One Second Sooner
By Jenn

Title: One Second Sooner
Author: Jenn
Feedback: Please do!
Email: BGJenn@aol.com
Spoilers: Through "Tabula Rasa"
Rating: PG-13.
Disclaimer: I know I don't own it, you know I don't own it, all hail Joss.
Summary: Alternative ending to "Tabula Rasa".
Note: My first fic. Be gentle.


"Nobody messes with Joan the Vamp..." the words died on her lips and she just stood there, eyes wide and unseeing.

The first blow dropped her. She instinctively curled into a ball, making no move to fight back as the vampire viciously kicked at her stomach. Her head was pressed against the ground, and she could hear Spike's heavy footfalls as he raced toward her.

There was a moment, no more than a second, when she thought that she was safe - that he was going to help her. When she thought that things were going to go differently. Within that moment things seemed to slow down, as though an entire hour was passing in that one tick of the clock. Buffy closed her eyes and exhaled softly, trusting him to save her. It was almost absurd, that trust in him - but she knew he would come through.

The vampire's foot connected with her temple, and the moment was shattered.

Giles and Anya frantically rearranged the displays on the shelves, studiously avoiding eye contact. They'd been working like that for almost ten minutes, and it was starting to wear thin when Xander, Willow, Tara and Dawn crawled up out of the sewers.

Giles glanced over at them, pausing in the act of reshelving a book. "Are you all quite alright?"

"Yeah," Xander said softly, staring at the floor. "Yeah, we're just fine." He slowly looked up at Willow, his face unreadable. "I think it's time for you girls to go home."

"I'm not tired," Dawn said, still trying to deny what she knew was about to happen. "When we get home, we could order a pizza and watch some movies. It'll be fun. We need some fun," she added, looking to Tara for support.

"Yeah, Dawnie," Tara murmured, stepping towards the front door. She hesitated for a moment, turning to look back at Giles.

When he saw the unhidden pain in her eyes, it all clicked into place. Giles lowered his gaze and pressed his forehead against the row of books in front of him, struggling to maintain his composure. He managed to keep it together as he listened to them walk out; the instant he heard the door close he blindly slammed a fist forward, expecting it to connect with the wall. The orb he shattered instead embedded long shards of glass in his hand, and he stumbled backwards in surprise. He stood there in silence, staring blankly at his hand, until he realized that he wasn't alone - and looked up to see Xander and Anya openly staring at him.

"Giles," Anya ventured, reaching for his injured hand. "You're bleeding."

"You're bloody observant," he snapped. "Don't - don't touch me." "Hey there, G-man," Xander interrupted, stepping forward. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't take your anger out on -my- fiancee."

Anya glared up at him, shaking her head. "Xander - nothing happened. Well, something happened, but do you really think we'd both still be here if we'd had sex? Can you - just not be an idiot right now? He's bleeding."

The following silence was filled with tension. Giles all but collapsed onto a nearby chair, letting his injured hand openly bleed onto the floor as he rubbed at his eyes with his other hand. "God, I hope Buffy fared better."

The phone rang.

 

"I called Dawn," Xander said, his voice barely audible. "She and Tara are on their way." Anya said nothing; she just let the significance of that statement sink in. He slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her in for a hug. "Tell me what to do, An. I just don't know anymore."

"If I were still a demon-"

He smiled a little, cutting her off with a nod of his head. "Thank you."

"Thank you?" she echoed, sounding surprised.

Xander shifted back, just far enough to look into her eyes. "Yes. Thank you. Because when I picked up that phone, the first thing that came into my mind was me, her and your average blunt object, and it's good to know that I'm not the only one." He turned his gaze away from her suddenly, searching the waiting room for Giles. "Hey - where'd he go?"

"He convinced them that he was her father," Anya replied, resting her head on his shoulder. "They let him go in to see her."

 

Tara hung up the phone slowly, and turned to look at Dawn and Willow. Both of them stared at her, trying not to read into what they'd heard on her end of the conversation. "Dawn, get your shoes on."

"What's going on?" Willow whispered, eyes wide with fright. "Tara?"

Tara reluctantly looked over at her, shaking slightly. She'd been packing up her things, preparing to leave, when the call had came. If it weren't for that call, she would already be gone. "W-Willow ..."

"It's Buffy, isn't it?" Dawn said, starting to panic. "Is Buffy okay?"

"She's in the hospital," Tara sighed. "That gang of vampires that she and Spike went after, they ... they got her pretty bad." She stepped forward, her eyes already reddening with tears. "Dawnie, they don't think she's going to make it."

"And it's all my fault," Willow gasped, anguish coloring her voice. "Are - are they going to let us in? To see her? Tara, I have to see her. I have to tell her I'm sorry."

