DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course, and the chapter title comes from Sting’s, “Fragile.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy’s first encounter with a back-from-the-dead Spike left her confused, and she waits for Xander to explain what he knows…

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Chapter 7: How Fragile We Are

She unpacked only because she didn’t want Xander or Giles or anyone to have an excuse to stall on telling her what was going on. Fingers flying, drawers slamming, and ten minutes after she had checked in, Buffy was pacing the length of the tiny room, bumping into Dawn on every other pass while the other girl took her time getting her belongings put away.

Time.

Seconds that stretched and filled the minutes with a growing dread, each one that flew by gone, never to be retrieved, never to be changed.

Minutes that stretched into days, weeks, years. Time that made the past easier to forget, allowing her to get lost in the present without having to worry about being bogged in details that couldn’t be changed anyway.

Time was a gypsy curse, offering both salvation and damnation with a single breath.

Life had been satisfying, if not exactly what Buffy had envisioned. She’d had the chance to travel; slaying, while still a major part of her life, only had to be a burden when she wanted it to be. Plus, the fact that only one boyfriend post-Sunnydale had been responsible for a wannabe apocalypse was always a bright spot in Buffy’s book. If she’d deliberately chosen a safer option afterward to currently share her bed, where was the bad in that? There was nothing wrong with safe. Safe meant a longer life, more chances at happiness. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that those chances still seemed to just elude her. It just meant that she had to be patient.

Which, of course, she sucked at. Hence, the current pacing.

Absently, Buffy scratched at her left palm as she walked. It was a nervous habit anyway, developed not too long after the Hellmouth had collapsed, but the imaginary itch in it seemed to have been more pronounced over the past several days. The scars had long since faded, leaving only a faint raised section at the base of her fingers, but the memory of how she’d gotten them had not, brought back in gilded flame with Spike’s sudden appearance.

Seeing him glow as the amulet released its force.

The earth pitching beneath her feet. It was nothing compared to the tilt and whirl happening in her gut.

Lacing her fingers through his, feeling the power of his soul as it fought with the amulet, wishing fervently that she could help shore him up while the walls crumbled around them.

I love you.

Her memories stopped there. By choice. It was much more pleasant to remember the first part, rather than think about the consequences of what had happened after.

If she didn’t dwell on it, Spike could somehow live on. She didn’t have to consider his body crumbling into ash, or being crushed by tons of dirt caving down onto his head, or---.

Her eyes suddenly stung. Buffy’s hands lifted to pretend to push back her hair, surreptitiously rubbing at her eyes at the same time.

“He looks shorter,” Dawn said, out of the blue.

Stopping in mid-pace, Buffy looked up, but the younger girl was bent over an open drawer, carefully arranging piles of underwear and socks inside it. “That’s because you’re a tall freak of nature,” she said.

“Where do you think he’s been this whole time?”

“Considering where Xander just flew in from, I’d say the safe money’s on Africa.”

“Huh. OK.”

Dawn resumed her unpacking, leaving Buffy wondering just what was going through her sister’s head. Her comments were calm, her voice even. It made Buffy want to take Dawn by the shoulders and shake her until she was looking as rattled as Buffy felt.

“You don’t think he’s been with Xander this whole time, do you?” Apparently, Dawn wasn’t done with her questions. “I mean, it would explain why Xander never wanted to come see us in Rome.”

It was a possibility that hadn’t occurred to Buffy, but after just a moment’s consideration, she shook her head. “There’s no way he could’ve kept it a secret for that long,” she said. “I think---.”

The ringing of the phone cut her off, and Buffy flew across the room to answer it before the first ring could die away. “Hello?”

“Hey, Buffy.” Xander sounded even more tired than she felt. “Get checked in OK?”

“Yeah, all unpacked and everything. Just waiting to hear from you.”

“Well, Spike’s finally asleep so---.”

“What? Why? Wake him up, Xander. I want an explanation about what’s going on.”

“And you’re going to get it. Just…not from him.” He sighed. “Look, meet me downstairs in the lobby. Willow and Giles are on their way over. I don’t want to have to tell this story again more than once.”

“The lobby? Wouldn’t the Council offices be a little more private?”

“Probably, but I can’t risk leaving the building again. I didn’t expect him to fall asleep the first time, and if he changes his mind about walking again…” His voice took on a distinct pleading tone. “Just do this for me, Buffy. Between losing sleep because I’m too busy watching over Spike’s ass and trying to sort out what exactly is going on, I just need you to trust me a little bit longer, OK? I know you want to talk to Spike, and so help me, I wish you could because then it would mean he wasn’t my problem any more. But it’s not happening tonight. Maybe in the morning.” He paused. “If you still want to after hearing what I have to say.”

