Business lunches, in Anya's estimation, properly referred to sitting behind the counter, eating a nice healthy salad or perhaps a convenient and highly portable sandwich, watching the flow of customers into the Magic Box, and being prepared to stop eating at any time in order to provide information, answer the phone and hopefully ring up many sales. Hence, she never brought food for lunch that required heating, since that would involve both leaving the front of the shop in order to heat it, and being disturbed by its inevitable cooling as she attended to those searching for exactly the right form of magical intervention.

The only exception she made was for the monthly Women in Business luncheon given by the Sunnydale Chamber of Commerce, of which Anya was a member. She attended the luncheons faithfully, because the only thing more important than quality goods offered by a knowledgeable shopkeeper was a good network of business contacts to fall back on.

Not that Anya needed anything to fall back on, of course. Under her guidance, the magic shop was falling further forward every day.

So she was seated behind the counter eating an economical yet nutritious sandwich when Giles walked in, rather than out at some overpriced restaurant letting business slip away as she ate her head off like a possessed mule fitted with a bottomless feedbag. And although he was walking with his arms relaxed, beside his body, she immediately saw the bouquet of flowers in his hand, and caught her breath.

It was their first bouquet.

"Is that...for me?" Anya asked carefully. It was best not to get ahead of herself.

"Who else, my dear?" replied Giles with a smile, moving towards her.

This was it! Their relationship was zooming forward, and she'd hardly had to give it a nudge. She wouldn't even have to use a charm, or her five-step plan.

Undoubtedly, this first bouquet would lead to many others and ultimately culminate in the most important bouquet, the wedding bouquet, which unlike her aborted wedding to Xander would be made up of something sophisticated, like calla lilies, because a man of Giles' maturity would appreciate their elegance. As opposed to Xander, who said things about flowers like smells pretty.

"Am I interrupting your lunch?"

"What? Lunch? Oh, no, I was finished!" Wait, what if he'd come to take her out to lunch? She thought she could make an exception to her lunch rule for Giles. "I mean, I was finished with this, because I realized I don't like cheese sandwiches. So no more for me! No sir, no more."

Actually, after their lunch, she really should take pictures of the bouquet, from several angles. It would be romantic if their wedding bouquet replicated this one, the first he ever gave her. Yes, that was better than calla lilies. Giles would no doubt be pleased by her observance of sentimental gestures; Xander had continually complained that she lacked the proper human value system. Which was ridiculous, because how he could accuse her of lacking in sentimental values when he was the one who had who walked out on their most sentimental occasion, their wedding. As opposed to when they played "The Barmaid and the Knockwurst," which he never walked out on.

Giles smiled at Anya as he made his way towards her. Although he certainly didn't plan to mention it to the vampire, he thought Spike might have been on to something when he suggested that Giles approach Anya cautiously about opening a shop in Sunnydale. The book store wouldn't be competing with the Magic Box-he wasn't intending to offer newts' eyes or amethyst crystals, of course, merely Chaucer and Keats and Dickinson. Actually, he'd heard rumors about Dickinson, but Ethan had said that about practically everyone.

And, he thought somewhat guiltily, the former owner of the shop had told him that a surprisingly good return was made on those bilious yellow condensed books students surreptitiously used, when they felt their time was better spent inhaling the contents of a pub rather than reading the classics.

So Anya had nothing to be concerned about. He would be nearby for consultation as the need arose, and if she or the other children needed advice, he was there for them.

Although his influence was limited. He could have done nothing to stop Xander from leaving Anya at the altar the year before; what could he have said? Get a hold of yourself; you're twenty-one, it's time you settled down? They were too young to be so seriously involved, and Xander, despite the responsibilities he had assumed, had seen nothing of the world. He knew fighting demons with his friends, and fighting in his family, and nothing more. And Anya, despite her years, or perhaps because of them, was self-absorbed and largely indifferent to others; the very fact that she had accepted D'Hoffryn's offer to return to demon status chilled Giles to his very marrow.

She had told him that D'Hoffryn was being patient, and she wasn't doing much by the way of vengeance. He didn't ask for specifics. He hoped his pronounced lack of interest would act as discouragement, but she still continued to vaporize out of nowhere when she wanted to see him, and had given no sign that she was inclined to change. It disappointed him no end-when she had assisted in the battle against Willow (the battle against Willow!-it still sounded absurd to him), it had seemed to him that she had done more, willingly, than she ever had before. Shown more courage, not because she was trying to help her boyfriend, as it always had been in the past, but because it was the right thing to do. He had thought, as he recovered from his injuries at Buffy's, that she had discovered something about herself-that it wasn't enough merely to be an adjunct to a man, that she could be a force for good in her own right. Have her own friends, make up her own mind about what was the right thing to do. She hadn't yet attached herself to another man, but she didn't seem to be moving forward, either; it was disappointing to him. But he knew Anya less than the others, and it wasn't his place to reproach her. His connection to the others had been deepened by time and intimacy, but ultimately Anya was still the girlfriend-ex-girlfriend, rather-of Xander, and Giles' helper around the shop.

