Paving Stones
Chapter Two - Good Intentions

written by Mad Poetess & Wolfling

Giles came awake slowly. The threads of his dreams let go of his consciousness only reluctantly, but did not leave any clear memory behind. For a change, though, what fragments that did remain were not born of nightmares. His head wasn't pounding with his usual morning hangover and facing the day didn't seem like such an overwhelming prospect.

There was more to the difference than that, though. More than just the clearness of his head as he stretched and tried to put off opening his eyes lest this feeling slip away with the greeting of the light. There was the knowledge, though nothing was touching him but sheets and duvet, of someone else in his bed.

The image splashed across his closed eyelids, crisper than it could really have been in the dimness of the unlighted loft last night. Pale limbs folded up, straining beneath him. Burning yellow eyes in an alien, yet familiar face. Without opening his own eyes, Giles flexed his fingers, and felt the ghost of tight, responsive flesh surrounding them.

It had been a very long time since he'd engaged in that particular act. Memories of the last time floated to the surface of his mind -- loud music, rooms full of smoke and the dark pleasure of Eyghon’s presence on his soul. A shiver that wasn't as much of revulsion as he would like ran down his spine. He'd avoided this kind of intimacy ever since because of just that reaction. But last night... Last night had been something different.

If he kept his eyes closed and just laid here in the self-imposed darkness, he'd start thinking about *how* different. About what it had been, what it might mean. Where they went from here. Things he wasn't sure he wanted to examine in the claustrophobic confines of his head. But if he opened his eyes, he'd be faced with the real thing, in the curtain-filtered light of day. Perhaps he could convince himself to fall asleep again?

Giles had just counted his second sheep when he felt the cold finger teasing its way down his spine. "Someone doesn't want to get up for school today," Spike sing-songed in that dreadful mélange of half-familiar accents. "Shall we call your mum and ask her to write a note for teacher?"

Giving in, Giles opened his eyes to find Spike propped up on one elbow, staring down at him, mocking grin firmly in place. The sardonic effect was ruined, however, by hair so mussed from sleep that it made Giles imagine counting white-blond vampires jumping over fences, instead of sheep. He grinned back. "One of the advantages to being the owner, I can take a day off when I want to."

Spike held up a finger, his expression never faltering. "Half owner. And the other half's not likely to be best pleased when she finds out it's just the *day* you're taking off, not the rest of your life. You might want to smooth the way a bit, actually show up to drop that tidbit in person." The corner of his smile did waver, when Giles didn't answer right away, still digesting that thought and wondering if he shouldn't go back to sleep after all. "It *is* just the day, isn't it?"

"Yes," Giles answered immediately. "I'm staying." And didn't it feel good to have finally made that decision once and for all? A part of him had never wanted to leave; he just had needed a reason for staying. Though the reason he had found wasn't one he could've predicted.

"Really staying, or just staying til you change your mind again? Because Anya might put up with that on-again-off-again crap, but if you think I'm gonna play Scheherezade for you every night, just to make sure you don't pull a runner in the morning..." Spike looked dangerously serious for a moment - then he snickered. "Well, I suppose I could get used to the indignity of being shagged blind every night, come to it."

"I'm really staying." He kept his expression perfectly serious as he added, "Though if you want to play Scheherezade, I'm sure we can find you some silks to dress up in."

Spike sighted down the length of his own body, half covered in rumpled sheets, as if he was considering the suggestion. Then he shook his head. "If you're gonna make me go drag, I want leather. Flatters the figure, *and* it doesn't get ruined by bloodstains." He looked up, and the cheeky grin was back. "Which there would be, if you tried to make me go drag."

It was on the tip of Giles' tongue to remind Spike of his chipped status, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to do so this morning. Instead he merely said, "Duly noted," and left it at that.

Spike nodded, as if he'd scored some sort of victory. He rested his hands behind his head and regarded Giles. "So, never done the honeymoon suite before. Does it come with Continental Breakfast? Belgian waffles? Egg and chip?"

"You think I'm going to cook for you?"

Spike stretched and yawned in a manner that was positively decadent, and made Giles want to either smack him, or drop his head to the pillow and give in. Fall back asleep and let Spike, indeed, phone in his absence to Anya. That should make for an entertaining morning of gossip at the shop. At the pinnacle of his stretch, though, arms high above his head and toes pointing forward beneath the sheets, Spike winced. "Least you could do. Show some sort of human decency to the poor bugger you so, buggered, last night."

"You weren't complaining last night." He wasn't going to fall for it, Giles told himself. With the rate of vampiric healing, any residual...effects should have long since faded.

Spike looked a bit pained, in more ways than one. "In the moment, wasn't I. Wasn't really thinking about how that whole super healing factor slows down a bit when you're living off pig's blood. Specially when you didn't even stop off for any of that, last night."

He was laying it on a bit thick, Giles thought, but even so he found his resolve wavering. Sighing, he sat up. "I can manage coffee, but I fear I don't have much else in the house."

"S’pose that'll have to do. Unless you're keen on opening a vein." Somehow Spike managed to sound as if he realized how ridiculous the comment was, yet if Giles had been insane enough to say yes, he would have nodded sagely and pretended he'd been serious all along.

However much Giles was questioning his sanity, he still hadn't reached *that* level of craziness. "Sorry, but I need all my blood where it is." He got out of bed and reached for his robe, feeling Spike's eyes on him the whole time.

The vampire said nothing, but he didn't need to - one indolent smirk was all that was required to substitute for any comments that Spike might have come up with concerning Giles' sudden need to be clothed in front of someone he'd had sex with only hours ago. Or perhaps Spike was simply waiting for his store of sarcasm to be refueled with caffeine, and then he would get to the snickering. No matter. Giles wasn't about to go wandering his flat in the altogether in broad daylight. It just wasn't...proper.

Though he supposed that fucking a vampire probably wasn't written up in any etiquette guide either when it came to that. Not much of what he did, even on his most 'normal' days was, of course -- not even in the Council of Watchers' guides, which seemed to know as much about actually *being* a Watcher as Giles knew about actually being a vampire. He descended the stairs, and headed for the kitchen, not looking back at the primary source of vampire lore who was lounging in his bed. The things they left out of those manuals...

Spike had been right to think they were excised. Unique as Buffy might have been, there had to have been Watchers who faced *some* of the sort of things they encountered on the Hellmouth, and they had to have written their experiences down. Their thoughts and feelings. Not just a dusty collection of reminiscences that list the size, weight and colour of that day's monster, but nothing about what happens when you realize it might not be trying to kill you. Or, god forbid, when you let it into your bed.

The coffee maker was still unpacked at least, though Giles hadn't been lying when he'd said that coffee was about all he had. He'd been living off takeaway for weeks now, unwilling to buy more groceries when he might finally decide that day that it was the right time to go. He set it to brew, a bit stronger than usual, and leaned against the counter, surveying what was left of his flat.

It was, as he had said the night before, a mess. The spray of shattered glass in the corner only caught his attention because of the faint scent of wasted whiskey, the angry crash echoing in his memory. A stranger would never even notice the souvenir of last night's conversation amid the rest of the disarray. His belongings were all over the place, half in boxes, half in piles waiting to be boxed. Looking at it now, he could see clearly the indecision he'd been battling with. His life and mind had been a study in halves for months: half done, half committed, half here, half gone.

Now he'd done something complete and whole, hadn't he. For the first time since he'd laid his hands over a young man's mouth and felt the all too human body struggling beneath him until the movement stopped. He'd known then, what he was doing. Why he was doing it. That it had to be done. This time, the only thing he was sure of was that he *had* done something -- and that he had a hell of a lot of unpacking to do.

And that, as Spike had pointed out, Anya was not going to be thrilled by his news, when he'd drummed up the courage to relay it. Giles shied away from that thought, not up to considering the others' reactions -- at least not before he'd had some caffeine himself. He'd make a list of everything he needed to do later -- starting with going grocery shopping.

"Head off to Brazil for that coffee, did you?" Giles heard Spike's voice rather close at hand for him to be still lying about in bed. He looked up to find a bedhair-topped face peering down at him over the wire loft railing, grinning. Attached to a thoroughly naked body.

"You'd think that someone who had over a century under his belt would have learned patience by now," Giles retorted, sounding remarkably normal, even in the face of this rather blatant reminder of what he'd done the night before.

"Nothing under my belt at the moment," Spike pointed out. With visual aid. "Besides, patience is a myth. You wait for things you can't do anything about, and the rest, you go out and take."

Giles continued to look up at him, in spite of himself. "Unless you're being a lazy sod and pretending you're too worn out to fix your own coffee."

Spike nodded. "There is that." He made no move to come down the stairs and take what he was so concerned about not waiting for, though. Just continued to lean lazily on the metal railing.

Giles was struck suddenly at how...comfortable this all seemed. Not a hint of the awkwardness that he would've surely expected, if he thought about it. Having Spike there, trading verbal ripostes with him, felt...well, not normal. Having a naked vampire in one's flat fit no definition of normal that he knew of. But...comfortable. Like it was something he could get used to.

As if he could read Giles' thoughts, Spike began, finally, to descend the stairs, still sans clothing. "You might find your trousers, at least." Giles pointed towards the door. "The others do still occasionally barge in without knocking."

Spike put a hand on his heart, obviously wounded to the quick. "You mean... you're ashamed of me, Rupert?" The quaver in his voice was the sort that small children used when asking, 'Mummy, don't you love me anymore?'

"Do you really want them to see you in the-" Giles broke off. "What am I saying? Of course you do. Just because it would embarrass me, and them." The disturbing thing was, he wasn't sure if it would embarrass him -- beyond the 'caught doing private things in public' embarrassment that would wear off quickly. But not because of *who* he had been doing those private things with.

"Maybe they need a nice mind-melting," Spike said, though he was shaking his head and walking back up to, hopefully, locate his jeans. "Give Anya a good distraction from the fact that you'll be a bit of a louder partner than she thought."

"I don't think there's anything that could be that distracting to Anya." He watched Spike's retreating form, privately admitting it was a very nice view. The coffeemaker beeped at him, and Giles walked back around into the kitchen to pour. Problem -- only one mug that wasn't packed away. God only knew which box they were in.

Then he recalled where he'd last seen a mug besides his own, and grinned, reaching into the open box of 'deliver to the thrift shop' items. He was just bringing the steaming cups out when Spike stomped barefooted down the stairs, shirt in hand, but jeans thankfully in place.

"Better," Giles murmured, handing over one of the mugs.

Spike took one look at it and smirked. "Is that a proposition?"

"No. 'Would you like to come upstairs and look at my etchings' is a proposition. 'Kiss the Librarian' is a gift from Buffy that you've forever tainted by habitually drinking blood from it -- so I thought you might as well have it." Giles took his own mug and retired to the sofa while Spike was still sniffing his experimentally.

After a moment, Spike dropped down beside him, and took a drink. Grimaced. Took another drink. "Swill."

"You're welcome," Giles said pointedly. He took a sip of his own, the heat being enough to somewhat numb his tongue to the strong, bitter taste. He took another sip, contemplating his companion. "What are you going to do now?"

Spike gave him a quizzical glance over the top of his cup, then took a large swig of it, swill or no. When he'd swallowed, he said, "Well, I thought I'd go out and rent a U-Haul. Just the thing for carting my gear over here, right?" He snorted. "Course, the housewarming party with the big pile of dust as guest of honour might confuse your friends, since it's broad daylight out there..."

Giles felt his mouth strain with the smallest of frowns. Nothing to do with the vampire's ever-present sarcasm, and he couldn't think why, which words had snagged at the corner of his mind, until his fingers twitched with the sudden urge to rub his eyes. Buffy and Spike here in his flat, disgustingly, artificially in love. The unpleasant memory of his own spell-induced blindness faded to an ironic sort of nostalgia, in the face of all that had happened since. The two of them, bickering over wedding invitations. Checking in as Mr. and Mrs. Big Pile of Dust.

He felt a brief pang of the grief that had so often been all-encompassing in the last months. His Slayer was dead. Every time he thought about her, remembered anything, bad or good, that realization struck anew. He rather suspected it always would, tainting the sweetest of memories so that they left a bitter aftertaste in his mind.

"I meant--"

What had he meant? What was Spike going to do with his day, stuck here in the flat unless he decided to brave the outdoors under a blanket? Giles shuddered to think what he'd get up to if left alone.

But then, he hadn't been planning to leave Spike by himself, had he. He'd been planning to call in and take the day off. It was *Spike* who seemed to be so insistent that he go in, that he speak to Anya and the others. What was wrong with a day of relaxation, before he had to come up with any more definite plans than 'yes, I'm staying in Sunnydale?'

"I meant," he began again, "What did you plan to do with your day, if you're so concerned that I go in and tell Anya the allegedly happy news?"

"Was thinking I might come along." Spike's tone was a study in casual. "Watch the fireworks. If I were you, I'd make sure anything with sharp edges was locked up before you tell her."

Giles looked at the vampire, knowing the surprise had to be showing on his face. "You want to watch."

One bare foot crossed over the other on the coffeetable, and Spike rested his mug on his knee. "Of course I want to watch. The lot of us may be the only thing standing between Sunnydale and a nightly redecorating party that makes this flat look like Martha Stewart's been in, but it doesn't mean I don't still get off on seeing you go at each other hammer and tongs. One of my few remaining pleasures in death."

"I'm so pleased that we can be a source of entertainment for you," Giles said dryly. Some things, it seemed, weren't going to change.

"It's that or stay here and watch telly -- and I'll bet you've had the cable turned off."

"Well..." He added turning the cable back on to the growing list of things he needed to do now that he was staying.

"Right -- got a decent blanket? I assume the top goes up on the midlife-crisis-mobile; I'm *not* riding in the boot."

Giles pictured Spike being tossed around in the small trunkspace, hitting his head repeatedly on the tire-iron, and allowed himself a small smile. Should he pretend the top *wouldn't* go up, just for the enjoyment factor? He took another sip of his coffee, stretching out the moment, making Spike squirm for a bit before answering. "I think I can get it up," he finally said, choosing his words deliberately.

Spike just gave him an arch look, and jumped to his feet. "No time like the present, eh?"

"Without finishing the coffee first?" He glanced at Spike, trying to figure out from looking at him if he meant what Giles thought he meant.

Spike raised an eyebrow, then drained his coffee mug in one gulp. After a second of staring at the logo on the side of it, he gave Giles a look that said clearly, 'It's your move.'

Giles finished his own mug, regarding Spike. He considered what that move should be, knowing it would partially define how things would stand between them now. Did he want what had happened last night to be something relegated to the dark and the shadows, or...

He stood up, walked over, and kissed Spike.

No hesitation; Spike showed not the slightest sign of being surprised, just slid the tip of his coffee-flavoured tongue over Giles'. Strange, how the taste of coffee in Spike's mouth was stronger than the memory of it in his own. Like the night before, Giles found himself getting lost in the act, in the flavour and feel of Spike's mouth beneath his.

It would be very easy, he realized, to give in to this. To tug Spike back upstairs -- though he doubted much tugging would be required -- and prove to them both just how worn out Spike wasn't. It would be very easy to not quite make it up the stairs, in fact, though his sofa wasn't exactly made for that sort of thing.

He'd known what he was doing, Spike had. If he'd known, that is, when he'd let Giles convince him to convince him to stay. Whatever they'd been thinking or not thinking last night, Spike was *good* at this. At using his body, his mouth, his voice, to make Giles forget everything. To hold him here.

And that was what he'd been looking for, after all. Giles felt like he should be know this was wrong, that he should be drowning in guilt and shame, but he wasn't. All he felt was a vague worry and an overwhelming relief that he had found the connection he'd been looking for.

Aside from the pleasure of the act itself of course. And he was back to 'too easy.' With Spike's mouth against his, Spike's hand in his hair -- the hand that wasn't holding the mug with the logo that ordered him to do what he was, in fact, doing -- Giles had almost forgotten what they were *supposed* to be doing. Getting ready to leave, unless Spike was just planning to drive him mad all day by reminding him he should go into the shop, then distracting him from doing so.

More reluctantly than he cared to admit, Giles broke away, and smiled wryly. "No time like the present, yes. As to a blanket, I believe most of them are packed in that box by the counter." Leaving Spike with a slightly befuddled look on his face, he headed to the bathroom to shower and get ready himself.

* * * * *

He dropped Spike off near the front door, and watched him rush, smoking, inside. Giles still marveled at how -- or why -- Spike had the courage to do that. Walk about in semi-broad daylight when most vampires hadn't the stones, or perhaps had too much intelligence, to try it. One of these days, there was going to be a locked door, or a spot of shade that wasn't where Spike remembered it was, and then where would he be?

After parking, and waiting a few moments (Because God forbid they show up together at the same time, and was he really thinking like a sixteen year old who didn't want his parents realizing he'd been knocking about with the rough boy from down the street? Rubbish. He'd *been* the rough boy from down the street.) Giles followed. The shop bell sounded into a rather silent room.

"Good morning," he said, looking between Anya, Xander and Spike and wondering what he was walking in on. He moved over to his desk, where he'd been working on the books for the last couple of days.

"Fancy meeting you here," Spike said, deadpan.

"I was under the impression that I work here," he answered, just as dryly. "That gives at least one of us a reason for being here."

Anya looked up at him. "Spike said he passed you outside, and you looked perplexed. Why did you look perplexed? Perplexed is almost always bad."

"Really." He shot Spike a brief look which had no effect on the slightly smirking vampire. "I'm not sure where he'd got that idea, because I wouldn't describe my mood as perplexed. Quite the contrary. I've finally come to a decision that I've been wrestling with for some time."

Anya's face lit up. "You're finally going back to England?"

"Anya!" Xander put a hand on her arm, then looked at Giles. "Really, she doesn't mean it the way it sounds."

"Yes, I do. I mean it to sound like I'm happy he's really leaving after worrying about it for so long. Not just because it means I'll be in charge. Finally." She turned her smile from Xander back to Giles. "I'm glad you decided you could trust me with our business." She did, indeed, look in addition to her misplaced joy, rather proud. He almost hated to rain on her parade.

"I do trust you, Anya, really," he assured her. "You've a genuine talent for this kind of work." He took a deep breath, steeling himself for her reaction to his next words. "But I'm not leaving."

Xander's face, always made of rubber, moved so quickly through a series of expressions that it was hard to pick them out - shock, worry, disbelief? - much less guess what thoughts they might be prompted by.

Anya, on the other hand, laughed. Actually, she giggled, for rather a long time. When she finally caught her breath, Anya stood up, walked over, and punched Giles lightly on the arm. "And Xander thinks I have no sense of humor just because I thought his joke about the three nuns and the vending machine repair man wasn't funny."

Xander was looking...perplexed, as if he didn't get *this* joke, but he took the time to mutter, "You said you thought it was funny. You laughed. You laughed in the wrong place, but you laughed." He looked at Giles. "You're not kidding, are you?"

"I'm not joking. I'm staying, here, in Sunnydale." Giles braced himself.

Anya looked less sure of herself, though she still wasn't exploding at him, as he'd feared. "You *have* to be joking."

"I think he's serious, hon." Giles couldn't tell if Xander was unhappy, or relieved -- the tone of his voice said one thing, the look his face had finally settled on, another.

"I know that. That was the kind of 'you have to be joking' where you know they're not, but it's more polite than saying, 'Are you out of your freaking mind?'" There was the fluster, not quite out of control yet, Anya looking nervously back and forth between Giles and Xander.

Giles continued doggedly onward. "You will of course still be a partner in the store-"

"See?" Xander put his hand on Anya's arm again. She shook it off. "It's not like you're losing anything, Anya. We're just..." Xander looked up at him confusedly, apparently torn between pacifying his girlfriend and trying to make Giles feel...what -- welcome in his own shop? "keeping Giles."

She shook her head sharply. "Because he doesn't trust me." Rounding on Giles she pointed a finger. "This is about the statues of Erishkegal, isn't it. Just because I bought one little shipment of cursed icons, you think I can't run the store by myself."

"No, it's not. I told you that I trust you, Anya. That has nothing to do with--"

"Xander, make him leave, so I can show him how well I can get along without him!" She stared at Xander as if he really had the power to do something about the situation. She also sounded, beneath the waspishness, truly hurt.

"Anya..." Giles walked over and rested his hands on her shoulders. "I *do* trust you and I'm absolutely certain you would do a wonderful job running the shop by yourself. My decision to stay has nothing to do with that." Out of the corner of his eye he could see Spike watching them, his expression curiously blank. Shouldn't he be grinning happily, nay, demonically? If indeed he'd come along to enjoy the fireworks, he didn't seem to be getting off on them the way he'd said he would.

Anya looked at Giles warily. Unsure if she should trust *him*, it seemed. Lower lip slightly extended, not in a pout, but in the typical brow-furrowed confusion of a worried child. For a moment, he could see her as she must have looked a thousand years ago, a straggle-haired urchin in brown homespun, tugging at someone's hem less for attention than for confirmation that things were going to be all right. He couldn't guarantee her that, unfortunately. Couldn't guarantee any of them that, himself least of all.

"I highly doubt that I could've run the store for this long without you," he said, trying to give her what reassurance he could. "And I am certain I wouldn't want to try. I still need your help, Anya."

"Yes, but.." She looked doubtfully at Xander, who shook his head quickly. Whatever private communication went on between them, Giles couldn't read, but after a second, Anya turned back to him. "It's not that I don't *want* you to stay," she began. "I didn't want you to go in the first place, but then you said you had to, and told me how good I'd be at being in charge, and I believed you, but then you kept not going. And now you say you're staying, but what if tomorrow you decide not to again?"

She raised both hands in a 'give me something here...' gesture.

"What if we get all used to having you here, and thinking we can depend on you, and you change your mind again? It's like the boy who cried wolf. Sooner or later you're going to go, and the sheep are going to eat us."

"Ahn, that's not exactly the way the story goes..." Xander started to tell her.

