Work Header

It Never Happened

Chapter Text

"This is pointless," Xander complained, carelessly flipping a page of the fragile old book Giles had tasked him with. "We killed the demon."

"Spike killed the demon," Dawn pointed out. "The rest of us just kind of stood around and watched."

Anya looked up from her own research, offended. "I tried to hit it with my flashlight. And what did I get for my trouble? A ten dollar dry-cleaning bill, that's what."

"It was pretty goopy, after a while," Willow agreed.

"And it's dead," Xander reiterated. "Which brings me back to my point about pointlessness."

Giles tried to rein in his irritation. "It was a type of demon we haven't encountered before. Don't you wonder what it was? What it was doing in Sunnydale? What its strengths and weaknesses are, in case we encounter another one?"

"Well, we know its weakness now, duh," Dawn said. "Break the big shiny jewel in its forehead. No muss, no fuss."

Xander nodded. "It couldn't have been more obvious if it was an eight-bit Nintendo game."

"It took Spike long enough to figure it out," Anya muttered into the book she was reading. "I should make him pay for the dry-cleaning."

Just then the cellar door slammed open, heralding the arrival of the vampire in question. Spike stalked into the main room of the Magic Box looking more dour than usual. Giles noticed that his coat, at least, was largely clean. A few bits of crusty white residue clung here and there. "I'm here," he said, unnecessarily. "What's up with the books?"

"We're researching the demon from last night," Willow said.

"Nothing new to kill tonight, then?"

"Not that we know of," Dawn answered.

Spike nodded once, a sharp, jerky motion. "Right, then. Go on with your reading. Don't mind me." He fished a packet of cigarettes out of his coat pocket and tapped one loose.

Giles frowned at the flick of Spike's lighter. "You can't smoke that in here."

Spike took a long drag, making the tip glow bright red. "Beg to differ, mate," he said.

And Giles just ... let it go.

He'd been doing that a lot, lately. Everyone in their ragged group seemed to be passing simultaneously through an unnamed stage of grief that entailed being extremely annoying, and it was necessary to be tolerant. Sometimes it felt as though a stiff breeze would tear them all apart—even Spike.

Besides, the smell of the smoke wasn't so much annoying him as making him want to ask Spike for a fag. Not that he would—certainly not in front of the children.

Children? Not the right word, he told himself. Not anymore. But even with Buffy gone, he still felt a certain responsibility towards them all—a certain protectiveness.

"Did you have any luck with the runes?" he asked Willow, turning quite deliberately away from Spike. They had found a rather unnerving set of thirteen stones in the Sunnydale woods a fortnight ago, each engraved with one or two words in an alphabet Giles was wholly unfamiliar with.

"We're pretty sure it's not a human language," Willow said.

Tara, brushing her hair away from her eyes, nodded. "We're thinking demon. Except, um, a couple of the characters are actually Norse."

Giles leaned over to study the notes Willow had made, all the while aware of Spike pacing behind him. He was wearing out a path back and forth in front of the back bookshelves.

"Hey, Spike?" Dawn asked finally. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Spike said, which was so very obviously a lie that even Anya frowned in response. Giles hoped Spike hadn't got into the sort of trouble that would come knocking on the Magic Box door in the wee hours of the morning. They'd had that sort before, and he'd promised to stake Spike himself if it happened again.

"You had better tell us what's going on," Giles said. "And put out the bloody cigarette."

"I don't know what's going on." Spike stopped his pacing to glare at Giles. There was a glint in his eyes that Giles found disconcerting—he might be mistaken, but he rather thought it was fear. Then, with no warning, Spike strode towards the front of the store where the evening sun streamed sideways through the plate-glass window. Dawn shrieked his name while everyone else seemed to be frozen. But Spike turned to face them, standing in the sunbeam. The bleached tips of his hair glowed shocking white, but there was no smoke besides that rising from the cigarette in his left hand. "How about you tell me, Watcher?"

Giles's breath caught in his throat. Angel had said he'd destroyed the stone. "The gem of Amara?"

Spike snorted. "That what Occam's Razor gets you? Try again."

"Oh my God," Willow said softly. "Spike, are you ... alive?"

Instead of answering, Spike took a furious drag on his cigarette, squinting out the window. Into the sun. "Looks like," he said finally.

The sunlit evidence in front of them was insufficient for a solid conclusion. There were any number of possible explanations. "I would like to take your pulse," Giles said, feeling the awkwardness of the request.

Spike raised an eyebrow. "Be my guest, mate." He tossed his fag-end to the shop floor and ground it out under his heel before meeting Giles halfway. He started to hold out his wrist, but Giles had already fixed on the more reliable pulse point at his neck. Spike didn't object; he tilted his head back to give Giles convenient access, and breathed patiently as Giles pressed two fingers against his skin. His warm skin, his throbbing pulse.

"My God," Giles breathed. "It's true."

"Not exactly something I'd claim just to win friends and influence people," Spike muttered.

Giles found himself bumped aside by a squealing fourteen-year-old. Dawn threw her arms around Spike in a hug so enthusiastic he nearly fell over. "OhmyGodSpike you're alive!"

"Oi, Niblet," he gasped. "Don't get so excited. It might not be permanent." He turned to Giles, with Dawn still wrapped around him. He looked a little desperate. "It's not permanent, is it?"

"I couldn't begin to guess." Giles adjusted his glasses, taking a longer, curious look at Spike. He looked the same as ever, only perhaps a bit less pale in the cheeks. "How do you feel?"

Spike scowled, disentangling himself from Dawn not ungently. "Like somebody slipped roofies into my blood," he said, fishing out his cigarette packet again. "Everything's dull and heavy. How do you people fucking stand it?"

"We get by," Xander said. "Hey, could you maybe not give us all cancer, please?"

"Spike, you can't smoke now!" Dawn agreed. "You have real lungs!"

Spike eyed his unlit cigarette balefully, most likely torn between the desire to annoy Xander and to please Dawn. Giles, meanwhile, was working through a rather horrific realization.

Supposing the change was permanent, they had just lost the closest thing they had to a Slayer in Sunnydale.

"If he's human now," Willow said, "Does that mean that he has a soul?"

Spike froze at the question, cigarette halfway back into the packet. He blinked. "Hadn't thought of that. How would I know?"

"Well, he must, right?" Dawn said, sounding a little defensive. "The demon's gone and everything."

"Is it, though?" Xander asked. "I mean, we're all agreed that we don't know what the hell's going on here."

"There must be a way to tell." Willow looked as though she might rise out of her seat and go peer down Spike's throat to see if anything was glowing down there. Only Tara's hand on her arm seemed to hold her back.

"Well," Anya said to Spike, leaning forward, "When you think about all the people you've killed, do you feel guilty about it?"

He cocked his head a little, looking back at her. "Do you?"

The two of them held each others' gaze for a long silent moment. Giles thought to himself that he would be rather curious to hear Anya's answer.

"Hey, what about the chip?" Xander said suddenly, leaping up to put himself between Anya and Spike. "Does the chip still work?"

The corner of Spike's mouth twitched upwards. "Only one way to find out." He took a great step towards Xander, drawing his fist back.

In the split second it took to process what was going on, Giles realized the potential for disaster. "Spike, NO!" he shouted, sharply enough to stop the former vampire in his tracks.

The look Spike gave Giles was puzzled more than anything. "I wasn't going to hurt the boy," he said, letting his fist slowly drop. "Not really. Don't know that I even could."

"Think about it, Spike," Giles said. "The chip was designed to cause debilitating pain to a vampire. I imagine that it would cause real damage in a human brain. It's possible that one shock would kill you."

"If the bloody thing's even still working," Spike said, but he'd gone a shade or two paler than before.

"If you wanna find out, I'm still right here," Xander said.

Anya tugged at his sleeve. "Xander, be nice. Unexpectedly turning human is very disconcerting."

"M-maybe this has something to do with the demon from last night," Tara suggested.

"Yes, research!" Spike said, taking a step back from Xander and hugging his arms around himself. "Let's get with the research, then. Hop to it. Hut, hut, or whatever it is you do in America."

"Cumulatively speaking, you've lived here longer than any of us have," Willow pointed out.

Spike rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Red, but that's really not the point right now."

"Not actually true, either," Anya said to nobody in particular.

Xander flopped back into his chair and picked up the book he'd been looking through before Spike came in. "I still think this is pointless. How many times have we looked through these books in the past five years? If that demon was in here, one of us would've recognized it when we saw it last night."

"Oh, there it is," Anya said, looking over his shoulder at the page he was holding open.

"I knew that," Xander said. "I was just, you know, building up the suspense."

Dawn stifled a laugh behind her hand. Giles walked over to take a look at the book.

"What does it say?" Spike asked, crowding him.

The book was still in Xander's lap and, honestly, Giles couldn't read the text at this distance. It was one of the older books, printed in gothic script on a medium-quality press, and the letters blurred before his eyes. "When did you first notice the change?" he asked Spike, instead.

"Dunno." Spike backed off again, sticking his hands in his pockets with hunched shoulders. "Walking home last night, maybe? Had the worst craving for pizza, so I stopped at the Domino's on the way back to my crypt. Then the door to my crypt seemed a lot heavier than usual. Thought it was the fight, left me all fagged out."

"Here we go," Anya said. "The demon will recover from wounds near-instantaneously. Yeah, thanks, we noticed that last night. The blood of the demon has regenerative properties, which can transfer to other demon species upon the mixing of blood."

Xander looked up at Spike. "I think we've got our smoking gun."

"So it healed his deadness?" Dawn said. "Wow."

Anya frowned. "I got its goopy blood all over me and it didn't even heal the hickey Xander gave me yesterday."

Giles schooled his voice with an effort. "I would suppose, then, that the healing factor applies only to demons."

"But he's human," Willow said.

"He was a demon when the healing happened, though," Dawn said.

"Are we trying to make logical sense of magic?" Xander asked. "'Cause that doesn't always work."

Willow still looked as though she had faith in the powers of reason to explain magic. Certainly, she had much more cause to feel that way than Xander did, considering her own growing skill in that domain. "I wonder if it's still working?" she said. "I mean, if Spike gets hurt now, will it heal right up?"

Spike shrugged. "You got your pocketknife on you, Harris?"

Xander shifted in his chair to get access to his back pocket, and tossed the knife to Spike. Spike flipped it open and quickly cut a gash across the palm of his right hand. Dawn let out a quick yelp of dismay, and out of the corner of his eye Giles saw Tara moving to put an arm around her.

"Are you sure that was wise?" Giles said. He kept an eye on the knife. Spike seemed rather agitated by this whole turn of events, and Giles wasn't sure what he might do next.

"Answered the question." Spike held up his open hand, dripping blood. "Not healing up, is it? Hurts like a bitch." He turned his palm upwards to gaze at it himself for a moment with an abstracted look. Then he suddenly brought it to his mouth and darted out his tongue. He swallowed with a grimace of disgust. "Tastes like shite."

"Okay, ew," Xander said. "Spike? Humanity 101. We don't drink our own blood."

Giles cleared his throat. "Spike, you had better let me bandage that cut before you get blood all over my floor."

"I'll get the first aid kit," Dawn offered, springing out of her seat.

"Forget the sodding floor," Spike said. "What are we going to fucking do about this?"

There was a bit of awkward silence, and nobody quite met Spike's eye.

"Um, is there actually something we need to be doing?" Willow said finally. "I mean, you're ... healed."

Dawn came out of the training room carrying the first aid kit, while Spike squeezed his injured hand into a fist, glaring at it. "Funny, seems to me like I just lost my fucking superpowers."

Giles had been thinking along the same lines a few minutes ago, but that was not something he could admit out loud. "I know this is all very sudden, and must be terribly disorienting for you," he said, "but you must realize this is a ... a wonderful gift. One hundred and twenty-odd years ago you were murdered, and now here you are—breathing and whole."

Spike looked at Giles with eyes that seemed suddenly old and hollow. "Am I, though? Whole?"

The unanswered question of the state of Spike's soul flitted back into the room. No one spoke.

Spike nodded, as though his question had been answered. "There's a way to fix this," he said. And headed for the door.

"No!" Dawn shouted, darting in front of him to block the exit. "No ... no fucking way, Spike."

Spike stopped, visibly taken aback. "That's strong language, Niblet."

"You're going out there to get vamped, aren't you?"

Spike didn't answer. Giles knew she was right; he told himself that if Dawn had been a moment or two slower, he would have stopped Spike himself.

"It's not a good idea, Spike," Tara said softly from her place at the table. "What if the vampire you meet decides to kill you?"

"I'll take my chances," Spike said. "I know a thing or two about vampires."

"You're not doing this," Dawn said. Giles had the sense of storm clouds gathering in her voice.

Spike shifted his feet like he was thinking of just pushing past her, but he held his ground. "I was a vampire yesterday. There was nothing wrong with it then, was there?"

"Spike..." Dawn hesitated, like she was considering the consequences of what she was about to say. And then she went ahead and said it. "What would Buffy think? If she knew that you'd turned human somehow, and that you were about to go right back out and throw it away. What would she think about that?"

Giles felt sorry for Spike, a little, at that moment. If anyone else had said what Dawn just said, Giles was sure that Spike's response would have been angry and possibly violent. But not for Dawn.

Spike's shoulders slumped and his gaze went to the floor. Giles had a very uncomfortable feeling that the man might start to cry in a moment. "Spike, come and sit down," he said gently, largely to forestall that possibility. "Let me tend to your hand."

Xander yielded his chair to give Spike a place to sit, and Anya gave hers to Giles. Everyone watched with perhaps a bit of morbid fascination as Giles started cleaning the blood off Spike's hand.

"So ... what happens now?" Willow asked as Giles started fishing in the first aid kit for the antibiotic cream. "I mean, Spike, what are you going to do?"

Spike's only answer was a listless shrug.

"You'll need a place to live," Tara said. "You can't stay in the crypt."

"You'll need a job," Xander added.

Spike seemed to be drawing further into himself, staring blankly at his hand without responding to anyone's comments. It occurred to Giles that this might all be a bit much for him to cope with at once. "Never mind all that for now," he said. "He can stay at my flat tonight, and we'll worry about the rest later." Giles wasn't thrilled at the idea of having Spike for a houseguest, but there didn't seem to be a better option; while it was true that the Summers house had an unoccupied bedroom, the idea of Spike taking over Buffy's bed was really unthinkable.

By the time Giles had finished bandaging Spike's hand, the sun had completely set.

"Are we going to do patrol tonight?" Anya asked.

"Yes," Giles decided. That had been the plan, after all, and even with Spike's dramatically changed situation, the need was still there. Any night they skipped was a night for vampires to gain ground in the cemeteries of Sunnydale. "Though I suppose we had better adjust our strategies a little. We can think about it while we walk Dawn home."

"I have an idea," Dawn said. "How about you let me come on patrol? I mean, you need some extra help now, right?"

"Dream on, Dawnster," Xander said, mussing her hair affectionately.

They gathered together their weapons, and set off towards the Summers residence. By habit they walked in twos or threes, spread out enough to be a bit inconspicuous. Generally Spike would keep to the rear, the better to keep an eye on everyone, but today Dawn insisted on holding his hand and keeping him in the middle of the group. Giles wondered whether she was worried about him.

Certainly, Spike didn't seem to be taking his new humanity very well. Giles wondered if, indeed, he had somehow been left without a soul, and what the implications might be. Theoretically, it shouldn't even be possible ... but then, this scenario was not one that the theoreticians at the Watchers' Council had ever envisioned, so far as he knew.

Later, in the graveyard, Spike seemed more like his old self.

"Nothing like a good hunt to get the blood flowing," he remarked cheerfully as he checked behind the Anderson Crypt along with Anya and Giles. "If we don't find anything here, we should check Peaceful Acres. There was a funeral there yesterday."

"You should be careful tonight, Spike," Anya said. "You're not used to being human."

"I'll be fine," he said, sounding just a bit annoyed at the warning.

"I'm serious," she insisted. "Half an hour after I turned human, I burned my mouth on a slice of pizza. After a century or ten, you get used to being invulnerable. You get careless." As she spoke, with her attention on Spike, she rounded a corner. And then she screamed.

Giles ran forward, crossbow held at the ready. Anya was scrambling backwards away from the fledge she had, by all appearances, walked right into. Even as Giles aimed his crossbow, Spike rushed the vampire and punched it in the face, blocking Giles's shot. The vampire, a tall, slender ginger bloke in a well-cut burial suit, gave Spike a look of amusement as Spike aimed a second punch at its solar plexus. "That didn't hurt," the vampire said, sounding surprised, catching Spike's fist in his hand.

"Cheers for the morale boost, mate," Spike said through clenched teeth, dropping to his knees as the vampire twisted his wrist.

With the vampire and Spike both holding their places for the moment, Giles risked a shot. But his aim was bad—the quarrel embedded itself in the vampire's shoulder.

"All right, that hurt," the vampire said, turning its angry yellow eyes on Giles. Giles felt a rush of fear—the crossbow in his hands was useless now, and his stake was in his back pocket. He thought he might gain a second or two by throwing the crossbow at the vampire.

And then the vampire exploded into dust.

Anya stood revealed behind the swiftly-dispersing cloud, smiling widely, holding a stake. Spike hunched over with a gasp and grabbed his wrist with his other hand. Giles lowered his crossbow and breathed deeply.

Anya bounced a little. "Did you see that? I got it! It didn't even see me coming!"

"Good work," Giles said, wiping his forehead with his shirtsleeve.

"You see, Spike, you don't need superpowers to dust a vamp!" she said, tucking the stake back into her pocket. "It just takes coordination, practice, and a thorough understanding of your physical limits!"

"Thank you, Anya," Giles said, hoping that she would pick up on the implicit please stop talking now. Spike was looking absolutely shattered, and Giles doubted that Anya's pep talk was helping.

"It might take you longer than it took the rest of us, since you have to unlearn so many vampire habits," Anya continued helpfully, oblivious. "For instance: it's not a good idea to start the fight by punching the vampire. You're not strong enough to hurt it, and it puts you in a vulnerable position."

"Spike, is your hand all right?" Giles asked, in hopes of changing the subject before Anya managed to bruise Spike's ego any further.

Spike wiggled his fingers; the hand that the vampire had grabbed was the same one he had cut earlier. "Nothing broken," he said. Giles noticed, however, that blood had now soaked through to the surface of the bandage.

They were interrupted at that point by Xander's frantic arrival. He came to a stop, panting, as his gaze took in first Anya, then Spike and Giles. "Is everyone alright? I thought I heard a scream."

"That was me," Anya said. "But I staked the vampire!"

Willow and Tara came running up as well, coming to a stop as it became clear that there was no crisis in progress. "This graveyard ... is big," Tara gasped, leaning against Willow.

Looking over the group, Giles made a decision. "I think we should call it a night. We've eliminated one vampire, at least..."

"Three," Willow corrected him. "We got two on the other side of the cemetery."

"Two?" Spike repeated.

"They were, um, distracted," Tara said, blushing.

Giles decided not to ask for further elaboration. "Yes. Well. It has been an eventful night, to say the least. So let's all head home, and we'll meet at the Magic Box at the usual time tomorrow."

"Cheers," Spike said, accepting the glass Giles handed him and downing it quickly.

Giles raised an eyebrow, and poured two fingers for himself. "You have a human metabolism now," he reminded Spike by way of caution.

Spike nodded, the motion already a little exaggerated. "Counting on it, mate."

Giles shrugged to himself, and refilled Spike's glass. He was the one who'd suggested the Scotch, after all—albeit mostly as a way to guarantee that Spike would actually come home with him. After the fiasco in the graveyard, Spike had shown every sign of wanting to slink off by himself and drown his sorrows at Willy's or some other such unsuitable place. Letting him do so in the safety of Giles' flat seemed the better option; even as a human, Spike represented one-sixth of the group's fighting strength, and they'd certainly be worse off if he managed to get himself badly injured or killed.

Spike took his second glass and wandered over to turn on the television, which Giles found rather a relief as it eliminated the need for conversation.

In all honesty, Giles felt quite awkward around Spike tonight. By everything Giles had learned as a Watcher, this transformation—this, this miracle—should be cause for celebration. A man murdered in 1880 now lived again. A demon was vanquished.

And yet Giles found that his feelings about the change were rather ambivalent, not least because Spike himself seemed so appalled by it. Spike clearly was experiencing the change as a loss—a loss of strength, power, and perhaps even self-identity.

They were all of them far too acquainted with loss of late.

Giles drained his own glass, set it down on the counter by the sink, and headed off to bed without a word to Spike; any sort of communication seemed superfluous at this point. The blue flicker of the television followed Giles up the stairs, and canned laughter was the last thing he heard before he shut his bedroom door.

When Giles came downstairs in the morning, Spike was gone.

The spare blanket was crumpled on the sofa, and the pillow had ended up on the floor. There was no sign of a note or explanation, but last night's whiskey bottle had disappeared.

Later in the day, having left Anya in charge of the Magic Box for an hour, Giles went to Spike's crypt. He found him there, watching television with an open bottle of Jack Daniels in his lap.

"You can't live here," Giles said, standing in the doorway. "You're human now."

Spike shrugged. "'S got a roof. Walls. A telly. Privacy." He turned around to glare in Giles's general direction. "Did have privacy."

"You're drunk," Giles observed.

Spike rolled his eyes. "You're like Nancy Drew. Nothin' gets by you." He took a drink from the bottle he was holding.

Giles didn't have the patience for this. "When you're ready to pull yourself together," he said, "You know where to find me."

He hoped that Spike would pull himself together—but Giles wasn't prepared to invest a lot of energy in the project. So he walked away from the crypt, already putting Spike out of his thoughts.

Chapter Text

Spike reappeared at the Magic Box the fourth night after his change.

He came by way of the sewer entrance, though certainly there was no need; even as a vampire he could have come in by the front door, seeing as sunset was half an hour gone. He was disheveled and flushed, and he walked a bit unsteadily until he flopped into one of the wooden chairs. "Where's everybody?" he demanded.

Giles marked his place in the inventory book before he answered Spike's question, "I gave them the night off." In fact the whole group had been showing wear, as they were having difficulty adjusting to the new demands of patrolling without Spike's help. Giles had feared that their risk of serious injury was increasing, and had decided that a good night's rest was the best available remedy. "Spike, are you drunk?"