But he didn't wish to upset her, so when they reached each other-Anya being good enough to rush out from behind the counter at his approach-he presented her with the sunny mixed bouquet and a smile, and announced that he had good news.

Framing a discussion was always important, he knew.

"You've never given me flowers before," Anya blurted out.

Giles blinked. "Yes, I suppose that's true," he agreed. He didn't recall Anya ever being particularly partial to flowers, but he couldn't think of another way to grease the wheel that morning. "You do like flowers, don't you?" he asked a little worriedly.

He was worried! No other man had ever been so considerate of her feelings. As if she could ever not love something he did. He could present her with a sack of lungwort and she'd be thrilled. And not merely for the resale value.

"I love flowers-especially these flowers," Anya assured him.

"Autumnal?"

"Yellow."

"Oh. Yes. Well-shall we sit down?"

"Sit down? This sounds serious," Anya said, trying to repress her excitement, and sat down at the chair Giles pulled out for her like the perfect gentleman he was. The likelihood of serious actually equating to a proposal of marriage was probably not great, owing to their not having officially begun dating yet, so that pretty much meant he was asking her out on their first date. Their first real date.

"I wasn't really sure how to broach this topic with you, Anya, but I don't see any reason why this shouldn't work out very nicely for both of us. You see, I first began-"

What should she wear? Maybe she should get something new. She wouldn't want to hex the relationship by wearing something she'd worn when she went out with Xander; that would be very unfortunate. Of course, if she got something new every time they went out, she'd run through her savings fairly quickly, and she didn't want to have to liquidate any of her stock portfolio in order to facilitate her dating life, even her dating life with Giles. Maybe Buffy would let her borrow some of her clothes. Or would that be wrong-wearing his surrogate daughter's clothes on a date? Yes, she thought he might find that distasteful. She could only imagine what Xander would have said.

"...so I really think it's a good thing for all involved, don't you?"

"I'd be thrilled," Anya said firmly. She had never believed in playing hard-to-get; it was a losing strategy, as far as she was concerned. How could a man reasonably be expected to guess what a woman was really thinking if she didn't tell him as quickly and forthrightly as possible?

"Would you like to see it then?"

"What? Now?" Anya blurted in surprise. "Leave the shop?"

"Yes-the bookstore's just a couple of blocks away. If you ever have any questions, you can pop over easily enough-although I'm sure there will be no need; you run the Magic Box like you were born to it."

"The bookstore," Anya echoed.

"Yes. By the way, have you heard anything about the development over in Alto Heights? It looks to be rather nice, to my way of thinking. Just the right size, and nicely landscaped. The kind of place a woman would enjoy living."

"Oh-yes, Alto Heights! I know Alto Heights! Any woman would love to live there," Anya assured him giddily. Giles was even more eager to commence their relationship than she was! If she had only approached him about it during the summer, they most likely would have already-

"That's a relief," admitted Giles. "Olivia says she trusts my judgment, but I don't want her to take one look at it and hie herself back to England."

"O-Olivia," repeated Anya. Olivia was that old girlfriend of Giles'. She couldn't have meant that much to him, surely. He would have mentioned her more often if she did.

"Yes. I do want to have the household up and running by the time she arrives. You know, Buffy's quite busy, between school and work and Sp-her home life. Do you think you could possibly lend a woman's touch? Just for the basics, of course; no matter what she says I can't believe Olivia won't want to redecorate once she arrives."

Once she arrives.

"That's-I'm-I'm very busy," Anya choked out after a minute. "There's been a lot happening lately. I wanted to tell you, but I haven't had time. And I-I have to go check the stock," she finished, hurrying into the back and closing the door behind her.

Giles stared after her, puzzled. Odd girl.

That was the last time he listened to Spike. He didn't think the flowers had helped one bit.

***

Everything was fine. Everything was fine. If he thought that long enough, he might start to believe it. His gut was cramping, but wasn't any silly curse, it was because he'd had some blood at Buffy's, the first time he'd eaten since he lost it in his crypt. Naturally his system was a little delicate after that. Stupid stomach wasn't the thing that was bothering him, anyway.

