If We're Together...

The old guitar slid to the floor again. Giles swore and stooped to pick it up before going to the small bench to put the kettle on, and leaning the instrument against the wall, since it didn't seem to like standing on the soft carpet or resting against the hotel bed.

Since his return, he hadn't touched a drop of Scotch…even though he'd have given anything for a bottle of good single malt many times in the past weeks. Circumstances did not permit him to indulge his own feelings, to give in, even for a moment, to the crushing sense of loss with which the First's destruction of his personal world had left him.

The eventual whistle of the cheap electric kettle was almost comforting in its own way, even if it did sometimes make him forget he was in a small, impersonal hotel room rather than either the intimate comfort of his Bath flat or the snug familiarity of his tiny Sunnydale apartment…or even his old library nook…and the past that went with them...

In that split second it began to sing, his mind would momentarily find itself in quite another place, another time; that moment always followed by exquisite pain, as he crashed back to earth amid the lonely silence.

…And back to a Sunnydale gone mad. Nothing would ever be the same again. His world, so much of the intricate tapestry of his past, his career, his life, had been torn apart by the First. Not even Buffy had escaped its destructiveness.

He flicked open the wrapper on a hotel tea bag and dropped it into the cup of boiling water he'd just poured. He hated teabags, but somehow he never seemed to find the time or the desire to procure a teapot, or even tea. Somehow, it just didn't seem to matter anymore…

Halfway through the cup, his eyes flicked across to the guitar again. He'd brought it with what little other luggage he'd carried from England in the hasty flight to Sunnydale with the group of potential slayers. Why, he couldn't say for certain. He just knew that when he'd looked up while packing to see it resting in it's corner of the bedroom in the Bath flat, he knew didn't want to leave it behind.

So many times since his near execution, he'd felt as though he wasn't in control…as though everything was spiralling into hell and he could do nothing…or worse, that he seemed always to be one step behind. Half the time he could barely remember incidents that had happened days before, or even hours…unnerving and sometimes terrifying. With the Council gone, there was no one to turn to, nowhere to go to find out what the hell might be happening to him. And with the rest of them either inexperienced children, or seemingly incapable of taking their current situation seriously, he could see no point in adding further worry and confusion to the mix.

He would handle it, or not, himself, for the time being…

He stared at the shabby guitar case still lying by his bed. Earlier he'd been practising some of the songs he used to sing at the Pump, mostly because he hadn't learned any new ones, well almost none, since. He also needed badly to take his mind off recent events…to keep the emptiness from closing in on him…

…Anything to keep from thinking about the look on Buffy's face when she'd closed that door on him. True, she hadn't thrown him out, or locked him out of her home…but she had symbolically locked him out of her heart…and that, perhaps, haunted him most of all.

He sighed jaggedly. How had it come to this…? What the hell had happened to them all…? He had returned to find a Buffy even less equipped to deal with reality, with life, than the pathetic creature he'd attempted to force to stand on her own two feet the previous year. Sometimes he wondered if there was something more at work there…something keeping her from being the woman he knew…the Slayer they all needed so badly now…

Giles closed his eyes again, this time against an unexpected wave of emotion, and a fiercer one of recrimination. *He should never have left her after she was brought back. It was the right thing to do…but it was also a damnable thing to do. He should have known there were far too many things that could go wrong…should have known she wasn't ready to stand alone…*

The emotion rose in a mixture of anger, heartache, overwhelming sadness and frustration. He was beyond angry with Buffy's recent behaviour: angry that she seemed as though she was never, ever going to grow up; that she continued to allow herself to be defined…and demeaned…by her sexual liaisons. It was as though, somehow, the emotional dependence and need of her by creatures like Angel and Spike…even the hapless Riley…could somehow fill the void left by the desertion and dereliction of previous male role models in her life, particularly her father: most damned of any of them, and leaving the greatest scars of all. Until she stopped trying to fill the void he'd left by confusing neediness and obsession with love, she would never be happy and would never stop torturing herself with hopeless, unhealthy relationships…

He cleared his throat, forced open his eyes and downed the last of the tea, tepid now, in one gulp before discarding the heavy hotel cup on the sink and heading for the shower.

An hour later he walking the two blocks from his hotel room to the Espresso Pump. He wasn't sure why. And a part of him was shrieking with panic at what he'd done: impetuously calling Dominic, offering to come and play for free. He sighed, remembering how he'd responded so quickly to the other man's enthusiasm, enjoying the unconditional affection and admiration with a neediness of his own, that he heartily despised.

