Nightingale by Holly

ReviewsRating: NC-17

Summary: After clawing her way through her grave, Buffy seeks refuge with Spike.and reacts violently when those who tore her from Heaven attempt to likewise tear her away from her sanctuary.

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One hundred and forty-seven long, agonizing nights.

One hundred and forty-seven days of waking to a sun that relinquished no heat. Nights that were more numb than cold. Knowing the dismal force of his wake, bringing himself from that realm of misery with the empty promise that things would be better tomorrow. That eventually, the pain would start to calm. Time would heal the burning rage that seemed to worsen with each turn. A brand new day on this earth. Here where she should be.

Here where she was dead, and he was not.

Not in the way she was.

One hundred and forty-seven days. One hundred and forty-eight today. So many hours of not living. Of existing without living. Of breathing air that should be hers. Drinking blood that had long since lost its taste. Feeling her beside him only to blink from his heaven and return to an inferno on earth. Seeing her die night after night, replaying those horrible moments in a cruel display of slow motion. Pointing out his faults. Showing him what he should have done. Playing a fantasy of heroics over and over. Saving her when it was too late. Saving her when it no longer mattered.

He felt himself dying just a little more each day. Felt it just a matter of time against the strain of what he knew. Before misery overwhelmed him entirely, and his crypt became his grave, buried in a sea of falsified memories.

Hundred nights plus forty-seven. In a blink, gone. Those days.gone.

In the midst of the chaos of a town sinking into its own hellmouth, she stood in the dress her friends had buried her in. Her hair was long and tousled, her eyes wide and confused. Demons were dancing in jubilee as Sunnydale burned, but god it was her. An angel fallen from the clouds. Buffy. Oh god, it was Buffy.

Buffy.

Spike fought the urge to sink to his knees and weep. Battled the tears that stung his eyes, the breaths he didn't need to breathe. The empty clamor in his chest where his heart should have thundered. Every inch of him enveloped in pain, then redeemed with an impression of something deeper than he had ever suffered.

His quest to get back to Dawn ended then. The girl forgotten in a blink. An instant.

There before the face of his salvation. Buffy. Not the bot-not the bleeding bot. It was Buffy. He smelled her. He had memorized what she had gone into the earth wearing. The skirt, the shoes.Willow had even allowed him to pick out the earrings. The promise that she would be wearing something that he had selected had eased the pain just a little. He wanted to make sure she looked as gorgeous in death as she had in life.

There was dirt on her face. Dirt marring her beautiful skin. Blood staining her hands, scraped and torn from where she had dug her way out of her coffin.

Oh God.

"Buffy," he gasped, staggering forward. "Oh God, Buffy. You're real, aren' you? Buffy?"

She blinked at him wearily, her eyes hazed. Far gone. Lost.

Spike hazarded a slow step forward, hands coming up so she would see he was weaponless. The last thing he wanted to do was startle her. She was confused; disoriented. There was no familiarity behind her gaze. If she ran, he would follow, but god, he didn't want her to fear him.

"Buffy." It was a strange awareness, saying the name that had overwhelmed him with such heartbreaking sorrow; now with liberation. As though the love that had been killing him slowly now filled him with life. "Buffy, it's Spike. Spike. Do you remember me? I-"

A flash then. Something known. Something recognized. Suddenly her eyes were open, and she saw him.

She saw him.

"Spike," she whimpered, his name rolling off her tongue as though the answer to some reverent prayer. He swallowed hard, ignoring the tears flooding his eyes. She was looking at him as though she had just arrived home. As though the tunnel was coming to an end and he was there in the light. The relief that filled her gaze overturned his heart. "You're here. Oh."

It was sensory overload. As Sunnydale burned, the dead were rising. Demons seizing control. The Slayerless hellpit, stricken with emptiness. And Buffy was back. Buffy was back and her scent was around him, her body pressed to his, her tears seeping through the cotton of his shirt. His skin was still shaking from the impact of her embrace; the rapidity from which she had gone to standing a few feet away to curling herself in his arms. Quivering. Sobbing. And clutching at him as though the world was trying to tear her away.

It was too real to be a dream. Too real.

Spike couldn't hold it in. The awesomeness of feeling. He had Buffy in his arms-his Buffy. She was supposed to be dead, but she was in his arms. He felt her heart thumping against his chest. Could see the race of her pulse. Her warmth rolling over him in torrents. His Slayer was alive.

"Buffy," he sobbed, collapsing with her to the pavement as they consoled each other in their tears. "Oh God. Jesus. Buffy, you're real. You're real. You.you're." That was it. All he could stand. Whatever stirred inside him screamed for freedom, the emptiness that had shadowed his existence relieved with a kiss of rapture. He couldn't help himself if he tried, not even for her sake. He baptized her in his tears. Hard, real sobs of eternal deliverance. Her arms were around him, letting him hold her as he had only touched in his dreams. The sounds that tore from his lips were raw; raucous. He cried until his tears were dry. In the midst of the town falling around them. A hell only before imagined. Clutching to her, terrified that it was a dream. That he would wake up and be in the world without her again. Be in the world where living was worse than death.

"Woke up," she gasped. "It was dark. And I had to."

"I know, sweetheart." He brushed a kiss across her temple, willing himself to his senses. He needed to get her out of the street. Needed to get her to safety. Needed to get her somewhere to take care of her the way she needed to be taken care of.

When he started to pull away, she whimpered and clawed back at him, grasping him to her as though he meant to leave her alone. "No!" she cried. "Spike-"

"Shhh, kitten. It's all right. I got you." He released a deep breath, quivering when she clutched at him tighter, even as he pulled himself to his feet. "Always. Never lettin' you outta my sight again."

"I was.I was."

"'m gonna find the Scoobs, luv. They'll-"

Her grip on him tightened inexplicably. "No."

The blunt force behind the word startled him. "The Scoobies, sweetling. Willow? Xander? You remember them? They can-"

She shook her head, choking back another sob. "No. No. Please, Spike. No. I can't.not them. Please."

"Buffy-"

"Tore me out. They tore me out. I saw them do it. I was watching. They tore me out. They tore me out. Don't make me go to them. Please." Buffy bowed her head, crystal tears scaling down her cheeks. "Please."

It took a few minutes for her words to register. The whimpers tearing at her throat, the tears glistening in her eyes, the knowledge born out of laced confusion slowly mending itself together. Her friends. The Scoobies. They had done this. They were the reason she was in his arms. The reason she was sobbing. The reason she was alive at all.

