Written by Glassdarkly, November, 2008
"What is it? Spike- what's the matter?"

Buffy reached out, but he was gone, melting through her fingers like moonlight.

"Sorry, love," he muttered. "I can't do this."

She heard him fumbling for something in the dresser drawer, and then his silhouette was outlined against the window as he opened it and climbed out.

"Spike – wait!" Her heart seemed to turn over in her chest as she got out of bed and ran after him. It was a relief when she almost went sprawling headlong over his abandoned clothes. Surely on a winter night in Scotland, even Spike couldn't get far stark naked.

As if summoned by her thoughts, a chill wind blew through the open window, fluttering the drapes and making her shiver.

"Spike?" She stuck her head out of the window and looked down. This might only be the castle gatehouse, not the castle itself, but it was a long way to the ground – a very long way. However, there was no sign of him.

Then, the acrid scent of tobacco smoke made her nostrils twitch and she looked up.

"Spike – what the hell are you doing?"

He was perched on the sloping slate roof, to the right and above of the window, bare toes digging in, knees next to ears, like an improbably beautiful gargoyle on a cigarette break. Fitful moonlight silvered his hair and made his pale skin gleam.

"Spike – come back inside. It's freezing out here."

He barely glanced at her. "Bit nippy, I grant you. Not that bad, though."

Exasperated, she leaned out further. If she reached as far as she could, she might just be able to snag an ankle.

"Don't," he said.

She drew her arm back.

"I wasn't."

"Go back to bed, love." His voice was kind. "I'll be back, soon as I'm finished."

It was tempting. She was cold, and the bed was warm, in spite of him having no body heat to speak of – but this was the third time this week he'd blown her off.

"Stay where you are, mister. I'll be right back."

She ducked back inside and shrugged herself into her pyjamas, with her cosy winter robe on top for good measure. As a finishing touch, she thrust her cold feet into the fluffy slippers Dawn had given her for Christmas.

Armoured against the worst the Scottish weather could throw at her, she returned to the window and looked out again. He hadn't moved, though he might possibly be on his second cigarette. So much for coming back when he was finished.

She frowned. Not so long ago, she wouldn't have thought twice about climbing out of that window and joining him on his lofty perch. Now, though – well, things were different.

"All right, Spike, fess up. What the hell is wrong with you?"

He blew a stream of smoke through his nostrils.

"Nothing's wrong," he said, stubbornly. "Not with me anyway."

Her heart did that lurching thing again.

"You know, Spike – it's not my fault." No way he could miss the hurt in her voice. "And anyway, Giles'll fix it."

He swore softly under his breath.

"Soddit – Buffy -love, that's not what I meant."

"Then what did you mean?"

Somewhere in the night, an animal howled – barked – whatever. She had no idea what sort of animal –something doglike -a wolf, maybe? She shivered again. It sounded kind of lost and lonely – and just now she could relate.

"I'm an idiot." Spike stubbed out his cigarette on the roof-tiles in a spurt of flame. "The last thing I meant to do was hurt your feelings, Buffy."

"Like hell." She blinked furiously, not wanting him to see he'd brought her close to tears.

"Bugger!" The next moment, he was climbing back down the roof in the direction of the window. She watched his sure-footed progress with envy – and though she was mad at him, the glimpses she had of his pale muscular butt didn't hurt at all.

His abs weren't bad either – or his pecs, or whatever they were called. Now that he was back inside, she wanted to reach out and touch his silky perfection, but the cold, which radiated off of him, was kind of a mood-killer.

She folded her arms and glared up at him. "So?"

His nostrils flared and she realised that even if he hadn't seen her almost-tears, he could smell them. His expression became hangdog.

"God, Buffy, I'm so sorry. I'm an arsehole."

"No argument here." She dialled the glare up to eleven. "Come on, Spike – just tell me what's bothering you."

For answer he raised an eyebrow, and she felt her eyes do that prickling thing again.

"Okay," she conceded, "so I've lost my Slayer powers, but it's just temporary, right? I'm still me. I'm still – Buffy."

Despite her best efforts, her voice cracked on the last word, and he swore again, gathering her into his arms. Her head fit nicely, as it always did, in the hollow of his shoulder, but he was so damn cold!

"'Course you are," he said. "'Course you bloody are."

She felt her temper rising, because he sounded like he was trying to reassure himself as much as her.

"Then why won't you have sex with me? What? I can't beat the crap out of you, so now I don't turn you on?"

It was his turn to flinch, as if she had hit him, and when she raised her head to see his face, he looked guilty as charged.

"I don't believe this!" She pushed him away as hard as she could – which wasn't very hard these days. "You bastard!"

She made for the door, but he grabbed her arm. "Buffy – wait."

His fingers dug in, like bands of cold iron tightening around her forearm. She gasped. "You're hurting me."

"Fuck – oh fuck!" He let her go at once and retreated in the direction of the window, while she rubbed her arm, glaring at him some more.

"Soddit!" He had his back to her now, a slim, pale shape, bisected by shadows. "That's it, don't you see? The whole sodding problem."

"What do you mean?" She already had a pretty good idea what he would say in response.

He glanced back over his shoulder. "You're right. There is something wrong with me, but it's not that I don't fancy you any more. Christ, Buffy, as if that could ever happen!"

He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "It's just that I'm scared, all right? Scared out of my fucking wits."

She rubbed her arm again. She could feel tender patches where his fingers had left bruises. "Scared of hurting me, you mean?"

He nodded, head drooping. "Too bloody right. Never been stronger than you before, love. It scares the crap out of me."

"But why?" Now the truth was out, she was still exasperated and upset, but sorry for him too. He had so many hang-ups about her. And sure enough –

"Shouldn't have to remind you, love –if you weren't a whole lot stronger than me, I'd have raped you that time in your bathroom." She saw his hands clench into fists. "I would've done it too, Buffy – no question."

She'd gone cold inside, as she always did at the mention of this subject, but it had gotten so it was his problem, not hers – almost like it had happened to someone else.

"Dumbass!" she said, crossly. "That wasn't you, it was that evil guy you used to be. And anyway, even if you did hurt me, it wouldn't be on purpose – like now, with my arm. I trust you."

At last, he turned to face her again, his expression set. "Well, I don't trust myself. Till this is over, Buffy – till you're fixed – I daren't touch you."

"But –" she opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again, in face of his obstinacy.

And after all, she told herself, it couldn't be for long. Maybe it was best to just humour him.

She shrugged and tried to smile. "Okay, then. Guess a few days' abstinence won’t hurt, as long as you–" and that annoying uncertain note was back in her voice – "I mean, you do still like me, right?"

He was at her side in an instant – too fast, in fact; another reminder of how very much he wasn't human.

"Like you?" He took her warm hand in his cold one and raised it to his lips. "'Course I bloody do. There's not a woman on earth to compare with you. My goddess, that's what you are -always will be."

She smiled, though his fervour was a little disquieting. Hadn't Drusilla been his goddess once, and he'd gotten over her.

"That's nice," she said, in a neutral tone – humour the scarily intense vampire. Then, slyly, "But even goddesses like to snuggle."

He frowned, and she made her eyes as big as they would go. "Snuggling's okay, isn't it? Very non-hurt-y – and we don't have to do anything else."

His face cleared. "'Course it is." Leaning close, he kissed her forehead. "Tell you what, you jump back in bed and get warmed up, while I just brush my teeth – get rid of the ciggy-breath, yeah?"

"Okay." She supposed she ought to be grateful he'd consented to share the bed at all, though it kind of hurt that he thought he could do so and not be tempted.

The bed had gotten cold in their absence. She shivered as she drew the quilt over her and curled herself into a ball. Her feet felt like lumps of ice.

When he finally wormed his way under the bedclothes to join her, not only did he have minty fresh breath, he was no longer naked. Instead, his body was covered in stiff, scratchy cotton.

"Spike – are you wearing pjs? You never wear pjs!"

"Yeah." He sounded a little embarrassed. "Dawn gave 'em me for Christmas, remember? Was winter woollies all round, ‘cos of that holiday job she had at M&S. Bit of a waste if I never wear the bloody things."

"I guess." She closed her eyes, thinking that whatever the hell was wrong with her, Giles had better hurry up and fix it.

Giles took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. Buffy had lost count of how many times he'd done that so far during this conversation.

This very difficult conversation.

"I'm sorry," Giles said. "I truly am – but I think it's important we take this on board and move forward."

"Come again, Rupert. Not sure I follow you." Spike's voice sounded like it was coming through gritted teeth. "And less of that spin-doctor bollocks. Call a spade a bloody spade."

"Spin-doctor - what?" Giles looked outraged. "It's nothing of the sort, Spike. Don't exaggerate. I'm merely trying to imply that there are positive aspects to this situation, that's all."

"Oh yeah?" Spike raised an eyebrow. "Think you need to work on your implyin' skills, then, 'cos so far you're makin' a right pig's ear of it."

Buffy pressed her fingers to her forehead. She'd woken up with a headache and it seemed to be getting worse. "Spike – really, really not helping."

Spike looked contrite at once, while the corners of Giles's mouth twitched in a hint of a self-justified smile. His eyes were kindly when he looked at her, though.

"To be honest, Buffy, I think this could be a good thing. As one ages, one's reflexes slow and being a Slayer becomes a more and more dangerous occupation."

She scowled. "Giles, I'm only twenty-five."

It was Giles's turn to look contrite. He polished harder.

"Quite, quite. Dear lord, Buffy, I'm not saying you're old."

"Then what are you saying exactly?" She could feel her temper rising with every throb of her head.

Giles stopped polishing. With a sigh, he put his glasses back on and pushed them up his nose.

"It seems I'm expressing myself very poorly today. If that's so, I apologise, Buffy. I meant to insinuate that the loss of your Slayer powers could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It could open new doors for you."

Buffy noted that he'd very pointedly turned his back on Spike, excluding him both from the apology and the conversation. From Spike's white, set face, he'd noted the same thing.

"Doors leading – where exactly?"

Giles blinked again. For a moment, he looked flummoxed.

"Well," he said, at last, "you could go back to college - complete your education –– train for a career that doesn't involve mayhem and death. Then there's always –" he swallowed, looking uncomfortable –"marriage – er, children – that sort of thing. Or -"

Spike was staring at her over Giles's shoulder. She could almost see him thinking how every one of these suggestions pushed them further apart.

"Or?" She prompted Giles, wanting this conversation over and done with. She had ruffled vampire feathers to smooth – if she could be bothered. Right now, Spike's woe-is-me attitude was bugging her big-time.

Giles sighed. "Or you could do what previous Slayers have done who've had the luck to live to as long as you have and become a Guardian – an upholder of the Slayer legacy."

She smiled feebly. "Does that mean I have to start dressing like a character from community theatre night at the Aryan Nations compound and living in a crypt?"

