TITLE: Thirty-Two Flavours (1/8)
RATING: PG, I think.
SPOILERS: Graduation, although I've taken liberties with the Ascension. The library survives. <g>
SUMMARY: Ice cream has come. (Reference "The Prom")
DISTRIBUTION: Wow! I'm flattered! :) Just let me know.
FEEDBACK: How did it rate? Would you like to read more?
DISCLAIMER: Everything 'Buffy' belongs to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Sandollar Productions, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox. Basically what I'm saying is: Not me. Darn. But thank you for inviting me over to play. :)
THANKS TO: Brenda, Karen, Koala, and Trich for their support and encouragement. Jeanne and Mir for the architect blueprints. <g> And to my fabulous tweedtwin, for visions of 'Death by Caffeine' still dance in my brain. ;)
DEDICATION: This tale is affectionately dedicated to the wonderful and kind soul that is Kim Wylie.
INSPIRATION: The song "32 Flavors" is written and performed by Ani Difranco. It can be found on her albums _Not a Pretty Girl_ and _Living in Clip_. Copyright 1995, and 1997, respectively. Righteous Babe Records.
"the kindness I've lavished on strangers
is more than I can explain
still there's many who've turned out their porch lights
just so I would think they were not home
and hid in the dark of their windows
til I'd passed and left them alone
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am thirty-two flavors and then some."
The echoes of the last bell were muffled by the incessant chatter of Sunnydale High's inhabitants, as they slammed locker doors and rustled backpacks. Plans for the weekend festivities were already underway, and if their gleeful hoots of merriment were any indication, the level of exuberance did not intend to die down anytime soon. But who could blame them? It is not often that a student body rebels against an invincible demon -- and survives. Apparently, the demon wasn't as invincible as he thought. Ha, ha. Too bad for him.
Amidst the busy noise, one teenager was remarkably hushed. Buffy Summers hurried; her gaze downcast, her blond hair falling in a curtain around her face. Using her notebooks as a shield, she dodged excited classmates who whooped and hollered through the halls. Her nose scrunched with the beginnings of a headache, and she increased her pace. Targeting the one place she hoped would ease her troubles.
Shouldering the library doors, she was immediately rewarded. Peace. Quiet. Dropping her knapsack with a thud, Buffy sighed gratefully. No students clamouring for her yearbook autograph. Those same students who didn't give her a second glance weeks ago. None of her peers proclaiming she "could be the next Karate Kid." Those same peers who had once upon a time effortlessly dismissed her -- not even taking time to introduce themselves.
Hoisting herself up on the counter, Buffy bit her lip. She knew they meant well. The 'Class Protector' award had been a fantastic surprise. More than fantastic. She recalled all too clearly the Homecoming dance disaster; spurred on by her longing to be recognized, to be remembered. Buffy grimaced. Well, she certainly got her wish. Earlier at lunch, one boy had even asked if she was able to walk on water. Her immediate reaction was one of disbelieving laughter, but then she had registered his solemn air. He was serious! Buffy sat there stupefied, her mouth hanging widely, until Oz had shut it with a gentle tap. She didn't want to be promoted as a contender for "Wrestlemania", nor treated like she was a saviour. She was Buffy.
Her eyes closed briefly, lost in visions of a time when monsters were only regulated to childhood fears, easily banished with the flick of a nightlight. When her biggest dilemma was deciding the topping for her slice of pizza, or which movie to watch. Dreams unlike anything in her present life; vampire ex-boyfriends, hairy hellhounds, stuffy librarians.
Buffy chuckled and hopped to her feet. The stuffy librarian wasn't so bad. And, she reminded herself, he wasn't so stuffy anymore. Who knew he would look *that* handsome in a tuxedo? She had been shocked -- and definitely in a good way, she admitted with a tiny blush. Now that she had caught a glimpse of her black tie Watcher, Buffy couldn't shake the memories. Moreover, she wasn't sure she wanted to.
Speaking of..."Giles?" she called into the empty room, noticing that the silence was a bit *too* silent for her liking.
Laden with a tower of texts, he materialized at the sound of her voice. Giles always seemed to do that. All she had to do was speak his name, and he appeared. It was comforting to know that he was nearby when she needed him. Even when she wanted to share a funny anecdote about her day, or complain about the pop quiz in math class. He was always available for her. She liked that. She also found it a bit unnerving. Perhaps he moonlighted as a magician.
Giles regarded Buffy with lifted brows, stepping carefully down the stairs toward her, the stack in his arms wobbling dangerously. She quickly ran to meet him, grabbing the top books just as they began to slip from the pile.
"Ooof, thank you." He set the remaining volumes on the nearby table, and turned to her. "You arrived in the nick of time. One second more and these priceless archives would have found themselves sprawled everywhere."
Her smile sparkled. "What can I say? I have excellent reflexes. My Watcher taught me well."
