Beneath her. Like it should be. Spike tossed and turned in his second-hand bed. More of a cot, really. The mattress was lumpy, but it was worlds better than a concrete floor or stone sarcophagus. Sure it was nothing more than another hole in the ground, but for the first time in months, he felt at peace. Somehow the voices didn't reach him in the safety of the Summers' basement. But they were out there. Whispers from the countless dead, voices borrowed by the First. Sent to haunt him, to drive him mad. They would find him again. But until then, he'd find solace in the cellar.
His body ached everywhere. Patrol had been far from easy tonight. Three Muscoda demons later, he'd been covered in slime and was sporting a new stab wound to the shoulder. Hurt like hell, but it was still better than a few rounds with a Turok-Han on any day. Buffy had done her best to dress the injury, but the arm still tingled and burned from the demon's venom. He'd be completely healed by the end of the week, but the constant throb now was enough to cause a good case of insomnia.
The floorboards above him creaked. Someone else couldn't sleep. Spike didn't need a clock to know the sun would be up in a few hours. He could already feel it. Trying to sleep now would be futile. The house was packed to the rafters with occupants. Dawn would be scurrying around before school in a few hours. Buffy would be getting ready for work. Willow would eventually be emerging from her own room a little later. And the little mini slayers, they would only add to the growing chaos. A stampeding herd of clompy girly feet. Enough to drive him insane if he hadn't already been half way there already. He knew the routine by heart, and on some level, welcomed it every morning. It was his anchor to reality, a touchstone that he used to mark time and ward off the madness of his nightmares.
Water rushed through the pipes coursing into the basement, and he spelled the distinct tang of gas from the stove in the kitchen. Pulling on his jeans, he rummaged through the stacked milk crates for a clean t-shirt. The floorboards squeaked again, and he headed up the stairs to see who was making all that noise.
The tiny light over the stove cast long shadows in the kitchen. A gentle breeze blew through an open window. "Oh," Spike said as he emerged from the lower level and pulled his shirt over his head, "it's just you."
"Expecting someone else?" Rupert Giles bantered back as he turned his attention once again to the steaming teakettle on the stove. "Tea?"
Rubbing the sleep from his eye, the vampire yawned and answered, "'Bout time we had someone around here who knew how to make a good cuppa.."
Brushing past him, Spike opened up the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Tylenol. He opened the bottle and retrieved a pair of tablets, dry swallowing the pills before returning the bottle back to its home. "So what has you up this late, Rupes? Something ugly go bump in the night?"
Giles retrieved a second mug from the cabinet, added a teabag and poured the steaming water into the waiting two mugs. "The only ugly going bump around here is you apparently," he said over his glasses. "But I don't think that miserable little camp bed in the dining room is doing anything for my back. And if I have to hear Xander mumble in his sleep one more time, I am shoving a bloody sock in his mouth."
Spike nodded his thanks when Giles handed him a mug. Heading over to the refrigerator, he pulled out the carton of milk and added a splash to his tea. Without saying a word, he gestured to the watcher with the container, waiting for the other man to nod before adding some milk to the other mug.
"How's the arm?" Giles asked, eying the vampire's shoulder. "Buffy tells me you two ran into some Muscodas, and one managed to get a piece of you."
Spike set the milk on the counter and stared at his hand as he flexed the fingers a few times. "Vemon's wearing off," he noted. "Couldn't hold anything a few hours ago. Just hurts now."
Heading over to the center island, Giles leaned into it and took a sip of his tea. The faucet dripped quietly behind him. "So," Spike said, staring at the eddies of steam rising up from his own mug. He didn't realize how hard it was to make small talk with the watcher. What could they possibly discuss - the weather, Man U, parliament? Instead, he settled for the innocuous, "How was your trip?"
"Fine, thank you," Giles responded. "We've got a lead on another potential in Santa Fe, so this is likely just another stopover before the next search. I don't know how many more girls we'll be able to fit into this house, but I'm sure we will find the space. If she can find space for the likes of you and that Andrew chap, then I'm quite certain we can get another potential or two safely under this roof."
Spike let out a nervous chuckle and set his mug on the counter. Finally answering, he said, "Well, what can I say? Summers' Home for Lost Slayers and Wayward Screw-ups. It's her job. Guess that means I've become a charity case, too. At least I'm not chained up in some soddin' bathtub this time."
"Moving up in the world I see," he smiled. "I have to admit, I was rather appalled to find out that you had taken to feeding on humans again. Horrified is more like it. Yet she assures me that it was the First, and not you, that chose to kill those people. I do want you to know that I believe her. But it still doesn't change the fact that I have my reservations about this living arrangement. It seems that it wasn't that long ago that you were in no position to be patrolling, let alone sharing a roof with anyone." Lowering his voice into a whisper, he added, "Least of all with her."
If Spike could have blushed, he would have turned three shades of red. He could feel the shame creep up from beneath his collar. He didn't need some wanker from the other side of the pond enumerating his endless list of sins. The basement door was calling his name, and he counted how many paces it would take to make a hasty retreat. "Yeah, well," he stammered, wishing the island wasn't in the way of his escape, "it's not anything I'm particularly proud of. Can't take it back. Believe me, I'm well aware of that."
Giles seemed to sense the vampire's anxiety and quickly responded, "No I suppose you can't. But neither can I. I have done things in my life I'm not proud of. I know what it is like to take another person's life." The watcher paused and waited for him to finally make eye contact. The older man's eyes bore down on him, and Spike felt as small as he ever had. Vulnerable. Under the microscope. His skin crawled under the scrutiny.
