Disclaimer: I own nothing but the idea and the words used to write this; all recognizable characters/trademarks/dialogue, etc belong to Joss Whedon and company, except for the poem which is by Emily Dickinson. I’m making no profit from this story.

Author’s Note/Timeline: I had a good chunk of this written before I really started trying to figure out when Christmas was in season 6. I now realize that it had to have been before Hell’s Bells (because Buffy’s birthday is in January and Older and Far Away was before it) which screwed with my timeline so as a result, I’ve decided to go AU after Older and Far Away. We all know the episodes sometimes had a long gap between them so just pretend that things have been your average Sunnydale evil up until this point.

Summary: December 31st is more than New Year’s Eve… It’s also Make Up Your Mind Day. And Buffy is determined to observe it.

Dedication: And a very special thank you to those who read this over for me and gave your opinions. Your input is invaluable and I appreciate it so much!

Credit: The website that Willow found is www.holidayinsights.com/moreholidays/december.htm

Challenge: Elysian Field’s Holiday Challenge. The holiday I chose was Make Up Your Mind Day on December 31st.

Title: The Spirit of Forgiveness

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Today was the day.

Buffy could feel the knowledge settled deep within her stomach, twisting her insides into knots as soon as she woke up from the few hours she’d been able to sleep. She’d known the date was coming for the past month, but now that the self-imposed deadline had arrived, she found herself no closer to reaching a decision than she had been then.

Using the relaxation techniques Giles had taught her, she took a deep breath and let it fill her lungs before releasing it. Closing her eyes, she repeated the action until her head had cleared and she felt calmer. The knot in her belly had loosened a little, making it easier to breathe normally. She glanced at her alarm clock and realized that she had fifteen hours left, a span of time that seemed almost endless and yet not nearly enough.

She’d laughed when Willow had called her to check out the list titled “Bizarre, Unique and Special Holidays” in December. Some were absolutely ridiculous—what the hell was National Take It In The Ear Day, anyway—but some had made her smile. But all of that had disappeared when they’d reached the end of the list, December 31st.

There were three holidays listed for that date—New Year’s Eve, Unlucky Day and the one that hit her like a ton of bricks in the stomach was Make Up Your Mind Day. And how much did she hope that the last two sharing the date weren’t some sort of a foreboding omen? She’d tried everything to take her mind off the silly list in the days that had followed but it was impossible.

After a week, she’d seen Spike at Xander’s ill-fated wedding and had been surprised at the incredibly strong pangs of jealousy and possessiveness that had coursed through her when she’d heard that he brought a date. Talking with him had been… a revelation. Even after she’d ended their twisted ‘relationship’, if you could even call it that, she still saw the pain in his eyes when he realized he’d hurt her. And her heart ached to know that she had used this man who loved her so much that he had let her take what she needed without complaint, even knowing that it wasn’t even that crumb he’d asked her for so long ago.

Watching him leave with his ‘date’, she had made a decision. The limbo she had left him in wasn’t fair to him—and she’d realized that she missed him. And she didn’t even mean the sex—while that had been great, she realized she just missed being with Spike. The companionship, the way that he just got her, how she could tell him anything and knew it down to her soul that he’d never judge her… She missed the comfort just sitting and talking with him could bring. In that moment, she promised herself that she was going to observe Make A Decision Day if it killed her.

And that was how she came to be sitting on her bed with her knees drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped around them as she thought hard. Did she love Spike? She didn’t think so… but she felt something, she could no longer deny that; hell, she hadn’t been able to deny that fact since she’d been brought back. The look on his face when he’d seen her standing in front of him and realized that she wasn’t the robot had sparked something in her, feelings that she realized she’d had for a long time but ignored because it was ‘wrong’.

Spike had never cared about how wrong his love for her was, she mused as she rested her chin on her knees. He’d told her while chained up in his crypt that he knew it was wrong, but he was still there for her even after she disinvited him and told him to stay the hell away from her. She’d even heard from Willow about the flowers for Joyce he’d tried to leave without a card.

She’d spent so much time comparing him to Angel because he didn’t have a soul… but really, she had come to realize a soul didn’t mean nearly as much as she had once believed. How many human monsters were scattered throughout history and present day? Really, the more she thought about it the more impressed she was with how much Spike was capable of without a soul. He had honor, he loved hard and fierce without regrets, he’d protected her sister and fought alongside her friends while she’d been dead with no hope of a reward for it…

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling all of the uncertainty she’d been feeling. The question before the court wasn’t about Spike, not really. It was about her, Buffy Anne Summers, and if she could ever really love him the way he deserved. That was what she simply did not know—if she could trust herself to be with him in a healthy way and not slip back into using him. That way had almost destroyed her completely and it still hurt to think of how much pain she’d inflicted on both of them with her actions.

