By Bisi
Author's Notes

She sauntered through the grounds, a slender blond woman in her forties, carrying three glossy magazines over one arm. A rumpled carrier bag dangled from her other, well-manicured hand. Staff she encountered greeted her easily; the gardener digging in the flowerbeds, a nursing assistant on her way to her break.

“And how is he today then?”

“Oh, he’s good, we should get some sun this afternoon.”

“Poor love, I hope the weather stays fine for you. He’ll enjoy that.”

Reaching the edge of the lawn, she drew up a plastic garden chair and placed it by the hospital bed, headboard set to incline, parked on the paving by the window of one of the private rooms. Pale and irascible-looking, the invalid lay propped up against the headboard. Hearing her approach he opened his eyes, pulling himself up a little. The slight movement shook the delicate two-inch tower of ash off the cigarette wedged between his fingers, tumbling it onto the bedclothes.

“Fuck,” he said, flicking the butt away. “Not that you’re asking, but I had an awful night, Buffy. I think I’d rather have the pain than the morphine dreams. Any news, love?”

“No,” said Buffy, sitting and smoothing her skirt. “We’ll just have to wait. I got you some magazines.”

“Stupid bastard.”

“Hey, thanks.”

“You know who I mean. He’s probably made himself impossible to reach, wallowing in the gutter somewhere.”

Buffy hesitated. “Not that I don’t think that’s likely, but Connor’s the one person he wouldn’t cut himself off from. Plus, you know, grandkids. I can’t believe he’s not lurking around, keeping tabs on all of them. Connor wouldn’t say if he could get a message to his father, but he didn’t deny it outright. And if it doesn’t get through...”

“Yeah, we all know the old git with his martyr complex and his woe-is-me-everything-I-touch-dies-horribly issues.”

Spike leaned back and closed his eyes, concentrating on breathing. It was quiet enough to hear the faint crunch of the gardener’s trowel, faraway traffic and the muted hum, voices and machinery mixed, from inside the building. “Light me another fag, pet.”

She reached into the carrier bag for the new pack, extracting it from its cellophane wrapper and drawing out a cigarette. She lit it herself before placing it between his fingers. At her touch he opened his eyes again. “You’re sure they can’’re sure it’s safe?” Slowly he lifted the butt to his mouth and tasted it merely, holding eye-contact through the smoke. She met his eyes undaunted, frowning.

“You know the case was watertight. There’s no way the Senior Partners can touch him, in this dimension or any other. The new alignment confirms it. They can’t touch him, or any thing of his, body, soul, whatever. Now or post-final-death. They can try,” she said, squaring her chin and pulling down the corners of her mouth. “Then we get to stamp on them.” She grinned. “In a pan-dimensionally way.

“He’s safer than he’s been in...oh, forever. Natural Law still applies though. This isn’t some fairy-tale.” Her face softened and she rubbed her fingers over the knuckles of his other hand. “As you seem to be demonstrating.”

“Well, hell, Buffy, don’t sugar-coat it.” He eyed the cigarette, lifting it to touch his lips again. “I wouldn’t have missed any of it. But him, stupid bastard, he’s missing everything and he doesn’t even know. Listen.” He turned his hand to grasp hers tightly, forestalling her withdrawal.

“You know, he did everything he could to protect me, those days after the LA thing. Couldn’t bear to feel responsible for losing one more life - unlife - I ‘spose. And when they caught up with us, well, I didn’t know he had that last trick up his sleeve - you know, that he’d signed it away, so it was his to bestow. And then I was human, so I wasn’t under their jurisdiction - not that I ever signed a contract, but they could have had me anytime - but he was a fully paid up member of the Black Thorn, so they could do to him whatever they wanted. I’m sure they did, those five years they held him. Fucking idiot.”

He took an actual puff of smoke, which made him cough and his eyes water. It took him a moment to recover his breath.

“Fucking boneheaded Joan-of-Arc wannabe. Might make sense if he was a teenage Barbie-look-alike with a destiny complex instead of a muscle-bound Irish oik with a face like the back of a bus.”

“Are you dissing my girls now, cause there’s Slayers out there who would call you on that description.”

“What, the Barbie thing, or the Joan-of-Arc thing? I’ve always dissed Slayers, don’t see why I should stop just ‘cause you’re here. But, Buffy, for real,” he grasped her fingers tighter, “are you sure he knows Natural Law applies now? I’ve been having fucking morphine dreams about it, and they aren’t very nice. You sure they can’t touch anyone connected to him? ‘Cause that would keep him away, assuming he’s managed to avoid the odd stray stake.”

