Seeing Beyond Imperfections


Part Three

In which Spike comes to terms with his past

The next few months were more pleasant than the last fifteen years put together for Spike. He felt welcome, forgiven, accepted, in a way he hadn't since the day he'd been turned. So many people had used him as a vampire. Power had been a heady thing, and once he would have accepted that it was really all he needed, but he was discovering that this was better, this sense of family. His mother had meant the world to him, and even as a vampire he had unconsciously latched onto anyone or anything that could provide that illusion, that sense of belonging. It was exhilarating to find it again after so long.

Not that it was a perfect situation. He was still invisible to everyone except Xander. But they acted like he was there, included him in every way that they could. He wanted to say that he was happy, and there were times when he almost believed it. But every time he felt himself getting close, his past would rear its ugly head and the screaming would start. He was beginning to truly want to find some way to come to terms with it; to really make the guilt and the recriminations stop, instead of just suppressing them. He wanted to find peace.

He figured he should talk to Xander about it, but was never quite sure where to start. He knew that the man understood some of the pain he was going through, and it wasn't even as if he would feel uncomfortable discussing it with him. Xander was giving him space, careful not to bring up subjects that might be too upsetting, which he did appreciate. He hadn't forgotten Xander's trick with his eye, how it had quieted the screams for a while, and he wanted that again. He just couldn't get himself to make the first move. So, he fell back on old habits, ignoring what he couldn't deal with, and focusing on the myriad distractions that his existence offered.

He surprised even himself then, when, sometime at the end of November, out of the blue, his mouth took over and started the conversation he had been so diligently avoiding. It had been an unremarkable day, all things considered. There had been a bit of a scare in Japan with a gang of Pavoran demons, and they'd come away with a couple of innocent fatalities, but nothing worse than any other day of the year. He had followed the slayers-in-training in from their nightly patrols, making his way up to Xander's room, as he did nearly every night these days. He was a bit restless, but he hadn't really been thinking of anything other than sitting and relaxing for a few hours. When he didn't find Xander in his room, there was an inexplicable surge of panic, quickly dampened. Xander often wandered around the house these days in between visions, doing odd jobs, working out in the training hall, reading in the library, chatting with any of the slayers who weren't out patrolling that night. Xander hadn't said anything, but Spike knew that in the past, before the spell, he had spent that time trying to get over the pain in his head enough for it to start all over again. Besides, he knew for a fact that nothing had happened. His connection to the Powers would have let him know if something was wrong. So he had simply focused his senses on the man, appearing beside him a moment later.

He looked around for a second, blinking. This was new. 'Xander, why are we on the roof?' The man had placed a thick folded blanket down on the flat concrete roof, and was currently laying back, his hands folded behind his head, ankles crossed, gazing at the stars. His laptop was open beside him, casting an eerie white glow over his features. He looked beautiful, peaceful, and Spike felt his heart flutter a little.

Xander's eyes flicked over to him when he spoke, his whole body tensing, one hand going to a dagger placed strategically by his head, before he recognized who it was. Spike watched as the tension disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Xander gave him a happy smile. 'Spike, hey,' he blinked up at him. Apparently disinclined to get up, Xander reached over and rested a hand on his calf, where it was standing near the man's waist. He tugged on his jeans a little 'till Spike got the hint and folded himself down to sit cross-legged beside him, close enough so that Xander could still rest his hand on Spike's knee. The man smiled warmly at him again, before turning his attention back to the sky.

Spike allowed himself to just sit there for a little while. He glanced up once to see what Xander was gazing at, but he had spent one hundred and twenty years looking at the night sky; it held little interest for him any longer. He gazed, instead, at the man in front of him, illuminated by starlight, moonlight and laptop-light. It might have been quite romantic, in another lifetime. He ignored the part of him that wanted to protest that it could still be romantic, here and now. The thought, however, jolted him out of his absent musings, and he shifted the knee covered by the other man's hand a little.

'Xander, what are you doing out here? It's nearly winter, for Chris'sake. You'll freeze your nuts off.'

Xander grinned at him, this time obviously focusing his attention on Spike. 'Nah, it's a thermal blanket. Could take it to Antarctica and it'd still work. As for what I'm doing out here, I should have thought that'd be fairly obvious, even for you, Blondie. I'm stargazing.' Which was typically unhelpful.

'Ok, mate, little more information. Why are we stargazing?'

Xander shrugged, the grin fading, to be replaced by a slightly melancholy look. 'I used to come out here all the time, back before the headaches got too bad. The visions were so hard to control. There were all these people screaming in my head for me to save them. Up here, at night, it was... I dunno, quiet, I guess. Looking up at the stars made me feel so insignificant. Which, given my previous role in the gang, shouldn't really have been very comforting. But it made me realize that I didn't carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Don't know why I felt like coming up here tonight. Just seemed like the right thing to do.' He frowned slightly. 'It's been a bit of a weird day all 'round, actually.'

Spike narrowed his eyes and cocked his head sideways. 'Weird how? Did something happen?'

'Well, no, not really. You saw at breakfast that the first vision was early, which was nothing to really worry about. But I've had twelve visions so far tonight. That's like one every half an hour. I barely had time to finish one report before it was time to start another one. I gotta say, I was getting just a little worried, seriously not looking forward to having to do that all the time. But... the last vision I had was at one o'clock,' he glanced at his watch, 'about an hour ago. That was when I suddenly got the urge to come up here. I don't know what's going on,' he shrugged again, 'but it doesn't feel wrong, so I'm just going with it.'

Spike frowned, casting out his senses. Xander was right. It didn't feel wrong. It was odd, certainly, but not wrong. He could usually tell if something was threatening one of the Power's chosen, but there was nothing like that here. Maybe they were just trying to give him an evening off, unlikely though that sounded. Xander had said it himself, once. The Powers always had a reason for the things they did, whether you ever got to understand it or not. With that thought, he felt an inexplicable calm creep over him, his concerns evaporating.

'Fair enough.' Without really thinking about it, he twisted around and stretched his body out beside Xander's, crossing his ankles, but resting his hands on his stomach. He could feel the heat radiating off the man beside him. When Xander shifted slightly so their shoulders touched, then the line of their upper arms, he felt his soul sigh contentedly, soaking up the warmth.

Lying there, looking up at the stars, he thought he could begin to understand what Xander meant. He really was an insignificant part of the grand scheme, whatever that might be. Sure, he'd saved the world, but so had a lot of people, including the man beside him. There would always be champions. And it felt good, really, to know that he was only a part of something. That's why Buffy had survived so long, and been so successful as a slayer. Even before the spell to share the power of the slayer, she had never really been alone in her fight.

It was hard to remember these days that he was still a part of something bigger.

His mind was silent for once. He could feel himself drifting, with an oddly quiescent feeling that went all the way to his soul. When he spoke, it was like an axe falling, irrevocable, terrifying, but strangely freeing at the same time. 'I've been thinking about what you said, about having to deal.' It was said quietly, but Xander shifted beside him, pressing their arms together in silent encouragement. 'I want to. I just don't know how.'

Xander closed his eyes and sucked in a silent breath of relief. He'd been waiting for this. Watching Spike the past months, knowing the pain he was in, had been incredibly hard for Xander. He wanted more than anything to help, had seen the positive effect his gaze had had the first time, but knew that if it was ever going to really mean anything, Spike had to get to this point himself. He knew first hand how distracting it was to have memories screaming inside your head. He had never been able to repress them like Spike seemed to be able to, but they had occupied his every waking thought, and then returned in full color to haunt his dreams. Those had been some of the most miserable times of his life, desperately wanting to turn to his family, unable to reach out to them, to take the help they kept trying to offer. It was only when he had started trying to deal with the images, to face up to the memory of all the innocents he failed to save, that he had come to understand that it wasn't his fault. And it was only when he had found some peace within himself that he had truly found his way back to his family.

He gazed up at the stars for a moment longer, but he needed to see Spike's face for this. He sat up slowly, turning around to sit cross-legged by the other man's waist, pulling his blanket more securely around himself. He waited for Spike to meet his eyes before nodding, a small smile quirking his lips.

Spike closed his eyes against the panic that suddenly coursed through him. How could he have thought he was ready for this? Xander would want him to remember, to talk about all the horror that he had participated in, had exalted in. He would have to feel the blood on his hands, in his throat, hear the screams of their souls, his soul, he didn't even know anymore, see their faces as he cut them down with no more regret than any animal has for it's food, drown in the loathing, the guilt...

He wasn't even aware of the tear that had escaped when Xander leaned over and brushed a finger down his cheek, but the touch was enough to startle his eyes open. He was immediately caught, his body unresisting as the other man drew him up to a sitting position, his mind unexpectedly still as his soul continued to scream around it. He took a single shuddering breath, but didn't let his eyes waver from the two before him. Xander just looked at him, a question in his eyes, and Spike took a moment before nodding. He was ready.

Immediately, the icy blue eye before him seemed to flare, glowing softly with the promise of peace, and he felt his soul calm a little, experienced that same feeling of distance he had the first time. However, it was the other eye that he felt calling to him, breaking him, even as it promised to put him back together, showing him years of pain and loss, guilt and self-loathing, but also strength, compassion, purpose, love and forgiveness. He wanted that. God, how he wanted that. He didn't want to be alone anymore. He just couldn't do alone. He'd only managed to survive the last fifteen years because his soul cried out for punishment. Even then, if he hadn't been able to at least be with Buffy and Dawn, he knew he would have succumbed to the insanity as he had after first receiving his soul. He fucking hated that now, when he had a chance to be with his family again, some part of him refused to believe he deserved that happiness. And he didn't. He knew that he didn't. But he wanted it. And if he had to live through it all again, all the things he had done... If that was what it was going to take, then that's what he'd do. He'd been given a second chance to find happiness by the soddin' Powers That Be. Surely, that had to count for something.

Whatever he had been expecting, the reality was worse. He looked into Xander's eyes and felt the world fall away, until all that was left was the pictures in his head. And then they weren't pictures any longer, they were real, or close enough that he couldn't tell the difference, and he was once again the monster he had tried so hard to forget, to deny. Except this time he was also William, the innocent soul who had foolishly given his life to a beautiful woman in an alley, a woman he had loved even before knowing, and that his mind, his demon, had continued to love in his place. This time, that soul got to witness first-hand the atrocities that had been committed with it's body, in the name of hate and power and worst of all in the name of love, love that had survived the loss of a soul, but not without price, without perversion.

