Spike gritted his teeth. This was getting them nowhere, it was obvious; the combined force of Spike and Buffy wasn't intimidating him at all. He returned their gaze steadily. And why wouldn't he? He had no idea what they were talking about.

"I still don't get the part about the bag of bones," Clem protested. "Were they chicken bones? I had hot wings a couple of times, but I usually get a whole bucket. Because, you know, it takes a lot of wings to make a meal. They don't have a lot of meat to them. I mean, if they made wings without bones maybe a bag would be enough, but as it is they're mostly bone. And I don't really understand that, because they sell boneless chicken, so why can't they just-"

"Finger bones. They were finger bones," said Spike impatiently.

"Chickens don't-"

"Human fingers."

"My god, that's disgusting! And you think I left that in your crypt?"

Buffy glanced at Spike dubiously. It didn't sound too likely, did it? Clem, with his big droopy face and innocent eyes? Clem, who loved nachos and, um, kittens, and...led her baby sister straight to Rack's, where she was almost killed..."Spill!" Buffy demanded, grabbing his collar and giving him a good shake.

Clem didn't know what to think. Sure, she was the Slayer, and admittedly, he was a demon, but she'd never seemed interested in killing him before, even before they were properly introduced. Maybe this was...a game? A weird role-playing game she and Spike had going. Good vamp, bad Slayer? He didn't think he liked his role in the game. In fact, he was pretty sure he didn't want to play.

"Spike?" he said nervously. "I'm, uh, I'm not really sure what-"

Spike's hand on her wrist stopped Buffy from shaking Clem's head off. He drew her aside with a tug. "What the hell is that about, Slayer?" he muttered.

"I'm trying to get to the bottom of it," she gritted.

"The bottom of what?"

"The bottom of the fingers, and the doll," she said in exasperation.

"He obviously doesn't know anything about them," Spike pointed out. Unfortunately, that had become clear. So much for his brilliant fucking idea.

"He's dangerous!" Buffy hissed.

"Yeah, he might stare sadly at us to death," Spike agreed sardonically.

Buffy glared at him, thoroughly frustrated. "As I recall, you were the one who had the brainstorm that it was Clem."

"Yeah, it was my idea that Clem forgot some of his stuff at my place, not that he's stalking me or some such garbage," Spike returned testily. He would have thought the Slayer was a better judge of character, but hell, she'd dated Clark Kent for about forever before figuring out that Finn's alter ego was less Superman than Jimmy Olsen with a crack habit. Well, she hadn't actually figured it out so much as he'd pointed it out to her. Strictly for her own good of course, although he'd never heard a word of thanks.

And it wasn't like he hadn't saved her a lot of heartbreak in the long run, because there was no way that rotten, two-timing lump of-

"Well, what do you suggest we do?" Buffy challenged, drawing him out of his reverie. He always did enjoy thinking about how much he hated Lt. Lightweight.

He shrugged. "Get a drink?" he suggested. She looked at him skeptically. "Go dancing?" She continued to stare at him. "Go home?" he offered finally.

She rolled her eyes. "Fine," she sighed. Since when had he become all sane and rational? Last year he would have enjoyed helping her knock someone around, poker friendship notwithstanding.

And really, the time for beating Clem up would have been right after the world didn't end. Not now. Now he wouldn't even know what she was beating him for, and what was the point of that?

Clem watched as Spike and the Slayer murmured to each other and exchanged intense looks, then turn towards the door and head out without another word to him. He almost said goodbye, but the Slayer was acting kind of scary and he really didn't want say anything that might make her stay. She was usually calmer than this. Kind of sedate, really. He thought he might like to put some lotion on his neck, which was kind of sore from being shaken. His skin was surprisingly tender. People never seemed to realize that.

He wondered when they'd started dating again.

***

Spike glanced at Buffy, walking silently beside him. He itched to take her hand, but she still seemed a little pissed that he hadn't let her whale on Clem. He'd usually encouraged her to violence in the past; she probably didn't know what the hell had got into him.