A tear slowly tracked down her face as she remembered the way he’d looked when she’d told him it was over. She’d seen the man and not the demon in that moment, in the way his pain was so clearly visible on his face and in those big blue eyes… She closed her eyes, reliving the moment when all she could think to say was, “Goodbye… William.”

It was a small word, that name, but one that held so much potential when she thought about it. It was the man behind the monster, the man who coexisted with the demon contrary to everything she’d been taught. And perhaps most of all, it had been a throwback to what he’d said to her that awful night she had been prepared to let the world burn rather than touch her sister–”I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man.”

A shudder passed through her at the memory and she took another breath to calm herself. If she was honest, she had been screwed up for years—ever since Angel had left her. Maybe she needed to go back to that time, she contemplated. He’d been her first love, but she realized with a jolt that she didn’t feel anything but a friendly affection for him now. When had that changed? Thinking back to her meeting with him after she’d come back, she realized that she had felt almost nothing then. At the time, she’d chalked it up to the numbness that had become her new normal, but she’d never felt numb with Spike.

In truth, going back over the past with Angel, she felt her ire rising. He’d always been the dominant one in the relationship, making decisions for her like she was a scared little girl who couldn’t make up her own mind. She’d been so young then, inexperienced and afraid of the strong feelings he’d brought out in her. So she had let him take control and it had set the tone for their entire relationship, all leading up to him leaving.

She knew that he had made the decision with good intentions, and she knew now that it had been the right call. But what Angel should have realized was that it should have been something they talked about together, not taking the choice from her. Slowly losing the interest of her father had destroyed her, something he knew, and she’d felt so small and abandoned when she’d woken up alone that morning after she’d given herself to Angel, body and soul. His deciding for her had left her feeling helpless and abandoned all over again, leading her to close her heart and build nearly impenetrable walls that had almost destroyed her.

Riley had tried his best to get past her walls but as much as she’d loved him, she had never really let him in the way he deserved. How could she? Their relationship had been sweet at first but then Maggie Walsh and the Initiative, not to mention her own secrets, had come crashing in and she’d quickly realized that he would never love the Slayer part of her. He loved the girl enough to try to make it work, to push past his own intimidation and need to be needed for as long as he could, but in the end it hadn’t been enough. So he’d left too, although she was grateful he’d at least given her somewhat of a choice in the matter. It eased the ache a little.

The men in her life seemed to love making decisions for her, deciding what was best for her and acting on it without sparing a thought for how she might feel, what she might want. Buffy sighed and stood to her feet, stretching and trying to ignore the tears pricking her eyelids. Old wounds still festered, and it brought to mind one of the poems she’d studied in Professor Lillian’s class.

They say that ‘time assuages,’–
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.

One of her favorite things about her poetry class had been that her professor was entirely upfront about there not being any one correct way to interpret a poem. It was subjective and could have a thousand different meanings depending on the reader. She’d relaxed almost immediately upon hearing that and had genuinely enjoyed the class, surprising herself by really liking poetry. Some of them were hard to read, much less analyze, but it was a challenge that she enjoyed and she felt a sense of victory almost akin to winning a fight when she finally figured it out.

This particular poem hadn’t been one of those. From the first time she had sat alone in her dorm room and read it aloud, letting the words wash over her, she’d felt a strange sort of kinship with Emily Dickinson. The words had spoken to her in a way that no other poem did, and she wasn’t surprised to find that they had stuck in her memory nor that she should think of it now. The pain that had been inflicted on her hadn’t weakened at all over time. Just like the poem said, the suffering had only grown stronger over time, as had the belief that she just wasn’t worth sticking around for.

But now, she found that belief was weaker than it had ever been before. Because of Spike. He had stayed even though she’d given him so many reasons to leave Sunnydale and never look back. Sometimes she wondered if he’d loved her even before he’d realized it, if that’s why he’d come to her for help after the government had stuck a chip in his skull. That had never made sense to her—even though they were the good guys, why go the enemy for help? She suspected that he’d known her even then, known that she couldn’t turn her back or drive a stake through the heart of a defenseless creature. Still though, she wondered.

Her musings were interrupted by her stomach growling loudly, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. Sparing a glance at her closet, she grimaced at the idea of getting dressed when she’d likely just spend the day in her bed anyway and just headed downstairs where she found Willow cooking eggs and pancakes.