It started with impressions, flashes of memory, meaningless acts of violence to a vampire that translated into unforgivable sins to the soul. The first person he had killed, the first person he had tortured, the unbelievable rush of power that came from the screams of the dying, drinking the blood of the slayer, fear, despair, pain, and joy, abandon, the knowledge of the demon, that life was death, and death was life, and whether they were innocent and undeserving or criminal and condemned to the same hell he came from, it didn't matter, because he was power, and they were his to do with as he pleased.

And he could only watch in horror, impotent, crying for the lives that he cut short, unable to do anything, change anything, because this was only a memory, and he hadn't been there the first time around.

The demon didn't care about its victims, would not have thought to recall their faces, but nothing is ever really lost, and he knew suddenly that they shouldn't be forgotten. However painful and humiliating their deaths had been, he owed it to them to keep their memory at least alive for as long as he was able. Xander was right, you never forgot, but maybe you weren't supposed to.

Spike was too lost within his own head to notice, but something changed with that realization, as Xander's eyes started suddenly to swirl over white. And for the first time, Spike heard the other man's voice inside his head. It was calm, deep, but unobtrusive, like the pull of the tide. 'Start at the beginning, Spike. Tell me what you remember.'

So he did. He lost himself in the memory of that first night. Every detail became suddenly clear, sounds were sharp, colors were vivid, the scent of blood thick in his nose, the urge to feed, the desire to kill heavy in his mind. The words tumbled out, as he described looking up into the face of his dark princess, how she had led him to the young woman walking home alone from a party much like the one he had so hastily left himself. And even as it watched the life drain from her to feed the demon that possessed his body, the soul shuddered, and Spike studied her face, the anguish in her brown eyes, the tear that streaked down a pale cheek towards a thin mouth. Memorized the soft fall of her dark hair, the shape of her face, her body, despaired that this was all he had of this girl, this innocent, all he could preserve of her. He didn't even know her name.

'Her name was Sarah. Sarah Forsythe.' He closed his eyes as Xander started to speak. And this time it really was Xander, not some higher power working through him. The pictures swam before him, but he couldn't open his eyes, couldn't risk losing them. 'She was seventeen. She dreamed of traveling to Italy, meeting a Roman prince, being swept off her feet. She wanted to see the Vatican, take mass within the halls of the chapel. She loved her family, her mother and father, her baby brother, wanted to see the man he would become. She was never meant to live, though. Everything happens for a reason.' It felt like his heart should break, but his soul was quiet. As much as it was tearing him apart to know this, at the same time it was a gift. She had given him a part of herself, given him life, willingly or not, and although he night never worship at a shrine to her memory, neither would he ever forget her, ever cease to be grateful or mourn for her loss. And with this silent promise, her felt one tiny pair of the claws ripping through his soul loosen and disappear, one of the hundreds of screaming voices fall silent, and he was amazed, hoping for the first time that maybe the promise in Xander's eyes had been true, that after all this he really would be put back together.

It didn't stop. For every memory that he recounted, Xander would give him back a small piece of the person's soul, and every time his own would feel a little more whole. After that first one, his soul skipped through visions, finding those most painful and reliving them with a kind of savage joy, knowing that he was finally finding a way to lay some of his ghosts to rest. It wasn't an end. Hell, it was barely a beginning. But it was hope, and a promise of peace, which was more than Spike had ever thought he would deserve, let alone find.

Eventually the sun came up over horizon, and the white cloud lifted from Xander's eyes. Spike opened his own only when he felt Xander's fingers trace a line from his forehead down to his chin, before tapping him lightly on the shoulder. He felt tired, mentally exhausted, as he never had before. But he also felt better, quieter than he had in a long time.

He raised his eyes to meet Xander's again, and saw that the power was still thrumming there. Shaking his head slightly, he said, 'That was...' God, he didn't even know. Wonderful, painful. He didn't know whether to say thank you or fuck you. He would never be able to forget now, to repress it, but maybe he wouldn't have to anyway, anymore. '...different,' he settled on.

Xander gave a short bark of what sounded like slightly hysterical laughter. 'Yeah, different.'

Spike focused on him for the first time. God, he thought, the man looked even worse than he felt. 'You saw all that,' he said slowly. 'Your eyes were white. Was it just like having a vision? Did you experience all that like I did?'

Xander took a deep breath, closing his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them Spike could see that the shields were back up. 'Yeah, like a vision.'

Xander hated him. He had to. His past wasn't just a nebulous concept any more, he had actually seen every detail, knew just exactly how much he had reveled in the death and destruction he had caused. He despaired to think that he had gained a measure of peace at the cost of the only friend he had. He drew away from Xander, his face shutting down. 'I'm sorry.' It wasn't enough, but it was far too late for anything else.

Xander's blue eye flared for a moment, then faster than he could follow, Xander reached out to take both his hands in a crushing grip. 'No. No, Spike, I don't hate you. I told you that before. This doesn't change that. Yes, it's a little overwhelming, but that wasn't you. I felt each and every one of them die, but I also felt everything that the demon did.'

Spike was angry all of a sudden. He looked up, his eyes flashing. He could remember everything it felt, everything it did. 'I am the fucking demon, mate. Soul or not, I was there, which means some part of me must have wanted all that.'

Xander narrowed his eyes and stared at him for a long moment. His voice was harsh when he finally spoke. 'Yeah? All right then, Spike, let's pick a day, any day.' Then he quite deliberately allowed his eyes to defocus, and Spike knew he was reliving a vision. He ignored the heat that suddenly rushed over the back of his neck, focusing instead on his anger. Mere seconds later Xander was back, his eyes hard. 'There we go. March 10, 1886. You and Drusilla find a family living in a cottage outside of a small English town and decide to work on earning you a name for yourself. So tell me, look back and tell me what you felt when you pinned that little girl to the floor with a railroad spike. Well?'

What the hell was this? 'You want to know how it felt?' He narrowed his eyes dangerously, glaring at the man sitting across from him.

'No, I wanna know how you felt.'

His eyes flashed, and he wanted nothing more than to leave, forget this conversation had ever happened, but Xander wasn't letting him go, with his hands or with his eyes, and after a moment he gave up, the truth sounding like a curse as he spat it out. 'Fine. I loved it. The demon fucking gloried in the pain, the fear and the blood. Is that what you wanted to hear, you bastard?'

'You're missing the point, Spike.' His voice was softer, but Spike could still hear the sharp edge of anger. 'That's not what you felt; it's what the demon felt. I know, 'cause I felt that too. But that's not what I felt. Those emotions weren't mine. What did you feel?' He paused for a moment, continuing ruthlessly. 'Think about this then... what did you feel reliving it just now? Did you enjoy it? Did it make you want to go out and brush up on your skills?'

'How can even fucking suggest that, you fucking wanker,' he hissed.

'Answer the question, Spike.'

'No, I didn't enjoy it. Of course I didn't fucking enjoy it. It rips me up on the inside to know I've done those things. I feel horrified, guilty, I wish I could go back and change everything, but I can't. That's how I goddamned feel.'

'And the first time? What did you feel then? What would you have done differently? You, William, not the demon.'

'What the bloody hell are you talking about? I wasn't fucking there, was I?' There was nothing he could have done differently.

And that was it, wasn't it? The point Xander had been trying to shove down his throat for months. It didn't change the fact that terrible things had been done with his body, and a part of him had been there to witness all of it. But it wasn't him. They might have been his thoughts, but they weren't his feelings. He hadn't been there to stop it, and he knew, because he had lived with a soul for over a year as a vampire, that he if he could have, he would have. He let the realization wash over him for a moment, but it wasn't enough.

'The worst thing?' he said bleakly. 'It wasn't even all bad. I loved Dru, and there were times when we were just happy, just to be together. Even when there were people dying all around us, I didn't care. No, worse than that, it made me feel good, because it made her happy. It wasn't even about them. It feels so wrong to have to regret loving someone. There was so much of me in what I felt for her. I wanted to give her everything she'd ever desired, and the demon knew exactly how to do that.' He let the images run through his mind, astonished at how painless it suddenly was to relive this, now that he had something else to focus on. But he still didn't know how he was supposed to just dismiss the actions of the demon. He looked up to find Xander watching him grimly. 'And what about after the chip, huh? Did all that mean nothing? I helped you,' he said fiercely. 'God, I even liked you. I would have died to protect Dawn and Buffy. Was all that just the demon? If it was, what excuse is there for all the things I did before that?'

Xander just looked at him for a moment, the anger falling away. 'You think that you should have been able to control the demon even without the chip. That if there was enough of you in the demon to love Drusilla and Buffy and Dawn, even Angelus, to want to help us, protect us, then you must have also wanted everything else it did.' Spike flinched at the cold assessment, unable to deny it, and Xander sighed, looking down. After a moment, Xander looked up again, catching his eyes, his own still glowing with power, although he when he spoke the voice was entirely his own. 'I don't have all the answers, Spike. It's true that even before the soul I thought, or can see in hindsight at least, that you had the potential to be a good person. But you went through some pretty goddamned remarkable crap those couple'a years. I don't know, maybe losing Dru, falling in love with Buffy, being a part of something again, you just changed. You and the demon. I do know that if we liked you, it was because you were forced for the first time in one hundred and twenty years to suppress the demon. You said it yourself, Spike, you lost your soul, not your mind. With your demon caged, it seems to me we got to know the real you. Before that, yes, your mind was there for all those deaths, but you weren't in control then. You probably wouldn't have been able to control the demon without the chip anyway, and why would you have even tried? There was nothing you could have done differently.'

'But all those people... If only I'd... God, how can they ever forgive me,' he murmured.

Xander's eyes were sympathetic, but his voice was hard. 'You've been redeemed, Spike. That didn't happen just 'cause the Powers felt like it. You were broken and tortured. You lost all the people you loved, but you still fought and suffered. You loved and despaired. You helped us, and all we did was hate you. You gave up everything you were, everything you knew, for love. All this while you were still a demon, before the soul. If they wanted vengeance, they found it. If they wanted you to change, you did. If that wasn't enough, you were driven insane by your soul, used by the first evil. You suffered for what you did, Spike, and then you gave up life and peace to save the world. You have been forgiven, or you wouldn't have been given this second chance. More importantly, you deserved to be forgiven, and I think you know that.'

The anger drained out of him, and he lowered his head, not sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. The sound that escaped was a desperate mix of the two, and it was only when he got the urge to bury his face in his hands that he realized they were still being tightly held. He gazed at the large, sun-darkened fingers for a moment, before gently extricating one hand, running it through his hair as he lifted his head.

