The cool fall rain is light on my windshield, and the cloudy sky matches my melancholy mood. The streets of the small Oklahoma city are filling with tears from the heavens.
As long as I keep my foot on the gas pedal, I’ll be okay. I have the music pounding in my ears. I have the steady click of the windshield wipers to keep me company. I have a diet Coke with fresh ice that I bought at the gas station. And I have the steady motion of the car.
They’re all excellent distracters from my pounding heart and the short little gasps that spill from lips every few minutes.
The light turns red. Damn it.
I lower my foot against the brake until I’m safely stopped. In that moment, the radio goes static.
I’m annoyed because there isn’t enough storm activity to be interfering with the signal, and I punch the settings to no avail until my temper soars.
Tears fill my eyes, and I hit my hand against the power button, shutting away the noise.
Now I have to deal with me.
I left before he could.
I do that every time.
And I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been left in the past.
The pain of being left behind is exquisite. . . like the harsh rising sun that cuts diagonal through the air to slice into your eyes when you peer at the sky without squinting.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve left him so many times before that it’s easy for me.
The look in his sapphire eyes was the same as it was all the other times. His pain would have been my pain, but I prevented it by locking myself away from the feelings.
The light turns green, and it’s too late.
I’m already drenched in the memories of the last few days.
Some people say you should never look back. . . that even glancing in the rearview mirror at your life can lead to stagnation and uncertainty.
But do I ever listen?
Angel phoned to tell me Spike was back.
When I asked how long, Angel said Spike had been back two days.
So, of course, I dropped everything without thinking. I told Giles, Dawn, and the others that I was going to see Spike. . . as Angel had once dropped everything to meet me after I died and rose again. No one said a word at my choice, and if they had, I would have gone anyway. Dawn even helped me pack.
Spike and I planned to meet in a small Oklahoma city with a name I couldn’t recall, two gas stations, and a Wal-mart. The city also had an infamous motel with a sign that was blown crooked by a tornado that once came too close for comfort. . . at least, that’s what the man at the Texaco station told me when I stopped to ask for directions.
It was early evening when I got to the motel. Spike hadn’t arrived.
The lady behind the counter gave me the once over but hardly lifted an eyebrow as she popped her bubble gum and handed me a key attached to a large ratty piece of plastic that I’m sure had been places I didn’t want to know about.
I opened the door to room 78A to be greeted by the icy blast of the air conditioner that was turned up too high. I shivered; I’ve always been cold-natured.
After several minutes of fumbling with the cover of the rattling window unit, I managed to remove it without breaking the plastic and turned off the machine.
Then, I set about to do things I knew would make me feel better.
I unpacked the small suitcase and cooler I’d hastily packed.
In the cooler, I’d stored two diet Cokes for me and three packets of pig’s blood. . . not for me. I went to the ice machine to re-fill the cooler with solid ice, and then, I unpacked the light cotton dress that I tended to wear when I wanted to feel attractive but comfortable. The material was warm against my skin from being in the trunk of the rental car.
Then, I entered the bathroom.
My hands shook as I washed my face.
I pressed a white towel that smelled of bleach and baby powder to my face, and as I wiped away the water, I peered at my dripping face in the mirror. How would he react to seeing me? I studied my face.
My wide, green eyes were clear, but I had circles under them. I hadn’t slept too well since he’d been gone. My skin was a bit pale because I hadn’t been eating either. I wonder if he would notice how sad I’d been.
I propped one leg in the sink and began shaving my legs with the razor I’d brought. I often did this when shaving. Spike had seen me do it once in the kitchen sink this last year when all the slayers-in-training were monopolizing the bathroom.
“Never thought I’d see a Slayer shaving her legs in the kitchen sink,” he’d said every time a new slayer-in-training came to the house and marveled at the numbers of people living with us. Embarrassed the hell out of me, but secretly, I believed he thought watching me shave my legs was sexy.
I gave a small yelp as I cut my right leg. The bright red streak trailed down my leg on a curvy path, and my brain had a delayed reaction to the sting of shaving gel hitting the tiny wound.
