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Southern Comfort

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“I don’t like this.”

By the way Spike’s jaw tightened, she sensed he didn’t either. He didn’t say anything, though, and she appreciated it. Buffy didn’t want him confirming her fears, even if fear itself kept her grounded—kept her human. Kept her in a place where she realized her mortality and molded her weaknesses to serve her needs. But she didn't want to feel fear now, and she certainly didn't want Spike voicing his own misgivings. With as much as he’d seen and done, it would understandably take a mountain to rattle him. He knew what went bump in the night even better than she did.

“I don’t, either,” he agreed a second later, shifting the car from first to third. And though his words lent her pause, his tone had her nerves sighing in relief. “The gravel’s bloody murder on my traction.”

“This isn’t like before. This is the middle of nowhere.”

Spike blew out a deep breath, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the road. “Well, we figured the Reaper’d want something a little private. Can’t get more private than this, pet.”

They likely had only been traveling for a few minutes but it felt like hours had passed. The stretch of highway before them had been endless, dark and vacant. A few wandering cars had passed them, sure, but nothing to ease the isolation. Two minutes ago, the Desoto had taken a sharp turn off an exit ramp, and they were speeding toward a thicket of trees that broke into a dense forest. Still no foreseeable destination. Nothing but the Reaper’s tug at Spike’s demon—and even then, they didn’t have the guarantee it was legitimate.

“I have no idea what we’re going to do when we get there,” Buffy said, her head rolling back as she restlessly wiggled her legs. “Well, okay. I have some idea. I need to stop the Reaper, destroy Pandora’s Box, and somehow keep you from falling head over feet for the guy, if this thing’s legit and not some decoy.” She paused. “If we’re not being dragged out here for a distraction.”

“Mighty good thing you got superpowers, yeah?”

“Spike…”

He shrugged. “If he starts tugging at me, we know how to break it.”

She tossed him a wry glance. “Yeah. I’d like to explain that one. Sorry I let the world end. I was too busy macking on my boyfriend.”

Spike inhaled sharply and the air between them sparked with new life. Buffy swallowed and waited, but nothing happened and the moment faded to a calm, comfortable acceptance. Whatever had happened before had evidently placated him enough to keep him from jumping at every reassurance of her affection. And that’s what it was. Affection. The warmth. The haze. The touches. It was all affection, and they both knew it. He didn’t need to pry or demand what the word meant. If it was Freudian or genuine. If she meant it. Those questions were quiet now, even if the quiet was temporary. For the moment, there was nothing but peace.

Instead, Spike shrugged and reasoned, “Sounds good to me.”

“It won’t to Giles,” she retorted.

“Can’t expect much from a bloke who’s only had his right hand for company.”

Buffy made a face. “Gross, Spike!”

“What?”

“If we survive this, I’m so making you pay for that visual.”

Spike smirked and waggled his tongue at her. “God, I hope so.”

A soft blush warmed her cheeks. “You still getting nothing?” she asked, nodding at the road.

“I’m getting a lot,” he replied. “Just nothing that helps us.”

“I don’t like this.”

“I know, kitten.”

“It’s creepy out here.” She shivered and rubbed her arms. “There are no lights.”

“We’re in the country.”

Buffy nodded. “I noticed that.”

“There typically aren’t lights in the country.”

She leaned forward to gaze at the sky through the windshield. “You’re telling me.” She shivered again. “I don’t know how people live out here in Nowhere Land. I kill demons and avert apocalypses professionally and this still gives me the wiggins.”

“Which is pretty fucking cute, if you ask me.”

She shot him a glance. “You’re not helping.”

“I’m not?”

“No.”

Spike paused. “Am I supposed to?”

“I need to get my mind battle-ready. And all I can think about is the fact that it’s freaking-scary dark out here.” Buffy blew out a breath. “Maybe it’s the not knowing, you know? Where we’re going.”

“Makes sense.”

“I don’t like feeling like this.”

Spike reached over, took her hand, gave her a reassuring squeeze. “You’re not scared, pet,” he said softly. “Believe me, I’ve seen people scared bloody witless, usually at my hand. You’re not scared—you’re ready. It’s just typically never this quiet before you go into war.”

