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“There’s some leftover pizza,” Willow ventured.

Buffy was pacing restlessly in front of the couch. She hadn’t let anyone close the curtains but she was starting to wonder if that might not have been the best plan. Every time she caught sight of her reflection in the window she flinched slightly, feeling imprisoned again. Spike’s coat was heavy on her shoulders, flapping around her legs as a tangible reminder that they’d escaped. No one was going to take her away and operate on her. God, she hoped the soldiers hadn’t caught him. It’d been hours since Clem had left.

“I’m not hungry,” Buffy said tersely.

Xander yawned, his cheek smushed against his fist as he kept his head propped up. He hadn’t turned one page of the book in his lap in over an hour. Buffy had given up pretending to research completely and even the group of Watchers in the other room had replaced their teacups with glasses of something Giles had dug out of her mother’s liquor cabinet.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Tara said softly, looking at Buffy in concern. “Willow told me he has that Gem that makes him immune to harm.”

Buffy’s shoulders slumped. “I know, but…” She trailed off, unsure how to finish the sentence. But what if Giles was right? What if Spike did kill again, what would she do then? She’d once thought that killing Angel would be the worst thing she’d ever had to do, but the thought of dusting Spike had her insides twisting with a new level of pain and revulsion. She should have stuck to her original plan, the one she’d come up with before she’d ever heard of The Initiative. She should have just told Spike to leave and never come back. He’d be safe then.

Xander snorted loudly. “Who cares about bloodbreath?”

“Buffy does,” Anya answered, frowning when Xander turned to her with a disbelieving expression. “What? She’s obviously concerned about his wellbeing. I’m almost certain that humans would consider that caring.”

“But…” Xander’s mouth was working, but nothing further came out.

Willow shot Xander a warning look before turning back to Buffy. “That…demon guy seemed to think Spike was fine, right? I bet he’s just, you know, making extra sure he’s lost them or something.”

“I guess,” Buffy sighed. She turned back to the front window to see if she could make out any Spike-shaped shadows in the yard.

“Uh, did I miss something?” Xander asked, bewildered. “I mean, why are we worried about Spike? Shouldn’t we be worried about everyone out there with him?”

“Because he helped Buffy, remember?” Willow lifted her eyebrows and seemed to be trying to convey something to Xander solely through facial contortions.

“Once!” Xander said, sounding frustrated and giving Willow a look of confusion. “Am I the only one who remembers he tried to kill us a lot more often than that?”

Buffy saw Tara glance over but she didn’t have the energy to argue with Xander at the moment. Her whole body ached with tension. The soldiers better not have captured Spike again. She couldn’t bear to think of him trapped in that awful place alone.

“Sometimes the best thing people can do is forgive one another,” Tara said softly.

“Okay. A: Spike’s a vampire, not people, and two: He tried to kill us!” Xander sounded a lot more awake than he had been a few minutes ago.

“Well, Buffy was also trying to kill him at the time,” Anya pointed out. “So that seems fair.”

“I never tried to kill him,” Xander protested. “I was usually just trying not to die!”

“And he didn’t kill you, either,” Anya said calmly. “That’s actually pretty decent for a vampire.”

“I…what?” Xander stared at the girls in the living room and Buffy watched them all in the reflection of the glass window. 

“That’s…kinda true,” Willow said hesitantly. “I mean, even that one time when he kidnapped us he didn’t, you know, really try to kill us or anything.”

“Cordelia almost died!” Xander exclaimed.

“That wasn’t Spike’s fault,” Willow said softly, glancing at Tara. The other witch gave Willow a small smile.

Xander was gaping at all of them, his mouth hanging open. “We’re talking about the same Spike here, right? The evil, soulless vampire? Or did I hit my head and wake up in some alternate universe?”

Willow sighed. “Just…give him a chance, Xander.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, but Buffy could still hear her. “It’s important to Buffy.”

Xander’s brow furrowed. “Why?” he asked in that same false whisper.

“Because obviously he and Buf-” Anya started.

“Because it just is!” Willow interrupted as she glared at Anya.

Something thumped loudly upstairs, making Xander jerk in his seat. “What was that?”

Buffy frowned at the ceiling and surveyed the living room. “Are we missing anyone?”

Willow shook her head, her eyes wide. She leaned forward so she could see through the doorway to the dining room. “We’re all down here,” she said nervously.

