Actions

Work Header

Cross Road Blues: A Ghost Story

Work Text:

The first time Giles broke down was behind a gas-station just outside Ventura, three hours after the death of Sunnydale. Three hours after he’d thrown a pebble into the crater where once that bloody little town had been, where six years of his life – such as it was – had been lived.

It was probably over three hours, however, since she’d died. He didn’t know. He’d recently come to the conclusion that he knew nothing.

At the crater he had said something sententious about getting to work, lots of work to be done. The children had ignored him as usual. Still, he’d shepherded them to the bus, checked on Wood’s injuries, and driven south without another glance back.

He dropped Wood and Faith off at a hospital in Ventura, made the arrangements for insurance and Faith’s comfort. Then he’d found a motel – chain, anonymous, inexpensive – and settled the children into a block of rooms. Sodding proprietor thought it was some sort of school trip and wanted to see his permission papers, but he dealt with that. Dealing with things was his job.

When he had pulled out his wallet, however, he had stared blankly at the row of credit cards. A Visa he’d gotten when he’d first come to America, another Visa, Access for when he was home. There was a right choice, but which was it?

A high, sharp voice, one that razored through the dead airspace that protected him from feeling, said in his ear, "The blue one, Giles. It has the lowest annual rate and won’t charge you a currency exchange fee, like I’ve told you a hundred times. Do you need a post-it note or something?"

Mentally assuring the voice that next time he would remember, he used the blue one. After promising to pay whatever charges were made – "Don’t be so casual about it, money doesn’t grow on trees except in that one dimension where it’s still all doubloons and florins anyway," the voice said sternly – he told Buffy he’d be off to get petrol for the bus.

He went alone.

One exit away on the interstate, he found a place that catered to long-haul lorries. He pulled into one of the fuelling bays and filled the tank. When he went inside the combination convenience store/station to pay, he found himself by the large glassed-in refrigerator case. He did need a drink to cut the dust in his throat and eyes, he thought. Bloody Americans and their fucking mania for useless invention, however, meant that he had to make do with that abomination, flavoured iced tea. Worse, they only had peach, which he despised.

He paid for the petrol and the drink. Went outside in the dying sunset. Found himself wandering out to the brown, trash-filled earth which surrounded the station. Opened the bottle and took a long, long swallow.

The first sob so took him by surprise that he fell to his knees. The second one ripped him open, his eyes filling, stomach heaving with the need to expel years of – what, he didn’t know. He didn’t know how to do this, hadn’t cried properly for years, not even for Jenny and Buffy. But he knelt there in the dust, sobbing, choking on the smells of garbage and diesel, the tastes of peach-flavoured tea and tears and loss.

He’d had a hellish year, and he’d lost so much. Yet this was all for her.

He cried for a long time.

When he finished, wanting vaguely to wipe his eyes and face and regain control but not knowing where to start, the voice in his ear said, "Giles, you must have been VERY distracted this morning, what with impending apocalypse and the long wait for the bathroom. Your handkerchief is in your back pocket, not your front where you usually keep it."

There came a sudden shudder of air from above, a thud and then a hum; someone inside had turned on the banks of fluorescent lights which were a barrier between concrete and sky. Still kneeling, he looked up at the blinding white light above him.

"Thank you, Anya darling," he said. And then he cleaned off his tearstains with the handkerchief she’d told him to find.

***

"Come on, Buffy! Robson’s directions said we have to find the Gatwick Express, which will take us to Victoria –"

"Willow, I did read the directions. The hunt for train-station signage is on, promise." Buffy shifts, trying to find a more comfortable way to arrange her several bags. Even after a summer of travelling, she still packs too much, and she didn’t know what to bring for a London September anyway. "And shouldn’t you be the fearless leader in the wilds of Gatwick, anyway? As the experienced visitor to the United Kingdom, I mean."

"We flew into Heathrow last year. Besides, Giles did all the work then. I just sat and cried and waited to find out how much trouble I was in." Willow fidgets a little. She’s been wrapping fingers together, tapping feet, wriggling, all the way from Newark. Buffy has missed Willow-nerves all summer, she realises. She just wishes she knew if these are good, gonna-ace-the-SAT nerves or bad, call-me-Dark-Goddess ones.

Giles would probably know. For the millionth time, by her conservative estimate, Buffy wonders what might be wrong with him. It so isn’t like him to not answer his phone. For over a month.

***

After his breakdown, he went back to the motel. No one asked, no one paid much attention to where he’d been. Understandable, really. They’d all been shocked by loss, but it was beginning to wear off. Now they all had people to cling to: Buffy and Dawn, Willow and Kennedy. Even Xander was being tended to by Andrew, whose strategies for caring included back-pats, orange-coloured fried foodstuffs, and invitations to watch Spiderman on the film channel.

Giles spent a few hours working, making phone calls. The first round, the hardest, was to the parents who had lost children in the battle; the second, to the parents of those once Potential, now Called. Lastly, he contacted Robson, Marshall, Barracca, Gupta, and Gerald Pryce (who’d dropped the ‘Wyndam’ from his family name), those few Watchers who had survived the attacks and explosion. This group already had begun to build the Council anew, ready for finding and guiding the Slayers, and for recruiting and training Watchers. He suspected that Wood also would join them, once he recovered.

Sometime after midnight, Giles left the bloody phone and his extremely beige, claustrophobic room, and headed down the street. Another convenience store was a few steps away, and he assumed he would be able to get something alcoholic here. Several somethings alcoholic, in fact. He didn’t actually care what they would be, since he still couldn’t taste anything except bitter peach and salt.

There was more buzzing fluorescent light inside, making the night seem even darker on the other side of the windows. Only a couple of patrons were shopping at this hour, browsing for junk food and junkier magazines. A television screen behind the counter announced in stentorian tones the bizarre disappearance of a small California town; next up, said the announcer, an expert from Stanford would explain the strange geophysical occurrences which could have caused the world’s largest sinkhole.

As Giles walked toward the refrigerator cases where beer, glorious beer, beckoned to him, he idly wondered how Spike would like being referred to as a ‘strange geophysical occurrence.’ He had misjudged Spike’s capacity for unselfish acts, it was clear. If there was ever an afterlife which mingled Watchers and souled vampires , he’d have to apologise even if it choked him.

He opened the case, letting out a wave of cold air that stung his eyes. Dry eyes now. Too dry –

"You really are going to have to make that apology at some point, you know, and not in the afterlife. But I believe a nice letter will be sufficient," her voice said.

"What?" He didn’t realise he’d spoken aloud until the television sound was lowered and the clerk asked him if he needed assistance. Mumbling, Giles made some excuse and buried his head further in the beer case, in the cold.

He thought feverishly, for her, to her, ‘What do you mean I’ll have to apologise? Is there a way that someone could have lived through that horror?’ Blindly he reached for a six-pack as he waited for an answer. He opened his eyes, noticed that he had grasped some American shite – well, he didn’t care and it wasn’t like he was spoilt for choice. Only then did he let himself rush to the heart of his question, through flashes of driving in the desert, digging through sand, finding his treasure: ‘Anya darling, did you survive? Do I need to come get you?’