Giles was trying to think of some way to reassure her, when he caught sight of Spike's face. The vampire was leaning against the counter, immeasurably distant from the small group standing in the middle of the room. The blank look was gone, and in its place was something so similar to what he'd imagined while looking past the adult woman to the iron-age child, that it made Giles' breath catch in his throat.

Not that Spike looked like a child - it was just the sheer open uncertainty and fear on that face, that was usually twisted in a smirk or a scowl. He hadn't come for the fireworks. Giles searched for something he could say, something he could promise to make that look go away. The memory of words from the night before gave him the answer. "I promise I won't leave as long as I'm needed here."

There was something, just for a second. A tiny flash of something that might have been relief, or determination to hold him to his word, or some completely alien emotion that only another demon could hope to understand, and Anya had her back turned to Spike, so she'd be no help in interpreting it even if Giles were insane enough to ask her. Then, just as quickly, it was gone, and Spike was curling his lip. Playing at being amused.

"Well, I know I'm relieved. Otherwise, who'd go all anal-retentive on me and tell me not to light up in the shop?" Spike fished in his jacket, presumably for his lighter.

"I would," Xander and Anya both replied at once.

"We'll take it in turns," Giles said, sending a half-smile Spike's way.

Spike rolled his eyes, but didn't pull the lighter out of his pocket.

Xander was the first to back away from the little knot they'd formed, drawn together by some unconscious gravity, then finally freed of its pull. He shot a brief glance at Spike, then another one, the couples-only sort, at Anya, who seemed like she still wanted to say something. She frowned, but nodded, and walked silently over to the cash register.

"So, have you talked to Willow and Tara yet?" Xander asked.

"Not yet." Giles headed back over towards his desk. "Given our business arrangements, I felt I should tell Anya first."

"Sure you want to follow it up by telling the Wiccas?" Spike asked, crossing his arms and smirking. "Another heartwarming reception like this one might send you into a diabetic coma."

Xander turned on him. "Is there an actual reason why you're here? Besides the annoying undead comedy hour, I mean."

Anya reached over the counter and tugged at his sleeve. "Xander? We actually *wanted* to see him, remember? To ask him if he'd do the thing."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "The Thing? If this involves watching cheesy horror flicks... actually, yeah, sounds good. I'm in. Long as I get to laugh when the hero gets eaten."

Xander blinked at Anya for a second, then comprehension bloomed. He turned to Spike. "The babysitting thing, Blood Breath. As in watching Dawn, Which means *no* cheesy horror movies."

The sneer that would normally have coloured Spike's voice was mild, when he answered. "She's fifteen, Harris, not five. In case you haven't noticed, her *life's* a cheesy horror movie."

"But you'll do it? Stay with Dawn tonight?" Anya sounded worried, as if Spike hadn't done so every time they'd asked him to, since Buffy's death. He'd volunteered more than once, actually, Giles realized. It wasn't something he would've ever expected of the vampire -- at least not before this summer. Now, it seemed...normal. Expected. They were all protective of Dawn, but none of them more so than Spike.

Who looked rather insulted that Anya needed to confirm it. "Like I have anything better to do?"

Unbidden, the memory of what they'd done the night before flashed through Giles' mind, and he had to fight to keep his expression composed. He carefully didn't look at the vampire, knowing that he would let something show if he did.

"Obviously not, if you're hanging around here in the middle of the day," Xander answered immediately. "What *did* you brave the tanning rays for? Here you see me showing appreciation, but I assume you didn't show up here on the off-chance that we'd ask you if you wanted to make three-fifty an hour plus all the cookie dough you can eat."

Spike was nonplused for a second, obviously expecting the confusion of Giles' announcement to have wiped any questions about his presence from their minds. "Burba weed," he said finally, a bit gruffly.

"Huh?" from Xander. "Was that English?"

Anya perked up. "You came to *buy* something?"

Giles was beginning to worry about how familiar -- and comfortable -- that sarcastic snort of Spike's was becoming. "No, I came to watch you lot get all fussed about whatever had Giles in a twist, and shoplift some when you weren't looking." His expression grew calculating. "But I'll be happy to take it in trade for my three fifty an hour."

"You weren't going to *get* three fifty an hour," Anya responded immediately. "What do you want Burba weed for, anyway? It's only good for wart removal and cramps, neither of which I assume you have." She looked him up and down. "Well, you might have warts, I suppose. Just none that I can see."

"I don't have warts." Spike winked at her. "Though if you want to check me out to make sure, you're always welcome."

He had to have known Xander would bristle like a wild boar, and glare at him like he was one step away from seeing if Burba root could be sharpened and used as a stake. Spike got off on it, Giles realized. Or, he amended -- as just for a moment, the smugness of Spike's grin threatened to soften into a smile -- it gave Spike comfort. One thing stable and familiar, in a world gone mad.

Cool again, Spike looked Xander in the face. "Oh, calm down, Harris. I'd let you watch." To Anya he said, "Seasoning, love. Just seasoning. Makes the bagged blood taste better."

"Ever the gourmet," Giles said dryly. He was, surprisingly, enjoying watching Spike wind the others up, and for much the same reason -- a glimpse of something like normality.

"I dunno that there's anything gourmet about making crap taste like ginger-flavoured crap, but if you're allowed to do it with non-dairy creamer, I'm not ashamed to grind a little Burba root in my blood."

Anya nodded sympathetically. "I do understand. It's a big change, not being able to eat the things you like best. I used to love a good boiled Cartarrhka Grub, but these days, I just don't have the digestive system for it." She smiled generously, heedless of Xander's bilious expression. "You can have all the Burba root you like, Spike."

Spike blinked at her. "Really?"

She nodded. "For three dollars a pound."

"Thank you, Lady Bountiful." Spike reached in his pocket, then pulled out his empty hand. "I'll just pop back in when I win the lottery, then." He managed to sound, somehow, both righteously aggrieved that she hadn't handed over free inventory, and completely innocent despite the fact that he'd baldly admitted to intending to shoplift the stuff. He grabbed the dark blue blanket from the counter behind him, and wrapped it around himself, then started for the door in a dignified huff.

Spike had one foot poised to step out into the sunlight, when Anya called, "Don't forget you're Dawnsitting tonight!"

"Not about to. Least she gives me cookie dough." Spike wrapped the blanket tighter around him, and rushed out into the sunlight, heading for the nearest patch of shade. Giles peered around the doorframe after a moment to see Spike crouching in the shadow of the car.

Anya walked over and shut the door with a jingle of bells. "I don't know what he's so huffy about. I was going to give it to him at employee discount."

Giles looked over at her. "We have an employee discount?" He wasn't sure if he was more surprised at Anya offering a reduced price or the concept of Spike as an employee.

She nodded. "Staff don't get charged for wrapping."

"Of course." He smiled, and for the first time in a while, felt sure he meant it.

* * * * *

The night felt different somehow. It was more real, the darkness almost a palpable feeling against his skin. He took a deep breath and held it in his lungs for a moment before letting it go. Giles hadn't realized how much he had shut down as he had struggled with leaving. Now that he had decided to stay it was like nerve endings that had been asleep were coming tingling awake.

Three cemeteries, and there'd only been a single vampire, buried this morning, rising at dusk. Nothing like the gang they'd had to fight last night. Nothing that required Willow playing lookout and shouting directions into their minds. Tonight's one vamp had been dispatched by a single strike of the Buffybot's arm, without the rest of them doing more than standing about and watching for a sire or gang who might be showing up to welcome the fledgling creature.

There was nothing, and still, he felt as if he'd done more than last night, just by being here. Being completely here, in mind and body.

"Quiet night," Xander remarked as they finished the last sweep.

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "We could probably even let the Buffybot finish on her own."

Giles looked up at her, and found himself oddly disappointed. "Are you sure? Not that I don't trust your skills with reprogramming it--"

Willow gave him a look, then nodded her head towards the Bot, as if it would be insulted by hearing him imply that it was...what it was. An object. But she had a point -- it had to think of itself as Buffy, if it was to act like Buffy.

"With training her," he corrected himself. "But is she ready to be trusted on her own?"

"We've sent her out alone before," Willow answered, her voice tinged with defensiveness. She almost sounded angry with him, and Giles had to look closely at her, wondering if there wasn't something else.

She and Tara had both smiled and hugged him, when he'd told them he was staying; nothing like Anya's initial reaction. But there'd been a certain strain, something he'd sensed from all of them tonight, even as he'd been breathing the invigorating charge in the air. It was like a flicker against that energy. Crosswise, like lightning about to strike, but never quite building up enough electricity to finally *do* it.

"Yes, of course we've sent her out before... but only on test runs, with us following, ready to assist if anything went wrong." Giles held up a hand to still Willow's protest. "But this seems like as good a night to try it as any; you're right."

"We have to do it eventually," Willow pointed out, tone slightly mollified now that he'd agreed with her. "Besides none of us have had a night off for weeks." She smiled at him suddenly. "And I'm sure you have lots of unpacking to do."

"Well, I-"

"Great," she cut him off, smile widening. "Then it's settled. We let the Buffybot finish patrolling on her own, while the rest of us get to go and pretend we have lives for a night."

"In other words, go home and study," Tara said with a small smile.

"And let Spike off the Dawnsitting hook," Willow added.

"Right, because *he's* got a life to pretend to have," Xander snorted.

Giles refrained from pointing out that Spike might, in fact, have a life to pretend to have, since it would imply that he'd spent time considering the subject. Instead, he let them go. Watched the younger ones walk off in the direction of Xander's car, of Buffy's home, and turned around to return to his own. He did have a lot of unpacking to do, truthfully. And Spike did have a life to pretend to have. The two might even coincide.

At the edge of the cemetery he looked back, to see a lone figure still standing, staring at a grave a few yards over from where the vampire had risen. Small. Slim. Long blonde hair, and a stance, one hip cocked, that almost, almost looked right. Willow had been fiddling. Improving. From this far away, if he squinted, he could almost believe.

Giles turned away, and walked in the direction of his flat. He didn't want to pretend. Not for himself. For the world outside, yes. But not for himself.

Not that there hadn't been moments when he'd wanted to pretend so badly it hurt. Wanted it as much to prove he still had a purpose as to alleviate his guilt and grief. Buffy had been the reason he'd come here in the first place, and the reason he'd always given himself for staying. There'd been moments he'd needed to pretend, so he could stay just a little longer. Time that he needed to decide if leaving was what he truly wanted to do.

Now that he knew it wasn't, there was no need to pretend. No excuse, more importantly. And a sharp-voiced vampire who Giles sincerely doubted would allow him to do so, if he did give in.

Spike hadn't let him lie to himself, or to Spike, last night, and there wasn't much chance that would change. He walked all the way to his flat without looking back, now matter how hard he wanted to see that small figure, receding into the darkness.

The piles of boxes that confronted him when he entered were enough to drive pretty much all other thought from his mind. Facing the mess that was his flat drove home how daunting a task getting it livable again was going to be. It was almost -- he thought as he opened a box of linens and stared at the contents, trying to remember how long it had been since he'd actually *used* any of them -- a sort of penance, for living in indecision for so long.

Looking at sheets, folded neatly away, reminded him. Brought back the knowledge that for the first time in too long, he needed to change the ones on his bed for some other reason than laundry day. At least, then, unpacking this box had a practical purpose, beyond just making the place look like home again. He went about the business of putting things into place, including the changing of sheets, though he suspected they were likely to need changing again in the morning.

There was something soothing about all of this. It was a physical reinforcement of his decision to stay. A metaphor, as pretentious as he felt in naming it such, for what he hoped to do with his heart and soul, his life in general. He lost himself in the act of unpacking and tidying, time passing without his really noticing.

It was only when he stood up from emptying the last box of baking pans and trays into the cupboard under the sink, that his aching back made him question how long he'd been at it. A glance at the clock made him blink several times, and take off his glasses just to be sure; it hadn't seemed like two hours had passed.

It was almost pathetic, but not quite, that his next thought was, 'I wonder what's keeping Spike.' It wasn't as if they'd made some sort of date for tonight, or Spike was indeed planning to rent a trailer and arrive at the doorstep with whatever meager possessions the vampire had. But Giles had, somehow, been expecting him. That Spike would be here tonight, would be here every night for the foreseeable future, seemed almost accepted in his mind, without ever having been examined.

Briefly he wondered if perhaps he'd made a wrong assumption about Spike's plans for the night. After all, the others had headed home two hours ago, and he couldn't picture Spike hanging about the Summers house after Willow and Tara had returned. He might not have anything against them, but his very Spike-ness would make it unlikely that he'd stay for tea and a round of Monopoly with the girls. So where was he?

All the reasons someone might be delayed walking at night in Sunnydale flashed through his mind. Of course, Spike was more than capable of taking care of himself, but even the best of them could be taken by surprise. Giles stared at the door, wondering if maybe he should go out and look. Spike would look at him like he was an idiot, though, if he came across the vampire on his way over after stopping off for a beer. He'd seem at best a fool, at worst...

But at worst, what was he? A man who'd already admitted he needed Spike as much as Spike needed him. For an anchor, a reason to stay. A reason to be what he was needed to be. He stood up, and walked toward the door.

Just as he was reaching for the knob, the door opened and he found himself face to face with Spike -- who looked just as startled as he.

"Er..." Giles stepped back. "Come in."

"Yeah, I think we established that bit last night." Spike slipped past him, tossing his jacket at the coat rack with more energy than strictly necessary; the wooden pole tottered, but didn't quite fall over, though Spike didn't look as if he cared. He flung himself down on the sofa, frowning, but not saying a word.

Giles shut the door and contemplated the scowling vampire on his couch. If it had been one of the others, he would have at least known how to approach them to find out what was wrong -- years of trial and error had given him that hard earned knowledge, little as he might have been using it recently. But with Spike, he didn't even know where to begin. He was down to guesswork.

Well, he could always fall back on how they had begun last night. "Drink?" he asked. He certainly had enough of that remaining, despite the loss last night of the bottle whose shards he'd cleaned up not an hour ago.

Spike nodded curtly, then stood again. Walked to the door, and opened it, looking out at-- what? Whatever had kept him so long?


"What?" His voice was hard, a palpable wall of sound against anything Giles might have been intending to ask.

"Scotch or gin?"

Spike looked at him blankly for a few seconds as the question registered. "Scotch," he finally answered gruffly, though it was still in a more friendly tone than he had used before. Giles merely nodded and poured him a glass. He handed it over without comment. Spike was far too defensive right now; Giles knew he had to wait until he relaxed his guard before asking anything.

He'd hardly seemed to be in a bad frame of mind when he'd taken off from the shop this morning, beyond his posturing for Xander and Anya. But there were any number of things in this town that could put a reasonably sane person into a piss-poor mood. Like this town itself, for instance. Giles retrieved a new bottle of scotch from a half-unpacked box, and glasses from the re-filled cupboard.

He poured, and set his glass on the coffeetable before carrying the other over to Spike, who was still staring out into the darkness. "If you weren't a vampire, I'd point out that you're asking for trouble, standing in an open doorway in Sunnydale in the middle of the night."

Giles held out the glass just as Spike turned around to look at him, expecting some variation on 'if I weren't a vampire, I'd have been dead a hundred years ago.' Instead, he got the glass snatched from his hand, and a flash of blue eyes so full of rage that Giles thought for a moment Spike was going to toss the drink in his face.

A prey-creature's instinctive fear of predators skittered along his spine, and it was an effort of will not to take a step back. Keeping his expression as much the same as he could, he continued to hold the glass out. Spike didn't reach for it, didn't do anything for a moment, except continue to stare at him-- until Giles realized that it wasn't even him Spike was seeing.

With that realization, he must have given off some sort of signal, a sudden lack of fear, a secret body language that said he was something besides dinner. Spike's gaze focused on him, and Spike reached for the drink in his hand. Held it for a moment, and again, Giles expected violence, though this time he was picturing a repeat performance of his own impromptu Greek toast last night, the glass flying across the room to shatter in the much-abused corner.

But Spike only held it tightly for a second, then bought it to his lips, pouring it down in one swallow. Then he slammed the glass down on the arm of the chair next to the door, and before Giles could fathom what was happening, there were liquor-covered lips against his own, wet and demanding. Fingers clamped around his arms almost hard enough to hurt, but not quite, drawing him in.

Taken by surprise, Giles was frozen for a few heartbeats, then opened his mouth, letting Spike's tongue slip in to brush against his own. He could still feel the violence in Spike, coiling just under the surface, that could explode any second. It made the kiss all the more intoxicating.

Spike only pulled away long enough to slam the door shut, slide the lock into place. Then he was pushing Giles towards the sofa. Backwards. Down. One knee between Giles' planted legs, and hands on his shoulders, pinning him against the cushions. Lips on his again, hard. Insistent. Angry and desperate, and Giles hadn't a clue for what, unless every night with Spike was going to be like this.

That could be true, he realized. Wasn't every night with Rupert Giles the same, before the last one? Lonely reading, one elegantly sipped drink too many, and a long slow climb to the loft, where he'd lie awake trying to hold the nightmares off as long as he could, trying to convince himself to go or stay or do *something* to take him out of this half world he'd been living in.

He returned the kiss with less desperation than Spike, but hard enough to let him know that whatever it was, Giles wasn't going to argue, wasn't going to ask until Spike had found what he needed to find. Reaching up, he wrapped a hand around the back of Spike's neck, pressing hard, holding him in place as much as he was being held.

It was easy to give in, to give as good as he got. Easy, when with every touch Spike bestowed on him, tinged with that desperate need, he felt more and more alive -- body tingling as if awakening after a deep slumber.

One hand disappeared from his shoulder, and for a moment Giles felt off-balance, as if the pressure were the only thing holding him to earth. That righted itself soon enough with the feel of Spike's fingers digging at his shirt, pulling it from his trousers. Fumbling, he almost thought, at his fly, but there was nothing clumsy about it, just hasty. Scarcely a moment before he felt Spike's hand on his cock, warmer than the air in a room still half chilled from the night wind.

Giles groaned at the touch, feeling himself harden even further under Spike's hand. He arched up, his hands sliding down to cup Spike's buttocks. For a moment only, Spike's hand disappeared from his cock, to the tune of a zipper being undone, feel of denim brushing his skin as Spike opened his fly. Then there was hand and cock and cock, and Spike pressing himself close, trapping all three between their bodies, grinding himself against Giles almost violently.

Hard enough to hurt, almost, and Giles saw the grimace on Spike's face. Wondered if the chip gave him some sort of warning buzz when he got near the edge, or if he was just guessing. Sensing how far he was pushing it. In the bright flash of blue eyes, Giles saw an anger that burned past any fear Spike might be feeling.

It made the terror shimmy up his spine for a moment, to guess that there was a level of rage that might let Spike move beyond the controlling leash upon his mind, if only for a second, before it knocked him to the ground. It hadn't happened yet, and it wasn't what was happening here, but sometime, somewhere, Giles could foresee. When it did, he hoped to god that whoever was on the other end of that one-second spark truly deserved what Spike was capable of doing. Sick, probably, that the thought only made him harder.

It wasn't in his nature to be so passive, but under Spike's gaze, Spike's hands, he found himself held motionless -- save for the involuntary tensing of muscles as he was driven inexorably towards his climax. Spike looked away as he thrust down against Giles, and it was only in the loss of that gaze that Giles realized Spike *still* hadn't been seeing him, not really.

Giles understood all too well, the need to fuck wildly, hungrily, painfully, more about the world outside than the body beneath you. He didn't mind serving that need. What else were they doing with each other anyway, if not that? But he'd be damned if he'd let Spike not *notice* who was giving him what he needed. Who he was grinding into the sofa.

He squeezed hard with both hands, and raised his mouth to the side of Spike's turned-away throat. The sharp nip got him an angry glare - but it was a glare at *him*. Giles would have nodded, pleased, if Spike hadn't thrust himself downward. Both of their cocks were crushed in his hand and between their bodies in a movement so tight, so sharp, that Giles could only breathe, then not breathe -- then come so violently that if it hadn't been his own body responsible for the sensations, Spike would probably be writhing on the floor right now.

And Spike *was* writhing, but not from any chip induced pain. He was thrusting against Giles desperately, almost brutally, not pausing for a second even as Giles' climax ripped through him.

He continued, blue eyes bright with hunger, maintaining that glare of awareness by the narrowest of margins, fading rapidly as Spike drove himself towards his own completion.

When he came, his grip on Giles' arm was so tight, his body so rigid, pupils so wide and fixed, Giles thought for a moment that Spike *had* managed to fry his brain somehow. His limbs were frozen, and the contortion of his face was nothing like what Giles had seen last night, with Spike beneath him looking up.

Spent, Giles resisted the instinct to relax, instead holding tightly to Spike's unmoving body as his orgasm seemed to fight its way out, as stubborn and angry as its owner. It seemed more of an ordeal for Spike than a pleasure, and Giles braced both of them, Spike's climax crashing down like a tidal wave breaking against a insurmountable cliff.

When it was over, there was another moment of connection, when Spike was looking at him again, just for a second. Seeing him. Still angry, but not at Giles, or no more at Giles than he was the rest of the world. Then that moment broke, and Spike was rolling off him. Zipping up and starting to stand, then when his legs didn't seem to want to oblige him, shrugging, and dropping back to sit next to Giles.

Spike let his head fall back, and Giles watched the muscles in his throat tighten as if he were going to speak, though he didn't. Giles watched him, not speaking, waiting with a patience honed by the years of being Buffy's Watcher, for him to find his voice.

It was a long wait, punctuated only by the sound of Giles' own breathing, but eventually, it ended. Without looking at him -- still staring at the ceiling, in fact, head resting against the wooden back of the sofa in a position that couldn't have been comfortable -- Spike took in a breath, and let it out in a single word. Odd. Nearly inflectionless, though Giles could still feel the anger simmering within the body next to him. "Bitch."

Giles waited for something further, and when nothing came, ventured, "Buffy?" It was, after all, the word behind every other word spoken between them, between any of them, since she'd been gone.

"No." Spike paused. "Well, yeah. But no. Willow."

