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Don't Feed The Plants

Chapter Text

And now my hobby, not just my hobby.
No it's my job to make, the patients go insane!

It was the start of the evening shift at the Sunnydale General emergency room; three white-coated nurses paused by the administration desk to pick up their assignments and discuss the current intake of patients.

“So let me see,” the tall one frowned, running her eyes and her finger down the list. “We got two domestic incidents …”

“Lover’s quarrels,” the plump one sighed.

“Brutal demonstrations of the fundamental bestial nature of man,” the middle one corrected archly, buffing her perfect nails into a soft shine.

“Three people falling onto barbecue forks …”

“That is so common around here.”

“Too common, if you ask me. They should put warning signs on those things.”

“One gunshot wound …”

The plump one looked surprised. “Only one? They’ve usually had at least three by this time of night.”

“It’s Thursday,” the middle of the three said, as if this explained everything.  Her fellow nurse nodded sagely.

“Oh, and September. Should’ve remembered.”

“One attempted suicide,” the tall nurse continued, ignoring them both. “Two pregnant women with stab wounds to the stomach …”

“No doubt trying to cut the evil out of themselves again,” the plump nurse confided knowingly. “Remember that woman last year?”

“Rose … no, Rosemary. I remember.” Her friend nodded. “She had such a lovely baby, too …”

The tallest of them had turned the page over. “Six severe intoxications, three from one RTA and … oh yes.  One attempted murder. Low priority though. Can’t have been much of an attempt.”

The plump one chuckled, tugging the list from her friend’s hand. “Then he’ll wait. Like the rest of them. Who wants a cup of coffee before we get to work?”

Someone show me a way to get outa here,

 'Cause I constantly pray I'll get outa here …
Please, won't somebody say I'll get outa here

Someone gimme my shot or I'll rot here …

Willow sat in the emergency room with him while white-coated doctors and nurses bustled back and forth, dealing with assorted wounds and surly drunks and the other kind of emergencies that patterned late night living in California and Sunnydale in particular. Giles spent half that time apologising to her, for imposing on her time and keeping her away from the things he was sure she’d rather be doing – and she countered every soft I’m sorry with brisk dismissal and firm assurance that she wasn’t going anywhere until she knew he was both safe and comfortably settled for the rest of the night.

Because she wasn’t.

Because she’d left him earlier that evening without protest, had grabbed the chance to extricate herself from potential danger and left him facing it, all without so much as an are you sure to salve her conscience.  And okay, so that was mostly his decision, and he’d wanted her safe, and all that kind of thing – but she’d still taken off without any thought of worrying about leaving him behind.

She felt bad about that.

She felt even badder about seeing him nearly get eaten, and maybe being responsible for showering him with shards of shattering glass, but that was a more normal kind of ‘I live on a Hellmouth’ kind of bad; the vague sense of guilt that was nagging at her had a lot more to do with the I care about this guy feeling than the there was a giant carnivorous plant living in the school greenhouse one …

“Willow,” Giles said for the umpteenth time, giving her an affectionate if somewhat martyred look.  “You really don’t have to stay …”

“Yes I do,” she retorted, reassuming resolve face mode and giving him a determined glare. “Because I’m not leaving you lying there, all blood-soaked and concussy. Not until I know that you’ve been properly stitched up and … and everything.”

He leant back into the supporting pillow – carefully of course because, hey, damaged back as well as damaged front, and head, and wrists, and really, really tender all over – and sighed. A warm, weary, patient and gently amused sigh, one that went very well with his smile and – gah, did he have any idea how sexy that look was when he wasn’t wearing his glasses?

“All right, all right” he acquiesced, his acceptance managing to convey he was really quite pleased that she was being stubborn, however much he felt he was being an imposition. “Stay if you must. Although,” he added, “I have the feeling that I am being well and truly stitched up, one way or the other. I don’t need a nursemaid, Willow.”

“Course not,” she agreed cheerfully, carefully reaching to plump his pillow, pour him some more water and then help him balance the glass so he could take a drink. His hands were slightly swollen, his grip was clumsy and she knew his wrists had to be incredibly painful; the doctor that had conducted initial triage had ruled against prescribing any painkillers until someone could check the extent of his concussion. Which was okay, and probably sensible, but that had been hours ago, and he still wasn’t top of the list for attention.