Giles smiled back, his whole face softening, like he'd heard a distant echo of old-style quippy Buffy. "I don't think it's compulsory, no," he said. "For one thing, with the Scythe recovered, it doesn't need a Guardian to -er, guard it."

"Well, good." She didn't know what else to say. It was a hell of a lot to take in.

"So let me get this straight," Spike interrupted, still with the clenched-teeth tone in his voice. "The original Watchers put a sort of built-in obsolescence into the Slayer spell, so that when the Slayer reaches twenty-five, she passes on her powers to some other chit, even though she's still alive?"

Giles's face took on a pained expression.

"For the tenth time, Spike, yes. And it's more a question of if the Slayer reaches twenty-five, not when. I think Buffy may be only about the second or third to do so in the whole history of the Slayer line, which is why it's taken me so long to research the matter. It's barely a footnote in Slayer history."

"Yay me." Buffy rubbed her forehead again.

"But why?" Spike sounded angry. Worse, he sounded kind of lost. "Everyone knows a fighter gets more cunning with age, and twenty-five is hardly over the bloody hill, is it?"

"Well – no," Giles admitted. "Though possibly it was back in pre-historic times. The Slayer needed to be at her physical peak."

"Fuck that." Spike's voice came out a snarl this time. "Needed to be too young and naοve to question the old men pulling the strings, more like. God, they must have wet themselves wondering what to do with a woman old enough to know her own mind and strong enough to beat the shit out of them."

He threw his arms wide.

"And what better way to deal with her than to de-power the poor bint if she had the nerve to live that bit too long. Gotta hand it to those blokes, they knew how to keep their women down."

Giles looked momentarily outraged, but then his shoulders slumped.

"Much as it pains me to say it, Spike, I suspect you're right. And far be it from me to bang a drum for the Watchers' Council as previously constituted. However, that still doesn't mean that this – de-powering is such a bad thing for Buffy as an individual, and things are different now. The Slayers run their own affairs."

"Yeah well," Spike pressed, "Buffy may not agree – and you should be looking for a way to give those bastards the old two-fingers and restore her powers, not patronising her."

"I beg you pardon!" Giles's outrage was back full-force. "I must say, Spike, this self-righteous tirade of yours is a bit rich, given that you've murdered two Slayers in your time. I hardly think Buffy needs you to speak for her."

"Or you, you tweed-bound old has-been!" Spike shot back. "And I've nothing but respect for the Slayers I killed. Buffy knows that. They were warriors and they died like warriors."

"Buffy's sitting right here." By this time, any entertainment value to be gotten from their snarking was long since gone, and she was on the point of walking out and leaving them to it.

They both turned to look at her, and whatever the expression on her face was, it shut them up at once. Spike was back to looking hangdog and Giles just seemed embarrassed.

"Could you do that?" she asked him. "Get around this obsolescence thing and find a way to give me back my Slayer powers?"

Giles's lips pursed. "It would be very difficult, Buffy. The Slayer spell is a vastly complicated piece of magic. Attempting to change it in such a fundamental way could have repercussions we haven't even thought of – as we already know to our cost."

Buffy thought of Dana and shuddered. "I get that, but-"

"Besides," Giles went on, "even as we speak, somewhere in the world another young woman has been gifted with the Slayer strength that once was yours. It seems a little harsh, don't you think, to snatch it back from her."

"Sod that –" Spike began, but Buffy frowned him into silence.

"But you'll look into it?"

Giles gave her a long, sober look. "All right, if you want me to. I'll ask Willow to help me. However, instinct tells me, Buffy, that it's hopeless."

"Now who's not bein' positive," Spike muttered. He was fiddling with his lighter, though he hadn't taken a cigarette out.

"Buffy –"

The tone of Giles's voice suggested he thought her imbued with saint-like patience for keeping Spike around at all, and she was beginning to feel the same way.

"Thanks, Giles," she said, quickly. "Call me if you find anything?"

Giles had begun tidying his papers. His gaze on her was full of concern.

"Of course I will. And likewise will you inform me if you come to any decision?"

"Sure thing," she said, brightly.

She kept up appearances the whole time Giles was stuffing the papers into his old leather briefcase, but as he came towards her on his way to the door, she had a sudden urge to banish Spike from the room and confide everything to him- explain that it wasn't just her slaying life that was currently in jeopardy.

But then Giles glanced back over his shoulder at Spike and said, sourly, "And don't let any – outside influences have too much say in what you decide, will you?" and the moment was gone.

She continued to smile. "You know me, Giles – go my own sweet way."

"Of course." Giles hesitated. Then his hand rested briefly on her shoulder in passing, heavy and warm, and she felt a pang of loss for past intimacy. The front door clicked quietly closed behind him and a moment later they heard his car start up.

Spike opened his mouth to speak, but she held up her hand.

"Don't – say anything, Spike, okay? I have a raging headache."

At once, he was all concern.

"I'll get you something for it."

He was back quickly with a couple of capsules and a glass of water. "Neurofen," he said. "S'like Advil, I think."

"Thanks." She put the capsules in her mouth and chugged them down, while he hovered over her, looking helpless. When she held out the glass to him, he took it and stood turning it around and around in his hands with that twitchy desperate-for-a-smoke look on his face.

And sure enough –"You have a lie down, love. I'm just goin' out back for a quick smoke, I won't be long."

"Okay." She watched him go, the cigarette pack and lighter already in his hands. There was a shady place just outside the back door where he could safely smoke even on sunny days, not that this was one.

It wasn't until she heard the whomp-whomp of the back door closing with its attendant blast of cold air into the room that she let her fists unclench.

Buffy set the jar down on the table. Her hand hurt from trying to open it.

Outside, rain beat against the window, steady and grey, and she shivered convulsively. There'd been snow, followed by sleet, followed by rain for three days straight now and the whole world felt waterlogged.

Picking up the jar again, she grasped the top and twisted as hard as she could, but again, it wouldn't budge, and in the end she banged the jar down on the table and slumped into a chair, head in hands.

As Buffy’s birthday surprises went, this latest was right up there – maybe not quite as bad as boyfriends turning evil overnight, but definitely in the top three.

All she wanted was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast. Was that too much to ask? And dammit, where was Spike? Wasn't your boyfriend supposed to be around to do this kind of dumb stuff for you when you couldn't?

Of course, she knew the answer to that question. He was sleeping off whatever it was he'd been doing the night before that had had him sneaking back in at 3am soaking wet and smelling of whisky.

When she'd gotten out of bed this morning, it was to find his wet clothes strewn about the room, though she noticed he'd put the damn pjs on again before getting into bed with her.

Her eyes were sore from not crying – something she'd been doing a lot of since Giles's visit- and the weird way Spike was behaving didn't help one bit. Between one moment and the next, he'd go from jumping like a scalded cat if she so much as laid a finger on him to holding her and telling her how sorry he was for being such a dick.

Which he was being – no question.

With a sigh of frustration, she settled for peanut butter on its own and sat crunching toast and licking crumbs from her fingers while the rain poured down outside. Briefly, she wondered how the others were doing up at the castle, but she was pretty sure they were managing just fine, and even if not, no one would have told her.

Her exile to the castle gatehouse might be self-imposed, but it still felt like she'd become some kind of leper.

Maybe that was why Spike was so antsy around her? He was afraid he'd catch whatever had made her weak and – what? She had no idea.

Or maybe he thought he'd lose even more of his Big Bad street cred if word got out the Slayer he was screwing wasn't a Slayer any more?

A gust of wind rattled the windowpanes and splattered them with rain. She sipped her coffee and stared at the drops sliding down the glass, feeling cold and empty and alone. It had been over a week since Giles had gone back to London and he hadn't called, so the news couldn't be good on the research front – not that that surprised her.

In fact, she hadn't spoken to anyone but Spike since Giles had left, except for Dawn on the phone once. But the line had been crackly, and besides, the overwhelming feeling of homesickness that had settled over her on hearing her sister's voice had just made everything worse.

She shut her eyes, trying to remember the bright California light – the heat haze in the warm air making everything ripple– but it seemed like a dream she'd once had. Instead, she was stuck in this cold, wet place with a freaked-out vampire who'd sworn off sex as her sole company, and to add insult to injury, she couldn't even open a damn jar!

Wearily, she wiped her eyes for what felt like the hundredth time. This was no good to anyone– and if it carried on, she'd be no good to anyone either. In fact, maybe she'd reached that point already?

"Mornin', love." She jumped. He'd managed to sneak up on her again.

"Hi." Okay, she thought, in the circumstances, who could blame her for sounding pissy?

When she turned to look at him, he'd already gotten that hangdog look on his face - and she was tired of seeing that too.

"You don't have to say anything, love. I'm sorry, all right? I just went for a quick drink, and before I knew what was happening, old Dougal had a lock in and I couldn't leave without breaking the door down."

"Lock in?" She stared at him in bewilderment.

"Yeah, you know – after hours drinking, when the pub landlord kicks everyone out except his mates and locks the doors."

"No, I didn't know." She stood and began to collect up the breakfast things. The clattering of plates would help hide her seething anger.

"Hang on a tick," he said. "I fancy a bite to eat myself. And tea - was just gonna make a cuppa. You want one?"

"No thank you."

She watched him fill the kettle at the sink and switch it on, then open the jelly jar with ease and sniff at the contents, wondering just why the hell she shouldn't be angry. He'd stayed out last night because he couldn't deal with being around her right now. And as for his excuse – well, he could at least have pretended he was doing something useful.

She was still holding her dirty plate. With great deliberation, she set it down on the kitchen counter.

"Spike –"

"Bloody filthy weather again," he said, quickly. "Still, least it’s not snowing. Think I'll head up to the castle later – see if any of the Slayers are up for a good arse kicking."

She clenched her fists. She wouldn't be jealous on top of everything else.

"And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?"

For answer, he came and put his arm round her shoulders. "You could come with me," he said. "You could umpire – tell the chit when to say uncle."

She shook her head. "No."

He frowned. Then he sighed and changed tack.

"Tell you what then, love, why don't you go back to bed for an hour or two? After I'm done up at the castle, I could take that bloody great gas-guzzler of yours and drive down to Doune Bridge – buy the morning papers." He kissed her forehead. "Could bring 'em to you in bed, maybe."

She could feel herself literally trembling with rage, and he must have felt it too, because he let her go and backed off. Carefully – very, very carefully, she unclenched her fists.

"Spike, I'm not ill."

"I know that –" he began, but she didn't let him get any further. Turning round, she faced him across the kitchen.

"I'm not gonna get my powers back, Spike. Deal with it."

Behind him on the counter, the kettle began to boil, but they both ignored it.

"You don't know that," he said, the faintest hint of irritation in his voice.

"I do." As she said the words, she was more certain than she'd ever been of anything. "If Giles and Willow find a way to give me back my powers, it'll be one of those deals where something really bad will happen someplace else– like when I died and Willow brought me back to life."

