Disclaimer: All hail Joss. Not mine, never will be.
A Matter of…
“He’s not going to know we’re there, right?” Buffy asked for the fifth time.
Her guide shook his head, and at least pretended he wasn’t irritated by the repeated questioning. “No, he won’t. He won’t even have a clue we’re about. Come on.”
Carefully, she picked her way after him, trying not to touch the walls and wishing she’d worn slightly more sensible shoes… or at least older ones. The back way into anywhere was always murder on her shoes, and this place was no exception.
But she held her tongue and even kept her mental complaints to a minimum as she stepped around and over the piles of muck.
Eventually the state of the floor improved, until it was just hard packed dirt over cement, and then just the cement. Before she knew it, she was boosting herself through an opening in the ceiling and into an immaculately white corridor. Her guide looked up and down the corridor before striding purposefully away. She watched him for a moment, simply amazed at this brazen breaking and entering, until he glared at her over his shoulder. The expression seemed out of place on his otherwise good-natured face, and she shook herself before hurrying after him.
“You gotta look like you belong here,” he said quietly when she caught up, the words dancing on the edge of her hearing. “If you look like you belong, nobody questions you. And that, darlin’, is a bit of advice that works just about everywhere.” Quite suddenly, he grinned down at her, and again she saw the hints of charm he could display when he chose. “Never been so grateful for a lesson as when I snuck into a bar at 15 and got served, just ‘cause I acted like I should.”
Buffy wanted to scoff, but something in his demeanor told her that he was serious despite his grin. So she just nodded instead, and filed that little tidbit of information away to mull over when he was gone again.
As if sensing her disbelief, her guide toned down his grin to a small smile. “Just for a little bit,” he offered, his tone gentle. “We’ll be taking back stairs and nearly deserted corridors for the most part. Don’t worry, luv.”
Hearing the familiar endearment – Spike’s endearment – in her guide’s voice jarred her. “Don’t call me that,” she said, and she tried not to make it an order, she really did, but the hurt and loneliness and anger wouldn’t be denied. It came out sharply, harsher on her ears than she knew was warranted, and she glanced away, face flaming in embarrassment. “Sorry.”
She could feel his eyes on her. “It’s all right, darl,” he replied easily, and her cheeks burned hotter at his forgiveness.
After only a few more steps, he stopped, his hand on her elbow drawing her to a halt as well. “In here,” he said, and opened a door to a clearly disused stairwell. “Gotta go up quite a ways.”
Buffy felt her lips curl in something like a grin. “It’s all right. I can take it.”
He nodded, mouth quirking up on one side. “I just bet you can. It’s me I’m worried about.” Raising his eyebrows, he asked, “You’ll make sure I don’t stroke out ‘fore we get there, right?”
And for the first time in a long time, her grin felt almost genuine. “Yeah, I will.”
He nodded and started up the stairs, taking them at speed despite his words. Still smiling, she followed.
For a while, she watched her guide carefully, but he seemed to be doing just fine and in no danger of any kind of cardiac events. Sometime after the first flight but before the fourth, Buffy started to zone out.
It wasn’t that she was ignoring the guy calling after her; she just never heard him. The sun had just set, and she was on her way to the nearest cemetery to start her patrol.
Just like I do every night, she thought. And when I’m done, I’ll go back to that tiny little room that doesn’t even seem like mine, and stare at the ceiling until I just can’t stay awake anymore. Then I’ll wake up and train the girls all day, and go out on patrol tomorrow night, and… and there’s no one for me to…
For a second, she froze as the words captured her attention, pulling her from her depressing thoughts. It can’t be, she thought, trying to tell herself not to hope, but that hope filled her nevertheless. An accented voice, calling her by her title, her calling, the nickname Spike gave me…
She didn’t stop to think that the accent wasn’t quite right, or that the timbre of the voice wasn’t familiar, that it didn’t make her tingle in all the right places. For one second, she got caught up in what could be, and spun around, his name on her lips. “Spike?”
There was someone behind her, someone male, someone just about the right height and build, wearing a black leather coat. But his hair was dark, much darker than Spike’s even before he’d bleached it again, and his eyes… his face… She had to fight back the urge to break down in tears right there.
The stranger behind her offered her a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, darl,” and it struck her then that his voice and accent were much different than Spike’s. And how stupid am I? she berated herself. Spike is gone.