Physical pain provided a nice little reality check sometimes.
After several seconds, the wound ceased bleeding of its own accord.
As I rinsed and dried my leg, I tried to recall if I’d noticed how he’d felt after I came back from the dead. The only thing I could recall was the scarlet red of the blood on his hand from when he’d pounded on something right before I entered his crypt.
A knock on the door made me jump.
My shaving forgotten and my heart in my throat, I ran to the door.
I tried to interpret the soft knock. Was it tentative? Was he not sure if he wanted to see me?
Although I was tempted to peer through the peephole at him, I decided that I would just brave him head on. Impulsively, I sucked in a deep breath, plastered what I hoped wasn’t a huge grin on my face, swung open the door.
He stood there with one arm leaning against the doorframe, wearing black jeans and a black button-down shirt that hung un-tucked and loose about his hips. His head was down, and his bleached curls were a bit tousled as if he’d been running his hands nervously through his hair.
When he peered up at me, his brilliant blue eyes shining with something I couldn’t quite read, I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him with all the fierceness I could muster. Hesitantly, he put his arms around my waist, and then, all of a sudden, he was embracing me back.
My emotions pressed through the cracks in the dam I’d prepared, and I sobbed against him, inhaling his scent of cigarettes and peppermints and relishing the familiar coolness of his body against mine.
Without saying a word, he pushed me back gently and smiled at me.
“Still a vampire, huh?” I managed, wiping away the tears on my cheeks.
“Ever so, pet,” he whispered.
He didn’t say anything else, and I didn’t know what to do next because I couldn’t believe he was real.
My world still hadn’t gained a sense of normalcy yet. . . not when I was still trying to find a new home with Dawn in Cleveland and start a new program for the now hundreds of Slayers all over the world. My days were so busy that I hardly had time to think about the impact of the loss. . . his loss. . . the loss of Spike.
And now he was present. . . alive. . . undead, and my brain couldn’t fathom the chasm that was filled again.
“Can I come in?” His tone carried a touch of amusement.
I hastily stepped back. “O-of course.” I felt a bit like Tara when she was shy, stumbling over her words.
Playing on my uncertainty, he didn’t hesitate and entered, choosing a place on the queen-sized bed in the middle of the room. As he sat back on his hands, he ran his open palms over the tattered comforter, and I blushed.
“There weren’t any rooms with two beds,” I explained, shutting the door to the darkness with a soft click.
He smiled. “It’s okay.”
I perched on the edge of one of the chairs near the bed and regarded him. Should I start?
He decided for me.
“How have you been?” he asked as if we hadn’t seen each other in years.
It had only been three months, two weeks, and five days, but who said I was counting? He had counted when I’d been gone; I was allowed the same right.
“Fine.” His smile remained in place, encouraging me, and I continued, “I’ve been in Cleveland.” Where have you been?
“Oh? Setting up to protect another hellmouth?”
I nodded. “Uh huh. You wouldn’t believe the heightened demon activity since Sunnydale closed for business.”
“I’ll bet. I’ve heard of that happening before,” he said with an air of authority that told me that he was okay.
I narrowed my eyes at him, finding a cadence to talking with him again. “Where’d you hear that?”
“You live for over a hundred years, pet, you read a lot of books.” He was watching me with such a penetrating gaze that I felt half-naked and very self-conscious of my unshaved leg.
I shifted in my seat and covered my discomfort with sarcasm, “Oh. You read?”
I knew he did; when we’d. . . been sleeping together, I’d once woken to find him curled in his recliner, reading a book of Shakespeare with a pair of unnecessary glasses on the end of his nose. He’d told me that the glasses made him feel half-human, and I’d reminded him that he *was* half-human, emphasis on the other half being evil.
Emitting a chuckle, he winked at me, and I thought I might melt into the carpet. “You know I do. Pet, there are some things. . .”