“No way, pan-dimensional law trumps local hell legislation every time. Redemption Amendment. You’d think they’d have learned by now, it’s been used often enough.”

“Awfully big words for such a tiny slayer.”

“Well I was designated Champion, in case it went to trial by combat. I was briefed. I had to learn the formulas -”


“Whatever. I got to testify. You know how he was he was freed. I’m not sure how far the Natural Law dispensation applies to him, because, hello, still a vampire. But we got it applied to colleagues and descendants in perpetuity.”

There was a faraway look in her eyes. “You should have seen it, it was so cool. Those pan-dimensional flunkies really know how to treat a g - Champion. Where were you, anyway?”

“Learning how not to piss my pants in secure Council accommodation? Na, that was over ages before the trial. I was in Ceylon, remember, that thing. We were short-handed.”

“Tell me about it. Nobody knew if any of us were ever going to be safe again. I thought you knew this stuff? I’m sure I told you.”

He sighed, closing his eyes again. “Tell you the truth, Buffy, I’m more than a little fuzzy these days. What’s now, what was then, what I dreamed. Bloody morphine’s not helping.”

“I get that. Plus, fifteen years, and the peace has held for what, half of that? Less. Maybe he’s healed, maybe he hasn’t. He was a mess. We tried to do as much for him as we could; we tried to tell him as much as we could. I’ve no idea if he was in a state to take it in, you know, all stoic and all. With Angel, you find out about the crazy afterwards. And considering it is Angel, I think it’s lucky he let us help him at all.”

She drew a breath. “I feel bad that I let him drop out of sight. But it didn’t feel right to hold him to anything, after what he’d been through. I won’t lie to you: it hurts and I AM worried. I’ve been worried for years. But deep down when I think of him, I think probably - maybe - he’ll be okay. And he’ll be here.

"Now. Read you something? They say tweed is the new black. Again.”

“Again? Don’t tell me it's International Kiss The Librarian Year again.” They both shuddered exaggeratedly.

“Oh, speaking of, Giles’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Good luck to him.” He snuggled back into the pillows. “Read me the problem pages, love, anything for a laugh.”

She would have enjoyed the exercise more if he hadn’t taken the piss out of every single published problem by comparing it to her adventures with her own long list of exes. She didn’t have the heart to get him back with “Dear Dr. Martha, my one true love left me after I chained her up and threatened to stake her for my imaginary girlfriend. She already told me that she liked that stuff! Why are women such flip-floppers?” Well, not until after he’d goaded her mercilessly for half-an-hour straight.

And damn, some of her boys had been fine. And...nice. And...not unsupportive. She was so over the bad boy thing; in her experience human badness inevitably meant stupid and insular. She supposed she’d been spoiled, evil-wise, by getting up so close and personal with the demon kind. As Spike never tired of telling her.

“Ah, come on, Buffy, you’ve got to admit you had some of the best sex in your life flirting with the other side. Me, The Immortal...”

“Well, it was good sex as sex goes, but...nope.”

“So. Talking about absent friends again, I see. Aren’t you over that yet? He was my first as well, you know. Can’t see how you could object to anything I did after you’d been bopping him. Fucking nutter, he was, nutter.”

“You know there was only the once.”

“Never been any too sure. He had plenty of opportunity. I never did buy into that perfect happiness crap, it all came together a bit too pat. First he gets a taste of you, ‘course he has to figure out a way of having you the way he really wants.” He took in her expression. “You’re not saying it happened to you too? Perfect happiness?”

She didn’t answer, and thoughtfully reached for his hand instead.

“Oh for crying out loud!”

“I’m not carrying a torch for him, if that’s what you think. We’re different people now. But I’ve been wondering, lately, about what happened that first time. Why, you know. Where it all fits in.”

He grumbled into his chest. “Give the girl some therapy, Uncle Spike. And stick her head in a bucket of sensible while we’re at it. Come on, spill. Do you think about the deed itself much?”

“No. Not often.”


She looked down at his fingers intertwined with hers, tracing them gently with the fingers of her other hand.

“No. Not regrets.” The memory made her stomach flutter. “Re-thinking maybe.”

“You should do that. You should really do that, now you’ve got a few good lays under your belt, so to speak. Knock those bloody rose-tinted spectacles of yours right off. ‘Cause let’s face it, Buffy, souled or unsouled, virgins were his thing. I could tell you a tale.”