"Those are two deeply stupid questions, Giles. But I forgive you because you’re honestly grieving and because I find it so gratifying you think of me as darling. Oh don’t take that beer, there’s actually a micro-brewed product on the next shelf. I know that you prefer the micro-brewed if there’s no good English ale."

He put back the six-pack of American shite and quietly shut the door. Without saying anything, without buying anything, he walked out. He didn’t want anyone to see the tears start again.

Christ, they were unstoppable, scorching pains that started in his chest and tightened so he couldn’t breathe. Stumbling into a darkened corner of the parking lot where white light couldn’t reach, he sat down on the curb and buried his head in his hands. Then he wept until his mouth and eyes and lungs felt coated with dust.

She didn’t speak to him again. Not that night, anyway.

***

Willow doesn’t really want to use a spell to get her two bags and Buffy’s three and a half down the stairs at the Gatwick train terminal. Not really. She only thinks about it for a second or two, then resigns herself to the painful, back-deforming task of luggage toting while still under the influence of major jet-lag.

She’d rather think about spellcasting and baggage than any fears of what could be going on with Giles, anyway. It bothers her in some world-tipping-over-on-its-axis way when he isn’t where she thinks he should be. Somewhere over Nova Scotia, of course, she and Buffy have agreed that he hadn’t been okay for a long time – "the way he kept yelling at me last winter, all distance-guy, and then there was the Other," Buffy says, crunching on a tiny bit of ice for emphasis.

Willow knows "the Other" is the Spike issue, but since speaking his name means that Buffy either becomes hyperactively chatty or morose beyond triple-Goth levels of moroseness, Willow forbears. She just nods and crunches on her own ice.

Now, the bags fall onto the lower level with a clunk. "Made it this far. Go us," Buffy says. She stands a little taller, breathing in cool, damp air. "Oh, Will, this is exactly what I thought England would smell like. There’s rain, and there’s a hint of smoke, and there’s English, um, smells. Like this."

Willow smiles. "Like Giles?"

"Not just Giles." The words are quiet. Triple-Goth.

Sighing, Willow picks up her bags. "Look, we’re supposed to be at Platform One. And hey, omen, the train’s waiting for us."

"Yes, that’s probably a sign. A sign of the good," Buffy says, more happily. She shoulders her bags too, and they head for the first empty carriage.

***

For four weeks he had survived on next to no sleep. He wasn’t eating much either, but at least he wasn’t weeping at the sight of bloody American beer any more. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of grief or loss, simply because he had no time. It had taken all his organisational skills to ship Slayers here and there, to send Xander off to some distant relative in Idaho and watch Andrew not so stealthily find an excuse to follow, to find Hank Summers at last (in Chicago, oddly enough) and get Buffy and Dawn squared away with him, and, in the course of reuniting Willow and her parents, to also pull strings so that she could attend NYU in the fall. Only then did he manage to meet with Robson and Gupta in Cleveland.

Now he found himself in another anonymous hotel room, this one rather nicer than the beige box outside Ventura. It had been a long, tiring day: two flights and a couple of minuscule bags of pretzel mix; a long evening of sandwiches and conference with the two setting up the infrastructure of a twenty-first century Council. On his second flight he had prepared his list of active Slayers, their whereabouts, and all initial and subsequent contacts.

His fingers had stilled on the laptop when the sodding machine prompted him to think about using a spreadsheet. Somehow he recalled Anya once spending an extremely tense afternoon trying to teach him how to use Excel – he could almost taste the rather bad tea he’d been drinking, smell the good herbs in the Magic Box, feel her warmth as she leaned against his back and berated him for slowness, technological ineptitude, and general anger management issues. Yes, he thought, that effort certainly ended in tears. So to speak.

Breathing away a fresh bloom of pain, he had returned to his word-processed report. When he finished that, he drafted his letter of resignation from the Council of Watchers, Mark Two. Duty was done.

So he was alone and unemployed again, standing in a yellow-lit hotel room at 11:30 pm. No job, no calling, no – he cut off his own thoughts. He rather needed a shower. Perhaps it would help him to sleep at last.

Stripping off his clothes, letting them fall wherever, he walked into the antiseptic white bathroom. After turning on the water, he waited until it ran hot before he got in. He needed the burn. He needed the pain of water-needles pressing into his skin.

Wet, blind, he stuck his head under the spray and lifted his face to the water. It tasted like nothing. Yet suddenly his mouth was full of bitter peach and salt, rising from a well he thought he’d capped. His chest constricted. "Oh please, don’t. Don’t."

"If you’re going to be that way about it, Giles –" her voice said huffily.

"No! God, I didn’t mean you. Stay, Anya, stay." His voice echoed through the pounding of the water and his heartbeat. He licked a tear from a corner of his mouth.

"All right. I was going to, anyway." He turned around at her words, tried to see through the steam – but the room was full of billows of white on white, obscuring tile, mirror and chrome. It hid her from him. But she kept speaking, consonants rattling out solid and sharp like hard rain. "This is fascinating. While I’ve always liked your shoulders and your hands, I had no idea your ass and legs were so attractive. I’m going to have to include ‘not seeing Giles naked earlier’ on my list of regrets, right after ‘destroying Lesser Monfort-on-Wye in 1300'. Vengeance-plague there, which turned out to be a horrible idea."

"Thank you, I think," he said. It came out more like a sob than a laugh, but he was honestly amused. "May I ask –"

"In a minute. Giles, this is very important. Have you ever pleasured yourself in the shower?"

He coughed out a mouthful of tears."Er. It isn’t unheard of."

"Well, will you do it for me, right now? Just for me?"

"No." Willing down the stir of desire at her words, he turned up the water so it abraded his skin. Pulses of pain washed over him, hot and sharp, hot and sharp. But they didn’t change the only true thing he knew. He repeated, louder, "No, Anya."

"Well, why ever not, when I can see you’re interested? This must be more repressed-British-guy stuff, which is silly. I mean, if I’ve watched you cry, I can watch you–"

"I won’t do it because it doesn’t mean one fucking thing without you here." With a snap of his wrists he shut off the spray. Then he dragged his hands over his eyes, pressing the ache back inside.

He dried off quickly and walked back into the silent box of a hotel room. After pulling back the covers, he dropped face-down on the bed. White, white sheets. He turned his head away from the light, closed his eyes.

"Okay, Giles," she said, very close to his ear. He assumed that her voice was in his head, but there was something about the echo off blank walls that made him think otherwise. The echo rang even louder and more real: "You’re not making sense, but that’s my fault. I disoriented you with a sexual request when I meant to visit for another reason entirely."

He managed a laugh that time. "Why are you visiting, darling? You didn’t bother talking to me those last months in Sunnydale."

"Of course I didn’t! Because YOU didn’t talk to anyone, but instead stalked around being ruggedly handsome yet grim and censorious and, frankly, not the man to use the word ‘darling’ in such a pleasing way. You were just, I don’t know, not yourself. Weird. I didn’t have time for weird."