Before he could finish his thought, I bounced up, nervous as a schoolgirl and hurried to the cooler I’d set on the short chest of drawers across the room, careful to avoid his eyes. “I brought you some blood, you hungry?” I flipped open the lid of the cooler and held up a dripping packet with false bravado. “See?”
His expression remained serious. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now.” He hesitated and then said, “Buffy, come here.”
Spike never used my name unless it was important. He’d always been inclined to call me all sorts of nicknames. . . some of which I could never say aloud without getting flustered. It’s a funny feeling. . . being around someone you used to do such private things with. . . things you haven’t done with them in a long while. The feeling was an odd mix of detachment and something so vibrant it was almost tangible.
I obeyed but didn’t put all my weight down on the bed next to him. “What about?” My eyes were wide and innocent, but I knew what he was going to say.
His left hand lifted and scooped my hand into his. My hand was heavy and small against his palm. He wouldn’t look at me, and I held my breath and waited. “Buffy, I wasn’t in any form of afterlife.”
My head shot up in surprise. I knew he’d bring this up, but I hadn’t expected that tidbit. More times than I could count, I’d worried that even after saving the world, he’d been sent to a hell dimension. On the good days, I’d sometimes allowed myself to consider that he’d gone to a peaceful dimension. . . a nice form of heaven for reformed demons.
“Where were you then?” I asked, my words coming out with an edge of harshness that I hadn’t wanted.
He squeezed my hand. “I’m not sure.”
“It was as if time didn’t pass between me burning to a crisp and Angel releasing me from the medallion.”
I frowned. Angel hadn’t told me that part. “He released you?”
“Yeah. Apparently, as the hellmouth was closing, my essence was somehow sucked into the medallion, and Angel received it in a package several weeks later.”
“In a package? How?” I twisted my hand to loosen his grip and realized I was relaxing.
“Dunno. Lab girl ran all sorts of tests on the pouch and on the medallion, but nothing came. . .”
“Lab girl?” I interrupted.
Spike grinned, and I was relieved to learn that he was still the same Spike. “Fred. You might have heard Willow talk about her. Apparently, Red had a bit of a crush on her.”
“Is she pretty?” I asked without thinking about how I sounded like some silly teenager, jealous of someone I’d never seen.
“Very,” he confirmed with wry humor, and I scowled, knowing that he’d said it just to piss me off.
“So nothing?” I asked.
A giggle bubbled forth from nowhere. “I’d have loved to have seen Angel’s face when you showed up. I bet he laid an egg or two.”
“He laid a dozen and so did all his colleagues. We made omelets. And somehow, despite the successful breakfast, I still don’t think they’ve forgiven me for interrupting their tranquil beginnings at the ole evil law firm.” I returned his grin, and he added, “Harmony was happy to see me though.”
“She’s Angel’s new secretary. . .” Spike rolled his eyes. “Excuse me. . . office assistant.”
“What’s she going to assist him with? The only things she knows how to file are her nails.” Before Harmony had been turned into a vampire, she’d gone to high school with me. She and Cordelia had always been on me about my sad fashion sense and the quality of my complexion. Cordy was in a coma. I mentally shook myself; I didn’t want to go there now.
Spike laughed, and this time it was unfettered. “You’re right there. I believe she has a couple of assistants to help her.”
“Assistants for the assistant? Now that’s not something you hear about everyday.” My arm was getting tired, so I scooted closer to him, my forearm resting on his.
Spike brushed his thumb across the back of my hand. “Well, the law firm is extremely large. I couldn’t find my way around it with a compass, a map, *and* a bloodhound.”
“I can’t even imagine. Angel must have a lot of resources at his disposal now.” I frowned. “He must be worried about their motives.”
“He is. Probably not as much as he should be, but he is.” Spike could be impulsive sometimes, but he’d never been stupid. In fact, he could sometimes be too observant for his own good, and that’s when he usually opened his mouth. “And haven’t you spoken with him about all this? I figured you two talked quite a lot, especially with all the recent. . . changes.”
Spike was feeling me out as I felt him out. I couldn’t forget that. “No, actually, I haven’t spoken to him since we made it out to Cleveland.”