Deep breath. “...why don’t you?”

They exchanged a long look.

“If you tell me yours, I will. But don’t you wimp out on me, Buffy, if you start hearing something you don’t like.

“Right then.

“He bent me over the carriage seat, fucked my brains out. ‘Course that took all of two minutes.

“Blood everywhere. We’d just gatecrashed a wedding. Carnage. He brought the bride along for afters. Or maybe for me, as a practical. Anything to sneak one over on Drusilla: she’d plans to pop my cherry but she was going about it too namby-pamby for him, I ‘spose - anything to put a spoke in someone else’s wheel. He could never resist showing you you weren’t as in charge as you thought you were, especially her; she was something of his pet. And being Angelus’ pet isn’t something I’d wish on anyone. You know.” He cracked an eyelid wider at her.

“Well probably I was supposed to have a go at this woman and he was showing her off to me. Ran his huge paws over her tits, scooped them out, opened up her legs for me. Everywhere he touched he left a mark. He said ‘You know where the Garden of Earthly Delights is, don’t you, boy?’

“But I got a look at his hands, that long index finger sheathed with gore. He slid it into her minge and it came out glistening, half the blood gone.”

He stopped and turned his head to look at her. “You may think I should be ashamed of this, Buffy, but I’m not. I knelt down and I sniffed his knuckles and I got that finger in my mouth. And I was nuzzling into that poor woman’s pussy and she was still breathing, gentle rise, gentle fall. Soft. Bristly. And that’s when it hit me, for the first time, that I didn’t need to breathe any more.

“And I got a taste of him thrumming under all that blood and the juices and it was making me dizzy and the back of my neck was prickling. And he ran the other bloody paw over my nape and he held me down and then bang! like I told you. God.”

He laughed softly. “Big guy, big hands, big cock. You know that.

“All mixed up with my first taste of life’s blood. God, I was so surprised. I didn’t even know men could do that. Two minutes, and I had no idea...I didn’t know you could get your arms and legs into those positions. I didn’t know you invaded so and feel like...more, you know?

“I thought he was everything. It was like: I’d found something better than God. More fun than God. More fun than any Victorian God anyway, not that that’s difficult. I thought: I’m gonna be just like him, more fun than God.

“Then of course I found out what a bastard he was - which wasn’t fun at all - and I wanted to be better than him. And better at being a bastard. Better God, better Devil, better Bastard. And a better man too, after it all got turned around.”

He laughed again. “I can forgive him for that now.”

Had she ever forgiven him? For being the world's greatest bastard? For being the man who crippled himself, struggling so hard, not to be that bastard? What did she feel about him now? Just that they had never had a chance to finish. Her and Spike, they’d got to where they were going; her and Angel: they’d had one go at the thing before being hopelessly jinxed. How could she ever make sense of it? How could it ever be something that fit with the rest of her life, or the rest of his? Was it any more than a random accident, like getting mud on her shoe, tramping it into the clean carpet of her life? She smiled at herself, Way to philosophise, Buffy. Never could get rid of that stain.

“Your turn.”

“It was raining.” She leaned forward, arms folded across her stomach, frowning at the toe of her shoe making patterns in the little bits of gravel on the paving.

“It always is with him. Rain; alleys. Alleys and rain.”

“It wasn’t in an alley. It was at his apartment. The basement in Sunnydale.

"I never felt...I know he was technically dead. I never felt I was touching someone...who wasn’t alive.”

“Well thanks.”

“Oh, I never felt that with you either. With him - I touched him and it was like a buzz under my fingers.”

“Demon static. All that dark magic coursing through our veins.”

“Demon static? I don’t get that with other vampires. And Dracula was more oily, eewww! Demon molasses.”

She hugged her elbows.

“We’d just got away from - you, actually. Do you remember?”

His eyes widened. “Oh my God. ‘Take me instead!’” he squeaked, in as stupid a falsetto as he could manage.

“Oh my fucking Christ. That night? This whole mess is MY fucking fault? Well, come on, don’t spare me! You were both cold, wet, dirty and scared - I hope - and the great poofter decided to COMFORT you!”

“No. That’s not what happened. Cold wet dirty and scared, yes, at least I was. It’s because I was was the first time I’d thought, maybe I could lose him.”