Xander's eyes were normal now, the power dissipated. He looked tired, worn, but a small, wry smirk had settled around his mouth, and his eyes were open, smoldering with friendship and hope. When Spike offered a tentative smile of his own, Xander's whole body seemed to relax slightly. 'Okay?'

And that was it. End of painful conversation and generally soul-destroying experience. Letting out a tired puff of laughter, he allowed his smile to reach his eyes. 'Yeah, actually. Thank you.' And there was more in those two words than Spike could ever hope to express, but he had a feeling that Xander got that.

Xander lifted his free hand, resting the tips of his fingers on Spike's cheek and gazed at him for a long moment. There was so much intensity there, and even through his exhaustion, Spike thought he saw something that drew his mind back to the kiss all those months ago, and caused a faint fluttering in the pit of his stomach. But before he could react, it was gone, and Xander was grinning, his hand dropping away. 'No problem. Let's hope we don't have to do that again anytime too soon, whaddaya say?'

'Shit, yeah. Gonna need some serious recovery time.'

'Do you even sleep?' Xander asked curiously as he levered himself up off the ground and started to collect his things.

'Not usually, but I might be prepared to make an exception.' He groaned as he stumbled to his feet. His head was pounding, and he doubted he could raise a hand to protect anyone at the moment. He supposed it was only to be expected. His soul had taken a beating tonight, and given his nature, it was only natural his psychological pain would manifest physically. Which was all very well, but wasn't stopping him from quietly toppling over as his legs refused to admit they had to support him any longer.

Xander's eyes widened in amusement as he turned around to see Spike sitting on the ground again. 'Would you like me to get you a pillow?'

Spike just shook his head in confusion. 'What?'

Xander chuckled. 'Oh, yeah, seriously knowing how that feels. Well, I guess I should return the favor. Up we get, Casper.' He grunted slightly as he snaked an arm around Spike's waist and hauled him to his feet. 'I am not carrying you,' he warned. 'Don't fall asleep just yet.''

Spike leaned further into the solid wall of heat that Xander presented, one arm reaching around his waist, his head resting on the other man's shoulder. It felt like his body was just shutting down, taking his brain along for the ride. He smiled languidly, finding it very difficult to work up enough energy to care. Xander was just exactly the right height to act as a pillow. At the moment, that seemed like the single most important fact of his existence. 'But you're all warm and toasty like a pillow,' he protested, distantly aware that they had been moving for the past couple of minutes.

He came back to himself a little when he felt himself lowered onto a bed. Xander had taken off his boots for him and was unbuttoning his shirt. 'Xander?' he asked in confusion.

'Hey, there you are,' he said softly, smiling. 'Any other time, I might be offended. You falling asleep in my arms and all.'


'Relax, Spike. Like I said, just returning the favor.'

Xander had, by this time, managed to remove his shirt, and was pushing him back onto the bed. The moment his head hit the pillow his eyes closed and he started to drift off. But there was something bugging him. Something about a favor...

His eyes opened suddenly, his hand reaching out to grab Xander just as he was getting up to move away. 'I'm me,' he stated fairly incoherently.

Xander regarded him curiously for a moment, before a smirk appeared and he nodded. 'Can't argue with that. All right, Spike. It's only fair, I guess.' Then he leaned over and placed a soft kiss on his mouth. Spike sighed and smiled, his eyes drifting shut once again.

'Mmm, s'right,' he murmured.

He drifted off to the sound of a warm chuckle and the feel of strong, gentle fingers tracing though his hair. It made him feel happy. And his last thought as sleep claimed him was that for the first time, that didn't sound like a lie, and it didn't make him afraid, it just felt undeniably, wonderfully right.

Part Three B

In which Buffy and Dawn give Xander a nudge in the right direction.

Xander exhaled heavily as he closed the bedroom door behind him. On top of everything else that had happened tonight, it was just too much. His head was pounding, and more than anything else, he just wanted to fall into bed, but he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, not like this.

Detouring via the bathroom for aspirin, he made his way down the hall to Buffy's room. He knocked once and was slightly surprised to hear someone call 'come in'. He hadn't really expected her to be up yet, although he hadn't quite decided if he wanted to wake her up or just sit on her couch and wait. Shrugging, he opened the door and stepped into the small sitting room. He was even more surprised to see Buffy and Dawn sitting together on the couch drinking coffee and chatting quietly. They looked up as he came in, getting to their feet immediately as they took in his worn expression.

He glanced down and attempted a smile. 'Hey, guys, what's up?'

'Xander! We've been worried sick about you!' Dawn exclaimed. 'Marissa called us a couple of hours ago, frantic that she hadn't heard from you since one o'clock.'

Xander groaned. 'Oh guys, I'm so sorry. I was up on the roof. There's nothing wrong. I guess I just got a little... caught up. Marissa is never going to forgive me.'

Buffy moved over quietly and placed a hand on his arm. 'Hey, don't worry about it,' she said soothingly, 'we found you up there. It looked like you were having some sort of a vision. Your eyes were white, and we couldn't get you to respond to us, but I couldn't feel that anything was threatening, and neither could Dawn. We've been checking up on you every half-hour or so, although we were going to call Willow if it went on for too much longer. We let Marissa know what was going on.' She paused for a moment, glancing over to her sister. 'We wondered, what with how you were sitting, if Spike was there with you.'

It was just way too much. Visions were bad enough on a normal day, but having to see Spike's past had been worse than anything he had ever had to do before. Not because it was particularly gruesome, and not because he'd had to feel everything that the victims had. But he'd had to watch this thing that looked so much like his friend, and yet felt nothing like the man he knew, do all these terrible things, and know that this was the past Spike had to live with. Even though he wasn't responsible for the actions of the demon, a part of him was there, the same part that had been able to surface when a tiny metal implant effectively caged his demon, that had shared hot chocolate with Joyce, that had endured torture at the hands of a God to save Dawn. As much blood as Xander himself had on his hands, he couldn't even begin to comprehend the pain the other man had to be feeling, had felt for the past sixteen years, the strength it must have taken to finally decide to face up to it. Honestly, Xander didn't know if he could have done the same, were their positions reversed. He felt tears pricking the back of his eyes and looked down at the floor. He had no idea if anything he had done tonight had helped, but honestly believed what he'd said, that Spike had been redeemed.

He gave a hollow kind of laugh, running one hand through his hair. 'Yeah, Spike. Buffy...' He looked up finally, and whatever she saw in his eyes, he suddenly found himself whisked over to the couch and wrapped in strong, tiny arms. 'No, no,' he protested half-heartedly, 'I'm cool, really. Just doing what needed to be done.'

'Xander, what happened?' she asked quietly.

And so he told them. Not the details. They were not his secrets to reveal, but the gist of the thing, and how much it had hurt him to know that Spike was in so much pain.

Dawn sat down on the end on the couch and started rubbing gentle circles over his back. 'That must have been awful. Are you alright?'

He glanced over, surprised at the question. He'd been so wrapped up in everything that had happened, he'd hardly given a thought to himself. 'Sure. I'm a bit tired, I guess. It was... hard.' Which was possibly the understatement of the decade. 'To see what the demon did with his body, from his point and from the people who were killed, but I'll be alright. I kind of think I was almost beside the point. This was about Spike. Me... I'm just the messenger.'

'And what about Spike?' Dawn continued seriously. 'Is he ok?'

Xander sighed, shaking his head. 'I just don't know Dawn. I think so. I want to believe that it helped. I guess we'll have to wait and see. He's actually sleeping now, or whatever the equivalent is. He's never done that before. He told me he doesn't usually sleep, so whatever he went through must have been really draining. He's been keeping this inside for so long... And I know he deserves to find some peace. I wish there was more I could do.'

Buffy smiled at him fondly. 'Hey, I know you, Xan. You'll do everything in your power and then some. He couldn't ask for a better person, a better friend, to help him.'

He leant into her a little and gave her a tired smile. 'Thanks, Buff.'

She smiled at him, before asking hesitantly, 'Xander, don't take this the wrong way, but... what's going on between the two of you?'

'What do you mean?'

She glanced nervously at her sister, before turning back resolutely. 'Well, you're friends, right?'

'Well, yeah, sure. I mean, he's not nearly as irritating as he used to be, and we seem to have a few things in common. I like having him around.'

She looked at him searchingly, and he knew trying to keep anything from her was an exercise in futility. 'Is that all it is?'

He sighed, running a hand through his hair. 'Ok, I can admit I seem to like him a little more than I should.'

'Should?' Buffy narrowed her eyes and shook her head, not understanding.

He glanced at her in confusion. 'Well, yeah. Buffy, this is Spike. You know, Spike who hated me for a good six years before getting dead. I mean, I know things are different now, but I haven't changed that much, and it's not like he could just forget all of that.'

She was looking at him incredulously, and he squirmed a little in his seat. He was sure it all made perfect sense. She shook her head once, glancing over at Dawn, who was looking amused. 'Xander... I can't believe you just said that,' she said, half to herself. Before he could start to get really annoyed, she pinned him with a glare. 'Ok, I guess you can be forgiven for thinking that Spike hated you.' Her pursed lips told another story, but she continued. 'So I'm telling you that he didn't. It might have started out that way, but it seems to me, once he understood you were both fighting for the same thing, he pretty much gave up on that. Besides, knowing Spike, putting all that effort into hating you probably just seemed like too much work. You also might remember, he not only agreed to live with you after we got him out of the school basement, but he didn't kill you on one of his evil sprees. Not to mention the fact he helped to save you from demon-date lady and stopped Caleb from poking out your other eye. You don't do that for people that you hate.' She continued to glare at him while he digested this.

Dawn laughed and placed a hand on his shoulder. 'You know she's right, Xander. Think about it. When did you stop hating Spike? And no, you haven't changed much, personality-wise, but I think we've just established that that's probably part of the appeal. I always thought you two could be friends, given a little peace and quiet. And let's face it, oh 'normal one', the visions have given you a whole new perspective on the demon-world. Is it so hard to believe that Spike might have learned to like a thing or two about you in the last fifteen years of watching all of us?'

Fair enough, he could... accept that. It was true enough that he hadn't hated Spike for a long time. Sure, he hadn't exactly liked him, but he had accepted him, respected him even. He couldn't quite wrap his head around why Spike might have done the same for him, but if Buffy and Dawn agreed it was true, then he would take them at their word. 'What about you, then, Buffy? Spike was in love with you. I do know that. I could see it.'

He saw the pain wash over her face and cursed himself. 'Buff, I'm sorry...'