He looked stricken.

"Like I said, you can't know that."

"Yes, I can. It's the same– wanting something for nothing. I was supposed to lose my powers when I hit twenty-five, and I have – just like I was supposed to die that time. Giving me my powers back is going against the natural order, like that was."

"No –" he began again, stubbornly, but again she wouldn't let him finish.

"But you know what, Spike? This isn't my problem. It's yours. You're the one who can't accept it. You're the one who can't deal."

He took a mug out of the cupboard, and stood with his back to her, making tea. "Too bloody right," he muttered.

At first, she wasn't sure she'd heard him right. "I beg your pardon?"

He rounded on her at once. "You heard me. No, I can't bloody deal with it – and you know why? Because you're giving up - without even a fight - and that's not like you, Buffy. It's not – who you are."

"Maybe it is now." She folded her arms and glared at him. Was he right?

"Fuck that!" He stirred the teabag in the cup so violently hot water slopped over onto the counter.

"Okay, then. Say they do find a way to restore my powers and some poor kid loses hers because of it – maybe when she's fighting for her life – what then? And what about when some of the other Slayers hit twenty-five, and they lose their powers? Is Giles supposed to help them get theirs back too?"

He opened the fridge to take out the milk. She frowned, realising they were almost out.

"Dunno," he said, still with that pig-headed tone in his voice. "Maybe." Suddenly, he held out his free hand to her in appeal. "In fact, yeah, why not? In any case, you're different, Buffy - special. Don't you get that?"

"No, I'm not." She was tired of hearing it. "I have no more right to that power than any of the other girls. The Slayer power was kind of a curse, Spike. We tried to turn it into a gift. Seems now, it came with conditions, one of which is that when the time comes, you have to pass it on."

"It was yours first," he insisted, pouring the last of the milk into his mug and fishing out the drowned teabag.

"No," she said, again. "I inherited it, remember? I can pass it on if I want – and I do. I have."

He stared at her. Then he looked away, eyes blinking rapidly. He drank his tea in silence.

When the silence stretched on and on and still he said nothing, she began again. "Spike – " but then the phone rang.

He gave her a triumphant look. "Talk about jumping the gun, Slayer. Bet that’s Giles."

"I'll get it." She was already heading for the living room, but he'd gotten there first and snatched the phone from its cradle, as if he didn't trust her not to slam it down again right away.

"Yeah, who is it?"

A moment later, his eyes widened and then narrowed. "What the fuck do you want?"

She considered trying to wrestle the phone off him, but what was the point? "Who is it?"

He was gripping the phone so tightly his knuckles were white.

"It's Angel."

"Give me the phone." She held out her hand for it, but he waved her away.

"In a minute. I wanna talk to him first."

Then, to her complete astonishment, he went back into the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. At once, she could hear his raised voice, but she couldn't make out the words.

Her first instinct was to go after him. Angel must want to speak to her, not him. But she changed her mind when the raised voice lowered a little and there were even silences. He must be letting Angel get a word in edgewise.

Whatever Angel had called about, there was always a slim chance he could knock some sense into Spike as well.

In the meantime, she busied herself tidying the living room – stacking the piles of old newspapers ready for recycling – plumping up the chintzy cushions. The room needed to be vacuumed too, but she wasn't the one who'd gotten cigarette ash on the carpet, and there was no way she was cleaning it up.

She frowned at the grey, powdery mark with his boot print right in the middle of it. Was this going to be her life now – cleaning up after some guy who hadn't even noticed what a mess he'd made? Was this what it all came down to? She could remember Mom saying something similar – shouting it, more like – one time not long before she and Dad split up.

Another wave of acute homesickness overtook her. Mom – she still missed her so much, and she didn't even have a grave to go visit.

Just then, the kitchen door flew open and Spike came back into the room, pulling on his duster. His face was set and white.

"Here. Poof wants to talk to you." He thrust the phone into her hands, and a moment later he was out the front door and gone into the rain. Then, she heard the roar of a motorbike engine.

She put the phone to her ear. "What the hell did you say to him?"

"Hello to you too, Buffy."

"Sorry." She gritted her teeth. Start again, Buffy. "How are you, Angel? How's – things?" Best not ask him, she supposed, how was life as C.E.O. of Evil Incorporated.

"Oh – you know," he said, in a let's-not-talk-about-that voice. "More importantly, how're you, Buffy?"

The badly concealed question behind the question was enough to tell her that he knew.

"I'm okay," she said, as perkily as she could. "Not a Slayer any more but, you know – okay."

"Sure?" he asked, with what was obviously real concern, and, as with Giles before, a sudden urge to tell him everything came over her. She clenched the handset tight in her fist.

"Sure. Everything's just peachy."

"Er – okay." He sounded at a loss now. Then his voice took on an irritable note. "Not now, Harmony. I'm busy."

She grimaced. The idea of Harmony- of all people -as his P.A. was just too weird.

"How's Willow?" he asked, then, and she realised he was going to run through all of them one by one– Willow, Xander, Giles – before he got to the point.

"What did you call about, Angel? And what did you say to Spike?"

There was a short pause. Then he said, "I found out about you losing your powers – kind of through the grapevine, I guess -Dawn told Connor, Connor told me –and I was worried about you, Buffy. I called to see how you were. As for Spike –"

He paused again.

"Yeah?" she prompted him – and how weird was it that Dawn and Angel's son were study-buddies at Stanford now?

"I told him," Angel went on all in a rush, "that now you have a chance to live a normal life, maybe he should do the decent thing and leave you to it."

"What? You told him – what?" She was so shocked she almost dropped the phone.

"No, not really." He laughed nervously. "Just kidding Buffy, I swear."

She glared at the handset as if he could see her through it. "You know something, I'm not sure I like you any more now that you've gotten Angelus's sense of humour. Living the high life in the Empire of Evil hasn't been good for you."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." The words almost tripped over themselves trying to get out. "At least – mostly."

"What do you mean, mostly?" Her legs felt all wobbly and she flopped down onto the couch. Was it delayed shock?

"I mean that if he carries on the way he is, I damn well will say it to him, and mean it."

"Oh." The prickly sensation in her eyes was back yet again. "I heard him shouting."

"Yeah well," Angel's voice dropped to a sulky mutter, "guy's an asshole – always has been."

At once, her hackles rose. Why did old boyfriends always seem to think that bad-mouthing the current one would earn them brownie points?

"Funny," she said. "That's what he says about you – and at least he's not helping run the world's most evil law firm."

There was another pause. Then, Angel said, "Point." He sighed irritably. "I'm sorry, Buffy. Guess he and me just rub each other the wrong way these days, but I didn't call to lecture him or try to make things worse, I swear. I wouldn't do that to you."

"So what did happen?"

"Truthfully – he asked me for advice – said you'd given up –that you weren't interested in getting your powers back, wouldn't even speak to the other Slayers, just wanted to sit around and feel sorry for yourself. Asked me what I'd do in his place to try and motivate you – well, he actually said to get you off your ass, but I guess that's what he meant."

"What?" She almost dropped the phone again. "He said – what?"

"That's what I said to him." Angel sighed again. "Told him he should let you work it out for yourself – you always do -and in the meantime, if he couldn't deal with having a girlfriend who isn't super-powered, he should – er, consider his options."

When she didn't speak, he went on hurriedly, "So then he said what would I know about it since I'm dating a werewolf, and I said Nina's only a werewolf three days a month. Then he accused me of saying it was all his fault. I said I wasn't – no way. And then he called me a dickhead and stormed off."

She cleared her throat.

"Do you think I've given up?"

"Er –"

It obviously wasn't what he'd expected her to say.

"Do you?" she pressed.

She could almost hear his embarrassed shrug. "I don't know, Buffy. It doesn't seem like you, but then again, you've been the Slayer for almost ten years now. Seems to me you're due for a break."

"Yeah." She remembered thinking the same thing while staring at the crater Spike had made of Sunnydale. "I thought so."

"Guess his reaction doesn't surprise me, though," Angel went on. "After all, he is a demon."

So are you, she almost shot back. He seemed to forget that sometimes. Instead, she said, "What does that have to do with it?"

"Oh," Angel said. "It's change. Demons don't cope so well with it."

When again she didn't answer, he went on, "I mean, you must have noticed how often vampires get stuck in a time warp – the music, the clothes?"

"Trust you to notice that." She'd hardly heard what he said, though. At his words, it was like a light went on inside her head.

"You're right. He is an asshole."

"Er-" he said, again. "More than usual?" She could imagine him frowning now– that great caveman brow scrunching up – "What'd he do?"

"He hasn't done anything. That's the whole problem. He's – stuck."

Suddenly, the tears had gathered in her eyes again, and yet again she fought them off. She shouldn't have said that – not to Angel. None of this was his business.

"Okay, it's nothing. Forget I said it. He's being a royal pain, that's all."

"So – situation normal, then?" Angel sounded nervous now – like a guy who'd just sleepwalked into a minefield.

"Something like," she admitted. She cleared her throat. It was time to end this conversation. "He loves me, Angel. I hope you get that?"

Another of those awkward silences, then he said, "Yeah, I get it."

"And I love him," she went on. "But this –neither of us signed up for it."

"No." He hesitated. "Er -guess that's where for better, for worse comes in. I mean, I know you two aren't married, but -"

Her heart did the lurching thing again. She cleared her throat again, buying time while she worked out how to respond.

"Oh please!" she managed at last. "Could you be any more cheesy!"

"Sure," he said. "I mean- I could sing you some Manilow if you like."

This time, she laughed, though she still felt like she'd taken a punch to the gut.

"Goodbye, Angel. Thanks for calling."

"Any time," he said.

She heard him yawn. It must be nearly daybreak in L.A. by now.

"Take care of yourself, Buffy." He hesitated again. "Take care of the idiot too."

"And you." She clicked the phone off and put it back in its cradle.

When Spike returned, he was sporting a bruise on his left cheekbone and a split lip. He shrugged when she asked him what had happened.

"Dunno. PMS maybe? They're all on a pretty short fuse up there, specially the older ones."

He looked her straight in the eye as he said this, but she frowned and turned away.

"Your lip is split," she said –stating the obvious. "Can I get you anything for it?"

He shrugged again. "No bloody point. It'll be fine." Then he said shyly – almost like she was a total stranger –"Thanks for asking, though."

If she still had her Slayer strength, she thought, the pencil she'd been using to write a grocery list would've been splinters at this point.

"Spike –" she began, but yet again, he interrupted her.

"What did the old man have to say, then? Anything useful?"

"Useful?" She blinked.

"Yeah, you know, about your – your problem. If there's anywhere in the world they have the resources to help you, it's there – Wolfram & Hart."

"You asked him that?" She couldn't believe it. Why hadn't Angel told her?

He gave her a defiant look. "Can bloody bet I did. About time Angel started doing what he said he was gonna do -using that place to help people. And how better to start than by helping you?"

