Memory was at once searingly sweet and gratingly bitter. For she had come to him that night, just two weeks ago, with something missing from her eyes. The constant fear, the anticipation of a heavy, unavoidable blow, was gone. The wideness, the greenness, the openness of her eyes said that with him the great struggle of her life had been laid to rest. She didn't have to choose between her sacred duties and her love for her family and friends because he stood beside her in both.
Even now, he was aware, those eyes followed him constantly, waiting for his guard to drop. But he couldn't afford to. Drusilla's murder had been more than a rude awakening; it had been a revelation. //I'm death to any girl who loves me. Friends are fine, but love is out. Better she learns it now than later.//
Buffy couldn't deny it any longer. It had been two weeks since that terrible night and Spike still hadn't talked about it. And while he seemed to be fine with everyone else from Xander and Giles to Joyce and Dawn, the only person he shied away from was her. He was friendly enough, but the tension that took hold of his body, the way his honeyed voice turned gravelly, betrayed him. And yet she knew he still loved her, for his eyes, defiant, lonely, pleading, broken, told her the one he was punishing was himself. And she couldn't think of a way to bring him back.
So matters went on for a few weeks, but nobody seemed to notice how different Spike was with Buffy, since he was his old self with everyone else. And then Angel came back to Sunnydale, proud possessor of a text that would protect him from the thrall.
Buffy walked to the Magic Box with Spike. He was still holding back from her, acting like he needed to win her, when she'd already been won. But he hadn't left, and he still watched her back. He was keeping his unspoken promises. They walked into the shop, as usual the last to arrive.
"There are three ways to avoid the thrall," Angel stood, clearly in lecture mode, holding up his text for emphasis.
"One - kill you. Two - kill Darla. We know. What's three?" Buffy asked impatiently.
Angel turned in surprise at her tone. He couldn't figure out why she was being bitchy, but he knew he couldn't afford to alienate her. He made his voice soft and wooing and bent to catch her eye. "The third is to receive the blood of my true love. That's you, Buffy."
"Really?" She kept her tone cool. "Not Darla? You were with her for a hundred and fifty years."
He really wished they didn't have an audience. "Buffy, when I was with her, I didn't have a soul. You can't love without one."
"Hey!" Anya exclaimed.
"You are my soulmate."
"You're the only person I have ever loved."
"HEY!!!" Anya's cries grew louder and louder, and the finger with which she was poking Spike moved more quickly and emphatically. She'd never mastered the art of whispering, so her promptings were heard by the whole group. "Tell her! That's not how it works. Remember? We talked about this!" Anya nagged until Spike stood up.
"She's right," he said as noncommittally as possible; he loathed having to play the olderand -wiser being - Buffy had been through enough without being condescended to. "Dru and I summoned the Judge," he began, his voice steady and clear, refusing to rewrite history as Angel always did in order to shift the blame. "When he finally awakened, we were the first ones he wanted to burn - the love we had for each other was a human weakness. It is possible to love without a soul." Sitting at the table, Anya nodded emphatically. Spike paused. He knew he had to continue, but his heart felt too bruised to take Angel on. He looked at Buffy's sad, wondering face and took the plunge. "But when Angel showed up, the Judge said there was no humanity - no love - in him."
"Because I didn't have a soul!" Angel shouted.
"No - the soul wouldn't have made a difference," Giles said, grasping Spike's point. "For you not to feel love as a soulless creature means you didn't feel love with a soul." It wasn't until he heard his own words that he understood all the implications, and his eyes shifted immediately to Buffy.
"I loved you," she said quietly, looking up at Angel. "But it seems you didn't love me. Guess I'm not your true love after all." She reached out and took the book from him and handed it to Giles. "Can you see if there's some other way?" she asked her Watcher and turned and left.
Xander, Willow, Tara, and Spike caught up with her outside. Giles took the text into his office to read, and Anya began straightening up the area with such pissed-off determination that Angel decided to leave.
Buffy and her friends walked quietly. They were all surprised when the cell phone in Spike's duster pocket rang. With a puzzled frown, he answered it. It was Giles. He handed the phone to Buffy. "Buffy," the watcher began, "I've been reading this text Angel brought. The third way to preclude the thrall wasn't exactly what he said. It was simply the voluntary gift of blood from any human being."
"But I already did that," she said, surprised.
"I know. Before graduation."
"Why did he lie? Why did he say all that true love stuff?" she asked angrily, clutching the little phone with tight fingers.
"I . . . I think he wants you back, Buffy. Though why he's willing to risk his soul . . ."