Giles flashed a grin in response, one that was immediately replaced with growing concern. "I wasn't expecting you today. Is something wrong?"
Buffy's forehead creased, but she tried to mask the turmoil she felt with a question of her own. "I could ask you the same thing. Giles, school is finished. Not only for the day, but for the *year*. And you're holed up in here, with nothing but a bunch of dust mites for company."
"It's not a bother, really. I do still have to finish the inventory, but thankfully, it's moving along rather nicely. It shouldn't take much longer."
Buffy tapped her foot sternly. "Giles, hello?" She plopped down her armful of texts, and placed her now empty hands on her hips. "Time for fun and frolic. No more homework. No more tests. No more troll-esque principals," she emphasized, a twinkle in her eye. "It's a beautiful day."
Giles appraised his Slayer, silently appreciating the shafts of sunlight streaming through the library windows. The added shine transformed Buffy's normally lustrous curls into pure gold. Coupled with her rosy skin and dark lashes, Giles did not hesitate to agree. It was a beautiful day indeed.
"Precisely the reason why you should be outside, enjoying the weather," he spoke pointedly. "As you said, your time at Sunnydale High has drawn to a close. And if that isn't reason enough to rejoice, then surely the fact that you no longer have to endure Principal Snyder, puts an extra bounce in your step." He waggled his eyebrows at her, and she giggled.
Her cheery demeanor was short-lived however, and Buffy faced him with a sharp look of agitation. "Are you positive?" she asked. "Um, I mean, maybe I should train awhile. It's been relatively calm lately, and in vampire terms, that usually implies something big and hellmouthy soon to come. And of course, that is definitely not of the good. Yeah, I'm absolutely staying here." Ceasing her ramble, she nodded decisively, and moved to retrieve the workout mat from the weapons cage.
Giles' surprised tone stopped her. "Buffy, I didn't schedule a session for today." He met her incredulous expression and chided lightly, "Yes, I am your Watcher. And yes, I want you to work hard. But did you honestly think I would be so rigid as to require training on the last day of school? Please tell me I'm not *that* dictatorial." Despite the faint smile lines etched on his features, Buffy caught the slight hurt that laced his words.
She was hasty to hearten him. "Giles, no. You're not. You've never been. I just thought I might stick around this afternoon..." Buffy trailed off, shrugging. Not wanting to elaborate, she promptly changed the subject. "Hey, you're wearing that sweater again! I like it," She assessed him critically and then commented, "Cordelia should drag you shopping more often.Do something drastic, like forego the tweed on a permanent basis." Buffy tousled his sleeve affectionately, revelling in the flush that stole across the cheeks of her typically dignified Watcher. As Giles' shade of pink deepened, she felt an answering tingle in her belly. He was so cute when he was embarrassed.
Giles cleared his throat, choosing for his own sake, to ignore her compliment.As it was, the mere suggestion that she found him remotely attractive would provide him with fantasy fodder for months. "There have been rumours abound, of a celebratory party this evening. You are planning to attend?"
Buffy slumped into a chair and examined her fingernails with acute interest, the spirited teasing immediately forgotten. "Who cares? A party's just a party. After awhile, they're all the same -- loud music, greasy food, sitting around gossiping, pretending to be something you're not."
Her voice had softened with the last statement, and Giles studied her carefully. Something wasn't right. Buffy was never known to miss a social opportunity, and what with the onset of summer -- resulting in less vampiric activity, and therefore, increased relaxation time -- he hadanticipated a double dose of her usual bubbly self. And yet, here she was; staring blindly at her feet, the picture of utter desolation."Buffy? Dear heavens, what is the matter?"
She propped her chin in her hand, intently observing a lone spider scuttling across the floor. "Nothing." Her protest was feeble, tinged with no small amount of sadness.
"Buffy..." Giles waited a moment but upon receiving no reply, added tentatively, "Perhaps I can help."
The petite girl shied away, her throat swollen with unshed tears. She glanced anywhere but at Giles, trying her hardest to avoid his penetrating stare. She wished he wouldn't look at her like that. He always seemed to know exactly what she was thinking, regardless of her valiant attempts to hide her emotions. And, true to form, she continually fell prey to his compassion; his warmth. God, why was he *looking* at her like that?
It required immense self-control not to teeter forward into his embrace. To clutch at his shoulders and sob unrestrainedly, releasing the whole mess -- all of the recent despair, confusion, and fear -- into a huge mushy blob, which she could then pummel into oblivion, never to be seen again.
But it was not to be. Giles relied on her. He gave of himself freely, just to keep her safe. The number of times he had risked his life for her...and she still didn't fully understand why. To compensate for his unselfishness, Buffy had worked faster. Trained harder. Unrelenting. Determined to make him proud.And she had succeeded. The night of the prom, she had spotted Giles amongst the clapping crowd and his beam of satisfaction had made her heart soar. In comparison to his delight, the award itself meant so little.