“Great,” Buffy muttered. She started toward the stairs, mentally going over the weapons she had stashed in the house. Most of the good stuff was upstairs in her room. Buffy plucked a letter opener off of her mom’s desk. “Stay here,” she instructed as she mounted the stairs two at a time.

Buffy overheard Willow explaining to Giles what had happened as she reached the top step, pausing to listen. There was another thump, this one from the direction of her bedroom. Buffy was creeping down the hallway just as a low voice reached her ears, cursing profusely. She practically ran the rest of the way to her room, bursting in and flipping on the light.

“Spike?” The vampire was picking himself up off her floor. The chair she kept by her closet was overturned next to him.

“Where the hell did that come from?” The vampire scowled at the piece of furniture like it had personally insulted him and Buffy took a moment to drink him in. His clothes were streaked with dirt and mud and he smelled like he’d been rolling around in the sewers. She hadn’t been so happy to see him since the last time she’d thought he was dust.

“You’re okay,” she breathed, frozen in her doorway. A thousand questions flooded her mind.

“Been better.” Spike finally made it to his feet and met her gaze. “Got a problem and I’m not sure what else to do. Know I shouldn’t have come here, but I’m out of options.”

Buffy felt dread settle into her stomach. “What happened?”

Spike sighed tiredly. “Got shot with a tracker. Damn thing’s in my shoulder and I can’t get it out. Those soldiers won’t leave me the bloody hell alone. I’ve been trying to shake them since last night.”

Buffy bit her lip and moved closer to him. His clothes were certainly a mess, but she didn’t see any blood on them. A tiny hope bloomed. “We should tell Giles. Maybe he can help.”

Spike smiled a little, his hand reaching out to touch the lapel of his jacket she was still wearing. “Clem got my message to you, I see.”

“He did.” She couldn’t stop staring at him. He wasn’t dust. He hadn’t left her.

Spike twisted a strand of her hair around one finger, his touch as gentle as his voice. “Let’s go alert the Watcher. Those army boys aren’t going to be slowed down long by a disabled car.”

Buffy nodded. “Right.” She didn’t move.

Spike stared down at her, his eyes a subdued blue in the overhead light. “Glad to see they didn’t find you, Slayer.”

“You came back,” she whispered.

“Course I did.”

Buffy relaxed for the first time all day. Spike needed help. This she could do. She grasped his wrist, relieved at the feel of his cool skin under her hand once again, turned on her heel and headed downstairs. “Giles!” Everyone was waiting for her in the living room. She hauled Spike in behind her. “Giles, we have a-”

“Spike,” Giles ground out. The other Watchers suddenly looked wary. Lydia stared unabashedly. Buffy thought about telling the woman to go hang out in a cemetery if she wanted to gawk at vampires, but there were more important things they needed to deal with first.

“He’s-” Buffy tried again.

“Would you care to account for your whereabouts?” Giles said, glowering at the vampire.

“My whereabouts?” Spike asked incredulously. “I’m sorry, been a bit too busy trying to keep the damn soldiers away from you lot to update my appointment book.”

“What?” Giles looked thrown and Buffy took advantage of the lull.

“He’s got a tracker in his shoulder,” she blurted. “We have to get it out before they find us.”

“You consider this keeping them away from us?” Giles sputtered.

“I messed with their car first! Just hurry and it shouldn’t be a problem, Watcher.”

“Okay,” Buffy said firmly, grasping Spike’s arm and turning him. She glared at Giles before placing a gentle hand on the vampire’s back. “Where?”

Spike pointed over one shoulder and Buffy poked her finger through a hole in his shirt, feeling a lump under his skin. “Got it.” She turned to the group in the living room. “Anyone want to practice some vampire surgery?”

“Can’t you just magic it out?” Spike asked desperately.

“Maybe, if I, uh…”Willow trailed off and gazed into the distance as she pondered.

Tara shook her head, eyes wide. “I d-don’t know.”

Giles frowned. “It’ll take too long to figure out. We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

“I have a bit of medical training,” Henry volunteered uncertainly.

“Fantastic,” Spike muttered darkly. “A Watcher operating on a vamp. I’m sure nothing will go wrong there.”

“Perfect.” Buffy replied, ignoring Spike. “What do you need? Where should we set up?”

