Unspoken

Unspoken

By Anaross

Rating: R
Pairing: Buffy/Spike
Summary: "I've always envisioned him giving Buffy a garden that he could never go to in the daytime, to give her something alive for a change." James Marsters
Notes: schmoop warning. AU-- Departs from canon at Power Play. Not Fade Away didn’t happen.

Chapter One

Since I moved to Cleveland, I get a lot of junk mail. That's because Dawn orders from catalogs, so we've ended up on every mailing list in the world. Every day I come home from class and mount the steps of my wooden porch and open my mailbox and pull out a big handful of mail. The magazines I stick in my bookbag to read during lunch– I mostly lunch alone... at the community college all the students have their own lives, no room for new friends. The catalogs I sort out for when Dawn comes home from Ohio State, which hardly ever happens lately (I think she has a boyfriend, but she isn't telling). And any bulk mail envelope gets tossed right in the trash.

Now I stand in the foyer and sort and toss, and in the end I'm left holding a single manila envelope. It has actual stamps affixed to the corner, and my name and address printed in actual ink. Maybe they were even printed by an actual human hand, though since the lettering is so precise, it could have been a machine. There's no return address, but there's something inside. Not just paper. Something a little heavy. I hold the envelope up by the corner near the clasp and the something slides to the opposite corner.

I am just holding it, wondering if demons have learned how to make real small letterbombs, when Giles walks down the stairs, the afternoon sun glinting off his glasses. He's here to set things up for the new slayerette coming for training– and also to see me. He says he misses me when he's in London and I'm here. It's a big deal for Giles to say that, I know. I mean, he's not the most demonstrative guy out there, and I'm not either, and there is still that ... that thing between us, the thing we never talk about. But he's smiling at me as he comes down the stairs, and I tell myself again to let go of the past, to live in the moment, to let bygones be bygones, all that.

So I smile back, and Giles ask, "How was your history class?" and it's almost like old times, when he was the closest thing I had to a father.

"Okay," I reply, and since he's still the closest thing I have to a father, I give into the urge to brag. "I got 19 out of 20 right on the exam."

"Very good!" He pats me on the shoulder as he goes past. "Let me make you a celebratory cup of tea."

"Make that a cup of diet Pepsi, and you're on." I trail him into the kitchen, answering absently when he asks what the exam covered. I am still regarding the manila envelope suspiciously, but it hasn't come forth with any of its secrets yet. At least it hasn't blown up in my hands.

You probably think I'm paranoid. But Cleveland demons are a lot more organized than the ones in Sunnydale. There's a mob boss at the top of the demon pyramid, a Wehoe, and I worry all the time he's going to figure out who the Slayer is and find some sneaky indirect way to get me.

"What do you have there, Buffy?" Giles asks, and I hold up the envelope for him to see. "Aren't you going to open it?"

I feel sort of silly, holding an envelope away from me like it's radioactive. Like I'm scared of it.

I'm the Slayer, and I don't get scared. Out there, at least, in the killing fields. I'm good at my job and I know it. And when I'm in a cemetery or abandoned warehouse, kicking and chopping and staking, I ... well, I don't feel so alone, you know? No. You don't know. How could you know? All I mean is, I came out of retirement and started slaying again last year because... because I felt I had to. For him. You know. Like when I'm out doing what we used to do all the time, I'm doing it for him. Almost with him.

Him. Never mind. He's not around anymore. He hasn't been around for a long time. Years. But when I'm slaying, I kind of feel like he's still there. Guarding my back, like old times.

It's just all the rest of the time... I live with this sort of low-grade dread. It's not intense enough to be fear. I don't know. I'm just waiting for something to happen all the time. And it never does. I just wait and wait, and it never happens. The beast in the jungle never strikes. (That was some story we read in American Lit 201. The Beast in the Jungle, by Henry James. The protagonist waits and waits for something important to happen, for the beast in the jungle to strike, and it never does, and then he realizes it already has and he missed it. "A cautionary tale," the professor intoned, and I thought for sure she was talking to me.)

So I put the envelope on the kitchen table and undo the clasp and stick my hand inside. No bomb. Just a piece of paper – and a small gold key.

As I stare at the key, Giles sets the glass in front of me and sits down opposite me with his teacup. "What is it?"

"I don't know. A key."

He reaches over and snags the piece of paper and give it a good hard Gilesian study. "This is a property deed. Made out to you." He looks up. "Did you buy an unimproved lot? On Bellwood Avenue?"

I grabs it out of his hand. "Of course not. Why would I buy an unimproved–" But there's my name right there as owner. "Maybe that's what the key is for."

"Unimproved means no dwelling structure."

"It's a puzzle," I agree. The key is cold in my hand. "We probably ought to go check it out."

I expect him to say What do you mean, we? But Giles isn't like that. He's still sort of my Watcher, which means I can expect him to Watch while I go check out potential danger.

He takes a contemplative sip of his tea. "I thought you had a date."

"Tonight."

"Yes. That means an hour in your closet, sorting through clothes and swearing and discarding them, and then two hours at the mall spending most of your monthly salary on–"

"I will wear something I already own." Like I said, Giles is the closest thing I've got to a father, worse luck. "And if that doesn't work out, if we go now, I'll have plenty of time to shop."

***

Bellwood Avenue isn't far from my house. It dead-ends at one of the Broadwood cemeteries, but then, a lot of streets in Old Brooklyn dead-end into one cemetery or another. That's why I got a house in this neighborhood, because there are so many cemeteries. And the hellmouth itself is just a mile or so away, under an old stockyard.

Bellwood is a typical Cleveland street– lined with maples, separated into small lots with little brick bungalows. We cruise down in Giles's rental car, looking for the right number on a mailbox. But it turns out that there isn't any number, because there isn't any mailbox. There's 4342, but beyond that there's just an high brick wall. It's actually part of the brick wall that lines this side of the cemetery, and it forms a small square where a yard would be. I open the car window and look up, but I don't see any evidence of a house behind that wall. Unimproved lot, I remind myself. Big deal. Not like I scored in some church raffle and won a new house.

It's sort of weird, a bricked-in lot right here in this neighborhood. It probably used to be part of the cemetery. Maybe it's where they buried the unconsecrated bodies– the suicides and the unbaptized babies.

Giles pulls to a stop in front of the wall, and we get out. Only then do I notice the old wooden arched door set in the middle of the brick wall. I feel in my jeans pocket for the key, and walk over to the door. He's right behind me, and I hear the quiet snick of a blade being withdrawn from a scabbard.

I've already got my stake in hand. And just like every time I draw wood, I hear that seductive, dangerous voice in my head: Lesson the first: a Slayer must always reach for her weapon...I've already got mine.

The door is gray with age, but the lock is new, bright and brassy. I shove the key in, and the door swings inward, and with a deep breath, I enter the brick-walled yard.

It's cooler in here than back out on the street– cool and sweet-smelling. I'm on alert, of course, glancing around, corner to corner, smelling deep. But the fragrance of flowers is all I breathe in. And the colors of flowers is all I see.

It's a garden. A little walled garden. That's all. No demons, no tombstones even.

I hear Giles sheathing his blade. I hear the buzz of bees. I hear the quiet trickle of water. I hear the door swinging shut. I don't hear the noise of traffic anymore, or any city sounds. It's quiet here.

Here in the garden.

I take a tentative step onto a flagstone. There's a path that leads in a curve through the flowerbeds, and without much conscious thought, I follow it. Three steps past the bluebells, along the peony border, two more steps past a couple little bushes with bright pink flowers– I wish I knew more about flowers. They are pretty, even if I don't know all their names.

I stay on the flagstoned path, my jeans leg brushing a crooked row of daisies, and at the back, in the corner, is an old cherry tree. (I do know trees, because I had to do a leaf-collection project in 10th grade.) Underneath it is a bench made out of logs. It's rustic and pretty and I find myself taking a seat there and looking out at the garden.

Giles is still prowling around, hand on his scabbard, looking for danger. But there's nothing here but flowers. Oh, there's a little pond in the opposite corner, with one of those little electric waterfalls they sell at the garden stores. I guess a sea-monster could come jumping out of there. And there's that old brick wall surrounding us, right up against the cemetery. But it's the middle of the afternoon and all the cemetery-bound demons and vampires are probably fast asleep.

It's safe here.

Giles eventually agrees, and comes over to stand on the path in front of me. "Someone gave you a garden," he says, his voice carefully noncommittal.

I let the words sink in. Someone gave me a garden. Someone made this garden and gave it to me. "Who?"

He shakes his head. "I don't know. The plantings are recent, I can tell that much. So someone has gone to a great deal of work this spring." He turns and surveys it, the mix of shrub and flower, the intensity of the colors. "It's rather like a cottage garden, like the ones back home."

"Only there's no cottage," I point out. "And it's in Cleveland. Next to a cemetery. What does it mean?"

Gently he adds, "Perhaps it's a reward, Buffy. A thank-you from someone you saved."

I breathe in. The air tastes of serenity. Gratitude. Can that be it? I've saved it hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in my time, but few stayed around long enough to thank me. I don't do it for the thanks, anyway. "It's nice."

That is inadequate, to say the least. Giles walks over to a pot full of pansies, and I see the sunlight filtering through the cherry leaves to dapple the stone at his feet. This feels magical– but not magical like Willow. Just... oh, magical in a metaphorical way. Special. The air is golden and green around me, and the ground is mossy, and everywhere I look, I see color– pink and purple and yellow and red. Flowers everywhere.

"Later I'll check the records for previous owners," Giles says as he starts towards the door. "But now I'm going to replenish my tea supply at that grocery down the street. I'll be back soon."

And he leaves me alone. He knows I want to be alone. And all of a sudden, I just forgive him. Oh, the hell with it– with all my grievances against him. He came here to the garden with me, and he left me alone when I need solitude, and he's coming back. He's Giles, and I guess none of the rest of it matters anymore.

So I sit there and listen to the little waterfall and watch the purple irises swaying in the slight breeze, and I don't think of anything at all, really, until Giles returns. And then I rise and brush the tears off my face and find the key in my pocket. And then I lock up and we go home. I have a date, remember.

Chapter 2

I have a new boyfriend, see. His name is Josh Hogan, and he's a reporter at the local TV station. I won him. No, really. The news show did a Cleveland takeoff on The Bachelor, and Josh was the bachelor, because he's the best-looking of all their reporters. And he's a bachelor, of course. So there was this whole weekend where he hung out with a bunch of bachelorettes, two cameramen taping every moment. Faith was visiting, and you know Faith. She had us both signed up before I could tell her to go jump in a lake. She was pretty sure she was going to win– she's confident that way. But it didn't take too long to figure out that Josh wanted more from a girl than four unbuttoned buttons on her blouse and some impressive cleavage and a few double entendres. He wanted, he said right upfront, a girl he could take home to meet his mother.

Well, Faith's not dumb. She knew at that moment that she was not the Bachelor's ideal Bachelorette. But she decided I was. And so she set about sabotaging the other contestants. I had an inkling what was going on– I mean, all those other girls having PMS the same moment and getting into a catfight? I don't think so. I think she was riling them up, the way she did with the slayerettes when she wanted to take over leadership. Maybe it helped, I don't know. Josh told me later that he knew from the first moment I was the one for him, and he just talked with the other girls for the sake of the show. I believe him. I mean, I felt it from the start too– a specialness between us. Like we were soulmates or something. Like we communed on some deep level. You know. All that stuff.

The show was just supposed to end with him choosing (me) and a fancy dinner at a restaurant that had paid dearly for the publicity. But the next day he called me, and we've been going out ever since. It's really nice. It's like how I felt when I was first dating Riley, that there really was a chance for me to be normal, to have a normal relationship with a normal guy. Not that Josh is just normal. I mean, he is good-looking in a great All-American way, like so many of the guys here in Ohio. He's kind of a big guy, so he makes me feel nice and petite. He's got big brown eyes and a wide smile, and his hair is dark and flops over his forehead, and he's always pushing it back. Messing it up. He's not the usual blow-dried TV reporter, believe me. But he's a great listener, which I guess is a useful trait when he does interviews. Sometimes I find myself telling him really personal things, like how I resent Dawn because Mom loved her better (not more– Mom wouldn't love her more... but they got along so much better). And how I thought maybe I had a learning disability or something, because I always did so well on standardized tests but never got grades good enough for the honor roll.

I haven't told him about being a Slayer. I mean, that would open up all that stuff rational college graduates like him wouldn't believe– vampires and demons and ....

Anyway, I've told him all sorts of other private things. So it's not like I don't trust him.

He just has two hours between finishing the evening news and doing standups for the late news. So we just go to dinner at a restaurant near the station. We eat Italian, and I go ahead and have several pieces of garlic bread, because he's got to work and won't be coming home with me tonight. So it's okay if I reek.

Besides, I think, it'll keep the vampires away. Except that is just a myth. Or at least that's what Spike used to say as he ate handfuls of Dawn's special garlic-butter popcorn. Garlic didn't bother him, he always said, plus it seriously lowered his blood cholesterol.

That was Spike's idea of a joke. Dawn's too. She just laughed and laughed.

Josh is asking me something about my day, and I almost tell him about the garden, and then I realize that he'll probably ask to see it, and — and I don't want to take him there. I tell myself it's because I don't want him speculating how I got it. But really, it's because the garden is my place. Just mine. Just for me.

So instead I tell him about the history exam, and about my Napoleon-worshipping professor, and eat garlic bread. And when we come out of the restaurant, we have to run to his car, because it's started to rain.

The next day, I end up taking Xander there. It's noon, and he's on his lunchbreak, so when he meets me there, he's got a burger in his hand, and a french fry sticking out of his mouth. I unlock the door and ask him to look at the work on the planters and the trellis– who could do that, and when it was done. And that waterfall. He starts walking along the perimeter of the garden, pausing here and there to touch a planter box, to test a joint.

"What do you think of the workmanship?"

He shrugs. "Amateur. But it gets better. See?"

I rise and join him by a raised area held back by railroad ties. "What?"

He points to the juncture between two pieces of wood. "He's learning. Back there, he couldn't get the joints flush. But now, he's figured it out. Got some potential."

I see the same thing with the planting. The gardener must have started along the back wall, because that's where the beds are the most disorderly. It looks like he got a bunch of seeds mixed up and just gave in and jammed them into the ground all willy-nilly. The colors even clash– red and purple all mixed together.

But over there, by the door, there's this cool effect, like a rainbow of pansies, yellow and then pink and then red and then purple, the colors easing into each other and intensifying, so that the last bunch of them is almost black.

"What about the waterfall?" I ask. "There must be some connection to electricity and water."

Xander bends over the pond, his hand plunged into the water as he feels around in the piping. "Well, let's just say you're not going to get a bill from the water company." He yanks his hand out and shakes it, sprinkling water on the hydrangea bush. "Or the electric company."

"What do you mean?"

He squints at me through the noon sun. "It's tapped into the water main that runs along the street. And the power line– hijacked."

Oh, no. Here I am, committing felonies probably without even knowing it. "How is it done?"

Xander shrugged and dried his hand off on his jeans. "It isn't really hard. I've done it myself, back when we put that shower in at Spike's."

Oops. I can see the appalled expression in his eyes. He probably just remembered that we don't say that name out loud. They all think– well, I don't know. That I can't hear that name. But I can. Really. I just don't say it myself. I try to make this casual. No big deal. "So you tapped into the city water main?"

Xander looks relieved that I'm not having a violent reaction. "Yeah. Plus we got electricity and cable in there too."

I can do casual. I just don't say his name, see. "Did you get paid for this?"

"Uh, sure." Xander pauses, and I can tell he's trying to figure out how to say this without, you know, mentioning the name. "I got paid $100. Plus, uh, the first Lord of the Rings DVD."

"Oh," I say carelessly, dropping onto my bench. "Well. Am I in danger of arrest?"

Xander shakes his head. "The amount is pretty minimal. They'll put it down to the usual leakage. I gotta run, hon– late for work."

And he goes to his car, ducking a little as he exits the low doorway, and I'm left there thinking about this garden and the generous felon, whoever he is, who made it for me.

Quick, I jump up and run out onto the street. "Xander!"

He stops halfway into his truck cab. "Yeah?"

"Did you teach him how to do that? Tap into the city utilities?"

Xander leans against the roof of the pickup and studies me for a minute before he replies. "I guess we figured it out together. You know how it goes. I had the technical know-how, and he had the criminal instincts."

"A great team." I laugh kind of carelessly. At least I hope it sounds careless. "But he ended up knowing how to do this, right? After you were done?"

