Where on earth did you think I was taking you?”

He grinned. “Thought you were leading me down the primrose path, pet,” he told her.

“That's how I met my first vampire,” she told him. “Buffy was all ‘seize the day', and he knew a ‘short-cut'” she air-quoted, “through the cemetery. And I was worried that he'd want to kiss me.”

“Vamp?” Spike guessed.

“Uh huh,” she nodded. “I got my demon magnet street cred.”

He knew this story. He knew all of their stories. When he was falling in love with Buffy, he had been taking notes. She had dusted two vampires that night and gotten into a fight with Luke and Darla. Willow had been cast in the role of hapless victim.

He jiggled his arm to loosen the linked arm hold she had on him and caught her hand before she could put a little more space between them. “Did he kiss you?”

He had an idea of what she would have looked like. Her face was leaner, more elegant now. She would have been soft with lingering baby fat, her brown eyelashes beating like moth's wings as she waited to be kissed.

Her nose wrinkled. “No. I'm not even sure he was going to eat me. I think I was supposed to be a snack for the Master.”

She had a whole theory on that based on meeting herself as a vampire. Out of the four or five vampires that she had any kind of contact with she had been deemed vamp worthy by at least two of them. Her hand started to go to the nearly invisible scar on her throat that Harmony had left her with, but it was attached to Spike. The hand movement didn't go unnoticed and he looked at her curiously.

He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb. “Hated him with a bloody passion,” he smiled a little. “We were Darla's bastard step-children.”

“Do you ever worry that someday you'll be old like that and you'll change?”

His eyes narrowed. “I never expected to die when I was mortal and I don't think about how long I'll un-live now that I'm dead.”

“Do you think that your soul was in heaven between when you died and when you got it back, or stuck in an in-between place because you were a vampire?”

He tugged the door to the crypt open and squeezed her hand briefly to let her know that he wanted her to stay back, behind him. It was just the kind of thing that made her want to snap off a show-off-y spell for light. Stupid vampire.

Then she remembered that using magic in order to impress and entertain was bad.

“Come on,” he tugged on her hand. “Where's this tunnel?” he sniffed, seeking a draft as he moved down the stairs.

She hung back. “In the back, behind that fancy grill thingy,” she rested one hand on his shoulder. “Spike?”


Her hand tightened on his shoulder and then relaxed. With a last careful look around, he turned back to her, and then remembered her question. “Definitely stuck in between,” he told her, because the absolutes of heaven and hell seemed to be reserved to Buffy and Angel. “Whether it had bugger all to do with being a vampire, I don't know. You didn't mention hell. That was a possibility, too.”

“Jewish,” she reminded him. “I don't believe in hell.”

He grasped her elbow, like she was an old lady, to help her down the stairs, letting his hand slip back down to loosely clasp hers. “Come on. Let's see where the tunnel takes us,” he said.

He wasn't sure if she was lying to him when she said that she didn't believe in hell. There had been a hint of denial ladled in there. She believed in it enough to bring Buffy back to life when she had been afraid that she was in hell, or a demon dimension, not that from her point of view there was much difference. Years ago, in the moment of feeling betrayed by the lack of trust, he hadn't put much stock in the notion that Willow had wanted Buffy back for any reason other than she couldn't deal with the fact that she was dead. At some point he had becoming a tiny bit more forgiving of that.

Inside the tunnel he found a torch that had been left there and used his lighter to get it burning again. It wasn't just for the light. There were pockets in the tunnels where the oxygen was dangerously low and an open flame burning yellow was a good sign that there was breathable air.

“Which way?” he prompted.

“Left,” she said, and then bumped into him as she went right.

“Your other left?”

“Anatomical left,” she put in. “I'm taking Anatomy and Physiology this semester. My left and right are all messed up.”

“Why Anatomy and Physiology?”

He thought it was an odd thing for her to study. He couldn't imagine what it was like for her to look at a diagram of a body with the skin removed, or to see a model of a heart without being reminded of what she had done and what she had lost.

“Before I was all veiny and destroy the world, but after I was all juiced up on dark magics, I went to the hospital for Buffy. Warren shot her too,” she reminded him. It was rendered a footnote in the Willow Destructo-rama that Andrew still got agitated about.

“Andrew thinks Molly Ringwald could play you in the movie,” he told her.

“Molly Ringwald? She's kind of old,” Willow was momentarily distracted.

“So, you went to the hospital?” he prompted.

“Oh, yeah,” she resumed her story. “And I was like, everyone, get out—in the operating room? With the lights flickering.”