Tara started to tremble more visibly. "They're letting ... -us- in to see her," she said, reaching for Dawn. "Willow, they don't want you there."

It took all the willpower in the world, but Tara turned away from Willow's brokenly sobbing form and left the house.

 

Giles pulled a chair up to her bed, seizing one of her hands as he sat. "Buffy?" There was no response, and he hadn't really expected one. Never letting go of her hand, he scooted the chair up a little farther. "Buffy, I - I'm so sorry that I tried to leave you," he whispered. "I won't do it again, I swear. Just as long as -you- don't try to leave -me-." Giles gave her hand a gentle squeeze, the last of his hope dying away. "Buffy, please."

He could feel tears sliding down his cheeks, which was a relatively novel experience for him. He'd lost track of the number of times over the years that he'd sucsessfully stopped himself from crying - whether or not he was in the kids' presence. When the Master had killed her he hadn't been there to grieve; when she'd sacrificed herself, he'd had to act as the adult and help them through their grief while neglecting his own. Above and beyond all that ... this wasn't anything remotely like confronting a broken, empty body. This was watching her die slowly, feeling himself die with her as her condition worsened. This was more than he could deal with.

A soft sob escaped him, then another. Giles gasped, trying to fight it off - but he was helpless, utterly helpless, and the pent-up grief and suffering and loss of five years with his Slayer all came pouring forth.

That was how the doctor found him. Weeping over her body.

 

Tara and Dawn rushed into the waiting room. Xander stood to greet them, pulling Anya up with him.

"Where - where's Spike?" Tara said softly, trying to avoid the main issue. "I thought he brought her in."

"He did," Xander replied, looking up at her. "And then he left." He hesitated a moment before looking over at Dawn, trying to find the right words to reassure her. "Hey, Dawnie," he whispered, tugging both of them into a group hug. "It'll be okay. I promise."

Dawn surprised them all a little then. "It won't ever be okay again, Xander," she said, the very grown-up sound of resignment in her voice catching him off-guard. "We aren't just losing Buffy. We're losing Willow, too."

He didn't realize that Tara was crying until he felt her tears on his neck. Xander looked over her shoulder, realizing that Anya stood seperate from them, alone. "Come here, An," he whispered, gesturing her closer with his head. "You deserve to be here just as much as they do."

Xander sighed softly as he saw the doubt leave her face. She stepped around them, her arms wrapping around him from behind. With the three of them encircling him, their grief mingled with his, he started to feel the tiniest bit better.

Seconds later he remembered that under different circumstances Willow would've been there with them, and his heart hardened again.

 

Giles awoke to find himself slumped in the chair, still holding her hand. How many days had it been since he'd come here? Three? Four? He only left her side when he had to, and he didn't even leave the building then - he passed the time between visiting hours by sleeping in the waiting room. Xander and the girls visited once a day, but reality demanded that for the most part they be at work and school.

He'd had a lot of time alone with her, as a result. When he was with them, at least then he had a focus - he could be the calm and supportive one. When he was alone ...

"Mr. Giles?"

He looked up, smiling reflexively at the nurse. "Yes?"

She stared at her clipboard, hesitant. "Well ... there's a man here who ... well, he says that -he's- the father."

"Hank is here?" he didn't try to mask the surprise in his voice.

The nurse stared at him in confusion. "You know him? But he said - and you said -" her eyes widened. "Oh."

It took him a moment for his thoughts to get where hers already were. "Oh, good lord, woman. No. Just - no. I'm her stepfather," he said, a little irritated that she hadn't come up with that first. Reluctantly releasing Buffy's hand, he stood and ran a hand through his hair. "I'll talk to him."

He attempted a sympathetic smile for Hank's sake. "It's good of you to come, Mr. Summers."

"Good of you to almost get me denied access to my daughter's room," the other man said, laughing bitterly. "Her father, my ass."

Giles stared at him, his eyebrows lifting a little. "Now is neither the time or the place for this kind of attitude. You're here to see Buffy - well, so am I, and-" his own words about attitude flew out the window. "And I might as well be her father, for all the care you've shown her."

"I'm sure you've shown her a lot of 'care'," Hank hissed, eyes narrowing.

"You'd damned well better watch what you say to me." Giles inched forward, so that they were less than an arm's length apart. "I love Buffy like she's my daughter, which - just judging by your past actions - is more than I can say for you."

They were both silent for a minute, as Hank slowly turned bright red. "I love my daughter," he snarled. "And don't think for a second that I believe your 'love' for her is as innocent as all that!"

