Angel had a headache. One of those ones that just kept getting worse each time someone opened their mouth. The type that had him climbing the walls and ready to unleash Angelus just to get some peace and quiet.
"Were you lot always this annoying?" He winced as they all turned feral eyes upon him and he belatedly realised he'd actually said that out loud. Typical. Headache had him all pushed around and confused. Not to mention all their accusations and remedies while Spike was pounding into Buffy just above their heads. The world was just too damn cruel.
"Just tell us where Buffy is and we'll be on our merry way," Giles demanded as he stepped forward, eyes cold and menacing as he actually cornered Angel against the wall.
The vampire had had pretty close to all he could stand and his eyes drifted to the staircase, gasping in annoyance when he encountered green eyes suddenly more alive than he'd seen since she'd been under his roof.
"You called?" Her voice matched Giles' in lowered temperature and Angel took an unconscious step back. He figured if she'd had a go at him then her precious friends probably hadn't missed the firing line.
"Buffy, we've been worried about you," Giles tried to placate, to soothe with his best caring watcher/father voice.
She wasn't buying it. A lip curled in anger as Buffy finished descending the staircase, a black t-shirt clinging to her body and telling even the least observant exactly what she'd been up to. Apparently there was a level below 'least observant' because her friends didn't catch on.
"You're wearing carbon-copy Spike these days? What happened to the fashionable Slayer of the world we all know and love?" Dawn stepped forward, her nose crinkled at her sister's wild hair and grungy look. "And what the hell are you doing taking off for a week without even calling? I could have been attacked by God knows what and you wouldn't even care."
Angel quite literally ducked when Buffy's eyes narrowed and she took a step closer to the people she'd known for years, had defended and protected for years.
"I left you with Xander. What? I have to babysit you for the rest of my natural life now?"
The teen stumbled in her rant and snapped her jaw closed, for once wordless in the face of her sister's sarcasm and obvious anger.
"Buffy, leaving all your responsibilities like that was really selfish. We might have needed you." Willow stumbled slightly at the feral fury that Buffy flashed at her, but resolved to make her friend act reasonably. "Spike is gone, Buffy. We didn't tell you he was back because we knew he wouldn't be staying. Besides, what use was he to you now anyway? He would have just complicated things up, made your job harder. And you would have convinced yourself that his sacrifice earned him your love. You said enough times that you didn't love him. We thought we were doing the right thing by not telling you."
Buffy watched them, three of them, nodding in agreement like some special triumvirate of judges that had the right to shield her from whatever they chose.
"My mother died."
There was a sense of stunned confusion as they looked at each other, trying to work out what it was she was trying to say. And Buffy laughed.
"She was the only one who I would have trusted to make that call. To make any kind of judgement of what was best for me. Besides the fact that she gave up doing that years ago because she accepted that I kind of grew up, and that I'm the SLAYER, she died. I didn't give any of you the job of replacing her."
Understanding flickered amongst them but still they didn't shift, still stepped forward as if they could force her to do what they thought she should.
Xander stood across the foyer, watching and feeling slightly green at how they'd all taken her life over. He clashed eyes with Buffy and felt deeply his gratitude for all that Buffy had given up in the name of saving the world. They'd promised her rest on the bus, told her that she now had so many warriors on her side she didn't need to keep sacrificing herself for the fight. In fact, none of them need put themselves in the middle ever again.
He understood that vacant depth in her eyes. That pain he'd seen crumble her every day ever since they escaped. Loss could do that, and it was only at the last—when Anya was no longer an option for his future—that he recognised the yearning for Spike that had existed in her battle weary expression for months. And then both were gone in a blaze of glory, two ex-evil demons fighting for humanity. How could he not see her pain more closely than the rest of them?
As they held each other's gaze, he saw something that he thought would never exist again. He saw hope and then the clothing she wore clicked.
Xander Harris smiled and a tear drifted from his one good eye.
Accusations and less than friendly misguided advice fell past a trio of lips and broke Buffy's concentration on the one friend that wasn't pushing her. Wasn't shoving her into a soulless life that she didn't want. She'd made decisions upstairs, made commitments that she was never going to go back on. Spike was back and he was hers, and God, was he her only true friend? Another quick look at Xander found the brunette boy smiling happily, his quick glance at her tee and a thumbs up helped the tears to fall. No. One other stood in her corner and she never thought she could be so grateful.
"You all think you can just keep manipulating me." It was the voice of the Slayer. Hard, brittle, determined and without a trace of the Buffy devotion to friendship that had clouded her in the too many years past. "It stops now."