“How’s Dawn?” Spike asked. For reasons I still didn’t fully understand, Dawn was like a little sister to him. They hadn’t been as close the last couple of years, but I knew their ties were still strong.
“She’s fine. She misses you, and she sent you something. It’s in my bag. I’ll give it to you later.”
Spike’s eyes sparkled at Dawn’s thoughtfulness, but I could detect some worry as well. “It’s not going to set me on fire is it? She said if I ever hurt you. . .”
“No,” I reassured, patting his arm with my free hand. “It’s actually just a card and a music mix she thought you’d like. She’s been downloading like a mad woman since we have access to Giles’s cable modem.”
“*Giles* got a cable modem?” Spike was incredulous.
“Uh huh. Part of the whole training program he’s starting for the Slayers. Willow’s helping him set it up.”
“Really. Watcher’s moving into the twentieth century then? Oh, wait, it’s the twenty-first century.”
I punched him lightly. “Hey. Giles is a good guy.”
Spike raised his eyebrows. “He tried to have me killed, pet.”
I tried to find the simplest way to put it. “Things were crazy. We’ve had quite a few heart-to-hearts since, and he was feeling desperate. We all were with the First being so unpredictable and our resources so outmatched.”
Spike accepted my explanation, but I could tell he wasn’t fully convinced and probably never would be. “Right.” He paused, his face softening. “I wanted to thank you.”
“For meeting me here and. . . for believing in me back in Sunnydale. I don’t think I deserved your belief in me.” He was closer to me than he had been, and I licked my lips because they were starting to tingle.
I regarded him, allowing myself to search his eyes without shields for the first time since his arrival on my doorstep. “You believed in me. I believed in you. It’s called trust.”
Spike’s free hand caressed my cheek, and I felt a tiny electric current fly over my skin and down through my stomach to places that I hadn’t expected to be touched, and I stifled a moan.
Did I trust him now?
My body said I did, and I followed my instincts, bringing my lips to his with a tenderness I’d only once expressed to him. His mouth was firm but pliable, allowing me to take the lead, and I led us. . . never hesitating. . . to the honeyed edge of oblivion and beyond.
Indirect sunlight woke me, and I snuggled down further under the covers, drawing closer to him. Even though his body temperature was much lower than mine, my heat raised his, making him like a blanket cocooning me. My senses came rushing back in full force, and I experienced a warm shiver of delight at the pleasures shared the previous night.
We’d only made love once, too grateful to be in each other’s arms again, and we’d slept the heavy sleep of relief. . . the sleep of returning home after a long journey when you inhale the familiar scent and rush around to make sure everything you left behind is still whole and present.
I pushed my hips closer to his at the memory of our intimacy and was happy to feel his renewed desire pulsing against me. He sighed in his sleep then, and I drew his arm over me, trying not to think about what his fingers could do to me. . . roving over my breasts and hips and touching my. . .
I could lay there forever.
But nothing lasted forever.
And therein lay my downfall.
Even as I remained still beside the one person who knew everything about me and still believed in me, I held my breath; I felt it coming for me.
And I knew I had to run.
I hated that part of me. . . that always ran from the possibility of love.
But I had to keep moving, or I’d never be safe. If I couldn’t prevent the world of demons and death and destruction from destroying my life, I could prevent love from doing so. The one thing I could control was the breaking of my heart.
Love was more dangerous than any monster I’d ever faced. And everyone I’d loved had at some point been taken away from me. . . had left me.
The thought of him being gone again gave me energy, and I rose, pulling on my discarded clothing. I tiptoed around the room, picking up my things. Finally, I stood over him, suitcase in one hand and keys in the other. I was leaving the cooler for him as a last ditch effort at taking care of him.
My running didn’t mean I didn’t trust him. . . it meant I didn’t trust myself not to fall apart if things got scary or rough. . . or if something happened to him again.
