Ethan Rayne was bored. He was supposed to have returned to the Middle East days ago, but he'd had one of those feelings that he should stay around for a bit longer. Despite the general opinion the Watchers Council held of him, they had enough respect for his reputation as a mage to leave him be. Still, he was bored.

Relations between himself and the rest of the Council were such, however, that he didn't pursue what seemed most amusing, which was to track down Rupert, who was in yet another meeting with the old guard. Despite Roger Wyndam-Pryce's obligingly outraged face when he saw Ethan and Ripper together, Ethan decided to wait for better timing. There were new books arrived in the library that he was hoping to get a look at before Cybele Norrington, the Council librarian, had them tucked out of reach.

He reached the library too late. Madame Cybele blushed at his attempts to be charming, but the new books were behind the counter and were going to stay there. He winked at the librarian one more time, then headed to the government documents section and the gap behind the shelves full of British Imperial industrial surveys of India and Southeast Asia between 1845 and 1902.

Spike didn't bother looking up from his smirking perusal of volume 2 of the unexpurgated diaries of Samuel Pepys.

"You're not going to try to convince people you're from 17th century London, are you?" Ethan asked, dropping into the chair in front of the desk.

"No," Spike said, not looking up. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm bored."

"So why are you bothering me with it?" He turned a page and continued reading. "Go bother Rupert."

"Ripper is busy soothing the ruffled greybeards. Have you told Roger Wyndam-Pryce what's happened to his son, yet?"

Spike finally looked up. "I'll tell Rupert, and he can decide what he tells to whom."

"That sounds like there's an interesting tale involved. Do tell."

The blue eyes acquired flecks of gold. "Not in the mood to play Scheherazade today, mage."

Soul or not, a peeved Spike was a dangerous Spike. Ethan stood easily. "Then I'll not trouble you. Good day." Spike waved good-bye, though Ethan did not pause to count the fingers involved.

A bit of minor spellwork distracted attention so that Ethan was able to get back to the main offices without being caught. He slipped into Ripper's office, paused to smirk at the broad oak desk, then went over to the door that everyone else assumed was a closet. The door was warded to open only to himself and Rupert; he murmured a quick detection spell to see who else had tried the door. Not surprisingly, curious Andrew had tried, along with one of the Watcher interns, a nephew of Sir Grenville Wright-Fordyce. Ethan raised an eyebrow at the traces of Kennedy.

Once inside, he locked the door behind him and considered the room. The bare oak floor was inscribed with two large protection circles. The larger circle contained a map of the world, over which nine glowing white beads floated. Most of the beads congregated over England, but two hovered above Rome. One faintly pink bead hung above east Africa, but Xander was in mild danger just being in those portions of the Dark Continent, so Ethan didn't worry about the color. Everyone else he and/or Ripper cared about was doing well.

Ethan paid more serious attention to the other circle. Inside was a model of the new Watchers headquarters, an old Victorian hotel on the outskirts of the village of Old Windsor. They were close enough to the leyline running through Windsor Great Park to syphon off power for permanent magical structures. The circle represented the wards surrounding headquarters as a slightly hazy dome. At the moment, however, that dome showed varicolored lines snaking over and around the wards. The Senior Partners were still examining the barrier that kept them away from the vampire that got away.

Most of the lines were green with pulses of mauve. As Ethan watched, those lines began circling more and more on one side of the dome, clustering together. The back of his neck itched in warning.

He wasn't bored any longer. He hurried out through the office and yanked open the main door. Andrew was just settling behind his desk in the reception area and eeped in surprise.

"Find Ripper," Ethan ordered. "Get him here."

Andrew stood slowly. "What's going on?"

"Never mind! Find Ripper!"

---

Spike tried to focus again on Samuel Pepys' accounts of the whores he'd picked up on the steps of St. Paul's. Stupid mage, pulling him out of a good literature trance. He slammed the book closed in annoyance. Age and his soul weighed heavy on him today, and he was feeling particularly alone. He couldn't help but smile, though. Instead of despairing isolation, this loneliness was the sort to inspire fond melancholy as he thought of the people he missed who, despite all expectation, just might be missing him, too.

