RATING: R (FRM)
SUMMARY: Power and life. Mages and Slayers. And what Giles did during his months away.
WARNINGS: A few four-letter words, some non-graphic sex, an unusual fate for a core character.
NOTES: Oblique Strategy: Water, For: headrush100, Prompt: Giles, post-Grave, h/c.
DISCLAIMER: I claim no ownership and am making no money.
Buffy pounded into the emergency room, out of breath from her sprint from the Magic Box. Giles was at the desk signing release paperwork. He had two stitches in his forehead, and a bruised-up face. Dust everywhere, white on the knees of his jeans and in his sweater. But he was walking under his own power, if unsteadily and painfully. Buffy came up to him and found herself in tears. It was relief, more than anything. He wrapped his arms around her, carefully. Giles-hugs. Rare, and precious. Buffy snuggled her face into his chest. His shirt smelled like bricks and smoke and unfamiliar laundry detergent and Giles. Buffy wasn’t ever going to let go. Fortunately he was hanging on too.
“You were gonna kill yourself to stop her, weren’t you.”
“You’re one to lecture me.” His face was buried in her hair, and she felt his voice vibrating through his chest.
“Yeah, yeah. Warn me next time, okay? So I can kick your ass?”
He straightened his back and winced. “No more ass-kicking, please. Had enough of that.”
A brief gust, air moving in the hallway, and Anya was there, cocking her head at the pair.
“Xander took Willow back to his apartment,” she said. “She’s feeling sorry for herself. She’s not expressing any useful emotions, like remorse. Or the urge to make amends by restoring damaged personal property.”
Giles made a thoughtful noise. “Let’s give her a little time, Anya dearest. Meanwhile, call the insurance company and the police, and tell them you have no idea what happened. We should get a nice settlement out of it.” He kissed her forehead, and she whooshed away. Giles had apparently turned into the affection monster over the last six months. Either that or having your suicidal world-saving plan turn out not to require suicide after all turned you into a mush-head. Probably the painkillers they’d just pumped him with also helped.
Buffy let Giles lean on her on their way out through the automatic doors to the sidewalk. His right ankle appeared to be screwy. She flapped her hand at the loitering taxi.
“Cab ride time,” said Buffy. “Revello Drive, your home away from home, awaits.” She lowered Giles into the back seat of the cab, while he swore in what had to have been at least three languages, including English. It was such a surprise to hear those words from Giles that Buffy found herself laughing again, nearly as hard as they had last night. He giggled at her from the middle of the back seat, one hand braced on his ribcage, the other flat on the black vinyl to hold himself up.
He had only pounds in his wallet, so Buffy had to pay the cabbie. While she was figuring out the tip, Giles tottered up onto the porch. The front door slammed, and a Giles-seeking missile made contact.
“Oh God, ribs, please, Dawn. Bloody hell.”
Dawn was nuzzling into him just the way Buffy had done. Giles was petting her hair, kissing her forehead, her hair, her cheeks. Buffy drew them both into the house. Dawn kept her fingers clutched into Giles’ sweater. She babbled, a torrent of description of the last months, which even Buffy couldn’t follow. She finished with, “Buffy is going to show me the world! She said. Since it isn’t going to be ended.”
“Is she, then? Lovely for both of you!” Giles shot Buffy a look she couldn’t interpret, but she thought perhaps there was guilt in it.
“Dawn, bed, seriously, now. You were up all night!”
“Yeah, yeah, bossy. You still going to be here tonight, Giles?”
“Yes, sweetheart. I’ll be here. I need some sleep myself. Been awake for twenty-four hours. Longer.”
Buffy helped Giles up the stairs and into her mom’s old bedroom, then Willow and Tara’s. Now just Willow’s. For the moment. Until Buffy finished kicking her out. It was full of Willow’s stuff, still, with Wicca bric-a-brac scattered around, all sparklies and frillies and rainbows, but the bed would be way more comfortable for Giles than Buffy’s.
Giles sat on the edge of the bed. She helped him off with the sweater, and the henley under that, leaving him in a thin gray t-shirt. Monochrome man. He’d looked great in the black, though, she had to admit. Slamming through that door, all pissed off and powerful.
“On your stomach or on your back?”
“My chest is a mass of bruises. ‘Course, so is my back, so I’m fucked either way.”
Buffy found herself giggling again, at the expression on Giles’ face, at once pained and relieved and silly. She took his hand and helped him lever himself down flat onto the bed. There were rips and abrasions in his jeans, especially on the knees. She unlaced his boots. They were seriously dusty. The toe caps had fresh scrapes in them, deep ones. Giles had dressed for a beating, and received it. She eased the boots off. His right ankle had been strapped up in the emergency room.
“Need ice for this ankle?”
“Later. Come up here, Buffy. Want to hug you some more.”
“Giles, I’m covered in dirt!”
“And I’m covered in what used to be my shop. Give us a hug.”
Buffy felt another giggle burst free. A loopy Giles was a sweet Giles. She obediently clambered up next to him and pressed herself along his side. She put her head on his shoulder cautiously. He winced anyway, then tugged her closer. Yup— blown pupils, goofy expression, no control over what was coming out of his mouth. They’d given him the good stuff.
He spoke meditatively. “I think landing flat on my face on the floor was marginally worse than being pinned to the ceiling. Four ribs cracked, three in front.”
“Thank god for Percocet.”
“Too bloody right. Percocet and my Buffy. Not leaving you again, you know. First rule: never make the same mistake twice.”
“Except you gotta go back, don’t you? What happens with Willow next?”
“Can’t go much of anywhere yet,” Giles said, giggling. “Coven can’t teleport me for some time, not until the resonance cascade fades. I’ll have to get them to fix up my passport to look right so I can fly back. But what happens next...” He sobered for a moment. “I take Willow to the coven in Westbury, where they take back the power she drained, and then they decide what to do with her native power. Depends on her attitude. Perhaps they’ll have to drain her.”
“Declaw. Defang. Neuter. Oh fuck. I shouldn’t laugh. It hurts. And it’s serious business, and I meant what I said about her perhaps not being the same. Depends on who she was to start with. Not who I thought she was, that’s certain. No conscience whatsoever. Heartbreaking, to think that my little Willow has been so without empathy or ethics underneath it all. I did a bad job with her. Blame myself.”
He made an unhappy noise. Buffy cautiously put an arm across his waist, to give him a reassuring squeeze. He didn’t wince, so she left her arm there.
“Guilt-monster rides again. Jeez, Giles. We all make our own choices. You don’t see me or Xander running around trying to destroy the world, or killing people because we lost a lover.”
“Poor sweet Tara.” Giles closed his eyes for a moment.
“Willow’s been hatching poison for a while, I guess. You know what she said to me last night? She said she finally got the Slayer thing. That it was about the power.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, because then she threw me through a bookcase. But I knew better than that almost right away after I got the powers. When I was fifteen.” Buffy shuffled herself around on the bed so she could lie on her side, head propped up. She got a better view of Giles that way. He painfully pushed himself up a little bit on the pillows.
“You’ve always been exceptional. My miracle.”
“Nothing miraculous about me. Got here the usual way. You know, ripped from the grave by black magic cast by my best friend who’s in way over her head. Happens every day.”
“I meant something rather different by that, love.” Giles looked happy again, for some reason Buffy couldn’t figure. He tucked her hair back behind her ear. “Oh, Buffy. How I’ve missed you.”
He bent himself down to her, with a grunt of pain, and kissed her, just a brush across her lips with his. It was so surprising that Buffy let him do it, and do it again. His lips were soft, his touch a feather. Then he released her and fell back on the pillows.
“Bugger,” he said. Buffy giggled. He twined a hand into her hair again. Buffy’s mind spun. That kiss. Her lips still tingled. His hand was warm against the back of her head. Buffy realized that she hadn’t felt this warmth since... since he’d left. But he was going to leave again.
“So, you’re taking Willow back to the motherland with you. How long do you think you’ll be gone? I mean, if what you meant was that you’re coming back.” Buffy knew that she’d let a little sulk creep into her voice. Skin some guy alive, threaten to destroy the world, and vacation for you! Well, except for the maybe they’d have to execute Willow part, or lobotomize her. As tourist activities went, the guidebook said to give it a miss.
Giles arrested his hand in her hair and studied her for a moment. “Buffy, have you and Dawn passports?”
“Yeah, actually. Our father was going to take us to Europe last summer, only then he didn’t, because, well. But we got ‘em.”
“Good. Fly back with me. Stay with me for the summer. I’ve got a place big enough for the three of us. Country, lovely city, London just a hop away, and— well, an interesting bit of the world within reach, ready to be shown to Dawn. And seen for yourself.”
“Giles, I can’t afford—”
“Hush. I can.”
Three days later, Buffy found herself on a British Airways non-stop, LAX to Heathrow, with a bouncing Dawn, a sulking Willow, and a still-wincing Giles. Four maybe-broken ribs meant he was going to be wincing for a while, and popping the painkillers. Dawn got the window, Giles got the aisle for his legs, and Buffy sat between them. Willow was across the aisle from Giles.
The last few days with Willow hadn’t been great. Willow didn’t understand why she had to go to England. She’d confessed her sins. She knew she’d screwed up. She’d admitted that killing Warren was wrong. Couldn’t she be allowed to grieve for Tara in peace? She was only going because Buffy and Dawn were, too; she certainly didn’t need to go. And so the litany went. Buffy knew Giles was worried. In the end, he’d had to snap at her, and tell her that if it hadn’t been for his intervention, they’d have sent a team to kill her outright, as a menace. She’d burst into sobs, and told Giles she’d do whatever she needed to do.
She had, in another one of those grief-stricken moments, allowed him to set a binding spell in place. She was restricted from casting at all, and would need to break the binding and her own oath to do so. It wouldn’t hold her, Giles had told Buffy, if she truly wanted free, but she would likely bow to it unless provoked. They were transporting a tiger in a cage. It purred, and rubbed its face against the bars, but it could break you with a single pawswipe if you were foolish enough to open the cage door.
Willow sat apart from them, wad of tissues in her hand, sniffling. Giles periodically leaned across to talk to her, touch her arm reassuringly, and calm her with that soothing quiet voice.
The lights went off after the movie, and the cabin settled. Dawn was already asleep, cheek flattened against the shuttered window. Jet engines, the rush of ventilation, low murmurs, the occasional soft bell of the mysterious signals passed among the crew. Giles pushed up the armrest between them, and lifted his arm for Buffy. She snuggled in against him. He spread the blanket over them both.
Across the aisle, Willow watched them. Buffy met her gaze for a moment. Willow smiled, a cute little smile. Buffy shivered. Giles turned toward her, mistaking her shiver, and tucked the blanket over her more closely.
“You warm enough?”
“Yeah, fine. You? Did you take your pill?”
“Mmm. Just did.”
“Willow is looking at us.”
“Let her look.” Giles kissed Buffy’s forehead.
That was all he’d done, since their day spent talking in bed. In her mother’s bed, Tara’s bed, the bed of dead women. Buffy knew very well that something had shifted irrevocably between them in the moment he’d kissed her. Apparently Giles was taking his time about following up that change. He’d been too stiff and sore and exhausted to do anything more, but he hadn’t tried. Meanwhile: cuddling, and sleeping together chastely, and long whispered conversations huddled warm under blankets. As now. Buffy had learned more of Giles’ past in three nights of talking than in the previous six years. She’d learned about how he spent the last nine months, too: self-discovery, time at the coven spent quietly meditating, the laser surgery on the eyes, the wardrobe makeover at the hands of his younger sister, the hours on horseback rediscovering a childhood pleasure. In return she’d told him about her descent into and then climb from the pit, literal and metaphorical. He didn’t judge her. He’d never judged her. Not even when she felt she’d deserved it.
Laughing at her when she’d told him about Spike had been exactly what she needed. Though she still hadn’t told him the big thing about Spike.
She wondered if that gentle-handed treatment, that had worked so well with her, had been exactly wrong for Willow. Maybe Willow had needed more forceful intervention all along. Firm limits. Like Dawn had turned out to need. Not Giles’ fault if so: he’d been chosen for Buffy, not for Willow. He’d find a way to blame himself, though.
Giles lay back in the airplane seat now, stiffly, waiting for his Percocet to take effect. Buffy tucked her socked feet under her on the seat, bringing her head a little closer to his. Giles rested his hand on her knees, outside the blanket.
“Looking forward to your holiday, Buffy?”
“Vacation. Sweet word. When’s the last time I had one?”
“Before your junior year of high school, I think. You’ve earned this many times over.”
“Do Slayers normally get vacations?”
Giles breathed out a laugh. “No. Neither do their Watchers.”
“You just had one!”
“I did. And now I will give you yours. Please forgive me, Buffy, for leaving you.”
“We already covered this. Don’t want to hear it. If you feel so guilty, you can make up for it by taking me shopping in London. I wanna see this Carnaby Street place.” Giles groaned, on cue. “What are you going to show us? What places are we going to see?”
“We’ll start in Bath for a few days, I think. To get settled in. Willow will go to the coven house in Westbury straight away. They’re sending people to meet our flight.”
