Memories of her provided unpleasant little shocks, even though her pictures were scattered about his flat. Oddly enough, every time Spike visited, he found the pictures turned away or laid flat. Once he caught Spike caressing a silver photo frame turned on its face, his fingers skimming its surface as if it were skin he’d never touch. For some reason he studiously avoided exploring, Spike was the least offensive of all the Scoobies, his mien changed so utterly he could have been someone else. He never seemed to meet anyone’s eyes, anymore, even Dawn’s, although with her he came closest. Dawn was polite with Giles himself, but little more, clinging most to Spike, and then to Xander. His bafflement increased his disquiet with them all.
He felt his age increase by decades as he patrolled with them, not the leader but too senior to be a follower, too much an observer still, too much a Watcher. He could not take part in the banter, the quips, the byplay. He tried, day after day, but his successes seemed to confirm his age more than anything else. They’d forget, they would, and begin joking around him, momentarily displacing Buffy’s loss, and he found that Spike’s reaction seemed to salt his own wounds. The vampire always seemed to flinch, shift, to twitch away, to move till he was as far as he could, and it was this contrast that invariably did him in and sent him limping home. They seemed to children to him now, now more than ever, and his reaction to them was composed of equal parts bitterness and envy. They’d healed, just a bit, in a way he no longer could. He’d had too many injuries, of heart and spirit and body, not to cosset them in recovery, and flinch at re-injury. Only the young had so little doubt of their immortality. In the death of his charge, he’d discovered not her fragility, but his own. Every time he looked in the mirror some early morning, following some late, lone night, he felt it again, and it was new to him all over again.
He began to hide bottles and remedies in various places, where they could be sought when the forced cheer got to him. He didn’t bother with fine vintages any more, but numbed the void inside him with whatever was cheap and powerful. Occasionally, he caught a glimpse of himself in unexpected mirrors, and he flinched at the way the days of summer seemed to have been etched far more deeply into his face than the years with Buffy. He regretted, too, drinking by himself, regretted all the things he’d never now get a chance to experience, to fix, to ameliorate. He wondered what it would have been like to spend time, not with teenaged Joyce, but with the woman, and that sorrow emptied a whole bottle in one night.
The others avoided his eyes, at least in the morning, and by the afternoons he had recovered. How young they are, he thought. They were bouncy all the time, lapsing into melancholy only occasionally, and patrolling was accomplished with quips and wisecracks.
And the Buffybot.
It should have galled him, this thing in Buffy’s image, and it should have turned him against its owner, certainly. But if anything, the ‘bot seemed to pain Spike more than it did himself. Repeatedly he found the vampire averting his eyes from the thing, suddenly finding an interest in a book or an object, flinching at the very sound of its voice. How could the others so blithely utilize this thing, when its very ebullience seemed like a reproach to Buffy’s somber memory?
Every time he looked at it, he remembered Buffy’s past year, and his own faults and deficiencies. Every time he looked away, Buffy’s drawn face appeared before him. I should have done more, he thought, and fresh regret assailed him yet again. There seemed to be no escaping that, no surcease from the cycle of reminder, regret, and desperation.
He wanted to bargain with any God who listened, but ultimately, knew the solution was his responsibility. I knew this would happen, he thought. I knew. Why didn’t I prepare? Instantly that thought was followed by others, more uncomfortable still. How could I? How could I prepare for her death? Other Watchers had done so, but he doubted that those Watchers had been dismissed as being too attached to their charges. Even so, he’d so the entries in the Journals that disappeared suddenly, ended with death. Others had managed to be professional and supportive as well. In both, he felt he’d failed.
All he had left was Watching, and his grief did not protect him. If anything, it left him so weak he hadn’t the strength the resist his suspicions. They patrolled, and he watched Willow give orders, cheerful and decisive---like Buffy. If was as if she’d taken on some of her friend’s personality, like some strange, subtle form of necrophilia. All traces of indecision vanished as she plotted strategy and gave orders. It disturbed him, that Buffy seemed to have vanished away from their daily thoughts, banished to some corner of the closet, like some outdated fashion, especially for Willow.
He wondered if it was merely age. He was wounded, but they were young and healed faster. But then he remembered Joyce’s death, and wondered how they could recuperate so fast, over someone so close.