He had devoted his entire life to preparing for her; waiting for her.She couldn't break down; couldn't bear to let him down. She had to be strong. Strong for him. Strong for everyone.
Denying her physical ache, she instead raised her eyes to the gentle lines of his face. "I just want to be Buffy."
Although the declaration did not puzzle him entirely, he wondered at its sudden emergence. However, before Giles had opportunity to inquire further, the library doors opened to reveal two boisterous Slayerettes.
"No more pencils! No more books!" Xander crowed, jogging into the room."No more teachers' dirty looks!" He continued his triumphant chant, as Willow executed a perfect pirouette and sank into the seat opposite Buffy.
"Hey Buffy," she chirped. "School's out." she remarked, unnecessarily. "No homework for two months." Willow's eyes widened in comprehension, "Oh. Oh wow. No homework for two *months*," Her expression was one of mischief. "Leaving plenty of time for wicca practice," she whispered conspiratorially. Swinging her feet, the redhead began to whistle off key.
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose at the sudden burst of energy. "Er, at exactly what point did the two of you forget this is a library?"
Xander surveyed his surroundings in mock amazement. "You're kidding. This is a library? And here I thought all of the pretty books were for decoration." Spying the man's subsequent glare, Xander waved his hand in warning. "It's the last day of school, remember? No more teachers' dirty looks. It says so in the song." The lanky boy crossed his arms defiantly.
"Yes, well, what a lovely tune." Giles grumbled.
Always one to diffuse possible tension, Willow steered the conversation to happier things. "Ready to boogie, Buff?" Or, witnessing Buffy's mouth droop a fraction, perhaps not-so-happier things.She repeated her question a little louder, on the offchance that her blond friend simply had not heard.
"Uh, I don't think so, Will. Not this time." Buffy ventured a remorseful half-smile, but the apology didn't quite reach her eyes.
Xander bolted upright, quizzical. "What?! Why? Buffster, this is our last highschool hurrah. Our glorious 'We Weren't Eaten By A Big Ugly Monster' shebang. I've even been rehearsing my BeeGees impersonation for the occasion! Listen," Xander proceeded to warble "Stayin' Alive", complete with falsetto and matching dance moves. "You can't miss it," he implored.
"Yeah Buffy," Willow chimed in. "The Dingoes are playing tonight, and Oz says the event has the makings of a hootenanny. Think of it -- a *hootenanny*," she speculated in wonderment. "You have to come."
The last thing Buffy wanted to do was spend time in a public place. A public place with music, food, and dancing. Lots of dancing. Girls dancing with their super-hunky boyfriends. While Buffy leaned dejectedly against a wall, reminded of the fact that she no longer had a super-hunky boyfriend. Buffy tiredly rubbed at her forehead, trying to erase the sudden stab of pressure. It didn't work. She still saw Angel. Saw him as he disappeared in a cloud of smoke; headed away. Somewhere away from her.
Willow hesitated briefly, then gave into the impulse and lay a consoling hand atop Buffy's arm. "Is it - is it Angel?" Her voice dropped at the name, somewhat afraid to bring up a subject they had all successfully avoided since the Ascension. Afterward, Buffy hadn't mentioned Angel once, and the others had gladly followed suit. It was as if the vampire's existence had all but been forgotten. Which was, of course, entirely untrue.
Buffy saw the worry in her friend's countenance, and offered a smile that she hoped was convincing. She could fool herself a little longer. "It's not Angel," she lied. The others knew she was lying too. And *she* knew that they knew but they all faked it well. It was ludicrous; the whole 'let's pretend' scenario, when all Buffy wanted was to pull the sheets up over her head and cry until there were no tears left. Mourning a love that could never be.
"Really," she continued vehemently. "Angel is in the past. Witness me, Buffy Summers, present and accounted for. And on the 12-step road to recovery." She rose abruptly, stretching her palms toward the ceiling. "Of which the first step is vigorous Slayer training. Right Giles?"
The librarian's head snapped up, shooting her a quizzical look, "I thought that we-"
Xander cut in crossly, "Way to go G-man. Doesn't she get even one day of rest?"
Willow traced abstract patterns on the tabletop, crestfallen. "Oh, well, if Giles wants you to..."But she held the man's gaze, her own beseeching.
"I-I-I um, that is, I-" he stammered in response, gesturing helplessly and wishing, not for the first time, that his Slayer would be so kind as to clue him in to her wild mood swings.
Buffy swiftly rescued her Watcher from further stuttering. "It's not his fault. Truthfully, it was my idea. I'm leaving for my dad's place next week, and wanted to brush up on some techniques before I left. You guys are sure going to have a hard time without me this summer," she joked with a wink, willing to sound more cheerful than she felt.