Before he had a chance to elaborate on that, Hank Summers found himself lying flat on his back on the floor, staring up at a dangerously infuriated Giles. "You'd better leave this hospital and not come back," Giles said, almost too softly. "Because if I see you here again, bad things are going to happen to you." He stalked back to Buffy's room, so blinded by his fury that he didn't see the nurse who tried to stop him - or Xander, who stood open-mouthed by the waiting room door.

 

Giles returned to his chair by Buffy's bedside, automatically reaching for her hand. He reached up with the other hand and tore off his glasses, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as he tried to push down his anger.

"That was rather uncool." Giles turned to see Xander standing in the doorway, staring in at him.

"Please, Xander," he sighed. "Not now."

"Yes, now." Xander walked in, circling to stand so that Buffy's bed was between them. "Hearing her father's voice, knowing that he finally got off of his ass and showed up for something - that might've helped her."

"You didn't hear what he said," Giles muttered, slipping his glasses back on.

Xander shook his head slightly. "I heard every word."

"And you can still stand there and accuse me of doing the wrong thing?" Giles stared up at him in a mixture of resentment and confusion.

"Yes. I can." Xander shifted from one foot to the other, no longer certain that he should utter the words he knew in his heart were true. "Because ... Giles, when you hit him ... were you hitting him because he insulted you, or because he was right?"

Their conversation was rapidly becoming Giles' second standoff in under ten minutes. When the tension finally became too much, he was the first to speak. "Get out."

Xander's eyes narrowed, and his expression became not unlike Hank Summers'. "Fine. I'll be back later."

He left in silence, and Giles was alone with Buffy once more.

 

A slight pressure on his hand awoke him. He fumbled with his glasses, pushing them up his nose as he raised his head and blinked a few times to clear his vision.

Her eyes were open, and she was looking at him. That thought kept whirling through his head before it even occurred to him that she was awake. A tiny, cautious smile appeared on her face, with an unexpected reaction: he started to cry. Again.

Alarmed, she squeezed his hand again. Aware that hugging her would be tough on her mending ribs, Giles raised her hand to his lips instead, trying his hardest to smile back.

It hit them both at once. Buffy stared up at him, shocked by how eagerly her damaged body had responded to that feather-light kiss upon her hand. Giles stared back down at her, driven speechless by the complete trust he saw in her eyes.

"Giles?" she whispered, uncertain. He wouldn't have so much as breathed for fear of breaking the moment, but he saw that she was trying to sit up to get her arms around him.

"Don't try to sit up," he said, hastening to gently push her back down. "You got quite a beating." His hand lingered on her shoulder as he whispered, "We didn't think you were going to pull through."

"Nah," she said, her voice a soft rasp. "I think I've met my 'melodramatic death' quota." She gave his hand another reassuring squeeze, and that simple sensation shot through him like an electric charge. "Besides, I'm not ready to leave you again, not yet."

He clung desperately to the knowledge that her innocent 'you' meant all of them, and not just him. "I would greatly appreciate it if you didn't."

"I would never," Buffy whispered, raising his hand to her lips in an echo of his earlier gesture. His eyes widened slightly, and he started to pull his hand away. "Giles?" she said, her mouth still hovering above his skin. "What's wrong?" She raised her eyes to his, and they both froze.

A bystander would've seen two people truly realizing for the first time how they felt about one another. Any one of the Scoobies would've seen standard Buffy-Giles closeness, and not questioned it any further. Rupert Giles, as he looked down at her, saw only that her perception of him had changed suddenly; Buffy Summers, as she looked up at him, saw only the sudden grief and denial that clouded his eyes. She dropped his hand at the same instant that he yanked it away, and he fled the room without a backwards glance.

 

Two things fought for supremacy in Giles' mind as he walked back to his house. The first: Hank Summers was absolutely right. The second: Buffy had somehow seen it in his eyes when she'd so innocently kissed his hand.

It was a long walk back to his house, and his car had been in the parking lot for days - but he didn't process any of that, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, which was a harder task than he ever would've previously imagined. The sky was black by the time he reached his doorstep, and somewhere along the line it had begun to rain - he was soaking wet.

He stood in the living room, staring at the couch where they'd sat together so many times. "Buffy," he whispered, realizing as he heard her name spoken aloud that he would probably never see that absolute trust in her eyes again. "What have I done?"

Giles was still standing there when Xander started pounding on the door. The sound startled him out of his self-pitying reverie; turning toward the door, he reached for the knob.

Before he could coordinate enough to get his fingers around it, Xander flew through the door, almost knocking him over. "I don't know what you did, but you're going to make it right."

They stared at one another; one stricken with guilt, the other filled with protective fury. "What - is she okay?"