"No," Spike said, rather irritably. "Fucking ran out of liquor this afternoon." He stood up again and went to the bookshelves, started pulling down volumes apparently at random. "There must be something in here, Watcher. Research with me, come on." His claim to non-intoxication was looking a bit thin, in Giles' opinion. He certainly wasn't behaving like a sober man.

"Research what?" Giles asked, as patiently as he could manage.

Spike looked at him as though it were not just a stupid question, but an offensive one. "What's wrong with me." He dropped two books onto the table, flipped one open, slammed it shut again without possibly taking the time to read more than a word or two, and then went back to the shelf. He was doing it all awkwardly, one-handed, which Giles supposed meant his injured hand was still bothering him.

"I imagine this all is rather difficult for you," Giles said to Spike's back, "But honestly, Spike, there's nothing wrong with you. You need to pass through a period of ... of adjustment, I suppose, is all."

"Adjustment," Spike repeated, investing the word with a rather large portion of incredulity and bitterness. "What do you know about it, Watcher?"

As far as that went, there was an answer and Spike knew it, and Giles was not going to say it.

At any rate, Spike shared that loss too, to some degree. And he would not make light of it; in his odd vampire way, he'd probably understood the bond between Slayer and Watcher better than anyone else in their group had.

Perhaps Spike thought of this as well, after he spoke. In any case, he looked away from Giles. He turned back to the bookshelf but then fumbled, somehow, dropping the book he was holding. He knelt to pick it up and was overtaken by a violent sneeze, which actually knocked him off balance to the point that he sprawled onto the floor with a groan.

Giles revised his earlier opinion of the reason for Spike's odd behavior. "Spike ... are you ill?" It made a lot of sense that he would be, once Giles gave it a few moments of thought. The blood of the demon had presumably restored him to perfect human health, but that would still leave him with the immune system of a 19th-century Londoner—not particularly useful after a century's worth of viral DNA mutations.

"Dunno," Spike said. "What's that feel like?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "You were human before, once upon a time. Surely you remember."

Spike shrugged and pulled himself to his feet, leaning rather heavily now on the edge of the table. "It's been a while."

Giles still found it difficult to believe that Spike couldn't tell, himself, whether he was ill—but three years as a high school librarian had helped him build up a tolerance to stupid questions. "All right. Have you been sneezing a lot?"

Spike shook his head, sniffling a little. "That was the first time. Fucking weird experience, too."

"Does your throat hurt?"

Spike frowned. "Dunno. Maybe. When I swallow, like."

"You probably have a cold, then." Giles did feel a bit sorry for Spike, thinking about it—certainly getting ill for the first time in over a century must be an unnerving experience. "Do you feel a fever or chills?"

"Dunno," Spike said again, though he seemed to shiver a little at the suggestion. "I'm not exactly used to having a body temperature, am I? Dunno what the hell it's supposed to feel like."

Giles sighed. "Let me feel your forehead."

Spike raised an eyebrow, but didn't object. Up close, his pale, flushed skin and fever-bright eyes were a bit alarming. A hand laid across his forehead left no doubt; in fact, Spike was considerably warmer than Giles had anticipated.

"Good lord," Giles murmured, feeling a rather unexpected surge of concern, "You're burning up."

Spike shivered again. "Thought humans were supposed to be less flammable than vampires."

Giles was perplexed for a moment, until he realized Spike had been making a joke. He granted him a tight smile. "Indeed. But you shouldn't have such a high fever, not if all you have is a head cold. Spike, try to cooperate here. Are you feeling any other symptoms?"

Spike shrugged unsteadily. "Feel like shite, is all, but I figured that was from the drink. And my hand hurts."

"Your hand," Giles repeated. "Show me."

Spike held out his bandaged hand. It was the same bandage that Giles had applied himself four nights ago, now rather worse for the wear.

"Perhaps you'd better sit down," Giles said, pulling out a chair. The last thing he needed was Spike fainting on him. Once Spike was settled, Giles carefully undid the bandage.

It was as Giles had feared; the area around the cut was inflamed, and there was puss leaking out. "You've let it get infected," he informed Spike brusquely, letting his irritation show more than his worry. "That was bloody stupid."

Spike looked down at his hand as though it were a foreign thing. "Are you going to cut it off?"

"That probably won't be necessary, but you certainly do need to get to the hospital," Giles said. "This could kill you, you know."

"I can't feel my feet," Spike said, which sounded like a non-sequitur, but was more or less explained when he slumped sideways a moment later, unconscious.

Giles was flipping through a six-month old issue of Time Magazine in the Sunnydale Hospital's second-floor waiting room when he heard a clamor of familiar voices. He looked up to see Xander, Anya, Willow, Tara and Dawn all coming down the corridor.

"Giles!" Dawn exclaimed, catching sight of him and breaking ahead of the group. "What's going on? How's Spike?"

Giles stood up to greet them, feeling a bit perplexed. "What are you all doing here?"

"You called us," Willow pointed out.

"Well, yes, but only to let you know where I was in case of emergency."

Dawn gave him withering look. "This is an emergency."

"At least, that's what it said over the door we came in by," Xander added, earning his own share of Dawn's glare.

"This isn't a joke," she said angrily. "He's in the ICU, right? That means he's really sick."

Xander caught her in a hug. "Sorry," he said. "Just trying to keep things light."

"I only meant that there's nothing any of you can do, here," Giles said gently, feeling rather chastened. He should have realized that Dawn would be upset, considering her friendship with Spike and the bereavements she had already suffered in the past few months.

"Of course we're here," Xander said matter-of-factly. "This is what we do."

Giles nodded, understanding finally. "Quite. Of course." He cleared his throat. "Spike has blood poisoning. It can be treated with antibiotics, but it's quite serious. The next few hours are crucial; if he responds to the treatment, he should be completely out of the woods by morning."

"If he doesn't..." Dawn swallowed hard, and Xander squeezed her hand. "If he doesn't, um, respond. Is he going to die?"

Giles had never believed in the wisdom of lying to children. "It's possible, yes."

"How did it happen?" Dawn lowered her voice. "I mean, is this something to do with the demon blood getting into his and turning him human?"

"Only in that being human left him vulnerable to infection," Giles said. "It was the cut on his hand—he didn't take care of it properly."

Dawn looked quite upset at the explanation. "Why didn't he come to us for help when he started getting sick?"

"The symptoms hit him quite suddenly, I think—but in fact I believe he did come to the Magic Box tonight because he was feeling unwell." It was rather troubling to realize that had Spike not come to the shop when he did, he almost certainly would have died—drifting in and out of consciousness alone in his crypt, too weak to seek help.

"We should have checked on him," Tara said quietly. She was holding a medium-sized duffel bag, Giles noticed. "We knew he wasn't all right."

"Sometimes you just gotta give a guy his space," Xander pointed out. "We didn't know this was going to happen."

When it became clear to everyone that Giles didn't have any more information about Spike's condition, they settled down to wait.

They had come well-prepared for a long vigil. Xander had a pile of comic books, and Anya had a romance novel. Tara had a book from the Magic Box to read, and Willow produced a middle-school French textbook.

Dawn gave her an incredulous look. "You want me to study now?"

"You have that test tomorrow," Willow reminded her. "Besides," she added gently, "This'll help keep your mind off things."

Giles shook his head in mild amazement. "You all brought books."

Tara gave him an apologetic look. "We didn't think to bring you anything, sorry. Here," she reached into the duffel bag, "Would you like a sandwich? Juice box?"

At one in the morning, Anya and Giles were the only ones still awake. Dawn was wrapped up in a blanket that Tara had brought, her head pillowed on Willow's lap. Tara and Willow leaned against each other, breathing gently, while Xander slept with his head tilted back against the wall.

Anya closed her book, having reached the end. "That was unsatisfying," she said.

Giles raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"There wasn't enough sex, and it was full of ridiculous euphemisms. Listen to this." She flipped back to a page that she had, Giles noticed with mild alarm, dog-eared. "He gazed upon the entrance to her secret citadel. Are they talking about a vagina, or about that place where we interrupted the M'mgilsh demons in the middle of their baby-eating ritual?"

Giles was not quite sure how to respond, and therefore he was quite grateful just then to see a doctor come out of the ICU and head in their direction. "Excuse me," the doctor said, glancing down at her chart. "Rupert Giles?"

"Yes." Giles stood up quickly. "I am Rupert Giles."

"I just wanted to let you know that William's condition has been upgraded to stable. His fever has gone down, his blood pressure is staying up, and he's responding well to the antibiotics. We'll be stepping him down from intensive care in the morning."

"All right. Thank you." Giles was a bit surprised to realize how relieved he felt. "Do you have any idea how long he will need to be hospitalized?"

"I'd estimate that he could be discharged in another three or four days, if he has a place to go where he can be cared for." She looked at the chart again, frowning. "Does he live alone? He was suffering from dehydration when he was admitted, and he told the admitting doctor that he hadn't eaten in several days."

"He was alone, yes. But he'll be staying with me when he leaves the hospital." It wasn't an ideal solution, but it was the only one at hand.

After the doctor left, Anya gave Giles a worried look. "Medical care is expensive here," she pointed out.

"It is." Giles was trying not to do the sums in his head. "Don't worry; I have the means to cover it."

"You won't expect me to take a pay cut, will you?"

"No." Giles hesitated, but decided not to chide her self-interest. Her worry was a legitimate one, after all. "In fact, I might be asking you to work more hours than usual, as I imagine I'll be detained at home for a few days."

"Extra hours with pay?"


Anya smiled. "You can count on me!"

His second day in hospital, Spike was allowed visitors, but only two at a time. Giles and Willow went in first, because Tara and Dawn needed time, apparently, to "rehearse."

Spike was in a double-occupancy room, but the other bed was empty for the moment. Propped up in bed at about a 30 degree angle, he was watching the television with a glazed expression.

"Hi Spike!" Willow greeted him.

Spike blinked as though he hadn't noticed he had company until Willow spoke. "Hello, Red. Rupert." His voice was hoarse, and rather weak. Muting the television, he cast a perplexed look upwards at the shiny silver balloon Willow held by its ribbon. "What's that?"

"It's a Get Well balloon." Willow pulled the balloon down so she could grab it by its body and turn it to show Spike the bright, eponymous writing on the side that had been turned away from him. "They're traditional. Hey, look, you can see yourself in it!"

Spike squinted up at the fun-house version of himself in the side of the balloon. "That's bloody creepy, innit?"

"You'll get used to casting a reflection," Giles assured him. "And you'll find that most mirrors give better likenesses than the, er, balloon does."

All things considered, it was probably for the best that Spike couldn't see himself in a proper mirror at the moment. His hair, which Giles knew he had always been quite vain about, was tousled and clumpy, with darks roots already starting to show. His face was sallow, with dark circles under his eyes and pale, cracked lips. And of course the flimsy blue hospital gown wasn't exactly in line with Spike's usual fashion choices.

"Just so you know," Willow said, "Dawn and Tara are coming in next, and they have, um, a song for you. I thought you might appreciate a warning."

"A song." Spike looked about as dumbfounded as Giles imagined he would be himself under the circumstances. "Is everyone here, then?"

"Anya and Xander stayed behind to mind the shop," Giles said.

"But they signed the card!" Willow added, pulling the homemade card from her shoulder bag and handing it to Spike. He took it with his good hand and opened it up, dropping a glittering cascade of purple sparkles onto his blankets in the process. Willow winced. "Sorry about the glitter. I guess we should've used more glue."

"That's all right," Spike said, still giving the impression that he didn't quite know what had hit him. "It's ... very nice."

"Xander gave me a comic to give you, too," Willow said, reaching into her bag again.

Spike raised an eyebrow. "I'm not much into men in spandex."

Willow handed over the book, which was thicker than an ordinary comic. "He said to tell you it's not a superhero comic, and it's really violent and gross, and he thinks you'd like it."

"I also brought you a set of pajamas," Giles said. "I thought you might appreciate a change from the hospital gowns."

Spike looked a little worried, accepting the plastic bag from Giles. "I've seen what you lot wear for sleeping," he said. "They don't have fuzzy yellow ducklings or such-like on them, do they?"

"I kept your tastes in mind," Giles promised. He'd bought the set new from Target; it was plain black cotton.

Spike put down the pajamas on his lap with the card and the comic book, just in time to stifle a sneeze against the back of his hand.

"Bless you," Willow said. "Do you have a cold?"

Spike grabbed a tissue from the box by his bed. "On top of everything else, yeah. I've really bollocksed-up this being-human business."

"Well," Willow said, obviously searching for something encouraging to say, "I'm sure you'll get better with practice!"

Spike gave her a weary look. "So I've been told."

Giles cleared his throat. "I've also come with a more serious purpose—I have some papers that I hope you'll be willing to sign, to give me medical power of attorney."

Spike looked skeptical. "Wouldn't that give you the power of life and death over me? Not sure I trust you that much, Rupert."

"It would simplify matters with the hospital, that's all—particularly since I'm paying your medical bills." Giles gave him a tight smile. "I do promise not to pull the plug."

Spike gave in with a listless shrug. Willow went immediately to fetch the notary who kept an office on the ground floor of the hospital. Giles took the opportunity to tidy up the room; he moved the gifts to Spike's bedside table, and tried to brush the worst of the sparkles away. Spike quietly watched him work.

By the time the paperwork was done and the notary was out of the way, Giles sensed that Spike's energy was flagging badly; he was still quite ill, after all. "We had best give Dawn and Tara their turn with you now," he said. "Spike, before we leave—is there anything you need?"

Spike looked at him, blank again. Like he couldn't quite process the question.

"Right, then. Rest, and, er, get well soon."

Tara and Dawn were waiting outside the room. Dawn was holding a set of pompoms, and Tara was wearing a headband with two sparkly stars standing out on wobbling springs. "Is he ready for us?" Dawn asked Giles.

Giles adjusted his glasses. "I can't imagine that he ever would be."

"Ignore him, Dawnie," Willow said, shooting Giles a quick glare. "Spike's going to love it."

When the door to Spike's room shut behind Dawn and Tara, Giles turned away to avoid watching the spectacle through the window. "Spike's going to love it?" he repeated mildly.

Willow was gazing back through the window like Lot's wife on the road out of Sodom. Finally she shook herself and turned away. "Well, when he looks back on this, he'll probably think it was a hallucination. Want some coffee?"

Giles eyed the vending machine Willow was indicating. "No thank you. I prefer my coffee to originate from coffee beans."

Willow shrugged and served herself. Once she had the little Styrofoam cup in hand, she said to Giles, "I've been wanting to talk to you about something."


She seemed a little nervous suddenly, and a little excited. "I think I have a solution for the problem we've been having since, well, since we lost Spike."

"Yes?" Giles said, cautiously.

Willow lowered her voice. "I'm pretty sure I can repair the Buff—um, the Bot."

Giles felt a sudden need to clean his glasses. "Oh. That is ... an interesting idea."

"She had slaying built into her original programming," Willow went on, clearly eager to sell the idea. "It wouldn't take much work to get her to patrol with us. She's stronger than a vampire, you know, and, well, we could really use that." She gave Giles an anxious glance, looking for his reaction. "I'd change the way she looks, of course. The hair will be easy, and I think I can alter the facial structure..."

"No," Giles interrupted her.

Willow looked a bit desperate at that. "I know it's creepy, but we really, really need the help."

"No, I meant—it's a brilliant idea. But I don't think we should alter her appearance."

"Oh." Willow frowned at him over her coffee, like she was wondering if he'd lost his mind. "Back to what I was saying about the creepy?"

Giles drew her over into the corner by the vending machine, so that he could be absolutely certain no one was listening in. "The story we've put around about Buffy being away on holiday won't hold up forever," he pointed out softly. "Once the demon population realizes that Sunnydale is no longer protected by a Slayer, I fear that we will become a most appealing target."

"You think we can make them all believe the Bot is her?"

Giles cleared his throat. "It did, as I recall, manage to fool you."

Spots of color rose in Willow's cheeks. "Right. Okay then. We have a plan."

Chapter Text

Sometimes, when he had trouble sleeping, Giles would conjugate verbs in his head.

French tonight. The subjunctive case. Mourir: to die. Il faut que je meure, que tu meures, qu'il meure. It is needful, necessary, that I die. That you die, that he dies.

Every Watcher knows that his Slayer will die. Buffy had lasted longer than most.

Il faut qu'elle meure. It is necessary that she die.

Death was her gift, she had said. A puzzle, solved at the last possible moment.

Il faut que nous mourions, que vous mouriez, qu'ils meurent. It is necessary that we die, that you (plural) die, that they all die.

Spike had been murdered in 1880, and yet he lived. He had achieved, in a sense, the ancient dream of the alchemists—a youth impossibly extended. Giles wondered whether Spike now felt the weight of all those years. Perhaps that was why he had come so close to letting himself die.

He was asleep downstairs on the sofa now, having been finally discharged after four days in hospital. He was still weak as a kitten, mildly feverish, and suffering the effects of a terrible head cold besides. He'd need another week of bed rest, most likely. Giles was feeling uneasy about taking over as his caretaker. It was not a role in which he had much experience.

Any further thought was interrupted by a tremendous crash from downstairs. Giles sat up in bed, instantly wide awake thanks to the adrenaline. He grabbed his glasses from the nightstand and a sword from under the mattress, and ran down the steps three at a time not knowing what to expect. The crash had come from the living room—but had Spike done something, or had something attacked Spike?

He hit the light switch, his sword at the ready. Spike wasn't on the sofa. The blankets were lying in a tangled mess on the floor. A wooden chair was lying in pieces, which explained the crash. And there was Spike, huddled against the far wall. Once Giles got closer he could see what he was doing: he had one of the chair legs, and he was trying to stake himself with it.

"Spike!" Giles said sharply, putting down the sword. "Stop that!" His hands twitched to grab the improvised stake, but he remembered the danger in time—if Spike were to fight him, the chip might go off.

Spike paused, fingers white on the chair leg, and blinked up at Giles. Tears were running freely down his cheeks. "Watcher?" His voice was hoarse, barely audible.

"Yes, it's me." Giles reached forward slowly, cautiously, and found that he was able to get a hand on the chair leg, but Spike didn't let go of it. "You don't need this," he said, pitching his voice as though he were talking to a child.

Spike shuddered, releasing his grip on the chair leg. "Then, it ... it was only a dream."

Giles moved the broken leg out of arm's reach, keeping an eye on Spike. "Yes, I imagine it was."

Spike closed his eyes. "I hurt them."

"It was only a dream." Giles wondered whether his assurances were false—perhaps Spike was remembering real victims? No matter. For the time being, the important thing was to get him back into bed—or rather, onto the sofa. He was shivering.

Giles helped him up, holding him under the shoulders, and guided him to the sofa. Spike sank heavily back against the cushions, still trembling. He seemed to be looking past Giles, rather than at him—Giles guessed that he was still preoccupied with the memory of his nightmare. Giles tucked the blanket around Spike's legs and then went to unbutton his pajama top.

"What're you doing?" Spike asked, bringing his focus finally to Giles.

"Checking to see if you've injured yourself." Giles drew apart the halves of the pajama shirt, revealing the place on Spike's chest where the chair leg had made its impact. The skin was reddened, but unbroken. At worst, he'd have a bruise. Giles closed up the shirt and began fastening the buttons.

"I forgot I was human," Spike said very quietly. "Got a bit confused."

"I assumed as much." Having finished with the buttons, Giles pulled the blanket up to cover Spike's chest, and then felt his forehead. He didn't seem overly warm, but Giles decided he had better take his temperature anyway; the doctor had warned him that afternoon that if Spike's fever rose again he would have to be readmitted.

The thermometer was close at hand, and Spike accepted it with a roll of his eyes. "When did you turn into such a bloody mother hen?"

"When I started paying your medical bills, I suppose," Giles said dryly, glancing at his wrist to check the time and then realizing he wasn't wearing his watch. Of course not; it was upstairs, on his bedside table. But there was a clock on the wall.

The thermometer was an old-style glass one, which required three minutes for a proper reading. Giles went and fetched a chair from the dining area—a replacement for the broken one—so that he could sit and wait more comfortably.

Spike was fidgeting. "Long enough?" he asked around the glass tube as Giles sat down.

Giles glanced back at the clock. "Not by half. Keep it under your tongue and don't talk."

Spike acquiesced, closing his eyes. Giles wondered whether he was falling back to sleep. It wouldn't be a bad thing; he certainly needed the rest.

However, Spike opened his eyes when Giles finally took the thermometer away from him. "Is it all right?" he asked. He sounded a little bit afraid.

"Yes, it's fine," Giles assured him. The red line was just barely over ninety-nine degrees. "You should go back to sleep."

Spike stared blankly at Giles for a moment, and Giles thought he could still see fear behind his eyes. It began to worry Giles, a little, and he was about to ask Spike what was wrong—not that he particularly expected a useful response—but Spike broke the silence first. "Can I have a drink of water?" he asked.

"Yes, of course." Giles still wanted to know what was troubling Spike, but at least this request was easily dealt with. In fact, he realized, he should have made a glass of water available to Spike in the first place—it wasn't as though he could walk to the sink and get one for himself.

Giles wasn't very good at this. At taking care of someone. He lacked practice.

He filled a glass at the kitchen sink, and then retrieved a drinking straw from the back of the cutlery drawer. It was funny, really—the reason Giles had bought the straws in the first place was for feeding blood to Spike while he was chained up in the bathtub.

Spike's eyes were closed when Giles returned with the water, and once again Giles wondered whether he'd fallen asleep. But then he coughed, weakly, and tugged the blanket a bit tighter.

"Spike," Giles said, keeping his voice soft, "I brought you the water."

Spike opened his eyes. "Right, give it here." He reached for the glass, but his hand was shaking.

"Let me help," Giles said. Spike didn't look like he had even the strength to sit up at the moment, and if he spilled the water, it would be a whole new set of complications. Giles tucked an arm behind Spike's shoulders and lifted him up, and held the glass so the straw touched his lips.

Spike didn't object to Giles' handling. He took a few sips of water and then stopped to cough again, which made Giles hold on tighter.

"Are you all right?" Giles asked.

"Yeah." Spike rested his head against Giles's shoulder for a moment, then went for another drink.

Spike was warm and heavy in Giles's arms, and smelled faintly of sweat and antibiotic cream. Giles could hear him breathing—sniffling—and he could hear him swallowing.

A sense of familiarity tickled the back of Giles's mind—he remembered doing this sort of thing before. Ethan. Christ, it came back to him all in a rush—nursing Ethan through his hangovers, holding him just like this while he sipped at weak tea and cursed the world.