“She won’t like that.”
“She’ll have to take it, I’m afraid.”
“Okay, Bath. What’s it like?”
“You’ll see,” he said, with a secret smile. “Then my sister’s place in Avebury, not so far away. That’s quite out in the country. We’ll have some riding, if my ribs allow. We can teach you and Dawn regardless. Then a bit of time in London. And we’ll likely spend time at the coven, not so far from Bath. It’s all quite small and close together in comparison to California.”
Giles turned a little in his seat, toward her. The pill must have begun working its magic on his ribs. Buffy had seen his chest, the morning before. It was a livid display of purples and greens and yellows. Some of the bruises looked deep. His back had been better: fewer deep bruises, more spread out. Willow had pinned him against the ceiling, he’d said, but not hard enough to smash him through it. He’d taken the worst damage when she’d let him fall to the floor. It had been a wonder his ribs hadn’t snapped and punctured his lungs. And there was a hand-shaped burn over his heart. Anya had given Giles a salve to use on it, to prevent scarring, made from vitamin E and aloe vera and something else Anya had cadged from a demon connection. Buffy had smoothed that on while Giles bit his lip. Even with the Percocet.
Giles was dealing with Willow patiently. How he could, Buffy didn’t know. That one look at his chest had her hating Willow all over. How could somebody hurt one of their dearest friends like that? She’d slashed up Xander, too. Xander had forgiven her, and just kept repeating that he loved her. Buffy wasn’t as karmically advanced as they were. Though she’d seen flashes of anger, in Giles, when Willow was being balky.
“What’s Willow going to do, at this coven?”
“Much what I did, I believe. Meditation. Recentering. Healing.”
“Healing from... I guess you had that spear wound, didn’t you.”
“That was already patched up. Spiritual healing. From, well, five years on the Hellmouth. And from something Willow and I have in common.”
Buffy thought about that one for a minute, and decided she knew what he was alluding to. He’d told her about Ben, though it had merely confirmed a suspicion she’d had. She pulled her hand out from under the blanket and slipped it into his. “Though in your case you were saving the world, cleaning up my mess, not going for extreme torture and revenge.”
“Ah. Yes.” He squeezed her hand. “Both of the men that I, I, well, both were in circumstances outsiders found justifiable. I still bore bloodguilt. In Randall’s case, I carried it for twenty years. You were the first person I’d voluntarily told about it in all that time. I... told the full story to my counselor. Quite a lot there, that I’d hung onto. Surprising amount of emotion. I should like to spare Willow those twenty years, if I can.”
“Sounds intense.” He made a noise of assent, which Buffy felt where she was leaned up against his chest. Carefully leaned up, because of the bruising. He wanted her close, it seemed, though it made him wince.
“What happened with Randall?”
“You know the basics, I think. Eyghon took him. Then we tried to exorcise him, but it didn’t... We failed. I failed.” Buffy pressed his hand. “I had to... I had my sword handy. I— I won’t go into detail here. Some other time? When we can talk more freely.”
“Only if you want to. Didn’t mean to make you talk about it if it’s hard.”
“My, uh, my counselor suggested I tell you about it. As somebody who could listen and understand.”
“Any time, sweetie,” said Buffy. Giles flashed that little smile at her. “So they’re near where you live, you said?”
“I took the flat in Bath so I could be near them, truthfully. Jenny put me in touch with them, years ago now. When I knew I was leaving Sunnydale at last, after your, your, death, I contacted them. They agreed to help me.”
“Not connected with the Council, then.”
“Goodness, no. They don’t get on with the Council, really. No one does. But having been your Watcher did matter, as did having the sort of magical power I have. Their brief is to care for the well-being of, of, sorcerers. British magicians.”
“So you’re secretly mister Merlin?”
Giles laughed softly. “Hardly. But when I get a bit more confident with it, I’ll be quite an asset to you.”
“So, my coming back kinda interrupted you.”
“I’d begun working with a counselor, but we hadn’t gotten far when you, when Willow, when I got the phone call. I dropped everything to go back.”
Buffy remembered how painfully awkward that first conversation with Giles had been. She had still been lying to everyone about where she’d been and what her true state of mind was. Why she’d lied to Giles, she couldn’t say, not even now. He was the one person who might have understood, might have helped. But she’d chosen the pit instead. So Giles had tapped at the punching bag, and told her he was bewildered, and eventually gone away again.
“That’s really why you went away, isn’t it. To finish fixing yourself.”
“It’s like that stupid safety video they just played. You had to put your own oxygen mask first before you could worry about anybody else’s. Now it’s on, so you can help me with mine.”
“Oh, I think you did well enough with your mask. I might help you adjust the strap a bit.” Giles touched her face, then leaned down to brush another of those feather-kisses across her lips. Buffy felt unfriendly eyes on her again. She looked over, and yes, Willow had that little smile again. Her Slayer senses were triggering badly with Willow. Maybe being beaten up by somebody put them on the Slayer alarm list? Buffy hadn’t known humans to set her off before. She shivered again, then looked back at Giles, who was watching her. She set Willow aside with an effort.
Buffy took his left hand in hers. This hand flipped through cards in the library catalog. Traced words in the Pergamum Codex as he translated. Taught her to hold a crossbow. Endured mutilation by Angelus. Snuffed out the life of a hellgod. She traced his fingers. The scars on the middle two, where they’d been broken, then repaired. The callus on the last joint of his middle finger, where his fountain pen usually rested. Calluses on the palm, from holding a sword. Thickened pads on the fingertips, which puzzled her until she remembered the guitar. The ring with the Latin words about guardians, which Giles had said was a family motto.
He turned her hand over, cradled it in his— so small her hand was, in his palm— and explored as she had. Buffy tried to see it as he was seeing it. No scars. Never any scars on the Slayer. Callused, though, yes, in the same places he was, and for the same reason: they were both warriors’ hands. Silver rings on every finger, bright against her faded tan. Nails short, done in clear polish. Buffy had tried keeping long nails. She broke them instantly. Too much maintenance for the single-mom Slayer. It was the same reason she’d cut her hair.
That moment, when Giles had turned to her, and seemed to see her for the first time, and commented on her hair, and held her so tight— something had begun to melt inside her then. And had stayed soft and warm when she’d been with Dawn in the pit.
When was the last time she’d been touched by anybody like this? She touched to hit. Or was touched to get sex. With Spike, both at once. Giles’ touch, now, was soft and undemanding. He touched because it comforted. Who drew more comfort from it, Buffy didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She soaked it in.
She remembered climbing high on the hills above Sunnydale, one November, during an early storm. The hills were still brown from the summer. She’d been tracking a demon, and had been out until after daybreak. She’d sat on the hill, on a rock, watching the tentative rain soak into the red earth, through the dead grasses and the sprouts of the new. Everything had come alive around her, as the sun came up. Birds and small animals, and the black-tailed deer that had wandered past, unconcerned by her.
Giles’ touches on her hand slowed, and softened. Buffy saw that his eyes were closed. He’d fallen asleep. Buffy leaned herself against his battered chest and followed him away.
The Coven people dropped them off at Giles’ place in their van, then took a sulking Willow off with them. Buffy didn’t want to say anything, didn’t let it stop her from hugging Willow and telling her everything would be all right, but she felt easier the moment Willow was out of sight.
Giles’ flat in Bath was half of an older house, outside of the main city and on the outskirts of the countryside. It had two bedrooms upstairs, each with a double bed. Giles’ room was at the eastern end of the house, and caught the morning light. The guest room was smaller, lined with bookshelves, with an underused air. But it was comfortable, like the rest of the house.
Buffy opened her suitcase in the guest room and changed. Dawn was asleep crosswise at the foot of the bed already. Buffy tucked a blanket over her and slipped out of the room. She wandered around the flat, exploring. Giles was moving from window to window with a watering can, tending to his plants after his days of absence. He gave her a shy smile.
“Dawn’s conked,” she told him.
“You should try to stay awake until tonight,” he said. “It’ll be easier to deal with the jet lag if you don’t cling to California time.” He bent over the leaves of an African violet and tutted. Buffy brushed a hand down his arm, then moved off to his study.
Familiar things, dislocated, that was Buffy’s reaction to Giles’ flat. The dragonfly lamp, on an imposingly large desk. The statue of Shiva, on a windowsill next to a potted aloe plant. The afghan throw on a lounger. The guitar on a stand next to a stool she’d never seen. Giles had left all his Californian furniture at a consignment shop. Buffy knew this because the shop had sent her checks whenever anything had sold. He hadn’t said anything, had just made it happen. But he’d taken his bric-a-brac back. Probably he’d originally brought it with him to Sunnydale when he’d been sent there short weeks before her.
The other reaction was that it felt just as much like home as his Sunnydale apartment had. Its colors were green and white and brown. Every window had plants in it: kitchen herbs, magical herbs, or flowering things. Feng shui crystals hung in doorways and corners. Watercolors, of flowers and leaves and small things, with an unreadable signature, brightened the walls. Bookshelves everywhere, with the collection Giles had brought with him to Sunnydale and taken away again when he’d fled. The one Willow destroyed in the Magic Box had been the unimportant one. He still had his personal collection.
Later, they left a note for Dawn and went into town in Giles’ car. He’d bought another BMW, or perhaps had always owned it. It was as overengined as his American car had been, and this one had a manual transmission. It was odd to see him on the right-hand side of the car, shifting with his left hand. Buffy was a little weirded out by the road side change. She kept looking the wrong way down the streets.
Giles ran them over to a Waitrose, which was like a Safeway except for all the brand names being different. Buffy drove the cart around for Giles, who was still limping. He bought bagfuls of veggies and other perishables, food for three people instead of just one. Buffy tried to pay for some of it, but he refused.
“You’re my guest,” he said. “Not to mention my Slayer.”
They woke Dawn for dinner. Giles and Buffy sat up together for a couple of hours afterward, with a modest glass of wine apiece. Giles told her a little bit about the history of the city, and the natural hot springs, and the many cultures that had come here to worship and to bathe, from the Romans to Jane Austen. At last Buffy’s yawns couldn’t be ignored, and she excused herself for bed. Buffy changed into sushi pajamas, brushed her teeth, and made her way to the guest bedroom.
Dawn was awake and staring at the ceiling. She moved over to make room for Buffy, grumbling slightly.
“So, like, why aren’t you with Giles? I thought you guys were sleeping together.”
Buffy could only make a little gulping sound.
“It’s not like I didn’t know about you and Riley, or about Willow and Tara. If you’re staying here just to spare my innocent sensibilities, gimme a break.” Teen sarcasm, like a diamond slicing glass.
“You’re okay with it?”
“Didn’t get the impression my opinion mattered. I like Giles. Life is less weird when he’s around. If it means he’ll come back, or that we’ll get to stay here, I’m all for it. Otherwise, just don’t let me hear you. You and Riley used to get noisy and it was gross.”
Now wasn’t that humiliating.
“I guess you must have broken up with Spike.” Dawn’s voice changed, from tormenting her older sister mode to uncertain kid mode. “That was. Um. Did... did Spike try something with you?”
“What makes you ask?”
“Xander said something about it. Said he’d— said a bunch of stuff I didn’t believe.”
“Xander should shut up.”
“I knew it couldn’t be true.”
“I didn’t say that. I know you like Spike. I used to like him sometimes. But he’s a demon, Dawn. That means something. I forgot it, and, well, it was bad.” Buffy got out of bed and left Dawn. She needed a hug. A million hugs.
Buffy crept down the hall. Why creeping, she wasn’t sure. Unfamiliar house, at night. Floorboards creaking at unfamiliar moments, in a way she’d never heard before. This house was at least a hundred years older than anything she’d ever seen before. Two hundred? Everything was wood and plaster, great wide boards that gave gently under her bare feet.
Giles’ door was at the end of the hall, past the little washroom. She tapped, then cautiously opened the door. Giles pushed himself up in bed, grunted, and blinked. “Buffy?”
“Yeah. Can I come in?”
“I’ve been waiting for you. Come here.” He shifted aside and lifted the blanket for her.
White sheets, crackling as she slid between them, cool on her feet, warm in the hollow where Giles had been. He shuffled the pillows around, folding one into his elbow, so he could lean on it while on his side.
“How are the ribs?”
“Less acutely awful. I can move without stabbing pains sometimes. For instance...” He bent his head and kissed her, again just a brush of his lips over hers. Buffy moved into him. She sheltered against his chest. Warm, rising and falling with breath, vital, alive. He could be broken. He could be killed. He had a soul, and not just a thing tenuously layered over a demon, a shred of humanity tacked down over the appearance of life. Giles’ soul was intrinsic to him. He breathed to stoke a thousand million little fires inside himself, not to set a cigarette flaring.
She was going to have to get this out.
“Dawn just reminded me of something that I think I have to tell you.”
“I’m listening.” He stroked her hair.
“I told you about sleeping with Spike.”
“Mm.” His chest shook a tiny bit, and she heard the ghost of that giggle fit.