Spike closed his eyes, and in a disgusted voice, declaimed: “’As flies to wanton boys, so we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Go on, slay me.” She knew however, that he was listening intently.

“That night, I wanted to touch more of him. I wanted to feel it all over. I jumped him, I suppose.”

“I’m sure he could have put up a fight if he’d wanted,” came the dry retort.

“Yes well. He might have, but he didn’t try awfully hard. And I got his shirt off, and once his chest was under my fingers, I was buzzing. And he was stroking my back and mumbling something and I couldn’t make it out.

“I had a cut on my back and every time his fingers went over it, it was like, tingly, all the way down my back. And he lay there mumbling with his eyes all scrunched up. He might have been scared. He looked scared. He looked so strong, and so pretty, and so helpless, that I loved it. And I knew, without thinking, that whatever I wanted to do, he’d go with that.

“I felt what was happening to him, and I said, Oh, what’s that? so I took his pants off. He started breathing then, and he opened his eyes to look at me like he was afraid I wouldn’t like it.”

She stopped. Spikes voice was harsh. “Play fair, Buffy. I showed you mine.”

She made a gesture, closing her fingers into her palm. “I loved it.” She took her hand to her nose. “All mine. Like him.”

“I jumped him, you know. ‘Wake up!’ He started to move then, instead of lying there gasping, and I started…I was shaking. It didn’t feel very girly, or even like…sex, much. It felt like SLAYING. Better than. I thought, Whoa, is that supposed to happen? The shaking, I mean.

“I squeezed my legs up and down his, and over his back and ribs and everything, as hard as I could and I loved the feeling, like wrestling. He laughed then and said ‘Easy, Slayer,’ and that’s the only time he ever called me Slayer, Spike."

Her thumb and fore finger twitched in a circle for a second. “I held on because he begged me to but everywhere he touched me I was shaking.” (‘Quiver and shake. Rattle and roll.’)

She pressed her arms into her stomach and hunched over more, sniffling. “Our hands got tangled up and I didn’t know if it was him or me. New feeling.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had good times since then. Amazing times. But not...

“To have another person. Oh God, my stomach feels funny. I didn’t even know that it’s not always like that. To have all of a person, and they let you. He put his big arms around me and he rolled us over and he stroked me. More.” She squeezed her arms to her chest. Her feet curled in their shoes. “All over. And I could smell soap on him, and rain, and cologne, and underneath the Angel smell I couldn’t quite catch and it was like ozone at the seaside, popping in my nose.

“I started yelling and he whispered ‘Let go of me’. I couldn’t stop looking at him. He started yelling and I thought the bed would break. I didn’t know which of us was which, not from the feeling. I didn’t even know that most times, you don’t get there without working at it. But I knew, I had him. God, I was SO SURPRISED, like you, Spike. It felt like tears. Like tears, and I didn’t know which of us was feeling it, over and over and over, on and on, and,” She cried in earnest now, “How can that be bad? How can that be a mistake? How can that be something we should never have done?”

Catching Spikes eye, she subsided and wiped her eyes and nose.

“And he had big yellow bruises all over his shoulders but they faded before I was asleep.”

Spike harrumphed. He was scowling. He closed his eyes. “You could almost make an ex-vampire jealous with your vanilla recitations. I never did get any tenderness from him, even after the soul.”

“And I never got him to drill me into the floor, so I think we’re quits.” Or didn’t she? She brushed her hand in front of her eyes, dismissing the imaginary flashback. “Wait! You and him - after the soul?”

“Ah, I didn’t mean to let that slip. Yeah, in China one time. Course he was trying to pretend nothing was wrong with him. I was so pleased to see him! Thought we’d get back together and I’d show him what was what, this time, who’s top dog now sort-of-thing. Took him an afternoon to set me straight. Then he buggered off again, the wanker. I couldn’t believe it, it was a fucking pity fuck!”

His expression progressed from pissed off to furious, still without him opening his eyes.

“What was he playing at, reassure the fledge? I showed him fledge. I got him back good, I can tell you! Took me nearly a century to cotton on, but Ha! See how you like a bellyful of hot iron, you fuck! And a red-hot poker up your arse. ‘Cos they don’t like it up them, you know.” Turning to look at Buffy he raised a serious eyebrow at her. “THEY...DO...NOT...LIKE...IT...UP...THEM. Oh, oh, you’re scowling, stop it! Ruining my fun.” He collapsed into giggles and coughs. “Fucking pity fuck. Ever had one of those, Slayer?”