"No, Anya, of course you didn’t have time for me." He wrapped his fist in white cotton, trying not to look at the light which revealed her absence. "Death, however, apparently gives you far more opportunity for social intercourse."

"Now you’re just being irritating. If you knew how much I had wanted to talk to you...." As she spoke, with a softness at odds with the words, cool air swirled over his back. Perhaps the airconditioner had come on, he thought, before he felt the pressure of a hand smoothing just above his spine. But of course nothing was there – he restrained the impulse to arch up into spectral fingers. She said, "I hear you calling me, Giles. Whether in vengeance or retail, I always prided myself on answering the call of whoever needed me most."

Oh, he knew exactly how much he needed her, had done for over eighteen months. But that wasn’t important."Thank you, Anya darling. Still, you needn’t worry. Enjoy yourself wherever you are, and forget about me."

"I can’t, now that I know how much you’re hurting. I want to help, anyway." She paused, as if even forthright she didn’t want to say the next bit. "I want you, you know."

He buried his face in the sheet, breathed through the white. And he said again, low and serious, "It doesn’t mean one fucking thing without you here."

"Typical Giles, if atypical word choice. You never make anything easy, do you?" she said. A phantom-sigh tickled the nape of his neck, then drifted lower to make him shiver. "But all right. Because you’re being so sweet and I want you to be okay, I’ll see what I can do."

Then she was gone. He knew that already, of course.

He lay awake until sunrise, eyes open but dry, the airconditioner blowing cold on his naked body.

***

Buffy fights the need to sleep like she would a nest of demons. Well, except she’s sitting in a train car by the window, it’s morning, and she has no weapons. But the principle of commitment is the same.

And the demons are all inside.

As they pulls out of the Gatwick terminal, she focusses on the new views unrolling at a snail’s pace outside the window. "You know, Willow, their parking lots look a lot like ours."

"It’s a mystery," Willow agrees, yawning.

The similarity of parking lots the world over doesn’t seem to be the most non-slumberworthy topic ever, Buffy decides. So – "Should we call Giles as soon as we get to the hotel, or would it be better to do a sneak-attack and find his house first?"

Willow slumps against her shoulder. "Come on, Buffy. In this pair, my job isn’t the strategy. I do the big old spells and computer-hacking, and make the travel arrangements with my magical understanding of how online bidding really works. You do tactics and planning. What do you think should be first?"

"I think – ‘in this pair,’ huh? When WOULD you be Strategy Girl?"

"When the pair is me and Xander. Because, bless his heart, Xander." She snuffles gently, a preliminary to sleep, then mumbles, "Buffy, I’m so so tired. Do we need to do either right away? Because I have to say that the calling-Giles option is probably not the best, since he’s not doing phonage any more, and I’m oh so very sleepy."

"Okay, Willow. Take a little nap, and I’ll wake you up when we get to Victoria." Buffy goes back to looking out the window. The world’s going by faster now, a rush of air and green and cute little towns that don’t look anything like California or Illinois. She wonders how it is that a California girl like her has known so very many British people, none of whom would share her opinion that this landscape looks really Chim-chim-cheree except for the occasional supermarket or tire warehouse. She doesn’t list the British people she’s known, however, not even in her head. She doesn’t want to cry right here in the middle of the train, as they’re passing – she looks out the window for the sign– Purley.

There’s a click-click behind them, like new heels on hardwood. "Tickets please. Tickets please," an accented voice repeats. It’s a rougher voice than Giles’s, more like ...but she stops thinking so she can reach for the brand-new shiny English money she got at the airport currency exchange. She pulls a fistful of too-large paper bills out of her purse and stares at them. Strange colours, funny pictures of people.

And thinking of the funny, how is it that Giles sent her and Willow and Xander all that money a couple of weeks ago? She tries to imagine him in a bank full of men wearing bowlers, asking the most pinstriped one to send along buckets of cash to these addresses in the colonies. She tries to imagine Giles waking up one morning and saying to himself while fixing tea, "Oh dear Lord! I forgot to send thousands of dollars to the Scoobies, where was my brain." Her imagination fails her.

Mysteries and puzzles and enigmas, oh my.

"Tickets please," the rough, accented voice says above her. She hesitates before she looks up, but she doesn’t have to worry. This uniformed man is not only tall and red-faced and untidy, but he also has red hair. No resemblance at all.

With a smile, she hands him some of Giles’s money.

***

His flat in Bath was haunted, Giles had thought as soon as he had crossed the threshold. The books of Rupert Giles the Watcher lay disarranged and dusty all around him. The china of Rupert Giles the Watcher was cracked and chipped. Several of the jumpers worn by Rupert Giles the Watcher had developed a nasty series of moth-holes.

After one pass through his echoing, deserted rooms, he went back out again. Despite his jet-lag and a fine mist coming down, he put his feet to the street leading up the Royal Crescent. His legs didn’t feel quite steady, his head was pounding. The hills were steeper than he remembered from the daily walks he’d used to take.

It had been four days since she’d last come to him.

His heart pounded to match his head by the time he reached the top. Somehow he must have gotten out of condition during the summer of no sleep, exercise or food. Fancy that, he thought dry as dust, it was a sodding mystery how he could have lost his edge.

The afternoon was dark; it was raining in earnest now. There were billows of cloud fallen from the sky, even here on the crescent. Putting the Palladian order of the buildings behind him, Giles leaned on the railing and looked down the hill, over green parkland and grey city. He could smell the fresh-mown grass. If he opened his mouth, he could catch the raindrops. He didn’t do that, however, as he knew they would taste of nothing.

Breath scraping through his lungs, he intoned, "Rupert Giles’s membership in the Council of Watchers, requiescat in pace."

Several European tourists stopped to look at the eccentric Englishman talking to himself in the rain, but when he raised his eyebrows and stared back, they scurried away. Their ensuing slapstick with colliding rucksacks and camera bags was just the kind of thing to amuse Anya, he thought. She was always amused by falling objects on unsuspecting victims’ heads, for instance.

He looked out again at the wisps of white vapour trailing across the green. "All right, darling, where are you?" he whispered. "I’m calling, and you said you’d come."

To his complete lack of surprise, there was no answer. Bloody woman never stayed where she was put, thoughtlessly died on a man before he could talk to her properly, never listened but went off on her own merry phantom way. God, he hoped she was merry, wherever she was. At the thought he bit his lip til it bled, so that he wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t taste bitter peach and salt. Physical pain was so much easier to deal with than his fucking emotions.

Then he went to his flat and prepared to leave it for good.

It took him less than a week to clear his rooms, packing only his most precious books and weapons, the watch his father had given him when he’d joined the Council, his Watcher’s Journals, his guitar, and his collections of punk and blues records (proper vinyl, of course) with his stereo and aged turntable. He not only found a buyer for the flat and the rest of his furniture, he even made a profit – he kept the legal evidence of the latter handy, because he knew how much it would delight her should she ever return.