There was a hint of amusement in her voice. She didn't mind the being bad so much as the not doing good aspect of it. He chewed on a bit of loose skin on his lower lip. This was a new part of the story, at least for him. No one had really explained Buffy's miraculous recovery from the gunshot wound, and he had just put it down to the Slayer package and wondered if it left a scar or if there would be any reason for him to see it.

“They scattered?” he guessed.

“Um, yeah,” she nodded, her head dropping a little. “Xander stayed. He was pretty freaked out, but he stayed.”

There was something that she wasn't saying, and he wondered what it was.

“I pulled the bullet out of her,” she said, “and I could see it. The torn blood vessels, the muscles, the pericardium, and the groove in the rib where the bullet had ricocheted. I could see it and how it all fit together,” her voice carried a hint of wonder. “I could do that—I don't mean the magical way,” she rushed into a clumsy and not completely convincing, denial. “Because, interfering with the natural order is wrong, but I could be a doctor, or maybe I could do research. I could help people.”

It was an odd thought. Buffy was a Slayer. He was a vampire. Harris had a job. He thought Dawn might grow up someday and have what passed for a normal life, despite the fact that there was nothing natural about how she had come into the world. He had never given much thought about Willow doing something. She was a work in progress, not a mundane person with a career.

“I haven't told anyone that I'm thinking about this,” she confided. “It's just an idea, and I need to study, and take the MCAT, and then there's medical school, and, hey, the world may end before I get that far, so—“

They were coming to a branch in the tunnel and he raised the torch to peer ahead. “I think you'd be good at anything that you really cared about,” he told her.

“Oh!” her breath left her in a soft rush. “Thanks.”

“Which way?” he asked. “Point.”

She lifted their joined hands to the right. “Dr. Willow Rosenberg,” he sounded it out. “That would please your parents, wouldn't it?”

“It's not a selling point,” she told him. “But, they'll pay for it,” she predicted. “Xander's right. I am a mooch.”

“I'm buying your ice cream?”

She let go of his hand to search her bag. It was a crocheted number that she had made herself during her rehab stint in England, and it was slung crossways over her chest to ride her hip. The lining had straps to hold stakes, and the first time she had tried out her quick draw technique she had yanked the stake she had inside the purse out, sending half the contents of the purse flying.

“There could be money in here,” she said, feeling around.

“There could be any number of things in there,” he got her hand back. “I brought money.”

“You think I'm a mooch,” she pouted as they neared what he recognized as the entrance to the tunnel on 5 th street, a few blocks shy of the Magic Shop.

“I don't think that you think very much about money,” he told her. It wasn't diplomacy. If she was interested in money, she would have found a way to find more of it for no other reason than money being very much in need.

She frowned at that. Her parents gave her the cash equivalent of a dormitory fee twice a year. It had crossed her mind to keep it in a bank account and save it when she and Tara moved into the Summers' home, but she used it for groceries, clothes, and magic supplies instead. She also had a credit card that her parents paid, but she didn't use it very often. It was supposed to be for emergencies, and the last time she had bought groceries with it, her father had called and lectured her about what constituted an emergency as opposed to poor planning.

She had given Buffy half of this semester's allowance up front, saving the rest for spending money. She had a good bit of it left. “I'll pay for the room next time,” she announced, feeling like it was the right thing to do. She looked up at Spike, catching a startled look on his face, and ground to a stop. “If there is a next time,” she put in.

“What?” He frowned at her. “Are you still on that? The way your mind works sometimes,” he scolded. “Don't make a thing out of it. It's not about fairness or politics or whatever, and you aren't paying for a room for us. If it was something for me, I wouldn't bother with getting a room.”

“Huh?” she did a double take. “The way my mind works? You wouldn't bother with getting a room?”

He smirked at the squeaky tone of disbelief. Whipping up a love spell and shagging him in a crappy motel was one thing, but illicit sex in a dark corner shocked her?. “Caught that? And here I was thinking that I was about to get a lecture on my patriarchal oppression of women, or some other load of crap.”

“Please. That's so 80s encounter group. I'm all about empowerment. Men doing things for you doesn't take anything away from you.”

“Very practical, love,” he patted himself down for a cigarette.

“But! If the room is for me—and I don't even want to go into the ick of that—then it is only fair—“

He made a sharp sound, shaking his head. “It's not about fair,” he insisted.

“It can be about fair,” she argued. “You don't get to just take fair off the table.”

He lit his cigarette and pocketed the lighter. “I think I did,” he nodded to the opening of the alley. “Come on. Ice cream?”

She started to reach for his hand and then realized that they weren't in the tunnel and it wasn't that dark and there really wasn't a good reason to hold hands as he maneuvered to her left side.

“Down wind,” he explained, exhaling smoke away from her as he took her hand.