"Help you, you mean." The words were out before she could stop them.

His jaw dropped. "What?"

Now that she'd started, she couldn't stop herself. Besides, it was about time he heard it.

"You know, Spike, right now I wish I did have my powers back, just so I could punch you in the nose like you deserve."

"Oh, that's nice." He'd been taking his duster off, but now he paused with it half-on, half-off his shoulders. "I try to help you and that's all the thanks I get."

"But you're not trying to help me. You're trying to help yourself. Ah-ah- " she wagged her finger as he opened his mouth to deny it. "I'm not done talking yet."

"Bugger this!" He began to put his duster back on. The leather was slick with rain, she noticed. He must be soaked right through.

"You walk out on me again," she said, "just don't bother coming back, that's all."

He froze. For a moment, he looked angry – furious. There was even a sullen yellow-eyed flicker. Then he looked stricken. "Buffy-"

"No, hear me out." She met his eyes steadily and at last his gaze fell. His voice turned pleading.

"Buffy," he said, again.

She folded her grocery list and put it in her purse. "No – like I said, I want you to listen to me first. If you must know what Angel and me talked about, we talked about you."

"That bastard!" he said, feelingly. "I told him to keep schtum."

"I don't even know what that means." She shut her purse with a snap. "You and he may be family, Spike, but I'm the one he's friends with."

"Friends!" he sneered, but at least he was listening now.

"Yeah, friends. He told me you said you thought I'd given up – that I didn't even want my powers back. And maybe there's something in that – just maybe – but that's not what I wanna talk about."

"Oh?" He'd peeled himself out of his duster again and thrown it across the couch back. Taking his cigarettes and lighter out of his pocket, he stuck a cigarette in his mouth and flicked the lighter – once – twice – but nothing happened.

"Bloody hell!" He dropped the lighter on the side-table and took the cigarette out of his mouth. "Bloody thing's out of fuel."

It had been on the tip of her tongue to remind him he wasn't supposed to smoke in the house, and to hang his coat up properly before it made the couch all wet, but she restrained herself. It didn't matter, and it wasn't like it was her couch, was it? It wasn't even her house.

She took a deep breath. "But it was something else he said that really hit home to me, Spike – about you."

He bristled again. "What about me?"

Opening the closet, she took her own coat out, checking the pocket for her car keys.

"That you're a demon."

He blinked. "Newsflash. Always have been, ever since you've known me. That a problem for you now, love, 'cos it sodding well didn’t used to be?"

"Yes, and no." She put her coat on. "It's a problem for me cuz it's a problem for you. See, Angel reminded me of something – that demons aren't good with change."

She shook her head in bewilderment.

"I don't get it. I honestly don't. I mean, you've lived for – what, a hundred and twenty years? You've seen -how many wars? How many fashion disasters? And yet, you get thrown by change?"

Her voice had risen, and she made a conscious effort to moderate it. She was the reasonable one, not him.

"All that stuff about being afraid of hurting me, it's a load of bull, isn't it? You don't care about that, do you, Spike? You're just afraid because I've changed."

She began to walk towards the front door, while he stared at her, white-faced and stricken. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his long, pale throat.

"Where are you going?" he said, as she opened the door.

She paused and looked back at him over her shoulder. "Believe it or not, I'm going grocery shopping. Maybe I'll stop off in town for some coffee, who knows?"

His hands, gripping the back of the couch, were white-knuckled. "Are you coming back?"

Her heart did that lurching thing yet again. Had she been too hard on him?

"I – guess that depends on you, Spike. I love you." His eyes flew to her face at the words, a spark of hope in them, and she felt worse than ever for stomping on it. "I can't live like this, though- knowing it's not me you want, but the Slayer."

"Christ – Buffy, no." He made to come towards her, but she backed off fast, sliding out the open door into the rain.

"If I'm wrong," she said, "prove it." She slammed the door behind her right in his face.

Her driving had improved – it really had – but getting started could still be a problem.

It's a bloody car, not a demon, Spike would say. You're supposed to drive it, not slay it.

Not so long ago- though it seemed like forever -they'd been in the habit of going out slaying in the SUV most nights. In fact, since her slaying supplies were still in the trunk, even now the thing was loaded for bear.

Once, she'd driven all the way to Edinburgh – two whole hours – slain a pair of Fyarl demons and their vampire boss, then slept with her head on Spike's shoulder while he drove them home again.

And what was she doing with the damn car now? Grocery runs.

She told herself not to think about it, wrestled the SUV into gear and lurched forward down the gravel drive and onto the tarmac. The road was narrow and twisty, but she was used to it, and once past the worst of the hairpins, she put her foot down.

Grey hillsides, flecked with patches of half-melted snow, flashed by, while the road unwound before her in a rain-slick ribbon.

The rain had slackened off by the time she drove into town. There was even a hint of brightness behind the clouds. The wind was still icy though, funnelling through the surrounding hills to buffet the small grey houses.

Doune Bridge was a pretty enough place in the summer, with the sparkling stream running through it under the picture-postcard bridge that gave the town its name, but right now the stream was a roaring white torrent and the sad trees lining the banks black, leafless skeletons.

She locked the SUV and went into the cafι. In summer, it was full of tourists and served a mean latte, along with the traditional Scottish fare. This time of year, with most of the custom from hikers passing through on their way to the mountains further north, there was more call for all-day breakfast and the air smelt kind of greasy.

She chose a table by the window and ordered coffee, then sat watching the slow slide of raindrops on the panes. Reaching out, she pressed her finger to one and followed it down the cold glass. It was kind of fascinating, the way it didn't roll smoothly but slipped and slid, flowing at last into other drops and becoming a miniature stream.

Her reverie was interrupted by the waitress setting her coffee cup down in front of her with a bang that made her jump. As she did so, there was a snigger from across the room and she realised she wasn't the only customer.

There were a couple of guys on the shadowy side of the room – out-of-towners, but not the touristy kind. With the scruffy sweatpants, the soccer shirts and the shaven heads, they didn't look like they were here for the homemade shortbread.

One of them had noticed her looking. Hurriedly, she turned away and sipped at her coffee, while they whispered together and laughed. She knew they were talking about her.

"Cheer up, love," one of them shouted, suddenly. "It might never happen."

She ignored him, and they both laughed again, sneering and mean.

That was what she had to do these days, just like regular girls did –grit her teeth and take no notice and hope they would find someone else to pick on.

It was the fastest cup of coffee she'd ever drunk in her life.

As she got up to leave, she heard one of them mutter, "Fucking bitch! Thinks she's too good tae talk to us, does she?" and her blood seemed to run cold.

Her hand was shaking as she opened the door and went out. What if they followed her? Should she call the cops? What would a regular girl do now?

They didn't, however, and at that moment, the sun finally made it through the clouds, beams of bright light striking the wet sidewalks and making the whole place glitter. When she looked up, there was even a rainbow, arching across the sky to disappear behind the snow-capped hills.

The sight made her feel a little better. Those guys were just assholes, she told herself crossly. She didn’t need super-strength to deal with them. Her nerves were just shot, that was all.

Ignoring her immediate impulse, which was to hightail it home, she took a deep breath and headed for the little supermarket, grocery list in hand.

Out of season, the store was almost deserted, just a couple of local women chatting with the girl at the cash register, who was probably their daughter or their niece anyway. The girl was always friendly, though. She smiled when she saw Buffy.

"Hello again," she said.

"Hi." Buffy smiled back, while the older women who'd been talking to the girl eyed her curiously. She smiled at them too, but they didn't respond and her smile faltered.

Turning away, she started down the fresh produce aisle, which was kind of depressing this time of year because of its sheer emptiness, very aware of the three women's eyes on her back.

She supposed she couldn't blame them for being curious – even suspicious. After all, they knew she was from the castle. Probably, they didn't buy the whole private finishing school cover story and thought the Slayers were some weird foreign cult.

It was kind of true in a way.

She'd already put a bag of apples and a carton of milk in her basket before what had happened earlier finally hit home. Maybe it was the way the basket already felt too heavy for her to lift, or maybe it was delayed shock again after the thing in the cafe, but suddenly her knees felt all trembly and weak.

"Oh God!"

She put the basket down and leaned against the wall, eyes closed. She'd given Spike – Spike – the man who'd died for her -the man for whom she'd been to hell and back -an ultimatum. And now a pair of lowlife jerks had managed to scare the bejeezus out of her. How had it ever come to this?

"Miss – miss, are you all right?"

A hand touched her arm hesitantly, and she opened her eyes to find the friendly store clerk right in front of her, blue gaze full of concern.

She opened her mouth to say yes, but instead found herself saying, "No – no, I'm not."

The girl indicated her own stool behind the counter. "D'you want tae sit down for a wee while?"

This time, Buffy meant to say no, but it came out as, "Please."

The girl steered her over to the stool and sat her down. It was only then that she realised the store was deserted now except for the two of them. She breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't wanted to have to say anything in front of those women with their curious, half-hostile stares.

"Can I get you anything?" the girl asked her. "A glass of water?"

"Please," Buffy said again.

She watched while the girl went off towards the back of the store, calling over her shoulder,

"If anyone comes in, tell them I'll be back soon."


Alone, Buffy put her head in her hands. Her temples were throbbing again, and her eyes felt sore. That was what three weeks of being constantly on the verge of tears would do to you, she supposed.

The almost-crying was making her more and more annoyed with herself. She'd been irritated by Spike's poor-me attitude? What about her own? And just how did she expect him to accept the change in her when, despite her words, she hadn't accepted it herself? Maybe he'd been right all along and she had given up too easily?

If not, why had she just allowed those two assholes to drive her out of the cafι? The old her would never have done that.

"You're not the Slayer anymore," she said to herself, voice sounding very loud in the quiet store, where the only other sound was the hum of the little freezer cabinet. "You're something – else. You just don't know what yet – and that scares you -don’t wanna be weak little Miss Nobody. Admit it, Summers."

"Here you go, miss." The girl was back with a glass of water.

"Thanks." Buffy took it from her and sipped. She hoped the girl hadn't heard her babbling to herself like a crazy person.

"You're from the castle, aren't you?" the girl said. She held out her hand. "My name's Jenny, by the way- Jenny McLean." She was younger than Buffy had realised –seventeen at most.

Buffy took the outstretched hand in hers and shook it, which felt very weird and old-fashioned. "Nice to meet you, Jenny. I'm Buffy."

"Och, what a pretty name!" Jenny said, as if she really meant it. "And you're Canadian? We get lots of Canadians round here."

"American," Buffy told her. "From California."

Jenny's eyes grew big as saucers. "California?" she breathed, as if it were the most exotic place on earth. "How exciting! D'ye ken Brad Pitt?"

Buffy had to smile. "Er – no. Not personally. California's kind of a big place."

"I suppose so." Jenny laughed suddenly. "Och, will you listen tae me! I must sound like a right idjit."