“There’s more stuff. Something that happened one night. I had just been in a nasty fight. I was pretty injured. Slayer energy was occupied fixing me up. And I was run down. Hadn’t been eating right. Hadn’t been eating at all.”
“I can tell,” murmured Giles. “Going to feed you up while you’re with me.”
“Anyway, I was weak. Spike, um. I went to take a bath, to clean up after the fight, and, I told him no, but, he... When he came in the bathroom, I couldn’t really fight back. He, uh...”
Giles had gone rigid next to her. He must have seen where this story was leading. Buffy was afraid that he’d decided he didn’t want her any more, didn’t want to keep going with her wherever this was going. Then he breathed again. He spoke in his softest, huskiest voice, the one that said that everything would be set right in moments. “What did he do, Buffy?”
“You guessed already.” Buffy rubbed at her nose.
“Have you ever said the word? Have you ever named it? To anybody?”
“It has power until you do. Buried, it rules you. Name it, Buffy.”
“But I fought him off before he, before he could... And I did it with him before, lots of times. It wasn’t like we weren’t—”
“You know it doesn’t work like that, Buffy. If you told him no, that ought to have been enough for him. Name it.” He held her face in his hands, and was gentle but insistent. If she could say it to anybody, she could say it to Giles.
“He tried to rape me. He tried. He almost did it.” Buffy burst into tears. Giles held her. “Do you still want to be with me? After the stuff I did with him?”
“Oh, Buffy. You are the bravest person I have ever known. I’d be honored to be with you. If you’ll have me.”
“Don’t get it. Why? Me... I’m not...”
He produced a handkerchief from somewhere and solemnly wiped her face. Buffy suspected him of having a magical hankie dispenser hidden on his person. She took over and blew her nose, then tucked the soggy thing into the pocket of her pjs.
“Turn over.” He spooned up behind her, one arm under the pillows and her head, the other over her waist. “There. Get some sleep, now.”
At first she waited for his hands to move to other places, to start taking, but they didn’t. They wouldn’t. That was why she could be there with him. He would wait for her to make the next move.
Each morning, early, Giles meditated for an hour in his bedroom, in front of a window looking east. The sun wasn’t always visible; England’s skies were so different from the hazy eternally-clear skies of southern California. Giles said that seeing the sun wasn’t important, nor was looking east particularly important. He wanted to look out at the day, at sunlight if it was there. Buffy sat with him. It was difficult for her to sit still with her thoughts. There were so many of them, and she’d been keeping them bottled up for so long. They boiled up and out. She interrupted their meditation every day of that first week, with rage, or grief, or shame so intense she had to flee to the bathroom to cry.
He said to her that he’d done the same, at first. He would gently lead her back to his room and sit with her again. It was his familiar Watcher patience, and more. He was still at his center in a way he’d never been before.
Buffy had missed him as a Watcher more than she’d realized. She could fight with the best of them, but she’d forgotten how to hone. She rediscovered that skill now, sitting on the floor of Giles’ bedroom, looking out of his window. She’d been so uncomfortable being inside her body. Not at home in her own skin. That had been a painful thing to admit. Slowly she re-learned how to be Buffy, and began to remember how to be the Slayer as well.
After their morning sessions, Giles spent the days happily playing tour guide in Bath and Bristol. Bath was totally gorgeous in sunlight, all that yellow stone and all the buildings looking similar and so pretty. Giles had explained the period of architecture to her, and Buffy had found herself wishing she was back in school so she could take a class and learn more about that stuff. She liked picking out details in things like cornices.
On their third morning, they looked at the things in downtown Bath, all the big tourist attractions. They had just emerged from Bath Abbey onto a little square surrounded by benches. Tourists and pigeons milled around them. Giles’ cellphone buzzed in his pocket. He begged Buffy’s pardon with old-fashioned courtesy, then turned away to answer it. He had a long conversation with somebody that made him look grimmer and grimmer as it proceeded. Buffy was happy to hang out in the sunshine and listen to Dawn read highlights from a pamphlet on the walking tour of Bath Giles had proposed they do. It all sounded great to Buffy. She was just happy to be here, so far from the trap that Sunnydale had become.
Giles hung up and joined Buffy and Dawn on the bench.
“What was that? Bad news?”
“The coven people, calling to talk about Willow. She hasn’t been cooperative.”
“She’s supposed to be surrendering her stolen power voluntarily. But she hasn’t.”
“I take it that’s bad.”
“Well, it would be nice to have my full powers back, yes.” Giles pulled a wry face. He stood and they followed him out of the square, heading uphill toward their next destination, a museum of some kind.
“What’s the holdup? Why isn’t she?”
“She says it hurts. She should bloody well try having them ripped out of her.” Giles rubbed at the center of his chest.
“Do they need us to help?”
“I, I asked them. They seem to think it would be more harmful than helpful for Willow to see us, people that are, are involved with her. But we’ll be visiting her some time next week.”
Buffy let Giles and Dawn pull ahead of her on the sidewalk. He was limping, still. What to do about Willow? It might have been a mistake not to talk Xander into coming along with them. He’d muttered something about this being the time of year when he had the most construction work, and Buffy had let it slide. Xander could maybe hold Willow to her promises. Though maybe the coven wouldn’t have wanted him involved?
Buffy sighed, and scurried to catch up with her Watcher and her sister.
At the end of their first week in Bath, they’d seen the Roman baths, and they’d seen the places Jane Austen had been, and Buffy had begun to read Emma, and Dawn Persuasion. About halfway through, Buffy had yelped in outrage and announced that this was exactly the plot of Clueless and what had that director tried to pull on her? Giles had laughed, and Dawn had rolled her eyes. She kept reading, even though she’d figured out who Emma was going to end up with. Getting there seemed like it was going to be fun.
For their first weekend in England, Giles suggested they visit his sister on her land near Avebury. Her husband was off on Council business in eastern Europe, but she was there and eager to meet them. And so was Giles’ nephew, home on the long vacation from the Watcher school. There were horses. Dawn got that look on her face at that word, the look of a girl who’d read King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague and never yet actually ridden a horse. So of course they were going to go.
They drove there Saturday morning at high speed in Giles’ car. What a speed freak like him had been doing driving a Citroen, Buffy couldn’t guess. He drove well, utterly competent and controlled. He’d taken a class, he told her. More than one. And he had a charm against the Gatsos. Buffy could zone out and not worry, he said.
Buffy glared at him once she’d gotten him to explain Gatsos, the automatic cameras and the speed limit enforcement. “Is that a responsible use of magic?”
“If you’re a Watcher, yes,” he said, his eyes on the road, his face grim for a moment. Buffy conceded the point.
Giles’s sister’s place was all the way out in the country. It was actually her husband’s place, Giles explained; his grandfather had made pots of money in advertising. It was a stone building, bigger than any house Buffy had ever lived in, with a collection of other buildings not so far away. A few horses grazed in fenced fields nearby. The whole place was greener than anything Buffy had ever seen in her life. Even in wintertime, California wasn’t that green. At least not LA.
Giles’ sister was a bit younger than he was, tall, fit, with the same wide grin and blondish hair. Buffy was surprised to see she didn’t color it, but let the gray show. She was dressed casually, in dark colors that made her look awesome. She had an eye, unlike Mr Sloppy Brown Sweater. Then Buffy remembered that she’d made her brother over, and was responsible for his new hipper look.
Buffy gave Maeve a hug when Giles introduced them, out of gratitude for taking care of Giles. Dawn, on her best manners, shook hands.
Buffy saw, from the corner of her eye, Giles’ sister hold up one finger, then two, then cock her head at Giles. He smiled and held up one finger. Her face flashed at him, just a flicker of pleasure that Buffy saw must have been a Giles family thing. Mother or father? She’d like to see photographs. But Maeve was leading the way down the hall, a bright hall, with hardwood and white plaster hung with watercolors and daffodils in vases on little tables. It smelled like the daffodils and like fresh air. Growing grass.
Giles’ sister also seemed to have a thing for plants, because they were in all the windows of the bedroom she led them to. Then she led Dawn further down the hall. “We’re all up on the first floor,” she was saying, as they vanished into the next room.
Buffy went to the wall, where another of those watercolors hung. Same artist as the ones in Giles’ flat. “Who did these?” she asked.
Giles put their bag on the bed, then joined her. “Oh, that’s Maeve. She’s quite good. The talented one in the family. Come on, then. Let’s go meet Michael and the horses.”
They reunited in the hallway, and Maeve showed them the way to the kitchen. The kitchen was obviously the heart of this house: huge, comfortable, with a giant table and many chairs, more herbs in pots in the greenhouse window. It smelled like freshly baked bread. If there was a polar opposite to Spike’s crypt in Sunnydale, this was it.
“Michael’s a little older than you are, Dawn. He’s just down from school, and will love getting you started riding. Michael? Come in here and meet Buffy and Dawn.”
A gangling teenaged boy popped in through the half-door open to the kitchen garden, carrying lilies in a red clay pot. He put the pot on the counter, and turned toward them. Michael must have looked like his father. He had a thinner face than the angular Giles siblings did, with much darker hair flopping over his eyes. He hadn’t grown into his hands and elbows. He was cute, nonetheless. Buffy watched Dawn reach this conclusion, then hide herself behind Giles. Michael had eyes only for Buffy, however.
“You’re the Slayer.” He stared, then wiped his hand on his jeans and stuck it out.
Buffy shook his hand. “Yeah, that’s me. Pleased to meet you.”
“Honored to meet you. I’m going to be a Watcher.”
“Good for you, I think.” Buffy cast a glance at Giles, who nodded. “Listen to your uncle. He’s the best that’s ever been.”
“He says you’re the best Slayer ever.”
“The two go together. If the Watcher’s good, the Slayer gets better.”
Michael nodded sagely. “You’ve been five years on the Hellmouth?”
“Six, actually. Minus some time dead.”
“Uncle Ru was off his nut when he came back that first time, when you were dead. What was it like?”
“Enough, Michael,” said his mother.
“Naw, it’s okay. I don’t mind telling Slayer stories to somebody who’s gonna be a Watcher. Dawn knows a bunch too. She’s an old hand slaying vamps. Say hi, Dawn.” Buffy pulled Dawn out from behind Giles.
Michael poked his hand out again, then seemed to see Dawn for the first time. He ducked his head in a way that reminded Buffy very much of Giles stutter-stepping around Miss Calendar. He recovered, however, and when Dawn asked about the horses, was casually savvy. He led Dawn away toward the stables, the adults trailing behind more slowly.
“Am I gonna have to threaten to break his arm?” Buffy said.
“He’s a good lad,” said Giles.
“He’d better be,” said Maeve. “With the Slayer hovering over him. Will you be riding, Ru, with that ankle?”
Giles sighed, and shook his head. “It’s the ribs that have done me in. Got no mobility just now. Need a few weeks.”
Giles and his sister showed Buffy around the stables, pointing out features. Buffy nodded politely at everything. It smelled like hay and horses and horse manure, which was less offensive than Buffy might have guessed it would be. It looked clean and neat, as if everything had been cataloged and filed away Giles-style. Even the horses had labels over their stalls.
They came around to a fenced-in area, and found Michael and Dawn and a small brown horse with white legs. Michael was apparently showing Dawn how to tighten the straps on the saddle. They both had those black hats on, with elastics under their chins.
Buffy plucked at Giles’ sweater sleeve. “Are you sure he knows how to teach people things? Is he responsible? He’s kinda young.”
Giles cast her a glance. “He’s training to be a Watcher. And early reports say he’s likely to be a good one. Our kind of good, not the Council’s.”
“And he’s got her on Daisy, who’s a calm one,” said Maeve. She seemed totally mellow as well.
“Oh. Right.” Buffy relaxed and watched Michael teach her sister how to mount, and then then how to adjust her stirrups. He seemed to be doing okay, aside from his nervous glances over at the adults. Dawn dismounted, awkwardly, then mounted again. And again, better that time.
“Would you like to have a go, Buffy? If Ru’s ribs aren’t up to it, I could show you.”
Buffy squeaked. “I think I’d like to wait for Giles, if you don’t mind.”
“Don’t be nervous. You’re the Slayer. You’ll be riding steeplechases before the day is out.”
Giles interposed himself mildly. “I thought I’d take Buffy and a picnic lunch over to the West Kennet barrow. Or the hill, if I can get into the site.”
Maeve was agreeable, and provided them with too much food in a basket. They went for another of those breathless short drives in Giles’ car. Then they were walking on a hillside dotted with rocks, not far away from the site of a neolithic tomb that Giles seemed to know tons about. The hair on the back of Buffy’s neck stood on end as they approached the tomb. Giles said, “You feel it, then, the power,” and told her about the stone circles in the area. They weren’t far from Stonehenge itself, but Avebury was far more impressive. At least to people sensitive to real magic. Buffy made them walk away from the stones until she stopped feeling wigged, before she would let Giles spread out the blanket.
But now they were settled, and they’d eaten their sandwiches and drunk their lemonade. Buffy’s head was in Giles’ lap. She watched the clouds moving. The sky looked different from the sky she knew in California. No coastal fog in the mornings, no brassy haze in the afternoons. There were ants, and the occasional bee zapping past. The air smelled like grass and distant rain. The sun was warm but not scorching. Buffy could lie there forever, with Giles’ hand playing with her hair.
