Every Touch On Memory
By Denorios

TITLE: Every Touch On Memory
AUTHOR: Denorios
E-MAIL: Denorios77@hotmail.com
DISTRIBUTION: Anywhere, anytime...just let me know.
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: Prophecy Girl, What's My Line, Passion, Helpless, Hush, The Body, Tough Love, The Gift
DISCLAIMER: I don't own any of these characters; those lovely people at Warner Brothers do. I'm just borrowing them for a day or two--I'll give them back in mint condition, I promise.
NOTES: Major angst ahead. Just warning you. The title comes from a line in Elizabeth Jennings' 'A Sonnet', and Giles quotes from Shakespeare's 'King Lear' and 'Hamlet'.


The mourners began to leave in small solemn groups or alone, one or two casting regretful glances back at the small grave but most proceeding back to their own lives, their own troubles and sorrows, with scarcely a second thought. Another death. In Sunnydale it was not so rare. She had been young, yes, and it was a tragedy without a doubt, so soon after the mother, but when it was time to go it was time to go. Who could argue with that? Who would dare try?

Giles would, Willow thought sadly, looking over her shoulder at the tall figure standing alone by the open grave. Giles would argue with that and more. For Buffy he would, or die trying. Willow tried to smile, tried to play the part of the brave little trooper, the one who went on, the one who remembered and never, ever forgot, but it was hard. Hard to stand here watching Giles fall apart slowly, hard to squeeze Tara's hand and pretend that in some small bitter part of her heart she didn't blame her for any of this. It wasn't Tara's fault, of course, no-one could have predicted what Buffy would do, but Willow couldn't help but think...if she hadn't told Glory, if she hadn't been on that bench, if, if, if...

She was scared. That much she could admit, even if it shamed her to do so. Facing Glory, rescuing Dawn, saving the world...those things were difficult, most certainly, even frightening, but they didn't scare her like this, not this icy bone-deep certainty that nothing would ever be right again. The world felt wrong somehow, as though it had been given a hard shove by some giant hand and sent spinning off into space, out of control and too fast to stop. She felt slightly sick, and she swallowed hard, forcing the thought out of her head. They needed her to be strong. Hadn't Buffy said that to her, told her that she was the strongest one? Buffy needed her to hold everyone together, because she wasn't there to do it.

Damn, but Willow couldn't help but resent Buffy for this. What did she need to do that for anyway? There was no need for her to die, no call for it. Yes, she was the Slayer, but Dawn was the Key. Dawn opened the portal, willingly or not, and it should have been Dawn that closed it. She wasn't even real. Willow thought this, and her stomach clenched so violently in protest that black dots swam in her eyes and she thought for a moment that she would faint. She bent over slightly and groaned, feeling Tara's warm, slightly damp palm touch the back of her neck.

"Willow? Honey, what's wrong. You feel sick?" Tara moved around into her field of vision, her beloved concerned face slowly coming into focus amidst the dots. Her palm moved to Willow's forehead, feeling gently for a fever. "You don't feel hot. Are you alright, sweetie?" Willow bit savagely on her tongue, and the black dots disappeared, replaced by a vicious explosion of red pain at the corner of her vision that evaporated as swiftly as the nausea. She straightened and gave Tara what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

"I'm fine," she said, and shrugged. "As fine as anyone can be, I guess. Just felt a bit..." Words failed her and she waved her hands in the air vaguely, searching for a word that could pinpoint this bitterness, this resentment, this anger, this pain. She hated herself for the thoughts that skittered across her mind, as untameable as wild colts, but there they were nonetheless. She loved Dawn, would have died a thousand deaths to keep her safe, but goddamn it, Buffy was her best friend, once the only person in the world who really understood her. She regretted the distance that had sprung up between them since Tara, even though neither of them had wished it. They had grown apart somehow, and it saddened Willow to realise she hadn't even noticed when Buffy stopped coming to her with her problems. Buffy went to Giles instead, and Willow didn't even see it.

"I'm worried about Giles," she said slowly, her words coming as slowly as her thoughts suddenly seemed to. She turned around to look at him, black-clad and as sombre as Angel had always been, his habitual frown now perpetual. When she had greeted him this morning at the Magic Shop, he had given her the aloof, half-puzzled smile of a man who has been greeted by an old acquaintance whose name he can't quite remember, a man who has woken up to find his world slightly off-kilter in some way he can't exactly put his finger on. And then when he had forcedly shaken off the aura of sadness that surrounded him and smiled half-heartedly for her benefit, the thought had exploded into her consciousness with such force that she felt as though she had been slapped. Giles was old.

Which was ridiculous, of course, because Giles was most definitely not old. Any man who could battle demons, avert apocalypses and train a twenty-year-old Slayer could not be old, but there it was. She had looked at him, and seen wrinkles that she would have sworn were not there yesterday, more gray in his hair that she had previously recognised. And his eyes were the eyes of a man who had seen more sorrow and more pain that he could possibly bear, who had found somewhere along the way that it was easier to stop caring than to feel this excruciating, grinding pain every day. Giles' eyes, more than anything else that had happened in this horrible, horrible week, made Willow want to cry.

"Where are you?" she had longed to shout at him, her hands itching to grab him by the lapels and shake him until the Giles she knew looked back at her through those haunted grey eyes. "Where have you gone? That's Buffy's grave, not yours! It says 'Buffy Summers' on the headstone, not 'Rupert Giles'. Can't you see? Where are you?" She hadn't, of course, not through any lack of courage on her part but for the simple fact that it wouldn't have done any good. She knew this. Giles would have given her that puzzled smile again, gently removed her hands, dusted off his suit and proceeded on his way. The only person who had ever been able to make Giles listen to sense when he was like this was Buffy, and she wasn't here anymore. And that was the problem.

"Mr. Giles?" Tara echoed, her own gaze flitting between Giles and Willow, a slight furrow appearing on her brow. Willow reached up with the first genuine smile she could remember in a long time on her face, and gently smoothed that little line away with her thumb. "Willow, I don't understand. He's...grieving. That's not strange."