He pauses again. Then, gently, he says, "Buffy, he's dead. Three times over. Remember? Angel told Giles. Said he'd been killed in some big battle, along with Wes."

I toss my head. Carelessly. "Of course I remember. It's not like something I'd forget. But–"

"I know what you're thinking. That he came back before." His voice got real soft. "And you didn't try to reach him then. So maybe you're feeling a little guilty–"

"I don't feel guilty!"

"I recognize the signs, Buff." He shakes his head. "I used to have these dreams about Anya. Every night. Only they didn't feel like dreams. They were completely rational, not crazy at all. We had conversations exactly like we'd have if she actually came back– conversations about death and what it felt like, and about our future. Me apologizing for treating her bad. I–" He sighed. "I didn't tell anyone. But I thought it was her ghost."

"What happened?" I whisper this.

"When I moved here, it just stopped. I needed to get away, see, for my subconscious to let go."

Or maybe– but I can't say it. I can't say that maybe Anya's spirit can't find him now. That would be too awful to think about, Anya's spirit waiting there in California, waiting for him. So I just say, "Grief is a funny thing sometimes."

"Yeah. But we got to let go eventually. Can't stay tied to the past. It's not what they would have wanted for us. You got someone new. Don't screw it up the way I always do." He adds, "I got to get back to work. And you got to get to class. Maybe the garden is just a gift, Buffy. From the universe. Just accept it and enjoy it." He starts to get into the driver's seat, and then emerges for a moment. "Oh, and prune back that hosta, okay? It tends to take over if you aren't ruthless with it."

I watch him drive away, and slowly make my way back into the garden. I sit down on a planter box, next to the hydrangeas, and I think about having someone new. Xander is right. I don't want to be like he is, always wrecking a relationship before it even gets started. He's got this habit of getting drunk on the third date and telling the woman all about Anya and how he left her at the altar and then she died– and you can't blame the woman for being unavailable for his calls from then on.

But I don't have to worry about that. I'm not going to embarrass Josh by going on and on about how guilty I feel about Spike. No worry about that.

I reach over and pick a petal out of the dirt, and see something there. Fresh rake marks.

But it rained last night. I got wet running for Josh's car, and then when I got ready for bed, I could still hear the pelter of drops on the roof, and it didn't stop till right before I fell asleep.

The gardener must have been here after that. He must have been here within the last twelve hours. Raking and pruning and picking up fallen petals in the dark. In the cool rain-smelling dark.

I close my eyes and became the slayer. I feel around me, feel for the presence. But the fragrance of flowers all around distracts me. I can't feel anything.

***

"Xander thinks I'm feeling guilty because I didn't call."

"Call who?" Giles looks up from his paperwork, annoyance gradually fading on his face. He's annoyed at the bureaucracy, not at me. He's got all these forms to fill out before the slayerette can come here– forms making me her temporary guardian, forms enrolling her in summer school, forms so her FICA gets paid to the right account (yeah, they even pay slayers-in-training now... and I think of those years when I did it all for free– of course, the $100,000 lump sum I got last year kind of compensated). It sure was easier to be a Watcher when there was only one slayer, and you didn't have to educate her, because she wouldn't live long enough to need learning. "Call Dawn?"

"No. I call Dawn every week."

"Who then?"

I still can't say his name. "You know. Last year. After you told me Andrew had seen him."

"Oh." Giles knows what I mean. He gets up to pull the drapes shut. The late afternoon sun is streaming in from the west, yeah, but I can tell mostly he wants to turn his back so he can take off his glasses and rub the lenses without me making fun of him. "Yes. Well. I thought you'd want to know. Or that you'd blame me if I knew and didn't tell you, anyway."

"I thought he should call me. Since he was the one who came back from the dead. It was his responsibility."

"He did come to see you when he was in Rome, Andrew said."

I brood on this for awhile. "I don't know why he didn't just stay a few hours. Wait for me to come back."

"Perhaps staying wasn't an option. Angel was with him, I recall."

Yeah. And I can just imagine how quick Angel would make his exit. I can just imagine what he'd say– She's with someone else now. She doesn't care about you. She doesn't care about the past. Let her go and be happy and normal. Don't be selfish. Be selfless like I was. I let her go. You should too. Only he'd probably put in some insults, like you moron and you idiot.

Angel would make it seem like what I felt for Spike wasn't worth reviving. And I suppose Spike wouldn't have much evidence to prove him wrong, would he?

"I was going to call him after that. But–"

But I wanted to break up with the Immortal before I did. And you don't break up with the Immortal, see. You get him to break up with you. It took several weeks of being mildly obnoxious and boring before he gave me the sapphire bracelet goodbye gift that meant it was now safe not to be the Immortal's inamorata.

And by that time, Giles was back on the phone to me, with the news of that last battle. Spike was gone again. Died again in an alley. I guess no one even saw. No one swept up the dust. No one had a memorial service. No one cared, from what I could tell. If Giles hadn't called trying to find Wesley, Angel wouldn't even have bothered to tell us that they were both dead.

No one saw.

Maybe he didn't –

Now Giles is talking like Xander. Talking about moving on, starting over. About what Spike would have wanted for me. Happiness. All that. About the garden maybe being an omen of some kind, an omen of the bright future I have ahead. I nod and smile and all the time I'm thinking– no one saw?

I wait until Giles leaves to file the guardianship papers at the courthouse. And then I go to my laptop and boot it up and open my email program. And there in a folder of saved mail I find it, a year-old note from that girl Anne, the one in LA, the one who ended up running a teen shelter– just a quick note saying that Charles Gunn had survived the last battle and was staying with her until he recovered. In case, I guess, I wanted to send a get-well card to this guy I barely knew. My mother brought me up to do things like that. But I didn't. Like I didn't call Spike when I heard he was alive. Mom would be so disappointed in me.....

Underneath Anne's name was her title (Director) and the shelter's address and phone number. Before I can change my mind, I dial the number, and when a woman answers, I say, "I'm trying to track down Charles Gunn."

And just like that, she says, "Hang on." And I hear her yelling, "Charles! Phone!"

Then he's on, and it takes me a minute to regroup. "Charles," I finally say. "This is Buffy Summers."

"Oh. Hi." He sounds confused. "Good to hear from you."

"I didn't realize you were there. At the shelter."

"Yeah. I work here now." Now he's abrupt. "What can I do for you?"

I did this too quick. I don't have anything planned. Finally I just blurt out. "Look. About that last battle. I just wanted to know about–" And then I say the name I haven't said in a year. "Spike."

"Spike." And there's something in his voice. Sorrow, maybe? And for a second I feel better about something I haven't let myself feel bad about– about Spike being friendless there in LA. Stuck there with Angel who hated him, because he didn't have anywhere else to go. But Charles Gunn says his name with something that sounds like – affection. Like he sort of misses him. So maybe Spike wasn't so alone those last days– "Yeah. Well. What did you want to know?"

I take a deep breath. "When he died. Uh, was he alone?"

Charles was silent for a moment. Finally he said, "No. I was there. And Angel."

My chest starts hurting with the loss of a hope I should never have had. "You saw him die."

"Yeah. Dusted." He pauses again, and says, "I saw it. Sorry."

"No. No." I try to keep the quaver out of my voice. "I'm just glad he wasn't.... wasn't alone. That you and Angel were there for him."

He echoes, "There for him." He makes some noise that almost sounds like a laugh. But it can't be a laugh. "Right. That we were."

"Okay. Thanks." I have to get off before I start blubbering. "Uh, well, say hi to Angel for me."

Another moment. And then, "I don't see Angel anymore. So I can't."

"Oh." I understand. For a long time after the Hellmouth was closed, Xander and I couldn't see each other either. Now we were friends again, but it took awhile before we could look at each other and not see the ending. So I say, all in a rush, "Well, then, give my best to Anne." And then I hang up before I say any more stupid things.

Chapter 3

In the evening, I have another date with Josh. I wait till he orders dessert before I tell him I can't see him anymore.

He's confused. I don't blame him. I mean, just a couple days ago, we were holding hands and talking – in a theoretical way– about which Cleveland neighborhoods had the best schools. "But I thought we were–" He stops and puts on his concerned face, the one he uses when he's interviewing a laid-off worker. "What's wrong, Buffy?"

I stick a fork into my chocolate mousse cake and break off a triangle. Then I squash it with the fork tines. "I really like you." I lift the fork and squash it down again. "But I realized today that I was..." Using you. I don't want to say that. "I wasn't really ready for this. I'm... I'm sort of still in recovery. And– and you deserve better than just a rebound."

"Rebound?" He reaches over and takes my hand, and I have to drop the fork. "Buffy, I know you were badly hurt, but you know, high school was a long time ago."

"High–" He's talking about Angel. My high-school boyfriend. The one who broke my heart. I did tell him about Angel, not the vampire/curse/Angelus thing of course, but about the dark and dangerous man who loved me and left me.

I never told him about Spike. I wouldn't even know what to tell him. There was this guy, see, and he loved me a lot, and then he died. And then he died again. So naturally he thinks that I'm still mooning over some guy in high school, because that's the only guy he knows about. I clear my throat. "There was someone else. But he died. It's been a year, and I thought I was over it, but something happened today and I realized I'm... not. Over it."

Josh squeezes my hand. "That's okay. That's what I'm here for. To support you. It won't make me jealous or anything if you talk about him."

"I don't want to talk about him!" That came out too vehement. I dial down the intensity. "All I mean is, I can't really be a good girlfriend yet. And you deserve that. But I can't...." I can't love you. That's what I mean. But when I say that, I hear myself saying it to Spike. Only it was I can't love you because you're an evil soulless thing. I can't love you because you're a monster. Ask me again why I can't love you.

I'd never say anything like that to Josh. I say it the other way, the kind way. "I can't love you the way you deserve. It's not you. It's me. I just don't have it in me."

He still has hold of my hand. He says, "This reminds me of that old song. That old Meatloaf song." And very softly, he sings, "I want you, I need you. But there ain't no way I'm ever going to love you. But don't be sad. 'Cause two out of three ain't bad."

I just stare at him. I can't believe he's singing here in the middle of a restaurant when I'm trying to break up with him. Finally he lets go of my hand. "Couple years ago, when I was about to graduate, I bought that CD and played that song for my girlfriend. I wanted to break up with her, but I didn't want to hurt her, you know? So I played that song and I said, that's the way I feel." He shakes his head. "It still hurt her."

I don't know what to make of this. Finally I say, "So you know what I mean."

"Sure, Buffy. I know what you mean." He calls for the check and gets out his wallet. "Most relationships don't work out. No big deal. Still friends, all that."

And that's it. He takes me home, gives me a chaste cheek-kiss, and says with a grin, "Call me if you hear of any news." Then he drives away.

He took it well. It's a relief. Really.

All of a sudden it hits me. That's what love is like, out here in the real world. You don't get in too deep, because you have to be able to get out again.

No one is ever going to love me like Spike did.

Boy, that sounds selfish. Like I deserve to be loved that much again. Like I merit that sort of sacrifice. Like I'm due some unconditional love.

That's not what I mean. But... but I realize that it was pretty rare, Spike's kind of love. Not many people love that way. I don't know anyone else that does. Most people are more sensible than that. They know better than to love that hard and give that much. Hurt that much.

I know better. Knew better.

Maybe only demons love that way.

No wonder he didn't believe me. That last minute, when he was about to die at the Hellmouth, I tried to say what he wanted to hear– "I love you"– but turns out he didn't want to hear it after all. He wanted to know it without hearing it. He wanted to know it in every fiber like he knew I knew he loved me.

In the end, I think, he didn't even want that. It hurt too much to want that. So he just gave up wanting.

I don't think he ever gave up loving.

***

It's June, and sunset comes later and later. Most evenings, I get to watch the news and Wheel of Fortune before I go out to patrol. This evening, I tell Giles I have to stop at the library, and I'll meet him at the cemetery. But I go out the back way, so he doesn't see me carrying a thermos and a mug along with my weapons bag.

The sun is just a red ball over the west wall as I enter my garden. Now I feel him all around me– his passion is there in the colorful flowers, and his devotion there in the sturdy cherry tree, and his voice is there in the waterfall.

I have to work quickly. I don't want to spook him. Whoever he is.

I spread out the white linen napkin on the bench. On it I set the thermos and the NPR mug. Mom donated to the local NPR every year, so we always had NPR mugs in the cabinet on Revello Drive. I had to stop by the local station earlier today to exchange a check for a mug. I want ... to see. To see if he understands. To see if it's still him.

As soon as I get it all set up, I make a quick exit. Ten minutes later, I'm meeting Giles at the gates of another cemetery, just as the sun slips down under the horizon.

I skip history class in the morning and go right to the garden. And there on the bench is the thermos. All the hot chocolate is gone, and it's been rinsed. The NPR mug is right next to it, filled with pink flowers. And then I remember. Mom loved camellias. We had three bushes around the back porch, and they'd bloom in March or April– big pink flowers like the ones in the mug.

It's him. Only he would know–

I don't tell anyone. Of course not. They already think I'm a little crazy. And anyway, some rational part of my brain tells me that I'm being just like Xander when he thought Anya's ghost came to him every night. Grief is a funny thing. Delayed grief is even odder. But... but....

A nor'easter blows in the next day. That's a big storm that locals say ruins every weekend in late spring. Arctic winds come down over Lake Erie, and suddenly spring turns back into winter. The wind is harsh and cold, and strong enough to blow people right off porches. I stay indoors and watch videos while Giles monopolizes the phone, making last-minute assurances to the slayerette's parents that I really am a suitable guardian, even if I'm hardly more than a girl myself. Even if it's only for a month. Even if their sweet little girl is stronger than Andre the Giant.

I lie there watching Princess Bride– he and Dawn loved that film– and worrying about him. I worry that he might try to work in the garden and get all wet. Maybe get struck by lightning. Maybe get impaled by a falling tree branch.

Sunday night, the storm blows out, and I set my alarm for 4 am. I sneak out of the house when it's still dark, carrying my bag. A power outage has hit Bellwood Avenue, so all the streetlights are out, and it takes me a minute to find the keyhole in the old wooden door. As I start to turn it, I hear something inside– movement.

He's in there. I can hear him. I can feel him. I can sense him. I close my eyes for a second, just feeling him. I know I'm crazy. I know it can't be true. But just for the moment, I close my eyes and feel him.

Then I open my eyes and push through the doorway and rush in like this is a demon lair.

And he's not there.

But he was, I tell myself, in a panic. I know he was. I flick on my keychain penlight and look for evidence. I find it right away. There by the path is a pot of red geraniums, a hole already readied. He must have been digging when he heard me–

And got away how?

It's only when I've found the door in the east wall, the door that leads into the cemetery, that I think of the other question. And got away why? Why would he run from me? If it was really him?

I prowl the cemetery for a half an hour, but I never find him. So I go back to my plan. It seems so stupid now, when I've come so close to seeing him. But it's all I got. I return to the garden and set up the boombox on the bench, sliding in the Ramones CD. I check to make sure the battery power is working. Then– remembering how often it rains here– I cover it with a clear plastic tarp. I glance over at that east door, the dawn light haloing above it, and finally go home.

When I return on Tuesday morning, the boombox is still under the tarp. Disappointed, I sit down beside it on the bench, and look for signs of life. There's a new narrow bachelor button border around the pond (I know they're bachelor buttons because I got a book of flowers from the library)– pretty blue flowers. Blue like his eyes. I never told him, not in all that time, that he had beautiful eyes.

I'm being sentimental. I feel him here. I feel his love here. And the peace settles over me. Now that I know he's here, in whatever way he's here, I can see so many bits of him– the crooked rows of lavender, and the splashes of red everywhere, and the candles set around the pond.

He can't even see this, you know. Not as I see it. Not in the sun. The colors, so bright and varied for me, are muted for him. Moonlight might dapple the garden floor, but it will be milky and not bright like the sunlight.

I have to see it for him. Love it for him.

I feel him close, in every bloom. But I want to feel him closer. I want to feel all of him, not just his tenderness. The anger, the violence, the desire, the laughter. I look down at the boombox, and punch the play button through the clear plastic, expecting to hear that dumb Ramones song he loved, the one about being sedated.

But something moody and familiar starts up instead– a song on the jukebox at the Bronze, one I played when I had a few extra quarters.

Come up to meet you, tell you I'm sorry
You don't know how lovely you are

I don't even want to wonder– how he found the CD, why he remembers. Where he is now. I just listen and wait. I can wait. I can wait for him.

***

Only I can't. I can't wait any longer. So that night I beg off patrolling, and wait till Giles is asleep, and I sneak out into the dark street. It's kind of exhilarating, sneaking out. Like I'm a teenager again. Like I'm sneaking out to meet my boyfriend for some illicit sex.