He reached out to tap a key on his computer. The screensaver, a film loop of Christopher Lee as Dracula, faded away to show his email inbox. Dawn had sent him the latest in their constant exchange of messages. From the time stamp, she was doing emails in her economics lecture again instead of paying attention to the professor. He was going to have to threaten to cut off her email contact again, as he had when he found out her questions about European history were for a take-home test instead of general interest. She'd tried to claim he was just another research source, but he'd cut her off anyway.

Below Dawn's unopened message was a very long email from Xander, sent from an internet cafe in Uganda. Spike read through those slowly, making them last, before he sent equally long replies. A week could go by before he'd get an answer. It felt like the mail service from when he was alive, when you'd send a letter off to India and have to wait so patiently for any kind of reply.

He tried to stop himself, but his eye slipped down to the email below Xander's. One he hadn't opened yet. One from Buffy. He'd thought that vow to stay in touch was just an empty courtesy.

He certainly wasn't sure what else he could say to her.

They said she'd been out in the garden for hours, crying for a while, but for the most part staring off, ignoring everyone who went out to try to talk to her. After he'd sent Dawn off on her happily sniffly way, he'd gone out to the garden himself.

Buffy was on a bench under an oak tree, staring at the garden wall. Her eyes were red and a dozen wadded up handkerchiefs lay around her feet. Spike silently sat down beside her and stared at the wall too.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her bite her lip and glance at him.

"Just go ahead and say it," he said. "We'll worry about whether it's upsetting after."

"Paolo wanted to make sure I gave you his condolences."

He turned to look at her. "Who the hell's Paolo?"

She blushed and managed a fleeting smile. "Oh--well, it got old, saying things like, 'Immortal, do these shoes work with this dress?' and all that. I asked him for an actual name, and he said Paolo would do."

He didn't even try to hold back the growl. "That fucking, rotten, obnoxious, superior ponce."

Buffy blinked. "Wow. He said you didn't like him."

"He's right." He kept his next several thoughts to himself. "His condolences, eh?"

She nodded and looked bleak again. "He said he--he liked Angel, that he always enjoyed matching wits with you two. How do you know him?"

"Never mind." He muttered for several minutes, then made himself say it. "Thank him when you see him."

She nodded again. She took a deep breath that managed not to end on a sob. "Did he win?"

He heard and smelled that night again, blood and ichor and screams. That voice, thin with pain and satisfaction. "Yeah, he won."

She shattered into tears again, and he pulled her into his arms, blotting his own tears in her hair. She'd gone back to Italy the next day.

Spike stared at her unread email in his list. She'd said she'd ask for more details when she was ready. Well, maybe he wasn't ready yet. The box of things that had been in his duster that night, including the scrap of blood-and-vampire-dust encrusted cloth, was still on his bed. It was down at the end of the bed, out of easy reach, but he woke up with one foot against the box every morning.

He nudged the mouse back up to Xander's email. He'd much rather read a few more paragraphs about jerry-rigged repairs of the Land Rover, the creatures Xander found in his camp each morning, and market days in little African villages.

A tiny white speck appeared on his desktop, but he paid it little mind.

---

Part of Giles' mind tsked at him for violating his dignity as head of the Council by running through the hallways. The other part remembered what it took for Ethan to lose his cool. Besides, the tingle on the back of his neck told him something weird was going on.

Andrew had been sacrificed to running interference with that pompous twit Brady, so Giles was alone when he reached his office. "Ethan?"

"In here."

The door to the workroom was ajar. Giles slipped in and made sure the door closed firmly behind him.

Ethan stood at the edge of the circle that maintained the wards. The dome over the model of the Council building flickered as the green lines spiraled in on one location over the South Wing. Ethan took a deep breath, raised his hands, and chanted in Sumerian. The green faded and slowed.

"That won't hold," Giles warned.

