by wolfling and mpoetess
(set in the same universe as Company In Hell, somewhat further into the year.)
Spike's knuckles ached. Raw and sharp and rough, the constant tingle of pain flaring into a bitter throb when he flexed his hand. He did it again, to remind himself, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Giles wince.
An irritation, that. The man hadn't bothered to wince when Spike put his hand through the wall in the first place, had he? No bookish fluster, no quiet concern. Simply a flick of his eyes at the sound of fist shattering plaster, slamming into wood. Then he'd turned back to Dawn, and handed her a slice of birthday cake.
In the silence, after, the echo of snarled curses still hanging in the air, Giles had spoken a soft word, but not to Spike. It had been Xander who rose from the table, finally. Who walked over to the doorway where Spike stood, and wrapped Anya's scarf around his hand without a sound, while the rest did their best to pretend nothing unusual was happening, Giles the most of all.
Now, in the car, top down and January wind blowing cool over Spike's bruised hand, now Giles winced at him when he made a fist. Spike flexed his hand again, just to piss him off. Watched white knuckles, un-bandaged now, turn even whiter, scrapes and cuts showing up in faded pink, looking almost healed. The illusion of no circulation - nothing healed that fast.
"That must hurt." The words were quiet, said with no inflection, but Spike could feel the unrestrained tension that was lurking just beneath their surface. Even if he hadn't been able to, the white-knuckled grip Giles had on the steering wheel, the unconscious echo of his own, or the stiff, absolutely straight posture, would have given it away.
Skinned it, scraped it, staked it, had it drenched in holy water. Lot of things you could do to a hand that would always grow back, in a century plus. Things he'd screamed and begged for, some of them. Sharp red nail across the inside of his wrist, bloodstained lips against the cradle of his palm. The serpent's kiss before the fangs came down. Things, too, he'd taken silent just to prove he could, to see that glint of approval in dark Irish eyes that never smiled, no matter what direction his mouth might have curved.
"I'm sure you have. That isn't exactly comforting."
"If you wanted comfortable, I wouldn't be in this car, would I." It was a joke that had grown old between them. Possibly stale. That nothing about him was easy, and how well that reflected the place they lived, a town built over a hole to hell, a world without the Slayer who used to be there to protect it.
Spike stared at the street signs rushing past, at the neon lights of the stores that still hadn't closed, because no one had told them the party was over. He smacked his fist down on the edge of the open window, and enjoyed the shot of silver pain that sent through his hand, up his arm. Done worse? He'd killed with this hand, caressed with it. Reached up for a falling Slayer and missed by a thousand miles. Smashed the one thing that could have brought her back, that night full of fire and fear and betrayal, to so many useless shards of clay -- but he'd never made Dawn give him the look she had tonight. Never hurt *her* with his hand.
"Comfort? I can't even come up with that for the kid, and God knows she needed it more than you do."
"We all did what we could." Giles did not turn his gaze from the road ahead of them. "Tonight was not easy for any of us. It's the first..." He trailed off, and if anything, his grip on the steering wheel got even tighter. Spike almost thought he could hear it creak under the pressure. Or maybe it was Giles that was starting to give.
"It *would* be the first Buffy birthday party *I* get invited to," Spike said, striving for lightness and failing pathetically. "The one that's over her dead body."
Spike watched the muscles in Giles' throat move as the man swallowed against painful emotions. When he spoke, some of those emotions were finally leaking into his voice. "The truly ironic thing is that this was probably the birthday that went the best."
As compared to what? The one where Dawn had sliced her arms and run straight into the clutches of the thing that was trying to kill her? Or the year that Buffy gave the Souled One the best birthday gift he'd had in a hundred years, and sent them all to hell in the handbasket it came wrapped in? "Dunno. Kind of liked the one where I got to crash your car."
"You would." Then Giles sighed and added in a hushed, painful voice, "There was also her 18th birthday, when I betrayed her and completely shattered her trust in me. I could actually see the minute her heart broke. That...that was the worst one."
For a moment, Spike wanted to ask -- just after the moment when he wanted to growl. Both passed, with nothing more than a look at the man in the driver's seat, a story on his face that Spike didn't want to read, and so chose not to. Now, of course. Now, he could keep his mouth shut and his hand on the car window ledge, and simply shake his head. Now, when it didn't matter what he said or did.
"So, all things considered," Giles continued sounding halfway between forced cheer and bitterness, "this evening went quite well."
"Oh, quite," Spike agreed. "The birthday girl had a marvelous time, far as I can tell."
