Chapter 1: Buffy
"Those of you on the right side of the plane should have a good view of the city as we approach. Local time is 6:04 a.m. Temperature is 5 Celsius, 42 Fahrenheit."
Buffy unfolded herself from the awkward huddle she'd half-slept in throughout the night; one of the little airline pillows fell from the seat as she pushed herself upright and peered out the window. The plane was already at the odd angle that signified both turning and descent, and London's lights glittered beneath, a red-and-gold jewel box.
One of the British Airways hostesses came by and, with an apologetic nod, took away the plastic cup and foil wrapper on the tray table, then folded it up. She smiled as she did it, leaving Buffy to decide that, yes, the stewardesses were a lot nicer in first class. Or maybe it was just that the British flight attendants looked friendlier in those cute little hats.
Around her, people were preparing for their arrival in various ways: folding up magazines, putting on jackets. The woman in the aisle across from her had apparently put her hair up in curlers during the flight and was now removing them one by one with no apparent embarrassment. Buffy fished around in her backpack until she found her makeup bag. This is crazed, she thought as she started smoothing on Clinique lotion. Like Giles hasn't seen me looking a jillion times scarier than this.
Of course, for the past two years, he practically hasn't seen me at all.
Using her tiny, eyeshadow-smudged mirror, she made up her face with the same care and attention she'd normally have invested in a date -- or, at least the way she remembered preparing for dates. The foundation and blush did little to conceal her exhausted pallor, and her hair had long since passed the point of being fit for anything besides being yanked back in a scrunchie.
It couldn't be her appearance she was so worried about, could it? But what else could it be? She and Giles had mended their fences. Patched things up. Things were good. And if they didn't see each other as often as they used to -- cooperate as much as they once did -- well, it was natural for things to change. She'd grown up, just like Giles had wanted her to. So there was no reason at all that Giles wouldn't be thrilled to see her. No reason at all.
Giles looked older.
There he was, in the middle of a few limousine drivers carrying signs. He had the same kind of glasses, and he was about the same weight he'd been when she first met him, and he was of course wearing a tweed jacket. Same Giles as ever. But he looked older, no doubt about it.
Then again, Buffy thought, I do too.
"There you are," he said, with that uncertain smile that always followed the words he used to smooth over an awkward moment. Why was it awkward? Buffy couldn't put a name to it -- but it was. They stood apart from each other -- not like strangers, but not like the closest of friends. "I'd begun to think they'd detained you at the gate."
"What for?" Buffy said. "Thought I'd try to smuggle weapons on board?"
"If anyone would."
"Already thought about an in-flight demon," she said, fishing in her purse and then holding up her wooden hairbrush. "Not only is it a stake that gets through security screenings, it adds volume and bounce. And nobody checks to see if your hairspray bottle actually holds holy water."
"Ingenious as ever," he said. She was smiling up at him, and he was smiling down at her, and it was the perfect time for them to hug, Buffy thought. For a moment, she could vividly remember every time she'd been in Giles' arms -- a desperate embrace after Jenny's death, a sheltering hug as her mother lay dead steps away, an overpowering clutch after she'd returned from the dead. The only thing those embraces had in common was deep, boundless need. That, and the sense of protection and -- rightness -- Buffy had felt each time. She had known that Giles loved her, and that he would take care of her as best he could. No matter what.
Neither of them moved. They just kept facing each other until Giles cocked an eyebrow at her. "I suppose the question isn't whether you checked any baggage, but how much."
She turned with him as they headed through the concourse, their footsteps sounding against the floor in the early-morning quiet of the airport. As he began making small talk about the drive to his family home, she thought to herself -- it'll get better. Whatever's wrong with me -- with him -- it can't last.
She turned down Giles' offers of brunch in the city, of sightseeing, even of shopping. Instead, they simply piled her bags high in the back seat (nearly obscuring the rear window) and drove out to Giles' new house. He put her in the guest bedroom, laid out some towels and let her get some rest.
Buffy crashed for hours, sleeping the deep, placid, blissfully sweet sleep of jet lag -- as she turned over in one semiconscious daze, she decided this alone was almost worth the trip. Giles had real linens, not the scratchy stuff Buffy bought for herself and Dawn at Target; between the cool sheets, the soft mattress and the heavy blanket, Buffy could have happily stayed there, dozing off and on, for days.
That, of course, would help her postpone going downstairs and talking to Giles. Stupid, she told herself as she plumped the pillow beneath her head. The guy needs your help, probably with something major. And besides, isn't it good to see him again? Weren't you happy when you saw him?
She had been, but -- there was no denying that she was reluctant to go downstairs. Something unnamable was holding her back.
Buffy swung her feet to the floor and sat up, running one hand through her hair. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the door -- long hair, closer to its original brown than she'd let it get since she was 15. Almost as skinny she'd been her freshman year of college, when she took a kind of perverse pride on living off a container of yogurt a day. A thin white scar that ran the length of her arm, made with a blade enchanted so that its cuts could never entirely heal, not even if made upon a Slayer. Buffy had long since decided she kind of liked the scar; it was nice to have something on the outside that suggested the truth within.
When she looked at herself, she could see all the years. That thin line on her arm had a razor-sharp brightness that she could see reflected in her own eyes.
Does Giles see this when he looks at me?
Giles had left her in order that she would learn to stand on her own two feet. Not to rely on him to be there. Which, in Buffy's opinion, was like trying to teach someone not to rely on the law of gravity. But all the same, he meant it enough to lay their relationship on the altar of her independence, to sacrifice their bond to something that he thought would do her more good, in the long run.
The long run. No Slayer in the history had ever lived past 30, and Buffy'd already died twice, and Giles was still thinking about the long run.
No, she thought. No. I got done fuming about this YEARS ago. It was for the best, wasn't it? I grew up more than I ever would have otherwise. Even if it hurt my feelings, he did the right thing. No point in getting my panties in a wad about it now.
But if she was honest with herself -- something she was getting better at, by small increments -- she'd never quite made peace with the way she'd felt after he left. And something about their present situation was making her think about it again. What? she asked herself. I mean, I love him, I care about him, I'm here to help him --
To help HIM, she realized. Not for him to help me. I'm here to solve the Council's problem. He's not in my country; I'm in his. It's my choice when to stay and when to go. And I'm the one coming to his rescue. Buffy mulled that over, realizing that her unease sprang from the fact that the balance of power between them had finally shifted -- in her favor. Both old affections and old grievances looked a little different, from this perspective.
She took a deep breath, cleared her mind and resolutely began getting ready to go downstairs. She wasn't sure exactly but she wanted, but she did know this much: Of all the things she'd ever lost, Giles was the only one Buffy had a chance of getting back. And if there were any way possible, she intended to make it happen.
She didn't come downstairs until she felt good and looked better -- wearing the lavender sweater she'd bought for the occasion, her hair braided back. Now awake enough to take in her surroundings, Buffy looked curiously at Giles' house as she came down the steps. Her guest bedroom was bare enough -- a rickety chest of drawers and a cast-iron twin bed that seemed to have been left over from a hospital during some World War or other. Not many guests, then.
But the rest of the house -- the parts he lived and worked in -- those felt familiar, warm, right. She'd never before realized how his furnishings and books and paintings clashed with the psuedo-hacienda apartment he'd had in Sunnydale, not until she saw them here, in the English house they were always meant to inhabit. His mica-shaded lamps cast warm light into high rafters and small corners. His scarlet-spined books were more at home tucked into bookshelves built right into the wall. The rooms smelled like coffee and candles; as much as Buffy hated to admit it, they looked like Giles' real home.
There was a "for sale" sign in the front yard of her house in Sunnydale. She'd had enough difficulty managing the expense after her mom's death; with Dawn no longer living there, Buffy had to acknowledge the sense in moving. But the thought of leaving the house made her shiver, and she pushed the memory aside.
Giles was propped up on the sofa with a book, so very casually that she knew he'd been anxiously listening for her on the stairs for hours. He poured her a drink without even raising an eyebrow when she said she wanted her whiskey neat.
Only when they'd sat down on the sofa -- opposite from one another, almost at the far ends -- and Buffy'd downed a swallow of her whiskey did she dare to start talking. "I can see why you like it so much here."
"I mean, you've got a nice place. This house -- it feels like you. Comfortable. Like it fits."
"Thank you, I suppose." Giles sipped his whiskey as carefully as he might have done a cup of hot tea. "But I meant -- why did you say I liked it here?"
"You like it better than Sunnydale, obviously," Buffy said. Now, where the hell did that come from? she thought.
"I like it here well enough," Giles said, taken aback, as well he might be. "But -- no. Not better than Sunnydale."
The unspoken question hung in the air, so tangible that Buffy half-thought saying it aloud would be ridiculous: Why don't you come back, then? But hadn't this question been answered a long time ago?
Maybe not, she thought. Maybe I only told myself it was.
Giles, perhaps seeing the shifts of emotion on her face, changed the subject deftly. "Perhaps we should begin with the, ah, matter the Council wished you to look into."
Right down to business. "You got it. What needs killing? Or am I gonna tutor the Council in the ways of the 21st century?"
"I am certain several of them would appreciate your lecture on the usefulness of the cellular phone and the horseless carriage," Giles said. "However, more to the point, we need you to examine this."
He pulled a carved, oaken box from a side table and slowly opened it. Buffy peered inside to see a yellow crystal -- deep gold, but surely not amber. Topaz? It glinted faintly in the dim light, revealing flaws in the center, cloudy threads of gray and white.
Buffy closed her eyes. Giles' voice was puzzled. "Buffy?"
"You think I'd fall for this again?"
"Buffy. No. This isn't -- no."
She opened her eyes again, looked at his drawn, pale face. He was telling the truth, and her doubt had hurt him. But wasn't her doubt the truth too? Without any words of apology, she carefully lifted the crystal from its place in the box and tested its considerable heft in her hands. "Not picking up any weird vibes from this."
"Give it time," Giles said. "We have to hope that you have some reaction. Some -- sense -- of what this is intended for."
"Why? I don't guess the Council brought me over here to settle a paperweight crisis."
Giles sighed and set the box on the coffee table, taking up his whiskey again as he did so. "This was confiscated from a Hevreth demon a few weeks ago."
"Hevreth aren't too scary, as a rule," Buffy shrugged. "They're mostly after money. Helps them fund their whole anchovy fetish."
"On a Hellmouth, you learn to keep your ears open. You listen to the bartenders. You listen to the street people. But you PAY the pizza guy to spill everything he knows. Nobody knows a town like the Domino's delivery man."
To Buffy's amusement, she saw Giles' face shift into a faint smile; his eyes crinkled at the corners in the way she remembered. "Of course. You never cease to amaze me, Buffy."
That felt a little more right. Aglow with praise, Buffy said, "So the Hevreth got himself a nice rock at the Nature Company. What's the emergency?"
"As you say, Hevreth are mostly mercenaries -- they have few evil plans of their own, but they can easily be persuaded to assist in the wrongdoing of others. Some very powerful vampire masters and demonic overlords have gained immense strength with the assistance of Hevreth demons."
"So when you see one, you want to know what it is he's getting paid for," Buffy said. "Check."
"When this Hevreth was accosted, he was emerging from an dimensional portal," Giles continued, peering at the crystal himself. "He got away, but he left this behind. We think it may have assisted him in his travel."
"I got it. We're looking for the mystical return address on this puppy, so we can find out who sent him here and why."
Giles nodded. "Dimensional-travel crystals are generally more attuned to those who have already traveled to other dimensions at least once --"
"-- and they have a tendency to be drawn to, ah, the formerly dead. Usually vampires, but --"
"I get it," Buffy said, cutting the topic off as quickly as she could. She rotated the crystal in her hands, feeling the rounded edges against her palms. Taking a deep breath, she tried to summon some of the meditation techniques Giles had taught her so long ago -- but she was out of practice, and the combination of whiskey and Giles' presence did not help her peace of mind. "I have a feeling this might take a while."
"Days, perhaps," Giles said. "Or even weeks. Crystals will shift to the frequency of a susceptible candidate over time. But -- we have time, don't we?"
There was hope in his voice then, hope and uncertainty, and Buffy realized for the first time that Giles was uncertain of her welcome, too. He'd felt the shift in power as well. The realization hit her bloodstream at the same moment as the whiskey -- made her lightheaded, bold, exhilarated. "We have all the time in the world," she promised, and she delighted in his grateful smile.
"Well. Yes. Right, then," Giles said, taking the crystal from her and putting it on the table -- the better to start picking up slayer-vibes, Buffy figured. "That gives up a chance to catch up, doesn't it? Tell me how everyone is. Is Dawn getting on all right with your father?"