Somehow they had brought her back. And they hadn't told him.

Not a damn word.

He wasn't going to press Buffy for questions right now. Not when she was timid and disheveled. Not when the sky was falling. Not when he had her back, had her curled in his embrace.

Had her begging him to never let go.

"Where do you wanna go, kitten?" he murmured into her hair. "I'll take you anywhere you want. Jus' name it. You wanna go home?"

"Home?"

"Back to Revello Drive. Your house. With the Nibblet an'." Red and Glinda. No, that wouldn't work. "The lover Wiccas'll be there, though. Do-"

"You.you still have your crypt, right?"

"A crypt? Sweetheart, you surely don'-"

"I can't be there. They tore me out. They." She shook her head, stifling another sob. "They tore me out, Spike. I watched them and they tore me out. I screamed at them not to. I." Her face found refuge in his shoulder once more, and he held her through another wave of tears. "Why did they tear me out?"

"I don' know," he answered honestly. "You're all right now, Buffy. Spike's got you." As if to accentuate his promise, he lifted her into his arms, rejoicing when she wound herself around him. "Spike's got you."

A sigh shuddered against his throat. "Thank you," she murmured.

Thanks. Thanks. Bloody thanks. As if he could do any differently. As if he could even consider it. His Slayer was offering him thanks. His Slayer was alive. She was in his arms, she had called out for him, and she wanted him to take her away. Away from the Scoobies; perhaps Sunnydale altogether. God, he didn't even know what had happened, but he could kill the ignorant wankers for doing whatever it was that made her feel this way. For torturing her after she was dead.

For making death as insufferable as life.

Buffy was in his arms.

One hundred and forty-seven days she had been gone. Not tonight. Tonight she was back.

Tonight she was with him.

He just didn't know why.

*~*~*

A dark, shameful feeling crept through his insides as he guided Buffy into his crypt. It was a place of death, grim and shadowy; unworthy of her. The ground was scattered with assorted clutter. The air drafty in spite of the California warmth. A pit of filth made for a creature that did not deserve her light. And yet, she didn't flinch. Didn't wrinkle her nose in disgust as she so often had in life, especially where he was concerned. Rather, the wealth of gratitude that had overwhelmed her eyes intensified, and her hand tightened around his.

She barely allotted any space between them. The whimper that had rippled through the still night when he had lowered her to feet at the gate of the Restfield Cemetery was still reverberating through his body.

Buffy was alive. Buffy needed him.

He was still so terrified that he was dreaming. That he would wake up and she would still be dead.

"There's nothing to eat here," he said after a minute, scolding himself inwardly for the way he wouldn't stop trembling. "You've gotta be hungry, pet. Lemme go out an' get you somethin'-"

"No. Don't leave me."

The last thing he wanted to do was leave her, but he almost needed to. Needed to leave now; needed to satisfy the growing agonizing alarm that none of this was real. If he left and she was still here when he came back, it was real. It had to be.

Then again, if he left and she wasn't-if she was just a hallucination conjured by his psyche's reach to cast the emptiness aside-he would never be able to recover. This alone had given him too much hope. To quell the burning need for her to be real. To be back in his life. To be here.

No. He wouldn't leave her. He would get Clem to run somewhere. Clem had been making a habit of dropping by every night around ten o'clock, as the nights were typically worse for him than any other. And during his routine sitting for Dawn, the youngest Summers had begged his demon friend to keep an eye out in case the pain overwhelmed his senses and he ended his life one morning before anyone could stop him.

"All right," he breathed after a minute, his body rejoicing when she curled into his side again. She hugged him as though they were anywhere. As though her wretched surroundings didn't exist.

God, but she deserved better. She was back. The last thing she needed was to be in a place where the dead belonged.

"Buffy." he murmured into her hair. "God, are you real?"

"It hurts here," she replied, voice muffled into his shirt. "Everything hurts."

"'m sorry, sweetheart. I don' know." A trembling sigh tumbled through his lips. "I never thought.I don' know why you're here. I don' know why.god-"

She drew back a little, pressing her brow against his shoulder. "I'm here because you love me," she said, the words tugging his heart to bits. Every part of him unraveling. Hiding nothing from her; unable to disguise himself. "And you won't make it hurt."

"Buffy."

"You still love me, right?"

"Of course I-I never stopped, sweetheart. Never will." He pulled back at that, cupping her face reverently, thumbs flickering over her tears. "Every day that you weren't here.I died over an' over again. Tried to save you more times than I can count. Thousands of times. Every night. Every sodding hour, I saved you."

"How long." She exhaled slowly. "How long was I gone?"

"Hundred an' forty-seven days yesterday. Hundred forty-eight today.today doesn' count though, does it?" He smiled gently to mask the fresh tears bubbling beneath the surface. "How long was it where you were?"

"Longer," she replied softly. "And.not. Like no time had passed, but then there was nothing but time. And it was.I've never felt like that." She shivered. "I was warm. And soft. And.it was.I don't know where I was, but I knew everyone was all right. I could see them. Could see you." She ran a hand across his face and offered a watery smile. "I saw everything."

The implication buried in her voice sent small shivers across his skin.

"Everythin'?" he rasped. "Everythin' since."

"Everything. What you've done. I watched you.everything." She released a long, quivering sigh. "I've felt.everything. Watched you taking care of Dawn. Watched you.felt you. God, you hurt so much."

Just hearing the words on her lips propelled his swelling tears over his cheeks.

"I hurt with you," she whispered. "I hurt because you hurt. I felt your.I just felt you." She shook her head. "You.I felt so close to you. Wherever I was, I felt close to you. I felt that. It.it helped me rest. Helped me believe in peace."

"Me?"

"Yeah." For the first time since he found her, she pulled away from him, wrapping her arms around her middle. "I was loved. Not just there.I felt loved here, too. By you. You were going to let me rest. You cried. You hurt. You visited me, talked to me.I tried to talk back, but you couldn't hear. You were going to let me rest." Her face hardened. "They weren't. They.I tried to stop them. I tried screaming at them. Screaming at Willow. Hoped she could hear me, but she didn't.or if she did, she ignored me. They pulled me out. They tore me away."

A blazing insinuation scorched his insides. If she was saying what he thought she was saying, the Scoobies had done more than he ever thought them capable of. Letting her back now like this. They could have ruined everything. Any part of her that might not be Buffy, and he would have walked through fire before he allowed them to destroy the vision of what they had established. But her words. The tears that burned her cheeks. What she said.