“Off your nut means crazy, right?”
“Were you happy to come back here to England? Or off your nut?” Buffy asked him.
“That’s a difficult question. Happy to be home, yes, but the circumstances... I’m much happier to be here right now.”
“That it is.” He leaned over her and smiled down.
“What was it like for you, in the coven? What did you do?”
Giles sighed. “For the first weeks, nothing. Absolutely nothing. My counselor did everything for me— cooked for me, cleaned the little room we shared, washed my clothes. He wouldn’t let me do anything. He said I had carried too much for too long. It was the hardest thing, Buffy. Having no responsibilities. I’d just left you, just left Sunnydale again, and it was all I could think about some days. How I needed to be there caring for you all.”
“Where I needed to do the opposite. I needed to learn to take care of myself. And Dawn.”
“Yes and no. I believe I made a mistake. I believe I put too much of the burden on you at once. But, Buffy... if I’d stayed...”
“You’d have gone pop.”
“Yes. I needed to be selfish for a while. Eventually I understood that, and we could make some progress.”
“I did selfish things. New clothes. Fixed my eyesight. That sort of thing. I meditated. I made amends for my sins. I set them aside. And I allowed myself to practice magic again. First time since Randall, really. Aside from small things for you. I... I am quite powerful. But I didn’t let myself touch it, out of fear.”
“The thing with Randall must have been pretty bad, then.”
“Oh, Buffy, you have no idea.”
Giles drew in a deep breath, then told her, there on the hillside in the sunlight. Randall had been Giles’ close friend, he told Buffy, at Oxford, a year ahead of Giles. Giles had gone to him in London when he’d cracked from the stress. Randall had already gotten into the sleazier side of magic, and begun hanging out with an older man named Ethan. Ethan and Giles swiftly discovered that they were together in a league above the others as sorcerers, and egged each other on to more daring stunts, more extreme means of seeking physical pleasure. They read a first-hand account of possession by Eyghon, and tried it at once. It had been every bit as intoxicating as promised. The six friends had woken up the next morning in a heap, naked, sticky, sated.
The night it went to hell, the ritual had gone wrong early: Randall had been too strung out on whatever he’d taken just before the party. He’d always had a weakness, Randall. The rest of them had confined themselves to the lighter drugs, the magic-friendly weed and hallucinogens. Randall had wanted to obliterate himself, not open his mind. He’d been on downers that night, judging from the mess of pills Giles had found in his bedroom afterward. And he hadn’t been able to complete the warding ritual successfully, so he’d lost control. Eyghon had taken him, ripped through his skin and manifested itself entirely. The demon was still bound by the pentagram, but with the other three panicking, and only Giles and Ethan keeping their nerve, it was only a matter of time before it broke out.
Giles had been trained early and well in handling demonic possession. He knew how to perform an exorcism, and he had the requirements at hand. Always he had them nearby. Even so far gone in debauchery that he was summoning a demon, he had the tools of his vocation with him. He got holy water and crosses and his sword from his room, and staggered back out to the living room, where the pentagram was. He’d begun the exorcism with an unsteady voice, then gained confidence as it went.
But it hadn’t worked. Randall had fought it, and had willingly surrendered himself to the demon, seeking a final obliteration. Eyghon had burst through the circle. The others had cowered uselessly in the corners of the room.
Giles had taken its head with a single two-handed blow. When the body hit the floor, Eyghon vanished, leaving Randall behind, dead. Then the summoning circle had collapsed, taking Randall’s corpse with it. Giles had been left with blood on his hands, on his face, on the sword, in a great puddle on the floor. And Ethan had laughed, and said that it had possibly been a bit of an error to give the reds to Randall that afternoon. Giles had thrown himself on Ethan and pounded him, screaming and weeping, until the others dragged him off.
By the time Giles finished the story, they’d reversed positions, and his head was in Buffy’s lap. She stroked his hair, smoothing it back where it curled over his ears. He looked distressed. Probably he always would be distressed to think about that. It was pretty harsh to have to cut off the head of your best friend. But he was able to talk about it, and he hadn’t needed to pound down a bottle of whisky first.
“I stayed away from magic after that, almost entirely. The first time I touched it, after that, was, was...”
“To save me. I remember. You were a god.” Buffy rubbed his temples, gently. “Yeah, I get why that would scare you off magic.”
“Until I finally realized that it’s not power itself that is the trouble. I can trust myself with it now. The man I have become is quite different from the sensation-seeking fool I was.”
Buffy dredged up her most pompous voice, and intoned, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“Thank you, Xander.” But he smiled a little, which was what Buffy’d been aiming for.
“That’s the thing I knew about the Slaying that Willow didn’t know. And I guess she’s learning it now.”
“What does the coven get out of doing this stuff for people? British magicians. Willow isn’t even British.”
“Willow is the most powerful mage I’ve seen in my lifetime. It would be irresponsible of them not to help her. But as for what they get... My powers are now at their service. When they needed someone to confront Willow, I went.”
“Prepared to die if you had to.”
“If I had to. I’m happy I didn’t.” He tightened the hand he had clasped around hers, then brushed his lips across her knuckles.
“Is somebody doing the same thing they did for you for Willow now?”
“Likely. Though likely not exactly what was done for me. If I were working with Willow, I’d do just the opposite. Have her keep house for her counselor by hand, without magic. I wanted to be the one working with Willow, but they told me I was too close. Likely one of her problems.” He sighed.
“Oh. Yeah. You are one of her problems. And I am. You and me.”
“Oh. Um.” Buffy could feel him thinking that one over. Buffy herself hadn’t realized it until they were on the plane. That smile had cloaked jealousy. Whatever it was Willow had gotten from Giles, it hadn’t been enough. She’d wanted more. Giles would never quite be able to give her what she wanted, because what she wanted was the Slayer’s place in his heart. And Watchers and Slayers were... whatever they were. Closer than friends, closer than fathers and daughters, closer than lovers.
“Hey, Giles. What does your sister call you? Ru?”
“Can I call you that? Or do you like Rupert better?”
“You can call me anything except G-man.”
“Now that offer was unwisely made, Watcher-dude. I can do far worse than Xander.”
“Oh? Whose flat are you staying in, may I remind you?”
“Beg your pardon, Mr Giles, sir.”
“Much better,” Giles said, looking up at her with mock pomposity.
Giles asked Buffy, over late coffee the next morning, if she would do him the favor of letting Michael get her going on horseback. He’d never had the chance to work with a real Slayer, to learn directly exactly how physically different Slayers were from normal girls, and from Potentials.
“A little friendly nepotism, huh? Give the nephew an advantage?”
“I like the way you think, Rupert. Sure.”
And so after breakfast, while Dawn did slow circles around a track at a walk, Buffy got near a horse for the first time in her life. She met Otto, a white horse with brown splotches. Otto was larger and fiestier than the little horse Dawn was riding. Under Michael’s nervous tutelage, and Giles’ watchful eye, Buffy learned the proper seat, and how to talk to her horse with subtlety and posture, how to post to trot, how to canter. Michael had to show her new things once, maybe twice if they were complicated. Buffy would essay them once, and then get them right. The hardest part had been figuring out that Otto was her partner in all this, an opinionated buddy, not a machine. But now Buffy was having a blast. She had no idea why she’d been scared of this.
Dawn was looking sulky. Michael was looking gobsmacked. Giles was explaining something to both of them, judging by the hand motions. Michael had seemed respectful before, but after that day he was worshipful. And scared. Buffy laughed at him, a little. Giles spent more time talking to him, after they had cleaned tack and horses, while Buffy fed Otto an apple and told him how awesome he was. Giles was telling Michael about Slayers, Buffy was sure, and calming him down. Buffy invested some time with Dawn as well, reassuring her that Michael was not going to be chasing her instead of Dawn.
That night, while they were talking in bed, she told Giles she’d rather not compete with Dawn like that. Show her up. Make it hard for her with the boy she was trying to impress. It wasn’t fair to pit a normal girl against a Slayer.
“I thought you said you would break his arm.”
“Well, only if he, you know, gets frisky. I don’t want to deny Dawn a chance to date normally.” Buffy sighed, and nestled herself closer. “I never did. Well, not after I became the Slayer. It was all too weird. You remember.”
“I think it’s going to be easier dating a coworker.”
“You know, dating my Watcher.”
“More than dating, I hope.”
Giles bent down to her and kissed her, and this time he let it grow into something more than just a feather-touch. Buffy put her arms around his neck and melted against him.
Then he yelped.
“Fuck!” He froze in place, then rolled away from her, wincing in pain. Buffy sat up, puzzled. Had she hurt him?
“Willow... she’s kicking at... trying to break the binding. Holy hell.”
His eyes glowed. It wasn’t scary. They glowed green, not a livid green, but a deep green, like jade. He spoke to the air. “Willow, sweetheart. Is this what you truly want? Do you wish to be forsworn?” He flinched, in response to something happening miles away. “I cannot hold you if you are determined, my dear girl. But I must ask you to remember why you swore this to me. There is a young man dead back in Sunnydale, testimony to the dangers— Willow, that’s not helpful—”
He moaned in pain and stiffened, arching up off the bed. Buffy held his shoulder, but had no idea what to do to help. He clenched a fist and reasserted control. “Very well, Willow. You are forsworn.”
Giles fell back onto the bed. He lay panting and sweating, trembling in aftermath. Buffy wiped his forehead.
“Broke the binding. Lord. It hurt like blazes until I released it. Both of us, and her rather more than me. But she wouldn’t let up.” He sat up, swearing softly again and bracing his chest with a hand. He rummaged in the litter on the sidetable and found his cellphone. A quiet apology to whomever it was he had awakened, a few words explaining his experiences, and then he hung up.
“Buffy, I’m sorry, we’ll need to go to the coven tomorrow.”
“No problem, Rupert. Surprised we’re not heading there tonight.”
“Willow’s counselor is there with her. And she’s fully aware of the mess. Oh, Buffy. This isn’t good.” Giles let out a shuddering sigh. He slid over to her in the bed and rested his head between her breasts. She stroked his sweat-soaked hair until she was sure he was asleep. What to do?
The next morning they left Dawn with Giles’ sister, to everyone’s satisfaction, and Giles drove them to the coven. He did not break the limits this time, as if he were reluctant to arrive. Or as if he had thinking to do and wanted more time to do it in. He didn’t speak much to Buffy during the drive.
The Westbury coven was another farm, as far as Buffy could tell, though one with more hills and trees. A big old house was surrounded by smaller buildings and a few cottages. About twenty people lived on the grounds, semi-permanently, Giles said, with a handful more in temporary residence at any time. It was a commune. Everyone had a little work to do. Giles said he’d tended the greenhouse plants when he’d lived there. When his counselor had decided he was ready to work.
He shared these little facts about the place as they walked up the drive hand-in-hand. He seemed distracted as he spoke, so Buffy stopped asking questions. Giles didn’t bother to knock at the door. He opened it and went in. He went immediately to an office at the side, where he spoke with a shaggy-haired young woman briefly. Her attention was caught by a gadget on a little table in the hallway. It was a clock, she thought. Operated by sand and by magic. She was still puzzling out how it worked when a woman came down the hall. Older than Giles, gray-haired, dressed in warm colors, but somehow not warm herself. Stern, despite the smile lines at the corners of her eyes.
“There you are, Rupert,” she said, as if they’d kept her waiting. Buffy frowned.
“Jane, good morning, yes, we came by straight away. This is my Slayer, Buffy Summers. Buffy, Jane Harkness, one of the coven’s more experienced sorcerers.”
The woman nodded at Buffy, then turned back to Giles. “Not that it’s doing any good.”
Buffy considered Miss Harkness. She was dressed like one of those flakey women in the beads and crystals who shopped for jewelry at the Magic Box, but Buffy could tell from her manner that she was powerful. And whip-smart. And from the set of her lips and jaw, annoyed, though Buffy didn’t know with whom.
She led them down the hall the way she’d came, to a little sitting room. The room had windows that opened onto a walk that vanished into hedges. She turned and sat.
“So you’re Rupert’s Slayer,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Buffy. “Willow’s best friend. At least, we were.”
“You were present, then, for most of her troubles?”
“Present for a bunch of them, and sort of the victim of one of them.”
“That would be the resurrection spell you’re referring to? Yes. Willow has declined to discuss that spell with me.” She exchanged looks with Giles.
“You’re having difficulty with her.”
“I’m not getting anywhere,” Miss Harkness said. Her stern manner collapsed, and Buffy could see the anxiety and the fear. She stopped hating her then, and reminded herself that Willow probably needed that stern approach. No getting away with things, with this woman. No stealing forbidden books then dodging trouble by smiling cutely at an indulgent Rupert. A Rupert who couldn’t imagine Willow behaving selfishly, really, because when he looked at her he saw the brave high school student, his partner in arms, not the out of control maniac she’d become over the last year.
