The best thing about research was the quiet. Quiet was conducive to concentration, yes, but also to contemplation. He never felt so at ease as when he was studying an ancient text. It enabled him to reach a peace seldom offered in the continuous stream of noise that passed for-

"Spike's back."

Giles looked up, pen frozen in hand. He hadn't even heard Anya come in. "What?"

"Spike. He's back. I thought you'd want to know," she said, crossing over to the desk and leaning her hip against it. If she were a little more comfortable, she'd hitch up a little and sit on the edge, but their relationship wasn't quite at that stage yet. That is, Giles wasn't aware they had a relationship, so she didn't yet feel at ease being so casual.

Giles would be surprised if he knew how careful she was being about the two of them-their impending couplehood. He probably thought she was still the same girl who had referred to Olivia as his orgasm friend. She was much different now, although he didn't realize it yet. That was all right, she was planning to bring to his attention soon enough.

"Back," repeated Giles softly. That certainly...changed things, didn't it? Although he wasn't really sure how. But Buffy was sure to be shaken by his return. The vampire had left without a word, Buffy told him, and been gone for months. Another demon had moved into his crypt, and it seemed that Spike was gone for good.

And all things considered, Giles considered that an excellent state of affairs.

Months before, after he had recovered from his injuries-his Willow-related injuries-he had fruitlessly consulted his books about occurrences of illicit relations between Slayers and vampires. It seemed to him that becoming romantically involved with vampires twice in five years was rather excessive. And yet he knew that Buffy did not become involved with men lightly, and so there must have been some substance to their relationship. He just couldn't imagine what it was.

Buffy would only say that she felt alive when she was around him. That it was the only time she felt anything. And although she would not tell him why Spike had left Sunnydale, she had told him that it was between the two of them and she could handle things. Whatever that meant. Giles was too discreet to probe further, although he felt sure it was more complicated than she said.

But he had relinquished his right to push, if ever he had it, when he had decided to leave her so that she would grow up and learn to handle things on her own. She had begun to do so, and he could not complain if the way she ran her life disturbed him.

Even if it worried him.

Even if it made him regret his decision.

"Giles? What are you thinking?"

Anya's voice startled him out of his reverie. He couldn't precisely tell her that he was wondering about what could draw an ordinary-no, not ordinary, extraordinary-girl like his Buffy to an insufferable, smartmouthed prat who thought the best way to impress a girl was to chain her up in his basement and threaten her life. Buffy had been disgusted by him. She barely even felt sorry for him after Glory had nearly tortured him to death, so offended was she by the robot.

Of course, she also thought the robot looked nothing like her. No one was perfect. But she was perfect to him.

"Can I help? Because I'd be happy to. Help, I mean."

Giles forced himself to focus on Anya. She was certainly trying. He knew she wanted him to return to work at the Magic Box again. She seemed lonely there, which was natural, he supposed, considering her breakup with Xander. Curious that no one had telephoned to notify him of the major goings-on around Sunnydale months ago. He had the feeling that there were still things he had not been told.

Anya dropped by frequently and without notice, regaling him with exacting accountings of the shop's records, rather pointless stories about the clientele, and occasional hints about what life had been like with Xander. In the midst of a story about how she came by a reliable source of Chalcedian yak horn, she would suddenly refer to something Xander had done months before. Giles wondered if Xander had any idea how often Anya thought about him.

Admittedly, the thoughts were frequently less than warm.

He really hadn't spoken to Xander since shortly after the aborted end of the world. Xander had his hands full right now, more than full. Giles wasn't sure it would be a gift to tell him that his former fiancée was still thinking of him. Perhaps when things were more settled with all of them. Until then it was surely kinder to let Xander be.

Thoughts of Xander had crossed his mind frequently of late. He'd never really bonded with Xander, somehow. Not like he had with Buffy and Willow and even Dawn. But he remembered Xander helping him rearrange his furniture, unpack his books, restock the library shelves. Things Buffy and Willow had never done, because the time they spent with him was really mostly time they spent with each other. Xander had sought him out, and somehow he hadn't really noticed.

It was something he regretted, now.

For some reason he suddenly recalled years before, back when the children were still in high school, when Xander and Cordelia had just broken up. Xander had been crushed, and afterwards spent much time in the library. The incident had been unfortunate: Cordelia and Oz had walked in on Xander and Willow kissing. Cordelia was furious, naturally. Although in all fairness, there were extenuating circumstances, Xander and Willow having been kidnapped by-

Ah, there was Spike again.

It was impossible still for him to believe that Buffy had actually had a...relationship with Spike. He was tempted to pass his feelings about Spike off as hatred, but in all honesty they were simply not that intense. If Angel, while unsouled, had been a master of destruction, Spike was merely a brat prince. Showy and boastful, and ultimately unsuccessful in his ambitions. Not the sort to arouse much more than serious dislike.