Spike leaned back away from the straw, oblivious to the storm of memory now assaulting Giles. "That's enough," he said.

Giles pushed the memories away, deliberately, efficiently. He'd had enough practice, over the years. "I'll leave the glass on the chair," he said, lowering Spike back down as gently as he could. "You should be able to reach it all right if you want it."

"Don't," Spike said. One word, sharp and out of place—almost panicky.

Giles stopped just short of placing the water glass on the seat of the chair. "All right," he said, a bit confused. "If you'd rather I didn't..."

"Don't leave." He looked at Giles with naked pleading. His eyes were brimming with tears.

Giles felt a moment of embarrassment, seeing the tears—and then he remembered that twenty minutes ago, Spike had been out of his mind and trying to kill himself.

"I'm sorry," Giles said. "I didn't think." He placed the water glass on the floor and sat down on the chair himself, drawing it as close as possible to the sofa. "Of course I'll stay." And then, because Spike's eyes were still locked on him in barely-controlled panic, he reached out and took Spike's hand. Squeezed it. "I won't leave you alone."

Morning light streamed through the east-facing windows, falling on the back of Spike's neck and making his tousled hair fairly glow. It still gave Giles an odd feeling, seeing Spike in sunlight.

He finished tucking the second pillow behind Spike's back, propping him up in preparation for breakfast. "Are you comfortable?" he asked.

Spike shrugged. "I'd give the service two stars. Maybe two and a half. Tell the maid there's some cobwebs on the ceiling."

Satisfied that Spike wasn't going to topple over, Giles went to fetch the breakfast tray he'd prepared in the kitchen. Its legs unfolded over Spike's lap to provide a stable surface for a bowl of Weetabix, a plate of peach slices, and two teacups. "Do you take milk and sugar?" he asked.

Spike gave the cups a quizzical look. "Dunno. Everything tastes different now."

"Milk and sugar, then." Giles poured the milk in first, and went back to the kitchen for the teapot.

Spike was already starting on the Weetabix when Giles returned. The spoon shook a bit on the way to his mouth, but he did seem perfectly capable of feeding himself, which was a relief.

With the tea served out and sugar cubes stirred in, Giles reclaimed his chair by the sofa and took his teacup in hand.

"Aren't you eating, then?" Spike asked him, raising an eyebrow.

"Later," Giles said. "I'll just have the tea, for now."

The tea was essential. The night had been difficult.

Spike's sleep had been wracked with nightmares. Giles's sleep had been non-existent. His back ached from the night in the chair, and his eyes felt gritty. He was too old for this.

And yet, he felt a certain lightness now, watching Spike carefully and with great attention eat a peach slice. They had made it through to morning. It was a start.

Spike, huddled on the sofa and well wrapped in blankets, glared across the room at the equally blanket-wrapped form that Xander had just balanced, awkwardly, against the wall. "This is fucking obscene," he said.

"Says the guy who commissioned the thing in the first place," Xander observed.

Which was true, of course, and Giles supposed that the intensity of Spike's reaction was largely due to that fact. Facing the Buffybot now, under these circumstances, must be even more uncomfortable for Spike than for the rest of them. But he would just have to endure the experience; he knew more about the Bot's original programming than any of them, and Willow might need his help.

"I know it's weird," Willow said, tugging the blankets down to reveal the Bot's vacant powered-off smile. "But I think she can solve a lot of our problems. Xander, help me get her over to the table so I can connect her to my laptop."

The plank-like stiffness of the Bot was comforting, in a way—a persistent reminder that she was a thing, and not in any way to be confused with the person whose face she shared. Xander and Willow carried her between them, and propped her up against the dining table where Willow had already set up her computer. Spike watched them over the back of the sofa, scowling. Tara had taken a seat at the table. It was only the five of them here for this trial; Anya was minding the shop, and Dawn was at school.

Willow pulled up the Bot's shirt and opened a panel in her back. She plugged a wire in somewhere, connecting the Bot to her computer. The Bot stared straight ahead all the while, glassy-eyed.

And suddenly she blinked. Tara let out a little gasp, and Giles nearly jumped himself, though he didn't think he gave any outward sign.

"I'm not giving her any motor control below the neck for now," Willow said, tapping away at her keyboard. "I'll open up the speech subroutines in just a second...."

The Bot looked at Willow and gave her a bright smile. "You're Willow! You're my best friend!"

The voice was Buffy's, but with a level of chirpiness that Buffy herself would have affected only in jest. Tara and Xander both looked a little pained, but Willow was so busy with her laptop she hardly seemed to notice the Bot's greeting.

"You know, these are some amazing electronics," she said absently as she clicked on something or other, and the Bot went silent and still again. "I wonder if there's something about the Hellmouth that makes people better at engineering?" She clicked something else, and the Bot turned her head.

"Spike!" said the Bot. "Are you in bed? Would you like to play a game?"

Spike shuddered. "Bloody hell Red, shut that fucking thing up."

Willow was clicking through menus just a little bit frantically. "I tried to remove all the, um, special programs. But I couldn't get everything—it's how she's programmed to react to you."

Xander shot a disgusted look in Spike's direction. "Nice toy, Spike."

Spots of color had risen in Willow's cheeks. "If he hadn't made Warren build her, we wouldn't have her now," she pointed out, tapping once, twice more at the keyboard without looking in Xander's direction. "Okay, there. That should work better."

The Bot blinked and then turned to look at Xander. "Xander! You're my best friend-who's-a-boy, and you're good with tools. But you're a bit dense."

"Hey!" Xander looked affronted.

"That part can stay in," Spike said, not quite smirking.

"Tara!" the Bot continued her perky roll call. "You're Willow's girlfriend and you're very quiet."

Tara looked slightly amused. "I guess I am," she said, with a sidelong glance at Spike.

"Giles, could you just move over a bit so she can see you?" Willow asked. "I need to make sure we're all registering."

Giles did as she asked, but with a sense of trepidation. He wasn't terribly eager to know what Spike had wanted the Buffybot to think about him.

"Giles!" the Bot greeted him with all of her plastic enthusiasm. "You're my Watcher! I'd like to hug you, but I can't move my arms!"

Giles felt the need, suddenly, to clean his glasses. "It seems she recognizes all of us," he said a bit stiffly. "Perhaps you should proceed to the next step."

"Right." Willow bent her head to her work and went into a flurry of typing, at the end of which the Bot closed her eyes and almost seemed to hold her breath. Then Willow unplugged the laptop cord and looked around at everyone who was watching. "When I wake her up again she'll have her full range of movement," she said. "And she'll want to talk to us. We should talk to her as though she's, well, a person, okay? She'll want instructions from us, and reassurance. She should understand that she's a robot, and that there used to be another Buffy, but she believes that she's Buffy, too."

There was a palpable tension in the room as Willow fiddled directly with the Bot's wiring, and then closed the access panel and smoothed the robot's camisole down over her belly.

This time, when the Bot opened her eyes, her whole body moved. She straightened up from her awkward lean against the table, and looked around the room—lively, vibrant.

A Watcher is meticulously schooled against illusion. But for just a moment, Giles felt his throat tighten painfully. Even knowing the truth, the likeness was ... unnerving.

"Bloody hell," he heard Spike murmur from his place on the sofa. Glancing in that direction, he saw that Spike had hunched over, hiding his face in his hands.

Tara stood up and held out a hand towards the Bot. "H-hi, Buffy. How are you feeling?"

"I'm feeling very well!" the Bot replied, flashing Tara a bright smile. "Thank you for asking."

Willow shot her girlfriend a grateful look, then touched the Bot's arm. "Buffy, I need you to run a full systems check now."

The Bot's gaze seemed to go inward, and she stood up very very straight. "Checking systems," she said, still pleasantly but with a bit more of a mechanical twang. Then, only a few seconds later, "I'm in perfect working order!"

"You can thank Willow for that," Xander said. He sounded as though he might have something caught in his throat. "Do you remember getting mangled by hobbits with leprosy?"

"I don't understand that question," the Bot said, her smile unwavering. "But I remember being disabled in a battle. There were many short demons with bad skin and very unattractive clothes. Oh!" She looked suddenly worried. "We were rescuing Spike. Did we rescue Spike?"

"Didn't she just notice him a minute ago?" Xander asked. "Is her memory all wonky?"

Willow didn't look concerned. "She was in diagnostic mode then. Her memory circuits weren't engaged, that's all."

"Yes, I have recently been run in diagnostic mode," the Bot confirmed in her usual cheery tone. "Where is Spike?"

Nobody said anything, but they all looked over at the sofa, and the Bot was apparently sophisticated enough to interpret non-verbal cues. Which must, indeed, have been important for her original purpose—Good Lord, don't think about that.

"Spike!" she exclaimed happily.

Spike sat up again, but looked at Willow rather than the Bot. "Can't you just write me out of its programming?"

"Spike?" the Bot repeated, less certain this time. "Are you hurt?"

"Yes," Tara said, "He's been hurt. But don't worry, he's getting better now." She looked to Willow. "Can we explain it to her?"

"I'm not a vampire," Spike said quite abruptly, looking straight at the Bot for the first time. "All right? I'm not the bloke you remember, so you might as well clear him right out of your pretty plastic head."

She frowned. "No, you're Spike. I'm sure. The pattern match is 99.7%" Then her expression cleared. "Oh! Is this a game? I will pretend not to know you're a vampire, and I will let you get close to me."

"Kill me now," Xander muttered to no one in particular.

Spike looked as though he was thinking along the same lines as Xander. "It's not a game," he said, and it was hard to say whether his voice was shaking from anger or shame or sheer weariness. He had been sitting up for rather a long time, much longer than he probably should have attempted. "I'm human now."

The Bot looked puzzled. "But a vampire can't turn human."

"Normally no, but in this case he did," Giles said. He turned to Willow. "She seems to be functioning as well as can be expected, socially. Perhaps you should take her to the Magic Box and put her through her paces in the training room."

"Right," Willow nodded. "Yes. Let's do that."

Tara looked at Giles. "Are you going to come with us?"

Giles hesitated. Certainly he was the one best able to test the Bot physically, but he wasn't sure how much longer he could stand to be in the same room as her. And then there was Spike—his exhaustion was evident, and he was still only a day out of hospital. He shouldn't be left alone. "I think I had best stay here," Giles said. "I need to take care of—" He stopped himself just short of saying Spike, thinking that Spike wouldn't appreciate being talked about as an invalid even if he presently was one. "Of this and that," he finished feebly.

Weak as Giles's excuse had been, no one questioned it. "We'll let you know how it goes!" Willow promised, sliding her laptop into its case. "Come on, Buffy. We're going for a drive. And you don't have to ride in the trunk this time!"

With the Buffybot gone and Spike resting quietly, Giles decided to write a report to the Council.

These short weekly reports used to flow so easily, being a matter of long habit. Now he acted like a delinquent schoolboy, putting each one off until the last possible moment. It was bloody difficult hiding truths of such great magnitude. One had to find just the right tone of detached banality to get across the most important unspoken message: There is nothing happening here that requires your attention. "Buffy," he wrote, "has been taking several weeks' holiday, as is her custom in the summer. Demonic activity always ebbs during these months of arid heat, which makes it the ideal season for the Slayer to rest, and recover her energies."

He had to stop for a moment. His pen was not sufficiently steady on the paper.

The ruse could not last forever. The Council's own auguries would eventually alert them to the truth. And yet he would forestall them for as long as possible. Faith had never been his Slayer, and yet he felt a responsibility for her now, for protecting her and respecting the penance she had chosen. He feared the decision-makers of the Council would think her beyond redemption. And the Slayer line rested in her; there would be no other called until the moment of her death.

It did not bear thinking about.

Returning to his letter, he considered for a moment whether it would be safe to report the recent events with Spike. He decided that it would not. Certain members of the Council might find the transformation intriguing enough to warrant a trip to California. Besides, it was difficult to think of a way to tell the story that didn't begin with "Our vampire ally..."

Giles's train of thought was interrupted by sounds of distress from the sofa. He put down his pen and went around to see what was the matter. Spike had worked the blanket into a tangle again and he was twitching, mumbling unintelligible words in a desperate tone.

Giles shook him gently by the shoulder. "Wake up, Spike."

Spike opened his eyes with a gasp, and stared at Giles for a long moment before he seemed to recognize him. Then he sank back into his pillow, breathing as though he'd been running. A light sheen of sweat stood out on his face.

"I believe you were dreaming again," Giles said, to help him orient himself.

"Yeah," Spike said. And that was all. He didn't volunteer any details, nor did Giles ask.

"It's about time for tea," Giles said after a moment. "And your antibiotics. Would you like to visit the toilet first?"

This was one of the reasons Spike couldn't yet be left alone—he wasn't sufficiently steady on his feet to make it safely across the room. He was, however, at least strong enough to take care of matters himself once they reached the toilet, and Giles gave him his privacy, thanking the Lord for small favors, as it were.

Once Spike was back on the sofa, Giles fetched their tea: nothing complicated, just toasted raisin bread with butter and jam.

"I can't believe how often humans have to fucking eat," Spike said, taking his share. "Dunno how you find time for anything else."

Giles didn't bother to correct the 'you,' nor to question whether Spike could really have forgotten so much about his own early life. "The crocodile requires only one or two good feedings per year," he said instead. "From his point of view, the vampire's average of two victims per week is quite excessive."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Trust you to know the average."

"I did get my O-levels in Vampire Biology," Giles said mildly, reaching for his teacup.

Spike looked at him suspiciously. "You're having me on, right?"

Giles allowed himself a hint of a smile. "Only a little."

Giles couldn't say what woke him up this time. Instinct, perhaps, or simple unease. He put on his glasses and noted the hour—2:37 a.m.—and went downstairs to check on Spike.

The sofa was unoccupied, and the front door was ajar.

"Bloody hell," Giles sighed.

Spike couldn't have gone far, at any rate—at least, not moving under his own power. If someone or something had broken in and abducted him—but who would want to abduct Spike?

Giles fetched a dagger and a stake from his writing desk before going out, just to be on the safe side. He needn't have bothered. Spike was only a few feet from the door, huddled against the base of the fountain. His arms were hugged tight around his knees and his face was hidden. He was rocking back and forth, muttering to himself.

"Spike?" Giles said, crouching down next to him. "Can you hear me?"

The answer seemed to be no, at least for the moment. Giles felt at a loss as to how to proceed. He wanted to shake Spike back to his senses, but he couldn't forget the danger—a startled violent reaction on Spike's part could set off the chip. So he settled for sitting on the fountain's low wall, a couple of feet away from Spike, and waiting.

The stones were chilly under Giles's bare feet—the sun's warmth had worn off hours ago. The night air was cool, as well. Spike was wearing lightweight pajamas. Giles wondered how long he'd been outside. He'd been fast asleep on the sofa when Giles had checked on him at half ten.

"I've been thinking about the runes," Giles said. Lightly, conversationally—as though Spike were listening to him, and perhaps standing in front of him rather than huddled on the flagstones near his feet. "It occurred to me that they might have come from a parallel dimension, in which the Vikings settled California and interbred with the local demons." The content of what he said didn't matter. "An alternate timeline, perhaps."

After a minute or two, Spike fell silent.

"Are you awake?" Giles asked. It seemed the politest way to put it.

"Yeah." Spike raised his head. "What are we doing in the sodding front garden?" His face was blotchy from crying, and he was badly in need of a tissue; unfortunately there were none to hand.

"I suppose you were dreaming again," Giles said.

Spike's gaze dropped to his knees. "Yeah," he agreed, barely audible.

"Would you, er, like to talk about it?" Giles offered.

Spike let out a sharp laugh. "You've been in California too long, mate. You're starting to sound like them."

"Come inside," Giles said. "You must be cold."

Spike wasn't successful in standing up. Even with Giles's help, his legs were unequal to the task of supporting him; he was trembling quite badly. Finally Giles picked him up entirely and carried him inside. He set him down on the sofa, feeling rather pleased with himself for managing it.

Since Spike was shivering, Giles went and fetched an extra blanket. He wondered again how long Spike had been outside.

"If you tell Harris about any of this I'll fucking kill you," Spike said as Giles laid the second blanket over him.

"Yes," Giles agreed. He understood that the emptiness of the threat was not the point. He set a box of tissues on Spike's chest so he could reach them. "I'll be back in a moment."

When he returned, it was with warm water in a mixing bowl, and a washcloth. "I thought you might like to wash your face," he explained, wringing out the cloth and offering it to Spike.

"Oh. Uh, cheers." Spike took the cloth, gave his face a barely token swipe, and let his hand fall back to his chest as though it were very heavy. He closed his eyes.

"Here, let me." Giles reclaimed the washcloth and started gently cleaning Spike's face. As he did so, he felt an intense flash of déjà vu—although he couldn't think when he had ever done this for someone before. Was it Ethan? He couldn't remember.

Spike opened his eyes as soon as Giles had finished. He gazed at him in silence for a long moment before he asked, "Why are you doing this?"

Giles looked down at the washcloth in his hands. He couldn't exactly say. It did seem strange, now that he considered it. "I thought it would make you more comfortable."

Spike looked skeptical. "Not just that, I mean the whole bloody thing. Playing nursemaid. Doesn't add up—you don't like me, and you don't owe me anything."

"What did you think I would do, turn you out on the street?"

A barest twitch of an eyebrow was sufficient to show Spike's scorn for the idea. "You're too much of a white hat for that."

"There is self interest, obviously." Giles put the washcloth and bowl aside, and rubbed his neck. He was quite tired himself; Spike must be considerably more so. This interview needed to end very soon. "We need your help defending Sunnydale. We need all the help we can get."

Spike regarded him steadily. "I made a promise."

"Yes." Spike had told them as much after Buffy died, when they had expected him to disappear. Giles had not believed a vampire would keep a promise—had not trusted in it. But now Spike was human... "I suppose I feel that I do owe you," he said. "Not in the sense of a debt, but more ... the universal obligation of one human being to help another in need."

Spike snorted. "Don't make yourself out to be Mother bloody Teresa, Rupert. You'd look silly...," he interrupted himself with a yawn, and then finished, "in the robes."

Giles felt his lips twitching, but he didn't let himself smile. Spike had no business making fun of him. "You must be exhausted," Giles said, standing up. "I'll let you get back to sleep."

Spike forced his eyes wide open. "I'm not tired. Stay and watch the telly awhile?"

Giles stopped, still resting one hand on the back of the chair. "The nightmares," he said—not looking directly at Spike. "They happen every time you sleep, don't they."

Spike was silent, but Giles knew the answer. Last night he had thought perhaps it was only because of the fever, but the truth was really quite apparent. One doesn't make the transition from monster to man without certain psychological consequences.

The situation was obviously untenable. Spike was ill and very weak; he needed proper rest in order to recover, and the nightmares not only prevented rest but also seemed to provoke him to harm himself. Giles could hardly tie him to the sofa to protect him. There had to be another solution.

There was, in fact.

"Hang on," Giles said. "I'll be right back."

He had obtained a prescription for sleeping pills in the week after Buffy died, but in the end he had never taken a single one. He fetched the bottle and brought it out to Spike.

He started to offer the bottle itself, but thought better of it at the last moment, remembering who he was dealing with. "Here," he said, shaking out a single pill and handing it to Spike. "It's a sedative. It might help you rest easier. I'll get you a glass of water—"

"Don't bother," Spike interrupted. He popped the pill in his mouth and swallowed it dry. "Cheers."

"Right." Giles cleared his throat. "If you'd like me to, er, stay awhile..."

"Sod off," Spike replied, without real force. "I'm not a bloody infant."

"Quite right." Giles nodded. "Good night, then."

Chapter Text

Anya looked up and smiled when the shop bell jangled, but she lost enthusiasm when she saw who it was. "Oh, hello. I thought you were a customer."

"Sorry to disappoint," Giles said. "Has there been a dearth, lately?"

"Yes! I haven't seen more than a dozen customers all day. It's been very boring, and not profitable enough. You have to let me change the window display."

"Absolutely not," Giles sighed. They had already been over this, and he had thought he'd convinced her to let it go. "We are not advertising hexes to the general public."

"But I could get us so many walk-ins!" Anya halted her whinge when the bell jangled again. She retrieved her smile, and didn't even seem to mind that it still wasn't a customer. "Hello Spike!"

"Hi, Anya." Coming the rest of the way inside, Spike took a look around the store like he was wondering what had changed. It had been only a fortnight since he was last here, in fact, but it must seem like longer. "Rupert says you've been handling this place well on your own."

"He does?" Anya's smile grew a little brighter.

Giles felt a bit perplexed at her reaction. "Anya, I've said as much to you directly."

"Oh, I know, but it sounds more sincere when you say it to somebody else." Anya pulled out a feather duster and headed over to the shelves. "So, I guess that you'll be back full-time now?"

"Yes, of course," Giles said, determinedly not reacting to the disappointment in her posture. Anya had been doing a perfectly adequate job filling in, but really, it was his shop. "I'd like to go over the books with you, if I may."

"I'll be in the back," Spike said, and headed for the training room.

Giles spent the next thirty minutes going over the past two weeks' sales ledgers. He certainly could find no cause for complaint; Anya kept more meticulous records than he did himself, and was not shy about pointing it out.

When he finally closed the book, Anya took it from him and held it to her chest. She took a deep breath. "I've been thinking a lot about the way the store is run—since I've been running it, you know. And, I've come up with a list of suggestions."

Giles felt his eyebrows twitch. "Suggestions?"

"Yes. For instance, I tried moving the horn toad feet closer to the cash, and horn toad part sales went up by forty percent. We have got to get better at harnessing the power of the impulse buy."

Without particularly meaning to, Giles found that he had removed his glasses. He therefore finished the gesture, giving them a quick polish before setting them back in place. "Yes, well, I shall look into it."

"Here's the whole list," Anya said—and handed him a letter-sized sheet covered with bullet points.

"Thank you. Anya. This is most ... conscientious of you." Giles cleared his throat and tucked the folded list into his breast pocket. "I should go and see how Spike is doing."

Spike was working with the speed bag in the corner, facing away from the door. A shaft of dusty sunlight illuminated him; Giles could see the sweat standing out on his face and bare arms. His movements were languid but well-coordinated; he would hit the bag, let it bounce itself back and forth a number of times, and then let another punch fly with perfect timing to repeat the pattern.

Interesting. Even without vampire strength or reflexes, he seemed to retain the muscle memory.