There was a knock at the door, then it opened. Willow came in. She looked so exactly like the Willow Buffy had known for so long, complete with kitty-cat sweatshirt, that Buffy nearly burst into tears. She settled for giving Willow a huge hug. Giles hugged her too. They sat down, Giles and Buffy on the sofa, Willow on an armchair. Giles took Willow’s hand and held it across the arm of the chair.
“Willow, sweetheart. I was worried about you last night. I’m worried about you still. You broke your oath.”
“I had to, Giles. It was important.”
“Explain it to me, Willow.” He squeezed her hand.
“I had to start casting again, to get some things done. I’m under a lot of pressure right now, you know? And I have a skill, a pretty useful skill. It would help me get done what I need to do. So I felt I was ready to use it again.”
“What was so important that you needed to be forsworn, Willow? Because that was a serious thing to choose. You swore your oath on your friendship with me, before the Powers. Are we no longer friends?”
“Well, Anya’s been after me to repair some of the damage. ‘Cause she says the insurance isn’t covering everything. She’s been pushing on me really hard. It’s so stressful. And I felt guilty about it, because I did break all that stuff and damage all those books and things. Your stuff. So really it was about fixing our friendship.” Willow made a pouty face at this juncture, exactly as if she were confessing to having snuck an extra cookie before dinner.
“Really,” said Giles, quietly.
“Yeah. I kinda had to. Miss Harkness was talking about making amends, and I thought that this was the most direct way to make amends possible, you know? To fix up the shop a little.”
“This required you to break your oath late at night?”
“Afternoon Sunnydale time, Giles.” Willow said this in a lecturing voice. Buffy felt Giles twitch next to her. He released her hand.
“You couldn’t have spoken with me first?”
“Anya was really pushing on me, Giles. You know how she can get.” Now Willow was whining.
“I do. I also know that firm explanations are effective with her.” Giles leaned back on the sofa, then asked casually, “Did she make her appeal in person?”
“How was she putting pressure on you?”
“Oh, you know Anya.”
“Don’t piss me off, Giles.”
“I see,” said Giles. Then, “I’ll take my leave, then. I shouldn’t like to piss you off, as you say.” He stood up and Buffy stood with him.
“Aren’t you going to hang out with your best friend, Buff?”
Buffy looked at Giles. He gave her a tiny nod, so she sat back down. “Yeah, Will. Let’s hang.”
Giles left the room, with Miss Harkness.
“Tell me all about England. Since I haven’t been allowed to see it, other than this stinky farm.”
There was nothing to do in response to that but smile and start telling stories about Bath, and Dawn on a horse, and hope that this didn’t make Willow even more resentful that she was here at the coven. Buffy held in reserve the point that if Willow had been treated as she deserved, she’d be in jail now for murder, not living in this comfortable house in lovely countryside. But Willow stayed reasonable, and Buffy told her stories.
“Hey, Will, should we get the Xan-man out here? I think he’d have a great time. He needs a vacation too, I was thinking.”
“No! No! No Xander. I don’t want Xander to see me. Not while I’m under this much stress.”
Buffy watched Willow carefully. Something was up, but she had no idea what.
Just then Miss Harkness came back in. “Willow, dear, it’s time to start lunch. I believe Rupert is in the garden outside, Buffy.”
Willow made a little face. “They have me doing stuff in the kitchen,” she told Buffy. “Cooking. Washing dishes. That kind of stuff. It’ll go faster today, though, now that I have my magic back. See ya!”
And away they went, leaving Buffy alone in the sitting room. “That wasn’t so bad,” she said to the ceiling.
Buffy opened the window door and stepped out. A walkway paved with flat stones wound off into the hedges. She shrugged and decided to see where it would take her. The day was bright, maybe even a bit hot for spring. Buffy ambled along the path happily, getting lost in the hedge maze, stopping to check out the flowers. Early roses, late tulips, more daffodils.
She rounded a corner, and saw Giles. He was sitting on a bench in a nook on the path, with his head close to somebody else’s. A small man’s, with a thatch of gray hair. The other man had an arm around Giles’ shoulders. Buffy reflexively stepped off the path and behind a bush to scope the situation.
Giles wasn’t physically demonstrative with people. He wasn’t demonstrative with Buffy, even, and unless Buffy was crazy, they were in a relationship. But here he was with this little man’s arm around him. His father? No, his father had died a while ago. They were intent on each other, talking. Buffy watched, sure that she would not be observed. Giles looked worried, but then he said something that made the other man laugh, and squeeze his arm tight around Giles’ shoulders. Giles’ face cleared. Buffy finally put it together, and understood who the man must be: Giles’ counselor. She grinned, from her spot behind the bush.
She stepped out and continued her way along the path. Giles looked up and saw her. His face lit up, and he stood. So did the gray-haired man. Giles took her hand when she came up to them.
“Buffy, this is Alex Holder. He’s been my adviser here at the coven. Alex, my Slayer.” There was pride in his voice.
Buffy shook the little man’s hand. Little only in comparison to Giles, she realized: he was still six inches taller than she. Mid-fifties, maybe. Lines around his eyes from smiling. He was wearing the earth-toned colors she’d seen on all the coven members, a loose brown shirt over jeans and Birkenstocks, with a chunk of crystal hanging on a braided leather loop around his neck.
“I have to go meet with some people to discuss Willow. Perhaps you’d walk with Alex? I’d like you to know one another.”
“If you don’t need me at the Willow thing, sure.” Giles looked relieved, so Buffy gave him a reassuring squeeze, then a kiss on the cheek. He loped off down the path and disappeared behind a hedge.
Alex cocked an eyebrow at Buffy. Buffy nervously stuck her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. What was she supposed to say? Hi. Thanks for fixing Rupert? Why not? So she said it.
He smiled at her. “You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. And I’m honored to meet the Slayer, who keeps me safe at night.”
“I have a feeling you’d be safe without me,” said Buffy, quirking up one side of her mouth. The man was like the others, with active power. She was maybe starting to get a feel for it, now that she’d been around several people who fizzed with magic. Tara hadn’t had much; Willow had so much it went off the scales; Giles had kept his buried until recently. Now Buffy had a better sense. They all had different flavors, too. This guy was refreshing, like wind carrying the scent of water ahead of the rainstorm. Giles was more like the storm itself. Miss Harkness had been dry stones.
“You’re probing me. Most interesting. I’ve never felt anything like that before.”
“Oh! Sorry. Didn’t realize it. Slayer sense telling me stuff about your magic.”
“Again, interesting! Do you have a sense of my aura? Is it visual, or something else?”
“My friend Tara could see auras, but I never could. Nah. I sort of smell you. Taste you. Something in the air around you. Can you see auras?”
“Yes, I can. And I am most intrigued to see in your aura the odd colors that have always been mixed in with Rupert’s. And his colors are mixed with yours. Come, let’s walk. Let me show you the grounds. And you’ll tell me about this sense.”
Buffy followed him along the path, heading away from the house through the hedge maze. “I don’t know that I can tell you much. I’m still figuring it out. Giles says I’ve lived so much longer than most Slayers do that I’m in new territory. I’m aware of myself in ways most of them weren’t.”
“Instinctive use of the skills becoming conscious. Again, intriguing.”
“No wonder Giles got along with you.” Alex laughed.
They came to the edge of the hedge maze and emerged onto an open field, dotted with scattered trees. The coven kept sheep, Giles had said, though Buffy couldn’t see any. Alex turned left, and they walked along the line of the hedges, following a muddy path.
“I was happy to see that Rupert had let himself love you.”
“You didn’t know he was going to do that?”
“We never discussed it. I knew how he felt. It would be hard not to know. And now that I’ve seen your aura as well as his... I’m so glad for you both.”
“What about our auras?”
“You’re tangled together. Bound by your shared destinies. You’ll find it easier now that you’ve decided to be together in more ways. Both of you.”
“Whacky. Convenient, even. What’s Willow’s aura like?” Buffy asked. An idea was tickling at the back of her head.
“It’s furled, very tightly. One of the alarming signs.”
“Can all of you read auras? All you magic people, I mean.”
“No. It’s a gift that some have and some don’t. Power takes many different forms. It’s unique to each person. One of my gifts is reading people. Perception and insight. Most of us would have been unaware you were probing, for instance.”
“My gift is death,” said Buffy.
Alex stopped on the track and turned to her. He held the chunk of crystal in his hand for a moment, eyes closed. His face was serious. But when he opened his eyes again, they crinkled at the edges.
“I don’t know that I would trust everything the First Slayer tells you. Some of it was self-serving nonsense. Her gift was death. Your gift is, hmmm, something else. You might ask yourself what you have that other Slayers did not.” The little man smiled, and tucked the crystal back into his shirt.
“And you’re not going to tell me, are you.” This didn’t annoy Buffy nearly as much as it should have. “What’s Rupert’s gift?”
“Ah! You’ll see tomorrow, when his power is returned to him.”
Buffy wasn’t entirely looking forward to that. She had a feeling Willow wasn’t going to like it.
They had dinner with Anya that night. Giles called her on the drive to Bath from the coven house. An hour later, while Buffy was stirring the sauce pan Giles had told her to stir, Anya popped in.
“Always easiest to home in on the Slayer,” Anya said. “Very recognizable resonance signature. Where is Giles?”
“Right here, dear.” Giles came up behind her and hugged her.
Anya beamed up at him. “The insurance company will pay for everything. And I mean everything. That extra-expensive policy you took out that I complained about so often turns out to have been a wise investment. They were unable to point out any loopholes. And taking your suggestion of having the lawyer present and looming was most effective. Good work, Giles!”
“And excellent work from you sticking it out. Good news.”
“So, like, why were you bugging Willow to fix stuff, then?”
Giles pulled out a chair for Anya. “So you haven’t been visiting Willow?”
Buffy exchanged a look with Giles, then turned back to her saucepan. Giles poured a glass of something for Anya, then sat with her at the table. “Willow’s been claiming you have. As an excuse, I think, for casting again. She claims she’s been fixing things at the Magic Box.”
“She hasn’t, that I know of. And if she had, I would have asked her after the insurance investigator made his decision, not before. That was only an hour ago. Morning, my time.”
Giles stood and took over the cooking from Buffy. She sat with Anya at the kitchen table, sipping her wine slowly, and listening to the two of them talk about rebuilding plans. Anya wanted to relocate to Paris, which had a significant and stable magical population she felt was underserved. Giles argued for London, but had no answer when Anya pointed out that the presence of the Council depressed demon activity, which meant a smaller market. Either way, EU regulations would be a pain, which was in turn an argument for New York.
The amiable bickering continued through dinner— lunch for Anya, as she enjoyed pointing out. In the end, Giles yielded and they settled on Paris, as a lovely place for Anya to live, and for Buffy and Giles to visit. Anya popped away again fizzing with triumph and the Pinot Noir, Giles’ signature on the stack of insurance documents in her bag. Buffy was a little fizzy herself, on two glasses of wine and the prospect of getting to know Paris someday. Such a change, for the small-town Slayer who’d given up on snatching even a weekend on the coast.
In bed that night, the soft kisses left her unsatisfied. She climbed on top of Giles and pressed her knee between his thighs.
“Buffy, love, it still hurts to breathe.”
“Soon?” She kissed up his throat, tasting her way to his ear. She took the earring into her mouth and sucked, gently.
“Oh, God, yes, soon.” He moaned under her hands. She lifted his t-shirt and explored up his belly to his chest. He grasped her face and kissed her open-mouthed, deep and slow. Buffy could feel his body harden against her thigh, still perfectly controlled, still a gentleman, but perhaps she could coax him. She brushed a hand under his pajama waistband. He shivered and gasped against her mouth. His hips moved. Then he was kissing her hard, rolling them so that he pressed her down into the bed. He slid his hand down, and between, stroking slowly.
She froze, remembering cold hands pulling her open, a cold body inside hers. Giles’ hand went away, and he gently extricated his legs from hers. She shivered. He turned her over and nuzzled up behind her. The blanket was up to her ears, but she was cold. Cold everywhere except the places where he was pressed against her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, murmuring into her hair. “It’s too soon. For both of us.”
“It still hurts to breathe,” Buffy said.
The coven took Willow’s stolen power from her the next morning. They gathered in their big meeting room and simply did it.
They stood around Willow in a circle, about twenty of them. They had confined Willow inside a crystalline sphere. Buffy and a handful of others stood outside, watching. Buffy could feel pressure in the air, something hot. A great deal of power was present in the room, angry power. It was coming from Willow, roiling out. Hot, smoky. Not a good taste. Then the coven people joined hands, and it damped down. The circle was containing it. There was no ceremony, just the joined hands, then a chant in some language Buffy couldn’t recognize at all. Giles led it.
Willow was supposed to be lying on her back, on pillows where she would be comfortable, but she refused to stay down. She paced restlessly inside the circle.
Her head was enveloped in a green glow. “No,” she said. “You can’t. That’s mine now. You can’t take it from me.”
Miss Harkness was angry. “It’s stolen power, Willow Rosenberg. You will return it to its rightful owner.”