"Yes, it will, if you throw Coragof's Binding while I--"

"Down!" Giles tackled Ethan to the floor as all the lines slammed together into one big spot and a pulse of green energy shot out. The ancient oak paneling behind them took a half-inch deep hit.

"Bugger," Ethan snarled. The green lines, brighter than ever, dove over the dome to the section they'd been focused on before. Ethan looked up at Giles, who was still pinning him to the floor.

"As pleasant as this position may be--"

"Now is hardly the time, I know. You're not broken anywhere, are you?"

"Nothing new."

Giles stood, then helped Ethan up. "Vasili's Injunction, do you think?"

"It's already part of the wards, we can't double it up. The Abjuration of Alexandria, perhaps--"

There was a timid tap at the door. "Sirs?" Andrew called.

Giles snapped his fingers at the door, which unlocked.

Andrew slowly opened the door and peeked around. "There are several people who want to know what's going on, Giles."

"We're under attack, is what's going on," Giles snapped. "Ethan, why are they focusing on that spot? There's no more likelihood of a flaw in the wards there as anywhere else."

A faint chime, like a spoon against fine crystal, sounded.

"Fuck," Ethan snarled, "that's the first layer going down. Rupert, the Abjuration, with me." The pair called out three phrases of archaic Arabic that slowed the green lines to a crawl.

"That's bought us some time," Giles gasped. "But not much."

"It looks like they're trying to force a breech using some point inside the wards that resonates with their powers. Did Spike bring anything with him that might be a focus of the Senior Partner's powers?"

"No. Besides, it would probably be in that box of his, and that's in his room in the main block. That spot's over the South Wing."

"The library," Andrew volunteered carefully. "Where Spike is. They brought him back with that amulet of theirs, didn't they? He himself is a focus."

Giles and Ethan stared at each other for a split second. A light tremor ran through the floor. One of the beads hovering above England on the map in the other circle flared bright red.

"Go!" Giles yelled at Andrew. "Warn him! Get him here if you can!"

Andrew turned and sprinted away.

Ethan grabbed one of Giles' hands and went down on one knee, his free hand pressed to one of the runes making up the main circle on the floor. The whole circle began to glow. Giles crouched next to him, his own free hand on Ethan's shoulder.

"We can't hold them off for long, you know."

Ethan grinned that death's head smile. "Doesn't mean I'm going to roll over for them, though."

---

Spike was snickering over Xander's description of the hopeless love of a Thompson's gazelle for his Land Rover when he noticed the white glowing spot on his desktop. Puzzled, he poked the spot with his finger.

The spot wrapped around his finger and began crawling up his hand.

"What the fuck!"

When he tried to brush it off, it spread, making both hands glow. He remembered the light he'd felt down in the guts of the Hellmouth. This burned too. As the light spread up his arms, he thought he heard laughter.

As the light covered his eyes, Andrew yanked himself around the end of the bookcase walling off Spike's hideaway. "Spike, the Senior Partners--oh, crap."

The last thing Spike heard was Andrew saying, "Oh, Xander is not going to be pleased about this."

---

The rain fell on his cheek again--or maybe it had never stopped. The wet asphalt under his other cheek was gritty. The bloodscent in his nostrils was his own, but there was Gunn's and Angel's and Illyria's and the faint wisp of Wesley. The rumble he felt might have been thunder--or it might have been the stomping of a double hundred demon feet.

So, it had all just been a dream before dying, eh? That strange woman with dead Wesley in her eyes giving him a way out, going to the new Watchers in England and finding welcome where he'd least expected.

He wasn't going to allow Xander to enter his thoughts, because he wasn't going to give the universe the satisfaction of seeing that pain.

Well. Time to get to it, then. Never let it be said that William the Bloody met his fate lying down in the muck of an alley. He got his hands under him, then his knees, and he levered himself to his feet. He settled the remnants of that Italian replacement coat around his shoulders, shoved his hair out of his face, and raised his chin.

"Right, then. Let's see what you've got."

A little girl in a red dress stood in front of him in the alley, her head cocked to one side as she studied him.

