"I... killed... a puppet," Willow gasped in horror.

"Evil puppet," Fred said consolingly, patting her on the back.

"Still. I thought the Chumash made me feel guilty, but now... how'm I gonna look Kermit in the eye after this?"

"Maybe you ought to go contract, pet," Spike raised his glass to her, grinning. "Kermit'd probably hire you to take out that bitch Piggy."

"Kermit loves Piggy!"

"Balls! That was only in the bloody movies, they said on the show..." Spike raised an eyebrow down the table at Angel's chuckle. "Pissed I'm pickin' on the relatives, Peaches?"

"I'm just constantly amazed at the ways you've found to waste the daylight hours."

"Pardon me for not broodin' around readin' Proust. 'Sides, it made Dru laugh."

"You read Proust," Angel growled.

"Yeah, but I understood it the first time, didn't I? Didn't feel the need to carry it around with me for decades yelpin' 'Hey, look at the book I'm readin'! I'm deeeeeep!'"

"Cause that would cut into your valuable Passions time."

"Yeah, Passions is designed to appeal to the masses. Like Dickens. N' Shakespeare."

"You did not just compare Passions and Hamlet."

"Why not? Murder, betrayal, people fakin' crazy, pretty girls offin' themselves? Sounds like sweeps week to me."

"You've never understood --"

"'Cause you're bloody stuck up --"

"Are they gonna kill each other?" Willow whispered to Gunn.

"Angel and Spike?" Gunn chuckled. "Maybe someday. But don't let 'em fool you. They're enjoying this."

"Spend all your time playing Playstation..."

"Bint cut off my hands! It was therapy!"

"So, what's the sitch on Knox?" Willow asked, attempting to drown out the bickering vampires.

Gunn's face stretched in a slow, dangerous smile. "Security's got him in lockdown. Consider it the welcome mat to his new world of hurt."

"And we're all rather eager to be his tour guides," Wesley added, an identical purr of malice beneath his quiet tones.

Buffy trailed her finger along the edge of her drink, her eyes flying around the table.

When had stuffy, tweedy old Wesley acquired that soft-spoken-but-dangerous edge that was... she couldn't believe she was thinking this... pretty freakin' sexy?

How in the hell had Angel and Spike gone from mortal enemies to... bickering siblings? The grudging, unspoken affection between them was nearly palpable.

It was bizarre to see Angel, who'd always hovered on the edges of the Scoobies, smack-dab in the middle of his own team... which made the inclusion of Spike just twice as freaky. The familiarity, the camraderie, the constant inside jokes that set them all off laughing yet left her blinking in confusion... it was worse than being the fifth wheel. Everyone seemed... wary of her, walking on eggshells, like she was the freak ex-girlfriend who'd suddenly shown up uninvited at the party, and...

Oh. That was kind of exactly what she was, wasn't it?

And Spike... laughing and joking and smirking, telling stories, flowing with the rhythm of the them, teasing Gunn and sharing eye-rolls with Wesley and winking at Fred and needling Angel...

Even Willow seemed to slip in better than she did; she'd apparently been there for some of what they were discussing, knew them better, got the jokes or could get them with a few sentences of explanation.

And Buffy felt... really, really alone, like they were in a bubble of laughter and warmth and shared memories she just couldn't penetrate... and part of her wanted to smash it, just yank Spike out and remind him that he was hers...

That's not your world. You belong in the shadows, with me...

Oh, man... she so did not want this epiphany. Could she swap the looming epiphany for another Cosmopolitan?

"Everybody done here?" Angel asked, surveying the table. "We should probably get back, get some sleep. We can get started on the Illyria thing tomorrow."

They grabbed purses and jackets... Buffy's heart did a funny little flip-flop watching Spike shrug into the duster... and headed out of the restaurant.

Which was when she noticed it... the position Spike took unconsciously, to the right and just behind Angel, his eyes roaming the restaurant appraisingly.

Spike had Angel's back.

Just like he used to have hers.

--------------------------------------------------

"These are the guest suites," Angel said, pressing a key into Willow's hand. "Everything you need should be in your rooms, but if you have any problems, you can dial 59. That's my apartment, and I'm just one floor up."

"So... do you guys all live here?" Willow asked, examining the etched 'W&H' on the keyring.

"Some of us," Gunn yawned. "Which reminds me... much as I hate to admit I'm worn out from puppets, I'm feelin' horizontal. I'll see you guys tomorrow..."

As if on cue, the group split up, heading in different directions; Willow let out a little wave as she went into the left-hand room. Buffy managed to catch Spike's sleeve before he followed Gunn down the hallway.

"Hey, uh... how about you? Do you live here, too?"

"Oh, hell no. Spent way too much time here back when I was ghosty. Got an apartment of my own."

"Really? I... I'd like to see it sometime..."

Sometime, meaning tonight... and this is me kind of throwing myself at you...

Spike laughed harshly. "It's a dump, Slayer. Not worth the tour. Guest suites are cushy, though. Jacuzzis n' whatnot. Nothin' but the best for our evil clients. You'll love it."

He tried to turn, but Buffy kept her hold on his sleeve. "Well... maybe we could go somewhere? Get coffee? Catch up? We haven't really gotten a chance to talk, what with the puppet-battling and..."

"I'm knackered."

Her eyes narrowed. "No, you're not."

"No," he admitted, staring at the floor. "I'm not. Probably go out and get stakey. You know how I like..."

"Your spot o' violence before bedtime?"

That wrung a little smile out of him. "Right."

"I could go with..."

"Slayer," he sighed. "I..."

"Spike. Don't." Buffy held up the key Angel'd given her. "C'mon. If the room has a jacuzzi, it's probably got an honor bar. Wanna get drunk on Angel's dime?"