He'd thought he was used to it. Nine months of that painted latex smile that looked like hers but wasn't. Nine months of fighting beside it, watching it try to *learn*, try to care for Dawn the way Willow and Tara did. Lopsided peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and the smell of burnt pancakes that would still be hanging around by nightfall, sometimes. Tara never burned them, Willow never tried them, and it... was trying to be Buffy.
"She did," Giles agreed neutrally, but the tension in his posture belied the calm voice.
Only she -- it -- wasn't supposed to have been there. Mind-bogglingly stupid idea in the first place, having a party at all. Sitting around the Summers living room passing round pictures of party hats long gone by, telling the sort of Buffy birthday stories they'd be willing to tell around Dawn. Arm in a box. Giles woke up horny and scaly. Photos of a child-sized Buffy clomping in ice skates through a house Spike had never seen before. Rubbish. Stupid. Sentimental twaddle, and there was a place for that, he wasn't a fool, but not together, not on her birthday, not in that house that was so full of her that he could stand in the doorway and close his eyes and hear her, telling him to come in.
But it had been Dawn's idea. Dawn's house, Dawn's sister, Dawn's bright eyes looking at someone, probably Willow, and like any of them would have, she'd caved. They'd all caved. They'd all showed, dressed and pressed. Even him, even Spike, best behaviour round his neck like an invisible, too-tight necktie, cutting off the air he only wasted on words like 'No way in hell.' No sooner off his tongue than he'd been following Giles in from the car, so what good were words, anyway?
He hadn't managed to smile, couldn't paste that inane Harris grin on his face, or copy even Dawn's small, melancholy one, but at least he'd kept his mouth shut. Until the back door opened and he'd heard her footsteps in the kitchen, and he closed his eyes and pretended, just for a second, and when he'd opened them, the bot was standing in the middle of the room.
"Why the hell didn't somebody program that thing to stay the fuck away?" he asked now, though he hadn't then. "Take in a midnight movie?"
"I don't know," Giles replied, again in that calm, controlled voice. "But I wish to God they had."
The quiet vehemence surprised Spike; the Watcher seemed to get on with the bot better than almost any of them but Dawn, and, despite the tension pouring off the man all evening, he had seemed to be dealing with everything, holding the rest of them together by sheer effort of will.
He'd been the first one to speak, after it had looked around the room, at the cake on the coffee table, the still-empty plates all laid out in a circle, and asked if this was a party. "There's no balloons, but there's cake. Tara's party had balloons. Do there have to be balloons, to be a party?"
There'd been utter silence, even Dawn looking lost to see her here, not being Buffy, when she was supposed to be outside in the dark, not being the Slayer. Lucky them, that the things that went bump in the night had decided to knock off bumping early, in honour of Buffy's birthday. Giles had finally answered calmly, "No. There don't have to be balloons."
"Oh." And the plastic smile, the curiosity that Willow must have programmed into it, because Spike had certainly never asked for anything more than a need to find new ways to please him. "Whose birthday is it?"
He'd almost got up and walked out, not wanting to hear the answer, not wanting to know whose voice would pipe up with some explanation of why the pack of them were gathered in the living room on a Saturday night to celebrate the birth of a dead woman. Except it was Dawn who said it, carefully, confusedly. Said, "It's Buffy's birthday," and the muscles in his legs that had been about to propel him out of the chair, simply twitched, as they'd been doing all night, and bade him stay still.
"It is?" The bot's eyes had widened and its smile had gotten even bigger. "It's a party for me! A surprise party."
In the awkward silence that had followed that pronouncement, Spike had wanted to rage, to leave, to kill something, but he'd just sat there like the rest of them. It was Giles who had broken the tension and finally answered, even managing a faint smile as he'd told it, "I suppose in a way it is." Letting the bot in, making it a part of the celebration, sad as it was.
The place for it, next to Dawn. The birthday cake in front of it, and Spike was never going to ask whose idea that cake had been, because if the answer wasn't Dawn, he might have to kill someone. Happy Birthday, Buffy. Twin candles, shaped like the number two. He'd stared at it when he first walked in, and Dawn had said quietly, "I figure, if she's with Mom, she's got to be happy, right?"
They could have all drowned in the idiocy of it all. Even him, who didn't need to breathe, when he'd answered with the best he could give, "Must be." And hoped it wasn't a lie.
The cake, in front of that bright, mindless, eternally beautiful, artificially *happy* face, was something else. Something that made him ache and twitch and long to see its wire innards strewn about the room like streamers. Something that made what words he'd been able to speak, when directly asked a question, when passed a book of photos, congeal to a hot, hard angry thing in his throat.