I know Giles would disapprove– not so much the illicit sex part (though he wouldn't be happy about that, if I was having any, not that I am) but because he'd think I'm crazy. I think it myself. There's some rational part of my brain that keeps reminding me that Spike is dead, gone to dust, and I just heard it from an eyewitness. Giles would tut-tut and speak solemnly of the terrible lot of generals who must send others to die (that's me, General Buffy), and he'd probably pat my hand and–

So I sneak out, just like when I was 16. And it feels just as wicked.

This time I skirt the garden and head for the adjacent cemetery. But I stick close to the brick wall, close enough to see the flicker of candlelight against the backdrop of darkness. My heartbeat flickers right along with it. He's in there. I can't hear him, but I can imagine him. Sense him. And maybe, maybe, I can get him.

I'm dressed just the right way– blood-bait, in a low-cut blouse that exposes my jugular vein. I mosey along, humming a Britney Spears song, bobbing my silly little head as I go. I'm no further than the third row of gravestones when the dark form of a vampire appears from behind a tomb. I could deal with him expeditiously, but I don't, because it's another vampire I'm after. So I play with him, calling out (loudly) my usual patter of puns, and he's wondering what sort of dumb blonde he's got here, anyway. I let him close in on me, his hands going for my throat, and I let out a great big howl, from way deep down inside me. "Spike!" I yell. "I need you!" (I still have my pride. I'm not going to yell help, even if I need it, and I don't now.)

And there he is, standing on the brick wall, his bare biceps glinting in the moonlight. He leaps, his arms out to the side, one of those vampire moves I've never actually seen any vampire but Spike do. Pret-tay, Faith would say, but then, she'd say that about him if he were standing still, because she's always had the hots for him.

The only thing is, that leap is usually accompanied by this sexy growl. No growl. The only sound is him landing lightly on the soggy ground, a few feet away.

He grabs the startled vampire, twists off his head– pret-tay for sure– and as the dust settles around us, he gives me that look, you know, the honestly puzzled but half-exasperated look that says you couldn't handle the likes of him?

But I don't care that he thinks I've suddenly become a total wimp. He's here, and he's real, and I reach out to touch him. And his face changes, shifts to vamp, and he backs away, and as I'm saying, "Wait! Spike!" he takes off.

Most vampires aren't as fast as me (except for that first three or four yards– they move like blurs in that distance). But Spike is like the Michael Johnson of vampires. Over a couple hundred yards, I don't think anyone can catch him. I've never managed. And I can't manage it tonight. He's sprinted along the wall and vaulted over it into the nearby park before I even get going.

I found him. And I've lost him again. I trudge to my garden and sit disconsolately on the rocky border of the pond, trailing my hand in the water and staring at the guttering flame of the candle. Around the pond he's been putting in some more plants– lilies of the valley, I think, little white flowers with glossy green leaves.

Next to the little pots of flowers is a set of headphones. They're connected to the boombox I gave him. I put them on and hear what he was hearing just a few minutes ago– the Ramones. I don't wanna be buried ... in a pet sematery....

I punch the stop button on the boombox. I don't know if Spike will come back tonight, and I don't want to run the batteries down.

Chapter 4

All through lit class the next day, I'm thinking about Spike instead of Charles Dickens. The first question is, how is he back? Charles Gunn saw him dusted a year ago. And from what I can tell, Charles is a reliable witness– an attorney, a friend of Spike's. If all I had to go on was Angel's telling Giles that Spike was gone, I might have my doubts, because, well, Angel sometimes says things that aren't true without realizing they're not true. I'm not saying he's a liar, just that he's got his own particular view of reality that doesn't always reflect real reality.

But Charles said he saw it with his own eyes. Spike. Dead. Dust.

I doodle in my notebook so the professor thinks I'm paying attention, and remind myself that Spike is really hard to kill. I know. I've tried. And only once– in the Hellmouth– I succeeded, not that I wanted to at that point. And he came back from that, didn't he? Giles tried to tell me that it was some kind of Wolfram & Hart screw-up, that it was supposed to be Angel wearing the amulet and becoming the champion and saving the world, and Spike, as he usually does, made mincemeat out of their careful strategy. And there was some cosmic burp, and Spike got thrown back into the world.

But... but I have this alternate scenario that I've never tried out on anyone, because it sounds like the sort of wussy grief-and-guilt-inspired thinking Giles and Xander warn me against. But I'm going to say it anyway. I think maybe Spike's special. Even more special than Angel.

I know. That's like sacrilege or something. Angel's spent decades as the fair-haired boy of the Powers That Be. (Even if he actually has dark hair, and hasn't been a boy for centuries.) They have all these plans built around him, big plans that I don't quite understand because I give wide berth to all those Powers. The only Powers I'm interested in are the ones given to me, and I gave to the other slayers.

But the PTBs love Angel. The souled vampire. The evil-turned-good. A prophecy come to life.

Only... I mean, think about it. Angel only has a soul because he's cursed. And he turned good because he's afraid he'll be damned if he doesn't expiate all his sins. And he goes along with the Powers because he'll be rewarded if he does, plus I guess he's respectful of all the prophecy stuff.

But Spike – no one forced him to get a soul. And he did good because he wanted to, not because it was worth his while. Okay, so both getting a soul and doing good were because of me, but come on. Love's at least as worthy a motivation for doing good as avoiding damnation is. Hey, Dickens even wrote a whole book about it, didn't he? I mean, that Sidney Carton guy only replaced the other guy, the drippy one, in the execution line to make the woman he loved happy, right? And, jeez, Sidney Carton is this major heroic figure in literature. So why not Spike? (He probably should have had a better closing line. Sidney Carton says this cool thing: "It's a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done before. It's a far, far better place I go, than I have ever been before." That kind of resonates better than Spike's exit line, where he like channeled Alice Cooper– "School's out for the bloody summer!")

So it's possible that the Powers suddenly recognized that Spike was special. Or maybe there was one particular Power (female, I bet) who saw his potential. Maybe he got sent back because he could do something no one else could do. And maybe he wasn't supposed to die again with Angel last year. (It is sort of annoying that he dodged the stake for more than a century, and then he dies twice in a year.) So... well, just consider this. Don't dismiss it out of hand. Just consider that maybe they sent him back again for a reason. Or for a reward. Or as a rebuke to Angel.

Okay, so that answers the "how and why he's back" issue. (I am not even going to worry about the "if". As far as I'm concerned, I've proved that much.)

Next question. What's with the garden?

I better not think about that. It twists my heart too much, and if the tears start up here in lit class, the professor's going to worry I might be a bit too sensitive about poor Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Next question. Question of the month, in fact. Why did he come to help me, and then run away when I started to touch him?

Well, okay, he came to help me because that's what he does. If he's alive (or at least undead) and around, and I need him, he shows up. No-brainer.

The other part of that question– that's the hard part. I replay the moment in my mind. He's there with me in the dark, like always, and I just stretch out my hand, meaning to touch his face, or maybe his shoulder. And something like panic shows in his eyes, and he's gone.

He doesn't want me to touch him.

I give that about two seconds before discarding it.

He doesn't want me to hold him. Keep him. There's some danger in that.

That makes a bit more sense. Danger for me? Or for him?

Probably for me.

Well, he should know I can take care of myself. Or at least that there aren't too many dangers he and I can't overcome together.

Final question. Why am I going after him, if he is trying to get away?

I can't really come at that question straight. First I remind myself that he might try to get away, but he can't really want to succeed. I don't know how he came back here, but he came here, to Cleveland, to me. And he made me a garden. I don't know where he got that crazy idea, but when I think of him, a vampire, trying to bring a little life into the world... planting flowers he'll never see in the sun, digging in the dirt by flickering candlelight, carefully building those boxes when being careful has never been something he's been good at– and all for me... it's just a gift of love. That's all it can be. So no, I don't think he really wants to get away from me. I think... I think he's been away from me long enough. I think the garden is his way of being with me.

But me... I'm such a mess. Such a mess. I don't have any plan. I don't know what I want. And is it fair to go after him now? Chase him down? Capture him? When I haven't ever been able to commit to him?

What do I plan to do with him when I catch him?

I find myself making a list in my lit notebook.

To do:
1) Yell at him for not ever calling me that whole year to say he was alive.
2) Apologize for not calling him from Rome. Explain about the Immor– no. Maybe not. Just explain about wanting to call him but running out of time.
3) Yell at him some more for not calling me this time to tell me he's alive.
4) Thank him for the garden.
5) Take him to bed.

I stare at that last one for a while. The wanting grows. It feels like a need now. But I remember what that means– me taking advantage of his love. I'm done with that. Moved beyond that. Grown up. Changed. Learned to value what's really valuable.

So I scratch that last one out and replace it with:

5) Tell him I love him only this time sound more believable.

Then I add,

6) Take him to bed.

***

But not tonight. Here I am, all tense for Spike, and we have to go pick up the slayerette at the airport. Oh. I'm not supposed to call her "the slayerette". That's what Spike used to call them, all those girls who hung around the house on Revello and looked at him like he might bite them. (Well, that I get.) But Giles calls them slayer trainees. And that's what I'm supposed to call them, since I'm the Senior Executive Slayer and should set a good example.

So we go to pick up the slayer trainee at the airport that evening, and the whole time we're waiting by the baggage claim, I'm worrying if he's mad at me or sad or missing me. I'm worried that some demon might see the candlelight flickering in the garden while Spike works and decide it's a great lair to be had. And then he goes after Spike when I'm not there to help. Well, Spike can handle most demons, even without my help. But what if he's upset and sad and not paying attention and the demon takes him by surprise? That could happen. What if seeing me hurt him so much he's drunk a whole lot of whisky and he's passed out there in the dirt, one hand around the neck of the bottle, the other around some begonia he was transplanting? And that damned Wehoe that runs this town has sent a whole contingent to get him? Or what if he is still passed out there when the sun rises over the brick wall?

His voice comes to me, inside my head, as I wait with Giles next to the revolving baggage carousel. Slayer, can take care of myself. Been doing it for a lot of years. (I never thought I'd miss being called Slayer that way.) And I think back, Well, you've done a lousy job of it lately! Dusted twice in a year!

I glance over at Giles, hoping he doesn't notice me talking in my head to a supposedly dead vampire. But he's busy looking at a photo in his hand and comparing it to the passengers streaming off the escalator. "There she is," Giles says, indicating some tall skinny girl in cowboy boots and an Armani jacket. Her hair is auburn and perfect, all tousled and Jennifer-Anistonish. I can't believe she's just 18. "Taylor Watson."

You know how sometimes you just don't like someone? Well, I just don't like Taylor Watson. That name, right off. Just like Kennedy– using a last name as a first name. Sure, that's her parents' doing, and maybe someone named Buffy shouldn't talk, but – it's just instantaneous. She looks at me in this cool, dismissive way, and turns to Giles with a smile. One of those women who thinks only men are worth attention.

When he welcomes her, she's like a queen accepting tribute. She probably thinks being a slayer isn't a duty or a burden, but a recognition for being perfect.

Oh, great. I probably ought to assert my authority, be the alpha female. But I'm just too preoccupied with the whole Spike thing. So when she says, "Buffy, is it?" in a sardonic Texas drawl, Giles glances over with a "be-nice" expression on his face. I don't pay any attention. I just say, "Yeah. How ya doing?" and then to Giles, "I'll go get the car."

I can tell Giles is surprised I didn't get all bitchy. And Taylor looks like she's been denied a fight. But I just want to get them home and asleep so I can sneak out and go to the garden and find him.

Taylor keeps Giles up past midnight, demanding answers about disability insurance and tuition-reimbursement. Across the dining room table, I regard her with grudging respect. She can't be more than 18, and she's more savvy already than I am now. I mean, I never thought to ask for disability insurance. And I've been paying my own tuition. But she's already got a 401K plan set up. Turns out her father is an investment banker.

After awhile, I tune out, mentally adding items to my to-do list.

7) Tell Spike he has beautiful eyes.

8) Find out where he lives and whether it has bathroom facilities, otherwise bring him here to my own bed and who cares what Giles and Taylor think.

9) Better tell Dawn as soon as it's confirmed or she'll hold a grudge against me for life, like four life-long grudges against me aren't enough.

10) Persuade Xander that he and Spike are really old friends and old friends don't stake each other.

11) Ditto Giles.

12) Don't get mad at him no matter what.

When I finally get over there, the garden is dark. Empty. The boombox is gone. The lilies of the valleys are all planted. I consider leaving a note, but maybe that'll spook him. He's so stubborn.

(When he's being stubborn, he gets this cute expression. Like a bulldog, only a lot cuter than a bulldog. He looks all determined and mad. I want to see him again.)

Two nights later, I stand in the empty garden and curse. I pull out my little penlight and my little pen and a receipt from the grocery store and I write: Now stop being stubborn and be here when I come, because I've come every night and you're not here, and I can't sleep, and I have to go to school, and I have to patrol still, and I have to train this new trainee, and I need my sleep. I think for a minute, remember what works with him, and add, It's not safe for me to patrol if I'm not getting enough sleep. Love, Buffy.

The next night, he's there. He's not in the garden, but I sense him somewhere around. I walk around the brick wall into the cemetery, breathing in, because I feel him there in the air around me. My heart just aches. I want him to be here. All of him. Right here with me.

Is this love? It's got to be love. He can't say it's not love.

I wander around till I sight the perfect situation. There are two vamps, a male and a female, waiting at a gravesite for a fledgling to erupt. (And they say this current generation of vamp lacks family values!) I stay far enough back that they can't sense me, and I wait right along with them. I'm glad Giles left for London yesterday, because he would get so mad at me. I trained you better than that, he'd declare. Stake the two first, and get the third when he comes out!

But dumb Giles. He'd think I'm coming here to kill vampires. Really I'm trying to entice Spike out of hiding. And that's going to take more than one or even two vamps.

So I lean against a tomb and watch as a hand emerges from the dirt. The female reaches down and yanks, and a new vampire, still clad in his funeral suit but pretty dirty, slides out. I kind of get a shiver, remembering my own climb out of the grave. Then I stride forward to meet them.

The fledge stands around looking bewildered while I engage the other two. Their eyes are gleaming gold in the darkness, and they make a fight of it, but I have to work at keeping them on their feet. Finally it gets intense enough– they're on either side of me, snarling– that I feel justified in yelling, "Spike, I need you! Really! This time I really need you!" And then, cringing in humiliation, I add, "Help!"

The vampires are laughing at me. (Spike owes me for this.) I fend them off with my feet and fists instead of the stake, waiting. Waiting. I have to dust the female– just can't hold her off anymore– and I yell, "Need you, Spike!" as I turn to the male. He's really mad at me for killing his woman, and that's good, because he comes at me like he means it, and I sense Spike nearby– and then, with a whoomph, someone shoves me to the ground. I roll over quick and hear the clang of metal on bone, and I see it– the fledge picked up a gravedigger's shovel and swung it at me, and hit... well, Spike. Who is now laid out on the ground, quite unconscious.

The vamps are growling, but I don't have time for them. I stake the male, and then, really mad now, I grab the shovel from the fledge, break it over my knee, and shove the jagged end of the wooden handle into his chest. "Don't you hurt my man," I say, and fling the broken shovel into the settling dust.

Then I drop down beside Spike. "You dummy," I say, my hands on his shoulders, searching for damage. "All you had to say was duck. And I would have ducked. You didn't have to get between me and the shovel–"

But of course he doesn't hear me. His eyes are closed, and he's lying as limp as I've ever seen him. I touch the broken place on his temple with my fingers, as delicately as I can. Oh. I got him hurt. Again.

On the bright side, he's out for the count and can't get away.

Sitting down in the dirt beside him, I find my cell phone and call home. Taylor is supposed to be asleep, but she must be up late surfing pornsites (okay, maybe she's checking her investment portfolio) because she answers pretty quick. I tell her to get the car and come to the cemetery, and make it quick.

She growses about having to get dressed, but I hang up on her, and in about the time it takes me to drag Spike to the curb, she's right there in my Taurus. She climbs out and comes around to help me, and says, "Whoa," as she catches sight of Spike in the light of the streetlamp.

It's not politically correct to say this. But the truth is, no one looks as good beaten up as Spike does. I think it's the contrast between his ivory skin and the purple bruises. And he really looks beat up tonight. The spade got the whole left side of his face. Already he has a nice black eye, and the skin is broken over that sharp cheekbone of his, and his mouth is getting swollen.