"No, she's not okay. From what I could understand, she awoke with you there and you ran out of the room and never came back!" Xander made angry gestures as he spoke, glaring at Giles. "What the hell is wrong with you, Giles?"

If it had been any of the others, he would've hedged and stalled and made up a clever lie. Unfortunately for him it was Xander, who already knew half of the story and by that alone, deserved to know the other half as well. Giles cleared his throat, backed up, and tried his best to speak steadily. "I realized that - that you were right. Both of you. And that I had no right to be there with her. And I ... I left."

Some of Xander's anger visibly died away, but his tone was just as brittle as before. "Whatever. You're marching right back to that hospital, right this instant, and apologizing to her. I don't care how wrong you think it is, or how painful it'll be for you. Move!"

Giles' eyebrows rose fractionally. "When did you get to be so forceful, Xander? And -" he blinked once. Twice. "It just occurred to me that I walked all the way here. How are we getting back?"

"Number one ... have you -been- to any of my job sites? And number two ..." he started to look at trifle embarassed. "I saw your car in the parking lot and borrowed it. You left your keys in Buffy's room."

"Oh," was all Giles could think to say.

 

Xander stopped just inside the waiting room, gesturing Giles on ahead. "You're doing this on your own, G-man. And if she's still crying when you come back - to quote a friend of mine - bad things are going to happen to you."

Giles pushed through the double doors and walked ahead in silence, his entire being focused on his destination. Xander had good intentions, but - what if seeing him only made things worse for her? Would apologizing really make it any better?

... And was he asking himself those things because he was worried for Buffy, or because he was too much of a coward to face her now that she knew?

That last thought propelled him into her room. She was alone and awake, despite her closed eyes. He could tell by the way her breathing suddenly became too pronounced that she was trying to even it out, and make it seem as though she was asleep.

"Buffy," he whispered. "I'm sorry." His chair was still there next to her bed, and Giles dropped down onto it before plucking his glasses off and burying his face in his hands. "I'm so very sorry, Buffy."

Her eyes opened and she turned her head to look at him, her face contorted with pain at the mere sight of him. "No ... I'm sorry that you .. I wish I could just take it back," she whispered, "and make everything be alright again. But I can't take it back, Giles. I can't even truthfully say that I -want- to take it back."

His shoulders slumped, and he started to shake a little. "I understand," he said, his voice almost too low to be understandable. "I'll - I was already going back to England, anyway," he added, remembering that for the first time since the spell had lifted.

Tears started to fall down Buffy's face, and he heard her soft intake of breath as she fought back a sob. "Please don't leave me, Giles. I'll try to - I'll fix it somehow, I swear."

"There's nothing to fix," he said, trying to reassure her. Giles lifted his head, not even attempting to smile. "It isn't wrong to feel the way you do, Buffy. I'm the one that's ruined things for both of us."

"It's my stupid feelings for you that've ruined things for us," she insisted. "Don't ever try to blame yourself."

He gave her his best 'I'm in charge here' glare. "A father-figure twice your age is in love with you, Buffy. If I were in your shoes, I'd probably be horrified, too."

They both stopped abruptly and stared at one another, things finally clicking into place.

A bystander would've seen two people realizing for the first time, all over again, how they really felt about one another. Xander, standing in the doorway, saw far more than he really wanted to and backed out quickly. Buffy Summers and Rupert Giles, however, only saw one another, and that was enough.

 

Their first Christmas together, at which he asked her to marry him. Their first child in her arms, as he gently kissed her forehead. Their first grandchild, as she protested that she was too young to be a grandmother. Thirty-five years of marriage, before he died of old age. Their grandchildren and the Harris' playing together, as she presided over a 'family' gathering. Her own death at the age of ninety, after which they were reunited in the afterlife, and never parted again.

Those were the images that ran through Giles' head as he stood in front of her open grave, staring blankly into space. Bittersweet fantasies that would never come true, because moments after their first - and last - kiss, she had slipped back into the coma and never awakened again.

Whatever cruel god governed Vampire Slayers had only given them ten minutes together - ten minutes that had shattered his heart and emptied his soul, until he was a husk of the man that had been. His plans of returning to England had been cancelled, indefinitely. Sometime after Buffy's death Willow had disappeared, and they were still looking for her.

It was all just too hard, and more than a little unfair. But five years of life with Buffy Summers had prepared him for unfair, and he was slowly recovering from the shock of her death.

Long after everyone else had left the funeral, Xander, Dawn and Anya were still standing there with him, waiting for him to finish, unwilling to leave him alone.

They were the only family he would ever have ... because his only chance at a real family had died three days ago.

It would have to be enough.