Spike blinked back at her, flummoxed.

"You realize you're alone here," she said, gesturing at the alley. "You're the last one. No one's coming to your rescue."

He looked around. A huddled lump against a wall might be Gunn's body. There was no sign of Illyria. Reluctantly, he looked down. Blood and gritty dust streaked his hands. He rubbed his fingers together, grinding the remains into his skin.

"Doesn't everybody wind up alone at the end of it?" he said quietly. "I can't say I'm surprised."

He raised his head and met the little girl's eyes. "But I agreed to be here. And here I stay."

She crossed her arms and glared. "You are one tiny little creature standing in our way. Did you think we'd just leave without dealing with you?"

He blinked. "Leave?"

"Those two sorcerers never stood a prayer of keeping us out. We were merely exploring their capabilities and deciding how much power to squander on a pathetic creature such as you."

Joy was probably not the most appropriate response to the situation, but it was all real. He'd escaped, he'd made it to England, he'd found a refuge. He'd found Xander. And now he was pissed.

"If I'm such a puny, insignificant, pathetic thing," he sneered, "why are you going to all this trouble? Did we really kick your asses that hard here in this alley?" He patted his pockets, wondering if the illusion extended to cigarettes, but he came up empty.

The little girl flicked a finger, and Spike was down in the muck again, coughing up blood. "Perhaps you need reminded of precisely whose asses got kicked here."

He pushed himself up again, remembering other times he'd grinned around a mouthful of blood. He spat to clear his throat, and he wasn't too particular where it landed. "Actually, I'm surprised you don't have me strapped to a table in some basement in your nasty suburban hell."

"Our hells are customized to the individual. This is where your heart broke."

The scene shifted from the alley bearing Angel's dust to a junkyard, with a creaking metal tower and the sun just rising above the horizon. Light struck gold off the hair of a body plummeting from the top of the tower.

"No!" Spike couldn't help yelling.

The little girl standing in a nearby shadow smirked. "Though this is where it broke into the most bits."

This time he couldn't pretend that the snapping sounds were the boards she landed on. He saw her body deform, smelled the sudden blood. He hit his knees, weeping.

"Really," the little girl said, "you're pathetically easy to torment. One would think you would have learned by now."

"She came back," he snarled. "She's happy. She's alive, and she laughs in the sun."

"Which is more than you ever did for her."

"I know." He got to his feet again. "Yeah, this all hurts, but I know this hurt. You can't scare me with the pain I already know."

She tilted her head and smiled, pretty dimples appearing. "You're right."

Hot sun beat down, and he cringed away. The landscape distracted him from imminent destruction, which didn't seem to be happening anyway. Grasslands stretched to the horizons, marked by sparse groves of trees. The ground trembled, and Spike whirled to see a herd of elephant moving by not far away. They were a lot bigger in three dimensions and off the TV screen.

His guts froze. "Xander . . ." He whirled on the little girl, demon snarling. "What happened to Xander?"

She blinked at him. "Xander?"

He stalked towards her, a growl rolling from his throat that should have made the elephants nervous. "This is Africa. Xander's in Africa. You've only shown me places where people I've loved have died."

"Oh, like this?"

A Victorian sitting room, his mother's debutante portrait above the fireplace. The little girl sat primly on the settee, in his mother's place. She looked satisfyingly shocked when he reached down and grabbed the front of her dress and yanked her up to his face.

"What happened to Xander!"

Lightning flared from his heels and out the top of his head. He screamed but kept his feet and kept hold of the little girl.

"Let me go!" she demanded.

"Xander!" Another bolt shook him; he sagged but held on.

She stared at him in disbelief. "But we can destroy you utterly!"

He pulled her in to within reach of his fangs. "It's. Been. Tried."

The third bolt blacked him out.

He was laying in the alley again when he woke up. It was still raining. He smelled blood again, but it was all his. He looked around as much as he could without moving.

There she was, her hands on her hips and an annoyed look on her face. He smiled and missed Cordelia all over again. That thought led to--

"Xander," he whispered.