“Given a few.”

“Want to do it again?” he raised the eyebrow. “Na, kidding. The most I could ask is you go over there and take off all your clothes and shake your bits at me. And it wouldn’t do me much good anyway, not now. Hey, if Angel comes we’ll ask him to do it, you could get a laugh out of the old plonker, at least.”

There was bustling, and they could hear the clanging of the food trolleys inside the building. “Nip in and tell them not to bother with me, pet. And go get something to eat, I want a kip.”

“Do you want to go back inside?”

“No. I’ll have some water though.”

He was still asleep when she came back to her station. A couple came out through the double doors at the back of the building with two little children. They nodded at her pleasantly and started a game of piggy-back a good few yards away, luckily, as the kids shrieked madly. Presently the man went back inside, heedless of his grass-stains, leaving the rest of the family sitting making daisy-chains. The kids kept running to the flower beds for fallen petals. Spike dozed. The woman gathered up her children and headed for the gate on the far side of the lawn.

A nurse - Jenny, was it? popped out to do Spike's signs, and seeing him asleep decided to check his pulse only. Nevertheless it woke him. Then there were procedures needed, which, since the small door behind them opened into Spike’s bedroom, could be done un-intrusively and discreetly in the garden. Buffy handed him more water. “Maybe you could hold it for me this time, pet. And stop hovering.”

“Jeez, contrary much? Non-hovery glass holding coming up”

He strained to gulp the water and retreated back to his pillows, snarling weakly. “Fucking pity fucking fuck. Fucking magnanimous, soul-boy. Who does he think I am, the fucker.”

“Look who woke up all cranky! You still kvetching about that? I’d have thought you could do it with more adjectives, you being poetry-man and all.” Her lunch had been excellent, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She was getting a taste for the stodge of Old England - good job her duties still kept her active, mostly.

She beamed at him and he softened. “Been up and down and all over today pet, haven’t you -”

“I’ve been -”

“No matter. Here, have you got something to write with?”

She had a notebook in her bag. “Yes, why?”

“Just...take this down, will you?”

She sat herself to write, muttering under her breath, “Okay, but he’ll be here, okay?” and raised her brows expectantly at him to begin.

“Fuck me if I know what to say to him.” Spike ran a tired hand over his face. His eyes followed the edge of the lawn to the woods beyond, green boughs tossing.

“Here. Write:

“It’s pretty here. I’d like you to see it. Well, you old bastard, how have you been? I’ve been - I’ve had everything I wanted. I’m happy. I’m happy to be going out like this. It’s more than I deserved.

“Twenty years to discover it’s all okay. What I am, what I was, all those things I was ashamed of, all those bits of me I thought I had to get rid of, and that’s from when I was first a man as well as from when I was a vampire. All those things I thought I could never get over - it’s all okay. Even the thing that’s killing me, Angel, it gave me twenty years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Especially the nicotine. Tasty little sticks of doom. It gave it - savour, you know? Since I’d lost my precious wickedness. There’s a weird kind of symmetry to it: it’s life that kills you, Angel. Somebody should tell you that.”

Above the trees the sky was just beginning to get pink, and colours of green around the garden deepened, like a stain. “Here.” He stretched out an arm to stroke her elbow where she held down the pages for her writing hand. She didn’t look up.

“Twenty years to see your girl grow up and get happy. Our girl. You should be here, Angel. She’s like a - capitals - VERY TINY Queen Boadicea. Spell it how you like, Buffy, just guess. Shhh.” He stroked her arm. “Shh.” Pouting through tears, Buffy scribbled on, muttering about patronising ex-scholars thinking nobody else had any education. He regarded her kindly. “Like if Boadicea had actually won.

“Brown as a nut, fit as a fiddle, sexy as hell. More fun than God - actually, better leave out that last bit, wouldn’t want to give them anything else to hold against me.”

He paused, exhausted. “Bugger, I don’t know what to say. New paragraph.

“The outside lights are coming on now. That pink colour before they come to brightness. Yellow. They’ll turn yellow. They’re going to wheel me back in soon. I always thought this was a magic time, the time when finally the fullness of the night was ours, you and that bloody sire of yours shooing us out of doors. You’d burst outside in a stealthy frenzy of aggression, ready to claim the night in blood - semi-colon, Buffy - but now I get to see the gentler side of it. Pink sky, pink lights, shadows of lengthening indigo - what, I’m a poet, remember - yes, write that, use dashes. And the lights casting their circles of electric clarity, stepping-stones in the darkness, showing us home. Bringing us home.