He turned his head slightly to hide his smile. Well, there were other ways to burn off frustration. He'd shown her quite a few in the past.

At any rate, it wasn't how he'd envisioned the evening. As he'd lain on the floor of his crypt the night before, he'd wondered if he was dying. It was ridiculous, really; loss of blood couldn't kill him. Just make him weak, emaciated. If someone wanted to torment him, though, he was doing a good job. Hadn't heaved since-well, he'd gone a bit queasy right after he'd gotten his soul back, but that was to be expected, wasn't it? He'd felt sick when he woke up as a vampire, which wasn't surprising, having died and all. Reasonable to expect that death might turn one's stomach.

But lying on the floor, it was worse. He hadn't felt like that in so long. Been so weak, so vulnerable. Not physically, at least. But then, after a time-a long time-he'd realized the pain was gone. He still ached, and it hurt to move, but fierce pain had left him along with the blood. At the time he'd just dragged himself free of the mess and slept. In the afternoon, he'd cleaned the place up, good enough that the Slayer would never know what had happened. No need for her to know. Nothing she could do about it-nothing that needed to be done, now.

When he was cleaning the place, something had become clear to him. Dalton, that bookworm, had said he thought best when he washed floors. Said it was a Zen thing. Should have realized Big Blue would pick him to burn up; what kind of vampire went around talking that sort of rubbish? Spike had always assumed Dalton was full of shit-it was a safe bet, after all-but while carefully washing away the evidence of his weakness from the granite, he'd suddenly realized that the bones, the doll-neither of them had been meant for him. They hadn't been left out for him to find; they'd been discarded-forgotten. Shoved absently in a corner or under a chair, and his imagination-made so vivid with the addition of his soul-had conjured some bogeyman to haunt him.

Of course, Clem's blank, watery eyes-it was his allergy season, he told them, sniffling a little-had made it plain that they didn't belong to him. Admittedly, he wasn't really the type to haul around a bag of bones. But a doll? Yeah, Spike could see that.

So now he was back at square one. If Clem hadn't forgotten them at his place, then somebody had put them there deliberately; the gifts had been left for him, left by someone good at covering his tracks. Who could come and go from a vampire's lair-Spike did like the term lair-with impunity. Without fear. And who-

Hey. Buffy was holding his hand. When did that happen? He squeezed her hand a little, and she squeezed back. She looked calmer now, he was pleased to see.

He drew her closer and nuzzled the side of her neck. Oh, she enjoyed that, he could tell. He hummed a little against her soft flesh and felt her vibrate in response.

Unfortunately, they were almost in front of her house. He cursed silently and drew to a halt at the walkway to her porch. "Well, I guess this is goodnight," he said softly.

She looked at him steadily. He seemed different than he had last year, less impulsive. Well, a little, anyway. He'd never be Mr. Rational.

But he'd always be hers. And that was how she wanted it.

She reached up and cupped his face between her hands, drawing him down for a feather-light kiss. "Goodnight," she murmured.

His hands covered hers and held them to him. She never touched him like this before, gently. With care. As if he were special to her. "Buffy," he whispered. She pressed her cheek against his, and he shivered. He'd never be used to the sensation of her touching him with tenderness.

He pressed one kiss, two, against her cheek and drew back, seeing the porch light frame her, make her incandescent. "Goodnight, love," he whispered.

***

All Xander wanted was a beer, and to forget for ten goddamn minutes. Forget the hurt on Anya's face when he told her he couldn't marry her. Forget the anger when he suggested they start dating again. Forget the indifference tonight, when he'd been near her, closer to her than he had been in months, and it didn't mean a thing to her.

He wouldn't go to the Bronze. The Bronze was for having fun, or at least being sociable, and he didn't want to pretend like he wanted to talk or smile or was interested in what anyone had to say. He had to do that all day, all the time, and he just needed a few minutes where he didn't have to pretend, to keep from going insane. So he was driving to One-Eyed Jack's, the skankiest bar he knew, where even his crew wouldn't go, and he could sit and pretend he wasn't living the life he was.