Giles considered that for a moment, mentally running through what he knew of Willow's actions lately, and was unable to come up with something that would cause this kind of reaction. "Why?" he finally asked.

Spike's jaw clenched, but he spoke through it, his words tight, clipped. "She was supposed to make it stop. That...thing."

"I don't--"

"The Bot. She was supposed to make it stop...saying things. Doing things."

"Things," Giles repeated, frowning. "What do you mean by th--" He stopped as his brain put it all together. "Some of its...original programming still exists?"

"Not supposed to. Red said she'd cleared it all out. Made room for all the knock knock joke routines." The shape of a laugh was in Spike's words, but his voice didn't fill it. "Christ. It's not enough of a reminder, to have to look at it, apparently. No matter what gets done to it, rip its head off and spit into its sparky bits, doesn't matter. It's like that thing knows what it does to me, to hear that crap. Bitch."

"You don't really mean Willow, then."

An abbreviated snort. "Any of them. All of them. Does it make a difference?"

"Not really," Giles agreed. "Since it's not them you're really angry with." He hesitated before continuing but was resolved to give Spike the same brutal honesty he had been gifted with the night before. "No one likes to have past mistakes shoved into their face."

Spike looked down at him for a moment, sharp and unpretending. Then he laughed. Short and harsh and too small to fill up the hole where something more real belonged. "Very subtle, Rupert. But I didn't come here to get my head shrunk. I know what my issues are, thank you much."

Giles shrugged, not letting himself feel insulted. "You came here for more than a mutual wank on the couch, or you'd be gone by now."

"What, I don't get the chance to catch my breath?"

"You don't breathe."

There was silence, then a sigh that seemed to give the lie to that. "Right." And silence again.

Was it permitted, for him to offer comfort? Like this, not in the middle of sex? He didn't even know if he *wanted* to give in to the ludicrous impulse to draw Spike into his arms, much less if Spike would accept it. In a place that wasn't very far beneath the surface at all, Giles thought perhaps it was only right. Perhaps Spike *deserved* to have that lifelike reminder of her walking about, speaking with her voice, looking at him with eyes that he'd specified be filled with mindless, uncomplicated love.

Perhaps they both deserved her presence, for all the failures and foolish choices, and outright cruelties in their lives. Their penance, as much or more so than the grave hidden in the woods. An image of what they had both loved, so real that they could reach out and touch -- only to have the illusion shatter when they did.

Giles felt his lips curl up into a humorless smile. This level of maudlin was usually only achieved with half a bottle of scotch inside him. Mostly because he couldn't bear to think so deeply about these things without the cushion of alcohol to blunt the pain. God knew what it was about Spike, that he could bring this out; there was certainly nothing blunted about him.

Blunt, yes, in his directness. There were moments when Giles could imagine locking Spike and Anya in a closet together, and coming back an hour later to find them bored out of their wits, because they'd said everything there was to say in the first five minutes. But there was nothing in Spike that dulled the senses. Everything about him was designed to scrape your nerves, your memories, your patience, raw.

Even when he was only sitting silent, staring at the ceiling. Giles had a vision of Spike staying exactly like that the rest of the night, not moving, not speaking. Just brooding. "Why did you come here?" Giles asked, the need to break through that motionless silence and provoke a reaction suddenly overwhelming. There were all kinds of ways of making a connection.

Spike looked at him again. Surprised, this time. "Thought you'd be expecting me."

"I was." The admission was less difficult than he'd imagined it would be, now that he knew Spike had been thinking the same thing. There was nothing patronizing in Spike's tone, to make him feel stupid for his expectation -- rather, Spike had almost sounded as if *he* was suddenly unsure of his welcome. "That wasn't what I asked. Or even what I meant. Why did you come here tonight, now? What do you want, if not a quick shag and out the door? Or free unqualified psychoanalysis? You must've thought about it for a while, before you came over; it's been hours since the youngsters headed home."

Spike's look of surprise changed, somehow. Shifted into an everyday sort of confusion, as if Giles had just told him his boot was on fire, when it obviously, visibly, wasn't. "I came straight here."

Now the confusion was Giles' as he frowned. "We finished patrolling over two hours ago. The others said they were heading straight home..." He trailed off, frown deepening. It was evident now that they had lied to him. And that was not a comfortable feeling.

Spike laughed again, this time with a bit of amusement in it. "They ditched you. Snuck off from the old man to go play in the pool halls."

Giles shook his head. "Far be it from me to point out that they ditched you as well, or that you're older than me..."

"But better preserved." Spike did something illegal with his eyebrow, and it was almost as if he suddenly wasn't angry or upset at all. Impeccable timing, as always, now that Giles wanted to be taken seriously.

"Possibly. Better preserved or not, you still weren't told that they were off somewhere, when they said they were going home. And I can't see them taking off for a lark, leaving you with Dawn."

Spike's brow furrowed. "Well, they know she's safe with me. And they don't give a beggar's penny if *I* know what they're about, unless they need me."

Giles couldn't dispute that -- he hadn't treated Spike any differently before meeting him at Buffy's grave last night. But that still left the fact that they were keeping something from him -- going as far as lying to do so. His frown deepened. Unless they hadn't been lying -- perhaps they'd run into something on the way home? "They didn't mention anything unusual happening?"

Spike shook his head. "The Bot came home before they did, actually. Sparks fizzin' out of her head, and walking into walls. Only my good looks and charm kept the thing from going back out to look for Red, once it figured out there was something wrong with it. That and Dawn convincing it to play rummy with her."

That left out some unexpected bogey having ambushed them on the way home. They would surely have mentioned it to Spike, if the two girls had encountered something nasty enough to delay them for hours, without the robot to protect them. Which still left Giles with the question, which he vocalized: "Why would they lie to me?"

Deep inside a voice was whispering an answer -- that he wasn't needed anymore. That they had got so used to the idea that he was leaving that they had stopped thinking of him as a part of the group. But then, he'd had that suspicion for a while, hadn't he. It was one of the reasons -- only one, or he'd probably have been packing tonight instead of unpacking, despite Spike's good looks and charm -- that he'd been ready to leave in the first place.

Spike gave him a look, and Giles came close to laughing, because it was the sort of look that said, 'I swear to God, if you utter some piece of boring, self-pitying crap right now, I'm going to forget about this chip and bash you over the head with the nearest fertility statue,' without a word being spoken. "Because they're up to something," he said flatly.

Well, that went without saying. At least it did when he stopped thinking it was about him, Giles amended silently. "Of course they are. But it begs the question: what?"

Spike folded his arms. Crossed one leg over the other. Looked as if he was thinking deeply about it -- and the thought struck Giles that all it had taken to get him out of his Buffybot-induced funk was a problem to solve. A trick that seemed to work frighteningly well for the both of them. "S'not your birthday coming up, or anything, is it?" Giles blinked at him, and Spike gave a small grin. "Well, I know this is Sunnydale, but every once in a blue moon, there's a less than sinister explanation."

"No, it's not my birthday coming up. Nor can I imagine, given the mixed reaction, that they're making plans for a Thank You, Giles, For Not Leaving party." He could perhaps be forgiven just a *tiny* bit of self-pity, couldn't he?

Spike shook his head, letting it pass, seeming intent on the puzzle they were trying to solve. "You're right. If they were, Dawn would be in the thick of it."

"Does she even know?" Giles hadn't gotten the chance to tell Willow and Tara until they'd met at the shop for patrol, and neither of them had called home, to his knowledge.

Spike rolled his eyes. "Of course she knows; I told her."

It wasn't germane to the matter at hand, but Giles couldn't stop himself from asking. "How did she react?"

He expected a snicker; perhaps a comment about Spike asking her if she liked Giles, check yes or no, the next time he was called on to Dawnsit. Instead, Spike looked far too wise. "She said she'd believe it when she saw it."

That had the ring of truth to it; with all she'd been through, Dawn had become cynical of everything and everyone -- far too soon for someone her age. And all of this wasn't bringing them closer to figuring out what had happened in those hours where the others had been missing.

Spike scratched his chin. "So let's say it's something of a non-party nature. What would be so bad that they wouldn't want you involved in it? Or wouldn't want you knowing about it at all?"

Giles searched his memory for other times when things had been deliberately hidden from him. Angel, of course, times past counting. But that had been Buffy, whose life had been his to watch over; it was unsurprising, really, that she'd kept parts of it from him, from fear of disapproval, or just the need to have something of her own. The rest of them, though... "The only thing I can think of is that it's something that might put them in danger."

Giles closed his eyes and let the technicolour scenes flow by him. Xander, panicking his way into the library, a trail of women beating down the door after him. Willow, sheepishly baking cookies and testing his returned vision by lying about which one she was handing him. Tara, in the shop, face twisted into the image of guilty horror as the rest of them fought for their lives against invisible demons, and she muttered a prayer of undoing to eyeless Cadria, as fast as her lips would move.

Himself, twenty years ago, standing before his father and promising that there was nothing from his days as a reckless youth that could come back to haunt him, now that he'd given in and joined the Council of Watchers.

"It's magic." It would have to be. What else would they think he wouldn't approve of, or wouldn't believe they could handle?

"Maybe." Spike was thoughtful. "Or they're messing about with somebody they shouldn't trust. There's some pretty heavyweight nasties around here who aren't deep into the mojo -- doesn't mean they're not trouble. If those kids think they can go up against something that *you* wouldn't touch..."

"It could just be them overestimating my disapproval," Giles said, trying to think of the least disturbing reason, but he didn't even sound convincing to himself.

There were just too many dangers out there and, despite everything, the children had too little fear. They'd seen everything, done everything, fought everything. They weren't really children, had passed that age of innocence long before they should have -- but their experience had given them a dangerous sort of cockiness, as well. They'd saved the world, and the worst it could do to them now was kill them. It occurred to him, with a small tremor of sad fear, that he and Spike might not be the only ones for whom the worst no longer seemed like so much of a threat.

"They're not frightened enough, anymore," he said quietly. "They're afraid of the little things -- will we fool Dawn's school into believing a robot is a proper legal guardian for a fifteen year old girl, will the shop make enough profit to add a coffee bar... But they're not afraid of the big things. They've seen the world almost end, and they've seen death come to them and take what they love most-- so what else is there to be afraid of?"

Spike lifted his head and gave Giles a sharp look. "If that's how they're thinking, then they really are in trouble." He was still slouched in his seat on the couch, but there was a tenseness, a watchfulness to him now. "They, hell. All of us."

"Indeed." Giles didn't even want to think of all the things that would be worse than mere death, but his brain was providing him with a long and detailed list regardless. He stood and walked towards the door. "I should go talk to them. To Willow. If it's magic they're playing with, she'll be the one in the lead." She wouldn't -- none of them would -- intentionally cause harm, or put each other in danger. But he'd lived through enough to know what good intentions were useful for, when it came to untempered power: paving stones.

Spike looked at him quizzically, then did the thing with his eyebrow again that was, if not illegal, should at least require a three day waiting period and background check before use. "You're going out like that?" He pointed to the front of Giles' trousers.

They were rather... yes, well. Perhaps not. "I'll change, then."

"Giles, it's after midnight. Whatever they're up to, it's either done, or they're not doing it tonight."

"And if it *is* done? And the city's overrun with yog-sothai when the sun rises, because I don't go talk to them now?"

"Then you get to tell me 'I told you so' and we go yog-sothai hunting."

He gave the vampire an exasperated look. "That's not exactly helpful."

Spike corrected himself. "Well, you'd get to go yoggie-hunting. I wouldn't get very far in the sunlight. Not that they live in sunlight. Not that they can live out of *water*." He stood as well. Giles wondered if he'd suddenly changed his mind, but Spike leaned down to pick up the drink that Giles had poured for himself earlier, then walked over and handed it to him.

Giles studied it, rather amazed that it had survived being so near the both of them for that long without being drained -- but he didn't drink.

"If you really think they've conjured up something that can't wait until you've slept, we can walk out the door right now," Spike told him. Then glanced down. "Well, after a little judicious application of club soda. But I don't think you do. I think you're just trying to convince yourself they need you again, right now, this instant."

Giles shook his head and opened his mouth to deny it, but the words wouldn't come. He sighed, shoulders slumping, and sipped at the scotch, barely tasting it. "You're right," he admitted, voice soft with defeat.

Spike looked at him for a moment, then grinned, and walked close to him. Very close. Whispering in his ear close. "There's something you need to know about me, Rupert."

"Do tell." He heard the flatness in his own voice, but was it any wonder that he couldn't quite manage to get up the enthusiasm for whatever game Spike had suddenly decided to play?

"I'm evil." He said the words as if now that Giles knew, Spike might have to kill him.

That made him, against his will and mood and all that made any sort of sense in the world, laugh. "I'd never have known."

"I'm also extremely talented at cutting off my own nose to spite my face." Spike gave his nose a tap, a sign that stood for a different 'something secret and understood and mustn't be spoken aloud' in every city Giles had ever lived in. "In this case, letting you go off into a funk thinking your brats don't need you, just 'cos I'd rather have you here."

Giles looked into the shaded blue eyes so close to his own, trying to sort out his own feelings. When he found himself smiling, he decided that the words had been more comforting than disturbing. "You'd rather have me here," he repeated, still smiling.

"Well, I could have you at the witches' place too--" He never called it 'Buffy's place.' Never the Summers house. Not aloud. For all his sharpness, Spike had his own little denials. "--But I wouldn't want to wake Dawn up on a school night."

"You're impossible. You wanted me to think they don't need my help, so I'd stay and shag you?"

"Put a little more surprise into that tone, Rupert. Try pretending I did something selfless and noble."

"I fear my acting skills aren't up to pretending that," he replied, dryly.

"We'll have to work on that. You'll need 'em pretty sharp tomorrow, if you're gonna put the screws to the younger generation, without letting them know how you figured out they're up to something." The hint of a smirk, though there was the same flatness in it as Giles had heard in his own voice.

"Then you think I should? That there is something going on? It's getting hard to keep track, with you."

Spike worked his jaw through a frown and back to that same half-smirk. "That's what I meant by cutting off my nose. Do I think they need you to stop 'em from getting their heads bitten off by something nastier -- and there's always something nastier -- than they ever expected? Yeah. They need you."

He tugged lightly at the collar of Giles' untucked, half unbuttoned shirt, and said nothing further. He seemed to be waiting for Giles -- but if there was an expected response, something that would address both what he'd said, and what he was doing, Giles didn't know what it was.

Spike shook his head, and tugged the drink from Giles' hand. "Honestly, this stuff is wasted on you." He drank it, as he had the last one, in one swallow -- but this time it was slow, smooth. A silken movement that lasted so long, a human would have been choking on the gold liquid that disappeared from the glass and into Spike's mouth.

Then Spike was pulling him down and that mouth was on his, and Giles couldn't for the life of him think where the glass had gotten to. He might have heard a dull thud as it landed on the carpet he'd unrolled when he was unpacking; it was difficult to separate other sounds from the blood roaring in his ears, as Spike pulled at him. A deep, drowning kiss, sucking at him as hard as Spike's lips had pulled at the liquor a moment ago.

When Spike let him go, he knew what he was supposed to have said. "They need me -- you just need me more?"

Spike shook his head. "I'm just more selfish."

Giles tried to be angry with him. He really did. He worked at it, attempting to think anything but 'This is what he is -- how can you fault him for it, when you've known for years? When you knew last night, before you ever set foot up those stairs?'

Spike saw it, and grinned. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm also more pragmatic. When it comes to things that might rise up and bite *me* in the arse, or hurt the Niblet..." His expression grew more serious. "Well, you can bet *your* arse that if I thought there was a chance of anything happening tonight, we'd be over there right now. Without stopping for club soda."

That much he could believe was honest, and accept without having to look at his own reactions too closely. "That is...comforting, in a disturbing sort of way." Moreover, Spike was probably right; if anything had already been done, it hadn't been cataclysmic, and he could find out about it in the morning. More likely, given the collective nervousness, they'd gathered to talk about whatever it was they couldn't say in front of him.

Spike's grin shifted from affable to truly demonic, without pausing for breath. "Want to go upstairs and I can disturb you some more?"

Giles' body reacted to the suggestion, before he really had a chance to think about it. "You're disturbing wherever you are."

"Yes, but the bed's comfier than the couch." The statement, matter of fact as it was, for a moment no overtone of seduction in it -- or no more than Spike always carried in his voice -- made Giles laugh again.

"I thought the whole point of being disturbed was to *not* be comfortable?"

"Well if you'd rather be disturbed down here..." Spike moved impossibly closer, their bodies touching at more important points than Giles could coherently count.

Giles had to stop himself from automatically taking a step back, or reaching out and grabbing hold. "I never said that."

Spike watched him for a moment, a smirk playing about his lips -- then it disappeared, to be replaced by a simple, rueful grin. "Do I actually have to seduce you again, or can we just shag now?"

Thank god for Anya. Something Giles had never thought he'd be thinking with a male vampire practically molding his body against Giles' -- but working with that woman for one year had taught him more than the previous forty-seven about how to deal with sexual directness. He'd think about why that disturbed him, later. "Are you trying to tell me that episode on the couch was you seducing me?"

"Not romantic enough for you?" It was rather frightening that Spike actually managed to sound serious.

"I've had more romantic experiences with my hand and a Mantovanni record," Giles responded sincerely. Somewhere across town, Anya was applauding. Somewhere a bit closer, Spike was looking at him incredulously, then bursting into appreciative laughter. "Oddly enough, I wasn't expecting you to bring flowers, Spike."

Just the thought of Spike showing up on his doorstep with a bouquet of flowers was enough to put a smile on his face at the ridiculousness of the image. Utterly straightfaced, Spike said nothing, but hummed a bit of something. It took Giles a second to recognize "You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore."

"You're disturbed," Giles muttered, trying to squelch his smile.

"And you're making conversation when you could be shagging me," Spike replied, and pressed him against the door.

"Am I?" The smile escaped as his hands came to rest at Spike's waist. "What are you going to do about it?"

Spike grinned back, rather evilly. "Stop talking," he said just before he covered Giles' mouth with his own.

* * * * *

It was odd, the sense of deja vu, as he drove towards downtown and the Magic Box.

Of course it was familiar -- he'd been taking this same route for a year, after all. Nor was it that different from the path to the high school -- just a left turn a few streets further up, instead of a right. But this was more than just the casual familiarity of a town in which he'd spent the last five years living and working, driving and walking, on the streets and in the sewers. It was an immediate sense of 'I've made this same trip before. *This* trip.'

The trip to the shop, with his heart annoyingly lodged in his mouth, for all he was trying to pretend that he was calm and clearheaded. The trip he'd made yesterday, rehearsing in his mind how he was going to tell the others that he was planning to stay, and trying not to let the blanket-wrapped Spike in the back seat realize how nervous he was. The feeling was the same, even with the top down, the radio on to give him some pale approximation of company, something to stop his thoughts from spinning a mile a minute, and no vampire in the car at all.

Said vampire was blanket-wrapped again, but the back seat was empty. Spike was, judging from his protesting noises when Giles had asked if he was coming along, still curled up in the bed upstairs in Giles' flat. Giles had laughed this morning, despite his misgivings about the day's plan, to see Spike instinctively grab at the duvet when Giles stood up. He'd spun himself a blue flannel chrysalis, with not even a wisp of whitish hair sticking out at the top. Just a silent human-shaped lump in his bed, that Giles was close to wishing was here with him instead, because the radio was doing nothing to distract him from the familiar heart-in-throat effect.

If Spike had been cowering in the back seat avoiding the direct sunlight, he might at least have laughed at Giles, for being afraid to speak with Anya yet again. The circumstances were different this time at least. Instead of trying to figure out how to impart information, he had to figure out how to get information out of her. Which, given Anya's propensity to speak her mind no matter what the subject, shouldn't be all that difficult.

It wasn't the act so much as what he might find out that had his heart in his throat.

"Tell her you're worried about Red," Spike had advised last night, sometime between sex and sleep, or possibly sex and sex; it had taken quite a while to work the edge off his thoughts so that he could even try to sleep. "Think she's getting in over her head."

"I am. I do," he'd replied.

"Yeah, but let on you know something's up, and you don't trust Willow," Spike had insisted, leaning on one arm, looking at him as if the complexities of ferreting information out of people were something one only picked up once one passed one's century mark. "That way Anya thinks you trust her more, and she's never been all that keen on Red anyhow."

"Or I could just ask her, and leave the Machiavelli to you." Spike was to put the bite, as it were, on Willow, somewhat later in the day. He had some idea that she was feeling guilty about the Bot's programming problems, and might be willing to talk to him if he pressed the right buttons.

As Giles pulled into his usual parking spot at the Magic Box, though, the direct approach began to seem more and more intimidating. Not that he planned on playing Spike's sort of mind games with Anya, but to simply ask her what was going on? It had him standing outside the door to his own shop like a nervous schoolboy working up the gumption to walk in and buy his first packet of condoms. Or in the case of this shop, his first guaranteed no fail or your money back from the home office in Bangladesh, love philtre and spot remover.

Perhaps easing into the conversation instead of an out and out question would be a better course of action, he thought as he forced himself to step inside. Braving the lion in its den. Or at least the ex-demon behind her cash register.

"Good morning," he said as stepped through the door, forcing a chipper tone into his voice.

Anya looked up at him, surprise turning to false smile, then to perplexed frown. She stared at him for a moment, squinting.

Eventually, his grin faltered a bit, under the weight of her scrutiny. "Is something the matter?"

She continued to look at him, tapping her finger on the glass countertop thoughtfully. Quite irritating, but that was hardly new.


Anya pointed that finger accusingly at him. "You had sex."

"I--" What? "What?" He looked quickly around the shop, and was somewhat relieved to see that they were alone. As relieved as a completely discombobulated person can be. "What?"

"You think I can't tell when somebody's been having that knock the lamps off the tables, rug burns on your elbows, think you'll have to call in sick but you manage to stumble into work anyway just so you can show off that smile you can't get off your face, sex? This is wrong. Very wrong. You shouldn't have that smile."