It took him two days of intense long-distance negotiations with Robson, but in exchange for the freehold of a Chelsea house which had belonged to the Council, he agreed to rework his Journals into trainee-Watcher materials. He made sure that this deal was on a consultancy basis, of course, as he wasn’t a Watcher any more.

It took him one evening to write three letters. To Buffy, he wrote his congratulations about her plans to return to community college and his suggestions about how taking up Tai Chi again might be a nice supplement to her training and how she best could kill the M’Hoortx demons currently plaguing Evanston. To Willow, he sent directions to three bookshops in New York City, two civilian, one arcane, and his pleasure in her choice of anthropology and women’s studies as a double major. To Xander, he wrote the shortest note, saying only that he thought of him and wished him well.

The next morning, in rain as sharp and hard as the dead woman he longed for, he drove a hired van full of the heirlooms of a dead man to London.

***

The whistle of train-brakes and the chirpy English voice of the conductor wake Willow up just as they pull into Victoria. Buffy’s holding an empty cup, staring out the window, and tracing a finger down a line on the glass, but she drops her hand when she sees Willow is awake. "You missed the food-and-drink trolley!" she says, smiling. "And we’re here."

"‘Wherever you go, there you are,’" Willow quotes. It is something that Oz once said, although he told her he was quoting someone else. The question of appropriation aside, she thinks of it as supremely Oz, if perhaps with extra words. She can think of Oz supreme as an unalloyed good these days, her memories of him a happy summertime video which belongs to someone else but whose images speak to her too.

But Buffy probably isn’t thinking of Oz. She says, "That’s very, um, profoundly profound. In a deep, deep way."

"Oh, Buffy," Willow says, then gently pushes her toward their stack of luggage.

They emerge up into the morning light, blinking like night-mammals shoved into an unforgiving sun. It has stopped raining, but the sky is still watery blue, dripping down onto a row of black taxis joining the queue by the long, cobbled curb.

Willow gets out her travel folder to double-check. Within it are treasures of information: the reservations for a hotel just off Kensington High Street, gotten as part of a package deal with the airline; a map to Giles’s new house in Chelsea, courtesy of Chief Watcher-guy Robson. She finds herself thinking about how for Giles she’s been a package deal with Buffy. The Slayer has been his official charge, the one he’s supposed to Watch and worry over; she’s just his little adopted magic-girl, the one who reads the books, says the spells, and then tries to kill him, until to bring her back he gives her all the goodness he can hold.

Flying to London two weeks before fall term at her new school starts, just to make sure he’s not hurt or lost, is the least she can do. Especially since he’s paid for her next year of college.

She hurries Buffy along to the end of the queue. "We have to eat when we get to the hotel, Willow, we have to. I haven’t had anything for hours," Buffy pleads, all big eyes and starving-child pout.

"You’re an extremely silly girl. Food and sleep, is that all you think about? Where is your dedication to the mission?" Willow says in her best grouchy-Giles imitation. Dizzy with exhaustion, they giggle all the way into their black cab.

***

The little house in Jubilee Place smelled of damp. Water in the walls, water swelling up from the ground, Giles didn’t know which. Even though it was summer, his first night there he lit a fire in the study fireplace, after checking to see if there were any blocks in the chimney.

While the flames snapped and popped behind him, he arranged his treasures in the empty floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Demonology here, magick books there, Watcher’s Journals in the glass case, history on the shelves easiest to reach. By the time he reached his last box, one wall was full. See the portrait of the man who had gone, he thought.

Then he put a record on the stereo, some pain-ridden Robert Johnson, and had a glass of Scotch before he went to bed. He didn’t think any more that night. He didn’t let himself cry.

The next morning the damp outside seemed to permeate the walls, exhaling rot and summer chill. He turned on the radiators – hiss, rattle, steam – and then walked the few blocks to the Waitrose on King’s Road. The fluorescent buzz of lights made him jump at first, made him look down at his boots to see if there was California dust coating them. Then he picked up a few things for the next days, choosing randomly. Nothing sounded very good to him.

When he opened his door, the first thing he could hear was the snap of flames in the study. Careless sod, he told himself, the place could have burned down. After he put away the perishables, he went into the room of books and memories.

And she was there.

Huddled on the sofa, his thickest blanket wrapped around her body, she frowned at him. "Well, finally! It’s taken you long enough, I’ve been waiting."

He was across the room before he could breathe. Falling onto his knees beside the sofa, he rested his hands on the torn leather cushion, just a few inches from where she curled. He was terrified to move his hands any closer, terrified to know how delusional he’d become. "Hello, Anya," he said. Then he just gazed.

Her hair was somewhere on the colour chart between blonde and brown, but it still was the only soft thing about her. Sharp jaw, angles of bones, brown eyes. A faint red line cut through her; he shuddered to think how it had come there.

As he looked, however, her lines eased, blurring together like clouds. She was beaming. "Well, come on, Giles. You can’t turn me down this time." She shrugged off the blanket, revealing her naked curves and angles. He swallowed hard. She said,"Hurry, please, because I want you and I want you to feel better and I’m freezing."

He lifted himself up, hovering just over her body for a moment. "You’re not going to laugh if I try to kiss you and you’re nothing but air, are you?"

"Honestly, Giles! Do I have to do everything around here?" Her arms wound around his neck – oh God, he could feel them, cold but firm and solid– and then her mouth was on his. Cool lips, ice, Pimm’s Cup on a hot day, tongue slippery and sweet-sharp and tasting a little like earth. It was so much better than before. He didn’t know why he wanted to cry again.

She pulled him onto the sofa, onto her. While she tore open his clothes, one of his hands went into her hair, bringing her head into a better position for his kisses; the other caressed her side and then slipped underneath to fondle. Smooth lines, solid yet fragile, just as he had imagined. "How far can we go? May I make love to you?" he said into her ear.

"You are the stupidest smart man I’ve ever known," she said, bringing her knees up around his hips. Through his open jeans he could feel the damp, the fret and friction of her pelvis moving in waves underneath him. "Why I’ve always wanted you so much, I can’t imagine."

"Anya darling," he said. Relaxing, he rested his weight on her, pressed in.

And she was there.

Afterward, he found her a sweatshirt and an extra blanket. He built up the fire so that it blazed, throwing off oven-heat in the small room. Then they spooned together on the couch, looking at the sparks flying out of the flames.

He kissed her hair – a moment to marvel that he could smell her old shampoo and that he had to blow off strands that stuck to his lips – and said, "I have to ask. Anya, why have you come to me? Christ, I’ve longed for you so much, you’ve seen it. Nevertheless...unless I’m very much mistaken, a return such as yours must have a purpose. What is it, darling?"

Her fingers interlocked with his, and she brought their joined hands to rest under her chin. "That’s for me to know, and you to find out. Now, as usual in cases like this, understand I won’t be able to tell you anything." Then she kissed his knuckles. "Fair warning, though, honey. Once you know, everything changes."

***

When Buffy wakes up, it’s late afternoon. It’s raining now, little pings against their sixth-floor hotel room window.