It had been happening often over the past few hours. Little moments during which she found herself lost in the realization that everything had changed. Beyond the trip or trying to escape Angel’s memory, or even allowing another vampire into her bed, everything had changed. Spike changed things. Made them revolutionary. Made them whole.

If she asked him to come home with her, he would. Spike loved her. She knew he loved her. There was no doubting it. Perhaps they’d been moving toward love the second they met. After all, they’d both been in disastrous relationships and knew their own self-made fairytales had to end eventually even if admitting it hurt. They’d fought and fought and, while their battles were always lethal, they had also been fun. Fighting Spike was fun. It was the reason she always preferred fighting him. Always. If anyone was going to take her down, she wanted it to be him. She wanted to die while having fun.

It was perverse and wrong, but no less true. Fighting Spike made her feel alive.

Sleeping with Spike made her feel something beyond alive—it made her feel immortal, and while that was dangerous, she didn’t want to lose the sensation. Ever. Her body hummed from where he’d touched her, and she still felt ghosts of kisses from the path his lips had taken as he explored. As he’d searched and discovered.

Spike understood her. He understood her now, when she said she felt uneasy. When she told him she needed time. When she held up a hand for silence or instructed him with her eyes. Spike understood her.

“Maybe it'll help if we go over it again,” Buffy said, closing her eyes and wiggling her shoulders. “The quiet makes my brain do funny things.”

“Like think?”

She made a face. “You're hilarious.”

Spike shrugged and offered a wicked grin. “Still evil, pet.”

“Believe me, that message comes in loud and clear.” She inhaled sharply. “Okay. So once the Reaper does his thing, the ground will do some mystic mumbo-jumbo that makes it impossible for any human hand to move Pandora's Box.”

He nodded. “According to your old man, that's the bulk of it.”

“Because if he opens it without consecrating the ground, or whatever—”

“Consecrating?” Spike repeated, arching a brow.

Buffy waved a hand. “Or whatever!”

“You're adorable.”

“And you're getting on my nerves.”

Spike shrugged again. “It's what I'm good at.”

“Well, find something else to be good at for the minute.” She aimed another glare at him which went tragically unacknowledged. “If the Reaper opens Pandora's Box without all the pomp and circumstance, the ghosties go all over the place and it's all for nothing. And we're banking he won't be careless enough to do that, so we need a back-up plan.”

“Right, 'cause nothing's ever easy.”

“Not in my line of work,” Buffy agreed with a sigh. “Have any spare back-up plans on you, by chance?”

“Doesn't seem to be much room for plans,” Spike retorted. “You said it yourself. Impossible for human hands to move the box. Figure someone not human has to step up, don't you?”

Buffy blinked. “You mean you?”

“See any other volunteers, Slayer?”

Logic and reason refused to collide. The words made sense, yes, but she couldn't understand. “No,” she said shortly.

“What?”

“No.”

Spike laughed. “Buffy—”

“It could be dangerous.”

“Apocalypses typically are, sweetness.”

“I don't want to risk you.”

“And I don't wanna risk you,” Spike replied. “Seein' as, of the two of us, you're the one with a pulse, I figure it'd be safer to let the demon handle the demon's box, don't you?”

Buffy blinked, flustered and lost. Her mind refused to connect the dots. “No!”

“Why?”

“I don't know! I just don't like it.”

“Slayer—”

“We'll get there in time. I'll kill him in time.”

“Right. And if you don't, big daddy steps up to the plate.”

“I don't want you anywhere near the plate!”

Spike shrugged a shoulder. “Can't always get what we want.”

“Spike!”

“You have any other ideas, love, and I'll be happy to hear them.”