Amazingly, Giles managed to frown at her. "I'm not smiling, now." Had his smile really been *that* one? It had certainly been forced, but he couldn't very well deny having worn the real version, somewhere around four o' clock in the morning, when Spike had finally dropped off to sleep. God help him if that was the only one he could come up with now, even when trying for fake good morning cheer.

Anya was still frowning at him. "Your eyes still are. Stop it. Are you trying to make trouble?"

His eyes? Giles set his face into as disapproving a frown as he could manage, only hoping that would carry to his apparently overly expressive eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he stated gruffly.

"You're trying to make me crazy. Upset the status quo. Then I'll do something stupid because I'm too worried about what weird thing will happen next, or I'll get into an argument with Xander about accusing people of having had sex, and you'll point at me and say Ha! I knew Anya couldn't handle this place on her own."

"You think I slept with someone just to unnerve you?" The frightening part was that he was almost able to follow her reasoning, which meant that he knew her far too well, and perhaps he should go back to the flat and hide in the bed for a few more hours.

"So you don't deny it?"

Giles looked at her in disbelief. "Anya, I can safely assure you that whatever might or might not happen in my bedroom has absolutely nothing to do with you." The conversation was definitely getting away from him -- if it had ever been in his control in the first place. One good thing -- it made confronting her about what was going on last night seem like a pleasant prospect, compared to continuing the current line of conversation. "I did want to speak with you, though, if you have a moment."

She continued to look at him suspiciously, but after straightening up the pile of receipts near the register, came out from behind the counter and followed him to the table. He gestured for her to sit down, but remained standing himself, having the feeling he might need every little iota of psychological advantage he could get.

Giles also didn't speak right away, letting the silence stretch forebodingly before he broke it. When he did, he kept his tone pleasant and conversational. "How was your night off?"

She looked confused for a second, then pasted on a cheery smile that did *not* look like lamp-knocking, elbow-burning sex had been involved in its development. Thank god. "Wonderful. Xander and I had a great time."

He continued to watch her, and when she volunteered nothing further, said, "That's all?"

"What do you mean, that's all?"

"Just that you're usually more effusive about such things."

"Well, if you want details-"

"Actually," Giles interrupted, taking the opening, "I do want details. About--"

Anya's eyes grew wide, and she cut him off. "You *want* details? About *my* sex life? You're not going to polish your glasses and pretend you can't hear me?"

"No, I'm not," he said shortly, somewhat taken aback, somewhat annoyed. "And anyway, when I do that, I'm pretending I can't see you."

"Oh. What do you do when you're pretending you can't hear me?" she asked with what appeared to be actual interest.

"There is unfortunately no dignified way of doing that, short of carrying my guitar about and bursting into impromptu musical interludes."

Anya looked at him suspiciously again. "You *are* trying to make me crazy. You obviously *don't* want to hear details, so why--"

Giles was about to interrupt her, when the bell over the door did it for him. He sighed, resigning himself to trying the conversation again later, this time hopefully without accusations of having shagged someone, however accurate they might be-- and looked up to see the Buffybot standing in the doorway.

"Willow says I'm supposed to train with you," she told Giles. "I had an accident last night. She says she thinks I'm all better, but she wants to make sure she didn't screw anything up."

The Bot frowned, not an unfamiliar sight on Buffy's face, but the innocent confusion of it was never quite right. Even when Buffy hadn't understood something, there was always the ready ghost of a joke about her lack of comprehension, hovering around the edges of her frown. The Bot had no such self-awareness, and aside from the knock knock jokes, all of her humour was accidental.

"I'm sure I don't have any screws in me, though. All of my panels are attached with wingnuts."

Giles smiled sadly, feeling his heart break just a little bit more as it always did when faced with the Bot. "Of course," he said, stepping forward. There was no use continuing questioning Anya right now; she was already standing up, walking over to tidy behind the counter. Scanning out the shop window for potential customers, one of whom seemed to be heading towards the door.

Giles shook his head, and followed the Bot to the training room.

In the room that he had outfitted for Buffy, that Xander had filled with pieces of homemade equipment, and Riley had supplemented with military surplus whose origin none of them had wanted to question -- Giles had been teaching the Buffybot things that he'd taught Buffy in high school. No, things she'd already known in high school, that he'd pretended he needed to teach.

The physical moves, the robot had down. This boy, Warren, had indeed been an amazing craftsman. An amazing observer, to pull together so much information about the way she looked, the way she fought... Not, of course, the way she talked, but that was down more to Spike's now-regretted specifications than the designer's ability to imitate a walking, talking, breathing woman.

That was it, though - part of it. "Remember your breathing," he told her now as she aimed dead-on kicks and punches at his padded hands. confused again, then nodded, and took a deep, long, completely unnatural breath. Blew it out as she punched his open palm again.

"Yes, that's it, but you want it to look more natural. Think of the breath as chi, as a life force, moving through your body."

Cocked head. Almost. So close to the real thing. "But I don't require oxygen to live."

"But you must be able to act, and fight, as if you do, in order to look like the real Buffy."

More confusion. She pointed to her hair, her face. "But I do look like Buffy. I *am* Buffy."

The dichotomy made him blink, and ache, and pull the glovelike pads from his hands. It knew it was a robot. It could talk about wingnuts and subroutines, knew that Willow was a programmer, that she'd been made by Warren, for Spike. She even knew, understood, that there had been another Buffy, before her, who wasn't here anymore, and yet...

And yet, at the most basic level, no matter how much Willow tried to tweak her programming to make her understand, she still believed herself to be Buffy. To be, in some sense, real. Even he couldn't stop thinking of it as she, so why was it surprising to see the Bot itself with the same confusion?

No wonder it tore Spike up when she still professed to love him, or find him attractive, or whatever it was that had set him off last night; not only did it remind him of his mistakes, but it was so close... Giles sat down on the sofa near the wall, feeling the weight of more years than just his own.

The Bot came over and sat beside him, head cocked as she looked at him curiously. "Why do you do that?" she asked.

"Why do I do what?" he asked, rather afraid he was being drawn into one of her apparently unerasable riddle routines.

"Want me to act like her. And when I do you get all frowny." The Bot wore a childlike expression of puzzlement that once again fell short of being Buffy's.

Part of him wanted to lash out at her -- at it -- verbally. Say that it was a private matter. A human thing, that it could never understand. Another part, no matter how well he knew that the Bot was a machine, saw a young woman before him who wanted to know something very simple, and very complex. Who was trying to understand, and what was he meant to be, if not a teacher?

"We need you to be like her," he explained slowly. "Because there are bad things that could happen if other people, or demons, knew that you're a machine. But at the same time, it hurts us to see you, because you look like her. Hurts us to see you act like her, even more."


"Because it reminds us that she -- the other Buffy -- isn't coming back. And we loved her."

She frowned. "But that's not true." He looked at her, wondering what she could possibly mean. That they hadn't loved her? Or simply that she didn't, couldn't, built for mindless adoration as she was, understand the concept of love. Then she surprised him. "She is coming back. The other Buffy. Tonight."

Giles froze -- could swear his heart actually paused in its beating. "What?"

If not for last night, he would have simply assumed she'd misunderstood something. That he was only thinking the worst because, these days, it was far too likely for the worst to be true. But there *was* last night.

"What do you mean?" he asked more slowly, more gently. Trying to calm his own irrational surge of fear, as much as anything.

"Willow said she was coming back tonight. If she comes back, then will people stop frowning at me? Will Spike like me again?"

"Willow told you that Buffy's coming back?" His voice sounded strained even to himself. He couldn't believe that they would be so foolish to even think -- but it did fit everything he'd found out.

The Bot looked...guilty? What could it have to feel guilty about? How could it even *feel* guilt? The ludicrous questions spun in his head, taking up the space of the ones he couldn't even begin to consider. "She didn't *say* I couldn't tell anybody, but I don't think she knew I heard her."

"When was this?" Last night? Longer ago than that? How long had they been planning this, without saying a word to him, just waiting for him to finally leave?

"When I was in my recharge mode, after she fixed me last night. She put me in my bed, and I think she thought I was asleep." The Bot shook her head. "I don't sleep. I'm never asleep. Sometimes I'm turned off, but I'm never asleep."

In Buffy's bed, she meant. Giles had seen her in recharge mode, staring lifelessly at the ceiling. He, too, had assumed that her -- sensors? -- were switched off.

"She leaned over and touched my face. I didn't know why she did that - she'd already covered up the hole where I was broken. And Willow said, 'It'll be okay. Everything'll be okay after tomorrow night. We'll get Buffy back, and we'll all be okay.'" The Bot cocked her head the other direction. "Aren't we all okay now? Why do we have to wait for the other Buffy to come back?"

He stared at her, unable to find words to answer. They weren't okay -- they were even more not okay than he had thought if Willow was actually planning.... To bring her back. It hadn't really sunk in yet, Giles knew, because when it did, he would be feeling something more than this dismay and muted horror. Nothing would be muted, or soft, or quiet; he could feel it in the way his stomach was already roiling and clenching.

She couldn't possibly think... But, he realized, Willow could. His reasoning last night had been sound. Willow -- all of them in their way -- had reached the end of their fear. It was still there, but possible to overcome, by the knowledge that the worst thing they could imagine had already happened.

Willow knew the risks -- they all must have known the risks, since Buffy had told all of them what Dawn had tried to do with Joyce. But Joyce was one woman, lost to natural causes, and Buffy was the Slayer, lost to something that seemed so senseless and tragic, so world-toppling, that they thought it was different, somehow.

It wasn't different; there was still a body in the ground. And if they were trying to bring her back with means more sophisticated than Dawn had used, trying to bring back something that might actually be Buffy, not just a shambling horror, then they were playing with forces that they had no concept of. All the possible outcomes of such a spell ran through his mind, each worse than the one before.

He couldn't let that happen, for all their sakes. Giles thought of walking out to speak to Anya, now. Confront her, beg her to tell him he was wrong. He thought of it, and pictured the child he'd imagined, grown into a woman he thought he'd trusted, turning her face away from him as she spoke. Because... if they'd been willing to hide this from him, to plot behind his back, why *wouldn't* they be willing to lie? Had he never lied to a friend, when he thought he was doing the right thing?

As he stared at the woman who wasn't a woman, wasn't his Slayer, wasn't anything but a pile of wires and circuits with the face of someone he loved... Giles saw an artificial worry there that almost matched his own. He swallowed the feeling that he was somehow lying to a friend again, or at least manipulating one -- then caught and held her eyes. "I need you to do something for me."

* * * * *

He found Spike in the kitchen.

He'd been expecting the vampire to still be curled up in bed, sleeping the day away, trying to get back into something like his natural rhythm after two nights of acting like a human. Well, like a vampire keeping time with a human.

Giles thought of Anya's accusation this morning and almost allowed himself a moment to worry about small, silly concerns like what the others would think if they knew about what was happening between himself and Spike. Almost. Except it wasn't worth thinking about now. What the others thought might not even be an issue if they did something so stupid tonight that they didn't survive.

Spike rose from behind the counter as Giles made his way across the room. The fingers of one hand ran through mussed blond curls; the other hand held...a toaster?

"Er. Snuck out for some blood, thought I'd heat it up, and figured out you'd not unpacked the kitchen yet. No microwave. Once I got started..." Spike shrugged. "If I'm gonna be cadging food off you properly, need to be able to find the good silver, yeah?"

Normally that would've pulled at least a smile from Giles, but not now, not with the knowledge that was weighing on his mind. "I found out what they're planning."

Spike set the toaster on the counter with a clunk. "You look like the canary that got et by the cat. What could be so bad, after bringing down the odd end of the world or two?"

"That's exactly what *they're* thinking. Don't you start too." Giles shook his head, and found the words almost impossible to get out.

It suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea how Spike would react. His drive home had been filled with the swirl of denial, worry, anger, desire to turn the car around and talk to Anya after all -- his only thought of Spike had been to get back and *tell* him. Share it with someone who'd see the danger for what it was.

"They're going to try to bring Buffy back."

Once he said it, once the words were there in the room between them, the thought hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. Who said Spike would be on his side? Spike might have been the old one, the thoughtfully nodding one, last night, but now it was about Buffy. About the chance, however slim, of having her back among them. Giles knew what was right -- and he was almost certain that the vampire did as well -- but since when was Spike *concerned* with what was right?

"Bloody hell," Spike muttered, turning away, shoulders stiff with anger. "*Bloody* hell," he repeated, voice almost a growl, shaking with emotion.

Giles stood tense and silent, waiting to see if he had an ally or another opponent.

When Spike turned back around, his face was blank. *Blank*. Empty of all emotion, not even that sneering superiority that usually fell into place when he couldn't think of anything else to pretend to. Blank and white. Giles wondered for a moment, until Spike opened his mouth. Then, there was no wondering, because it was all there in his voice.

"What do they think they're doing?" Less a growl than... a plea, of some sort. Actually asking Giles to make sense of it. But it came out so tense, so controlled, so... If Giles were willing to walk across the room and touch him, he suspected that a single whisper of air across his skin would make Spike explode.

Giles stayed where he was and did his best to answer Spike's question. "They want to make everything...okay. The way it was before." He was a bit surprised at the bitterness in his own voice, the depth of his anger at the children's unthinking choices.. "They don't understand that there's no way things will be the same, even if they-"

"Okay? They want to make everything *okay*? They *can't*. Hell, even I know they can't, and I've--" He cut himself off, with a look that on anyone else Giles would have taken for guilt, then picked up again, looking away. "She's been dead too long. It'd be..." Spike laughed, low and painful. "It'd be a monster that looked like her. Don't we already have one of those?"

Giles had a brief urge to defend the Bot, which had been trying in its own limited way to understand and help, but he didn't think it would do much good. Plus it was rather beside the point at the moment. "We need to stop it," he said instead, a simple statement of the obvious.

Spike stalked around the corner of the kitchen and towards the door. "Right." He reached for his coat.

Giles stood where he was, and Spike looked back at him.

"You coming? A hell of a lot easier to get there by car, mate."

Considering it was barely one, Giles didn't doubt it; he was rather amazed Spike had managed to find enough shadows to lurk in to get to wherever he'd gotten his blood, and back. "Spike, if we confront them now..."

Spike stood with his coat half on, black leather hanging from one arm like a courtier's cape. "Yeah?"

"They'll just deny it."

A frown, and Giles could read the indecision in his body. Half there, half not, as Giles had been for so long, this summer. The wanting to *do* something, and realizing that there mightn't be anything to do, yet. Not knowing what he should do, anyway. "Yeah."

That Spike believed him so quickly, was that cynical, didn't surprise Giles; he was more surprised by his own heavy hearted knowledge that it was true. Confronted, the four of them -- he couldn't imagine Dawn was involved -- would most likely continue the half truths and outright lies they'd been giving him for however long they'd had this planned.

That was something he was going to have deal with -- after they dealt with the more serious crisis. "We'll have to catch them red-handed. Before they can do anything, but with the evidence." Giles took a deep breath. "At Buffy's grave."

"They'll want to be there. When she rises." Spike's voice was hard. Unrevealing.

Giles nodded. A moment, when he thought Spike might actually change his mind -- when he could see, like a ghostly reflection in Spike's eyes, the image of that lonely grave, of everything that it could mean, for it to be emptied.

Then it was gone, and Spike was nodding as well. "It'll have to be you. I'm on Niblet duty again tonight." He didn't look happy about it -- if there were degrees of unhappiness, at this point.

"Actually, I've made arrangements to take care of that. The Bot's going to double back after they've left and look after Dawn tonight." He couldn't quite bring himself to look at Spike as he said that, quite certain that collaboration with the Bot was not something that the vampire was going to easily accept.

Spike said only, "You think we can trust it?"

Giles gave himself credit for not looking at the floor, now. For not hesitating, as he met Spike's gaze. "I told her that you didn't wish her to say anything about it to the others."

Spike blinked. Seemed about to frown, then laughed shortly. "Nice."

"No, not particularly. She seemed to take it as a sacred duty."

"It's still a thing, you know." The tone was less harsh than Giles expected, after last night. The anger was still there, but it was muted.

"Perhaps," Giles allowed softly, studying his own hands as he remembered the earnest confusion and hurt on the Bot's face earlier, "but it is self-aware and who can say what it...she...feels."

"It doesn't--" Spike started, then shook his head, and slipped his coat off. Hung it back on the stand. "Of course it does. Why wouldn't it?" He laughed, and it sounded like rocks tumbling in his throat. "This whole thing is so fucking ridiculous. Here we are, using each other to make ourselves believe there's a point to being around here now she's gone, and plotting how to stop them from bringing her back. The bloody Bot's just one more bit of pie-in-the-face, to top off the rest of the farce."

Giles grimaced at that blunt recitation of his reality. "It's enough to drive a man to drink," he replied sarcastically, heartily wishing at that moment that it wasn't far too early for just that. He was on the verge of not caring.

Luckily, or so it would seem, Spike was well across the verge, and tumbling into the abyss. "Scotch or gin?" Giles heard as he sat down on the sofa. He frowned and shook his head. "Oh, come on," Spike said. "You might as well join me. It's that or shag."

Without looking up, he answered, "Gin. Scotch, I've found, tends to make the 'or shag' rather a moot point." There was a glass in his hand, far too quickly for Giles to wonder if anyone would care how early in the day it was, besides himself. He stared at the liquid for a moment. "I guess, considering the circumstances..." He raised it to his lips, then drained it in one smooth motion, grimacing again at the strong taste and welcome burn.

"Short drive, then, was it?" Spike asked with a laugh that was only a tiny bit less gravelly. Giles looked away from his empty glass in time to watch Spike drop easily onto the couch beside him, while managing to hold the open bottle in one hand and a full glass in the other, spilling neither. In another time and place, there would have been a part of him that secretly envied that natural grace, no matter the price one paid to receive it.

Now, it was just part of Spike, something neither frightening, nor entirely safe, and lifetimes away from the venerable, but untrustworthy books in which he'd first read about such things. "Drive?"

"To drink. You gave in quick enough."

Giles laughed, the sound as rough as the gin had been smooth. "You're a bad influence on me." It was rather comforting in a way to have a bad influence to blame. Someone who would share the destructive behavior with him.

"Well, there's something to make it all worthwhile, at least." When he looked up, Spike was holding out the bottle, ready to pour. "As long as you're under the influence anyway..."

"One would almost think you were trying to get me drunk for some nefarious purpose." Despite his words, he held out his glass for a refill.

Spike poured, and Giles drank. Spike poured, and Spike drank. When he'd finished swallowing, Spike set the bottle on the coffee table. "One would, yeah. But m'not." He laughed. "Pretty damn scary, if you ask me."

"What is?"

"That we're the force of right and good in the universe right now. Well, you, me, and the Bionic Slayer."

"Scary? That's bloody terrifying." He reached for the bottle, pouring them both another glass when he got it.

It *was* terrifying. But it was also...reassuring. To know it wasn't his responsibility alone. He caught Spike's eye, as he handed over the glass, and Spike nodded. "Yeah. Here's to the farce."

When their glasses touched, the ring of sound was almost hopeful -- though of course, he could have been imagining things, since he was, after all, fast approaching rather drunk. But at least he wasn't the only one.

* * * * *

He was stone cold sober that night, standing in front of Buffy's grave. Waiting.

The air was so still, so silent, it felt as if he could reach out and take it in his hands, warm and summer-moist. The night before last -- had it only been that long? -- it had been cool. He'd pulled his jacket close around him as he'd looked down at the headstone to say his goodbyes. Here, now, though, it was damp and humid as a jungle, in the darkness beside her grave. Every breath a chore, struggling not to drown in the watery air.

Perhaps it was just him. Giles looked across to the shadows of the stone where Spike leaned, silent as the night air. Though he appeared at ease, Giles could sense the tension running through the vampire, a match to his own.

It was a cold whisper on the back of his neck, an itch at the base of his spine. The knowledge of why they were here, what they were waiting for, what they had to stop, loomed large in his mind, threatened to wrap him in knots if he dwelled on the why. He was deliberately not thinking about it, deliberately focusing on such inconsequentials as the weather, because thinking about it would be too much. He would deal with it when he had to; he would stop it.

Afterwards he would think about it. Afterwards he'd fall apart.

"I don't like it." Spike's voice was a shock of icewater on his skin, a cold slap. Enough to make him blink, squinting into the darkness to focus on two glittering eyes, and lips that Giles hadn't seen move, in the shadow.

"It's not midnight yet; they'll be here. Unless you chase them off by talking, of course." Perhaps he bit too hard, snapping out at his own nerves, his own fears, but Spike only shook his head, eyeglints disappearing and winking back into place.

"I mean leaving Dawn with the Bot."

Giles let his breath out in a controlled sigh, trying to let some of the tension go with it. When he answered he had managed to soften his tone a little. "I know you don't. But they'll be all right."

"I said I'd look after her. What if something happens and I'm not there?" It didn't take standing above the grown-over grass to hear that he wasn't only talking about Dawn.

Giles knew there was nothing he could say that would be assurance enough. "Go, if you can't stay. I'll handle this myself if I have to." He was sharper than he had meant to be, but the idea of facing this alone left him little extra energy to be civil.

"No. I'm not leaving *her*." And this time there was no doubt he wasn't talking about Dawn, when he pointed to the grave, white finger extending out of the rock's shadow,

Giles looked at him for a moment before turning back to the tombstone and the stark reality it represented. "Nor am I," he murmured, the words a promise to a memory. He and Spike were alike in this: determined not to fail her again even if all they could offer was letting her rest in peace.

He brought his watch close to his face, peering at the little glowpaint-tipped hands. Almost midnight. If they were coming -- if he was right, and how he hoped he wasn't, and feared he was -- it would be soon. They'd need her body, and any magical undertaking this large, this dark, would be best done as near the witching hour as possible.