Her friends had torn her out of Heaven. Her friends had ripped her away from eternal peace. Her friends had damned her to the earth that was so undeserving of her.

"I'm so sorry," he gasped, brushing a kiss across her forehead. Reveling in the sensation of her skin against his lips, the warmth that she offered his cold nothingness. "I wanted you.I wanted you here. I din't want you gone. I-"

"I know. I felt you."

"You felt how much I wanted you here. How much-"

"You loved me. You never would've let them do what they did if you knew."

"How do you know?"

She touched his face. "Because I do. Because I know you, now.more than.I just do. I watched you, Spike. I was there.I felt you." Buffy released a long, burdening sigh and stepped again into his embrace. Her arms around him. Her breasts pressed against his chest. The vampire shuddered and clutched her tighter. "I knew I had to find you," she whispered. "I clawed my way through and I.when I.I knew that I needed to find you. That you would take care of me."

"I'll always take care of you," he swore ardently. "Always. Failed you once. I tried so hard.'f I hadn't failed you, you wouldn't've had to jump. An' then-"

"You didn't fail me."

"I did! You asked me to protect her-"

"And you have."

There was nothing to say to that. He didn't want to upset her by contradicting this seemingly endless wealth of faith that had spurned through her death. He had failed her; that was all he ever needed to know. It was because of his fall that she had made the jump. It was because he hadn't been able to save Dawn then that she had sacrificed herself to close the dimensional rip with her blood.

He took her hands in his and coaxed her to follow him. "Downstairs is a hole on the wall that I use as a shower," he said, self-conscious and disgraceful. "Should get you cleaned up. Clem'll show here in a while an' I'll have him go out an' get somethin' to eat, all right?"

"My hands-"

"Had to claw your way out," he repeated, more to himself as he lifted her bloodied skin to his mouth to grace her essence with a kiss. Tasting the realism that was her. "They raised you an' left you down there. God, sweetheart."

"I can't see them. I won't."

"They'll come here eventually. They'll wonder why I left the Nibblet by herself." Off her look, he drew in a breath and explained softly, "The town was under attack. Demons breakin' down doors an'.she wanted to go out. I told her I'd try to find the Witches an' the boy.get them to the house an' put up sanctions. Seemed safer 'f she stayed inside. Told her to stay in the basement an' made damn sure the house was secure before I left."

"You've taken care of her," Buffy said. "You've kept taking care of her."

"Every night. She's the reason I din't join you as soon as I could." He paused at that, a small, bittersweet laugh tumbling through his lips. "Well, that an' I doubt I'd've ended up in the same place."

"Spike-"

He shook his head and nodded at the ground. "Let's get you cleaned up," he said again. "Then we'll get outta here. Go somewhere to camp it out till you think you're ready to face them."

"I don't want to face them."

"You will someday."

"No."

The certainty in her voice caught him off guard. "Not even to see Dawn?" he asked softly. "Nibblet needs her sis, Buffy. More than ever. She's."

"Spike, please."

He shut up at that; the last thing he wanted to do was upset her, especially like this. Instead, he nodded and guided her with reserved tenderness to the lower level of his humble crypt. He didn't presume to remove any of her garments, and she did not turn her own hands to the task. Thus he washed her as she was, tending to her hands only-watching blood run off her skin. Her cuts were raw, and he felt each as if they were his own.

"'m going upstairs for a minute," he murmured, disconcerted when she shot him a look of pure panic. "Jus' for a minute. Give you time to wash up without my pryin' eyes."

"I don't mind your prying eyes."

The knowledge both warmed him and sent familiar notes of poignancy to his heart. So long looking at that damned Buffybot, listening to her recitation of bodily praises that he had programmed her to say.and now the real thing was in his home. Trusting him. Trusting him above everyone else. Trusting him to keep her safe, because he loved her.

"Also don' want Clem wanderin' down here. If he tries, I'll hear him, but I wanna make sure I get up there before he.I doubt you'd want his pryin' eyes anywhere near you."

Buffy smiled.

"I'll be right back, kitten."

Tearing himself from her side was one of the hardest things he had forced himself to do. His goddess in his home. His goddess in need of a sanctuary. His goddess who knew he loved her.

So much. Now, in just this past half hour, more than ever before.

It was just seconds after he had emerged back to the first level that he felt someone moving intently toward his crypt. He began rummaging through his mess to find whatever cash he had on him. What he had been living on for the past forever. He would give Clem whatever he wanted if he went out for food. Shampoo, clothes, the girlie things that Buffy would want. Things that no motel would provide.

Seconds too late, he realized that his impending visitor was far from his skin-cursed friend. And Xander had already burst through the door before the vampire could do a damn thing to stop him.

Here it came.

Spike glanced down in shades of annoyance, afraid that his face would reveal too much if the boy saw him in the light. He kept his gaze trained on one of his salvaged coffee tables, his mind ridiculously rewinding to a date of a similar incident. The Buffybot crouching beneath the floor as Xander did some vague threatening in the means of, 'Stay away from our Slayer.'

Now it really was Buffy. And she didn't want her friends. She only wanted him.

He wondered for the tenth time if he was dreaming, but then, no dream had ever been this real.

"What are you doing here?" Xander demanded when he received no greeting.

"I live here."

"You're supposed to be watching Dawn. We found her in the basement, terrified that you'd been staked." The boy was glowering now. Snappish and accusatory. "Do you have any idea what's happened tonight? Have you been outside? You left a fifteen year old alone in that?"

Spike's eyes darkened dangerously. The unspoken knowledge underlying Harris's words nearly edged him to betray everything for the need to pummel him into the ground. Had he any idea what had happened tonight? Oh, he had plenty of ideas. More than the boy could ever imagine. "I went," he snarled, "to find you an' the witches. Din't think that was anythin' the Bit needed to see. She was safer in the house than she was with me."

"Have you forgotten that demons don't need invitations?"

"Have you forgotten that demons are soddin' demons an' tend to loot where there's a better chance of human casualty?"

"She could've been-"

"Yeh. Wasn', though. Turns out she's jus' fine." Spike snickered and reached for his cigarettes, lighting up just by means of keeping himself occupied. "So respectively bugger off, all right?"

"It's not just." A long sigh heaved off Xander's shoulders. "We got cornered by some big nasty demons and Willow completely blew them away. She's out of it right now, but Tara thinks she's going to be okay. We found Dawn and." A pause. "You haven't.been by Buffy's grave, have you?"