He still didn't know why else he'd done it…except that he couldn't sit alone in that room a moment longer, and he couldn't hide in the shower forever…


Xander emerged from the kitchen with a large bowl of popcorn and went to sit with Dawn, who was trying to watch, with something resembling enthusiasm, an old film her mother used to love, but it was obvious that she was worried about her sister and about what was going on around them. Even his proffering of the aromatic bowl did little to lighten her mood, or ease the tension in the young face.

He sighed. Somewhere in the house, Willow and Kennedy were probably going at it yet again…seemingly their answer to everything, lately…

And Anya was outside, of all things, putting washing on the line. Xander wasn't sure what her deal was lately with the need to be one with the cleaning and washing all the time…*like she needed something…anything she could be the boss of, or something*. It both irritated and unnerved him a little. Not as much as Andrew the idiot and the endlessly annoying potentials, did…but enough. He was also glad Faith had taken geek boy and a group of potentials most needy of the training, out to look for Bringers and anything resembling Intelligence about the First.

Half an hour later he mentally apologised to Willow and Kennedy, who emerged, fully clothed and weary-eyed, from what turned out to be some heavy, but fruitless, research about the First, books and all, to flop in the other chairs in the living room. They shared the popcorn, all silently and moodily focused on the remainder of the film.

Xander didn't notice until Gary Cooper was meeting the President that Kennedy had gone to sleep curled up in an armchair and Dawn was now pretty much comatose on her end of the couch as well.

Willow looked around at the soft thud of the bowl being put down on the coffee table. Xander touched a finger to his lips and motioned her toward the kitchen.
“I don't know about you, but I need to get out of here. I can't do this anymore: pretend everything's okay, when nothing's okay.”

Willow touched his arm. “I know things have been, y'know, kinda tense and all…and I wish I knew where Buffy was too, but what else is there? Someone has to watch out for Dawn and make sure the Slayer-wannabes don't go doing anything dumber than usual…”

Xander rolled his eyes. “I know…and I know things are bad with Giles and Buffy…I know all that, but it seems like forever since we did anything even remotely…normal. I just want…Kennedy's here with Dawn and she's a better bodyguard than either of us…I want to do something like we used to.”

She searched his face. “Like what? Nothing's the way it used to be. Those days… even our actual school…they're gone…kinda forever…sorta like the old us,” she said sadly. “And I don't know about you but: not really nostalgic for the old family bosom, if you know what I mean. Apart from the Library and the Bronze, this house is the only other place we all used to hang out together…” Her expression changed a little when she realized how morose she was beginning to sound. “Unless…unless you want to go to the Bronze? Dance? Hang out? Pick up girls?”

Xander's eyes grew wide and his serious expression turned to one of someone trying very hard not to laugh. “Pick up girls…you and me? Together? Demon magnet, remember? I'm on the wagon. No picking up of the female gender for the foreseeable future; focusing on Scott Bakula's butt every time I feel myself slipping…” He shook his head. “I don't think I could handle the Bronze right now, either. God, there are so many memories…and the interesting thing is for every good one, there's a really, really, bad one to go with it. And right now all I seem to remember is…” he shuddered to illustrate his point, “…the nastiest ones.”

Willow only contemplated that for a moment before looking down at her bosom and turning bright red, remembering her own and Anya's contribution to that collection of the group's most unpleasant Bronze experiences.

“Well, hey, you know, we could just go for a walk…or…or a drive, to kinda not be so vampire-baity. You wanna, maybe, drive up to Lover's lane or just out for donuts or something?”

Xander couldn't help chuckling again and waggling his eyebrows. “Oh yeah? Lover's Lane? You and me...?”

Willow coloured again and biffed him in the arm. “Not like that, dumb head. You wanted nostalgia…I figured you'd been up there a time or two back in high school, probably with Cordelia…we could just go visit for old time's sake…” She saw his expression and swallowed. “Okay, so strike Lover's Lane. Donuts are starting to sound mighty good…or there's a late movie…”

Xander's eyes finally lit up. “Coffee,” he said unexpectedly. “I want a double mocha and lots of those little cookies they have in the jars on the counter…”

Willow's eyes lit up. “The Espresso Pump! Do you know how long it is since I last…?” Her voice trailed off, her expression growing bleak.

It took Xander only seconds to realise why. Willow loved the 'Pump, but she hadn't been back since Tara's death.

“It's okay, Will. We don't have to go there, either…”

“No, really,” she said, looking towards the living room and Kennedy. “I want to go. I've been in mocha withdrawal for so long…”

Xander bit back a wave of emotion at the sad wistfulness in her voice. “I'll go start the car while you get your doodads together.”