"Can you--" Hear anything, he was about to ask, but Spike cut him off with a sharp upswing of his hand. Pointing. Towards the forest, from which Giles could hear nothing, for a few moments. Then, in the distance, breaking sticks, branches being shoved aside. Faint, familiar voices.

Giles closed his eyes for a brief moment, his stomach sinking as his suspicions were confirmed. For a moment he grieved for the loss of innocence -- his own, no less that that of these children -- and the hard truths they would have to face. Then he squared his shoulders and hardened his resolve, turning to face the entrance to the clearing where they would appear.

Louder, and closer. They were being what they'd think of as quiet, of course, but obviously not silent enough to avoid a vampire's hearing. Anya's voice, strident with nerves, even as she tried to whisper. "There's a bug on my shoulder. Xander, get the bug off my shoulder, before it makes me scream, and do unpleasant things to it."

"It's a leaf, Anya."

"Are you sure? It could be a bug pretending it's a leaf. A leaf bug."

"It's a leaf. See?"

"Oh. Well it could've been. Shouldn't we be there by now?"

"We are," Willow replied, sounding calm and assured, just as they stepped into the clearing.

Giles could see their shadows moving through the trees now. He stood where he was. Waiting for one of them to look beyond their feet, beyond each other. Beyond the ground that they wanted to raise her from beneath.

Willow saw him first. The only one who looked ahead, hair a dusky red cloud around her sharp white face. Eyes nothing more than dark pits, at this distance, though he could see her outline as well as he could Spike's.

"Yes, you are," he agreed. He watched the shock of recognition run through them at the sound of his voice, the realization that he was there.

It was Xander who found his own voice first. "Giles! You're here. Why are you here?" High-pitched and nervous, it would've made Giles suspicious even if he hadn't already pieced together what they were up to.

"Hoping that you weren't going to come," he replied, then more softly, a prayer that had been denied, "hoping that I was wrong."

"You're supposed to be unpacking," Willow said. An accusation, that he was in the wrong place, not they. Then she blinked, and schooled her voice into a reasonable tone. "You told Anya you'd be home all night."

"It didn't take as long as I thought it would." Not with Spike having decimated the few boxes left, in his haphazard search for toasters and toiletries and god only knew what else, or what he'd put away where. "And you're supposed to be patrolling. But you're not."

"No, we're not," Willow agreed. For a second, he thought he saw her eyes clearly, though perhaps it was just the set of her chin, that told him. She knew, though she wouldn't say it. Knew they'd been found out, and she wasn't going to stop. "We have something more important to do." Willow seemed to draw herself up, trying to project assurance and confidence, Giles assumed. What he saw, though, was someone in the clutches of an obsession.

He shook his head. "No. This isn't going to happen."

Willow looked doubtful, for a second, then shook her head. "You don't know what we're doing, Giles."

"I do." This wasn't the time for games, for pretending between them, on his part any more than hers.

"No. You only think you do. I knew you wouldn't understand. That's why--"

"I do understand. Willow, it's you --it's all of you, who don't understand. Do any of you have a shred of an idea of how dangerous -- how *wrong* this is?" He looked out at four white faces, uncertainty plain on three of them, and on Willow...

Anger. Anger at him, for daring to tell her what to do. "*Wrong*? And the way things are now is *right*?" Voice full of indignation, Willow pointed at the tombstone. "Buffy being gone is *right*?"

"It's the way things are. It's not *good*, but it's what happened. Trying to bring her back, playing with the sorts of powers that could accomplish that -- even if you *could* do it, it's still not the answer, Willow."

"You think I can't do it? You think it's too *hard* for me?" Somewhere in her voice, behind the arrogant, angry young woman, he heard the bright, inquisitive child he'd known not so many years ago. Trying to please, trying to show that she could be just as smart, just as useful, as those with more physical skills than she possessed.

Was there a moment when he could have stopped this before it started? A moment when he could have -- instead of telling her that certain books were too dangerous, and locking them away -- taken the time to teach her *why* they were dangerous?

Willow wasn't his charge, he told himself as he stared at her. Wasn't his responsibility. He was there, had been there, to guide Buffy. That her friends had joined the fight was admirable, but it wasn't part of his task to teach and guide them, as well.

Except-- when he had allowed them into the circle he was supposed to be sharing alone with his Slayer, when he had accepted their help, given his own -- hadn't he taken responsibility? Once his Slayer's friends had become his own, wasn't it his duty to act like a friend? To use his own experience to protect the people he'd grown to care about? Wasn't it still his duty now, to try, and hope that he wasn't too late?

"It's too dangerous for anyone," he said, trying to get through to her. "And it's not only you who'd be at risk. I've never heard of a resurrection that's gone well -- for the caster...or the subject. I won't let you subject Buffy to that kind of...desecration."

"Won't *let* me?" She stepped closer, and he could see her eyes grow dark with rage and chained power.

"Will, maybe he's right." Xander spoke clearly, only a tiny jump in his voice. None of the high, nervous laughter that usually spilled out when he was frightened or off-balance.

"No. Xander!" The maelstrom in Willow's eyes died down, though Giles could still see it lurking beneath the surface as she turned her head away from him. "You agreed. You guys *all* agreed. We have to do this. We can't leave Buffy to suffer somewhere, if we can bring her back to us."

"But what if it's...not Buffy?" Xander stepped forward towards his friend. "Maybe we should at least let Giles see--"

"No! Xander, it's going to be her, we can do this, we can rescue her."

"Rescue her from what?" Spike moved out of the shadows. Towards Willow, towards Giles. For the first time since Spike had been ready to stalk blindly out the door into the sunlight, Giles saw doubt on his face again. He wondered if that same uncertainty showed on his own.

The others seemed to have been startled into speechlessness by the vampire's appearance. "Spike?" Anya finally said, breaking the silence sharply enough to make Xander jump, then grab her shoulder, though Giles couldn't tell if he was steadying her, or himself. "What are you doing here? Where's Dawn?"

"Safe," Giles answered for him. "The Buffybot is looking after her."

Spike spared him a quick, skeptical glance, then shook his head and repeated his question. "I said, rescue Buffy from what?"

"From wherever she is," Willow finally replied. "Who knows what kind of hell world she's trapped in?"

"Why would she be in hell?" Giles had watched Willow's face, as she said it. As he asked it. She seemed, for all her hubris, to really believe what she was saying. "Buffy died a hero's death."

"She died closing the portals to a thousand demon dimensions," Willow countered. "Her lifeforce passed *through* those portals. We don't know where it got trapped."

"I can't believe that. Buffy knew what she was doing -- the First Slayer told her that death was her gift, and so it was. This was meant to happen, no matter how terrible it is for us." It would help, probably, if he were as sure of the words coming out of his mouth as he hoped Willow would be. "I can't believe that Buffy is...anywhere that isn't a fitting reward for her sacrifice."

"Right. Because the good guys always get a fair shake in this town, when they die." The voice was dark and aching, and it didn't come from Willow. Spike took another step toward the little group gathered before the grave -- and shot Giles a look so unreadable, there was only one thing he could possibly read in it.

Giles closed his eyes for a second, and wondered, again. But this time, he was wondering why it had been so easy. Why he'd assumed. Why he felt so betrayed, the taste of it bitter in the back of his throat. He stiffened his spine, bracing himself as if for a physical confrontation. He wasn't going to let this happen, even if he was fighting alone. "Willow--" He opened his eyes to look at her.

"Angel had his soul back, and he still ended up in hell." She said it simply. Firmly. And somehow, pridefully, the credit unspoken for who had returned that soul to him, but there all the same.

"Soul or not, Angel had done many unspeakable things." Somewhere in the back of his mind an image flashed of roses, death and broken dreams. Jenny. "Buffy has always been a hero. She has done nothing to deserve that sort of punishment."

"If people got what they deserved," Spike said, and the step was made, five faces looking at him from the foot of the grave, and Giles alone at the head, "she wouldn't be dead at all, would she."

"There are worse things to be than dead," Giles countered.

Willow nodded. Smiled. It took him a moment to know what he'd said. "That's why. That's why we *have* to bring her back. Can't you see? What if she's someplace that's *worse* than dead?"

"If there's even a chance she could be suffering..." Tara echoed softly. There was the same uncertainty in her eyes that Giles had seen in Xander's, but she shook it away, looking at her girlfriend with a trust that no amount of pleading from Giles could ever break. "If anyone can bring her back, Willow can."

"There is far greater chance that doing this would cause more suffering. Have you done no research? Resurrections rarely work and when they do, the subject comes back changed. Wrong." He let his gaze linger on each of them in turn. "Would you condemn Buffy to that?"

Willow shook her head. "Not this time. This isn't some zombie dust and monster egg thing." Giles saw Spike wince, and look away. "This is the Urn of Osiris." Willow held up the bowl in her arms.

"That's...There aren't supposed to be any of those left." What she was holding was an artifact whose very existence was questioned by most of the magical practitioners Giles knew. Like phoenix feathers or hen's teeth, the Urn of Osiris was a scarcely believed fable.

"This is the last."

"I found it," Anya said proudly. "On E-Bay. I even got--"

"A free novelty item that you don't need to mention again because there are actually still people in the world who are unaware of the fact that I'm a complete dork." Xander looked around nervously, as if anyone knew or cared what sort of questionable toy Anya had bought him.

"I was going to say, I got excellent feedback for prompt payment."

Giles blinked, wondering why he felt any surprise at the conversation turning surreal and just a tad absurd. It happened more often than not after all. Even when it was Buffy's soul they were fighting for.

"What's it do, this wondrous mystical ashtray of yours," Spike asked Willow, stepping closer to her, and the sense of loss, acrid and hot, bit at Giles' throat again. As if, truly, he'd had anything with Spike except a temporary alliance against loneliness and the need to feel needed. What else could there have been, and what right did he have, after all, to expect anything else? To expect Spike to turn down the chance to have Buffy back in this world, no matter what the risk, when...

When even Giles was a hair's breadth away from turning his back, and letting it happen. To see her, warm and alive again, the currents of light and sorrow in her eyes that the Buffybot could never duplicate with a million years of tinkering and training. What if it *could* work? How could he blame Spike for crossing to join the others, when it took every ounce of courage in the soul of a tired, lost Watcher, not to follow -- and Spike didn't even have one of those?

"It's used to invoke Osiris," Willow said, answering Spike's question. "Once that's done, there's a ritual to let a departed soul come back." She glanced at Giles pointedly. "I have done my research."

Giles shook his head, feeling weary and old down to the bone. "You've done nothing. You've not taken into account anything but what you want to see. You never have." He recalled Willow spitting those words, almost exactly, into his face, after she'd done her infamous My Will Be Done spell. You don't see anything. And because of her magic, unintended as it was -- because of what *she* hadn't seen -- she'd been right. He'd been blinded, literally, by her words.

"*I* never do? Me? You never wanted to see, Giles. You always wanted to treat me like I was some little kid playing with things that were too big for her. Put away the books with the scary pictures, because Willow can't handle it. But I *can* handle it, Giles. Don't you see? I can do this."

"This isn't about whether you *can* do it, Willow. Christ, if you don't want me to treat you like a child, don't act like one!"

She stared at him. They *all* stared at him. Whether it was the language or the tone, he didn't know. Probably both. The sheer frustration and yes, anger at her, at all of them, at whatever passed for gods for putting them in this situation in the first place. He could feel it in his mouth, as if the words had scorched his tongue on their way out. And he didn't, couldn't, stop.

"Magic is not a toy. It is not a test of your skill. It can be a religion, but neither you nor I subscribe to it, for all that you mouth the words to please Tara. You see it as a tool, Willow, but it isn't. It's a hundred thousand separate forces, most with wills of their own, and minds so different from yours or mine that you couldn't even fathom what they're thinking. And you believe that because you've controlled one such force, said the right word, drawn the power to throw up walls or toss people across a room, that you can bargain with creatures of which you haven't the slightest concept, and control them as well. *Even* if you can. Even *if*..."

He broke off, seeing nothing in her face that looked like comprehension. Only anger, and hurt, and a desperation he knew all too well. The misplaced confidence, at least, was gone, but not the strength of her intent.

"Even if, what?"

"Just because you *can* do something, doesn't mean that you should. Have you never, in all this time, learned that?" But he could see in her face, in her eyes that she hadn't. He might as well have been speaking Fyarl for all the impact his words were having. The thought was utterly alien to her.

"But you can't tell me why. All you say is *should*. Shouldn't. That it's wrong." Willow was just as loud, as angry, as he'd been. "Buffy's gone, and that's wrong. Buffy could be hurting, and that's wronger. If I can bring her back to us, and I don't, that's not wrong? You're telling me that I *shouldn't*? I can't believe that. I can't -- I won't let you stop me." She clenched the fist that wasn't holding the urn, and looked him squarely in the face -- not even glancing about her, to see if she still had the support of her friends. Their friends.

"Every action has consequences. If you fail in this. Even if you succeed. It's wrong because you can't predict what those consequences will be," Giles said, holding her eyes, looking for the flicker that would tell him she was about to lash out. "And yet you're willing to inflict them on Buffy. On us. You don't have that right -- and you will have to go through me to make it happen, because I won't let you do this while I still breathe."

"Giles, I don't want to hurt you. I won't let you *make* me hurt you." There. The darkness, rolling in like fog in the usually bright green eyes.

"Won't let me?" he echoed her words quietly, waiting for... something. For hell to break loose, as if he'd forgotten they were already there.

"You think you can stop me?" Her voice was rising again as Giles could feel the power gathering around her, like static electricity in the air. "You're wrong this time, Giles. Bringing Buffy back is the right thing to do. You'll see. I'll make you see."

So. Crackling of her hair, lifting on the wind that was magical, but real, lightly brushing around her, coming from nowhere but her own center of power.

The things he hadn't seen, Giles thought, were huge as Willow's own willful blindness. "Don't do this."

"Haven't we done this bit already?" Spike shoved his way forward, past Xander, who looked at him without recognition. It was Willow, really, that the boy wasn't recognizing, his best friend become something else, a creature of pride and determination and...hubris, though Giles doubted Xander would think to apply that word.

"What?" Willow turned to him, and her energy was barely held in check.

"It's pushing midnight. If you really think she's in hell, you gonna leave her there while you jaw back and forth with the voice of morality here?"

A surge of anger went through Giles at that, fueled by equal parts tension and hurt. It spurred him into action, even as some part if his mind called him a fool. He dove forward, intent on snatching the urn from Willow's hands while she was distracted by looking at Spike.

He didn't even make it halfway. Dark eyes were suddenly focused on him and then he was flying, landing hard against the ground, the starry sky seeming to spin above him, as his glasses flew off somewhere in the opposite direction. He heard laughter, breathless, ratchety, and realized it was his own. Another head wound for Rupert Giles, the walking skull-fracture gag. He closed his eyes and let his breath come and go as it wished.

Someone shouted his name, and someone shouted Willow's. Dizzy as he was, he was fairly sure that the first voice was Xander's; the second, he couldn't be certain about. Perhaps if he opened his eyes... It seemed to take him an extraordinarily long time to remember how. When he did he saw a blurry Willow rushing toward him, eyes wide but no longer clouded with darkness. He should do something, he thought -- find his glasses, at least -- and he would, as soon as he remembered how to move.

"Giles!" Willow again, and he felt her hands on him. On his shoulder, one against the side of his face. Cool, soft, small. You'd never think they could wield so much power. You'd never think, except hadn't he been trained, hadn't he existed, for the purpose of knowing how much power small hands could wield? "Oh, God, Giles, are you okay? I didn't mean..."

Giles opened his mouth to answer but before he could say anything, his attention was caught by a dark blur behind Willow. By the time his brain registered that it was Spike and that the vampire was going for the urn, Spike already had it, and was backing away again.

"Spike?" Willow looked over her shoulder, her hands still on Giles, a strangely comforting weight, despite their lightness, despite them having dealt the blow in the first place. Giles shifted, trying to sit up, though the landscape blurred unpleasantly when he did so.

"Wouldn't want you losing this, would we." Spike held it up, held it carefully, and in the simple, earthenware bowl, Giles saw something.

A reflection? Not of Spike; it couldn't be. Perhaps he'd managed to earn himself another concussion, after all. Or his imagination, most likely, combined with wavering vision. But in the darkness of its concave center, he glimpsed the image of a tiny, falling, Slayer.

"No harm done. Watcher's got a hard head. He'll live to moralize another day." Spike stepped across the space between them, stood over Willow where she knelt next to Giles. He grinned, a slit of a grin, sharp and dangerous, and it was brighter than his eyes had been in the shadows of the rock, somehow. "Should've killed him, really. Long as he lives, he'll be trying to stop you from bringing her back. Maybe you should take another shot?"

"Spike, I wouldn't...that's disgusting!"

"Yeah. It is."

Giles had never thought in his life, in all the years he'd been taught to hate vampires, to fear them, to train one girl in how to rid the world of their evil, that he'd ever *hope* that a vampire would move faster than a human. But as Spike raised the urn, and Giles saw that grin again, saw it for what it was, he did more than hope.

"Incen--" Willow began, pointing a finger, and Spike brought the urn down. Crashed it against his knee, as Giles reached up, past the swirling in his head, and placed a hand over Willow's mouth.

It broke her concentration long enough for Spike to accomplish his objective. The urn shattered with nothing more ominous than the tinkle of broken pottery.

Willow wrenched herself away from Giles' grasp. "No!" she cried out in denial, flinging herself on the ground by the pieces and grasping at them. "No," she repeated in a smaller voice. "Buffy..."

"Willow," Tara said softly. Willow didn't look up from her desperate clutching at the shards. Something dark stained her fingers, and it took a few blinks for Giles to realize it was blood. Her own, streaming down her wrists from numerous cuts on her fingers and the palms of her hands. "Willow!"

Giles put one hand to his head, then despite the mild nausea it caused, pushed himself backward, so that Tara would have room to kneel beside Willow. A fall of dark blonde hair hid her face from him as she bent over her lover, but he could see the long, slender fingers gently taking Willow's hands, holding them still.

"She's gone," Willow whispered. "We'll never get her back. Just like that. Like... like knocking a cookie jar off the shelf. Boom! Just... gone." She shook her head, tried to pull her hands away from Tara's. "Everything I did -- it was for *nothing*." Then she looked up, despair shifting to rage as her gaze fell on Spike. "Are you happy? Buffy's gone and it's all your fault. You might as well have killed her!" As Willow spoke, Giles could feel the tingling in the air as once again the power began to build around her. "But that's what you've always wanted, right? To kill another Slayer?"

"Spike killed a Slayer?" Anya asked "And we're having him babysit Dawn while we patrol? Xander, honey, I love you, but maybe it's time to rethink the duty-schedule. You're very good with children, and not so very good at killing things, after all."

"No," Spike said quietly. "I killed two Slayers."

He wasn't speaking to Anya, though, or Xander, who trained his flashlight on the grave, reacting to neither of them, just staring at the crumpled and sobbing form of his best friend. It was to her, to Willow, that Spike spoke.

"And if you think I wouldn't rather be under that pile of dirt that Rupert's so carelessly resting his backside on, instead of Buffy, then you're blind and deaf, as well as being an arrogant, blithering fool." Spike twisted his lips in a horrible parody of that grin he'd been wearing a few moments ago. "If I could've died for her, I would've. If letting you kill me now would bring her back as she was, I'd say heave ho, and let loose that lightning bolt you're storin' up. But it *won't*. You know it. You knew it before you led this lot down here and told 'em everything would be okay, just trust Willow, because she always knows best."

The words were surprisingly acid-free. Angry, mocking, but nothing like the ragged, burning epithets he'd stitched her name to last night, over something much more innocent. Spike stood before her. Held out his arms, at his sides. A crucified vampire, posing in the light of a hundred flashbulbs, Giles recalled, bright monochrome of his dream from so long ago flashing before his eyes.

"Go on, then. Do it. Make you feel better, Red? Make you feel like you can do *something*, if you just take care of the bad guy who made it all happen? Then do it."

Willow continued staring at Spike, unmoving save for a tremor that ran through her entire frame. Everyone else seemed to be frozen as well, hardly daring to breathe as they watched. The tension continued to stretch tighter and tighter and Giles braced himself for the inevitable moment when it snapped. He should say something, try to diffuse the situation, but with his head pounding and his spirit still reeling from the earlier confrontation, he couldn't find the words.

Then Xander moved, stepping between Spike and Willow. "Let it go, Will. This isn't going to help."

Willow turned her gaze to his face, freeing her hands slowly from Tara's. Dropping shards of the urn to the grass, one by one. "Don't you get it, Xander? She's gone. She's *gone*." She pointed at Spike, slender finger as shaky as her whole body had been, tension still holding it stiff. "And Spike made sure we'll never get her back. He... She's *gone*, Xander."

Xander nodded, slowly. "Yeah, she is."

He didn't follow her pointing finger back to Spike, but walked over to the grave. Stood next to the strange tableaux: Giles half sitting up against the headstone, Willow crouched on the ground, Tara with her arms wrapped protectively around Willow's slim shoulders, as if she could guard the girl from herself, from the consequences of her own foolishness. Anya followed, leaving only Spike at the foot of the grave, alone, arms at his sides, now. Watching them.

"She's been gone for five months, Will. What we were gonna do... Giles was right. It was wrong. And much as I hate to say anything that might make it look like I don't think Spike is pondscum with legs..." Xander did look back, now. "No offense."

Spike gave a tired snort. "Yeah, I'm deeply wounded."

"Wounded's cool. So long as you're not offended." Xander turned back to Willow. "He may be undead pondscum, but he stopped us from doing something really, really stupid."

Willow met Xander's gaze for a moment then seemed to deflate, slumping against Tara's embrace. "I could've done it," she murmured in a little girl voice. "I could've brought her back." The prickle of power in the air dissipated and Giles felt tense muscles begin to relax as the immediate danger receded.

Tara pulled her gently to her feet. "Let's go home, honey. Let's just go home."

Willow looked over at Spike for a moment, eyes, shaded and lost, then nodded slowly. "Dawn's gotta be bored, if Spike left her with just the Bot for company. Just..." She didn't say 'just the Bot, forever, but they all heard it. No one finished her sentence for her.