“Oh,” she stepped back a little, looking at him, and then down at herself. “We don't go together very well.”

“Wanna-be hippy,” he summed up her look, and forestalled the predictable comeback with, “Nothing wanna-be about me.”

She rolled her eyes at that and they set out for the ice cream shop arguing about the authenticity of Willow's particular look. “I'm not trying to look like a hippy. My parents were hippies—sort of. Jewish college students at Berkeley. I've seen the pictures.”

“This was an accident? You accidentally put together this homage to hippy meets—your sneakers are orange. I missed the era of orange footwear. I don't even know what it belongs to.”

“They were on sale,” she defended her sneakers. “And they are very comfy and good for running away.”

“And if you are lost in the woods you don't have to worry about being accidentally shot by hunters,” he added.

"Hah! Very funny," she grumbled, trying to go for an arm swing of their joined hands that was checked by his finger's tightening on her hand and a highly skeptical look.

There was her curiosity, the nagging voice in her head that was stuck back on their conversation about money. Spike's poverty was an unsolved mystery. He didn't have a job or any conventional source of income, and that was pretty obvious, but at the same time he had money for cigarettes, alcohol, blood, and a cheap motel room on Saturday night. Where did that come from? Was there a souled vampire allowance that had been quietly worked out with Giles or Buffy? She couldn't see him taking money from Buffy. Giles, yes, especially if Giles found it annoying to provide it, but not Buffy.

"Do you have a nest egg?" she asked. "Like in the Anne Rice novels? The vampires have all this money stashed in Swiss bank accounts for generations, which makes sense if you know that you are going to live for a really, really long time. And Angel always seems to have money," she pointed out. "I thought about asking him about that, but he never answered when I asked him how he shaved—he just gave me that look."

Spike knew the look she was talking about and felt annoyed on her behalf. Even when he was evil and soulless and bitter about the chip, he thought the way Willow got excited about a new idea or a question was charming. It was too easy to make her feel uncomfortable about her enthusiasm. Angel would have noticed if he wasn't so bloody self-absorbed.

"Sorry to disappoint. There isn't a fabulous fortune stashed away," he hesitated. "You want to know how I get money?"

She cast an uncertain look at him, wondering if she had managed to offend him, then she remembered the whole business with Riley coming to town and Spike's role in that. At the time, she had just put it down to Spike being Spike, but in retrospect she understood that he had been trying to pull off a big score for a reason. It was odd how they missed that. Spike always had reasons for the things he did. "It's none of my business?" she guessed.

He waved the reprieve she offered off. "Surprised that no one ever asks," he admitted. "For all they know I'm out shaking down kids for their lunch money, or scaring people outside the Bronze with a bit of fang," a hint of a smirk appeared.

Willow's eyes got big. "No!" she breathed. "You don't!"

He shrugged. "Not anymore," he admitted. "Used to."

She thought about that for a moment and tried to suppress a grin at the mental image of Spike shaking down patrons of the Bronze, which was bad, and if she had ever caught him doing it back then, wouldn't have been so funny. "And now?" she ventured.

"Hmm," he sighed. "Bingo," he rubbed the back of his neck, looking slightly uncomfortable.

It sounded like a non-sequiter to her. Like, 'gotcha' or 'uh-huh', and she replayed It in her head. Bingo. "You mean 'Bingo', like church bingo?"

He nodded. "There's a bloke who has got this bingo operating thing going. He runs a clip of the cantina scene in Star Wars?" he looked over at her to see if she was following, "And the lights come up and there's a mad lot of demons working the room. Cash under the table. Clem's connected for stuff like that.."

She looked startled and then amused. "Oooh. I want to go."

He shook his head at her. "It's a very jaded crowd of bingo high rollers, pet. Very cut-throat. Scary. We mostly work the retirement homes."

For a second she decided that he was teasing her, but she didn't call him on it because . . . it was too much like accusing him of lying. He got enough of that from Giles and Xander.

Did he expect her to have an opinion? The defensiveness was something she identified with. She found herself doing it at times, sliding into excuses where none were required because she wasn't quite sure that anyone would ever trust her. That she would ever really trust herself.

"I really ought to get a job," she said, instead, changing the subject.

"Like, at a bookstore?" he suggested with a grin, thinking that she would end up owing the bookstore money.


"That's a great idea! Books! I know books. I could be all excited about the reading," she enthused.

Her voice had a lilt in it and she gave a little skip. The arm swing was back, but he didn't check it this time while she went on about helping people find books and having a reading hour. For a moment she was a little bit of everything sweet and uncomplicated that he had ever known her to be and there was a curious ache tightening his throat to see it. Imagining her sitting cross legged on a floor surrounded by little ones, reading a book with the same excitement and affection made him wonder if she ever realized that she made choices that put those things out of her reach.