Buffy leaned against the old elm, her favourite tree in Restwood Cemetery, and closed her eyes. Everything was closing in around her. It felt like everything was spinning out of control…like the First had everyone and everything on a string and every time she thought she understood what was going on, it would yank on the strings and change the rules again…

For the first time in months, maybe even longer, her mind wandered back to better days. Still Slayer days, and always with the pain in the background, but much better ones: back when things weren't nearly so harsh, complicated or painful as they were now. She closed her eyes against a heart-rendingly vivid memory of an all-nighter in the library: Xander stuffing himself with Pizza while they researched, and Giles bitching in his usual Giles-y 'look down his nose' voice about greasy fingers on the old books, Willow echoing the outrage and Cordelia telling everyone to get over it, because they were just dusty old books and asking Giles if he'd switched to coffee without telling them, or something. A tiny smile lifted the corners of her mouth at the memory of his expression and the harrumph that followed, before he carefully removed the precious volumes from greasy paws, pointedly handed Xander a paper towel, and headed back to his office clutching his babies to his grumpy breast…

Two tears forced their way under her lids as she came back to the present and the knowledge that those days were done and that she could never get them back. She also didn't know how she'd let things get so out of control, or how she'd ended up out here all alone. It felt eerily like that horrible dream back when the First Slayer had gotten inside their heads, with all the harping about her being alone, and not being able to find her friends anywhere…

She shook herself and pushed those memories away again. She had enough crap to deal with, without delving into the past as well. The present was bad enough.

Sometimes it was like the world, her world, was skewed to the point where things seemed to happen by themselves, and then phone themselves into her brain later. As the haze of rage, bitterness and disappointment at the ease with which Faith had usurped her place in the group had gradually lifted, it slowly became clear that she hadn't exactly helped her own cause. She frowned, trying to remember why she'd said and done some of the things she had. She didn't even know why she'd woken up next to Spike that morning…only that she had to get away as quickly as she could. Now she didn't even know where he was, either. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered…

She would have given anything to feel like something did.

All that was certain was that the world had to be saved. Again. And she knew that Faith wasn't going to be able to do it. She also knew that this time it was no conceit. Just a sure knowledge, something perhaps left inside her by the First Slayer: something that told her in no uncertain terms that *she* had to be the one. That it was still her job, no matter what the others might want to believe.

At that point, one face swam in her thoughts, floated accusingly in front of her, despite the hurt in its eyes, the pain in its normally comfortingly familiar visage. The way he'd looked just before the door had slammed in his face…

A sob rose in her throat. A part of her was still raw from the wound left by Giles' betrayal, even as her mind, at last, began to process what he'd been trying to tell her while they were patrolling. Losing Giles had been worse than almost any other loss she could ever remember. Nothing could have prepared her for the idea that he, of all people, wouldn't stand behind her, no matter what her choices. Now, here, in the darkness… Her heart sank. Darkness, again: maybe she really did belong in it…?

Here, alone with the night, the truth had finally found a voice amid the cacophony of her rage and hurt. The truth was she'd forfeited the Watcher's loyalty a long time ago. Perhaps as long ago as the decision to lie to him about Angel, after all that Angelus had done, all the he had put Giles through. She knew it, and yet between them there continued her unspoken expectation that he would be there, and his equally unspoken undertaking to fulfil that trust.

Buffy struggled to her feet, not even trying to stop the small chokes or the moisture that seeped down her hot cheeks. She'd let it all go: Giles, Dawn, Xander, Willow.
Somehow, she'd isolated herself so much from all of them, that she'd lost them… and it was all her own damned fault; hers and…


She started badly and turned. “What do you want?”

He shrugged. “What are you doing here? In case you didn't realize, I don't exactly live around here these days.”

“I didn't come here looking for you.”

“Oh…so now it's off again, eh? I get one night before you decide to throw me away again…is that it?”

“You know why last night happened.”

“Do I? Am I a mind reader or something? She loves me; she loves me not? I may be
love's most pathetic bitch, but I know there was something there last night… something that was enough to make you forget some things that aren't usually forgettable…if you take my meaning.”

Buffy, taking his meaning exactly, seemed to almost physically shrink with self-loathing. “I don't know what happened last night. I know I was hurting. I know…I know I still have feelings for you…even after everything…but I never meant…” She drew herself back up into a more defiant stance. “I don't know what's been happening to me since the First came. I've done a lot of things, made a lot of choices I can't explain…too many of them. I don't know who I am, anymore…it's like I don't always control me…and I wasn't made to be someone's puppet. You know if I find out the First,” her voice grew harsh, “or anyone else, has been jerking my chain, I'll make them wish they were never born…or reborn!”