But that was the kind of foolish thinking that led to dismissing Spike's abilities. And although Spike had never bested Buffy, he had destroyed two of her predecessors. Angel, despite his advanced age and the vicious pleasure he took in tormenting others, had never managed one. Even when Buffy was the most vulnerable to him, when her friends were injured and he had allowed himself to be taken and Kendra killed, when Angel had been tormenting Buffy for months, he could not defeat her. And yet, Spike had nearly killed her on more than one occasion.

An eerie chill came over Giles. He had been ignoring the real threat Spike represented because killing a creature who could not harm others seemed unfair, yet that had not stopped him from ending Ben's life. It had been for Buffy's own good, and so he had not hesitated.

Next to him, Anya continued to talk, oblivious to his sober thoughts. As he was oblivious to her vivacious chatter. As always, he gave his focus to the most pressing matter at hand. Spike was back, and Buffy was vulnerable still.

Perhaps his job as Watcher was not finished. Not while Spike remained alive.

***

It was a routine, like anything else done for years. Training. Patrolling. Living. Things not done for pleasure, but because she didn't have a choice.

As Buffy strolled through Pickleweed Park she wondered why she bothered. It was late, and Sunnydale had been fairly quiet for the last few months. She almost couldn't recall the last time there'd nearly been an apocalypse, but then she remembered and got pissed. That would teach her for thinking.

She should go home. It was late, past midnight, and she had to get up for work in just a few hours. Get up, make Dawn breakfast, shower, brush her teeth, and take the bus to work. She'd considered buying a car, but she didn't think she could afford the insurance. And car dealers wanted a down payment. Also monthly payments. And she was quite sure she couldn't afford either. Hence, the bus.

She didn't even notice the park fading away behind her, until she was standing at the entrance to Spike's cemetery. The one she still thought of as Spike's, although really she should just think of it as Larchfield Cemetery, or, more usefully, the Cemetery Between the Really Old One That's Completely Full and Never Has Any Fledglings and the One Closest to the Espresso Pump. She leaned towards practicality rather than precision in such matters.

She'd been by his crypt a few times, but no Spike. She didn't know why she was checking, but things felt incomplete. It was like they'd been having an argument and he left in the middle of it.

Which was a pretty crap-ass way of characterizing what he'd done.

It had been a while before she'd been able to think about it, her mind reflexively skittering away from the ugliness in the bathroom. What had begun as an apology, something rare from him, had quickly deteriorated into what so many of their discussions centered around. You love me, we have a once-in-a-lifetime passion, why do you deny it? He seemed the same as always.

And then suddenly he was grappling with her, pulling her to the floor, her head catching the side of the tub. The incomprehensible sight of him trying to drag open her robe. She thought she was dreaming at first. Unbelievable. He had allowed a god to nearly kill him so she wouldn't lose her sister, but suddenly he couldn't understand how much what he was trying to do would hurt her. She thought she was imagining it, thought for a moment she had gone mad, before she registered the chill of his hand against her skin as he tried to pull open her robe and realized it was really happening. Realized that he was the one who had gone mad.

Realized the man who had held her hands after she returned wasn't in there, and the man looking at her with frantic, desperate eyes wasn't going to stop.

It wasn't hard for her to stop him. Not physically.

She wasn't sure how long they were in there together, afterwards. Both of them crying and not saying a word. Then suddenly he was on his feet, she flinched, and he was past her, gone. God knew how long it was before Xander came crashing in, brandishing Spike's duster like a third-rate detective, ready to tear into her for living her life without his prior approval. For having a lover when his was gone, for it not being him. He didn't even want it to be him anymore, but five years of jealousy was a hard habit to break.

She didn't know why she kept coming to his cemetery, kept checking his crypt. But what he'd tried to do didn't erase what had come before. It didn't change what he'd done for her, for Dawn. And it didn't change how tender he was after she returned, tender until she wouldn't accept it any more and he got her to notice him another way, with his fists. The same way she communicated with him. He still wanted to talk, but she found it easy to shut him up, with her fist or her mouth, or just by leaving.

The bathroom-it was wrong, it was inexcusable. But she did excuse it. For a year he had loved her and helped her and listened to her. She had ignored his love, but knew it was still there. Even unnourished, it provided her with comfort. But somehow that love wasn't enough. It wasn't until after he had snarled at her, during his song, that she'd kissed him. Not until he taunted her about coming back wrong, until he gleefully returned her blows, that she'd reached into his jeans and taken him into her hands and then into herself.

Maybe the bathroom was where they'd been headed all along. But what came before was still there.

It made the bathroom worse, somehow.

Buffy halted her progress through the cemetery. There was no point in checking his crypt. He was gone. It made things easier. It should have made her glad.

She wondered why it didn't.

***

It had been about as useful as anything else in the world that didn't provide a quick buzz, which is to say, not very.