Words weren't forthcoming, therefore she didn't try. She sat dumbfounded for a few seconds, opening and closing her mouth in the hope of accidentally stumbling across something brilliant, but pearls of wisdom were in short supply and she fell back into a confused silence. The functional, rational side of her brain told her she was being unreasonable, but she didn't care. Her chest swelled and her head pounded, and lord help her if she knew why, but the feeling in her gut refused to abate. Something would go wrong if Spike tried to manhandle Pandora's Box. She knew it. It didn't matter what the rules said—didn't matter what they'd dug up on the Reaper, she knew something would go wrong. Slayer senses had yet to betray her when it came to these things and she wasn't about to start second-guessing them now.

Spike wouldn't understand. How could he? She wasn't exactly skilled at putting words to this sort of knowledge. All she knew was something bad would happen and she couldn't stop it if it did. And she wasn't ready. She wasn't ready to evaluate herself…or the magnitude of her feelings for him. It was too soon. She needed more time. She couldn't risk this when she wasn't ready.

She'd just have to make sure the Reaper didn't get too ritual-y before they arrived.

“We’re getting close,” Spike said suddenly.

Buffy sat up, eyes drawn to the black road ahead. “We are?”

“Bloody gotta be. This feeling…like I’m missin’ something. Like there’s someplace I oughta be.” Spike heaved a sigh, reached inside his duster, and fished out a cigarette. “Might give you a run for your money, Slayer.”

“I won’t let the Reaper snag you.”

“Yeah, well, there’s no telling if I’ll let you stop him.” He groaned. “God, I’ll be happy when this bugger’s in the ground.”

“And so say all of us.”

“This sodding magical mystery tour he’s aimin’ to—”

“He won’t.” Buffy drew in a deep breath, doing a quick inventory of their supplies. They didn’t have much, but what they had would be enough. Her bets remained steadfast that one of the reasons the Reaper was so hard to catch was he knew he wouldn’t stand a living shot against a real live foe if he didn’t pull a few tricks out of his bag of wonder. Things like beckoning Spike to join the catalog of other nasties he’d gathered, or luring them to a nondescript haunted location to attack Buffy blind.

Spike smiled through the dark and she was surprised at how quickly she warmed. “I love you.”

She blushed. “I know.”

“And I’m not one for heroics, but I bloody well mean it when I say this. Get the job done. Don’t worry about me.”

Buffy’s eyes went wide. “What?”

“The Reaper goes after me, you get your shot, yeah?”

“The Reaper’s getting nowhere near you.”

“Slayer—”

“Vampire,” she shot back. “Like you said, you’re not one for heroics. Don’t start now.”

“Love’s a funny thing.”

“What does that have to do with—”

Spike stretched a hand along the back of her seat and tunneled his fingers through her hair. “Everything,” he replied. “If you’re worrying with me and end up losing the world, not only will we all be royally fucked, but you’d never forgive me.”

“Never forgive you for something you can’t help?”

“What can I say? You’re unreasonable.”

“Spike—”

“And even if you do forgive me, you’ll bloody never forgive yourself. All this presuming you and me live long enough after the world’s turned topsy turvy for you to get reflective.”

Buffy batted his hand away and glared. “I am not losing you to the Reaper and I definitely am not losing the world. You start going after him and…I dunno, but if you ever want a repeat of last night and, well, all of today—ever—you sure as hell better plan on sticking around.”

He grinned. “You’re so cute when you’re trying to intimidate.”

“Spike—”

“Can’t bloody stop me, love.”

“I can knock you out and toss you in the back.”

“Ooh, feisty.”

“Will you take this seriously?”

“Have I said anything that makes you think I’m not?”

“I will kick every inch of your pale ass.”

“And, knowing me, I’ll enjoy it.” Spike jerked the steering wheel and veered the Desoto sharply to the right, putting them on an even bumpier and narrower road. “I got me something to live for, pet. Not saying I’m asking the bloke to make me a part of his stamp collection, but…oh fuck.”

Buffy followed his gaze, a gasp clawing her throat. What stood in a break of trees had likely once been grand. Something fallen to time. It wasn’t an obscure mark—the chains around the structure warding off trespassers told as much, but it was so far off the road no one would intervene with the Reaper anytime soon. The pillars were straggled between each other, marking where a house once stood. Large, gothic columns scarred by flame and aged with unkind winds and rain blocked off a small piece of grass. It was large and beautiful, and it might be the last ground upon which she stood.