But then, driving down the darkened road, he saw them walking along the sidewalk. He didn't know why he noticed them, but she was glowing like she hadn't in years, and Xander forgot his despair, his frustration, and was glad, ferociously glad, to see her as she used to be-the vibrant girl who had created a center in his life, without even meaning to.

And then he had followed her outstretched arm down to where her hand clasped Spike's, and he stopped being glad.

He forgot all about his grand plans for drinking and drove off as fast as his truck could go.

They never saw him.

Now, heading up the stairs to his apartment, he assembled his features in an acceptable approximation of the placid mask he'd taken to wearing around Willow. But Willow wasn't there when he came in, waiting on the couch with a sweet and frighteningly blank smile as she usually was, and the apartment was dim.

She never left the apartment by herself. Not unless she really wanted something, and there was only one thing she really wanted.

She's out. She's out and she'll try to talk to Buffy, and this time Buffy will kill her, Xander thought. His head felt so fogged up that the panic he would normally feel seemed distant, like he was watching somebody else get bad news. Didn't even get a goddamn drink, but he felt as insulated as if he'd gotten nicely toasted.

When he thought about it that way, he could kind of see where his dad was coming from.

And god, he hated thinking that even for a second.

"I was wondering when you'd return."

Xander started at the sound and turned to the dark corner to squint at the speaker. Although that didn't really make sense, he admitted, because it wasn't like he could confuse Giles' voice with...well, anybody.

"What's with the darkness? Going for a new-a new-" God, it was hard to make a joke when you didn't care if the other person laughed, or even if you did. In fact, he couldn't think of anything he cared enough about to say right then.

Oh. Except-"Where's Willow? Is she all right?" he asked, reproaching himself for not asking immediately.

Giles dismissed Xander's concern with a wave of his hand. "She's fine, she was just feeling a little tired and went to bed early."

"Tired? Why was she tired?"

"Well, I came over for a talk this afternoon and we had a brisk walk and stopped for a bite to eat. She wore out rather easily, I'm afraid. I don't think the lack of stimulation she's had lately has been good for her."

Xander felt a pang of unwelcome guilt, followed by an equally unwelcome jolt of jealousy. You're living with Buffy and Dawn and my fiancée's all over you and now you're taking over my best friend. Hey, why don't you start dating my mom on the side?

And then, again with the self-reproval. He was could always count on that, at least.

"I've been waiting for a while. Willow indicated that you usually get home by six," Giles prodded.

"I thought I'd go for a beer."

"That must have been quite an impressive brew," Giles observed dryly.

Xander ignored the implied question. He'd be damned if he'd give an accounting of how Anya had stared through him, and talked about Giles, and told Xander that he wasn't worth jack as a friend. He'd wanted to get in his car and drive until he no longer remembered he'd come from, but that wasn't the kind of thing he did. No matter what Anya thought, he wasn't the kind of guy who'd turn his back on his friends. So he was here, because Willow needed him, and because Buffy needed him too, even if she didn't think so. They all needed each other. They were what made each other strong, not Buffy's Slayerness or Willow's magic. It was their friendship, and he'd be damned if he'd leave that behind.

"Xander? Are you sure you're all right?" Giles asked, keeping his voice gentler than it usually was when he addressed the boy. Man, really. It wasn't fair to withhold that word from Xander; he'd earned it. Now he looked more tired than Giles had ever seen him-indescribably exhausted, far older than his 21 years. He seemed weighed down with concern, quite unlike the exuberant youth he'd been only a few years before. Always piping up with some inane observance or inappropriate joke, some of which were rather funny. Even if Giles did rarely admit it.

Xander brushed off his concern. He had never sought the sympathy of the others, even when he felt like crap. When people looked at you with pity, it just made you feel worse. And he didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him, anyway.

He had that position all sewn up. That's why god made Patsy Cline albums.

"I'm fine," he dismissed.

Giles gave him a probing glance. "Are you sure?"

There was hardly any bitterness in the ironic smile Xander managed as he said, "What's could be wrong? A great day hauling lumber and slamming nails, followed by the always-wonderful chat with ex-fiancée. I hope you appreciate how much Anya thinks of you," he added, fighting to keep his voice steady.