“New paragraph. Did I ever thank you, Angel? Would you want me to? Do you know what you did for me?” The pen scritched. Suddenly Spike leaned forward, snatched the paper from under her fingers and scrabbled it into a ball, throwing it over her shoulder. Buffy, startled, heard the soft crumple as it collided with a denser patch of darkness looming behind her.

Spike collapsed back into the pillows, heaving with quick, shallow breaths. “And what the bloody hell time do you call this, you tosser?” he spat.

The shape coalesced into a well-remembered figure that strode past her, silent as a shadow, and took Spike's hand. Angel touched the back of his own, entangled, hand against Spike’s cheek before letting go and gently pushing his fingers into the other man’s hair. “’Bout half-nine, why?” He kissed Spike on the forehead, stroked his hair again and turned. “Buffy.”

She noticed the intensity of the glance that flashed her way almost too quick to register. She noticed that he stood, more round-shouldered than ever, cringing almost, half-turned away from her, looking at the ground to one side of her. She did not misinterpret these signals. She knew the meaning of them.

Deliberately she stood up, pushed at his shoulder 'til he faced her, and embraced him, kissing him on the cheek. She drew back, her arms still around him, and looked him in the eye. (‘By the seat of my Jimmy’s,’ she thought.) “Good to see you, Angel.” Then she let him go. What with stoic-face and all, she had a pretty good idea he was rattled.

She took pity on him. “We have to wheel the bed inside.” This meant following the paving round the outside of the building, past the flower beds and through the electronic doors. Buffy discreetly retrieved the crumpled-up paper before she stowed her notepad, her pen, Spike’s cigarettes and lighter - a cheap bic, not the long-mislaid zippo (‘Some antique now,’) - back in her bag. She sensed Angel’s eyes assessing this and the absence of IV equipment, before he braced himself at the foot of the bed, to push while she pressed entrance buttons and held doors open.

Spike addressed him once they were in the room, “Tell me, Angel, do I smell as sick as I feel?” Yes, he did have that intent, sniffy look about him. They were interrupted by the nurse coming to take vital signs. Spike was offered morphine for the night. He refused it. Buffy introduced Angel as ‘William’s former work colleague’ and a few minutes passed in pleasantries. Always cheerful, these women, as if their job was easy.

They settled after the nurse left, Buffy on one side of the bed, Angel on the other, in the big, straight-backed visitor's chairs. He took Spike’s hand again. “You’re pretty sick. No morphine?”

“Angel, every cell in my body’s slowly giving up the ghost. It hurts like hell. You’ve been there. You endured it.”

Angel shook his head. “Not really,” he murmured.

“Shut up. We’ve had pain and we’ve caused it, and I’ve had worse than this, for longer. It’s not so much the pain gets people, it’s the fear, the fear of dissolution, feelin’ your body crack up. Well I’m not afraid of that – I’ve been here before. Every moment in this body...this breathing, beating body...well, it’s a gift. And I’m damned if I’m not going to experience...every single second of it.

“The morphine makes me cloudy, it makes me - not understand that I’m dying. It floods me with random explanations for why I’m feeling as I do. That’s scary.” He was out of breath and had to stop. Recovering, he continued “How much did you hear, skulking out there?”

“A little. Not much. I wasn’t skulking.” Angel had not looked at Buffy directly since they had entered the room. She scrutinised him. He was tense, bowed, and as thin as he’d been when they released him, she thought. And what was he wearing? She hadn’t seen clothes so nondescript since last Wednesday when she’d chatted with the OAPs queuing at the Post Office. But stoic-face had slipped and he was gazing at Spike concerned, intent, obviously caring.

“For God’s sake!” Spike snapped, suddenly, “Stop breathing in time with me, you’re making me nervous.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Angel dipped his head. “I’ve been getting back into empathy lately.”

“Save it for the non-ex-vampires.”

They sat, not talking, listening to the sound of effortful breathing. “Has it been worth it?” a low murmur from Angel.

“’S why I wanted you here, innit? To tell you: it’s been worth it.” More breathing. “Tell you thanks. You pillock.” More breathing. “You should have held on to it. The Shanshu.” He widened his eyes and grinned. “Tell you what, I’m chuffed I got it off you.”

Angel’s thumb stirred, stroking the other’s hand. “Then I’m good.” Spike’s fingers tightened around his.