When Giles let the door shut behind him with an audible thud, Spike didn't stop but in fact picked up the pace a bit. In the absence of a spoken greeting, Giles noticed the sounds in the room: the rhythmic thwap, thwap, thwap of Spike's gloves against the ball, the faster clinking of the ball itself on its harness, and the scuffing tap of Giles's own hard-soled shoes against the concrete floor as he walked towards Spike.

Closer, and he could hear Spike breathing. Not quite panting, but close; he was pushing himself. The tight black t-shirt he wore showed the pattern of his sweat in a darker shade of black. It showed, too, the enviable flatness of his belly, and his lean, muscular profile. It must be said, being a vampire for a while seemed to do wonders for one's general physical fitness.

It occurred to Giles, with a touch of amusement, that Spike was showing off for him.

But of course after the events of the past two weeks, he could understand why Spike might feel a need to reassert himself. The contrast with last week's helplessness was striking. Giles found himself admiring Spike's form openly, safe in the assumption that Spike was not about to turn around.

"Spike," he said finally, "I've finished with the books. I'm ready to take you back home."

Spike gave the bag one final thump, hard enough to spin it vertically. "All right." Breathing hard, he backed away from the apparatus and began fumbling with his gloves.

"Let me help," Giles said.

Spike held out his fists, and Giles quickly undid the velcro. Spike pulled off first one and then the other, dropping them to the floor. Then he shook his head, a bit strangely, as though seeking to clear it. "Bugger," he said, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment and pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Is something wrong?" Giles asked.

"No, I just felt...a bit—" and that was all the warning Giles had before Spike keeled over in a dead faint.

He managed to catch him, and it was only a couple of shuffling steps over to a handy pile of gym mats. Spike was already stirring as Giles tried to settle him comfortably on the dusty plastic.

"Where...?" Spike mumbled, blinked confusedly at Giles.

"Lie still," Giles snapped. "I'll be back in a moment."

He hurried back with a damp towel and a glass of water, inwardly cursing Spike's general thickheadedness. Spike, naturally, was struggling to sit up.

"Lie still," Giles repeated, planting a hand on Spike's chest for insurance. "Dear Lord, do you have any sense of self preservation?"

"What's it to you?" Spike let his head fall back against the mats. "Fuck." He turned to Giles, his look a mixture of defiance and confusion. "What the fuck just happened?"

"I imagine you overexerted yourself." Giles swallowed. With the initial rush of adrenaline wearing off, it was a little disturbing to realize how alarmed he had been when Spike had fainted. He was getting far too emotionally involved in Spike's situation. "Here, this should help." He laid the cool damp cloth over Spike's forehead. "Let me check your pulse."

He took it at the wrist, checking against the second hand on his watch. It was rapid and a bit fluttery, but in the second reading it had already improved. Satisfied that nothing was seriously wrong, Giles released Spike's arm.

Spike scowled at the hand Giles had just been holding. It was the same one he had cut with Xander's knife that first evening. The cut was healing well, finally, though it would clearly leave a scar. Spike clenched his hand into a fist, then let go and let it flop back down to the mat. "I fucking hate being human." He rolled his head slightly to the side so that he could meet Giles's eyes. "Don't look at me like that, Watcher. I didn't say I wanted to get turned again."

Giles wondered what look Spike thought he had seen in his eyes. "I was merely thinking," he said, "that you might find being human more pleasant if you stopped deliberately sabotaging yourself."

Spike frowned. "What are you on about?"

Sitting back on his heels, Giles wondered briefly whether it would be best to change the subject. But with Spike generally on the mend, this might be one of his last chances to talk to him at any length. "Spike, you've been living closely with humans for several years now, and for that matter you used to be one yourself. I know that you're not actually stupid. You couldn't have thought that crawling into your crypt and letting nothing but liquor pass your lips for four days straight would have anything but disastrous consequences."

"Oh." Spike blinked, considering. "Well, maybe I didn't feel like thinking about the consequences."

"I don't believe that." Giles watched Spike carefully. "I believe you were fully aware of where your actions would lead. You chose to engage in ... in a half-assed suicide attempt, frankly."

Spike's expression flashed quickly into anger. "Where the fuck do you get that? I came to you for help, didn't I?"

"I did say it was half-assed."

"Well you're fucking wrong." Spike sat up, throwing the damp towel to the side, and Giles stopped himself from moving to interfere. Spike tucked his legs up to his chest and hugged them, turning his gaze down to the floor. "I didn't want to die. I just...."

"You just what?" Giles prompted when Spike didn't finish the sentence after a good fifteen seconds.

Spike stood up, fists clenched. "What the fuck do you even care?!" he said, and without waiting for an answer turned around and punched the concrete wall.

Giles stood up quickly as well, determined to pursue this through to the end. "I suppose I want to know whether it's worthwhile trying to keep you alive," he said.

Spike's shoulders tightened visibly before he turned around. "Well, then, don't fucking bother. Nobody asked you to."

Giles stopped himself from the first retort that came to his tongue, which was that Spike bloody well had, in effect, by coming to the Magic Box that night when he was ill. "I'm sorry," he said instead. "I answered flippantly. It wasn't fair. Spike..." Spike had turned away from Giles again, towards the wall. Fair's fair; Giles removed his glasses and reduced Spike to a blur. "I actually do care whether you live or die." He cleared his throat. "Since the fight with Glory I have considered you an ally. And since you've been living with me ... at times I find I even enjoy your company."

Spike's shoulders shook with a half-choked laugh. "You do know how to sweet talk a bloke, Rupert."

"Spike, please. Answer the question." Giles wasn't entirely sure what the question was anymore, but he knew he needed Spike to say something.

Spike turned around again, raising his left fist briefly to his mouth. He must have bruised his knuckles, punching the wall a moment ago. Giles put his glasses back on and saw that Spike's pupils had gone very wide, and he was holding Giles now in a steady gaze. "The nightmares started the first day after—after the demon's blood mixed with mine," he said. His voice was hoarse, almost a whisper; Giles had to step closer to hear him properly. "The drink made it so I didn't dream, or at least so I didn't remember it. That's all."

"Ah." Giles took a deep breath. He hadn't thought about that, but perhaps he should have; he'd witnessed the effects of the nightmares on Spike two nights in a row, and since then had provided the means for Spike to drug himself into a dreamless sleep. "I ... apologize, I suppose."

Spike shrugged, avoiding eye contact now. His fingers twitched like he wanted a cigarette; as far as Giles knew, he hadn't actually smoked one since Dawn had told him not to.

"Sit down a while longer," Giles suggested as delicately as he could manage. He suspected that Spike needed more time to recover his strength, but the mood in the room was complex and fragile; he didn't want to provoke Spike into further explosions, or damage whatever entente they'd just achieved here. "There's no need for us to hurry home."

Spike did, finally, sit back down on the edge of the gym mats. Giles sat down beside him and handed him the glass of water he'd brought over earlier.

"Cheers," Spike accepted it, and drank half of it in one go.

Spike's grip on the glass drew Giles's attention to his knuckles; they were bleeding a little, and there would be swelling. Giles cleared his throat. "You should put ice on that."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Sod off."

It was like walking in circles, talking to Spike. Giles rubbed his temple in irritation. "Well then, at least let me clean the scrapes."

Spike slouched back against the wall, putting the glass down and resting his hand on his knee. "All right, all right. Have your bloody way with me."

Giles did realize that the shallow cuts on Spike's knuckles posed little to no danger of infection, but after watching him nearly die of blood poisoning Giles wasn't in a mood for taking chances. He fetched the first aid kit and applied antibiotic cream generously to Spike's hand before wrapping it with gauze. Spike watched him work, silent but for his breathing.

As he taped the gauze in place, his head bending close to Spike's, it occurred to Giles that he had had more occasions to touch Spike in the past fortnight than he had had with another human being since ... Lord help him, since Olivia, nearly two years ago. Spike's fingers were warm, and they twitched against his own as he clipped the end of the tape and smoothed it down. Giles was seized by an insane impulse to take Spike's hand properly and hold it for a moment.

He quashed it, of course. Bloody hell, it had been too long since he had been intimate with anyone.

"You all right, Watcher?" Spike asked.

Giles moved away from Spike slightly faster than was discreet. "Yes." He cleared his throat and tried to look annoyed rather than embarrassed. "It'll do." He started repacking the first aid kit, which was a fine excuse to avoid Spike's eye. "By the way, as you may have gathered earlier, I'm planning to return to the shop full time starting tomorrow."

Spike shrugged. "Yeah, I caught that bit."

"I was wondering whether you had begun to think about, well, about what you will do."

Scratching his knee, Spike gave Giles a puzzled look. "Well, I can get to the loo on my own and all, so I think I'll manage."

"Er, that's not quite what I—" Giles snapped the first aid kit shut. "I rather meant, have you thought about employment?"

"Not really," Spike said, in a tone rather like what one might use if asked have you considered spending your summer holidays in Antarctica?

"You should give it serious thought," Giles said. "You might recall I was at loose ends myself for a while last year. I found the days very long, at times almost unbearably so."

Spike snorted. "Yeah, well, you might recall that I haven't held down a job since 1880. No, scratch that—I've never held down a bloody job. I've found ways to pass the time, thanks."

"Ah." Giles studied the floor near his feet. He hadn't really wanted to get crass about it, but if Spike was going to be stubbornly obtuse... "In any case, you might give a thought to your financial situation."

"Oh." Spike tilted his head, regarding Giles now through slitted eyes. "Free ride's coming to a screeching halt, then?"

"Well now you're being overdramatic." It was easy to be annoyed rather than embarrassed when Spike was being so very annoying. "I certainly don't expect you to go out and find work tomorrow. You aren't entirely well yet, and—"

"Sod your fucking charity," Spike interrupted, standing up. "I'll be out of your flat tonight if that's what you want."

"Spike, don't be an idiot, I didn't say anything of the sort." Sensing that the conversation was headed into a tailspin with its engines on fire, Giles gave the metaphorical control yoke a rather desperate tug. "Let's give it a week, shall we? Stay with me for another week, and then you can see about a job and such. It's not charity. I expect you to start helping us on patrol again as soon as you're able."

Spike stopped, looking back at Giles with uncertainty, anger and weariness warring in his eyes. He'd halted in a sunbeam; it painted half of his face in shadow and reminded Giles forcibly of the changes he had undergone.

It isn't easy for him, Giles reminded himself.

"Yeah, all right," Spike said.

"Good," Giles said, with real relief. "Then let's go home."

Chapter Text

A busy schedule was the best remedy for an unsettled mind, Giles decided. His first full day back at the shop was a hectic one, with hardly a moment to stop and think about, well, anything. They had several massive mail-orders to fill, an increase in walk-ins due to the full moon, and to top it all off they spent an hour in the basement trying to capture a rare cemetery-bred albino bat.

He still regretted the day he'd let Willow talk him into trying his hand at live stock.

Patrol afterwards was, surprisingly, comparatively relaxing. The Bot took point, slaying two vampires with almost no help from the group. Her reprogramming was coming along very well; Giles was almost becoming accustomed to her presence.

He arrived home bone-weary, but in better spirits than he'd felt for quite some time. He was careful when he opened the door not to make too much noise, in case Spike was already asleep on the sofa. The flat was dark. Giles felt his way along the wall until he reached a lamp and turned it on.

The room was quite empty. The blankets on the sofa were a rumpled heap; Spike had still been lying in when Giles had left in the morning, so he hadn't had the opportunity to tell him to fold them.

Spike didn't seem like the sort to leave a message to let one know where he was, but Giles nevertheless checked the answering machine on his way to the kitchen. Nothing.

He was far too keyed up from patrol to go straight to bed, so he settled in his reading chair with a drink and his copy of Morgenstern's Demonologies.

Spike came in the door at a quarter past one. He leaned on the doorframe for a moment, backlit by the courtyard light, very film noir in his black leather duster and tight red t-shirt. He looked so precisely like his old self that Giles felt a sharp jab of dismay, thinking for a moment that he was facing a vampire. The flush in Spike's cheeks was a clue to the contrary, however, and Giles stood up to meet him with only slight misgivings.

Spike smirked, kicking the door shut. "Rupert, luv, you didn't have to wait up for me."

Spike was slurring his words ever so slightly; Giles had almost thought he'd said Ripper. "Are you drunk?"

Spike doffed his coat, letting it puddle carelessly on the floor. "No, but I have been drinking."

"Where did you get the money?" Giles wondered whether he should check his own wallet.

Spike, meanwhile, had moved into Giles's personal space—so close he had to tilt his head up to look Giles in the eye. There was a predatory quality to his smile. It gave Giles prickles down the back of his neck but he could feel Spike's body heat: human. Giles refused to step back.

"Now Rupert,"—there it was again, almost sounded like Ripper, and why was that on Giles's mind tonight?—"You think a bloke like me buys his own drinks?"

Giles cleared his throat. Spike's proximity was making him uncomfortable, and certainly not in the way that Spike intended. Giles found his attention drawn to Spike's lips, found that he was aware of them in a way that was terribly inappropriate. They looked very soft.

He recalled the three glasses of Scotch he'd drunk while waiting. Bugger. Perhaps he should have stopped at one.

He retreated one step, giving Spike as withering a look as he could manage. "I hope you didn't take advantage of the lady."

Spike chuckled, deep in his throat. "Wasn't a lady." He closed the space between them again and Giles, fairly confused by Spike's last words, didn't think to move. "Didn't take advantage, either."

And then Spike kissed him.

Spike made as if to kiss him, rather, with that feral gleam in his eyes, and yet at the very last moment before their lips could meet he hesitated. Time seemed to stop, or some such tired cliché, and Giles could feel his heart going wild in his chest, and then he kissed Spike.

It was Giles's first kiss in over a year, which was not the sort of thing one wanted to think about during the event, so naturally it was the first thing that popped into his mind.

It was followed immediately by Spike must have shaved this morning, and then Does this mean that we're going to have sex?

The answer to that last was most probably yes. There was really no reason to kiss Spike, otherwise.

The heat coursing through Giles's body now could not be put down entirely to three small glasses of Scotch. He found himself clutching at Spike's shirt near the collar, bunching it up in his fists—not pulling it off, not yet, but establishing something. Control. Spike's own hands wandered around the back of Giles's neck, caressing, urging him on.

It was all too gentle. It was still possible to think about what they were doing, which was unacceptable. Giles growled, deep in his throat, and shoved Spike against the nearest wall. When he tried to kiss him again, Spike was laughing.

"Knew you had it in you, Ripper."

Giles had the abrupt and extremely unpleasant sensation of all the blood in his body having been replaced with ice water. He wasn't, hadn't been, hearing things. Spike had actually said it. He stepped back, releasing Spike's shirt. "Where did you learn that name?"

Spike raised the back of his hand to his mouth and then glanced at it, as though checking for blood. He wasn't bleeding, but his lips did look a bit swollen. Giles had let himself get carried away. "Met a nice English bloke at the Fishbowl," Spike said. "Bought me a couple of drinks. Said his name was Ethan."

"Ethan," Giles repeated, rather weakly. "Oh God." He had been thinking about him lately. For just a moment Giles entertained the entirely irrational thought that he himself was responsible for conjuring Ethan up out of thin air, simply by remembering him. "Spike, you're in danger. You ... you don't understand who that was."

Spike flashed him an odd smile. "Old mate of yours, chaos mage, innit? Never laid eyes on him before, but I remembered the name from that time you came over all demony." He stepped up to Giles and ran a finger down Giles's collarbone, making a show of seduction. "Now don't let him spoil our fun. I didn't do anything with him, just shared a couple of pints, had a bit of a chat."

"Oh God." Giles felt, suddenly, intensely embarrassed. He pushed Spike's hand away and retreated towards the kitchen. "He probably slipped you magical roofies," he said over his shoulder. His own voice rang in his ears: clipped, awkward. He ran a glass of water. Two. One for each of them.

"Couldn't have done," Spike said over the sound of the tap. "I switched the drinks when he wasn't looking."

"And you really think that was sufficient protection?" Giles asked, infusing the question with enough contempt to forestall any thoughts about whether he could have saved himself last year with a similar simple maneuver.

The trouble was, with Ethan around, it was always impossible to think straight.

With an infuriatingly casual grin, Spike took the glass of water Giles offered him. "I wouldn't worry about me, I'd worry about you. This Ethan chap, he has it in for you, doesn't he?"

Spike's assertion was no less true for being an oversimplification. "What did he say about me?" Giles asked, willing his voice not to falter.

"Not all that much. But he was lurking outside your front door—shadowed me all the way to the bar, didn't know I'd spotted him." Spike took a drink of water without losing his smirk. "He thought I was your lover, Ripper. And he was burning up with jealousy."

Giles straightened his back and made his voice go cold. "You're assuming rather a lot, William."

Spike blanched quite visibly at the name. Good. Giles hadn't been sure at all that it would have the desired effect; now he knew. "You had better tell me everything he said, and everything he did," Giles continued, sipping his own water and wishing his head would stop spinning. Ethan Rayne. God help us.

"I don't remember exactly." Spike seemed sullen now. "Gave me this, though." He fished a crumpled green business card out of his jeans pocket.

Giles took it and held it up to read the white embossed printing: Perfect Image in a cursive script, and an address on Main Street. He ran his thumb lightly over the raised letters, then realized what he was doing and clenched his hand into a fist. "Did he say what this is about?"

Spike shrugged. "Said he was opening a shop, that I should stop by and see it. Didn't say what it was."

"Bloody hell." Giles felt tired suddenly, so very tired, and old. To face off with Ethan again, after everything that had happened in the past few months—after Glory, and Ben, and Buffy—it seemed so petty, so trivial, and yet more than he thought he could manage just now. "We should go to bed. I'll pay him a visit in the morning."

"Not alone, you won't," Spike said, very much to Giles's surprise. "Take Red. We don't want him turning you into a—a fucking slime demon, or something."

Giles glared at him. "I'm quite aware of Ethan's capabilities, and I can protect myself—certainly better than you can."

Spike's expression hardened. "Well, yeah, the Initiative made sure of that, didn't they? Wonder what they did to him."

Giles had been avoiding that question ever since turning Ethan over into their hands. "Whatever it was, it obviously wasn't fatal."

"Neither was the bloody chip," Spike pointed out. "Yet."

"Are you saying I should apologize to him?"

"No, I'm saying he's an evil son-of-a-bitch who's got more reason to want to hurt you now than the last time you met, and you should be fucking careful." Spike hugged his arms around his chest, scowling at Giles. "And I can't fucking help you, so swallow your fucking pride and take Red."

"I never said that I wouldn't." Giles touched his glasses, but didn't remove them. He wasn't sure if he needed distance or focus. Everything was turning on its head. Ethan was back. Giles had kissed Spike.

Spike seemed to be worried about him.

"So you won't go alone," Spike insisted.

"No." Giles cleared his throat, feeling awkwardly and obscurely as though he should apologize. He certainly hadn't meant to upset Spike, not in that way. "I'll talk to Willow in the morning. But now it's long past time for us both to turn in—you'll make yourself ill again, with hours like this."

"Bloody hell Rupert, I'm not made of fucking glass." Spike scowled at him and then quickly put down the tumbler he'd been holding all this time and strode over to grab the front of Giles's shirt. "Seems to me we had unfinished business here." And then he kissed Giles, decisively.

The numerous very good reasons why Giles should not respond to this kiss seemed quite irrelevant, suddenly. Spike was indeed not made of glass. Giles confirmed as much, very quickly, by tugging Spike's shirt off over his head and shoving him back against the counter. He had a torso like a Greek sculpture, sleek muscle under marble-pale flesh. He grinned up at Giles, showing his teeth, and then with a hand at the back of Giles's head pulled him down for another long kiss. Giles felt his own arousal rising in frantic need.

"Come upstairs with me," Giles said. His voice came out shockingly hoarse.

"Bugger that," Spike gasped, closing his eyes and tilting back his head even as one hand sought out the buckle of Giles's belt. "Got everything we need right here." And then he seemed to melt through Giles's fingers—one moment he was on his feet, pinned between Giles and the counter, and the next he was on his knees.

"Oh God." Giles found himself grabbing the counter with one hand and Spike's hair with the other so as not to fall over. Spike had managed in a few seconds' work to release Giles's cock from all its layers of fabric and to swallow it almost to the root. "Oh ... God." He could feel the muscles in Spike's throat contracting. His legs were like jelly; he wasn't sure he could keep his feet.

"Stop," he managed to say, though his tongue felt thick; at the same time he pulled Spike's hair to force him to stand. "Not yet. Not here."

Spike rubbed his scalp, stumbling sideways a little against the counter. "What's wrong with here?"

But Giles had moved on to a different question entirely. "Spike, are you sure about this? We've never ..." He didn't know how to finish the sentence.

"Shut up, Rupert. Are we going to shag or what?" Spike fumbled with his own belt, fixing Giles with a smoldering glare. He was being abrasive and rude, and Giles couldn't understand why it was making his heart pound so fast.

"I suppose we are, yes." Giles gave up the thought of heading for the bedroom, fixing instead on fine line of fuzzy hair that trailed down from Spike's belly button to disappear under the waistband of his jeans. "Let me help you with that."

In another minute the last of their clothing was shed and kicked aside, and as Spike trailed kisses down the front of Giles's chest Giles realized that he wasn't sure how to approach the next stage of negotiation.

He couldn't remember how it had worked with Ethan. That is to say, he remembered exactly how it had worked, but not how they had worked it out ahead of time.

"Were you planning to—I mean, would you rather..." Giles stumbled over the question to the point that Spike pulled back to give him a quizzical look.

"What are you on about?"

Giles told himself he was too old to blush. It was a lie. "I was trying to determine who is going to be on top."

Spike's eyes narrowed. "Well, seeing as if I accidentally hurt you the chip will probably fucking kill me, I'd rather you fuck me, if you don't bloody mind."

"Ah." That was an unwelcome thought. "Christ, Spike, I'm sorry, I didn't think—"

"Bloody hell Watcher, shut up." Spike kissed Giles again—and this time Giles noticed that it was gentle, that it had always been gentle, that the bruising, frantic kisses had been all his own part.

It occurred to him that Spike was crippled, in a sense. It was a disturbing thought, and he pushed it away. It was easy enough to do so, under the influence of Spike's insistent caresses.

