The pancakes with which Buffy had presented him a few minutes before also crunched, but that was because they hadn't defrosted completely.
He ate them anyway.
Dawn wasn't so tactful. She cut bites from around the edges of her pancake stack, leaving a very conspicuous untouched center.
It was the third time Buffy had served pancakes since he'd arrived, and she hadn't heated them correctly once.
Giles smothered a sigh. She was the dearest girl, and she'd come so far by herself. Back in school, a job that made sense. Doing her own grocery shopping.
Yet there seemed to be a point at which her development stopped. At which she said, I can do this, and no more.
Perhaps, Giles thought suddenly, he should have listened to her the previous fall, when she'd pleaded with him not to go. She said she needed him, but he was so determined to do the right thing by her. And so deluded to think that he knew what that was.
He'd never died. He'd never held his family together while trying to save the world every night. He'd never had to kill someone he loved.
He'd never been left by the person chosen to guide him.
When he and Anya had spoken a few nights earlier, he had been taken aback to realize that instead of Buffy and her friends growing up while he was gone, they had all devolved rather spectacularly. He had no idea how it had happened, but the evidence was before him and he could not refute it.
As he stood up to help clear the table-Dawn having vanished without offering-he studied Buffy. She was certainly more self-possessed than she had been after her return the year before, yet she still seemed unlike herself, to his mind. She was quieter, and less effervescent. She kept things to herself.
Of course, she'd always kept things to herself. But she had usually covered her secretive tendencies up with a bright smile and smart remark, and as a result he somehow never thought of her as keeping secrets. Now, her demeanor suggested, she was her own woman and didn't have to answer to anyone.
So he had no idea how she would react to what he was going to say, and might as well not even try to cipher her out. "Buffy? May I have a word with you?"
Buffy froze in the act of placing the breakfast dishes in the sink to soak. Okay, syrup didn't require much soaking, but she never had time to wash the dishes in the morning anyway. He caught me, she thought, before remembering that she'd done nothing wrong. And that she was an adult. And that people didn't get to call her on things anymore, even if she loved them. Even if they disapproved.
She braced herself anyway.
"Buffy, I'm been watching you since I arrived-"
"You being a Watcher and all," she agreed dryly, covering her trepidation.
"Yes," he said absently, not listening. "And I've been doing quite a bit of thinking. I-perhaps you should sit down."
They both sat again at the kitchen table. "I-I've-" he hesitated. He wasn't sure how she'd react. He wasn't even sure how he felt about it yet himself. "Maybe I should just show you," he said finally.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an airline ticket.
She couldn't think for a moment, and was startled by the sudden crash of her heart. Almost like the other shoe dropping, she thought remotely. Why would she even be surprised? At least this time he wasn't back long enough for her to begin to depend on him again. Better than last year, at least.
He unfolded the paper and held it out to her, shaking it impatiently when she didn't immediately take it. Finally she focused on it.
"It's not a plane ticket," she blurted out in surprise.
He had no right to be hurt that the first thing she assumed he would do was leave. No right at all.
"It's a purchase agreement," he explained gently. "I've long enjoyed that bookshop down on Hazel Street. When I saw the for-sale sign in the window, it seemed the natural step. I...I missed the shop very much when I was away. I didn't even realize how much until I came back. It's the sort of thing that needs someone to look after it. To care for it, do what they can to make sure nothing bad happens. To-"
"Dust its shelves?" Buffy offered. Was she imagining this? Was he really coming back for good?
"Yes, dusting. We can't forget the dusting," Giles agreed with a small smile.
"Are you going to stay-"
"Yes, Buffy, I am going to stay."
"I meant here. In our house."
Giles felt himself flush a bit, a sensation he hadn't often felt since before his Ripper days. She was certainly accepting his news easily. Not a great deal of reaction, really. He'd thought-hoped-she'd be more excited. "Oh. Well, I thought I might get my own place. Unless you'd prefer I stay here?"
Buffy shook her head. "No, you-you can get your own place. Will you move back into your townhouse?"
"No, I gave up the lease on that when I returned to England last fall. Perhaps someplace a little larger now."