Buffy took up her own whiskey, let it burn down her throat. "My dad gives her a nice room, and lots of clothes, and a key so she can let herself in at whatever hour she wants."
"I'm sorry. I'd hoped he would seize his second chance."
"It's okay," Buffy said. "Dawn's not -- she's not like she used to be, Giles. She used to cling on all of us like crazy. But now, she's grown up so much." She'd showed her baby sister the world, just as she'd promised. And I was so stupid, Buffy thought, that I didn't realize that meant she'd run off into it without me someday.
"She's doing well?" Giles' voice was gentle, sympathetic.
"Better than ever," Buffy said. "She's making great grades, and she's in about 900 activities at UCLA, and next summer she's gonna backpack around Europe." All of which meant she didn't come back to Sunnydale that often, Buffy neglected to add. But she saw the understanding reflected in Giles' eyes.
"And Xander? He hasn't called me to ask for any countercharms in a while, so I take it Anya's no longer vexing him."
"Nah. She met this ogre a while back, so she's over it. I mean, she still shows up at parties and makes out with her new guy just to tick Xander off. But, as revenge goes, it beats the whole toad incident of 2003."
"Hear, hear." He was laughing slightly, and she joined in, relishing their first shared laugh in far too long. "So, now that he's not running from his ex-girlfriend, whatever is Xander doing with his time?"
Buffy shrugged. "He puts in a lot of extra hours at work. He likes it. He likes the money, too. He dates. Basically, he lives a real life." And there was the bitterness creeping in again. She forced herself to smile back at Giles. "I mean, he still helps me out. It's just -- now it's only a part of his life."
"That's how it should be, really."
"I know that." She sighed softly, looked at the amber glow of the lamp. "Doesn't mean I don't miss him sometimes."
"Do you ever hear from Riley?"
"Christmas cards. And a birth announcement, about a year ago. Little boy. I swear they named that kid Terrence. Can you imagine?" Giles looked back at her with an expression that could only have been on the face of a man named Rupert. "Sorry."
Giles hesitated, clearly trying to choose his next words carefully. Buffy knew, almost without having to think about it, that he would not ask about Spike; his fate didn't bear talking about. Which meant he was probably about to bring up the subject of --
"And how is Willow?" he said quietly.
Buffy shrugged. "She thinks Al-Anon is working for her. Better than NarcAnon, anyway."
Giles sat there for a few moments, digesting that. "I've asked myself about that more times than I can count," he said. "Whether we didn't do her more harm than good, removing her powers. If she'd learned to set them aside on her own -- perhaps she wouldn't have fallen prey to so many addictions since."
"There wasn't any choice," Buffy said. She could tell that Giles already knew this, but maybe it would help him to hear it again. "Willow had to be stopped. Things aren't great now, but at least the only one in danger is herself."
And wasn't that a cool, logical, adult thing to say. It didn't seem to have much to do with the reality of finding Willow drunk at the Bronze, or high out of her mind in the increasingly-cheap apartments she seemed to inhabit. It didn't say anything about the way Buffy felt when she looked into Willow's drawn, distant face and tried to remember the way her friend's hair and eyes used to shine.
Giles was clearly trying hard to think of a more enjoyable topic of conversation. His eyes lit up, as if in relief. "I must say, I was astonished to get the card from Angel and Cordelia. Those two married -- I can hardly imagine it."
Scratch the whole "enjoyable" concept, Buffy thought.
She didn't have to wonder what her face looked like; she could see herself mirrored in Giles as the faint smile faded from his face. "Oh, Buffy. I'm sorry. I thought you were long over him."
"I was," Buffy said. "I am. It's not that. Not exactly that, I mean." She waited for Giles to interject something, another switch of topic. But instead he kept watching her, patient and willing, and she felt herself smiling softly. Giles still knew her; he still knew when to keep his peace, to let the words flow out of her.
She settled back into the sofa. "I saw Angel and Cordelia in L.A. this summer, while I was down visiting Dawn. I thought I'd drop in, you know? I thought -- well, what you thought. I thought it was going to be like some paranormal Saturday Night Live skit. Cordy making Angel buy her shoes, him brooding about the credit card bills. Don't fight the smirk, Giles; let it out. You were thinking it too. But when I got there -- they weren't like that. Cordelia's not the person she used to be. She grew up a lot. And Angel was -- he was --"
As she hesitated, Giles supplied, "Human."
"Yeah, now, but that's not what I mean. Giles -- he was happy. Down-deep happy." Buffy gestured with her hands, clinking the ice cubes against each other as her drink sloshed. "He's still doing the demon-slaying thing, but he's teaching self-defense and martial arts classes. His kid with Darla is living with them, and that seems like it's working out. He and Cordy have this nice apartment in a hotel and -- she had a baby too, did you know? A girl. Angel's got a pulse and a job and a wife and a son and a daughter, and he loves his life."
Buffy remembered how Angel had been -- standing in the sun, wearing shades to guard his unaccustomed eyes against the brilliant light. He was proud of his hotel, proud of his business, proud of Cordy, with her round, pregnant belly. He'd scarcely been able to look away from his wife the whole time.
Giles lifted one hand as if to pat her arm, then seemed to think better of it as it dropped. "And you wish that life were your own."
"No," Buffy insisted, stamping one sock-clad foot on the Persian carpet. "Giles, I don't want normal. If I've learned anything -- big if -- I've learned that I suck at normal."
"That's not what I meant, precisely," Giles said. Had they always had to struggle so much to understand each other? "I meant Angel. You wished that you were with Angel."
"No again. God, I have to make you get this." If he got it, maybe she would too, she thought. Buffy looked up at the ceiling -- smooth white plaster, cracked and slightly yellow with age -- as she struggled for words. Giles resumed his patient silence, and suddenly it all seemed so much easier. "I don't love Angel anymore. I quit loving him a long time ago. And that's why I was mad. Making sense yet?"
Giles shook his head. Buffy sighed. "Giles, I didn't fall out of love with Angel. I -- I made myself quit loving him. I took that love and killed it. The year after he left, every time I thought of him -- imagined his face, or went to a place we'd been together -- I would just try and burn it out of me. I'd take all that anger and hurt we went through and use it like, like acid or something. Just eat it all away. And by the time I saw him in Los Angeles the last time -- about a year after we broke up -- I could look at him and feel nothing. Nothing except anger. He seemed so far away."
"And you regret that."
"I did what I had to do. What I thought I had to do." Buffy laughed, a short, harsh sound that even she realized sounded bitter. "But the thing is, I didn't have to. I thought there was no hope, and there was. Angel was going to be human and happy and together in just a few years. But I didn't know. And I let him go, so he could make Cordelia a good husband someday."
Giles sipped his own whiskey, considering what she'd said. Finally he said, "Buffy, I realize the -- tragic nature -- of your connection with Angel. But he is a married man now. You must not interfere."
Buffy felt it as much as heard it, with muscles tightening and skin that went cold with shock. "That's what you think," she said flatly. "Giles, you can go -- no."
She shoved herself off the couch and began stalking to the stairs, ignoring the whiskey that sloshed over the rim of her glass onto her hand. As she got to the second step, Giles' hand grabbed her arm. "Buffy, please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you."
"Boy, you sure are good at it for somebody who isn't even trying," Buffy said. "You're a natural, you know that?"
"Buffy --" Giles' own eyes were bright with pain now, and she wanted to scream or cry or throw something really, really hard.
"I don't want Angel back," Buffy said. "I never will again. I gave him up. I gave up a normal life. I gave up a real relationship with my mom. I gave up Willow. I gave up YOU. And until I saw Angel like that, I never had to ask myself if it all could have turned out differently. But then I did -- then I had to ask -- and once I started asking, I --"
She gestured helplessly, unable to find any one word that summon up all the helplessness and futility that had commanded her these past several months. But even as she fought to express it, she realized it was unnecessary; Giles was looking at her with compassion and, at last, understanding. "Angel was just a symbol of something larger in your life. Of all the things you've lost, because of who and what you are."
"What if it didn't have to happen that way?" she whispered. "What if we all could have been happy, instead of --"
They were silent together for a long time; she did not come down from the stairs, and he did not step up to join her. Their faces were even, and even in her misery Buffy found it strange to be looking Giles straight in the eye.
"We can't second-guess the past," Giles said at last. "I know it is hard. One of the hardest lessons I ever learnt. But it's nonetheless very true."
"I don't know if I can do that," Buffy confessed. "But I just needed to --" She couldn't say, Get you back; that was too much pressure, too soon. "I didn't just come here to work with the crystal, Giles. I needed -- to talk with somebody who remembers the old days. I know it's weird to be talking about the 'old days' at 23. But it's true. I need somebody who remembers me the way I used to be."
"What for, exactly?" Giles' eyes were kind behind his glasses.
"To see how I've changed. To tell me the truth. To tell me if any of it is for the better."
"Do you really have to ask that?"
"Yeah," she said without shame. "I really do."
Giles brushed one hand against her cheek -- a gentle, affectionate gesture he'd never given her before, but nonetheless filled her with grateful warmth. "I think more than anything you need time to rest."
"So I can crash here for a while? We can, you know, catch up." Surely that was all they needed. Time. "Between mystic crystal revelations, of course."
"You can stay as long as you want," Giles said, and once again, she felt the flush of her new power.
The next few weeks were unlike any others Buffy had known in her life, or at least since she was a very small child. She had no demons to slay. No schoolwork to keep up with. No job to show up on time for. She was without responsibility, without anchor, and instead of feeling frightened or irresponsible, she was only deeply, wholeheartedly relieved.
She did, of course, have a crystal to get in some weird metaphysical synch with. But, as Slayer duties went, this was not extremely taxing.
"I brought you the Times," Giles said, coming in the door from a day of blustery rain and tossing sodden newspapers on the chair. "And, ah, the Sun. Don't mind the page-three girl; it's not unusual over here, you'll find."
Buffy turned from the crystal and flipped instantly to page three. Her eyes went wide. "HELLO."
"Any progress to report?" Giles' nose and cheeks were pink, and Buffy suspected it wasn't entirely from the cold.
"This rock keeps the closet door from banging shut during the night," she said. "So, like, kids can buy this newspaper?"
Giles ignored her. "Please refrain from using valuable transdimensional artifacts as doorstops, Buffy."
"Sure thing," she said, beginning to flip through the damp pages of the Sun. "Soon as you fix that closet door."
He fixed the door that night, restoring Buffy to deep, peaceful sleep. During those weeks, Giles let her sleep as late as she wanted; though she generally rose when he did, every now and then she would remain in bed until early afternoon, enjoying the soft rose-pink morning light through the curtains, thinking of nothing other than the patterns made by the shadows of the leaves of the sycamore tree.
Most often, though, she went down to have breakfast with him; she delighted in proving to him that she could cook now, omelets and waffles and even a semi-respectable quiche.
"This is marvelous," he said, tucking into his breakfast with unfeigned delight. "Quite preferable to those odd little envelopes you used to have in the mornings."
"Pop Tarts," Buffy explained through a mouthful of quiche. "How did I live on that stuff? And the naked girl is in EVERY issue?"
"We must find you some books."
She'd never been much of a reader -- embarrassing but true -- but Giles brought her books now and then, offerings from his own shelves meant to divert and entertain her. To what was no doubt their mutual surprise, she read them all, enjoyed them, wandered around the house with her nose between the pages until even Giles laughed at her. Persuasion. Enchanted April. The English Patient. The End of the Affair. Women finding themselves, one way or another -- Buffy wondered if Giles meant for her to recognize the theme, or whether he hoped the message would just sink in unawares.
Most days he left her alone to go to the Council headquarters and do whatever unfathomably arcane tasks the Council set for him. Buffy was certain that the other Watchers must have been at him nonstop about her inactivity in England. To her satisfaction, he never mentioned it. Instead, she saw him off in the mornings, listened to his car crunch away on the gravel drive, straightened up the house a bit and settled in to read or to sleep. When he came home at the end of the day, they might go for a walk. At their most ambitious, they'd drive into town for a movie or concert. But they were more likely by far to spend the night talking about pleasant trifles or just reading on the sofa together, side by side.
"Captain Wentworth is so off the hook."
"Pardon?" Giles put aside the Guardian to look at her. Even though he had read all the books in his home, most of them more than once, he always listened with respect and even interest to Buffy's first impressions.