“Him? It’s wasted on him. He sits on it. Hides in his little office with his books hugged to his chest. Afraid. Afraid to do anything. It should stay with me. I’ll use it. I’ll do good with it. You’ll see.”
“You will return the power to its rightful owner.”
“I won’t! And you can’t force me! That would be wrong! You’re abusing me! This is—”
“As you abused me when you forced it from me?” Giles said this quietly but Willow closed her mouth with a snap. She shook herself, then bowed her head, very very slowly. Her face contorted.
The green glow rose straight up from Willow in a column. The crystal sphere turned green where it intersected. Then an arc sprang from the sphere to Giles’ chest. He cried out and was held. The power pumped from Willow to sphere to Giles in slow pulses. Maybe a third spilled over to the others in the circle, but most stayed with him. He seemed to get ten feet taller as it flowed into him. He grew. His hair curled. His skin glowed. Light shone out from him.
It went on and on for what felt like forever, ozone crackling and the oppressive heated containment pressing down on Buffy. But when she looked at the sand-clock afterward, she saw had taken less than an hour. At the end of it, when they released the chant, Willow collapsed into a heap in the edge of the sphere, at the point nearest Giles. The coven broke the circle of hands, and the binding sphere vanished with a sound like a million fairy wineglasses breaking.
And Giles took a deep breath, and rolled his shoulders. He closed his eyes, and raised his face to the ceiling. Then he looked down at Willow, crumpled at his feet. He was angry, but bottled up. A storm beating on the windows.
Buffy could feel him and smell his power now. She knew this flavor already. She’d first met it when she walked into the library at Sunnydale High, and the odd shy man in the too-heavy tweed jacket had smiled at her so eagerly. Giles had been using his magic all along, mostly likely unconsciously. His office in the library. His Sunnydale flat. The entire Magic Box. They’d all smelled like this to Buffy. This power was not about binding or striking or breaking. Even the justified anger boiling off him now was in conflict with this power.
This power had turned those places into havens. Filled his flat in Bath with growing things. Made him the person they’d all run to when injured, instinctively.
At home that night, before he came to bed, Giles stood before the bathroom mirror. Buffy was in the doorway, watching. He pulled his shirt off. The burn in the center of his chest, over his heart, was gone. His bruising had nearly vanished. Even the scarring on his side, where the spear had breached him, had faded.
He inhaled deeply once, then held his hand to his left side. “Ribs are better, but not completely healed. And my ankle is good.”
“Handy,” Buffy said.
“Very. Normally one can’t heal oneself. The healing gift is strictly an unselfish one. I wonder. Willow may have... Interesting. She might have been guiding the power on its way back. Such contradictory signals. She fights, then cooperates, then fights again as if she had no memory of her earlier decision. Such conflict she must be feeling.”
Buffy played with her hair, thinking. She ought to have figured this out already.
“So you can heal stuff? That’s your gift?”
“Not exactly. It’s more, ah, nurturing? Assisting natural processes? I can’t kill houseplants if I try.”
Buffy laughed, and they went to bed.
They’d been in England for three weeks. Dawn had been spending most of her time with Giles’ sister and nephew. She’d chattered endlessly about Michael on the phone with Buffy until one day she’d clammed up. Buffy knew what that meant, and told Giles to remind his sister what Slayers could do if their sisters lost their virginity one minute before the age of twenty-one.
Giles and Buffy had spent about half their time at the coven. They had, without needing to discuss it, chosen not to be apart. They still weren’t lovers. In one sense, anyway, Buffy thought. They were lovers in all the other senses. Giles was waiting for something. Waiting for her.
They meditated in the morning. Cleaned house. Went shopping. Cooked together. Read novels. Trained, with emphasis on the more esoteric and mystical topics. Buffy had told Giles all about her new sense for magic power, and they explored it deeply together.
Buffy hadn’t Slain since she left Sunnydale. There were no vampires to Slay. When she practiced extending her senses, she felt nothing, nothing for miles.
She hadn’t had this kind of peace since she’d woken up as the Slayer.
They were at the coven again, visiting Willow. They walked with her over the fields, in patchy sunlight. To Buffy’s eyes, darkness clung to Willow. She sensed the hot abrasive power circling around Willow’s head, like sand blown by a stiff wind. It was wiggy, as before, on the plane. Even when Willow was talking about how she’d learned to make tarts, treacle tarts, and was burbling about the Dormouse, something had Buffy nervous. Maybe it was the way Willow complained about being forced to do it mundane-style.
When the rainclouds blew in, Giles turned them back to the house. They made it inside scant minutes before the clouds burst. Willow went off to the kitchens, where she would be assisting with dinner. Giles went off to consult with Miss Harkness. Buffy, left to her own devices, decided to go up to their room and think.
The coven had put them into a little room under the roof, at the top of the house. Buffy loved this room. Spattering rain on the windows made it feel cozy. Buffy pushed up the window. The wood had swelled in the wet, and it stuck in the runners for a moment. A cautious application of Slayer strength, and it squeaked up. She knelt at the window for a long time, arms laid along the sill and her chin on her arms. The rain blew in, now and then, and dampened her arms and face. It smelled wonderful outside. Summer rain, and wet grass, and flowers she couldn’t identify. It was so green out there. Life bursting everywhere. So unlike the scorched brown of her semi-desert home. How had Giles stood it, when he’d moved to the Hellmouth? To unforgiving sun and dust and eucalyptus and dead grass on the hills? To freeways and strip malls?
Because he’d had to stand it, just like she had to stand it. The brutal reality of the calling they shared, that they would go where they needed to go and fight until they were dead. At least in her case. Giles would be allowed peace when she was dead. Though she suspected, from what he’d said of last summer, that her death had brought anything but peace to him. His time here at the coven, over the winter, he had described as spiritual recentering. But Buffy would have called it intensive therapy. He’d been broken.
It was this place, the time he’d spent here, that had recentered Giles. From the moment he’d found Jenny Calendar dead in his bed, to the moment she’d stormed out of the training room, and the moments of hell in between. He’d laid them all aside here. England, this coven, this house, here, and he’d finally recovered.
The twilight lasted forever, long hours of slow sunset under rainclouds. Buffy was thinking of moving, of maybe going to seek out Giles, when someone tapped at the door. It opened immediately. Giles, stepping through from the yellow-lit hallway. Buffy blinked in the light. He closed the door behind himself and came over to her. His step was noiseless, his stance contained, right hand in his pocket. Buffy recognized it as the posture he used when he wanted to minimize his height, and the breadth of his shoulders.
Buffy turned back to the window. He laid his hands on her back. His thumbs brushed over her, softly massaging along her spine.
“How’d it go?”
“As we expected. There is a deep wellspring of resistance in her. Surface compliance. Her control has improved, which would ordinarily be encouraging. But in this case—”
“Better control of rogue powers.”
“Mm. She will not cease the petty uses of magic, even to demonstrate that she is trustworthy. We are asking her to stop using her right hand, when its use has become nearly unconscious. And she cannot understand why. Or will not.”
“Conclusion is... obvious, I guess.”
“Yes. They’ll convene next week, give her one last chance. It will be, well, as wrenching as losing her right arm would be.” He stilled his hands on her back.
“Will you help?”
“Yes. I must. I owe it to her to be with her. I gave her the books. I failed to supervise her.”
“Rupert, you weren’t sent to be her Watcher.”
“No. But I was voluntarily something else to her, and to Xander.”
They fell silent. Buffy thought carefully about how to say what she wanted to say next.
“It doesn’t hurt me to breathe any more. Does it hurt you?”
Buffy felt him shake against her back, a few quick silent laughs. He’d laughed so much, since that moment when he’d come through the Magic Box door.
“Shall we go to bed, then?” he said. Buffy knelt up and slid the window most of the way down.
There were few mysteries left about Giles’ body, for Buffy, after weeks spent in such intimacy. She knew that he had muscle in his shoulders and arms. She’d seen his chest, and knew about the scattering of graying hair there and on his soft belly. She’d been kissed by him more times than she could count. But it was a revelation anyway, to see him at last, to see him looking at her with breathless appreciation. To touch him, and feel his warmth and his pulse. The sweat on his forehead, on his chest, between his legs. The scarring on his body. Such contrast with the icy dry perfection of her demon lovers, the statues.
Giles, alive, a thousand million little fires alight inside him.
“Now,” she told him.
Giles rolled onto his back, carrying her over with him. “Here,” he said. “Like this. We can stop, any time you wish to.”
Buffy rose up and let him gently guide her downward. Until the moment she felt him deep inside, she realized, she’d been tensed, waiting for the pain. But there was only pleasure. His eyes were nearly closed, and he had an expression she’d never seen on him before, and never imagined she would see. Her Watcher, her best friend, in ecstasy. Buffy rested atop him, enjoying that expression, until he opened his eyes and smiled at her. He laid hands on her hips and encouraged her to move. She lifted then sank down onto him again, slowly, then again. He made a little sound.
“Is this right?”
“Lovely. Perfect. Wonderful.”
“Never done it this way before.”
He made the sound again. “Why on earth not?”
“They, uh, didn’t like it.”
“Unimaginative louts. You need an entirely better class of lover.”
“Working on that right now,” Buffy said. This was new, talking and making little jokes while making love. Giles slid a hand down her hip, circling her thigh around and in, and grazed his thumb against her. Speech became impossible. He was lifting his hips to meet hers, matching her deliberate pace. Slow, soft, building gently but inevitably. Buffy’s breath came short, but it was difficult. The last time...
Giles started talking, then, whispering to her. His voice was soft and husky. “Show me, Buffy. Show yourself to me. Let yourself feel it. Yes, like that.”
When Buffy was still again, she looked down to see Giles smiling up at her. His face was sweaty and flushed. He gently urged her off, then got out of bed to fetch a hankerchief. Buffy hadn’t even noticed him coming, she’d been so carried away by her own moment. Something to look forward to, then, the sight of Giles’ face. When they made love again. And they would.
Giles returned to her, and wrapped himself around her.
Buffy worried that everyone could see it on her face, the next morning, because she was unable to stop grinning. Or maybe it was written all over her aura. She helped Alex make breakfast for fifteen people, and burbled at him the whole time. He didn’t say anything, though, just lined up waffle batter for Buffy to cook.
When Buffy finally carried a plate out to the dining hall for herself, it was just the four of them there: Willow, Giles, Alex, and Buffy. Giles and Willow had finished already. She slathered on the butter and the syrup and dug in. She felt a touch on her foot: Giles, nudging her. She smiled at him, and he blushed.
Willow glanced up from her empty plate, at Buffy’s face and at Giles’. Buffy saw the moment she added it up, and snapped: Willow left the building. Eyes black, hair black, and the crackle of power in the air Buffy remembered from the night Willow went crazy.
“Daddy nailed big sister last night,” Willow said. “She wants to be the mommy, but that was Joyce. And he fucked her, too. Who’s next? Anya? No, I know who! Little Dawnie. Fresh, untouched, a sweet strawberry for the corrupted to corrupt.”
And then whoosh, veins, eyes, hair, back to normal: Willow again, collapsed onto the floor and sobbing that she didn’t mean it, she didn’t know what had come over her. Giles was white in the face, and his hand was clenched into a fist.
He spun on his heel and stalked out. Buffy stood watching Willow sob, in the arms of her counselor, then left to find Giles. He was in their room. The suitcase was open on the bed, the drawers pulled open. Buffy sat on the window seat and watched him throwing clothing into their bag. Then she got up and helped.
“How would you feel about London for a few days?”
“You owe me shopping.”
“That I do.”
London was exciting at first. Giles got them into a hotel he knew, right on the same block as the British Museum. He gave Buffy the extra-special insider-knowledge tour, with extra details on the mummies and the Babylonian stuff. And the Assyrian stuff. He managed to make the difference interesting to Buffy, which nobody else had managed. His drily witty explanations to her attracted a little audience of tourists, who followed them like ducklings from exhibit to exhibit. They eventually made him self-conscious. When he started stammering, she threaded her arm through his and made him take her off to the cafe in the central courtyard. Which, he confessed to her, was new to him, and vaguely upsetting. His home country had changed while he was away from it.
He took her to see a play, something set in a drawing room that made her laugh, and then to dinner. They walked back to the hotel room through finally-dark streets, a little lit up from the wine.
Back in the tiny hotel room, Buffy brushed her teeth, and tried to think about settling into bed, but couldn’t. Restless. She at first tried to blame coffee in the late afternoon, then remembered her lessons from Giles. Look inside. Trust her Slayer instinct. Trust herself.
Buffy extended her senses, probing out into the city spreading far around her, and almost quailed.
“Rupert, the Council is here, right?”
“Yes,” he said, from his position sprawled across the bed. “In this part of the city, even.”
“And they train Potentials here, right?”
“Yes. What’s the matter?”
“Why are there so many vampires here? So many. My God, Rupert. Hundreds, probably. Don’t they kill any in training?”
“I— They’re supposed to. But remember, Potentials aren’t the same as full Slayers.”
“Useless jerks. Sorry, but wow. They’re nearby. This place needs a good cleaning.” Buffy went to her suitcase and began pulling out Slay-clothes. Boots, jeans, dark jacket with pockets. Giles watched her silently for a moment, then got up to put on his boots. “You don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do. I’m your Watcher. And besides, I know the city.”