She stomped her foot. "Oh, for heaven's sake, is that all you can say?"

"Yes."

She sighed and crossed her arms. "The boy is fine. Otherwise we'd have shown you his body. It's called torture, remember?"

He let the asphalt embrace him for a few moments. "I remember." He flexed his arms and legs experimentally and felt the fingers of his left hand moving in some kind of grainy mud. He raised his hand and turned his head to look. A vampire knew the color of the dust he'd eventually end up as. "I remember."

The little girl appeared on this side. She crouched down and looked at the ashy smear on Spike's hand. "Why do you mourn him? You beat him and gloried in the victory."

"That was just settling things between him and me. I could have killed him if I wanted to. I didn't."

"You hated him."

"Mine to hate. Mine to love, if I wanted. He was mine."

She settled back on her heels, smiling in contentment. "And we beat him."

Spike snorted. "You think killing him means you *won*? All it means is that you killed him, it doesn't mean you beat him!"

"We defeated him and all his minions. He caused us some harm, but that will pass. You beat him, and we beat him."

He forced himself to sit up. The little girl didn't move. "His heart wasn't in our fight. I wanted it more than he did. Maybe he wanted me to win that fight." He looked the girl in the eye. "And he knew he wasn't going to survive the fight here. That wasn't how he was defining winning."

She glared back, looking less and less like a little girl. "He inconvenienced us. We destroyed him and his cause. That's how we define losing."

Spike got to his feet, letting the aches and pains fall where they may. "The Scourge of Europe never rolled over for anyone. Angel was, God help him, a Champion, and in the end he didn't roll over, either."

"A dead hero is still dead, and he can't save anyone anymore. You can stand up straight as much as you want in the face of evil, but when you're dead you fall down."

"By then it doesn't matter, because death comes to us all. That's not what people remember. They remember what happens before."

Her lip curled. "And you're certainly making sure of it."

"Yes, I am."

She stood and sneered up at him. "Poor William the Poet. Little Spike, tagalong to Drusilla, always trying to get out of Angelus' shadow, tagging desperately along behind a Slayer, begging her to kick you again. And now you're begging for scraps at the door of the Watchers, whining at the feet of a crippled boy for a pat on the head." She gave a silent laugh. "Perhaps we should leave you alive to serve as an object lesson in mediocrity."

Part of him felt that sting. More of him stuck a hand in the duster's pocket and wasn't surprised to find his smokes and lighter. He took his time firing up a cigarette and taking that long first drag. He let the smoke free into the dark air and looked down at the incarnation of the Senior Partners.

"I am William the Bloody. They whisper my name in fear. I killed two Slayers and destroyed the Anointed One. Created by Drusilla, raised by Angelus. Consort of a kind to another Slayer and protector of more." He grinned. "And I stand a better than average change of getting Xander Harris into my bed. And there is nothing you can do that can change any of that."

The little girl blinked a moment. "We could put you in a world where none of that happened, where you were despised by all those you hold dear, as they all used to do."

He shrugged, and meant it. "It would still just be another world. It doesn't change this one. This is mine, and you can't take it away from me."

"We could kill you here."

"And prove what? Killing's easy. Dying hurts, but--" He took another drag from the cigarette and shrugged again. "I've been through that before."

The little girl stared at him, then slowly she faded away.

Spike took a deep breath. "Right." He looked around to see if any of their weapons had been conveniently left in place by the Senior Partners, but no. This wasn't going to be anything in the neighborhood of an equal fight. He looked down the alley to where the demons had come from last time. They hadn't come into view, yet, but he could hear them growling.

"I don't suppose good intentions count for much against a century of cheerful evil," he said quietly, "but maybe they'll let me share your corner of hell, Peaches. Though if they're smart they won't let William the Bloody and Angelus reunite. Not with time on our hands and no more reason to care."

The growling came closer, and he braced himself. He was going to take an entourage to hell with him, at least.

He stepped forward, and his foot sank into the asphalt. The world began fading away with a painful white light.