He could have held it there, silent and black inside him, while they showed birthday snapshots to the bot, 'reminded' it of things that it, that 'she' had done, years ago. It was fucked-up, it was horrible, but in its way, necessary, if the bot was ever to learn to play the role for people who'd known Buffy. Someday Hank Summers would come calling, just when it was most inconvenient, and better the devil you know, than the one that swoops in and takes Dawn away, someplace where nobody ever knows why she exists at all.
But there was that cake, and there was the childlike frown that was almost the one he remembered, when something wasn't right and she couldn't figure out what it was, and she just *had* to, because dammit, she was Bu-- except it wasn't. There were those candles, and it had to ask if they were going to light them. There was Dawn nodding yes, and Giles producing the lighter from his pocket. No one even asked, no one commented, nobody remaining who hadn't already seen him smoking behind the shop one time or another, when things got bad.
Two flames, and green glass eyes lit up by them, reflecting everyone in the room but Spike, as she bent over the cake. "I blow them out and make a wish, right?"
The smile, the searching of Willow's face for approval. See, I know how to be human, really. "You don't have to make a wish," Willow had said nervously. "That's not really something you can..."
"I know about wishing. You say something that you really want, that you don't have. Like Dawn wishes I was really Buffy." It had bent low over the coffee table, not seeing Dawn's open mouth, wounded eyes, and it had pursed its lips at the flickering fire, and Spike had only wished a little that its plastic hair might swing down into the flame. Then it had blown out the candles and said, "I wish I was, too."
And Spike had stood up while they cut the cake, walked over to the doorway, and punched the wall. "No way in hell," he'd said loudly, looking at no one. "No way in fucking, bloody hell." And then nothing, for the rest of the night. Only because there was nothing left to say.
Giles had, impossibly, kept the evening going. Kept it from becoming any worse than it already had. Stopped the bot from coming near him, with some word so soft even Spike hadn't made it out. Passed the cake, cleared the plates, stacked the photo albums. While Spike stood in the open door, looking out into the night, and no one ventured near him after Xander'd wrapped his hand. Not even Dawn. Especially not Dawn. She'd sat near the bot, sat with Giles, who spoke softly to her. Once, Spike thought he even heard a laugh, though he might have imagined it.
Certainly, Giles had shown no sign of knowing what Spike was feeling. Of sharing it, the helplessness, the hate, the lack of anything to kill. Until now. Now his shell was starting to crack. Fingers tighter on the wheel, foot heavier on the gas pedal as the wind slid past. Still in control, though. Still more calm than Spike had been at any time tonight. There was the irresistible urge to poke at that control -- like the pain in Spike's hand, teasing him to call it back whenever it faded away. Jealousy, poisonous and tasty, like the sick-sweet blood of the diseased.
"Goes to show you what a waste of breath it is, wishing," Spike said, squeezing his fist again, letting the pain ground him in the here and now, the too-comfortable passenger seat of the little sportscar, blinking traffic lights, the dark twisty road that led around and down, past a cemetery and two small subdivisions, to the back entrance of Giles' condo complex. "Though come to think of it, the only breath *it* wasted was on blowing out the candles."
Giles was silent until he pulled the car into its parking spot and turned off the engine. Staring out the windshield, he said with sharp bitterness, "It's not like we haven't all wished the exact same thing the Buffybot did."
"No. Not like that." Spike shook his head, violently, and willed himself to believe the lie. "Never wished that thing was Buffy. Wished it gone, wished her back, wished I'd never had it made in the first place, but *never* wished it was her."
"Of course not. You had it made in Buffy's exact image because you *didn't* want to pretend it was her." Giles' control was definitely fraying now, his words soaked in anger and viciousness.
It washed over him again. All the hatred, all the horror, seeing her face in front of him every night, but -- *not* her. Not Buffy. The deeper horror of how close he kept coming, to almost accepting the thing as... something else. Alive, in its own way. Able to make that wish, and mean it. Wasn't fair, wasn't right. It shouldn't be allowed to wish for something that impossible, that terrible. Something they all wanted that much, and could never have.
He held his answer to a rough bark, unable to put any of it into words that could be spoken with the tongue and not the fist. "That's not what I meant, and you know it."
Giles turned off the engine, unfastened his seat belt and opened the car door, all his movements short and jerky, full of repressed anger and frustration. "Spike, if you-" he began, then visibly stopped himself. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, tightly reined. "I need a drink. You coming?"