"Because it doesn't matter. It doesn't make a difference if he's got a soul or not. And I'm not just talking about love. He kept working his thrall over Drusilla even after Willow resouled him. The things that Angelus does have always been in the back of Angel's mind." She stopped, then asked, "Have you told him you know what the third way really was?"
"No, he seems to have left. In high dudgeon, would be my bet. Do you want me to call his mobile?"
"No. He's safe from the thrall and he's far away from me. What could be better?" She could hear Giles's humorless laugh. "Thanks, Giles," she said and disconnected the line.
"That was a really dirty trick Angel pulled today," Xander said as he passed the salad bowl to Dawn. The nine of them were sitting around the Summers dining table - lengthened by a few leaves - having dinner. Joyce had felt marvelous and strong all day, and she'd celebrated by cooking.
"Yes. He told many lies," Anya added. Her face lit up. "I know a vengeance demon whose specialty was people who made insincere declarations of love. If you like . . ."
"No," Buffy smiled, "that's okay. That's not the part that bothered me, actually."
"What did upset you?" Tara asked, leaning forward as if she half-suspected the answer.
"It's sort of about what Spike said," she began, her eyes sliding sideways to take in the vampire sitting next to her, "but more about Darla. He had no love in him. None at all. I guess it wasn't such a shock to hear that he didn't love me - there have been other clues. But what does it say about him that there was no love in him for Darla? How do you spend a century and a half with somebody and not love them at all?" Spike kept his eyes down.
"He's a monster," Dawn said simply.
After dinner was finished and both the pecan pies were completely gone, Joyce stood. "Before I ask who wants coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, I've got a request. Tonight has been wonderful," she said, smiling when there was a chorus of agreement. "I'm glad you concur. Because I want to make this a weekly tradition. Every Wednesday night we'll all get together here; I'm home from work early, the shop is closed, and no one seems to have late classes. So we'll make it set in stone. No excuses. Okay?" she looked sternly around the table and noticed Dawn silently mouthing something to her. She smiled sheepishly. "Except next week. We'll make it Thursday because it's Thanksgiving."
Buffy was carrying drinks to everybody in the den. Giles was talking to her mother, Xander and Tara were Anya's captive audience as she explained problems with weddings through the centuries, and Willow was impressing Dawn with her old levitating pencil trick. Spike was standing slightly apart, his eyes on Joyce's animated face. Buffy took a deep breath and headed over to him; she'd saved his drink for last.
"Spike," she said softly and he turned the bright angles of his face in her direction. He felt a pang when he saw her eyes, looking like bruises in her worn face. He dropped his gaze to the mug she held, and he did a slight doubletake when he realized it was blood, not hot chocolate. "I, uh, put some of that spice that you got from the Indian grocery store in it," she said shyly.
"Ta, Hebe," he said, touched. He looked down at her small shape once again and knew he had to speak.
"What you said at dinner," he began. "I know . . ." he faltered. "I know about losing the person whose love was the center of your life." Buffy felt a tingle pass through her. Spike was finally talking to her about that night that had pushed them asunder. "It must be even worse when the person you loved didn't deserve you." He could hear her heartbeat accelerate, and she parted her lips to speak. He knew she'd heard his words as a cue to pledge herself to him, so to preclude that painful moment, he added with stark honesty, "You've never loved or been loved by a man who deserved you." Her cry of protest stayed silent when she saw the dangerous jut of his jaw and the fragility of his eyes.
She was more than a little surprised when he slipped on his duster just as everyone else got ready to leave the Summers house. "Where are you going?" she asked. "I thought the club was closed Wednesday nights."
"It is, pet, but I thought you might want some company on your patrol." She smiled in acquiescence, an irrepressible bubble of hope floating inside her when he added, "Better grab a coat, Slayer. Seems more than brisk outside."
She was learning her lesson, and her refusal to push him to speak was rewarded with a companionable stroll. He held back and let her take on the first four vamps they spotted; a few deft flicks of her wrist and they were history. Turnabout was fair play, and the next round was Spike's. He faced three big vamps, the smallest standing well over six feet. He straightened his spine and took them on. Buffy watched. She loved that he never let his size or the odds daunt him. She loved that he was trying to be her friend when every other man she'd known had run off. She loved everything about him.
Despite the awkwardness with Spike, everything was going well. Too well, Buffy thought. All afternoon, the sounds of laughter and happy squabbling emerged from the kitchen as they all tried to cook Thanksgiving dinner together. When Buffy, unconsciously exerting Slayer strength, snapped the can opener in half, it was Spike who liberated the condensed milk with one thrust of a fang. The carefree spirit lasted until the phone rang just when they were sitting down to the meal. Everybody froze, knowing it couldn't be good news.