He didn't know why he'd gone to see Anya about the package anyway. If she had any judgement she would never have become involved with Harris in the first place, so what was he thinking looking for her advice?

So the question was, who had it in for old Spike? Perhaps a better question would be, who didn't? The Bit had looked at him fit to kill not even a week ago. Harris had tried to axe him the last time he'd seen him. If Red knew about what happened before he left, she might try some of her mojo on him. So powerful, and she was pretty reckless with the magic.

The Slayer was proof of that.

Would she really tell them? He couldn't see it. She tried to shield them all from ugliness, even if it meant absorbing everything herself. So that they didn't suffer, even while she could barely hold her head up for the pain. She was a hero, that's what made her one, not fighting baddies. Because, despite her ennui, she enjoyed that. It was the only place she could let out those darker emotions, before the two of them became involved. He wondered what would have happened to her, if she weren't a Slayer and didn't have that outlet.

He doubted it was anything good.

He didn't want her to have to be a hero with him. He had tried to absorb the pain when he was around her, and she was happy to lay it on him with her fists, which he could take, and her words, which made him feel like shit. He would have preferred just the fists. That kind of pain didn't faze him, and sometimes it led to better things. Her words never did. Her hand on his cheek...I'm sorry, William.

Maybe it had been a mistake, trying to talk to her. When she had taken him in that abandoned building, maybe he should just have been happy with that. Forgotten trying to talk things through. Hell, it probably would have lasted longer that way. He always put his foot in it with her, always found the exactly wrong thing to say. She'd be surprised if she knew how articulate he was about their relationship when she wasn't around. When he was talking to himself, he never compared fucking her to killing the others.

There was no comparison. He lived for her. He went across the world for her, to get something he'd never wanted. Changed everything in him, so she could look at him without hatred. Just for the chance of that.

Maybe it was her, the bundle. Spike snorted with laughter at the thought; if she wanted him dead, she'd just kick open the door to his crypt and stake him. Probably she'd be wearing skintight pants and a tiny little top. That was the kind of thing she usually wore when she burst in to kill him. And if she wanted to torture him first, she could just let him see her, and know that he couldn't have her. That would be enough. That had been torture enough in the spring, so that he went insane. Just her presence, eating into his unreasonable hopes like acid...he went as mad as Drusilla had ever been.

It was easier not to think of her, but that was pointless. He'd left for her, and returned for her. No use putting off the inevitable. If she didn't want him in Sunnyhell she could just stake him. He wouldn't try to stop her. The soul was a promise, not a shield. Not absolution.

But all things considered, seeing her could wait until he was sober. Because if he could barely keep his frustration in check with demon girl, whom he really didn't give sixpence about, seeing Buffy would be a huge mistake. Damned if he was going to bollocks this up. There was something to be said for sobriety after all.

Like a sense of smell, for one thing. Seeing the Slayer could wait for a couple of days while he took care of his mystery friend. Tomorrow he'd be clean of the liquor and would know whose hairs they were, whose scent was on the handkerchief. He had to get that out of the way, because he had more important things to deal with-well, Buffy and Dawn were actually about it, but he didn't need any distractions.

Yeah, he'd wait ‘til he was sober. And then he'd-

What the fuck was that?

Inside his crypt. A human. He must have been sobering up, because he could smell it, but not clearly enough to identify the git. Leaving him another little present? Probably thought he was safe. The defanged vampire was out to buy his pathetic little bags of blood or lift some smokes, and even if he returned while the bugger was there everything would be fine, because Spike was all neutered and helpless, right? Well, his visitor had another think coming. Nobody messed with him.

What if it was one of them-the Scoobies? He couldn't precisely kill them, even Harris. Even if he didn't have the chip, it wasn't an option. They were her closest friends. But if it wasn't a Scooby-well, what then? Rip them to pieces, courtesy of his chip's non-existent Black Magic Threat Exemption?

Yeah, that sounded good. Too bad he couldn't-

Christ! There it was again, the pain, stabbing into him, unforgiving. One way or another, this was ending. Damned if he'd spend the rest of his unlife never knowing when he was going to double over and wish he was dust.

He mastered the pain and stalked over to the crypt door. But he hesitated. The answer might be horrible. He didn't want to think it was someone he cared about, fought beside. Even if he deserved it. For a moment he wanted to turn around, walk off and clear his head, so that when he came back his crypt would be empty, and he wouldn't have to know.

You're Spike, not William. Act like it, he told himself. Somewhere inside him a voice whispered, you're both.

He ignored it and pushed the door open. For a moment he thought he could hear his heart pounding, until he remembered it had been still for a hundred years.

It wasn't who he expected, any of them. But who else would sit in his crypt with such entitlement? In his favorite chair, like she owned it. Which she did, of course, like she owned everything of his.

"Slayer," he murmured.





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