"Anya? Yes, of course. She's a fine-a fine girl, really. I've haven't told her yet-I'm not sure what she'll say. It's the best thing, though, and I'm sure in the end that everyone-"

"Tell her? Tell her what?" Xander interrupted. Yet another topic which he was the last to know, apparently. Well, not the last this time. Not the exact last, at least.

Giles realized he had gotten ahead of himself and smiled apologetically. "I see I'm getting ahead of myself," he chuckled. "I guess the only people who have been told are Buffy and Dawn, and now Willow. You see, I've decided to stay in Sunnydale."

That was the point at which Xander stopped listening.

He'd heard the phrase "out of body experience" his entire life-after all, he did live in California-but he'd never had what he'd describe as one before. And he was probably still actually in his body, but for some reason he felt like he was standing on the other side of the room, watching an exchange that had nothing to do with him. Certainly nothing that he cared about. Two strangers, talking about the weather or the stock market or dog racing-did they still do that? You'd think animal activists would have put a stop to that by now in favor of, well, something else-midget racing? Washed-up child star hot oil wrestling? He didn't know.

"-and I've let you all down so terribly."

Giles' soft phrase penetrated Xander's mind, forced inside by shock when Giles briefly touched his shoulder, a gesture so unexpected that Xander jumped back as if burned.

Giles shrugged apologetically. He would think that he was losing his touch, but he'd never had one to begin with. He'd failed all of them, even those who whose care he was not charged with. He'd read the situation-read them-horribly wrong. He wondered how many things would have turned out differently if he's stayed.

"You're staying," Xander muttered, mostly to himself. Giles looked at him curiously. "You don't have to worry about Anya. She'll be delighted," he assured Giles with a grimace.

"Well, I'm hoping so. She'll still have the Magic Box to herself-I've purchased that old bookshop on Hazel Street, you know the one, the Shoehorn? By the comic book store?" Giles prodded when Xander continued to look at him blankly.

"Oh, yeah, the bookshop," Xander repeated. Giles wouldn't be on the other side of the world any more; Anya wouldn't have to poof off to visit him, she could just walk a couple of blocks. Or sprint. And Giles could drop in on her. And they could go on lots of double dates with Buffy and Spike, and even Willow wouldn't need him anymore.

"While Willow and I were out walking today we glanced at a few houses for sale-the prices certainly are agreeable. Which isn't surprising, really. When Olivia comes out I want to have the place completely ready for her, not all sixes and sevens-"

"Olivia? What? You two are still seeing each other?" Xander blurted.

Giles looked down with uncustomary shyness. "As it happens, we'd been discussing moving in together. When I realized I had to stay here, I asked if she would join me. She agreed."

Xander stared at him, and stared some more. Finally he sat on the couch without a word.

He felt the couch readjust, and knew that Giles must have sat down next to him. Anya, he thought with a pang. God, this will hurt her.

"Have you mentioned her to Anya?"

"Mentioned her? Well, they met some years ago-at the same time you met her."

"Recently. Have you mentioned her to Anya recently?"

"No, I don't believe I have," Giles said after a moment. "Anya and I really only discuss business on her visits."

"Business," Xander echoed. Anya had been misleading him. Misleading herself. "Jesus."

Giles regarded him with frustration. He could see that Xander was taking the news badly, but he wasn't sure why. They had always gotten along reasonably well. If Xander needed a word said to him, Giles said it. Xander listened to him. Learned from him, Giles liked to think.

My god, you sound exactly like your father, thought Giles in surprise. He'd never thought that about himself before, happily. His father was a pillar of...well everything, really. Rather unbending. Giles wasn't like that. Not like him, surely.

"Xander," he urged, touching the young man's shoulder. "Tell me what's wrong, please. We've known each other for years and I like to think we're friends. You and-Buffy and Willow and Dawn-the four of you, all of you, I feel about you almost as if you were my children. And to see you in this state-you can't imagine how it makes me feel."