If possible, Spike's blood went colder than ever before in the long years of his existence.

"No," he answered honestly, his voice overwhelmed with the undulation of emotion that always coincided with the memory of her death. "I, well, I went to see her before I came to take care of Dawn. Wanted to.but no, I haven't since I got back."

No need. He had the real thing in the basement. Visiting her grave was no longer necessary. He wouldn't mind if he forgot such a grave existed.

"Something happened there," Harris went on. "We.Willow, Ahn, and Tara.and me, we all tried.there was this spell, and we tried."

The vampire's eyes narrowed. "You what? Tried to raise her?"

"Yeah. We-"

"You din't even think of the repercussions, did you? Jus' lahdy-dah'ed the entire bloody thing." A dark shadow fell across his gaze. "You ignorant wanker. Magic always has consequences. 'Specially the dark mojo I'm willin' to bet three packs of smokes that Red resorted to, huh?"

"Spike-

"Didn't even tell me. How could you not tell me?"

"Spike.we think.the ritual was interrupted, but the gravesite.it's been disturbed. Like someone." Xander trailed off, haunted. "Like she was alive and we left her under there, and she had to climb out by herself." He paused, then took a long minute to study the vampire for reaction. "Did you hear me? Buffy.we think she's-"

The unmistakable sound of the lower hatch being raised echoed through the crypt, and Spike's eyes fell shut in defeat. Seconds later, her voice permeating the air, ringing melodiously through the dark stillness around them. He heard Xander's breath catch, sensed his pulse race; senses betraying all else.

"Spike?" she asked, voice timid. "Are you-"

The boy jumped in before the vampire could stop him. "Buffy?" he asked in a voice wringing with veiled hope.

Spike swallowed hard and raced through the darkness; the Slayer's wide, frightened eyes meeting his, unreadable. However, she leapt forward before he could explain that Xander's presence was not premeditated. Leapt forward and buried herself in his embrace.

"Buffy?"

"No!" she screamed, her cry bounding off the walls, holding herself to the vampire. "Leave me alone!"

"Buffy, oh my God."

Spike's arms were around her, his game face bursting through when Harris hazarded a step forward. "Word of advice," he growled. "Don' come near her."

"What the." The look on the boy's face slid slowly from confusion to anger. "You can't keep her here! We didn't bring her back for you, you-"

"She's not goin' anywhere."

"Buffy-"

The Slayer flinched, shaking her head furiously. "Stay away from me, Xander."

"I-"

"I know what you did! Stay away from me!"

"Buffy, he's a vampire. You can't stay here. We brought you.whatever he's told you, it's not true." Xander met Spike's eyes contemptuously. "You have friends and a sister who love you.we got you out. Please.don't let him-"

"She found me," the vampire snarled. "She's here 'cause she doesn' wanna see you. I'm not keepin' her. Now back the hell away before we find out jus' how much the chip can fire before it knocks me outta commission."

"Buffy!"

"She doesn' want you. You're not gonna take her now."

Buffy glanced up, though without lifting her head from Spike's shoulder. "Go away, Xander," she said softly. "I can't.this is where I want to be."

"You can't.we got you out!"

She shuddered at that and turned her face from him.

Xander found Spike's eyes, his own blazing with accusation. "You can't keep her here," he said. "I don't know what you did, but you can't keep her here. She needs.she needs us. She needs people who love her. She needs-"

"Don' be preachin' about what she needs," the Cockney retorted dryly. "Get the hell outta here before I remove you bodily. You're upsettin' her. She'll come to you when she wants to. I'm not holdin' her hostage. If she wants to leave, she can. You brought her back, an' this is what she wants. Don' even think 'bout buggerin' it up 'cause you have a problem with me."

Xander stepped forward, then thought the better of it when the Slayer flinched and grasped at the vampire tighter. "Yeah," he retorted bitingly. "You're just eating this up, aren't you? Brought Buffy back and since you found her first, you-"

"That's enough!" Spike released his hold on the girl and stormed forward in a fit of stormy rage. His fists found the rumpled cloth of Harris's shirt, using it as leverage as he propelled the boy across the crypt, just feet away from the door. He ignored the shot of pain the chip delivered, just stood in his solemnity. "Get the fuck out. If you come back an' upset her, you'll get more of that an' then some. You hear me?"

Harris rose to his feet shakily, gaze shooting to his friend for answers.

But Buffy had none. Her eyes were empty and sad, but similarly resolved in her determination to stay exactly as she was. To stay with the vampire rather than comply to the refuge of friends that had torn her from her heaven. Spike held his breath and sighed his guarded relief when she shook her head, taking a step toward him until her hand was brushing against his hand, fingers entwining sensually. Palm to palm, as holy palmer's kiss.

"Go away, Xander," she said, voice firm. "I can't be with you right now. Any of you. Not." She shook her head, shivering. "I just can't. You.you don't know what you did.but you.I'm here because I want to be. Because Spike will.because I want to be with Spike. He won't do to me what you did."

"What we what?"

"Get out," Spike barked again. "Get out, an' don' show your face 'round here unless you want your head to end up on a pike, all right? You're not touchin' her when she doesn' wanna be touched. You get me?"

Xander didn't say anything. Just looked at him. Long. Harsh. Unforgiving.

And still without a word, he turned and left, leaving the slam of the crypt door to punctuate his exit. They were alone again.

Immediately, Buffy turned to him and hugged him to her, her body shaking. His own emotions collapsed into relief when she did not shun him, did not scream or accuse him of summoning Xander here, even when logic provided he had been granted no such time to do anything other than what he had when he left her. Buffy was an enigma to him. This night-the uncertainty of tomorrow. The hesitance by which he stood.

If she would be with him in the morning, or if she would hate him as she so justly should.

"He will come back," she murmured into his shoulder. "They'll all be here. They'll take me away."

"I won't let them," he promised. "As long as you wanna be with me, I'll never let you go. You understand?"

A heavy breath passed through her lips. "We need to leave," she whimpered, tugging at him. "They'll come back. Even if they can't take me, they'll come back. I can't stay here. Please. Please, Spike, can we leave?"

He nodded. "Of course. Told you as much, right? We'll go to the Sunnydale Inn. All right? I'll take care of you. We'll stay there as long as you like."

The relief that coursed through her body touched his heart. He would not allow anyone to take her away from him. Not now.

Not when she needed him as no one had needed him before.

Not when Buffy was back. In his arms.