She gave him a wry smile, shaking her head. 'No, it's ok. I wish... I wish I could talk to him about this myself,' she said quietly. 'But the fact is, I'm not in love with him. I never really was. I could have loved him... I did, in the end, like I do you and Willow. I wish... I wish that had been enough. You said was. Is he... does he still...?' She trailed off, unwilling to end that sentence.

Xander picked up both her hands, stroking them gently as he tried to figure out how to answer this. In all honesty, he'd been expecting the question for months, had been trying to figure out the answer for almost as long. 'Buffy, he does love you. You should have seen the way he looked at you that first morning, when you told him you'd missed him. But I don't know... I don't think...' He didn't think Spike was still in love with her, but he really wasn't sure enough to say it, to make it real, because what if he was wrong?

She squeezed his hands. 'Sorry, I shouldn't have asked. Not an easy conversation to have with a third party translating, I guess.'

She looked so discouraged that before he knew it he was speaking. 'Do you want me to ask him?'

She didn't even hesitate as she shook her head, giving him a smile. 'No, it's ok. What would it change, anyway?' She shook her head resolutely, then, her smile becoming mischievous. 'Ok, I grant you that Spike being in love with me still might just make it a little harder for you two to get together, but that's a big if at the moment. I can't see that anything else is standing in your way. I know I wouldn't mind. Spike deserves a little happiness, and God knows so do you. And we've both seen how much more relaxed you've been recently. Right, Dawnie?'

Dawn nodded decisively. 'Absolutely. He's been good for you, and from what you've told us, you've been good for him, too.'

Xander looked between the two enthusiastic faces dazedly. He couldn't believe they'd gone from Spike being in love with Buffy to both of them trying to set him up with said ex-vampire in such a short space of time. He hadn't really even thought that far ahead. Sure he had felt something when he kissed him, both times, and he was a good companion, fun to have around, but a relationship? 'Guys, he's not even real,' he tried to protest.

Buffy frowned, while Dawn waved her hand dismissively, answering, 'Of course he is. Weren't you paying any attention when Willow explained all that?'

'But he hasn't said anything, or done anything...' He bit down on the urge to tell them about the kiss, tonight and the one a couple of months ago. It would only encourage them, and he was certain he didn't want that. Fairly certain anyway. He sighed to himself, admitting that he wasn't actually certain at all any more. 'I just... I don't know. I wouldn't want to risk it. I'm good with what we've got now, and until he says otherwise I reckon Spike is too. I've only been able to see him for the last few months, and he's only just tonight started talking about his past. It's too much right now. I don't think it'd be all that good for him, for either of us, to try to start anything yet.'

Buffy sighed in disappointment, but seemed to give in with good grace. 'Fair enough, I get where you're coming from. Just... don't rule it out completely, and don't wait too long just 'cause you're afraid you might get hurt, like I almost did with Angel. Spike's a good person, and if he makes you happy, nothing else matters.' She grinned suddenly, 'You of all people should know that.'

'Hey! No fair bringing up my sordid past.' She was right, though. He did have a way of forgetting about the problems if a person made him happy. He and Cordelia had been snubbed by most of their friends, hell he'd been snubbed by Cordelia even while they were dating. The love of his life had been a former vengeance demon, with a track record that not even Spike could hope to compete with. But he'd loved them, so it didn't matter what the rest of the world thought. He didn't love Spike, not like that at least, but he was no longer sure that he couldn't, and if that was the case, then Buffy was right, nothing else did matter. He grimaced, dropping the hand he was holding to run his hands over his face. 'You are right, though, I guess. I'll think about it.'


He didn't see as much of Spike over the next couple of weeks, understanding that the man would need some time to come to grips with everything that had happened that night. He was slightly disturbed to notice just how much he missed his company.

Even when he was around, Xander couldn't bring himself to raise the issue of their 'relationship', whatever that meant at the moment. Still, he had promised, so he watched, and he thought about it. And now that he was actively paying attention, he couldn't help but feel that Dawn was right. They could have been friends, if circumstances had thrown them together a little differently twenty years ago. Maybe not immediately, he had, after all, been very young, but they had more in common then he would ever have wanted to admit.

Fifteen years was a long time, by his standards at least, but he hadn't spent all this time as a seer without learning a thing or two about memory. He found himself sinking into the meditation he usually only used to recall past visions, and instead pulling up memories of his own past, of Spike. He needed to know that this wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction to suddenly having the man back, being the only one able to see him, and, of course, his own much discussed inclination towards those of the demon or ex-demon variety.

He couldn't deny that Spike had been an asshole, but he could also see now what being chipped must have done to the vampire. If he himself had been a little less indignant about the whole kidnapping/trying to kill them thing, a little less wrapped up in Anya, if Spike had been slightly less angry, resentful and abrasive, perhaps he could have been more sympathetic, less ready to hurt the vampire in any way he could. On the other hand, back then he had no idea how it felt to lose someone you'd dedicated your life to, to lose everything you thought made you who you were, trapped inside a body you could no longer even control. His problems paled in comparison to Spike's, he could admit that now, though it hadn't felt like it at the time. Even if he had wanted to offer his sympathy to the vampire, it would have been hollow, and Spike would have been more than justified in dismissing it and him.

Even if his break-up with Anya had given them something in common, it was too late. Spike had hurt Buffy so much, and if he felt a twinge of sympathy for the way she had treated him back, it had been easy enough to dismiss, and go back to the dislike that had been almost second nature before Glory.

When Spike had slept with Anya, he had raged at him, instead of looking towards himself, once again finding it easier to blame the evil vampire than the people he knew he loved. It appalled him now to realize just how often he had refused to see the guilt within himself or his family, how quick he was to make excuses for them, and how adamant he was about never forgiving Spike, whether he was guilty or not.

The whole soul bit had seriously screwed with his world, melting the last vestiges of Black and White that he had been clinging on to, and forcing him to see all the shades of gray. Not that he'd ever been na´ve enough to believe that there was only good and bad in the world, with nothing in between, but he had clung to the idea that there were truly good people like Buffy who destroyed all the things that were evil in the world. Sure, there were things out there that were only slightly evil, or a little less than good, but they were beside the point.

Of course, it had been more than just the soul. It might have started with Anya, maybe even with Oz, and with Willow trying to destroy the world, but when the one man he knew, knew, was evil, was still a demon, despite everything he had done, could feel enough remorse, enough love, to sacrifice everything he was, any peace he could ever have, righteousness had just kind of faded away. He had finally admitted to himself that there was no black and white, no perfect hero and no ultimate evil to vanquish. Which had, of course, been the final irony. Because he finally understood that it wasn't about killing the bad guy, it was about protecting the people you loved and the people who couldn't protect themselves. He couldn't hate Spike, any more than he could hate Willow or Anya or Buffy. He didn't have the right, and Spike didn't deserve it.

If they hadn't become friends then, it was only because once again circumstances intervened. For some reason it made him feel better about what they had now to know that it wasn't just the new and improved Spike he liked, it was all of him.


Christmas eve, the gang were sprawled in the library, drinking hot chocolate and passing the occasional comment, but mostly just relaxing, being together. The few slayers and watchers in training who hadn't gone home for the holidays had gone to their rooms, probably not to get any sleep, but that was something none of them were really worried about. Buffy was curled up on one of the couches with Angel, lazy smiles playing over both their faces as they occasionally gazed into each others eyes. Wesley and Dawn were sitting over at the table, arguing good-naturedly about the origins of the Santa Clause myth, while Gunn and Cordelia sprawled on the rug in front of the fireplace, making occasional loud pointed comments about working on Christmas eve. Willow and Fred were also sitting at the table, hunched over a laptop and various other technological-type implements whose function generally had Xander completely mystified, and giggling in a way that he was sure could have nothing to do with science. Although maybe with biology, given the lingering looks they periodically exchanged. Giles was simply sitting by himself in the large armchair beside the couch where he and Spike were lounging, watching the people in the room, a content smile on his face. Xander understood the look, had a feeling his own mirrored it. The peace in the room was almost palpable, and he felt a great surge of affection for these people, his family.

He glanced over and caught the older man's eye, his smile widening into a grin. He leaned over the armrest to whisper theatrically, 'Spike says he senses sparks between those two,' he glanced over to where Wesley and Dawn were ignoring them at the table. His eyes twinkled. 'What do you think?' Wesley could be a tough bastard these days, but whenever he was around Dawn Xander could almost see the geeky Watcher he had first known rising to the surface.

Giles regarded him for a moment too long, and Xander was just about to say something else, when he winked suddenly, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. 'I should certainly hope so,' he said, sounding slightly aggrieved, 'I spent long enough planting the suggestion.'

Xander's eyes widened, and he had to force himself not to laugh out loud. 'You go, G-man. Didn't know you had it in you.' Xander grinned, and Giles continued to look pleased with himself.

He turned back to Spike, who was propped up against the other end of the couch, his unshod feet in Xander's lap. The blond was looking at him knowingly, a smile playing around the edges of his mouth. He could see that the peace in the room was wrapping itself around the man just as effectively as the rest of them. He had never seen Spike so honestly relaxed, happy. It was beautiful. He felt an affectionate smile inching up the corners of his own mouth.

Spike found himself caught once again. He couldn't help the wry thought that those eyes would be the death of him. He didn't think he'd ever been looked at like that; like falling into pure, untainted warmth. He knew he should be moving, tensing, saying something, anything, but the atmosphere and that smile were combining to make movement impossible, but unnecessary, so it didn't really matter. When Xander's hand came up to take his own where it was resting on the back of the couch, he felt the little sparks of electricity, and tightened his fingers automatically, never once taking his eyes off Xander's face. It was nothing new, they touched all the time, but this time it felt different, more... significant. Xander blinked and Spike knew he felt it too.

With a burst of clarity, he realized he wanted more than just affection. He wanted all of it, the mind, the heart, the body and the soul. He would never have imagined himself looking twice at Xander Harris, but it would seem forced intimacy had its advantages, because it had required him to keep looking, finding new layers, until he now couldn't imagine wanting to look at anything, or anyone, else.

And then he wanted to move, needed to move, needed to kiss that smile, touch it, claim it, take it into himself, because what did he ever do to deserve it, and who was to say it would still be there tomorrow? Xander hadn't moved, but neither had the smile, and his thumb was making small circles against Spike's skin, and Spike was leaning forward, through the impossibly thick air, slowly, too slowly...

Because Xander was tensing, the smile falling from his face, his eyes becoming distant, then a brief, wry twitch of his lips as they filmed over white.