He smirked a twisted smirk. “Got it. Only don't look at me.” He hummed a few bars of the wretched tune the First had been using to trigger him. “ Number one puppet, remember? So what's your tune?”

Buffy's eyes filled with moisture again. “All I know is that I'm alone, which is probably exactly what the First has wanted all along. I can't believe I let this happen. The First Slayer wanted me to work alone, but I knew…I knew I was strong because of my friends…because they were always there, helping…and Giles…”

His eyes narrowed. “What about that stupid old bastard? He sold you out and almost got me killed. You can't seriously still care about the sod?”

Buffy's damp gaze flew up to his. The vampire had said that in a way that had nothing to do with the words.

Spike realized at the same moment what he'd revealed without meaning to.

A lot of things fell into place then, as far back as the night they'd overheard Giles ranting at Willow about the irresponsibility of raising her from the dead, and Spike's immediate assumption that she would be hurt by the things the Watcher had said.

The blue-grey eyes widened as they stared at him. “You…all this time you felt threatened by *Giles*?

The vampire managed to look extremely self-conscious before his expression hardened and the cynical mask fell back into place.

“Bugger that. He's as old as Methuselah, a right old woman. Why would a young buck like me be threatened by an old fart like him?”

Buffy struggled with that question too. It hadn't made a lot of sense to her even the first time Spike had alluded to the idea of something going on between Watcher and Slayer.

“Maybe…maybe it's because he's a better man…because I've always needed… him…because he…he's…” She paled and then the colour ran back into her cheeks. “…because he's *mine*,” she finished in a shocked voice.

“Yeah, your bloody minder. So what?” Spike countered defensively.

“Mine…” she repeated, as though not even hearing the vampire. “I have to go,” she added absently and started towards the gates.

Spike stared at her retreating back, his expression part pain, part confusion, but most all, outright rage.

Buffy was halfway across town when she saw Xander's car slide by, Willow alongside him, and frowned, hoping someone was watching Dawn and making sure the potentials didn't do anything stupid. She watched the car out of sight, and realized it was heading for town.

She had to talk to someone about what had happened. Maybe try to explain…maybe not. But she'd always been able to talk to Will and Xand, and she had to try. If they were going to town, they were probably going to the Bronze…

A half hour later Buffy emerged from the nightclub, frustrated but alone, and unaware of the figure watching her from across the street, in the shadows of another building.


Willow and Xander slid into their regular booth as soon as the couple occupying it when they arrived, finally vacated it.

“Who knew it was going to be so busy?”

Xander shrugged. “Dominic's probably got some entertainment happening tonight. I didn't see any fliers, but he usually gets someone good.”

Willow smiled mischievously. “Yeah,” she agreed, remembering Xander's reaction to Giles singing there.

After a beat, Xander realized what her amused tone meant and made a face. “Yeah, okay, the singing: classy. But in no way, no how has Giles ever been sexy.” He shuddered just at having to say the word. “It was like he had a spell on all you women. Anya, I can understand, maybe…but you and Tara? Gay, remember?”

Willow snorted, pushing down a surge of pain at the sudden memories of the gentle blonde. “Just because we're gay doesn't mean we don't have taste. You know you were just jealous because Giles was getting more attention than you. He may not be in his twenties anymore, but he's always been gorgeous. Trust me on this. I had the most incredible crush on him in high school, and it was obvious Miss Calendar was really…” Willow stopped, her expression pained.

They both fell silent.

Finally, Xander gave up and shrugged. “Fine. I'm down with the Giles goodness. Scott Bakula, make way for Rupert Giles…”

At that moment the perpetual crowd murmur dropped to a hush as the man in question appeared with impeccable timing, guitar in hand, to take his place on a stool now standing alone in a pool of spotlight.

The small squeak from Willow was enough to tell Xander he wasn't the only one in shock.

After he sat down, Giles plucked at a few strings as though checking the instrument's tone. Xander decided it was probably more like getting up the nerve to look up at the crowd. He contemplated the so-called 'sexiness'. True, the Watcher wasn't wearing tweed, the grand-dad specs, or shabby sweaters tonight, and true, he looked about ten years younger in the dark jeans and black, open necked shirt. Xander's brows drew together and downward. He was wearing something around his neck…a necklace of some kind…maybe a small, darkish, or gold, cross. He couldn't tell for certain in the artificial light.