He grinned then, helplessly, and for a moment, the way he used to look at her flickered in his eyes before the wall dropped down. "Probably not a good idea."

"I'll pout."

"Will you now? Evil Inc. leadin' you to the dark side already? The pout's the most ferocious weapon in your arsenal."

Look at that lip. Gonna get it... gonna get it...

Her knees went a little weak at the memory. "Spike... please?"

The pout got him. HA. Something female inside her did a little victory shriek as she watching his resolve crumple.

"Oh, bloody hell," he sighed. "Lead the way, Slayer. Let's bankrupt Peaches."

--------------------------------------------------

God, he was being irritating.

Okay, so he wasn't actually being irritating. Which was... irritating.

What he was being was charming and funny, dammit, telling stories about his Wolfram & Hart adventures, his whole face lighting up with the storytelling, his black magic voice weaving itself around her, doing impressions of Angel and the others, all hilarious and adorable and... not hitting on her at all, not even the playful way he'd hit on Fred and Willow all during dinner.

She'd stretched out on one side of the bed when they'd entered the room, a deliberate invitation, and he'd chosen the one armchair, all across the room where there was no way for her to 'accidentally' touch him. Like a freakin' castle surrounded by a moat. He hadn't even taken the duster off.

So she'd changed into pyjamas, deliberately picking the ones that showed off the most leg and cleavage possible, lounging on her stomach so he could look down her top, and... nothing. He wasn't even getting drunk; he'd been nursing the same little bottle for ages.

And there were his hands, those gorgeous fingers she remembered so well tapping on the edge of the bottle, and why weren't those hands on her? She knew those hands, remembered them so well, how they'd start off cool and shocking, then warm as he soaked up her body heat, his palm sliding up her stomach, his fingers curling into her hair, feather-light skimming caresses and deliberate, exquisite pressure...

And instead of being on her where they belonged, they were being utterly wasted on a tiny bottle of Jack Daniel's and the armrests of his chair. It wasn't fair.

Well, she didn't have to fight fair, either.

"Dawn's insanely tall now," she smiled, leaning over to rummage in her duffel bag, pulling out a small photo album. "I've got pictures, if you wanna see..."

His eyes lit up, and he held out his hand.

Nuh-uh, buddy. She opened the album in front of her, flipping through the pages.

You wanna see pictures? You're coming over here.

He hesitated, gnawed his lip... then rose, sitting stiffly on the bed beside her.

Point 1, Team Buffy. She pushed the album far enough over where he could see it, and he picked it up, tensing to go back to the safety of his chair.

No way. She brazenly plopped her head down on his thigh, and was rewarded with a tiny strangled sound from the back of his throat.

"This is us when we went to Pompeii," Buffy said nonchalantly, flipping pages for him, making damn sure her arm grazed his inner thigh as she did so. "Dawn was so freaked. They have plaster casts of the people, it's really creepy."

"I've been," he replied hoarsely.

"This century?" she asked, taking the opportunity to turn over, wiggling her head in the process.

She'd missed this. Oh, she'd missed this... the way he sucked in air at her touch, the way his lower jaw protruded as his eyes closed, the little muscle at the hinge of his jaw working overtime... and oh God yes, the look in his eyes when they opened again, dark and full of smouldering promises, that look that said he was seconds away from snapping, throwing her into a wall, and fucking her senseless.

Her body seemed full of potential energy, the urge to grind her hips against the mattress becoming overpowering, her fingers itching to touch him, heat growing in her stomach and spreading through her bloodstream...

She was trying to do this right, to do this with respect, to not just take what she wanted, but dammit...

And oh God, he was biting his lip, his fingertips trailing down a photograph, sadness in his eyes.

"Nibblet," he sighed.

Love for her little sister -- endearing and all, yeah, but -- how come Dawn was still "Nibblet" and she'd gone back to being "Slayer"? No 'pet', no 'love', no 'Goldilocks', not even a freakin' 'Buffy'?

Stupid walls. She was a Slayer -- walls were for kicking down, and this one... ugh. Subtlety. So not her thing.

"Do you think... maybe you could call her tomorrow? She really misses you."

"I miss her, too."

But you didn't call her. You didn't call me. You didn't call any of us. You spent months hoping Fred could fix you -- we could have fixed you! Old-school Scooby research party...

Except that Xander hated him. And Giles hated him. And Willow -- who knew? The only Scoobies who'd seemed fond of him were Tara and Anya, and they were both gone.

Well, Anya'd been a little too fond of him. Grrrr.

And the thought made her put her hand over his on the album... a second of contact before he yanked his hand away.

"Slayer, I... I ought to go. It's late."

She could hear it in his voice; he didn't want to go. He wanted her, wanted this, but something was holding him back... and if she could just figure out what it was, maybe she could get rid of it...

Before he left...

Eh. Screw subtle.

"Spike? Can I ask you a question?"

He sighed. "All right."

"What's changed? You act like you hate for me to touch you."

"I don't... hate it. I think you know that."

But he gently set her head back on the mattress, standing up and moving away.

"Then why... I don't understand..."

He winced. "Buffy... the way I feel about you..."

"I love you, Spike. How many times do I have to say it before you'll start believing me?"

"Can't do it, Slayer. Told you again and again. Can't love halfway. Never have been able to."

"But... I don't want you to love me halfway..."

"Can't give you everything I have, pet. Can't give you anything without givin' you everything. Kind of an all-or-nothing guy."

"But..."

He locked her eyes with his. "Not when you're savin' the baked cookies for Angel."

The color drained from Buffy's face.

Oh God -- Angel had told him?

"I'll see you in the mornin', Slayer. Pleasant dreams."

The door closed, and he was gone.