As he shut the door to Willow and Tara's room behind him, Giles found himself leaning back against it. He felt exhausted. And so old.
In three years he'd be fifty.
His fitness level was nearer that of a man ten years younger – even with five months of soft living – but he had scars … scars that ached at odd moments and that marked him as someone who had undergone terrible things. On days like this, he wondered whether he had truly survived any of them.
He felt he'd aged a whole year in the last week. There had been so many shocks and changes, he was struggling to keep up. Buffy alive, but not quite … quite. Spike of all people turning out to be … well, dependable! Giles shuddered. And Willow turning out not to be dependable at all.
Thank God Xander and Anya seemed to have remained unchanged.
And then there was Dawn.
Giles wondered – not for the first time – what would have happened if Buffy had just listened to him last year.
Spike had asked him if he'd forgiven Dawn yet. He'd wanted to say yes – but no, that's a lie. He'd felt he ought to say yes.
He wasn't sure he had it in him to forgive her. His hatred was still raw and red and angry for all its dullness and muted volume. He knew that it had been Buffy's choice to sacrifice herself, that she had been glad to do it, and that it was just the sort of hero's death he had always expected her to have.
On his better days, he loved her all the more for having done it.
But he could never quite bring himself to accept that it had been the right choice.
If only Dawn had died and Buffy had lived! He would never have left. Willow would never have crumbled under the weight of being alone and in charge. Buffy would still have been in danger, of course – she was the Slayer! He had stopped railing against that particular unfairness years ago.
But she would have been whole, unbroken.
It didn't matter that she'd insisted she'd be done – would quit – if Dawn died. She had felt the same way after killing Angel, and he was real. Dawn wasn't.
Buffy had come back from killing Angel so much stronger, more resilient, finally accepting her calling in a way she never had before. It might have damaged her to kill her daughter – Giles' mind still stuttered slightly even thinking that. But he doubted very much that Bohdan Kosík would ever have come to Sunnydale if Dawn were dead, and Buffy would never have—
Why had Bohdan come?
His Order and the Order of Dagon were both dead. And even if they hadn't been, their entire purpose was to keep Glory from the Key. Glory was dead. They had no purpose now.
What possible reason could he have for being in Sunnydale? Why reveal Dawn's true parentage? And why now?
Experience taught him he wouldn't like any of the answers. And whatever they were, it seemed highly probable Buffy would be putting her life in danger for Dawn.
Perhaps trusting Spike really is a sign of an upcoming apocalypse.
Giles pushed himself off of the door and started down the stairs.
He could still hear voices in the kitchen, and as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he began to be able to make out the words.
"What is wrong with you?"
Buffy, not Dawn.
"So long as you're alive? Absolutely nothing."
Giles stopped and leaned against the newel post, his heart aching. There was a part of him that wished he'd been the one to tell her that…. It was certainly true enough. He tried his level best to take care of her – however and whenever she'd let him – to make her impossible life that little bit easier. Even when she was dead, she was by far the most important person in his life.
But they'd never had that kind of relationship. The thought of the two of them discussing their feelings … it made him want to laugh for a week.
The back door slamming shut shocked him back into motion, and he reached the kitchen doorway just in time to see Spike slumping back against the breakfast bar, eyes fixed on the closed back door.
"Is she … how is she?" Giles asked gently.
"Runnin'," Spike said, still facing the door. He took a deep breath. "Mem'ry's gettin' better." He smiled darkly to himself, finally turning towards Giles. "Hasn't forgotten a single one of my fuck-ups. Still angry 'bout most of 'em, too."
Giles was shocked by how much better Spike's face looked – it was still obviously burned, but it didn't hurt to look at anymore. Vampire healing. He had a sudden pang of guilt that no one had thought to ask how he'd been injured.
"The nightmares you mentioned," Giles started. "Tara said she suspected you've been … helping."
Spike was shocked that Giles had passed up the opportunity to drive home the myriad ways in which he'd fucked up. He nodded slowly, watching Giles warily, but saying nothing.
"Friday night, she was screaming in agony and we were helpless to stop it," Giles said quietly. "I … I had no idea it was that bad."
Spike's body relaxed as his eyes hardened. "Tried to tell you."
Giles nodded. "You did," he said stiffly.