Maybe it was private, their grief, like his.
He doubted it, and the suspicions that began to whisper to him when he tried to sleep at night began to prevent from resting. If he managed to fall asleep, they woke him. What was going on, that he didn’t know about? He, Dawn, and Spike, were the only ones, four months later, who struggled. Were they just weak? Or were they just unaware? A Watcher, a Key, and a Vampire, he thought dryly. It sounds like a book.
He found himself walking at night, staking vampires almost casually, till they began avoiding him. Too tired to stalk and fight, he waited for them to get close, and then dispatched them with such cool instinct that he had trouble remembering later what he’d done. Stalking the cemeteries at night, he found himself alone with the memories that the jokes, the quips, and banter of the Scoobies threatened to destroy. Buffy’s final death seemed somehow to be reduced by the way they had returned to their normal cheerful selves.
When he found himself confronted by Spike and Dawn, walking home from his crypt, or to it, it struck him again that something was wrong. Dawn was quiet, as always, but Spike was a ghost, following just a step behind her, smoking nervously. When he saw Rupert, he started, then flinched the cigarette away as if caught doing something wrong. An obedient vampire, Giles thought, and averted his eyes. Somehow, that was worst of it---the way this Spike had been humbled by her death, in a way the Scoobies had not. He knew them all so well---the things one learned by careful observation---and he knew, too, that they would have grieved for her had they been younger. Something’s changed, he thought again.
When they had staggered back from Glory’s infernal tower, Dawn had refused to allow them to place Spike in his crypt. So they had set up a cot in the basement, and put him down there, setting his broken bones so they healed properly, then leaving him alone. It was too uncomfortable otherwise, because he acknowledged no one but Dawn. In those first, few devastating days, when they had had to deal with Buffy’s death, and find a place to bury her, he had seen grief. Xander had been in a daze, and Willow had been inconsolable. He simply had not known what to do, himself, what to offer, and so they had wound up avoiding each other, taking little pathways around one another, till it became a habit.
At some point, the gloom had lifted, sometime in those days, and he tried to pinpoint when. It hadn’t been gradual, either, but he himself had been in such a daze that the days had all bled together. One hung-over morning, he’d noticed Willow bustling cheerfully around the kitchen, and realized it was more than the late night making him irritable. She had the air of someone who had had a weight lifted. That weight, he now suspected, was Buffy.
Gradually, he began to organize his belongings, to consolidate them in categories. The suitcases were removed from the closets and cleaned. None of the Scoobies noticed, because they didn’t visit any longer. That depressed him slightly, too, as even Spike was got more visits than he did. It crystallized the decision in his brain, his reason. Whatever was going on, they would not discuss it with him. Whatever had happened amongst them, had already happened. All he could do now was limit his losses, and his pain.
For the first time in months, he found that he had some peace as he lay down to sleep. He began to think of England again, as home. Buffy had kept him tethered in California; now, at last, he could go home, and mourn her, and at least, heal. That was what was going on here, he saw: limbo. They were not grieving her, because that meant letting her go. He no longer had the strength to hold on that hard.
He pictured England in his head, knowing that it wouldn’t be home after years of sunny skies and heat, but knowing, too, that it would be blissfully free of the graves of those he’d lost. Jenny’s grave had a bare spot at its edge where he stood, all those silent evenings. Home in England, the grass could grow over her grave, and over her memory. Maybe peace was only forgetting, but he found that as the summer drew to its close, he wanted desperately to forget. To move on, and leave it all behind, in a way that being so close rendered impossible. Then, one day, he could remember them all, and remember them with love.
He packed, and he planned, and he left. For the first time in years, he knew that he had no one left to lose. And, at home in England, he slept, and no nightmares woke him. He bid fare well to Buffy and Joyce, and welcomed their memories. His sorrow mellowed with time, and the days began to heal him. Bit by bit, he grieved, and he accepted. The reality of being a Watcher was to fear death, because in his world it was so impermanent or torturous. Losing a Slayer to death was not as bad as the fear that every Watcher had hidden---to lose a Slayer to vampirism. He had lost her, but only in life. She had not, ultimately, lost her battle, and he could mourn her and know that her struggle was over.
He called the Council of Watchers, and made ready to begin his own struggle over again. Buffy, he knew, would have expected nothing less.