With the ground rules established, as it were, Giles found that he was able to relax and truly begin to enjoy himself. Spike responded quite gratifyingly, shuddering and leaning against Giles at the barest touch of his cock. Soon Giles had him leaning over the counter, begging Giles to fuck him already. A bit of cooking oil served for lubrication. For just a moment, with his cock pressed between the tight, muscular halves of Spike's arse, Giles came to himself enough to wonder what the hell he was doing—with Spike, of all people—but then Spike squirmed and swore at him and told him to bloody well get on with it, and he did.

The trouble with having sex in the kitchen, Giles reflected, was that you ended up on the kitchen floor, naked, cold and sticky.

Spike didn't seem bothered. He was leaning back against the cupboards with one knee tucked up in a lazy way, looking quite pleased with himself.

"I don't suppose you have a cigarette," Giles said.

Spike raised an eyebrow. "In for a penny, in for a pound?" He shifted his legs, casually. "I'm not giving you a bloody fag. Don't want the Niblet on my case."

"You don't have any," Giles guessed.

Spike shrugged, smirked.

Giles stood up, considered gathering up his clothes, and decided they could wait for morning. "Good night, then."

Spike looked up sharply. "Oi! Forgetting something, mate?"

Giles hesitated, unsure what Spike meant. "A good night kiss?"

Spike rolled his eyes, taking the suggestion as seriously as Giles had meant it. "The sleeping pill, berk. Actually, how about giving me two tonight. They're not working so well anymore."

"Ah." Giles squeezed his eyes shut momentarily, pinching the bridge of his nose against the sudden feeling of a headache coming on. "I don't think that would be wise. In fact, I don't think you should take one tonight. Alcohol is rather strongly contraindicated."

"Bugger that." Spike stood up, looking a bit wild. "Rupert, you've got to give me the fucking pills. That, or fucking show me where you're hiding the liquor, because I am not going to have those dreams again."

Giles thought of the pill bottle, half empty already. The doctor, prescribing them, had warned Giles not ever to use them for more than two or three nights in a row; they were habituating, he had said. "I only meant for the pills to get you past the first rough patch, while you were ill," Giles said now. "You'll have to learn to do without them—they're not healthy, and in any case I'm running out."

Spike's expression was edging towards panic. "All right, sure," he said, with all the sincerity of a junky promising to quit, "but not fucking tonight, okay?"

Spike had tried to stake himself, Giles remembered, that first night on the sofa. There was real danger here—perhaps more from Spike's tormented mind, after all, than from a mixing of alcohol with medication. "One pill," he conceded. "You may have one."

"Bloody right," Spike muttered under his breath, hugging his arms around his chest.

"And you'll come upstairs and sleep with me."

Spike's eyes widened. He hadn't expected that. Neither had Giles—he hadn't thought before he spoke.

In any case, Spike recovered from his surprise quickly. "Got to be more comfortable than the bloody sofa," he said cheerfully.

"That sofa is quite comfortable," Giles said. "I've slept on it myself."

"Want to switch, then?"

"Absolutely not."

Spike shrugged, heading for the staircase. "I hope you don't snore."

"I most certainly do not," Giles said, following him.

Eyebrow raised, Spike looked back over his shoulder. "Who's been around to tell you if you did?"

Of course the last person Giles had actually slept with was Olivia, last year, but it was rather bad form of Spike to rub his face in it. "Don't assume you know everything about my private life," he said as they entered the bedroom, in a half-hearted attempt to salvage a bit of pride. "I might have secrets, you know."

Spike grinned, flopping down on the bed. "Well, I know you do now."

Giles cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. There's certainly no need to mention any of this to the others..."

Spike had propped himself up on one elbow, naked on the bed. His expression had gone quite serious. "Yeah, well," he said. "There's a lot they don't need to know. They haven't a clue about you and Ethan, have they?"

Giles usually slept in pajamas. He had gone to his dresser to get them out, but then realized that Spike seemed to intend on sleeping naked. He closed the drawer again before he answered the question. "They know that he and I were friends," he said carefully, "and that we did black magic together when we were young. They don't know that we were..." Giles hesitated, confounded at the attempt to find a word to describe what he and Ethan had been to each other. Lovers sounded too romantic for what they had had. Partners was a modern word, too strange to retrofit onto a relationship set entirely in the past, and in any case it implied a commitment that had never been there.

"Shagging?" Spike suggested.

Giles almost smiled, but not quite. "I suppose you could put it that way. Yes. What did he tell you?"

"Nothing." Spike shrugged. "But it was in his voice when he said your name. He's never got over you, you know."

It was a moment before Giles could respond in a level tone. "I'd thank you not to pursue that topic any further," he said.

"Sorry." Spike did, in fact, look as though he regretted what he'd just said. "Didn't mean to—fuck, Rupert, just come to bed."

"You'll want the sedative," Giles reminded him. The bottle was hidden in his sock drawer, in fact; now that Spike was watching him retrieve it, he'd need to find a new hiding place in the morning. He had a nasty suspicion that Spike would readily overdose himself in an effort to chase away his nightmares.

Once Spike had swallowed his pill, the two of them settled into bed. They lay on opposite sides, not touching. Giles, for his part, felt a bit awkward. They had had sex, somehow, without establishing an intimacy between them. Giles had asked Spike to share his bed on impulse, borne on the feeling that Spike would be safer if he could keep a closer watch on him. He also hoped he might help Spike cope with the dreams. Spike had asked Giles to stay with him that first night, after all. At the very least, Giles could wake him up if his sleep became sufficiently distressed.

Sleep overtook Spike very quickly, which wasn't surprising considering what he'd put in his bloodstream. For Giles, it proved more elusive. There was far too much on his mind, and besides he wasn't used to hearing someone else breathing on the next pillow.

Ethan was back. It was terrible news, potentially disastrous, and yet in the dark and the stillness Giles could admit to himself that he also felt a measure of relief. Ethan had escaped the Initiative, somehow. They had not ... vivisected him, or sewn him up with demon parts.

Ethan had been watching his flat. That couldn't be a good sign. He had followed Spike and attempted to ... what? Glean information? Gain an ally? It was doubtful Ethan had recognized Spike for who he was, and it sounded as though he had been quite mistaken about Spike's relationship with Giles.

Or perhaps only prescient. Giles squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and tried unsuccessfully to remember how he had ended up fucking Spike over the kitchen counter.

They hadn't even used a rubber. God, he hadn't behaved this stupidly and impulsively since ... well, since the last time someone had called him Ripper.

And on that unpleasant thought, Giles finally drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Giles parked half a block away from the address Ethan had given Spike. They could easily have walked from Giles's flat, but it had seemed more prudent to bring the car; it left more options open.

Willow was riding shotgun—both metaphorically and rather less metaphorically. "There it is," she said, pointing up the street. "With the green and white sign."

She had telephoned early in the morning. The ringing had woken Giles from deep slumber, and he'd grabbed the phone and said "Hello?" before even remembering that he wasn't alone in his bed.

Willow had been ringing to warn him that she and Tara had noticed some sort of local magical disturbance; of course Giles had guessed right away that Ethan's appearance in town was the cause. He had then faced the daunting task of maintaining composure while explaining this to Willow, with Spike a few feet away blinking sleepily at him. Spike, naked. In his bed.

Once she had received a highly abridged version of the previous evening's events, Willow had proved quite eager to accompany Giles to Ethan's shop. She'd arranged to meet Giles at his flat in half an hour, which gave Giles just enough time to pull himself together.

Spike hadn't revealed his intention to come along until Willow had already arrived. This had made it very difficult for Giles to refuse him.

"Looks posh, don't it?" Spike said, hands tucked in his pockets, as they approached the shop.

He had slept undisturbed the whole night long, as far as Giles knew, under the combined sedative effect of the sleeping pills Giles had given him and the beers Ethan had bought him. Now he squinted against the morning sun, sizing up the façade of this new shop that had appeared between the used book shop and the drycleaner's.

Giles was annoyed with him for coming, and worried about what Ethan might be provoked into saying in front of Willow. There was no conceivable way that Spike could actually help. Spike himself was aware of this. When he had plunked himself in the backseat of the car and informed Giles that there was no bloody way he was getting left behind, he hadn't tried to argue that he would be useful; he had only said "Ethan's an evil bastard and he messes with your head."

Now Giles pulled open the front door of the shop. A bell tingled, identical to the bell that greeted customers at the Magic Box. The shop was a bit on the dim side, but tastefully decorated in green and white. It all smelt of sawdust and fresh paint. As for the actual goods on display, it appeared to be a camera shop. An antique Brownie had pride of place in a display cabinet, and the shelves held all manner of more modern photography equipment. The wall behind the front counter was lined with multicolored packets of film. And in front of that wall stood Ethan.

"Good morning!" he greeted them, clasping his hands together in a parody of an eager shopkeeper. "How may I help you?"

"By leaving Sunnydale and never coming back," Giles suggested, his voice icy cold. Willow stepped up to stand behind him, while Spike remained a half pace behind, glowering at Ethan.

Ethan's false smile shifted into something a little bit nastier. "Now, Rupert. Can't you think of a nicer way to greet an old friend? Introduce me to your very sweet companion there, for instance." He leered at Willow, who bristled in response.

"We've met," she said. "You turned me into a ghost."

"Ah," Ethan said. "You've ... flowered, since then."

"Is he flirting with me?" Willow said under her breath to Giles. "That's disgusting."

"Ethan," Giles said, "You aren't welcome here. We've asked you politely to leave. If that doesn't work, we are prepared to use force."

"Got your commandos waiting out on the sidewalk, do you?" Ethan said, looking unconcerned. He thought, clearly, that he was calling a bluff. "Oh, that reminds me, I never had the chance to thank you for my last little sojourn with the military." And without warning he snatched something from under the counter and threw it at Giles.

Spike shouted a warning and Giles ducked, but too late—it certainly would have hit him if it weren't for Willow. With a gesture, she stopped the object—a tiny glass ball—in midair. It hovered, bobbing gently.

"Bravo," Ethan said. "Well done. I know Ripper didn't show you that trick; he never could get the hang of telekinesis."

Neither had Ethan, but Giles declined to point that out. "What spell is in the ball?" he asked instead.

Ethan smirked. "It would have made you my slave."

Willow squeezed her fist and the ball, two feet away, shattered inward and disappeared. "Six weeks ago I faced down a god," she said—lightly, but with an edge to her voice that Giles wasn't accustomed to hearing. "You might want to think twice about threatening my friends."

Ethan looked shaken. He always had been a coward, Giles reflected bitterly. Then Giles glanced over at Willow and saw that her eyes had gone black.

"I was joking," Ethan said, rather desperately. "The spell was harmless. It would have made his hair grow ten inches overnight, that's all. I swear. It's a parlor trick. I've given up chaos magic."

"Let go of the power," Giles advised Willow very quietly, touching her arm. When he did so, he felt all of the hairs on his own arms stand up. She was beginning to unnerve him. "We can talk to him." And then, to Ethan, "I don't believe you. Why have you come back to the Hellmouth?"

"To open a camera shop." Ethan gestured widely, and then took a display model from a shelf behind himself. "Say cheese, Ripper." He snapped a picture before Giles could half raise his hand to stop him.

"Do that again, I'll bloody rip you a new one," Spike said—and this, of course, was a bluff, albeit a convincing one.

"Sorry, I forgot to take your primitive superstitions into account," Ethan said with a smirk. He toggled a switch at the bottom of the camera, and Giles heard the soft whirr of rewinding film. "Afraid I'll steal your soul?"

"Good luck with that," Spike muttered, crossing his arms and retreating a bit. "Not even sure I've got one."

Ethan didn't seem to have been listening to Spike, which was probably for the best. The whirring having stopped, Ethan popped out the film and tossed the empty camera at Giles. "See for yourself, it's a perfectly ordinary device."

"The film, too, if you please," Giles said.

Ethan rolled his eyes at that, but he complied. Giles tucked the roll into his pocket to destroy later—better safe than sorry, as it were—and set about examining the camera.

Meanwhile, Willow was wandering around the perimeter of the store, looking at the shelves. "There aren't any digital ones," she observed, picking up a pink Fuji and turning it over in her hands.

"Certainly not," Ethan said, puffing up behind his counter. "Photography is an art. Computers have no place in it."

"Everybody's going digital now," Willow said. "How are you even going to stay in business?"

Ethan stood up even straighter. "I think you'll find this world still has a place for classical beauty."

Giles stepped forward and placed the camera Ethan had used down on the counter. It appeared innocent enough, but Ethan would never stop being Ethan—there had to be some dark purpose here. "We aren't here to evaluate your business plan," he reminded Ethan. Only the width of the counter separated them now; if he chose to, Giles could reach out and grab him by the lapels of his appalling silver-threaded jacket. "We're here to shut you down and run you out of town."

"Well, that's a lovely way to treat an old mate who's trying to put an unfortunate past behind him and make something of his life." Ethan put on an aggrieved expression that did not suit him at all. "I'd think that you of all people, Ripper, would appreciate the need for second chances."

"I've lost track of how many chances you've had," Giles said. "This is your last warning, Ethan. You are not welcome here."

Ethan shrugged. "So much for appealing to your better nature. Blackmail it is, then."

Giles felt a terrible clenching in his stomach, and he very deliberately did not look at Spike. "We will not respond to blackmail," he said. After all, he and Spike could simply deny everything. Ethan had only his speculations; he couldn't know about last night.

Ethan smiled. "I think you will. You seem very concerned with keeping this secret. Where did you find such a pretty robot?"

Willow looked up sharply, dismay on her face. Giles felt quite broadsided. "What are you suggesting?" he asked as coldly as he could manage.

"Your Slayer's gone. Dead, I imagine. And you haven't told the Council, you naughty boy. Afraid of the pay cut, are you?" Ethan shrugged. "Let me keep my shop, I'll let you keep your secret."

"All right." There was nothing good about this situation, but at the very least Giles could buy time. "We'll leave you alone as long as you do nothing, and I mean nothing, that might endanger the citizens of this town. Any secrets I might be keeping are inconsequential compared to that. Don't test me, Ethan."

Ethan smiled sweetly. "It's a perfectly ordinary camera shop. You should stop by again when I've got it properly up and running. Maybe bring in a film to develop. Our prices are very competitive."

The whole thing with Ethan was terribly unsettling. Giles kept turning it over in his head while he did his own work at the Magic Box, and he couldn't see an alternative to simply letting Ethan do as he wished for the time being.

Whenever he wasn't thinking about Ethan, he was thinking about Spike. Wondering what would happen at the flat tonight, and what he wanted to happen. It was most awkward, especially when Anya asked him what had him so distracted. Of course he told her it was Ethan, and she seemed to believe him.

The Scoobies convened as usual that evening after the shop closed. In fact Dawn had been in the back room since the mid-afternoon, revising for her final exams. Willow and Tara arrived at five minutes past six. Xander walked in just a few minutes later, his clothes still dusty from the construction site. By then Anya was finished counting the cash, so she called Dawn out to do the money dance.

"Okay," Xander said as they all finally settled around the big table, "What's Ethan Rayne doing back in Sunnydale? We gave him to the goddamned Initiative. Shouldn't he be rotting in a cell somewhere? Or, like, getting cut up for parts?"

Giles hid his wince by clearing his throat. "Well, apparently he escaped."

"Hey, shouldn't we be waiting for Spike?" Dawn asked. She looked to Giles. "You said he was coming tonight."

"Yeah, and he's Mr. Reliable," Xander muttered.

"I expect he'll be late." Giles's voice sounded too sharp in his own ears. He hoped Spike would show up, and at the same time he was anxious about facing him in front of the entire group. "This is Spike we're talking about," he added, schooling his inflection to casual disdain. "We had best start without him."

"Anyway, he was there this morning so he already knows as much as we do," Willow added.

Xander frowned. "What did you bring Fangless along for? Not like he could do anything to Ethan."

"He wanted to come. I suppose he was curious." Again, Giles tried to sound like he didn't care one way or the other. He did wonder, though, just why Spike had invited himself along. He knew it had something to do with last night ... with what they had between them now. Whatever that might be. It gave Giles an unfamiliar thrill to think of it, and that made him uncomfortable, so he pushed the thought away. "In any case, the important question is: what is Ethan up to?"

"You don't think he could have been telling the truth?" Tara asked. "People can change. Maybe he really wants a fresh start."

Giles shook his head. "Not Ethan."

"He turned me into a Teletubby!" Dawn chimed in, the old outrage clearly still fresh in her mind.

"I think we should research what kind of spells can be done with photos," Willow suggested.

It was a good idea, not to mention the only one anyone put forward, so they all settled into research mode. Spike finally showed up about an hour later. He had a slightly grubby look to him, as well as a bit of a sunburn. When he perched on the table's edge near to Giles—there being no nearby chairs available—Giles noticed that his fingernails were dirty, and he had smears of grease on his knuckles. "You all look like you're having fun," he said. Giles caught a faint whiff of alcohol on his breath. "What'd I miss?"

Anya looked up crossly from the dusty volume she had been assigned. "You were supposed to be here at six."

Spike shrugged it off. "Went and got myself a job," he said, with a sideways glance at Giles. "Couldn't exactly skive off early on the first day, could I?"

"Well, that's wonderful news," Giles said. "Congratulations." He was honestly surprised; he had expected Spike to resist finding employment. Perhaps he had more influence on Spike than he'd imagined.

"Where is it?" Dawn asked.

"The scrapyard on West Elm," Spike said.

Xander raised an eyebrow. "The chop shop?"

Spike shrugged. "I knew a bloke who knew a bloke."

"How do you know about it?" Anya asked, eyeing Xander.

"What? It's common knowledge." Xander looked around the table for support. "Isn't it?"

"You do have some dodgy mates, don't you, Harris?" Spike said with a smirk.

"Anyway," Willow said quickly before the meeting could get any more derailed, "You're not too late to help. We're trying to figure out what Ethan's up to. See if you can find anything on photos in here." She handed Spike a thick text on voodoo that nobody had gone through yet. "Good luck!"

Spike took the book and went to sit on a lower rung of the restricted section's ladder. Giles settled back to his own task; the book he was reading was written in French, and only barely post-dated the invention of photography. It was slow going, but the author had a bent towards chaos magic, and Giles thought it possible that Ethan might have consulted this text himself.

It wasn't long before Spike started complaining. "This is rubbish," he said, slamming his book shut. "Why don't we just go back to his shop and wring the fucking truth out of him?"

Xander sat back, clearly eager for an excuse to take a break. "Are you volunteering? Oh, wait, you've got a chip in your head."

"Well this is bloody useless," Spike said. "There's nothing in here. It's all fucking gibberish anyway."

"Spike, you've been at it for ten minutes," Giles said, not trying to hide his impatience with Spike's attitude. "Look at Dawn. She's fourteen years old and she's been reading for a good hour—and she's found several potential leads, as well." Dawn flushed under his attention, hiding her grin by raising the book higher. "And I daresay the book she's got is written in a denser style than the one you've got. She'd probably switch if you asked her to."

Spike opened his book again, looking sullen. "It's giving me a fucking pounding headache," he muttered, but he returned to the text.

A few minutes later, Spike put his book down abruptly and left the room. From the muffled sound of a door slamming shut, Giles guessed he'd gone into the toilet. He was just thinking with annoyance that there was no need for Spike to make such a production of it, when he heard the faint but unmistakable sound of someone vomiting.

"Oh dear," Giles murmured, removing his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. He felt terribly weary all of a sudden. The day had been hard enough already, and Spike had a truly irrepressible ability to make a bad situation worse. Giles remembered smelling the alcohol on Spike's breath when he first came into the shop, but he hadn't said anything since Spike hadn't seemed unduly intoxicated. Giles now revised his opinion, and wondered what on earth Spike had been thinking, coming to the Magic Box in such a state.

When Spike came back into the main shop, he looked a bit pale and shaky, but his dark expression implied that anyone saying anything about it would put themselves in dire peril. Of course Giles ignored the empty threat. "How many drinks did you have before you came here?" he asked, his voice deliberately cold. Spike had to understand that his irresponsible behavior was not acceptable—especially in front of Dawn.

"Get off my back, Watcher," Spike returned irritably, bending slowly to pick up the book he'd dropped and then settling back against the ladder. "I had two fucking beers all afternoon." He made a show of ignoring Giles and returning to work—but his hands were shaking.

Before Giles could respond, Xander spoke up. "Spike—at the scrapyard, were you working outdoors?"

Spike looked puzzled at the question. "Well, yeah."

Xander's demeanor was unexpectedly serious; for once, Giles realized, he wasn't just baiting Spike. "Did you have anything to drink besides the beer?" he asked. "Water, or anything?"

Spike shook his head. "No, why?"

"It was ninety-five degrees in the shade today, and I bet you haven't spent a day in the sun since—well, ever." While he spoke, Xander stood up and carried his chair over to Spike. "Here, sit down." He took the heavy book from Spike and laid it aside. "Do you feel dizzy? Like you might pass out?"

Spike shook his head again, but he looked confused. "What the fuck are you on about, Harris?"

"What you're feeling right now, it's called heat exhaustion." Xander looked around at the others. "Anya, could you go soak a towel in cold water?"

Willow jumped to attention. "Oh! He needs fluids! And he should lie down, God, look at him."

Spike appeared unnerved by the sudden attention. "Look, if I could just get a couple aspirin..."

Giles felt very awkward for the aborted scolding he'd given Spike, and even more so for the uncharitable thoughts he'd had. He also felt bad for not realizing himself what was amiss, though of course unlike Xander he'd spent the day in the air-conditioned shop, and so hadn't been thinking of the heat. "We have some aspirin behind the counter," he said, going to get it.

Xander came up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder to get his attention. "You should take him home," he said quietly. "Get him to rest, keep him cool, and get him to drink some water, but slowly. If he gets worse, like if he passes out or something, take him to the hospital. We can handle things here and close up the store."

Spike maintained a broody silence on the short drive back to Giles's flat. "How are you feeling?" Giles asked finally.

"Like a bloody infant," Spike muttered. He was turned away from Giles, resting his forehead against the car window. "Last thing I ever wanted was fucking Harris going all mother hen on me."

"Well, if you'd just be a little more careful—"

Spike suddenly hit the car door with the side of his fist, hard enough to make Giles wince. "Fuck that! It doesn't matter what I do, I'm just useless. Might as well crawl back into my crypt and fucking die."

"Don't be ridiculous," Giles said, gripping the steering wheel harder. Spike's self-pity was irritating, and yet worrying at the same time—because of the strong possibility that he meant every word. "You aren't useless."