Too late, I caught him staring at me, eyes dark with anger, disbelief, and hurt that slowly changed to acceptance. The sharpness of his eyes contrasted with the mess of his hair and the vulnerable nakedness of his bare chest beneath the thin sheets.
He didn’t say one word.
He simply closed those beautiful eyes of his. . . closed his oh-so-human soul to me. . .
And I fled the tiny room we shared. . . fled the motel. . .
. . . fled myself.
I didn’t let myself look back. . .
. . . until now.
Granted, it’s only about ten blocks later.
To my mind, the tears have come a little too soon for comfort; to my heart, they can’t come soon enough, and the liquid splashes over my cheeks in hot rivulets, blurring my vision.
Now, the rain is pelting harder, and I’m determined not to listen to my tears. I just have to drive faster.
The gas pedal slides down with ease beneath my foot, and the car lurches forward just as a small farming truck pulls in front of me.
I glance in the rearview mirror. And despite my tears, the car behind me is traveling too close. . . it’s metal frame is large and clear and close. My stomach flips.
I have no choice.
I slam on the brakes and attempt to swerve, but the road is too slick, and I lose control of the vehicle, hydroplaning over the sheet of water until my passenger side door slams into the side of the turning truck.
My body jerks against the straining seatbelt, and the airbag flies in my face in a white cloud of powder and synthetic material. I sit for I don’t know how many minutes in stunned silence as the rain pours harder around me.
Then, without warning, the rain stops flowing from the sky.
I clamor out of my car, not bothering to check the damage and hurry to the truck. The man is awake but stunned, so I take out my cell phone and dial 911. I explain the situation. The car that had been behind me apparently escaped the fray and drove beyond the mess.
And then, I know what I have to do.
I leave everything behind. This time, I don’t even bother with my identification. I hand the shocked man my driver’s license and insurance card and leave everything else.
My feet splash through the puddles as I run, destroying my new leather boots and drenching my jeans. The wind whistles over my ears, and I inhale the fresh, clean scent of rain. I hear the sounds of sirens in the distance, but I ignore them, forcing my legs to go faster. I have Slayer strength and speed, and this time, I use them to my advantage, and before I know it, I’m back at the motel where Spike and I spent the night. . . where we took our connection a step further than before our battle with the First Evil. . . .
I find 78A.
He’s gone, and I’ve missed him. My heart plummets, but I force my mind to work.
If I were Spike, where would I go?
It’s daylight. The skies were overcast, but now the sun is streaming through. His car windows weren’t tinted because he drove from the airport in Oklahoma City in a rental car. He can’t have gone far.
Taking a moment to orient myself, I recognize the stab of pain shooting through my neck and feel a wave of dizziness threatening to overcome me. I must have hurt myself in the accident more than I realized.
I don’ t have time for that pain now. My heart hurts worse.
Locating the garish green sign reading, “Oklahoma City 37,” I let my emotions carry my feet, and I run toward the highway that passes nearby. It’s only a few miles to the six-lane road and the overpass.
The shaded area beneath the highway is where I hope to find him.
My hair streaming behind me in a blonde curtain, I spy the road while in motion, and I think I glimpse an object that looks like a vehicle underneath. I can’t recall what Spike drove to meet me, and I’m annoyed with myself for not paying better attention.
Within a handful of minutes, I’m within twenty yards of the overpass, and I slow to a trot, trepidation nipping at my heels. My breath returns to a normal rate as I walk, and I wish that I had longer legs with which to cover the ground more quickly.
The gray car is like a mirage against the gray clouds moving toward Oklahoma City, and I can’t make out a figure in its interior.
I am aware of nothing around me other than my target.
The driver side door is open, and I hurry to peer in.
My stomach seizes.
The belly of the vehicle is empty. . . free of any signs of occupancy.
I let my body take control, and I slip to my knees, fingers tracing the metal of the doorframe. Gravel cuts into my flesh, and I take no notice.
He’s not here.
My hurt is too deep for tears or sound. I feel as if someone has taken a knife and carved a hole in my belly, spilling my guts onto the ground.