He didn't trust magic, but if he could have found a spell that would have obliterated her memory, or taken her back in time to some point before everything went to hell, he would have been tempted to use it, and then maybe check in on her in a few years when she was grown up, content to watch from a safe distance while she pushed a baby in a stroller. She wasn't sturdy enough for this life. He thought if Tara had lived, she might have eventually steered Willow away from this, and the two of them would have made a nice little life for themselves, rescuing an orphan from a miserable corner of the world, making the world a better place one life at a time.

It was still possible. If they survived what was coming.

When they got to the ice cream shop Willow was ready to expound on cake cups versus waffle cones, but Spike's attention had drifted beyond the windows to the sidewalk across the street. She knew without being told, without looking, that Buffy was there. There was a part of her that wanted to tell him to look away. That was what she did when she saw Tara at school kissing another girl on the cheek. Look away. Run away.

But she didn't. He wasn't her, and he wouldn't look away. He didn't tell Buffy that he was okay with her dating because he was okay with her dating. He told her that because he didn't want her to feel bad that he wasn't okay with it. If he wanted the hurt of it, then she wasn't going to take it away from him. She waited, holding his hand, watching the lines in his face settle into something tired. She knew exactly when they were gone from view. A small indrawn breath told her, and then he was back, staring blankly at the selections as the breath escaped.

“Do you know what you want?”

She got the blackberry cordial with chocolate chips in a cake cone and a tiny spoon in case he wanted to taste it. The tiny spoon made him smile again. There were small tables outside under an awning. “Want to walk a bit?” he asked.


There was no hand holding due to ice cream, or maybe because they were in the main part of Sunnydale and might run into Anya or Xander or Buffy with Robin Wood. There wasn't a lot of talking, either, though Willow wanted to say something.

And then it came to her. She had been doing this for so long, she was surprised that she had forgotten her lines. “I'm prepared to hate that guy any way you want,” she told him.

Startled, he looked over at her. “Come again?”

“With a fiery vengeance even, except without the fire or anything magical and bad,” she offered. He was still Spike. Soul or not, it was better to be on the safe side.

“Why?” he tensed, stopping cold. “Is there something off about him? Is he dangerous?” he asked.

“Uh, no,” Willow stammered, a little taken aback by the change in him. “Just on general principles. You. Buffy. This worked a lot better when Riley showed up married,” she confessed, feeling like she had said something wrong, and wanting to fix it, “and I was all supportive best bud, ‘you can't hate her because it wouldn't be right, but I can'.”

He was looking at her like she had lost her mind. “What in the name of hell are you talking about? Why would I give a toss if you like Buffy's latest Dudley Do-Right? I thought you were meant to be her friend, and you're acting like you are on my side. I don't have a fucking side. I tried to rape her. I hurt her. I knew that she was in a bad way and I wanted to keep her there.”

The last part was shouted at her and she flinched away from him. The scoop of blackberry cordial she had been nibbling on landed at her feet with a soft wet sound.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I was just trying to be the supportive—“ she ground to a stop. If she said that she was his friend, he would deny it, and she didn't think she could stand to hear that, even if was true. Especially if it was true. When had that happened? When had Spike become someone who could say something unbearably hurtful to her?

He knew that she meant well. It was her special gift. He had her pegged when she was baking cookies and falling all over herself to apologize after the 'Will Be Done' spell-casting fiasco. They let her fuss and fall all over herself apologizing, but they weren't listening. She was sorry, but she knew she hadn't meant to do that, and that made a difference to her. She was sorry that they were mad. She was sorry that she had been made to look foolish and pathetic. He had just sat back and watched, moderately diverted by the floorshow.

“Stop apologizing for the wrong things,” he said. “Just stop it.”

She was trying to use the napkins that she had taken with the ice cream cone to mop up the mess on the sidewalk. Her purse skimmed the top of it as she bent down, leaving a smear of violet on her dress, and she made an exasperated sound.

“I can't seem to do anything right,” she observed.

There was no end to the hurt that he could inflict on them. Last year with Buffy. He had hit her, hurt her, intent on nothing but dragging her into the dark with him. The things he had said to her, the things he remembered saying to her, inflicted the most damage. There was a piece of him that was stuck in the bathroom, in the moment when he realized that he had crossed a line that could never be erased, but that was the easy place to get stuck. The real harm he had inflicted on Buffy, willfully, selfishly, came before that in every moment when he fed her sense of isolation and despair.

It would be so easy to hurt Willow. All he had to do was agree with her and throw a bit of the contempt that she had inspired on more than one occasion into it, and she would be crushed. He clenched his fists at his side and looked up at the night sky, all soul-having and still, it was there. If he opened his mouth he would obliterate her.