Though he'd heard, Spike didn’t answer, didn‘t move. He looked down at his hand, wondering why Giles even asked. Of course he was coming. He always came, always went in for a drink. Always, good night or bad, almost hopeful or hot, tired, and angry, he drank enough, pushed enough, argued enough that they ended up in bed, and for a while, it seemed like there was something. A chance. That there wouldn't be another day like today.
But there always was, and that broke Spike's paralysis. Propelled him up and out of the car, slammed the door. Spun him round, and suddenly he was kicking at the side of the building. Smashing his boot against it with a fury that raised a small cloud of adobe dust, and a sound that threatened to raise the neighbors, as well. He pulled back his damaged fist, ready to let it fly. Something harder than interior walls, that he could batter and bloody himself against without Dawn there to see him, no one watching him but the Watcher who'd seen it all anyway.
Except he couldn't, because halfway through the punch, there was a hand around his wrist. Firm as iron. The grip held him, and damn if it wasn't something scary to behold, when a vampire couldn't free his wrist from a human's grasp. Spike kicked at the wall again. Started to punch with his free hand, and had that grabbed as well. "Stop it."
"I can't." And that admission, more than anything else, let him know how far gone he was.
The grip on his wrists tightened and he was swung around until he had no choice but to meet intense, angry green eyes. "You can. And you will."
"It's not gonna change," he said, no more control over his mouth than he had for his hands. "We'll go get drunk, we'll shag, we'll pretend, really fucking hard, and in the morning..."
"In the morning, the sun will rise, we'll wake up with hangovers -- or at least I will -- and Buffy will still be gone," Giles finished. "No, that's not going to change. They're still going to need us. That's not going to change either." Giles' words were implacable, uncompromising, as much for himself as for Spike.
"Dunno if I can do it." Go in, he meant. Get drunk, he meant, or pretend to. Get shagged, he meant, let himself go in Giles' arms, something that suddenly felt like a failure, this need that had kept Giles here, kept the both of them coming back again and again. Go on, he meant , though there wasn't any alternative he could fathom.
"You can. Because you need to. There's no giving up on this, not without consequences." Giles let him go abruptly, turning away from him. "If you can live with the consequences of failing, then go. I can't."
Spike raised his arms and turned around, ready to throw that punch at the sunbaked clay, now that he could. And of course, now that it mattered, he couldn't. He let his hands fall to his sides, and walked after Giles, who stood at the edge of his own threshold, waiting. "Can't either," Spike said quietly, standing on the steps. Something he'd never shared, though he'd no doubt Giles had guessed the gist of it by now. "Made a promise."
Giles didn't answer, just met his gaze and held the door open for him, then followed Spike inside before closing and locking it. When that was done, however, Giles didn't move away from the doorway. Instead, he rested his forehead against the wood, everything about his posture telling of a man exhausted and on the verge of emotional breakdown. "Christ, I'm tired," he murmured so softly that only with vampiric hearing were the words audible.
He was tired? *He* was tired? Of this, of life on the hellmouth, of pretending the whole world wasn't a hellmouth? He should bloody well try doing it for the next hundred years, and see how tired he was then. Spike bit back a laugh, not very well; it came out something of a choked yip. Hysterical, like an animal in a trap.
Giles was tired. He was what, forty-six? Forty-eight? And already he was winding down, a human body pushed too far for too long, and who would Spike have, when he was gone? To get drunk with, to smash glasses with, to fall back on a bed and open himself up for because here, at least was someone who understood what a crock it all was? Who would he have then? Spike looked away, unable to watch the bent head, the body wavering between collapse and explosion. Who would he have now, if Giles was just as far gone as he was?
Giles turned his head at the sound of the laugh, and he must've seen something in Spike's expression, because he straightened and walked over, the weariness being pushed aside by worry. "Are you...you're not all right."
"All right?" Spike looked up and laughed again, sharper, though more intentional. Somewhat more intentional. "I can't even... Fuck, I need..." A drink. A fag. Something.
Pressing his lips together in a frown, Giles moved to the liquor cabinet and returned in a moment with a glass of brandy. "Start with that."
Spike tossed it back like water -- and choked on it. *Choked* on it, like it mattered which pipe the stuff went down. How fucking humiliating was it -- and he knew humiliating, if anyone did -- for a vampire to be leaning over, one hand braced against the back of a couch, caught in a coughing fit? He felt a warm hand come to rest against his back, a touch that provided whatever comfort it could, anchoring him in the present. "Yeah, that was a good start," he muttered. The words burned his throat.