"Look, Spike, I'm certainly not trying to betray any confidences, but I know Buffy cares for you. Voicing her feelings has never been one of her fortes, but I know for a fact that she feels responsible for your breakdown. And this is how she wants to make amends. It isn't pity, that I know for sure."
Was it her fault he'd clawed at her robe like a monster? Was Buffy to blame for pinning her down on the cold ceramic tiles? He wanted to curl up and die. A stake, sunlight, anything. "Oh, Rupert, you don't know the half of it. Believe me, this is absolutely not her fault."
"Then why are you shutting her out?" Giles asked. Gotta hand it to him for cutting to the chase. The watcher always had a way of getting to the point in an uncomfortable hurry. "It is obvious to me that she has forgiven you. Why can't you forgive yourself?"
Spike felt the corner of his eye beginning to nervously twitch, and he clenched his jaw. He really didn't want to answer the question, but felt the watcher's eyes bore into him. Taking a shaky breath he stared down at his mug, hoping Giles would drop the subject and let him slink back toward the basement door with the last shreds of his dignity.
"Spike," Giles began calmly, stopping the vampire in his tracks. His voice held no anger as he continued, "I know what happened last spring. You don't have to run away. I'm not going to stake you, if that's what you think, but I do believe that we need to talk."
He heard himself sigh as he lowered his head. He knew full well that he couldn't atone for his actions, that no well-worded apology could ever make up for betraying her like that. Running a hand through his tangled hair, Spike felt his legs freeze up. Anchored to a spot on the floor, he prepared himself for the fallout. It wasn't going to be pretty. The schoolboy in him waited anxiously for the caning, and he knew that Giles' words would sting more than any switch ever would.
Finally, in the distance, he heard his own voice. Quiet. Penitent. Licking his lips, he said, "Don't know what to say. Made a right awful mess. Buggered everything royally and then some. " He could still smell her fear and feel her struggle beneath him as if it were yesterday. Once again he could taste the bile rising in the back of his throat. Looking away he continued in nothing more than a ragged whisper, "I don't deserve her help, that's for sure. I hurt her, Rupert."
"Yes, you did," Giles replied. "And there would have been a time when the only solution would have been a summary staking. What happened is strictly between you and Buffy. She wants it to be that way, and I have to respect her wishes. But she also told me what you did afterwards. It's quite remarkable when you think about it. It is hardly in a demon's nature to go questing for a soul. Yet you willingly sought it out, accepting it and the consequences it brought."
"What else could I do?" he asked. There had always been only one option. It was never up for debate.
Giles took a sip from his tea before answering, "You could have done a lot of different things, but you chose the soul and not the chip."
The old man was right. He could have easily wished the chip away, and a lot of his current problems would be gone. "Believe me, the thought crossed my mind," Spike said. Of course it did. He'd been dreaming of losing the muzzle for years. "But what would've that gotten me? All demon and no leash? A bloody stake in the heart, that's what it would've gotten me for sure. Going to Africa, it wasn't about me. It was about her, about making things right."
"And has it made things right?"
Spike downed the rest of his tea in a gulp before adding his mug to the grown mound of dirty dishes in the sink. Now that was the sixty-four thousand dollar question. It certainly didn't solve all his problems. He certainly didn't have the girl and the white-picket fantasy. "Suppose it didn't solve anything. But it gives me accountability. Knew I was a monster long before I got the soul." He settled into one of the stools ringing the island before adding, "Don't know if this makes any sense, but the soul reminds me that I'm still a monster."
Giles slid into the chair opposite of him and said, "Guilt is a very powerful bedfellow."
"Oh sure, there's the whole guilt monkey element of it. Figure I deserve that," Spike replied. He traced his finger through the tiny puddle of tea on the countertop. "But the soul gives me a choice now. Being a demon, it's all about the rush, the crunch. You destroy, and you kill because you can and you like it. But with the soul, and this is hard to explain, I'm still that monster but it doesn't feel right. It's this visceral feeling I can't describe. But it makes it easier to make that choice to be that monster or not."
"Sounds suspiciously like a conscience to me."
"'Spose it is," Spike said with a sigh. "At any rate, it lets me know when I'm screwing up."
Pushing his empty mug aside, Giles said, "Many men go their whole lives without understanding the nature of their souls. They ignore them and choose to be monsters. The fact that you sought this fate out is, like I said before, quite remarkable." He leaned forward to look Spike directly in the eyes. "And I'm quite certain this has not gone unnoticed by Buffy. You say you went searching for your soul for her sake, but it appears to me that you have learned a great deal about yourself in the process. You may still be a vampire, Spike, but you proven that you have the potential to be a good man. The true challenge lies in whether you will continue to accept that responsibility. Of course I told you this years ago-I doubt you remember. But I thought you might have a higher purpose then."
Spike nodded as he chuckled at the memory. "And you were off your nut at the time. If memory serves me right, I told you to piss off."
"And what about now?"
Maybe Giles was right after all. The soul wasn't a get-out-of-jail card. It set the bar higher and placed expectations on him that only he could appreciate. It was about moving forward, not merely looking back and feeling bad about it.
Spike clung to that challenge, and it made perfect sense months later as the fires around him yielded to a comforting silence that wrapped around him like a soft blanket. Closing his eyes, he pictured those closest to his heart - his mother, Buffy - and wordlessly hoped he'd be so lucky to see them again someday. He didn't feel himself pulled into a million pieces of cinder and ash, and he put up no resistance as he tumbled into oblivion.
He was ready. It felt right. He'd chosen to die a man rather than live as a monster. For the first time in over a century, he felt himself encircled in warmth. The pain was gone, and he could finally rest. The amulet resonated against his chest, reassuring like a steady heartbeat. It throbbed one last time, and the world went black.
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