TITLE: It Never Happened (part 7 of 8)
LENGTH: 37,000 words
SUMMARY: It's the summer of 2001. Buffy is buried under a stone that says "She saved the world. A lot." Those she left behind are struggling to figure out how to live in a world without her, and how to continue to protect it.
WARNING: I wanted this story to fit perfectly into the gap between S5 and S6. So if you think about it, you already know how it ends.
FEEDBACK: Honestly? I crave it.
DISCLAIMER: The characters and the world belong to Joss, but he did say that we could play with them. This story was written for fun, not profit.
If you didn't catch chapter one, you can read it here.
Incredibly, life settled into a routine.
Giles spent his days at the Magic Box, his evenings in the graveyards, and his nights with Spike.
The Bot proved a more than adequate addition to their fighting strength. True, almost every night brought some new glitch in her behavior, and Willow was constantly tinkering with her programming, but she was good at slaying vampires, and the local demon population seemed ready enough to assume that the Slayer was still in perfect health. Giles could almost let himself believe that the ruse would continue indefinitely.
Dawn, having finished her exams successfully, seemed content to spend her summer holidays in the back of the Magic Box, reading dusty old texts and occasionally helping out with customer service. Tara would drop by sometimes and convince her to go out to a matinee, or for a walk in the park to feed the ducks. On one occasion, Willow and Tara took Dawn on a day trip down to Disneyland; although Dawn’s enthusiasm beforehand was muted, she came back that night chattering happily about the fireworks display.
Despite the fact that he worked with Anya, and saw Xander, Willow and Tara almost every day, Giles could feel a distance growing between himself and the four of them. Perhaps it was a natural result of the passage of time; they were all four fitting more comfortably into their adult lives now, and their own relationships were becoming more mature, leading to greater independence. Doubtless it also had to do with the loss of Buffy; she was the one who had brought them all together in the first place, and now there was a hollow space in the center of the group, one they all preferred not to mention. But to be sure, a good part of the distance was due to Giles himself pulling away from them with the effort of keeping his relationship with Spike a secret.
Spike’s health and spirits were both much improved since those first difficult weeks after his change. He seemed to have finally adjusted to the limitations of his human body, while enjoying a full recovery from the blood poisoning incident. He worked two or three days a week at the scrapyard, bringing in enough money to pay Giles a small sum each fortnight for his share of the flat and groceries. Giles worried about the work, and asked Spike more than once to look for an employer with fewer criminal ties, but Spike did have a point that it was hard to find a job when one had no legal identity—even in a place like Sunnydale.
On the days when he wasn’t working, Spike often stopped by the training room in the back of the shop. When Giles walked by the doorway, he would hear the speed bag jingling or the clank of weights being lifted off a rack. He didn’t often go to look in on Spike, as when he did so it was very hard to keep his hands off him.
Spike spent every night in Giles’s bed, but they left the extra pillow and blankets folded on the sofa for appearance’s sake. On the relatively rare occasions when any of the others dropped by the flat, no one seemed to suspect anything. Xander would throw out a jibe, once in a while, about Spike’s failure to find a place of his own—but it was clear that Spike wasn’t earning enough at the scrapyard to pay rent by himself.
The nights were often difficult. Giles had assumed, at first, that Spike’s nightmares would abate once they started sleeping together. He soon came to recognize his own hubris. He couldn’t fix Spike. At best, he could try to reach him with calm words and bring him back to himself in the dark of the night, not even daring to hold him until Spike was calm enough to recognize Giles and not, disastrously, strike out at him. In the light of day, they never spoke of it.
And then there was Ethan, and his camera shop. He seemed to be keeping his word. Weeks went by without incident. While research had revealed quite a long list of sinister things that might be accomplished with the aid of a photograph, Ethan didn’t seem to be doing any of them. Sometimes on his way home in the evening Giles would go out of his way by a few blocks in order to pass by the Perfect Image, but it was always quiet and dark—perfectly unremarkable. Ethan’s presence in town weighed on Giles, but he felt quite helpless to do anything about it—and Spike was always there to help him put it out of his mind.