She didn't have anywhere to put the remains of her ice cream cone. She looked for a garbage can and spotted one across the street. Spike was just looking at the sky, a muscle in his cheek twitching steadily. She carried the mess across the street and dumped it in the garbage can after wrestling with the lid. Her hands were sticky with ice cream and she wiped them off on her dress with a grimace, looking at the vampire across the street.

She took a deep breath. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't sure what she was going to do. He thought he had issues about last year and Buffy? Well, she had issues too. Things happened and she hadn't been told. He might have done something terrible to Buffy. Xander and Dawn thought so, but Buffy had done something terrible to him. It was all there in the silence, not because it was a private thing that Buffy was keeping sacred, but because it was an awful thing that Buffy wouldn't admit she did.

Her sense of grievance at the injustice of that had no voice. Maybe if she hadn't gone crazy last year they might have talked about it, she might have been able to explain that she was hurt and angry at how bad Buffy made her feel when what Buffy had been doing had been pretty reprehensible too. What she said and did after Tara died made it impossible to talk about a lot of things.

There was something like an unused muscle that twitched, reminding her of how easy it would be to confirm her guesses. It was so closely related to the still point of meditation that she could feel it, pebbling her skin with gooseflesh, making her forget her sticky hands. She could close her eyes to the manifest world and open them again inside his head, inside Buffy's, and she could see everything they knew about each other. Maybe if she understood it, she could exorcise the anger that she felt she had no right to feel.

Her fingers cramped with the temptation to act on that impulse, and she tried to wipe her hands, sticky with melted ice cream, off on her dress, stumbling back against the side of a building with surprising force. She could feel brick, ground into her back, tearing her skin, and the pain was like an itch that demanded to be scratched harder. For a confused moment she wasn't sure whose pain it was. Hers, Spike's or Buffy's. She was a thought, a treacherous, tempting thought away from confirming a theory she had.

It was just a thought. She slammed her head back against the wall. It didn't hurt nearly as bad as knowing that she had thoughts that could not be trusted. Her stomach heaved and she tasted bile, gathering at the back of her throat.

She was going to go home.

He watched her get herself together and start walking in the same direction they had been heading in on the opposite side of the street. It was hard to imagine anything lurking in Sunnydale that might be a danger to her. The ozone stench of magic reached him, and a bitter smile twisted his lips. He watched her cross one street, and then the next and he knew that she would turn at the corner and he'd lose sight of her. With a spare shake of his head he turned the other way to take the tunnel back.

He beat her back to the house, which made him uneasy even as he irritably brushed off Dawn's questions. She called Willow's cell phone and from the side of the conversation that he heard, it sounded like she had stopped at the Magic Box and was getting a ride home with Anya.

He didn't see Willow again for several days and no one noticed that they were avoiding each other just like they didn't notice anything else.

Five days of the week they had nothing to do with each other, and on the sixth day? On the sixth day, Robin Wood tried to kill him with Giles' help, and Willow was in Los Angeles on some mystery mission for the Poof. When he thought about it, he could see how it was probably for the best.

When he watches Kennedy try to wind herself around Willow, it isn't jealousy or even anger that he feels. It is closer to exasperation and a little contempt, because he knows that she'll chose badly again. She will chain herself to this life that she can't endure without carrying the scars of it, and he hates her a little bit for that. He can't see himself in mirrors, but he can see himself in her, making the same stupid mistakes.

A second week flew by. There was a moment, just a little sliver of a moment near the end of everything, when he woke up on his cot and heard someone moving around in the kitchen, and he ran his hand over Buffy's hair. He knew every sound the house made. He knew the sound of voices, or footfalls, of Willow's bare feet on the tile floor of the kitchen. For the second night in a row he was sleeping in the arms of the love of his life, and nothing was settled and he was jealous of every thought that pulled him away from her.

There was just this feeling that he couldn't escape that Buffy was a choice reserved for endings, and that he wasn't ready to come to an end.

But he couldn't leave Willow alone either. He woke Buffy up. She was awake instantly at the sound of her name near her ear.

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Willow is in the kitchen.”

She scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, like a sleepy child. “Yeah?” He could see her thinking about it. Willow was in the kitchen. She had a big day ahead of her. Everything depended on Willow. “I better go see what's got her up.”

She untangled herself from him, stretching as she sat briefly, gathering herself, and then she was up. He caught her around the waist. “Actually,” he held her, hands splayed over her hips. “I have a bit of air-clearing to do first,” he told her. “I said some things that I shouldn't have.”