"Whoa," Taylor says again, her gaze roaming from his two-toned hair (only the tips are still bleached) down that sweet hurt face of his, over his black-t-shirted chest–

"He's mine," I say. "Hands off."

Well, I let her use her hands to help me get him into the back seat, but that's all. I climb in after him, and take his slender, solid body in my arms, and hold his head steady against my chest as she drives the few blocks back to my house. She's silent even when we carry him up the porch steps.

One arm under his shoulders, I fumble to get the key in the lock, and push the door open with my hip. "Almost there, Sp–" I start to say, backing in, but then his poor head bangs against the invisible barrier and I almost drop him. I have to fumble to keep his head from hitting the ground, and his mouth opens in a moan, only he's too deeply unconscious for it to sound. I hurt him. Again. I mutter some curse, and then say loudly, "Come in, Spike," and pull him through, with Taylor almost losing his legs, I'm so fast.

I shove on the light switch with my shoulder and point with my head to the spare room beyond the kitchen, recently vacated by Giles. And together we get Spike onto the bed. She lingers in the doorway as I pull off his boots. His old boots. I kind of hug the left one to my chest, getting a bit of mud onto my blouse. Then I set them both gently on the floor, side by side.

I forget about the slayerette, because I'm watching his face– his eyelids flickering just a bit, his teeth biting his torn lip. His beautiful face. I never told him that. I never complimented him at all. He probably thinks I think he's as ugly as a toad.

His hair is dark against the pillow, and that's a change. But he's still wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, and he's still slender and – and he's still mine. Whether he knows it or not.

"He's a vampire, isn't he?" Taylor says in a hushed tone.

I realize the only vampires she's ever seen are the ones we staked the other night on her first training patrol. "Yeah. But he's a good one. And he saved the world." I add, threateningly, "The Powers brought him back from death twice now. So he's favored. And he get a buy, okay? You stake him, I stake you. Got it?"

She kind of coughs. "Yeah. Okay."

"Go get a wet cloth. And then–" I stocked up, see, yesterday, when I was making my plans. "Go down into the basement. There's a freezer there. Get a couple bags of blood out of there, and warm them up in the microwave. Seven minutes on 40% power." I don't know how I remember that, but I do.

She brings me the cloth and heads downstairs, and carefully I wash away the blood and mud on his face. I think of all the times he's been hurt like this for me– sometimes by me– and I'm extra gentle, and I talk to him. No mad, I remind myself. Just nice. "I'm glad you're back." That's nice. "I missed you. I missed you a lot." That was good. "Thanks for the garden. It's lovely. I love it." I love you, I think. But I want him to be awake when I say it. "Why didn't you–" Oops. Sounds mad. I clamp my mouth shut.

Taylor returns holding a big china bowl with the ziploc bags of blood. She sets it down on the nighttable and retreats back to the doorway. I look over my shoulder. "What?"

"I– I was just wondering where his other face is."

I dab at his poor mouth with the wet corner of the cloth. "He puts it on when he wants to. But he usually looks like this. Without the damage, I mean."

"Yeah," Taylor says. She sounds sort of reverent. "Umm, what else can I do?"

She's actually trying to be helpful. I give it some thought. It's been awhile since I had to deal with a battered vampire. Spike heals so quickly, it is just symbolic, me nursing him like this. But I want to do it. "How about a bag of ice? That'll help with the swelling."

She vanishes and comes back a minute later with an ice-bag. When I apply it to his mouth, he stirs. I catch my breath, and close my eyes, and I wait for him to see me and say my name. I want to hear it in that low voice of his. Buffy. Hey, I'll settle for Slayer.

But I don't hear anything except Taylor's gasp. I open my eyes, and he's looking up at me, and he's scared.

Scared. Of me. "Hey, Spike–" Now I wish I used to call him by some endearment. He always called me pet or love, but I never called him anything but Spike. Well, I called him bad things. But it would really help now if I'd ever called him honey or sweetheart, because I could call him that and he'd know I'm not going to, well, hurt him, I guess. Whatever he thinks I'm going to do that makes him look at me like that.

I gentle my voice. "Hey. Honey." Better late than never, right? "I brought you home with me. I'm going to take care of you."

Now there is full-blown panic in his eyes. But he doesn't say anything. I pick up one of the blood bags– it's nice and warm, just like he likes it– and start to hold it out to him. But he's moving fast, like only he can, springing out of the bed and across the room before I can grab him.

Stupid Taylor just moves out of the way, letting him past her into the kitchen. "Stop him!" I yell, and she goes to comply, and we collide there in the doorway, and I have to shove her aside and take off after him.

Spike is just turning the corner to the front hall, and I know if he gets out the door into the night I've lost him. He's too good at this escape business. But as he rounds the corner, he skids on the hardwood floor, and his stockinged feet slip out from under him, and in the clumsiest move I've ever seen him make, he sprawls on his back in the little hallway.

I'm on him in an instant, knees straddling his chest, face only a few inches from his. I want to pound on him, but I remember I don't do that anymore, and I settle for yelling at him. I'm not supposed to do that anymore either. But it's better than pounding. "What is wrong with you? Why are you trying to get away?"

He looks up at me, and his blue eyes– well, one blue eye, the other is swollen shut– is full of misery. But he still doesn't answer me, and in exasperation I pull him up against me, his head against my breasts, and I say, "Just tell me."

And he struggles to get free, and I'm afraid of hurting him, so I let him go, or at least his head, and he sinks back to the floor and turns his face away. And he's got that stubborn look I love/hate, only there are tears in his eye, and he works his hand free of my grasp. He rubs hard at his eye with a chipped and dirty thumbnail, shoving the tears away, and I say, helplessly, "Spike, sweetie, just talk to me."

He turns back and looks up at me, and then I realize. "You can't," I whisper. "You can't."

Chapter Five

I make him stand up and come back to bed, and he doesn't resist this time. He just wanted to keep me from learning the truth, and now I know, all the fight's gone out of him. Once he's in the bed, he just lies there staring up, and I sit down next to him, jam my hip against his, and get my head between him and the ceiling. "Now you look at me," I demand, and he does, and it just about breaks my heart, that look.

I suddenly remember some movie, some Crusade thing, and something cruel the Saracens do– I think it's the Saracens– and my stomach kind of plummets. They wouldn't– he's a vampire. Wouldn't it grow back? No, I realize. It would just... heal. The wound.

I push my finger between his lips, trying not to hurt him, but I have to know. His tongue is right there where it's supposed to be, wet and cool, and it curls automatically around my finger, and along with the relief I feel feelings that are seriously inappropriate to the moment. He has the most talented tongue, and it would be really bad if --

But I don't have to think about that now. I withdraw my finger, all wet and tingly, and wipe it on his shirt. "Okay," I say. "It's okay. We'll – we'll work it out." And then I kind of collapse, and I put my head on his chest. "I'm just glad you're back, okay? I don't care about the rest."

His arms go around me slowly, and he's cool and solid and Spike, and I rest there for awhile until I finally remember the blood and make him drink it all.

***

Really. I don't care about the rest, just like I told him. But when I wake up early the next morning, my head still on his chest, I sit up and give him a good look-over and decide he's sufficiently healed for some questions. His eye is circled in purple, but it's open now, and the cut on his mouth is closed up. I pull the curtains across the kitchen windows and call him out. He sits across from me at the table, and I reach back to the counter and pick up the message pad by the phone. I shove it and a pen over to him. "Just write me a note. Tell me what happened."

He looks down at the pad and back up at me, and there's this hopeless despair in his face, and I say, "Just pick up the pen, Spike. And write to me. You don't have to talk if you can write."

So he picks up the pen in his left hand, and stares at it, as if he's willing it to move on its own.

"You remember how to write, don't you?"

And he moved his hand up and down, and the pen scratches on the pad, and then he stops and looks at what he's done. He pushes the pad over to me, and there's nothing there but lines and angles.

"Spike–" I take a deep breath. Then I walk over to his side of the table and sit down next to him. I take his left hand and move the pen on the pad underneath the scrawl. I write Hi, Buffy and then Hi, Spike. It looks way more like my handwriting than his.

He pulls his hand away, rises abruptly, and goes back into the bedroom, and I sit there for awhile, gazing down at the lines and angles. Has he lost his mind as well as his voice?

No. I remind myself that somehow he managed to find me, and acquire that lot, and build that garden, which meant buying plants and wood and stone. And he managed to transfer the deed to me. That took money and skill and thought. And he planted my mother's favorite flower, and he connected the pond's mechanism to the city utilities. And he remembered I liked that Coldplay song.

He can still think. He just can't–

I follow him to the bedroom and hear the shower going in the adjacent bathroom. I don't give myself anytime to think this through. Want, take, have. Well, I know what I want. I push the door open and step over his discarded clothes and pull back the shower curtain and get in with him.

I kind of forgot to take my own clothes off, but it's worth it to see that look on his face, half-astonishment and the other half desire, because the water is plastering my blouse right against my breasts, and I'm not wearing anything underneath. And so I don't mind that the rose color of my linen slacks is now running right down the drain.

He's all naked, of course, and slick with wet, and I press up against him. "You're mine," I say fiercely, and he puts his arms around me, and we stand there under the water until it goes cool. And then I pull him out of the shower, and he helps me strip off my sodden clothes, and we fall on the bed all wet, and I am frantic to have him. But he's having none of that. He settles me on the bed and lies beside me, and kisses me slowly, achingly, like it's been a long time. A long, long time.

And it has. It's been... years. Hard to believe. Years since we last kissed in his old crypt – the one I destroyed with Riley a few hours later. All that time we lived together in my house, those last months of Sunnydale, I didn't let him kiss me – he didn't even try. Not even those three nights he held me as I slept– the only way I could sleep, with his undemanding arms around me. The crypt is gone, and my house is gone. Sunnydale is gone. Riley is gone, and Spike should be gone too, but here he is beside me.

This time, maybe the only time, I let him decide. And that's what he decides, a long slow kiss, his hand moving slowly up my hip, over my side, to my breast. All so slow, so sweet. This is the way he always wanted to make love, and I hardly ever allowed it, but now I let him, though every nerve in me is thrumming, though his erection is pulsing patient against my thigh.

He's the one who always used to talk during sex. I kept my mouth shut, well, I mean, I didn't say anything. I was afraid of what I'd say if I got started. Mean things, or sweet things, I don't know. Dangerous things.

But he is silent, so silent, and so I say what he can't say. I start out in a whisper, because this is new to me. And at first I just say, Oh, and oh, yes, and that's good, and right there, and more. And then I say what he would be saying if he could– you're so beautiful, and please let me, and I love you.

When I say that last one, he stops what he's doing. He looks up past my breasts at my face, and I'm glad he can't talk, because I'm afraid he's going to tell me again that I don't. But instead he gives my belly button a little lick, and goes back to pleasuring me, and so I say it again, and it's like it scares him, because he comes up and silences me with a kiss. And then he enters me, and I can't do anything but moan anyway.

Afterwards, I tell him, "I meant it." And he sighs – a sigh with no sound, just his breath moving against my shoulder. And I say, authoritatively, "I love you, goddamnit, and you better believe it this time."

I shove up his chin so I can see his face, and he's trying to hide a smile, and I smile back at him, and I say, "I love you. I missed you. I'm glad you're back. Don't leave me now."

***

We manage another shower together, and finally emerge from the bedroom more or less dressed– Spike in his muddy clothes from last night, me in some old sweats I have stuck away in the spare bedroom closet. There in the kitchen is Taylor. She's not wearing old sweats she stuck away, but Armani shirt and Versace jeans. (I recognize them because, like I said, we get a lot of catalogs. Not like I get to shop Saks, even with my new salary.)

I forgot about her. I forgot that she'd probably get herself some lunch before leaving for her afternoon class. I forgot the kitchen is adjacent to the spare bedroom.

I guess maybe I was sort of preoccupied.

Spike nods to her and heads for the refrigerator, just like it's any other morning and like he owns the place anyway. I decide to copy his nonchalance, so I join him at the refrigerator, sliding my hand into the back pocket of his jeans– take that, Nosey Parker Taylor – and say, "You still like bacon? I can fry some up."

Maybe Spike can't talk, but he still has that expressive face, and he looks at me like he's the luckiest man in the world. Buffy, and bacon too. I can't help but smile, and I'm still smiling when I glance over at Taylor to ask if she wants some bacon too.

She's regarding me with respect. I mean, real respect. Like I'm worthy now that I've had some hot sex with a cool vampire.

I don't want to tell you how she's regarding Spike. I'm just glad he is still staring into the refrigerator in that way guys do (human or vampire), like somewhere in there is the key to eternal happiness, and they can find it if they just let out enough expensive cold air.

"Did you guys sleep okay?" Taylor says, real politely.

I fix her with an alpha stare. "Yeah," I say. "Until we woke up."

I'm not really sure what I mean by that, except I am a whole lot hotter than you, bitch, just ask Spike. She mutters something that might have been "yeah, I heard", but keeps it deniable by saying it into her coffee cup. I narrow my eyes, and she pretends that she's suddenly gotten real interested in the newspaper.

As I get out the skillet, Spike is still looking in the refrigerator, the door blocking her view of him, and I suddenly wonder if he's embarrassed. Or ashamed. You know, because he can't talk. I say pointedly, "Aren't you going to be late for class?"

Taylor glances up at the clock, and admits that she's pushing it, and gathers up her bookbag. "Bye, Spike," she calls out as she leaves.

I see his shoulders go rigid, and I put the skillet down on the stove and go over to him and pull him away from the refrigerator. He turns his head away, but I wrap my arms around him anyway. I hold him until he finally relaxes, and then I give him a quick kiss on the unbruised cheek and get back to making bacon.

While I cook, I chatter. About everything and nothing– about school and the local demon population and Dawn. "I have to call Dawn and tell her about you coming back," I say as I lay the nearly perfect bacon strips out on paper toweling.

When I set the plate down on the table, he's standing with his back against the refrigerator, his face tight. Oh. Dawn.

"Come on, Spike, you know she'll want to know. And she'll kill me if I keep it from her," I say coaxingly.

Nothing. No yielding of his expression. No sitting down. No bacon snatching. "Spike," I say more sharply. "This is Dawn. She loves you. She's missed you. She feels terrible that she never made up with you. She still cries about that when she talks about you." I grab his arm and pull him over to the seat next to mine, and sullenly, he sits. I keep hold of his wrist "It's just – just selfish of you to think about yourself instead of her. You know she'll be so happy to see you."

Moodily he draws the plate towards him and picks up a piece of bacon in his fingers. He regards it grimly, then takes a bite. I guess that's a yes.

So before I leave for class, I call Dawn down at OSU. She is predictably excited and insists on coming home tomorrow. I get Spike settled in with ESPN and tell him sternly not to leave. He doesn't answer. It's a moment before I remember that he can't.

It's raining a few hours later when I get home. And he's gone.

Furious, I make my way to the garden. He's there, in the dimness of the afternoon, rainwater dripping down his face. He's on his knees in the mud, planting something purple in a raised box. He doesn't look at me when I enter and slam the door.

So I have to stalk up to him and grab his shoulder and turn him around, and that puts his mouth way too close to my breast, and there's a minute or so there that we forget that we're mad or estranged or whatever we are. Then he pushes away from me and stands up, and holds out a cold, dirty hand.

I take hold, and he leads me out that side door into the cemetery. The ground is spongy, and the wet seeps into my sneakers. "Do you like it here?" I ask, gazing past him to the leaden sky. "In Sunnydale, you never could go out in the day. But here– lots of overcast days. Even in the summer."

He looks back at me and smiles, and I think maybe I can do it. Read his thoughts from his eyes. Speak for him. Love him without hearing his voice. Well, duh. Did I think he'd taken the penthouse in Armstrong Towers downtown? Of course he's been living in a crypt.

As crypts go (and I've been in way too many of them), this is pretty nice. He's got thick rugs on the stone floor, and a space heater, and a spindly bookcase filled with paperbacks, and and a closet rod with hangers with neatly folded jeans (oh, be still my heart– one pair is blue instead of black) and a few long-sleeve shirts and–

You know, I don't really care about his wardrobe and I'm not sure why I'm going on and on about it. What really draws my eye is this sort of bed in the corner by the pedestal. Not a real bed, just heaps and heaps of comforters and blankets, and some big fluffy pillows, and it's all so luxurious I get suspicious. "You have a lot of girls down here? Making them comfy?"

He gives me this look, his brows drawn together, like I'm nuts. And then he tackles me and I fall back onto the bed, and we strip off our wet clothes, and again I can't remember why I'm mad at him.

"You know," I tell him, "this really shouldn't work. You know, having sex instead of – " Instead of talking, I am going to say, but then real quick I change it to "working through our problems."

