The party was like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one. Mostly Dawn’s birthday. Everyone came bearing bags of freshly laundered clothes, which Dawn promptly snatched and dumped on the dining room table, picking through to choose her favorites from both the male and female collection. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and soon they all were looking through between trips to the kitchen and living room, selecting items they were interested in with Dawn acting as fashion advisor.
Willow gave Xander a raised eyebrow as she looked through the movies he’d picked up. “Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, and Yentl?”
He grinned unashamedly, tossing a handful of popcorn in his mouth with unerring precision. “Who am I to argue with a perfectly good theme night?”
Buffy was getting silverware out of the credenza when the front door opened to let Spike in, unusually subdued. He turned and shut the door behind him before meeting her eyes, calm, resigned, unthreatening. Very un-Spike-like.
“Spike’s here!” Dawn’s voice squealed from the living room. A herd of elephants pounded through the house and suddenly she was in the foyer with him, bouncing excitedly on her toes. “Did you bring me something? Mom said you were bringing something for me.”
Buffy couldn’t help noticing what a nice smile he had when he wasn’t smirking. “That I did, Kitten. I want to thank you for the use of your sneakers.” He pulled the red canvas shoes out from the collection under his arm. “I promise they came in contact with nothin’ foul or unmentionable.”
She looked disappointed as she accepted them, trying to be gracious. “Oh. Thank you.”
He grinned. “These were the ones that saw the worst of it.” And he handed her the boot box.
“Oh, wow!” She dropped the sneakers to snatch it out of his hands, collapsing onto the stairs to throw open the box in excitement. “My own Docs! And you fought in these?”
He shrugged. “A couple of times.”
“Oh wow!” she repeated. “Thank you thank you thank you so much!” And she threw her arms around him, shoes and all.
He closed his eyes and held her briefly, then gently pushed her away. “Not my doin’. Go thank your mum.”
“I will. Thank you!” And she disappeared down the hall to the kitchen.
“That was nice of you,” Buffy said quietly, not wanting to start anything.
He brushed her compliment aside. “Just what I promised Joyce, innit? Didn’t cost me anything. Brought you somethin’, too.” He stepped into the dining room, shifting the black duffel bag into his hands. “Your things. Thought you might like ‘em back. You left them behind this morning. Or this afternoon. Whenever it was . . .”
She set the silverware down on top of the credenza and moved towards him to take the bag. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “Didn’t cost me anything,” he repeated. Then he turned and followed Dawn into the kitchen.
She took the bag upstairs and opened it. All her clothes were neatly folded, everything freshly washed and still warm from the dryer. The only exception was the leather skirt. She blushed at the sight of it, ignoring the scuffmarks on the back of it. When she returned the other things to their drawers, she was surprised to find he had included his slogan t-shirts with the other shirts he’d borrowed. After a moment, she put those in the drawer, too.
In the bottom of the bag were various and sundry other things. A bottle of leave-in hair conditioner, which he must have used to control his curls. Her hairbrush, the one she had used that afternoon in his crypt. There were also several hair bobs, including the ones she had been wearing this morning and hadn’t been able to find afterwards.
It was the lipstick that stopped her. She sat down on the bed, just looking at it. Taking the top off, she twisted it all the way up. He’d used about half of it in the ten days he’d had it. The image of the first time she’d seen him apply it burst into her memory. Slow, sensual, decadent. Just like his kisses. All those kisses confused themselves in her brain, hard and gentle, soft and full or firm and lean, always intense but never quite the same. Closing her eyes only focused the images, refined them, sucking her in so she was lost.
“How are you doing?” Willow’s concerned voice came from the doorway, breaking Buffy’s trance.
Buffy closed the lipstick with a sharp twist as she rose abruptly to toss it back on her vanity. “Fine. I was just putting a few things away.”
Willow looked from her to the vanity and back again. “It must be hard. Nothing’s the same for you now as it was before the change.”
Her friend’s sympathy made her vulnerable. “I’m just . . . I’m really confused, Will,” Buffy confessed. “I don’t understand anything right now.”
“It’ll get easier, Buffy,” Willow comforted. “You just have to give it time. Right now you need a distraction. I think the brownies and ice cream your mom has for dessert ought to do the trick.”
Buffy laughed, moving to hug her friend. “Thanks, Will. I needed that.”
Willow patted her shoulder. “You know, you never hugged me as a guy.”
Buffy shrugged with a smile. “Guys aren’t into all that touchy feely stuff, remember?”
Willow snorted. “Yeah, right.”