Buffy thought he was talking about the night he had come home and found her gone. She had heard a version of it from Faith's point of view, confirmed by more broken furniture. She let her hands rest on his for a moment, feeling like she was waking up. Not in the bad way that she had when he was the only one who made her feel anything after she crawled out of her grave. It was something different. Softer. Like the smell of cookies baking.

He went upstairs without her, finding Willow at the counter with a cookie sheet. He raised an eyebrow at the oven, which was on when the power was out. “Clearing your throat for tomorrow?”

She looked up from what she was doing. “Something like that. I couldn't sleep and cookies, for breakfast,” she tried to sound plucky and brave and she succeeded.

She couldn't sleep. The world was going to end tomorrow and she had a new girlfriend. It was tempting to think that Spike was a kind of test that she had passed. He was the morally ambiguous choice that she had rejected, not because she wasn't sneaking off to have sex with him under the influence of a love spell that was a masterpiece of restraint and control, but because she hadn't succumbed to the terrible temptation to interfere with him, to understand why and what hurt him so.

She could love Kennedy. She already did, a little bit, and the rest was an act of will. She had been deeply, passionately in love since she was twelve. Xander. Oz. Tara. She was grateful to know now that she still loved them even after she had fallen out of being in love with loving each of them. It was a different muscle that flexed now, that kept her up late, baking cookies for the comfort of the smell that filled the kitchen. She knew that she could be in love with being in love with Kennedy, and she wanted to. Wanted it more than anything.

It would have been easier and kinder to go marching off to the end of the world without knowing that about herself.

She occupied herself forming balls of dough between her hands, rolling them smooth, and setting them down in neat rows. Trying to unstick the words that were crammed too tight in her throat. She owed him something. She wanted him to know that she had figured out something about herself and it had something to do with him, or he had helped nudge her in that direction, but the memory of their last conversation was there and she was afraid that he wouldn't understand.

If she told him that she loved him too, without being in love with the idea of it, he would probably roll his eyes and tell her that her problem was that she loved everyone. Feeling her eyes start to sting, she gave herself a moment to shove that thought somewhere safe.

He walked over to the counter as she added a second cookie sheet to the oven and boosted himself up to sit on it. He really wasn't sure how to begin. She apologized too much and for the wrong things. He didn't do it enough, for anything. He picked up the mixing bowl and pinched a bit of the dough she had made up.

“Did you do this yourself or is someone somewhere thinking they've misplaced a bowl of cookie dough?"

“Myself,” she said. Her voice sounded odd, a little husky, and sulky, like she was holding something back. She was defensive about her use of magic. He didn't have to look at her to know that she was pouting about it.

He looked anyway, and she wasn't pouting. She was biting her lower lip so hard that he thought that she would draw blood and her chin was wobbling. Buffy cried so well that he could almost want a picture of it to admire. Her eyes would get big and dark and a fat, perfect tear would swell over her lower lid. Willow was a disaster. He had tied her up because he wanted to see her come apart, and now he got his wish. He couldn't get the bowl back to the counter fast enough.

He held her, his back to the kitchen island. She was wearing downy soft flannel pajamas and she smelled like cheap soap and cookies. He rocked her in his arms while she made gulping sounds behind her hand and he told her that he was sorry.

He wasn't specific. He didn't need to be. He was sorry, for all of it. He was sorry that she had done the best she could and that Buffy managed to do things better. He was sorry that Buffy and Xander would never be the same for her and that someone she loved was bound to die tomorrow. He was sorry because there was nothing to be done about it.

The cookies were starting to burn and he picked her up and started to turn off the oven before he realized that it wasn't exactly on in the first place. Sitting her on the end of the island counter, he wiped away her tears as best he could and grabbed the kitchen mitt to rescue her baked goods and find a tissue for her. He settled for a paper towel and leaned against the counter, with the pointed edge digging into his hip as he held her against his chest, tucked under his chin.

“I think we're meant to tell each other what we meant to each other. Isn't how you face impending doom?”

“It's bad luck,” she said, so softly that he might have missed it.

He kissed the top of her head. “Not a Scooby. Different set of rules,” he closed his eyes. “I slept in the arms of someone I loved, with you.”

A sob escaped her. She sniffed before she remembered the paper towel, and blew her nose.

“Very elegant,” he said dryly.

A waterlogged laugh was his answer. He rocked her, the stroke of his hand on her hair gently bringing her head to rest on his shoulder.

“It wasn't real, Spike,” she disagreed. “It was magic.”

“It was real to me,” he found that it was true. “You're real to me.”

He reached into his pocket and found the crystal. No trace of color clung to it. Translucent, it gleamed in the spare light.