Then Giles finally looked up and smiled self-consciously at the crowd. At that point Xander stopped wondering what the fuss was about, and why anyone would ever consider Rupert Giles to be 'sexy.' He would never be gay, but in that moment he understood completely what it was that Willow, Anya and Tara were transfixed by.

Giles cleared his throat. “Um…Dominic has asked me to play a few tunes for you all. H-he thought perhaps a few of the old ones…” This brought an appreciative murmur from certain sections of the crowd. “And I thought perhaps I'd add one or two I never got around to adding before…”

He didn't bother to add: 'because I've been so busy with resurrected Slayers, relocating my entire existence not once, but twice, and the impending end of the world as we know it…again…to have either the time or the inclination to practise or learn any new ones.'

Xander watched him smile again like a bashful kid when a woman whistled somewhere in the crowd, before bending his head and beginning to play. He smiled to himself when Willow sighed loudly alongside of him as Giles' voice filled the small café. The tune was 'Freebird', but a much different arrangement to the Lynrd Skynrd version, which he barely remembered. It also became very apparent, very quickly, to Xander that the lyrics were more than a little relevant.

Also, for once, Xander's ability to observe saw far more than he wanted to see. There was real pain in the older man's face, in his eyes as he worked his way through the song, attempting to maintain as much eye contact with his audience as possible, but ultimately having to dive his head quite frequently. Xander knew it wasn't because Giles needed to find the chords. He dropped his own gaze, only raising it again when the last chorus faded and the applause started.

Giles raised a hand to quiet them again before starting on a Pink Floyd number and following it up with one of one of Clapton's unplugged tunes, giving Willow a major happy.

“Makes my toes tingle,” she sighed.

Xander smiled to himself, glad that Giles was taking her mind off the badness for a while then realized that he hadn't thought about any of it, himself, since the Watcher had appeared on stage.


Buffy stood at the entrance to the Pump for several long moments deciding what to do next. Looking for Xander's car, she decided, would be the easiest way to find them. And if it were nowhere to be found, well, she'd just have to go find herself another tree…

It didn't take long, by process of elimination, to get to the Espresso Pump. Xander's car was parked less than half a block away. Normally it wasn't that hard to find a parking space near the café, so it had to be busy.

She made her way up to the entrance, partially blocked by customers with no seats, and slid between several women to get into the building. The lights were down, drawing her eyes immediately to the spotlight up front. Her heart flew into her mouth and began to race.

*What the…*? Well, it explained why Willow and Xander were out on the town at a time when they should be focusing on whatever plan Faith thought she'd cooked up to save the world, but….

Buffy drew a shaky breath and focused on the man down the front sipping water from a large glass proffered by someone who hovered for a moment then melted away. The question…she swallowed and refocused…the question was: what in God's name was her Watcher doing singing at the Espresso Pump when only yesterday, their lives were falling apart…?

Giles played a few notes and a hush came over the audience again as his voice rose.

No one knows what it's like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
No one knows what it's like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies

But my dreams
They aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be

Buffy swallowed as the Watcher's voice rose. His expression grew exquisitely pained as he threw his very soul into chorus of his song. She hadn't heard it before, but she wouldn't soon forget it.

I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance
That's never free

No one knows what it's like
To feel these feelings
Like I do
And I blame you …

Giles faltered. His gaze had shifted and he'd seen her. He was looking straight at her, incredulous, pale now, his mouth strained, his eyes tired. He took a breath and managed to continue, even more intensely than before.

No one bites back as hard
On their anger
None of my pain and woe
Can show through

But my dreams
They aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be

I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance
That's never free

When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool

If I swallow anything evil
Put your finger down my throat
If I shiver, please give me a blanket
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat

No one knows what it's like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man

Buffy shivered when he was done. His eyes were blazing into hers, fixed on her as if she were the only point in the room. She couldn't move, couldn't speak. She simply stared, not even aware of some of the patrons turning to look at her.


“Oh, God.”

“What?!” Xander demanded, sure the end of the world was nigh, given Willow's dire tone.

The redhead stopped craning her neck to see around the tables in the middle of the floor.



“She's here. And Giles sang that song like he wanted to throw sharp pointy things *at* someone. I've never seen him like that…wait, yes I have. When Ethan Rayne's around.”

“That bad?”

”That bad.”

“And Buffy's *here*?”

“Well, she was. I can't see now.”

“Should we, you know…?”

Willow shook her head. “Not right now. She'd probably leave. I would. I'd be mad as hell that my best friends didn't stand by me when I needed them.”