I had been banking on his presence here, and I don’t know what to do next. It seems like it should be simple, but my mind can’t even handle that at the moment.
Then, a voice resounds with a tinge of anger but also with something I can only label quiet mirth, “So, find what you’re looking for, Slayer?”
I sense him standing over me. . . near me but apart.
A feeling of loss digs into my soul.
Tears fill my eyes again. I seem to be good at crying the last couple of days.
With great effort, my voice comes out clear, “I’m good at ruining things, aren’t I?”
I look up at him, and his face is a mask of neutrality. The only sign that he’s at all moved by what’s happened is that he’s wearing the same clothing as yesterday.
His calm lets me show my emotions, and I pivot on the ground so that I’m facing him. A tangle of questions that neither of us can answer tumbles from my mouth, “Why do you put up with me? Why can’t I just be excited that you’re back? Why do I run away from everyone?” I might as well be asking, “Why am I me, and why are you you?”
He merely blinks at me, and I bury my head in my hands. I can’t stand him not saying anything. . . not telling me to go to hell.
My words are muffled against my fingers, “Why do I fuck up everything good in my life?”
He squats in front of me, taking pains not to make contact with me. “Haven’t I already told you, Buffy, how scared I am? All I have to do is touch you, and I’m more defenseless than I’ve ever been with anyone. And. . . and it took me a while to see that you feel the same.”
“But why do I always want to run away and you always want to stay?”
He sighs, and I’m just happy for any display of emotion from him. “I don’t know, pet. I don’t know.”
My confusion continues to reign in the silence marking the separation between the two of us.
And then, as an afterthought, he adds, “I just think maybe it comes down to trust.”
“I trust you,” I insist, daring to peek at him. “I do.”
His hands dangle between his legs as he shifts on his feet. “That’s not what I mean. I know you trust me. I trust you, too.” I wait, and he crosses the line, picking up my hand. “You don’t trust yourself.”
“Oh.” I duck my head again.
“At least, not when it comes to matters of the heart. I understand that. You’ve been hurt quite a bit. And I think, pet, you won’t be able to make a go at it with anyone until you learn to trust yourself.”
“I’m sorry.” I try to put all my regrets into that one statement. I don’t have words to express my overwhelming feelings any further.
His fingers thread through my hair, and his hand cradles my head. “Now, I don’t want you to use what I’m saying as another reason to beat yourself up. I’m not condemning you. God knows, I have my own faults.”
I nuzzle my head against his palm, uncertain if I’m quite ready to allow a positive emotion through. “Understatement of the year. . . no, the century!”
“Ha, bloody, ha.”
I sober. “So, how do I learn to trust myself?”
“I don’t know, but I know one thing. You won’t have to do it alone.”
“What do you mean?” I have to hear him say it aloud.
His eyes are bright with life again. “‘Cause if you’ll have me, I’m willing to walk the road with you.”
I sniff and laugh through my fresh tears. “Even if I’m a crazy loon who doesn’t know what she wants half the time?”
He cocks his head and grins. “Hey, you know I like my women a little bit on the insane side. I’m never bored that way.”
“Please. . . no comparisons to Dru.”
“Only if you won’t compare me to Angel.”
I tick the list off on my fingers. “Got it. No running away. Check. No comparisons to Angel. Check. Learn to trust myself, so I can give more to myself and to you. Check. Remember that you’re as scared as I am. Check. Anything else to add to the list?”
“Lord, pet, I think that’s plenty.” He stands and draws me into the front seat of the car with him, and I snuggle against the warm fire of his spirit. His voice rumbles in his chest as he adds, “Oh, and always, always look in the rearview mirror to see where you’ve come from.”
I am skeptical. “Why’s that?”
“So you can get your bearings.”
“I saw you coming after me, pet. I was driving away from that blasted motel, and I looked back,” he whispers against my ear. “You want to look back, so you can see where you’ve come from, what you learned, and where you want to go when you turn back around.”
I smile, content with the knowledge that I’d done just that.
Maybe there is hope for me yet.