“Hey sleepyhead, you up for some breakfast?” the redhead asked with a bright smile. Buffy sat down at the kitchen island and grinned. “It smells delicious, Will, thank you.” She waved the thanks away and made Buffy’s plate quickly, setting it down on the counter in front of her. “It’s the least I can do since, you know, I can’t really pay rent or anything.”

Buffy swallowed her bite of eggs and reached out to grab her friend’s hand, pinning her with her own version of resolve face. “We talked about this, Will. I know that you’ll help out when you can, but I don’t want you to worry about that right now. Just keep getting better, okay? What you guys did while I was gone was payment enough, now you just need to worry about yourself.” She waited until her friend nodded in agreement before returning to her food. “This is delicious, you’re like a goddess!” Buffy declared after she’d swallowed the last bite of her breakfast and pushed her plate away.

Willow grinned and took the plate over to the sink, adding it to the pile of dirty dishes. “Got any plans for the day?” she asked, turning the water on and starting to wash.

“I don’t know,” Buffy hedged, caught between wanting to tell her everything and worrying about her reaction would be. “I think that this is going to be a day of reflection,” she added, joining her at the sink and beginning to dry.

“Reflection, huh? That sounds big.” Willow handed her another dish, studying her as she did. “If you want any help with that…” Her voice trailed off and Buffy frowned, trying to remember the last time that she’d confided in her best friend.

“I guess we haven’t really talked much since I came back, huh?” she asked softly, glancing guiltily at the plate in her hands before putting it away.

“Not so much,” Willow agreed, sounding uneasy. “Buffy, you know that I’m sorry, right? If I’d had any idea…” She looked up to see the anguish in her friend’s eyes and she felt whatever resentment she’d held towards her slip away.

“Oh, Will…” She wrapped her arms around the other woman and tightened her grip when she felt her begin to tremble. “Of course I know that,” she said softly. She pulled away slightly so that she was looking her in the eyes when she continued. “I get why you did it, and as much as it hurt—still hurts, sometimes—I know that you thought you were helping me. I can’t blame you for that, not when I probably would have done the same thing for you.” She smiled, her own eyes misting over as she realized how much her friend had been hurting all this time. “I’m sorry that I haven’t talked to you about this before.”

“Can you forgive me?” Willow asked, sniffling and blinking back the tears as she gave Buffy a watery smile.

“Nothing to forgive,” was her response, and she was a little surprised at the conviction in her own tone. “I mean it, Will.”

They took a moment, Buffy’s mind whirling as she realized how much Spike had become for her since her return. He’d replaced Willow as her confidante and somehow had become the only person she could truly be herself with. Shaking herself from her thoughts, she reached out and turned the water off. “I think the dishes can wait, don’t you?” Willow nodded and dried her hands, following her silently into the living room.

Buffy sat down on the couch and motioned for her friend to sit beside her. Once she had, she took Will’s hand and squeezed it gently, watching some of the tension drain from her body. “How are you?” she asked quietly, the question sounding lame even to her ears but she had to start somewhere, right?

“I’ve been better,” was the other woman’s quiet reply as she swiped a hand across her face before giving her a tight, sad smile. “The magic–”

“I don’t mean with the magic,” Buffy interrupted gently, giving her a small smile in return. “I mean with Tara and… everything,” she finished, unable to voice her concerns about their friendship, afraid of what the answer might mean.

But she should have known Willow knew her well enough to read between the lines and see what she was really asking. “I’ve missed you, Buffy. You’ve been here all this time but you haven’t really been here. And that’s my fault. I can’t tell you how sorry I am–” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over when Buffy pulled her into another hug.

“Shhh,” she whispered, gently rubbing her friend’s back and feeling more than a little guilty about how relieved she felt to know that she hadn’t lost her best friend. “I’ve missed you too, Will, so much.” Her voice cracked at the end of the sentence and she felt her own tears spill over. How often had the two of them cried in each others’ arms? She’d lost count by now. But there was something new about this experience, something even more healing than ever before.

As they clung to each other, Buffy knew with a deep certainty that sprung from her very core that she never had to worry about losing Willow. The two of them were too tightly bound together after all they’d been through to walk away from each other, and the thought made her both grateful and sad. “I promise that I won’t ever shut you out again,” she promised, the determination in her voice strong enough to stop both their tears. “God, I’m the one who should be sorry Will. You’re right, I haven’t really been here, not for any of you. A part of me did resent you and the others for pulling me out, but I haven’t felt that way for a while. But I just…”

Willow pulled away and blinked to release the last few tears that had yet to fall. “But what, Buffy? I’ve been wrapped up in my own stuff too, this wasn’t all just you. But I know that something has been going on, something you don’t feel comfortable talking about.”