Grief swept over her, followed closely by anger at the one who’d brought it to light once more. She opened her mouth to demand the stranger’s name and find out just how painfully he wanted to die, but got no further, as he started to speak again. “Really, I am sorry,” he said, his words rushed but sincere, “but I’ve gotta tell you, you’d better be thinkin’ before you’re askin’ any questions, ‘cause you only get three.”
That was unusual enough that it got her attention, helped her get a handle – kind of – on her emotions and she tilted her head to one side, studying him. He wasn’t a vampire – there was a distinct lack of tinglies on her neck – but there was still something about him that dinged her not-quite-human bell.
He nodded when she remained silent, and flashed a grin that would have been charming if she wasn’t still (again?) reeling from loss. “Yeah, I know – corny as hell, ain’t it? But that’s the Powers for you. And three is a mystic number, chock full of meaning and symbolism…”
“I know that,” she interrupted, her voice tight. “And if you’re telling me you’re coming from the Powers That Be, I hope you’re not expecting a warm welcome.”
He raised his hands a little, still grinning. “I’m not expectin’ anything. Yeah, the Powers sent me.” He sobered a little, his mobile features filled with sympathy once more. “It’s a long, hard road they’ve given you, luv,” he said softly, and she flinched. “And they know it. I can’t tell you that they’re sorry, but I can tell you they sent me as a kind of… reparation.” He must have recognized the violence-inspired gleam in her eyes for what it was, because his smile was suddenly gone, and he took a cautious step back. “Not to kill me,” he protested quickly, “just… to answer some of your questions, is all. And before you ask… no, I can’t answer anything about the future. Mostly the Powers let humans go their own way, and you’re an unpredictable lot at the best of times, so it doesn’t do much good to look into the future. It’s always changing.” He looked at her as if gauging her temper.
Normally, Buffy knew, she wouldn’t have trusted him, not without extensive questioning, and doubly because he claimed to come from the Powers, but the limitations he’d given had piqued her interest, had somehow convinced her he was on the up and up. Too, there was something about him that seemed familiar… or maybe it was just she wanted him to be familiar.
Maybe it was just that she wanted…
“Okay,” she said, clenching her fist tightly around her stake. “I’m going to trust you, and if you’re not what you say you are, you’ll feel the wrath of the Slayer. Then she swallowed. “So, uh… first question… can… can you tell me where Spike is?” She forced the last bit out in a rush, then held her breath.
It hurt too much to contemplate that he was in Hell, both because of and in spite of what he’d done, but she had to know. At least if I find out that he’s… that that’s where he is, maybe I could… I don’t know, mount a rescue or something…
The stranger studied her. “Sure, luv, if that’s what you want. I can even go you one better, and show you, take you there. But then you’ll have a decision to make.”
She sucked in a breath. Oh, God, she thought, yearning washing over her. Oh, I want… but I’m not sure I could stand it if he’s in Hell… “Yes,” she croaked at last, and somehow was able to bring the threatening tears under control again. “Yes, I would… but I don’t want him to know we’re there.”
He blinked as if she’d managed to surprise him. “Why’s that?”
The honest answer leapt to her tongue. “’Cause seeing me crying will hurt him,” she replied, her voice rusty, “and I don’t want to do that.”
This time his smile was sad. “Fair enough.” He motioned her to come closer, then made a circular gesture. Immediately, a portal opened before them. “Come on, Buffy. Let’s go see the vampire. We can’t pop right in to where he is… it’s protected against just about any kind of magical invasion imaginable. We’ll have to walk a little.” He held out his hand.
Buffy hesitated. “You haven’t said where Spike is, you know. And I still don’t know who you are.” She hoped those wouldn’t count as questions against her limit. I didn’t phrase them like questions, so maybe…
He smirked at her, but after all the times she’d been on the receiving end of Spike’s smirks, it didn’t affect her at all. “Your vampire is at Wolfram and Hart, if you’ve ever heard of it.”
She frowned thoughtfully, mulling over the name. “Doesn’t sound like any kind of hell dimension…”
He laughed shortly. “That’s ‘cause it’s not. It’s a law firm in Los Angeles.” Before she could begin to recover from that, he grabbed her hand and tugged toward the portal. “And you can call me Doyle.”
The sound of her name jolted Buffy out of her thoughts. “Present,” she blurted, then flushed a little. The muscles in her legs and back were warm from climbing, and glancing down over the railing, she saw they’d climbed many stories.
Doyle was standing next to the door on the landing that lead back into the building proper, his hand on the knob. “Just a little further to the lab,” he said, a little cryptically, then added, “You ready?”