Willow is asleep in the other bed, face snuggling into the pillow and hands clutching the coverlet, just like she always did in their dorm room. Buffy takes a minute to be happy that after a horrible couple of years, she and her best friend are back. They don’t live together any more, they don’t even live in the same time zone, but they’re friends forever; Xander too, working away on that job site in Idaho. Surviving multiple apocalypses – apocalypsii? – is an unbreakable connection.

When she was younger, she thought that to be close, you needed to be, well, close. Touching distance. She’s older now, though, and she understands that maybe there are different ways to hold fast, new ways to touch who you were and who you are. She and Willow get that at last.

She slips out of her bed and opens the curtains halfway. Rain machine-gunning on glass makes her jump, but for only a heartbeat. Then she looks out at London grey. Their hotel sits next to a Tube station, and from her height she can see the trains coming and going, going and coming. The rumble is faint up here.

The clock says it’s almost five o’clock, and Buffy considers waking Willow up, getting this show on the road. But there’s time yet. She wants, needs, to slow this down, although she doesn’t know why the back of her neck is twitching. Usually that only happens when demons are about to jump out from their hiding place.

Tai Chi, she thinks. Giles is right; the forms calm her, make her strong. Strong enough for any demon.

There’s just enough space between bed and window to centre herself before she starts the first form. She concentrates on feeling the pattern. If she does it just right, the air shifts like a stream around her body, slow-motion like The Matrix except without CGI, and without magic. Bullets could bounce off her hands, she thinks, twisting in the rain-light.

The patterns used to make her think of Angel, who did this so well. Now she also thinks of Spike. Why the two flow together now in her mind, Spike, then Angel, then Spike again, she doesn’t know.

She keeps moving. Bullets could bounce off her hands, she thinks.

***

Giles didn’t let Anya out of his bed for two days. With hands, with tongue, with cock, with the press of his body against hers in every position he ever imagined, he tested just how real she was. With her hands, her tongue, with her heels against his back or her hands around his arse, with every undulation drawing him further into her cool heart, she proved she was very real indeed.

When they weren’t shagging, they laughed. Silly jokes, really, or replays of their old arguments about history and demonology and humanity, only now they ended in giggles and sex. He had never laughed so much in his life.

It was when she was asleep that he would choke on tears, his throat swelling with pain. That was when he could feel her slipping away, even as he held on more tightly.

On the third day an August heatwave swallowed London, so she finally stopped whingeing about the "inside of an ice-box" that was his tiny house. He opened the east-facing windows, letting in white morning light, the hot breeze, and the flower-and-earth scents from the next-door neighbour’s walled garden. She lay on the couch in his old sweatshirt and watched him, wearing only his oldest jeans, sit at his desk and start the difficult task of shifting Watcher Journal entries into deathless prose.

"Have you thought more about researching your question about me? About why I’m here?" she asked him, just as he managed to put together an opening paragraph.

"No. I don’t want anything to change," he said, pushing his glasses higher on his nose. Then he saved what he had so far.

Her cool-breeze self suddenly pressed against his back. Her hands worked into his hair, massaging his scalp. "Everything changes, Giles. Except the part where you never could resist a quest for the answers to Big, Important Questions."

"And how do you know this?" He stretched up into her touch, feeling her nails dig into his skin.

"I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t." Her voice sounded matter-of-fact and yet tearful at the same time. "Of course I know you so much better now. And it’s wonderful, so wonderful." She kissed the nape of his neck, then whispered, "Maybe your answer will be even more wonderful, don’t you think?"

"Couldn’t be better than you, darling," he said, eyes back on the laptop screen.

But he found himself with a lapful of crying, infuriated Anya. "Why couldn’t you have told me earlier? You know, when I wasn’t dead? You are so annoying, Giles, honestly!" She was a vortex of feeling, first wriggling, then drumming her fists on his chest. His breathing constricted, his own eyes blurred as she hit at him. "I wasted so much time –"

"No, no, stop. My fault entirely. Shush, Anya, no." Managing to calm her struggle, he rested his head against hers. "I’m so sorry. Anyway, you were with Xander at the last, and he loved and needed you, much as I’m not sure he deserved you."

"Well, hello, of course he didn’t deserve me. And maybe I should explain the concept of post-breakup sex to you. It involves a breakup? Which meant I was free for you?" she said in resurgent anger. One arm wound around his neck, pulling him down to her lips. "And hey, wait one damn minute, are you saying you didn’t need me?"

"No! Dear Lord, no. It was just that back then you couldn’t feel just how much. You didn’t see me." He brushed his mouth against her tears; they tasted so different from his, darker and richer and cold. "For example, you didn’t notice my slight limp, after you and Xander had sex in the kitchen."

"Your –"

"I happened in on the aftermath of your, er, it, anyway, I realised what had gone on. Then I went out into the front and repeatedly kicked a tire. Er, on Xander’s car, actually." He smiled at her round-eyed shock. "Limped for at least a day."

"In eleven hundred years, you are truly the stupidest smart man I have ever met," she said. "Why I love you, I can’t imagine."

"And you are the most bloody-minded, deeply irritating woman I’ve ever known. But you don’t have to imagine why I love you. I could write a book about it. Perhaps I will, after I finish this sodding Watcher manual."

Her eyes welled up again. "I hate you for waiting this long to tell me."

"And I you." They huddled together in his desk chair, holding on tight, while the angle of light from the window slowly faded. As the last of the white winked out, he said, "Anya, do you truly need me to answer that question?"

"I really, truly do." She brushed her fingers across his chest, his shoulders, focussing on the movement.

"Then I’ll start researching tomorrow." He realised that she was shivering, so with something less than a hero’s grace, he managed to pick her up and take her back to the sofa and to her sweatshirt and blankets.

As he settled her down, she said, "So, Giles, when you’re working or reading, ie. we’re not having sex or jokes or deep conversations, I’m a little bored. May I have some of your money to play with? Dead women as a rule have difficulty accessing their accounts, or I’d use mine."

"What’s mine is yours, Anya," he said absently, hand brushing back her hair before he turned toward the window. He needed to shut it; the breeze was cooler now, and he knew she wouldn’t be comfortable.

He barely heard her whispered, "Giles, I really want you to figure this out. Do it for me."

***

The London A to Z is helpful except when you have to use a magnifying glass to figure out your route, Willow decides. She and Buffy are warm and dry in a café on Kensington High Street, scarfing down really yummy carbohydrate-based food and planning their evening. More specifically, planning how to get to Giles.

"Okay, so Jubilee Place is way down here on this page, and we’re almost at the top. I don’t really know how scale on this map relates to walking time, but it looks like a hike," she says.

"What with the monsoon action right now, we might want to take the Underground anyway," Buffy says, head tilted to consider. Willow wonders if she knows who that pose looks like, but decides not to say anything. "Does Kensington High Street Tube thingy stop anywhere near Giles?"