"Seeing Angelus was … difficult," Spike said carefully, his jaw ticking, his hands beginning a rhythm of clenching into fists before releasing.
Giles stiffened. "Angelus?"
Spike smiled grimly. "Seein' Buffy alive again was no moment of perfect happiness, Rupes," he said. "Not for him." Spike nearly spat the last word.
"Wanker," Giles, more than a little surprised to find himself disappointed that Angel had failed to lose his soul.
Neither spoke for a few seconds.
"Is she talking to you?" Giles asked, finally.
"Some," Spike said guardedly. "Not enough."
"I … she needs help, right now," Giles said helplessly. "Help I don't think she would ever accept from me."
Spike smiled, almost proudly. "Doesn' like bein' taken care of, that one."
"No," Giles said. "But for some obscure reason, she seems to be willing to accept it from you right now."
Spike just stared at him.
"And I can only deduce from the absence of screams last night that you are, in fact, helping." Giles took a deep breath. It was time to take the plunge. "So long as that continues, I will not interfere."
Spike drew in a breath in preparation to speak.
Giles went rigid, his eyes going hard and cold. "But if you hurt her – if you take even the slightest advantage in any way, shape or form – by God I will make you regret it."
"Won't ever hurt her, Rupert," Spike said softly, meeting the other man's eyes. "Dust first."
Giles began to unclench his muscles, and some of the tension leaked out of the room. "Good." He paused, fixing Spike with another glare. "And for Christ's sake, stop calling me Rupert!"
Spike grinned. "Care for a cuppa … Rupes?"
Giles rolled his eyes.
Spike filled the kettle and switched it on. He couldn't quite hold back a sharp intake of breath as he bent over to pick up a fallen teaspoon. Still can't bend.
"What happened to you on Friday night, anyway?" Giles asked.
"I was very nearly too stupid to live," Spike said drily.
"Seriously," Giles said, exasperated.
"Seriously, Giles, I fucked up. End of."
Giles harrumphed. "Fine, don't tell me."
Giles was pleasantly surprised to see Spike remembered how he took his tea.
Spike placed two full mugs on the breakfast bar and gingerly eased himself into the stool opposite Giles. Wincing, he said, "You got anything in your Wanker library explainin' why internal organ damage hurts us so damn' much?"
Giles blanched. "Not that I know of…."
"Not like I use my soddin' kidneys," Spike grumbled. "Still hurts like a bitch to regrow 'em."
"You can actually regrow damaged internal organs?" Giles asked, patting himself down for a notebook and pen almost despite himself.
Tara and Willow were wandering around the warehouse district near Glory's tower, searching for signs of the bot.
It was Tara who'd first thought of her – it? – while they were putting away groceries and she'd come across the spray can of silicone grease under the kitchen sink.
Willow was a little embarrassed she hadn't remembered earlier – especially since she'd been talking about it with Buffy only that morning.
They didn't really expect to find much – hellions weren't exactly known for their restraint – and the bot was programmed to return to Willow if it got damaged. Clearly, it had to be pretty badly damaged.
But after almost fifteen minutes of looking, they hadn't found a single trace.
Becoming increasingly agitated, Willow whispered the words to the spell she'd used to pick up the glass from the living room floor, adjusting it to find pieces of the bot.
"It's not here," Willow said to Tara, her voice high and panicky.
"We don't know that," Tara said calmly. "We haven't b-been looking very long. And they might have dragged her off somewhere else."
Willow nodded, unconvinced. "I guess we can widen the search area. They were on motorcycles."
"I understand you've been patrolling alone all this time," Giles said, very carefully examining his now nearly-empty cup of tea.
Spike shrugged, somewhat uncomfortably.
Giles sighed. "I had assumed that Willow and Xander would be … more active."
Spike laughed, relaxing. Scooby-bashing he could handle. "Golden children not quite living up to expectations?"
"I am becoming very concerned about Willow."
Spike snorted. "Took you long enough."
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "I believe she may be on the verge of seriously harming someone."
"On the verge?" Spike went rigid, fists clenched. "She already sodding has!"
"When? What's happened?" Giles asked, his heart sinking.
Spike slumped back and hung his head. "Oh for fuck's sake." He sounded defeated. "What is it with you people?"
Giles cocked his head in confusion.