Having discovered that the Perfect Image was just visible from the Espresso Pump, Willow and Tara did a few daytime “stakeouts.” They would report to the Magic Box afterwards buzzing with sugar and caffeine, but with no real news. The same number of customers left the shop as entered it. As the weeks went by, in fact, Ethan seemed to be doing quite a brisk business, while supernatural occurrences in Sunnydale kept to their usual summertime lull. Even the mystery of the quasi-Nordic runestones was solved not with a bang, but with a whimper—they turned out to be the work of the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. After being held at swordpoint by an ex-demon and lectured about the responsible use of runes on a Hellmouth, it was unlikely the poor sods would cause any more trouble.
One day in late July, Willow came into the Magic Box with a thick manila envelope.
“What’s that?” Giles asked, looking up from his inventory book.
“Photos,” she said, pulling out two stacks of glossy snapshots bound with elastic bands. Since there were no customers in the shop at the moment, Anya and Dawn came up to the counter as well. “I borrowed them from Stephanie—from my Victorian Women Poets reading group? These are from her trip to Italy last year, and these,” she said, removing the elastics from first one and then the other set of photos, “are from her trip to Mexico two weeks ago.”
Dutifully, without quite understanding the point of it, Giles sifted through the photos. The Italian ones were standard fare: a girl with frizzy brown hair and a great many freckles, presumably Stephanie, standing variously in front of the Galleria degli Uffizi, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, and the rest of Fodor’s top ten. Most of them were poorly framed and slightly out of focus.
“Oh, these are beautiful!” Anya exclaimed, looking through the other pile. “I should show these to Xander. I’ve been trying to convince him to take me to Cancun for our honey—er, next vacation.”
Giles took the stack from her and examined the first few photos. The difference in composition was quite striking. The white sands fairly sparkled, the sea and the sky brought a harmonious balance to the whole, and the subject—Stephanie again—looked as though she might have stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. To be sure, she still had the same frizzy hair, the same excessive freckles, but the photo caught her in a moment of windswept exhilaration. She seemed to glow with health and a sort of wild joy. “Has she started dating a professional photographer in the meantime?” Giles asked, handing the photos back to Willow.
Willow shook her head. “Her boyfriend took both sets. Same boyfriend. And he didn’t take any photography classes, either—I asked. But the first set was developed last year at Walgreen’s, and the second set was developed last week—“
“At Ethan’s store,” Dawn finished. “Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I.”
Giles polished his glasses, and took a closer look at the Mexico set. “Interesting.”
Non-destructive testing revealed nothing out of the ordinary about the photographs. Willow forbade destructive testing, on the grounds that Stephanie would kill her. “She said they were the best pictures she’d ever got of herself. She was really psyched.”
“I know that we’ve been trying all summer to figure out what Ethan’s up to,” Xander said, “but has it occurred to anybody that maybe Stephanie’s boyfriend just got lucky with the lighting? Just because he took some hot pictures of his girlfriend doesn’t mean there’s evil afoot.”
Tara looked up from the photos, which she was examining for the upteemth time. “Ethan’s store is getting really busy. Yesterday, Willow and I watched it for an hour and we saw thirty-seven people go in and out. Two weeks ago he only got five customers in an hour.”
“I think it’s time to pay him a visit,” Giles said—reluctantly. “I’ll go alone.”
Spike looked up sharply from the deck of cards he’d been shuffling. “Like hell you will.”
Xander nodded. “Like he said.”
“Bring Willow,” Anya suggested. “She’s good at magic.”
Giles cleared his throat. “If I visit Ethan alone, he’s more likely to talk freely.”
“More likely to turn you into a kumquat, you mean,” Spike muttered, cutting the deck one-handed and subsequently dropping half of the cards onto the floor. “Bugger.”