"I can't fucking work outside." Spike squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his head back against the headrest. The tendons in his neck strained with tension, but his voice got quieter. "I fainted in the training room, day before yesterday. I couldn't do anything to Ethan but fucking give him dirty looks. How exactly am I not useless?"

"You overexerted yourself the other day, and you've done it again today," Giles said. "Try to keep in mind, you were very ill, and you've only just got back on your feet. You need to give yourself time to recover. Anyone would." He arrived at the flat as he was speaking, and pulled into his parking spot. Spike didn't react to the engine turning off; his fists were clenched in his lap and his eyes were still closed. Sweat stood out on his forehead and he looked pale despite the sunburn; Giles reminded himself that Spike must be feeling very unwell at the moment, and so it wasn't much wonder if he didn't respond to a pep talk. "Come inside," he said more gently. "It's not doing you any good, being upset about it all."

"Feel like I'm gonna be sick again," Spike said, barely above a whisper.

He managed to get out of the car in time, and was sick into the flowerbed by the side of the parking lot. He didn't have much left in his stomach, so Giles didn't worry on account of the flowers. He did worry about Spike, however, who straightened up looking even paler than before. Spike didn't shake off the arm Giles extended, and indeed let himself be led into the flat. He was trembling. Giles brought him to the sofa and then went to get the needed supplies.

Spike let Giles strip off his shirt and cool him off with a wet sponge. The skin under his shirt was ivory-pale, standing in sharp contrast to the dusky burns on his arms and neck. "I'll have to go out and get some sort of lotion for the sunburn," Giles said absently as he tried to sponge off Spike's neck without hurting him. "Tomorrow—were you planning to go back to the scrapyard?"

"Nah, they only wanted me part time. Said they'd call me when they need me again."

Giles tried not to make his relief too obvious. Perhaps later he could gently suggest Spike find other employment—something less strenuous, and more legal. "How are you feeling now?"

"Head's fucking killing me. You never gave me that aspirin," Spike reminded him.

"You should drink some water." Giles handed him the glass he'd brought over earlier. "I expect a bit of sleep would help, as well."

Spike raised his head enough to sip at the water. "Give me a sleeping pill, then."

This again. Giles wasn't eager to face Spike's reaction, but nevertheless he said, "No. I don't think that would be wise." He went on quickly, not giving Spike a chance to respond, "I'm still worried about heat stroke. I don't want you falling into a deep sleep I can't wake you out of."

"I'll take my fucking chances," Spike said, angry, but Giles could see the fear lurking behind the bluster. He couldn't easily dismiss it; he'd seen the effect the nightmares had on Spike. He was sure, however, that it wasn't safe to give Spike sedatives when he was in this state.

"All right, you don't have to go to sleep yet. Why don't you take some aspirin and have a cool shower," Giles suggested. Spike did look now as though he could manage to stand up, at least. "I'll go to the pharmacy and get some aloe for your sunburn. When I get back ... I have some reading to catch up on. Perhaps you could nap a little on the sofa while I do that. I would wake you up if you showed signs of distress. I promise."

Spike gave him a long, measuring look before he said "All right."

It took Giles perhaps half an hour, all told, to drive to the pharmacy and find an appropriate treatment for sunburn. Spike wasn't on the sofa or in the shower when he got back. Feeling a pang of concern, Giles tried upstairs—and was relieved to see Spike curled up asleep on the bed. Relieved, and a bit puzzled. Spike had pushed all the blankets away so he was lying on just the bedsheet, uncovered—but he was wearing Giles's old flannel pajamas, the blue plaid ones with the hole in one elbow. Spike's hair clung to his head in damp curls, which showed he had indeed taken a shower. He was doubtless getting the pillow all wet.

As Giles hesitated in the doorway, trying to decide whether or not to wake him, Spike stirred. He half-opened his eyes and gazed at Giles. "You're back."

"You're in my bed," Giles replied, which was admittedly an inane response. What he meant was, why are you in my bed? Granted, Spike had slept with him last night, but Giles hadn't thought they'd come anywhere close to the point of assuming that such a thing would continue.

"You weren't back yet," Spike said. His voice was muzzy, dreamlike. Giles suspected he wasn't entirely awake.

"You're wearing my pajamas," Giles added.

"Soft," Spike mumbled, closing his eyes again. "Smell like you."

Giles found that he had to put a hand on the doorway for stability. He had quite an odd feeling in his knees, all of a sudden, and in his throat as well. The implication—well, he hadn't imagined that Spike felt—he didn't know what he was thinking. Or what he was feeling. Except that there was more here than a quick, dirty fuck over the kitchen counter.

Spike was breathing softly, apparently asleep again. Giles drew closer to the bed, wondering whether to wake him up properly and offer him the lotion. He decided against it. Spike surely needed the rest, and he could give him the lotion later.

He remembered his promise. He'd told Spike that he would wake him up if he saw signs that the nightmares had returned. But then, Spike hadn't waited for Giles's return—perhaps he'd decided he was all right on his own.

No. Spike was genuinely frightened by his dreams; it was only that his exhaustion had overtaken him. Giles would keep his word and watch over him, for a while at least.

Spike slept peacefully for an hour or more. Giles got through a hundred and twenty-seven pages of Newhall's History of Photography, and was beginning to nod off in his chair, before he became aware of a change in Spike. The slow, heavy breath of sleep had given way to a faster, more shallow rhythm. Giles could see tension in the set of Spike's jaw, and, as he watched, Spike's fingers began to twitch spasmodically.

Giles didn't wait to see if it would get worse—he went and shook Spike's shoulder, gently. "Wake up, Spike."

Spike's eyes popped open and he grabbed Giles's hand by the wrist. His grip was like steel. "What—" he said, and then "Where—," and just when Giles thought he was going to work his way through the rest of the five basic questions of journalism, Spike shuddered and let go, rolling away from Giles to curl up in a tight fetal ball, gasping almost inaudibly "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

"What's wrong?" Giles asked urgently, thinking of the chip. His wrist didn't quite hurt where Spike had grabbed it, but the action might have broached the chip's threshold of tolerance.

"Get away from me," Spike said without turning around. "I'm a monster. Fucking get away from me."

Despite Spike's agitated tone, Giles felt relief—it wasn't the chip. "You were dreaming," he said. "It's all right, Spike. You were only dreaming. You aren't a monster, not anymore."

Spike let loose a hollow laugh. "What do you know, Watcher?"

Giles sat on the bed, close to Spike but not touching. "I know that you must have a soul," he said. "How else could the nightmares affect you so strongly?"

With a deep, shuddering breath, Spike rolled onto his back so that he could meet Giles's gaze. His eyes were wet with tears. "You don't know what I'm dreaming."

"I have ... guessed," Giles said carefully. He wasn't at all sure that talking about it was a good idea. "You were a vampire for a very long time. I imagine that ... memories ... are surfacing, now."

Spike's mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. "You'd think, wouldn't you? But no. I don't dream about what I've done. I dream about what I'm going to do." He pushed himself into a sitting position so his eyes were level with Giles's. "I murder you. All of you. The witches, Harris, Anya, you, ... Dawn." He closed his eyes for a moment, perhaps to revisit the images or escape them. His voice was strained. "I can smell the blood. It's like when I was a vampire, hot and rich. I can hear you all screaming. I can feel the bones crunching under my fists." He shuddered and covered his mouth. He'd gone quite pale, and Giles was afraid for a moment that Spike was going to be sick again.

"It's only a dream," Giles said, gripping Spike's shoulder. "It horrifies you because it's not what you are. It's only your subconscious, trying to work through ... the changes, I suppose." There was a glass of water on the beside table; Giles offered it to Spike. "Have a drink, and try to breathe slowly. I promise you, you're stronger than this."

Spike took the water and did sip at it, spilling a bit around the edges. His hand wasn't steady. He handed the glass back to Giles. "I can't do this," he said. "Every night. I just ... can't."

"You can," Giles said. It was the only possible answer. "I'll help you."


Giles took one of Spike's hands in his and squeezed it. "I'll tell you that it's only a dream. As often as need be."

Spike looked at him. Giles felt the tension—in Spike, in the air between them. They both understood that he was offering much more than the bare words indicated, but the rest could only possibly go unspoken.

"All right," Spike said. And kissed him.

It was very, very different from last night's rough, frantic sex. They progressed slowly through the kisses and gentle caresses. Spike suffered Giles to pause, in the middle, and apply the aloe to his burns. Giles made it into part of the love-play, his fingers rubbing gentle circles into Spike's hot skin, Spike resting his forehead against Giles's breastbone and murmuring little noises from the knife's edge between pain and pleasure. When they progressed to actual intercourse, Giles used a condom and plenty of lubricant—purchased at the drugstore along with the aloe—and he went slowly, drawing out the experience, finding great satisfaction in driving Spike to frustrated, incoherent swearing before increasing the tempo and bringing them to a mutual climax.

And yet one thing was exactly the same as last night: the primary purpose of the sex was not pleasure, but distraction.

They fell asleep with Spike wrapped warmly around Giles, back in the flannel shirt and smelling of aloe and sex. And Giles did not dream of Ethan, or of Buffy dying. That night, he did not dream at all.

Chapter Text

Incredibly, life settled into a routine.

Giles spent his days at the Magic Box, his evenings in the graveyards, and his nights with Spike.

The Bot proved a more than adequate addition to their fighting strength. True, almost every night brought some new glitch in her behavior, and Willow was constantly tinkering with her programming, but she was good at slaying vampires, and the local demon population seemed ready enough to assume that the Slayer was still in perfect health. Giles could almost let himself believe that the ruse would continue indefinitely.

Dawn, having finished her exams successfully, seemed content to spend her summer holidays in the back of the Magic Box, reading dusty old texts and occasionally helping out with customer service. Tara would drop by sometimes and convince her to go out to a matinee, or for a walk in the park to feed the ducks. On one occasion, Willow and Tara took Dawn on a day trip down to Disneyland; although Dawn's enthusiasm beforehand was muted, she came back that night chattering happily about the fireworks display.

Despite the fact that he worked with Anya, and saw Xander, Willow and Tara almost every day, Giles could feel a distance growing between himself and the four of them. Perhaps it was a natural result of the passage of time; they were all four fitting more comfortably into their adult lives now, and their own relationships were becoming more mature, leading to greater independence. Doubtless it also had to do with the loss of Buffy; she was the one who had brought them all together in the first place, and now there was a hollow space in the center of the group, one they all preferred not to mention. But to be sure, a good part of the distance was due to Giles himself pulling away from them with the effort of keeping his relationship with Spike a secret.

Spike's health and spirits were both much improved since those first difficult weeks after his change. He seemed to have finally adjusted to the limitations of his human body, while enjoying a full recovery from the blood poisoning incident. He worked two or three days a week at the scrapyard, bringing in enough money to pay Giles a small sum each fortnight for his share of the flat and groceries. Giles worried about the work, and asked Spike more than once to look for an employer with fewer criminal ties, but Spike did have a point that it was hard to find a job when one had no legal identity—even in a place like Sunnydale.

On the days when he wasn't working, Spike often stopped by the training room in the back of the shop. When Giles walked by the doorway, he would hear the speed bag jingling or the clank of weights being lifted off a rack. He didn't often go to look in on Spike, as when he did so it was very hard to keep his hands off him.

Spike spent every night in Giles's bed, but they left the extra pillow and blankets folded on the sofa for appearance's sake. On the relatively rare occasions when any of the others dropped by the flat, no one seemed to suspect anything. Xander would throw out a jibe, once in a while, about Spike's failure to find a place of his own—but it was clear that Spike wasn't earning enough at the scrapyard to pay rent by himself.

The nights were often difficult. Giles had assumed, at first, that Spike's nightmares would abate once they started sleeping together. He soon came to recognize his own hubris. He couldn't fix Spike. At best, he could try to reach him with calm words and bring him back to himself in the dark of the night, not even daring to hold him until Spike was calm enough to recognize Giles and not, disastrously, strike out at him. In the light of day, they never spoke of it.

And then there was Ethan, and his camera shop. He seemed to be keeping his word. Weeks went by without incident. While research had revealed quite a long list of sinister things that might be accomplished with the aid of a photograph, Ethan didn't seem to be doing any of them. Sometimes on his way home in the evening Giles would go out of his way by a few blocks in order to pass by the Perfect Image, but it was always quiet and dark—perfectly unremarkable. Ethan's presence in town weighed on Giles, but he felt quite helpless to do anything about it—and Spike was always there to help him put it out of his mind.

Having discovered that the Perfect Image was just visible from the Espresso Pump, Willow and Tara did a few daytime "stakeouts." They would report to the Magic Box afterwards buzzing with sugar and caffeine, but with no real news. The same number of customers left the shop as entered it. As the weeks went by, in fact, Ethan seemed to be doing quite a brisk business, while supernatural occurrences in Sunnydale kept to their usual summertime lull. Even the mystery of the quasi-Nordic runestones was solved not with a bang, but with a whimper—they turned out to be the work of the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. After being held at swordpoint by an ex-demon and lectured about the responsible use of runes on a Hellmouth, it was unlikely the poor sods would cause any more trouble.

One day in late July, Willow came into the Magic Box with a thick manila envelope.

"What's that?" Giles asked, looking up from his inventory book.

"Photos," she said, pulling out two stacks of glossy snapshots bound with elastic bands. Since there were no customers in the shop at the moment, Anya and Dawn came up to the counter as well. "I borrowed them from Stephanie—from my Victorian Women Poets reading group? These are from her trip to Italy last year, and these," she said, removing the elastics from first one and then the other set of photos, "are from her trip to Mexico two weeks ago."

Dutifully, without quite understanding the point of it, Giles sifted through the photos. The Italian ones were standard fare: a girl with frizzy brown hair and a great many freckles, presumably Stephanie, standing variously in front of the Galleria degli Uffizi, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, and the rest of Fodor's top ten. Most of them were poorly framed and slightly out of focus.

"Oh, these are beautiful!" Anya exclaimed, looking through the other pile. "I should show these to Xander. I've been trying to convince him to take me to Cancun for our honey—er, next vacation."

Giles took the stack from her and examined the first few photos. The difference in composition was quite striking. The white sands fairly sparkled, the sea and the sky brought a harmonious balance to the whole, and the subject—Stephanie again—looked as though she might have stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. To be sure, she still had the same frizzy hair, the same excessive freckles, but the photo caught her in a moment of windswept exhilaration. She seemed to glow with health and a sort of wild joy. "Has she started dating a professional photographer in the meantime?" Giles asked, handing the photos back to Willow.

Willow shook her head. "Her boyfriend took both sets. Same boyfriend. And he didn't take any photography classes, either—I asked. But the first set was developed last year at Walgreen's, and the second set was developed last week—"

"At Ethan's store," Dawn finished. "Am I right? I'm right, aren't I."

Giles polished his glasses, and took a closer look at the Mexico set. "Interesting."

Non-destructive testing revealed nothing out of the ordinary about the photographs. Willow forbade destructive testing, on the grounds that Stephanie would kill her. "She said they were the best pictures she'd ever got of herself. She was really psyched."

"I know that we've been trying all summer to figure out what Ethan's up to," Xander said, "but has it occurred to anybody that maybe Stephanie's boyfriend just got lucky with the lighting? Just because he took some hot pictures of his girlfriend doesn't mean there's evil afoot."

Tara looked up from the photos, which she was examining for the upteemth time. "Ethan's store is getting really busy. Yesterday, Willow and I watched it for an hour and we saw thirty-seven people go in and out. Two weeks ago he only got five customers in an hour."

"I think it's time to pay him a visit," Giles said—reluctantly. "I'll go alone."

Spike looked up sharply from the deck of cards he'd been shuffling. "Like hell you will."

Xander nodded. "Like he said."

"Bring Willow," Anya suggested. "She's good at magic."

Giles cleared his throat. "If I visit Ethan alone, he's more likely to talk freely."

"More likely to turn you into a kumquat, you mean," Spike muttered, cutting the deck one-handed and subsequently dropping half of the cards onto the floor. "Bugger."

"Are you planning to rough him up?" Willow asked. "Because if you're worried about doing that in front of me, let me tell you, I am so on board."

"Er," Giles frowned at Willow, a bit taken aback, "No. I simply—oh, never mind. Come with me, then." She had been helpful last time, and since his real concern was with what Ethan might say about Giles's penchant for buggery, he was hard put to come up with a reason that would be acceptable to the Scoobies.

"Right then." Spike stood up, leaving his cards scattered on the floor. "Off we go."

Giles shot him an exasperated look. "You are not coming."

"Came last time, didn't I?"

"Spike, you can't do a thing to Ethan."

"Can stand there and look intimidating." Spike slouched against the shelves, putting on a look of casual menace. "Better than any of this lot."

"Hey, I'll have you know that I can intimidate with the best of them," Xander interjected.

Spike raised an eyebrow. "In that shirt? Think the word you're looking for is 'incapacitate with laughter.'"

"That's three words," Anya said, putting her arms around Xander. "And I like his shirt."

"Spike, don't go," Dawn said. "Please? You've got the chip, and it would just be really awful if anything happened."

Spike looked uncomfortable. "Nothing's gonna happen, I promise, Bit."

She glared at him. "You can't promise that."

Giles was relieved to have Dawn on side—she could say things to Spike that he couldn't, not in front of the others. "Willow and I will pay Ethan a short visit. We'll be fine. The rest of you will stay here, and that's final."

Giles and Willow arrived at the Perfect Image just as Ethan was turning the sign on the door from Open to Closed. Ethan looked up, saw them, and hastily tried to lock the door. Giles yanked it open before he could do so. The bell jangled.

"Hello, Ethan," he said.

Ethan stepped back with a grudging smile. "Hello, Ripper."

"We've got one question for you, Bub," Willow said, following Giles into the store. "And you're going to answer it, or you're going to regret it for the rest of your very short life."

Giles winced. "Perhaps you could tone it down a little?" he suggested quietly.

"Ah, right." Willow blushed.

"Ethan, we've come about the photographs," Giles said. "We've seen your work. Now you're going to tell us what, exactly, you're doing to them."

Ethan spread his hands. "Ah. Well. The jig is up. You've caught me in my dastardly plan. I'm making people look good in their holiday snapshots."

"You're altering the images," Giles said. "How? And to what purpose?"

"Oh, come on, Ripper." Ethan hopped up to sit on the counter by the cash register, and swung his legs insouciantly. "It's hard to break into the photo-developing business. I can't compete with Walgreen's prices, or their turnaround time. So I put a harmless—harmless!—glamour on the photos. They come out looking perfect every time, my customers are happy, and I get good word-of-mouth. Bloody hell, I'm doing a public service—making ordinary, unattractive people feel good about how they look."

"Show me," Giles said coldly. "Show me what you do, and how you do it."

Ethan shrugged. "Follow me."

The photo-developing equipment was in the back of the shop. The room had a strong chemical smell. Ethan waited until Willow had closed the door behind her and then, quite suddenly, shut off the lights.

The darkness was total. Giles reached out blindly for Ethan's last location and his hands met flesh—by the feel of it, Ethan's neck. He shoved him in the direction a remembered wall. "Whatever you're up to, Ethan, stop it now or I swear to God I will crush your windpipe." And then he relented enough to let Ethan breathe.

There was a choking laugh. "You wanted to see how I develop the photos. It's a bloody darkroom, Ripper."

"Ah." Giles felt a bit foolish. "Quite." He let go of Ethan and stepped back. "On with it, then."

"I only have to get the film into the drum, and then I can turn on the lights." Ethan proceeded to bustle invisibly about the room, making a variety of small, efficient noises. Giles listened intently for any sign of deception or danger, keenly aware of his own vulnerability.

"I was in photography club, my freshman year at Sunnydale High," Willow mentioned from another part of the darkness. "We used a red safety light in the dark room."

"That would have been black-and-white film," Ethan said. "This is color."

"I know that," Willow said, with a tinge of annoyance. "Just making conversation, here."

"There we are," Ethan said, clicking the lights back on. "Now, the developer." He pushed a button on the contraption that took up most of the space in the room, and there was a whirring noise, and the sound of liquid moving. "You understand, the whole process is going to take over an hour."

Giles crossed his arms. "We're not in a hurry."

So they watched Ethan process the film. In all honesty, Giles knew nothing about the technology, and could only hope that Ethan wasn't managing to pull the wool over his eyes somehow. He was glad that he'd brought Willow along after all—she seemed quite interested in the process, understood more than Giles did, and asked Ethan a lot of questions.

The one magical part of the process stood out rather obviously from the rest. Ethan lit a purple candle, crushed some sweet-smelling herbs, and muttered a short incantation. He actually looked a bit sheepish when he was done. "It's a minor glamour," he said with a self-conscious sort of shrug. "Nothing to write home about."

When it was all finished, Ethan gave Giles a copy of the prints. "Now, this isn't exactly ethical, me giving you someone else's photos," he said with a glint of amusement in his eye. He clasped a hand around Giles's wrist. "So don't go showing them about."

The brief contact almost seemed to burn, and Giles felt his pulse racing. There was no magic at work, however, just Ethan. Giles wrenched his arm free. "I will figure out what you're up to, Ethan," he said. "And believe me, I will stop you."

Ethan stepped back to let them leave the shop. At the last moment, he blew Giles a kiss. "Good night, Ripper!" he called out cheerfully as the bell jangled.

Back at the Magic Box, Spike and Dawn were building a house of cards on the big table. When Giles opened the door, Spike stood up so quickly that he jostled the table and the structure came tumbling down.

"Spi-ike!" Dawn moaned with exasperation. She turned to Giles and Willow. "He's done that three times now. He sucks at this. How'd it go?"

"Yeah," Spike said, leaning back against a bookshelf in a not very successful bid to look casual, "How was old Ethan?"

"He showed us the glamour he's putting on the pictures," Willow said, tossing her shoulder bag onto the floor and taking a seat at the table. "He says it's harmless. Maybe it is? Anyway, at least we got a set of photos of our own so we can run some more tests."

Willow, naturally, wanted to get to work on the photos right away. She said that she had what she needed at home. "Tara and I can handle it," she assured Giles. "We'll let you know if we find anything."

Since the night was still young, the group split up; Willow, Tara and Dawn went back to the Summers house, while Xander, Anya, Giles and Spike took the Bot out for a routine patrol. Patrol turned out to be nothing more than a pleasant stroll around Sunnydale's more scenic graveyards; no vampires appeared, nor demons of any stripe.