"We'll walk you home," Xander offered, extending one arm to Willow, and then, belatedly, the other one to Anya, as if he only now remembered the ashes of an old rivalry. "If there's nobody patrolling, we'd better take a sweep before we head back to our place."

Anya, however, didn't take his proffered arm. Instead, she turned to Spike, steel in her eyes and flint in her voice. "You broke the last known Urn of Osiris."

He looked back at her, and nodded once. "Last one, was it? Good. Solves that problem."

Her eyes narrowed. "I don't care if it was the last one; I thought it was a stupid idea in the first place. If we wanted a zombie Slayer we could have--" Spike's glare was stronger than hers, though not by much. "Anyway. My point was, it cost me two thousand dollars and a full set of copies of Xander's collection of Deep Space Nine episodes. I expect you to make full restitution."

Spike stopped glaring. Then he stopped staring. Then, finally, he laughed. Low and long, with his hand to his forehead, as if his brain might spill out if he didn't hold his skull still.

Giles leaned back against Buffy's tombstone. Cold rock against his back, soft grass beneath him, and six feet below that, the body of a girl -- woman -- he would never see again. The rest of his friends, if such a thing still existed, were limping away, shrinking back to their homes to figure out how ruined they all were by the light of tomorrow's sun -- and Giles was left with a dead man laughing in a graveyard. So Giles laughed too. Not nearly as loudly, and some might have mistaken it for another sound entirely, if they'd heard it from a distance -- but it was laughter.

Anya looked back and forth between the two of them for a moment, perplexed. "I don't know what you think is so funny, Giles. The money came from the Magic Box; the Urn was technically shop stock. You're experiencing a loss here too."

"I'll pay for the Urn, Anya," he managed to say without choking. Almost daring to look Spike in the eye, but not quite.

She frowned at him for a second longer, then her eyes widened. "You're smiling again."

"Am I?" Giles passed a hand over his face, felt the curve of his own mouth. It must have been a residual effect of the laughing jag.

"Yes. It's creepy. You're supposed to be mad at us." She spoke firmly, but she looked up at him through her lashes, the ghost of a thousand year old child vainly searching for a forgiveness Giles wasn't even sure was his to give. He felt the smile fade slowly, and saw her hope dim, as it did. She made a face. "Oh. You are. Then why were you smiling?"

He could imagine the confusion in her eyes turning to calculation, all too easily, having seen it this morning, and he cut it off at the pass. "Anya, I'm very tired, and obviously suffering from what is neither my first concussion, nor likely to be my last. I think you should go home, get some sleep, and stop worrying about the significance of my facial expressions and the sadly depleted coffers of our business. There's time for all that in the morning." Anya opened her mouth to say something else and Giles repeated with a bit more force, "In the morning."

"You going to be able to make it back to your place okay?" Xander asked, a frown flickering over his features as he looked back at Giles.

Giles nodded in response, his jaw tightening as the movement increased the pounding in his skull. "I'll be fine, but thank you," he said quietly. "Though I think I will pass on patrolling tonight." Xander nodded his assent, and Giles saw a unsortable multitude of emotions in the young man's dark eyes before he turned to shepherd the three girls away.

With no effort being made at stealth this time, the crunching and shuffling through the leaves was almost loud enough to drown out the sound of Anya's voice, but not quite. "I'm telling you, it was *that* smile. You know that one, Xander, that you get when..." Mercifully, distance and Xander's tripping over something, possibly accidentally, cut Giles off from having to hear the rest. Spike, however, inclined his head in the direction they'd gone, and managed a brief snicker.

"Anya thinks you've got yourself a bird somewhere."

Giles didn't answer, letting his head fall back against the cold stone behind him. His soul ached worse than his bruised body and the last thing he had the energy to worry about was Anya being inquisitive about his sex life. There would be time enough for that tomorrow. Right now all he wanted to do was sit there and....not feel.

"You're supposed to laugh, you know. It's funny." Spike's voice held very little evidence of amusement, however. "You have *heard* of irony, right? It's like goldy and bronzey--"

Giles didn't raise his head. "But made of iron, yes. I believe I may have read about it. " Spike's responding bark of laughter was hollow, more painful than appreciative. Giles sighed. "My skull aches, Spike, and my ribcage isn't far behind. I've run out of lung capacity for ironic laughter. Feel free to say something clever about having a cunning plan, however, and I'll laugh in the morning."

"I did have a cunning plan. Colloquially known as 'winging it.' Worked, didn't it?"

"Took your own bloody time getting around to it." The words came out angry and sharp enough to set his head to throbbing, which did nothing to improve his mood.

Spike frowned. "Had to make it look like I was stabbing you in the back, didn't I? Convince her enough to let me get my hands on the crockery, and I figured I'd only have the one chance." He eyed Giles' hand-cradled head, with the hint of an apology in his stare, though not in his tone. "So you got knocked on the skull; not like you're not used to it, but I'll take you home and play Florence Nightingale, if you like."

"That's not the point."

"No?" Spike stalked over and held out a hand, but Giles couldn't quite bring himself to take it, yet. He told himself it was because there was a good chance he'd revisit his dinner, if he stood up too quickly. Spike extended his arm for a beat longer than Giles would have expected him to, then slowly pulled it back. "Ah. Like that, is it?"

"Like what?" Giles sat up against the headstone, preparing to try standing on his own.

"You really did think I'd gone over to Red's camp. That I meant it when I said she should've killed you."

"I was supposed to, wasn't I?" The bitterness threatened to choke him, the remembered sense of betrayal once again rising up and overwhelming him. He didn't want to do this, not right now. Not when he was feeling so battered and raw, so off-balance. He'd been skittering on the edge of his control for far too long already.

"What, you thought this was one of those cheesy buddy flicks where the fellow has to convince his mate he's seriously changed teams, so the bad guys get a better reaction shot? Bollocks. I told you; I was winging it. Figured you'd play along. Thought maybe-- Ah, fuck it."

"Thought I'd trust you?" The pain was pulsing through his head in raw, red streaks, and Giles began to rise to his feet by himself, one hand on Buffy's headstone. Intent on walking himself home sans vampire nursemaid, out of... what? Certainly not pride, not anymore. Anger, sparking fitfully, but hot. Bone-deep, Giles knew how mis-aimed that anger was, but that only seemed to draw the acid to his tongue all the harder. "Because you've proven such a staunch ally in the past? Because I've forgotten what you are?"

"No. Because... Sod this. Why should I care what you think of me? It's done. I take it you won't be wanting my company tonight, so I'll just hie myself home, shall I?" Spike turned, coat snapping behind him with the force of his step, and started off in the direction of his crypt.

Giles opened his mouth to answer, and was cut off by a roaring, growling sound -- from the other end of the woods, the path that the others had taken. Animal? Machine? Monster?

Spike turned to look back, scowling, then shook his head, as if washing his hands of the lot of them. Giles pushed himself free of the stone and took his own step, towards the woods. Towards whatever his friends -- he still hoped -- had gotten themselves into, even if he'd be bugger-all help in his current condition. If Spike wanted to take off in a huff, so be it. It wasn't as if...they could depend on him.

The next sound Giles heard, though, froze him mid-step. A scream, shrill, feminine, piercing. Spike was at his side in an instant, hand gripping his upper arm, dragging him into the trees almost faster than he could walk. He managed not to trip over any roots as Spike tugged him along, but it was a moment before he had enough wind in his lungs to gasp, "What?"

"That was Dawn."

Much needed adrenaline flowed through Giles' system at that, temporarily banishing the many aches from his abused body. "Bloody hell! How?" Another scream sounded and they broke into a ragged run, Spike still half dragging him.

They stumbled out onto the road and into the chaos of a pitched battle.

A veritable horde of demons, decked out rejects from the Hell's Angels, had Dawn and the Buffybot backed up against a small stand of trees on the other side of the road. The Bot was holding them away from her 'sister' with an energy so desperate, it made her look more human than Giles had ever imagined she could.

Spike didn't even slow down to assess the situation -- he let go of Giles and dived forward into the midst of the enemy, sheer momentum carrying him past the first few. Giles saw his face flicker from human to monster, fangs flashing brightly before he was swallowed by the fight.

The Scoobies, at the edge of the commotion, were barely managing to defend themselves, much less try to rescue Dawn. Tara still supported a completely dazed Willow with one arm, while holding out the other before her and moving her lips in what Giles hoped was the prelude to some helpful spell. Xander stood in front of Anya, wielding something that looked for all the world like a front fender.

Giles spotted a crashed motorcycle near the huddled young people, a large unmoving figure pinned beneath it. That *was* a fender in Xander's hand, then. It wouldn't last long as a weapon, not against the bat-faced demon that was menacing them, nor the two that rode in threatening circles around the entire group.

As Giles started edging towards them, hoping there was *something* he could do to help, he became aware of a loud humming in the air, and was pleased to see that Xander wasn't fighting alone after all. A bright blue ball of light appeared in Tara's empty hand, glowing more brilliantly as it spread wider, up and out until it surrounded both the witches, then Xander and Anya. A claw-shaped battleaxe bounced harmlessly off the shimmering half-dome of energy.

"Willow, I can't hold this for long -- you have to *help* me!" Giles heard Tara shout. He saw the blonde girl shake Willow's shoulders. "You have to snap out of it."

With most of the demons taken up with pushing at the shimmering blue barrier of magic, or fighting in the central melee against Spike and the Buffybot, there might be a chance for him to get across to the others, if he did it quickly. Pretending there weren't still spots and sparks in front of his eyes every time he did *anything* quickly, Giles made a run for it.

He made it as far as the fallen motorbike, and had to crouch breathless beside it, fighting dizziness. Blinking down at the leatherclad body beneath the machine, it occurred to him that the thing might still be holding onto some sort of axe or knife that he could appropriate -- if he could shift it. He was just reaching out to push the motorcycle away, when he heard the incessant buzz-roar of its circling brethren get far too loud, far too fast.

He looked up to see a large creature with three serrated rings through the place where its nose should have been, grinning down at him. "This is what's left to guard the Hellmouth? A wind-up Slayer, a bunch of kids, a crippled blood-rat, and a geezer who couldn't beat my *mother* at arm-wrestling? If I hadn't eaten her when I was born, that is. Pathetic. I don't even know if you're worth fighting."

Giles spread his hands. "If that's the case, I'm perfectly willing to forgo any fisti-" The rest of his admittedly feeble quip was cut off as the demon roared and lashed out. For the second time that evening Giles' world spun around and he found himself flat on his back staring up at the stars.

He heard Xander yell, "Giles!" and watched with a certain fatalistic distance as the demon above him raised a wicked looking axe. It moved with the speed of a guillotine, falling towards his head so quickly that he shouldn't even be able to see it, and then --

Then there was nothing, except a booming female voice cutting across the sounds of fighting with the immediate authority of a mother over a playground of schoolchildren. "Incendium!"

A hot wind blew across the road, ruffling Giles' hair, which was somehow still attached to his head, which was somehow still attached to his neck. The flare of heat passed him by in a second, leaving silence and a flaming demon in its wake. The axe was tossed to the side as the unnatural fire surrounded first its head, then the rest of its body, consuming it. Giles scuttled backwards when the thing rolled near him on the ground, but after a moment, even the groans and movement stopped. The fire flared a strange shadowy black, then disappeared, leaving only an ashy outline on the asphalt.

Giles looked up, across the road, and saw Willow staring back at him, eyes sharp, no longer dazed. He nodded at her in acknowledgement and watched as she turned to attack another demon. Then he scrambled to his feet, grabbing the axe that had almost been used on him.

Willow's bolts of baelfire could get out through the protective wall-- could he get in, without it coming down? Probably not, and not worth attempting. Instead, trying not to feel like a very old and very foolish retired berserker reliving his glory days, he raised the axe and waded into the edge of the fight that swirled around Spike.

The demons scarcely noticed his arrival, it seemed, as he brought the blade of his axe down on the back of a leather jacket with the word "Hellions" scrawled across it in blood-red letters. They were too busy trying to fight a vampire who stood a good foot shorter than most of them, yet was kicking and punching with enough force to have knocked out three already. There were still several between Giles and the center of conflict, while Spike had made his way past them, to where the Buffybot stood in front of Dawn, holding off all comers.

There weren't as many as Giles had thought, at first. Not an army, just seven in the fight, and three on the bikes. Which was now one on a bike, and Willow was taking care of it. Six in the fight, as Giles pulled his axe from the demon's back, and watched it slump to the ground.

Not an army, just nine road warrior demons against -- what had the one said? A handful of children, a wind-up toy, and a crippled vampire. Giles lifted his axe, and met the next demon who turned to him with a laugh that brought back the pain in his head with a vengeance. Giles ducked a blow that would have caved in his skull if it had landed, then swung his axe again. The demon made a gurgling noise as the blade stuck in his throat and Giles stumbled back as it slowly collapsed in front of him.

He heard Dawn scream again and spun to see one of the demons reaching for her, having got past the Bot's defenses. Before it could touch her however, Spike was there, snarling, yanking it back by the collar of its jacket. "You don't touch her. Maybe somebody forgot to send you the memo -- *nobody* touches her." He reached down and grabbed the hand that had reached for Dawn, bending clawed fingers back, back...

A sickening snap, then another...three...four... Then Spike pushed it away and faced the remaining group, the Buffybot beside him, Dawn behind, Giles making his way towards them.

"Don't worry, Dawn." The Bot turned her head to give a cheery smile to a terrified Dawn, and lashed out with a sidekick at one of the demons, at the same time. "Spike's here. Everything will be fine, now."

"Everything'll be *fine*?" Spike punched out at a demon that swung a chain in one hand and had another, almost as thick, running from its earlobe to its leather collar. "Your diodes are fried! You were supposed to protect the Bit, not drag her out on patrol with you."

"I wasn't patrolling. The demons attacked the house. It was unsafe there, and I couldn't fight them all and protect Dawn at the same time." One of the Hellions tried to head-butt her, and the Bot grabbed it by its ears, brought her knee up to its chest, and twisted. Another sickening crunch, this one louder, loud enough to make Giles laugh again when he realized he wasn't about to lose his dinner, after all. "I was bringing her to you, because I know you can do both. You're good at things like that."

Before Spike could make any response, the largest of the demons, furthest away from Giles, roared -- and stepped forward to attack them both. The other demons suddenly ceased fighting, and turned to watch as Spike and the Bot, working in perfect concert, battled what Giles realized was their leader.

Surrounded by leatherclad demons, Giles stood still, axe resting on his shoulder, watching as raptly as they. Spike and the Bot moved... as if she'd been made to work with him. As, of course, she had. She was Spike's vision of Buffy. Relayed to the boy who'd designed her, tinkered with by Willow, ripped apart and put back together, but the fundamental things Spike had seen in Buffy -- the grace, the fire, the willingness to throw herself into the flames to protect what she cared about, that couldn't be erased, somehow.

The Bot moved as if her body had been made to move with his in this way, too, not just in bed. Where he parried a blow from the demon, she cut in with a low kick. Where he punched, she spun and ducked and followed his fist with hers. In a matter of moments, the monster was reeling, dizzy, yet hauling back for a final cut at Spike -- but it never got there.

A flying kick from the Buffybot sent him thudding to the ground. Spike's boot pinned him down while the Bot did something to his throat that ended in a loud, wet gurgle. The demon struggled for a moment, then was still.

"See how you like them kumquats," the Bot said brightly to the unmoving form, even as she and Spike both dropped back into fighting stance, facing off against the rest. The other demons stared at them for an endless moment, then began backing away. After a few steps the backing away became a full fledged running for their lives. Moments later, even the echo of their bikes had faded away.

Which left the rest of them standing amongst the dead demons and debris. The wall of witch-energy dropped, falling like a rainshower of blue droplets that disappeared before they hit the ground. And there they all were. It was over.

Spike turned to Dawn and grabbed her shoulders, perhaps a little too roughly, because Giles saw them both wince. "You all right? Any of those bast-- buggers hurt you?"

She shook her head. "No. Buffy...the Bot, kept them away. I was just scared -- they were outside the house, tearing things up all down the street, and I thought we should hide in the basement, but she said it wasn't safe."

"She was right." He looked pained to have to admit it. "It wasn't. That lot don't really care about locked doors, luv. If they can't break it down, they'll burn it down."

"But what were they doing here? Nobody's ever been stupid enough to attack the whole *town* before..." Xander didn't finish his sentence, but they could all fill in the rest of it. Before, when there was a Slayer there to frighten most of the menaces away, and make sure that only the really *large* apocalypses managed to occur on her turf.

Giles looked down the road in the direction that the surviving demons had ridden off. "One of them called the Buffybot a wind-up toy. They must have known."

"Last night, when she was patrolling by herself," Willow said quietly. "She was fighting a vampire and her face covering got ripped. There were wires.... He must have told people. This is my fault. If we'd been there, the vamp wouldn't have gotten away."

"You can't--" Giles found himself automatically replying. He stopped himself with a sigh, wondering how right she was. "It doesn't matter. What's done is done."

Willow nodded, briefly meeting his gaze before glancing away again. The events of this night weren't going to be forgotten by either of them any time soon, but Giles was beginning to have some small hope that they could get beyond it.

"Yeah." Spike's voice dissolved the silence like undiluted acid. He pointed to the Buffybot, who was standing with one arm around Dawn, looking...proud to have protected her sister, Giles realized. "And what's done is, now those wankers that got away know about the Small Wonder, here."

"Spike, the only thing that frightens me more than the fact that I recognize that reference is the fact that *you* recognize that reference," Xander said. "Or that you might be picturing the Buffybot in that red and white polka-dotted dress with the pinafore and the poofy skirt."

The silent chorus of stares in Xander's direction made Giles feel absurdly comfortable. Normal.

Xander raised his hand. "Hi. I'm Xander. I use inappropriately timed humor to disguise general unease and the occasional moment of complete and utter mindblanking terror. Have we met?"

The Buffybot smiled at him. "You're my friend, Xander. But I don't think I'd look very good in a red and white polka-dotted dress with a pinafore and poofy skirt."

"Oh, no, you would," he assured her. "You did. I mean Buffy did, the Halloween before last." Anya was glaring at him now. He blinked at her for a second, then grimaced. "And now, I'm going to stop speaking. Thank you for tuning in to the Xander Harris Hour, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled worrying about whether all the evil things in the world are going to start looking for cheap real estate in Sunnydale now."

"Actually, we may not have to," Giles said, earning the group's stares for himself. "Think about it. We beat them back." He gestured at the bodies surrounding them. "We killed their leader. If anything, they're going to let it be known how dear the real estate here would be for them to obtain."

Anya looked thoughtful. "I don't think they'll say anything at all. I knew guys like these when I was a demon - they're too manly to admit they got their asses kicked."

"I didn't kick any of their asses. That's not a very effective fighting move." The Buffybot looked at Spike. "Did you kick asses?"

"It's just a saying," Dawn told her, laying a hand on the Bot's arm. "She just means that you slayed them."

"Oh." Frowning, the Buffybot turned to Anya. "Why didn't you just say so?"

Anya blinked, mouth open. After a second, Xander reached out and gently moved her chin to shut it. She opened it again. "But--" Then she shook her head. "I'm going to consider myself vindicated for every time you ever told me I take things too literally, I hope you know."

"I know." Xander gave her a smile that was somewhere between fond and long-suffering.

"I don't think we need worry unduly," Giles said, trying to bring the conversation back to the point. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off and his body was reminding him that it had been a very rough night. He wanted to go home and collapse while he could still move under his own power. "There's nothing we can do about it right now anyway. We'll have to deal with any repercussions if and when they arise."

His headache, mercifully dormant for the last few moments, chose to remind him of its presence with a sharp spike of pain across the back of his skull. Giles winced, and the night got a bit more blurry.

"Giles, are you okay?" Dawn's voice from behind him, still shaky with nerves from having been at the center of yet another battle.

He blinked away the blurriness, and nodded slowly, putting a hand to his head. "Yes, I'll be fine."

"If you don't stop getting hit on the head, we're gonna make you wear a helmet."

Across the road from them, Willow looked up. Looked at Giles, a question in her eyes. Would he tell Dawn what she had done? What she'd been going to do? Saddened that she even wondered, he shook his head, and the pain flared again.

"You sure you're okay?" Xander asked and Giles could hear the frown in his voice. "Maybe we should take you to the emergency room..."

"No," he replied quickly. The last thing he wanted was to end up spending the rest of the night being poked and prodded by doctors. "I'll be fine. Really. It's hardly the first time I've been hit on the head. All I need is some rest."

"You need an escort home, then?"

"No, thank you," he was about to answer, when Spike coughed quietly.

"I'll take him. You lot had best get Dawn home. Make sure the house is still safe."

"Giles?" Xander asked, not responding directly to Spike at all. "An' and I can walk you home while the others take care of Dawn and the house."

"It's all right really." He managed a smile that he hoped was reassuring. "I can manage on my own. Though if Spike wants to tag along, I won't object."

"Oh, good. Cos' the last thing I need after a night spent fighting off biker demons is to throw down against a middle-aged librarian with a concussion," Spike snorted. "Come on, then. Let's get you home. I'll never hear the end of it from the snack-sized one if I let you wander into a ditch somewhere."

"I'm overwhelmed by your concern." Giles turned to Dawn, who despite her still-shaken appearance, was grinning at Spike's comment. "If he happens to change his mind and I'm found in a ditch tomorrow, feel free to beat him soundly, will you?"

She laughed, and a bit more colour returned to her face. "Sure. I'll pound him into mush."

Dawn's laughter was a welcome sound, made more so by its rarity lately. "I feel much safer, knowing that," Giles told her.

She smiled again and stepped forward to hug him. "Feel better, Giles." She smelled of fruit-flavoured lipgloss and an innocence it should have been impossible for her to still possess, and it took him a moment to be able to let go.

"Thank you."

The Buffybot stepped forward as well. "Should I hug you too? I want you to feel better."