He kisses me, lots of tongue, and I decide working through isn't any more important than the closet rod, and anyway, what problems? So he can't talk. He can kiss.

I am so easy. It's really embarrassing.

But ... but... but I know he loves me more than anything. He's proved that a thousand times. And now (I think) he knows I love him. Things aren't perfect – I want to hear his voice, and there's something bothering him, something that makes his eyes sad when they're not happy. But he's back with me, and I have a chance to make it right with him finally, and I'm not going to waste too much time worrying about – about problems.

***

The next morning I wait after psych class until the professor is free. He's a nice guy, not much older than I am, and I get the idea there's nothing he likes better than students hanging around and soaking up his wisdom. So he takes me to the campus coffeehouse and we sit down and I say, "Uh, I'm thinking of writing a paper." I panic, worried that he might actually expect me to turn this paper in. "Or maybe a book. A novel. Or maybe a short story."

He sips his latte and observes, "And you want some psychology in there, I bet."

"Yeah. Yeah. I want to have a character– a guy – with, umm, hysterical dumbness. I mean, muteness." I add, "He can't talk, I mean."

The professor nods. "That's a good ailment, as psychological ailments go."

"Yeah, well, I'm wondering if it's also possible if I can have him not be able to write, or do sign language. I mean, it's not just that he can't talk. He can't –"

"Communicate." He looks interested. "Well, obviously that's more rare. Mere muteness, see, can be attributed to spasms of the vocal cords or something like that, something stress-induced but still physical. But an inability to communicate even with other forms of language – writing and signing – that would indicate a cognitive block of considerably more comprehensive proportions."

"A – a cognitive block."

"Yes. You see, the basis of language, written or otherwise, is symbology. Language is all symbol– a word is not the thing, but stands for the thing."

I get this. Maybe I am college material after all. "So whether it's written or signed or spoken, a word is a symbol. And if the brain can't make symbols –"

"It can't express."

"But –" I think of Spike. I left him asleep in his crypt early this morning, curled around two pillows that substituted for me. On the floor next to the bed was a book of Pablo Neruda poetry. He'd showed me a poem last night, after we'd made love, and he gazed at me with such intensity that I knew this poem meant something to him. To us. In the flickering candlelight I'd read it aloud to him, and realized this poem had given him the idea of making me a garden. I read it silently after that, several times, and some of it lodged in my memory –

In the night we shall go in,
we shall go in to steal
a flowering, flowering branch.

We shall climb over the wall
in the darkness of the alien garden,
two shadows in the shadow.

Spike still makes symbols in his mind – the garden is a symbol of his devotion. The flowers are a symbol of his passion. I know it.

"But what if– what if I need him – this character – to, you know, still be able to read and think, just not able to communicate?"

The professor frowns. "Well, that would be intriguing. You see, we can't really know how these people think. They could have rich inner lives, full of symbols, but just lack the ability to convey them to us." He gives me a crooked grin. "You know. It's like when you sit down to take an essay exam, and in your mind is all this brilliance, but when you write it down, it's not brilliant at all. It doesn't mean that you aren't thinking well, only that you can't put that thought into words." He adds hastily, "I don't mean you in particular. I just mean us in general."

"I understand. No offense taken." I brood into my latte for a moment. "You say we can't really know what he – what this guy in my story, I mean – would think, if he can't tell us with words. But there's still his face, right? His eyes? And his smile? The way he moves?"

"Well, sure. See, those are instinctive. Automatic. We smile when we're happy. We don't say, oh, I'm happy, I should convey that with a smile. And body language – we call it language, but it's really more organic than that. We hunch up when we're scared because our body wants to protect itself, not because we want to convey fear. And so on. Symbolism is always one step distant. But what you're talking about is direct. Emotion to body. It doesn't go through the mind, really. But..." He regards me curiously. "But not everyone is empathic enough or intuitive enough to read that. Not everyone can tell the difference between fear and anger in someone's face, for example."

That isn't a problem with Spike's face. It's as open as a book – at least to me. I don't need language or symbology or any of that to tell me what he's thinking. "Thanks," I say, standing up and tossing my cup into the trash. "This has been really helpful."

"I hope you'll let me read the story when you're done with it," he says, and I nod, and decide I probably shouldn't take his course in the fall semester after all. Just in case he really means it.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Pablo Neruda


Chapter Six

I pick up Dawn at the bus station, and by the time we get home, Spike is there, watching TV, sprawled out on the easy chair just like he used to in Sunnydale. Only now Taylor is sitting on the couch, a book in her lap, her eyes focused on him.

He's not paying her any mind. I stand in the doorway and think that she could strip off all her clothes, and he might look, but he won't touch. Spike has always been a one-woman man, and for a long time now, I've been that one woman.

He rises formally as Dawn comes in. She drops her bag in the hallway and throws herself across the room into his arms, and he lets the momentum take him back into the chair, and they land there, and Dawn hugs him and squeals and screams and generally acts like a 14-year-old who just won a date with Justin Timberlake.

Spike can't speak, but he's holding her and smiling, and she's never needed much in the way of feedback anyway. She's yanked him down onto the floor and is telling him all about school and the bus ride north from OSU and her really itchy roommate when Taylor joins me in the hallway.

"Don't you, uh, worry? About them?"

I give her a freezing look. She doesn't know Spike. Or Dawn. Or me for that matter. "She's been like a little sister to him for five years. No. I'm not worried."

Taylor looks back at them. Dawn is now sitting on the chair, Spike at her feet, patient as Job as she plaits tiny braids into his tousled hair and chatters about summer school and her internship at the library.

"I see what you mean," Taylor says. She's actually smiling – not that smile I'm used to from her, but a real smile. "I have a big brother too. Only he'd never let me braid his hair."

Spike looks up, shooting a glare at her.

"Let me warn you, Taylor," I say, grabbing her arm and pulling her into the kitchen. "Vampires have very acute hearing. And that one especially likes to eavesdrop."

"Okay," she replies meekly. "How about you hang out with them, and I'll take care of dinner?"

An offer I can't refuse. Of course, she just calls the Chinese place down the street, the one that delivers, but that's what seems to pass for cooking among slayers. Works for me. Dawn makes Spike sit with her and share her chopsticks, and they spill rice all over the carpet and the couch. But they're having such a good time I don't make a fuss. I have to marvel at Dawn. It's like none of it matters – their estrangement and Spike dying twice and the years apart and his lack of speech – as long as she can sprinkle fried rice in his hair and tell him what's happened on OC since he died the last time. And Spike's just the same, holding her down with one hand on her shoulder while using the other to fingerpaint her cheek with plum sauce. They've both reverted to nursery school, and I think it's okay.

I guess actually I like it. We feel like a family.

Well, Taylor's not part of it. But she excuses herself to go get ready for patrolling. I remember that – getting all dressed up special, like I was going out to a club instead of decimating demons. Of course, that was back when I'd be sure and stop by Spike's crypt –

I consider this, then run upstairs to re-apply my makeup.

When I return, the news is on. Dawn is sitting decorously on the couch, and Spike is looking very innocent in the recliner, and I figure they've just cleaned up some mess they made after a sweet-and-sour sauce fight. Dawn makes a face at Spike, and then smiles at me, and pretends to be interested in the latest fight over the city sewer contract. I sit down next to Dawn and start picking rice out of the upholstery.

As the story changes to something about schools, I hear a familiar voice, and look over to see Josh. Dawn pipes up. "Isn't that the guy you're dating, Buffy?"

Spike doesn't say anything. Well, of course he doesn't. But he doesn't get up and stalk out. He just gets very still, and Dawn glances over at him, and says, "Oh." And then she looks at me. "You didn't tell me you two were –"

"Yeah. We are," I say brusquely. "How about you go on up and use the shower while you can? It's so muddy out there. Taylor and I are going to come back dirty, even if we don't waste any demons."

She turns to Spike and mouths "sorry" before she runs up the stairs. Once she's gone, I cross over to the recliner and kneel down in front of Spike. "Listen. As soon as I had any suspicion you were back, I broke it off with him. It wasn't serious. And –" He was gazing over my shoulder. I put my hands on his face and made him look at me. "It made me realize how serious you and me are. Get it?"

He doesn't nod. I don't know if he can. I mean, I don't know if nodding for "yes" is too symbolic for him. Instead he wriggles out of my grasp and goes to the door and outside.

He's waiting there when Taylor and I emerge with our axes. I brought one for him. He smiles briefly. No matter what else is going on, he always likes a nice axe.

We have to drive to the cemetery, one I seldom patrol because it's so far from the hellmouth. But it's a good place for training, because the vampires tend to be the B-team, dumb and slow and depressed. They practically want to be staked, so they provide some educational opportunities for a newbie.

The first one slips in the mud and falls at my feet, and she's so scared she can't move. So I get to show Taylor exactly where on the chest to plunge the stake. When the dust settles, I look around for Spike, and see he's found a couple Wehoes. He's kind of amazing that way. I guess it's because he's always ready for a fight, so fights always find him. Wehoes are a lot more rambunctious than the resident vampires, so he's having a good time. It's strange to hear his kicks connecting, his punches whooshing through the air, but not his voice.

I lead Taylor over, but tell her just to watch and learn. Then I join in. Spike and I fight like we always have – the perfect team. As he shoves one Wehoe over to me, I remember that first time we fought together, back in front of my house. He tossed a vamp over to me, just like this, and I did the staking. I was still in love with Angel then, and he was still in love with Drusilla, but we fought like we were destined to be lovers too.

Ever since then, fighting with him has made me, uh, horny, I guess. So after we dispatch both demons, we walk back to the car, and I bump him with my hip and feel that special vampire vibration. Spike vibration – I don't know if any other vampire has it. Angel didn't, that's all I know. Maybe it's just between the two of us – the thrumm of shared passion. For fighting, for loving.

Taylor is right behind us, and when I climb into the driver's seat, she mutters, "I want one of them."

"A demon?"

"No. A Spike."

I scowl at her. "Vampires are bad. And Spike is –"

"Yours. Yeah. I think you've made that clear." She kind of sulks all the way back to the house, and Spike leans back in his seat and tries to look like he isn't just about as pleased as punch. He wants me to know that he's in demand. That Taylor is rich and could make him a better deal than I do. That he could sell out to the highest bidder as a slayer-companion. But then he reaches over and squeezes my knee. I am a jewel beyond price, that's what he's saying.

So I drop Taylor off and drive back to Spike's crypt. I try to tell him with words and then kisses that Josh doesn't matter, hasn't mattered since I entered the garden and sensed it was Spike's. I've hurt him so many times. Not going to hurt him this time.

But now he's sad and tender and a little distant, and I think maybe it's not jealousy here. He's thinking that stupid thing, about how Josh is a silver-tongued TV reporter, all glib and fluent, and Spike can't even say his own name anymore. And that he's a burden to me.

I can tell all this in the downturn of his mouth, and I try to kiss it away. Sometimes I wish I didn't know him so well, that I'm not so intuitive with him, that I can't read his face so easily. Then I wouldn't hurt with him so much.

"I'm not going anywhere," I tell him fiercely, pushing him back onto the makeshift bed. "And neither are you. We're going to be together. Because I say so."

And he smiles that smile, and I know he's thinking, that's my slayer. And I kiss him till I answer all the questions he can't ask. Yes, I love you. Yes, you're mine. Yes, I'm happy. Yes, you better stay if you value your hide.

I have to leave as soon as the sun rises, but by that time, I think, he believes me.

***

But it gnaws at me. At first I tell myself it's for him, that he's so obviously frustrated, that he feels like a lesser man. But when Dawn grills me the next morning, I admit that I hurt for me too. To think that I'll never hear him say my name again, to say those words he used to say so often. Back then, I would get mad when he said that – I love you – but it never failed to touch me too, somewhere deep inside where I really need love. And I won't hear it again.

So while Spike and Dawn spend the day in his crypt playing Grand Theft Auto and eating total utter junk, I put in a call to Giles and fill him in.

Giles does his hmmm thing, which I take to mean he's not too happy about Spike but is intrigued by the mystery. "So you don't know how he came back. Or found you in Cleveland."

"No. And they think he's dust, there in LA. Gunn and Angel. So it wasn't any spell of theirs that brought him back." I add, "Do you think it's a curse?"

A curse can be broken. Angel's proved that, though he never did bother to get that happy-codicil deleted while it might have done me some good. Not that I'm bitter. I have Spike, after all. But if anyone could get around a curse, it's the W&H CEO.

Unfortunately, Giles is demurring. "To be frank, Buffy, it sounds more like some neurological damage than a curse. Curses tend to be simple. If he could still write, and just not talk, I might suspect a curse. But the comprehensiveness of the impairment– "

He trails off, and I know what he's thinking. Why can't Buffy find a nice normal young man? Bad enough that Spike is a vampire. Bad enough that he used to be our enemy. Bad enough that he's got a list of sins as long as Interstate 90. Bad enough he can't go out in the sunlight and lives in a crypt and can't give me children. But now he can't even talk?

"I love him," I say defiantly.

"I gather you do," he replies, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Let me do some research here, but really, Buffy, odd as it might be, this doesn't seem to be mystical or magical." I'm about to hang up, but he says, "You should call Willow. Curse or not, she might have some solution."

I can't call Willow before I call Xander. He's right here, and he'd never forgive me. Well, he'll never forgive me for getting back with Spike probably, but he'll never forgive me sooner if he hears it from Willow.

So I call him at work and ask him to come over later and hang with Dawn. Taylor makes herself scarce, and Dawn promises to let me tell, and Xander arrives right on time at 8, his dark hair still wet from his shower. He's got pizza and the whole Matrix trilogy on DVD, and I'm in the kitchen, grabbing some forks and napkins, when the doorbell rings.

I drop everything, but I don't make it to the front hall on time. Xander is already opening the door. And there's Spike, looking wary again, as Xander staggers back, his hand on his heart. "You!" he whispers.

I come up behind him and hold him up. "I was going to tell you –"

Xander is still staring at Spike. Spike stares back. And then, very deliberately, he steps across the threshold, his arrogant posture proclaiming I'm invited. He pushes past into the living room, where he joins Dawn on the couch and picks up the TV remote.

I decide that Xander can stand on his own, and let him go. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." He's still staring at Spike. "Wow. Hey. Spike."

Spike looks up, his face still closed.

"I'm going to send this into the Guinness Book of World Records. Most resurrections per unit."

Spike regards him steadily, then settles back on the couch and flips on the TV.

"See that?" Xander muttered. "I try to be nice. Or sort of. But look at him. Comes back from the dead, and he still holds a grudge."

Since Xander is the king of grudge-holding, this almost makes me laugh. But I can see Spike's shoulders tense up, and I say hastily, "Look. There's something you need to know –"

"Spike can't talk," Dawn interrupts. She pats his hand sympathetically. But he is humiliated. I can tell.

Xander takes our explanations with uncharacteristic silence. He helps me dole out the pizza, occasionally casting a look at Spike. Finally, when there's nothing left but crusts, and Neo is just learning about the Matrix, Xander sits down on the recliner and kicks Spike's boot with his own.

"You still drink beer and play pool?"

Spike glances over. Grins. And before I know it, they're out of the house, and they don't come back until they're both well and truly drunk. Too drunk to drive home. Too drunk to be let upstairs where there are two more or less innocent teenaged girls (who have never ever been drunk themselves, right). Just drunk enough to sprawl on separate bits of living room carpet and pass out.

Spike's a vampire and recovers quickly, even from excess. So just before sunrise, he comes into my room, kisses me, and – just for old times' sake, I guess – opens the window and drops to the ground. I worry for a moment that he might not make it home in time. But then I remember that he's 150 or so, and has only died a few times, and never because he missed the sunrise.

But Xander's only human. As Dawn and Taylor and I are getting breakfast, he wakes up with a groan, stumbles to the phone, and calls in sick. Then he mutters something about bad influences and goes back to snoring on the living room rug.

"Well, that was surprisingly easy," I tell Dawn as we wash up the dishes. We cooperate so much better when she's only home for a weekend at a time.

"I guess Xander is more sympathetic now," she says. "Since he's got a disability of his own. Not that losing an eye set him back that much. He can still drive and work and all that."

We both consider Spike and his disability – so much more comprehensive and, well, disabling. Dawn glances around to make sure no one is listening, and says, "I don't care, you know, for me. I mean, I'll love him anyway. But he's trying to make the best of it, and still he's so sad. I can see in his eyes that he wants to say something, and he can't, and – " She swipes at her cheek with the dish towel. "He's going to stop believing, isn't he? That we want him?"