“Hey,” Xander objected, then realized he didn't have a leg to stand on. “Why *didn't* we stand by her…I mean, apart from the fact that she's being stupid and anal about yet another walking corpse and doesn't listen to a damn thing any of us says? I mean, seven years is a long time to be together to…” He paused. “And I *still* can't work out how Faith suddenly became a good guy again…you?”

Willow shook her head. “She just was. I mean, in Los Angeles…she was there, all good and friends with everyone and everything. It was spooky, but kinda cool…and now I'm sorta freaked out because I have no idea why it was cool or why I said those things to Buffy…”

Xander's expression grew dark as Giles' voice rose again, telling the audience that he was going to sing a number he'd never tried in public before, and to forgive him in advance. He was trying to be light, and he was smiling at the audience, but the two friends could see and hear what it was costing him to go on with the performance.

“I don't know why I did what I did either,” he growled. “Or why Giles did what he did. I'm beginning to wonder if a certain evil creepazoid has put some kind of spell on the house. I mean everyone, but everyone, just went along. Even Faith didn't question anything. And Giles… You know, ever since Wood came to Sunnydale, weird things have been happening and regular people have been behaving way too weird for believable explanations.” He stopped again, confused. “So why is it I'm only getting that now that I've been away from that house or anything First-related for longer than I have been in weeks…?”


Buffy still hadn't moved. She'd watched Giles talk to the audience, listened to the calls for various numbers, but her feet wouldn't move. A part of her wanted to run, to flee the anger, the pain in those green eyes, but for some reason she was frozen.

When he finally looked up again, it was straight at her. She felt impaled by his eyes.
After long moments locked in a lacerating stare, Giles finally played the first chords of his next song without shifting his gaze. With his eyes glittering and his expression hard, he began.

What ravages of spirit
Conjured this temptuous rage
Created you a monster
Broken by the rules of love
And fate has lead you through it
You do what you have to do
And fate has led you through it
You do what you have to do…

A montage of her pathetic love life to date, punctuated by every violent encounter with Spike, poured through Buffy's mind as he sang on relentlessly.

And I have the sense to recognize that
I don't know how to let you go
Every moment marked
With apparitions of your soul
I'm ever swiftly moving
Trying to escape this desire

At the same moment she let out a surprised gasp, he almost faltered on the last word, then redoubled both his glare and his vehemence.

The yearning to be near you
I do what I have to do

She bit back a sob. *God, it hurt…*

the yearning to be near you
I do what I have to do
but I have the sense to recognize
That I don't know how
to let you go
I don't know how
to let you go

*No…!* Suddenly, Buffy's heart was gripped by a panic so intense it hurt. Compared to his announcement last year that he was leaving, this was a thousand times worse. She wanted to cry, to die, to scream…

She stood and listened. And watched.

A glowing ember
Burning hot
Burning slow
Deep within I'm shaken by the violence
Of existing for only you…

Giles' voice faltered again on the last sentence and Buffy saw the hurt behind his anger…behind the flashing green eyes still raging at her.

She didn't know how she was going to bear the rest of the song. She knew the tune. His arrangement was slower, more intense, but she knew the Sarah McLaughlin song only too well.

I know I can't be with you
I do what I have to do
I know I can't be with you
I do what I have to do

Tears streamed down Buffy's face. It was all wrong. So wrong. How could she have let it happen? How could she have made something so good, so very, very bad?

And I have the sense to recognize but
I don't know how to let you go
I don't know how to let you go

I don't know how to let you go…

“No.” She shook her head at him as the last notes faded, moisture flicking off her cheeks. “No! You can't go. I love you, Giles!”

He sat bolt straight when he realized what she was saying.

From Buffy's perspective he looked affronted, perhaps even angrier. With another sob, she turned and fled. Outside in the cool night air, she let the grief flood over her. Grief not just for the now, but for an endless time of pushing away the pain, the rage, the heartache, pushing it so far down it that was easy to ignore…until now. She staggered away from the light of the Espresso Pump, into the alley alongside it, not wanting to be seen, to be offered help she didn't deserve or to have to deal with anyone's pity.

By the time she'd managed to get all the way into the darkness she'd lost all functional control of her limbs, sagging against the side wall of the building and sliding down it as her shoulders shook. Years of killing, of death, of constantly being under pressure to stop death itself, to stop pain and hold back evil…of cruel losses and even crueller victories, had built up a reservoir of pain inside her that released, threatened to drown her in its intensity.

“So, pet, wrong again? Never you mind. Spike's here now to take care of you.”

Buffy barely knew the vampire was there until he touched her trembling shoulder.

She jumped and looked up, humiliatingly unable to stop the sobs.