“Think this is where the party’s at?” she whispered.

“I’d bloody well guarantee it.” Spike nodded to the middle of the tattered fortress, where stood their cloaked friend. The Reaper blended nicely in the midst of shadows, knelt before his satchel of goodies. “Grab something pointy and hop on out, sweetness. Big git’s not even waiting to start the grand show.”

There was every possibility Spike didn’t intend her to take his words literally, but she chose to worry less about that and more about other things. She seized the ax Spike had hauled up Avonlea’s overgrown drive and tossed herself out the passenger-side door before the Desoto could even consider slowing down. She heard her vampire call after her but refused to break. Her objective was firm and unmovable. Kill the Reaper. Do it now. Do it before Spike’s incredibly lame thoughts of noble heroism could cement.

The ground rushed beneath her feet and wind whipped across her face. The length of chain breaking the drive from the structure swung under her legs with the rush of her leap.

“Hi honey!” she said cheerily, aiming a hard kick at the Reaper’s upturned head. “Sorry I’m late. Bit of trouble finding the place.”

The Reaper hissed, but hissing didn’t save his head from meeting the business end of her foot. He rocked back, falling off his feet and flying back a good ten feet. Buffy hit the ground running. “You know,” she said conversationally, smacking him hard with the handle of the ax. “I guess I should be grateful. I mean, you are this colossally huge pain in my ass, but hey! Got me out of town. Got me over my emotional disease of an ex, got me in the best bed I’ve ever slept in, and got me laid big time.” She crushed the teeth of the blade into the creature’s side, jerked it out and hit him again. “But here’s the half-empty. You…drove me out of town.” The ax found the Reaper’s neck. “Attacked me like a girl.” She kicked him hard in his wounded side, swinging the blade high above her head before bringing to down again. “And here I think…it’s because you were too much of a wussy to fight me face-to-face.”

Buffy panted hard, blowing a lock of hair out of her face. In a matter of seconds, she’d chopped the Reaper down. It was easy—too easy, but she wasn’t going to question it. With all the guy’s fancy moves and diversionary tactics, he sure as hell broke without a fight. A few swings of her ax and he was scattered in several ooky pieces, wailing pitifully as she raised her weapon again.

“Definitely too much of a wussy,” she agreed. “Don’t feel too bad. If I had a nickel for every big name apocalypse-happy demon that fell this fast…well, let’s just say, I would’ve cashed it in and gone to Disneyland by now.”

Footsteps behind her broke her concentration. “Slayer—”

Buffy blinked but didn’t waver. “Now’s not a good time to distract me, Spike!”

“The git’s dead, pet. We got bigger worries at the mo’.” 

She whirled around just in time to catch the end of the show. Pandora's Box had illuminated in a brilliant flash of color, spiraling upward as the earth beneath it began to tremble. A symphony of a thousand shrieks molding into one burst through the air. Symbols carved into the wood burned and sparked to life—a pillar of pure energy burst through the top and broke clear into the night sky. The blaze was blinding, blinking iron dark away with nothing but pure white. Everything faded away and she couldn’t see.

“Spike!”

If he responded, she didn’t hear. She couldn’t hear over the thunder of a thousand demons bursting to newfound freedom in a world reborn.

“Spike!” Buffy stumbled forward awkwardly, ax falling to the ground. “Spike!”

It was no good. She couldn’t even hear herself. It was over. Overconfidence tied with severe lack of preparation had been her undoing. She’d defeated the Reaper, sure, but not his pet project. She hadn’t stopped the thing she’d come here to stop.

The world was changing. Everything was changing and she couldn’t stop it.

And as quickly as it had started, it ended. The world fell still again. Dark. Silent. Secure. It took several seconds for her ears to stop ringing. Even longer for her eyes to adjust. Her skin prickled and her body hummed, and with every twist of her head, she expected another wail. Another demonic scream. The full pressure of evils unknown to this world still scratching at the air around them. Everything fell quiet. Fell still. Everything just fell.