"We just have to make sure to keep saying it," I reply. But she's right. Spike's as cocky as all get-out, but he's always been insecure too. And I suppose I haven't always helped him feel more secure. And so I can see him – well, not leaving me. No. But I can see him hiding in the shadows, emerging only to help me when I need it, fighting demons beside me but leaving afterwards, planting his garden but never staying there to enjoy it with me. Kind of a Phantom of the Cemetery.

It's just too sad to contemplate. "We have to help him," I declare, and Dawn says she'll call Willow and work with her on finding a talky spell, and we hug and cry a little. Xander comes in then, and claps me on the back, and falls down into a kitchen chair.

"Weird thing about Spike," he says. Then, as if this was as much as he could manage without up-chucking, he buries his face in his arms and moans. I get him a cup of coffee and Dawn wets down her towel for his forehead, and pretty soon, with lots of cooing, we get him to sit up.

"I told him I'd help him build a trellis," Xander remarks. "He wants to do a rose arbor next."

"How did he tell you that?" I ask.

"Oh, we went past a garden store and he pointed. Least, I think that's what he was pointing at. Maybe he was trying to tell me to turn right, I don't know." He heaves a sigh. "Never thought I'd miss him calling me names. Well, I guess I don't miss that. And we sure cleaned up, playing pool. I told everyone he was my cousin, and he was sort of slow, and so they all underestimated him." He pulls some crumbled twenties out of his pocket and smooths them out. "Weird, isn't it – he remembers how to play pool, but he can't say 7 ball in the side pocket."

I stare at the bills he and Spike won. "Did Spike have any money? Last night."

"Well, yeah. Some." Xander brightens. "Maybe you're right, that this guy is redeemed. He even bought me a drink. Or four. I forget. He kept going to the bar and coming back with beer. Don't know how he ordered." He grinned at me. "But the bartender was a woman, so he probably just did his flirt-thing, and she didn't need him to order."

I scowl at him, and Dawn says, "You better tell him." And then, before I can, she says, "Buffy and Spike are together again. You know. Like together." She winks a couple times, just in case he didn't get it.

Xander shrugs. "Yeah, figured that out."

"You're not... mad?" I ask.

"Life's too short," he answers with a sigh. "Unless you're Spike, and have a dozen lives to spare." He reaches over and pats my elbow awkwardly. "After all we've been through – the hell with it. Grab all the gusto you can while you can. Right?"

And I know he's thinking of that last year, when if he'd been brave and faced up to his fears, he would have married Anya and given her at least a few months of happiness. "Right."

He shakes his head. "But really, Buff. Only you would wind up with a vampire who can't even talk."

"I've wound up with Spike," I declare. "I don't care what he is. I know who he is, inside."

Xander looks taken aback by my vehemence. But he can't find the energy to continue the conversation. He trudges out with his coffee cup and takes up residence on the couch, and he's watching Regis and Kelly and groaning periodically when Taylor comes in from her class.

Xander's not at his best. He's stubbled and worn and hungover, and he's got on old blue jeans and a t-shirt with paint stains. His hair hasn't been combed since someone spilled beer in it last night. Taylor, of course, is impeccably Dallas, and gives him one look, and another look, and says, "Oh. Hi."

I'm trying to assemble my books and notebooks for the schoolday, but stop for a moment to quickly introduce them. Xander casts her a weary glance, says, "Another slayerette, huh? Hi. Welcome. All that," and goes back to Regis and Kelly's cooking segment.

I can tell Taylor is about to say something withering, you know, nice of you to dress up for us, but he isn't paying her enough mind to be able to interpret sarcasm. And so she says, marginally polite, "So you're the famous Xander Harris."

This gets a nod from him, and that's about it. She tries another couple conversational gambits, and he answers in monosyllables, if at all. Finally he looks straight at her and says, "Listen, doll. I'm still half-drunk, and fully hungover, and the last thing I need is perky slayerettes being perky around me. So here's your choice. You be quiet, or I'm taking my famous Xander Harris self outa here."

"Well!"

She jumps to her feet and barrels past me up the stairs, and I shove my psych book into the bag and point out, "I'm trying to train her, Xander, not alienate her."

Xander starts flipping through the channels. "If I can scare her off, what use is she going to be with demons, huh? Anyway, she's snotty. I don't waste my famous Xander Harris charm on snotty girls."

I shake my head. Taylor probably needs a comeuppance, and anyway, it's not my problem. "Hey, I told Dawn she could use my car today. Could you drop me at school?"

He moans and groans about his hangover, but really, he just wants to see if Regis manages to flip the pancakes right, and once that's done, he finds his keys and we head off. We're just turning onto Mirabelle when I say, "That garden store Spike pointed out to you. Where is it?"

"On the way." He takes a couple more turns until I'm pretty thoroughly lost. "There. Blooming Ohio. That's it."

I know I won't find it again by myself, so that afternoon I requisition my car back from Dawn and drive to Spike's cemetery. He's in his crypt, waiting for sundown, and when I come in, he looks up from the TV with a smile But it's a sad smile. I sit down on his lap and give him some love, and he's happier after that. I'd forgotten how easy it is to make him happy – I guess because for a long time, I concentrated on making him unhappy.

I was good at that too. But now I'm trying to make up for all that. So I call him sweet names and kiss his nose and tell him I love him, and generally make a besotted idiot of myself. Spike's cool with it, however.

Then I announce that I want to visit his garden store, and he pulls away. He's resistant. Reluctant. He really ought to know better by now. There is nothing more calculated to make me determined than that. So as soon as the sun goes down, we're in my car – he insists on driving, and if you want to know how a mute man can insist, well, let me just say somehow he ended up with the keys and I ended up with a big grass stain on the back of my khaki shorts.

He drives around for awhile, pointing out important south Cleveland landmarks, like the old dairy with a big plastic cow on the roof, and the elementary school attended by some real important punk rocker whose name I can't remember, and a bridge named after an astronaut. I realize he's killing time until the garden store closes for the evening, and I yell at him until he sullenly turns the car the right direction.

It's a long low brick building with just a few parking places – the rest of the lot is given over to tables and tables of bedding plants, some covered with awnings, others open to the sky. It smells sharp and sweet, and Spike stops and inhales, and I have to shove him to get him moving inside.

Then I find out why he was so reluctant. We get about three feet into the big cement-floored room when a woman appears from behind a potted tree and grabs Spike. She hugs him and he (after a glance back at me) hugs her back. "Spike! It's been too long! Three days!" she cries, pushing him back in order to gaze up adoringly at his face.

She's way too old for him. Okay, she's maybe 50, and he's a lot older than that. But she doesn't know that. She's lean and blue-jeaned, and her hands are rough, and she has this amazing gray braid hanging down her back, and Spike's smiling at her like they're old friends.

That better be all they are.

She finally lets him go and turns to me. "Oh! The lady love! The one Spike built the garden for!"

Okay, I don't know how she knows his name, and how she knows about me, and how she knows about the garden. I mean, he can't even talk, right? But she is chattering on about how wonderful Spike is, and how adventurous he is – turns out she's not talking about, you know, slaying dragons, but planting cannas in this climate. And Spike is leaning back against a steel post, trying to look uninterested, but drinking all this in. He is such a conceito.

Eventually even he gets bored with how amazing he is, and wanders out back. I see through the window that he's checking out the trellis kits (not that Xander's going to let him use a kit – Xan will probably say they have to cut down some trees and mill the wood themselves). The storeowner, whose name is Fleur, although I bet that's not what her mother called her, takes me by the arm and leads me outside into the growing dusk. "So tell me! How did you meet Spike?"

I think about telling the truth– all about his vow to make me his third dead slayer, our first meeting outside the Bronze over the dust of his minion, my mother hitting him with an axe at the school, you know, our greatest hits, volume 1– but settle for saying, "Oh, we've been friends a long time. We used to live in the same town in California."

"Isn't that just like an Englishman?" she exclaims. "Even in California, he didn't get a tan."

Quickly I say, "Well, he's not really good in the sun. So, anyway, he's been buying plants here?"

She plucks some dead leaves off a rose bush and regards it critically. "Yes, and I guess you've seen the results! He's been so excited about his gift-garden. He's been buying mostly annuals, but we're already planning the perennial bulbs he'll plant in the autumn. I'm putting some away for him – the more exotic sorts of irises, you know. You'll love it."

"How – " I take a deep breath. "How do you know? I mean, how do you know his name?"

"Spike? Well, it's on his credit card. Spike Williams."

Credit card. Williams. Ho-kay. "And about the garden? That he was making it for me?"

She gives a little laugh. "It was obvious from Day One that he meant it to be a garden of love. Plus there was that look on his face. He was so sad, and so melancholy – I mean, if he'd come right out and said he was wounded in love, I would say duh! Tell me something I don't know! And then he comes in early this week, and he's smiling that smile of his, and I realize he's found you again." She sniffles, and in the glow of the security lamp, I swear I see tears glistening in her eyes. "And here you are." She puts her hand on her heart. "It's so sweet. And if you hurt that poor sweet boy, I'm going to brew you some nice tea made of devil's weed, I will." Now she smiles at me. It's sort of a lethal smile.

"I don't intend to hurt him," I snap.

We glare at each other for a little while, then we both seem to figure out the other has his best interests at heart, and she reaches out and pats my hand. "He loves you so much."

"Well, I love him right back." I stick out my chin. "And I want to help him."

She glances back at the door, and whispers, "Has he always been like this? Mute?"

I shake my head, and feel the tears start up in the back of my eyes. "No. He used to... talk. And argue. And laugh. Sometimes he drove me crazy. Now I'd give anything to hear him sing along to the radio again."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. He was – " I have to think of how to say it. "He was gone for awhile, and then he came here. I guess to find me. And he couldn't speak."

"He can't write, either," she says. "I asked him to write down the names of the plants he wanted me to order, and he just looked at me so... so sadly."

"How does he sign his credit card receipts then?"

"Oh, he just makes some lines. Like it's his crazy signature. No one checks those anyway." She glances at me, her expression troubled. "Something must have happened while he was away from you."

Well, there was the hellmouth incineration, and the ghost time, and whatever happened last spring that killed him again. And– I don't know. Coming to Rome and finding out I was with the Immortal? Deciding I'd never love him like he wanted? "He can't tell me what happened. It's ... difficult. I want to help, but he --"

"He's very sweet," she points out. "And a man who doesn't argue, well, there are benefits."

"Oh, he argues." I can't help but smile. "He just does it with his eyes, and his shoulders. I've been reading his body language for a long time, and I've gotten pretty good at translating."

Fleur sighs that if I were ten years younger sigh. "He does have an expressive face, doesn't he?"

I decide I better change the subject away from his face, which makes way too good an impression on susceptible people, otherwise known as "women". "I don't get it. How did he tell you which plants he wanted?"

"Oh. We went through books and a catalog, and he pointed at the ones he wanted. That's how I knew it was a love garden." She grabs my wrist and pulls me back inside. We wind through the trestles of pots and potting soil and fertilizer, and she stops at the counter. She reaches into a rack of books right by the cash register. "He kept consulting this one. He looked at it so much, I finally gave him a copy."

I take it from her hand and hold the cover up to the light. "The Victorian Language of Flowers." There's a pastel painting of a gold-wire basket filled with flowers. I recognize a few of them– red roses and white forget-me-nots and yellow buttercups. Slowly I page through. On every page is another flower picture, with a caption underneath– Acacia– Elegance.... African Marigold– Vulgarity....Almond– Hope.

Fleur is reading over my shoulder. "He points to a flower, see, and if I have it, I find it for him and give him planting instructions. You know, shade or full sun, transplant or keep in a pot. When I realized he could read, I started writing the instructions down in a little notebook. But –" She laughs. "He's not really good at following orders, is he? He's forever finding some flower in there, and I tell him I don't stock it because there's no way it'll grow this far north. But it'll mean something he wants to say, so he'll insist that I order it. And sometimes, I don't know how, he actually gets it to grow."

"You mean he chooses by what the flowers mean? That's how he decides what to plant?"

"Exactly. And most of what he wants to mean is lovey-dovey stuff. You know, fidelity and devotion and passion and beauty." She smiles at me. "That's how I knew he was making this garden for his beloved."

"That's very... symbolic." I recall what the psych professor said. They could have rich inner lives, full of symbols, but just lack the ability to convey them to us. Spike can't speak or write, but he's found this way – this beautiful way – to express his feelings. "Can I buy this book?"

Fleur waves her hand. "Oh, keep it. Spike's spent so much money here on your garden. I owe you."

I thank her and take the book out to my car, where I hide it under the front seat. Spike comes out a minute later with a shallow cardboard box, filled with little plastic pots of flowering plants. He sets this carefully on the floor in back, and gets in, and I drive him back to the cemetery. But instead of going to the crypt, he takes the box into the garden, and I trail after him. For an hour, I watch him plant and weed and water. The candlelight flickers over his capable hands as he works. I long to get out the book and check for the meaning of every flower. But I don't want to spook him. So I just wait until he flashes me that smile that says he's all done. And then I take him back home.

We collect Xander and Taylor and go out to the multiplex, arguing all the way about which film to see. Xander (speaking for Spike too, he insists, and Spike looks agreeable) votes for the one with the most explosions in the first reel, while I point at the Jude Law poster, and Taylor and Dawn make their decision based not on the reviews or the stars but on the soundtrack. We eventually compromise on some Jim Carrey comedy, and Spike sits between me and Dawn, holding our hands whenever he isn't hogging the popcorn. I'm a little sad because Dawn is going back to school tomorrow, and Spike still hasn't been able to say her name.

Chapter Seven

So I get Dawn off back to college, and take my lit test, and finally, mid-afternoon, I sit down on a bench in front of the classroom building and call Willow in Sao Paulo and discuss this Spike thing. Dawn's already told her the basics, and Willow's started the research. She's more open to the curse idea than Giles was; in fact, she has three tales of people hit with a muteness hex. "If Anya were still alive," she says, "I'd suspect her, because it's used sometimes by vengeance demons. You know, if Spike said something really mean to some girl, she might ask a vengeance demon make him mute to get revenge."

"I don't think that's what happened," I say. But at least that's a new avenue to try– vengeance demons can do pretty much whatever they're asked to do. But as I ring off, I remember what Anya always said, that vengeance demons only act on requests from spurned lovers. Now it's possible that Spike spurned someone in the time we were apart, but – but he isn't acting like that. He isn't acting like this is his fault, like he deserves it. He's acting like he's been disabled through no fault of his own. I don't know how I know that, but I do.

There's another reason why he can't talk. I know it. And I'm going to find out.

I catch the psych professor as he's just sticking his key into his car door. I must look kind of scary, because he draws back away from me. "You remember–" I soften my tone so I don't sound so much like a crazed obsessive stalker student. "You remember my character who can't speak?"

He looks relieved. "Yes, I do. Fascinating idea."

And then I ask what I should have asked earlier. "What causes this?" I ask. "This inability to communicate?"

He purses his lips thoughtfully. "Well, brain damage comes to mind. If the speech center in the brain has been injured by a blow or a stroke, you might see this sort of impairment."

I don't think that is what's wrong with Spike. Okay, yeah, his brain has been hit a lot, but he's a vampire. He heals. I think of that chip the Initiative implanted– could that be– No. That was two deaths ago.

"Let's say I need this not to be brain damage. That I want it to be something psychological. What could cause him to become, you know, psychologically mute this way?"

"Trauma," he replies immediately. "That's the most likely. If he's seen something so terrible that he can't make any sense of it, then he might lose his ability to speak. Or if he's got some secret that he's afraid he might tell– But you don't usually see this in grown men, you know. It's much more common in children who have been abused by someone who threatened to kill them if they tell. Or if the abuser is someone they love. They resort to muteness as an escape from the dilemma of whether to tell." He muses for a moment, then says, "You can see, however, that in any child old enough to write, he also has to lose that ability, or he might tell the secret in a note. He has to subconsciously make certain that he can't tell... because he's so afraid he will tell, if he can."

On second thought, I'd rather have it be a vengeance demon.

I shove the why to the back of my mind. I don't want him to be cursed by a spurned lover. But I don't want him to have been traumatized either. I'd rather puzzle out another, more pleasant mystery now.

I head for the garden and sit there on the bench with the Flower Language book. The day is clear and the sun is high, so I've got no worry that Spike will bound over the wall, trowel in hand. I'm all alone with the flowers.