Part Three C

In which Willow has a surprise for Christmas and the gang gets to see Spike

Spike knew a brief moment of panic as he relaxed back into the chair. What the hell did he think he was doing? Not only had they never talked about this, which Spike took to be an exceptionally bad sign, given they had actually kissed twice already, but they were also in a room full of people, most of whom couldn't even see him.

It wasn't like they could have any sort of relationship anyway. No matter how happy Xander made him feel, how much he was prepared to help, the peace that he had already brought, he deserved more than a man he could never even introduce to his friends. He had no idea how long he would even be around. Moving on, finding peace and happiness had never really seemed like an option, he had always kind of assumed he would be around forever.

It was the only thing that scared him about this whole situation. Would he have to leave? Would finding peace come at the cost of losing his family, the people he had only just found again? This was supposed to be his reward. Surely they wouldn't do that to him. But that was the rub, wasn't it? From what he knew, that was exactly the sort of thing the Powers would do. They had never cared about him before, had never done anything, as far as he knew, that didn't end up causing someone pain, somewhere down the line. Why should he think this time would be any different? The problem was, he didn't know that it really made any difference. The promise of peace, of happiness, no matter how little of it he might end up having, was just not something he had the strength to refuse. He was so tired, of the pain, the screaming, the hate, tired of being used.

While he would love to stay here for as long as possible, he wouldn't make himself miserable on the off-chance that finding some happiness with Xander would send him away. If he were only going to get a moment of perfect happiness, then he would take it. And if, as he hoped, he did get to stay for as long as he wished, no matter when he found his peace, he would thank the Powers then.

The problem, of course, was finding out how Xander felt about him. Preferably without having to ask, he thought with a mental grimace. He thought he could probably be happy to merely be the man's friend but he couldn't deny that he did want more than that. If the Powers had redeemed him, Xander had certainly saved him and he could have loved him for that alone. But he had also proved himself a true friend, and that was a relationship that Spike had never before experienced. It saddened him slightly to think that his pride, Xander's anger, and too many uncontrollable circumstances had robbed him of this those last few years of his life. He had seen it, of course; Xander was self-sacrificing, loyal to a fault and totally committed to his friends, but he had never been one of them.

Now, they had more in common that Spike would ever have believed possible. The darkness in Xander called to him, the pain in his eyes a mirror to his own. The man had seen more suffering than any of them, knew the evil as well as he did, who had lived it, saw the world in as many shades of gray and still fought to save as much of the good as he was able. The fact that he was still able to contain so much light, so much hope and joy, took his breath away. Xander's humor might be self-deprecating, even a little black, but it was real. The world had beaten him down but it had never defeated him and he had never given up on it. It was partly why he had fallen in love with Buffy. She had embodied the same duality of light and dark, and it grieved him to think that she had almost lost herself to that darkness because of him. It was an indication just how strong Xander was that he had not done the same.

He didn't know exactly what it would take to make him happy but he knew in his soul that it would involve Xander. He did know that he wanted to be loved. He wanted to experience love that wasn't tarnished by pain, or hate or disinterest. And he wanted passion, but without the violence that had characterized every one of his past relationships. For him, love had always meant pain and he had accepted that, craved it even, unable to stop himself no matter how many times his heart was ripped apart. And in a way that was okay. He had been a vampire, thrived on the suffering of others, as well as his own.

But he wasn't anymore. He wasn't human again, but in a very real way, he was closer to the man he had once been than the vampire he had become. God knew, even human relationships weren't always happy but he knew that they could be and he knew that, like himself, Xander had witnessed too much pain, known too much suffering to want that in a relationship. If there was anyone on earth who wouldn't lie to him, or deliberately hurt him, but throw his heart into making him happy, it was Xander. He had proven that already.

Every day he could feel himself falling a little more for this man. And for the first time it was easy, purely uncomplicated. He was content to just feel. There was no one to answer to, nothing to fear. He didn't even feel a burning desire to make Xander love him back. Xander was the only person in his world, literally, but even if that changed tomorrow, it was too late. Xander had opened himself up and Spike had seen into him; seen a soul almost as beaten and broken as his own, yet still standing, still willing to befriend a once-hated enemy, to heal him, to give him hope.

Which was why he was prepared to wait for as long as he had to. Xander had already shown him love as he had never known it, the same unswerving devotion and concern he showed his friends, his family. So as much as he wanted passion, wanted to lose himself in the other man, his eyes, his lips, his body, what he had now was enough. Even if Xander never came to think of him that way, it would be enough.

None of which meant he would give up. He would give him space, but he knew he hadn't imagined the look in Xander's eyes tonight, or up on the roof all those weeks ago. Not passion, but maybe just not yet. There was no hurry. He would do this right. This was his second chance, his last chance, and he would not bollix it up. Not this time.

Everyone was looking their way curiously as Xander came out his vision, his free hand going to his forehead to massage his temples for a moment.

''You ok, Xander?' Cordelia asked with an understanding smile.

'Yeah, sure, the throbbing pain just keeps you on your toes, right?' he shrugged philosophically. They shared a meaningful glance, before he turned to Willow and Fred at the laptop. 'You wanna send that thing over here, Wills? This shouldn't take long.' Willow positively bounced out of her chair, sending him a blindingly cheerful grin. He chuckled at her as she bounded across the room. 'You're such a kid,' he said affectionately as he started typing.

She batted him on the back of the head, but didn't stop smiling. 'Well, it's Christmas! A time for family and giving, and coming together, and peace and happiness and... twinkly lights and decorations and... and eggnog and presents!' she enthused.

'And Christmas carols,' Wesley added seriously, his eyes sparkling.

'Yes!' she exclaimed. 'Oh!' Spike wondered that she wasn't jumping up and down clapping her hands. 'We can get Giles and Spike to sing for us!'

Buffy eyed her best friend with amusement. 'Well, we could if Spike wasn't invisible. But I'm sure Xander would appreciate it.'

Oddly enough, this didn't seem to faze the witch. 'Oh, right, well, sure,' she grinned.

Spike regarded her warily. What was she up to? And more importantly, what did it have to do with him? Apparently he wasn't the only one wondering. 'What are you up to, Willow?' Dawn asked sternly, her eyes laughing.

'Me?' Her eyes went wide. 'Nothing. Nothing at all. I mean, it's a surprise. Oooh, it's so exciting!' Spike rolled his eyes fondly. She really was jumping up and down now.

'A surprise, huh? Who's it for?' They were all paying attention now, Willow's enthusiasm becoming infectious.

'Well, it's for everyone, kind of. Except maybe Gunn and Fred.' She frowned a little. 'And Wes.' Her face cleared. 'But they can enjoy it too. Mostly it's for Spike. And that's as much as I'm saying 'till Christmas.' Her eyes twinkled at the chorus of groans. Spike was starting to get worried. She wasn't going to put a spell on him, was she? He didn't care how powerful she'd become; this was still Willow they were talking about.

'Spike, huh?' Buffy commented. 'Well, I wouldn't worry too much, Spike. Willow's gotten much better at spells, haven't you Wills? So, is it a new one? Something experimental, maybe?' Buffy was grinning wickedly.

'Oh, thanks heaps, Slayer. I'll just stand behind you, shall I? See what it does to you first,' he muttered mutinously, still glancing suspiciously at the witch. He jumped a little when Xander snorted under his breath, glancing up to give him a sympathetic grin.

The man quickly scanned the page, nodded to himself, punched a few more keys, and placed the laptop on the floor. Shoving Spike's feet off his lap, he stood, stretching for a moment before walking around the couch to stand in front of Willow, a serious expression on his face. The bouncing stilled almost at once. 'Xander, what's wrong? Was it the vision? Oh, god, is everything all right?'

Xander placed his arms around her waist and pulled her close, leaning back so he could look her in the eye. 'Relax, Wills, everything is fine,' he said calmly. 'But, I have something to tell you.' He sounded serious. What then, was prompting the renewed bouncing and the return of the shit-eating grin? Everyone else was looking concerned as well. He glanced around again. No, they weren't. Buffy and Giles were both completely relaxed, Buffy obviously trying to suppress a smile. After a moment of confusion he realized what must be going on. Their connection, the one that let them speak mind-to-mind, to know if the other was in danger. Willow had to be broadcasting excitement like a kid at Disneyland, and Xander was obviously not panicking, either. Xander swept the little witch into a hug, leaning down to whisper in her ear, 'Merry Christmas.' He pulled back and tapped his watch, a huge grin spreading over his face. 'It has now officially been Christmas for three and a half minutes. You've got no excuses for keeping us in suspense. Spill,' he told her sternly.

She rolled her eyes, but wasn't doing a very good impression of reluctance. 'Fine, if you insist. Gather 'round, I'll be back in a sec.'

She sped from the room as everyone moved to sit around the fireplace, debating exactly what she had in store for them. Moments later, Willow was back, carrying a small box that, to Spike's eyes, was pulsing with a bright, white light.

Xander apparently noticed as well. 'Uh, Wills, your box is glowing.'

'Really?' She peered at it curiously. 'Well, I guess that makes sense. It's got a spirit guarding it and, more importantly, the contents.' She grinned, obviously bursting with anticipation. She glanced over at Xander, and he directed his gaze to where Spike was sitting on the couch. Following suit, Willow looked at him almost directly. 'Now, Spike, when I open this, I want you to pick up what's inside.'

Spike narrowed his eyes, confused. 'I thought Spike couldn't touch anything,' Angel said with a frown.

'He should be able to, in this case. I guess we'll see in a moment. Ready?' Not waiting for an answer, she opened the box to reveal a ring, made of what looked like sliver, with a large black stone in the center. The surprising thing, however, was that it looked completely solid. Most of the time objects were transparent, emanating a kind of muted glow that he could manipulate, treat as solid. This thing looked as real as Xander when he was phased. Wonderingly, he reached out and picked up the ring, cradling it in the palm of his hand. He looked up at several startled gasps.

'What?' He looked over at Xander, who shrugged.

'Yeah, what?' He looked around at the others.

Willow chuckled, back to grinning and bouncing. 'It worked! Oh, this is so cool! Don't worry, Spike, it looks like the ring is floating, to the rest of us. Now!' she exclaimed, 'I need you to hold it in the palm of your hand while I bind it to you.'

'Bind it to him?' Xander said anxiously. 'Willow, what exactly is this thing for? It's not dangerous is it?'

'Oh, no,' she answered quickly. 'It's not even permanent. I promise there's nothing to worry about. I know what I'm doing. I've been working on this for months, and there is nothing I'm about to do that can't be undone, if that's what Spike wants. Now, when I said I want to bind it to him, I just mean I want to make it so no one else can use it. That's all. Is that ok, Spike? We don't have to do this if you don't want to.' She sounded so earnest, but there was a hint of real disappointment under there, such that Spike didn't have the heart to refuse her. Besides, he had to admit that he was intrigued, and if Willow gave her word that nothing was going to be permanent anyway, he figured he could take the chance.