It wasn't until he and Spike were back at the flat, sharing a nightcap, that Giles brought up the subject of Spike's earlier irrational behavior. "Why on earth did you try to insist on coming to Ethan's shop?" he asked. "You know that you couldn't possibly have done any good."

"Could've reminded you not to take stupid chances around him," Spike said, giving his glass of scotch a sullen swirl. "What were you doing, playing around with the lights off?"

"That was a perfectly legitimate part of the photographic process," Giles said. "And I was careful." He gave Spike a measuring look. "Are you jealous?"

Spike snorted. "Of Ethan? Bloody hell, Rupert, I know your fucking history. That sodding chaos mage is out to hurt you somehow."

Without quite meaning to, Giles touched the place on his wrist where Ethan had grabbed him. "We can't move against him," he said. "Not without knowing what he's up to—not while he's holding the Buffybot over us."

Spike nodded. "The Bot." He gazed into his glass for a moment, and then took a long drink. "How much longer will it fool everyone, do you think?"

"Sooner or later the Council will catch on. They'll notice the shift of energy in the Slayer line. It's only because of Faith that they haven't noticed yet." Giles sighed. He felt so very weary, suddenly. "Not much longer, I think. It's already been nearly three months."

"Seventy-eight days," Spike said into his glass.

"Ah." Giles looked at Spike for a long moment, and then finished his own drink. "Let's go to bed."

They were both in a maudlin mood, having broached the subject of Buffy. Spike lay on his back, naked, with his head pillowed on his arms. He stared at the ceiling as though he were looking through it and up into the stars. Giles sat beside him with one leg tucked up by his chest, the other one trailing over the edge of the bed.

"What are we doing here?" Spike asked suddenly.

"Er, what?" Giles frowned down at him. With his glasses already on the bedside table, Spike was slightly out of focus. "Going to sleep, I suppose. Unless you're in the mood for something else." They did have sex, most nights—but it seemed that neither of them was quite into it, tonight.

"Don't be dense, Rupert." Spike turned his head to look properly at Giles. "I mean, how much longer is this going on for? Obviously you don't want anyone to know about us, and we can't keep fooling them forever."

"I hadn't thought about it, honestly." Giles could hear his voice going cold—he didn't really want to quarrel, and yet he didn't appreciate Spike bringing this up out of the blue. "I suppose I'm taking it one day at a time."

"It drives me mad, sometimes," Spike said, "Not being able to touch you in front of them."

"You're not touching me now," Giles retorted—which was childish of him, and not the point, but he really wished that Spike would just shut up.

So Spike sat up and kissed him. Of course. He held Giles's face between his hands and kissed him deeply. It was a rough kiss, with an angry edge to it—enough to scare Giles into pulling away.

"God damn it, Spike, be careful," he said, swallowing against a suddenly dry throat. "That almost hurt."

"Fuck the bloody chip," Spike muttered. "You kiss me, then."

Matters progressed swiftly then, to a quick, rough shag. By the end of it, lying sated beside Spike with his hand splayed possessively on Spike's warm, flat belly, Giles couldn't quite remember why he'd been annoyed with him in the first place.

Until Spike opened his mouth again.

"You're ashamed of me, aren't you."

Giles winced. "Good Lord, can't we just go to sleep?"

"It's because of what I was, innit?" Spike continued, ignoring Giles. "I understand and all. Makes me sick to think about. I can't exactly change the past, though, can I?"

Reluctantly, Giles let himself become engaged in the conversation. Little as he wanted to talk about any of this, he knew that he owed Spike more than another curt dismissal. "It's not that. I'm not ashamed." He rolled up onto one elbow so that he could see Spike properly. He wasn't quite prepared for the vulnerability he saw in Spike's eyes. "This ... what we have ... it's private," he said, fumbling now, awkward with the sudden realization that he might actually hurt Spike with his words. "If the others found out, it would all become much more difficult. They're not likely to understand."

"They might surprise you."

Giles sighed. "And what if they did? They'd have questions. How did it happen? How serious is it? What are our plans?" He shook his head. "I'm not prepared to face the light of day."

Spike gazed at him sideways. "And you don't want them to know you're a poof."

"Well, I'm not."

Spike's lips twitched. "Me neither," he said. "Just ... bloody hell, just promise to give me a warning first when you get tired of this, would you?"

The correct response at this point, Giles understood, would be to swear his undying love or some such thing. It didn't have to be true, even—only heartfelt enough to assuage some of Spike's insecurity.

"I'm sorry," he said instead. And watched the panic flicker behind Spike's eyes. God, Spike needed so badly to be loved. To belong. Giles hadn't seen it before, but it had always been there—in the pages of the Watchers' diaries, even, in the records of his relationship with Angelus and with Drusilla. "I care for you," he said. "Much more than I expected to. Truly, Spike, I don't want to hurt you. But I can barely think beyond tomorrow, let alone next week. If you want me to ... to define this thing between us, well, I can't. Not yet."

Spike rolled over, away from Giles. "Whatever. Let's go to sleep."

"Bloody hell," Giles said softly. It was all getting annoying and awful, and this was why he hadn't wanted to talk about it in the first place. He reached over to turn off the light, and then, in the darkness, put his arms around Spike. Spike was tense, unyielding, but he didn't object to Giles's embrace. "I'm sorry," Giles said again. "I don't know what I'm doing."

Spike responded with a sharp, choking laugh. "Who the fuck does?"

Willow and Tara's tests revealed nothing strange about the photographs other than the glamour that they already knew about. Giles's own investigations revealed nothing more. Whatever Ethan was playing at, he had yet to show his hand.

As summer wore on, Sunnydale was gripped in a sort of photographic frenzy. Frankly, Giles wasn't sure how Ethan was even keeping up with the demand. Perhaps working such long hours was actually keeping him out of trouble.

Not likely, but Giles could hope.

It became common for businesses up and down Main Street to put up bulletin boards for the proud display of patrons' photos. Most car windows would sport one or two of their own, taped picture-side-out for all the world to see. It was impossible to go anywhere in Sunnydale without running into an enthusiastic amateur photographer. The citizens of Sunnydale could not simply relax and enjoy the summer anymore; they had to pose.

Even Willow got briefly caught up in the fever. Giles was alarmed when he first saw the camera in her hand, but she shrugged it off with an awkward smile. "It's just, everyone's taking pictures, and it made me think," she said. "We haven't got any since, you know, before." She hesitated. "Dawn's growing up, everything's changing—there should be pictures."

Giles couldn't argue with her, not really. Life did go on. "Just, for the love of God, don't bring them to Ethan."

She laughed. "Don't be silly. Walgreen's is cheaper anyway."

Anya celebrated her birthday in August. For an arbitrarily-chosen date, she certainly did make a fuss about it. She dropped not-quite-casual reminders into unrelated conversations for two full weeks beforehand.

Xander hosted the party. Dawn and Tara spent the afternoon in his apartment, putting up streamers and balloons, while Giles endured Anya's excited, distracted presence at the Magic Box. Willow baked a halfway decent chocolate cake. Spike's main contribution was in showing up at all, but he did make an effort to buy Anya a proper present: a turtleneck sweater in toffee-colored wool, bought with his wages from the scrapyard. "Thought it'd be good for patrolling," he said a bit awkwardly. "What with the chilly nights comin' on."

Anya beamed with delight and gave Spike a big hug. Then Xander told Spike to get his grubby hands off of her, but he said it mildly—no real offense given or taken.

All in all, it was a lovely evening.

Afterwards, as they lay in bed together, Giles asked Spike, "Do you think you might pick a birthday for yourself, like Anya did?"

"Hadn't thought about it," Spike said. "S'pose I should. Gonna start getting older now—be a good idea to keep track."

He sounded perfectly complacent about it. Giles found himself a bit curious. "Does it bother you?" he asked. "The prospect of ageing?"

"Nah," Spike said. "Just part of being human, innit?"

"You weren't so philosophical about it at the start of summer," Giles reminded him. He reached for Spike's right hand and turned it over to show the palm. The scar ran diagonally across it, pink and shiny. Giles ran a finger across it. Spike shivered once, and closed his hand on Giles's. Spike's skin was callused now, from his work at the scrapyard. "You nearly let yourself die," Giles said quietly.

"Yeah. Well, that was bloody stupid of me." Spike brought up their twined hands to his lips, and brushed a kiss across Giles's knuckles. "I never said—thanks. For stopping me."

Giles felt his eyes prickling with tears, which was really quite ridiculous. "You're welcome," he said, rather more roughly than he meant to. And then actions took over from words, and they showed each other that it was good to be alive.

Chapter Text

Giles found the beginning of September particularly difficult. Perhaps it was because there had been summers in the past when Buffy had gone away, but she had always returned as the new school year began. Now Giles would catch himself staring out the window of the Magic Box in the middle of the afternoon, fighting down a fresh wave of grief, unable to turn to a customer and ask "paper or plastic?"

Spike, for whom September held no particular associations, seemed to understand. They never spoke of it, but he certainly caught Giles's mood. He was very perceptive, in his own way. He would hand Giles a tumbler of Scotch at bedtime, and afterwards undress him and lead him to the bed, settle himself on Giles's cock and ride him until they were both trembling and sweating, until all thoughts were driven away and there was only flesh and heat and carnal desire.

It got them through the nights.

The rest of the group seemed to be doing all right. Perhaps it was the resilience of youth. Giles got the sense that they were managing to look forward now, rather than backward. Willow and Tara returned to their classes at the university; Xander and Anya exchanged secret looks that made Giles blush when he caught them. Dawn began spending more time with her school friend, Janice, which was a relief—a girl Dawn's age really shouldn't be spending all of her time with a bunch of adults and dusty books.

As for Ethan, he'd been quiet for so long that Giles had nearly forgotten about him; whole days would pass when he didn't give him a single thought.

That was a mistake.

The crisis finally came to a head on a Wednesday afternoon. The air was hot and heavy; despite their rarity in Southern California, Giles thought perhaps there was a thunderstorm brewing.

The Magic Box was quiet, as was to be expected at that time of day. Giles was giving the shelves a careful dusting, while Anya was sorting through last month's invoices. Spike was in the training room, lifting weights; he'd left the door open for air circulation, due to the heat, and as Giles worked his way around the shelves he stole an occasional glimpse. Spike was working out shirtless, and he was really quite pleasant to look at.

Anya closed the invoice book and opened a drawer. A moment later she let out a yelp of dismay.

"What is it?" Giles asked, going quickly to her side.

"Oh my God," Anya said, holding up the offending object so that Giles could see, "It's Xander. Eating a pig."

It was a photograph. Xander was framed in the center of it, looming over a half-eviscerated pig that was, quite clearly, in the midst of terrified death throes. Xander's mouth and hands gleamed red with blood, and he had a terrifying, feral look in his eyes. There were other individuals in the picture as well, partaking in the gruesome feast; they all looked familiar, but it took Giles a moment to place them. "Good lord," he said as it came back to him. "That's Herbert."

"Who?" Anya asked.

"The pig. He was, er, briefly a mascot at the high school."

Anya handed him the photo. "It's clearly some sort of demonic ritual, and Xander looks like he's possessed. When did Xander ever invite the spirit of a demon into him? He never told me about this!"

Giles stared down at the photo, both appalled and perplexed. "But this photograph can't exist. I'm quite sure that there was nobody in the room at the time taking pictures."

"Uh oh," Anya said, biting her lip. She yanked the drawer open the rest of the way and rifled through it. "I had a picture of Xander hidden in here," she said. "It's gone now. It's—it's changed into that, hasn't it?"

Giles looked down at the picture in his hand, feeling a terrible suspicion dawning. Despite the revolting subject matter, the photo really was quite nicely composed. "This was one of Ethan's photos," he said. "Wasn't it."

Anya gave a guilty wince. "Willow said not to tell you," she said. "But we thought they were harmless, and it was such an attractive picture of Xander."

By now Spike had caught on that something was up. He came out into the main shop pulling on a fresh black t-shirt. "What's the trouble?" he asked.

Giles handed him the picture.

Spike looked at it and blanched. "Bugger," he said faintly, dropping it on the counter. "Didn't know Harris bent that way."

"He was possessed by a hyena spirit at the time," Giles said. "Anya—this is important. Do you have any more of the photos?"

"No, Willow just gave me that one, since it was Xander." She thought for a second. "Wait! There was that whole set you got from Ethan yourself. We've still got some of those." She knelt and opened the cupboard underneath the cash, and pulled out a brown envelope. "Here."

Only a few photos from that set remained after the barrage of testing to which they'd been subjected over the summer. Giles spread the remnants out on the counter. They depicted a child's backyard birthday party—all bright colors and laughing children, beautifully captured. They hadn't changed since the last time Giles had seen them.

"Maybe it was only our set that changed," Anya said hopefully.

Giles shook his head. "Or only this set that didn't. Ethan made it for us specifically. I am such a bloody old fool."

"I'm missing something," Spike said. "Why exactly do we have a picture of Harris ripping a pig apart?"

"Ethan's photos," Giles said. "There was another spell on them, one we didn't detect. And now they're ... changing, it would seem."

Spike took another quick, horrified glance at the picture of Xander and the pig. "Into what?"

"I think I had better find out," Giles said grimly. "You two try to get in touch with everyone, make sure they're all right. Tell them to meet here."

"Where are you going?" Spike demanded, moving to block Giles's exit. "To Ethan?"

"Of course," Giles said. "Now get out of my way, there's no time for this."

"Not alone," Spike said stubbornly. "I'm coming with you."

"If everyone's photos are changing into something horrible the way mine did, it's going to be chaos out there," Anya pointed out. "It might be dangerous."

"Exactly," Spike said.

Giles gave Spike a steady look. "And if I ran into trouble, on the way or with Ethan, what would you do?"

Spike lowered his gaze. His jaw twitched, but he didn't answer.

"I'll not risk you," Giles said quietly.

It was the closest he'd ever come to expressing affection for Spike in front of a third party, and it earned an odd look from Anya—but it did the trick. Spike stepped to the side to let Giles pass. "Be careful, Rupert," he said, his worry painfully evident.

"I will," Giles promised, and walked out the door.

The streets were quiet, in fact—nearly deserted. As he walked past closed doors, Giles heard people shouting. On one street corner, a petite woman was raging against a man—her boyfriend, perhaps?—who was barely managing to hold her at arm's length and evade her kicks. They didn't seem to pose a real physical danger to each other, so Giles kept his brisk pace and passed them by.

On his way, he glanced at some of the photos that had been proudly taped in the windows of the cars parked along the edge of the street. Although he had no idea what they had originally depicted, it seemed a safe bet that many of them had changed. A great many were sexual in nature now, frequently downright pornographic. Others depicted scenes of violence, more akin to Xander and the pig. In one extreme example, a dark-haired man seemed to be strangling an elderly woman. Giles shuddered, and moved on.

The Perfect Image was quiet and dark. The sign on the door quite emphatically declared the shop to be "Closed." Giles tried the handle anyway, and found it to be locked.

He might be able to pick it, but he had neither the tools nor the time. He found a chunk of broken concrete instead, and heaved it through the glass door. The glass made a tinkling, glittering diamond shower, and then the doorway was empty. Giles stepped through; glass crunched under the hard soles of his shoes.

There was no sign of Ethan in the shop nor in the darkroom, but a door at the back of the darkroom opened onto a set of stairs. Giles climbed them quickly; after the way he had entered the store, he had pretty much lost the chance for stealth.

At the top of the stairs was a bachelor flat, and Ethan in the middle of it, stuffing a suitcase.

He looked up at Giles's footfall. "Well now," he said with a nasty smile, "This all has a bit of the familiar about it, doesn't it?"

"What is this all about, Ethan?" Giles asked, stepping away from the stairs. "Revenge? What do you stand to gain?"

"Come on now, Ripper, you don't begrudge me a bit of fun, do you?" Ethan's ebullience sent a shiver down Giles's back. "You have to admit, it was a beautiful spell. Appeal to the vanity of the masses until there are pictures, pictures, everywhere, and then—" he snapped his fingers, "every single photo shows a moment that the subject doesn't want anyone to see. Sheer poetry! Glory to Janus!" He paused, hands on his suitcase, gazing at Giles with a smile curling at his lips. "But ask me what the best part was."

"I'm sure you'll tell me," Giles said. He was watching Ethan's hands, watching his eyes—his every nerve was on edge.

"I got a picture of you!" Ethan crowed, and pulled it out from his suitcase.

Despite himself, Giles stepped forward to look.

There he was, naked, with Spike bent over in front of him. It was their first time together, in the kitchen. Fucking over the kitchen counter. The photo showed them both to full advantage; Spike with his alabaster skin and smooth curves of muscle, Giles dominating him with an animal ferocity.

"I think the Watcher's Council will enjoy seeing this," Ethan said, tucking the picture into his breast pocket. "Perhaps they'll put it up on the icebox in the kitchenette." There was an angry edge to his voice now; some part of Giles wondered whether Ethan had got more than he bargained for, with that particular photo.

"Give it to me," Giles said, extending his hand.

"After all the trouble I went to, getting it?" Ethan rolled his eyes and laughed. "Never mind setting up the shop and keeping it going all summer—you should ask your little witch if you can see her thirty pieces of silver. That book was hard to come by, let me tell you. Can't imagine what she wants with it."

Giles felt a cold knot forming in his belly. He might be lying, he reminded himself. Willow had hidden the truth about the photos from him, but not from Anya; she'd been foolish, but that didn't make her complicit. "You'll want to give me the photo," he said. "Whatever blackmail you have planned, it won't work. And look at us—here we are, alone in this room, and I'm between you and the stairs. We both know how this will end." He flexed his hands; he was stronger than Ethan, and Ethan well knew it.

"Oh, but Ripper," Ethan said softly, "I don't want to blackmail you. I want to destroy you." And then he flung his hands out—his open, empty hands—and an unseen force struck Giles hard enough to slam him against the wall and hold him there with his feet six inches off the floor.

His first thought was that Ethan must have borrowed the power from somewhere, because he certainly never could have managed something like this on his own. His second thought was that he couldn't breathe very well, and that he was in rather a lot of trouble.

"Did you spare me a thought, I wonder?" Ethan asked, walking towards Giles. He kept his left hand raised, miming the stance he would need to physically hold up Giles by the neck. The gesture was his focus, Giles realized. If only he could disrupt it, the power would dissipate. But then, in order to disrupt it he would have to move, which he couldn't do as long as Ethan was holding him immobile. It was quite a dilemma. "After you handed me over to those paramilitary goons, did you think at any point—Oh, I should check on Ethan. I wonder whether the Initiative adheres to the Geneva convention?" Ethan's fingers twitched, and the pressure at Giles's throat grew momentarily greater. His breath was barely able to wheeze through his windpipe now, and speech was quite impossible. "Let me assure you," Ethan went on, "they don't. They didn't consider me human, Ripper. They shot me up with God-knows-what to see whether I would grow wings or a tail or whatever the hell it was they were looking for. My throat went so raw from screaming that I couldn't even speak. They kept me locked in a concrete cell, threw in a little food once in a while, hosed me down once a week before dragging me out to poke me and prod me and stick cold metal under my flesh. And then do you know what I did, Ripper?" He was very close to Giles now. His upraised hand was shaking, and there were tears in his eyes. "I fucking escaped."

There were black spots dancing in Giles's vision; oxygen deprivation was setting in, and he knew he didn't have long before he blacked out entirely. He wished he could tell Ethan that at the time he had given him to the Initiative, he hadn't fully understood what he was doing. He wished he could tell him that he had thought of him, that he had made inquiries through what few channels remained to him, that it had come to nothing. He wished he could tell Ethan that he shouldn't have turned Giles into a bloody Fyoral demon in the first place. But he couldn't speak; he could only mouth the words: I'm sorry.

And then he saw movement behind Ethan. White hair; a black t-shirt. A swinging fist. And then falling. Giles falling, coughing, released from the magical stranglehold. Ethan falling sideways, his features slack. And Spike on his knees, clutching his head, screaming.

"Spike!" Giles gasped, barely able to get the word out around the pain in his throat. He scrambled onto his feet and stumbled forward. The screaming had stopped. Spike was very still. Giles reached out desperately, grabbed his shoulders. "Spike," he croaked, "can you hear me?"

Spike lifted his head and managed a weak grin. "That wasn't so bad, now, was it?"

Giles couldn't speak—he thought he might pass out from sheer relief. He grabbed Spike's face and kissed him again and again. "Oh God," he murmured, resting his forehead against Spike's. "Don't ever do that again."

"Ethan," Spike reminded him. "Don't think he's quite out cold. Better tie him up or something."

Indeed, Ethan was already stirring. One cheek was red and puffy and bleeding a little; Spike had hit him hard. Giles went first for Ethan's breast pocket and pulled out the photograph. He ripped it into confetti without taking another look. "Do you see any rope?" he asked Spike. "Or an extension cord, perhaps? Anything we could use to bind his hands."

"Inna minute," Spike said. His words were slurred; Giles looked up with alarm. "Little dizzy here." Spike had stood up; now he made as if to sit back down, but halfway there he simply crumpled. His head hit the wooden floor with a dull thud. There was a trickle of blood coming out of his nose.

Giles froze for a moment in shock and disbelief. Spike had been fine, he'd spoken—"Spike?"

There was no answer.

Leaving Ethan as he was, Giles rushed to Spike's side. "Spike?" he said again, shaking Spike's shoulder. He couldn't get a response, not even a moan. He pressed his fingers against the pulse point in Spike's neck—and felt nothing. No pulse.

There was a sound behind Giles. He turned quickly and saw that Ethan had staggered to his feet.

"What happened to your little boyfriend?" Ethan asked, clutching his hand to his cheek.

"You must have a phone," Giles snapped. "Ring 911. Tell them to come here immediately." He rolled Spike fully onto his back and tilted his chin up. "I'm going to start CPR. If you try anything, Ethan, I swear I will kill you quickly and mercilessly."

"But what happened?" Ethan repeated; he looked rather woozy himself. "Did I do that?"

"No," Giles said. "The Initiative did."

"Oh." Ethan contemplated that for a moment, and then laughed. "Well, that is certainly poetic. I think I'll take my leave now, Ripper. Be seeing you."

Busy with the unrelenting rhythm of chest compressions, Giles watched helplessly as Ethan stumbled across the room to grab his suitcase and then made his way to the stairs.

"Oh," Ethan said, pausing at the top of the flight, "The phone's on the wall by the stove." And then he left.