Willow shook her head, frustration welling up in her breast until she thought she would explode. Giles' vacant stare through the service had scared her more than anything had ever been able to before, had made the breath that wanted to become a scream hitch in her throat. And she couldn't explain why. She knew he hadn't heard a word the minister said, hadn't even been aware of Dawn's wretched sobs as she stood at his side. It was been down to Willow to step forward and enfold the weeping girl in her arms. Giles had looked down at the two of them with a somewhat startled look, as if only suddenly aware of their presence. His head had been cocked towards the horizon, his eyes wide and glazed. Willow suspected she could have waved her hand in front of his face until it fell off and he wouldn't have noticed.

"It's like...it's like...oh, I don't know!" she cried, suddenly feeling like stamping her foot on the ground like a child in the midst of a tantrum. The words were there, in her mind, but she couldn't form them. She stuck out of her tongue and plucked at the end of it, grasping for the words that could make Tara understand. "It's right there, you know?" Tara nodded, smiling, waiting patiently. She was more patient that anyone Willow had ever known, even more than Giles. "He's trying, I know he is, to be strong for us, but he's not really there. It's like he's listening to music that none of us can hear. See? Like he's in a band or...or an orchestra and he's waiting for his cue. And this morning he looked like he didn't even know who we were. And he said..." Her voice trailed away and Willow remembered what Giles had said to her as the service ended, as the part-time mourners drifted away.

Xander had ushered Anya away gently, his arms around her, nearly carrying her. She shouldn't have been out of the hospital, not so soon, but after her dire threats to inflict genital warts on everyone present, including Xander and Willow, she had been released. Tara was holding Dawn as she cried, whispering words to her in a language Willow hadn't recognised. The minister had departed and she could see the gravediggers waiting in the distance with their shovels, waiting to pile the dirt on Buffy's coffin. But Giles had remained at the graveside, so close to the edge that Willow feared he might fall in. She half-suspected that if he did Giles would make no move to get out again, would lay there until the diggers came to fill in the earth.

He had rapped his knuckles against Buffy's headstone almost jauntily, and turned to look at Willow. That lack of recognition was in his eyes again, but he was smiling at her. "She's not dead, you know," he said, resting his hand on her shoulder gently. "She can't be. Not Buffy. She'll be back." He nodded and repeated his words to himself, smiling mysteriously. "She'll be back."

"What do you think he meant?" Tara asked, and Willow opened her eyes and looked at her. She had hoped Tara would know--her own power was far greater, but Tara knew more--but clearly not. Giles' words remained a mystery to all but himself. He had known what he meant. She opened her mouth to respond and then shrugged. Who knew? Perhaps it was simply habit. There had been so many times when they had believed Buffy dead, times when she had indeed been close to it, that one time when she had died, and every time she came back, a little battered and bruised, but still Buffy. Perhaps he was in denial. Perhaps...but the last was too awful to even think.

"Do you think he's...?" Willow stopped and gently tapped her forefinger against her temple. If Giles had lost his mind, if the grief had become too much for him, what would they do? Willow knew he had spent much of the previous year feeling superfluous to requirements, but the truth was that they simply could not do without Giles. More than Buffy, he was the glue that held everyone together. His calm level-head and extensive knowledge had saved them more times than she could count. Without Giles, there was no telling what disasters would unfold. He couldn't have lost his mind, not Giles. It was unthinkable. She shouldn't even be thinking it. It was a bad thought and she wanted it gone from her mind, but it just wouldn't leave.

Tara shook her head firmly, and Willow was relieved to see the certainty in her eyes. She was not just being falsely comforting, she saw, and was glad. "No," Tara said, her gaze slightly misty and reflective as she recalled her own hysterical grief at her mother's death. "No, I don't think he's mad, Willow. He's just...he's in shock, that's all. You said Buffy always came through things like this before. I don't think he can quite believe it. It hasn't sunk in yet. And until it does, I think he's..."

"Waiting for Buffy," Willow finished for her, and Tara nodded. "And the music he's listening to, it's not music, is it? He's listening for Buffy's voice. Oh, poor Giles. I should..." She gestured back towards the grave, towards Giles, who stood with his shoulders hunched and his head down, lost and alone and hurting. He didn't have anybody to stand beside him and hold his hand, nobody to hold him and tell him that the pain would fade with time, not a single person in his life who wasn't too consumed with their own grief to spare a thought for him. And that just wasn't right.

Tara nodded sadly again, half-turning away to go. But Willow stopped her abruptly and kissed her with such force, such fierce protectiveness that Tara looked at her in surprise. "I love you," she said, sudden tears pricking behind her eyelids. She couldn't bear the thought that Tara might not know just how much, that she might lose her before she could ever really understand, like Giles and Buffy.

She smiled and kissed Tara again, a gentle kiss, no passion but so full of tenderness that her heart felt too big for her chest and she thought it must surely burst or perhaps implode, sending all that love back along her veins like a drug high. "I love you, baby," she whispered, her fingers trailing down Tara's cheek and cupping her face. "More than anything. You know that, right?" Tara smiled, and Willow suddenly thought how Giles must feel, surrounded by couples--Xander and Anya, herself and Tara--knowing that the only woman he loved was lying six feet down before his feet, cold and stiff and so totally alien to him. And she could understand his disbelief and horror, could feel it as surely as if it were her own, because hadn't she felt it in part herself, looking at poor mad Tara and wondering where her love had gone? "Oh God," she sobbed against Tara's lips, and tore herself away suddenly. "Oh God, Giles, Giles..."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

He hadn't moved in the twenty minutes or so since the service had ended, frozen in the position of solitary grief. His hand rested on the top of the slab of a headstone, the other pressed against the not-entirely-healed wound on his abdomen. He was in pain, Willow could tell, but wild horses would not drag the admission out of him. He'd always been like that, always trying to be the strong one for them, the one whose shoulders were broad enough for everyone to cry on. Who did he cry with? Willow wondered. Had she ever seen Giles cry? Buffy had, she knew that much. She remembered Buffy telling her what had happened at the factory after Jenny, how they had cried in each other's arms. Buffy had wept as she spoke, as she described the look in Giles' eyes, the way he had beaten Angel with such fierce anger and despair even Buffy had been startled. Giles did cry, so why not now? Surely he couldn't have loved Jenny more than Buffy? Buffy had been his whole world, Willow had not been so blind that she had missed that.