Somewhere between playing footsie under the table with Buffy, blissed out like Harris at a Star Trek convention, and walking back to his crypt, he'd become less content and more...anxious. And sustained anxiety was not a part of Spike's nature. Usually when he was anxious, he'd just kill something. Relieved the tension and got him a spot of exercise, too. Or, last year, he and Buffy would go at it like the wild things they were. That they both were, despite her belief to the contrary.

And that's how she still thought of him, right? Maybe not evil anymore, but wild? And why shouldn't she? He hadn't told her about his soul, about what he'd done for her.

And now, after they'd held each other all night and she'd welcomed him into her family the next morning, he was glad, desperately glad, that he hadn't. Because he would have wondered ‘til the end of his existence if she really cared for him, or just the shiny patina of his soul. If she'd had any feelings in her heart for him at all, without the soul to make it all acceptable.

Ah, still a selfish bugger, wasn't he? Just had to find out she felt something for old Spike, and wasn't just reviving her old love affair with The Vampire with a Soul.

It was shameful of him to be so selfish. Weren't souls supposed to do something about that? Make him all good and mournful, and possibly inspire him to launch an outreach program?

No, that couldn't be right. If souls did that, Willow would never have tried to destroy the world. Angel wouldn't have pursued a young girl. Buffy wouldn't have left him battered and weak on the floor of an alley.

Eh. That had nothing to do with her soul, now did it? More with his lack of one. She'd never done such a thing to good old Sgt. Potato Head, even when he was a little less-or a little more-human than most. She didn't do anything to that heavy-browed boy who tricked her into giving it up in college, and except for the little matter of sending him to hell to save the world, he'd wager she never treated Angelus half as bad as she did Spike-Spike, when they were sleeping together! When he was trying to keep her from throwing her life away over an accident! No more than her friends would have done, or the Watcher. She was consumed by guilt and couldn't think straight, so she took it all out on him.

The thing was, he didn't mind that she'd spent her frustrations and anger out on him. He could take it. But then walking right past him-leaving him there on the cement, unable to move, never said a word to him afterward or even asked how his injuries were, even when she stood right in front of him a week later and saw he still looked like shit-that was too much. She apologized for living to the others; to Spike she didn't apologize for half-killing him.

"Are you all right, Spike?"

Spike swung his head around to look at Buffy. He'd completely forgotten she was there. That had sure never happened before.

She cocked a brow at him questioningly.

"You were kind of squeezing my hand there," she pointed out.

He pulled his hand away hastily. "Sorry," he muttered. No need to think of that again, mate. No need.

"Did Dawn seem kind of, uh, upset to you? Unhappy?" Spike asked.

Buffy laughed. "Unhappy? I don't think so. Upset, maybe. I think she was a little upset when I told her I love you, but that's just because she was startled."

"Yeah, but all during breakfast she seemed like she-what did you say?"

Buffy could feel a blush crawl across her face. Hadn't he heard her? She'd caught him peering around the corner at them. Apparently he was never going to completely outgrow his little skulking habit. Or else he was just teasing her, trying to make her say it again, to his face this time. "That I love you?" she repeated softly, her eyes setting every minute change in his expression down into her memory: Shock, disbelief, amazement, joy. In the end, joy.

He touched her face wonderingly. "I never thought you'd say that. I thought that was something I'd only hear in my dreams," he whispered. She smiled up at him tenderly. "So you told her that we love each other?"

A human might not have seen it. It crossed her face and was gone immediately, but he saw it, and heard the sudden increase in her heartbeat, and realized that there was no we involved.

She might love him, but he was still a thing, and incapable of love.

"Jesus," he breathed. "You still-after last year, and the year before that, and Glory cutting me up, and Doc knocking me off the tower, and me doing anything for you even when it made me feel like shit-all that, and you still don't think it's love, do you? Still don't think I can feel it?"

She couldn't stand the accusation in his eyes, and lowered her gaze for a moment. She couldn't even think of what to say when he was so upset. That day after Riley left with his new wife, when she broke up with him, she tried not to let him speak. She didn't want him to, because he was so emotional she didn't think she could tell him what she needed to if he interrupted. As it was, the look on his face had almost broken her heart. He felt, she knew he did, felt deeply. But it wasn't love. She'd seen it for herself, that demons couldn't love. No one knew that better than she did.

"No one has ever cared about me more than you have," she said carefully. He was so sensitive about the accusation that he couldn't love-one she had shoved at him again and again, like it was a crime. But it was something he couldn't control. It was something that was taken from him, not something he threw away.

"Caring? That's still all it is to you? I ‘care' for you, like people ‘care' about starving orphans or those big-eyed baby seals? Not the way a man loves a woman?" he demanded in disbelief. "Does that make it easier for you?"