When they came downstairs, her counter-example was sitting on the couch. Xander sat to one end, reclined against the arm, holding Anya uncharacteristically close. She looked bemused but happy, and Buffy couldn’t help but smile. Spike sat on the hearth, a beer in one hand as he leaned forward to talk to Tara who was sitting in the armchair. He had taken his duster off, and for the first time Buffy could see he was wearing the shirt she had gotten for him, the words “I was an atheist until I realized I was God” standing out in bold white letters from the black cotton clinging tightly to the sculpture of his chest. He didn’t interrupt his conversation, but she could feel him watching her.
Dinner was rowdy and relaxed. They all sat at the table, crowded close together to make everyone fit. They all ate heartily with minimal throwing of food, and even Joyce and Giles got caught up in the spiritedness. But Buffy could feel the weight of Spike’s regard on her the whole time, even though she avoided looking at him.
Somewhere between the entrée and dessert, he disappeared.
She held out until the dishes were all cleared away and people had moved into the living room for the movies before she went looking for him.
She found him out on the back porch, ignoring the cigarette slowly burning down between his fingers as he stared out into the night. She sat down at the top of the stairs above him, her knees close to his shoulder.
“Scoobs’ll miss you,” he said, not looking up as he cast the stub out into the yard.
She shrugged. “They’ll find me.”
There was a gentle tension to the quiet between them, not uncomfortable but not entirely at ease, either. She looked down and studied his white hair, once again slicked severely back, so stiff that the marks of his comb were still obvious through the tresses. Almost of its own accord, her hand drifted up to touch it, sliding gently beneath to the softer hairs at his scalp. “You should wear your hair the other way.”
He grimaced, but leaned almost imperceptibly into her touch. “All those curls? Too nancy.”
“You’d be surprised. I bet you’d have the girls falling at your feet.”
She tipped her head to the side, studying him critically. “Oh, definitely.”
“Cuz, you know,” he said hesitantly, scuffing his boot against the ground, “there is this one girl I wouldn’t mind having give me a tumble. Beautiful, funny, sharp as a whip. Mean right hook.”
“Spike,” she pulled her hand away, “you know we can’t . . .”
He turned and caught her wrist, looking up at her finally. The intensity of his storm blue eyes took her breath away. “We can. We have. Buffy, the world didn’t come to an end because you let yourself feel something for me. And I know you did. No man makes love to a woman the way you made love to me without it meaning something.”
“Well, what about you?” she replied defensively.
“I’m not ashamed of how I feel about you.” He let his fingers come up to dance lightly over her cheek. “’M scared to death of it, but I’m not ashamed.”
She couldn’t breathe. “How? How do you feel?”
His eyes widened, in fear and innocent vulnerability. “I love you, Buffy. You’re in my heart, you’re in my gut. I’m drownin’ in you, Summers.”
“Why?” She clutched at comprehension with both hands.
He shrugged. “Couldn’t help myself. Why does a man do what he mustn’t? I just woke up one morning and realized, ‘God, I love this woman’.”
“But Spike, you can’t love . . .”
A dark shutter crashed over his eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Angel loved you, didn’t he?”
“But he had a soul . . .”
“And I loved Dru for over a hundred years without one. It’s no different. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, Buffy. Vampires are as vulnerable to it as anyone else. You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed it. How I’ve been changing to fit into your life.”
“The chip . . .”
“Doesn’t force me to help you. Doesn’t make me protect your friends. Doesn’t demand I tutor your sister. I want to do those things. Well, most of the time, anyway.”
“But still . . . Wait, you’re tutoring Dawn?”
He shrugged sheepishly. “Once in a while. Bit’s got no comprehension of literature.”
Buffy smiled at the image of the two bent over a book. But quickly the humor faded. “Spike, you and me, it just couldn’t work out. You know that.”
“Seen some damn funny relationships turn out pretty well in my day. And some solid ones crumble away to nothing. You never know until you try. If you want it bad enough, you find a way.” He touched her hair gently, twisting one curl around his finger. “What do you want, Buffy?”
Her emotions roiled inside her, desires, fears, insecurities, wishes, all tangling around each other to squeeze her heart, her throat, allowing no words to escape despite all attempts. Finally she leaned back against the porch rail post in frustration.
“You know what I miss most already about being a guy?” she asked.
He leaned back as well, obviously disappointed. “What’s that?”
“No one expected me to be in touch with my feelings. I suck at feelings, Spike. I just . . . feel them. I’m no good at understanding them. I never have been.”
Shaking his head, he denied her words as he took her hand and drew her towards him gently. “Well,” he said, his voice honey-rich and tender, “what say I have a go, shall I?”
She allowed him to settle her on his lap, his arms loose around her, holding her but not confining her.