As close as he would ever get to heaven was in his arms, and he would never take her for granted.

Never.

*~*~*

How he ended up half-nude while Buffy disrobed in front of him, he would never know. Just seconds after they walked into their rented room, she had pulled him into the bathroom and began removing his clothes. When her fingers reached for the button of his jeans, he had grasped her wrist with a hard swallow, eyes wide.

"Buffy-"

"I'm not." She flushed prettily. "I'm not trying to.I just don't want to be alone."

Spike bit back his moan of protest. The last thing she needed tonight was a very physical reminder of just how much he wanted her; had always wanted her. He loved her with everything he was and tonight was not about physical comfort, but in the end he was still a man and a vampire on top of that. There were certain instinctual reactions that would not be forfeit.

Especially with his Aphrodite here and wearing next to nothing. Discarding clothes she had worn in death. They had stopped at a convenient station along the way; Spike selected some cheap garments that would do for now, especially considering their hurry, along with a food selection that would satisfy a Roman Emperor.

He had expected she would eat first and was rather surprised that she had not. In fact, she had not voiced once a hunger for food. He found that strange but did not question her. The days of crawling from his own grave had been different-there was hunger then. Perhaps it was a vampire thing. Perhaps he was judging her reactions based on what he knew rather than this new terrain they were exploring together.

Now they were in the bathroom and she had jerked his trousers down his legs, not reacting to the prominent physical reaction her presence induced. She accepted him, then, in all aspects. This Buffy that had seen both sides of Heaven and Hell. This Buffy was with him when she didn't have to be. Trusting him now in her ritual of rebirth. She would baptize herself into a new life here-in this motel-and she wanted him there holding her as the water washed away the past and prepared her for the future.

Still, as she guided him backward into the shower, William broke through the surface, awed at her conviction. Just months ago, disgust. Months ago embarking on what might have turned into something had death not halted their journey. The softness in her eyes that he had embellished since he endured Glory's torture for the sake of protecting the Slayer's family-that softness had intensified to something he could not name. Something so potent, so powerful, that it took everything he was to stop himself from diminishing into tears once more.

The shower itself didn't take as long as it felt. For long seconds, he held her under the nozzle's assault. Watched the dirt that had accumulated from nowhere dance around the drain; felt her hair dampen beneath his touch. Felt moisture at his chest that didn't come from the shower. Felt her clutch at him as though demanding proof of her own tangibility.

"I feel like I've been sleeping a hundred years," she murmured thoughtfully. "But nothing's changed. Except me. And.everything I believed."

He smiled ironically. "That's not nothin' then, kitten," he mused. "Quite a bit's changed."

"You haven't."

A bitter light filled his eyes. Oh, if only that were true.

Living in a Buffyless world, though, who could help but to change? He had felt more with her dead than he had ever hoped to touch. All those months prior to Glory's tower, he had relied on love through pure infatuation. It had been love there toward the end; from the moment she kissed him in reward for doing what was natural. True, he had loved her through and through, but not quite as he had afterward.

Not so much as he had the moment he saw her broken, lifeless body bathed in the aftermath of war. In the sunlight where he could not reach her.

These last months without her, his love had all but destroyed him. For the memory of her. For the want of her. There was no healing something never expressed. No lamenting kisses that were never shared. Moments of lost ecstasy he had entertained over and over; the same that came to haunt him when she was no longer there.

Things he felt the world had condemned him for in the namesake of that which he should not want.

"I've changed," he murmured gently, massaging shampoo into her scalp. Eyes closing in bliss at the murmurs of encouragement that rumbled through her throat. Still expecting to wake up. Waiting for the cosmic joke to end. Waiting to open his eyes and find that none of this had happened.

Buffy shouldn't be alive. Shouldn't be with him. Shouldn't be choosing him over her friends.

God, but she was here. And he loved her so much.

She was trembling in his arms.

"No," she said, suddenly level with his eyes. Staring through him. The wondrous abyss of her. Letting him share this moment. Making him a better man for it. "I was horrible to you before," she murmured, and his mouth dropped open to counter with more logical notion that he deserved anything she dished. She pressed a finger to his lips before a word to the contrary touched the air. "No, Spike, you haven't. You just got older. Me, too. I feel like I've aged so much."

"You were gone one hundred an' forty-seven days," he replied lowly. "That's an eternity in some places."

The mirror was appropriately steamed over when they finally stepped out of the shower, obediently hiding his lack of reflection from the pinnacle of recognition. He toweled her dry and fished out a hairbrush from his bag of hair goodies selected randomly at their brief pit stop. He wrangled himself into his discarded jeans, sighing in relief when the boundary was between them once more. There hadn't been much in the mindset of pajamas at the 7-11; the best he had been able to procure was a camisole and a novelty pack of Sunnydale panties in the size he knew to be hers. If he had exhibited the forethought, he might have packed her an overnight bag with assorted sweaters and unmentionables that he had stolen in the height of his obsession.

He snickered as he read the design on the panties he had bought her. The sodding town wasn't even trying to be discreet anymore.

"What?" she asked a minute later, arching a brow at the plastic pack in his hand.

"Nothin'," he replied, tossing it to her. "Jus' gotta wonder how the tourists feel when they stop in some dump like that an' see variety packs of 'Welcome to the Hellmouth' underwear."

A ghost of a smile crossed Buffy's face and she flushed. "I just can't believe you bought me underwear."

"Well, as appetizin' as the alternative sounds, luv, I din't wanna presume anythin'." He grinned a bit, feeling more like himself. The Buffy he knew was beginning to show her head. God, he had missed her so much. More than he thought it possible to miss a person. Just being with her was surreal. Being with her like this was more than he deserved. "'Course," he continued a minute later, "that was before you volunteered us for a co-ed shower."

The red in her cheeks deepened.

Love her so fucking much. So much.

"I.there's something I should tell you." Buffy licked her lips and his heart developed that funny feeling that it should start thundering, despite improbability. "It's.I just wanted you to know. I remember thinking that I would tell you this if we, you know.made it out of the last thing alive. God, I almost told you so many times. So." She stopped and shook her head, visibly unaware of how hard she was trembling. "I almost said it the day that I told you the thing you did was real. Not everything, of course. I was only on the way to feeling what I feel now. But I stopped and I almost told you that you."