Giles sighed. “Let’s use the dining table. Come on.” Everyone trooped after Giles, clearing away the books in record time.

Spike grabbed the bottle of amber liquid that had been in the center of the table and looked happier as he took a swig from it. “Where do you want me?”

“On the table,” Giles gestured at it as Spike hopped up, yanking his shirt over his head. Buffy glared at Lydia as the woman’s eyes glazed over. Robson and Henry came back from the kitchen with a variety of sharp implements. “Get some towels, Buffy, this could get messy.” Buffy turned but Willow was already heading toward the linen closet.

A minute later everyone was hovering over Spike, staring at his unmarred shoulder. The vampire situated himself face down on the table, his long legs stretched out behind him while he propped himself up on his elbows. Buffy slid an old bath towel under him while dangled the bottle of liquor from his fingertips.

Henry’s lips were pinched tightly together as he rolled up his shirtsleeves and picked up a medium-sized kitchen knife. “Right,” Henry said. “Hold still.”

Buffy held her breath, her hands clenching into fists as she resisted reaching for the vampire. Spike kept his eyes fixed straight ahead as he propped himself up on his elbows, his jaw firmly set.

Henry frowned in concentration and they all watched as a long red line appeared under the knife’s blade before vanishing, leaving Spike’s shoulder as smooth and pale as before. Henry lifted the knife up, eyeing it suspiciously. “Uh, let me try again.”

“Oh for god’s sake,” Giles snapped. “He’s got that damn ring on.”

Buffy’s eyes widened. She glanced around before dragging a chair over to sit in so she was level with the table. Spike was glaring at the room in general, a scowl on his face. “Let me hold it for you,” Buffy said quietly. “I’ll stay right here.” Spike met her eyes, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Buffy held his gaze steadily, willing him to trust her as much as she’d trusted him lately.

Spike sighed and unclenched his fist, finally extending his hand to her. She slipped the ring off his finger and onto her thumb, leaving her hand on the table next to him. Spike settled his head on his hands, his face turned towards her and his eyes on the ring. Buffy looked back up at Henry. “Try again.”

A car raced by outside, making everyone’s heads snap toward the front of the house. “Is there a way to interfere with the tracking signal?” Giles asked.

Tara lifted a hand. “We m-might-”

“Do it,” Giles cut her off.

Willow and Tara both nodded and went into the living room. Xander was hovering uncertainly in the doorway. “I’m, uh, going to…help.” He disappeared.

“He’s squeamish about sharp implements near body parts.” Anya said brightly before wandering after him.

“Here goes,” Henry muttered. His forehead was starting to shine with sweat.

Spike gasped this time, his eyes squeezing shut tightly. “Bloody hell! Do you think you could have found a duller knife?”

“I’m sure we could have,” Giles said. “Be quiet.”

Spike tilted the bottle of alcohol back and took several healthy swallows as Henry worked. Buffy saw a drop of bright red blood drip onto the towel. She slid her hand a little closer to the vampire so that their fingertips were touching. Spike finished off the bottle he was holding. “For Christ’s sake, get me another, Watcher.”

Giles grumbled something about the vampire having no appreciation but went to retrieve another bottle of liquor. Spike snatched it from him just as a wave of something cold and tingly washed over the room, making everyone shudder.

“What was that?” Lydia looked away from the vampire for the first time since he’d come downstairs.

Buffy watched as a few loose strands the other woman’s hair began to rise in the air of their own accord. “Uh, Giles?”

Giles smiled in the direction of the living room. “Ionizing the air, very clever.” He turned to Henry. “That’ll interfere with any electronics for a bit. Have you got it?”

“It’s deep,” Henry said, his brow furrowing. Spike grimaced and took another swig from his newest bottle. It was already half gone and his gaze was starting to waver a little. He reached out to tug Buffy’s hand closer, turning it over and resting his cheek on her palm, sighing. Lydia watched in fascination and Buffy pretended not to notice the woman’s stare. 

Giles frowned at Buffy. “Spike, we need to know a few things.”

“What, Watcher?” The vampire’s speech was slower, like he was carefully picking his words. He took another drink from the bottle he was cradling before settling his head back onto Buffy’s hand.

“How many commandos are searching for you?”  

“Was up to six at one point, but I think there’s just three now.”

“You got rid of a couple, I take it?” Giles asked, his tone radiating disapproval. He glanced at Buffy, but she ignored him.