“Are you planning to rough him up?” Willow asked. “Because if you’re worried about doing that in front of me, let me tell you, I am so on board.”
“Er,” Giles frowned at Willow, a bit taken aback, “No. I simply—oh, never mind. Come with me, then.” She had been helpful last time, and since his real concern was with what Ethan might say about Giles’s penchant for buggery, he was hard put to come up with a reason that would be acceptable to the Scoobies.
“Right then.” Spike stood up, leaving his cards scattered on the floor. “Off we go.”
Giles shot him an exasperated look. “You are not coming.”
“Came last time, didn’t I?”
“Spike, you can’t do a thing to Ethan.”
“Can stand there and look intimidating.” Spike slouched against the shelves, putting on a look of casual menace. “Better than any of this lot.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I can intimidate with the best of them,” Xander interjected.
Spike raised an eyebrow. “In that shirt? Think the word you’re looking for is ‘incapacitate with laughter.’”
“That’s three words,” Anya said, putting her arms around Xander. “And I like his shirt.”
“Spike, don’t go,” Dawn said. “Please? You’ve got the chip, and it would just be really awful if anything happened.”
Spike looked uncomfortable. “Nothing’s gonna happen, I promise, Bit.”
She glared at him. “You can’t promise that.”
Giles was relieved to have Dawn on side—she could say things to Spike that he couldn’t, not in front of the others. “Willow and I will pay Ethan a short visit. We’ll be fine. The rest of you will stay here, and that’s final.”
Giles and Willow arrived at the Perfect Image just as Ethan was turning the sign on the door from Open to Closed. Ethan looked up, saw them, and hastily tried to lock the door. Giles yanked it open before he could do so. The bell jangled.
“Hello, Ethan,” he said.
Ethan stepped back with a grudging smile. “Hello, Ripper.”
“We’ve got one question for you, Bub,” Willow said, following Giles into the store. “And you’re going to answer it, or you’re going to regret it for the rest of your very short life.”
Giles winced. “Perhaps you could tone it down a little?” he suggested quietly.
“Ah, right.” Willow blushed.
“Ethan, we’ve come about the photographs,” Giles said. “We’ve seen your work. Now you’re going to tell us what, exactly, you’re doing to them.”
Ethan spread his hands. “Ah. Well. The jig is up. You’ve caught me in my dastardly plan. I’m making people look good in their holiday snapshots.”
“You’re altering the images,” Giles said. “How? And to what purpose?”
“Oh, come on, Ripper.” Ethan hopped up to sit on the counter by the cash register, and swung his legs insouciantly. “It’s hard to break into the photo-developing business. I can’t compete with Walgreen’s prices, or their turnaround time. So I put a harmless—harmless!—glamour on the photos. They come out looking perfect every time, my customers are happy, and I get good word-of-mouth. Bloody hell, I’m doing a public service—making ordinary, unattractive people feel good about how they look.”
“Show me,” Giles said coldly. “Show me what you do, and how you do it.”
Ethan shrugged. “Follow me.”
The photo-developing equipment was in the back of the shop. The room had a strong chemical smell. Ethan waited until Willow had closed the door behind her and then, quite suddenly, shut off the lights.
The darkness was total. Giles reached out blindly for Ethan’s last location and his hands met flesh—by the feel of it, Ethan’s neck. He shoved him in the direction a remembered wall. “Whatever you’re up to, Ethan, stop it now or I swear to God I will crush your windpipe.” And then he relented enough to let Ethan breathe.
There was a choking laugh. “You wanted to see how I develop the photos. It’s a bloody darkroom, Ripper.”
“Ah.” Giles felt a bit foolish. “Quite.” He let go of Ethan and stepped back. “On with it, then.”
“I only have to get the film into the drum, and then I can turn on the lights.” Ethan proceeded to bustle invisibly about the room, making a variety of small, efficient noises. Giles listened intently for any sign of deception or danger, keenly aware of his own vulnerability.