"You don' have to-"

"I almost told you that you could take your crumb. Take the whole damn cookie if you liked. You just.you were more then than I had ever seen. Just more. And it kept happening." Buffy expelled a deep breath. "I trusted you so much. Every time I.that last night.when we went to get weapons. I told the gang that I loved them. All of them." She raised her eyes slowly. "Yeah, I meant you, too. It was one of the things I was trying to say without saying. I couldn't say yes or no when you asked, but God, I almost did when you told me later that I could never love you. I was so close to telling you I already did."

The air in the motel went still, almost cold. There were tears running down his cheeks that he didn't remember shedding. He was standing there with Buffy. That morning she had been dead, and now she was with him. Telling him that she loved him. That she had before she died. That everything that was so richly above him was his. Words he had longed to hear forever. Words his mind had taunted him with when she was gone. When there was nothing left but the memory of what they could have had. Of what she was. The Slayer who was never his. The Slayer that belonged to a world higher than anything he could ever hope to offer.

"God, Buffy."

"I just couldn't tell you," she continued, looking away as fresh tears fought for freedom. Spilling down her cheeks, her face threatening to crumple. "I wanted to. I just.I was worried. A part of me knew that I was going to die, I think. And I was worried that if I told you that I loved you before I died, you would.I didn't know what I thought you would do. I just knew that Dawn couldn't stand to lose the both of us." She smiled best she could, wet strands of hair falling into her face. "I was going to tell you if we survived."

Spike glanced down. Here it was. A final testament. The last chance for the Powers to pull the rug from under his feet and declare everything that had happened tonight some cruel faux pas. A practical joke at his expense. Buffy alive was one thing; Buffy loving him, really loving him.that was something he hadn't even dared to dream. Not after she was gone.

"I love you, Spike," she said finally, the words just rolling off her tongue. "More now than I did. I felt you while I was there. I hurt with you. I wanted to.but I couldn't. Or you couldn't hear me. But I do love you. God, I love you so much."

That was all he could take. In seconds, he had thundered across the room, cupping her face and bringing her mouth to his. Tasting her lips with liberated passion, the warmth of her mouth so welcoming, so ravenous that he thought he might crumble at the potency of her hunger alone. She kissed him as though she had been waiting years to be kissed. Her tongue dueling his tongue, her arms around his throat, her body pressed against him intimately. And he knew then. Right then. That moment that came and went as so many moments do; he knew it was real. It was so real. Not a dream. Not a fucking dream. She was really here. She was really in his arms. His Buffy back. His Buffy loving him.

"God," he gasped, breaking away to pepper her throat with kisses. "God, I love you so much." Tears were second nature now; he had shed so many since last May that knowing he was crying was as ordinary as knowing it was morning or time to feed. "I've missed you so much. You were gone. I saw you lying there. Din't save you. Was too slow to save you." He collapsed against the bed in a montage of tearful kisses. Their enlightened grief mingled as one. "I've killed myself every night 'cause I didn't save you. Love you. Don' deserve this. Don'-"

"I love you, too," she whispered. "I'm so confused right now. So.they tore me out, but I knew that. I knew to find you. That you would take care of me." She shook her head. "I knew you loved me. Everything else.it's so real here. So cold and harsh and real."

"We'll get through this, sweetheart."

"You're with me."

He smiled and brushed her hair out of her face, unable to help himself from kissing her again. "Always with you. Whatever you need me for, I'm here."

"I need you with me."

"You have that." A sigh rolled off his shoulders. "Are you sure you're not hungry?"

The timely growl of her stomach between them answered that much for her.

"Maybe a little," she whispered.

He grinned. "Well, let's see what we can do about that."

*~*~*

He fell asleep with Buffy in his arms, lines of Shakespeare drowning out recognition for a side of him that had died years ago. I am
afeared, being in night, all this is but a dream
. That echoing resilience never truly died, no matter what logic offered for the alternative. Buffy was in his arms, her body wound around his. Her head resting on his chest, a leg draped casually over his denim-clad thigh. He spent hours staring at the pale, boring white of the ceiling. Listening to the sounds of sloppy fucking that filtered on all sides. He wondered if the Scoobies had told Dawn; how he would manage to get the Bit away from the others and bring her here. Bring her wherever they were. She needed her sis. Buffy needed family. He would be quite content to spend the rest of eternity looking over them; all she needed to do was ask.

Hours simply breathing her in. His skin saturated in the essence of Buffy. That fear that refused to die that if he let her out of his sight, if he allowed sleep to grasp him, all of this would be over.

A reiteration of the same. He couldn't help himself. She had been dead for one hundred and forty-seven days. A blink to a vampire; an eternity to a man.

Now she was in his arms. Her confession of love on constant replay, his heart warming almost painfully.

Stolen paradise never went unpunished.

At some point he must have drifted to sleep, for he awoke bathed in warmth. Felt the sun struggling with the blinds in need of entrance. Hours stolen away on the eve of some night he would remember forever. The steady roll of a feminine heartbeat thrumming just beneath his touch. Soft lips caressing his face in gentle wake, his eyes opening to the beauty of her inquiring gaze.

He drew in a sharp breath as she looked at him-that look was universal. Something he had once manufactured beneath identical eyes as some sick substitute. Her pulse was racing, her breaths coming fast but steady. Buffy in his bed.

Buffy casting herself astride his prone hips, nipples peaking through the cotton of her camisole. Shades of love radiating behind her touch as inquisitive fingers trailed his chest slowly, her pelvis performing an erotic dance against his swelling need. There was uncertainty again; the same that she had reflected all through the prior night. The fear that bounced off her cells and collided with his own. But still, love warmed her touch. Cautious. Exploratory. But god, she felt so fucking real.

Suddenly, he was wide awake.

"Buffy-"

She held a finger to his lips, insecurity replaced with a small, albeit sincere smile. "Good morning," she said, her head lowering to taste the skin at his throat. Her teeth gliding over Drusilla's claim mark without thought-or perhaps because of it-prompting him to buck his aching erection into her dampened center. God, she was already so wet. Her womanly scent filled his nostrils and teased his tastebuds.

He silently commended himself on resisting the temptation to sleep in the nude. Granted she was still wearing the Welcome to the Hellmouth panties he had bought her along with that tank that left very little to the imagination; he doubted his stamina could resist the enticement of her moving like this over his bare skin.

"Buffy." Spike's eyes rolled shut, his hands subconsciously gliding up her arms, then down again until he was cupping her breasts. "What are you.Jesus...."