"Giles?" she said softly, and this time he heard her, turned his head and looked at her with a gentle affection in his eyes. And recognition. He knew her. She could see Giles in those eyes, and the realisation filled her with such relief that she felt her knees buckle as it swept through her. Giles caught her before she fell, lowering her gently to sit on the ground. His hands were warm and so familiar. She had never really left that silly schoolgirl crush behind, still loved him with an intensity that had the capacity to astonish her at times. There had been so many mornings when she had woken with a smile on her face because she knew she would see him that day, knew he would look at her with that beautiful smile on his face and say in that soft voice, "Good morning, Willow. Did you sleep well?" Even with all the fear, all the danger and disasters that were part and parcel of life on the Hellmouth, Willow knew she could never leave, not for Buffy or Xander but for Giles. Because she loved him and couldn't imagine waking up and knowing that he wasn't there. How could anyone live like that?

"Easy, Willow," he told her gently, smoothing a hand over her bright hair. "Easy. Is that better?" She nodded silently, her throat too tight to be able to make any sound, and turned her head away, not wanting him to see her cry. It was suddenly too close, all of it, Giles and that horrible gaping hole in the ground and Tara and Buffy, Buffy, Buffy, how could Buffy be gone? Other people died, yes, and stayed dead, but not Buffy. She half-expected her friend to pop up from the coffin, bright and smiling, laughing, holding the sunlight in her hands. There should be no sunlight, not on a day like this, it should be gray and cloudy, because then the vampires could come. Angel and Spike, they should be here.

"It's so small, isn't it?" Giles whispered hoarsely, his voice dragging Willow from her own thoughts. He gestured towards the hole, and she saw his hand trembling. "The grave. It's so small. I thought it would be bigger, I don't know, I thought..." His voice died away to nothing more than a murmur on the breeze and then he broke off, looking down at his hands folded in his lap. "I know she wasn't big, but that grave...she needs more room than that. It's so small, Willow."

Willow reached for Giles' hand and grasped it tightly, although whether she was comforting herself or him she wasn't sure. "Tara says...said that after her mother died she thought the same thing. She said it's because the person always seemed larger than life to you, that you find it hard to believe that all that they were can be packed away into a little box like that." Willow looked down at the coffin, brightly polished and shining in the sunlight. Buffy was in that box, just a few feet away, and she was all alone and dead. Oh God, that hurt. She felt like she was abandoning her. How could they let them put dirt over her and walk away? It would be dark and cold and so very lonely in there, and how could they leave her alone like that?

Giles looked at her when she finished speaking, his eyes suddenly very bright and very large, and she shrank away from him unconsciously. That look was back in his eyes, that look that said he didn't wholly know who she was and quite frankly didn't care to. His gaze was focussed inward and his words, when they came, were slow and hesitant, quite unlike Giles. "I thought I saw her this morning," he said thoughtfully, and insanely his mouth tugged upwards at the corners. "I opened my eyes and she was there, I swear to you, she was there16 . Bending over me, so beautiful she was, Willow, and smiling. And she said...she said..." Giles' voice cracked and broke, and he bent over, his hands covering his face, his shoulders shuddering.

"She said that death was strange, not at all what she had expected, and noisy. She said it was noisy. And she laughed and touched my cheek, and it was cold, Willow, so cold. I wanted to touch her, hold onto her and make her warm again, but she said that I didn't need to do that. She said she was quite capable of doing it herself." Giles lifted his face from his hands and stared at Willow, his face contorted in an expression of both wonder and despair. "And then she was gone. Just like that. I reached out to touch her and she was gone. And all I could hear was her laughing. She sounded happy, Willow, free, and I thought...I thought maybe it was for the best, because she was so tired of it all, but I miss her. I miss her and I want her back so badly and I know she'll never be...."

Willow was reaching out to him, her fingers just brushing the back of his hand, her heart bleeding for him, when that wild look melted from his eyes and his whole body sagged. He was Giles again suddenly, not that stranger who said peculiar things, but Giles, old, tired and weary, but still Giles. "I'm sorry, Willow," he apologised, smiling ruefully. "I didn't mean to burden you with my grief. I'm sure you have enough to deal with. How is Dawn? And Tara?" He removed his glasses and began to polish them half-heartedly, smiling at her all the while. Without the protective lenses his eyes looked oddly bruised and vulnerable. He was scaring her desperately, although she would never have admitted it. How Giles could be frightening? Even as Ripper he hadn't scared Willow, not really, because underneath all that anger and violence he was still Giles. But now he was. He reminded of her of the sound of the radio as you drove away from Sunnydale, fading in and out, sometimes loud, sometimes so quiet you couldn't even hear it. Giles was fading, like he was made out of energy instead of Dawn.

"Tara's okay," she said, pushing that irrational fear to the back of her mind. It felt like some kind of betrayal, being afraid of Giles. It would hurt him beyond words, if he knew, and he never would. Never. "And Dawnie...well, it's hard for her. Her mom and now Buffy..." Her voice broke on her best friend's name, but she carried on, swallowing down the pain. "She blames herself. Because Buffy jumped instead of her. And she knows..." This was hard to admit, but it was the truth. "She knows we wish it had been her instead of Buffy." She expected Giles to protest at that, tell her it was nonsense, that he would never have wished Dawn dead...but instead he nodded absently, his gaze fixed on the gravediggers over the small hill. They wanted to start, she could see their impatience and even understand it. It wasn't safe to be in Sunnydale after dark, and it was getting on towards sunset. But perhaps Spike and Angel would come, surely they would come.

"I'm going back to England," Giles said abruptly, and whatever Willow had been about to say stuck in her throat. He was leaving? He was leaving them? How could he leave? Didn't he know how much they needed him to be here, just here, so they could see him and know that something was right with the world? "I'm going home...for a while, maybe longer, I don't know."

"Home?" Willow echoed, her thoughts buzzing around her head like insects. He couldn't go. Who would look after them now? What if something happened, someone came after Dawn again? What if a vampire or a demon wanted to open the Hellmouth? Without a Slayer or a Watcher, they'd die. She knew it. They'd die. She felt her breath speeding up, verging on hyperventilation, and forced the panic back down again, concentrating on slowing her pounding pulse. "I thought...I thought...isn't this your home, Giles? Here in Sunnydale With us."