“You're my sixth day," he smiled wryly. "Nothing at rest with you, yeah?" He ducked his head to see if she understood. "We got there together, didn't we? To someplace quiet and . . ."

Her shoulders moved with her small nod and a few more tears slipped over her wet cheeks while she blotted her drippy nose with the paper towel.

"Missed a few. Regret that more than I can ever say." It was, he thought, something to say, not unlike the awkward but genuine feeling he had tried to stumble through with Anya after they had found a few precious seconds of comfort in each other. It was true, though. He had missed her, and again it loomed in his mind, like a huge fucking cosmic joke. He had missed her, from the first moment he saw her, through what was possibly the last week of his life. She wasn't a solution, not any more than Buffy was.

She blew her nose again, scrubbing it raw with the rough paper towel before she looked up at him, tilting her head back. She looked puzzled and uncertain.

It made him feel sad for her. The way she needed the most obvious things spelled out because she didn't dare rely on her judgment. "I'm always here,” he promised, aware that it was going to cost him something in the end.

At some point, Buffy had come up the stairs, and was standing somewhere behind them, holding on to the doorknob as the ground shifted under her.

She winced when she heard Willow say her name like it was a reminder and a question, and watched as Spike lifted his head, turning it when he saw her there. “I love Buffy,” he said, his lips twisting in a bittersweet smile. “You don't cancel each other.”

Unaware that Buffy was watching them, Willow wiped her nose again. “The way your mind works,” she tried to joke. “Doesn't it get confusing?”

He lifted her face in his hands, his attention returning to her without entirely shutting Buffy out. “Do I seem confused?'

They didn't say the words, not when the spell held them. It was just too much. There are kinds of happiness that feel like rubbing alcohol poured over your heart.

“We're beggars,” she said.


Some small sound slipped from Buffy. She was crying too. With her hand over her mouth and her eyes opened wide.

For a moment he was caught there, between the love of his life and the girl who gave him love because she needed it, but Willow turned, looking over her shoulder at Buffy. One hand on his shoulder, maybe for balance, or maybe because she knew what she was doing as she held the other hand out for Buffy.

“We aren't alone,” she told her.

She didn't know what she was supposed to say. Yelping ‘Spike!' then ‘Willow!' would have made more sense than just standing there trying to wrap her mind around the idea of Spike and Willow.

“You made cookies,” she blurted out instead.

Willow pouted. “They are extra done,” she noted.

Spike kissed the corner of her mouth. “They're burnt to a crisp,” he corrected.

Buffy looked at him, feeling confused. Was he moving on? Because she wasn't ready to move with him or beyond him. Was that what was happening? When he said he loved her that it wasn't about wanting her, was it because he wanted Willow?

The world was going to end tomorrow and this couldn't have waited?

“There's cookie dough,” he said. “And water,” Andrew and Anya had brought home cases of bottled water.

“We could go out on the porch,” Buffy suggested. She was waking up. “Are you okay?” she asked Willow, not because she had the biggest part of what had to be done, but because she was Willow and Buffy needed her to be okay even if she didn't understand what was going on.

She bit her lip again, eyes filling, but she nodded.

Spike pinched her chin. “Stop that. You are going to draw blood,” he told her.

“Xander and Anya are on the porch,” Willow said.

“I've got an idea,” Spike announced. “Go put some shoes on. We'll go for a walk.”

They went to see Joyce and Tara, walking through empty streets until it occurred to Buffy that there was no reason not to walk through the yards too. There were so many questions that Buffy wanted to ask Spike or Willow, but not both of them. Willow was eating the burnt cookies and Spike was asking her if she was enjoying strolling around in her pajamas since Willow had simply slipped on a pair of clogs.

“As a matter of fact, I am. I may go to the apocalypse in my jammies,” Willow announced.

After they stopped at Joyce's grave, Willow walked on to Tara and Spike kept an eye on her, but he stayed back.

The why and how really didn't matter. “You should be with her tonight,” Buffy said, and then was horrified to realize that she hoped that he would deny it.

He shook his head. “It's not like that. She's not an afterthought.”

“Then what is she?”

He counted the days off in his head. “She's the day after tomorrow.” He regretted it as soon as he said it and started to pat himself down for a cigarette while he tamped down his impatience with the questions that he didn't have a good answer for. She had some fucking gall. Angel? There was a little more than wishful thinking unresolved there, but he wasn't prodding her to set that aside. What he said about Willow was too glib, and too trite, and he didn't know. He couldn't explain it. It wasn't like either of them gave him any reason to feel happy.