And thus began a hard night of Slaying. Buffy found the urge to hunt was strong in her, possibly because of how many there were. Her Slayer instincts battered at her, telling her to keep going. Find the one in the next block and stake it. Extinguish it. Scatter its dust like cigarette ash in the air. A policeman stopped them, once, as they ghosted through Coram’s Fields on the prowl. Giles showed his Watcher identification, and the man silently saluted them and vanished.
They killed an even dozen, and hadn’t managed to stray more than a mile from the hotel. Giles said there’d be more in the seedier areas, the docks, the older sections of town. Whitechapel, where the memory of past horrors was thick. But even here, in Bloomsbury, hard by the Council building itself, there were vampires.
They fought three at once by the fountain at the center of Russell Square. They had only stakes with them. Giles with a sword was formidable, but Giles did not have a sword. They stood back to back and fought. Buffy took on two at once; Slayer’s privilege.
She fought in a holding pattern at first, while she evaluated them. The usual moderate skill, with typical vamp strength and speed. The only tricky bit here was handling the numbers.
Opening to stake the first. Buffy spun in and punched with the stake. Bullseye. But it left her off-balance, unable to follow through with any kind of grace. The second vamp didn’t waste her opening. Her high kick caught Buffy in the head and sent her hard into a bench. Buffy tried to catch herself against the back, but missed. Her wrist popped, and she fell to the ground. Just then she heard the implosive crunch and fading scream that meant Giles had staked his. Buffy flipped to her feet and launched herself over the benchback toward the last one. Giles kicked it from behind toward her, and her arc ended in collision with the vamp, stake-point first. She sailed through dusty air, hit the pavement rolling, and came on her feet again stake at the ready.
Giles was bent over, breathing hard. Buffy paced around him for a moment, checking for further threats. Nothing nearby. Then she stopped and pulled up her right sleeve. Her wrist was already swollen and discolored. She gritted her teeth. It hurt. Nothing she couldn’t deal with. She got this sort of injury once a week.
Giles laid his hands on her arm and closed his eyes. Buffy felt a breath of air, the scent of water in it, and she was healed. She’d have healed by the morning, anyway, but to heal in minutes?
“Nice trick, sweetie.”
He was probing her wrist, checking his work. “Boost to already boosted healing. I can’t do that with an ordinary human being. I merely nudge things along.”
“Huge help anyway. We make a good team.”
Giles flashed her a little smile. He looked tired, though. Buffy grasped his wrist and craned to read his watch. Four in the morning, and the sky already looking a little white in the east. She led him back to their hotel, and they slept like the dead until noon. Woke up ravenous, with hair and skin itching from demon-dust.
That was how it was every day they were in London. In the afternoon, Giles played tour guide. Buffy bought clothes. Giles watched her at play in the shops, and smiled. Their evenings started with a play or a movie, followed by dinner, followed by a frantic struggle with each other back in the hotel bed. And then it was hunting until dawn. They had to range farther each night to find what Buffy was driven to hunt. At no time did they see any sign of other demon hunters in action, of the Watcher-Potential pairs that Giles said were usually to be found. It was beginning to piss Buffy off.
The city smelled of gasoline, asphalt, bricks, vampire dust. Even the parks, with their black swans and lush greenery, were veneers over the stench of vampire to Buffy.
After four nights of this, and more than thirty kills, Buffy begged Giles to take her back home. To Bath. He sighed with relief, and began packing their bags. They took the train from Paddington. Buffy watched the city roll away and the countryside sweep into view. Trees, hedges, green fields. She felt herself relaxing. No fighting, not for a little while. But Buffy knew where her duty lay.
“Giles, if I stay here with you...”
Giles looked up from his paperback. “Hmm?”
“I’ll need to clean up London. Not at that insane pace. We’d get ourselves killed if we tried to keep that up. But it has to be done.”
“You’re the Slayer. If you say it must be done, we’ll do it. Might arrange some backup, though. Or perhaps simply bring Potentials along to watch and learn.” He shrugged slightly.
“Staying here would be okay?”
Giles’ eyes crinkled. “Of course. We’ll have to sort out your visa, but the Council will help.”
“The Hellmouth will be okay without me?”
“If you’re drawn here, Buffy, you’re drawn here. The Slayer always goes where she is needed.”
“Trust my instincts.”
“They’re well-trained instincts, love. Worth trusting.”
“Huh.” Buffy looked out the train window again, thinking not about London and vampires, but about Westbury and Willow.
They returned to Avebury for a few days, to catch up with their families and be where the air didn’t smell of vampires.
Dawn and Michael were indeed an item, though an innocent one under Maeve’s watchful eye. Horse-riding, trips to the cinema with groups of local friends, and kisses stolen when no one was watching. Dawn confessed the kisses to Buffy in a sister bonding session, with nail-painting and fashion-magazine sneering. Buffy had to suppress the urge to forbid all of it. But she remembered what she’d been like at sixteen. Kisses would be as far as it went, and forbidding them was the fastest way of ensuring that more happened.
She drew the line at giving Dawn advice on the best way to kiss, though.
“Why not?” said Giles. They were walking hand-in-hand through a field, shin-deep in wet grass and wildflowers. And mud, but they were dressed for it. The morning had been wet, but the sun was out now. Buffy never tired of this weather. It changed so often she never knew what to expect. And the flat Salisbury plains were lovely. Sun and bees and flowers and birds, and something scurrying away from their feet in the tall grass.
“What? Are you going to tell Michael how to do it?”
“If he asks. Though he’s not likely to. He’s still in shock at our violation of Council regulations.”
Buffy giggled. “How many have we violated?”
“Possibly all of them, except the ones about sacrificing infants to Ba’al.”
“That was Lurconis, and I Slayed it. No thanks to you, candy-man.”
“Hey!” The chase was on, across sodden fields. Buffy let Giles catch her at the boundary line of oaks. He seized her and bore her down to the grass, then rolled with her.
“You’re getting me muddy!”
“Slay me! I’m a mud demon!”
She flipped them and pinned him. The giggle fit was as bad as it had been in the back of the Magic Box. Giles was stretched on his back, pointing at her, laughing. Buffy leaned over him and kissed his muddy face. The kiss grew and was wild in moments, open-mouthed, hungry. Giles rolled over her. His hands dug deep into the grass at her shoulders.
“God! Can you feel it?”
Buffy could: power, magic power, in the air, grounding itself through them. Giles’ power, if he knew it, the complement to hers.
They wriggled damp clothing out of the way and took each other there, in the grass. They lay together in the grass afterwards, holding hands, just staring up peacefully. At last Buffy could ignore the mud no longer. She sat up.
“Your back is all grass.” Giles’ hand brushed over her shirt.
“So are your knees. Not just your jeans. Your knees.”
“Bloody hell.” Giles began giggling again.
They dripped mud as they walked back to the house.
The coven had convened again, over thirty of them this time. Every man and woman who’d been associated with them over the last decade. Buffy and Giles joined them in their meeting. It had the feeling of a trial, with Willow arguing for her right to retain her power. But she argued in vain. When Giles stood to add his voice to those arguing against her, to say that he was convinced she would walk the path of destruction if left alone, Willow caved. Her choices were to be bound by the coven itself to live her life isolated on the grounds here, or to surrender her powers. She agreed to yield her powers, all of them.
This was not a group given to ritual and ceremony. Once agreement was given, they stood and cleared the workspace of chairs, and ranged themselves around her in a circle. They cast the binding sphere again.
“Wait,” said Willow. “Don’t I get a last meal or anything like that? You’re just gonna do it?”
The sense of heated oppression Buffy had felt before was back, redoubled. The air in the room was hard to breathe. Her lungs were burning. The coven joined hands. They began a murmured chant.
“You can’t do this. I need more time!”
“You agreed,” Buffy told her.
“Not to having it done right away, I didn’t!” Willow blackened and her voice changed. She floated into the air. “I knew I should have seduced you, Rupert. I knew I should have gotten over the nausea and just done you. That’s all it takes with you, I guess. You’d be fighting on my side now if I had.”
This time Giles was untouched. He was again the man who’d swept into the Magic Box and knocked Willow back. Stern, unreachable. Buffy couldn’t say the same; she was ready to haul off on Willow. Or run out. But she forced herself to hold still and just watch.
Something exploded outward from Willow and slammed into the binding sphere. It held. Then Willow laughed, and did it again, and the sphere shattered outward. Shards of power sliced out and into people. They fell. The circle of hands was broken. Giles and Miss Harkness stood, however, still holding hands. Together they sent power slamming into Willow. She countered with a bolt that sent Giles flying back into the wall. Buffy heard something snap when he hit.
He slid to the floor and didn’t get up. Buffy caught his look, and stayed back, out of Willow’s sightline.
“Giles, Giles, are you okay?” Willow was human again in an instant. She ran to him.
Giles lay where she’d thrown him. He pushed himself up with his right hand. His left arm hung at his side. He wasn’t moving it at all. He was also showing no signs of pain. He held out his right arm to Willow. She collapsed against him and wept into his shoulder. Buffy saw his hand moving in Willow’s hair, his mouth bent to her ear.
The room exploded into activity, people running out to call for medical help, people running in to tend to Giles and the other injured people.
Miss Harkness led Willow away. Buffy moved carefully, staying behind the incoming medic, still out of Willow’s sight. The second the door closed behind her, she was in motion to Giles’ side. She stayed out of the way of the medic, holding his right hand while the man worked. Questions, temporary splint, then her shoulder under his arm, helping him up. And another trip to another emergency room, this time a British one. Just like the American ones she’d seen too much of, except that there were different names for everything.
“This is becoming tiresome,” said Giles.
“How bad is it?”
“Not at all. Simple fracture of the ulna. A couple of weeks in this. Hurts like the devil. Can’t afford painkillers.”
Buffy examined his plastic cast: left arm, from elbow to wrist. She handed his cellphone back to him. “Three calls while you were getting rayed and splinted. All three from coven people, one from Miss Harkness. They sounded pretty grim. Miss Harkness wants a call as soon as you can.”
Giles held the phone in his right hand, eyes closed for a moment. He looked defeated.
A coven member drove them back from the hospital. Buffy sat in front and talked to the man, who told her about what was involved in making magical artifacts. It sounded interesting. Buffy thought that maybe she should commission a sword from this guy some time. She asked him more questions. She was desperate to have something to think about that was not Willow, and the tone of Giles’ voice as he spoke into his cellphone. He was on the phone the whole drive, hanging up only when they turned into the coven’s driveway.
But when they went in, he didn’t go in search of anyone, not even Willow. He silently led Buffy up the creaking narrow staircase to their little room in the eaves. The windows were open to the late afternoon glow. It had been a lovely day; sweet-scented warm air pushed at the curtains.
Buffy sat in the window and watched him pace. The plastic cast was wrapped in red strapping. He wore a baggy black shirt; his sleeve was rolled up above the cast. He held his arm across his body as he walked. It obviously hurt him. He couldn’t heal it. If somebody else’s arm had been broken, he could have sped the healing process along. But the magic couldn’t be used selfishly, he’d said. He’d surrendered it to Willow once to shock her back to humanity. That trick wouldn’t work a second time.
Giles stopped and knelt on the window seat next to her. He stared outward, at the afternoon skies. Buffy look at the fine lines at the corners of his eyes, at the corners of his mouth, across his forehead. His hair was starting to gray at the temples. And yet there was something in him stronger and more vital than she’d ever seen in him, not even that first year they were together. Power in his hands, in his eyes. He had always been a striking man. She’d admitted that in private moments even when she’d thought him the oldest, driest, stuffiest man on the planet. Now she knew him entirely, and she didn’t have words any more for him.
She’d found someone strong enough to be with her. Strong enough all on his own not to be threatened. Strong where she wasn’t, as she was where he wasn’t.
“They’re going to have to kill her,” he said.
“I know.” Buffy had been tensed and ready to Slay that afternoon. If Willow had kept fighting after she’d broken Giles’ arm, Buffy might have done it. Willow sent her inner Slayer into overdrive.
“They tried knocking her out, drugs in her tea. She nearly killed Jane when she detected it. Too much power. No conscience. One person dead already. How many more if we don’t act?”
Buffy said nothing.
“Why? Why can’t we just lie back and let someone else deal with it? Why does it always have to be us? Are we never granted any peace?”
Buffy didn’t like to say it, because she didn’t entirely like to believe it, but they didn’t get vacations. Not really. They were who they were, all the time. And when the world needed them to act, they acted. She thought Giles knew that as well as she did, though.
“Buffy, could you possibly... I should like... I know it’s a dreadful time, but I should very much like to be with you now.”
“Come on, sweetie.”
She drew him with her to the bed. They undressed each other slowly. Giles didn’t say anything, just pulled her down onto the bed alongside him. He tugged her leg up over his hip, and slid himself home.