"We managed okay last year." Xander said bluntly. A pause, as his shock mirrored Buffy's. Did he actually voice that sentence aloud? Dammit. He was really going to have to work harder to resolve some of his obviously unresolved issues. Xander winced in pain, "Buff, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
But the damage was done. The harsh words were visible in the air; swinging back and forth on a crazed pendulum, wondering who would be brave enough to still the rising tide. All four daren't breathe.
In the end, it was Willow who spoke; her voice small against the looming silence. "We just want to spend time with you, Buffy. You know, in case..."
The thought was never verbally completed, as Willow suddenly found herself swept into a bone-crushing hug. "No. No 'in case', Will. Don't even think it. I'll be home. I promise." Buffy pulled away and peered at her friend intently. "I *promise*."
Willow rubbed her left shoulder, rotating it experimentally. "So, Slayer strength applies to hugs too, hmm? You realize I'll be covered in bruises by morning?" But the redhead was grinning.
Buffy tentatively took a step toward Xander, then two, as he retreated. "Xand?"
The boy was staring at the ceiling tiles, methodically counting their dots in his head. He could feel the prickle of tears behind his eyelids, and counted faster. One, two, three, four, five, six -- the dots were blurring, start again -- one, two, three, four...
"Xander." She crooked a finger under his chin, her touch at once soft and firm. "I promise. Don't worry."
The tears spilled, dripping messily over his cheeks and nose. "Last summer was hell. Not just for him, Buffy. For us too. I wanted you to come back. I wanted you back so bad..." And suddenly, he was the one hugging *her*, fingers digging into her spine, head buried in the crook of her neck. Perhaps if he summoned enough strength, he could keep Buffy here in his arms. Here to watch black-and-white movies at 3am with him and Will. To begin baking cookies, knowing full well they intended to eat the raw dough straight from the bowl. Here in Sunnydale. Where she belonged.
Ensconced in the fuzzy plaid of Xander's shirt, Buffy cursed. Her friend was weeping uncontrollably, and his grief was all because of Angel. Which, in turn, was all because of her. Or, wait, maybe it was the other way around. Buffy's pulse pounded in her ears. Was Angel the bad guy? Was she? The familiar weight of blame perched on her shoulders, growing heavier with each passing second. God, she was so mixed up.
Sobs subsiding to sniffles, Xander gradually lifted his head to find Willow watching him sympathetically. And Giles just...watching. As he always did. A constant from which Xander derived an inexplicable sense of comfort. He scrubbed his reddened face with his hands, and glanced at Buffy sheepishly. "Wow. That sure was an Oprah moment, huh?"
The blond squeezed his arm, understanding but still regretful. "No hoopla for me tonight, though. Duty calls," Buffy paused a moment. "In fact, duty calls and calls and calls. The Slayphone never stops ringing."She pursed her lips in thought. "Can we get an unlisted number?"
Xander rolled his eyes and kissed her forehead chastely. "Give our regards to the baddies, would ya?" Gripping Willow's torso, he hauled her to her feet and they linked arms. "C'mon Will, there is partying to be done. Buffy may not be making an appearance tonight, but I bet we can score some free drinks by saying we know her."
Buffy stared at him, and Xander shrugged in teasing response. "Hey, if you won't take advantage of your newfound fame, I'll gladly do it." He half-dragged Willow out of the room, her reluctance at leaving a not-so-perky Buffy causing her shoes to scuff along the hardwood floor. A forceful yank, and Willow was pulled through the swinging doors, her voice floating desperately through the air, "Call me later!"
With that, Buffy found herself once again surrounded by silence. Even though it was what she wanted, the quiet felt oppressive. "I'm sorry," she whispered to the place upon which her friends had stood moments before. She didn't know what to do. She didn't know what to think. She missed Angel.No, she didn't. Yes, she did. No, she *didn't*. Yes, she *did*.
*NO*, she -- "Argh!" Buffy ran a hand haphazardly through her hair, and stalked over to the cage. She wanted to hit something.
The accented voice stilled her movement. Giles. She had forgotten he was in the room; the only signal of his presence being the slight crinkle of a turned page. And having spent so much time in the library these past years, Buffy had learned to tune out the crinkles.
But that didn't mean it was her right to tune out Giles. Crossing over to him, she met his questioning gaze. His eyes were green today. Usually they were brown -- a muddy brown when he was upset or distracted. Warm, like melted chocolate, when he smiled. But green; green was the most special colour.Pure emotion. Pure Giles.
Buffy shifted self-consciously, not wanting to ruin his deserved worry-free day. "I'm sorry," she blurted.
The admission caught Giles off-guard. "Wh-wh-whatever for?"
Disbelieving laughter lodged in the teen's throat. Giles asked why she was apologizing?! She could make a list of reasons. Complete with an index and bibliography."For everything," she choked. "I'm sorry for absolutely everything."