"I dreamt of things last night," she replied, her own touch abandoning him to find his hands with the encouragement to squeeze. Her flesh felt so warm. So vibrant. His fingers took to her pebbled nipples as they poked at the fabric separating them, and he was sure his heart was surprised back into living at her heady gasp. "I was warm."

"You are warm, baby," he replied honestly. One disobedient hand deserted her breast to scale down her front. God, he had to stop before stopping was impossible. Didn't she know what she was doing to him? Couldn't she feel.god. "You're so warm. Gonna burn me till there's nothin' left."

A sigh trembled through her body. "No. I dreamt.the cold went away. The cold from last night. I feel like I've been back for years. I was gone and now I'm back.but it feels like years went by." She had voiced much of the same the night before, though in a different context. Could years pass in a single night? Had she progressed that much? He didn't think so, but the notion eased his conscience all the same.

Perhaps he had taken care of her as she had known he would. Just last night-given her what she needed.

"You made the cold go away," she murmured. "I woke up and it was warm. You made me warm, Spike."

Nimble fingers slid over the barrier that guarded her wetness. Bliss cascaded over her eyes, and she whimpered her encouragement.

"Gahh." Spike threw his head back. "Buffy. Tell me to stop. Please. You're drivin' me crazy. Outta my bloody mind." His pleading eyes found hers, wide and needy. "God.tell me to stop. You gotta tell me."

Not ready. She wasn't ready for this. She hadn't yet been alive for twenty-four hours. There was no way she was ready for this. Just last night she had told him she loved him. That alone was more than he ever thought himself worthy. And now, with the air spiced with her scent and his arousal growing so potent just for the presence of her that he felt stupidly akin to his first time with Drusilla so many years ago.only more so.

Drusilla was his guide. Buffy was his destination. Through his dark princess, he had met his golden goddess. Never one for the other again. He would slay dragons before he let them take her away. Sacrifice himself for the world so that he didn't have to know the agony of living in one without her in it.

"I don't want you to stop," Buffy said, her voice flooding with emotion. "I dreamt of Heaven last night. It felt far away, but I felt it. I felt everything. I was warm and loved.and I woke up, and you were here." His body constricted with astonishment. "I'm not saying I'm all right. I'm not. I." Her skin quivered and he sat up slowly, drawing her into his arms, and she sighed against his shoulder. "I feel like a part of me is missing. They stole something that I need."

"Buffy-"

"I don't know anything anymore. This.I'm." Buffy's head dropped, but her eyes found his in seconds. Strong, then. Certain. "You're what I'm sure of. Right now. You're the one.God, I don't know what I'd do if you hadn't found me last night."

"I'd've found you," he replied. "If you were back, I'd've found you. But." He sighed his apprehension, trying his damndest to ignore the fact that he was touching her in ways he never presumed he would be allowed. The fact that he had one perfect breast under his fingers, her pert nipple begging for his mouth as his other hand pressed against the sodden cotton guarding her pussy. He had barely touched her and she was already.god, he yearned to bury himself in her heat. The thought of her flesh molding around him broke through the strain of what was right and wrong. So many years of lust, this last year of loving her so much and getting nothing in return. Surviving her death only to live it every night until the last.

But this wasn't about him. He couldn't let her do something now that she would regret. God, he never wanted to be one of her regrets. The prospect of doing something that would ruin the closeness they had obtained just over a period of hours terrified him. If he went through with this.if he gave in.

"Buffy," he murmured gently, trying and failing to harness the passion that threatened to conquer his voice. "We don' have to do this now. I'll wait for you till the end of time. I-"

"It's not." She pulled back slightly, cupping his cheek. "You're the reason I'm here. Why I'm warm. You.I don't know what you did, but last night.it felt like.maybe nothing had changed. No time has passed. You gave me what I needed. And I do love you, Spike. I should've said it before I died, but I.I just." Another quivering breath tumbled through her lips. "I watched you. I loved you then, too. And your warmth kept me.I don't even know how to explain it." Buffy glanced down again. "Last night, it seemed I lived and died centuries before you found me. That warmth was taken from me.you were taken from me. When I was dead, you were just there. Now I have.I just love you. And I need you now."

Spike stared at her in awe, every cell in his body numbed with an emotion misplaced from his realm of understanding. Just in a fracture of seconds, his plateau conquered. Everything he had ever tried to reach, tried to grasp, here now in his arms. And for all else, he couldn't help from falling past that last boundary. His mouth found hers hungrily, drunk with the first taste. He explored every inch of her cavern, fingers slipping under the elastic of her panties. Mingled gasps touched the air; her warm wetness flooding him at the slightest touch. He drowned in her scent, drinking her in, unable to quench his thirst.

"Oh God," he murmured against her lips, forcing himself away for just a minute to tug the camisole over her head. Baring her breasts to his hungry mouth. He suckled at a nipple, growling into her skin as his baser instincts overturned his intent. The next second, he had her under him, her panties ripped from her body and stuffed into the back pocket of his jeans. Her body a haven for his touch.

"I love you so much," he gasped. "Every day you weren't here.I died over an' over again." He whimpered as her fingers pried his jeans open, prodding the trousers down his legs with her own. A cool slide, then her hand was around his cock, and he was dying all over again in an inferno of majesty. He shuddered and moaned at her touch, the feeling coursing through him incomparable to any form of bliss he had ever thought to experience. The first. She was alive again, and he was her first. Her bloody only, if he had anything to say about it. Her soft kisses against his throat alone were doing him in, every stroke another loose ribbon of his undoing.

He murmured her name reverently, sliding two fingers into her as his thumb caressed her clit with genteel veneration. Liquid fire drenched his hand and his nostrils flared. Her own hand tightened around him, beginning a slow track up and down his length, her thumb caressing his belled head innocently enough to be an afterthought had her eyes not smoldered at the whimper that tumbled from his lips.

"You're so beautiful," he gasped, then choked a sob. God, he was really here. She was alive and she was beneath him. Her hand was on his cock, her thumb now rubbing circles into his head. His own touch was inside her. Buffy was alive. And she loved him. The pain of the past few months diminishing, he had her now. And he would never let her go. Not for anything. Never. Let the world perish first; he would be dust before he lost her again.

The fact that he had lost her once killed him enough. Never again.

"I can't wait," she gasped, pelvis thrusting forward. "Spike, please."