Willow examines the map. There is Sloane Square to the east, and to the north there is South Kensington station. She just can’t measure distance well enough. Despite her fingers twitching, an impulse to let out the magic prickling underneath her skin, she turns the book over to check the Underground map printed on the back. "Three or four stops on the Circle line, it looks like. And walking after that."

Then she sits on her hands, just to be safe.

Buffy traces the yellow and green line down and around the page. "It almost looks like a straighter line to walk all the way. Easier." She flips back to the map page and compares them. "I always knew I’d regret not paying attention in geography. Well, actually, I didn’t know and I don’t regret it because my hair would have caught fire from the boredom, but, um, do these maps look like they match to you?"

"No, but they aren’t likely to. The Underground map isn’t for above-ground accuracy, like the street map is. For the Tube system it’s more important to show the stops and connections, understand the patterns of the lines. I mean, it’s like a map of relationship."

"Lots and lots of stops and connections. I like it." Buffy reaches out and pulls on Willow’s arm, so that she can grab hold of her hand. That’s safety, Willow thinks. The two of them sit there, smiling at each other, until the rain is only a faint mist off the soaked road outside the cafe. Then Buffy says, "If Sunnydale has taught us anything, it’s that it’s a good idea to walk wherever you’re going. Want to?"

***

He promised her he’d begin his research, but he hadn’t said how he’d go about it. He did some highly directed reading, in-between his writing project and his lavishing attention and love on her. Whenever she asked, however, he would turn the subject. Amazingly, she made only a few caustic comments about his lack of progress and her multiple recollections of bad Giles research-practice in years past – but by then she’d pounced on a few short-term investments. She was feverish about keeping track online of where the stocks were and when she should sell.

For the week of the heatwave they sat in the study most of each day, windows open to let in air and flower-and-earth scents. They traded off computer time, books, kisses. The windows, the stock quotes online, and his trips every other day to Waitrose for supplies were their only connections to the outside world. He’d stopped answering the phone and e-mail, only occasionally checking the answerphone and inbox to see if someone needed him. No one needed him as much as he did her. As much as his dead love seemed to need him, too.

The time not in the study, they spent in their bedroom. And the kitchen floor. And the bath. And once, notably, although his back hurt for a day or two afterward, the staircase.

When the heat wave finally broke, the fog and chill rolling in making her uncomfortable and cross, he ventured out to the video store to pick up a tape he had ordered. "It’s part of my investigation, promise," he said to her when she rolled her eyes. "Let’s spend the afternoon snuggled up and watch the film. I think you’ll find it interesting."

He made popcorn and opened a beer, she wrapped herself in two blankets and his arm, and he started the aged VCR. Within a few minutes, though, she stiffened, eyes pinning him in accusation. "Rupert Giles, what is this –"

"Now, Anya. The film’s called *Truly Madly Deeply,* and it’s to help me work on the question you set. And, er, no, I’m sorry, there are no explosions or monkeys." He pulled her closer still. Together they watched as Juliet Stevenson’s character broke down in her grief over her lost lover, as Alan Rickman’s character came back to her although no one else could see him, as Juliet Stevenson’s character learned to let go and Rickman’s character went back to death.

When the film ended with Bach and bittersweet, he wiped her eyes with his handkerchief. "My God, it’s like a damn documentary," she said, voice still sand-scratched. Then she took the handkerchief and blew her nose.

"Told you I was investigating." He smiled, even though his throat was choked with peach-and-salt, even though his head had begun to ache from the emotions brought back to him. "So is that why you returned? Darling, I must tell you that I’ve no bloody intention of finding another lover, even if you want me to. Just so you know."

"Oh, haha. You’re a funny, funny man." It was their ritual comeback, one he treasured. After she casually ground a handful of popcorn into his jeans leg as vengeance, ignoring his laughing protest, she sighed. "The documentary part was talking about how cold it is for us corporeal ghosts, I mean."

"Of course. I’ll get you another blanket from Marks and Spencer this evening." The tape clicked off, the extremely old Watcher-vintage TV fuzzed white before it went the same way. The two of them sat there in silence, until he said, "But you did come back because I longed for you so much. Loved you so much."

"Yes, that’s right, I came back for you. And I love you. The movie had that right, too." Her voice was matter-of-fact. "But you’re missing the big fat Fyarl demon in the corner here, Giles. Keep going."

"My research suggests that you’ll stay with me until your appointed task is complete. Therefore your business has something directly to do with me and my life? A warning, a direction –?"

"Can’t say. But you’re getting warmer, even if I’m not." She cuddled closer, bringing the blanket over him too. He could feel her smile then, cool lips moving against his heart. "You know what? I don’t understand why there couldn’t have been a monkey or two in the movie. It’s the mark of quality entertainment."

He couldn’t have said why that made his throat close up tighter, even as he laughed. Perhaps it was the heat in the study, he thought, he had to keep the house so bloody hot. As the film demonstrated, catering to one’s dead lover’s comfort could occasionally be a little hard on the living partner.

***

On the way to Giles’s, they only get lost twice, only step in front of speeding cars on the wrong side of the road four times. Thus, Willow decides she’ll enter this choice in the success column of her journal, highlighting it in yellow. No, possibly blue.

Still, the walk is longer than either expects; they find themselves walking the last few blocks to Jubilee Place in cloud.

The two of them also keep stepping in puddles. Buffy stops complaining about her ruined shoes after the third time.

Willow hasn’t felt like talking much; there are so many emanations in every street, layers of lives and power like she’s never been able to feel before, not even during the previous summer in Devon. The energies dizzy her in a good way. But now, as they get closer to the house, her heart starts to beat faster and there’s a flicker of unease concentrated in the small of her back. She defaults to babble. "So, um, what do you think we should say to him when he answers the door? Assuming he answers the door, of course, and I’m going to assume that until further notice, because the alternative involves Scotland Yard and possibly hospitals and –"

"Willow, breathe. He’ll answer the door."

"Oh, you’re a big tough apocalypse-averting demon-slaying Slayer, missy, but don’t tell me you’re not thinking the same thing."

"He’ll answer the door, Will."

"That sounds like a resolve-voice." When Buffy throws a look at her, Willow smiles, her jitters smoothing out. "It’s a good thing to have."

"Then that’s what it is."

They link arms, then stop under a streetlight as it clicks on, white in the grey. Willow checks her Robson-information; the house should be just six or seven doors down from this cute little green space. A bar on the corner spills out a group of noisy patrons; in the opposite direction from Giles’s, a full-throated roar comes from a pub, where smoke and beer-smell curl out of the door. When Willow looks down Giles’s street, however, there is only quiet, as quiet as London gets. Even the busy King’s Road at the other end seems silent, wrapped in grey.

It takes Willow every ounce of control not to cast a spell to muffle their footsteps, to try to blend in with the surroundings. With every inch closer, her intuition – or her magic – tells her that something very odd is going on here. When Buffy brushes against flowers hanging over the sidewalk, Willow suddenly smells heat and passion. Weird, weird, weird, she thinks. And she looks up at Number 9, Jubilee Place.