"It's alright, Buffy..."
The blond let loose an anguished wail. "No, it's not! It is *not* alright!Stop *saying* that! After everything I've done -- after Jenny, after the whole mess with Angel...Giles, he *tortured* you."A sob burst anew as she confessed, "And I was *in love* with him. I *still* love him."
Giles' chest constricted.
Sinking to her knees, Buffy wept, leaving saltwater splotches on the polished floor. "But-but-but *I hate him*. I *hate* him! He drank from me," her voice was vicious through her tears."Angel fed off me, and oh God, Giles I almost died..."
Buffy fell into the strong arms that were opened to her, muscular hands clasping her close. She wanted desperately to maintain composure, but the softness of Giles' shoulder welcomed her without hesitation. His nonsensical murmurs were her final undoing, and Buffy's pain flowed forth, soaking the sleeve of his shirt. She clung to him, her body shaking.
Giles was aware that the two were embracing on the library floor, surely a sticky situation if another were to appear. He didn't care. Instead, he held Buffy tighter, wishing with his whole heart that he might relieve her sorrow.
It was minutes before the cradled girl calmed. Raising her eyes to his and seeing compassion so plainly written across his face, Buffy almost started crying again. "Giles, why do you put up with me? These horrible things that happen when I'm around. I-I-I don't..." She wanted an answer. She *needed* an answer. The desperation made her ache.
Giles hated to deny his Slayer anything, especially in such a vulnerable state. But, however much it tore at him, he dared not reveal his affection and risk destroying whatever bond between them. He grasped her hand, his own voice rough with feeling. "Buffy, do not berate yourself. Please believe me when I say that it is alright. It is alright, I promise you."
His honesty spoke volumes, and Buffy knew that all was forgiven of the past.Why? Why would he be so unconditional in his support of her? Understanding dawned, as familiar and comforting as her own skin. Because he was Giles, and that was his way. She raised a finger to his cheek, tracing downward until she cupped his chin with a hesitant hand. "I don't deserve you, y'know. I really don't deserve you."
Silent they sat, time tracked by the ticking clock on the far wall. Buffy's palm dipped lower, attracted to the tender spot connecting chin to neck. Pressing firmly, she felt the heartbeat throbbing beneath Giles' warm skin. It was so warm. Thump-ba-thump-ba-thump. Fascinated, she smoothed over his pulse, smiling to herself when it sped up.
Giles stood so quickly that, had his shoes laces, he would have tripped. Cautiously he stepped back, trying to erase the memory of her brief touch. "A-a-are you certain you don't wish to go to the Bronze? I could drop you there," he offered, praying that his voice sounded neutral.
The absence of Giles' arms was more than a little affecting, and Buffy again plunged into the despair which existed in a world without Angel. Reminded of their nightly trysts in the graveyard. Their stolen kisses at her bedroom window. Pledges of everlasting love. Reminders that he wanted her. Her focus altered as Angelus' taunts rang in her ears, his yellow eyes glinting in the moonlight. More accurately, he wanted to kill her. How could she love and hate someone at the same time? Buffy's face crumpled.
Giles fought the urge to gather her up and steal away into the night. Somewhere demons were no longer, and all that existed was lovely Buffy by his side -- free to be not the Slayer, not the Chosen One, but the beautiful, wonderful self that was she. Alas, there was no such place. They could run, they could hide, and the darkness would assuredly follow.
"Home then, Buffy? I'll take you home?" Giles had already slipped his car keys into his pocket.
Images of Buffy's empty house flew unbidden to her mind and she shivered. Her mom was still out of town, having finally heeded her daughter's warning of graduation badness, and was not to return until the end of the week. Thoughts of Mr. Gordo brought little comfort. She shook her head, "No, not home. But maybe...?"
Giles waited patiently.
Buffy swallowed and tried again, "Maybe, Giles, your home?" She squeaked out the last word, flushing. It shouldn't be this difficult, asking to spend time with Giles. She had visited his apartment many times. She even had a designated "research blanket"; a woven afghan that fit snugly around her waist as she lay, reading the latest on supernatural evil. It was dark brown in colour, worn in just the right places, and smelled faintly of...whatever it was his apartment smelled like. Something cozy. Spice, and tea, and firewood.
Still, she had yet to be in his apartment for any other purpose but duty. Research, research, and more research. A break for pizza notwithstanding. Would Giles mind her hanging around, just to -- hang around? Surely he had better things to do.
Giles' brows lifted in surprise, but it was pleasant surprise. "Of course," he assented kindly. "Whatever you'd like."
Buffy appraised his face for signs of annoyance, but found none. She slung her bookbag over her shoulder, giving him a weary but genuine grin."Off to the Gilesmobile."
The two walked in contented silence to the parking lot, where Buffy confronted the Citroen with undisguised distaste. Slipping in the passenger side, her knees found themselves scrunched against the dashboard.