He looked at her then, and there was so much sadness in his eyes that it was all she could see. Too much pain. It just wasn't fair. Giles had already lost so much, more than anyone should be expected to bear. Buffy was lying at his feet, and if she turned around she could probably see Jenny's grave in the distance. Did Giles have anyone left now? She knew his family were all gone, his friends dead or estranged, he hated the Watchers' Council...who did he have left to love? "Not anymore," he whispered, so softly she had to strain to hear him, and she understood then. Giles' home had never been England or Sunnydale or anywhere else but where Buffy was. Right now his home was lying in a small simply casket in the ground, waiting for the earth to cover it.

"I have to go," he said, refusing to meet her eyes, as though ashamed. Perhaps he was, Willow thought. He was a Watcher after all, and despite defeating Glory the Hellmouth was still there and the vampires and the demons. He was needed. "I can't stay here," he said, his eyes fixed on Buffy's coffin. He had lain a rose on top of it at the end of the service, a red rose, as red as the blood that had started this. Willow had refused to allow herself to wonder at the significance of that, but she had seen the looks people had given Giles, wondering who he was, this man who mourned like a lover but seemed old enough to be her father. "He's Giles!" she wanted to tell them as they stared. "He's Giles, he's her Giles, and he loved Buffy more than anyone else in the world, more than you, more than me, more than any of us. He loved her."

"All my life, Willow, I knew that it was my destiny to be a Watcher, to be her Watcher." Giles looked at Willow then, his eyes wide and tormented. She could see tears swimming in them, but she knew he would not let them fall, not here, not in front of her. Only Buffy would see him cry, and she couldn't open her eyes to see. "And now she's gone, and there's no use for me here anymore. She was...Buffy was my destiny." He laughed then, but it was a strained, bitter sound with no spontaneity, no joy. It sounded more like a howl. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's true. What good am I now, Willow, a Watcher with no-one to watch?"

Willow didn't know what to say. She had thought she knew Giles well, but more and more she was beginning to realise that only Buffy had ever truly known him. She was the only one Giles had ever opened up to, the only one he had ever really trusted with his self. And now Buffy was gone, and there was no-one left for him to talk to. Did he have any friends, other than them? What would he do if he left Sunnydale? Willow couldn't bear to think of him alone like this, with no-one to talk to, no friendly faces to see and smile at. He shouldn't be alone, not at a time like this.

"You can watch us! We need watching. And...you're not just a Watcher, Giles. You're more than that. Just like Buffy was more than a Slayer."

He smiled at her sadly, his eyes telling her more than words ever could that he understood what she was trying to say, the words that wouldn't come out right, the words that would make him stay. But Willow could see that he had made up his mind, and she knew from experience how difficult it was to get him to change it. Buffy had to knock him out at least once before to stop him. That was the problem with Giles, it was why the Council had fired him, because despite all his learning and his rationality, it all went out of the window when he was determined about something. His heart just got control, and you really did have to stop him cold. Because otherwise, Willow knew, he wouldn't stop until he was dead.

"She was more than the Slayer, wasn't she?" Giles was smiling now, that small smile that just tugged away at the corner of his mouth, that smile he always wore when he was talking about Buffy. She wondered if he even knew it was there, or if it was some kind of automatic reaction: say 'Buffy' and Giles smiles. "I remember Merrick telling me about her when she was first called." He shook his head in rueful amazement. "It seems strange to think of it now, but then all I knew of her was what he told me. We were friends, you see. He was...he was a good man. Too good for the Council. That's why they gave him Buffy."

"I don't understand." It was true, she didn't. Giles had never talked about the past very much, and even less about the Council. She had always wanted to know, but the time to ask had never come up.

He glanced sideways at her, his eyes gentle, and she wondered perhaps if this was the wrong time to talk about this. But before she could stop him, he continued. "The Council usually finds Slayers years before they're called. Like Kendra," he said, tilting his face up to the sun. "But with Buffy, they didn't. I don't know why, but they were late in finding her. She'd already been called, and she didn't even know it. It's easier when they're young, you see. Easier to train, more pliable. Buffy had...an attitude, and the Council didn't like that at all. They like their Slayers quiet and obedient. And Buffy wasn't either of those things." He laughed as he remembered, and it was the first sound of genuine pleasure that Willow had heard from him in months. It was almost as though he had forgotten that Buffy was dead.

"And Merrick was one of the old ones, the ones who still held onto the old traditions. He was a good man, Willow. You would have liked him. So they sent him to Buffy, in the hope that maybe both of them would die. They could get rid of Merrick and have a new Slayer, in one fell swoop. But Buffy didn't die. She lived. So they sent me. I think they wanted to get rid of me too."

His words shocked Willow, but Giles' tone was casual and noncommittal. If this angered him at all it didn't show. Or perhaps he was just resigned, she thought, perhaps this was the way the game was played, and it had been her that had it wrong all those years, believing the Council were good guys. Maybe there were no good or bad guys in a game like this, only people looking out for themselves, making sure they were on top. And Buffy was the only one who really didn't have a choice, because that was what she had been born to do.

"Why would you want to go back to them then?" Willow asked, her mind still not able to understand it all. Giles hated them, but he was going back to them? It just didn't make sense. He wouldn't be happy there, she knew he wouldn't. And they wouldn't be happy without him here. Nobody would win if Giles left. How would they cope, worrying about him every day, knowing they weren't there to make sure he was okay? He was strong, yes, the strongest, bravest man she had ever known, but when it came to Buffy he didn't know what to do without her. She'd seen him that summer when Buffy was gone, and nothing had ever scared her more. Watching Giles lose control, watching him fall apart a little more every day had near enough broken her heart. She hadn't liked to admit it, even to herself, but Willow knew that if Buffy had stayed away much longer they would have lost Giles. He would have just withdrawn into himself totally, and there'd have been nothing left of the man they'd known. And maybe, even after she returned, he'd have stayed away.