"What about the Magic Box?" Buffy asked quietly. "I mean, you still own it. Why the new shop?"
"You know, I bought the Magic Box because it coincided nicely with our interests and because, honestly, it seemed to do a brisk business. But since you convinced the council to reinstate me, I don't really need the reassurance of a profitable establishment-and I prefer spending my time around books rather than Fjyliac casting stones and pickled gelsen tongue. For one thing, they smell better," he joked mildly. "For that matter, Anya is doing very nicely on her own; I'm going to offer to sell her my share of the shop-she's such an clever investor, she probably has enough to buy me out tucked in her change purse. I'm sure it will be quite a relief for her, not to worry that I'm going to be imposing my unwanted suggestions on her. She really is quite a remarkable businesswoman."
"Why are you staying?" Buffy asked baldly.
Giles hesitated. "Well, as I said, there is a shop I'm rather partial to-"
"Yes, I heard about the shop, and the shop needs someone, and you shouldn't have left the shop, and can we stop talking in metaphors? Why are you staying now when you wouldn't last year, even after I begged you to?"
Well. She still knew how to cut a person deeply; that hadn't changed. "Last year-last year I thought it would be best for you to develop your sense of responsibility," he explained carefully.
"My sense of responsibility?" Buffy repeated in disbelief. "Is that a joke? How many times do I have to save the world before you think I've developed a sense of responsibility?"
"Responsibility was a poor choice of word," Giles amended hastily. "Independence, I think, is more what I was hoping to encourage."
"Encourage from the other side of the world?"
How could he explain his intentions when they had been so misguided? Plead temporary insanity? He'd reached the point where he now barely remembered his reasons for leaving. Well, he remembered them; they just seemed so trifling now-almost like a pretext. "Buffy...you had so much thrust upon you last year...your mother...raising Dawn...readjusting to life. Yet it seemed to me that the longer I stayed, the more dependent you became. You didn't want to be the adult in Dawn's life. You didn't even want to be the adult in your life."
Buffy opened her mouth to interrupt, but Giles held up a hand to preempt her. "I wanted to help you. But although I can train you and conduct research, I have no expertise in the raising of a young woman. I don't know how to help you, but I wanted to, more than anything-you must believe that. You didn't seem to be adjusting as soon as I thought you should. I'm afraid I reverted to a ‘sink or swim' mentality-really quite barbaric. But you must know that I expected you to swim beautifully."
"I guess I'm a slow learner," Buffy replied, hurt.
"No, my dear, I am. I was quite stupid. A person cannot swim when they are already weighted down, and you have more anchors than any one person should have to bear. My role as Watcher is not merely to help you train and record your deeds; it is to make your job easier however I can. And despite the best intentions, I did the opposite. I let you down, Buffy. As a Watcher and as a friend," he said honestly.
Buffy regarded him suspiciously, still not convinced. She'd heard the I'm-leaving-for-your-own-good speech so many times she could recite it in her sleep. She'd never heard it in reverse before. She thought she liked it better that way. "You're not staying because you're worried about Spike, are you? Because I can take care of myself."
"I know you can," he responded with heartbreaking tenderness. "You just shouldn't have to."
Buffy glanced down at the table. It was hard to believe he was really here, saying these things to her. She'd dreamed it so often in the months after he'd left, wanted it so badly. She'd been hurt so deeply when he left. When Riley had left she was wounded and angry, but it was nothing compared to what she felt when Giles-her rock-had listened to her beg him to stay and then packed his bags anyway; it had been as if the world were turning backwards. A reminder that she could trust no one to stand by her, a little refresher course in what her real major was in life.
You can trust Spike, a little voice inside her whispered. She pushed it aside. Yes, he'd always been there for her, but not everything was about him. This was Giles, asking for another chance to care for her. Like Spike had. Like Angel, like Willow.
No, not like Willow. Nothing like her. Giles had-he'd been trying to help her.
And Spike? And Angel? What had they been trying to do?
"Okay," Buffy murmured. Her brain hurt, and she didn't want to think anymore.
"Okay?" repeated Giles.