Curling his fingers around the ring resting on his palm, he nodded to Xander, who flashed him a smile. 'He's good to go, Wills,' he reported.

'Great!' She clapped her hands, grinning again. 'Everyone should probably stand back. Spike, you wanna come stand over here?' She gestured to the clear space behind the couches, beside the table. Grasping the ring more tightly, he did as instructed, facing Willow warily. She smiled at him, in his general direction, anyway, as she stood facing him. 'Ok, for the first part of the spell, I need you to hold the ring in the palm of your hand. Don't clench your fingers over it or anything. When I tell you, I want you to put it on. You can test it out now to see where it fits. Give me a sec, and then we'll start. I've already done most of the hard work, so the whole thing shouldn't take long.' He quickly tried the ring on, finding it fit best on the middle finger of his left hand. As he did so, he watched Willow center and ground herself, all the nervous energy of a couple of minutes ago visibly leaking away. He could feel the air start to thrum around her as she stood up straighter, lifted her head, shedding the excited little girl she usually wore like a skin. This was the Witch, confident, and powerful as hell.

A non-existent breeze ruffled Willow's hair slightly as she stood there, but Spike relaxed slightly as she opened her eyes. They were hers. Green; not white, which meant this wasn't an exceptionally powerful spell, and not black, which meant she was in complete control.

'Ready?' she asked distantly. Taking a deep breath, he placed the ring on his open palm and, never taking his eyes off her, nodded.

Xander had been watching the same transformation over by the fireplace, although most of his thoughts were with Spike. The man looked nervous as hell, which Xander supposed he could understand. But he could also feel that Willow was completely sure of herself. And if she was that confident, he knew everything would be all right. Still, he wished he could reassure Spike of that.

When Spike nodded in answer to Willow's question, he used their bond to send his response to her, not wanting to chance interrupting the ritual.

She lifted one hand to hover over the ring, and started muttering to herself quietly. He couldn't understand exactly what she was saying, although he could feel the power swelling in the room, could see Willow become brighter as she drew that power into herself. The ring started to pulse with a corresponding radiance that, as he watched, resolved itself into strangely chaotic lines and whorls. The silver of the ring moved like quicksilver, the golden lines forming and reforming as the black stone lightened through gray until it, too, pulsed with a brilliant white light.

It was only then that Willow issued the terse command for Spike to place the ring on his finger. With the barest hesitation, he complied.

Xander was halfway across the room when Spike suddenly cried out in pain. There was blood dripping from the finger Spike had placed the ring on. But with the power eddying around the two of them, he couldn't get close. He would have stopped Willow, gone into her mind if he'd had to if, at that moment, Spike hadn't whipped his head around and warned him away with a fierce look. He stopped in confusion, knowing he had to trust them, aching to run in there and stop whatever was hurting his friend. But Spike was looking at Willow, his clenched fist held out in front of him like an offering, and in the back of his mind, Xander noticed that she was looking at Spike. Directly.

Willow's hair was flying now in a breeze that he still couldn't feel, her skirt snapping around her ankles, Spike's black shirt billowing a little around his chest. She spoke in a quiet voice that echoed around the room, 'It is bound. Shall I activate it?'

Spike's eyes never left Willow's. 'Yes.' Before Xander could even think about relaying this, Willow smiled briefly, distantly and began the next part of her spell. She spoke in ancient Greek, which Xander knew passably well, calling on the primordial goddess Gaea, mediator between the higher and lower worlds, between light and darkness, life and death, source of the physical universe, present in all reality. Barely pausing for breath, she switched to Latin, her voice demanding now, rather than supplicating as she appealed to Janus, god of doorways, thresholds.

All the while the ring was becoming brighter and brighter, the patterns swirling frantically around the metal of the ring then, with the call to Gaea, bleeding over onto Spike's skin, tracing lines over his arms, his chest, until his entire body was covered. He was breathing heavily, his mouth open, his eyes wide, but his body rock steady as he gazed at the witch. Then, as Willow shouted for Janus to open the doorway, the lines of light disappeared inside Spike, before both he and the ring pulsed with a radiance so bright that Xander had to slam his eyes shut.

He immediately opened them to slits but the light was already fading and both Spike and Willow were slumped to their knees, Spike looking at his still-glowing form curiously, Willow back to grinning like a maniac.

A faint whimper from behind him caused him to turn. Everyone looked stunned. Buffy was clutching at Angel, her eyes wide and shining. Angel, while looking equally astonished, was actually starting to smile. Giles had taken off his glasses and was furiously polishing them. Wes and Gunn had their mouths hanging open, while Cordelia had clamped a hand over her own. Fred was grinning, her eyes dancing, looking more excited than amazed. However, it was Dawn he had heard. She had fallen to her knees on the carpet, her hands clenched to her mouth, her eyes filling with tears.

What had provoked this reaction, he thought? As far as he could tell, the only thing that Willow had managed to do was make Spike glow a little. It was very pretty, but it was hardly earth shattering.

Then his head snapped around as it finally occurred to him what they were all looking at. They were looking at Spike. Invisible Spike. Every one of them had their eyes directly trained on him.

Half afraid to test his theory, he focused his eyes on the other man, the man only he could see, and phased out.

Spike looked up from where he was kneeling on the floor, his blue eyes vibrant, his pale skin luminescent. He stood gracefully and smiled, a warm, delighted smile. 'Hello, all,' he said cheerfully. 'Good to see me again, is it?'

His words broke the spell that had everyone dumbfounded, and Dawn flung herself to her feet and across the room, followed closely by Buffy, Angel and Giles. She stopped only long enough to glance at Willow, who nodded once and grinned, before throwing herself at Spike. When she didn't fall through him, and he didn't disappear, she buried her head in his chest, her arms going around his waist, her body wracked with sobs.

Spike seemed slightly taken aback, but his arms wound themselves around her, one hand rubbing circles on her back while the other gently stroked her hair. 'S'okay, Dawn, it's okay. Come on, it's only me, Little Bit,' he murmured.

She pulled back with a strangled laugh. 'Spike, oh my god, Spike.' Tears continued to stream forgotten down her face but now she was smiling, grinning, and she ran a wondering hand over his face before pulling him back into a powerful hug.

This time he just laughed. 'Take that as a yes, shall I?' Still, Xander noticed with a smile of his own that Spike wasn't rushing to push Dawn away. His hands kept moving over her back, and he would swear that his eyes seemed brighter than usual.

He smirked a little as Spike raised his head, his gaze going unerringly to where Xander was standing by the table. Spike ducked his head, giving a wry smile of his own. But Xander's expression gentled as he took in the wonder on Spike's face. Then his heart sped up as those beautiful blue eyes seemed to focus, holding him motionless as they filled with not just warmth, but heat. He thought he might have shivered, as that contemplative, expectant gaze lingered on him. Mentally berating himself that this was neither the time nor the place, Xander deliberately forced his expression back to a grin and gestured with his eyes towards Buffy, who was practically vibrating where she was standing next to Angel. With one last glance that seemed to promise more than Xander was really comfortable thinking about, Spike turned back to Dawn. He dropped a kiss on her head before gently easing her out of his arms and turning to Buffy.

Not even glancing at Angel, she stepped forward, smiling softly. 'Buffy...' Spike uttered her name softly, her eyes tearing up again as for the first time in fifteen years she heard it, and smiled. He tentatively reached out his free hand to her face. Xander could see the uncertainty on his face, and smiled as Spike glanced his way briefly. Taking a deep breath, the other man reached out and gently traced his fingers over the soft line of her jaw. She closed her eyes, as one tear sloped over her cheek, and turned her head into the caress, her whole body relaxing and a smile breaking out on her face. Spike was staring at his hand as he whispered again, 'Buffy.' He barely had time to blink before she had him in an embrace that would have crushed the air out of a lesser man. Xander snorted as she picked Spike up and whirled him around, laughing delightedly, as he smiled and protested. 'Careful Slayer, don't know how fragile this new body of mine is, do we?'

'Sorry,' she grinned. 'Although I still owe you for that story; don't think I haven't remembered.'

He smirked back. 'All for a good cause, though, wasn't it? I wouldn't be here today otherwise.'

Angel grinned and placed a large hand on Buffy's shoulder. 'Is this all your fault then, love?' he asked sternly. His smile faded as he ran a measuring gaze over the recently reappeared man before him. Spike stilled immediately under the scrutiny, then started to fidget, and finally Xander could see the defensive shields going up, just as Angel stepped around Buffy and drew Spike into a strong hug of his own. Spike struggled for a moment but, when it became clear that Angel wasn't letting him go, he rolled his eyes and patted the other man on the back. Xander could barely hear the muttered 'Poofter' that belied the pleasure in the man's eyes.

Angel stepped away after a moment. 'You not going to pick me up too, then, mate?' Spike asked innocently.

'Not even if you'd have me,' Angel snarked back, looking at Spike knowingly. Xander was confused at the look Spike sent his way but didn't dwell on it. 'You look good, Spike,' he said softly. Then he cocked his head to one side thoughtfully, gazing at Spike steadily. 'William.'

Spike smiled sadly and shook his head. 'More than you can imagine,' he murmured. 'But stick with Spike.' He smirked wryly, the sorrow obvious in his eyes. 'Think of it as a testament.' They shared a look of pained understanding. Angel placed a hand on Spike's shoulder.

'You were always William to me.' Spike hesitated a moment before smiling and nodding.

He shook off the serious mood with a little effort and turned to Giles, who had been waiting patiently with Willow. ''Allo, Rupert. Bet you didn't think you'd be seeing me again,' he smirked, holding out a hand. Giles took it without hesitation, smirking back.

'Nothing surprises me anymore, Spike. Besides,' he said with a grin, 'you always were notoriously difficult to get rid of. By the way, I do apologize for trying to kill you. Upon reflection, I'm rather glad I failed, even if it did seem like a good idea at the time.'

'You're just saying that 'cause I saved the world.' Spike softened his words with a grin.

Giles was completely unconcerned. 'Well, yes. Seems like a fairly good reason if you ask me.'

Spike shook his head and chuckled, turning to glance at Xander. 'You were right mate, they are all just using us, aren't they?'

Xander grinned. 'They'll tell you it's 'cause they love you, but don't you believe it. It gets so much more fun when they then try to prove it's 'cause they love you.'