"The lever to adjust the seat is broken," Giles confessed, fastening his safety belt. "Are you too cramped?"
Buffy rolled her eyes, "I'll deal. But seriously Giles, Cordelia did such a great job dressing you," she paused, her mischievous choice of words causing her Watcher to blush again. "I bet she'd love to take you car hunting. Although, with her influence, you'd probably end up buying a Jaguar." Buffy glanced out the window as the vehicle shifted into noisy reverse, imagining she and Giles travelling to destinations unknown. Sun shining, the car's top down, her hair streaming in the breeze. The gearshift screeched again. "Yep, a Jaguar would be nice."
Giles chuckled, "Cordelia's already lobbying for a Ferrari."
The sleepy automobile rolled along the tree-lined streets. It's rumble lulled Buffy into a state of drowsiness; a considerable feat, since the rumble was similar to that of a pounding jackhammer. Her energy spent from the last day's activities, Buffy didn't wish emotional upheaval on anyone. It was too exhausting. "Let's just drive forever. Can't we drive forever?" The whispered question was laced with a yearning o intense it broke Giles' heart.
"We're almost there, love," Giles pressed the gas pedal in determination, but the obstinate vehicle continued to chug along at a tortoise pace. So focussed was he on his Slayer's pain, the endearment passed his lips unnoticed.
Not so for Buffy, who stared. Love? Giles loved her? Her stomach flipped oddly, and the feeling wasn't entirely unpleasant. She suddenly had to remind herself to breathe. Did he? Did he *really*? She opened her mouth to speak, shut it abruptly, and slumped against the window. Well, sure he did. A father's love. That's what the jerk, Quentin Travers, had said. Giles hadn't denied it. And so, that was okay, she guessed. Closing her eyes, Buffy conveniently ignored the little voice in her head, busily stamping its foot and shouting *no*, it wasn't okay at all.
The young woman sighed. This just hadn't been her day. Her week, really. Maybe year, too. Let's face it, if she hadn't stupidly done the horizontal mambo with a vampire...Buffy massaged her temples. She needed food. Food of the non-nourishing kind. Like chocolate. Or barbecue potato chips.Or --
She placed a slender hand on Giles thigh, feeling the muscle bunch beneath her fingers. "Turn here?" she signalled, indicating the grocery store to their right.
Puzzled, he did so, securing a parking spot near the entrance. Shutting off the engine, Giles looked at her. She hadn't removed her hand.
She smiled, a tiny tired smile that nonetheless, lit the car's interior. "I haven't forgotten."
"Wh-what's that?" The heat from her palm seared his trouser leg.
"Ice cream. You offered, remember? On prom night," Buffy nervously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "You *do* remember, don't you? You said-"
Giles smiled too. "I remember."
"Oh, good." And then, the hand was gone. She unfurled her legs from their squished position, sliding out the door. "Because I think that enduring boyfriend breakup, not to mention battle with a demon serpent, is worthy of major calories."
The prospect of a gooey dessert seemed to revitalize Buffy. She practically bounced into the market, steering Giles directly to the white freezers lining one wall. Pressing her face to the frosty glass, she speculatively eyed the endless rows of ice cream cartons. "Yum."
Giles read from a brightly-coloured sign attached to the counter with masking tape. "It says here they have more than thirty-one flavours."
"I'd believe it," Buffy asserted, licking her lips. "So, what kind should we get?"
"It's up to you."
She shook her head. "Uh-uh, Giles. I may be depressed, but I'm *not* devouring a tub of ice cream by myself. You're helping me, and that's an order." She pulled him along. "Share my misery. What kind?"
The twosome paced back and forth, overwhelmed with options.
"Cookies n' Cream?"
"That's sorbet, not ice cream."
"Oh, yeah. Heavenly Hash?"
And so on, and so on, Buffy and Giles bickering good-naturedly while a nearby cashier watched in open amusement. Suddenly, the blond teen let loose a cry of victory, reaching with both hands. She turned to her companion, proudly displaying the carton. "How about it?"
Giles grinned in agreement, "Perfect."
Unlocking the front door, Watcher ushered in his Slayer.
She timidly crossed the threshold, and with some trepidation,
surveyed the living area. It didn't appear any different
from those research afternoons. Couch, chair, table.
All here. It was the same. Why had she worried?
Giles retrieved the paper sack from her arms, and headed toward the kitchen."Make yourself at home, Buffy. I'll prepare our snack."
Buffy dropped onto the couch cushions with a groan of appreciation. Shutting her eyes, she drifted, listening to the calm sounds of Giles bustling about nearby. Each footstep precise, each movement measured. He was humming; a slow, pretty tune that Buffy didn't recognize. He had a nice voice. Sighing again, her burdens lightened slightly. It was going to be okay. Sure, it wasn't sun-shining-birds-singing cheerfulness, but she would survive. With Giles, it would be okay, she knew.Content for the moment, she grabbed her favourite afghan and wrapped it around her middle, toying with its frayed ends. She would be fine. She would. She *would*.