Spike lifted his head to stare at Giles. "Dawn!" he almost shouted.
"Ah," Giles said softly. "Dawn."
"Had to put a bar on her bedroom door so she'd feel safe enough to sleep with the witches in the house," Spike said. "A bar. In her own bloody home."
Giles sighed. "I hadn't realised she had been so … affected."
Spike snorted in disbelief.
"Willow called Angel," Giles continued. "She … hoped his presence would give her an opportunity to … comfort … Buffy."
Spike let out a bark of shocked laughter. He scrubbed his hands through his hair, rotating his neck, before roaring, "Why the FUCK is she still in the house?!"
The violence of the images running through his head was enough to ignite the chip, and he reared back, clutching at his head in pain. "Fuck," he said, putting a brave front on a whimper. The damage from Friday seemed to be amplifying the pain well beyond normal levels. Spike really hoped it was only temporary.
Giles waited a few seconds before speaking. "Tara told me yesterday that she planned to insist they leave."
"Insist?" Spike said derisively, his head still cradled in his hands. "Tara only does what Willow wants. Surely even you realise that."
"Unfortunately," Giles sighed, "I believe that is truer today than it was yesterday."
Spike lifted his head gingerly. "What's the bitch gonna be forgiven for this time?" he asked, tired resignation supplanting the anger.
Buffy had run, unthinking, out of the house, just letting her feet lead her.
She was surprised to find herself at the foot of Glory's tower. She hadn't been here since she'd jumped.
It seemed somehow smaller in daylight.
She looked around at the debris. Maybe bits of it had just fallen off.
Buffy stopped at the place where she though her body should have hit the ground. There was nothing there, no mark, no indication that right here, someone died.
She guessed it had been cleaned up, after.
"Buffy!" Willow shouted, running over to her.
Buffy froze. "Willow," she said, visibly startling. "I … I didn't expect anyone to be here."
This time, Willow immediately noticed Buffy's tear-stained face. "What's wrong? What happened?"
Tara approached more slowly. "Your feet are b-bleeding, Buffy."
Buffy looked down, realising she'd left the house without any shoes. "Oh," she said. Then she noticed the pain. "Yeah. Major ouchies."
"I have a first aid kit in my car," Tara said. "You need to get cleaned up."
Willow and Tara tried to take most of her weight as they helped her limp towards the car.
"What happened?" Willow asked again.
Buffy shrugged as best she could while draped over the other two. "I … I just needed to get out of the house."
"Without your shoes?" Willow asked, sceptically.
"Wasn't really thinking that far ahead," Buffy said.
Willow opened her mouth, ready to start with the questions and recriminations, but then she snapped it shut again. This is about helping Buffy. "What can I do for you?" she asked, finally.
Buffy really thought about what she wanted from Willow the rest of the awkward, painful limp to the car.
As Tara was rummaging around in the trunk and Willow was helping Buffy to sit, she realised: "You know what you could do, Will?"
Willow brightened. "Anything, Buff. You know you just have to ask."
"You think you guys could maybe give me some rent money?"
Willow felt like she'd been kicked in the gut.
"No rush," Buffy said, then paused. "Actually, I have no idea if there's a rush. I'm kinda just letting Anya handle all the money stuff."
Now it was like a knife, twisting around Willow's insides. A part of her recognised that money really was something that would help Buffy right now, and the more the better. But another part of her felt like her family was being taken away from her. It's so humiliating! I shouldn't have to pay to live with my family! Willow could barely remember the last time she'd even spoken to her parents. Buffy was far more her family than her blood family had ever been. Buffy and Dawn.
And Anya was handling the money stuff now! Buffy was choosing Anya over Willow. First Spike, now Anya. It was wrong! It shouldn't be like this.
"Sure, Buffy," Tara said, coming back from the trunk with the kit. "I can write you a cheque for six hundred right now. It might take me a little while to sort out the b-back rent…." Tara flushed, embarrassed. "B-b-b-but I think if I juggle some things around I can manage it."
How is Tara so unfazed by this? Willow wondered. "Yeah, sure," she agreed, her voice dazed.
Tara gave her a sharp glance.
"My chequebook's at home, but I should have enough to cover it." Willow's voice was a bit watery, but she managed to hold back the tears hammering at her for release.