'Xander!' Dawn exclaimed, slapping him on the arm and grinning. 'Spike knows we love him, don't you Spike?'

Spike put on a worried expression. 'I don't know, Bit. Haven't even got a kiss yet. What's a man supposed to think?'

Xander saw the glance that Buffy exchanged with Giles, feeling her amusement thrum through their bond as she sent him a mental picture. He barely managed to contain a snort before she spoke up, 'Well, that's easy enough to fix,' she said blithely. Giles rarely went along with these things, but in an atypical moment of humor and compliance he stepped forward and kissed Spike soundly on the lips. Xander was amused to notice that, although Spike was clearing his throat and turning a shade of red that he would have thought impossible for someone without real blood, Giles was completely composed. He really was unflusterable these days. Like one of those Zen masters.

Before Spike could gather his thoughts to protest, Willow stepped up and poked him in the ribs, grinning madly. 'That was from all of us,' she said. Then she, too, pulled him into a hug. 'I'm really glad the spell worked,' she whispered.

'Me too, Red,' he smiled into her white hair. He looked up and held out one hand to Buffy, another to Dawn, keeping Willow at his side. Xander thought the tears that had been threatening might actually fall when they took his hands but Spike's mouth just twisted into the most bittersweet smile Xander had ever seen. 'I never thought I'd get to hold you again,' he whispered to the two of them.

Part Three D

In which we have the aftermath of the spell and Spike has a conversation with Buffy

Xander kept to the background as the reunion moved over to the couches by the fireplace. He had had months with Spike all to himself, and couldn't begrudge any of them this time together. He firmly ignored the little twinge of jealousy that tried to twist in his gut, disgusted with himself for the mere thought. He didn't own Spike, had never sought to monopolize him. Things might have turned out that way, he might even have been glad that it gave him the excuse to befriend the man, to entertain the notion that there might be more between them.

Now that Spike could exist in the real world again, however, he would not have to rely solely on Xander for companionship. He felt like something was slipping away from him, something he desperately wanted to grasp hold and never let go of. But Spike could have a life now, and Xander refused to be anything but happy for him. He would continue to help the man, wouldn't give up on their friendship, taking whatever he had to offer, but he also wouldn't press him for anything more. Spike could have anyone he wanted now. Buffy, Dawn, Willow even. It was obvious he loved them all, and as much as Xander himself cared for them, he knew he could never compare with them, would always lose in a competition for someone's affections. History had proved that. They were three of the most remarkable women he had ever met and he loved them more than anything. No one had a chance against any of them, no one deserved one, himself included.

Still, he couldn't help but be saddened by the thought. He had begun to believe that he might be happy with Spike.

He shook his head at his foolishness and smirked wryly. As long as Spike was happy, that was all that mattered. The man deserved his reward and now he wouldn't have to settle for second best. He had promised to help Spike find peace and happiness. That had not, and never would, change.

With a determined nod, Xander moved over to the couch where Spike was holding court, standing behind him, one hand resting on the back of the couch. He smiled down at the beautiful blond head, resisting the impulse to card his fingers through the hair. He wasn't even sure that he should place his hand on the man's shoulder anymore. He always touched Spike, whether they were alone or not, but he wondered if Spike would still want that, need that connection, now that he was solid. It had started out as a way to reassure both of them that this was real, that they had really found each other, Spike after so many years of being alone, Xander after just as many believing his friend was dead and gone. Somewhere along the way, Xander could acknowledge that it had become more than that for him, and something seemed to break inside his chest at the thought that he could lose it.

But then, as though he had read his mind, Spike suddenly looked up to find Xander standing over him. He smiled, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful smile, that contained almost nothing but joy, and Xander couldn't stop a corresponding smile stretching over his own face. Spike casually claimed the hand by his shoulder, leading Xander around to sit on the armrest beside him.

Xander had to admit he was confused when Spike didn't release his hand but the blond had turned away, falling easily back into his conversation with the others. Xander sighed to himself. Why did this have to get so complicated? It was all Buffy's and Dawn's fault. As much as he may have enjoyed kissing Spike, he would never even have thought about it's meaning anything more if they hadn't brought it up. He would not have thought about it even then were it not for the fact that Spike had no one else to turn to for companionship. Whatever they said, he knew that the man had never looked twice at him when he was a vampire and he couldn't really see why that would change now that he was a higher being. He had nothing Spike could want; for all that he got visions, he still thought of himself as a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man.

But... earlier, before the spell, Spike had held his hand and he had felt... something, something more, and even as the vision had pulled him away, he'd thought Spike was going to kiss him. Apart from that dazed kiss after their revelatory night on the roof, which he wasn't sure that Spike even remembered, it was the first time he had given any sort of indication he wanted something more. And, for a brief moment, Xander had been sure that he wanted that, too.

But now everything was different. Spike didn't need him anymore. He hoped he would still want to be his friend but he couldn't expect anything other than that. He'd gotten his hopes up, believed he was helping, and maybe he was, but he had never seen Spike as happy with him as he had been tonight with Buffy and Dawn.

And that wasn't jealousy. He had nothing to be jealous of. Of course they would make him happy. He loved them.

He just didn't know what their contact meant anymore. Spike could touch anyone or anything he wanted. If it was just friendship, that was fine, but some part of his brain kept trying to insist that it was more than that. Every time Spike's fingers moved over his own, he was thrown back to the way Spike had looked at him not half an hour ago, on this very couch, with warmth and maybe even a little heat but, most of all, with promise.

Suddenly uncomfortable, he gently disengaged their hands, smiling reassuringly when Spike absently glanced his way. Turning to Willow, he leaned in close and put on his best smile. 'One hell of a Christmas surprise, Wills,' he teased quietly.

She grinned back at him, but looked searchingly into his eyes. 'Do you think I did the right thing?' she questioned, biting her lip. 'I mean, is this what Spike would have wanted? It's just, we all wanted to see him again. It was so wonderful to find out he'd been watching over us but... Xan, it's good, isn't it?'

Xander quickly shifted to the arm of the other lounge so he could pull her into a hug. 'It's good, Wills, it's very good,' he whispered to her. 'Truth? I've never seen Spike this happy. That could never be wrong. This is how we should be. Together.'

She gave him a watery smile, tightening her arm about him. 'Thank you, Xan.'

'Love you, Willow.' He smiled gently at her, running one hand over hair that had long since turned permanently white.

They sat together for a while, watching the conversation flow around them. Gunn and Fred had heard more than a few stories about Spike over the years but had met him for only the first time tonight. Seeing him probably didn't seem quite so strange to them, and they appeared to have taken an instant liking to the man. Wesley had never met Spike in person either, and seemed to want to take this opportunity to study one of the most notorious vampires to have ever existed. Xander watched in amusement as Spike expertly played to this rapt audience, somehow managing to make his past seem dark and violent without ever actually giving the man any details. The first thing Cordelia mentioned, of course, was his clothes, which had apparently only become more dark and depressing than during his evil phase, as she called it, when she had known him. But, being the good person she was, Cordy snarked at him for his evil deeds for only a short while before tossing him a smile that effectively closed the topic for discussion and laid aside the past. Dawn was curled up beside Spike, seemingly content for the moment to just hold him again. She kept looking up at him wonderingly, and never let go his hand. Spike, for his part, squeezed her hand rhythmically, as Xander knew he did when he was reassuring himself that what he was touching was real. Buffy was curled up with Angel on the far end of the couch, but she didn't take her eyes off Spike, and he often looked around to meet her gaze, smiling every time she met his eyes directly.

'They didn't really believe he was real, did they,' he murmured, half to himself.

He was surprised to hear Willow answer in his head. 'They knew, and they did want to believe. I saw him as well, the last time I was here. It's not that they didn't believe you, Xander. But I think they needed to see him, or there would always have been this faint doubt in their minds that he hadn't really come back to them. Spike won't be like this all the time, but now they know that he really is always there, whether they can see him or not.'

Xander just smiled a little sadly and nodded.

Once again shaking himself out of the serious mood that kept pulling him under, he said, into a lull, 'So, Wills, tell us about the spell. Whatcha do to him? I heard something about Gaea and Janus, so I'm thinking doorways between planes?'

'Wait a minute,' Spike interrupted, looking a little annoyed, 'you speak Greek and Latin?'

'Yeah, of course. I'll have you know I'm very well read.'

'Well then why the bleedin' hell have I been translating all those passages for you?'

Xander grinned bravely. 'Um, 'cause you're such a good friend?'

At which Spike paused, looking by turns pissed, exasperated and finally shaking his head affectionately. 'Twat,' he muttered.

Willow was looking between them, smiling oddly. 'If you two are finished, I'll explain about the spell.' Not waiting for an answer, she continued. 'Like I said, it's nothing permanent, and I haven't really done anything to Spike. The spell's in the ring. It acts as a doorway into the physical plane. But it needs to be touching Spike to work, seeing as I've bound it to him. When Spike takes the ring off, the doorway will collapse, and he'll be drawn back into his own plane. How he looks now is how he is in the other plane. I've just drawn his physical body into this plane. He's all light and glowy 'cause of the nature of matter and energy on the higher plane and how they've been combined to form his body. Essentially, he's more soul than we are. None of which you really care about anyway, so moving right along.' She looked a little embarrassed, but grinned and turned to Spike. 'You won't be able to do your teleporting thing while you're like this, Spike, just in case you need to go protect someone. But you can put the ring back on any time and the doorway will open automatically. It needs your blood to activate. There's a little needle under the stone, which you already know. Sorry for not warning you about that, by the way. Um... you should keep it in the box I brought it in.' Which was now a thoroughly innocuous small wooden thing. 'The ring is bound to the box, and you're bound to the ring, so it should open automatically when you put your hand on it. That's about it, really. No time limit on wearing it, or anything like that.' She shrugged. 'If anything happens, take it off and let me know. But I don't think it will.'

They stayed for a couple of hours, but eventually even Dawn had to admit she was practically dead on her feet. With promises to see each other for breakfast tomorrow, the party broke up, people drifting away to their separate rooms. Eventually only Xander, Spike, Buffy and Angel remained in the library. With a consideration and perceptiveness Xander would not have thought to credit him with, Angel simply kissed Buffy on the forehead, whispering something in her ear before smiling tenderly at her and leaving for their room. His thoughts were in turmoil, but he could feel what Buffy wanted, as surely as he knew what Spike needed, so with a grin and a 'Merry Christmas', Xander left them alone and retreated to the solitude of his room.