"This love note," Buffy said, trying not to actually sigh. "This is the best love note ever written. EVER. 'You pierce my soul' -- this is a good opening line. And 'for you alone I think and plan' -- swoonworthy. He could have gotten out of a much bigger doghouse than the one he was in, with that note."
"That exceptional, hm?" Giles pretended to study the cover of Persuasion. "I shall have to memorize it in case I ever need it later." She laughed.
As she grew stronger, she assumed her duties again; England was fairly quiet in a supernatural sense, at least compared to Sunnydale. But there were still a few vampires to slay. And there was no denying how good it felt to be a Slayer with her Watcher once again.
"And THAT," she yelled as the vampire fell to the ground, "is how the double flying roundhouse kick looks."
"Lovely form!" Giles said with a grin. Buffy beamed back. The vampire staggered to its feet, and she gasped. "Oh! Now I have to show you this great hammerfist technique."
"Am I interrupting?" the vampire said. Buffy spun around, back to the vampire, and let her fist swing back with all her might. The vampire went down again with a heavy thud.
"Seems rather more showy than practical," Giles said, but Buffy could tell he was enjoying watching her.
The vampire managed to get up again. "Wouldn't you two rather just chat?"
Buffy tilted her head to one side. "Come to think of it, yes." With one lightning-fast stroke, she staked him.
Giles came toward her, waving away the swirling dust. "You're better than ever."
"Like a fine wine," she said.
He laughed out loud and put an arm around her shoulders as they strolled off through the cemetary. "I think that's my line."
Her dreams were becoming vivid again -- unsettling and strange. Buffy felt no genuinely prophetic sense from them; she'd become very good, through the years, at knowing which of her dreams were precognitive and which were not. These did not, but the images were strong, demanding attention. They foretold nothing -- but they meant something. Instinctively, she sensed that they were responding to the crystal. Perhaps the connection began on the subconscious level.
She reported this much to Giles, dry and flat. Simple fact. She did not tell him the substance of the dreams. She did not tell him of the night she held Angel's child in her arms, only to look up and see Darla, stark in red satin, holding her hands out for the baby. Or of the vision of Spike scratching lines in her window-glass, obscene words and religious symbols and misremembered Byron. Or of her dream of Giles himself, standing next to her, telling her to look within -- deeper, deeper --
-- and always, the yellow crystal. Luminous behind Darla's head, clutched in Spike's pale hand, or there in Giles' hands, commanding her vision and something deeper still.
Buffy told Giles none of this. To her own half-aware dismay, she sometimes tried to shove the dreams down beneath her consciousness. She did not want to remember them. She did not want to acknowledge the crystal's effect on her. She only wanted to continue this idyll with Giles -- this serene, happy time when she had no more pressing concern than caring about someone, no greater burden than his care for her. She was feeling connected again, connected to far more than the crystal.
In short, Buffy was behaving like a convalescent. She was healing, and Giles was letting her heal. She had needed a time like this more than she knew, for longer than she could possibly say. Her gratitude toward Giles for giving it to her was almost boundless.
Because the great question, the great yawning uncertainty underlying it all -- Why only now? Why not before? When I'd come back from the dead, when I was so scared and so sick of life? I needed this like water then, like air. And instead he left me to wallow in misery and degradation for almost a year.
Buffy had never asked Giles these questions. She'd told herself she knew the answers when they'd reunited in that awful spring when Willow finally spun out of control forever. But she was learning, day by day, that the wound he'd inflicted when he left had never truly healed. She'd bandaged it up well, learned to carry on without noticing the pain. But it was still there, and their renewed intimacy was making it worse, not better. Buffy knew that, inevitably, she would have to ask him about it. Hear what he had to say. And deal with it, if she could.
And maybe, down deep, that was the real reason she'd come here -- the real reason Giles had invited her, instead of sending the crystal Fed Ex. To find a place safe enough for that question and its answer.
Buffy thought they were getting there at last.
"You underestimated me."
Willow's eyes were black. Buffy backed away from her, as far as she could go, until the cement blocks of the dorm-room wall were against her shoulder blades. "No. I didn't. I always knew you were powerful, Willow."
"That's not what I mean," Willow said. Her hair was long, and she wore baggy overalls, and but for the black eyes she might have been 16 again.
The floor shimmered blue-green like the surface of a pool. The Gentlemen were floating by, and Buffy could feel her heart thump-thumping in her chest, strong, too strong, so strong they would hear. "What do you mean, Wil? Tell me, just tell me fast --"
When Willow told her, her heart could stop beating. Tell, Willow, don't tell --
"You never saw me for what I was," Willow whispered.
Buffy couldn't look at Willow anymore. She looked down at the blue-green floor, saw the emptiness of space beneath her feet. They were dangling free in the cosmos, soaring above the planets, kept from blackness and oblivion only by the translucent floor. "What were you?"
Willow floated toward her, hair streaming about behind, and the black eyes welled with tears. "Buffy," she whispered. "I was BEAUTIFUL --"
Buffy sat up in bed with a cry, realizing only as it echoed from the walls that she had truly screamed, that she was awake now. She looked down at the hardwood floor, the rag rug, and took in a deep, shuddering breath of relief.
"Buffy?" Giles opened the door without knocking. That was unlike him, and Buffy knew one moment of embarrassment; she was wearing only a tank top and panties, not at all her usual Giles-appropriate attire.
He seemed embarrassed himself, but the concern was too distant for either of them to pay much attention to. "I'm okay," she said. "Just -- vivid dream. About Willow."
Giles did not speak of Willow. She'd known he wouldn't. "You frightened me."
"It's the crystal," she confessed. "It's starting to get to me. I mean, maybe I'm starting to get through to it."
"If it's hurting you --"
"It's not," she promised, though she couldn't have said why she thought so. "This is just -- it's the process, okay? I know you use that thing to travel. I got a look at where, I think." The cosmos spiraling beneath her feet. "At least, maybe."
"I don't want you hurt." Giles was reluctant to leave; to her surprise, Buffy found herself sharing in that reluctance. "We could find others to investigate, Buffy."
"No. I can do it, Giles," she pleaded. Let me prove myself to you, she thought. Even if it means I have to leave -- at least I can prove myself to you first.
Giles looked unconvinced, but finally he said, "If you need me --"
As he padded down the hallway, back to his own bedroom, she thought, If I need you.
When did I not?
"Isn't Thanksgiving the third Thursday of November?" Giles said, thumbing through his Multidimensional Grimoire without looking up.
"Fourth Thursday," Buffy supplied, tucking her finger between the pages of Cat's Eye to hold her place. She was wearing one of Giles' old sweaters, black wool, satisfyingly scratchy and warm and big. The previous night's dream already seemed distant, and the crystal was no more than an attractive centerpiece on the coffee table. "Why?"
"Will your father be doing anything for the holiday? If not, perhaps you should do something for Dawn."
Buffy bit her lip, shocked and uneasy. There it was -- a hint to leave. Something she'd thought Giles wouldn't give -- hadn't he said as long as she wanted?
And then he said, "I've enough to bring Dawn over for a few days, if you think she'd like it."
She felt the grin spreading over her face; perhaps he did as well. Giles looked up from his book and returned the smile, even though he looked a little puzzled. "What's that for?"
"For letting me think of this place as home," Buffy said gently. "Even for a little while."
He looked vaguely abashed. "It feels more like home with you here," he confessed.
Now, Buffy thought. Now or never. "Giles?"
She didn't say it in any special tone of voice, but she could tell he sensed what was to come. Carefully, slowly, he closed his book and set it on the coffee table. When he turned back to her, his face was serious. "Yes?"
"Things are a lot better when we're together."
"Yes. They are."
"So --" Deep breath, no turning back now. "Why did you go away and leave me alone?"
"We've been over this," Giles said, but his voice was not a warning. "You remember what I said."
"That I needed to grow up and face responsibility," Buffy said.
"And you agreed I'd done the right thing."
"I know," Buffy said. "But I'm starting to think I might have been wrong about you being right."
"Which means you think I was wrong."
"I don't know. Maybe?" Buffy breathed out in frustration. "Giles -- you weren't just some crutch. I was really hurting. I really needed someone. I needed you. And you weren't there."
Giles dipped his head, pushed his glasses up with one finger. Without quite meeting Buffy's eyes, he said, "I know. I was wrong. More wrong than you even realize, I think."
Victory was so sudden and unexpected that Buffy could only stare at him for a few moments. Finally she managed to say, "When did this sink in?"
"I knew all along," he said simply. "But Buffy -- I couldn't stay. I wanted to. You have no idea how much I wanted to stay with you, help you through it all. But I couldn't have done."
"Why?" Buffy tried to keep the desperate pleading out of her voice, tried to make it just a question. "I want to understand, Giles. I'm done being angry about it. I just want to know."
"When you died --" Giles' voice caught in his throat, and Buffy took one of his hands in her own. She let his fingers lap over her wrist, where her pulse beat strong. "Buffy, you know how much you mean to me. How much I do love you." Buffy nodded impatiently; this was old news. "But we never talked about how -- without your father in your life, and -- I haven't any children, and --"
"You felt like -- I was your daughter?" Buffy said. When Giles nodded, she tried to think of how she should feel. A couple years ago, she knew, if Giles had said that to her, she would've teared up, hugged him tight, told him he was a better father than the one she was born with. It all would've been true. Now, though, it was clear -- Giles was only describing the past.
"I'd always known you would die in the course of your duty," he said. "I knew that before I ever met you. The closer we became -- the more fond I was of you -- the harder it was to remember that. And yet I always did remember. I always kept myself prepared, or so I told myself. But after I saw you fall, after I saw you lying there, dead -- broken --"
Tears were in his eyes, and she clutched his hand tighter. "Hey," she said gently. "Still here."
Giles nodded, but he still couldn't look directly at her. "I'd taught myself to bear the pain of losing a Slayer. But there is no bearing the pain of losing a daughter. It is unendurable, Buffy. I didn't know it was possible, to hurt like that and keep on drawing breath."
Buffy thought back to her mother's death, to Jenny Calendar's funeral. What Giles went through was worse, she told herself. She could conceive of that, but she could not truly understand it.
He continued, "I only had one way of making myself get through that. It was cheap. Cowardly, even. I hated myself for doing it, but I kept on. You remember -- the way you talked to me about Angel? About how you stopped loving him?"
Acid baths and burning. "You made yourself stop," Buffy said. "You stopped loving me."
"Never," Giles said roughly. "But I stopped thinking of you as my daughter. I could survive losing a Slayer. I could even survive losing a friend. But if I thought of you as my child -- Buffy, I couldn't have gone on."
"Okay," Buffy said. She felt as though she should have some sense of grief for the one true father figure she'd ever known. But it was all too distant now, too nebulous, for her to grasp hold of and weigh the loss. "But when I came back -- I know I was leaning on you like a father. I see that now. But a friend would have worked, too. Or even a Watcher."
"I was confused," Giles said. He finally looked her in the eyes; apology was written on his face, as was regret and remorse. "I don't know how much of this I consciously understood at the time. I don't know that I understand fully even now. But that was why I had to go. If I'd stayed, I would have let myself love you like that again. And I couldn't do it. I wasn't strong enough. I -- I am so sorry --"
"Don't," she said. Her voice was thick; it felt as though she had to swallow hard between each word. "I wanted the truth, and you told me."
"It was selfish. Selfish and small."
"No, it wasn't. You were trying to keep yourself going. Sometimes to do that -- you do stuff you wouldn't ordinarily do. It doesn't make you a bad person."
She thought back to those strange months after her return. To the long, awkward distances from Dawn. To the surreal, unsettling nights with Spike. To the changes she tried not to see in Willow. What she'd done to survive. If she could forgive it in Giles, could she forgive it in herself?
"You did what you had to do," she choked out. "Maybe it wasn't for the best. But we got through it. That's all that matters."
"No, it's not," Giles said. "But it is -- enough, perhaps."
To save himself. Giles had cut her loose to save himself. Buffy would have thought she would feel outraged or cheated -- instead, she knew only a profound sense of relief. He had not left because he didn't love her; he had left because he loved her too much. It did not make the past easier to remember, but her worst fears were dispelled. All this time -- all these years -- deep in her heart, she had secretly imagined that Giles could see deep within her then, see the blackness and misery twisted up at the core of her, and that he had turned from it in contempt and disgust. But it had been none of that. He was the Giles she knew and loved, afraid of more or less the same things she had been afraid of, after all.
They had failed one another. But they'd done no worse. And if they were no longer father and daughter, what they had left was still as real and true as anything else she'd ever known.
"You still love me," she said, smiling uncertainly.