This was the moment of truth, she supposed. She could continue hiding everything she’d screwed up since she’d come back and pull away from her friend again, or she could open up and trust that Willow wouldn’t judge her, let her friend in again. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and made her choice. “When I first came back, Spike was the only one I could confide in, the only one I told about where I was. I was so worried about hurting you and the others and I could hardly stand to even think about… where I was. Everyone was so happy I was back… He was the only one who seemed halfway sad about it.”

She waved her hand in the air and grimaced. “I didn’t say that right. He was—Will, you should have seen his face when I walked down the stairs and he realized I wasn’t the robot. It was just…” Her voice trailed off as she tried to find the words, but they didn’t come. She shivered at the memory. “I don’t know how to say it, but he let his grief and remorse show around me. He made me feel like it was okay to just be Buffy around him when everyone else was freaking out if I frowned. You know?”

Willow nodded slowly. “Yeah. I was on so much of a power trip that I was practically willing you to be okay instead of checking to make sure you actually were.”

“I’ve been so lost since I came back, Will,” she admitted, her voice trembling. “I’ve just been… so numb. The only time I felt even slightly okay was with Spike. We would just sit in silence or I’d talk about what I felt and he’d listen, or sometimes he’d just talk and let me be there. It was comfortable even though I knew it should feel wrong.”

“That makes sense though,” the redhead replied thoughtfully, a slight trace of jealousy in her tone. “Me and Xander and Anya were all just pretty much in awe that we’d done something so big, so happy to have you back… Tara and Dawn were just grateful to have you back. Spike was the only one who mentioned the consequences magic always has, the only one willing to be happy and angry at the same time. It’s no wonder that you’d be drawn to the person who wasn’t looking for you to be okay, to be grateful…” Here her voice broke and she glanced down at her hands.

“Things got messed up for a while,” she agreed quietly, not a trace of blame in her tone. “Eventually…” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly again, dropping her gaze to her hands so she wouldn’t see Willow’s expression. “I started sleeping with Spike. I was horrified with myself the first time it happened, swore it’d never happen again… But it did. It kept happening until Riley came back and he caught us. I’ve never felt so ashamed, Will… It wasn’t because I was sleeping with Spike though. I was ashamed of myself because I was using him. I knew how he felt about me… knew how much he thought having my body would do for him but it was just destroying him instead… It began to break me down. I couldn’t be that kind of girl anymore who hurts someone that way. So I broke it off.”

She finally dared to glance up and saw nothing but sympathy and understanding on Willow’s face. A sigh of relief escaped her and she smiled slightly. “Thing is, Will? I miss him. I miss him a lot. I don’t think it was just physical the way I thought it was. I miss our conversations, the way he always knew what to say… sometimes I even miss his stinky smoking habit.” She laughed and Willow laughed with her, both of them crinkling their noses in mutual expressions of disgust.

“I take it that this is why this is a day for reflection?” Willow speculated, still smiling though the sympathy was still written in her eyes.

“Yeah. Do you remember that list of holidays we were laughing over a while back?” She continued when her friend nodded. “Well, today is New Year’s Eve—obviously—and it’s also Make Up Your Mind Day.” She paused to let that sink in before continuing. “I think that I have feelings for him—but I’m afraid of slipping back into using him. I couldn’t live with myself if I hurt him that way again. Then there’s the issue of what Giles and Xander would think…”

“I notice that you’re not mentioning what might happen if the chip stops working,” Willow noted slyly, a knowing gleam sparkling in her eyes.

“No, I’m really not,” she agreed, shaking her head. “I know that he’s changed. I’d started to believe it before I jumped and when I came back, I couldn’t not see it. He patrolled with you guys, protected Dawn… and he did all of that without ever thinking there’d be anything in it for him. And uh, there’s something else I should tell you. His chip doesn’t work on me anymore.”

“It doesn’t?” Willow’s eyes widened in fear. “Oh, goddess, did the spell–”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she hurried to reassure her. “Sorry, I should have led with that.” She shot her a rueful grin. “I asked Tara to check me out and I’m good. Something about coming back with deeply suntanned molecules, just different enough to confuse the sensors in the chip. But the thing is… As much as I’ve hurt him since I’ve been back, he could have killed me at any moment but he hasn’t. When I thought I killed that girl, he tried everything to help me and I beat the crap out of him for it. He didn’t care, he told me to ‘put it all on him’. He saw right through me, knew that I needed that release and he didn’t even fight back. He just let me do it.”

