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The dust settles like powdered sugar. Buffy watches it, eyes caught on the pattern before the guy in front of her goes and screws it up with one panicked clamber back into reality. “She was… That bitch was gonna eat me!”

It’s not the best comeback Buffy’s ever heard. But the guy’s face is waxy with shock, when she looks at him, so she wonders whether maybe she should give him a pass. He’s clutching his neck and there’s blood leaking down his wrist. So, “Yeah,” Buffy tells him, no irony allowed. “Some bitches do that.”

It’s enough to send the guy stumbling away, hopefully grumbling towards medical help. It’s funny; she never wonders where they go, just watches till they’re gone. Sometimes she wonders how many people she’s seen walk away from her – run or stagger, trudge or, weirdly, stroll. Sometimes she waves. It’s enough to give a girl a complex.

“Took your time on that one.”

The words drift out of shadow. Just a gentle observation, just a soft reproach, but she knows it’s not the First. In the end, she doesn’t need the rest of it, not the fug of cigarette smell, not the recalcitrant footsteps into light, not the sheepish, bullish forward shrug of his shoulders. He knew she would do it eventually – that’s why he waited – and she knows who he is.

There should be a snappy rejoinder, Buffy thinks, just to cover some of the awkward. Something like, He was boring me; I didn’t wanna break a nail. But she doesn’t have the energy. “Hey Spike,” she says instead.

He smiles back at her. Some crickets chirp like May means the start of summer.

“Had a call,” he says, like that was the excuse for him coming out. “The tea boy’s woken up.”

The way he phrases it, sly twist of his lips and the twinkle in his eye, it’s as if she’s meant to know what he means. The irritating thing is that she does. “Yeah?” The Xander-shaped stress in her stomach eases just a little. “That’s good.” After a moment she adds, “How’d you find me?”

Spike’s eyebrows rise, dark and grainy on his forehead. If the Bronze would only invest in some lights behind its emergency exit… “Empty town,” Spike explains, dragging her thoughts back on track. “Got a nose. Figured you be out here somewhere.”

In the end it’s probably better than I’ll always find you. For both of them. “Good to know I stink that bad.”

Frown; eye-roll – rinse; repeat. “People’re wondering where you are.” Buffy almost laughs at the petulance. Because she knows what he means – she’s only been gone three hours but they want her back there, apologising; they’re full of pain and need something to beat it out on.

Spike never did like reruns.

“You know I’d do it all again?” The music from the Bronze is winding down, so Buffy fits her stake back into her waistband, ready for the last few non-believers left in Sunnydale. “Same info, same crowd,” she continues, breezy because it’s true and it’s the only thing she can say. “I’d take us all in there and have them killed again.”

Spike leans back against the wall, cigarette caught from its packet to between his lips like he’s never felt nervous in his life. Shock absorbed. “Yeah?” he says, wobbling the stick at her.

“What else can I do?” Buffy replies. She can still feel the tension in her fingers from forcing a piece of wood through ribcage. It always jars when she hits bone. “Everything I make’s a judgement call; I don’t have any guessing left.

Their eyes meet and he looks at her like he knows it’s not killing her inside. Like it all, really, just is. There’s sympathy there too, because he knows this sort of gambling’s no fun.

But Buffy isn’t sure she needs sympathy. She isn’t sure, actually, that she’s unhappy about it. She isn’t sure of anything. “People have been dying in my name a long time now,” she points out, as if to defend herself. She knows she has to defend herself. “A real long time.”

“Yeah,” Spike accepts, breathing out his smoke. It’s like a visual for all his feeling, the stuff he shares with her all the time, every day, like all the curses he’s comfortable throwing around. “But somewhere deep down it’s still cutting you a fresh one.” The light catches his eyes for a moment and she can see it, how that works. He has to know she can. “Might be the Slayer’s greatest gift,” he observes, “keeping the big glowy stored up safe like that…” She isn’t sure it’s a gift, not really. Because she knows it just like he does: “One day it’s still going to scream for you.”

“One day,” she’ll acquiesce, voice soft, “it might.” Oh, but the but. “Or it might decide that, in the end, everything was worth it after all.” The odds are against her – she knows that – but it’s not like she can stop now, is it? “Believe me,” she offers in a moment of weakness, because it’s almost too dark to see around here, “there’s some good stuff caught down there as well.”

Spike laughs, like she hasn’t actually broken his heart a hundred times. It’s touching her and that’s what stops her loving him, because he will lose her this fight if he gets in too far. Out here behind the Bronze maybe it’s OK, but he cannot take this stuff back home.

And yet he’s still laughing – says, “You do know how to play it, don’t you? Christ.” He shakes his head, calms down. “You be careful,” he adds more tenderly. “Waiting on happiness? You know it inn’t gonna wait on you.”

Of course. He has to know she runs these odds more than any of the others; the results are always the same. As she tells him, eyes clear: “It’s gonna have to.”