Giles looked at her again, softly, his gaze clear and infinitely understanding. "I don't," he said. "I'm not. England is my home, Willow, not just where the Council are. I have no doubt they'll find me, they'll want to know how..." He stopped, his eyes a little wet, swallowing the lump in his throat with some effort. He looked like he was going to cry, she could see it, and she didn't know how to stop him. Maybe it was harsh, but if Giles cried...if Giles cried, it would all seem so suddenly horribly real. Because Giles didn't cry. Giles hardly ever cried. Only when Jenny was killed, and those weren't even tears of grief, not really; they had been the tears of a man who had been pushed too far, had seen too much, had felt too much, to ever go home again. Giles was the place they ran to when they were lost or afraid, their safe haven. Willow knew, they only had to look at Giles and they'd be safe, because he wouldn't let anything hurt them. And if he knew that his tears would hurt them, he'd keep them inside forever.

"How she died," Willow finished for him, holding his gaze, willing those tears to just stay away. Don't fall, don't fall...Buffy fell, and that's enough for one lifetime. But Buffy didn't fall, she thought, Buffy ran. Buffy jumped. But she didn't want to think about that. Every time her mind tried to replay that night--tried to remember the sight of Buffy's body hitting the ground, a cloud of dust rising around her, the horrible sickening thud, the sound of her knuckles rapping on the dirt as her arm fell limply, the sound that had told Willow irrevocably that her best friend really was gone--she would feel sick and her thoughts would skitter away, not willing to delve any further.

"What will you tell them?" she asked, forcing her attention back to Giles. She wouldn't think about that. "They don't know, do they, about Dawn? They don't know she's the Key." Why would they? she thought. Giles certainly wouldn't have told them, and he was the only one who had any contact with the Council. Even Buffy wouldn't talk to them. She used to be afraid of them, Willow remembered, after the Cruciamentum. She didn't want anything to do with them ever again, but they came back anyway. Buffy never seemed to have much choice in anything. Maybe that was why she died, maybe that was why she chose to jump instead of Dawnie, because that was something she could choose. She never had any say in her life, but her death was her own. Was that why?

"I'll tell them the Key was someone else, someone we didn't know. I'll tell them she's dead now anyway. I'll tell them that Buffy died fighting Glory." Giles paused briefly, his eyes flitting to the coffin and back to Willow again. "It's partly true, I suppose. And they don't need to know the truth. Glory is gone. Buffy is dead. And Dawn is safe now."

"But what if she isn't?" Willow asked. "She's still the Key, right? What if some other god comes after her? What will we do then? What if she isn't safe, Giles?"

Giles was quiet for a long time, so long Willow was almost convinced he hadn't heard her question. He looked at her again, and her breath caught in her throat, because that look was back in his eyes; that horrible distant look; that look that said he was hanging on by his fingertips, hanging on and wondering if letting go would be easier in the long run, and less painful. It was frightening. Giles was the strongest person Willow had ever known, the strongest, bravest man she was sure had ever lived, and it was too hard for him, how would she survive?

"Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, never, never.." Giles' voice cracked suddenly, and Willow found herself holding her breath. His eyes looked dark, darker than she had thought they were, and she suddenly wondered just how well she did know Giles. Because she had thought Giles would never ever give up, and yet that look was there. That look that told her that Dawn had to be alright, she had to, because if she wasn't, there was nothing any of them could do to save her this time. Without Buffy, there was nothing to be done.

Willow wondered idly how it must feel to know that the person you loved was your destiny. Before Buffy, she had never believed in fate or destiny or predestination; those were just fancy words in the romance novels her mother liked, words people used to hide the fact that it was really just animal attraction, wasn't it? Two people recognising something in the other that they wanted, needed even? It wasn't fate, she thought, just chance. Chance that Oz had jumped in front of that bullet for her, chance that Tara had come looking for her that night when the Gentlemen were in town. All just chance, coincidence, but nothing more. Not fate. She and Tara weren't fated for each other: she loved her, loved her with every breath she took, but it wasn't fate, just love. And that was enough, for them. But for Buffy and Giles it was fate. It was decided before either of them were born. And every step they took, unknowingly, was a step towards one another, a step on the same path.

And now Giles was on that path all alone, and Willow wondered just how he could stand it, how he managed to sit there quiet and pale, but composed. He wasn't tearing his hair out or weeping unabashedly, like people did in the movies, that strange grieving state that seemed so violent and sudden. He wasn't doing anything, but he was so alone. She could see the aloneness, hovering above him like a second shadow, dogging his every move. It would be with him wherever he went, she could see that, and escaping Sunnydale wouldn't leave it behind. She didn't want to say he was half a man without Buffy, because that would sound so...melodramatic, but there was some truth in it. That intangible essence that made him Giles wasn't there anymore. Perhaps it had been Buffy that made him Giles, and without her he wasn't the man they'd known. Perhaps he'd only been that man because she'd needed him to. Perhaps that was what being a person's destiny meant, that you only existed because they did, and when they ceased to exist, so did you.

But Willow didn't want that to be true. She didn't want to lose them both to this. Because, really, how fair was that? It didn't seem right. It didn't ring true. There was a balance to the universe, Giles had always said, good and evil. For all the demons and the vampires, there was the Slayer. For the Slayer, there was the Watcher. For Buffy, there was Giles. In death, there was life. What great evil had perished, that both Buffy and Giles were required to die too?

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"Giles is leaving us? Are you serious? He's actually leaving us?" Xander's voice was high and sharp, tinged with that vague hysteria that they had all felt stalking them, since that night; that panic and horror that threatened to overwhelm them with the horrid truth that Buffy was gone, their friend, their protector was gone, and this time no quirks of fate, no medicinal miracles, no magic could bring her back. She was dead.

"How can he leave? What will happen if...if something happens? What are we supposed to do? We live on the Hellmouth!" Xander's face was pale save for two high spots of colour on his cheekbones, and his eyes were overly-bright. And for the first time in as long as she could remember, Willow thought, for the first time in forever, Xander looked scared. Not just his usual, joking-but-petrified fear, but outright terror. They had never been alone before. Not alone, and known it. Buffy and Giles had been there as long as they had known there was a Hellmouth, standing in front of them, protecting them, shielding them from the worst excesses. Their own personal knights-in-shining-armour, she thought, and choked back the smile that threatened to emerge. Smiling was wrong. She wasn't allowed to smile, not when Dawn was inconsolable, when Giles was strange and old, when Xander was teetering on the brink of hysteria.