“He has changed,” the redhead confirmed, her features twisting into a thoughtful expression. “I think that we all saw that this summer. He was so good with Dawn and he even saved Xander’s life more than once.” The friends shared a laugh at that, both knowing that example was one of the biggest tests of Spike’s commitment to the side of the white hats. “And Buffy? I understand why you didn’t want to tell any of us about what was happening with the depression and Spike… I wasn’t exactly myself and I’m kind of glad you didn’t. I might have said some horrible things to you. But I get it and I’m not judging. But do you want my advice?”

Buffy nodded, the movement almost desperate in its’ speed. “More than anything, Will. I’ve been thinking all morning, all month really, and I just haven’t been able to make sense of anything except the reason why I kept myself so closed off from Riley. I have all these walls built because nearly every man I’ve let myself get close to has left me… My dad, Angel, Riley, even Giles left. But…” She looked at Willow with a hopeful smile tugging at her lips. “Spike has stayed. Despite everything I’ve ever done to hurt him, even though I was downright cruel more times than I care to remember… He’s stayed, and he loves me.”

“I think you answered your own question,” Willow replied, smiling widely. “And for what it’s worth? I think you should go for it. Screw what Xander or Giles or anyone else thinks. Of all the Scoobies, which one is the boss of you?” Buffy laughed and Willow’s grin widened. “Seriously, Buffy—it’s clear that you have feelings for him. You’ve seemed even sadder than usual since Riley’s visit, and now I understand why. Spike makes you happy and I think you owe it to yourself to find out how far your feelings for him go.”

“Will?” She looked at her questioningly. “Thank you.” She enveloped her in another hug, both laughing and squealing and it was just like old times, Buffy thought happily. Once again her best friend had come through with the good advice, and she knew that she was right. She did owe it to herself to see what could happen with Spike, to be happy and loved and maybe, just maybe, love in return.

~ ~ ~

Knowing that Spike would likely be asleep, Buffy spent the afternoon just hanging out with Willow and Dawn when she got home from school. There was still a lot of damage to be repaired between her and each one of the Scoobies, but she brushed that thought aside. She would begin working on the other relationships in her life tomorrow. She’d decided that today would be about her sister and her best friend who might as well be a sister. And tonight? Tonight belonged to Spike.

She’d found herself extra happy to have their help when it came time to start getting ready for the night. She had absolutely no idea what to wear and probably wouldn’t have made it out of the house before midnight if Dawn and Willow hadn’t kicked her out and chosen her clothes themselves. Dawn was overjoyed at the idea of Buffy and Spike—a slight kick to the shin and a whispered, “Finally, you idiot,” had been involved in her reaction—and she was more than happy to help her sister get ready.

Checking her reflection one last time, Buffy marveled at the spark in her eyes, the spark that had been missing for so long. She smiled at herself and couldn’t help the laugh that escaped, feeling lighter than she had in a very long time. “Buffy! Are you planning to get there before midnight or what?” Dawn sounded both impatient and annoyed but she just laughed, seeing right through her sister.

“So? How do I look?” she asked as she walked into the living room. The girls shared a conspiratorial grin at seeing their handiwork and Dawn squealed appreciatively, making the other two women wince slightly at the high-pitched noise.

“You look perfect! Oh my god, this is going to be awesome!” Dawn exclaimed, running over and wrapping her arms around Buffy. She returned the hug eagerly, pressing a kiss to the top of her sister’s head. God, she’d missed this. Why had she ever let things get so bad between them?

Banishing the recriminating thoughts for the moment—she’d have plenty of time for them later, tonight was about being happy—she pulled back slightly and tenderly brushed the hair out of Dawn’s face, smiling brightly. “I love you, Dawnie.”

“I love you too,” she returned with a warm smile, practically beaming with joy. Buffy knew that her sister saw more than the rest of them, she’d been the first to realize Spike’s feelings for her and clue her in to them and she had more than a sneaking suspicion that she had known how Buffy felt about him before she’d even figured it out herself.

“I guess I’d better get over there before I lose my nerve,” she said after a moment, returning Willow’s embrace as well. “Thank you, Will. No telling how long it would have taken me to decide what to do if I’d been stuck alone with my thoughts all day.” She was nervous as hell as it was, butterflies dancing around her belly and feeling as jittery as Willow acted when she drank coffee.

Willow gave her a wide smile and Buffy could see the gratefulness in her eyes as she hugged her again. “It’s so good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back,” she returned before pulling away. “Wish me luck, guys!”

“Good luck!” they said in unison, both grinning like idiots as they watched her leave.

~ ~ ~

Buffy was okay until she reached the crypt. Standing there in front of his door, the door she had kicked in so many times, she suddenly lost her nerve. What if he didn’t want her anymore, had moved on to someone who didn’t take months to realize that she cared about him and should give him a real chance? It’d be no less than she deserved after the way she’d treated him, but her heart tightened painfully when she thought about it.