"Fucking cheaters!" he managed before it all went blank.

---

Everything involving the Senior Partners seemed to involve pain. He heard shouting voices but couldn't make out words or identities.

Then hands grabbed him and shook him and pulled him against a body.

"Spike, mi compadre, mi hermano, mi heroe, you're back, they sent you back!"

Andrew.

He blamed the prickling of tears on the pain of being shaken around, and he only put his arms around Andrew to get him to stop the shaking. "Enough, you git."

Someone knelt beside him. "Good lord, Spike."

And there was Ripper. Who sounded like he had been concerned and was relieved at Spike's return. And that meant the Senior Partners had merely sent him back to where they'd grabbed him from.

He pried open his eyes to be sure. He was laying on the floor of his nook in the library. Andrew was clutching him to his skinny chest, and Giles was crouched beside them, clutching his glasses.

"The Partners . . ." he croaked.

Giles put a hand on his shoulder. "We know. They punched through the wards to get you. I guess they got tired of waiting. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, well enough. They wanted to play some mindgames, that's all." He remembered the places he'd been forced to revisit--and the one place he'd never been. "Xander." He grabbed Giles' arm. "We've got to call Xander."

"Damn! Spike, let go. Why do we have to call Xander?"

"The Senior Partners were playing with me, showing me places where people died. They showed me Africa, but they didn't show me Xander, then they said they were only pulling a fast one with him. But I've got to make sure. Please, Rupert, call him!"

Andrew propped Spike up against the desk. "I'll get the phone."

Giles put a hand up. "Wait, Andrew."

Spike struggled upright. "Dammit, Rupert--"

Giles grabbed his arm to steady him and help him to his feet. "There's a faster way."

Spike did his damnedest not to need support as they walked quickly through the hallways to Giles' office, past Old Guard Watchers and untrusting trainees. Andrew shadowed him closely, and Spike didn't object when he felt a hand holding on to his belt on the stairway down to the main floor.

Roger Wyndam-Pryce waylaid them outside the reception office. "I assume from the cessation of shaking in the walls that the recent problems have come to an end?" He looked at Spike and managed to keep the sneer confined to his eyes.

Giles sighed. "Yes, Roger, the problems have come to an end, and I believe we'll be able to lighten some of the warding that we've had up. I'll make a report to the Council board in the morning, but I'd like to get all the information first. If you'll excuse us?" He moved towards the office door with polite implacability.

Wyndam-Pryce moved out of the way at the last minute, then, with a final stare at Spike, walked away.

"Git," Giles muttered. "Come on, then, before someone else interferes."

He went through reception and on into his own office, then to the other door and knocked.

"Ethan, it's me, I'm coming in."

"This is so cool," Andrew told Spike.

Spike was already feeling magic prickling on his skin, and he winced when the door opened. "You're not playing Ripper games again, are you, Rupert?" He was not reassured by the faint smile Giles sent him.

Ethan stood next to a large model of the Watchers building, his hands raised over a faintly shimmering dome. He glanced over his shoulder as everyone trooped in and Giles closed the door. "So they sent you back in more or less one piece, did they?"

Spike managed a smirk. "More or less." Andrew pulled a chair over from by the wall, and Spike reluctantly admitted that he needed it. "What's all this, then?"

"The wards around the Council building," Giles said, going over to study the dome. "What's the damage, Ethan?"

"Well, I wouldn't want to try to withstand the assault of a platoon of hellspawn, but the basic structure is sound. The moon will be in the right phase two nights from now for a ritual to fortify things."

Giles nodded. "And the Senior Partners?"

Ethan nodded at Spike. "After they got their prize, they ceased all interference with the wards. All ethereal traces of them dissipated five minutes ago."

"So after weeks of poking at us, they simply pack their traps and leave?"

Spike put a hand on his aching chest and regretted having to use his lungs. "After leaving some lovely parting gifts. You said you could tell me about Xander."