Visions of shoes danced in Buffy's head before she stamped them down with the realities of bills and mortgage payments. "Great. Thanks, guys," Buffy said, warmth lending colour to her previously dull voice. Maybe Anya can find me a spare couple hundred somewhere….
Tara handed her the first aid kit. "It's pretty b-basic, but there's tweezers and antiseptic wipes in there."
Buffy smiled up at Tara and Willow as she took the kit. It was a very small smile, but it was one of the precious few genuine smiles they'd seen since her return.
"My primary concern is what Willow will do if confronted directly again," Giles said. "Her power is undeniable, and in her current state, she is incapable of seeing any of her actions as wrong."
"Well isn't that just … neat," Spike said. "Do enough damage and you end up with immunity? That one of those things that comes along with the soul like the soddin' prize in a cereal box? You'd have staked me in a second if I'd done half of what she's doin'."
"That's beside the point," Giles said. "If she's willing to tamper with Tara's memories so soon after Glory broke her mind, what will she be willing to do to you?" Giles paused. "What might she do to Buffy?" Giles paused for effect. "Or Dawn?" He watched Spike take it in. "A direct intervention right now would be more likely to provoke an attack of some kind than to change her behaviour."
"Oh, go on then," Spike groaned. "Tell us your precious plan. Can tell you're dyin' to."
They glared at each other almost amicably.
"I know a very powerful coven in Devon," Giles said. "I am hoping they will know of a way to … bind her powers … maybe provide us with some protection … something until she can be depended upon to at least try to control herself."
"An' what happens if she's too far gone to be saved?" Spike asked. "What she's doin', it's not about the magic, it's about the control. What if she can't let go?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Giles said. "But … I cannot help but believe that the girl I knew is still in there somewhere."
Spike shrugged. "Buffy cares for her, so 'm willin' to try it your way. For a while. Doesn't work?" Spike shifted into game face and hissed.
Giles jerked back, despite himself. "She is a very powerful witch, Spike. Such a … direct … approach may not work."
Spike laughed as his ridges and teeth melted away. The pure malevolence of his laughter was nearly tangible in its intensity.
Giles felt a line of sweat trickling down his back, sending shivers through his whole body.
"Still sleeps, doesn' she?" Spike said, the glittering blue of his eyes even colder and deadlier than the demonic amber.
Giles was suddenly absolutely certain he never, ever wanted Spike to view him as a threat.
Giles nearly fell off his stool five minutes later when Dawn came home and Spike got up to greet her. Such … gentleness so hard on the heels of such violence. Even his eyes seemed to have become a warmer shade of blue.
And all it took was Dawn walking into the room.
It had taken a long time for Buffy to get all of the glass and gravel out of her feet, so it was almost dark by the time they started driving home.
Tara kept snatching glances over at Willow. She had obviously been shaken to the core by Buffy's request for rent and whatever was going on in her head right now, it wasn't pleasant. There was muttering.
Tara's resolve to leave Revello Drive strengthened with every mile.
Dinner was awkward – although probably not so awkward as it would have been had Spike been there. Dawn wouldn't talk to Willow; Willow wouldn't talk to Giles; and Buffy had retreated to near-catatonia.
Everyone wholeheartedly missed the distraction of the television. There was an audible sigh of relief when Buffy seemed to suddenly wake up and announced that she would be purchasing a replacement tomorrow. That was the first genuine conversation of the evening, and it lasted almost two whole minutes.
The nearest they came to a normal discussion was brainstorming about how to find the bot. Somehow – despite the hostility surrounding the circumstances of its disappearance – everyone's total commitment to keeping it out of the hands of Buffy's enemies acted as a sort of social band-aid.
For fifteen golden minutes, anyway.
Everyone escaped to their respective rooms as early as was acceptably polite – Dawn slightly earlier than that.
When Giles returned to the kitchen at midnight to put a call through to the Devon coven, he did not expect an audience.
But Willow had come downstairs for a cup of sleepy tea, and she heard nearly the whole thing from the bottom of the stairs.
Binding powers, protective amulets, out of control...
When the basement door had shut and she'd finally started making her tea, she was an accidental witness again, as Spike came home and went straight upstairs.
Willow waited nearly an hour, but he never came back down.
Her whole world seemed to be collapsing in on her, and she was suffocating from the pressure.