"A – what?"

Jenny waved her hand, as if to pluck the translation out of the air. "You know – a country bumpkin?"

"Oh no," Buffy assured her. "Not at all. I get asked that all the time."

Even as she was speaking, she realised Jenny would know it wasn't true. "Er- " she concluded, lamely, "that is, someone did ask me once."

A short embarrassed silence fell. Then Jenny cleared her throat and said,

"I saw you come oot o' the cafι. Those two big lads weren't botherin' you, were they?"

Buffy grimaced. "Maybe a little."

She glanced out of the window in the direction of the cafι, but the sun on the wet sidewalk was so dazzling it brought tears to her eyes.

"Don't you worry aboot them," Jenny said, sympathetically. "We'll soon sort them oot if they cause any trouble round here."

"That's good to know."

"Yes," Jenny went on. "We won't put up with any nonsense frae the likes o' them, especially towards one of our own."

She glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice. "And if they go asking questions, you've no need tae worry. Your secret is safe with us."

"Secret?" Buffy stared at her in astonishment. "What secret?"

Jenny's face flushed a dull red, clashing horribly with her strawberry blonde hair.

"Och, I didnae mean to say anything. Now you'll think I'm a right nosy cow, just like the rest o' them." And she indicated the slate-roofed houses on the other side of the window, now sparkling in the sunlight.

"No, I don't," Buffy assured her, though her curiosity was kind of – worrying. "I just didn't think you folks were much interested in us, cuz – well, why would you be?"

Jenny's eyes widened. "You have got tae be kiddin' me! Not interested? People round here never talk aboot anything else. It's the folks at the castle this and the folks at the castle that. Yous're all so glamorous – like movie stars."

"We are?"

"Och, yes. Some think yous're making a film, others think yous're spies, or maybe yous're making a film aboot spies, like James Bond."

She leaned forward confidentially. "An' yous're all so good at keeping secrets. My uncle Dougal – he runs the pub – had one o’ his lock ins last night on purpose to get your boyfriend drunk and make him spill the beans – but he couldnae get a word oot o' him – not one word."

"Er – that's good," Buffy said, while a tiny part of her was ashamed to be so relieved that Spike's story about this lock in thing had turned out to be true.

"You're so lucky tae have him." Jenny’s voice grew wistful. "He's so good looking – for a Sassenach – with his hair and his leather coat. If one o' the local lads dressed that way, he'd look like a right daftie, but him – och, he looks so cool!"

"Thanks – I guess." Buffy wasn't sure what else to say. Spike did stand out around here, she supposed, but then he stood out anywhere.

"And o’course he’s so lucky to have you," Jenny went on. "You're so beautiful, and he's so in love with you. The way he looks at you - anyone can see. It's so romantic."

"It is?"

It was weird, the way other people saw you. Her and Spike romantic? She’d never thought of them that way.

"Och, yes," Jenny assured her. "Yous’re even romantic when yous're fightin'. I remember yous comin’ in the shop just before closin’ time back in the autumn. His cigarette lighter was out o’ fuel and he was goin’ tae buy one o’ these disposable ones."

She indicated the shelf behind the counter, where brightly coloured disposable cigarette lighters were on display next to the packs of cigarettes with their lurid warnings of imminent horrible death.

Buffy looked from the lighters to Jenny and back again.

"That’s romantic?"

Jenny laughed. "Och, no. That’s not what I meant. You were sayin’ that you wanted him tae quit smokin,’ remember?"

"I think so." Buffy sipped her water. They’d just gotten back from one of their slaying expeditions, as she recalled. She’d been on a high still, eager to get him back to the castle and into bed, but he’d insisted on stopping.

"So then he said that you weren’t a quitter so why did you want him tae be one, and you sort o’ rolled your eyes and called him a dummy. Then you said there was no way you were quittin' on him quittin', and then yous both laughed." Jenny’s eyes were bright with curiosity. "Did you ever get him tae quit?"

"Not yet, no," Buffy admitted. "It’s kind of a work in progress."

"But you’ll keep tryin’, won’t you?" Jenny pursued. "You wouldn’t think o’leavin’ him, even though smokin’s a filthy habit?"

"I guess." Buffy blinked at her, surprised at her vehemence. What was she getting at?

"Because you love him," Jenny finished triumphantly, "an’ yous’d never give up on each other, would yous? I knew it!"

"I –"

Buffy's heart did the lurching thing yet again. Her answer died in her mouth. Suddenly, she couldn’t get Spike's white, hurt face out of her head – his expression when she’d walked out the door. Why had she spoken to him that way?

She sipped more water to hide her distress.

Jenny hadn’t noticed, however. She was leaning back against the wall beside the counter, framed by cereal boxes and cans of dog food, a faraway look in her eyes.

"You didn't notice me listenin', I know," she said, dreamily, "but I was, and it was seein' the two of yous together that time that made me realise what a divvy I'd been."

"Divvy?" Buffy was glad of Jenny’s endless chatter now. At least it gave her time to get herself back under control.

"You know, an idiot."

"Oh, right."

Jenny sighed. "That is right. See, miss –"

"That's Buffy," Buffy interrupted her, because the 'miss' thing was just weird, like the baby Slayers calling her 'ma'am.'

Jenny gave her a shy look. "Buffy. See, I split up with my boyfriend last summer. I got fed up 'cos he's so set in his ways. He doesnae want tae see the world – just stay here an' work for his dad. He didn't even want tae come with me on a day trip to Edinburgh."

"Edinburgh's cool," Buffy said. "And there's nothing wrong with wanting to see the world."

"Och, no," Jenny agreed. She made a face. "And he can be a right daftie sometimes. I think he's just scared o' change."

"Oh." Buffy blinked. That was odd. "Yeah," she said. "Men get that way."

Jenny beamed at her. "That's what my mam said. Anyway, the thing is, I like him and I know he likes me – really likes me, the way your boyfriend likes you – and after seein' the two of yous together that time, I realised I was cuttin' off my nose tae spite my face."

She waggled her finger in the air. "My mam always says, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

"She does?" Buffy could remember her own mother saying the same thing, usually about schoolwork.

It was weird, she thought, how moms were all so alike, no matter where in the world they came from.

Jenny nodded. "Och yes. And she was right. I just gave up too easily – not like you. You'd just carry on tryin' until you wore him down. I realised it that day."

At that moment, the doorbell clanged, signalling the arrival of another customer, and Jenny looked stricken.

"Listen tae me – blatherin' on like that, and you not well. Can I get you anything else – more water?"

"No, thanks. I have to get going. I’ll just go fetch my groceries."

Buffy stood up. Her legs were still a little shaky, but she ignored them, because she had to get home, and quickly - work things out with Spike, before he did anything stupid. Stupider.

As she lugged the half-full basket back to the counter, she found herself trying to remember just what exactly he’d said when he'd given her that pep talk back in the last days of Sunnydale – something about her being a hell of a woman and -

That he loved how she tried – that was it.

Well, she hadn't been doing much trying lately, though she'd probably been trying to live with – and okay, so he'd had more than a few jerk-like moments himself, but even so he hadn't deserved what she'd said to him today.

She had to get back to him.

"Is that everything?" Jenny gave her a bright smile.

"I think so."

Buffy drummed her fingers on the countertop with impatience as Jenny entered the items on the register. Then her eye was caught again by the display of cigarette lighters.

Weird, in light of what Jenny had been talking about, but hadn't Spike said earlier that his lighter was out of fuel? And okay, so she did want him to give up smoking, but one battle at a time.

"I'll take one of those too, please," she said. "A blue one. That's his favourite colour."

When Jenny looked surprised, she made a face. "Work in progress, remember?"

"Of course, miss." Jenny sighed wistfully at the romance of it all and turned to reach it down for her.

As she slipped the lighter into her coat pocket, Buffy thought that it wasn't much as a peace offering, but way better than nothing.

It was getting dark by the time she set out for home. This time of year, it got dark early. Already, the valley where Doune Bridge lay was full of shadows, and as the road climbed, the valley – glen - whatever- sank into darkness, all the light blocked out by the surrounding hills.

She had a kind of fluttery feeling in her belly, and it made her want to drive faster. What if Spike had taken her words to heart? God knows, she'd meant him to. What if he'd left? What if he thought she'd left?

Suddenly, her foot-stompy little grocery run seemed like the worst idea ever.

The car rattled over a deer grid and she was out on open moorland. It wasn't far now. She put her foot down.

On either side of the road, tussocks of grey-green grass, interspersed with patches of dirty snow and overlain with dead bracken, swept away towards the slopes of the bigger hills in the distance. As she drove, one shaft of glorious red-gold sunlight cut low through the clouds. Suddenly, the snow was a bright, searing white and the bracken a sea of gold.

She gasped, dazzled, slowing down to take in the view. It might not be home, but it was beautiful.

But when she put her foot down on the gas pedal again, the SUV didn't respond. Instead, it slowed even more, and then she realised the engine had cut out altogether.

"Crap!" Steering in to the side of the road, she put on the parking brake. What the hell was the matter with it? But then her eye was caught by a flashing red light on the dashboard.

"Out of gas?" She stared at it, disbelieving.

Night was closing in fast. The hills black blocks of darkness on the grey backdrop of the sky, with just a hint of gold left in what she supposed must be the west.

Her eyes stung again and she knuckled them dry irritably. So she'd run out of gas? It wasn't the end of the world. Get a grip, Buffy.

Fumbling her cellphone out of her purse, she flipped the cover open. If Spike was home, he could use his motorbike to come get her. But her heart sank when she looked at the display.

No reception.

Turning in her seat, she looked back down the road in the direction of Doune Bridge. There was no sign of any other traffic, which, since this road only led to the castle, wasn't that surprising. It was a long walk back to town too – at least five miles –and another five the other way to the castle gatehouse.

She looked down at her shoes and sighed. Trust her to go for style over comfort.

For a moment, she hesitated. Maybe, if she sat tight, Spike would come looking for her anyway– or maybe he wouldn't? Maybe, after the way they'd parted, he would just think she'd run out on him?

Her blood seemed to run cold at the thought. He wouldn't do that – would he?

It was enough to galvanise her into action. Squaring her shoulders, she opened the door and got out. The road unfolded in either direction, dim and oil-black, and the wind was bitingly cold. Shivering, she buttoned her coat up, tucked her purse under her arm and shut and locked the SUV. Then she set off walking. Her heels clicked on the blacktop – the only sound except for the wind – and within moments, her imagination had run riot.

Who knew what could be lurking out here – wolves, demons. Her heart seemed to turn over in her chest as something big and white and four-legged startled out of the bracken at her approach and clattered off up the road.

It took her frightened brain way longer than it should have to process that it was only a sheep.

She shook her head. When had she become such a fraidy-cat?