Buffy jerked back to reality and stood up, walking over to the sink and turning the faucet on hot. Flooding the breakfast dishes, squeezing in detergent. Behind her she could hear Giles rise and move towards the doorway. She turned around suddenly. "So you're really staying? For good?" she asked softly.
He regarded her gravely. He regretted he'd ever given her reason to doubt him. "Yes. For good."
She nodded, and returned her attention to the sink without a word. Giles sighed and left the kitchen. It wasn't the response he'd hoped for. But what could he expect? It appeared she still had a layer of-
He stopped abruptly when a strong, thin pair of arms sneaked around him from behind, squeezing him desperately. "You're really staying?" Buffy whispered again.
He squeezed her hands where they met around his waist. "Yes, I promise," he said softly, and smiled as he felt her rest her head against his back. She didn't seem inclined to let go.
That was just fine with him.
There was something lazy about bells over shop doors. The old, burned-down Magic Box had had one, but Anya had always disapproved of it. An attentive shopkeeper didn't need a crutch like that, she knew when customers came in because she was paying attention. So when the store was rebuilt, no bell was put over the door. Giles hadn't been there when the project was reaching completion, but Anya had popped over to see him and let him know what she was doing, in the guise of asking his advice about it. He had agreed with her, because he recognized her expertise in the matter. She enjoyed the faith he had in her abilities. Perhaps, now that he was in town again, he would like to begin spending his days at the shop? Not that she needed the help. But it would be nice for him to have something to do. Something to do around her.
She did spend a lot of her time thinking about Giles. Sometime she was planning their long and happy lives together, but she believed in being practical, so the primary focus of her Giles-related thoughts was on devising a sophisticated approach with him, rather than the lose-the-dress gambit that had worked so well with Xander. He was much older than Xander, and much wiser. Of course, Spike was older than Xander and wiser too, which was actually kind of depressing, and she hadn't even had to shuck her clothes for him to be on her. Ah yes! Alcohol! How could she have forgotten about its many fine, inebriating qualities? Of course, she wanted Giles to be cognizant of their relationship. But sometimes relationships needed a little grease, or at least lube. And they'd had a breakthrough a few nights before, hadn't they, when Giles had asked her about the wisdom of him returning to England last year? It had shown he'd valued her opinion as a woman as well as a shopkeeper. He'd never have told her such intimate things otherwise. He wanted to know what she thought. It was a nice change of pace from...well, everyone.
The thing was, when she thought about Giles, she didn't always notice things. So when Xander walked into the Magic Box, she didn't see him, and she didn't hear him, because of the no-bell door, and she didn't smell him, because why would she?
It was the first time Xander had been to the shop since it was rebuilt. Things looked different now, but they felt different too. Perhaps that was because he was an outsider. It used to be his second home, and now he wasn't welcome there.
But he needed to be there. He needed it so badly. He'd needed to be around Anya for months, but he'd respected her desire that he leave her alone. It hurt his heart to be away from her, but he'd done it because she wanted it and he owed it to her. He couldn't stay away any more. He knew he should, but things were worse and he had no one. He had no one except Willow and his job was to help her, not burden her with his problems.
He shouldn't be doing that to Anya, either, but she'd always known how to take care of herself. Even when she was sad, even when she was angry. She did it better than anyone he knew. She wasn't nurturing. But she was strong.
There weren't any customers in the shop, and Anya stood before a display of dried herb bouquets, staring at them with intense concentration. Herbs didn't need that much attention; she must have been thinking about something important. Something that mattered to her.
Something that undoubtedly wasn't him.
Her back stiffened, and then she turned around slowly, her face tense. Well, she hadn't forgotten his voice, at least.
"Xander," she said formally, as if they barely knew each other. "What are you doing at my establishment? Do you wish to purchase one of the large variety of magical goods we carry? This week we have a special on bulk quantities of tagus root."
As she spoke she moved behind the counter, letting him know that she was only interested in talking business with him. But he'd played it her way ever since he'd broken up with her, when he was wearing a stupid rented tux that barely fit and she was achingly beautiful in a dress that made her look like a mermaid. He'd tried so hard to do things her way, because he'd thought it would help. And he'd never been able to make her understand what he feared, what that foul old man had shown him. He knew it was fiction, that it was just some scenario to make him hurt Anya, but she hadn't grown up wincing every time his father opened his mouth. Cringing when he raised his hand. Hiding in his closet so he wouldn't be found. Fantasizing that he wasn't his father, that his mother would swoop him up and take him someplace else, where they could be safe and happy.