She couldn’t imagine what Xander could explain that would change her desire to get the story straight from the ex-vampire’s mouth, but Buffy set that aside for the moment, murmuring her acquiescence to his plan. When she hung up the phone, she turned to see a white-faced Dawn staring at her.

“Well?” Dawn asked.

“We’re meeting downstairs,” Buffy explained. “Giles and Willow are coming, too.”

“What about Judd?”

Buffy realized then that she hadn’t really given her boyfriend any thought since they’d parted at her door. She knew one thing, though. She didn’t want him around until she had some answers. It would be too distracting.

“Leave Judd to me,” she said, turning back to the phone. “Just go on down. I’ll be there in a minute.”

*************

Xander got pretty much the reactions he expected.

All but Buffy stayed quiet during his explanation of what Hanif had shared with him about Spike, but after raising her sixth question he couldn’t answer, she’d finally grown just as silent as the other three, waiting until Xander finished before rising to her feet to begin pacing aimlessly.

Giles asked a few probing questions, forcing Xander to detail more specifically what he’d discovered in Cairo.

Willow smiled and joked about the forces of magic, though there was a sadness in her tone that belied the curve of her lips.

And Dawn just stared at him with those huge blue eyes. That was one of the few things that hadn’t changed about her since Sunnydale. Somewhere along the way, she had grown up.

“Maybe it’s not really him,” Buffy said suddenly. “Maybe it’s just someone who looks a lot like him.”

He’d known someone would peal the bells of doubt. Silently, Xander reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the rolled fabric, placing it on the table between all of them and opening it up.

The jewel at its center was cracked, and dust clung to the heavy link chain, but there was no mistaking what it was.

Buffy blanched at the sight of the amulet, and for the first time, Xander thought she was going to crumble before him. “But…how can he not remember?” she asked. “He acted like he knew who I was out there. He seemed…”

Her voice broke, and she turned her head away from all of their gazes. Xander hadn’t seen her this lost since the funeral service. “I don’t know,” he said gently. “Hanif thinks…” He stopped and decided to take a different tack.

“Remember those first few days after Spike moved in with me?” he asked. He waited for her hesitant nod, though she still kept her eyes averted. “There were times when he was his usual annoying self, and then there were times when he’d start in with the babbling and the cutting, and you just wanted to stake him to put him out of our misery.”

“And his,” Buffy said quietly.

“Maybe it’s just his brain’s way of processing what’s happened,” Xander continued. “Getting a soul was pretty big, but let’s face it, he wasn’t the first vamp on the block with one. Turning human, on the other hand…well…” He looked to Giles and Willow for confirmation. “…that rates on the apocalyptic meter, doesn’t it?”

Giles nodded, his eyes thoughtful. “I can’t think of anything in the Council records detailing such a thing,” he said. “There is a prophecy that was believed at one time to tell of a vampire who would be rewarded with humanity for his contributions to an apocalypse, but the Council deemed the translation faulty. They believed it wasn’t humanity after all that would be the vampire’s gift, but rather, absolution of his sins. A release from hell upon his final death.”

“Well, that’s good news,” Dawn said. She flushed when all eyes turned to her. “I mean, aren’t prophecies all about the doom and gloom? I’d hate to think Spike was caught in the middle of one. He’d get all pissed off that somebody was playing him like that.”

The truth of her observation made the group chuckle as memories of the stubborn vampire arose like specters among them. Only Buffy remained silent, her mouth downturned as her hands remained occupied with each other.

“It has to be more than that,” she murmured. “You said, he sleepwalks every night. Same direction. Same dreams. That has to mean something. It just has to.”

Giles was the one to rise to his feet, and it was Giles who took Buffy by the shoulders and forced her to look up at him. “It means he was traumatized by what happened,” he said. “He’s re-enacting the battle with the First, and his sleepwalking is just his attempt to escape this time. It’s a perfectly natural reaction.”

But she’d started shaking her head before he’d finished speaking.

“No,” Buffy insisted, and life had returned to blaze in her eyes. “I don’t believe that for a second. Spike wasn’t trying to run away from the Hellmouth. He knew what he was doing. He knew he wasn’t going to get out of there alive. He wasn’t a coward, Giles, regardless of what you might think about him. Spike never ran away from a fight.”

“Except to go to Africa,” Dawn mumbled.

Xander flinched when Buffy whirled to confront her sister, a slim finger jabbing toward the younger girl’s face.

“Stop it!” she warned. “I am not fighting with you about this again! He didn’t run away. He did what he felt he had to do. He came back.” There was more life in her when she turned back to them than Xander had seen since her arrival. “Don’t you get it? He. Came. Back. That’s what he does. That’s what he always does. I don’t know why we’re all so surprised that he’s turned up again. I mean, between that and the fact that we go through resurrections like Kleenex, why in hell should any of this be such a shock?”