She nodded, mentally preparing herself. Then Doyle stepped out into the corridor, gesturing her to follow him.
They traveled up one corridor and down another, and as they went on, they met more and more people. Their immaculately pressed suits and disdainful attitude as they took in Buffy’s jeans and dirty boots marked them as lawyers immediately.
Before Buffy’s temper could start to boil at the looks she received, Doyle swerved to the left and opened an unmarked door. “In here.” He closed the door after them.
It was a plain, nearly empty room. Shelves, piled haphazardly with binders and folders, covered two walls, while the wall across from the door was lined with windows that stretched from floor to ceiling.
Buffy took in that much of the room before shooting Doyle a puzzled glance. Doyle motioned toward the windows. “Take a look,” he said. “Your vampire’s down below.”
She took a hesitant step forward. “You’re sure he can’t see us?”
This time, he rolled his eyes. “For the hundredth time, yes. You’re damned lucky I don’t count that as a different question,” he muttered under his breath. “The glass is one way,” he added by way of explanation. “No one down there can see us up here, but you can see most of the lab.” He nodded toward the glass again. “Go on, then.”
She moved right up to the window and looked down, and was unable to contain her gasp.
Spike. He was there, slouched carelessly in a chair, booted feet sprawled in front of him, arms crossed and wearing what she couldn’t help but recognize as his most obstinate expression. His mouth was moving, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. After a moment, it became clear that he was directing his words toward someone standing to his left, near what was the entrance to the lab.
Then that someone stepped forward, into her line of view, and she recognized the dark hair and broad shoulders immediately. Angel?
Angel leaned down, getting right into Spike’s face, and from over his shoulder, she could see Spike’s expression go tight and cold. Whatever he said in response was enough to make Angel straighten again, glowering.
“He popped out of that amulet that Angel gave you,” Doyle said, and even though he pitched his voice to be quiet and unobtrusive, Buffy still jumped. “Must be months ago by now. He was a ghost for a while, an’ couldn’t touch anything. He’s been solid for… well, a few days anyway. Most of the time he’s been here in Wolfram and Hart, though, this is what’s been goin’ on – Angel throwin’ what the two of you had in Spike’s face, and Spike snipin’ back the best he can.”
Buffy noticed vaguely that Doyle’s accent had grown thicker, but she couldn’t think why. Instead, she just watched. Angel spoke again, his brows drawn close together, pointing a finger in Spike’s direction. Spike sat upright, and his frown melted into a familiar leer.
The question leapt to her lips, and she knew she had to ask it, no matter how hard the answer might be to hear. “Is…” Her throat closed up and she had to swallow heavily before she could go on. “Is he… happy?”
Doyle studied her, then peered through the glass at the blond vampire, and she couldn’t help but follow his gaze. Spike was now leaning back in the chair, his feet propped up on the worktable, hands folded behind his head. The smirk he wore was so familiar, so Spike that her heart thudded faster in her chest.
“I suppose that depends on what you mean by happy, darl.”
She couldn’t tear her eyes away. “What I said. Content. Fulfilled. Happy.”
He sighed. “What do you really want me to tell you, Buffy?”
“The truth.” Her voice was strained even to her own ears.
“No, you don’t.”
Her whole body jerked at the words and she spun to face him, wrenching around so fast the muscles in her neck burned in reaction. “What?”
“No, you don’t… but thanks for sayin’ it.”
But Doyle was regarding her with a sympathetic air so close to pity that she couldn’t stand it, and she couldn’t dwell on the memory the words had dredged up. “You don’t want me to tell you the truth… you just want to hear that he’s happy, right? That he’s doing all right without you…” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded in sudden understanding. “That he’s doing better without you.”
Too quickly, she looked away again, knowing guilt edged her every movement. On the other side of the window, Spike’s amusement heightened for a moment as Angel stalked from the lab, but as soon as the door had swung shut behind his grandsire, his smirk started to fade.
Buffy watched him, taking in the uncharacteristically solemn expression. She laid a hand on the glass, her fingers just barely making contact with the cool surface, and pretended she was cupping his cheek, running her thumb along the sharp contour of his cheekbone. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “Yeah, I want to hear he’s happy. But one of the things about Spike… he always told me the truth. Even when I didn’t want to hear it… or maybe especially because I didn’t want to hear it. It’s just… it was always what I needed to hear. So yeah, I want to hear he’s happy, but I need the truth.”
“The truth, Doyle,” she repeated, her tone adamant. Then she softened. “Please.”