"What? Of course." Giles was the one squeezing her hand for comfort now. "You can't ever have thought --"
"I thought of lot of things back then," she said. "I was seriously mixed up."
"I know. I might've helped you."
"I helped myself. Maybe it wasn't the best thing. But it worked out." She took a deep breath and let it out; as she did, it felt as though every muscle in her body was relaxing. Buffy flopped against the side of the sofa, suddenly alight with something that went deeper than relief. "And we're friends again, which is the main thing. Right?"
"Always," Giles said. She could see her own gratitude shining in his eyes and, on impulse, she opened up her arms.
She half-laughed, half-sighed as he embraced her, held her tight. Giles' arms were around her, and her head was against his chest, and they were hugging once more. Buffy snuggled in, relishing the sound of his heartbeat, the familiar, masculine smells of whiskey and aftershave and something that was uniquely Giles. Once again she felt safe, protected. All was right with the world.
It was like before, sort of. But not quite.
Buffy wrapped her arms more closely around his back, felt the gentle rise and fall of his breath. His face was tucked into the curve of her neck, the rasp of his unshaven cheek rough against her throat.
She did not know the change so much as she felt it -- an energy humming inside her, as if in one long, taut arc, like a plucked guitar string vibrating from the crown of her head to down between her legs, passing straight through her heart. Physical, tangible, real.
Buffy jerked back, stared at Giles. He was staring back at her in equal parts shock and embarrassment, and she could feel her cheeks flushing with heat. Their faces were still close together, so close she couldn't think. "I -- uh -- um -- I --"
"It's late," Giles said.
"We're both --"
"-- exhausted. And you have to --"
"-- get up early in the morning, so --"
"-- we should go to bed. Beds! Separately! One at a time." Buffy practically jumped off the sofa, crossed her arms in front of her, balled her fists up in the long sleeves of Giles' sweater. "So, in the morning, then."
"Of course." Giles wouldn't meet her eyes again, but this time it was a relief. "I -- Buffy --"
"Yeah?" she said uneasily.
"Sleep well," he said. Buffy, not trusting herself to reply, turned and ran up the steps two at a time.
She spent the night twisted up in the sheets, unable to sleep.
Giles, she said to herself. GILES. Tweed man. Old guy. Slept with your MOTHER. Remembers the moon landing. Like a dad to you.
No. Used to be like a dad.
This was far from anyplace they'd ever been, anyplace Buffy had ever dreamed of their being. She tried to connect this new feeling to the way she'd thought of Giles in the past, and she could not. There was no understanding what had just happened between her and Giles in the light of everything that had gone before. And yet it had happened all the same.
She did not fall asleep for hours, and when she did, she did not dream.
The next morning, she did not make breakfast. Nor did Giles. The two of them drank coffee in silence, until Buffy said, "I really should go home for Thanksgiving."
"Think I could fly out tonight?" Her eyes flicked over to him, wondering what he would say.
"I'll make the necessary phone calls," Giles replied. He did not look up from the dark surface of his coffee.
They were quiet together for a few moments, until he said, "Buffy --"
"Yeah?" Her heart seemed to contract within her chest.
"There is the matter of the crystal."
That stupid thing. "I'll take it with," Buffy said. "There's people in California who can deal with it better than me, probably."
"Will you be able to get it aboard? Customs might give you difficulty."
"I'll check it."
That night, as the plane lifted off, Buffy looked down at the lights of London, as golden and beckoning as they had been before. They looked like the stars in the sky she had floated above with Willow. She did not expect to see them again.
Chapter 2: Angel
For Ages Six Months And Up.
The lettering on the box was in a cheery yellow; the photograph showed a young man and women in the background, blurry and out of focus, but clearly beaming at the plump, happy baby in the front. The baby was scooting little plastic trinkets along multicolored rings, smiling beatifically in the way makers of baby food, formula and diapers like to pretend babies smile all the time.
Angel, father of two, knew better.
He was standing in the middle of KayBee Toys, feeling like the lone still figure in a mall packed with shoppers taking advantage of the post-Thanksgiving sales. All around him, other parents jostled and grabbed. Space Station Barbie appeared to be selling well, as did some sort of robot-bug creatures that reminded Angel vaguely of Velga demons.
Grace was a few years yet from wanting a Barbie, or for that matter robot bugs. She was still mostly interested in things that made noise or could be chewed. But they meant to give her a big first Christmas; Cordelia wanted them to go Christmas-tree shopping in a few days, wanted to have a party where everyone made ornaments.
("Wish we had a tree," Fred had said wistfully, and though nobody seemed to pay much attention at the time, Wesley had showed up at the hotel later that night with a little dime-store tree, papery green "needles" and blinking white lights. Cordelia had set it on the counter as though it were something precious and dear. Angel had sat by her in the pale lights until late that night, wrapping the humble few things they could buy the baby -- necessities, mostly, teething rings and bibs -- in the Sunday comics. They would open them the next day, pretending surprise and delight, so Connor would have a good first Christmas --)
Connor had been taken when he was almost five months old. Almost exactly the age Grace was now.
In all objective criteria, his two children could not have been more different: Connor was a boy, Grace a girl. Connor had been as bald as an egg, and Grace had a thick shock of dark hair that stood up in the back, to Cordelia's dismay and Angel's amusement. Connor had been sensitive to light and sound, quick to cry and slow to soothe; Grace was the most placid of babies, a sound sleeper, happy to amuse herself for long stretches of time.
Connor was an accident, both in his parents' intent and in the workings of the universe at large -- an aberration born to lifeless creatures who loathed one another, created for a greater purpose that was still unknown. Grace was planned and hoped-for, a healthy, normal baby born to two human beings, man and wife, created for no purpose except to live and be loved..
So there was no logical reason at all to think that what had happened to Connor would happen to Grace. None at all.
And yet Angel could feel his heart speed up and his breath catch just at reading those words: Ages Six Months And Up.
"What's that for?"
Angel glanced over at his son -- the young man who demanded to be known as Stephen -- who was staring at the toy as though it were something very strange and suspect. Given the creatures Stephen encountered on a regular basis, this was saying something. "It's not for anything in particular," Angel said. "It's just for fun. Babies like bright colors, moving things." You loved your mobile, Angel wanted to say. But he had learned long ago that such reminiscence meant little to Stephen.
Stephen shook his head in disbelief. "So kids don't need anything in this store. And this is what people spend hundreds of dollars on?"
"That's Christmas," Angel said.
"It's stupid," Stephen said. His voice was half teenage surliness, half something much more adult and condemning. Angel still knew few details of Stephen's childhood under Holtz's stern hand, but he could well imagine that fun and games and toys had played little part in it.
Although he knew it was false, sometimes Angel thought he had two sons -- one a noisy, boisterous, beautiful baby named Connor who had died very long ago. Stephen -- he was someone else. Angel could not count the hours he had spent looking into Stephen's eyes, trying to catch some glimpse of the baby he had lost, of the boundless love he had once seen there.
Stephen did not consider Angel his true father, and he never would. Angel had accepted that long ago and tried to be content with what relationship they had been able to establish: cooperation, friendliness, even some level of trust. Angel still had nightmares about what Stephen had done to him -- in the box, in the water, there was nothing to do but remember, and being trapped in his memories had proved to be little different than what he'd endured in hell. When Stephen had learned the truth, he had relented in his rage against Angel; however, sometimes Angel wondered whether anything but guilt kept Stephen at his side. His son clung to his past, clung to the name that still sounded so strange to say. Angel had hoped that some of the terrible gap in his heart would be healed through Grace's birth -- his second chance to be a father, to get it right this time.
But instead, sometimes Angel felt as though Grace's arrival had made it a thousand times worse.
Stephen shifted his weight from foot to foot. "You know, Grace needs new clothes. She's going up a size."
"I know. We'll get her some of those too."
"Blankets, maybe." Stephen's brow was furrowed as he tried to think of things his baby sister might need -- objects that could serve a purpose, gifts he would understand. "And shoes."
"How about you get her some shoes, okay?" Angel suggested. "They can be from you." Stephen smiled at that, a broad, unrestrained grin that was reserved for his sister.
To Angel's surprise, Stephen accepted Grace as his sister immediately and completely; he lavished affection and attention on the baby, revealed gentleness Angel hadn't realized his son had. He knew he should be grateful, for both Grace's and Stephen's sakes, but instead he could only look at Stephen's loving expression and think of what might have been.
All these toys. Walls and walls of them, floor to ceiling, bright colors and shining plastic. Connor had toys, little stuffed animals, a snowglobe that spun. The childhood Stephen had been given didn't even let him understand toys. The childhood Stephen had lost, that Angel had lost --
"We're leaving." Angel turned and hurried out of the store, overcome with the need to be far away from all those other parents, all those perfect smiling babies. He pushed his way through the crowd, earning a few angry stares; he didn't care. Was Stephen keeping up with him? It almost didn't matter. The boy would probably consider Angel's absence a relief.
But Stephen did come after him, stumbling into the mall corridor a few moments after Angel did. Stephen's face betrayed his curiosity about Angel's behavior, but Angel knew from experience that Stephen would not ask. "Are we going home?" was all Stephen said.
"Maybe. I don't know. We're not doing any more shopping." What exactly they would do didn't instantly spring to mind. Angel sat down heavily on a nearby bench.
"Cordy's gonna want to know why we didn't get the shopping done." Stephen had marginally more interest in Cordelia than he had in Angel. And in this situation he was quite right; Cordelia was ready to go into gift-wrapping mode, and she would demand a reason for Angel's coming back empty-handed.
Also -- perhaps Stephen wasn't aware of this, but Angel certainly was -- matters had been somewhat strained between Angel and Cordelia of late. He knew that his fears for Grace made him distant; it seemed impossible to concentrate on the here and now, on Cordelia and on Grace, when the past loomed up like this, so much more powerful in his new, fragile, mortal state than it had ever been before. And Cordelia, in turn, was sometimes awkward around him. Yet, strangely for her, she hadn't asked about it.
Maybe she'd blow it off if he and Stephen came back without the shopping done. But maybe she would ask, and then he would have to lie to her, something he hated to do. Angel told Cordelia almost everything, these days; he'd learned the hard way that it paid off in the long run. But this -- he didn't want to talk about it, didn't even want to say it out loud. Admitting that he was afraid for Grace meant admitting that it could all happen again. That there was no way, no matter how careful he was, that he could be absolutely sure Grace was safe.
("Sleep tight," he'd said, playing it casual, trying not to show that he worried about letting Connor go away for the night. His son was a tiny bundle in Wesley's arms, going out the door into darkness --)
His cell phone chirped, breaking his reverie. He tried not to groan; it would either be Gunn reporting a new case or Cordelia with an errand, and in neither case was Angel eager to hear it. "Yeah?"
To his surprise, the voice on the other end said, "Angel?" A woman's voice. Soft. Forever familiar.
Say something back, jackass. "Buffy. Are you okay?" As Angel said her name, Stephen raised an eyebrow. So, he'd listened when Angel told him those chapters of the story. That was a first.
"What? Yeah, I'm fine." Buffy sounded odd, but perhaps that was only the connection. "I'm, um, I'm actually on Melrose."
Angel held his other hand over his free ear, the better to drown out the busy shoppers around him and concentrate on her voice. For a moment, he regretted the loss of his vampiric hearing. "You're in Los Angeles."
"No wonder you're a private detective," Buffy said with a lilt that took the sting out of the words.
"Visiting Dawn?" he said. He remembered something about Dawn moving down here, something Buffy had said during her visit the previous summer, not long before Grace was born.
"Yeah. Doing Christmas here, maybe." She hesitated. "Are you all right? You sound a little weird."
"I'm fine," Angel said. "You caught me at a -- weird moment, I guess." She didn't sound much better, but he didn't mention it specifically. "What about you?"
"I'm -- " The obvious next word was "good," and that was what she meant to say, Angel could tell. But the word didn't come out. The silence stretched out, and then he heard a faint sniffling gulp -- stifled tears.
"Hey," he said gently. "Buffy? Are you okay?" Stephen bounced on his heels impatiently.
"I am," Buffy insisted. "I really am. Things are just confusing right now."
And this will make it a lot better, Angel thought. All he said was, "Can I help?"
"Yeah. I mean, no -- not with -- what I mean is, I do have some supernatural weirdness I want to run by you."
"Seems like old times," Angel said, and was rewarded with a weak chuckle. "Okay, then, let's --" Go to the hotel? To his house? Neither seemed appropriate. "Let's get something to eat."
"You eating," Buffy said. "Okay, I see the novelty value."