“Poor little Slayer found out I was right after all. Nobody wants you. Nobody loves you, except me. Here you are, chasing the darkness, just like I told you. You know where you belong.” He put a hand under her elbow to ease her up to a standing position.

Buffy tried to pull away. His voice, the words, were haunting her, reminding her of things she thought she'd put behind her…ugly things she thought she'd managed to forget.

“No…I'm not like you!” She half yelled, half sobbed. “I'm not.”

“C'mon, Slayer. You know I'm right. You know how good I make you feel…how much you need me.”

She shook her head. “I'm not like you. You made me like you last year. You kept telling me I was like you…over and over…and…and I started to believe you. Why else would he leave me? I had to be horrible, bad…wrong, somehow. There had to be a reason he didn't love me anymore,” she managed to rasp out.

“He never loved you, pet. None of them ever did. Not that great poof you mooned over for so long, not that idiot you slutted yourself for in college or your great wanker of a soldier boy, and bloody-well not that mongrel Watcher. The only one who ever truly stood by you was *me*. You hear me? *Me*: Spike. I put it all out there for you. Everything. *I am your world*,” he added vehemently.

Buffy shook her head again. “No. For a little while we were equals. Sick, violent, whatever…but at least we were that. Then it was all about your wanting me, needing me, like all the others…even Angel. He said he was weak…that he wanted to take comfort in me. He wanted me to be strong for him. It's all wrong, Spike. I can't do it any more. I'm not his mother and I'm not yours! I need someone, just for once, to be there for me…to give *me* strength.” The last sentence became a whisper as she realized what she was saying.

Spike recoiled, not at her last sentence, but at the reference to his mother. He opened his mouth to tell her not to talk about his mother at all, *ever* but Buffy kept talking.

She kept talking to keep from thinking about the realization that there had always been someone… she'd just been too blind, too spectacularly stupid to realize it.

“I'm not here to take care of you. I can't do that any more…the being needed, being responsible *all* the time. Don't you understand? It was killing me. I thought…just for a little while…that maybe you'd let me need you.” Her trembling had grown worse, but the sobs had stopped, drowned by adrenaline.

“And haven't I been there whenever you needed me? Haven't I helped out? Given you what you wanted every time?”

Buffy looked away. “You gave me what you thought I needed, not what I really wanted. You gave me enough to make me keep wanting you around. Just enough…to make me want more.”

“Just enough bloody *what*?” Spike snapped, annoyed.

Buffy's mouth trembled but she refused to weep. “Just enough gentleness…just enough words…just enough kindness to make me want more.”

He subsided. “But I'm not kind, or gentle, is that it? I'm not sodding William. I'm a demon and that's bloody life…and death. I haven't had a century of brooding about it to make me a better man. I like who I am. Poofter boy might not like what he is, but it's still inside him, same as me. You know you like a little evil in your men. You know I'm what you want. Forget the sodding Scoobies and their stupid old man. They forgot you quick enough when the sex-kitten rocked up.”

“It's all that simple to you, isn't it, Spike?” Buffy said wonderingly. “You really think that I can turn my back on everything I love, just like that? Just give up and let Faith and everyone else die saving the world, while I ride off into the sunset with you…or more likely into some dark alley to screw like…” She stopped, sobered by the memories. “It can't be like that anymore, Spike. I'm not that person anymore. You took me when I was broken and hurting and you fashioned this…this real live doll…like that-that sex toy you paid Warren to build. That's still all this is to you. You want your toy back,” she said defensively, angrily.

Spike's eyes widened and grew moist.

“It's not going to work this time,” she growled when she felt herself responding to the pathos he was so expert at.

“Whaddaya mean?” he snapped. “I can't believe you think this is anything but love. I've devoted myself to you…only you. I want to be with you…I want us to be together…forever.”

Buffy shuddered and shook her head. “Your devotion is all about getting what you want. I remember you being devoted to my sister…who, coincidentally, you haven't given a crap about since you got what you really wanted. And when you thought you were going to lose it again, how devoted were you to me in that bathroom? How loving where you when I was screaming at you to get off?” Her expression hardened. “In all the times we were together, all those times it got rough and violent…never once did I *ever* scream, or cry, Spike.”

A lot of things were reflected in Spike's eyes as she spoke, not least recognition of the truth, then the reality. His face twisted into a sneer.

“So this is what I get after everything I've done for you, your whiny sister and those stupid, ungrateful minions of yours? That's it?”

Buffy was tired. Very, very tired. Soul tired. Her face was dusty and tear streaked, her eyes swollen and red. “I'm sorry, Spike. Really…I am. Sorry that it ever got started…for everything I did and said…I know I was horrible…worse than horrible.”