"That's over here." Giles walked over to the other protection circle and the map within. "There's a bead for everyone whom I keep track of. Xander's is here over East Africa. The color tells the level of trouble he's in."

Spike looked at the clump over southern England, gazed a moment at the bright pair over Italy, then stared at the tiny little glowing thing that represented his boy. It should be brighter, he mused. "The others are white. Why is his pink?"

Giles smiled. "He's in treacherous country, Spike. The bead turned positively rose-colored a couple of weeks ago, and he was only stuck in a stretch of muddy road with a pack of jackals looking at him thoughtfully."

"Yours went blood-red," Andrew said. "Which is kind of appropriate for you, I guess."

"Mine?" Spike repeated. "One of these is for me?" He felt his eyes going all prickly again. He was definitely wrecked after what the Senior Partners had done to him.

Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, well, there are people who feel concern for you, and it's easier to tell them your bead hasn't changed than to go into long explanations."

Over by the wards, Ethan snorted, but he said nothing.

Spike didn't have the brain space to deal with this now. "So Xander's all right?"

"He's all right," Giles said.

A good, long lie-down was what was required now. And maybe a couple of pints of the red stuff. He studied the ward dome. "And the Senior Partners are gone."

Ethan nodded. "No sign of them."

"They could by lying in wait for you," Andrew said.

Spike shook his head. "No, they had me, right and tight. If they were going to finish it, they would have."

"Why would they let you go?" Giles said.

"Maybe they decided I wasn't worth it after all."

"The Senior Partners are business folk," Ethan said. "Perhaps it was no longer cost-effective to finish you off."

"Makes sense." Spike slowly straightened. "If they're gone, I can leave."

Andrew gasped. "Le--leave?"

"What do you mean, leave?" Giles demanded. "I understand that our deal was based on the Council protecting you from the Senior Partners, and that now they're gone matters may need to be renegotiated, but if you think you're going to leave me to explain to Xander how you've wandered off, you've got another thing coming."

Spike stared at him, then couldn't help smirking. "Why, Ripper, I didn't know you cared." He thought about leaving it all behind him, going out into the world now that the threat of the Senior Partners was gone, but it was mostly relief that he had choices again. Honestly, where would he go? There was an awful lot of sunlight in Africa, and he was in no hurry to sample zebra blood.

"About as far as I'm planning to go for now is down the pub for a decent pint," he said.

"The Royal Standard down the village is pleasant enough," Ethan said, as Andrew sighed in relief.

Giles looked a little miffed at having been caught out caring about whether Spike stayed or went. "Though they haven't much patience for punk types."

Spike grinned. "They let you in, don't they?"

Giles hmphed. "You're not going anywhere until you can stand by yourself without wobbling, I think."

Andrew leaped to Spike's side. "You should go lie down. I'll bring you some blood."

Spike took a moment before he got to his feet. He studied Giles. "Time was, you'd be showing a bit more disapproval at me being around, not giving me advice on the local pubs."

Giles pushed up his glasses. "You're right. But times have changed. You and I may never be friends, but I've come to a much greater appreciation for allies. And there are many times when it's useful to have people I know about."

"The Sunnydale Veterans Association," Ethan muttered. Giles' glare was not very stern.

Spike hauled himself to his feet and managed not to grab Andrew's shoulder. "I'm going to go up to my room and recover, then I think I'll go for a stroll when it's dark. Wander up to the castle, see if Her Majesty is in."

"She's not," Andrew said promptly. Spike glared at him, just a little. Andrew wilted. "I'll bring you up some blood."

"Thank you."

"Spike." He paused on his way to the door and looked at Giles. The glasses had come off. "It's, um, not just for Xander's and Dawn's sakes that I'm, well--"

Spike tsked. "Please, Rupert, control yourself. We're British."

Giles smiled faintly. "Yes, of course."

Later on, far past midnight, Spike made his way out of the Great Park's forests and across the fields toward the sleeping village of Old Windsor. He paused on a rise to look around. Bright lights to the east showed London, and Heathrow, barely three miles away, showed constant activity. He could hear the motorways humming even at this late/early hour. But here around him, between the old village and the older forest, he heard night birds and remembered being young.