"Hang on," Angel said. He covered the receiver with one hand. "Do you mind going back to the hotel without me?"
"Nope," Stephen said. "Are you going out with your ex-girlfriend?"
"She's the slayer," Angel reminded him. "This is slayer business," he added, before remembering that this might not be strictly true.
"We should ask Cordy first," Stephen said.
"It's gonna be fine by Cordy," Angel said. That, too, might not be strictly true; however, he was sure Cordelia's annoyance could only be slight. He spoke into the phone again. "We're set. Where should we eat?"
"Depends. Where are you?"
"The mall," he said. It was a straightforward answer, but he couldn't resent it when she burst out laughing.
Angel had known, from the first moment Whistler revealed her to him, that he was destined to meet Buffy for some great and important purpose. Eight years, 14 near-apocalyptic events, one night of sex, two escapes of his demonic inner self, a half-dozen breakups and one immeasurably long stint in hell later, they were sitting in a Ruby Tuesday, peering together at the specialty-drinks menu.
I have to reconsider this entire "fate" thing, Angel thought.
The waitress wandered over to them, and Buffy set the drinks menu down with a shrug. "I'd just like a whiskey. Neat."
Angel was caught slightly off-guard by that, then realized he'd been expecting her to order the same sort of thing Cordelia would've -- something frothy and extravagant and fun. He enjoyed teasing her about it; not many jokes to make about whiskey. His order, on the other hand -- "I'll have a Bloody Mary. Don't say anything."
As the waitress left them, Buffy kept staring at him, biting her lip in an ill-disguised attempt not to laugh. Angel shifted in his seat. "Sometimes I just want something red and viscous."
"Bet you go through a lot of ketchup."
"Too thick. So, what's this weirdness you were going to run by me?"
As Buffy pulled up her backpack and began fishing out whatever it was she'd brought -- apparently, it wouldn't cause undue comment in a restaurant -- Angel took a couple of moments to look at her. She had altered more, from girl to woman, than most did; she was neither more nor less beautiful than she had ever been, just different. He saw that she had gained a little weight since the summer, and she looked by far the better for it. However, he had learned that it was unwise to pay this particular compliment to a 21st-century woman.
But there was something else about her now -- a strange energy, something that was both troubling and exciting her. Did this connect to whatever she was going to show him?
"And here we go." She set it on the table with a heavy thunk. "Apparently you can use this to go traveling through dimensions. Giles -- Giles kinda set me on it because it's drawn to your interdimensional frequent fliers and the previously dead. Both of which I am, but seeing as how you have centuries of deadness on me, plus you go to other dimensions the way other people go to the grocery store --"
"A Wernoth crystal," Angel said as he took it in his hands. He felt the faint hum in the crystal, smiled fondly. "Where did Giles get this? These are hard to come by."
"You know it?" Buffy looked both relieved and vaguely let down. "So much for the big mystery."
"I've seen them. They're really rare, though; humans almost never get their hands on these, or don't know what to do with them when they do."
"Giles knows what it does," Buffy said. Was she a little defensive? Angel looked up at her as she continued. "He knows that you use them to travel through dimensions. He just needs to know exactly where this one would take you."
"I'm afraid Giles is out of luck," Angel said. He gave a quick, absent smile to the waitress as she dropped off their drinks. "That's what makes a Wernoth crystal different than the others you can use to travel through dimensions."
"Not getting something here," Buffy said.
"Other crystals are attuned to various dimensions," Angel explained. "But a Wernoth -- there's no directing it. See the flaws at the center? They bend your path, change your course. A crystal like this -- it's like a surfboard or something. Sends you flying off through realities for a thrill ride."
"You're kidding. What if you went to a hell dimension? Sorry -- not trying to bring up bad memories."
"It's okay." In truth, her words did send an unpleasant jolt through him, but Angel shoved it aside. "If you went to a place you didn't want to be, you'd just use it again immediately. The danger is part of the appeal, Buffy. If you use one of these things, you accept the risk of going someplace you hate. You might end up someplace terrific. You'll probably do both, before too long. But the main enjoyment of it is hurling yourself into the dimensions. Flying off, destination unknown."
Buffy tapped her fingers on the table. "I've been trying to focus in on this thing for weeks," she said. "Each time, it seemed like it was sending me something different. Not stuff that was -- stuff that might have been. That kinda makes sense now."
"Why did Giles need to know?" Angel said. "Curiosity?"
Giles' name made her duck her head. "No, he -- no. I mean, they caught a demon with this thing, and they were scared it might be part of some master plan. Demon invasion, yadda yadda. But I guess your celestial surfboard isn't a big part of the evil warlord arsenal, right?"
"Right. They're too unpredictable to be used tactically. Giles can tell the Council that they have nothing to fear."
"Seems scary." Buffy was staring at the deep gold crystal, perhaps as a means of avoiding Angel's eyes. "I mean, if you used something like this -- could you ever get back home? Or are you just lost forever?"
"You'd get home again," Angel said. "They work in rings. Cycles. No cycle of journeys would ever be the same as any other, but yeah, you'll always come back to the beginning."
"So I get to tell the Council that they were freaking out because some demon decided it was time to hang ten," Buffy sighed.
"Beats an apocalypse," Angel suggested.
"I guess," Buffy said.
The pause that stretched out from this comment seemed unusually long to Angel; not talkative by nature, he appreciated comfortable silences, but this wasn't one. Something was weighing on Buffy, something that both troubled and excited her. He profoundly hoped it had nothing to do with himself.
Finally, Buffy said, "So -- how's Cordy?"
"Good," he said. "She's going to take a couple of classes at UCLA next semester. Psychology and something called the 19th Century Novel. She's excited about it. Halfway through the syllabus already."
"College," Buffy said, her face wistful. Angel wanted to ask why she'd never returned to UC Sunnydale -- he remembered her good test scores, her genuine desire to do more with her education than she'd been able to in high school -- but it seemed impolitic to ask.
Instead, he said, "How was Giles? I bet it was good to see him again."
"Oh," she said, as if startled. Her cheeks were pink. "Giles. Giles is -- just fine. Same ol' Giles."
Giles, Angel thought. He turned the memory of the man over in his mind, looked at Buffy. For one moment, his old understanding of her emotions, her unspoken words, flashed back to him, as sharp and as true as ever. He remembered seeing her so disquieted, so eager and uncertain all at once. That energy she had when she spoke about Giles -- Angel recalled it from the days when it had been something they shared for one another. Did that mean -- could that mean --
The waitress saved either of them from having to continue in that particular vein when she deposited the chicken fingers on their table. Angel began munching on his immediately, and he smiled when he saw Buffy shaking her head at him. "What?"
"I guess if you go 250 years without solid food, you appreciate it more when you get it," she said.
"I'm lucky I get a lot of exercise," Angel said, dipping his chicken in the tangy sauce again.
And it was just at that moment -- just when he might have thought himself safe -- that Buffy said, "Angel, do you ever think about what happened to us?"
Damn, Angel thought. The full reality of his situation -- a married man, not carrying out the errands his wife had sent him to do, but instead talking over old times with his ex -- was now upon him. But even as he finished chewing, thought about his answer, he realized that Buffy was totally calm. She was less ill-at-ease now than she had been when they were discussing Giles. It's okay, he told himself. We can talk about this. "Yeah," he said. "Of course."
"Things are good for you now --"
"Yeah, they are."
"-- and I'm glad. I mean it, Angel. Really, really glad." She smiled at him, her lips quirked in that not-quite-begrudging way he remembered so well. "You deserve it."
"No, I don't," Angel said. "But I'm grateful."
"For me, they're -- well, they're better," she said. "And I know it's a good thing that we moved on." Angel nodded, encouraging her to continue. "But sometimes it just seems like a waste, you know? All that pain and frustration and crying --"
"I guess that's how you remember it," Angel said. He felt unaccountably hurt; hadn't he realized this a long time ago? But still. "But that's not what I see when I look back. I try to remember the good times. Talking in your room and drinking coffee at the Bronze. Making out in the graveyards."
Buffy smiled a little, easing some of the sting. "I remember those times too, Angel. But all that stuff we felt -- the good and the bad -- doesn't it seem like it should have been for something? I just can't stand the idea that I gave up so much for nothing."
She was looking at the crystal again, and, Angel realized, thinking of Giles. He felt a twinge of something he recognize as pure male possessiveness, but mostly he felt relief. At long last, what Buffy wanted from him was something he could give her.
"We didn't give it up for nothing," he said. "We gave it up for this. For the lives we've got now."
"I'm just so far from anyplace I thought I would end up."
"Listen, I didn't expect to end up married to Cordelia Chase, either," he said. To his relief, Buffy smiled. "If you'd asked me back in 1998 if this is what I wanted my life to be like, I would've said no. And I would have been dead wrong."
"You couldn't resist. I didn't get the future I thought I was going to get, no. I didn't end up with you." He could remember his old daydreams -- visions of Buffy in white satin and a veil, of a church that married them but included no one else in the world. Beautiful and sad and so far away. "But I got a future that is -- so much better than I ever dreamed. Sometimes the unexpected is the best thing of all, you know?"
"Maybe," Buffy said. She was thinking about something. Deciding something. Angel still recognized that in her -- that whip-crack change in her eyes, the way she seized an idea, pounced on it like a cat. She was smiling again. "I guess maybe it is."
Giles, you lucky bastard, Angel thought.
Buffy began munching on the chicken fingers herself, and Angel wondered if the subject was closed. But then she said, "You remember how Spike once said that you and me would never be friends?" Angel nodded. "Spike was right about a lot of things. But, you know, it's a major relief to find out that in this one area he was totally full of shit."
"You're just now figuring that out?"
They laughed together for the first time in far too long.
Buffy waved cheerfully from her car as she drove away after dropping Angel off. Angel waved after her, surprised to feel the broad smile on his face, to see it mirrored on her own. Friends, he thought, first in disbelief and then in satisfaction. Friends. He thought he'd lost her forever and had endured the loss -- but now, he had her back. It was different than before, and better than before, not least because their friendship could actually last.
Angel was still smiling as he went through the door. Nobody was behind the desk; apparently Gunn had gone home to spend some quality time with his new roommate, Dennis. (Cordy thought it would be only fair to Dennis to make sure the tenant after her was a friend who understood dead people.) But the ground floor wasn't deserted; Stephen stepped in from the courtyard, an oversized sweatshirt over his clothes to protect him from the L.A. version of winter. The way it hung on him made him look younger, Angel thought. "You're back," Stephen said. "Cordy's mad."
Stephen looked worried, in what Angel recognized as man-to-man solidarity when faced with the prospect of a mysteriously angry female. It wasn't exactly a son's concern, but it seemed genuine -- which was why Angel had to grin. Stephen frowned, confused. "She'll be okay," Angel reassured him. "Did you get dinner?"
"Pizza," Stephen said with a faint smile. The rest of this dimension might still be confusing to him, Angel thought, but the kid knows his junk food. "You should go to her."
"Right." Angel glanced up the stairs, then patted his son on the back. "Thanks for the heads-up." The only response was a one-shoulder shrug.
Angel went up to the rooms that he and Cordelia had adapted into their apartment; when he went through the door, he looked at the home he shared with Cordy as though he'd never set foot in it before. The past few months, he realized, he'd been remembering these rooms as they had been in 2002 -- cracks in the walls and soot on the floor, a wreckage with an abandoned crib in the center. But now everything about the rooms hit him anew -- the golden-yellow paint that brightened the walls (and memories of him and Cordy, painting together and making a mess of it), a framed sketch Angel had done of Cordelia during her fifth month of pregnancy (and memories of her laughing so often during the posing sessions that he never did get the mouth quite right), the soft white drapes that covered the windows but still let in the sunlight (and memories of his first day of humanity, when Cordelia had thrown open all the windows and made love to him while the sun streamed in and bathed their bodies in light.) Home. Angel felt a deep wave of gratitude to his wife, for her, and realized how much, in these past months of introspection and worry, he had missed their closeness.
He stepped gingerly over the baby toys scattered around the floor and made his way to where Grace herself was sound asleep in her little swing, rocking back and forth so that her chubby legs waggled. Angel wanted to lean down and kiss her, but he didn't trust himself to match the swing's tempo. Head-butting the baby was probably a bad idea.
"There you are," Cordelia's voice floated from the kitchen As she walked in, she wasn't looking at him, but frowning down at her copy of Madame Bovary. She was wearing old jeans and an older sweatshirt, but in Angel's opinion she wore them well. "Okay, explain this to me, ye olde guy from another century. She's doing it with this guy in a carriage, right? Isn't that kinda cramped?"