Spike's colour was high now. “You think 'sorry' is going to fix everything?” He took hold of her shoulders and lifted her close to his face. “Am I beneath you again, now? Is that it? Not good enough for the almighty bloody Slayer?”

Buffy strove to control her instinct to retaliate. She shook her head again. “The truth is, Spike, that neither of us is good enough, anymore. I can't be with you any more, but I'll never have what I want either, because I don't deserve it. I will fight the First, and I will win, because that's what I'm supposed to do…what I was put here for, but that's it. I was never meant for picket fences and puppies and you never intended to give them to me, anyway.”

“Well, fuck you!” Spike raged, when Buffy continued to stare at him with eyes that were dead of any response and pooled with terrible sadness, but did not struggle in his grasp. He threw her back against the wall and clenched his fists. “I don't believe it. I don't bloody believe it! You're just like all the others. I'm never good enough for any of you, am I? She was the only one who ever really loved me. The only one…” He slammed his fist into her cheek. “The only one!” he shouted as Buffy struggled to get up, despite the ankle that was nearly twisted backwards.

“Spike, don't do this!” she cried as he grabbed hold of her shoulders again and started to haul her up.

“Do what? I'm going give you that darkness you're always flirting with. You're so obsessed with evil and misery and pain: become one with it.” Before Buffy could begin to gather her mangled wits and fight back, he'd switched to game face and sunk his fangs in almost exactly where Angel had fed off her, only this time instead of accepting her fate, she began to struggle, opening her mouth to scream just in time to see a familiar face appear over Spike's shoulder.

The soft green eyes looked questioningly into hers for an agonisingly long moment, and saw her answer…

Buffy fell painfully to the ground, bashing her damaged ankle as the dust rose all around them. As the waves of pain subsided she lifted her eyes to the figure standing before her, black clad arm still raised, Mister Pointy clamped in the strong left hand.

“How long?” she whispered, her voice croaking.

“Long enough,” he said softly, dropped the stake and extended his arm, his fingers outstretched.

After a disbelieving moment, Buffy took them, but instead of carefully finding her feet, she pulled herself up and threw herself into his arms, sobbing when his finally closed around her as tightly as hers were clutching him. And then for a time she couldn't stop sobbing.

When Giles realized that it was more than just reaction to almost being turned or to the death of someone she'd once cared for, his features thawed, the stoniness replaced by strong emotion as he rested his cheek comfortingly against the top of her head and let her weep.

A long time later, Buffy grew quiet then lifted her head, looking up at him.

“How…how did you know?”

“I followed you out as soon as I could. Spike was already there. I waited. I didn't want to interfere, but I couldn't leave you alone with him while we didn't know…” He looked away.

“It…it's okay. I know how stupid I was now. I know how much danger I put everyone in. I was an idiot. You were a bastard, and I was an idiot.”

He looked up again, jade glinting in the half-light. “It's my lot in life to have to play the bastard, Buffy. I asked you once before to forgive me. If…if I asked you again…?”

Moisture filled the blue-grey eyes again and she struggled to find the words. “You can ask that, after everything I've done to you?”

He looked away, defeated. “I'm sorry. I truly am, but I do understand that some lines cannot be uncrossed.” He started to turn.

“P-please don't,” she sobbed.

He halted. “Don't…what?” he asked tremulously, without turning.

“Don't… Buffy struggled to swallow another sob. “…Let me go.”

Giles turned back.

“Oh, God, Giles, is she okay?”

Both Giles and Buffy looked up from their ferocious new embrace.



“Is everything okay?”



The younger man looked bewildered. “We missed something, didn't we?”

Willow couldn't help a small giggle. “Obviously,” she told him.

“And now we're butting in. We should, y'know, butt out, now.”

“No!” Buffy exclaimed, surprised to hear Giles echoing her cry.

Willow and Xander stood, flatfooted, wondering what they'd done now.

And then all four of them were looking at each other, all four sets of eyes growing very bright…

It seemed like an age before they were moving. Hugs became a group maul, all of them trying, somehow, to exorcise every demon that had cursed their lives since high school ended, each taking with it the last vestiges of innocence and joy.

Then they were hugging each other again, and then hugging each other some more, moisture flowing freely, including droplets falling on both red and golden hair.

“What happened to all of us?” Willow managed, from somewhere in Giles' shirt.

“A very good question,” Giles croaked.

“We should research it,” Xander cracked, but despite the humour in his voice, it wobbled audibly.

“Together,” they all chorused.

* * *