“What? I don’t know what happened to the others. Think they might have switched out or something.”

 Giles furrowed his brow. “You didn’t kill them? Even though you had the Gem?”

“Slayer said not to.” Spike’s expression was pure confusion. “They’re human.”

Buffy shot Giles a scathing look. Her Watcher took off his glasses and polished them as though he hadn’t noticed.

Lydia was wearing an expression of pure delight. “Uh, excuse me Mr. Will- Spike?”

Spike lifted his head and frowned at her. “What? Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Lydia,” she said, her cheeks turning pink. “It’s quite a pleasure to meet you. I was hoping perhaps later we could arrange an interview so I could update the Watcher’s journals and-”

Spike turned back to Buffy, his expression disbelieving. “Is she serious?”

Buffy rolled her eyes, secretly pleased that Spike seemed as annoyed by Lydia as Buffy was. “She’s studied you or something, apparently.”

Spike smirked and took another drink. “Yeah?” He eyed the female Watcher, who smiled uncertainly, her entire face flushed now. Her hair was coming loose from her bun and floating in the air around her head, making her look like she was underwater. Buffy reached up tentatively to check her own hair and found it was sticking almost straight up in the air. She must look like a crazy person.

Spike was watching Buffy again, not paying any attention to the others. His eyes softened even as Henry asked Robson for a smaller knife. There was a puddle of blood forming on the towel next to him. “Like the new style, kitten,” Spike murmured sleepily.

Buffy gave him an exasperated look. “Oh, sure, make fun of me while we’re helping you.”

Spike tugged on her hand until she scooted even closer to the table. He set the mostly empty liquor bottle down  and reached out, grabbing a fistful of her hair as it waved over her head and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply. Buffy laid her head on the table next to him so that they were nearly nose to nose. Her eyes were level with his mouth and she watched his lips quirk up a tiny bit. “Not making fun,” he said softly.

Buffy tilted her head down a little so he could bury his nose in her hair, her hand curling protectively around the nape of his neck while the others chattered around them. She closed her eyes, listening to Henry directing Robson as Giles discussed the recently cast spell with Willow. Spike was muttering nonsense words under his breath, his fingers twisting strands of her hair. Buffy heard Lydia ask something about Spike that Giles curtly responded to. She wished she could shut out the world and pretend she was just a girl, but that was impossible.

They were all here because of her. They’d come to help her because she’d asked them to, because of who she was. She couldn’t abandon them now. Even if she wished it with every fiber of her being, she’d never stop being the Slayer. Buffy felt the vampire nuzzling against her scalp as Henry cut him open and thought about what it meant that he would let those soldiers run him ragged instead of killing them, just because she’d asked him not to. Maybe she had to be the Slayer, but she was also Buffy. No matter what the Council said, she was in charge, and maybe it was time to start making her own decisions.

“Got it!” Henry called triumphantly.

“It’s so tiny,” someone said.

“Flush it,” Giles instructed. Running feet left the room.

Buffy lifted her head and met the eyes of her Watcher, her fingers still rubbing slow circles at the base of the vampire’s skull as Spike rumbled happily. “Let’s get him patched up. Tomorrow we’ll bring him up to speed on the plan.”

Giles pressed his lips into a thin line but didn’t argue. He nodded once. “We’ll be back in the morning.”

Lydia was scribbling in a notebook nearby, her hair starting to fall back down into place. “Is this his typical behavior?” Her eyes were glued to Spike. “I must say, this is not what I was expecting.”

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. “No. Get your things. We’re leaving.”

Henry appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping his hands on a towel. “Thank you,” Buffy told him.

He inclined his head. “I hope he’ll be as helpful as you say.”

“He will be.”

Spike cracked open one eye. “Won’t need patching, Slayer.” He slipped the Gem off her thumb and back onto his own finger, letting out a little sigh as it did its work.

Lydia’s eyes widened as she stared at his healed back. “How extraordinary. Tell me, Spike, how-”

“Later,” Buffy said firmly, standing up. “We all need some sleep. Goodnight.” Spike pushed himself up, sliding off the edge of the table and rolling his shoulder experimentally. Buffy clasped his hand in hers, meeting her Watcher’s eyes squarely before pulling the vampire up the stairs. Behind her there was only a thunderous silence.