I start in the corner with the pond. It's painstaking work, checking each flower against the pictures in the book, finding a match, and then jotting down the translation in my notebook. A half hour later, I have a list:

Bluebells– constancy
American cowslip– You are my divinity. (Aww.)
Camellia – perfect loveliness
Daisy– beauty
Red rosebud– pure loveliness.
Heliotrope– devotion
White periwinkle– pleasures of memory
Pink– pure love
Lavender– devotion
Geranium– I prefer you to all others
Blush Rose– if you love me, you will know

I do know, I want to tell him. I do know.

Every flower is carefully chosen and placed to send me a message. It's almost breathtaking. My chest hurts as I think about this. He loves me so much. I don't deserve to be loved this much. But he's saying, with his garden, that I do.

I wipe the tears away and rise. Sunset is hours away. Spike's crypt is only 100 yards away. I'll go and wake him up and tell him that I've learned his code–

I turn to pick the book off the bench, and I see the cherry tree and the flowers planted along the back wall. I was facing forward, so these aren't on my list. So I sit down, my back against the arm of the bench, and start to catalog the back of the garden.

I'm expecting more for the same, you know, ardent love, passion, worship, that sort of thing. But I look up cherry first– because I recognize it without checking the picture– and get this: Cherry tree– deception

Hmm. Deception hasn't ever really been a feature of our relationship. If anything, we've always been painfully honest with each other. Maybe he's trying to apologize for letting me think he was dead.

Or, more likely, I shouldn't worry about the cherry tree since it was here before he started planting. He didn't choose it.

The next one is harder to identify– a small flower with white petals and a pale green stalk. It's not a very impressive bloom, and I'm not sure why, given all the much prettier roses and daisy varieties available, he chose these droopy flowers to line the back wall. I finally find a matching picture. Dogsbane! Well, that's probably a magical plant, like wolfsbane, the kind of plant Willow uses, so maybe it's supposed to remind me of her–

Dogsbane– deceit, falsehood

Whoa. More deceit. And these were planted recently, to judge by the damp soil.

It makes me wonder. Maybe he feels really really guilty about something. Maybe there was some other girl along the way– I need to tell him it's okay. Water under the bridge. We're starting anew. I won't ask about her if he doesn't ask about the Immortal.

Okay, I might ask about her. Make him squirm a bit. But then I'll forgive him.

There's another plant next to it. I think maybe it's just another dogsbane, except the flowers are kind of a greenish-pink, and the leaves are glossier. I get up and walk closer and see tiny green beads at the base of the flowers. Unripe berries. Hmm. I go back and sit down on the bench and leaf through the book, and finally spy the right picture.

Bilberry– treachery, treason

Now wait a minute. We had our differences, but neither of us was ever treacherous. I mean, sure, we started out meaning to kill each other, but we were honest about it. And when we allied to defeat Angelus, we both fulfilled our promises. Okay, that whole thing with Adam... but it's not like Spike had made any promises. He kept telling us he hated us and wanted us dead.

And once he decided he loved me, well, he was always on my side.

And maybe I wasn't always good to him– sometimes I was really bad to him– but I never made any promises ....

Okay. I suppose he could mean the amulet. You know, the one I took from Angel and gave to him. Angel was probably supposed to wear it, probably supposed to be the one who died. But– but I didn't know that. And anyway, Spike demanded it as his due. He said he was my champion. And he was.

I don't think he thinks that I betrayed him that day. I don't think so.

But the next flower.... it's ugly, for a flower. It's got this sort of hairy stalk, and it look like it would be sort of sticky to the touch, and under the white flower is this hairy tube that looks like a cactus. It doesn't look like anything that would grow in Cleveland– more like a desert flower. This must be one of those planting choices that made Fleur think Spike was way adventurous. He placed it ten feet from the shade of the tree, in a spot of full sunlight, and it looks to be thriving. Ugly, but thriving.

I finally find it at the very end of the book.

White Catchfly– betrayal

Treachery. Treason. Betrayal.

He can't be talking about me. About us. I'm the first to admit we didn't always have the healthiest relationship. But– but we didn't betray each other. I know that. We trust each other. We have for a long time. Before I loved him, I trusted him. Hey, before I even liked him, I trusted him. And he trusts me back. I know it. I know it from the inside of me all the way to the outside of me.

He doesn't mean me. The relief hits me, and I sag against the arm of the bench. He doesn't mean me.

But it's not an accident. He wouldn't have accidentally chosen all these negative flowers and accidentally placed them together in the back of the garden, separated by a flagstone path from all the ardent, loving, passionate flowers. It's a message to me, just like the message of the rest of the garden.

So I stare at the catchfly, willing it to explain. It doesn't.

There's another row against the side wall. For a second I'm relieved, because it looks like crocuses, those early spring flowers, the ones that push up out of the snow up here. Hopeful flowers. Happy flowers. Mirth and youthful gladness flowers, that's what it says– but the picture doesn't match. The stalks are too tall and the blooms are too shallow for crocuses. I flip back in the book until I find a match.

Cardamine – paternal error

Paternal– Spike's father has been dead for more than a century. It can't refer to that. And his sire is Drusilla. She never played a paternal role for him. He was the one who took care of her. Then who–

Angel. Angelus. The one who trained Spike in the ways of the vampire. The one who got a soul and left him. The one who spoke of him with great loathing. The one who lost his soul and betrayed him. The victim of his torture. And somehow, finally, his boss.

No. It makes no sense. He and Angel were rivals, maybe. But–

But I don't know. I don't know how their relationship ended up. They came together to Rome to find me, and left together too. What does that mean? What does it mean that Angel gave me that amulet, knowing (I know he knew) that I would give it to Spike? What does it mean that he watched Spike die again in the spring, and Spike hasn't told him he's back?

I get up and pace the flagstone path, to the door and back. No. I don't know what it means. But it doesn't mean–

There's one more flower, just a single plant in a terra cotta pot near the path. I don't know how I missed it. It's a flamboyant flower, a foot or more high, so high that Spike has used a stake to prop up the stalk. Fluted white flowers hang down, three of them, from the stalk. They're closed now, furled up like little umbrellas. Night-blooming, I think.

I squat down on the path and open the book again, turning the pages swiftly, searching for this. Devil's weed– I remember Fleur mentioned that, mentioned devil's weed tea–

Devil's weed– murder

Also known as Angel's Trumpet.

Poison.

I sit on the flagstones until the chill seeps in through my slacks. Then I go and stash the book in the car. And I slam the door and walk through the graveyard gates to Spike's crypt. I fling open the door, just like old times, and he looks up, startled, from his book.

He smiles and stands up, but he stays well clear of the shaft of sunlight I let in. I don't move, and he can't come to me. It only takes a moment for him to figure out that I'm mad.

But of course he can't ask me why. He just sits down again, sets his book on the marble pedestal that serves as an end table, and waits. He doesn't have to wait long. I'm that mad. "You better have a good explanation, that's all I can say!"

He regards me with a long-suffering expression. Okay. I know he can't explain. I know he can't even say my name. I even know that probably whatever happened isn't his fault. But– but I'm so mad.

I flip open my cell phone and am about to stab some keys when I realize I don't know the number. So I have to call LA information, and I let the operator dial through to Anne's shelter. As soon as I get Charles Gunn on the phone, I say, "Do you have a cell phone with a camera?"

He's surprised, confused. But he answers yes, and gives me the number, and I disconnect and call that phone. When Gunn answers, I turn the phone towards Spike and push the camera button.

As soon as he realizes what's going on, he's out of his chair. But he can't leave, and I guess he has too much dignity to cower in the corner. So he just turns his face away. I aim the camera right at him, and through the speaker I hear Gunn's faint, tinny voice. "Spike? Spike?"

I put the phone back to my ear. "Yeah. That's Spike. Now I have some questions for you."

"He's there with you." Gunn's voice still sounds faint, even right up against my ear.

"He's here. Now you said you saw him dusted."

Gunn is quiet for a moment, then says, "Yeah. I saw. But... what? Was it a hallucination? Is that what you're telling me?"

"I don't know. All I know is he showed up here in Cleveland."

"Let me talk to him." Gunn's voice is urgent now. Thick with some emotion. Tears, maybe? "Let me talk to him. I want to– to talk to him."

"Just a minute. You have to answer my questions first."

"Is he okay? Just tell me he's okay."

I don't know if he's okay or not. He's with me. He's okay. "He's okay. More or less. So you didn't know he was back from the dead?"

"No. You know I didn't. We just talked last week. I thought then– it must have been a hallucination. Illyria must have–"

Spike drops back down into his chair. He won't look at me. That's all right. I glare at him, and I hope he feels the heat.

"So how did he get here?"

"How do I know?" Gunn says. "Maybe he hopped a plane. Maybe he drove."

I contemplate a voiceless Spike getting across the country by himself. Not likely. "Maybe someone there helped him."

"I don't think so. We all thought he was dead."

"He's got a credit card. Lots of money. How did that happen?"

"Oh, that." Gunn sounds relieved to find a question he can answer. "Harmony did that. She embezzled all this money from W&H before she left. And she gave some to me, and some to Spike. He's pretty clueless about all that, so she set him up– checking account, money market account, credit card."

"Harmony? Harmony?"

"Yeah. It was a week or so before the final battle, you know. I got mad at her, but Spike thought it was pretty cool. He said that it couldn't be that evil, to steal from the evil. So I guess he probably used that stash. And the credit card."

I shoot Spike a look, but he's wearing his I'm-a-poor-abuse-victim expression. Okay, I don't know that I'd expect him to righteously refuse the loot, but still. And I'm not abusing him! I'm trying to help him!

"Then tell me this. When– when you saw him last, was he okay? I mean, before he was ... dusted."

Gunn takes his time before he answers. "Yeah. He was, you know. His normal self."

"No– no, uh, impairments?" I glance over at Spike, and he's turned his face away again. I'm hurting him. Humiliating him. He doesn't want Gunn to know.

"Well, he was pretty hungover. But that's all. Why?"

I sigh. Spike might never forgive me. But he's the one who left me the message in the flowers. Some part of him wants me to know. "Because he can't talk. He's mute. And he can't write either." He came back wrong. That's what I want to say. But I don't say that. I just repeat, "He can't talk anymore."

Gunn draws in his breath. Then he whispers, "Let me talk to him."

I walk over and try to hand the phone to Spike. He won't take it. In fact, he tries to get up and move away, but I shove him down and keep him down with a hand on his– well, look. It works, right? He stays where he is. I sit on the arm of his chair and put the phone against his ear and say loudly, "Go ahead, Gunn. He's listening."

I'm listening too. And as I hear Gunn's faint voice, I watch Spike's face, only a few inches from mine. He is as tight as a fist, his mouth tense, his eyes turned away from me. "Blondie Ghost!" Gunn says. I guess he's like Spike– he gives nicknames. Maybe that's one reason they're friends. "Hey. It's– it's good to see you. Alive. Undead. Whatever. It's just– just good to see you, buddy."

Spike's mouth starts to tremble. I move a little closer, press my lips against his throat.

"Good to see you– look. Got to tell you. Wes– Wes didn't make it out. He was brave, all that. Stopped Vail. But he didn't make it. And Illyria, well, she couldn't take it. So she went back to that well. The one she came from. She said she didn't like this world. Can't blame her. Wes and you gone– I don't like this world much either."

I feel the harsh breath go through his throat. I kiss him again, right there. Try to tell him I care, through my kiss.

"It's been.... hard. You know? Thought I'd lost you too. But here you are–"

Spike swallows. I stay right there, my cheek against his. Gunn is going on, "Back again. No one can keep you down, huh? That's my man. And there you are, with your slayer girl. Landed in clover, didn't you?"

With a convulsive movement, Spike pushes the phone away, and me with it. Too much. Too much. I understand. I let him get up, and I say into the phone, "Thanks, Gunn. He's ... he's a little overcome now, but I know he appreciates it. Hearing your voice."

"Yeah, well, I mean it. Glad he's back. Glad he found you."

I take a deep breath. Then I ask the question that I'm afraid will break my heart. "What about Angel?"

Gunn doesn't reply right away. Then, real carefully, he says, "Angel's okay. He made it through."

I already know that. And Gunn knows that's not what I was asking. "I mean, what does he have to do with this?"

"With what?"

Spike's standing near the door, his hand on the knob, as if he intends to rip it open and walk out into the sun. I cross the room and grab hold of his belt, and I say to Gunn, "I don't know with what. I just know that Spike's gone to some trouble to let me know that Angel did something wrong. Something treacherous. But he can't tell me what. And – and since Angel ended up back on top, and you said you're not with him anymore, I'm thinking that maybe, maybe he's gone...." I force the words out. "Bad."

Spike yanks away from me, but doesn't try to open the door. Instead he goes to his little refrigerator and rummages around in it. I ask, "Did Angel go over to the other side? Is he Angelus again? Or still Angel, but ... but doing evil?"

Gunn mutters something I don't understand. Then, more clearly, he says, "Look. Angel's, well, he's doing an inside job. I think. He's acting like he is working with them. I think there must have been some peace treaty once he... once he won. But he's still–" A pause. "He's still on this side. I'm pretty sure. He– we– we sacrificed a lot. Lost a lot. And he's the only one I guess still carrying on the fight against the senior partners. Only... only he's doing it from the inside. Pretending he's with them."

"You're sure?"

"Pretty sure." Gunn sighs. "Look, I think Spike might have been–"

Suddenly Spike is at my side. He grabs the phone out of my hand, and points it at himself, and snaps a picture. His face is tight again, tight with refusal, and I hear Gunn saying, "Okay. Okay, Spike. I get it."

And when I finally get the phone back, he says, "You need to talk to Angel himself. Face to face. He can–"

But whatever he's going to say is cut off when Spike yanks the phone away from me and throws it against the stone wall of the crypt. It smashes into a hundred little silver pieces. I grab his arm and turn him to face me. "Oh, that was really mature, Spike! That phone cost $70! And Gunn's going to think I hung up on him!"

He looks down on me, his face so angry, so anguished, that I can't stay mad. I give it a try, though. I growl, "I'm going to find out what this is about. And then we're going to know what we have to do to help you." He tries to turn away, but I've got him too tight. "I'm going to help you, because I love you. Don't you ever forget that."

And he gives up. He settles against me, puts his arms around me, and kisses my hair. I think maybe he's realizing that he's mine, and he knows– I take care of mine. So I'm going to take care of him too.

Chapter Eight

I can't evaluate Angel's reaction to the news that Spike is back. He's nothing like Spike– I can't read him at all. Not anymore, anyway. But he agrees to fly to Cleveland and talk to Spike. Well, he only agrees when I threaten to come to LA with a whole army of slayers, including Dana, the psycho one, and take him by force.

I'm not proud of myself. But hey, sometimes you have to play it tough. I made sure not to tell Spike. For one thing, I figured he didn't want to see Angel. For another, I think it would really titillate him, the prospect of all those slayers chaining Angel up– I know it put a gleam in Xander's eye, as he listened in on my threatening phone call.

Xander insists on meeting me at the garden, hoping to see a fight, but at least he promises to remain out of sight. I take Taylor with me as I go to pick Angel up. Another slayer, even a newbie, will probably be helpful if, in fact, there is a fight.

Angel is tense and uncommunicative as we drive through the city at dusk. I don't know him anymore. But then, I never did, really. I remember loving him so utterly, but I never understood him. I never understood why he did certain things, like deceiving me about his being a vampire, and telling me he'd always help me and then leaving me. I never even really understood why he loved me. And I don't know when he stopped. I glance at him in the rear-view mirror, and of course I don't see him. I feel him, but there's just a blank spot where his image should be.

He makes no protest when I stop at the garden store. Fleur is just closing up for the evening, but she's happy to help me out. Anything for poor darling Spike. I come out a couple minutes later with a cardboard box containing four pots, which Taylor obligingly keeps on her lap. She's growing, I think grudgingly. I mean, a week ago, she'd never have let dirt anywhere near her Versace pants. I can tell she's just fascinated by all this, and she's probably going to email her other slayerette friends tonight, all about Buffy's ex, the other vampire ex. I sort of wish she'd been around when I was going out with Josh, so I could prove I've had human boyfriends too.

But right now, I've got other things to worry about. Like whether Spike will ever forgive me. It's for his own good, but he might not see it that way.

As I get out of the car, I feel in my pocket for the email Willow sent me, the one with the curse-reversal she invented. She doesn't have a lot of confidence in it, but it can't hurt, can it? I wait till Xander drives up in his pickup truck, and leave Angel out there on the sidewalk with him, and send Taylor around to the door Spike uses as an exit. Then I enter the garden, carrying the little pots and the email.

Spike is by the other door, digging. Got to get him away from there, so he can't easily escape. "Hey, honey, I got you something," I say as he looks up. He comes towards me, brushing the mud off his hands, smiling. "These are Sweet Williams. They stand for gallantry."