"No more than a Plymouth," Angel said, remembering one of the possibilities for Grace's conception.
The desired result of this comment was Cordelia's half-embarrassed, half-wicked smile -- one of his favorite expressions. Instead she just looked uneasy. "No back seat in a carriage."
"Nope," Angel said. He stepped a little closer to her, brushed his forefinger along the top of her book to push it down. "You had to sit upright. At least, the man did. The lady in question had to be a little more -- flexible."
That should have tipped her off to his good mood -- and his hopes for the evening -- but instead she kept staring down at the book as though transfixed. Angel suspected that something besides Flaubert was behind this, and realized Stephen's instincts had been accurate. "Cordy? You okay?"
"Sure," she said, sitting down in a chair she rarely used. Normally they sat on the sofa together, but this seat didn't let Angel get too close. This meant trouble, Angel suspected. And he was sure of it when she said, "Stephen said you had dinner with Buffy."
"Yeah," Angel said. "She was in town investigating this Wernoth crystal. I gave her the background on it." Probably Cordelia was hurt that Angel hadn't asked her along. Might be a good policy, in future, for ex-girlfriend dinners.
Cordelia glanced up from the book just for a moment. "Anything apocalypsey I oughta worry about?"
"It turned out to be no big deal. But it was good to see her. And you'll never believe this," Angel added, kneeling down to look at Grace, still rocking back and forth like a metronome. "She didn't say anything, I mean in so many words, but I think there's something going on with her and Giles."
"Something -- going on?" Cordy let the book drop. She was staring down at him very strangely.
"Maybe not yet. But something's up. I don't know if there's real dating -- do you even say dating, when you've known somebody that long? We didn't." An idea struck Angel, as well as his disbelief that he'd never thought of it before. "I never really took you out on a first date, did I? Opening doors and paying for drinks and all that. We should get Stephen to babysit one night and go on a date. Movies and dinner, the works. Might even get you a corsage."
Cordelia didn't seem as entertained by the idea. She was blinking at him, and Angel realized there were tears in her eyes. "Cordy? What's wrong?"
"Buffy's with Giles," Cordelia said. "And you don't care."
Angel's first, confused thought was that he was being accused of insensitivity. "I care," he said earnestly. "I want them both to be happy --"
Cordelia shook her head. "I know, I know," she whispered. "You really don't care that she's with somebody else."
Realization finally dawned. "Cordy -- you can't have thought -- after all this time --"
"I don't know," Cordelia choked out. From his place on the floor, Angel put his hands on her feet -- it was the only way of touching her from where he sat. "I didn't think about you two for so long, but this summer -- after you saw her, it was like you changed. You were shut off all the time, and I told myself, okay, it's Angel, he goes into total dork isolation mode sometimes, but I kept thinking, you know, the guy shanshued and you never asked him if he wanted something else and maybe he did and maybe he's trapped and now he's seen Buffy again and --"
"Hey," Angel cut her off, took her hands, pulled her down to the floor with him. They knelt facing each other, just a few inches from the baby in her swing. "None of that is true, okay? None of it. I love you."
"I know," Cordelia said, wiping at her cheeks. "I know you do. But you and Buffy -- you were so -- I mean, you came back from hell for her. You gave up your first crack at being human for her. You loved her so much."
"Yeah, I did," Angel said. "And you're still the love of my life."
He brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, felt her damp eyelashes brush against his fingertips. Slowly, he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers, almost too gently to be a kiss. But she kissed him back forcefully, and he opened his mouth for her, following her lead. They were slow and thorough, the way they used to kiss in the very beginning, when they were so new to each other that every touch was a blessing.
Finally she let him go and peered searchingly into his eyes. "Okay, then, Mr. Broody, if you haven't been pining away for someone of the slayer persuasion, what have you been so weird about?"
"Connor," Angel said. He didn't use that name much anymore; he knew Cordelia would understand everything he meant by saying it. "I thought having Grace would make the memories easier, somehow. But it hasn't. I get scared for her, and I remember being scared for Connor, and --"
"Oh, Angel." She cupped his face in her hands. "Why didn't you just tell me?"
"I don't like to think about it," he confessed.
"How long has this been going on? Since this summer?"
Angel nodded. He could feel his old reticence kicking up -- the almost physical urge not to talk about it -- but it was time, past time, and he'd have to get through it. He folded Cordelia against his chest; it might be easier if he could just concentrate on holding her, on the way she felt in his arms. "When you were in your last couple of months -- the shape of your body -- it reminded me of Darla." She tensed slightly; Angel didn't blame her. "And when Darla went into labor -- Cordy, I had these nightmares of you bleeding and hurting and taking a stake and --"
"Shhhh," Cordelia whispered. "I'm fine. It was all fine."
The delivery room had been cozy and comfortable, a place so modern that it had furnishings designed to make it look just like a home. Angel had been jubilant enough in his happiness and relief to joke about how absurd this was, at least if you remembered an era when babies really were born at home. "I thought it was over, after that. That I was done being scared. But as soon as I saw Grace, I started remembering Connor again. I tell myself it doesn't do any good, but I can't help it. I'm sorry. I ought to be able to deal with this by now."
"You are dealing," Cordelia said, winding her arms around his waist. "But you don't have to deal alone, okay?"
"Okay." They held each other for a long time; the only sound in the room was the click-click of Grace's swing, their own breathing. Angel felt her heart beating against his palms, took a moment to appreciate the beating of his own. He kissed Cordelia's cheek, nuzzled the side of her jaw, and for a few precious moments he was at last able to live in the here and now. The very good here and now.
"All right," Cordelia said briskly, with one of her getting-down-to-business nods. "Not everybody in this room had dinner with their ex. So I hereby appoint you to find me something to eat."
Food. Hmmm. There were some eggs in the fridge -- maybe an omelet -- Angel's reverie was broken by Cordelia taking back up her copy of Madame Bovary. The teasing light he loved was back in her eyes. "So, these clothes you guys used to wear? Massively unattractive. Nothing turns a woman off like men in knickers."
"These days," Angel said, heading into the kitchen. "Back in the 1790s, though, you could get women to swoon by flexing your calf muscles."
Cordelia laughed out loud. "What good did it do you if they did? I mean, the dresses looked better than the eight-lords-a-leaping gear the menfolk had, but the women were totally buried in all those corsets and petticoats."
"It was sexy," Angel insisted. He took out the eggs and cheese and peppers, preparing to cook his wife's dinner. "When you saw somebody with all those clothes on, you wondered what it would be like to take them off."
"I'll have to start wearing more clothes then."
He smiled. "Don't you dare."
Cordelia was grinning broadly now. "And before, when you were talking about getting frisky in the carriages, and the ladies being flexible? Are we talking merely limber or, you know, Plastic Man?"
"I tell you what," Angel said. "Why don't I just show you later on?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Chapter 3: Giles
"I screwed up the time difference, didn't I?" Buffy did not sound terribly repentant about having woken Giles up at nearly midnight. "Are you awake? I mean, it can wait a day."
"No, no -- just give me a moment." In truth, his disorientation was not so much a factor of being awakened as it was surprise at hearing Buffy on the phone. And happiness at hearing her so free and easy, speaking to him. And dismay at his own reaction to her voice. "I take it this is about the crystal?"
"Yup. No world-ending nasties were using it, which is the good news."
Giles pushed himself up from the mattress, rested his back against the old wooden headboard. "Ah. Unfortunately, that begs the question -- what is the bad news?"
"There is none. There's only even-better news."
"That makes for a welcome change of pace. Tell me, what is it?"
"Can't tell you." Buffy giggled -- a sound he didn't think he'd heard since she was 16. "It's the kind of thing I'm just gonna have to show you."
An innocent comment, one that his middle-aged brain shouldn't have been twisting and turning, hoping for other meanings. Giles, irritated at himself, forced himself to focus. "Right, then. I could arrange for you to fly back to England -- day after tomorrow, perhaps --"
"Actually, you should probably come here. I think the Hellmouth energy kinda helps."
"Helps what?" She just laughed again, and he sighed. "I can see that no straight answers will be forthcoming."
"All will be revealed," Buffy said, in a mock TV-announcer voice. Then, more naturally, "Trust me, Giles. You're gonna love this."
Once again, Giles sternly made himself stick to the subject at hand. "I'll let you know my travel arrangements tomorrow. And perhaps Xander has a sofa I could --"
"Oh, you can stay here. It's not like I don't have room."
For one moment, Giles couldn't answer at all; finally, he stammered out, "I -- but -- yes, but -- I thought you'd sold the house."
"Still selling," Buffy said, and her youthful giddiness was dimmed. "This whole 'points' business takes a lot of negotiation, you know that? I wish you could just put houses on eBay. Can you do that?"
"I have no idea." Giles took one moment, weighing the risks of staying with Buffy versus the risks of refusing to stay with Buffy. In the end, he thought it would be easier to control his own impulses than Buffy's questions. "Very well then. I'll, ah, let you know when to expect. me."
"See you soon," Buffy said, and then the line clicked silent.
Giles carefully set the receiver back in the cradle, then lay back to stare at the ceiling. He'd never even switched on the lamp, so he was surrounded by darkness, awash in his own doubt.
It will be fine, he told himself. Obviously she's chosen to pretend it never happened. Under the circumstances, a wise decision. One you'd do well to imitate.
But if he hadn't been able to make himself do that in the six weeks since she'd left, how would he ever achieve it now? Now, when he knew that he would soon be with her, be near her again --
Giles sighed in exasperation at his own folly. He had done any number of ridiculous things in his life, from live guitar performance to wearing a sombrero to taking up with Ethan Rayne. But even the most serious repercussions of that last did not seem as purely irrational and contrary as what had overtaken him now.
Buffy, he told himself for the ninetieth time. Buffy. She doesn't recall the 1970s. She still had stuffed animals when you met her. You slept with her mother.
None of this held any sway, as Giles was well aware by this point. Sexual infatuation, he thought, was rather a different animal at his stage of life. When you were a teenager, it was your lord and master. As a young adult, it was your boon companion. But now, at fifty, such desire had more the character of an unwelcome guest -- arriving at odd and awkward hours, lingering far too long, resisting all hints to leave.
Perhaps he should have seen it coming, he thought. He ought to have realized, during those dark days after her resurrection, that if he did not allow his love for Buffy to resume its parental form, that it might change shape; love defies being tamed and confined, and when its first path is blocked -- well, he thought, it takes what direction it will.
And his love for Buffy had changed into this -- this new and damnable and yet not-unwelcome need to be near her. To hold her. Yes, even to take her to bed.
Two years ago it would have been unthinkable. Now it was undeniable. Giles had arrayed all sorts of arguments against it: It was improper for a slayer and a watcher, their ages were simply too disparate and, teleportation spells aside, they were rather the definition of "long-distance" at present.
However, the only reasoning that kept Giles' feverish wishes in check was the most obvious of all -- Buffy did not, could not, feel as he did. Perhaps, that night -- he had not imagined it, he thought -- that night she might have felt something. But more likely she'd only recognized his desire (recognized it the moment he did himself) and, as he recalled, fled upstairs and then across the Atlantic to get away from him.
If she welcomed him back to America, as a friend, then it was as much as he could hope for. Giles turned on his side, tried to fall back to sleep. If he were to be traveling to California in the next day or so, he would need his rest. And it was certainly not worth thinking about any longer.
Absurd, really. And you, old enough to be her father.
Angel and Spike, of course, had been even older, but they retained the beauty and agility of youth, combined with strength and stamina that went beyond that of the young. The one undeniable sexual advantage of age -- experience -- was something they possessed in measures no human could match. Giles was well aware that he carried all his years on his frame. And to imagine that Buffy -- vibrant and beautiful and only just past girlhood -- would look on him with desire?
Not for the first time, he tried to call up the way he had felt about her before, when he lived in Sunnydale and looked upon her as a child. His child. But as true and real as his paternal emotions had once been, they existed no longer -- because he had destroyed them. To keep his heart safe, he'd thought.
He closed his eyes tightly and hoped for sleep that did not come for a very long time.
The house on Revello Drive was mostly as Giles remembered it, besides the For Sale sign in the front yard. But his observant eyes noted that the lawn was not very neatly cut, that the paint was slightly chipped and cracked. It had been years since anyone had had the money and will to properly maintain the place. Had he been there, he reminded himself, he might have done it for her himself.