Taking a deep breath, she focused again. She was fairly certain that Spike hadn’t moved on, deep down where it counted. He hadn’t moved on when she’d outright told him there wasn’t a chance, when she’d disinvited him from her house; hell, she’d died and he hadn’t done anything but protect her sister and love her when she came back. He’d looked at her like she was an angel that first night back, that awful night when she’d been convinced she was in hell because everything hurt so much. He’d been quiet and understanding, keeping his joy held back so that he wouldn’t overwhelm her. She closed her eyes and remembered the way his face had looked during their too brief interlude, soft and open with pure adoration and utter joy shining from his eyes.

Opening them again, Buffy smiled as she realized her fears and doubts were gone. No, Spike wasn’t the type to stop loving someone just because they hurt him. He was love’s bitch and his love was anything but flighty. He loved hard and he loved deep, and most of all he stayed. He was the one constant man she’d had in her life, the only one who had never left despite her pushing him away the hardest. He’d stayed and walked right through all of the walls she’d built.

Taking a deep breath, she started to push the door open but paused. She had barged into this crypt so many times in the past and it brought back some seriously bad memories. She was determined to change things this time around, and while it was such a simple gesture she knew she had to start somewhere. She raised her fist and knocked.

The seconds after seemed to drag on forever and just when she’d started to wonder if he was even home, the door suddenly swung open to reveal a shirtless Spike. His hair was a mess, he was scowling and she thought he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. His scowl instantly softened into a guarded expression when he saw her and she felt a pang of recrimination shoot through her. She’d done that, made him fear her appearance by her constant cruelty towards him.

Forcing those thoughts away, she smiled softly at him and was rewarded with a smile in return. “Slayer. What brings you by? Shouldn’t you be out with your mates, making resolutions you won’t keep and all that rot?” A soft laugh escaped her and her heart warmed as she watched his guarded expression slip even more.

“Spike…” She hesitated, unsure of what to say. She had spent so much time thinking about this decision but somehow had not spared a moment to consider how she would tell him when she had finally made up her mind. “Can I come in?” she asked softly, watching surprise flit over his features. The flash of hope she saw cross through his eyes for a split second before he could hide it bolstered her confidence and she stepped forward to lay a gentle hand on his forearm, curling her fingers around it. “Please.”

This time there was no hiding the shock on his face, and Spike just nodded before stepping to the side and allowing her to enter—after she gave his arm a soft squeeze. He followed her inside and closed the door. “Buffy?” he asked softly, and he looked so unsure of himself that she couldn’t help but reach out and take his hand, lacing her fingers through his and marveling at the spark that shot through her at the contact.

She took another step closer and reached up to cup his cheek, exhaling shakily when he leaned into her touch and sighed in a way that touched her very soul. His eyes were wide open to her now and she could see the confusion and wary hope that lurked within their cerulean depths, along with a pleading look that she knew was begging her not to hurt him again. His arms came up to encircle her waist, pulling her even closer until their bodies were flush against each other, never once releasing her hand. “Buffy,” he whispered hoarsely, and the naked hope and pleading in his tone made her squeeze his hand.

“Spike… There’s so much that I need to say,” she whispered, forcing her mind to shut up and let her heart do the talking. “I don’t even know where to start,” she admitted with a girlish giggle that made him grin at her. It was a sound he had never heard from her before she realized, and she felt her heart melt at the adoration shining from his eyes.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning, luv?” he asked softly, gently squeezing her hand. “Usually a good place.” He flashed her a wicked grin and she giggled again, playfully shoving his shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah. Make fun of Buffy while she’s actually trying to talk instead of run,” she joked, making sure to keep her face unguarded and her smile in place so that he wouldn’t get the wrong idea. She was rewarded with a brilliant smile. “Okay, I need for you to do me a favor. I’m going to talk and I need for you to stay quiet until I’m done.” He opened his mouth to protest and she stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “Please, Spike. There’s a lot I need to say and I’m afraid that if I don’t get it all out at once that I’ll lose my nerve.”

He mumbled something she didn’t catch—though she was pretty sure she heard the words “bloody”, “pout”, and “death”—and nodded. “You have my word, pet.” She smiled gratefully at him and gave his hand another squeeze, his acceptance of her terms bolstering her confidence.