And then, as an adult, feeling trapped there. Like it was quicksand, and he couldn't fight his way out. Even after he started working, working at a lot of different things, he'd stayed there, and it made him feel even worse. But somehow the chains holding him there seemed to grow even tighter. If it wasn't for Anya he'd still be there. She was the only thing that had gotten him out. But even with her, he hadn't been sure he was strong enough not to become his father. Because two years of Anya couldn't erase 18 years of him, and he loved her too much to risk it. She could dismiss it as a shadow threat. He lived with it every night. He knew it couldn't just be waved away.
"I was just-just, uh-wondering how you were doing." Anya regarded him steadily, and Xander felt himself begin to wilt under her flinty gaze. He felt as big a loser as he had been in high school. He didn't think he'd ever been this tongue-tied, even with Cordy at her most sarcastic. "Have you seen anyone interesting lately?" he attempted, trying not to sounds jealous, or possessive, or any of the other things he wasn't entitled to feel.
"What?" Anya demanded in disbelief.
"I mean...like Giles, say? Have you seen Giles?"
"No, I haven't seen Giles. Today," she added shortly
"Oh. I was just wondering. Because I heard you saw a lot of him."
"We're business partners. And friends. Friends first, really. He respects my opinion and treats me with respect. Yes, a lot of-respect. It's a nice feeling. It's a new feeling," she added frostily.
Xander stared at the floor. How could he tell her it hurt, to hear she was popping over to the other side of the world to see Giles, and wouldn't even come out from behind the counter to talk to him? He'd tried again and again to tell her how sorry he was. But he wasn't here to apologize; he'd done that enough.
He needed to talk, and he just didn't have anyone else.
"If you want to talk to Giles I suggest you call Buffy," Anya said, drawing him back to the moment.
Xander flinched. "I don't think that's really a good idea. Buffy and I are a little-things aren't good now."
"Ah. Is it about Spike, by any chance?"
"You know about that?" Xander asked in surprise.
"Why yes, of course. We're friends. She and I and Giles and Spike. Why, just last weekend the four of us had a wonderful time together at Buffy's."
Xander ground his teeth to avoid saying anything bad about the everything that he hated about that sentence. "Aren't you at all-concerned about her?" Xander asked.
"Why would I be? She's the Slayer, she knows how to take care of herself better than anyone."
"He's a vampire," Xander said doggedly-the same argument he'd made before, to Buffy, to others, about Spike, about Angel. It all felt so old, and like it had happened so many times. But he felt as if he didn't struggle everyone would go under, and then it would be too late. Too late for all of them. And yet he seemed to be the only one who was worried.
"And she's a vampire slayer. That would seem like a good balance to me. Unconventional, but equal."
"Balance? The balance between vampires and the Slayer is that she kills them. That's where the whole balance thing comes in. It's like she's forgotten what she's supposed to do."
"How could she forget?" Anya scoffed. "She's done it every night for the past seven years."
"But she's different now. She used to be my hero," said Xander quietly. "Now, I don't know."
Anya shook her head in disbelief. That had always been Xander's problem. He had grown up trying to hide from reality, and had taken refuge where he could. Mostly, in fantasy. His view of reality was so colored, so skewed, that when people behaved like...people, he couldn't stand it. It didn't fit his idea of what was normal. What was right. God knows she never had.
"Xander, she does heroic things, but she's a person," pointed out Anya. "Not a comic book hero. Not an action figure. She's a person, and she's allowed to lose her temper and hold grudges and make bad romantic decisions. Or perfectly good ones that you just don't approve of."
"I don't think she's an action figure," protested Xander, wounded. He only wanted Buffy to be Buffy, the girl he'd met and immediately fallen into...uh, admiration for so many years before. Who'd been so brave, and done what was right no matter how hard it was. Who had opened up his world, and Willow's.