Spike looked after Xander as he left the library, then turned to gaze down at the beautiful blond slayer in his arms. He had barely left her side for so many years, had dreamed about moments like this, when he would look into her eyes, and she would look back. Some part of him had feared it. Not knowing what he would see in them. Anger, hate, love, forgiveness, dismissal, pain, or would they be blank, did she even care to remember him at all? Not knowing what he wanted to see in them.

Except now he did, because she was looking up at him, smiling slightly, and the reality was better than he could have come up with in any case. Because he did see forgiveness and joy - and even love. And if it was obvious that she wasn't in love with him - that was okay, too. He understood now that he didn't need her to love him. He didn't need her at all. He loved her. She was still strong, solitary, darkness and light and in some far corner of his soul he couldn't deny that he did want her. But she wasn't the tortured soul that she had been. She had been like a beacon to his demon, everything it should never want, could never have. The beast within him, still tainted with humanity, had made him unique. He was probably a little insane by vampire standards, but all of him, human and demon alike, had been drawn to her suffering, wanting by turns to feed it and extinguish it.

She had needed him for a while. But he had needed her to want him. She had abused him, used him to feel alive or maybe needed him to feel dead, but she had never truly wanted him. It was only after the soul that he had understood that that just wasn't enough.

That last year, if she had given any sign that she did want him, just him... maybe everything would have been different. But now he was holding her in his arms, and all he could think was that there was something he wanted more. It was too late for them, maybe it always had been. Buffy had found her peace, with the one man she had always wanted more than anything else, and Spike was starting to believe that he could never have found peace and happiness with anyone but Xander, any time but now. Everything was finally falling into place. He couldn't help but smirk at the thought that it gave a whole new meaning to Xander's favorite adage; that everything happened for a reason.

Realizing he'd been drifting, he brought his eyes back to Buffy's face. From the look in her eyes, she had been doing the same, and Spike discovered there were things he definitely didn't want to see in them. They were filled with remorse, guilt and pain, and when she spoke her voice cracked a little. 'Spike, I'm so sorry. I-' Already that was more than he could take, and he had to place a finger over her lips.

He shook his head frantically, his heart breaking at the tear falling down her cheek, unaware of the liquid spilling from his own eyes. 'Buffy, no, you've got nothing to be sorry for.'

She smiled tightly, moving back a fraction so his hand fell away. 'Yes, I do, Spike. The way I treated you... I used you. No matter how much I was hurting, I had no right to do that. I am sorry that I never apologized, never said thank you. For two years, you did nothing but help us, and I'm so sorry I couldn't see far enough around my job to really see you. I'm sorry I could never be what you wanted me to be, Spike. But you did help me, and I'm not sorry for that.' She smiled sadly, and he ran a finger along her jaw gently.

'I'm not sorry about that either, love.' She sent him a cynical smirk and he grinned in response, but she sobered quickly.

'I wish...' She paused and smiled a little. 'Well I don't wish obviously, but... you deserved better, Spike, more than I could give you.'

Spike cursed himself again, looking down at this beautiful, fragile woman. More than anything he had ever done, he regretted hurting her. It was worse because he knew that he couldn't blame the demon for the way he had treated her. Xander was right. The chip had allowed his mind, what was left of his humanity, to come to the fore. There was no excuse. He had done those things knowingly, had used her, taken everything she had to give and come back screaming for more. It didn't help, now, to know that he had acted out of love. The person he was now, the gentle soul he had been almost a century and a half ago, could recognize what the demon had felt, how it had tried to do what it thought was right, but he could not countenance the methods. For all that he had the memories of one hundred years obsessive, destructive passion, he could not help but think that if he had truly loved her, he would have been able to let her go, to give her what she needed, rather than to keep pushing for what he so desperately wanted. 'You know what the worst thing is, luv? I think you did love me, just a little. Or you wanted to.'

She bit her lip, looking down, but wouldn't allow herself the luxury of not meeting his eyes. 'You're right. I did. For what you did for Dawn, with Glory. And when I came back, before... And then... I couldn't. Not because of you, but because I couldn't believe I could do that to someone I loved, so it was easier not to.'

'Dug my own grave, didn't I pet?' He smiled wryly. 'I don't think it ever even occurred to me that there could be anything other than absolute love or hate. I tried to make you love me the only way I knew how. And all I ever did was drive you farther away. I kept trying to drag you down into the darkness with me so I wouldn't have to be alone. I can never tell you how sorry I am for that.'

'Oh, Spike, you never had to be alone.'

'What would a demon know of friendship, luv?' He said it gently. 'I didn't understand what you were offering.'

'And now?'

'Now, I do. Buffy, who I was before, with the demon. I wanted to own you. You were my everything. But... I'm different now. I do still love you. How could I not? But not the way I did before. It's been fifteen years, luv. I watched you grow up, lose the weight of the world, find Angel again. I don't need you now, and even if I did, there's too much pain, and guilt, and I... I don't want that anymore.' He tried on a grin. 'Besides, I don't think Peaches would give you up without a fight. Which, granted, I'd win, but it's the principle of the thing, right?'

She smiled distractedly. 'So, you're okay with the whole Angel thing?'

'Yeah, well, don't let on, but you're good for him.'

She grinned, but her eyes were troubled. 'If you hadn't died...'

Spike interrupted gently. 'You'd still have chosen him.' She opened her mouth to argue, but the guilty look in her eyes belied anything she might have said. It didn't even hurt. He'd had a long time to come to terms with the relationship, and it meant something that she would worry about him, that she might have had to think about the choice. But Spike knew he was right. Buffy had never been able to forget her first love. This was what she had always dreamed of. Not a normal life, perhaps, but obviously the next best thing. And she was happy, which was why he could say he didn't mind and mean it.

'I... thank you.' She stepped forward suddenly and put her arms around him. 'Thank you for wanting me to be happy,' she whispered. She leaned back, her arms clasped loosely around his waist. 'Whatever happened between us before... It's in the past, Spike. I don't know if it matters, but I forgave you a long time ago, and I wouldn't have what I do today if it hadn't happened. Xander's always saying that everything happens for a reason. And I think... I think a lot of it was worth it.'

Spike closed his eyes to stem the tears he could feel gathering. It was one thing to believe that he had been forgiven, it was quite another to hear her say it. He hadn't realized just how heavily she had been weighing on his soul until then. He didn't know if he would be able to forgive himself as easily, but the relief he felt at knowing she didn't hate him, that she was still prepared to offer him the friendship he should have accepted years ago... He felt lighter, freer. He grinned suddenly. 'I think maybe you're right, pet. And it does matter. It makes all the difference in the world. So, whadda'ya say, clean slate? Friends?'

She grinned back, and he could see the relief in her eyes. 'Absolutely.' Her smile gentled as she looked into his eyes. 'I'm glad we could do this face-to-face. Did you know Xander offered to mediate? He didn't really want to. I think he thought it was between us. He was right, too. I needed to see your face. I needed this. It's so good to see you again.' She said this last a bit wistfully.

He shook his head fondly. 'I was always there, luv.'

'Yeah, I know. But it makes a difference, you know?' He just nodded, and they shared a moment of perfect understanding.

With unspoken agreement, they moved over to the couch, settling beside one another before the fire. 'You know, I have the coolest set of friends,' she commented absently. 'I can't believe I ever wanted a normal life. This really is so much better.'

She turned to him with suddenly determined eyes, her face set. This, then, was why Xander maintained he was so bad at lying to her. He could already feel himself wanting to squirm, and she hadn't even said anything yet. 'How're you doing, then? Xander tells us you seem better, but it's obvious he's still worried about you.'

He'd opened his mouth to tell her he was fine, when he actually heard what she'd said. Xander was worried about him? 'Really?' He felt absurdly pleased with himself.

He didn't really notice Buffy glaring at him for a moment, before she chuckled, shaking her head ruefully. 'Yes, really. And don't think we're not talking about that, too, mister. But first; Answer the question.' He opened his mouth, but she interrupted, saying gently, but forcefully, 'Honestly, Spike.'

He narrowed his eyes at her, fighting the urge to say that it was really none of her business. But she just kept gazing at him steadily, waiting, and he felt himself cave. 'I'm okay,' he sighed. 'Not fantastic but not fighting off insanity any longer. Don't know how much Xander told you about the other week, up on the roof, but since then, it's been better. Quieter. I feel like some of the people living in my head have taken a permanent hiatus. He said... he told me they'd forgiven me.'

She smiled warmly. 'Well, if anyone would know, it'd be Xander. We have it on good authority he's never wrong.'

Spike smirked. 'His authority?'

She giggled. 'Well, yeah. But hey, voice of experience, too. He's saved a lot of lives with those visions.'

'Well, he always was a lousy fighter.' It was supposed to come out snarky, but Spike suspected there was more than an appropriate amount of fondness there as well. It was also a lie. Xander had trained just as hard as any of the potentials that year, and had been better than most of them.

Buffy was looking at him intently, knowingly, again. It was getting damn aggravating. 'What?' he finally snapped defensively.

The corner of her mouth quirked up, but she answered readily enough. 'You obviously haven't sparred with him recently. He's gotten quite good. Put a lot of effort into toning all those muscles of his. He can pick most of the girls up one handed. They seem to like trying to goad him into doing that. Even when he's all sweaty from working out. Flexible, too, you know. Gotta keep limber if you wanna be able to go at it with all those vamps. Broadsword's still his favorite. He always gets an audience for those sessions. Although that might have less to do with his technique and more to do with the fact that he practices half naked, if you can imagine. He's even getting better at hand-to-hand. S'pose it's cause he's got such strong fingers, from all that carpentry he did. You should come down sometime,' she added casually.

He knew what she was doing, and he refused to give her the satisfaction. He would not think about it. His eyes were not glazing over. As of right now he was not imagining Xander half-naked and sweaty. With his eyes closed, mouth opening with his even breaths, swaying with the weight of the sword, muscles bunching and releasing with coiled energy as he moved from one position to the next, long, strong, calloused fingers stroking the hilt... Shit. Shitshitshit. He was not turning into some nancy-boy and drooling over the pictures in his head. Especially in front of the Slayer! If he wanted to drool, he could do it when he was alone with Xander. No! Not alone, not drooling. He was taking it slow. Besides, as attractive as the man was, he wanted him for more than his body.

That thought calmed him down and he opened his eyes, which, to be honest, he hadn't even noticed closing, to glare at the innocent face before him. 'I'll think about it,' he responded calmly, refusing to acknowledge that his voice might have sounded even a little rough.

She smiled brightly. 'I'm glad to hear it. I think you'd... ahh, enjoy yourself.'

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