“Thank you. Okay, so.” Find the words, Buffy, she ordered herself sternly. “I’m not exactly follow my heart girl, not since…” He cocked his head and squeezed her hand, the understanding in his eyes letting her break off. He got it, she didn’t have to finish. “I push people away, I punish them for loving me. I did it with Riley and god knows I did it with you.” She took a deep breath and studied his eyes, drawing strength from the emotions shining back at her. “I’m sorry, Spike. I’ve done so much to hurt you,” she whispered, her voice cracking. She felt a tear trickle down her cheek and sniffled when he raised a cautious hand to gently wipe it away. She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes before continuing. “At first… I didn’t want to admit that you could love without a soul, I couldn’t go there because…” Her voice caught and the dam broke, her tears falling fast and furiously.

Without thought, Spike raised his arms until he was cradling her in his arms, patting her back gently and murmuring softly in her ear. “Shh, pet. I know. Knew all along you weren’t ready to deal with what that meant about the—about Angel,” he amended. Buffy cried harder at his understand, clutching his arm like a lifeline. He just held her then, keeping up a constant flow of comforting words until she finally felt the tears slowing and finally stop.

Drawing back only slightly, she reached up to touch his face and gave him a watery smile. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Yes, that was the biggest part of it. I couldn’t accept that Angelus was a part of Angel, that the demon and the man coexist. It went against everything I was taught and everything I wanted to believe. And I took that out on you.” She leaned up and kissed his cheek softly. “Then when I came back… You were the only one I could talk to, the only one who could understand. I wasn’t ready for that but the only time I felt anything was when…” She glanced down, blushing prettily.

“Anyway, I hated you for that. I was so lost and I hated that the only time I felt like myself was in your arms. And I punished you for that too. I hated myself and I took it all out on you, using you to make myself feel better. God, Spike, I knew how you felt about me, finally let myself believe it… and then I abused it. Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it hurt to see you with someone else. But it also opened my eyes.” She smiled gently at him and squeezed his hand. “Do you know what today is?”

“New Year’s Eve,” he answered quietly.

“Besides that.” He shook his head and she deliberately wound one arm around his neck, pulling his face down to hers so that if one of them moved the barest fraction of an inch, their lips would meet. “It’s also Make Up Your Mind Day,” she whispered, searching his eyes until she saw understanding and naked, raw hope fill them. “When I saw how much hurting me hurt you, even after everything I’d done to you… how much it hurt to see you with someone else… I knew that I owed it to you and to myself to decide once and for all what I wanted and stop running away from it. Made this day my deadline because it seemed fitting and I knew I’d need time.”

A heavy silence descended, vampire and Slayer speaking only with their eyes for a moment. Spike’s voice broke the silence, sounding terrified and hopeful at the same time as he asked, “And have you then?”

“Yes,” she answered softly with no hesitation. And she leaned forward, just barely pressing her lips to his so that he could easily break the kiss. Spike kissed her back, pressing his lips to hers harder in an answer to her unspoken question but keeping the kiss chaste. They broke apart after a moment, both panting from the emotions coursing through them. She gave his hand another squeeze and he gave her a look that made her feels feel like jelly.

“You’re sure about this?” he asked gently, not even a trace of accusation in his voice. She nodded and rested her forehead against his, breathing in short gasps.

“Spike… I want to give you a chance, a real chance. I want to give us a chance. But–” Her voice trailed off, unable to voice her concerns.

“Slayer—Buffy,” he amended, “Before you say anything more, can I have a moment?” She nodded. “What you said, about using me—shhh, calm down pet,” he said soothingly when her breath hitched and she felt like she might explode into tears again. “You weren’t the only one doing the using,” he continued, a muscle in his jaw clenching. “When you first came back, I couldn’t believe that you trusted me. I just wanted to help you, save you the way that I didn’t…” He looked away, unable to continue and she squeezed his hand in a show of understanding. “I don’t know when that changed, but it did. You remember what I sang?” She nodded thoughtfully, remembering the way he had looked at her that night, loving and angry in equal measure.

“Don’t know if it was your intent, but that’s how I felt. Didn’t want it to come it out, felt guilty about it knowing everything else you had on your plate…” He squeezed her hand comfortingly as she felt a tear roll down her cheek. “But it did. You weren’t the only one responsible for what happened,” he whispered, gently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Shouldn’t have pushed, yeah? I knew how you felt, but I was selfish. I wanted you in any way I could have you… and I drove you deeper into the darkness when I should have been helping you find the light again.” He lifted their joined hands to his lips and kissed the back of hers fiercely with an underlying gentleness that took her breath away. “’m sorry too, pet.”

Her tears were falling again now, but he seemed to be able to sense the difference behind the cause as he gently pressed his lips to her forehead. “Love you, Buffy, so bloody much. Never wanna hurt you again, luv.”