For a moment, there was only silence from behind her. And even though she had demanded the truth, she wasn’t in any hurry to face it. Not when she could drink her fill of Spike.
He was slumped deeper in the chair now, and Buffy’s heart twisted at his expression. She’d seen it so many times, caused it so many times; jaw muscles clenched and jumping, eyes closed as if forcing back tears, fighting for control, you ripped my heart out, but I’ll be damned if I let you know how much it hurts. Her breath caught, and she pressed herself against the glass, as if she could pass through it and go to him.
“I think you can see the truth,” Doyle said at last, his voice low.
She didn’t respond; she couldn’t. She was too caught up in watching Spike rebuild the façade that he presented to the world, the bad ass punk vampire that didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, and struggling to hide his sensitive poet’s soul that was so easily wounded. His pain was a great weight sitting on her chest, pressing out all the air in her lungs.
When she did manage to take a breath, it was ragged and harsh in her throat, like a sob. Then she realized she was crying, tears rolling hot and fast down her cheeks.
Doyle’s hand rested lightly on her shoulder, but she wouldn’t let herself take comfort from that brief touch. “He should be happy,” she whispered, laying her forehead against the window. “After how I treated him…” She broke off, lifting a hand to wipe away her tears. “God. Without me, he should be…”
Doyle lifted his hand away. “That’s what love is, darlin’. It’s wantin’ to be with the one you love, and lovin’ them no matter what.”
Buffy swallowed. “But I’m so bad for him. I hurt him so much.”
She could hear the creak of Doyle’s leather coat as he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Not to him. He just wants…”
She sniffled, nodded. “What he’s always wanted… for me to acknowledge that his feelings were – are real. For me to… to tell him…. No, just for me to love him.” Her eyes stung, and Spike’s image blurred. He sat up as some noise in the lab drew his attention, looking around. A girl wandered into the lab, tall and impossibly slim, her hair tumbling haphazardly down her back in dark waves. Her nose was buried in the book she held, and her glasses had slipped down to the tip of her nose. Spike relaxed back into his slouch, greeting the girl, and she waved absently in response.
Buffy smiled the tiniest bit at the sight of Spike’s own smile. “I did tell him.”
“With the world falling down around your ears.” Doyle snorted. “Small wonder he didn’t believe you.”
Spike got to his feet and started to prowl around the lab, touching this and that as he spoke to the girl, nervous hands always in motion.
Her smile widened, and her reply to Doyle was almost an afterthought. “It’s not a matter of belief.”
Buffy shook her head. “Like I haven’t thought about this. At first, yeah, that’s what I thought – that he didn’t believe me. And yeah, he definitely had reason. And that hurt, God, you have no idea how much that hurt… but I had no one to blame for that but myself. Then, afterward, when I had a chance to think about it, I told myself it was because he wanted me to be safe. Or because he wanted me to give him the chance to be… what I knew he could be. I told myself all kinds of things, Doyle.”
“Why’s that, then?”
She flashed him a humorless smile. “’Cause if I didn’t, I’d go insane.”
“Then why don’t you want him to know you’re here? Don’t you believe he still loves you? Take another gander, darlin’, if that’s the case.”
She shook her head again. “I told you… it’s not a matter of belief. It used to be – I couldn’t believe him. It’s not a matter of love, either. I couldn’t let myself love him, no matter what… until that didn’t matter anymore, because I did.” She looked down into the lab.
Spike had exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the items on the benches, and had returned to his seat in the chair, silent now, but with fingers tapping restlessly. Another familiar sight, she thought.
“It’s a matter of trust.”
The silence hung heavy between them in the wake of her quiet statement. Slowly, Doyle said, “Didn’t you forgive him for…”
If she closed her eyes, she could still recall every moment of that awful night in the bathroom in vivid detail. She didn’t, just kept focusing on Spike. “I did,” she replied softly. “As soon as I saw the look on his face, or maybe as soon as I realized what it meant, I forgave him. Everything I had done to him just kind of crashed down on me, and I knew that if I hadn’t… I knew that it was at least as much my fault as his. Probably more. And what he said in the Hellmouth… I told you, he had reason.” She swiped at her face again with one hand, leaving the other pressed against the glass. “No. It’s not Spike I don’t trust.”
Abruptly, she stepped back from the window and turned, still blotting the wetness from her eyes. “We can go now.”
She could feel Doyle’s eyes on her, though she did not meet his gaze. “You still have one question left, darlin’,” he reminded her, his voice warm and filled with understanding.