Anya was quiet, sitting on the bed with Buffy's old stuffed pig in her arms. She wouldn't let go of it now. Silence from Anya in itself was disconcerting enough, and Willow found herself longing for the inappropriate comments she had made in the wake of Joyce's death, the confusion and the bewilderment. It would have been easier, to have someone to explain things to, to be able to try the words in air, instead of just inside her mind. But Anya knew death now, had seen it firsthand, and was silent.

"I know, Xander. I know." Willow tried to find the words to make it clear to them. Giles had explained it so well, she understood why, in her heart, but she couldn't bring it out. How could she make them see why? It was the right thing to do, for him, not for them, but it wasn't their choice to make. Giles had only ever been in Sunnydale for Buffy, and without her why should he stay? Why would he want to stay? "Giles said...he said once that the Slayer is like a magnet, that the...the bad things are drawn to her, so she'll always have something to fight. Buffy's not here now, and it won't be as bad. I think. I don't know. But he wants to go. And we can't stop him."

"Of course we can stop him!" Xander snapped, pacing back and forth, his movements stiff and jerky. He was like a wounded animal, Willow thought, ready to turn on anyone at a moment's notice, even someone trying to help. She knew he didn't love Buffy, not like that, not anymore, but he'd never felt anything like this before. Losing Jesse hurt, but not like this. Not like this. Because they depended on Buffy, for more than just friendship. She was the reason they were all still here. Willow still remembered the flash of that other universe she'd had, where she and Xander were vampires. It had been horrible, and Buffy was the difference between this world and that.

"We just ask him to stay," Xander said. "He will, I know."

"We can't do that, Xander!"

"Why not?" Xander asked, whirling around to face her. "If we ask him to, he will. We just need to say to him, 'Look, G-Man, we need you to stay.' He doesn't want to go, not really. This is his home."

"No, it's not," Anya said, and somehow her quiet voice managed to cut through the tension and fear in the air like a knife. Willow turned to look at her, surprised, unsure and a little scared. If Anya could see it, whatever 'it' was, then it had to be obvious. So why couldn't Xander see? "It's not his home. He's English. His home is in England, with the rest of the English people. He's lived there all his life. He's lived here....what? Five years?"

"Yeah, but...we're his friends!" Xander said, running a hand through his hair. A lock flopped over his eye, and he brushed it back with an impatient, absent-minded gesture. "We're friends. And friends don't just run away when things get hard. Except, you know, Buffy that one time."

"But we're not, Xander! We're not. And if we were, we'd be bad friends. When was the last time any of us went round to Giles', just to hang out with him? Or bought him a birthday present? Do you know what his favourite food is? Or who his friends were when he was a kid? We don't know anything about him! Because we never asked! We laugh at him, Xander, and we make fun of him, and we take him for granted, and why should he want that? Forget why he's leaving. What possible reason is there for him to stay?" Willow stopped, breathing hard, her heart beating in panicky little jerks, her hands trembling.

She was terrified, terrified that Giles would go, terrified that he would stay. Because he wasn't Giles anymore, whoever he was. He looked like Giles, certainly, and even sounded like him on occasion, but it wasn't him. Giles was comforting, with his tea and his calm and his soft voice, and whatever the man wandering around with Giles' face was he wasn't comforting. He scared her. It was like taking an eraser to a pencil mark on paper; you could see the faint indentation where the words had been, but there was nothing but white blankness really. You remembered where the words had been, and only your memory saw them. It wasn't real. The only reality they had was the cold empty space where Buffy had been.

Buffy. It had always come around to Buffy. She was the reason, the reason for all of it. "He only ever stayed for Buffy, Xander," Willow murmured, her eyes filling with tears, her arms wrapping around herself. She was cold, a bone-deep chill that wouldn't ever go away. "It wasn't for us. He loves us, but not enough to stay. She's...was the reason, and now she's gone." Was. Oh God, was. How could she ever get used to talking about Buffy in anything but the present tense? How could Buffy be a 'was'?

Xander was crying now, a harsh hitching sound that just sounded so wrong coming from his throat. It was like the tears were being torn from him, drop by drop, wrenched from the bottom of his heart. "Xander," Willow whispered, her voice scarcely above silence, "Xander, don't. Don't."

"What happened, Will?" he asked, his tone suddenly weary, bone-tired and ready to drop. His head hung limply on his shoulders, his eyes two dark pools in his face. His hands were trembling, Willow noticed absently. The master carpenter, and his hands were shaking. "How did this happen? We were happy. I mean, we were running for our lives, fighting monsters and all sorts of other nasties, but we were happy. Weren't we? What happened to that?"

Willow looked at Anya, for help, for reassurance, for anything that would rid her heart of this emptiness, this barren wasteland, this uneasy sense of fear and falseness. But Anya only looked back at her, the same fear reflected in her eyes. It was as though they had all fallen when Buffy did, but when Buffy hit the ground they kept falling, further and further away from her, and each other. She felt as though her hands were reaching out into the darkness, reaching for someone to hold onto, and their fingertips were just meeting, just brushing past, and then they were gone. Was it Buffy? She didn't know. She didn't know where Buffy was now. Her body was in the ground, but where was she?

"I don't know what happened," Willow said, her voice suddenly thick with the tears she'd promised herself she wouldn't let fall. "I don't...we knew this could happen, Xander. I mean, we knew, right from the first day. We knew, and it happened once before, remember? Buffy died before, only this...this time we can't save her. We can't, Xander, and it's not your fault, it's not my fault, it's not Dawnie's fault. It...it just happened. She's the Slayer," Willow finished, knowing it wasn't enough, it wasn't an excuse. 'She's the Slayer;', as though that could make it all better. 'We knew she was going to die, so why are we so upset?' Is that what she'd just said? Is that what she really thought?