Their lips met once more in a sweet, gentle kiss that conveyed more than either could ever say. Pulling back, Spike gazed at her in awe and she felt color blooming in her cheeks again. “I love when you look at me like that,” she whispered, smiling shyly.

He cocked his head to the side and smiled. “Like what, pet?”

“Like I’m the most beautiful girl in the world,” she replied, smiling at the ease with which the words came to her lips. But they always came easily with Spike–when she let them.

“That’s because you are,” he whispered, and there was William peeping through Spike’s disguise again. She smiled and kissed him again.

Twining her arms around his neck, she sighed happily. “Spike, I can’t say it yet… What I can say is that I have very strong feelings for you, so strong that they scare me sometimes. But–”

“I know.” He cut her off with an understanding smile. “Lot of work to be done, things to mend. Said I don’t ever want to hurt you again and I mean it. Just want to help, be there for you in whatever way you need me to be.”

“Exactly. I don’t ever want to hurt you again either… so I think it’s best if we take it slow for now.” He nodded in agreement and she smiled. “You know, seeing you at the wedding… I knew that I wanted to give you a chance then.”

“What stopped you?” he asked curiously.

“Me,” she answered, watching his face darken slightly. “I wasn’t sure if I could be with you in the way you deserve,” she continued softly. His face softened in understanding and he squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t want to hurt you again… I couldn’t live with myself.”

“Understand that, pet,” he whispered, ghosting the back of his hand across her cheek. She shivered with longing. He grinned smugly but she didn’t comment, realizing it was his way of reassuring himself that she was really here, really giving them another a chance. “So this is really happenin’ then?”

She gave him her warmest smile and wrapped her arms around him, turning her face into his chest and inhaling the smell of him. Leather and cigarette smoke mixed with the scent that was just Spike, and she let her entire body simply relax into his embrace. It was something she had never let herself do with him, and the only way she could think of to show him that this was real, how serious she was. “Yes,” she whispered, feeling him shudder beneath her touch as his arms came to rest on her back.

“Buffy…” She felt him inhale and exhale shakily and smiled against his chest.

“Why do you breathe?” she asked suddenly, voicing a question she’d always wondered but deemed too personal to ask.

He chuckled and pressed his lips to the top of her head in a tender kiss. “Don’t rightly know. Used to calm Dru, it did, feeling me breathe. Got into the habit and just never stopped, I suspect.” He tightened his embrace and she snuggled in as close as she possibly could, making him make a sound that was suspiciously like a purr of contentment.

They spent several moments like this, wrapped up in each other and a bubble of contentment that Buffy wished never had to break. But break it did when her cell phone suddenly chirped from the pocket of her jeans. “Oh! Spike, turn on the TV,” she squealed, reluctantly pulling herself away. He did as she asked and guessing at what she wanted, changed the channel to the countdown. There were sixty seconds to go until the new year, and her eyes sparkled wickedly as she returned to his embrace. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she stared into his eyes and smiled widely.

“Know what they say about who you ring in the new year with?” she asked coyly, brushing a soft kiss over his cheek.

“What’s that, luv?” he asked, gently tucking an errant strand of hair back behind her ear.

“That they’re the person who will stay in your life throughout the New Year,” she whispered, feelings tears spring to her eyes. “Not that I need the confirmation about that…”

“Bloody well right,” he said with a nod. “Never gonna leave you, pet. ‘Specially not now…”

They both turned their head to the television as the countdown broke into their moment.

10, 9, 8…”

Spike stared at her with wonder in his eyes and she couldn’t stop herself from brushing another kiss across his cheek.

7, 6, 5., 4..”

He leaned forward and pressed a tender yet fierce kiss to her forehead and she shuddered from the strength of the emotions it sent coursing through her.

3, 2, 1…”

His head ducked down to meet her as she leaned up and their lips met in a passionate kiss that had every molecule of Buffy’s body thrumming. He tangled his hands in her hair and she tightened her grip on his neck and moved closer, trying to get as close to him as she could. So caught up in each other and the kiss promising better tomorrows for the both of them, neither heard the crowd’s scream of, “Happy New Year!”

When they finally had to break apart so Buffy could breathe, she was crying and seeing the way he was staring at her with awe made the tears fall even harder. Gently cupping his cheek, she smiled through them and said breathlessly, “So… Happy New Year. Gotta say though, I think I’m liking Make Up Your Mind day much better at the moment.”

He grinned, turning his head to drop a kiss on her palm. “I’d have to agree with you there, luv.” His tone softened and he pressed another gentle, quick kiss to her lips. “I love you, Buffy. An’ I promise things are gonna be different.”

Buffy wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. “I know they are.”

~~FIN

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