The clatter of dishes broke her reverie. "Giles?" She twisted her neck to peer into the kitchen. "What's to prepare? All we need are two spoons."
Truly aghast, he regarded her from over the rims of his glasses. "We will not eat without the proper utensils, Buffy. It's uncouth."
Buffy made a face. Giles and his British-ness. "Xander drinks orange juice out of the carton all the time," she protested. After a pause, she conceded, "Although, he usually drinks *all* of the orange juice in one sitting. We aren't really given the opportunity to worry about germs." Imagining the relished smack of her friend's lips, she giggled. Xander ate a lot, but there was no denying he definitely *enjoyed* it. She was so thankful to have him in her life, even if it meant stocking up on the beverages. Thankful for Willow too. And Oz. Even Cordelia, to an extent. And then, there was Giles. And Angel.
Except -- Angel wasn't in her life anymore. He'd left her, not to return. Ever. Going as far as saying it was for her own good! Well, what did he know? Unexpected tears stung her lashes -- *again*, and she angrily swiped them away -- *again*. More followed. She hated this. "Why, why, why?" she mumbled, even as she knew. Hello?! Angel is harboring an evil demon. One opportunity for happiness and it's goodbye sweet boyfriend, hello bloodthirsty killer. No exchanges, no refunds. "Oh shut up!" Buffy growled.
"I beg your pardon?" Giles brought forth a tray, laden with bowls of ice cream and two steaming cups.
Embarrassed, Buffy ducked her head, her fingers plucking restlessly at the woolen blanket. "Not you, Giles. Me. I'm just being dumb." She sat up straighter, and cleared her throat.
"Buffy, you've been crying." Giles observed, in that tender tone of his that soothed her, and made her feel awful at the same time. He'd done so much for her already. He shouldn't have to listen to her problems. It wasn't his fault that she couldn't get over some stupid vampire.
"No, I haven't, I j-just...can I have my ice cream please?"
Wordlessly, he passed a dish, and settled in beside her. Buffy scrutinized the heaping mountain of sugar, and her mouth turned up weakly. "Man, Giles, five scoops. You must really take pity on me."
"One does what one can." he said quietly, handing over a spoon. Tasting his portion, the treat slid blissfully down his throat, coating his tongue and teeth with sweetness. Ice cream really did work wonders, he thought. "I must commend you on your choice of flavour, Buffy. Good job."
Buffy almost laughed at that; Giles' praise the same now as when she defeated a particularly icky demon. "You're never fully out of Watcher mode, are you?"
She looked at him fondly, "Don't be, it's what I like best. Makes you Giles."Swallowing a bite, she continued before he had the chance to speak. "Yeah, well, the combination suits us both. Mint for you,'cause I spotted that container of mint tea in the back of the cupboard last week -- you can't fool me, Mr. Pseudo-Earl Grey -- and besides, peppermint is cultured. Restaurants always give red-and-white candies at the end of a meal," she adopted a haughty tone. "To cleanse one's palate." At Giles' chuckle, she brightened, only to frown a moment later. "And chocolate for me," she stabbed her ice cream for emphasis, "because every girl who's been dumped, needs chocolate."
Giles watched the lumps of green cave under the attack of Buffy's spoon. "Would you like to talk about it?"
Buffy continued her assault on the bowl, her shoulders tense. "Talk about what? There's nothing to talk about. There used to be Angel and me. Now there's just me." She stirred ferociously, creating a soupy mud.
The two were silent, Giles allowing his Slayer time to collect her thoughts.Finally, as her spoon scraped the china for what seemed the thousandth time, he motioned toward the dish of sticky liquid. "Are you really going to eat that?"
She glanced up, "Huh? Course."
His lips twitched, "That's disgusting."
"It is not! It's ice cream, and ice cream is always of the good. Whether it's in a cone, or in a bowl, or..." She trailed off, meeting his twinkling eyes. "Or a gross, green mess." she admitted. "Yuck," she declared, tossing the confection aside. "I guess I wasn't really in the mood after all." Spotting Giles' rapidly diminishing amount, she teased, "But you go right ahead."
"Thank you, I will." He smiled at her answering giggle, but started abruptly when Buffy stretched out, placing her feet in his lap. "Buffy, I-" He shakily transferred his bowl to the table, before it splintered on the ground.
"What? Oh! Right, right," She sat up immediately. "Sorry. I shouldn't have-" She blushed, "It's just that I'm so tired and, well, everything. Sorry." She shuffled away, abashed. Did every male in her life have to reject her in some form or another? What was wrong with her?