“I know you’re scared,” he said softly against her hair, his hand stroking her arm soothingly. “I know you feel something for me. It’s not love, but maybe it could be. And you feel guilty about it, afraid of what your mates are gonna think. And the Watcher.”
She pressed into him gently, and he nuzzled her hair. “That all?”
He shook his head. “You aren’t bad at feelings. You’re scared of them. When you let yourself feel, you get hurt. And you have enough pain in your life. Angel, Riley, even your old man, they all left you. You don’t want to be left again. But let me tell you a secret.” He moved closer, resting his lips on her ear as he whispered, “I don’t leave.”
She trembled at his words, fisting the fabric of his shirt for support. “I know,” she said hoarsely. “I keep trying to make you go and you won’t.”
“Not going to, either.” He shook his head. “Watcher’s threats, Harris’ insults, dirty looks from Red, as long as I know you want me, I’ll be here. It’d be worth it for just the chance of winnin’ your heart.”
“It might not be worth having.”
“Course it is. ‘S a little worse for rough treatment, but it’s still just as beautiful as the rest of you.”
His words tore at her, punching through the walls of her defenses. Hope began bleeding into the rear, which made the fear flare all the brighter. So she silenced him the only way she could, the only way that ever worked.
He tangled his fingers in her hair as they gently devoured each other’s mouths. Her own small hands cupped either side of his face, directing the kiss. He adjusted her so she straddled his lap, freeing his hands to coast over the planes of her back.
They both leapt to their feet in surprise when the back door opened to reveal Joyce, who quickly averted her eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” She thought about that, then looked at them critically. “Or maybe I did.”
“Mom, it’s not . . .”
“Don’t.” Joyce held up her hand to stop Buffy’s exclamation. “You’re a grown woman now, Buffy. You don’t have to justify your life to me. I think you know better than I do what you’re in for. Just make sure it’s what you want.” She turned to go back inside. “Your friends are looking for you. Don’t be long.”
Spike watched Buffy for long moments after the door closed. “Is it?” he asked simply.
“Not what I asked, Slayer.”
“So many things could go wrong, are wrong with even thinking about doing this. You know that, don’t you?”
“Don’t care. I’ll take the bad with the good. It’ll be worth it, if it means a repeat of what we’ve done the last couple days.”
She blushed. “All of it?”
“You mean the before and after? Course I do. You were bloody marvelous as a bloke. Gave me somethin’ to aspire to.”
She blushed. “No, I wasn’t. Not really.”
He lifted her chin to look down into her eyes. “Yes,” he said with an intensity that took her breath away. “Yes, you were.”
“We weren’t meant to be together, Spike. Vampire and Slayer, good and bad, it just . . .” She couldn’t finish it.
“So you don’t want me.”
“I didn’t say that!” she replied instinctively, then, realizing what she’d confessed, dropped her eyes as she blushed in painful confusion.
He chuckled and pulled her close again, wrapping his arms around her. “I learned a couple of things in the last ten days,” he said, studying her face lazily. “Chivalry isn’t condescending, it’s respectful. If more guys were chivalrous, more girls would go out with them. I learned that a pretty girl is just as lonely in a crowd as anyone else. That even the strongest girl likes to know that someone is willing to defend her, even if she doesn’t want them to. And that thongs are much more pleasant for the admirer than for the wearer.”
“You didn’t.” She couldn’t help smiling.
He shrugged, smiling back sheepishly. “I also learned a lot about you. About what it’s like to live in your head, the kinds of choices you have to make that nobody else understands. The things you give up to be you. Now, I know I’m not a perfect man. I can be a right bitch at times.”
She grinned against his chest. “So can I.”
He kissed the top of her head. “You can also be a total bastard, pet, don’t think I don’t see that clearly now. But so can I. It’s why we fit so well. The two of us, within ourselves we’re both halves of the whole battle of the sexes. We don’t have to suppress part of who we are to fit with the other. We’ve shown how well our boy and girl parts get along, but our boy selves love scrapping and fightin’ with each other, and our girl parts like doin’ the whole I Feel Pretty routine together. There’s no part of us that’s closed to the other. Think about how good we could be if we stop fightin’ that?”
She did. She thought about the last two weeks, the sense of purpose she’d felt taking care of him, the comfort she’d found in his presence that had nothing to do with convenience. The challenge she always felt around him, the challenge to best him that made her better at everything she did.
She relaxed in his arms. “Will you wear your hair loose?”
“No,” he denied adamantly.
She smiled. “Will you tell me why you like poetry?”
This time he chuckled. “Oh pet, you have no idea. I was a bloody nancy mama’s boy poet when I was alive . . .”
As he opened up to her, she realized finally that he was the only man woman enough to take her, and she was the only woman man enough for him.
And she was surprisingly okay with that . . .