"But—" spluttered Giles, for once confident in his influence and position and just angry enough to keep his glasses entirely where they were most needed. On his face and no impediment to his vision. And then he attempted his intimidating step forward and Buffy was back in the middle of being told that she was making mistakes by caring for Spike too much.
"No buts. No maybes. Spike is what I need. He is who I love. You can't respect that or allow it? Then I guess I don't mean as much to all of you as you claim. I'm not the Slayer anymore." And eyes as determined as his body language pinned Giles to the spot.
"You are so the bloody slayer. And he's dead, as well he should be. He was nothing but a bloody nuisance from the day he stumbled upon my doorstep and we made the mistake of harbouring him. I admit he was a help, but he was a constant strain that needed all ears and eyes on him to make sure our stupid decision to let him live didn't blow up in our faces. Get over it already and get back to where you belong. You don't deserve to pine away over a cloud of dust."
The room was shocked speechless and it wasn't until a subtle throat clearing from behind the group was made that the new presence amongst them was noticed.
"See, that's where you kind of veered from being the good watcher and got it entirely wrong. What's up kid?" Whistler smiled and looked almost affectionately at the slayer that loved to hate him.
"Who the bloody hell are you?" Giles was ignored as the little man with the much outdated hat became the centre of an amazed focus.
"Whistler?" Buffy and Angel spoke at once, though the tones were miles apart. The usually aggressive slayer looked at the messenger with dawning comprehension, gratitude and appreciation making her run and embrace the little man in one of her bone-crushing hugs. Angel's head hit the wall behind him and he gave up finally on the whole scene. He was not the hero—left totally forgotten while Spike rested it up in a bed upstairs, thoroughly soaking up the mingled scent of himself and Buffy.
"It was you? You brought him back?" Buffy held her breath while the slightly sleazy interloper cracked another crooked grin and tipped his hat at her and looked pointedly at her new shirt.
"Champ made a wish a bit ago."
Buffy looked at him strangely, then nodded slowly. "Yeah, he fought demons for his soul. He said he got it for me. But that's all in the past." Whistler was shaking his head, smiling as if he had a secret and then allowed his gaze to turn to the stairs where a peroxided vampire had managed to haul ass down to the rest of them, conspicuously sans tee, and looking very rugged in his usual tight black jeans.
"Lucky for him, it's kind of ongoing."
Spike's confusion as he took that final step and crossed to Buffy was reflected in her own gaze, but for some reason it didn't matter as she grabbed both his hands and tugged them around to clasp at her belly.
"How is that possible? Getting a soul is kind of a finite act." Buffy suddenly looked uncertain, her eyes sweeping from Angel to Whistler and back again. "Isn't it?"
"Oh sure…if that's what the big lug had of actually wished for."
Understanding shone in Spike's eyes as they suddenly looked a step or two from completely dry.
"I wished to be made what you deserved."
Whistler beamed. "And damn it all if the Powers didn't think their best gal deserved you in her life permanently. You've got extra loud sobs, kid."
Buffy looked lost, like she didn't know whether to glare at the good natured ribbing or do some of that rather loud crying she knew had been a regular part of her day since Spike had first dusted.
She swallowed hard and watched the little man, her arms clinging to Spike as she turned and rubbed her cheek against his bare chest. "So, he's mine? For like, ever?"
"Could be. I'll let you into some little secrets later. Might just go for a bit of a wander, see first hand the mess LA is in. Place has just gone to hell last time I was here!" And then he was gone, merely leaving his shadow for all the disbelieving onlookers to gawk over.
Xander was the first to move and Buffy could feel Spike stiffen against her body. She smiled as she turned her face fully into him, knowing that Spike was in for the shock of his life.
A large calloused palm was shoved out on offer, and Spike looked at it suspiciously before looking and finding an unusual tolerance and welcome.
"Believe it or not, it's good to have you back." Xander squeezed the cooler hand as Spike conceded to the well-natured shake, both finding themselves drowning in a world they'd never crossed into before. It was new territory, and they both found themselves glad that enough had been swept away from their past that they could embark on it in confidence, both of them watching a happy Buffy snuggle further into the embrace of her love.
"It's good to be back," Spike confided quietly to the two of them and felt himself relax completely for the first time since hearing the whine of Scooby voices.
Acceptance was a shock, but with Buffy crying into his flesh, and Harris giving him a smile of welcome, Spike felt it was a place he could finally try to fit. Might be a bit of a squeeze, but now he had time.
And he had Buffy. The rest could wait.
The rest would wait.