"No, it's fine, only I wasn't expecting-" He regarded her huddled form in consternation. "Buffy please, I didn't mean-" His hand on her back was tender and light, as if the very thing he touched was made of the most exquisite glass.
She turned to him, tentatively, scared. Scared because she had started to cry again; that was twice in the last half hour. Scared of whether he thought her worthless for doing so; whether she was no longer a Slayer in which to take pride. Her face streaked with tears, she tried to explain, to apologize."Giles, I need...I feel...Angel, he..."
The sentence was full of stops and starts, and really wasn't much of a sentence at all but a bunch of jumbled words. For the life of him,Giles couldn't think of an suitable thing to say in response. And so, carefully, with the utmost delicacy, he drew her near; pillowing Buffy against his side and stroking her hair with warm fingers. "My dear girl," he murmured. "My dearest, most wonderful girl."
Such action only made Buffy's tears fall faster, as he accepted her weaknesses with the same grace as he recognized her strengths. Good God, were there no limits to the elegance of this man? What was he doing with *her*?
"It hurts," she gasped. "It hurts so much." She wept then, long and hard sobs, until she was crying over the fact that she was *still* crying and couldn't seem to stop. "Giles..."
He tugged a tissue from the box beside the lamp, and dried her skin in soft, smooth strokes. Travelling down her nose, beneath her eyes, over her cheeks,the damp hair around her ears where stray droplets collected. "Hush love, all shall be well. You mustn't torment yourself like this."
Buffy inhaled raggedly, expelling the breath with astonishingly physical force, as if to rid herself of the sadness which saturated her very bones. She sat up, but lolled against the back of the couch, her exasperated gaze focussed on an indistinct point above her head. "Look at me," she muttered, "Pathetic much?"
Giles tucked the blanket firmly round her shoulders, patting her somewhat awkwardly now that there was no immediate distress. "A love lost is not to be trivialized, Buffy. It is normal to be feeling as you are."
They were quiet for a time; so quiet, they could hear the sounds of Giles' apartment settling in for the evening. There, that was the hum of the refrigerator. The creak of water pipes in the bathroom. The groan of the wooden staircase as it shifted and squared into place. Buffy wasn't surprised at the number of noises she recognized. She spent more time here than she did at home. In her most secret of secret places, she confessed that she even liked it better, here. Her own house was too big for just her and her mom, and wandering room to room made her empty inside. She wanted Willow. And Xander. And chocolate chip cookies. And big musty books that took forever to page through. Giles' apartment had all those things. Most importantly, it had Giles.
For a split second, Buffy allowed herself to think the unthinkable. In her mind's eye, she substituted Giles for Angel. It was Giles who walked away, obscured in a cloud of mist. It was Giles who left her standing there, alone, on the dark wet pavement. It was Giles who never looked back.
She wasn't prepared for the spasm that gripped her then, a solid punch to the stomach that left her shuddering and gasping for air. She reached blindly outward, anchoring her small hand in his larger one. "No, oh please, Giles no..."
Giles rubbed her back, his touch never faltering, tracing vague patterns on the lines of her shirt. Never had he felt quite so inadequate, witnessinghis Slayer's heart shatter piece by piece, and knowing there was nothing to be done. "The pain will fade, Buffy, I promise you this with my entire being. You shall survive this, dearheart, as you have everything else."
"But not without you! Giles, please don't leave me. Please," she whispered the words fervently, like a prayer. For Buffy, it was. "I don't want to be alone."
At that admission, Giles tilted her chin, addressing her stricken gaze with a pair of dark green eyes -- darker than she ever thought possible. Such that Buffy would have been frightened, had the intensity not been coupled with equal amounts of sincerity and devotion. "Indeed, you are not.You have your mother, and Xander, and Willow. Angel loves you deeply Buffy, even if it may not seem so." The young woman swallowed convulsively and bit her lip. Giles wondered briefly whether it had been a wise mention, but continued, "There are many who care for you, and who are honoured to receive your love in return."
She gulped, wrinkling her forehead, all too conscious of the name left off the list. "And you? I have you?"
His eyes were emerald stars. "You will never be alone, Buffy."
She knew then; was as certain of his answer as she was the beating of her own heart. Still, she needed to hear it, needed to hear his gentle accent affirm the space between them. Raising a tender hand to his cheek, she repeated, "I have you?"
He softened, "Eternally."
Her arms were around him in a flash, squeezing so tightly it was a wonder he didn't protest out of necessity to breathe. "Thank you," she mumbled into his neck. "Oh, thank you."Thank you, thank you, thank you...
Time passed. The refrigerator hummed. The water pipes creaked. The staircase groaned. When the embrace finally loosened, Buffy raised her head, her face shimmery.
Giles' heart dropped at the sight. "Buffy, oh my, here, it's alright."He fumbled for the tissue box, but the pressure of her hand stayed his movements.
"No, no, wait. It's good." She assured him, smiling. "They're good tears."