She'd gotten about a hundred yards when two things happened. First, she remembered about the spare can of gas in the trunk, second, she heard a car approaching. At once, her spirits leapt. Okay, so it was a car and it was coming from the direction of Doune Bridge so it couldn't be Spike, but who cared? It was people.

Turning, with the dazzle of oncoming headlights in her eyes, she ran back down the road towards the SUV, which looked all safe and welcoming after her jittery moment with the sheep. She had the trunk open already by the time the other car coasted to the kerb on the far side of the road.

The gas can was right where it always was, next to her Slayer holdall, with its crosses and stakes and mini holy water bottles. She shook her head at herself. That she'd panicked like that and forgotten about it just showed all over again how much she'd let this de-powering thing get to her.

Now, if she could only remember how to open the gas tank -

Behind her, she heard a car door opening. "Thanks for stopping," she called over her shoulder, "I really appreciate it."

The response froze her in place.

"Will you listen tae that? Stuck up bitch is talkin' to us now."

She turned slowly, to see in the dim interior light of the other car, the two jerks from the cafι. They were both staring at her with hostile eyes from their pinched, white faces – make that their hostile yellow eyes in their misshapen, very ugly, pinched white faces.

Okay, this was even worse than she'd thought. They were vampires.

She remembered how she'd been afraid they would follow her out of the cafι – and maybe they would have, had the sun not chosen that moment to make its first appearance in what felt like months.

The one who'd spoken unfolded upwards from out of the drivers' seat with a sinuous, inhuman grace. He leered at her, revealing razor-sharp fangs.

"We're away up the road to yon castle, girly. D'ye want a lift?"

"I'll pass." She watched, frozen in terror, as he took another pace forward. Every instinct was screaming at her to run, but experience – years and years of experience – told her what a dumb idea that was.

"Thing is," he went on, "a little bird back in the village told us –" and here he stopped and glanced at the other vamp, and they smirked at each other, like he'd said something funny –"that you're frae that castle. That right?"

Buffy stared at him. What was he talking about? Then, her stomach seemed to tie itself into knots. Jenny – he meant Jenny.

At once, she was furious, but at the same time, it was like someone had thrown cold water in her face, leaving an ice-cold clarity behind.

It was better, she thought, that they weren't human monsters, just the usual dumbass vamps out to bag a Slayer. Now, she wouldn't have to feel bad about kicking their asses.

"If you jerks hurt her –"

The first vamp laughed. "Didn't need to. Silly bitch wouldn't shut 'er yap. On and on, about you and yer ponce of a boyfriend, and the castle and spies and whatnot." He took another pace forward. "But we all know yous're not spies, don't we?"

"We do?"

The uncertainty about Jenny's fate didn't lessen her newfound clarity at all. After all, it wasn't even like this was the first time she'd fought vampires while powerless, was it?

It seemed you could take the Slayer out of the girl, but you couldn't –no, that didn't really work. Whatever.

Reaching behind her – slowly, slowly, so he wouldn't realise– she set her purse down and fumbled the gas can open one-handed, while the other hand rummaged in the holdall.

"Sure we do." He stepped forward again. She could smell him now – rank and sweaty, like he hadn't washed since he'd crawled back out of his grave. "We both ken what's up at yon castle, don't we – Slayer?"

Vamps, she thought. Always with the boring speeches and the dramatics.

When he leapt on her with that last word still hanging in the air, she shoved the crucifix right in his hideous fangy face.

There was an instant hiss and sizzle, and he screamed and fell back. Hurriedly, she unstoppered the bottle of holy water and threw that at him for good measure, soaking him from head to foot.

He screamed again, and she felt rather than saw his flesh begin to dissolve, like it was being eaten away by acid.


The smell was even worse now. Shaking from head to foot, she took the can of gas out of the trunk and upended it over him, and as she scrabbled the cigarette lighter she'd bought for Spike out of her pocket, it was like someone else was doing it.

The whomp of igniting gasoline sent her scrambling- just time to fumble a stake out of the holdall and put the bulk of the SUV between herself and the blaze. From her shelter, she watched in mute horror as the burning vamp staggered to his feet, screaming in agony, flames erupting from every orifice while his skin crackled and charred. It was a relief when he imploded in a cloud of fiery ash.

There was a moment's awful silence as she watched the burning trail of gas snaking its way across the tarmac towards the fallen gas can. Then, she yelled and threw herself bodily into the sodden undergrowth.

For a second, nothing happened while she lay in her damp bed of bracken with the dead fronds tickling her nose, then –

The whomp! this time was twice as loud and she felt a wave of heat pass over her head.

When she dared look up, the SUV was burning merrily. In the light of the fire, she could see paint blistering, and there was the sound of glass bottles exploding.

There went the rest of the holy water.

As she thought it, she realised she'd lost track of the other vamp completely – and her Slayer gear had gone up in flames with the SUV. All she had left was one lousy stake.

The chill from the wet ground seemed to seep into her bones. She lay still, trying to breathe through her nose, listening – but she heard nothing but the roar of the flames. Maybe, if she kept very still and quiet, the other vamp wouldn't be able to find her. After all, the fire and the smell of gasoline had to be confusing his senses, just like they were confusing hers.

Minutes seemed to stretch into hours and nothing happened, except that the heat of the fire grew worse. She felt like the back of her head was singed. What if the SUV's gas tank exploded? Okay, so it was empty – hence this whole dumb sitch – but maybe it could still go up? Was she far enough away?

The thought preyed on her mind. She hadn't slain a vamp even without her powers just to die by exploding gas-guzzler.

Taking a deep breath, she rose onto her knees and began to crawl away deeper into the undergrowth, the stake clutched tight in one hand. The palm of her other hand smacked down on something slimy and cold and she bit back on a scream. She wouldn't die covered in sheep-crap either.

When she judged she'd put enough space between herself and the burning SUV, she stopped again. Surely, if the vamp were still around, he would have caught up with her by now. Maybe he'd done the smart thing and rabbited when his friend did his Human Torch impression?

She stayed low, however. There was no point in risking it, because most of all, she wouldn't die without seeing Spike again and giving him a piece of her mind. He needed to know that it was his fault that she was wet and dirty and scared out of her wits – and if she hadn't been in such a hurry to get back to him, she might have noticed the gas tank was low before she'd driven out of town.

Suddenly, the night was split by a sound like a whole volley of cannon going off, and before she could stop herself, she yelped aloud. Her ears were still ringing with the noise while a small voice seemed to be yelling inside her head that it was only the tyres exploding, dammit, when something heavy landed on top of her, knocking all the breath from her body.

Gasping like a beached fish, surrounded by an odour far worse than the acrid smoke of burning car tyres, that of unwashed male vamp, she began to struggle wildly.

The vamp grabbed her by the back of the neck and pushed her face into the ground.

"Slayer bitch! Goin tae show you who's boss!"

Her mouth was full of grass. She was suffocating. She flailed out wildly with her arms, bucking her body, trying to dislodge him; but it was hopeless. Instead, he only seemed to grow heavier, settling on her like a rank-smelling beast on its squirming prey.

Her ears were full of a terrible roaring sound that grew louder and louder – but he only laughed and tightened his grip. She felt the scrape of something razor-sharp on the side of her neck. He was teasing her before he killed her.

With a supreme effort, she scrabbled the stake around in her fist and jabbed it hard into his thigh. He howled and let go, just as the roaring noise stopped.

Then a shuddering impact went through the vamp's fetid body, lifting it off of her and away. She wobbled to her knees, in time to see, in the sodium glare of headlights, a swirl of black coat and white hair – a savage blaze of yellow eyes – as Spike leapt over her to hurl himself on the fallen vamp.

She watched his arm piston up and down, heard bones splinter, while thinking dully that the roaring noise she'd heard must have been his motorbike.

At last, when he showed no signs of stopping any time soon, she clambered shakily to her feet and wobbled over to him. What she saw made her stomach churn.

The vamp wasn't recognisable as anything that had ever been human, a mush of bone and blood, and yet still Spike's fist rose and fell like an automaton's, glazed stare intent on his victim's ruined face, grey slimy stuff dripping from his fingers. She shuddered.

"That's enough."

When he didn't seem to hear her, she spoke louder. "Spike – I said, that's enough."

This time, she seemed to get through to him. His fist paused on a down-stroke and he shuddered all over. The next moment, he was bent double, vomiting into the grass.

"Hey!" She squatted down beside him and patted his back. "It's okay. It's okay."

He retched again, then went still, crouched over the other vamp's body, trying to get himself under control. Back on the road, another smaller explosion signalled the final demise of the SUV.

At last, she heard the crunch of bone realigning itself as he made his face human again. He began to wipe his hand clean on the grass.

She gave him a moment longer to collect himself. Then, "Spike – are you okay?"

For answer, he swept her into his arms, holding her so fiercely close she felt choked all over again.

"That bastard!" he hissed. "That fucking bastard! I'll kill him."

"I think you already did," she managed to gasp out, but he just clasped her even more tightly to him.

"Buffy," he said. "Oh God, Buffy."

She patted his back again. "It's okay. I'm okay."

At last, he set her back a little, fingers digging painfully into her arms. His face was white and anxious. "You're sure you're all right?"

She nodded, surprised to discover it was true. "I'm sure. In fact –" she tried to smile at him –"I was doing just fine until this guy used his uberstinky secret weapon on me."

He laughed uncertainly, as if he couldn't quite believe her. "I know there were two of them – smelt the fuckers. Where's the other one gone?"

"I killed him," she said, smugly. "Lured him in and set him on fire – textbook slaying, in fact."

Okay, so that was embroidering the truth a little, but whatever.

He was beginning to calm down, which was good, because she was feeling increasingly wobbly. She indicated the fallen vamp with her head.

"Better deal with Mr Stinky here."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Better." He bent down, pulled the stake from the vamp's leg with a horrible wet squelching sound and hefted it. "Won't be a jiffy."

She wasn't sure what made her say it, but –"Let me." She held out her hand for the stake.

He stared at her for a long, long moment. Then he grinned. "Right you are, love."

Her hand, which she suddenly realised had felt empty these last few weeks, closed round the smooth wood. Ignoring the red mush he'd made of the vamp's face, she raised the stake, sighted on her target and brought her fist down.

She'd thought she might hesitate – turn squeamish -that maybe she wouldn't be strong enough now to pierce skin and bone and find the heart. But her aim was as true as it had ever been.

A moment later, there was a dusty explosion and the two of them were alone in the night, silence broken only by the final dying spurts of flame from the blackened hulk of the SUV.

"Buffy!" He gathered her to him for a second time – like she was something precious he never meant to let go of again. She shut her eyes and clung on hard, breathing in leather and Spike and home.

"You know this is all your fault?" she said.

"Yeah – you're sure?"

Buffy listened to the half-conversation with her cheek pressed to Spike's back. She felt sleepy, in spite of the steady thrum of the motorbike engine vibrating through her body.