Giles rang 911 himself, and then kept up the CPR until the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. The ambulance ride was a blur. He finally found himself washed up like a piece of flotsam in the ER waiting room, staring at the pay phone and trying to remember the number for the Magic Box.

When he reached Anya, she told him that everyone was there. He told her what had happened. She said that everyone would come right away to the hospital. He didn't want them to, but he didn't know how to tell her so.

He thought there was something he had wanted to ask Willow about, too, something important, but he couldn't remember what it was. So it couldn't have been that important after all.

A doctor called him aside before the others arrived. She had pictures of Spike's brain on crisp pieces of film, clipped all over a white light panel. There was a bright, shining white rectangle in the middle of Spike's brain. The doctor tapped it, looking puzzled, saying something about a foreign object. It was the chip, of course. In any place other than Sunnydale, this might have led to awkward questions; in Sunnydale, even the doctors had learned to keep their questions to themselves.

"Can you remove it?" Giles asked her.

The doctor shook her head. "It's in way too deep. I have no idea how it got there in the first place. Besides, it wouldn't help. See the extent of the hemorrhage?" She tapped the film in several places; to Giles, it all looked grey. "The damage is done."

"But he's alive," Giles said.

The doctor crossed her arms, managing a look of professional sympathy. "There are machines doing the work of his heart and lungs," she said. "But there's almost no brain activity."

"But there is ... some ... activity," Giles persisted. "That means that there is some chance of recovery?"

The doctor shook her head. "I'm sorry. He's in a very deep coma. Statistically speaking, the chance of recovery is effectively zero. We'll put him in a bed and monitor him tonight, but you need to start preparing to remove life support. Is there any other family to consult? Have you thought about organ donation?"

"No," Giles said. The pictures on the wall were blurry; he removed his glasses and rubbed them clean, but it didn't help. "I don't think that would be a good idea."

It was left to Giles to tell the others. This was fortunate, in a way; the necessity of holding himself together for the task helped him past the first, unbearable moments when he most wanted to rage at the world and smash things.

They all took the news rather quietly. Dawn huddled in a chair, tears streaming down her face, but she let Willow and Tara hold her. Xander stood with his hands in his pockets, looking awkward and sad.

"I'm sorry," Anya said quietly. "After you left, I couldn't stop him from following you. I mean I ... I didn't stop him. We were worried about you. I thought maybe he could help somehow."

"He did," Giles said. "If he hadn't intervened when he did, Ethan might very well have killed me." His eyes were prickling with tears. He removed his glasses and polished them vigorously, trying to regain control. "I shouldn't have gone alone, Spike was right about that," he added brusquely. "I should have waited for Willow, or gone and fetched the Bot. If I hadn't let Ethan get the jump on me—" He couldn't quite get to the end of the sentence. And then he found himself abruptly being hugged. Anya's cheek was wet against his neck.

"It's not your fault," she whispered.

Giles wished he could believe her.

They each took a turn alone with Spike to say good-bye. Dawn took the longest; Xander took the shortest, but he did take a turn, and when he emerged from the room his eyes were red-rimmed and he went to Anya immediately for a long, tight hug.

Giles went last, and he told the others not to wait for him. They protested, but he insisted, making vague references to extensive paperwork that would need to be done. Anya helped, pointing out that everyone needed to get home and rest, particularly Dawn, and that Giles could take a taxi to avoid walking home alone in the dark. It made Giles wonder whether Anya had guessed the true nature of his relationship with Spike; certainly if she had, she was being uncharacteristically discreet about it.

Finally he found himself alone with Spike. He took a seat by the side of the bed. The life support machine sighed a soft, steady rhythm in time with the rise and fall of Spike's chest.

He looked alive. There was a pink flush to his skin underneath the suntan from his summer work at the scrapyard. Giles picked up one of his hands, clasped it between his own. Spike's hand was warm. He looked for all the world as if he were only sleeping. It brought back the memory of all those nights, watching over him.

Spike was safe from the nightmares now, at least. The doctor had been quite clear; there was no higher brain function at all, and hardly any lower. Only just barely enough to prevent them from declaring brain death and having done with it. Only enough that removing the life support would mean, technically, killing him.

In fact, Spike was lingering at the obscene juncture of technology, medicine and economics. A hundred years ago—if this injury had happened during his first, natural lifetime—he would simply have died. But the machines of the twenty-first century were capable of keeping his body alive for quite some time. They could support him for days, weeks, perhaps even months, to give him every chance for the tiny flicker of brain activity to grow into something more.

The chance of recovery was 'effectively' zero, the doctor had said. Effectively.

And each day on full life support cost a great deal of money.

Giles turned over Spike's hand and looked at the scar on his palm. He traced it with his finger, and then curled Spike's fingers into a fist and closed his own hands around it. And finally, wordless, Giles bowed his head and wept.

He didn't take a taxi home; he preferred to walk. He had told the doctor that he would return in the morning and, if nothing had changed, give the order to turn off the life support.

He did not think that he wanted to sleep. Certainly not in the bed he had shared with Spike last night.

After a time, he found himself heading for Buffy's grave. It seemed like an appropriate place to keep the night's vigil. Admittedly, it wasn't the safest place, but grief made Giles reckless.

The grave was hidden away at the edge of the woods, impossible to see until you were almost upon it. Between the dark of night and the shadows of the trees, Giles could barely make out the pale gravestone itself—and he completely failed to notice the black-clad figure standing perfectly still beside it.

"Giles?" Angel said, turning to face him.

Startled, Giles fell back a step. "Angel," he returned, controlling his voice with an effort. "I didn't expect to find you here."

"I didn't expect to find anyone at all," Angel said. "Especially after dark." He frowned. "Are you alone? It's not really safe, you know."

"I know," Giles acknowledged tightly. "It's been a trying day. I thought you were in Sri Lanka?"

"I'm just on my way home."

"Were you planning to let us know you were in Sunnydale?"

Angel shook his head. "No reason to. I was only visiting ... her."

They both looked at the gravestone, and stood there for a few moments in mutual uncomfortable silence.

Giles hoped that Angel would leave quite soon. Whatever peace of mind Giles had sought here, he certainly wouldn't find it in Angel's presence.

Of course, he had never found peace here in the past. Standing over Buffy's grave he was filled now, as always, with the bitter memory of the last moments of her life, and the aching question of what he might have done differently. How he might have saved her.

Spike had carried that burden as well, Giles knew. Giles wondered how much Spike's guilt over losing the fight atop Glory's tower had played into his reckless attack on Ethan.

Angel cleared his throat. "So ... how are things?"

It took Giles a moment to process the question. He couldn't quite fathom that Angel would attempt small talk at a time, a place, like this.

"With the Hellmouth, I mean," Angel clarified.

"Ah," Giles said. "It's still there."

"I meant, I wondered ... if you needed help, or something. Are Willow and Xander still working with you?"

"They are." Giles wondered whether Angel was actually offering help, or just idly asking.

No, that was unfair—of course Angel was offering. Perhaps he even felt some sense of responsibility or guilt himself, standing over this grave. Perhaps Angel wondered whether events with Glory would have fallen out differently, had he himself stayed in Sunnydale.

But Angel returning to Sunnydale was not a prospect Giles would welcome. Useful as he might be as a fighter, Giles neither liked nor trusted him. "There are others, as well," Giles added. "Another witch, and a very resourceful ex-demon. We've also happened to acquire a robot, who makes quite an effective fighter." He paused, and then added on a perverse impulse, "And then of course there was Spike."

He didn't want to talk about Spike. Not now, not to Angel. And yet here he was, saying the words.

"Spike?" Angel repeated.

"You know about the behavior chip the Initiative implanted in his brain, I believe?"

Angel nodded. "I'd heard."

"It led to a rather unusual stalemate between him and us. Eventually he began actively helping us." Giles hesitated. "Buffy had rather a lot to do with it."

Angel made a disbelieving sort of noise. "Spike and Buffy worked together to defeat Angelus. That doesn't make him a force for good."

"Certainly not," Giles agreed. "He had his own reasons for helping at that time. And later, as well. At times we paid him. Sometimes I think he was motivated by sheer boredom." That got a reaction from Angel—a suppressed snort of laughter. "But finally he came to ... to respect Buffy." Giles was still not entirely comfortable thinking of the feelings Spike had claimed, as a vampire, to have for Buffy, and he knew that Angel would not react well if he described them. Even now, he could see Angel turning to him in disbelief. "He fought alongside us in the end, against Glory, for Buffy's sake," he said.

"And then he left," Angel concluded.

"No." The conversation was becoming quite painful. Giles wished he had not begun it, and yet he didn't want to let it go. It was as though he could camouflage his loss by conjuring up Spike in his words. "No, he stayed. He had promised Buffy, you see, that he would continue to protect Dawn. His help was invaluable in the first weeks after Buffy died." So much so, Giles remembered, that when Spike had first turned human, Giles had regretted the loss of a powerful ally.

And then Giles thought, for the first time, about the opportunity implied by Angel's presence.

"Is something wrong?" Angel asked abruptly.

Giles almost flinched, but managed not to. He cleared his throat. "Why do you ask?"

"Your heartbeat just went up."

"I had a thought, that's all. As I said before, I've had a very difficult day." In fact, Giles was now caught between hope and horror; there was a way to save Spike, but it went against everything he stood for as a Watcher.

"Somebody tried to choke you," Angel observed.

"Ah. Yes." Giles touched his neck. His voice still rasped in his throat a bit, and of course Angel might even be able to see the faint bruises, despite the darkness. "There was a fight. I lost."

"Couldn't have lost that badly," Angel said. "You're still here."

"Only because Spike intervened."

"Oh." Angel hunched his shoulders, put his hands in his pocket. "So he's still ... I thought ... you were talking about Spike in the past tense."

"He's still here." Giles hugged his arms around his chest; the night seemed to be getting rather chilly. "Barely. He's dying."

Angel stared at him. It was a long moment before he spoke. "I don't understand."

"Quite right. I'll back up a bit. About three months ago Spike had a run-in with a demon whose blood had an extremely powerful healing effect—so powerful that it actually brought him back to life. As a human."

Surprisingly, Angel gave a curt nod. "I know the species."

"Ah." Giles cast a sidelong glance at Angel—but at any rate, he was clearly still a vampire, so he couldn't have had the same sort of encounter that Spike had had. "Well. Since becoming human, he's continued fighting alongside us, defending Sunnydale. It wasn't easy for him at first, but he proved stronger than any of us gave him credit for—even himself."

"That doesn't sound like the Spike I know." There was a great deal of bitterness in Angel's response.

"Perhaps not." Giles was careful to modulate his voice, to keep the emotion out of it. With any hint of emotion he risked opening a floodgate. "But he was injured today, saving my life. He's in the hospital now, in a coma. He is not going to wake up." He turned to Angel, looked him straight in the eye. "I want you to turn him."

Angel stared at him. "No."

"There is no reason to lose him, not with you here. He will help us again as a vampire, as he did before. There is a ... a continuity of experience when one is turned. He will remember everything."

"I'm not going to turn him," Angel said, turning away. "You don't understand what you're asking of me." He began to leave.

"I think I do," Giles said, coldly enough to stop Angel in his tracks. "Angel ... you once murdered my lover." Angel stiffened, but Giles kept talking. "You left her on my bed for me to find. You captured me. You tortured me. I think it is fair to say that you owe me a very great debt. And now I'm calling it in."

Angel turned towards Giles again, disbelief in his eyes. "For Spike?"

"Yes. For Spike."

"I can't believe this," Angel said. "You should be the last person in the world who'd—you know what he'll be. Soulless. Evil."

"He'll be exactly what he was before an arbitrary twist of fate turned him human," Giles pointed out.

Angel scowled. "William the Bloody. Scourge of Europe."

"There is the chip now. He has changed, and ... and if he is given the chance, I think he will continue to do so."

"So what if the chip breaks down?" Angel asked. "Sooner or later he slips his leash, and people will die."

Giles couldn't say that he was wrong, not really. But he held Angel in a cool, level gaze, and said, "By that logic Buffy should have staked you when you came back from hell."

"Maybe she should have," Angel muttered.

"But she didn't."

In the long silence that followed, Giles wondered what Angel could see with his vampire senses, what he could smell. Angel had never seemed particularly observant of people and the relationships between them, but Angelus had; the capacity was there.

"Whoever it was you got to know over the summer," Angel said finally, "that's not who you'll get back."

Giles nodded. "I understand."

"Then let's go," Angel said abruptly, and he walked away with a quick angry stride that left Giles scrambling to catch up.

Giles told the doctor that he was ready. It was past midnight, but that seemed to be all right. There was a bit of paperwork to fill out. Angel lurked at the edge of Giles's vision, glowering. Then a nurse brought them into the room. She pressed a few buttons on the life support machine. "When you're ready," she said, "You can turn it off by pressing this button. The alarms have been turned off. He might keep breathing for a moment or two, but don't worry, he won't feel any pain."

And then they were alone.

"He looks different," Angel said.

Giles nodded. "He's been alive all summer. It has an effect." He cleared his throat. "Well? Are you ready?"

Angel answered with a barely perceptible nod.

Giles touched the button that the nurse had indicated. The machine sighed once more, and then there was silence. Spike's chest rose once, and fell, and did not rise again.

"Now," Giles whispered, suddenly terrified that Angel would renege at the last second. "You have to do it now." And then he was looking at the face of a vampire.

Angel's eyes flashed yellow, angry. He fixed his gaze on Giles for a moment, sending shivers down Giles's spine, and then he bent his head to Spike's neck. He did not bite at first; rather, he inhaled deeply.

Giles took Spike's hand in his own and squeezed it. "Do it," he said.

Angel growled softly, and then bit. The sounds of feeding were unnaturally loud in the still, small room. Giles kept a hold of Spike's hand, well past caring what Angel might make of the gesture.

It seemed to take a long time for Angel to finish. When he lifted his head, his fangs dripped with blood; it took Giles quite an effort not to flinch. Then Angel raised his own wrist to his mouth. When he lowered it, there were two small puncture holes leaking thick dark blood. He held out his wrist to Giles.

"You do it," he said. "If this is what you really want—do it yourself."

Giles hadn't anticipated this. For a moment, he almost balked. But then he remembered Spike coming up behind Ethan and acting without hesitation to save Giles's life; he remembered Spike in his bed, smiling, trailing his fingers over his skin.

Giles swept a finger across Angel's wrist and picked up the cold, sluggish blood. He had to let go of Spike's hand to part his lips, and then he brushed his bloody finger against the inside of Spike's warm cheek. He nearly pulled away when Spike's lips closed on his finger and he began to suck, but Angel stopped him with a heavy hand on his shoulder. "He's not alive now," Angel said. "That's the demon."

And then Spike went limp again, and perfectly still.

Sunnydale being what it was, no medical staff commented on the puncture wounds at Spike's neck, or the fact that their comatose patient had died of blood loss. The body was released into Giles's custody at one o'clock in the morning. With the help of Angel and his car, Giles brought Spike's corpse to the crypt where Spike had previously set up house. It seemed appropriate.

"Are you sure about this?" Angel asked after they laid Spike out on the floor.

"It's a bit late to be asking that," Giles commented mildly.

"I mean...." Angel shuffled his feet, looking uncomfortable, "I can stay, if you want." Since the hospital, his demeanor had changed; in the presence of Spike's dead body, it seemed as though Angel's own mood had become rather brittle. "Until he wakes up. It might not be tonight."

"No," Giles said. "I would rather you didn't."

Angel nodded, and went to the door. Then he turned back to Giles—and although his face didn't shift, Giles thought he saw a gleam of yellow in his eyes. "Don't call in this marker again," he said. "We're finished."

So Angel left, and Giles sat on the floor a few feet away from Spike with a stake in one hand and a jar of pig's blood in the other, and he waited.

Spike woke up quite abruptly just a few minutes before dawn. He sat up and stared at Giles. "What the hell?"

"You're a vampire," Giles said. "Again."

Spike clapped a hand to his neck, where the wound from Angel's feeding was now beginning to close up with supernatural speed. "Bugger," he said, his voice soft with disbelief. Then he brought his hand to his mouth—smelled it, tasted it. "Something's different. Angel?" He looked up sharply at Giles. "Angel was here?"

"He's gone now." Giles put the jar of pig's blood on the floor and stood up. Spike followed suit, though his legs didn't seem quite steady under him yet. "Come here," Giles said.

Spike hesitated for a moment, but then he went to Giles—let Giles take him into his arms, and kiss him.

It was strange—so familiar and simultaneously alien. Spike's scent was there, mingled with a lingering hospital smell and the coppery tang of blood. But his lips were cold, and his hands gripped Giles's waist harder than they ever had before.

Giles's own hands were wrapped around Spike's back, but one of them was holding the stake, pointing it towards Spike's heart. He didn't think Spike noticed.

Giles kissed Spike harder now. He was angry; he didn't know why he was angry. With Spike, perhaps, for dying. He used it, let himself lose control more than he ever had when Spike was human and delicate and easy to hurt. He growled, and bit Spike's lip. He could feel Spike's erection pressing against his hip. Spike was a vampire now; of course he would respond to this. Spike made dirty little noises deep in his throat, and tugged at Giles's shirt, and answered Giles's kisses in kind.

And then Giles felt a quick stab of hurt in his lip, where Spike had nipped him a little too hard, and Spike fell away from him, roaring with pain.

"Bloody hell that hurt," Spike gasped, clutching his temples. "Fuck!" And then he looked up, and the hurt in his eyes went beyond the physical. "You—you did that on purpose. Rupert? What the hell did you go and do that for?"

Giles held up the stake so that Spike could see it, and then tossed it away. It clattered and rolled into a corner. "I had to make sure that the chip was still working." Then he stooped down and grabbed the jar of pig's blood. "Here." He tossed it to Spike, who caught it one-handed. "I expect you'll be hungry."

Of that there was no doubt—despite his evident pain and confusion, Spike unscrewed the lid immediately and, shifting into game face, began drinking the blood in great, desperate gulps.

"Stay low today," Giles said when Spike had finished and was wiping his mouth. "Come to the Magic Box at seven o'clock tonight. Everyone will be there."

"But—what happened?" Spike asked, almost plaintively. "How did I get here?"

Giles couldn't answer him. He didn't have the strength, not now. He stepped out of the door of the crypt into the weak light of dawn, and walked away.

Chapter Text

The Magic Box didn't open to the public the day that Spike died. It was hardly unique in that respect; with Sunnydale still suffering the psychological aftereffects of Ethan's spell, most of downtown was shut down tight.

Giles called the Scoobies together in the evening. He began with a quiet talk about how they needed to be strong, hold it together—the forces of darkness were ever at the door. Everyone was subdued and sad, although Dawn was the only one brushing away tears.

He wasn't entirely sure why he didn't tell them the truth. It did occur to him that Spike might not show up—that after everything, he might very well decide to quietly leave Sunnydale once and for all.

At seven thirty-five the basement door opened and Spike stepped into the shop.

He'd taken the time to fix his hair, and had apparently stopped at Giles's flat on the way to the Magic Box, because he was wearing his duster. He scowled at Giles, and then turned it into a wicked smile. Giles's breath caught in his throat.

"Spike!" Dawn shrieked. "You're alive!" She ran to him and threw her arms around him.

"Yeah, well, sort of," he said, his smile softening as he returned her embrace.

She laid a hand along the side of his face. It was paler than it had been that morning, Giles noticed; Spike's summer tan was already fading. "You're cold!" Dawn said. "You're, um, a vampire again?"

Everyone looked a bit puzzled, but there was no sense of panic. "How did that happen?" Willow asked.

Shrugging, Spike disentangled himself from Dawn. He went and leaned against the shop counter, and pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his duster pocket. He busied himself with shaking one fag out of the pack and lighting it while he lied. "Dunno," he said. "Woke up this morning in the hospital morgue. Looks like the demon blood thing wasn't so permanent after all. Once a vampire, always a vampire, I reckon."

Xander's fingers tapped out a quick beat on the big table. "So, that's it then? Everything just goes back to the way it was before?"

"Seems that way," Spike said—answering Xander's question, but with his gaze held steady on Giles. "Look," he said, holding up his hand, "Even that scar's going away, from when I nearly killed myself with your bloody pocketknife. It's like the whole thing never happened."

"Well hey, that's great!" Willow said. She looked around at the others. "I mean, isn't it? He can fight demons again now. And it's not like he ever really liked being human."

"Right," Spike said, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Can't say it had much to recommend it." He looked at Giles again.

"Indeed." Giles schooled his face very carefully. He had understood what he was asking for, when he had asked Angel to turn Spike—this was the old Spike, back again. A monster, barely contained. Not Giles's lover. And he couldn't imagine that Spike would want to revisit the relationship they had had when Spike was a human, weak and ill and tormented by nightmares. Most likely, they would never even speak of it again. "So. I suppose we should plan tonight's patrol. I think we can manage two groups—Spike in one, the Bot in the other?"

"Whatever." Spike licked his fingers and pinched out his cigarette, returning it to his pocket. "It's your decision, Rupert." And then he turned away from Giles and extended a hand to Dawn. "So, I guess we're taking you home first. Wanna hear a story on the way?"

"Oh!" Dawn shot a slightly guilty look back at the others, but then grinned. "Well, since you're back—how about the one about the hotel in Venice?"

Everyone got their things together and headed out the door, chatting away as though normalcy had returned. Which, in a sense, it had. Giles went last, stopping behind to shut off the lights before following the others out. As he locked the door, it occurred to him: it was time to leave Sunnydale.

Spike was still apparently committed to protecting Dawn, and therefore by extension the world she lived in. Between him and the Bot, the group had no need of Giles's mediocre contributions as a fighter. In terms of magical strength, Willow had eclipsed Giles long ago. He was increasingly superfluous as a leader; ridiculous as a chaperone. And as for the shop, Anya was perfectly capable of running it on her own. In fact, she would most likely be delighted to do so.

He could do more good in England. He could intervene before the Council discovered Buffy's death for themselves—try to shape policy, perhaps, to protect the Scoobies from unwelcome interference and to protect Faith from, potentially, much worse.

He was resolved, then. He would book a plane ticket in the morning. If it had a bit of a feeling of running away, well, so be it. The air in Sunnydale was getting far too thick with ghosts. Just now, Giles was finding it hard to breathe.

He looked up and saw that the others were leaving him behind. He pocketed his key and set off at a brisk pace to try and catch up, but he felt a brief, intense conviction that he never actually would.