God, she didn't know how to answer him. Nothing about them was easy in any way. "I don't know what you mean-"

"I mean, is it easier for you to think of the way you treated me last year-doesn't matter how I treat him, he's just a thing, can't love?"

"You're not a thing," she protested. "I know that, I don't know why I said it."

"You said it because you were punishing me," Spike accused furiously. She'd told him she loved him; it should be the most ecstatic moment of his existence. Instead, it had come with a holy water chaser. She opened her mouth to assert her innocence, but he cut her off. "You punished me because I loved you, and you couldn't stand that."

"That's ridiculous," she retorted, her voice gaining strength. "Everybody wants to be loved."

"By the right person, eh? And I wasn't him. You punished me for loving you when Angelus didn't!"

The air left Buffy's lungs in a whoosh, and for a moment she couldn't see anything. "You're-he couldn't. He couldn't love me because he didn't have a soul."

"That's what you tell yourself? Bullshit. Not couldn't. Didn't. The difference between him and me is that he knew you inside and out, knew what you thought, and what you felt, and how you tasted, and decided he'd prefer to live without you. That time with you two at the school? With those ghosts? When he got back to the house he scrubbed his skin ‘til it bled. He couldn't stand your touch on his skin," he spat cruelly. God damn her, he was sick of living in Angel's shadow. He was sick of pretending there was a difference between Angel and Angelus, besides a u and a fucking s. Angel only loved when his real nature was shackled. What the hell kind of love was that? Even with his soul, he left her. Left her to skulk around L.A. and frighten tourists with his hair.

Tears glittered in Buffy's eyes, but she didn't try to stop him. Why should she? he thought bitterly. Turnaround's fair play. He'd been quiet and taken it when she tore out his heart that day in the crypt, and now it was her turn to take it as he destroyed what was probably the last happy memory she had left.

All of a sudden the anger left his body and he deflated, hating himself. Same kind of thing that bastard Angelus would have said, Spike thought. The kind of thing the wanker got off on, crushing young girls' hearts.

‘Course, Angelus hadn't claimed to be in love with any of them at the time. Maybe even without a soul he was the better man.

He opened his mouth to apologize and shut it abruptly. That was his pattern, wasn't it? Attack her, abuse her, apologize as if words meant anything after he'd done something like that? Lose control, attack the woman he lived for, then mumble some words and think it would be all better?

It was all he could do.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, barely audible. He raised his voice, louder, ‘til he almost sounded normal. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"Don't apologize if you don't mean it," Buffy said, her voice strained. "You can say what you think. But you're wrong."

Should he leave her with it? The lie? It was comforting. She needed comfort. He wanted her to have it, even if he wasn't the one who gave it to her.

She'd never held anything against anyone, ever. Not Giles, for drugging her and nearly getting her and Joyce killed. Not Harris, for summoning Sweet from whatever circle of hell tap dancers inhabit. Not Willow, for bringing her back-no, it had taken her nearly killing Dawn to do that.

And no, not Spike, although he'd earned her enmity in a hundred ways, intimate and remote.

"Angel-he loved you. But he left," he told her carefully. "And Captain Cardboard left, too. And your father-" Spike grabbed Buffy's arm when she would have turned away. "And they're the biggest bunch of losers I ever saw in my life. They loved you, sure. I believe it. But they didn't love you enough, or they would have stayed. What did you think? That you drove them away? Threatened their precious little masculinity, didn't cry on their shoulders enough? So they tucked their tails between their legs and ran for the hills?" A muffled choking sound escaped Buffy, and Spike shook her.

"Well, bugger them! They're a bunch of idiots, couldn't find their way out of a one-room shack if there wasn't a sign over the door! Do you know why I left, Buffy? In the spring, after I-after I-" Spike broke off.

Buffy shook her head wordlessly.

"I left because you deserve better than me. And I didn't leave it at that, I wanted to become better, for you. To become what you deserved. And I had to go to the other side of the goddamn planet, and do insane things I would never have imagined I'd do. And by the end I thought I was going to die, but I wouldn't stop, because if I didn't I wouldn't be able to have you. And that was enough to make me go on. Just the thought of you.

"If those buggers didn't want you enough to stay around, the only thing that means is they weren't good enough for you to wipe your shoes on. Because someone who really loves you will do whatever it takes to be with you. If not, it's a pretty piss-poor excuse for love."

He didn't know if she heard him, she was crying so hard. Her face was against his chest, and her strong little arms were wrapped around his waist. Squeezing him to her.

Not pushing him away.

 





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