And then the tears were there, breaking through the barriers Willow had erected so well, hot salty tears that choked off her breath and clouded her vision. Maybe if she cried enough tears she could drown in them and be with Buffy. Maybe then she'd know where Buffy went, why she left, why she'd wanted to leave.

Because she had wanted to. There'd been a smile on Buffy's dead face, and the undertaker hadn't put it there. As much as she'd loved that Buffy had died happy, at peace at last, she shouldn't have been happy. Leaving them all behind shouldn't have made her happy. That wasn't how Buffy should have died, happy and content. Buffy should have died fighting, not giving up. Dying was easy, Willow had always known that. Dying was when it all ended, when you didn't have to fight anymore. Buffy had given up, and perhaps that was what offended Willow most. Buffy had given up. For all her brave talk and her courageous attitude, for all the fighting and the sacrifices, Buffy had laid down her burden for something else to pick up.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

The house was quiet, perhaps too quiet. There was a kind of silence that was warm, welcoming, even healing, and there was a kind of silence that signalled the absence of hope, and it was, Giles mused, most definitely the latter that was battering at his eardrums. There were echoes where there had previously been none, spaces where furniture, books, symbols of his calling had been, and none of these larger than the area in his heart that Buffy had occupied. If his heart had a landscape, he thought with a pained quirk of his lips, no doubt his had a lonely tumbleweed blowing across it.

Seeing this house suddenly so empty made it all so real somehow, even more than the coffin and the grave, the headstone and the mourners--over a month since past--had done. A funeral meant a death, but this empty house meant Buffy's death. It was over. Whatever his life had been and meant, it was over now. And what had he to look forward to? He had effectively severed any ties he might have had with England when Buffy quit the Council, and their less-than-welcoming return only a few months ago had done little to restore those ties. He had no friends, no family, no job, no home, other than those he was leaving behind in Sunnydale. And it was becoming clearer by the day that he could not stay here.

He loved his young friends, loved them more than perhaps they would ever know, but the benefits of age and experience afforded him a degree of insight that they lacked. They needed him now, and he was certain they viewed his imminent departure as some form of betrayal, but the years would tell. If he stayed in Sunnydale, what future was there for him? That he was more than qualified to find a job, any job, had never been in doubt. Had Giles ever really needed the money, he could have found one in no time, but he had not. The librarianship at Sunnydale High had been a way of staying close to Buffy, the money had played little part in it. No, Giles could retire now, should he wish, and spend his twilight years in peace and a degree of solitude. And that it would be solitary was, he felt, almost certain. In ten years would he matter quite so much to Willow or Xander? They would be adults, in the prime years of their lives, married perhaps, concerning themselves little with Hellmouths or vampires. A retired Englishman rapidly approaching sixty would hardly be considered the friend of choice, even given their extraordinary history. No, they had sacrificed their childhoods for his and Buffy's calling--he would not allow to sacrifice any more.

And yet... "And yet," he whispered, looking down into the plastic tumbler of neat whisky held in his hand. He'd not touched a drop, but the promise of answers at the bottom of the tumbler was tempting. He'd resorted to this too often in his youth, and if he was entirely honest with himself the scent of whiskey sickened him now. It was redolent with too much pain, too much grief and anger. It was entirely appropriate, given his current state of mind.

"What if I need them though?" The words slipped out unconsciously, words Giles would never have allowed his friends to hear. Their burdens were great enough without him adding to them. If he had allowed himself to need them so, that was his fault and his problem. Hadn't he told Buffy that she was not responsible for Spike's feelings? He had, and not so long ago either. He would not permit himself to use them as a crutch. However much he might need one.

Giles lowered himself to sit on the steps, surveying his empty domain, grunting slightly as his much-abused knees protested. The furniture was all in storage awaiting sale--his gift to Xander and Anya--his books and weapons long since dispatched back to England. All that remained was dust, and memories of happier times. If he closed his eyes and listened hard enough he could almost hear her, almost see her. In his memories Buffy was always smiling. Even after this past year Giles could not see her as anything but. Willow, he knew, resented Buffy's death, but not him. No, on the contrary, Giles envied his Slayer. Oblivion was sweet, and dear God, hadn't he earned it too? Call it punishment, call it reward: either way, Giles felt, he had earned his death.

The letter was mailed, and all that was left for him now was to do what he'd been talking of ever since Buffy had died: leave. He wasn't good at goodbyes, never had been; his behaviour at Buffy's graveside was indicative of that, and he planned to just slip away quietly. If he had to suffer through tears and recriminations he feared his already-faltering resolve would fall in the dust that seemed to haunt his life. Dust to dust, and wasn't that how he'd been living this past month?

The intrusive blare of the cab pierced through the fog that clouded his mind, and he rose slowly, leaving the untouched whiskey on the step behind him. The Giles of a month ago would never have dreamed of leaving the house in such a state, dust everywhere, the rubbish bins not even emptied, but now he could not bring himself to care. His life here was over. Why drag it all out longer than necessary? The wound needed to be cauterised, and maybe he'd die from the operation, but was that really such a grave concern? No, it wasn't. Giles welcomed whatever the future might bring. Either life would improve, or he would die, and either prospect was equally welcoming.

He paused at the door, looking back one last time, trying to remember it as it had been, a home once, a refuge, a place of friendship and laughter, of love snatched amid the darkness, and sorrow, yes, but sweet sorrow. It had been a home, for better or worse, with all the associations that word brought with it, and he knew he'd never find such a home again. "And the rest is silence," he whispered in a ragged whisper. Merrick's dying words, Buffy had told him. He'd thought it appropriate, somehow, though few would ever have described the grouchy old man as a sweet prince. But death was not his gift, and his was the noble heart cracking.

"Goodbye," Giles said, to no-one, and to everyone, and closed the door.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

My dearest Willow,

 

I have no doubt that you're probably wondering why I'm sending you this letter, why I would begin writing to you now, when from your perspective you have only just said goodbye to me. It's a good question, and one I'm not sure I have an adequate answer for. I know that as you're reading this I am on an aeroplane, flying further and further away from Sunnydale with every line that you read. Believe me when I tell you I wish it was not so. Somehow, over the past five years, Sunnydale has become my home, despite what I may have said to you previously, and it breaks my heart to leave. But leave I must.