A flash of white spotlights the road, then mellows. A lamp has been turned on in an upstairs room. Behind the curtains, two shadows – one tall, one much shorter – merge, flow together in ways shadows shouldn’t.

There’s something else there too, something darker, but she can’t identify it.

Buffy straightens her shoulders. "This is it, right? Let’s go." And before Willow can stop her, can mention that something’s off, she opens the gate and runs up the stone steps to the threshold. Mysteriously, Slayer-strength means that her knocks on the door can be heard up and down the street. A yappy little dog goes off next door, a window slams open across the street, and Willow can sense English disapproval hanging in the mist, heavier than the lingering rain.

The shadows disappear from the window.

***

It was two days after their adventures in film-going that Giles realised what the answer must be. They were nestled together on the study sofa while she regaled him with the details of her financial genius – she had sold short on something, made a pile of cash. "Even though the Inland Revenue will take a bite, you still have money to play with. Lots of ways you can connect to opportunities," she said brightly. Her hand reached out from under her blankets and clasped his.

He was very used to cold fingers by now. Rather enjoyed them, especially as he was always so hot.

Staring down at their interlocked hands, he found himself choking on a word she’d dropped mid-flight. ‘Connect,’ she’d said. As the saying went, only connect. He thought back to the "damn documentary" film, the message of the ending – "Anya darling, am I meant to connect to something? Someone or some others?"

Although she’d actually moved on to discussing his sadly unbalanced portfolio, she closed her mouth on what she was saying. Her nails dug into his palm, almost to the point of pain. "Go on, honey."

He didn’t know, really, but he began to discover ideas as he spoke. The words felt true. " I know that I shut down after you died, Anya. I did my duty, best I could, for the people in my life." He leaned over and kissed her temple, where the illusion of life beat. "But perhaps duty wasn’t enough. What else should I do?"

"I don’t know. You tell me," she said. She let his hand go, but only so she could slide over onto his lap, wind her arms around his neck. The blankets slipped down around her waist, but she didn’t seem to care.

"Maybe I should re-connect with those people who remain. And, well, there’s the money." At her mutter, he said, "No, darling, I realise that’s not a real connection. And also, it’s money you earned. But perhaps it’s a way to remind them that I care for them."

"You could always answer the phone."

"Oh, haha. You’re a funny, funny girl."

She beamed at him, even though he could tell it was an effort. When he brushed the hair back from her face, she said, "I try, Giles, even though I’ve often been accused of humourlessness. Now then. Although I could point out the cultural stereotype that fathers often equate cash with love, and you’re the father-type, maybe money is a good start. Apparently your phobia about modern communications, and mister, don’t think I didn’t notice it during your previous time in England, means you won’t call them."

"Anya–"

But she rushed on," I’m going to tell you a secret."

"I thought you said you couldn’t tell me anything."

"Not directly related to your question, no. But as you and I know, interpretation is a tricky business, in contracts, law, or fate." She was shivering from the cold now; he fruitlessly tried to warm her, bring her closer. She whispered, "Give the Scoobies the money if you want, although I personally think you’re crazy. It might hurry them along. Because, my honey, I happen to have inside information that Scoobies are going to come to you, for the first time in their lives."

"What?" He rested his forehead on hers, so that he couldn’t see her over-bright eyes. God, don’t let her cry, don’t let me cry, he thought. "Do you mean you know when you’ll be leaving me?"

"I can’t believe you think of me first," she said, a smile over a sob. "That’s hardly the point of re-connection. Giles –" And then the blankets slid away entirely when she kissed him, sharing her ground-water tears. Struggling only a little, he lifted her up and then took her up the stairs to bed. She turned down the coverlet, he spilled her onto the white sheets, and they came together for what felt like the first time, all cool and heat, all love-bites and silk ties and pounding in heart and cock and head. She was still there, he kept repeating to himself. She was still there.

Afterward, they lay together in silence. Then she whispered, "You’ve almost got it. Things are changing, but not yet. Not yet. We’ll find out when together." Then she managed a giggle against his shoulder. "If you get me my blankets, I’ll tell you some other inside information. It might be a conversational topic for when they arrive, as long as you promise you won’t get weird again."

"Yes, darling?" He was glad of the excuse to sit up, turn away to look for her covers. His throat was closing up with loss already, but he didn’t really want her to know.

"Mm-hm. Seems I’m not the only one whose death experience is something out of the norm. Guess who else came back, and is living in Southern California! Here’s a hint. You’ll need a stamp."

***

Buffy knocks again, despite apparently irritating all of Chelsea the first time. Being embarrassed does not affect the mission, she thinks, although she’d kind of like some company. "Come on, Will," she hisses back to the onetime big gun, now big scaredy girl, still standing just outside the gate.

There’s the thud of footsteps inside, and Giles’s voice saying, "Hang on, hang on–" When the door opens, he’s still buttoning up his shirt, looking down at the movements of his hands. She sees nothing but tousled grey-brown hair on his bent head, his jeans, his bare feet. Casual Guy. Not the man she expects.

Then he looks up and the corners of his mouth curl, his eyes crinkle. That’s her Giles. Before he can say anything, not even Hello, she throws herself into his arms. In only a few seconds, however, she has to share, because Willow is hurtling up the steps, calling his name, and burrowing into his other side.

The three of them stand at the threshold for a long minute, holding on. He’s warm, she thinks, maybe too warm, but he feels right and smells right. Of course she’s getting his shirt wet with her tears.

He kisses the top of her head, then does the same for Willow. His voice is kind. "Come inside, my dears. We’re letting in the mist and cold." Then he shepherds them inside, shuts the door. It’s still a little damp, though. And his house is really, really hot.

"Giles, we had to come see if you were all right –" Willow starts.

Buffy continues, "You didn’t answer any of my phone calls, I left six messages –"

"I left nine! And I know you can answer e-mail, I’ve seen you do it, I even saw when Anya taught you –"

He interrupts, a flash of his old authority. "I know, I’m sorry. Er, let’s sit down." He leads them past the foyer table, further down the central hall. Hesitating between two doors, he turns them away from an empty little study-type room, where she catches a glimpse of a banked fire, a sofa with a million piled blankets, and Giles-books galore. Instead he ushers them into a Watchery living room.

The room he chooses feels unlived in, and the lamps he turns on don’t change that impression. But she doesn’t mention it. She’s looking at how pale he is, like he hasn’t seen sun all summer, how there are dark smudges under his eyes. Still, somehow he seems – loose, maybe, like his casual clothes. At ease in a way she realises she’s never seen before.

It eases something in her too, a bullet of tension bouncing off as she moves.

"So, um, Giles. What’ve you been doing with yourself, when not not answering phone calls or e-mails? You just kinda disappeared on us," Willow asks, after they sit down together on the long sofa. Then, although Buffy can’t understand the question, she adds, "Are you here by yourself?"

He chooses his words carefully. "I’m sorry. Yes, I live here alone. I apologise, I didn’t think you needed me, or I’d have answered your messages earlier. It’s been rather busy – I’m writing a training manual for the Council, even though I’m not a Watcher any more." He sends another smile Buffy’s way. "Using the best Slayer ever as my chief source of stories, of course."