“I was in photography club, my freshman year at Sunnydale High,” Willow mentioned from another part of the darkness. “We used a red safety light in the dark room.”
“That would have been black-and-white film,” Ethan said. “This is color.”
“I know that,” Willow said, with a tinge of annoyance. “Just making conversation, here.”
“There we are,” Ethan said, clicking the lights back on. “Now, the developer.” He pushed a button on the contraption that took up most of the space in the room, and there was a whirring noise, and the sound of liquid moving. “You understand, the whole process is going to take over an hour.”
Giles crossed his arms. “We’re not in a hurry.”
So they watched Ethan process the film. In all honesty, Giles knew nothing about the technology, and could only hope that Ethan wasn’t managing to pull the wool over his eyes somehow. He was glad that he’d brought Willow along after all—she seemed quite interested in the process, understood more than Giles did, and asked Ethan a lot of questions.
The one magical part of the process stood out rather obviously from the rest. Ethan lit a purple candle, crushed some sweet-smelling herbs, and muttered a short incantation. He actually looked a bit sheepish when he was done. “It’s a minor glamour,” he said with a self-conscious sort of shrug. “Nothing to write home about.”
When it was all finished, Ethan gave Giles a copy of the prints. “Now, this isn’t exactly ethical, me giving you someone else’s photos,” he said with a glint of amusement in his eye. He clasped a hand around Giles’s wrist. “So don’t go showing them about.”
The brief contact almost seemed to burn, and Giles felt his pulse racing. There was no magic at work, however, just Ethan. Giles wrenched his arm free. “I will figure out what you’re up to, Ethan,” he said. “And believe me, I will stop you.”
Ethan stepped back to let them leave the shop. At the last moment, he blew Giles a kiss. “Good night, Ripper!” he called out cheerfully as the bell jangled.
Back at the Magic Box, Spike and Dawn were building a house of cards on the big table. When Giles opened the door, Spike stood up so quickly that he jostled the table and the structure came tumbling down.
“Spi-ike!” Dawn moaned with exasperation. She turned to Giles and Willow. “He’s done that three times now. He sucks at this. How’d it go?”
“Yeah,” Spike said, leaning back against a bookshelf in a not very successful bid to look casual, “How was old Ethan?”
“He showed us the glamour he’s putting on the pictures,” Willow said, tossing her shoulder bag onto the floor and taking a seat at the table. “He says it’s harmless. Maybe it is? Anyway, at least we got a set of photos of our own so we can run some more tests.”
Willow, naturally, wanted to get to work on the photos right away. She said that she had what she needed at home. “Tara and I can handle it,” she assured Giles. “We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
Since the night was still young, the group split up; Willow, Tara and Dawn went back to the Summers house, while Xander, Anya, Giles and Spike took the Bot out for a routine patrol. Patrol turned out to be nothing more than a pleasant stroll around Sunnydale’s more scenic graveyards; no vampires appeared, nor demons of any stripe.
It wasn’t until he and Spike were back at the flat, sharing a nightcap, that Giles brought up the subject of Spike’s earlier irrational behavior. “Why on earth did you try to insist on coming to Ethan’s shop?” he asked. “You know that you couldn’t possibly have done any good.”
“Could’ve reminded you not to take stupid chances around him,” Spike said, giving his glass of scotch a sullen swirl. “What were you doing, playing around with the lights off?”
“That was a perfectly legitimate part of the photographic process,” Giles said. “And I was careful.” He gave Spike a measuring look. “Are you jealous?”
Spike snorted. “Of Ethan? Bloody hell, Rupert, I know your fucking history. That sodding chaos mage is out to hurt you somehow.”
Without quite meaning to, Giles touched the place on his wrist where Ethan had grabbed him. “We can’t move against him,” he said. “Not without knowing what he’s up to—not while he’s holding the Buffybot over us.”
Spike nodded. “The Bot.” He gazed into his glass for a moment, and then took a long drink. “How much longer will it fool everyone, do you think?”