Buffy watched him find a cigarette and light it. Was it a metaphor? She could appreciate Angel's frustration with her cookie analogy. She needed to understand what this meant and Spike was being cryptic. Or maybe it was a sign? Maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. They could love each other and not be in love. She tested the idea in her head. She did love him, and she had held it from him like it was something he could never earn. Or something she could never be worthy of. She wasn't like him. She didn't love like that. She didn't want to.

Willow did. Willow could. Willow fell in love with everyone who loved her. She asked for so very little before she gave herself over. She expected the same and was almost always disappointed.

"You'll have to chose," she warned him even as it occurred to her that she might disappoint Spike but that he might not disappoint Willow.

His eyes closed. The soul had aged him, subtly. It had robbed him of some of the boyish beauty that he had used so effortlessly to beguile. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there when she first met outside the Bronze. It was odd to think that he had existed for over a hundred years in stasis until he had come to Sunnydale, and that he was changed, and that she was a part of what had changed him. For better or worse.

It made Buffy feel like she was a finishing school for the men in her life. Angel, Riley, and now Spike. All changed, and when she was almost ready to embrace what that meant, they walked out of her life.

He wanted to tell her that he didn't have to do anything, or that she had to choose, or even that she might not like his choices. The similarities between Willow and Dru were obvious to him, but at moments like this, Buffy reminded him of the worst of what he always suspected about Dru. That he was just a resting place for her, completely on her terms, and that the moment Angel crooked his little finger in her direction, she would be off and running. For a woman who struggled for any shred of sanity that was one point upon which she had been remarkably consistent in the end. He struggled to remember that they were, none of them, the same.

Something like contrition flashed in her eyes. A small frown pinched her eyebrows together as she looked away, her eyes restlessly scanning, unselfconsciously picking over the silent cemetery.

"I didn't mean to make it sound like it was simple," she said after a moment, and there was a hint of a question in it.

He acknowledged it with a nod. "Good, because it's not."

She was too far away to hear what Buffy and Spike were talking about. It made her feel like she was Willow again. The Willow that loved Xander who loved Buffy who knew that Willow loved Xander. Which, in a very strange way, was one of the happiest times in her life. The thought made her smile as she sank to her knees beside Tara's grave. She hadn't thought to bring flowers or pebbles, or anything but her baggie full of slightly crumbly cookies.

"I've made a mess of things, again," she told her.

The First could adopt the aspect of the dead, but she had never been faced with Tara corrupted in such a way. It wasn't a kindness. It was because Tara was gone. Thoroughly, completely gone, removed so far that she might not have ever been. She wasn't waiting for Willow as the First had implied when it visited her at the library. The cookies she had eaten made her stomach cramp.

She ignored it and traced the letters of Tara's name with her fingertips, pressing them into her palm, eyes closed, trying one last time to reach her, behind her eyelids. There was nothing there but memory. No echo. No answer. Tara wasn't waiting for her. She had no right to mark time with anyone else with the expectation that she would find Tara again.

After this was over, she was going to go away. Away from Sunnydale. It was time to find her own way, and maybe to stop trying so hard to love someone as much as she wanted to be loved. It was time to give up being angry at Buffy for being someone that it hurt so much to be angry at.

She had no idea how long she sat there, breathing in and out through her nose until the crampy sensation in her stomach faded away and she started to feel the damp from the earth creeping through her flannel pajamas. When she opened her eyes, Buffy was there, watching her, waiting.

"I never mean to make things harder for you," Willow told her.

Buffy cocked her head to one side. "I know."

She held out her hand. "Big day ahead of us," she reminded her.

Spike was standing off to the side. He started to light a cigarette, and then put it away when Willow let Buffy pull her to her feet. They held hands, elbow to elbow, forearm to forearm, leaning against each other a little the way he had seen them do a hundred times. In the moonlight, their heads dipped gracefully towards each other and a little current of air lifted Willow's hair to mingle with Buffy's.

If he had been Harris, he could have joined in for a group hug, and there was a certain amount of envy in that thought, brushed aside as he marshaled himself into another role. Buffy was a Slayer and Willow was a powerful witch, and there wasn't much Sunnydale had to offer to threaten either of them, but what it had would have to come through him first.

"When this is over, I'm going to take the longest nap ever," Buffy announced, bumping Willow with her hip. "What about you?"

"Also a nap," Willow said. "On one of those double decker buses in London, so every time I wake up for a few seconds, I'll be like, oh, look, there's London."

He smiled a little, shaking his head. Buffy looked back at him. "Are you coming with us?" she asked.

"Always," he said, and there was room for him. He wasn't sure how they managed it, but there was a space for him too. Buffy traded Willow's hand for his and he curled his arm around Willow's head to press the side of her face against his shoulder. "You can have your nap on my shoulder and I'll wake you up for the important parts."

It wasn't likely, but it was possible, and possible was enough.