He paid the cab driver, took his one bag and went up the walk, trying to think how best to greet Buffy. A hug was out of the question. A handshake? How ridiculously formal. Perhaps it would be best to pretend to struggle with the case --
But even before he reached the steps, the front door flew open; Buffy came bounding out, literally bouncing with energy and enthusiasm. "You made it! You're like, an hour early." She flung her arms around him, embracing him without embarrassment, and Giles could not decide if he was grateful or disappointed that his bag kept him from returning the hug.
"I just had the one carry-on," Giles said. "Saved time at the airport that way. I must say, you look, ah, happy."
That was the blandest word he could have chosen. Buffy was -- radiant, he thought. Aglow. Her hair was loose, streaming down her back; her cheeks were pink, as though she'd just finished a training session. She was wearing a cherry-red top, one of those tight things with skinny straps that was all the rage, and a skirt that showed off her legs to their best advantage. Giles tried not to pay any more attention to her outfit than that.
"Thanks." Buffy took his bag in one hand and gestured for him to come inside with the other. "Are you totally exhausted? You say 'jet,' I think 'lag.' You need some crash time?"
"I slept a few hours on the plane," Giles said, not mentioning that he'd done so because of his sleepless hours the night before. "We can get right to the matter of the crystal."
"Ohh-kay," Buffy said as they went through the door. Her eyes were alight, her lips pursed as if she were trying not to laugh.
"You're going to enjoy this surprise, aren't you?" he said.
"So are you," she promised. "That is -- if you like surprises."
And there went the imagination again. "I have reason to be suspicious of surprises," Giles said. "But I'm terribly fond of answers."
"Answers." Buffy repeated, then smiled at him a little more gently. "I have those too. Hang on -- I'm gonna put this in Mom's room, okay?"
Giles nodded his assent as Buffy went upstairs. He looked around at the house, already half-packed for the impending move; the pictures were off the walls, cardboard boxes stacked all around in uncertain towers. A faint haze of dust, shaken from books and vases and shelves through packing, hung in the air, softening the light. The living room still retained some of its character, but most of the rest of the house no longer looked like a home.
"What's the matter?" Buffy was frowning as she came back down.
Giles tried to shake off his gloom. "I suppose it just caught me off-guard. Seeing your house like this."
"Don't be sad," Buffy said. "I'm not. I just keep telling myself that the next place is going to be great. Probably fit me better, too -- it hasn't been any fun, knocking around all these empty rooms by myself."
"I should imagine not. But it is always difficult, leaving a place where you have so many memories."
He was talking about himself, he knew. But if Buffy recognized this, she gave no sign. "Not all of those memories are so great," she said with a wry little smile. "Next place -- all good memories, all the time. That's the goal."
Hearing Buffy so optimistic was so welcome and so surprising that Giles found himself laughing -- at his own selfish gloom, at his own surprise. Why should he assume that she would share his melancholy? When she looked at him strangely, he shook his head. "Nothing. Right, then. The crystal. When did you discover its purpose? A few days ago?"
"Umm, about a month ago, actually."
"Why didn't you tell me then?" Giles said. "I realize it must not be very important after all, but still --"
"I wanted to really figure it out on my own," Buffy said. "Angel told me what it was. But it was up to me to learn how to use it."
She'd spoken to Angel -- well, that would be a story for later, no doubt. Giles watched as Buffy lifted the crystal from the mantel, held it out toward him. Now fully attuned to Buffy, the crystal instantly began to glow with a deep, amber-gold light. It glittered in her eyes, burnished her shining hair, and Giles felt his breath catch. She smiled at him crookedly. "I need you to put your hands on the crystal, too."
"All right," Giles said, moving toward her. "What will that do?"
"I'm not 100% sure on that one yet," Buffy said. "Maybe nothing. But -- if it works for you like it works for me --"
"Buffy -- you've been traveling with this thing." Giles' hand hovered just above the crystal, almost touching, not quite.
"Uh-huh," she said. The crystal's glow lit her like firelight, warm and brilliant. "And I think you'll be able to come with me."
"Don't you mean, I'll see?"
"No," Buffy said. "Giles, are you coming or aren't you?"
She held the crystal out before her like a talisman. The golden light streamed out through her fingers, silhouetted them both in the afternoon shadows of the room. Transfixed by her, Giles slowly lowered his hands onto the crystal.
Light flared. A galvanic shock slashed its way up his arms, through his heart, not painful but paralyzing all the same. The world seemed to spin and whirl around them, losing its form in a colorful blur --
-- and they were on a mountain, a mountain of rock as dark and shining as hematite, under a lilac sky. They were on the highest peak of many that surrounded them, jabbing darkly from clouds that concealed the earth below. Giles tried to breathe in, felt the air thin and sharp in his lungs. "What -- where is this?"
Buffy shrugged; she was shivering already, her skimpy little top and skirt doing nothing to shield her from the cold. "It's beautiful. This is about the most beautiful one yet."
"This is the dimension the demon was traveling from?" Giles squinted down at the clouds, as though getting a glimpse of the ground would tell him more.
"Probably not," Buffy said. "Okay, this is postcard-worthy, but I'm cold. Hang on."
Giles grasped the crystal more tightly, assuming that they would now go home for explanations, but instead the black mountains and violet sky exploded into another kaleidoscope of color and motion --
-- a sea of tar boiled. Sulfur stung his eyes. Something scary and dark whirled around to glare at them, its massive wings rustling as it prepared for flight. Or, Giles thought uneasily, to pounce. He threw one hand out to protect Buffy, as though he could, but she firmly set it back on the crystal.
"NOT a keeper," Buffy said calmly, gripping the crystal again, casting them back into the sound and noise --
-- and they were in what looked like a very normal meadow, watching a very normal sunrise, if three suns coming up counted as "normal."
"Great," Buffy said with a grin. "We can hang here for a while."
"I -- I suppose --" Giles watched Buffy let go of the crystal and sit in the grass, legs overlapping at the ankle, as free and easy as she'd ever been on the grounds of Sunnydale High. He trusted her judgment, at least more often than not, but he couldn't bring himself to set the crystal down and sit beside her. "Where are we, precisely?"
"No clue," Buffy said. "I don't think I've been to this one before. I was hoping maybe you'd have some way of knowing which dimension this is."
"There's not really a road atlas," Giles replied. "Buffy, how can you be traveling through dimensions and not know where you're going?"
She explained. It made some sort of sense, Giles supposed, even if he knew he would have to find a term more palatable to the Council than "surfboard" for the official report. "Joy-riding," he said at last. "This is nothing more than a means of going joy-riding."
"But the dangers of something like that -- the risks -- Buffy, I applaud your initiative in learning how to deal with this device, but you must promise not to do so again."
"Because it's dangerous?" Buffy's lips were quirked in an unwilling smile. "So I should stick to slaying demons on the Hellmouth, where I'm safe?"
"Point taken." Giles finally sat down next to her, his knees cracking slightly as he settled himself into the grass. "But why take on unnecessary risks?"
Buffy smiled at him broadly now. "Because sometimes it's not that black tar place. Sometimes it's like this, with the triple-decker sunrise and these weird little flowers. Did you see these, Giles? They're like orange koosh balls or something."
"Interesting flora is not a reason to risk your life, Buffy."
"No," Buffy said, and her voice was firmer now. The girlish giddiness with which she'd described this venture throughout was gone, replaced by something deeper, quieter. The pink morning light caught the few glints of gold still in her hair, blowing in the gentle breeze. "But discovering new places -- knowing you're not afraid to take whatever you find there -- that's worth some risk, Giles. It is to me, anyway."
Giles tried to think of how to answer her, but was startled by a voice behind them.
"Cows. One of them nice and young." He and Buffy whirled around to see a greenish demon regarding them with a satisfied, proprietary interest. "Now, be good cows and stay still."
Giles stared at Buffy, who sighed. "Crystal."
Their hands latched on, and the crystal glowed gold, and the world began spinning once again --
-- and in the middle of all the color and whirling, Buffy was laughing. She said, "Don't look at me. Look down --"
-- and he did what she said, because he could do nothing else, and he saw all the stars and the planets, the entire cosmos, laid out beneath them like a carpet of light.
"That birdlike creature -- perhaps an Pieru demon. Which would entirely rule out Quartoth --"
"You thought it was birdlike?" Buffy wrinkled her nose. "I mean, it had wings, but the face was not birdy. More like the biggest, angriest pug of all time."
They had leaped from dimension to dimension for an unknowable amount of time. Was there any measuring time when you were away from your own sun and earth? Not that Giles could easily call to mind. All that mattered was that they were back in Buffy's house, sometime after nightfall, with a hundred fascinating observations about all the places they'd been. Giles was attempting to catalog as much of it as he could, partly for the Council's benefit but primarily because, well -- you could take the man out of the Council, but you couldn't take the Council out of the man. Truth be told, he still rather adored cross-referencing. Buffy, instead of teasing him about it or acting bored, was helping him compile their information, sitting close to him on the floor.
A bit too close, really. But Giles was determined not to pay too much attention to that. He would not unnerve her and torture himself by dwelling on his infatuation with her. Far better to see her like this -- free and easy and happy.
"Not birdlike, but winged," Giles mused, flipping through his Interdimensional Grimoire. "Opens up an entire new range of possibilities. I'm still inclined to consider Quartoth unlikely, though."
Buffy leaned forward to look at the same page he was studying, and he tried to ignore the brush of her hair against his shoulder. "Says here it could be a gargoyle. Gargoyles are real?"
"People sometimes give Gothic architects credit for too much imagination. A surprising amount of their work is taken from life. As were the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, though that doesn't really bear getting into."
The Latin could mean nothing to Buffy, save the one word she'd already identified, and yet she kept leaning close to him. Perhaps she was going to pains to show him she felt at ease with him, and in that case he ought to be grateful, but he couldn't get past the shock of unwilling desire he felt as her knee brushed against his. "Buffy?"
She looked over her shoulder at him, heavy-lidded. "Yeah, Giles?"
He seized on the first thing he could think of that might draw her from his side. "I don't suppose you have any whiskey in the house?"
"Oh. A drink. Drinks, right." She seemed distracted herself, come to think of it. "No whiskey, but I, uh, I bought us a bottle of wine. I don't know a whole lot about wine, but the guy at the store said this was good."
"I'm sure it will be fine," Giles said. She smiled, as if encouraged, and then took herself off to the kitchen. He breathed a sigh of relief, then looked around to see if any other place would be more amenable to their work -- and yet allow for some space between him and Buffy. "What happened to the dining-room table?" he called.
"Sold it," Buffy's voice floated from the kitchen. "I'm getting rid of a lot of the furniture. I won't need much in my own place. Dawn wants Mom's bed, so I guess I'll put that in storage for her. I think Xander's gonna take the wardrobe. Beyond that -- I don't know."
That left the two of them here at the coffee table. Giles decided that he could at least brush off whatever burst of mistakenly-youthful enthusiasm that had led him to sit on the floor in the first place, and with a quiet grunt of discomfort, got to his feet and sat on the couch. He opened the book in his lap, balanced his notepad. Had the creature's feet had three claws or four?
His halfhearted attempt at concentration shattered the moment Buffy walked back in. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn she'd done -- something, fluffed her hair or put on lipstick or, God help him, slid one of the straps of that skimpy top perilously close to the edge of her shoulder. The pale-yellow wine swirled in two glasses, one in each hand. "Getting comfortable?" she said with a smile.
Bad thoughts. Very bad thoughts. "Ah. Yes. Trying to think about the shape of the scales on that demon. Should help with the chaetaxy."
As he might have anticipated, Buffy showed no interest whatsoever in what chaetaxy might be. To his dismay, she settled beside him on the couch -- close beside him, almost on the same cushion.
She wasn't. She couldn't. Impossible, and stupid, and evidence only of the increasing senility and febrility of his mind.
But Buffy was smiling at him hesitantly, and holding out her wineglass even as he took his own. "Should we toast?" she said. Almost a whisper.
"I suppose we could," he said slowly. "What to?"
Her eyes were green-gold in the faint light, and she gazed up at him without blinking. "To us?"
To us as friends. To us as slayer and watcher. To us as anything other than what they most definitely were not and could not be. That was what she meant. Had to be. Had to --
He knew his face had fallen and that he was staring at her rather stupidly. As he desperately tried to think of something that would not be painfully awkward to say, he saw her face crumple. "I'm messing this up, aren't I?"
"This! All of it." Buffy slumped against the sofa, discouraged, but she was still smiling a little. "I mean, with Angel, I had to push a little, but it wasn't the same. And all the other guys kinda took the initiative, or at least took it along with me, so I never really had to do this before. I just suck at the whole seduction thing."