“I asked the most important ones.” Buffy shrugged and gave him another humorless grin. “And the ones I’ve got left… well, I don’t think I can decide.”
“There’s one burnin’ at the tip of your tongue – I can practically feel it.”
Her grin disappeared. “You said I couldn’t ask about the future.”
Doyle shook his head. “No, I said I couldn’t answer anything about the future… but you’re right, it amounts to the same thing. What’s the other one, then?”
“I don’t think you can answer that one, either,” she whispered, staring at the floor.
“Ask it on spec,” he offered. “If I can’t, it won’t count.”
She met his eyes at last, her own swimming with tears. “What’s the right decision?”
His tentative smile fled. “Oh, darlin’.” Shaking his head, he took her hand. “You’re right, I can’t answer that. Only you can.” He pressed her hand lightly against her chest, just above her heart. “Right there… that’s where your answer is.” He let go her hand. “Come on now, one more try,” he said, his tone gentle.
“No.” It’s just too much, she thought, looking down at the floor, and that numbness started to creep over her again. The question that she really wanted to ask – will he be all right? – she knew couldn’t get answered, and the other questions pounding in her skull were all about the future as well. “Just… take me home. Please.”
Silence filled the space between them, and she could feel Doyle’s gaze upon her, curious and concerned. “All right,” he said at last, and she sighed in relief at the disappointment she didn’t hear in his voice.
They were back in the basement before Buffy could bring herself to voice the thought – the question, really – she knew she couldn’t ask. “I want him to be all right.”
Doyle paused, kneeling beside the manhole down into the sewer, and looked up at her. “I know you do, darlin’,” he replied quietly. “You care about someone, you want them to be all right.” Then he motioned her down through the manhole and into the sewer level.
Once he had followed her through, she said, “I want him to be happy. I mean… really be happy.”
He took hold of her hand and started guiding her back the way they had come. “I know what you’re tryin’ to do,” he said, and despite his words, his tone hadn’t lost any gentleness. “An’ it ain’t gonna work. I told you, humans – and vampires – are too unpredictable, an’ except in the extremely short term, tryin’ to predict the future is a headache waiting to happen.” They walked on a few steps in relative silence, then he said, “You’ve still got a decision to make.”
Buffy stopped, which made him stop in turn and regard her quizzically. Staring at her shoes, she started, “But I…” Then she broke off, biting her lip.
“If it’s reassurance you’re lookin’ for, I think the fact that you don’t want to hurt your vampire again means you’ll try hard not to.” She looked up at him, opening her mouth to reply, but he ignored her and went on. “There’s always gonna be the chance you’ll hurt him, darlin’, just like there’s always the chance he’ll hurt you. No one can ever promise not to hurt anyone… sometimes it just happens, in spite of your best intentions. It doesn’t mean you don’t love him, and it doesn’t mean you can’t trust yourself.”
After a moment, she nodded, and they walked on. Once they were outside the mystical protection around the Wolfram and Hart building, Doyle opened another portal. “Go on through,” he said, his voice kind. “You’ll be in pretty much the same place as when we started, just a few hours on.”
Somehow, Buffy was reluctant to leave, having grown to like Doyle in the brief time they had spent together. And then all at once, words tumbled from her mouth. “I… God, Doyle, I can’t… not with him, not when I’ve always hurt him so much. How can I trust myself again?”
Doyle turned, met her pleading gaze. “You said it was a matter of trust,” he said.
Before she could blink, Doyle changed right in front of her eyes, hair growing longer and brighter, eyes lightening to a brilliant ocean blue, face narrowing slightly and cheekbones becoming more prominent. Then it was Spike standing in front of her, giving her that smile he reserved just for her, and he reached out to ghost his fingers down her cheek in the lightest of caresses. “I trust you, love,” he said, and she remembered suddenly how distinct his voice was from Doyle’s, how it curled around her insides and warmed her, how different that endearment sounded falling from his lips.
But when she reached out to him, he slipped through her fingers like a ghost, fading away to nothing.
Buffy jerked awake, tears dampening her cheeks. For a long moment, she simply lay there, staring at the far wall striped by the sunlight peeking through the blinds, feeling too drained and hollow to move.
It’s not a Slayer dream, she told herself over and over. It can’t be. It’s just a dream. Just a dream…
Somehow, she dragged herself out of bed, trying to push the knowledge that Spike was gone to that place in the back of her head where her grief lived, and wondering why she felt like she’d lost a part of herself.
March 25, 2008
© randi (K. Shepard), 2008