And when the dark began to piece itself apart, she saw him.

She saw him.

“Spike!” Her legs wobbled, but she forced them to work. Forced herself to her feet even as she stumbled hard against the uneven terrain. He seemed a thousand miles away in that second. Still. God, were vampires supposed to be still?

“Oh god, you idiot,” Buffy cried, nearly toppling over again. She couldn’t seem to get this gravity thing down. “I told you! I told you not to…and what do you do?”

He lay on his stomach just a few feet from the ruins, Pandora’s Box having tumbled from his grasp after he fell. It rested uselessly on its side, lid swinging off its hinge, the contents spilled and gone. But it was the last thing she saw—her attention was entirely on Spike.

Spike.

“You lousy son of a bitch. I told you!” She collapsed at his side. “I told you.”

Spike didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. Of course, he didn’t breathe—he was a vampire, for crying out loud—but the not-moving thing…he was a demon. A demon’s hand had touched the box. He’d moved it with his demon hands and he was supposed to be okay now. He was supposed to be okay.

Buffy shook him again. Shook him hard. She wasn’t beyond breaking a few bones if it got him to open his eyes. “Wake up!” she commanded. “Stupid vampire, wake up!”

Nothing. Still nothing.

She hated the feel of tears splattering her cheeks. God, she’d never cried so hard as she had in the last two years—cried for Angel, for herself, for her mother, for Angel again…she didn’t want to cry for Spike. She wanted him to be the one who saved her from tears. “I am so kicking your ass for this,” Buffy promised, peppering his face with wet kisses. “I swear to god, Spike. You can’t do this to me.”

Silence was her answer. He remained so far from her.

And then there was one thing she hadn’t said. One truth she hadn’t realized. It was honest but fast. It was something she’d known forever but only now understood. The burning in her chest. The tears strangling her throat. The swollen pain puffing around her eyes.

“I love you,” she whispered. “I love you, you big dummy. I know I said I didn’t know…but I do. I love you. And you can’t—”

It happened without warning—without struggle. One second she was a basket-case, listening as the roar around her faded to a soft, calming lull. The next she was looking into his smiling eyes, full of mirth and shining with life. “Hey there, gorgeous.”

Buffy blinked at him and then stumbled back. “What…?”

“Once in a lifetime chance, love. Can’t tell me you wouldn’t’ve taken it.”

Astonishment and outrage replaced grief. Buffy was on her feet in an instant, trembling and pointing an accusatory finger at his unrepentant face. “You…you ass!”

“Buffy…”

“You made me think—”

“I told you it’d be all right,” Spike reasoned, climbing to his feet. “I told you.”

“And then—”

“Like I said…once in a lifetime chance.” He smiled and took a step forward, then another when she failed to recover it in the other direction. And another. And another. And before she could help herself, she found her breasts pressed against his chest. Found her face captured between his hands. Found her eyes lost in a sea of endless blue. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Like hell,” Buffy replied, not without a few sniffles.

He caressed her cheek with curled knuckles, leaning inward to nibble lightly on her lips. “I love you.”

“I hate you.”

“No,” Spike replied, kissing her again. “You don’t.”

Damn her easily-meltable defenses. “No, I don’t,” she agreed, though not without a moan of protest. “But god, it’d make things easier.”

“Tell me?”

“You don’t deserve it.”

He grinned. “Not much in this world I do deserve. Tell me anyway.”

A long sigh coursed through her body. There was no sense in denying it. No sense in fighting. She hadn’t had a chance from the very start. From the second their eyes clashed in the cemetery four nights ago. Hell, from the second their eyes clashed two years ago in the alley outside the Bronze. It would always end this way. They could have played it any way they liked but they would have ended up here. Fighting. Snarling. Dancing. Loving. They were bound to end up here—in each other’s arms.

“I love you,” she whispered. Then added, “Ass.” 

Spike chuckled and nudged her mouth with his. She found herself lost in his lips the next second, a slave to his tongue, wound in his arms. She was gone then—gone with him to a place from which she never wished to be recovered. 

The world had a way of melting when he kissed her.