It was a portion of the world unchanged since he walked under the sun. Tonight he'd walked among trees older than himself, older than Angel, older than Darla. He'd found a small pack of demons dancing around the oldest oak tree, but they'd only been praying for a bountiful acorn harvest, so he'd let them be. He's been feeling too soft-hearted and Williamish to want to indulge in any mayhem. Tomorrow night he'd wander towards the airport, see what trouble he could find. Maybe bring some baby Slayers out into the Great Park for a game of Vampire Tag. And maybe when Xander returned, he'd show the boy some of the England he remembered.

Only a few diligent dogs barked as he passed through the outskirts of the village. The old hotel was now designated as a girls' history academy. Andrew had designed some t-shirts and sweaters for the Slayers to wear when they were out terrorizing the shops or sneaking up to Eton to ogle the cricket and rugby players. Magic as well as plausibility masked the place, and Spike felt the wards as he crossed onto the property.

He paused at the foot of the steps up to the main entrance, his hand around the small ring of keys in his coat pocket. He had keys to the place. His own set. Andrew had handed them over when he brought up the blood while Spike was resting. Keys to all the outside doors, to his own room, and to the library. Part of him felt skittish, looking for the trap behind the apparent trust. These humans couldn't possibly be so welcoming of a vampire. It was William who reminded him--it wasn't all the humans, it was what Ethan had described as the Sunnydale Veterans Association. The people who had been through it all, who had gone through life and death, and who knew who could be depended on in a fight.

Slowly he went up the steps, slid the key into the front door lock, and turned it. The door unlocked. It was more mind boggling than a verbal welcome. He walked in and closed the door behind him. The heavy oak, with its inset faceted glass windows, gave a solid, muted thud, and the deadbolt slid into place with a satisfying thunk.

Up in his room, he got ready for bed. He stared at the wooden box at the foot of his bed as he undressed. The Senior Partners had grabbed him, shaken him by the scruff of the neck a few times, then dropped him like a rag and stomped away. They were done with him--or as done with him as touchy evil powers with multiple dimensions to corrupt were likely to be. He'd be listed in some file folder somewhere. Maybe he would just be a footnote to a sidebar on the history of the Senior Partners in this dimension. But there were more powers than the Senior Partners in the universe, and he suspected that there would always someone/thing somewhere who remembered Angel Investigations' stint in charge of a local branch office.

So. That part of things was done. And the idea of "move on" was gaining ground. Angel's death and the death of all the others still left a big hole in his gut. Now that he'd been granted room and time to sit and grieve, the first shock of "Sire dead!" was blunted, and the soul wasn't quite so scared of losing the memories. A vampire's memory was more than excellent, for good and ill.

He went to the box and rested his hands on it. The poetic thing to do would be to take it out to the Great Park and bury it at the foot of one of those ancient oaks, but he was neither that poncy just yet nor that willing to let things go. Not when that scrap still held Angel's scent, to tide him over when knowing he was the only souled vampire in the universe got to be too much. Slowly he lifted the box and carried it over to his dresser, setting it down and carefully centering it on the top. It was several moments before he could convince his hands that it wasn't a betrayal to let go.

He made himself study the box itself, instead of thinking of what lay inside. It wasn't a professionally made box, though it was well constructed. The amber colored wood was sanded smooth but not stained, leaving it soft to the touch. He didn't recognize the scent of the wood, and there was an odd spicy undertone that he'd noticed when the box was open. He leaned closer to the box and suddenly remember the vision of Africa. Had Xander brought this box from Africa? Had he possibly made it himself?

Spike let his fingers run over the surface of the box, feeling the grain and picturing Xander in one of the villages he described, using the locals' tools on scraps of wood. He'd have to ask when Xander got back. Until then, he could trust something the White Knight had provided to protect his memories. He left the small desk lamp on, however, so he could glance over from bed and watch the light play on the colors of the wood and see the box, still in reach.