“Buffy---.”

In spite of the quiet tone to his voice, she faced Xander with a vehemence that made him shrink back into the overstuffed chair in which he sat. “Don’t,” she said. Though the single word was meant as a warning, her eyes begged for him to…do what? Remember? Empathize? Certainly not take on the role she expected.

“Just because you’ve been around him for the past week, don’t think that that means you know him, Xander.” The tremor in her finger became noticeable even to her, and Buffy quickly folded her arms across her chest, hiding her hands from everyone’s view. “I know why you’re doing this, how you feel, but you shouldn’t. It’s not his fault.”

“I never said it---”

“You don’t have to,” she said. “I was there, remember?”

Xander swallowed. In the back of his head, he could hear the faint strains of country music, almost taste the fiery burn of the alcohol sliding down his throat. He should’ve known Buffy would know exactly how he was feeling. She was the only one who’d ever really understood.

“I think Hanif is right,” he said, switching the subject back to the topic of the sleepwalking. “Spike was a lot of things, but he was never scared to face a fight. He’s not running away from something. He’s running to something. Buffy.”

“You can’t know that,” Giles said.

“Yes, I can,” Xander assured. “I’ve been listening to him while he’s been sleepwalking. Sure, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, but some of it…” He shook his head. “I’m sure, Giles.”

“But why hasn’t he tried while he’s awake?” Willow asked.

“Because he was afraid. He said…he thought if he found the woman in his dreams, he’d die again.”

Buffy went even paler beneath her tan. Her mouth opened to say something, but immediately snapped shut, and she pivoted on her heel to head for the elevators.

“Buffy…” Giles called out.

“I need to think,” she said without turning around. “I just…I can’t do this right now.”

She was gone. It never occurred to Xander to stop her.

The rain was a comforting lull outside the glass doors of the hotel, and the small group sat in silence for long minutes after Buffy’s exit. Xander wasn’t even thinking about his friend’s turmoil; her words had brought back more of his guilt about Anya, the shadows that followed him every time he looked at Spike. When he felt the fluttery touch on his shoulder, he jumped, and looked up guiltily when Willow pulled her hand away.

“Giles and I are going to head back to the offices and start with the research on Spike’s sitch,” she said. “Wanna come with?”

He shook his head. “I think I need to get a drink. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“Can I get one, too?” Dawn bristled when everyone turned raised brows to her. “What? Eighteen’s the legal age in England, remember?”

Xander smiled as he stood up. “I’m telling Buffy you twisted my arm,” he said.

“She’ll believe it. You should’ve seen what I did to the guy she was dating before Judd.”

It was remarkably easy to have Dawn at his side as they walked out into the rain. Easier than a certain ex-vampire, that was for sure. Dawn might be smarter than Xander, but at least she used real words when she talked to him. Xander still couldn’t get over the fact that Spike/William had a bigger vocabulary than Giles.

He just hoped that Buffy was getting the space to think that she needed. He’d always known her reaction would be the toughest.

*************

When he woke up, the first thing he felt was his clammy shirt sticking to his back. It was wet, but what had caused it, William had no idea. The room wasn’t hot, so it couldn’t be sweat, and besides, he’d grown accustomed to the notion of great heat while under Hanif’s accommodation. Blinking against the dark of the room, he lifted his hand to his head and realized his hair was damp as well.

What did I do this time?

He dreaded falling asleep. He never woke up rested, and there were times when mysterious scrapes and scratches on his flesh made his waking hours painful. Hanif had explained about his nocturnal explorations, but William had no memory of them. Just the dreams.

Those were enough.

He didn’t remember falling asleep. He’d been watching the strange thing called television, and he remembered sitting down to get more comfortable.

And now…he was awake. And his clothing was in dire need of changing.

Why had he awoken?

The light rap at the door answered his question.

Frowning, William swung his legs over the side of the bed, tilting his head as he looked in the direction of the sound. Had Xander forgotten his key? Well, not a key, but that odd piece of plastic that took the place of a key. William couldn’t even pretend to understand how it worked.

Quietly, he stepped to the door, studying the knob closely to ensure there wasn’t a trick to opening it. But as he turned it, and pulled it open, the urge to slam it shut again made his fingers twitch around the cold metal, caused his heart to start pounding inside his chest.

Run, run, fly away home.

If only he knew where home really was.

Her eyes were greener in reality than they’d been in his dreams, and her hair was lighter, kissed by sunlight with silvery blonde streaks. It had been damp, but was now drying, curling in tendrils around her pale face, and in spite of his trepidation, he felt the sudden urge to brush it off her cheek.

“Hello, William,” she said softly. Her eyes flickered over his shoulder. “Can I come in?”

 

To be continued in Chapter 8: You Still Haunt Me