"Perhaps a mug of blood instead?"
He snapped his head around quick enough at that - almost quick enough to make him dizzy, after the coughing fit. Saw a film of red before his eyes, for a second, as he pictured ripping into a bag. Saw himself tossing a mug of blood across the room the way they‘d both tossed glasses of whiskey, other times. Saw Giles staring in disapproval at a ruined sofa. Spike laughed, painfully. "Blood... might not be such a hot idea. Not exactly a calming influence."
Head tilted slightly to the side, Giles regarded him, none of the exhaustion or breaks in control evident now. He seemed totally focused on Spike. "What do you need?"
Christ, what a question. What did he need? A world that made sense, an unlife out there causing hell on earth, not fighting it. Not to remember that somewhere, deep in his heart, he'd made the same wish, when those flickering candles had blown out. To lose himself? But no -- he did that every night, and it was always the same, come morning. And no, because he was that close to losing himself now.
"Fuck. I should know? I need -- " Not to fall apart. Not to forget, because it wasn't possible. Not to play the drinking game where he downed one glass every time he pretended it *was*. He squeezed his hand again, and the pain brought focus, a dangerous shard of clarity.
Giles reached out and covered that hand. "You need...to find control?" he suggested.
Spike opened his eyes wide, and almost *felt* the amber flare, the fangs come down. Not quite. Not quite. "You think?"
"Far too much, probably. You need to find control and I..." The slightest mirror of the desperation Spike was feeling was visible in Giles' eyes when his words cut themselves off.
Spike looked again, and saw the same thing he'd been seeing all night -- the shoulders held just so, tight and stiff, the hands so steady that it seemed an illusion -- so still that they were actually vibrating in place, a million times faster than even the sharpest undead eye could see. But now, with one glance, one sentence, something that drew his attention from himself for a moment, that image was flipped. Like the world around him in some funhouse mirror, showing no Spike, but everything else turned inside out.
It wasn't Giles wrestling to hold himself in, to be the rock they'd all, even Spike, come to depend on. It was the other way around. He was somehow still back at that horror of a party, handing out cake while Spike slammed his fist into a solid wall. He *couldn't* stop. Couldn't stop offering to help, to soothe, to give comfort when he had none of his own. Giles was shaking in his skin, trying to get *out*, trying to let go.
And now that Spike saw it, he couldn't un-see it. Couldn't ignore the fact that while he was feeling like he was flying apart, Giles was quietly imploding under the weight of assumed responsibility that he didn't know how to put down.
What a sodding pair. He tested the weight of Giles' gaze, then answered him. "Yeah? What do *you* need?"
Spike watched as Giles' eyes widened minutely at the question, then skittered away from his in sudden nervousness. "I...I need.." he stammered, looking everywhere but at Spike. Even the nerves were controlled, familiar, a script. The flustered librarian, a game Spike honestly thought he'd given up by now.
And suddenly, that mirror flip again. Like a twist of his stomach from the booze, like the weightless, helpless feeling of falling from the top of a tower. Only it wasn't Giles who was flipping, reflecting right-handed and strange, but himself, realigning. He reached up, fast as a striking snake, and grabbed Giles' arm. Squeezing just soft enough not to hurt, just hard enough to draw that slippery gaze back to him. "What do you *need*, Rupert?"
He felt the tremor go though Giles' body, saw the struggle in his eyes, heard it in the way his breathing quickened, but the man didn't look away this time. "To--" Giles' voice caught and his tongue darted out to moisten suddenly dry lips. "To not be in control," he finally managed to get out.
And this... this was something. Something to focus on, something new. Not the body that sometimes gave itself up to lust or fear or need at the same time as Spike, no harm, no foul, nothing to say about it in the morning, but this. Potential shook beneath his hand, steadied his own, as he reached for Giles' opposite shoulder. "Yeah?"
Now Giles did look away as he replied with one telling word. "Please."
It woke something within Spike, something hot and strong and solid as rock -- to hear that word. When was the last time he'd had someone beg him for anything? Even for mercy, even screaming out the last of life to no avail, had been years, lifetimes, silicon chips away. And for something he would grant, wanted to grant? Others had teased it from his lips, or commanded it, but the only ones who'd begged were those whose need made them weak, made the begging worthless. This was nothing like weakness, vibrating in his arms now. This was power, a power he hadn't had in forever, being offered to him.
"Upstairs." It echoed in his head, a memory-ghost.