“Oh, and Buffy has something to tell you.” There it was again, that frightened, furtive glance in her direction, so disconcerting from such a big-built man.

“What? I do?”

Spike was jerking his head at her. “Don’t worry about it, it’s PTSS. He probably thinks this is all in his head, you know, it’ll disappear as soon as he believes in it. Ain’t that so, Angel? Punishment, see.”

Again the pause for breath. “Well, I’ve got news for you, mate, I’m dying, you’re free, Buffy’s here and she doesn’t hate you. Why, I don’t know. And you’re not gonna damage her, ‘cos, guess what, you can’t. Not our pan-dimensional-Superhero-woman...thingy.” Chuckle, cough. “Honestly Angel, fifteen years? Could you be any more slow?”

“Angel.” Buffy stood. “Is that true? You thought this wasn’t real?” She stalked him round the foot of the bed. He was scowling, she saw, trying to draw his hand away, but Spike refused to release him from a bony, feverish grip.

“You’d better tell her your side of this, mate, while you’ve still got a chance.” Angel drew breath. “And if you lie in the presence of a dying man, I get to haunt you. We don’t want that again.

Angel mumbled. He looked distressed, glancing everywhere in the room but at them. “What was that?” came from Buffy and Spike together.

“The two sins against Hope.” They could hardly hear him. “Despair and Presumption. Knowing what I know about me, how can I not despair? If I have...any...hope, how can that not be presumption?”

“Or you could just talk bollocks. Buffy, do your worst.”

She didn’t need these interruptions! “Okay Angel. You listen. I’m your Champion. Still. You owe me stuff. You owe me respect. “I’ve always given you that.” Still not looking at her, trying to twist his arm away.

“You owe me love.”

Almost too low to hear he said “You know I love you.”

“There’s something I want from you. I want you to respect the fact that I loved you because you’re worth it, if anyone is. Don’t have the arrogance to turn away from me because you think your self-punishing guilt trip is somehow more important than my wanting to know how you are. Because you’re wrong.

“And I need you to remember us, the way I do. ‘Cause the both of us were there. It wasn’t a bad thing. It was the best thing that could have happened between us. It meant something. It means something now. It was true.”

Now for the crunch.

“And I want something else from you. I’ve missed you. I want to touch you. God knows I may not get another chance. So, I’m sorry, but this is going to happen.”

Well, Powers forgive her, because she was about to take advantage of a disarmed man. She pushed him back in the sturdy hospital chair. ‘Cool skin.’ she thought dispassionately as she seated herself on his knees, legs astride. ‘Talk about deer in the headlights.’ She rested her face against his chest. She felt the slight jerk as his unnecessary breath hitched. She burrowed her nose into his shirt inhaling deeply.

“I love this smell. I love your smell. Dry. Sharp.” She slipped her hands beneath her face and lifted up her head to stare at him. He was staring back. At last. “I haven’t forgotten the feel of you,” she whispered, more to herself than to him. “Electricity.”

She rubbed her fingers across his eyebrows. “Fuzzy. Soft”

“You can say that again,” came the voice from the bed. She kissed into the hollow between eyebrows, eyelid and the top of the nose. Angel’s eyes fluttered shut. Her fingers crept upwards to his waxy brow, smoothing the furrows there. She couldn’t resist making a fist and knocking gently. His eyes opened in enquiry. “Thick as two short planks, eh, pet?” came the wheeze from the bed.

Her hands moved to the back of his head, to his nape. She held him firmly there. She felt like shaking him. At least he gets his hair cut, she thought, that’s a good sign. How strong he was still. She dipped again to nuzzle him under the jaw-line by his ear - she felt him swallow - she felt the short bristles and large pores of his chin, and couldn’t resist going for the softness in the corner of his mouth with her own lips, for the contrast. And the smell, making her buzz, acrid, spicy, iodine smell, popping with electricity. Or maybe that was her, she wasn’t sure. He didn’t open his mouth, nor did she want him to. She wanted to look at him, and, to break the contact, slid her fingers between her mouth and his, pushing away. NOW he was looking at her properly. He looked stunned, helpless, his face open for the first time since his arrival. They stared at each other. “Yeah,” she breathed. “That’s how it was. You’re sure you want to feel guilty about that?”

Her hand was still on his face. His hand came up to touch her fingers, then to clutch them. His gaze broke from hers and he hugged her tightly, tightly. Spike must have let go of his hand, she thought. She stroked the shaking shoulders, buried her face in his neck, happy, so happy, to be breathing him in again.