Nor do I need a guilt-stricken student hovering over me from a misguided sense of duty.” His tone was wry behind the effort it cost, and she suppressed a sudden desire to smirk; he might be feeling – well, half ripped apart and barely put back together – but he was still Giles.

“Course not.”

“Willow -” he started to say, and she sighed.

Giles,” she countered firmly, “what you need is a friend-shaped friend. One who’ll keep you company and make sure you don’t pass out or bleed to death waiting for one of these doctors to come and see to you. And – it could have been Buffy, but you sent her out on patrol with Angel, and it might have been Xander, but he was being all security-conscious and weapon care-taking guy, so that really leaves me, and here am, and here I’m going to stay – at least until I’m sure that someone’s taking care of you, and maybe even after that, because I’m totally sure that getting hit on the head with a shovel and being fed to a huge carnivorous plant thing isn’t a standard requirement in a Watcher’s job description and it certainly isn’t one for a school librarian, and … I’m babbling, aren’t I ..?”

“Yes,” he said, managing to make the word sound both amused and pained all at once. “You are. You’re .. umm ... q-quite right, though.” He paused to lift his left hand so that he could scrub wearily at his eyes. “And I … umm … d-do appreciate the company. Really, I do. It’s … well, it’s just that … I -I have this … blinding headache and …” He trailed off, staring at his wrist with a bemused frown. “Oh dear,” he breathed. “I-I don’t think that’s supposed to happen …”

Neither did Willow. The triage doctor had tugged peremptorily at the paramedic’s dressings, peered under her makeshift bandages, made a few tutting noises and then left everything in place, more concerned with filling in his forms than dealing with his patient. There was dried blood mottled across the cotton around the Watcher’s wrist, a dark stain of it crusting the edges of the padding beneath – and an ominous trickle of much fresher vintage, which was slowly oozing down Giles’ arm and into the ruins of his shirt

“That’s it,” she declared, getting to her feet. “I’m going to find you a doctor, priority system or not!” She took a half-step away, then darted back, putting out both her hands and fixing him with an anxious look. “Don’t move, okay? Stay right there. I’ll be right back.”

What we have here is an ethical dilemma …

“So he wasn’t trying to hang himself.” The tallest nurse was grinning as she worked on changing sheets and preparing the examination bed for its next occupant. “Turns out it was all this bizarre game with silk scarves …”

“… and he just forgot about the overhead fan?” Her plump colleague giggled at the thought, efficiently stripped the pillow of its regulation protective covering and tossing it into the plastic receptacle the third of the trio was holding.

“Totally forgot. And then his girlfriend panics and tries to get up to switch the thing off …”

“ …only she’s got one ankle tied to the bed and she trips and goes flying. Knocks herself out on the dresser. If the night porter hadn’t heard him hammering his heels on the bedhead, he’d have still been hanging up there when the maid came in to change the sheets in the morning.”

The three of them exchanged a look. “Poor girl,” the middle of the three decided, stuffing a rumpled sheet in with the pillow covers.

“The maid?”

“No – the girlfriend. Bad enough your date’s a dork. But when he’s a klutz too …well, that’s just adding insult to injury.”

“Amen, sister,” the plump one declared with feeling. “Maybe she’ll realise what a lucky escape she had.”

“When she comes round.”

“From the coma …”

“Excuse me?” The three of them turned. A young woman with long red hair was standing at the entrance to the alcove, a very anxious look on her face. “I-I’m looking for a doctor?”

“Aren’t we all, sweetheart.” The comeback was dry; the young woman coloured a little.

“No – I … my friend. He’s - ” Her hand waved in the vague direction of one of the occupied alcoves. “We been waiting for – well, forever, and he’s hurting and there’s blood and I really, really think he needs help. Now,” she added, the word a little determined gulp of sound. The three nurses exchanged a glance.

“Is he on the list?” the tallest one asked, frostily.

“Well – yes, but …”

“Is he next in line?” The middle of the three spoke with less ice, but a lot more disinterest.

“No, but – “

“He’ll wait,” the three of them chorused, going back to their duties without a second thought. The young woman’s expression flitted from puzzled, to hurt, and finally slid into indignation. She reached out and caught the plump nurse’s arm.

“No. He. Wont’,” she declared firmly. “I don’t care about the list, I don’t care about your system, I know you were busy earlier, I know there were people who needed the now thing much more than he did then, but those beds are empty and the people in white coats are just – hanging around, making beds and – and drinking coffee. My friend is hurting and he needs help, and that’s why we came here in the first place. So do I get a doctor, or do I have to make a scene?”