“Sooner or later the Council will catch on. They’ll notice the shift of energy in the Slayer line. It’s only because of Faith that they haven’t noticed yet.” Giles sighed. He felt so very weary, suddenly. “Not much longer, I think. It’s already been nearly three months.”
“Seventy-eight days,” Spike said into his glass.
“Ah.” Giles looked at Spike for a long moment, and then finished his own drink. “Let’s go to bed.”
They were both in a maudlin mood, having broached the subject of Buffy. Spike lay on his back, naked, with his head pillowed on his arms. He stared at the ceiling as though he were looking through it and up into the stars. Giles sat beside him with one leg tucked up by his chest, the other one trailing over the edge of the bed.
“What are we doing here?” Spike asked suddenly.
“Er, what?” Giles frowned down at him. With his glasses already on the bedside table, Spike was slightly out of focus. “Going to sleep, I suppose. Unless you’re in the mood for something else.” They did have sex, most nights—but it seemed that neither of them was quite into it, tonight.
“Don’t be dense, Rupert.” Spike turned his head to look properly at Giles. “I mean, how much longer is this going on for? Obviously you don’t want anyone to know about us, and we can’t keep fooling them forever.”
“I hadn’t thought about it, honestly.” Giles could hear his voice going cold—he didn’t really want to quarrel, and yet he didn’t appreciate Spike bringing this up out of the blue. “I suppose I’m taking it one day at a time.”
“It drives me mad, sometimes,” Spike said, “Not being able to touch you in front of them.”
“You’re not touching me now,” Giles retorted—which was childish of him, and not the point, but he really wished that Spike would just shut up.
So Spike sat up and kissed him. Of course. He held Giles’s face between his hands and kissed him deeply. It was a rough kiss, with an angry edge to it—enough to scare Giles into pulling away.
“God damn it, Spike, be careful,” he said, swallowing against a suddenly dry throat. “That almost hurt.”
“Fuck the bloody chip,” Spike muttered. “You kiss me, then.”
Matters progressed swiftly then, to a quick, rough shag. By the end of it, lying sated beside Spike with his hand splayed possessively on Spike’s warm, flat belly, Giles couldn’t quite remember why he’d been annoyed with him in the first place.
Until Spike opened his mouth again.
“You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you.”
Giles winced. “Good Lord, can’t we just go to sleep?”
“It’s because of what I was, innit?” Spike continued, ignoring Giles. “I understand and all. Makes me sick to think about. I can’t exactly change the past, though, can I?”
Reluctantly, Giles let himself become engaged in the conversation. Little as he wanted to talk about any of this, he knew that he owed Spike more than another curt dismissal. “It’s not that. I’m not ashamed.” He rolled up onto one elbow so that he could see Spike properly. He wasn’t quite prepared for the vulnerability he saw in Spike’s eyes. “This ... what we have ... it’s private,” he said, fumbling now, awkward with the sudden realization that he might actually hurt Spike with his words. “If the others found out, it would all become much more difficult. They’re not likely to understand.”
“They might surprise you.”
Giles sighed. “And what if they did? They’d have questions. How did it happen? How serious is it? What are our plans?” He shook his head. “I’m not prepared to face the light of day.”
Spike gazed at him sideways. “And you don’t want them to know you’re a poof.”
“Well, I’m not.”
Spike’s lips twitched. “Me neither,” he said. “Just ... bloody hell, just promise to give me a warning first when you get tired of this, would you?”
The correct response at this point, Giles understood, would be to swear his undying love or some such thing. It didn’t have to be true, even—only heartfelt enough to assuage some of Spike’s insecurity.
“I’m sorry,” he said instead. And watched the panic flicker behind Spike’s eyes. God, Spike needed so badly to be loved. To belong. Giles hadn’t seen it before, but it had always been there—in the pages of the Watchers’ diaries, even, in the records of his relationship with Angelus and with Drusilla. “I care for you,” he said. “Much more than I expected to. Truly, Spike, I don’t want to hurt you. But I can barely think beyond tomorrow, let alone next week. If you want me to ... to define this thing between us, well, I can’t. Not yet.”