"Better not." Dawn pulled her back.

"Do I give bad hugs?" The Bot looked genuinely hurt.

"No, you give...great hugs," Dawn answered in that over-cheerful tone that meant she was lying politely through her teeth. "Giles is just kinda...fragile, right now. I don't think he's up to a Slayer-strength hug just yet."

"Oh." The Bot frowned in concentration, then smiled brightly at Giles. "I will hug you when you're feeling better then." She looked proud of herself of having come to that conclusion on her own.

" forward to it." He recalled how unfamiliar she still was with the concept of breathing, and hoped he'd manage to survive the experience.

* * * * *

The leavetaking was different, this time. Willow was silent, her hand in Tara's, shepherding a Dawn who -- now that the terror was over for the night -- began to give them a play-by-play of the Buffybot's performance as it had tried to get her past the demons and find Spike. The Bot herself was dispatched to take the quick patrol that Xander had been intent on doing, while he and Anya headed home.

Which once again left Giles alone with Spike. He looked over at the vampire, but after their last conversation, couldn't think of anything to say other than, "Let's go." So he said that and turned to start the long walk home.

Spike fell in beside him. "You might be needing these," he said quietly, holding out something to Giles.

His glasses. Giles had resigned himself to doing without until he could get home and find his backup pair. If those weren't his backup pair. He'd rather lost track. He hadn't expected to see this pair again, at least.

Spike laughed shortly. "Was gonna stomp off to the crypt with 'em, just to piss you off, before."

Reaching out, Giles took them from him and slipped them on, some of the blurriness he'd been attributing to his probable concussion disappearing. "Thank you," he answered, both amused and strangely touched by the gesture.

The walk back to his place was slow. Awkward, and not only because of the silence between them. His shoulder ached. His head ached. More than once, Giles was tempted to slip his glasses off again, in the hope that it would at least dull the throbbing in his skull. He didn't, and he knew quite well why not - the thought of being willfully blind, even if only in the literal, physical sense, didn't appeal.

He didn't want to think about it, but his mind kept straying back to the events of earlier that evening. Things done. Things said. He couldn't stop worrying at it like a sore tooth, and it wasn't helping his headache at all. By the time they reached his front door, he wanted nothing more than to go inside, take some aspirin and some scotch and go to sleep for the next week. But he knew that wasn't going to happen. Not unless he found a way to turn his brain off.

Spike stood on the step, watching him fumble with his key. The hesitation was more because Giles wasn't concentrating on getting the door unlocked, than any sudden attack of wooziness, but after a second, Spike took the key from his hand. "Bloody hell. You *would* be dead in a ditch somewhere if I hadn't come along, wouldn't you."

"Yes, quite probably." He was shocked by how much he meant the words, as he watched Spike turn the key in the lock and open the door. If Spike hadn't come along, not now, but earlier. If he hadn't come along to the grave, or if he'd gone back to check on Dawn, and the urn hadn't been destroyed...

If, if, if. That one word seemed to bracket his reality, both highlighting and barring the paths that weren't taken, the events that didn't happen. Giles could get heartily sick of 'if.' There were some paths he really did not want to dwell on tonight. Or ever.

He realized that Spike was staring at him. "You can go in, you know. Your place, and all."

He'd been standing in front of an open door long? Giles stepped past Spike into the living room. Turned to hang up his coat, then stopped, when he saw that Spike was still standing on the doorstep. Watching him.

"What? It's not as if you need an invitation." He wasn't sure where the sudden flare of crossness came from; perhaps it was just the need to cover...the need. That he was asking Spike in, after all, despite whatever had been settled and unsettled between them. For a brief moment he thought Spike was going to leave after all, and he made an abortive gesture, resisting the urge to reach out to the vampire.

He watched as Spike cocked his head to the side, considering. "Suppose I don't," the vampire finally said and stepped across the threshold, closing the door behind him.

They stood there, looking at each other.

Spike suddenly chuckled. "This is where we drag out the scotch, right?"

"Yes, that would be--" Giles nodded, then felt the streak of pain behind his eyes. "Or perhaps not, this time." He finished hanging up his coat, and made his way to the sofa, sinking down with fewer creaks than he'd feared, more than he wished.

Spike took his time with following suit. When he did appear from the alcove by the door, he moved not towards the sofa, but to the chair across from it. Giles supposed he couldn't blame him, after the words they had exchanged earlier. Briefly, he let his head fall back against the couch, gathering his strength. He really was too tired to deal with this, but it looked like he didn't have much choice.

"What is it exactly that you're angry with me about, again?" Giles didn't lift his head as he spoke, or open his eyes, just let the darkness and the cushion under his head soothe the ache for a moment.

"You sound like Harris, talking to Anya."

Ex-vengeance demon, current vampire. Giles supposed there were certain similarities but he wasn't about to get into a discussion about it just then. "Humor me," he said instead. "I'm injured."

"You're brain-damaged. You'll forget it all in the morning anyway."

"Possibly. In which case, there's very little reason for you to sit over there stonewalling me, is there?" Giles lifted his head, opened his eyes. "What precisely is it that I did to offend you, back at the grave? You can hardly blame me for assuming you'd suddenly rediscovered your much-vaunted evil ways."

"I *am* evil." Spike, for once, didn't sound as if he was trying to convince anyone. It was just a statement.

"So you keep asserting. I don't recall ever disagreeing with you. But are you going to tell me what you're angry about?"

Spike sighed, that frustrated, impatient sigh that he usually reserved for letting the forces of good know that he'd much rather be killing something than hanging about with them. "Fine. You want to know? You believed me."

"When you advised Willow she'd have been better off killing me? You were right. If she wanted to succeed."

"Try not to be a jackass," Spike snapped. "If I'd wanted you killed, there were easier ways to go about it than trying to get one of your friends to do it. I'm sure one of those Hellions would've obliged me, if I'd asked nicely."

"Don't treat me like a jackass, then," Giles snapped back. "You'd have no reason to want me out of the way during the fight; I was on your side. Before, it was a different story." Before, when they might have been on opposite sides of the world, with Buffy's life between them.

"I was trying to freak Red out, and it worked. You honestly believe I thought she was so far gone as to trade you for Buffy?"

"No." Not now, though at the time, Giles had certainly had his own fear of just that. "But I'm under no illusions that given the choice, *you* wouldn't do so."

Spike stared at him for a moment, eyes narrowed, then, slowly, nodded. "In a heartbeat."

"So why wouldn't I believe you'd changed sides? Or rather, that you'd never agreed with me in the first place?"

"You mean, why am I pissed at you for thinking I'm a selfish bastard?"

It was slowly sinking in to Giles' aching head that Spike was angry because Spike was hurt. That despite being evil, there were still some things, some insults about his integrity that would actually cut him. It made him reassess his own assumptions and his own reactions, made him face something that he had been trying hard not to look at. "It wasn't about being selfish."

Spike shook his head. "I *am* a selfish bastard. I said I'd trade you for her in a heartbeat, and I meant it. Trade all of you for her." He pointed a finger at Giles. "But fuck you, if you think I'd trade having her back, for what it might've done to her. I *loved* her."

"I know." He did, by now. If he'd still had any doubts, the raw feeling in Spike's voice now would have dissolved them. "So did I. And yet..."

"You *know* ? You know sod all, *Rupert*." Spike stood abruptly, and stabbed that pointing finger in his direction. "Sod all! I *loved* her. Why the *hell* would I let them do something like that to her?"

"Because you loved her?"

"So I could have her back, you mean? You think I'd let her wake up in a coffin? You think I'd let her see that pretty white satin lining you people picked out, when she opens her eyes? Let her think maybe she's just had a nightmare and pulled the covers up over her head?" Spike’s whole face twitched, and he looked away. "Except she's not a vamp; she couldn't see it, not really. She'd just see black, and it'd take her a second to realize her eyes are open. Another to figure out there's no air."

Giles wondered if Spike realized he was pacing. Wondered, too, if he realized he was breathing. Hard. "Was that what happened to you?" he asked quietly. Did vampires have post-traumatic flashbacks? Did they have panic attacks?

"Does it matter?" Spike stopped next to a bookcase and turned blue eyes upon him that seemed as deep and full of storms as ever Buffy's green ones had. Giles saw the muddy echo there, of a hundred angry questions she'd thrown at him over the time he‘d known her. "Does it matter if you're dead or not, when you wake up in a coffin? You still get dirt under your nails. You still rip them off, whether the blood flows or not. You still choke, like somebody had their hands round your throat, even if you don't really have to breathe. You still think, 'I'm going to die here. It's not a nightmare after all, and I'm going to die here, and nobody's going to ever know I ever woke up.' Doesn‘t matter if you’re dead or alive, you still scream."

Spike paused and swallowed hard, raising a hand to his own throat. As if recollecting himself, where he was, or perhaps just what he was showing, he blinked twice, then shook his head. In his eyes, the shutters fell, and Giles could no longer see the ghost of an age-old fear staring out at him.

"You think I’d want that for her, just to have her back? If it was even Buffy they ended up bringing back. And if it wasn‘t, if she wasn’t right--"

The horror that Spike's words painted was not one that Giles would wish on anyone, much less someone he loved. And if it hadn‘t been Buffy at all… That was the consequence he‘d never wanted to voice, the one that Willow had refused to believe was possible.

"No. I don’t think that," he said, opening his eyes. "I’m sorry," he added quietly. Giles wasn’t sure if he was apologizing for doubting Spike‘s motives, or for a young man named William who had woken up in the dark, and screamed.

Something that thought it was still William, at least. A creature that existed to feed, that thrived on the misery of others. Giles had always been taught so, certainly. ‘You have to remember,’ he'd said once to Xander, and never again. ‘That isn't your friend; it's the thing that killed him.’

But Spike was that thing as well, and Spike had been afraid once, with dirt under his nails. A hundred years afterwards, that monstrous thing had claimed -- despite everything it was being told by its nature, by its wrinkle-faced, roaring demonic spirit -- that it was in love with the Slayer. No, not with the Slayer -- with Buffy. And she’d treated that claim like an obscenity; they all had.

Giles had thought, when he pulled the thing with the face of a man to his bed, that he'd known what he was touching. The reflection of the red-splashed darkness in his own head, made flesh. Gifted with a human mouth, to snark at him, and drink his best whiskey, and let him pretend for a moment that he wasn't alone, but a monster, all the same. Now... Now what stood in front of him was something he wasn't certain of at all.

That...might not be a bad thing in the long run, no matter how unsettling it was. It left him feeling more adrift, like the foundations of his beliefs were being threatened. But still... Assumptions could be challenged. Beliefs could be rebuilt.

"I didn't know," he said softly, admitting to himself that he wanted to. Wanted to learn until he could look at Spike and knew who -- and what -- he was really seeing.

"No, you bloody well didn't know," Spike agreed. His growl wasn't a whit less harsh, but as he looked back at Giles, something softened in his stare. Finally, he added quietly, "It's all bollocks, though."

"What is?"

"This. Me and my high horse. Because when it came right down to it, right then, when I was holding that thing in my hands, what I wouldn't have given..."

"Yes." Giles remembered that tiny voice in the back of his mind that had kept whispering -- maybe Willow could do it, maybe they could get Buffy back, alive and whole. The voice weakening his resolve, sapping his will. "Honestly? If I’d had the Urn in my hands, I…I don‘t know. If I could have destroyed it."

"Yeah. You would." Spike sounded ... sure. More sure than Giles had been. More sure than he was now.

"You can't be certain."

"No." Spike nodded as he said it, the conflict of gesture and word making Giles blink as he tried to put together what Spike meant.

"No? Yes?" Giles shook his own head, wincing a little against the headache. "I didn't realize it was a multiple choice question."

"Yeah, you're right, you can't know for sure. And no, you wouldn't have let them do it. *I* knew you wouldn't -- that‘s how come I could trust myself to make the play. Because you wouldn‘t let *me*, either." Spike was so matter of fact that it took a second for Giles to realize what he was saying. That whatever Giles had been willing to do to stop Willow -- Spike had been expecting for himself, if he’d given in and joined her. "And yeah," he added with a small snort. "They're all multiple choice questions. God's a twisted bastard - you think he'd let us get away with just plain yes or no?"

Laughing made his ribs ache as well as his head, but Giles couldn't help himself. "I believe that's what Buffy would call logic that is not of this earth. I can't know for sure what I would‘ve done, but you can?"

"Wisdom of the ancients, innit. Live as long as I have, you pick up a thing or two." Spike’s lip twitched, just slightly. Just enough to make Giles think he was aware of how all-knowing and superior he didn‘t remotely sound.

Still, the vampire's certainty, however it was founded, did help alleviate the self-doubts that had been lingering in the back of his mind. Maybe even enough that the what-ifs wouldn't haunt his dreams tonight. Giles watched Spike for a moment. "Yes? What else do you know?"

He was right about the twitching of the lip, for now he earned the lifting of a scarred brow. An honest gesture of surprise, of appreciation. "I know," Spike said slowly, pursing his lips, then letting the sneer that was really a grin take them, "that Anya thinks you‘ve got a new playmate."

"Yes, I was aware of that. Apparently it's my fault, for smiling."

Spike nodded, this time with no contradictory negation on his lips, then crossed his arms. Leaned his hip against the bookcase. "Have to make sure you don't do that again, I suppose."

"No, I don't think so," Giles said after a moment's thought. He'd be damned if he started being paranoid about every facial expression he had. "Perhaps I should attempt to smile more, so it’s not such an occasion when I do."

"Also an option." Spike stared thoughtfully at his fingers, twitching them, Giles realized, as if they cradled an invisible cigarette. "Or we could just tell them we're sleeping together," he added suddenly. In the silence that was Giles attempting to determine if he was serious, and exactly how much terror that idea filled him with, there followed, "If we are, I mean."

"I was rather under the impression we were." The events of the evening could have changed that, but Giles didn't think they had, when all was said and done. Did Spike?

"Were, yeah. But…" Spike shrugged, a gesture that brought to Giles attention how painfully thin his shoulders really were.

It made him think of stocking his refrigerator with something more nutritious for a vampire than pig's blood, and doing the research to find out if there actually was such a thing, without it having come out of a human. And when had he crossed the line from using him to pretend there was a good enough reason to stay, into caring about Spike's health and well-being? "But?"

"But it's not like you need me to tell you a story every night for the next thousand and one, anymore. Not with the shambles those kids have made of it all. They need you, and you know it."

"I suppose I do," Giles replied, though he hadn't really thought about it. In a way that proved the point -- he was so sure of being needed now that it hadn't occurred to him to doubt it. But that didn't change wanting Spike here. In his bed, yes, but also, he realized, in his life. Except maybe it did change things. Not the fact that he wanted Spike here, but why. "But -- them needing me--" he said slowly, shaking his head, just figuring it out for himself. "It‘s not enough. Hell, it may be too much. It‘s certainly not what I thought it would be. It‘s not--"

"What *you* need?" Spike’s question was flat, as if he had nothing invested in the answer but curiosity. "What would that be, then? You even know?"

"Not to be alone. Not just company, but a companion. Someone who…understands those things that the others refuse to." Giles frowned, remembering the moment when he had looked at Spike and realized all of his presumptions had been just that -- presumptions. "Someone who can challenge *my* complacency. Point out when I’m talking utter..."

"Pig shit on a stick? Like now?"

"How very...colourful. But not entirely inaccurate."

"Seems to me your business partner's not half bad at that job, when she's not distracted by trying to bring back the dead. Or convince the monkey boy to let her tell everyone they're engaged."

"Possibly, but Anya isn't -- they're what?"

"My hearing's better than yours. While they were stomping off home, she was saying they should make the big announcement now, so at least they‘ll all have *something* to be happy about. And so she can make up the lost profits from the urn in wedding presents."

Giles blinked. That did sound like Anya. But he pushed that revelation aside before he got distracted. "Be that as it may, Anya isn't you. She has a...ah...rather unique perspective on things, but she doesn't have your talent at cutting through all the...pig shit."

"You mean she’s not likely to shag you, being engaged, and all."

Speaking of cutting through... "Yes, there is that. And you're not. Engaged."

"Well, I was, briefly, but then somebody broke the spell and she spent the rest of the evening complaining that she'd been kissed by a vampire. Like it was beagle slobber, or something." Spike’s irritated tone couldn‘t hide the tiny grin, or the faraway place his eyes went, for a moment. Then he was back, and nodding at Giles. "You mean, since you're staying, anyway, I don't have to whore myself out to you unless I *want* to. No excuses for either of us, anymore."

"No. No excuses." Ignoring his pounding head and every other ache his body could throw at him, Giles stood up, and took a step toward Spike. "Stay?"

Spike's mouth was a thin line, wavering between a smile and something else. "Well, you do have the best free booze around."

Giles shook his head. "I think that qualifies as an excuse."

"It's warmer than my crypt?" He offered it as shamefacedly as it deserved, glancing down at the carpet as if he, Spike, who'd dared to say in the middle of the night that he *needed* Giles -- were suddenly too shy to accept that Giles, after all, needed him.

Spike? Shy? Giles laughed loudly, and Spike looked up. Tried to wipe the grin off his face, and didn't succeed.

"Pig shit?" he said, holding out his cupped palm as if he were offering an invisible handful of it.

"On a stick," Giles replied. Then, "Stay?"

Spike stood up straight, and walked away from the chair. To him. To Giles. A hand on his temple, cool where it still ached. "Yeah."

Giles closed his eyes, the pain in his head easing a little under that cool touch. "Good," he breathed.

Muscles that had been tense for hours were beginning to ease and it was only then that he realized just how much he had been waiting for that answer. How much he'd been afraid of the other, from the moment that Spike had stepped out of the shadows, and walked to Willow's side. It hadn't been just the horror of facing down his friends, or of what they'd been planning to do, though those had been -- *had* to be -- foremost in his thoughts, in his actions, at the time. It had been the fear, beneath the feeling of betrayal, that he had lost something he'd only just discovered. That perhaps he'd never had it at all.

Giles turned his face to let Spike's hand cup the side of it, almost leaning on the soothing skin of his palm. He breathed a laugh. "Usually I just resort to a bottle of aspirin and an icepack," he murmured as Spike's fingers seemed to seek out every bump and bruise on his skull.

"Yeah? I could stop, and fetch you some," Spike didn't really offer, and didn't stop.

"No, that's perfectly all right. You can just keep doing what you're doing."

"You sure? We can't have you falling dead on us, you know. Who'd I have left to do this to, if you go and die of internal injuries without permission?" Spike pressed just hard enough to pull Giles' head down, not hard enough to hurt, and stifled any answer, with his lips.

Giles opened his mouth under Spike's, bringing one hand up to cup Spike's head. It was a different type of kiss than those that they had shared before; though it had just as much need behind it, the desperation was missing. Instead it was quieter, deeper. More real, somehow.

When it ended, with Spike biting gently at his bottom lip for a moment, then pulling away almost regretfully, it took a second for Giles to get his breath back. "I don't think I'll be dying just yet." Perhaps the shaky manner in which he said it belied his apparent certainty, but at least it drew a laugh from Spike.

"I'll have to try harder." The promise implicit in those words jolted down Giles' spine. "In that case, perhaps we should adjourn upstairs. If you try much harder, I cannot guarantee the stability of my legs -- and I've hit my head enough tonight."

Spike had the good grace not to look amused at him. Or perhaps he was as unsteady on his feet as Giles, and just hiding it better. He seemed sure enough of his footing, though, as he pulled back and led Giles towards the stairs, one hand on his arm. Giles wondered idly if Spike thought he was going to try to get away, but didn't say anything. If he did, Spike might let go, and he found he rather liked the continued contact as they made their way up the stairs.

There was no stumbling, no fumbling, this time, and no laughing pause from Spike as he questioned his age or his sanity. There was only the two of them, moving to the bed, something both familiar and strange. New, in how easy, how comfortable it seemed.

He wondered if he would worry about that and how fast it had happened, later. Right now, he didn't want to question it. Right now, as they stood beside his bed and Spike sought out his lips once more, he wasn't worrying or questioning. Right now, he was just allowing himself to experience. To feel. Nimble fingers at his collar, for instance, undoing buttons, grazing the hollow of his throat, tracing his collarbone. A hand on his shoulder, gently insisting he sit down, before he fell down.

It was an excellent suggestion, and he complied, letting Spike push him down first to sitting position. Blue eyes stared at him, holding him in place as those hands went back to work on his shirt. Soon it had been removed and he was being gently pushed back to lie supine on the mattress. It occurred to him that he was being taken care of. By Spike, whose one concession to guest-like behaviour the last time his host had been suffering from possible concussion, had been offering to turn VH-1 down to a level that could only be heard a mile away. Now that same rude, Weetabix-hogging vampire was running his fingers over Giles' scalp again, lightly, where he rested his head on the pillow. As if making sure it hadn't hit too hard.

Then again, perhaps Spike just didn't want him unconscious for what was to follow. Whatever the reason, the gentle touches were, like before, soothing away his headache, and Giles let out a sigh as the pain ebbed slowly away, his eyes drooping closed in contentment.

A bright, hot line of not-quite-pain, drawn straight down his sternum, and he opened his eyes in a flash, to see Spike's staring at him, curled-lip grin below them. "No falling asleep on me. Not if you've got a concussion, mate."

"I wasn't falling asleep," he protested mildly, though privately he admitted that he probably would've if Spike had kept up the scalp massage much longer.

"Liar," Spike accused, and bent his head to where the line of heat, drawn by a sharp fingernail, began.

Cool, wet tongue on his chest, tracing the tingling scrape, and the contrasting temperature should have soothed it away, but instead, it was as if the flesh were electrified. Hot and cold together. Giles was unable to restrain a gasp at the sensation, as his skin prickled into goosebumps in the wake of Spike's tongue. Goosebumps weren't the only thing rising in reaction and he shifted a little as his trousers got noticeably tighter.

"Rise and shine," Spike murmured, his hand brushing downwards, and Giles didn't bother to stifle his groan.

