DISCLAIMER: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters are the property of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon, and Fox Studios. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2000 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG.
The light was still on in the Magic Box but the door wouldn't budge. She tried it again. Knock, her tired brain said, knock. She really just wanted to break the lock but instead tapped gently, then a little louder on the door.
"Just a moment," she heard faintly from inside the shop, then the unmistakable sound of the lock being pulled back and the door opened.
"Buffy?" Giles stood in the doorway, blocking her way.
She resisted the urge to push him aside, just said as sarcastically as possible, "Can I come in?"
His concerned expression changed instantly to wariness. "Do you need me to say that?"
Her exhaustion turned to irritation. "Oh, for God's sake, Giles. I'm not a vamp. Now get out of my way before I move you out of my way."
"Yes, quite." He moved aside hastily as she pushed past him. "This is a surprise. Come to train?"
"Um-huh." She nearly stomped her way to the back room.
"You could say that."
He followed her in, standing silently and pushing his glasses up absently, the way he always did, and the movement caused her a momentary pang. So familiar. Next he'd cross his arms and look at her in solemn concern. She'd never known Riley this well. Would never know him this well. She dropped her purse at the edge of the mat and pulled off her sweater, making sure her tank top didn't come with it. The punching bag was now Riley. She landed several solid blows.
"I take it you don't want to talk about it?"
She spun, her foot connecting to the bag with a thud. Xander, now the bag was Xander. "Nope." She rained lightning blows on the canvas, hit it until her hands hurt. Now it was Spike. Her feet connected again and again making the bag fly.
"Okay then." Giles walked to the doorway leading into the shop. "I'm just going to finish up out here. If you need me..."
"I know where you are," she replied without pausing from her workout.
"Right." He closed the door.
She felt tears threaten. Blinked them back furiously. The bag didn't have to stand in for Giles at least—the only man in her life she wasn't mad at. She took another swipe at the bag as she imagined Angel's face on it. Why did he leave her? Five well placed punches and his face disappeared. She stopped and the heavy bag swung back at her. She caught it easily and stopped its motion without effort. "Angel," she whispered as she hugged the bag tightly. "Angel."
Giles listened to the sounds from the other room. Heard the rhythmic thumps stop and turn to dead silence. He agonized over whether to go in to her. No. It was best to let her get it out of her system. But his heart hurt as he turned back to his account books to finish reconciling the day's till.
He was halfway done when the door opened. Buffy stood in the doorway watching him. He glanced at her and could tell she'd been crying, but her face now was expressionless.
How much more could she take? How much more would the powers that be make her undergo?
"Is it me, Giles?"
"Is what you?"
She walked to the counter and faced him, the worn wood between them. "Do I chase them away? Or destroy them somehow?"
"No, I mean, look at Angel, he went all the way to LA to get away from me."
Giles remembered the worrisome phone call he'd received from Cordelia. He couldn't tell Buffy about that. She didn't need to know yet that Angel might be returning to his evil ways. He wrenched his mind back to what she was saying.
"And what about Scott or Parker? And let's not even start on Riley." She looked at him. "Is it me?"
He shook his head. "No." He studied the young woman in front of him. And she was a woman now. She'd been a girl when he first met her, so full of enthusiasm, so energetic in her quest for life. He compared that to the Buffy he saw before him. The woman who'd seen too much life at such a young age. Or more accurately too much death.
He slipped the receipts and cash into a bank bag. The books could wait until tomorrow. Shoving the bag into the secret compartment under the cash register that Xander had built for him, he walked around the counter to where she stood. "Let's sit for a bit, hmm?"
She let him lead her to the table and dropped into a chair. He took the one next to it and turned it to face her.
"Buffy, I'm your watcher. I'm supposed to give you answers and help you. But I can't help you with this. Not with romance. Look at me? Am I any kind of role model for you in that?"
She smiled sadly. "I guess not. Why do other people get to be happy?"
"I don't know. I've often wondered that myself."
"Do you think I would have been happy with Riley?"
He thought carefully before he answered. "You might have been."
"That's not an answer, Giles."
"Yes it is. Because being happy, well that's up to us, isn't it? If we find the right person we still may not be happy. Sometimes it's easier to be happy with the wrong person. Because they never challenge us."
"Riley didn't challenge me?" She sighed heavily. "Why was everything so hard with him if he didn't challenge me?"
"Things weren't hard with Angel?"
"No. I mean yes it was hard knowing he was a vampire, and then when he turned, that was awful. And when he came back, knowing we couldn't be together, that was horrible. But loving him? Loving him was never anything but effortless. Loving Riley felt like something I thought I should do."
"But maybe that's what we're supposed to want. The good man, the nice guy."