Angel stood, still holding her, and placed her on her feet. He knelt and put his arms around Spike, sufficiently bear-like to squeeze a protest from the invalid. But seeing again the tremor in the large body, Spike relented of his waspishness enough to stroke Angel’s hair, to turn Angel’s face out of the bed clothes and to whisper to him “Are you home yet, baby? Are you home yet, lunkhead?”, while Buffy leaned over them and, with difficulty and discomfort, embraced them both.

Moments passed. Angel withdrew from the huddle, shaking now in a different register, a large dog emerging from a pond. One hand in Spike's, one arm round Buffy, he sniffed, muttering “Getting there,” under his breath. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. Don’t mean anything much, just that at least you could have been friends all these years.” Spike disentangled his hand with the delicacy of a cat re-establishing aloofness: touchy-feely time was evidently over. He settled himself, a little fragile. “There’s an offie in the village. Piss off and get us a brew, would you? Buffy, you’ll have to show him where it is.”

They hesitated. “Oh for Christ’s sake, get on with it. Naff off and don’t come back without a few bottles of Tiger Beer, or Cobra or Newkie Brown if that’s all they’ve got. Don’t care what kind of poncy gnat’s piss you get for yourselves. Hurry up, will you, how long do you think I’ve got?” His petulance drove them from the room faster than they would have liked.

Buffy and Angel walked side-by-side down the corridor; past the nurse’s station, where kindly professionals wished them good evening; through the gates of the little hospice and down the dark lane to the village. No traffic disturbed them on their way, which was just as well as the lane had neither footpath nor traffic lights. Neither did any, more monstrous, examples of nightlife harass them. The hospice, and indeed the whole village was secured by mystical protection. Angel, feeling the tingle along his spine that signified the presence of a boundary, enquired how come he was permitted access. “Don’t you know? You have a pass. You’ve had one since the trial.” He was silent. “Angel, quit with the brooding already.”

“It’s just...I’ve been stupid. I feel very stupid. But Buffy, if this...if it turns out I was never freed, if I’m going to open my eyes and find myself back there....this is worth it. They can have me, they can break me. I won’t deny you again. Or...any of them. It shatters me more.”

“Well, gee, Angel,” she smiled, forgiving him completely, “Without the patented sting-in-the-tail of that pessimism, I was beginning to wonder if you were real.”

She took his arm and they walked into the sodium flare of the village’s first street lamp, and on through the patchwork dark to the blue-and-pink garish neon sign of the off-license, incongruous against a stone-built cottage wall.

Slightly taken aback by the idiosyncratic limits of the drink on display (or at least Angel was), they were arguing the relative merits of white wine versus rose when Spike, alone in his room, closed his eyes for the last time. He was at peace.

“For goodness’ sake, Angel, get white if you like but don’t forget the beer, we’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Do you stock Tiger Beer? Four bottles of Newcastle Brown then please. And a bottle of Vouvray. Oh, what’s that, White Grenache? Yes, that as well, please. Buffy, uh, do you have any money? I’m not carrying any at all...”

She said, heroically put-upon, as she paid up, “Don’t think you’re gonna be able to pull this crap again, mister. Guys pay AND they carry.”

“You sound just like Cordy,” he said, hefting the bag full of bottles. There it was again, that flash of misery.

(‘Deal with it, Buffy. He can mourn but boundless desolation’s getting old.’) “Cordy always did have style. Bet she knew how to handle your moods.”

“Too well,” he agreed. And why had she never seen that grin before? “That she did.”

They headed back to the hospice. She snuck her arm through his as they walked, slipping in and out of the patchwork darkness, navigating circles of electric clarity; where moths on soft wings fluttered with intent above them in the sodium flare, buzzing themselves out in it; finding the way home.

This story teaches us not to be a prat, and to accept love where it is offered freely, except when we don’t fancy the person.

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: NC17
Summary: 20 years post NFA
Author's notes: . A/S, A/B, B/S implied. This was going to be Buffy and Spike exchanging Bad Sex stories, but it took a wrong turn.
Warnings: character death, profanity, fanwanking, shanshue ex machinae. British spelling and punctuation; apostrophe’s may be wonky. Many many thanks to tkp for looking this over, and for her invaluable comments. Please don’t shoot the pianist, she usually plays drums hooky. Second ever fic attempted: no idea if this works.

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