They'd stopped on a high point in the road, and Spike was talking on his cellphone to Dougal the pub landlord in Doune Bridge.

"Sounds like a riot," Spike was saying. "Literally. Only sorry I missed it, mate."

He listened a moment longer. Then he said, "Yeah, yeah, very funny – and the same from me to the Loch Ness sodding monster."

The cellphone clicked off.

"What was that about?" she asked. "And more important, is Jenny okay?"

Spike put his cellphone back in his duster pocket and revved the engine.

"She's fine – a bit shaken, but not hurt. Seems those toerags roughed her up a bit - smashed the shop up -but then Dougal and his mates did the whole mob of angry villagers with pitchforks and burning torches act and drove 'em out of town."

"Good." She remembered what Jenny had said about the folks in Doune Bridge not putting up with any nonsense. "What was that about the Loch Ness Monster?"

He turned to look back at her over his shoulder and she saw the gleam of teeth as he grinned.

"That was just the time-honoured Scottish tradition of taking the piss out of the bloody English. He told me to give M one from him the next time I see her."

"M?" Her brain was all fuzzy, but then she remembered. "Oh – from James Bond."

"That's right." He revved the engine again. "'Cos we're all workin' for MI6 up at the castle, aren't we?"

She gaped at him. "They don't really believe that, do they?"

"Nah." He shook his head. "Like I said, time honoured tradition. 'Course -" his grin grew to Cheshire cat proportions –"joke's on him this time since the Loch Ness Monster really exists."

"Wha-" she began, but he'd already kicked off and the roar of the engine filled her ears.

She crouched down low behind him, out of the wind, clinging on with her eyes shut, and in spite of the cold, she soon felt sleepy again. When they slowed down and the bike began to crunch over gravel, she'd almost nodded off and woke up with a horrible jerk.

"Steady, love. I got you." His hand, cool and steady, closed over hers where they were joined round his waist.

A moment later, the engine died and he lifted her into his arms. She thought of protesting for all of five seconds – but she had nothing to prove now. Let him carry her if he wanted to.

He kicked the unlocked door open and angled her inside, then carried her through the dark hall way and into the living room, where he set her down on the couch. A moment later, he was kneeling at her feet to remove her sodden shoes.

"Spike –" she began, while a shiver of need ran through her at the touch of his fingers on her bare instep.

He paused. Then he looked up, expression unreadable.

"We'll talk, yeah?" he said. "But first, you need to get warmed up."

She couldn't argue with that. Instead, she sat quiet while he fetched a blanket and spread it over her, then built up a fire in the grate until it roared up the chimney. The sight of the flames seemed to fascinate him and he crouched on his haunches before it, staring.

She thought of the horrible final moments of the vamp she'd killed.

"Watch out for sparks," she warned, and he nodded and moved back.

"Place'll soon warm up now," he said, before disappearing into the kitchen to make hot chocolate.

His boots had left muddy footprints all across the carpet, but she didn't care at all this time, even though she knew he wouldn't notice them.

"Here." He passed her the scalding hot liquid and she sipped it cautiously before setting it down on the side table.

"Spike – "she began again.

"No," he said. "Let me talk first."

She shook her head. "Uh-uh. No way." When he opened his mouth to protest, she wagged a finger at him. "Listen up, mister, and no more interruptions."

He shut his mouth with a snap and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

She drew a deep breath. "I'm sorry, okay? You were right all along. I had given up too easily. Remember how you told me back in Sunnydale that I'm not a quitter – how you loved that I never stop trying? Well, I did stop. It was like – "she shrugged –" I kind of forgot myself, and tonight I remembered me again."

The eyebrow lowered. He looked better already.

"Not surprising, love," he said. "Losing your Slayer powers like that – bit of a low blow. Takes longer to recover from."

"Maybe." She picked up her mug and took another sip. "Also, it doesn't change the fact that it's all your fault I'm half-frozen and wet and dirty and my clothes are ruined. You made me so mad, going behind my back with Angel."

He hung his head. "Yeah, I know that now. Can't say the old man was right – because that'll never happen – but he was righter'n'me when he said you had to work it out for yourself."

"Maybe," she said, again. "But thanks for trying to get me off my ass – isn't that what you said to him? Turns out, I needed something to help me do that, even if it was a motormouth checkout clerk and a couple of stinky vampires."

She thought that if he could blush, he'd be bright red by now.

"Sod Angel!" he muttered, sulkily. "Rattin' on me like that."

He watched her finish her hot chocolate and set the mug down again, like it was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen. Then he said,

"Mind you, even though it turned out all right, wish you hadn't had to get your mojo back the way you did. Not nice."

"That's for sure," she agreed. "Plus, vamps or no vamps, I could've been eaten by wolves. I'm sure I heard one a few nights back."

"Wolves?" He raised an eyebrow. "Buffy, there aren't any wolves in Scotland. Haven't been since, er– a bloody long time ago anyway."

"Oh." She digested this information. "Well, the sheep are pretty damn scary."

He smiled. Then he shivered. "When I think of what could've happened to you- well, I don't wanna think about it. Would've come after you sooner, but the sun had to come out, didn't it, and you'd taken the sodding gas-guzzler. Was trapped in here all day with nothing to do but fret."

"Maybe it's a good thing you were." She extricated one hand and touched his cool cheek. "Today's been a wake-up call for me, for – oh, all sorts of reasons."

"Yeah," he said. "Me too." He turned his face into her open palm and kissed it. "At least bein' stuck in here gave me the chance to sort my head out. I've been such a twat, Buffy. Realised you were right. I am afraid of change."

She decided it was best not to remind him that it was Angel, not her, who had said that first.


"Yeah." He looked down, then glanced up at her shyly, but not like she was a stranger this time.

"See – when you said you didn't understand how a bloke who's lived as long as I have could be afraid of change, you made me realise something."

"And what's that?"

He was turning her hand over and over in his. "That I never really had to deal with it until now."

She frowned, puzzled. "How do you work that out?"

"'Cos all that time when I was evil– through all those wars, the Great Depression, the jazz age and whatnot – there was one constant in my life that never changed - Dru. As long as she was with me, I didn't care about anything else. The whole human race could've moved to Mars and I wouldn't have given a toss. Well –" he qualified – "'cept when I got hungry."

She thought of her first sight of Spike and Drusilla together – as co-dependant as Sid and Nancy, only way more scary -and shuddered.

"I guess that makes sense."

He glanced up again before going back to his perusal of her hand.

"Nasty, weren't we? The nastiest kids in the playground, even if we were the prettiest. And then she left me, and then – stuff happened and I got my soul back. But even after that, I was – I dunno - lazy. Instead of Dru, I had you – to look up to – worship, even -the polestar in my heavens. And then this happened, and when you needed me I let you down."

Another glance upwards –"I realised it wasn't just change I was afraid it of, see, it was growin' up. I never had to do it before and I think I'm a bit crap at it."

"Oh." She gripped his hand. "Um -that's okay. After this last week, I think I'm pretty crap at it too."

He looked startled. "Well, you're streets ahead of me. I'm gonna do better from now on, love. I promise. See – there's something else I realised today an' all."

"What's that?"

His expression grew solemn. "That not once, since the day you lost your powers, have I asked you how you felt about it. Not once."

She gaped at him in shock. Suddenly, her eyes were prickling again.

He leaned forward and kissed her, very tentatively, on the lips. "How do you feel, Buffy? Tell me."

At first, she couldn't begin to articulate an answer. She stared at him, while the moisture gathered in the corners of her eyes.

"Buffy," he said, softly. "Love – you can tell me. It's okay."

Once the tears started, they wouldn't stop. She cried and cried until she felt completely washed out, while he held her, stroking her back and murmuring soothing nonsense into her ears.

Vaguely, she thought that if he wasn't grown up, he was doing a great job just now of pretending.

When she woke in bed the next morning, it was with only the dimmest recollection of how she'd gotten there.

There'd been a bath – lots and lots of lovely warm water, the smell of her favourite soap and cool hands on her skin. Somehow after that, she'd gotten dry – she supposed Spike must have dried her too and put her in her pjs– and now she'd woken up here.

Bed was nice. She curled herself into a warm, satisfied ball and drifted, half-asleep, while the morning wore away. At one point, she thought she heard the phone, but it stopped very quickly, and anyway, who cared? It had nothing to do with her.

When Spike finally entered the room around midday, carrying a tray with coffee and rather charred-looking toast, she was ready to wake up at last.

In fact, more than ready. It seemed that her brain had been making decisions without her while she slept.

She sat up as Spike approached so he could set the tray down on the bed.

"Mornin, love." He kissed her forehead.

"Morning yourself." She scowled at him. "Did you put me to bed last night?"

"Well – yeah." He smirked at her. "You were a bit knackered. Weren't really up to it."

"It was nice," she decided. "You should do it more often."

"Really?" He looked pleased.

She helped herself to toast, looking thoughtfully around the room as she chewed.

"We should pack up –move back to the castle."

"Yeah?" He half-stood up. "I'll give 'em a call. Ask a couple of the Slayers to come down and give us a hand."

She put out a hand to prevent him. "Maybe later. There's other stuff I wanna talk about first."

He tilted his head. "Fire away."

She set the piece of toast back down on her plate and licked burnt crumbs from her upper lip. "I've decided I do want to try and get my powers back. Apart from anything else, I owe it to the other Slayers."

He frowned. "How d'you make that out?"

"It's like I said – we tried to turn the Slayer spell into a gift, and when you give someone a gift you shouldn't just snatch it back. You said yesterday that some of them were kind of cranky?"

"That's right," he agreed. "Specially the older ones. They didn't say anything, but I knew they were scared it'll happen to them."

She poured coffee into her cup. "I don't blame them. It is scary –and that's why I have to go back. They need to see that I haven't given up – that whatever happens, I'm dealing with it."

"That's the spirit, love." He grinned at her and she smiled back.

"One thing, though – I don't want to get my powers back at any cost, Spike, okay? Only if Willow and Giles can reassure me one hundred per cent that no one else will suffer for it. And if they can't – well, we just have to deal, is all."

He met her gaze solemnly. "I'll manage. Just you watch me. 'Sides, if these last few days have taught me anything, it's that you can still kick my arse, powers or no powers."

Reaching out, he took her hand in his again. "If you don't get them back – or even if you do -what about all that other stuff Giles was on about – college – kids? What d'you think about those?"

"I don't know," she said, truthfully. "College is good. Kids might be nice one day."

His face fell. "Can't oblige you there, I'm afraid."

"I know that, silly." She leaned forward and kissed him. It would probably be best not to remind him about Angel's son. In any case, Connor was most likely one of those one-time-only mystical deals. "We could adopt. It doesn't even have to be a baby – just some kid who needs someone to love it."

