The Last Time
By Jacqui

Title: The Last Time.
Author: Jacqui.
Rating: G.
Timeline: Late season six, "As You Were".
Comments: What can I say? I can't resist ASH's voice.
Disclaimer: Buffy and co. are not mine. ASH, George Sarah and "Music For Elevators" is definitely not mine, But I'm going to play with them all anyway and put them back in their boxes almost as good as new.
Feedback: All welcome. Please?

Rupert Giles idly strummed the guitar in his hands, his fingers picking out the chords automatically as he repeatedly let his eyes stray around the room. This was a futile action, he knew, a reflex built from nerves. His brain knew that everything was in place, he'd checked and double checked everything a dozen times or more.

The apartment wasn't a large one, but it seemed incredibly vast. Great expanses of floorboards and rugs were spread out before him, broken by the occasional piece of furniture. Every surface had been scrubbed clean, shined and polished with an almost obsessive zeal, every item had been organized into perfect placement or hidden from view. Then, as a moment of panic that it would appear too forced descended, the apartment had been scattered with strange esoteric items that were meant to give it a lived in, comfortable feel, but the effect was a surreal one. Sitting on top of the dinning table sat a vase with bright yellow sunflowers in it. All of a sudden this seemed a ridiculously inappropriate gesture.

He thought back to the conversation they had had. A tearful, agonizing wrench, a cry for help that he was not prepared to deny. How hard he had tried, how much he steeled himself against it, didn't matter. Despite all his convictions, all Buffy had to do was ask and whatever she wanted would be hers. Probably, on some deeper level, she knew this.

He had left Sunnydale to force Buffy to make it on her own, to force her to make the decisions she couldn't make when he was there. She had done this in regards to Dawn, in regards to keeping the house and getting a job. For these, he was extremely proud of her.

These things, though, they were not everything and while Buffy had been tending the material and familial, she had been neglecting herself. He'd seen her do this before, close herself off, protecting herself and everyone around her from the emotional fall out. This time was different, however, he could still hear the desperation in her voice.

There was something else, too. A weakness, an acceptance of that weakness that made him scared for her. He had to close his eyes to force the images out of his head, the things she'd told him. The things she'd done with Spike.

Was it even possible that she didn't know the effect this news would have on him?

He'd hidden it well, he bloody well hoped so, anyway. He'd certainly had plenty of practice. Images of Angel floated through his head, the lies, the betrayal. The next few years had been brutal as she'd moved further and further away from him, sometimes he felt like a puppy abandoned after Christmas.

But she always came back to him. Always needed a life line.

And he always gave it to her.

No matter how much it hurt him, no matter how much it killed him time and time again to watch her destroy herself. He would always support her. And there was nothing he could do about it, he was helpless in this. He had no choice. He knew this.

It was as natural as breathing, this impulse to reach out to her, the need to protect her.

He'd paid for her ticket. There was no way he could go beck to Sunnydale and not give in, not fold under the pressure of her need. Buffy was coming here, to England, to London. She needed help. And he, no choice in the matter, would supply it.

Images came to his head, the fear and hope, the dreaded expectation needling his skin and boiling up into his head, walking into the Magic Box. She'd stood there and he'd had to stop himself from making some kind of animalian howl. He couldn't decide whether it was his memory, or she had actually shaken as she looked at him, trembling.

How fragile she had become, how uncertain. How quickly she had latched on to him, eager to off load her troubles and worries and sink into the familiarity of him being there for her. How eager he had been to let her, how much it had hurt to sever those ties.

The fingers on the guitar strings began to pick out a coordinated tune, his throat warmed up to a hum, his brain working over and over. Before long, the words came out, deep and full of emotion. Sometimes he cursed himself for his subconscious' need to thrash him with the obvious.

"It's just like the last time, the part where I try to deny that she's already said goodbye. Time and time again, I find that I'm lying quiet by her side, wondering what she's got to hide this time. I guess I'm just a pass time, something to keep her occupied, 'til she decides to let it slide. And we'll both know she'll come back on the fly and I'll pretend she's justified and she'll pretend I've got my pride."

The doorbell rang and he let the guitar slide down, slowly, to the ground. His eyes were on the door and he felt the tension grow, escalate, as if they were both feeding off each other. As he stood up, he felt his stomach clench, an expectation of pain already descending on him. Though he had stopped singing, the echo of his voice ran around the apartment, kept up within his head.

"But I don't understand why every time I get ripped up inside, then I give it one more try. So let this be the last time, let this well of mine run dry, so I don't have to watch me cry. This time when she goes I'll be resigned, let me shut the door behind her, let me put her from my mind, let my spirit grow unkind. Let her be the one to find, that I give it one more try, try it one more time."

He wished he could stop the voice in his head as he reached out to the doorknob.

"This will be the last time."

The door moved back, slowly revealing her standing there. He looked at the sunken eyes within their sockets and the thin shoulders that looked ready to shatter, he took in the hunched posture and his eyes watched the slow descent of a bag from her shoulder as she let it hit the floor. Looking up, he saw the one tear in her eye.


The voice in his head disappeared, forgotten with the tune, as Giles opened the door wider.