"Well, that will most definitely keep me awake," he observed not without humor, groaning again as Spike's fingers brushed lightly over him.

"I'm flattered, truly." Spike's voice against his skin. Cool air unwarmed by human lungs, human blood, tickling the hair on his chest. Then busy fingers again, much more coordinated than Giles felt, working at the fastening of his jeans.

Giles raised one hand and touched Spike's hair. He felt like he should be doing something to reciprocate, not just lie there and feel. But then Spike got his jeans open and brushed his hand against Giles' erection and any actions he might have been planning disintegrated under the sharp ripple of sensation. The only thing in his head was the rushing of blood, the command to his body -- heard and followed -- to arch towards Spike‘s touch.

Spike whispered against his chest, against his stomach. Not real words, just soft puffs of not-real breath. Followed by the pressure of lips, the swirl of a tongue, then away again. A line of phantom kisses, moving downwards. Giles found himself anticipating the next one, his skin tingling before it was touched, like an itch he couldn't quite reach. He clenched his hands in the sheets beneath him and fought not to squirm.

When Spike freed his erection completely, though, tugging downward on denim, on cotton, there was no choice but to lift his hips. Even though that brought heat and cold and small explosions in his brain, as the wet mouth moved down to take him in. That same soft, almost-kiss, against the head of his cock, cool wet breath. Then touch, engulfing touch, and only Spike's hands, firm against his hipbones, stopped him from pushing up.

Giles moaned as his body reacted to the still-strange sensation of being engulfed in a vampire's mouth, firm and wet, but the only heat coming from the friction of tongue and lips. The enforced stillness of his own body only heightened the tension and made his attention all the more focused on what Spike was doing. That mouth, that tongue, knew more than just how to cut through the layers of self-delusion, the walls of politeness they'd all built up between them. It was sharp enough against his skin, true, circling and stabbing at him -- but there was softness there as well. A mouth built for killing, Giles knew well enough, but like its owner, it had so many other possibilities.

Like driving aging ex-Watchers crazy, Giles thought in an increasing sensual haze. The urge to move, to thrust into that mouth was becoming overpowering, irresistible, and still Spike held him down. His fingers scrabbled for something besides sheets to touch, and managed to reach soft hair. Didn't manage not to tangle in it, but somehow even acting on its own initiative, his body knew enough not to pull a vampire‘s hair while said vampire was swallowing his cock. How bright of it, Giles observed absently. Twenty years of Watcher training hadn't been for naught, after all.

Somewhere in him, there was an ache at that thought. That even with his brain firing randomly, he could remember. Couldn't shut away the question of what that twenty years had really been for. But here, now, it was a small ache. One he almost thought he might learn to live with. Especially in moments like this, with Spike's hair under his hands, Spike's mouth surrounding his length and Spike's hands holding him down, holding him still. He knew he was going to have bruises, he was straining so hard against that grip, needing to move so badly, needing just as much to be restrained. Needing...

Needing something more. "Spike..." he hissed, and he didn't know, really, what he was asking for. Something to bring it all to a head? To an end? Something.

A tilt of the head, and eyes, still bright blue, looking at him. Sparking with something that might not quite be evil enough to be called evil. The equivalent of a smile from a mouth that was otherwise occupied. Then Spike lowered his face again, and ever so gently tightened his mouth. Until the touch of lips became the touch of teeth. Until the touch became pricking, and the long draw down the length of his shaft became a sweet, hot aching scrape.

Everything disappeared in a white hot surge of pleasure. Giles' whole body arched upwards and he poured out his climax in a speechless yell.

There was darkness, for just a second. A fuzzy sort of darkness, that wasn't nearly as disturbing as that which he'd seen when he'd been knocked to the ground tonight. Just blueblack nothing, for a few comfortable moments. Then a sharp voice. "Hey, none of that, now. I don't want to be the one to explain to those brats how you died. Even if I could come up with a convincing story about delayed reaction to internal injuries."

It took him a couple of tries but Giles got his eyes open again. "'M not dead," he protested. "Feel too good to be dead." All of his aches and pains had faded, were hiding somewhere beneath the surface. Endorphins were wonderful things.

"As a dead person, I officially take offense at that." Spike had moved up the bed, and was crouched over him, staring down. Not quite grinning. Too intense for a grin. The look was almost hungry, which should have frightened Giles, and didn't. Which should have frightened Giles as well. "As an evil one, I guess I can't argue."

"You, not argue? That's a refreshing change." Giles raised a hand and ran a finger along the curve of Spike's mouth. "You look like you're expecting something."

"And you look like you'll expire of natural causes if you try to give it to me." Spike moved closer, pressed his body against Giles. "But I'm always willing to be proven wrong."

Giles shifted, arranging himself more comfortably beneath Spike's weight. "I'm not entirely certain that shagging a vampire would fall under natural causes," he mused as he slid his hands down over Spike's hips. "But I'm not quite so old and broken down as that."

"Mm-hmm. Can you move your hands, then, whippersnapper?"

What? Giles glanced down at his hands, which seemed to be in perfectly acceptable positions, each cupping half of Spike's denim-clad backside. "Er?"

"Paralyzed. I knew it. Damn. Self-help it is, then." A hand not his own crept between them, fiddling with Spike's fly, and Giles understood. Snorted, and knocked Spike's arm away.

"You could've just said so," he chastised as he worked on getting Spike's jeans open.

"Thought I did. Not my fault if your brains are slipping."

It wasn't worth dignifying with a reply, not when Spike himself was slipping into Giles hand. A squeeze of definitely not paralyzed fingers was the only reply he needed to make, and produced a satisfying hiss from Spike.

Giles watched Spike's face as he moved his hand, stroking the silken hardness in a grip that was just tight enough. This was the part that had so unsettled him the first time -- the thing that had shook him from his determination to leave. The look in Spike's eyes, the expression on his face, the openness he would have never have imagined the vampire capable of.

It unnerved Giles even now, though some animal instinct of self preservation made him capable of hiding it, of looking back at Spike with his own face set in what he knew was a mask of determination. Behind that though, it still shook him. This thing Spike had, when he wanted something, when he enjoyed it. Those rare cases when he loved. A complete tossing of his whole self into the endeavor, fangs, fists, fear. Everything.

The vampire who could slouch idly on the sofa watching television, the very portrait of abject sloth, when he was bored, depressed, had nothing -- was a completely different creature here, now. In the gold lamplight of Giles' bedroom, here was Spike, all of him, in Giles' hand. It was exhilarating, intimidating, and quite possibly addictive. The fact that that thought didn't frighten him like it should have just proved to himself how far he was already gone.

He tightened his grip, a mere whisper of tension that made all the difference between comfortable and *more*. Else. Other. Comfort wasn't a part of this moment, not in the widening of Spike's eyes, or the steady bellows of Giles' own lungs, breathing for him when he'd forgotten entirely to do so.

Steady his breath might have been, but each one rasped, and he heard it in his ears as loud as Spike's low groan. Felt both scrape through his body like raw fingernails on... perhaps not that image, but there it was, anyway. Spike's hands clutching at his shoulders like they were clawing their way out of something small and cold and dark, and Giles' breath scrabbling its way up to meet them. The intensity was a tangible thing, surrounding them cloyingly, smothering, bearing them both down under its weight. Involuntarily Giles' grip tightened once again and Spike let out a sort of gasp as he arched his back, though it was uncertain if he was trying to move away or closer.

Whatever Spike's intent, his movement drew Giles up as well, one hand supporting himself against the pillows, one reaching for as much of Spike as he could take inside his palm. A tight, jerky slide that was almost as involuntary for Giles as it must have been for Spike. Giles felt his fingertips brush against tightly-drawn balls, heard Spike make a noise like something was dying off in a forest somewhere and he'd been the one who killed it -- then Spike's tremor was shuddering through them both.

The tension slowly dissolved in the aftermath and Giles pulled the suddenly loose-limbed vampire down to kiss, the action slow and lazy and easy. "Was that what you had in mind?"

"Mrrhrm?" Spike murmured, the sound not one that could ever have been mistaken for an intelligent answer.

"Brain slipping a bit?" Giles snarked gently.

"Mm. S'around here somewhere."

Giles chuckled, a little surprised at how good he felt at this moment. He yawned, and Spike grinned at him, inhuman body recovering its strength, inhuman brain recovering its wits, at a completely impolite speed.

"Tuck you in, shall I, Watcher? Or did you want a story first?"

"I shudder to think what you would consider a bedtime story." He yawned again. "Besides, I can't sleep. Concussion, remember?" Though he was quite sure that Spike wouldn’t have risked blowing his…mind, if either of them believed he was really in danger.

Spike looked thoughtfully at him, then nodded. Surprisingly -- somehow, Giles could still be surprised by such a gesture from Spike -- he reached up and stroked the fingers of his left hand very gently through Giles' hair. "I seem to recall you just need somebody to wake you up and shake you every few hours, make sure you've not snuffed it. I'm game for that. And hey, if I happen to fall asleep on you and you do that walking into the light thing, at least I'll have breakfast in bed."

"That doesn't exactly overwhelm me with confidence, Spike," he replied, though his eyes were already closing as Spike continued stroking his hair.

Spike, lying on top of him, seemed to weigh twice as much as a man his size should, but Giles couldn't seem to find the desire to shift, to shake off his blanket of stone-heavy naked vampire. It was comfortable somehow. Just one more thing weighing him safely to the bed, letting him drift without fear of floating away. He drifted off into sleep so gradually, so comfortably, that he wasn‘t even aware of letting go.

* * * * *

She's jumping rope. One. Two. Three. The twisted cord, strung with blue and yellow plastic beads, a chil's toy, hits the hardwood floor of the training room with a smack, each time. The toes of her tennis shoes reflect in the wood as she jumps. Floating there for a split second before she comes down. He counts the cracks. Four, five, six.

"You're not jumping high enough," he tells her, sitting on the sidelines. "What if I'm an Ogdra Wyrm, coming to get you from the ground? Burrowing up, out of the earth? You've got to get higher."

White toes, white soles, reflected in the golden-brown wood. She jumps, increasing the pace of crack as the rope hits, scrape as it makes the round and comes back up over her head. "I can't get any higher than this, Giles."

"Well, then the Ogdra Wyrm is going to have a good day." He stands. Walks over and picks up a staff. "We'll have to work at that." The next time the rope hits, he says, "Drop it," and he holds the staff out. An inch above the last invisible mark she made in the air when she jumped. "Now. This."

"That’s way too high. I can't."

"There's a Wyrm at your feet."

"And I couldn’t jump it if Ben Affleck was on the other side of it, naked and calling my name. It’s too high, Giles!"


"I can't jump that high." She crosses her arms, stands there, one leg bent before the other. Lips set straight. "I can't do it just because you’re the Watcher and you say I can. It doesn't work that way."

He raises the staff another inch. "Jump, Buffy."

"Are you even listening to me? I can't do it. I'll fall!"

"You're the Slayer. You're *my* Slayer. You can do anything." He raises it higher. It's at her knees. Gnarled wood, bare tan knees below denim shorts. She shakes her head. He raises it higher. "Jump."


"Jump. There's a giant green snake eating your toes, Buffy, Just jump!"

"You're deaf!" she shouts. "You've got beans in your ears!"

It's just above her kneecaps now. "I can hear you. And the Wyrm is eating your ankles."

"Giles, I --" She looks at him, now, instead of the staff. Her eyes are all pupil, round and black, the faintest ring of green around them. He's falling towards them, crouching in front of her. "I'm scared. What if I fall?"

"It's just a stick, Buffy."

"Will you catch me?"

He wants to say yes, but he knows he can't. Knows if he says yes, she'll never jump, not really. "Jump, Buffy."

Inside, where she can't hear, he says it, though. Yes. If you fall, I'll be here. Always. I'll always catch you.


The roaring of an express train, rumbling beneath the floor. If the underground were running under Sunnydale. If it were alive, and huge, and hungry. It bursts through the floor, wood splintering. Glistening maw gaping wide

"Jump, Buffy!" As it surges toward her, a sinuous roaring ribbon of green, Giles raises the staff. "Now! You can do it!"

She jumps. White tennis shoes, reflected in the crumbling remnants of polished wood. Knees bent under her. Hair spread wild around her face, as if she's floating in space, because she's just that high. Over the staff. Over the Wyrm. Higher than the pommel horse. Arms outstretched, frozen in the air of the training room, smiling. "Giles, look! I did it!"

Buffy smiles, as the floor crumbles away to nothing, as the monster hisses its frustrated hunger at him, and dives back down into the dark. She smiles, even as she tumbles back down, and he's running to catch her. Because she knew, after all, she must have known, that he would. But it's like moving through treacle. The air sucks at him. The floor grabs at his shoes. She's smiling, and he's reaching for her, and he can see that he'll never get there in time, no matter that he's only a step away.

She’s worried now, not smiling anymore. "Giles?"

No. He isn't going to make it and can only watch helplessly as his Slayer falls into the darkness below.

Except she doesn't. Somehow the fall turns into a dive. She flips in midair, long hair flashing gold behind her, as the dive becomes a steep graceful climb. Suddenly Giles is watching Buffy soar.

Her laughter rains down on him from the starry sky above him, the ceiling evaporating into a clear, cold night. "I can fly, Giles! You taught me to fly!"

She is breathtaking as she goes higher and higher -- and Giles suddenly realizes that she's not coming back. He opens his mouth to call to her. He is her Watcher; he knows if he orders it she will come back down to the ground where he can see her, touch her, watch over her.

The words are on his lips, but he doesn't speak them. She’s so happy, so free above him. If he calls her back she’ll lose that. Be weighted to the sticky earth that holds him where he stands. He can't do that to her, even if it means losing her.

So he simply stands there and watches her fly. Long after she is out of sight, Giles continues to stare up at the stars.

* * * * *

Consciousness came upon him tentatively, the darkened landscape of his dreams echoing with a low, rough voice that was gentle at first, then louder. Concerned. Trying to tell him something, or ask...

"I never taught you how to fly," he found himself saying earnestly. "You always knew."

Something shook him, very carefully. Holding him by the arms. "Come on, you stubborn bastard. Wake up for me, now."

Wake up? It took a few minutes for the sense of the words to penetrate and a few minutes more for him to remember how to open his eyes. He found himself blinking blurrily up at worried blue eyes in a sharp featured face. Memory caught up a few seconds later. "Spike?"

"Right in one. That's a start. Now -- how many fingers?" An indeterminate number of white things fluttered in front of his face.

"I've no idea. You're moving them too fast, and anyway, I've not got my glasses on." He didn't actually recall taking them off, but a fuzzy glance, still blinking, showed them folded neatly next to the lamp on the bedside table.

Spike stood up beside the bed, looking relieved. Or perhaps just tired; it was hard to tell, having to squint at him in the low light. "Thought you'd gone off, for a minute there."

"No, still here." Giles pulled himself into a half sitting position, his head still aching, but not as badly as it had earlier. "I was dreaming."

"Yeah." Spike looked at him speculatively. Or possibly... Giles sighed, and reached for his glasses. Looked again.

Now Spike's expression was slightly amused. "Gathered that. Something about flying lessons?" He grinned. "Do have to admit that last time was pretty close."

"No." Giles hesitated, but then said, "It was Buffy." The images, the feelings of the dream were still very much with him as he spoke, and he wondered if this sense of bittersweet acceptance would last. “She was falling, but at the last moment, she learned how to fly.”

Spike turned his head, the sharp silhouette of his profile broken, his face in shadow. "It's a nice thought." He made 'nice' sound like a noise one might make when finding something small and dead beneath the sofa.

"That she might be happy?"

Spike snorted and moved away, turning his back. He walked to the edge of the loft railing, and leaned on it. "Which is so bloody likely, innit. When was she *ever* happy?"

"There were moments," Giles replied, memories of Buffy smiling so brightly it lit up her whole being coming to the surface of his mind. He also realized how long it had been since he'd seen that expression. "But it had been a while," he admitted.

"Half the time when I can't stand to look at the Bot, it's because it reminds me of her," Spike said. "But not when it smiles. Don't think I've ever seen her smile like that. Not at me, anyhow, not when she wasn't under a bloody spell."

"She was smiling like that in my dream." Not the Buffybot's painted on smile, which was never quite right -- but the one it had been built to emulate.

“It's a nice thought," Spike said again, more quietly. This time, there was no poison in the word. Just a sad, uncertain exhaustion. Giles wondered how long he'd slept, and if Spike had been watching him all this time.

"You look tired," he observed, tracing the line of bent shoulders in the shadows, no longer even remotely surprised at the concern he felt. He still wasn't sure what lay between Spike and himself, but that there was something he no longer even had the desire to deny.

"You think?" Spike turned around and mimed primping for a mirror he'd never be able to use. Even that action was cut off halfway through, and his arm fell to his side. "'Course I'm tired. I'm supposed to be sleeping during the day and killing things at night. Now I'm making toast in the afternoon, babysitting at night, and shagging into the wee hours of the morning. Not exactly the standard vampire sleeping schedule."

And nursemaiding a broken down Watcher probably wasn't helping matters any, Giles thought. "I suppose not," was what he said, non-committally. "If you want to get some rest now-"

Spike looked at him. "Odd as it might seem, I don't actually *want* to wake up to find a dead person in bed with me. At least not *you*."

Right. His alleged concussion. Giles was surprised to realize he'd forgotten all about it in the last few minutes of conversation. It didn't seem to hurt quite so much anymore. Or maybe he was just getting used to an aching head. "I'm touched," he said, the words coming out less sarcastic and more sincere than he had expected. "But I don't think that's a serious danger. I'm feeling...better."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "The miraculous healing powers of vampire-shagging?"

That surprised a laugh out of him. "Anything is possible."

"Probably wasn't the brightest idea in the first place," Spike reflected. "Could've shaken your brains loose."

"It's probably not on the list of recommended treatments for possible concussion, I suppose. But I did say I feel better."

Spike laughed, half-heartedly. "Yeah. Well, if that was a request for a refill, I'm afraid the pharmacy's closed. Unless *you* want to wake up next to a dead person. More than usually dead, that is."

Giles watched him, saying nothing for a moment, then folded back the covers. "That was rather what I had in mind."

"You what?"

"Waking up next to a dead person. I wasn't saying, ‘I’m fine now, you can head on home.’ I was saying, I think it's safe to let me sleep; why don't you join me."

"Ah." Spike made no move to approach the bed.

"Did you think when I invited you into my bed, I only meant it for when you're too shagged out to wake up and go elsewhere?"

"The thought occurred, yeah."

Giles shook his head. "I didn't. I meant..." Spike looked back at him, one eyebrow raised, giving no ground. Giles sighed, and began again. "When I invited you into my bed, I hadn't meant to attach any constraints to it, other than our own desires."

Spike nodded slowly, but moved no closer. "Guess I sort of assumed that if I was the one who was bribing you to keep your arse around here -- with my arse -- that you wouldn't be interested in much else."

"I see." He supposed he shouldn't be surprised; they hadn't talked about it, not really, and the way they had come together... "You mustn‘t think very highly of me, then."

"No, that's not..." Spike shook his head. "I just figured..." He blinked. "I don't know what I figured. It was me who made this about tit for tat, wasn't it."

"We haven't really discussed the specifics."

"Is this the part where we talk about where our relationship is going? Cos if so, would you mind waking me when it's over? I've got an invalid to keep an eye on."

Giles felt the corners of his mouth curve upwards. "That wasn't quite what I had in mind."

"Well, 'discussing' things tends to sound a bit like something you do over flavoured coffee. You had other plans?"

"I thought perhaps you might like to sleep with me." Giles indicated the turned-down blanket again. "We could always wait until morning to unpack the flavoured coffees."

"You don't actually --"

"No. I have Gold Blend. And tea. And brandy. And a vampire who's about to slide down my bedroom railing and fall asleep on the floor."

"Am not."

"Spike, would you just get in the bloody bed?"

A brief flash of surprise flickered over Spike's face before he grinned. "Well, since you asked so nicely..."

Giles might not have been aching, anymore. Much. But exhausted still definitely applied. If it hadn't, the sight of Spike walking to his bed, stark naked, and slipping beneath the covers, might have moved him beyond merely appreciating it, to actively trying to keep the vampire awake. As it was, Giles merely slid over, removed his glasses again, and reached for the light.

Darkness made it so much easier. This being together in bed, purely to be together in bed. Not tearing each other's clothing off, not wrapped in mindless post-coital lassitude. Acknowledging, sleepy as they were, that Spike was molding himself to Giles' body, pulling up the blankets to cover both of them, for reasons other than sex, whatever they might decide those were, later.

It was less awkward this way, not having to look at each other. Giles could shut his eyes, and merely feel his fingers lightly brushing against the softness of Spike's hair. The press of skin on skin, too languid to be arousing; just the comfort of touch, something he hadn't felt regularly in far too long.

He was drifting off, uncertain whether Spike was awake or asleep, with no breathing in the room but his own to listen to. Spike's chin was tucked somewhere near his shoulder, an arm across his chest, and it was the simplest thing in the world to fall back into that place with the dark sky above him. To imagine, though he wasn't quite asleep, that he saw stars over his head.

The voice, soft and low, wasn't surprising when it blew across his skin, echoed between his ears. "What did she look like? When she was flying?"

"Happy," he said just as softly. "She looked happy."

Silence greeted that answer, and Giles had almost fallen back asleep before Spike spoke again. "Wish I could believe that."

He hadn't any response to give. Giles wished, as well. Not only for Spike, but for himself. For all of them. He wanted to believe that what they had done was the right thing. That what *she* had done was the right thing. The most he could know for certain, though, was that they had to make do with what they had now.

"She looked beautiful," he offered, not knowing how that was supposed to comfort either of them.

Quiet gust of laughter. "See, now that I'll buy.

"Go to sleep, Spike."

Sharp teeth bit at his shoulder, lightly, then a head rested against him. Giles lay in the dark, and waited for the stars to return.

Read the next chapter: Recruiting