He dropped a worshipful kiss at the corner of her mouth, his own hand turning to his cock to position himself. At the slightest touch, the hint of her arousal scorched his insides. He lathered his length with her juices before turning his fingers to his mouth, savoring her taste. "Should wait," he murmured in contradiction, even as his hips began sliding forward. Jesus Christ, she was so tight. A haven of bliss awaiting him at the end of his tunnel. Bathed suddenly in light. A tangle of poetic verses sputtered in need of release, but he held back. His eyes shut. Concentrating on the fullness of her. Buffy. With him. Under him. Her flesh wrapped around him. So much. It was so much.

The moan that tore from her lips didn't help that resolve. They were joined completely, fully. Taking that extra measure from where they had been just a few hours ago. And there was no longer a motel room. No longer a hellmouth to tend to. Just them. The sublime liberation of being one.

How very fitting, he mused carelessly as he drew himself back, the tip of him teasing her wet folds as another gasp scratched at her throat. The very act that symbolized a celebration of life, a bond forged of trust and love. No death. Death was not allowed in this room.

She was so warm. So tight. So perfect. And he was lost. Eternally lost and more so damned for tainting such purity with his unworthy presence. But more so, he didn't care. Buffy loved him. As he began to move within her in earnest, that one thought remained above all others. Buffy loved him. Buffy was alive. She was smiling at him through her tears, her fingers laced with his. The slow slide of flesh from her haven and back again. He was so bloody lost, and fuck if he ever found his way back. There was no heaven after this. There was nothing after being one with Buffy.

"Oh Jesus," he murmured rapturously, indulging slow thrusts that would surely be the end of him. His more carnal instincts urged him to slam into her, but he ignored them all for the ecstasy of this. He had fucked before. Fast, hard, meaningless; a thousand different venues with women who could give two shits about him if that. The love in Buffy's eyes was something he had never seen. Nor the awe at every inward plunge. Striking her perfectly. Feeling her walls tighten around him. Her ambrosia coating his length, her hand squeezing his hand back to life.

It was real.

Spike's head found purchase at her shoulder, his thrusts gaining slow momentum. Need now above all else. The scent wafting from her skin intoxicated him. The mewls tumbling through her throat striking an opus of epiphany. He panted needlessly against her skin, his hands abandoning hers to play across her body. Cupping her breasts, tweaking her nipples; teasing his lips for their fortune before he couldn't help but taste her. Laving a wet path around her areola before suckling her fully into his mouth.

"Buffy," he whimpered, blowing a steam of cool air across her breast. "Fuck, you feel so good."

"Uhhh."

"Never felt anythin' like this. You're perfect." His thrusts quickened at that, prying fingers skating across her abdomen, drawn irrevocably to where they were joined. His cock enveloped in her pussy again and again, touching forgotten strands of heaven with every parry. Her hips rising rhythmically to recapture him. The sounds tumbling from her lips driving him wild. "I love you so much. Feel so good. So hot. Never, Buffy. Never before. Never again. Love you much. God, tell me this is real. Please be real. I couldn't bear it if you weren't real."

Right selfish of him, but he couldn't help the words from escaping. At that moment, where she was didn't matter to him. At that moment, he needed her with him regardless of all else. Her nails scratched at his back, hooking into his forearms and bidding his ocean gaze upward once more. The picture she presented.god, he lost himself all over again. Her eyes were glossed over with passion, heady little gasps for air tumbling from her lips. "Spike," she sighed, the roll of his name off her tongue invigorating his need, and his thrusts grew more frantic. Slip and slide, again and again. She got tighter and wetter at each turn. "It's real."

Two simple words finally voiced in a world that was no longer sure of itself.

It was real. So fucking real.

His fingers found her quim, felt where he was sinking deeper only to pull back before he lost himself altogether. He massaged her tenderly, watching her face as her eyes rolled back. Lips finding her throat and lapping at the beads of sweat. Blessing each of them for existing. Traveling the length of her collarbone before finding her breasts again. His teeth teased her nipples alternatively, his hand at her center caressing her with growing frenzy. Willing her to fall over that last edge. He was so close he could barely see straight. The immediacy of his orgasm forgotten, though, for her need. He pushed himself back and propelled himself forward in the same leap. Giving her as much of himself as possible without losing sight of his own balance. This bliss was not for him. Never for him. Just borrowed.

When she came, it was a symphony of explosion, her body clenching around him, grasping him and pulling him over with her. His hips surging forward as she crashed around him in waves. Her scream of release bouncing off the walls, putting all similar endeavors to flat shame. Pure sensationalism rippling through her skin under his touch, gasping breaths for air reverberating through his body. Needless pants, his skin coated in sweat. The feel of her shooting through him, her scent all around him. Lost again in the wonder that was Buffy. His Buffy. His. Fucking his. Someday, he would make that final. Someday. Not now.

There would be a someday, though.

He had reached the heavens and tumbled back to earth to a sanctuary made out of some place he would likely never see again. He knew perfection now. Knew where it lived. Beneath the goodness and want of it, the purity he had tainted in the namesake of love. There always. With him always. The echoes of her release quivered through him. As though he felt them both with equal potency.

He rolled them to their sides as a last measure of coherent thought, cock still hard, still buried within her warmth. A sanctuary he never wanted to leave. Being a part of her-the privilege of being a part of her-made the entire little experimentation of his existence so fucking beyond worth it.

Loving her, sharing that part.there were no words.

He would show her everything. Worship her from head to toe. He wanted to taste her. Roll her ambrosia on his tongue and lap at her sweet pussy. Wanted to show her worlds he had toured before and watch them unfold with newborn eyes. Wanted to discover new worlds and explore them together. Wanted to feel her around him till the end of days. Now and forever.

They had that waiting for them tomorrow. Today was a day where living was found again. A day dedicated to her. He would find for her a Garden of Eden. He would make for her here exactly what she had wherever she had been.

No one could love her more.

Soon. Soon it would be okay. Soon they could return to the others. She would see her sister and perhaps the Scoobies would understand. If they didn't, he would play it like she wanted. If she wanted to leave, he would take her wherever her heart desired. If she wanted to stay, he would shower her with gifts beyond her wildest imagination.

Until then-until tomorrow-they had this. The simple joy of being. And that was enough.

"I love you," Buffy whispered, and his eyes found hers in adulation. "I love you so much, Spike."

A smile graced his lips. "I love you, too."

In the interim, that simple knowledge was all that mattered.

On the morn of the one hundred and forty-ninth day, there would be no more bereavement. The storm ahead could wait. When the clouds opened, they would walk through hand-in-hand. Joined. Together.

Penance in another wake. Another day. Not now.

Now, there was only solace.


The End.

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