"Buffy, hi, it's Cordelia. Listen, not to be rude but L.A., even if it's not on a hellmouth, has its quota of demons, and we think it's time for you to just slay whatever it is you're fighting already, and send Angel home." All this was said without even the smallest of pauses. //Guess being head cheerleader really did improve her lung capacity.//
"Cordelia. Angel's not here. We took care of the sun problem weeks ago." It took a moment for anxiety to hit. "He still hasn't gone back to L.A.? Well . . ." she stalled, "maybe that's a good thing. Maybe he just needed some time out of the office."
"He's on vacation?!" For the first time, Cordelia sounded truly outraged. "Tell him," she hissed, "that Gunn, Wes, and I all got hurt taking on a Neirax demon that he could have taken care of in a heartbeat, seeing as how he doesn't need to breathe and all. Tell him Gunn's lungs are filling with fluid, Wes's trachea nearly collapsed, and the migraines haven't left me. How dare he!" She slammed the phone down.
When four sharp knocks were heard, Dawn flew to answer the door. "You didn't have to bruise the wood. We've got a doorbell, you know," she muttered brattily as Angel treaded on her heels.
"Buffy," he said, "I need to speak to you."
"Yes. This can't wait any longer. It's too important."
Dread ran through Buffy. This was not the fear of the Slayer, as when she'd faced the Master or the mayor's reptilian incarnation. It was the pain of the girl, who had loved and lost and been betrayed. The look on Angel's face warned her that this would be worse than the heartbreak of killing him when his soul was replaced, worse than the splitting of her heart when Giles washed his hands of her for shielding Angel, worse even than finally understanding that despite the outpouring of her heart, he'd never really loved her. She couldn't do this again. "I've got nothing to say to you," she informed him, lifting her chin.
"Then listen," he said, moving forward to clasp her arm, propelling her towards the den.
She jerked free. "If you're determined to have your say, you'll have to do it here. I need my family near me." She looked at the people seated around the table and immediately felt buoyed up by their silent support. Only Spike was looking down, his fists clenched and the cords of his neck straining. //God. What must seeing Angel be doing to him?// All patience with her first love fled. "What is it, Angel?" she asked, not bothering to soften her voice.
"Buffy, I shouldn't have tried to trick you with the thrall cure. But it's the only way I could express what I wanted from you." He paused to gauge her reaction and took a step forward. "And no matter what anyone says, I did love you. I do love you. And I know that you still love me. I want us to be together."
"Long-distance relationships never work, Angel," she said. She clarified when she saw his confusion. "I'm bound to the hellmouth. And you've got responsibilities in L.A.," she reminded him, an edge to her voice.
He didn't hear it. "I'd give all that up for you, Buffy," he replied.
"It's not something you get to give up, Angel! You have a duty, and -"
"Buffy," he interrupted, "you're the one with the sacred calling. I can fight for you here in Sunnydale. I deserve a second chance with you, and this time I won't walk away."
He saw, at last, that he was losing ground. "I'll do anyth- I'll even find another Mohra demon and this time I won't give up being human. If being human means being with you, Buffy, I'll do it."
Only Anya and Spike immediately understood what exactly Angel had revealed but it didn't take long for the others to catch up. Buffy was the last, as she was still reeling from the shock. "You were a human again?"
"Yes. The Mohra's blood mixed with mine and made me mortal. And we were together. In the sunlight. In my bed. I'd never seen you so happy."
"Your memories were erased when I gave it up."
She was trying so hard to fight him. She knew she'd only be able to get through this as the Slayer. She stumbled backwards slightly and ended up leaning into Giles, whose arm moved automatically to circle her waist.
"Why?" Buffy heard her Watcher's question only blurrily, as if her head were submerged.
"Why what?" Angel asked.
"Why did you return such a gift?"
"They said that it wouldn't help anything. Buffy would still die. And I would die too."
"How dare you!!!" Willow screamed. Angel blinked as the eight people sitting around the table rose as one, Giles and Joyce supporting Buffy between them. Willow remembered with almost unbearable clarity the agony Buffy had suffered because of Angel, how often she'd wished that humanity might be granted her lover again. Her rage burst. "How dare you come here to tell her you threw away what she wanted most? How dare you hurt her like that? You should have been grateful that her memories were taken away because then she couldn't remember that you valued your own life above whatever life the two of you would have had together. You know what? I hope you do live forever, because I know you'll never have her. You deserve to live alone."
Angel looked around the table for an ally but found none. He turned to Buffy and flinched when she looked dead into his eyes. "Get out." It was Buffy's voice, but the authority of the Slayer was threaded through it. She locked and bolted the door behind him and whispered to herself, "It's over."
Continue: Part 13/15