"Oh yeah? What kind of stories?"

"Oh, you know. The ones where she didn’t listen to her Watcher, ignored all his advice, made silly choices –" Laughing when she sends a cushion into his stomach, he finishes, "And was bloody well right to do so." He turns to Willow and smiles. "I’ve another chapter written on how the best Slayer ever couldn’t have done it without her friends, either, powerful in their own selves." He pats Willow’s thigh, looks away in a completely Giles fashion when she starts to tear up again. Apologising endearingly, he asks them if they want any tea.

They follow him into his tiny, neat kitchen, talking hard as he puts the kettle on and gets out cookies and things. The questions he asks prove he’s at least been listening to and reading their messages, about Buffy’s part-time Slaying duties and preparations for school and her first apartment, Willow’s break-up with Kennedy and her class schedule for the fall, Dawn’s less-than-smooth reconciliation with their dad.

He gets an evil little grin – Buffy can’t describe it any other way – when he asks about Xander and Andrew. As Willow starts to expound her as yet unproven theories on the Long-Repressed Big Gay Xander and the need to acknowledge one’s inner desires, he says, very loudly, "You tell me that Xander’s gay now?"

A crash from the study, something glass and probably expensive, makes Buffy and Willow jump. His grin just gets wider, however, until he coughs into his hand. "Sorry, sorry. Nasty draughts in this house. Er, more shortbread?"

Buffy can’t figure it out. On their way back with tea and cookies, she glances into the study. Looks empty enough, except for a shattered vase on the hearth.

The whole private-joke routine happens once more, this time in the living room. They ask him why he sent them the money, and he looks away, planning how to phrase his answer. That’s their Giles, she thinks, big with the careful. When he says that he felt as if he’d abandoned them, that he wanted to re-connect, Willow says, "You could always answer the phone."

The study door slams shut, and he grins. Trying not to laugh – at what? – he says, "I have a strange feeling I’ve left a window open in there. Excuse me for a moment."

After he leaves, crossing the hall, Willow whispers, "There’s something bizarre going on, all auras ahoy and noises and stuff. But he seems okay, doesn’t he?"

"He seems really okay," Buffy says. She bites into another cookie. Mmm, buttery goodness.

Music, some bluesy rock thing about ‘waiting so long’ and ‘the sunshine of your love,’ la la la, suddenly comes from the study. It must be the music that makes it seem like Giles is talking to someone. There’s no explanation for the way his hair is sticking up when he comes back, though, or the way the smudges under his eyes seem deeper and his smile has disappeared. She doesn’t even try.

Even though they talk a while longer, discussing places to see in London, making plans for lunch together tomorrow, Buffy can feel her eyes drooping. "Jet-lag is so like a hammer on your head. No, a troll-god hammer," she says, as Willow yawns bigger than London.

Giles laughs at them both. "Come on, you need to get back to your hotel before you both fall asleep in your tracks. Let me walk you to King’s Road, I’ll get you a cab." When they protest, he says gently, "I want to. Re-connecting, remember." Then, smiling: "Besides, I need to get some milk for my morning tea; I’ll pop down to Waitrose after I put you in a taxi. Just thinking of myself, you see."

After he puts on a pair of boots and grabs a jacket, they leave. Odd that he doesn’t turn off the music, she thinks. It’s almost eight-thirty, dark now, misting. He leads them the short way down to the intersection with the King’s Road. Cars zip by, lights flashing in the darkened street. There’s noise and life now.

Despite their nasty past year and the way she sometimes feels older than old, she has the strongest impulse to grab his hand, to swing on it like she’s a little girl and he’s her real dad. Then she looks over. Willow’s already doing it. Bitch, she thinks affectionately, as she follows suit.

As they walk into the brighter light of the main street, though, he says out of nowhere, "Buffy, have you talked to the Los Angeles folk lately?"

"You mean, Angel? I thought you didn’t like Angel."

Dropping their hands, he steps out to wave down a cab – which means she doesn’t see his face when he says, "I don’t, particularly. Nor do I like, er, well. I don’t mean to interfere in any way at all, but let’s just say that you need to call Los Angeles, soon as you can." As a black cab swerves toward the curb, he turns around. There’s that grin again. "In fact, perhaps you should call tonight. You can tell me tomorrow at lunch what you find out."

"You are so weird sometimes, Giles."

There are hugs and goodbyes, reminders of where they’ll meet for lunch, one last tease about her calling Los Angeles, before he puts them in the back of the cab and gives the driver the address. She and Willow sag against each other, smiling at him through the window. He smiles back, gives a little wave.

As the cab pulls away, she says, "Oh damn it, Will, I forgot to tell him I’m doing Tai Chi again. You know how he loves to hear he’s right."

Dizzy with exhaustion, relief, and love, they giggle their way up the King’s Road.

***

As soon as they’re out of sight, his smile drops away. His throat is choked with that familiar peach-and-saltwater loss, making it hard to breathe.

He doesn’t want to go back to his house. He fears that she won’t be there. He knows she won’t be.

That knowledge is cold. He thinks of that last moment in the study, as he put on the Cream to disguise their voices, to hide the sounds of a man and a ghost trying not to laugh, kissing each other by the fire. Then she took her fingers from his hair and whispered, "Go on, honey. There’s connection. You’ve almost got it." Her smile was worse than tears could have been, and then she’d pushed him out the door.

So he turns toward the shop. It’s almost closing time, so he has to hurry his steps. The mist muffles the sound, makes him feel as if he’s the only person on the street.

It makes him feel his solitude again.

He walks into the Waitrose, into the buzzing fluorescent lights and supermarket chill. Last-minute shoppers are crowding at the two registers still open. On his way back to the dairy case he has to skirt around a couple, all lips and hands, locked together in the crisps aisle.

Christ, he can’t breathe.

But he makes it to the dairy case. The cold is so strong, waves of refrigeration crossing over the barrier. So many choices in milk, too. With a complete lack of surprise, he realises that there’s no voice in his ear telling him which to buy. On his own then, is he. Sod it, he’ll have the cream.

There comes a sudden shudder of air from above, a thud and a hum. Suddenly he really, truly can’t breathe, his chest constricting with the effort. The hand he’s put out for the cream falls, and then he falls too, kneeling on the floor. The fluorescent lights are white, blinding.

And at last he figures it out, knows just how utterly wrong his interpretation has been. He completely missed the big fat Fyarl demon in the corner.

Even through the pain radiating through him, sending him to the ground, he manages an honestly amused, "Oh, darling. You’re a funny, funny girl." He doesn’t know if he’s said it out loud.

But she’s there.

Cold arms wind around his neck, pulling him further down. "Well, finally!" her high, sharp voice says in his ear. He can’t feel much any more, white light freezing, but he can feel the touch of her lips on his. "I’ve been waiting and waiting. Come on, honey. I’ve got you, and it’s going to be wonderful."

Once he knows, everything changes.