Spike rolled over, away from Giles. “Whatever. Let’s go to sleep.”
“Bloody hell,” Giles said softly. It was all getting annoying and awful, and this was why he hadn’t wanted to talk about it in the first place. He reached over to turn off the light, and then, in the darkness, put his arms around Spike. Spike was tense, unyielding, but he didn’t object to Giles’s embrace. “I’m sorry,” Giles said again. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Spike responded with a sharp, choking laugh. “Who the fuck does?”
Willow and Tara’s tests revealed nothing strange about the photographs other than the glamour that they already knew about. Giles’s own investigations revealed nothing more. Whatever Ethan was playing at, he had yet to show his hand.
As summer wore on, Sunnydale was gripped in a sort of photographic frenzy. Frankly, Giles wasn’t sure how Ethan was even keeping up with the demand. Perhaps working such long hours was actually keeping him out of trouble.
Not likely, but Giles could hope.
It became common for businesses up and down Main Street to put up bulletin boards for the proud display of patrons’ photos. Most car windows would sport one or two of their own, taped picture-side-out for all the world to see. It was impossible to go anywhere in Sunnydale without running into an enthusiastic amateur photographer. The citizens of Sunnydale could not simply relax and enjoy the summer anymore; they had to pose.
Even Willow got briefly caught up in the fever. Giles was alarmed when he first saw the camera in her hand, but she shrugged it off with an awkward smile. “It’s just, everyone’s taking pictures, and it made me think,” she said. “We haven’t got any since, you know, before.” She hesitated. “Dawn’s growing up, everything’s changing—there should be pictures.”
Giles couldn’t argue with her, not really. Life did go on. “Just, for the love of God, don’t bring them to Ethan.”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly. Walgreen’s is cheaper anyway.”
Anya celebrated her birthday in August. For an arbitrarily-chosen date, she certainly did make a fuss about it. She dropped not-quite-casual reminders into unrelated conversations for two full weeks beforehand.
Xander hosted the party. Dawn and Tara spent the afternoon in his apartment, putting up streamers and balloons, while Giles endured Anya’s excited, distracted presence at the Magic Box. Willow baked a halfway decent chocolate cake. Spike’s main contribution was in showing up at all, but he did make an effort to buy Anya a proper present: a turtleneck sweater in toffee-colored wool, bought with his wages from the scrapyard. “Thought it’d be good for patrolling,” he said a bit awkwardly. “What with the chilly nights comin’ on.”
Anya beamed with delight and gave Spike a big hug. Then Xander told Spike to get his grubby hands off of her, but he said it mildly—no real offense given or taken.
All in all, it was a lovely evening.
Afterwards, as they lay in bed together, Giles asked Spike, “Do you think you might pick a birthday for yourself, like Anya did?”
“Hadn’t thought about it,” Spike said. “S’pose I should. Gonna start getting older now—be a good idea to keep track.”
He sounded perfectly complacent about it. Giles found himself a bit curious. “Does it bother you?” he asked. “The prospect of ageing?”
“Nah,” Spike said. “Just part of being human, innit?”
“You weren’t so philosophical about it at the start of summer,” Giles reminded him. He reached for Spike’s right hand and turned it over to show the palm. The scar ran diagonally across it, pink and shiny. Giles ran a finger across it. Spike shivered once, and closed his hand on Giles’s. Spike’s skin was callused now, from his work at the scrapyard. “You nearly let yourself die,” Giles said quietly.
“Yeah. Well, that was bloody stupid of me.” Spike brought up their twined hands to his lips, and brushed a kiss across Giles’s knuckles. “I never said—thanks. For stopping me.”
Giles felt his eyes prickling with tears, which was really quite ridiculous. “You’re welcome,” he said, rather more roughly than he meant to. And then actions took over from words, and they showed each other that it was good to be alive.