"Yes, well it's a bit of a cliché by now, but nobody seems to want the nice guy."
He studied her as he spoke. Watched her tension ease up a little and the life come back to her face. He was very worried about her. Had been for some time. She was on the verge of darkness. Not the demonic kind of darkness she feared she might descend to, the one Dracula had taunted her with. But the apathetic darkness of not caring if she lived or died. He didn't want to lose her. The world needed her, her friends needed her. He probably needed her the most of all.
"Spike's in love with me."
"Good God." The words were out before he could stop them. But of course, he realized, a lot of things suddenly made sense. "How do you feel about that?"
"Giles, it's Spike."
She ran her hand through her hair. "And nothing. He's a vampire. I mean one without a soul. Unless you count the chip. But we're not, counting the chip, I mean. And anyway, this is Spike we're talking about."
"And you feel nothing for him?"
She pushed back in her chair and pulled up her knees so she could wrap her arms around them. "I can't believe we're having this conversation."
He sighed. What was the attraction she held for vampires? And vice versa. He could see there was something there, something she didn't want to face. "You're right. It's none of my business."
He began to rise. Her next words stopped him short.
"Would it be wrong?"
"You mean Spike?"
"Yeah." Her tone was petulant and defiant. She sounded like a lost child. Or like Faith. He wasn't sure which image disturbed him more.
"I think that's up to you to decide."
"That's such a watcher thing to say, Giles. Can't you just tell me yes or no."
He smiled at her fondly. "No, Buffy. I wish I could. But I can't." He got up and began to walk to the counter then turned back to her. He knew his expression was one of distaste. "But Spike? Really, Buffy."
She just laughed as she stood up and walked back into the training room. Soon he heard the normal thwacks and thumps that indicated she was feeling better.
Buffy took another deep breath. The air was so much fresher at night. That was one of the reasons she'd turned down Giles' offer to drive her home. She loved to walk. This was her town and walking it let her know it was going to be fine, for at least one more night. Plus, how would Spike follow her around if she were in a car? It would be so much harder for him to keep up. She toyed with the idea of calling to him, putting an end to this charade. But no. Better to let him think he was too stealthy for her. Better to leave him in the shadows. She wasn't ready for anything else. And she knew, deep down, that calling to him would be the end of this current phase they were in. If she called him out, she'd have to kill him or love him. There was no middle ground right now.
Just to annoy him she decided to run. She loved the feeling of her own blood singing in her veins. Of the wind on her face and the strength of her legs as they pounded the sidewalk. She listened for him, could barely make out his slightly different steps. But he was keeping up with her. Even Riley at his best couldn't keep up with her when she really ran.
Laughing inside she turned it up a notch and ran full out. He was still behind her. She slowed abruptly. God, what was she doing? Was this some kind of test? She heard his footsteps slow behind her.
Not even breathing hard, she continued to walk. Her house came in sight and she smiled. Her mom would be home tomorrow. Dawn had been so excited. She was too young to be without a mother. Buffy wasn't a good substitute, although she would have tried. She hoped Dawn was asleep now. That Willow and Tara had worn her out with tales of spells and glamours.
Her attention was wrenched suddenly back to the here and now by the sound of footsteps coming up on her fast. She spun and saw Spike approaching in that quick swaggering way he did so well. He stopped in front of her and lit a cigarette.
"Spike." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Lemme guess. Out for a stroll again?"
"Right on one." He took a deep drag then blew some smoke rings. "Just thought I'd say hi, you know, since I was in the neighborhood."
"How human of you."
He nodded as if in agreement with her assessment. "So. How's your mum?"
"She's coming home tomorrow."
He smiled. A smile that seemed genuine. "Really? That's great. So she's alright then?"
"Looks like." She heard the door open on the porch. Turned to see Willow and Tara staring out, a surprised look on their faces. "Hey, guys."
Willow found her voice first. "Hey, Buffy. Spike."
"Red." He nodded to Tara. "Tara."
She smiled back. Willow just looked perplexed.
"Spike happened to be in the neighborhood, but he was just leaving." Buffy turned to look at him. Realized that it sounded like she was covering for him. Which she was, but not for the reason they might think.
He gave her a smirk. "Yeah, I was just leaving." He stubbed out his cigarette with his heel. As he passed her, he said softly, "Night, doll."
She ignored him and the small spark of excitement she felt, the one she always felt when she was around him. Of all the people she knew; he made her feel the most alive. It was ironic—and deeply screwed up. She bounded up the stairs to her waiting friends. "So is Dawn asleep?"
As she turned to close the door, she saw him across the street still watching her. Their eyes met and held for a moment before she closed the door firmly on the night.