"Yeah, yeah." He was grinning again at once. "Always thought I'd make a good dad for one of these troubled kids you hear about on the news – goin' round snatchin' handbags off old ladies, vandalisin' stuff. Knock some sense into the little bleeder, I would. Er – " at the look on her face, he quailed slightly – "didn't mean that literally, you got that, right?"

"I got it. Whatever else I do, though," she went on, "I'm staying around the Slayers, so maybe I'll be one of these Guardians, though I don't know what they do. What do you think they do when there isn't anything to guard?"

He shrugged. "Not a sodding clue, but I bet you'll be bloody amazing at it."

"That right?" She looked at him coquettishly from under her lashes, and his eyes seemed to grow brighter. Briefly, she wondered how Jenny was. Had she gotten back with her boyfriend yet, or was he still running scared? Maybe last night's excitement had brought them back together too?

"Buffy –" He reached out for her, but she held him back.

"First thing's first. Give me the phone. I wanna call Giles."

He blinked. Then he glanced at the clock on the bedside table. "No need. He should be here pretty soon."

"What?" She glared at him. "When did that happen?"

"Didn't I say?" He looked contrite. "He phoned earlier – from Edinburgh airport. Said he'd be here in a couple of hours."

"Dumbass!" She whacked him on the head with a pillow and headed for the shower, saying over her shoulder, "And this time, try to be nice to him, for my sake, okay?"

"Here you go, Rupert. Nice and strong -milk, no sugar."

Giles pushed his glasses back up his nose. He shot Spike a suspicious look as the mug of steaming tea was placed on the table in front of him.

"Thank you."

Buffy couldn't help smiling behind her hand as Giles raised the mug to sniff at the contents before taking a cautious sip. She glanced at Spike, who met her gaze with an expression of bland innocence.

"Very nice," Giles said, stiffly.

Spike thrust his hands in his jeans pockets. "Good," he said. "Great. I'll leave you two to have a good old chinwag now, shall I? Get on with some packing."

With that, he sauntered out of the room and they heard the clatter of his boots on the stairs. Giles stared after him. He couldn't have looked more surprised, Buffy thought, if Spike had sprouted a pair of angels' wings and a halo and flown off playing a harp.

"He seems – remarkably cheerful," Giles ventured. He gave her a worried glance, evidently thinking of those 'outside influences' she might have been subjected to in his absence.

"Yeah," Buffy agreed. She decided not to elaborate. "Okay, Giles – spill. You didn't come all this way to check out Spike's tea-making skills."

Giles set his mug down. "You're right. I didn't." He smiled his familiar smile – the nice one that made the skin around his hazel eyes crinkle. "I believe I may have some good news for you."

"Good – how?" she asked. "As in, you've found a way to get my Slayer powers back, or as in, you know where all the cool Slayer Guardians shop for robes these days?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes – very funny. I meant the former, Buffy – or at least, not so much that we've worked out how to return your powers quite yet, but that we – Willow and I, that is - have a couple of very promising leads."

"That's good," she said. "That's great, in fact."

Giles took his glasses off and set them on the table next to his mug. He glanced up to where they could hear Spike's booted tread in the bedroom and the thud-thud of things being thrown – none too gently – into packing crates.

Despite the noise, Giles lowered his voice. "Are you sure about this, Buffy?"

She opened her eyes wide. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well –" Giles looked embarrassed. He cocked his head in the direction of the thudding noises. "The thing is – oh dear, this is rather awkward – he –Spike, that is – seemed so thrown by the whole business last time I was here."

"Yeah, he was," Buffy agreed. "I was too."

"Granted." Giles was at the polishing-his-glasses stage now. "Of course, I understand that you're in love with him, Buffy –" he managed to make it sound like an unfortunate illness she'd succumbed to – "but you mustn't make your decisions based on what he wants. It's your life, and unlike his, yours is finite."

"I know that."

Trust Giles, she thought, to raise the subject of the other elephant in the room – that of her mortality – which she and Spike hadn't even touched on yet.

Despite that, she reached out and patted his hand. "It's okay, Giles. I'm not being pressured in any way. It's what I want. Since you were here last, stuff has happened that's made me realise that even without my powers, I'm still a Slayer – always will be. "

Giles looked worried. "What – stuff?"

She shrugged. "Kind of a long story – but it had nothing to do with Spike. At least, he was part of the problem, but so was I. But he's been part of the solution too, and it's cool now. We're okay whatever happens."

Giles blinked. "Good," he said, as if testing the word. "At least, I hope so." Then, all in a rush, "Lord knows, Buffy, I don't want you to be unhappy. And if he's what makes you happy then who am I am to carp?"

There was a short silence, during which Giles failed to meet her eyes and instead fussed with his glasses. Then she blinked her vision clear and said, "Thanks, Giles. That means a lot."

"Yes, well." Giles cleared his throat. "As it happens, I realised that no matter how much of an irritation he can be, not to mention tactless – died like warriors, indeed! – in this instance, he was right."

She gave him a sympathetic look. "Don't you just hate it when that happens?"

Giles smiled a small, self-deprecating smile. "Dear lord, yes. It's ghastly. Be that as it may, however, I realised he was quite correct in saying I should be finding a way to break the de-powering spell."

He put his glasses back on and stared her earnestly in the face. "There's no doubt it was laid on the Slayers by a bunch of frightened old men who were scared of uppity women, and, as such, the Slayers can't truly be said to be – er, mistresses of their own fate, until it's gone."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "You've been talking to Willow, haven't you?"

He cleared his throat. "The subject may have arisen – but honestly, Buffy, she didn't have to say a word. I'd reached the same conclusion myself. Since then, we've been working day and night on the problem."

"Thanks a bunch, Giles." She felt more relaxed with him suddenly than she'd felt in years – maybe not since her schooldays. It was like they were on the same page again after too long of reading different books at the opposite ends of the library.

"Don't run yourself into the ground over it, though. Yes, I want my powers back, and I want the older Slayers to keep theirs when they hit twenty-five, but not at any cost. It has to be in a way that won't affect anyone else."

He picked up his mug and drank more tea. "I knew that's how you'd feel, Buffy, but I'm glad to hear you say it." He cleared his throat again. "And are you sure you don't want to pursue any of those other – avenues I mentioned? Ever since I've known you, you've longed for a normal life."

"I'm sure," she said. "I can do some of that other stuff and still be a Slayer, or a Slayer Guardian or whatever. It's not an either-or kind of sitch."

"I suppose not," Giles agreed. He set his empty mug down. "I'd never thought of it that way, but of course life's full of little compromises – part and parcel of growing up."

"That's for sure."

This time the comfortable silence stretched out for longer, until it was broken by Spike coming back down the stairs. He was carrying a couple of crates, which he set on the floor near the kitchen door.

"All sorted, then?" he asked, in the same cheerful tone, which again had Giles shooting him suspicious glances.

"I think so." She smiled at him, while Giles looked at his watch.

"Good lord," he exclaimed, "is that the time? I'd better hurry or I'll miss the evening flight."

She put a hand on his arm. "No way! You must be exhausted. Why don't you go on up to the castle, Giles – spend the night there? Spike and me will finish our packing and then tomorrow, you can spend the day with us -help us move our stuff?"

"Really?" Giles sat up straight. He didn't even attempt to hide his pleasure at the invitation. "I must say, Buffy, that would be delightful."

"Good – great." She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, sitting back before he could quite register it had happened.

"I'll walk you to your car, Rupert," Spike said, still in that unnervingly polite tone.

"Er –" Giles had got up from the couch. He squinted out the window at the un-co-operative, overcast sky. "That's very kind of you, Spike, but I'm sure I can find my own way."

"Oh, it's no trouble."

Spike clapped him on the shoulder and began to steer him towards the door.

"Later, Giles."

Buffy hid her mouth behind her hand again, at sight of the bewildered look on Giles's face. When Spike looked back at her over his shoulder, she mouthed at him, "Behave!"

The front door closed behind them. She waited for Spike's return, but when there was no sound of a car starting, she got up and peered out the window.

To her astonishment, the two of them were leaning against Giles's rental car talking. Spike had an unlit cigarette in his mouth, and as she watched, he offered the pack to Giles, who took one. The next moment, they were smoking companionably together. She saw Spike's lips move as he spoke, and then she saw Giles laugh.

Shaking her head, she turned away. She should tell Spike off, she supposed, for encouraging Giles to smoke, but right now, she was just too happy to care.

"Are you coming soon or what?" Buffy tucked the quilt under her chin. The bedroom was freezing even with the window closed.

She heard the sound of the tap running.

"Be 'ere i' a minute," he called, mouth evidently full of toothpaste.

"Hurry up." She burrowed lower under the bedclothes. She knew a good way to get warmed up, and maybe tonight she would finally get to try it.

When he climbed into bed beside her, however, he was still wearing the damn pjs. She felt her lower lip pouting in disappointment.

"What's this?" She set her hand on his chest running it over the barrier of scratchy cotton and underneath it, to where it gave way to silky skin. "I thought you were over that whole scared of hurting me thing?"

At once, he caught her straying hand in his and carried it to his lips. The soft light of the lamp turned his pale skin golden.

"I am over it," he said. "At least, mostly."

"Why the pjs, then?" She could feel the pout getting poutier.

He kissed her, soft – almost experimental – and after a moment, she opened her mouth to him. After that, he took his time, holding her face in his palm, tongue inside her mouth.

When he finally let her go, she gasped a little, realising he hadn't kissed her like that in weeks.

He seemed to guess her thoughts. "Yeah," he said. "Was a stupid twat, wasn't I? Wasted so much sodding time bein' a scared little boy."

"If that's so," she said, "why won't you get naked?"

He cradled her head on his chest, hand smoothing her hair.

"S'like this," he said. "You may still be the same in here," and his hand cupped the back of her skull, "but in other ways, you're all new. It's like I have to learn you all over again, Buffy, so if you don't mind – can we take it slow?"

She raised her head and looked at him. His expression was earnest, with a hint of pleading in it.

"Please," he said. "I could hurt you, if I'm not careful. I have to learn not to."

She sighed. She supposed she should have expected it. He couldn't get over all his hang-ups at once, and this one was a doozy.

"Well, okay," she said. "But you have to start learning now, Spike. No excuses." And she took his lax hand and set it on her breast.

His eyes widened, as if he'd forgotten how that felt. A moment later, something stirred against her thigh.

"I can do that," he said. "Can be a fast learner if I want - with the right incentive, that is."

She spider-walked her fingers down his chest, then tugged hard at the pj top. "And maybe when you've had, say, five minutes of concentrated learning, do you think you'd maybe take this off?"

He was grinning from ear to ear now. "Might do," he said. "Long as you take yours off too."

"It's a deal." She settled her head on his shoulder again, while his hand began a gentle teasing of her nipple.

Just as the teasing became a more insistent tugging, she lifted her head and looked at him again.

"Spike – we'll be all right, won't we?"

He kissed her again. "Yeah," he said. "We will."

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