The reaction within Giles' brain was not unlike that inside a machine that has been humming along, precision-timed, when suddenly someone tosses a wrench into the works. He could only stare at Buffy, who took in his shocked reaction. "Uhoh," she said. "I used the word 'suck' way too early in the evening, didn't I?"
"Now hold on just a moment," Giles said, quickly getting to his feet. "Let's stop right there."
"Giles?" Girlish and uncertain, Buffy set her wine on the coffee table and tucked her feet up under her on the couch -- a protective little ball. "I'm not wrong, am I? I mean, you do -- you want to, right?"
Giles was very aware that this would be a good time to lie. But as she looked up at him -- heart and hope unguarded in her lovely face -- he knew he could not take the easier means of turning her away. "You aren't wrong," he said quietly. She beamed at him, and he held out a hand, as if physically holding her back. "That doesn't mean that this is a good direction for our relationship to take."
"It's not like I picked this out of a hat," Buffy said quickly. She was rushed and uncertain, but determined. "You know? I just started -- feeling it. And you did too. I'm sorry I freaked in England, Giles. I wasn't turning you down or anything. I just needed some time to get used to the idea."
Get used to the idea. As though it were a new carpet in the room. "I wasn't approaching you in England, Buffy. At least -- not intentionally -- Buffy. Be reasonable. This cannot possibly work."
She lifted her chin. "Okay, hit me. Age thing? Watcher thing? Transatlantic thing? Because I can totally shoot you down on this. I really should've done debate in high school."
"This is not a matter for debate," Giles said more sternly. "This is not a contest in which the winner gets her way. I'm not willing to act on this. And that is the end of it."
Buffy's face fell, but she didn't lower her eyes. "I love you, Giles."
Giles had braced himself as best he could against his own desire. The one immutable rock he'd shored his will up against was the surety that Buffy could not be laboring under the same irrational longing. But here she was -- not only wanting him, but loving him. He had prepared no defense for this, and her gentle insistence left him off-balance, incapable. "You know that I love you too," he said quietly. "But turning that love into a, a romantic attachment has never been a possibility."
"Not before, maybe." She was gaining a little strength now, something that both heartened and intimidated him. "I mean, back before, you were -- you were --" So much older, he waited to hear. But instead she said, "a TEACHER." Giles laughed despite himself, and she grinned, encouraged. "But that was a long time ago, and we're different people now, and we love each other more than anything, and that's got to be a good start, right?"
She stood slowly, ready to come to him, and in that moment -- her eyes bright, her hair tousled and loose, her lips parted slightly in expectation -- she was more beautiful than he could ever remember seeing her. And at the sight, Giles felt the wall inside him close up, tighter than ever before. "Buffy, we must not. We will not."
"We can't talk about this?"
"There's nothing more to say." He was being dictatorial, severe, hated himself for it. Giles tried to gentle his tone. "All I ask is that you -- please, don't let this come between us. We'll get through this, and someday when this -- madness -- has passed, you'll thank me --"
"What? I'm supposed to thank you for ditching me this time, too?" The sharpness stung him, as it was no doubt meant to. But Buffy was instantly contrite. "Sorry. Rejected-woman routine, opening credits. I'll fast-forward through the rest. I want you, you want me but not enough, end of story."
"Buffy --" Absurd, for her to believe that he didn't want her "enough" -- he had spend the last weeks mad with it. But how could he correct her? How, without making this a thousand times worse? "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's confusing," she said gently. "What say we try the demonology bit tomorrow? I promise, no more crazy women throwing themselves at your head. We'll go by and see Xander, get some breakfast, do serious Slayery-Watchery type stuff all day. All business. Okay?"
She was already all-business -- all but the flush that still lingered in her cheeks. Giles could only nod. "A good idea all 'round, I'd say."
He went upstairs immediately, leaving her to unspecified (and probably imaginary) duties in the kitchen. Giles unpacked his bag with hands that shook, and he could see every crease around the knuckles, every freckle of age.
I love you. I want you.
Those words echoed within the empty chambers of his heart, and he imagined that he could feel Buffy's presence downstairs, actually sense her as a living force pacing uneasily beneath.
Me, he thought. What could a girl like that want with me?
The answers were obvious, of course -- a father figure, one perhaps more distinctly shaded by an Electra complex than had previously been the case. (But she's past thinking of me as her father, she said that, and I believe her.) Someone to take care of her, then. (But she takes care of herself, thanks to me and my bloody stupid cowardice, and she does so quite well.) A connection with her past. (But Xander's gone nowhere, and Dawn's not that far away, and now it even seems as though she can be friendly with Angel .And why would she be moving out of her house if she needed connection with the past?)
Unbidden, a memory floated up, vivid and overpowering -- he and Buffy curled on his sofa, one of his favorite books in her hands. She quoted a phrase that had never caught his attention before -- "For you alone I think and plan" -- and made the story fresh to him again, as though the words were written in ink that was still wet and shining.
How she'd admired his house, talked of it as a home. But had it ever seemed so before the moment she came in the door? He had thought of it as cluttered and dingy, before her visit; since then, the objects had their meaning again, the books their magic. Giles had thought the phenomenon was his alone. But was it even possible that he'd done the same for her?
Giles, not a prideful man by nature, was unwilling to assume. And yet she had seemed so sure.
He heard her footsteps on the stairs. Buffy did not hesitate, but went into her room, shutting the door behind her. He knew he should feel relieved. But instead, Giles felt something unpleasantly like regret.
Don't be a fool, he told himself. More of a fool, anyway. This could be no more than the madness you told her it was, and if that's true -- if you begin this, and it fades -- you'll lose her again --
Will everything you feel for Buffy ever again come back to this? What if you lose her? No way to love someone. No way to live. And yet it's what you've settled for, time and time again. Be grateful she keeps taking you back, on whatever cautious terms you grant her.
Feeling older than he ever had, Giles quietly stepped into the hallway -- careful not to alert Buffy -- and went downstairs in the dark. He flipped on only the one lamp he needed to steer his way around the boxes. As he'd suspected, Buffy had been too agitated to straighten up; his wineglass still sat on the end table, and though the drink was now somewhat tepid, Giles suspected it still offered his best chance at sleep. He took it back upstairs, stepping gingerly over the third, squeaky step.
But as he got to the top of the stairs, all his quietness was for nothing; Buffy was coming out of the bathroom, still patting her face dry with a washcloth. "Oh. Hi," she said.
She was no longer the glamorous creature she'd been before. Instead of something red and clingy, she had on flannel pajama bottoms and an oversized t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back from her face with a faded bandanna, and her face was now scrubbed of all makeup. She was, of course, even more beautiful.
"Went down for my drink," he said.
"I figured," she said. Buffy obviously struggled for something else to say for a moment, then whispered, "Giles, we're okay, right?"
"Of course," he replied automatically. But were they? Could they ever be all right while he kept pushing her away, making her play whatever role he calculated least likely to hurt him?
Buffy, unable to read his thoughts, was reassured by his words and smiled. She went to her door, but just as she was going through, she turned her head and said, "I guess all that matters is that I love you. Maybe it doesn't matter how."
"I love you too." His voice was low now, rougher than it had been. Giles was surprised by the change, saw Buffy's body tense slightly as she registered it. Quickly he said, "But that doesn't mean we're meant to be lovers."
Buffy turned around then. Her body was framed by the open doorway, and behind her, in the dark, he could see the outline of her bed. "How do you know? Until we try, I mean."
"This is -- so recent, Buffy. So very sudden. An impulse that could fade as quickly as it came."
"You don't believe that."
He wanted to believe it. "Be honest. Did you ever dream of such a thing before?"
"Nope. Bet you didn't either."
"Of course not. My point exactly. What we're feeling -- this isn't what we've been to each other, all these years."
"Maybe it's just new." He could see her weighing whether or not to put a hand out, to touch him in some way. "We're never gonna be what we used to be, Giles. That's gone. I'm done being sorry about it; that's just the way it is. But maybe -- maybe we could find out what we're gonna be next."
Giles couldn't meet her eyes for a moment. He looked down at his wineglass; the surface of the wine was rippling slightly, waves created by the pounding of his heart. He set it down on the small table nearby, walked toward her. Buffy gasped slightly in surprise -- in excitement -- and Giles felt a dizzy-crazy rush behind his eyes, in his throat. "This could be a terrible mistake."
"Yeah," she admitted. "But maybe not."
"Maybe not," he repeated. He could see her bedroom better now, as his eyes adjusted to the dark. It wasn't at all the way he remembered it -- different posters, different furniture, even a different bed. How stupid of him, to assume it would always remain the same. "I'm not a young man anymore, Buffy."
"Are you worried about THAT?" Buffy shook her head with the bemused disbelief of a girl so young she'd never had to worry about that. "Giles, you're -- you. You're the one I want."
"I ought to be more of a lover to you," Giles murmured, tracing around the curve of her face with one fingertip. She trembled slightly, and he felt his heart beat even faster. "I haven't any elegant words for you. Nights out on the town, or flowers or -- "
"We're kinda past the courtship stage. If you need elegant words, you could always try Captain Wentworth's."
The words came back to him, hit him with a force that made them his own. "You pierce my soul."
"See?" she whispered shakily. "That was easy, wasn't it?"
He shook his head. Useless, to try and resist her now. "You always did need higher standards for your men."
"I'm not settling for less," she said, her mouth slipping into a broad, gleeful, possessive smile. "Finally."
Giles felt something that could only be called relief -- his relief at once again being able to be what she wanted him to be, what he wanted to be to her. If it didn't last, at least they would have this -- this connection, this meeting of their minds and their purpose -- one more time.
And there was nothing left to do but to kiss her -- the surprise of her lips, her tongue, her arms winding around his neck. He kissed her back -- whatever else his body might or might not be able to do for her now, he could by God kiss her until she couldn't see straight. They crossed the threshold in halting steps, entangled in each other. He tried to sweep his arm down to her knees; her mouth parted from his long enough to mumble, "What are you doing?"
"I was going to, ah, carry you to --"
"Oh, please." She laughed as she kissed him, laughed into his open mouth, as she stumbled with him toward the bed.
They were awkward with each other at first -- not because of who they had been, but just because they were a man and a woman, unused to each other, still dressed in clothes that didn't lend themselves to graceful removal. He ran his hands through her hair and pulled loose a bandanna that still smelled faintly of her soaps and lotions. She tried to kick off his shoes, but he had to unlace them. And yet they could laugh about it, let it go. The awkwardness didn't matter.
"Is it strange?" she whispered, her lips against his fingers. "Seeing me?"
"Only in the best way," he murmured. Buffy, naked in his arms. Hours before he could not have dreamed of looking at her in this way; now it seemed impossible to ever look away. "I worry more about you seeing me."
"You have to stop worrying." Buffy laughed as she began taking off his shirt. "Or you have to keep me so busy I don't have time to look."
"I think I can manage that."
The Watchers' diaries contained whispers about Slayer sexuality -- nothing improper, nothing explicit, but rumors that they demanded more than ordinary women. But Giles realized during that night that Buffy did not demand anything superhuman -- she was what she was, and her stunning ability to please and be pleased was something that was as much as part of her as her skin. She only wanted him to share in it, to know these other ways in which she was skilled and beautiful and strong. And he accepted her, rejoiced in her obvious delight, and he could not stop to be afraid.
He gasped out, "Is this --"
"Oh." Her voice was almost too faint to be a whisper. Her mouth was wet against his cheek, his neck. "Yes. Like this."
Giles tried to control his body -- his heart and his blood rushing ahead of him like he was a boy, as though her youth were flowing into him every time they moved together. "You only have to tell me -- what you want --" He'd do anything she wanted, be anything she wanted.
She tangled her hands in his hair and murmured only, "Kiss me."
He kissed her until they were both out of breath, loved her body as best he knew how, and as she cried out in relief and pleasure and victory, he knew that -- for now, for them -- it was more than enough.
It had been years since he'd made love to a woman until the sun came up -- but it was sunrise before they finally lay still by each other, her breath slowing and deepening as she approached sleep. Giles looked at the girl curled in his arms -- pink and gold, as if made of morning light. "I love you," he whispered, hoping it would be the last thing she heard before falling asleep.
"Mmmm. Love you too." Buffy turned so that her cheek was nestled against his chest. Then she said something else, muffled against his skin.
"What was that?" he murmured, tucking the blankets closer around them.
Buffy half-smiled. "Where will we go today?"
The light streamed in through the blinds, lit her hair up, and it seemed as though the whole room shone. "Anywhere you want," he said. "Anywhere at all."