The nurse looked down at the hand on her arm, and then up at angry, anxious eyes. “Honey,” she asked softly, “you really think the world’s going to come to an end if we just wait until his name comes up on the list?”

The young woman thought about that for a moment, a whole slew of emotions dancing in her eyes. Then she shivered, as if someone had walked over her grave. “Yes,” she said, the word as confident as her expression, which had settled into tight resolve. The nurse smiled.

“In that case,” she said, turning the young woman round and pointing at someone standing near the coffee machine. “You probably want to talk to that man over there.”

Your temperament's wrong for the priesthood
And teaching would suit you still less …

“Don’t move, she says,” Giles muttered to himself, gingerly sinking a little further into the pillows and wincing as even that miniscule movement stirred the damage across his back. “Because, of course, I am about to leap to my feet and dance an energetic Rhumba or two … Christ …”

The last was a hiss of angry pain, a determined expression of the invective he’d been fighting down for the last two hours, bewilderedly grateful for Willow’s hovering presence, and determined not to shatter her illusions of him as … well, some kind of story-book English gentleman. Finally left alone, even if only for a minute or two, he could swear like trooper, and he did just that – a muttered litany of furious curse words that did nothing to ease his discomfort, but allowed him to vent some deep-seated frustrations concerning his current wretched and unwelcome state.

It wasn’t so much that it hurt – which it certainly did, given that some of his wounds were still bleeding and half of the skin on his body had been stripped back to a decidedly tender layer by the acids in the plant’s juices – so much as the fact that he was lying in a hospital bed, waiting to be poked and prodded by curious doctors, when he could be suffering much more comfortably at home, exorcising his sense of humiliation at being strung up – to be plant food no less - with a generous measure of two of Scotch.

He ran out of breath before he ran out of invective, and retreated to the repetition of a slightly less earthy mantra in ancient Sumerian. He could probably summon one or two real curses if he put his mind to it, especially since he was – to all intents and purposes – lying in a welter of his own blood, but no good ever came of such impulses, and it would hardly be any kind of example to set Willow, who seemed very determined to take care of him, whether he wanted her to or not.

He sighed in between one span of the meditative mantra and the next, reluctantly letting the tempting thought of a good glass of single malt turn into one of distant promise. Much as he hated to admit it – and hated the looming onslaught of fuss, and the whole degrading routine of being an impatient patient - he needed to be here. The worst of his wounds needed stitching, the rest of them needed disinfecting and he probably needed a infusion of blood to replace what he’d lost. He almost undoubtedly had a concussion, and … “Blast,” he realised, losing the rhythm of his words and with it some of the distance he’d managed to put between himself and the pain. The comforting liquor he’d been mentally reaching for went back on the proverbial shelf. Concussion and alcohol were never a good mix, no matter how excellent the vintage might be.

“Well now,” a voice said, managing to sound both amused and harassed at the same time. “What have we here?

Giles blinked, making an effort to focus on the blur of white that had suddenly materialised at the foot of the examination bed. It looked like a doctor – or possibly someone impersonating one; the obligatory white coat seemed to have been flung over a casual crimson shirt and a pair of faded jeans.  The man wearing them was at that suspect age between competent authority and looming elder statesmanship; his hair was fair, but turning grey, his face was lined but not craggy, and his eyes were twinkling with the kind of jollity that suggested he’d been an eternal embarrassment as a father but was about to make the best grandfather a child could ever have.

“No,” Giles found himself drawling pointedly. “I’m just lying here in a pool of my own blood because it’s the latest fashion trend … Gods' sake, man,” he snapped. “What do you think?”

I think we’re feeling a little testy,” the doctor said, grinning at Willow, who had appeared in his wake. She frowned, jerking her finger at the clipboard of notes the triage medic had left behind.

“Doctoring now, bedside manner later,” she ordered firmly. “And yes,” she added, turning her resolve face back towards the wounded Watcher and letting it dissolve into an anxious smile. “Definitely testy. But only in a ‘lying here for hours and not getting the help he needs’ kind of way.”