"You? You?" blurted out Xander. Giles couldn't have surprised him more if he'd announced he sniffed glue. "Do you know where I was tonight?"

Giles shook his head wordlessly.

"Well, tonight I had a great talk with Anya, in which she informed me I'm the mental equivalent of Reggie Van Dyke, who, for the comic book-deprived among us, is Richie Rich's rotten little cousin. Then I went to get a beer, but instead had the not-so-fun fun of seeing Buffy with Spike, and she was holding onto him like they were sealed together with industrial-grade epoxy. And then I come here, and you tell me-after ignoring my existence for a year-you tell me that you feel like you're my father? Well, let me tell you something-all you need is a glass of scotch, and you'd be his long-lost twin," Xander snarled, jumping up and pacing around the living room.

Giles stood and watched him. He'd never seen Xander so discomfited. "Xander, I'm sure Anya doesn't think that. It's just-it's just uncomfortable for her to be around you-"

"Uncomfortable? I know it's uncomfortable! It's uncomfortable for me to be around her, too! And around Buffy and you and even Willow! Jesus, what's with you people? If something's uncomfortable, you stop doing it?"

Giles stared at him questioningly.

"Some things are important," said Xander in frustration. "So you keep doing them, even if they hurt. Because it's the right thing to do. I love Willow, and I love Buffy, and I love Anya, even if she hates me. Even if she doesn't want to see me. What the hell good is it to love somebody and just pretend they don't exist? What good is that, to anybody?" To Giles' astonishment, the boy began to cry.

Xander sat heavily on the couch, overcome by hopelessness. Sometimes he felt like he was the only one of them who tried. He didn't know why he bothered, but he couldn't stop. He knew he'd lose something precious, something irreplaceable, if he did.

A hand came down on his shoulder and Xander looked up to see Giles sitting next to him, a heartbreaking look of tenderness on his face. It was a look Xander had never seen on Giles' face when he looked at him, and he felt his heart crack in gratitude.

Giles drew Xander close and wrapped his arms around the boy the way he hadn't, years before, when Xander had instinctively sought comfort with him after his terrible breakup with Cordelia, and felt guilt wash over him. He hadn't just failed Buffy and the others when he'd left the year before.

He'd been failing them for years.

***

The Summers house was dark when Giles approached it. Even the porch light had been turned out, and he had to squint and feel around the lock before sliding the key home.

He'd never thought before about the burdens Xander felt responsible for. Willow, yes, the boy's-man's affection for her was as clear as ever. Yet he also felt acutely responsible for Buffy as well. And Buffy, despite her recalcitrance in broaching the subject, obviously missed her friends.

A memory of Buffy flying at Willow, lurking beneath the tree, came to him, and he amended his thought. Well, she missed them when she wasn't trying to kill them. Admittedly, she refused to discuss it, but it wouldn't be such a sore point with her if it wasn't desperately important. That was her way.

And he was here now, and going to stay, and he was damned if he was going to let her just ignore it. Yes, she'd been through a lot; they all had, more than any of them should. Buffy wasn't the only one to suffer in the last year. She had to understand that part of growing up was accepting that other people will make mistakes, and that they deserve forgiveness. That it was necessary for herself as well as others. That otherwise anger would consume her.

He should wait for morning to talk to her, really, but he knew he could not sleep with it on his mind. He climbed the stairs quietly and knocked on Buffy's bedroom door, trying not to be too loud. There was no reason to wake Dawn. And it would only take a few minutes, and then-

"Giles?" Buffy murmured in surprise, sticking her head out from behind her door. "Is something wrong?"

Giles shook his head apologetically. "There's no emergency," he assured her. "But I've been thinking, and I feel that it's incumbent upon you to-"

"What is it?" a sleepy voice asked from inside Buffy's room. Giles blinked in surprise.

"Nothing important, sweetie," Buffy said over her shoulder. "This can wait, right?" she said to Giles.

"I imagine," he said faintly.

"Then come back to bed, love," murmured Spike, and Buffy shut the door without a backward glance.

 





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