They were on their sides, facing each other. Buffy had never made love this way before, but she liked it. Giles moved slowly, taking his time, caressing with his good hand, making it last. When she came around him, he groaned, and began moving more urgently. Buffy watched his face, head thrown back, eyes closed, his body tensing as he approached his moment. The gasp and shudder, then the warmth of his release flooding into her— she came again when she felt it. He leaned his sweaty forehead against hers, breathing hard. His arm shook where he’d wrapped it around her shoulders. It took Buffy a while to realize it was because he was weeping.
Buffy wasn’t happy either, but she also wasn’t ready to just break down about it. Her mind turned the problem over and over.
“Sweetie, there has to be something we can do. Something that isn’t just sitting here waiting for the end.”
“What? What’s left to try?”
“We have to call Xander. He needs to know, and he needs a chance to be here. Willow gets one last shot, and he’s it.” She ought to have insisted on this weeks ago. Trusted her instincts.
Giles leaned over her to rummage on the nightstand. He punched at his phone; the lights from the buttons and screen glowed green on his face.
“Xander, it’s Giles. I— I have some bad news. Nothing drastic, not not yet, anyway. No, Buffy’s fine. She’s right here. Willow is, well. Let me explain.” He did so, with the clear phrasing that Buffy recognized as Giles in deep Watcher mode. No stammering, no flinching; all duty and detachment. Later he would allow himself to feel for the woman he’d thought of as his daughter.
“We can delay for a day or so,” he said. “She’s not an active threat. Yet. But she will be when she figures out what we’re planning. We have enough time for you to get here. Don’t worry about the money. Just get yourself on a plane, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
He silently handed the phone to Buffy. “Get on the next flight, Xan,” Buffy said. “Get over here now.”
It still took him eighteen hours to get there.
Buffy went with the coven driver sent to Heathrow to pick up Xander. They held onto each other hard throught the entire drive. Buffy told a longer version of the last few weeks, with as much detail as she could manage. Maybe Xander would know what to do. Xander knew Willow better than anybody else, still.
Giles met them at the door. He kissed Buffy, then held Xander tight. “They’re waiting for you. They’re getting impatient, however. Can only hold her inactive for so long. It’s taking the entire coven to do it.”
They gave Xander an hour with Willow before their last attempt would begin. Xander closed his eyes and held Buffy close before going into the room where they had Willow waiting.
“No stress, huh? Nothing big riding on this. Well, I guess it’s no end of the world deal. Just a Willow deal. Kay. Here we go.” And he went in.
After a while he came out holding Willow by the hand. “We’re ready to try power draining again,” Xander said. Back to the meeting space, the circle convened again. This time Xander and Buffy were together with Willow inside the binding sphere. They started, and the power once again flowed out. This time it diffused among the coven members. Most of it was discharged into the air. They weren’t holding onto what they were taking, for reasons Buffy couldn’t guess at.
“I’m scared, Xan,” Willow said.
“Does it hurt?”
“It’s not that. It’s... hard to explain. Just hang on. Buffy, hold me down. Can’t tell you why—”
Willow shifted then, to black hair and black eyes mode. She thrashed. Buffy pinned her, and was shocked to realize it was taking Slayer strength to do it. Buffy extended her new, improved senses, brushed them all over Willow, and finally figured it out.
“Giles. Giles. She’s possessed. There’s something else here.” Buffy held on to Willow’s arms, thrashing with more than human strength.
“Bind her! Now!” The coven obeyed. Willow hung suspended, immobile.
Giles turned and looked at Miss Harkness, then at the coven members grouped behind him. “Holy water, crosses. Sword. In my duffle upstairs. Now!” Two people left the room at a run. They came back with bottles and a selection of crosses. He hung one around his neck, took another in his hand. Miss Harkness made as if to take the holy water from him, but he stopped her.
“This is Watcher business,” he said. He handed the sword to Buffy. “Buffy, stop anyone who attempts to interfere. They don’t understand this, this... And Buffy, if this fails...”
“Right. I’ve got your back,” said Buffy, crisply. She wouldn’t hold back if it came to it. She drew the sword and inspected it. She knew this one; one of Giles’ better weapons. Wickedly sharp. She spun it, getting used to its weight. It would take a demon’s head in a single blow, if she needed it to. There’d be time to freak later, after the world was saved. Again.
Five candles, hastily placed. Chalk lines on the floor. Holy water sprinkled over all, drawn into crosses on their foreheads by Giles’ trembling fingers. Xander stepped inside the pentagram and stood where he could catch Willow. Giles lit the candles and spoke a brief plea to the Christian God for containment of evil. Buffy’s power-sense tingled. A barrier was in place, with Giles, Willow, and Xander on the inside.
“Release her,” said Giles. The coven’s casters relaxed, and the energy bonds faded. Willow slumped into Xander’s arms.
Giles closed his eyes and stood for a moment with the cross pressed to his forehead. Gathering himself. He had to be thinking about the exorcism on Randall, how that had ended in blood on his face and a severed head in his hand. He drew one last deep breath. Alex, Giles’ counselor, stood against the wall. His eyes were on Giles, not on Willow. He had to know as well as Buffy did, possibly better, how rough this was going to be for Giles.
Giles opened his eyes, and spoke.
“Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in noimine Jesu Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti.”
Giles knelt over her. He wet his fingers with a lick, then touched them to her ears. “Ephpheta, quod est, Adaperire.”
Willow thrashed and swore. Giles went on, relentless, reciting Latin and holding the cross over her even when she screamed.
Buffy scanned the room. Alex was standing back against the wall, still with his eyes fixed on Giles. Miss Harkness stood next to him, biting at her fingers. She turned her attention back on the three people inside the containing pentagram: Giles stiff with strain, his right hand holding the cross high; Willow prone; Xander kneeling over her, clasping her hands.
“Will, come on Will, you gotta help us. You gotta want it gone.”
“Xander? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me. How many times do I have to keep talking you out of this stuff, Will?”
“Xander,” said Willow, with an odd voice. “Goodbye.” Then she closed her eyes and went very still, rigid almost. She didn’t fight any more. At the very end, she opened her mouth and screamed almost too loud to bear. Somebody ran at the circle, then, and Buffy cold-cocked him with the sword hilt.
Giles finished his prayer. The candles went out.
Willow’s head fell back.
The room went quiet.
Giles slumped to his knees. Alex was there, holding him up, giving him water to drink. Buffy ran in toward Willow. Xander was kneeling next to her. She was on her back, unmoving. Blood trickled from her nose and mouth.
Buffy checked Willow’s vitals. “Breathing,” she said.
Xander patted her cheeks, then looked wildly up at Giles. “Should she be conscious?”
“Yes, I think so. That was... that was difficult. But successful. I felt it leave. Dead human. Severed soul. Romany. Revenge... So strong.”
Giles crawled toward them. His hair was drenched with sweat, and his shirt stuck to his chest. That had been nasty, toward the end. He rested a hand on Willow’s chest. Buffy felt the power flow.
Willow blinked. “Huh?” she said. She tried to push herself up, but fell back again. Giles knelt behind her and helped her sit.
“Thanks, Giles. Hey, what are you doing here? Hold it, where is here?” Willow looked around herself, then started scrambling backwards, away from Buffy and Xander. She pushed right back into Giles’ arms. He embraced her loosely with his uninjured arm. She stopped struggling for a moment.
“Something is way wrong. Way way way wrong and I’m starting to freak out here. Xander? You look weird. Fatter? Buffy got skeletal and you got fat? What’s Buffy doing here? Where’s Oz?”
“Ssh, Will, hang on a sec. One question at a time. And I’m wounded, wounded, that you would comment so callously on my physique.” Xander grinned at Willow, then let it die as he looked at Giles. He took Willow’s left hand, and Buffy took the other, trying to be reassuring.
“Willow, sweetheart, what’s the last thing you remember?”
Willow twisted around to give Giles an odd look, then looked down at her hands, still clutched by Buffy and Xander. “I was in the hospital, with Oz and Cordy. We started the spell to re-curse Angel and I was having a hard time continuing it. I kinda got dizzy, and... and then here I am. Wherever here is. Which is where?”
“Okay. We’re in a house in England, in a place called Westbury. We’ve just finished, well, exorcising something out of you. It was a bit rough at the end. I think you’ve got a bit of amnesia.”
Buffy watched Willow process this. A few blinks, and that mind Buffy loved had worked it through. “How long? I know you guys look older, but...”
“Four years,” said Giles.
“Oy vey,” said Willow. Buffy nearly cried at that. Willow had been swearing Wicca-style for so long. “I’ve missed three years of college! And high school graduation!”
Xander hugged her close. “And a bunch of other stuff, too, Will. Some of it good, some of it pretty sucky. I wouldn’t say you missed graduation, exactly.”
Buffy grinned. The mayor’s commencement address had been totally missable. “It’ll come back, though, right, Rupert? Amnesia is usually temporary.”
“I— Perhaps. It depends on the cause. This one springs from mystical causes. I can’t be sure. Willow, sweetheart, can you stand up?”
Willow gave him a look again. “I’m guessing we’re all good friends these days. ‘Cause you were not so much with the sweet-talk last I checked. And, uh, woah, look at you in jeans and an earring. And what am I wearing? Long skirts? Oh my Gawd. Xander...” Stress began to crack through Willow’s voice. Xander gathered her close.
“I’ll fill ya in, Will.”
“Let’s get a bit of tea in you. You haven’t eaten in a couple of days, I believe. And allow me to introduce you to Miss Jane Harkness, who’s been your, um, instructor here at the coven.”
Then the bustling began, and Willow was sheltered in the gentle hands of her best and longest friend, and Buffy could relax.
Later, they had tea, the four of them, around a table in the kitchen, huddled together. Willow clung to Xander, who patiently gave his unique version of the story of the last four years. Giles put in a word here and there, along with careful soft questions that were designed to nudge Willow’s memory. If it remained. Buffy had to admit that she was suspicious of Willow, still. Things had gotten bad enough that Buffy was willing to entertain the notion that Willow was shamming.
But it didn’t appear to be the case. She had no memories of Dawn whatsoever. She was from before the time the monks had tampered with all of them. She cried when she heard the story of Buffy’s death, and was disbelieving when she heard Xander’s description of the resurrection.
Buffy extended that Slayer magic-sense, and tasted only a shimmer around Willow. Lemony, faint. She had power, but less than Tara had had. And no more wigging. That’s what convinced Buffy more than anything. She met Giles’ eyes and raised her eyebrows and shrugged just a little. He nodded, and stopped the questions. He excused himself to go meet with Miss Harkness. Probably to report what he’d observed about Willow.
Willow watched him leave the kitchen, then turned to Buffy. “You and Giles? When?”
“Yeah, me and Rupert. Way recently.”
“This one is news to me too, Will,” said Xander. “I am way past the point of being wigged by it. You want to know what I feel about it, Buff? ‘Cause I can tell you. It makes me happy. God, I think about you two, and I feel relieved. It means you’re with a good guy, a decent guy, not with another vampire. And it means that Giles is gonna come back. And I’ll take both those. Anything but what it’s been like the last year.”
Xander broke off. He was in tears. He turned away from them. Willow looked at Buffy, puzzled. “I take it things got pretty angsty.”
“To say the least. Things just weren’t same after... after I died and you brought me back.”
“I’m still having a hard time with that. I was that powerful? And dark?”
“It wasn’t you, Will. Rupert thinks you were possessed, and toward the end you weren’t entirely in charge.”
In their little room under the eaves, later, Buffy held Giles close and let him talk. Relief and painkillers made him voluble.
“The best theory we have is simple possession. Willow and some unknown entity were sharing her consciousness for the last four years. Willow’s self was dominant at first, but gradually became swamped out by the other. At the end, she was only able to reassert herself with great effort. I have new respect for her, how strong she must been.”
“You’re talking as if she died.” Buffy looked down at Giles, where his head rested on her chest. Slayer night vision showed her his face clearly. His eyes were closed.
“The Willow we’ve known for the last four years did die. During the exorcism. She understood what was happening and sacrificed herself.” He was silent. Then, “I’m ashamed that I treated her badly. I was angry.”
“You were angry at the thing inside her, not her. A Romany. That’s a gypsy?”
“Yes. If I had to guess, a member of Jenny’s clan. Hopping aboard to help with the re-cursing, then staying. Perhaps Willow even invited it in, unawares. Powerful magic often opens channels we must guard, and Willow wouldn’t have been experienced enough to know how. Obvious in retrospect, but our usual means of detecting it failed. It... he? she? cloaked itself well. Gradual personality changes, ending in radical behavioral changes. Dammit! I should have seen.”
“I could sense it. Since our big fight. I just didn’t know what I was sensing. And I felt guilty about wigging. She was my friend. I thought... I thought I was just feeling guilty about you.”
“Oh, my Buffy. Never feel guilty about this.”
“No. Not any more. I’ve figured it out.”
“Knew you would,” he said.
He tightened the arm he had laid across her bare waist, under the soft sheet, his broken arm. He was sprawled across her, heavy and warm, a little sweaty. Messy, imperfect, and alive. Buffy watched Giles’ back rise and fall with his breath, evening out, slowing, as he eased into sleep.