"Then why do you get so upset when she breaks out of her little mold?"
"I don't want to force her in a mold, I just want her to be Buffy," he said desperately.
"Well, who else do you think she's being? Just because she's not doing what you want doesn't mean she's not being herself. You want her to be exactly the same as she's always been, but everything in her life has changed, and you can't expect that it-" Anya stopped and drew a breath. "Do you know why Giles left last year, Xander?"
He couldn't answer. He'd never had a clue.
"He left so she would grow up," Anya told him plainly. She didn't like talking with him. She felt like she was talking with a child; she wasn't sure what she'd ever seen in him. She'd pushed aside warm memories of Xander bringing her soup when she was sick, and rubbing her feet when they were cold, pushed them so far away she could barely recall them. She gathered up an armful of stock that hadn't been moving well and turned to head into the back. At the door she turned. "And she has grown up. You have to let her do it her way. You know, Xander, the trouble with putting people on a pedestal is that sometimes they find it hard to keep their balance. And most people prefer the view from the ground, anyway."
She stayed in the storeroom a good five minutes. When she came out, the shop was empty.
It wasn't appropriate to skip through a cemetery, was it? Buffy didn't think so. And really, it sounded like something that fruit bat Drusilla would do. But she felt lighter than she had in years. Giles was staying-staying for good, he'd promised. And he'd never promised her anything before, and he was English, and it probably meant more to him because of...some reason she didn't know, and he was staying. And Dawn had been doing her homework like she was supposed to when Buffy got home from class the night before, and she chatted during breakfast, and seemed happier than she usually did. And now Buffy was going to see Spike, and it had been a few days, and she was sick of not seeing him, and was it possible to babble when talking to yourself?
She restrained herself from kicking in Spike's door. It almost felt wrong not to, but that was of the past. Along with hiding their relationship and beating him up when it wasn't for mutual pleasure, or at least training purposes. Or both.
Huh. There was usually noise coming from Spike's crypt. He hardly ever sat still, and would have the television or CD player going, or just be nattering on to himself about Dawn or Tennyson or onion rings. Or talking to an imaginary Buffy, she'd heard him do that enough times. Imaginary Buffy seemed to like to argue.
But tonight the crypt was silent. It was eerie, and perhaps it was the unaccustomed silence that made her freeze with her hand on the door and draw out her stake.
When she quietly pushed the door open she was startled to find...nothing.
No trash decorating the room; no grime on the floor; even the furniture was gone.
Her heart caught in her throat. "Spike," she whispered. Then, more loudly, "Spike!"
Buffy swung her attention to the corner of the room, and in the dim she could make out Spike's bright head as he moved towards her from the far end of the crypt. "My god, what's happened here?"
"Just doing a little spring cleaning is all. Clem really did leave the place a bit of a mess."
"You moved all the furniture out?" she asked in disbelief.
"Furniture's right there, Slayer," he pointed out, gesturing to the wall. She followed his hand and her eyes, now adjusting to the lack of light, made out the shapes of his few pieces of furniture, pushed to the periphery of the room. "Had to get it out of the way."
Buffy looked around more carefully, then bent to touch the floor in surprise. "You washed the floor?" she marveled.
Spike stiffened a little. If he'd just washed the one spot he'd been ill it would have looked a little odd, wouldn't it? It was stupid of him not to tell her, really, but it made him feel weak. Vulnerable. And she had more than enough to deal with already without worrying about him. Even if he liked the thought of her worrying about him. Hell, he was only h-well, he had feelings same as anyone, didn't he?
Besides, no need for her to worry. It had just been that one time, and he was fine. Sure, he hadn't eaten since, but that was because he really wasn't hungry. That was all.
He walked over to her and touched her cheek. He loved the way she let him do it, the way she reached up to cover his hand with her own.
"Did Xander visit?" she asked a little nervously. "Or maybe you got another present?"
"No, Slayer," Spike murmured, nuzzling her cheek. "And there aren't going to be any more."
Buffy pulled back in surprise and looked at him. "Why not?" He smiled at her, and she felt a shiver run down her spine.
"Because I did a little thinking, and everything's clear now. And I know exactly where they came from."