It has been difficult for me to rationalise events since Buffy's death, difficult to try and find some meaning in all of this grief and turbulence. I don't recall her funeral very well, but I do remember what I said to you afterwards. I tried to explain to you then why I must go, but I don't think I was very clear. Forgive me. I didn't have the words then, I don't think I fully understood myself. I was in shock. This letter is, in part, an attempt to help you understand my actions. The last thing I want is for you and the others to feel I have abandoned you. That is not the case. Willow, there is nowhere on Earth that I would rather be than in Sunnydale, Hellmouth and all. You, Xander, Dawn, Tara, Anya, you are my family and you will be in my thoughts. I know that I am not the most demonstrative of men, but I hope you never have cause to doubt just how loved you all are.

I never told Buffy that, and it is my greatest regret, one I will take to my grave. I suspect that I never truly believed she could die, even after her encounter with the Master. You remember, she was always so much more, so alive, so vital. The thought that one day all that light could be extinguished...it was impossible. There was always a tomorrow when I thought of Buffy, a tomorrow and a tomorrow. There was always a reason not to tell her, and now she's dead, Willow, and I am afraid that she did not know. Maybe the love of a middle-aged Englishman would not have meant much to her, but she would have known. She was loved.

But I digress. I am not explaining myself as well as I had hoped. Again, I ask your forgiveness. My mind does not seem as focused as once it was. Perhaps it is old age creeping up on me. Or perhaps it is the effects of loss. I cannot tell, they seem so similar. She is all I think of, and there are times I must consciously remind myself that she really is gone. I always think 'over the next hill, in the next room perhaps', but no. Buffy is dead, and I am going to have to find a way to live with that fact. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point I was trying to make, the reason I must leave. The reason is Buffy, and yet it is not.

When I was ten, Willow, my father told me that I was destined to become a Watcher. My whole life was spent building up to that one moment in the library when I first met Buffy. I looked at her and spoke to her, and for the first time it was all real. She was a Slayer, my Slayer, with a name and a face. It felt like at that moment I had actually begun to live, instead of merely existing. Buffy has been the cornerstone of my entire life, even before I knew her name, even if it was only in the abstract. And now she's gone. She's gone, Willow, and that purpose, that cornerstone is gone too. I don't know who I am without her in my life. I built my world around her, and without its centre it cannot hold anymore. I have to go away. I have to find out who I am without her. I have to rebuild it all, find a new centre. And I can't do that in Sunnydale. She's everywhere. Everywhere I look there are memories. And I owe it to her to try.

Buffy always knew that I would die for her, but living for her, that's harder. I know what it is to grieve, I know what sorrow feels like, I know how hard it is, how painful, how lonely. I've been there. I know it. Right now I feel as though I could just lie beside her grave forever, and if I never rose again I wouldn't care. I don't want to live without her. But I have to try. I have to. She died so that we could live in this world, and that's what we have to do. Live. We have to make her sacrifice mean something. Buffy didn't die to save us from dying. She died so that we could live. And I am going to live, Willow, as hard as it may be without her, I'm going to do it. Because that's what she would expect of me. I'm going to look at the world and appreciate its beauty and maybe every now and then think to myself 'Buffy would have liked that'. Because I know she can see me, and I know she can hear me, and anything less would be a disappointment to her. I've done that before, and I remember the look in her eyes, and I will never do it again. I don't need to see her face to see that look. It's with me, inside me, everywhere I go. And every time I give into my grief, every time I wallow, every time I think that maybe it's just a little bit too hard, I remember that look. I won't do that to her again.

In a way it doesn't matter that she's gone, because she's out there somewhere. She can see us, Willow, I'm sure of it. Just because we can't see her...that's no reason to stop trying to make her proud of us. The First Slayer told Buffy that death was her gift, and it was. It was her gift to us, and we can't waste a second of it. We mustn't. And when I die, Willow, when I die I want to be able to give Buffy my life and know that my gift is equal to hers.

It all sounds so simple on paper, so straight-forward, laid out and planned. It is not so. These things I say to you now, I know them in my head, but convincing my heart that they are true will take time. Even now it still does not seem quite real. Buffy dead? I something think. Surely not! I sometimes find myself glancing at the clock, idly thinking that it is time for Buffy to be reporting back from patrol, but she isn't going to, is she? Living without Buffy will be the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I never knew I could feel like this, I never knew such pain existed. I have known loss, but this is more than that. What words are there for the destruction of an entire world, a cherished way of life, a belief? I believed Buffy would outlive all of us, but I was wrong. I was wrong.

Yesterday I found myself wondering what joy is left in life now that Buffy is no longer alive. I thought perhaps there was none. There, too, I was wrong, for you are still here. We both forget that I have known you for a longer time than I have known Buffy. I can still recall the first moment I saw you, Willow, do you remember, stumbling into the library to avoid Cordelia, half-hidden behind a stack of books? You weren't expecting to find anyone in the library, but you found me. You were so young then, so innocent. You were my first friend in Sunnydale, and for that I shall always be grateful. If only you knew just how many times you have astonished me with your intelligence, your insight, your compassion and your bravery. You are extraordinary, Willow, never believe you are anything less. You are, I think, the daughter of my heart, and I love you dearly. Be brave, Willow, be brave.

I shall see you again soon. I will not stay away a day longer than is necessary. If you ever need me, for anything, demons or just someone to talk to, know that I am only a telephone call away. I will come as soon as you call, and perhaps even before that. Give my love to the others. Tell Xander that he is a man to be proud of, and I would be honoured to call him son. Let Tara know that she has the oldest, wisest soul of anyone I have ever known. Hold onto her, Willow. Anya...dear infuriating Anya, she has the innocence of a child, and in this world that is something very precious indeed. Tell Dawn that I love her, that I am praying for her, and that no-one blames her. Let her know (and perhaps him as well) that she has the best guardian possible in Spike. And Willow, tell Angel. Tell Angel gently and wisely. Tell him that Buffy always loved him. Tell him I forgive him. And if you need something to tell yourself, know this. You are wise. You are strong. And you are loved. I shall miss you.

 

Rupert Giles

 

*~*~*~*~*~*

 

THE END