He kind of ducks his head like the compliment is too much, but he takes the cardboard box and kisses me full on the mouth. I kind of melt, consider maybe slipping out and telling Angel just to go home, that we're fine the way we are. But just then, Spike raises his head. He senses vampire. Senses Angel. Very deliberately he turns away from me, taking the red and white plants and surveying the garden for an empty spot. He finds one by the path, and sets the box down, and goes and gets his trowel.

"Spike," I say firmly. "You know I love you. You know whatever I do, it's because I think it's right for you."

He looks up. He's got that kind of growly expression. But he doesn't protest. He just goes back to digging. Encouraged, I say, "I want you just to listen to Angel. I don't know what he's going to say. But I know whatever he says will be important."

I suddenly remember Willow's email, and pull it out. Even with Spike's candles, it's too dark to read, so I have to fumble to find my penlight. Finally I read aloud,

,i>All silent spells be uncast
All muting hexes be undone
All hushing curses be unpassed
And let there be loosing of your tongue.

Spike shakes his head. "Come on, Spike, try. Say my name."

He sighs, and his mouth shapes Buffy, but no sound comes out. I can tell he's disappointed. We both wanted this to work without bringing Angel into it. But Angel's here, so we might as well make use of him. At least I'll find out what happened, why Gunn can't be around Angel anymore, why Spike didn't go back to him.

So I go usher Angel in, sending Xander around to stand guard with Taylor. I know they'll have the door cracked open, but that's okay. Who knows how quickly they'll need to react, if one or the other vampire takes offense.

Angel comes into the garden and looks around. He doesn't look at Spike. He just looks around at all the flowers, the plant boxes, the candles. He turns back and looks at the pond and its little waterfall. You'd think he was a judge for the neighborhood beautification contest or something. Spike never even looks up, but I can see the tension in his shoulders as he carefully sets one plant in the hole.

Finally Angel says to me, "You want me to say something. What?"

I'm annoyed. Really annoyed. Not ready-to-stake annoyed, but ready-to-say-mean-things annoyed. "I want you to talk to him about that last day. The last time you saw him." I add, kind of meanly, "He was still talking then."

"Such a drama queen," Angel mutters. But even that doesn't make Spike look up. He's determined to ignore Angel.

But Angel approaches him. He stands on the path, a dozen feet away, and looks down at Spike. "The last day. Yeah. Okay. Do you even remember?"

No answer. Of course. I hoped that somehow seeing Angel would bring his voice back– I mean, that he'd yell at him or something. But Spike doesn't even look up from his work.

"I get it. Everyone gets it. You're mad. I guess I don't blame you. But you're back, so how about just letting it go? No harm done, right?"

I know this is not what Spike needs to hear. But if I yell at Angel, tell him to apologize, whatever it takes, it'll be all about me, and not about them. So I press my lips tight together and sit here on the edge of the plant box, hurting.

Angel's standing, looming over Spike. "You're back. You always come back. What does that mean? It means it didn't take. Didn't even matter. It means my plan worked. See?"

Spike doesn't look up, but his hand stills on the trowel. He stops moving. He's listening.

Angel notices too. He moves a foot closer. His voice gets low. It's both cajoling and threatening, and suddenly I have some idea how he kept Spike by him during that year he was lost to me. "Come on, boy. You're just hurting yourself with this muteness thing. And hurting Buffy. You're not punishing me. You can't punish me. I just don't care enough, haven't you figured that out?"

My breath catches, and I start to rise. Then I force myself to stay put. This is what Spike needs to hear. Needs to know. No matter how much it hurts us both.

Maybe it hurts Angel too, to say it. To speak it out loud. To hear himself.

I hope so.

I 'm watching Angel from behind– a big man, dark in the darkness, his dark hair catching the flicker of the candlelight and reflecting it back. I can't see his face.

I remember being so in love with him once, long ago. Oh, maybe in love with him for a long time after that. I don't know anymore. That girl who loved him died at the tower. The one who came back... well, she learned, finally. Finally. To give love. To do love. Not just to feel love. To be happy in love, and not just mourn for its loss.

Angel moves a step closer, and Spike's hand tightens on the trowel. But he doesn't get up, doesn't get ready to protect himself.

"You never learn," Angel says. His voice has dropped to a whisper. I think he's hoping I can't hear him. But I can. It's as if I'm right there by Spike, listening with Spike. Hearing with Spike. "You never learn. I said come here, and you came to me. You had that look on your face, like you were wary, but you couldn't help yourself. I said, come here, lad. It was the lad, wasn't it? I knew that would get you there. I knew it would break through. You're so easy. I just had to pretend I cared, and you'd do anything I wanted. And I wanted you to come over and you did."

What does he mean? Is he talking about that last day? Spike is absolutely still, his face turned away. He is listening.

"I could tell you were a little suspicious. Just a little. You thought I might punch you or something, didn't you? But you thought it was worth it. Thought it was okay getting a little beat up because I called you lad and I wanted you by me, and you didn't really care why. You just wanted to think you mattered to me."

Angel's voice is soft– and hard. Cold. "And you didn't. Didn't matter, did you? Never have. And you never realize that, do you? Every time, all I have to do is pretend you matter, and you're my fledgling again."

I can't bear it. It's got to be breaking Spike's heart. It's breaking my heart. But Angel is going on, speaking harshly now. "You're so fucking stupid, Spike. How many times have I done this to you? One way or another? And you fall for it everytime."

Now, finally, Spike moves, turns slightly to look at him. Angel's voice drops again. "Weren't you suspicious when I took hold of you? Jesus. When I hugged you. What were you thinking? You were really thinking I was hugging you? That I wanted to be your sire, show my affection? It never occurred to you it was a trick? That I needed you close, needed you disarmed?"

I can feel Spike's tension. He wants to leave. He doesn't want to hear this. But Angel goes on relentlessly. "No. Of course not. Never occurred to you. There's some stupid piece of you that believes I care. So you're so easy to fool. I just have to pretend...."

Angel stops talking. He looks down at Spike. Then he says, softly, "Do you remember any of it? When I bit you, you started to struggle. Then you stopped. What were you thinking? You were thinking I had some plan. That I needed you to do this. That it was part of destroying the Senior Partners. Stupid fledge. You should have known better. And then I started to let you go, and you looked up at me. Grateful, huh? I didn't take it all. Let you keep some of your own blood. Never occurred to you that I had to weaken you. That I had to kill you. That I had a stake all ready for you. Do you remember? Oh. Sure. You remember all of it. That's why..."

That's why Spike can't speak. Oh. Oh. I never–

Now Angel looks back, right at me. His eyes are glowing golden in the darkness, and I realize he's gone into vamp face. He thinks I will attack him. He thinks I will get my vengeance. But I stay still. I stay still for Spike.

"You remember what I said to you? What I whispered?" He's speaking to Spike, but staring straight at me. "When Buffy killed me, you know what she said? She said, 'Close your eyes.' She wanted to protect me. Didn't want me to be scared. But I didn't say that. I just didn't want you to alert the others. Didn't want you to yell. So I said, 'Don't say anything.' That's what I said. And you were obedient. Christ. The most disobedient childe any vampire produced, and you were obedient there at the last. And you're still obeying me, aren't you? They brought you back, but you still can't say anything."

Spike sets his trowel down. Touches the petal of the plant. Won't look up. He's ... ashamed. I can feel it. Ashamed of what happened to him. Ashamed of loving.

Suddenly Angel spins around, and I tense, thinking he's going to attack Spike again. But instead he just whispers. "I had to do it. Don't you understand? I needed your blood, see. My blood. Your blood. I had to take the blood of my blood. And I had to sacrifice my own boy. You see? You see? My own boy. It was either you or Connor. My son Connor."

I don't know what he's talking about. But Spike must, for he lifts his head and looks up at Angel.

"And he– he's just a kid. You've lived longer than your allotted time, and he hasn't lived a fraction of his. They wanted me to kill him. They were using the prophecy to force me to kill him. But I tricked them. They didn't realize you were my boy too. That I could sacrifice you and let Connor live.... That you would always come to me. That you'd always trust me. That I could kill you because you trusted me. That I could save Connor by killing you."

It's terrible. I hate hearing it. I hate Spike having to hear it. But– but if this is it, if this is the trauma that silenced him, if he had to block out the memory by blocking out his ability to express it... then it's good. Truth is good. It must be. Finally Angel is confessing the truth– that he used Spike's love to betray him. That he did it to save another.

Spike is looking past Angel at me. I rise and start towards him. I'm willing him to say something. And Angel says, "Okay. Now you know. You can say it now. Tell me that I'm a monster. That you hate me. All that. Go ahead and say it. I'll listen."

Spike is still looking at me. He opens his mouth. I realize he's not going to speak to Angel, but to me, that what he wants to say, he wants to say at me.

But nothing comes out.

I stop beside Angel, and hear him make a disgusted sound as he turns away. "He's being stubborn. He's still trying to punish me. He's doing this deliberately–"

Spike leaps up - blur of motion. We've fought together a thousand times, and I know what's coming. I move quickly out of the way, just as Spike connects. It's a perfect tackle, and Angel goes down hard on the flagstones, his head connecting with a sickening thud.

Spike methodically bangs Angel against the ground. I let it go on for a few seconds, then I try to pull him off. No luck. "Taylor!" I call, and the girl appears right beside me, and she lends her strength, and together we pull Spike away.

He lets us do it. Then he stands and shakes us off. I can tell from his expression he's trying to decide whether to kick Angel or let him lie there.

He lets him go. Starts to walk towards the cemetery door. Then I burst into tears, and he stops, and turns, and comes back to me. I press my face against his shirt and cry. "I thought that if you just relived it– if you just confronted whatever happened– I would never have made you go through that if I didn't think it would help."

He tilts my head up and kisses my wet cheeks, and I hear Taylor sniffing beside me, and Angel groaning on the ground below.

"Try the curse-remover again."

This comes from Xander, who is leaning against the wall, his arms crossed. "Try it. No! Have Angel read it."

I pull away from Spike. "Why?"

Xander shrugs. "You heard him. He said he told Spike not to say anything. What if that was a spell? What if when he said it, he didn't know it, but he was channeling some spell?"

"Yeah," I say slowly. "Like Willow didn't know she was using a spell when she said I should just marry Spike, and we ended up engaged."

"One of my worst memories," Xander says, but Spike is smiling, rubbing his fist on my cheek to dry the tears. He remembers that spell pretty fondly. So do I, I guess, though I remember I pretended to be disgusted. Denial has always been my middle name.

"So the one who does the spell has to undo it?" Taylor asks.

"I guess. It can't hurt." Roughly she and I pull Angel to a stand. I shove the email into his hand. "Here."

"Christ. This won't work. I didn't make any spell." And he complains a bit about how hard it is to read in the darkness, until Spike growls and Taylor raises her fist. "Okay, okay." He goes back into vamp face and squints at the page. "I'd remember - -" Then he pauses. "Hmm. I'd just gotten into the Circle of the Black Thorn that day. Maybe- -"

"Read it!" I yell, and hastily he looks back at the paper.

And then, in a quiet voice, he reads:
All silent spells be uncast
All muting hexes be undone
All hushing curses be unpassed
And let there be loosing of your tongue.

When he finishes, there is utter silence. Spike's arms close around me, and I think it's okay. It's okay. We love each other. Nothing else matters.

And then, he whispers in my ear. "Buffy."

We all head back home, and Xander makes Spike make the call for the pizza, and Taylor just sits in the living room and glares at Angel. He's found himself an ice bag - I'm damned if I'm going to help him - and he's sitting on the very edge of the couch. I can tell he's trying to decide if one of us is going to take him back to the airport or if he should call a cab.

Spike comes in, all smiley from making a successful connection with the pizza parlor, and Xander says, "Hey, bro, that was one amazing tackle. You should try out for the Cleveland Browns."

Spike sits down on the arm of my chair. His voice is still a little rusty, and his words come a little slow. "You know, long before there were Cleveland Browns, there were Oxford Blues." When none of us got it, he said, "The rugby team."

Angel presses the icebag against his temple. "William never made the rugby squad."

Spike gives him a sharp look. "I watched. I learned."

This must mean something to Angel, because he turns his gaze away. When he speaks, his voice is subdued. "So how did you do it? Come back? Did the Powers bring you back?" After a moment, he adds, "Did you, you know, shanshu?"

Spike makes an annoyed sound. "Shanshu. Christ. Aren't we done with that shit? Besides, the shanshu only comes to one who is there at the apocalypse. You dusted me before I could help, remember?"

Angel kind of hangs his head. But he's persistent. This matters to him. "So how'd you do it?"

"Yeah," Xander says. "And how did you get here to Cleveland?"

Spike tilts his head and tightens his hand on my shoulder. "I just wanted. I wanted to be with Buffy. And so I made it happen."

"Wow," Taylor breathes. "That's awesome."

"Reality bends to desire," Spike says. "And no one ever desired more than I did."

He bends down and kisses me, and it gets all sort of watery and pastel there for a moment, the world, and then the doorbell rings. And Xander goes off and comes back with pizza, and I'm more composed now, and I even let go of Spike's hand long enough for us to snatch a couple slices.

Angel goes off with his icebag and cellphone, and comes back a minute later. "Uh, I called a cab. I'll just go out and wait for it on the porch."

He starts for the door, and then turns back to Spike. "Look. Just don't. Not anymore. Don't trust me. I won't ever care. And I'll always betray you. I always have, and I always will. And I'm only telling you that because—"

But then he breaks off and doesn't tell why. And I don't care, and I don't want Spike to care either. I want him just to ... let go. Let go of the pain. Angel– Angel betrayed us both, and that is just what he does.

Spike nods, and just as Angel puts his hand on the doorknob, says, "So how is he? Your boy. Connor."

Angel stares straight ahead at the closed door. "He's okay. Away at Stanford. Doing well."

"Good."

And then Angel leaves, and Spike takes back my hand, and I don't let go of him even though it means Taylor and Xander end up with most of the pizza.

Epilogue

Spike is being totally obnoxious. Not to mention loud. He managed to miss the sunrise this morning (right, like I believe after 150 years he didn't notice it coming) and so he's been hanging out at the house all day. Oh, lucky me, he made me breakfast, which meant the kitchen range with "bloody hells" and "bleeding stupid eggs", not to mention the cheerful clang of breaking dishes.

Then, when I'm talking to Giles, Spike grabs the phone out of my hand so he can transatlantically insult Chelsea's recruitment strategy. Since Giles has to shout right back, that's the end of our nice calm discussion of where to place Taylor.

Oh. Speaking of Taylor. Spike volunteers to give her a lesson in staking. In the living room. And he puts on his most incomprehensible North London accent, so Taylor's constantly saying, "Excuse me?" and "Come again?" in her most annoying North Texas accent. Spike eventually explains, "Why would I want her to get good at staking me?" and is summarily fired as instructor.

Then he decides to make a heavy metal occult-evil mix CD for Faith. And he has to sing along. At the top of his underused lungs. He really lets loose on that Rob Zombie song:

Dead I am the life, dig into the skin
Knuckle crack the bone, 21 to win
Dead I am the dog, hound of hell you cry
Devil on your back, I can never die

But then he starts up "You Shook Me All Night Long," and expects me to dance to it, because, just in case Taylor doesn't get the message, I shook him all night long. Thanks, Spike. Turn it up. The neighbors might not have heard yet.

And then Xander stops by with the first Godfather DVD, and he sprawls out on the recliner and Spike takes the whole couch and they shout in unison all their favorite lines:

In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.

I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.

Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brain or his signature would be on the contract.

I'm trying to write my final psych paper. But does he care? No. He comes in to the den and sits down and wants to have a serious discussion of the future of our relationship. His voice is echoing plaintively in my ears.

I put my head down on my desk. I raise it up and bang it down again.

And then he's right behind me, his arms around me and my chair, his mouth against my neck. "I knew it," he says. "I knew it. Only take a week, and you'd be missing poor dumb Spike."

I swivel in the chair to face him, and then I push him back and down so he's on the den rug and I'm straddling him. And I lie down on top of him, and I say, "From now on, I'm going to be happy with any Spike I'm lucky enough to get."

So I have to get up at dawn to finish my paper. Spike inquires sleepily from the bed if I need any help typing the references, and I think, it's the sweetest sound in the world, his voice. Pavarotti has nothing on him. Heck, Josh Groban sounds like a fishwife next to him. "No, baby," I say. "Go back to sleep."

He murmurs something about me and love, and that's all, and that's all I need to hear.

The End

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