“Quite,” Giles acknowledged faintly, a little shaken by the way she was looking at him. He knew fear when he saw it and he was seeing it now, lurking under the anxiety, fuelling her impatient determination. Willow was scared – scared of what, he’d have been hard-put to say. Scared by the events of the evening? About having to be adult and responsible? Scared, perhaps, of letting him down and failing to get him the care she thought he needed? Scared she’d lose Buffy’s respect, or Xander’s friendship if she let anything happen to him?

Or … his heart turned over and his hand went out, instinctively reaching for hers. … was she simply scared of losing him?

She caught the hand – gently, he was relieved to note – and her smile grew a little more genuine, some of that panicked rabbit in the headlights look fading from her expression.

“Oh,” the doctor was chuckling as he flipped through the notes, “I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that …” The note of banter faded.  His smile tightened into a wary frown. “How long ago were you admitted?”

“Uh …” Giles wasn’t entirely sure. It had been some time …

“Two and a half hours ago,” Willow declared, her grip tightening a little around his fingers. “And he’s in pain, and he’s got concussion and he’s bleeding. Just like I told you.” The look she gave the doctor was challenging.  He, in turn, looked horrified.

“Two and a half …” His eyes darted down to the notes, then back up to his patient, the twinkle in them flashing with a moment of sheer indignation and fury. “Damn,” he growled – and kicked into action, a sudden whirlwind of barked orders and determined medical competency.

“IV, stat,” he snapped at the nearest nurse, then grabbed for the next one as the first scurried away. “Scrub up, and bring me a sterile dressings trolley – antiseptics, swabs, sutures, the whole works.” He was on to the third before the second had even finished her answering nod. “I need an immediate admission – observation bed, private room if possible. And if Giestman protests,” he called after as she too hurried away, “tell him we’ve a PMP in progress and that he needs to get his ass down here asap.”

“PMP?” Willow echoed faintly, her eyes going wide and her clasp on his hand becoming tight and desperate. “Is that … bad?”

The doctor threw her a rueful smile. “Only for us, young lady. Potential Malpractice I’m afraid… although,” he added, perching himself on the edge of the bed and dragging a small torch out of his pocket, “I am rather hoping I can persuade you both that I can more than make up for our initial neglect … Let me take a look at this …” His hand was a gentle touch against Giles’ chin, turning his head – first to study the bruising on his temple, and then to check the dilation of both pupils with a practised flick of his torch. The Watcher blinked under the impact of the light, wincing as the movement stirred his headache. “Good, good …”

The doctor’s name was Thackery; at least, that was the name written on the battered tag which hung from his pocket. Close to he came wreathed in the scent of antiseptics, a hint of Old Spice and a much stronger hint of peppermint; the waft of it took Giles back years – back, in fact to days spent in the school infirmary, recovering from the honourable injuries of the English playing field. The school doctor – a member of the order, and Watcher trained, if never field assigned – had been firm and friendly and briskly reassuring in his bedside manner. He too, had smelt of peppermint; humbugs in his case, and never averse to handing a few around as a reward for ‘bravery in the field of fire’ as he’d joking called the ordeals of splinting broken bones, bandaging twisted joints, or dealing with cracked heads and bloody noses.

Back then, Giles had always thought his gruff tales of life on the frontline – his horror stories of field agents brought home with shattered ribs, their limbs half ripped off, or stricken with claw marks so deep that they’d scarred through to the bone – had been bold exaggerations, fables intended to put the fear of god into his impressionable charges. But now – lying under the gentle ministrations of another of the same breed, bleeding in more places than he cared to think about and determinedly ignoring the nightmare memories of nearly being eaten alive – the Watcher had to admit that maybe – just maybe – the old man might have been telling it like it is.

“Okay,” Thackery decided, putting the torch away and turning to Willow with one of those warm smiles. “Now, I know you want stay with him, young lady, but – I have work to do. Bandages to change. Wounds to clean and stitch. And I think perhaps you should wait in the lobby while I get on with it. Ahah,” he countered as she opened her mouth to protest. “Don’t go trying that look on me again, if you please. It’s a very effective look and I think you’ll find that it works much better if you apply it in moderation. Mr Giles is in good hands, I can assure you – and if you’re not willing to leave so as to avoid having to watch the really icky stuff, perhaps you’d consider doing so so that he doesn’t have to lie there being all brave and stoic while I stick needles into him?”

Her eyes went wide again; Giles – who didn’t really need the hint, but took it anyway – found her a brave smile and squeezed her hand to encourage her flight. “You should go home, Willow,” he advised softly. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Mhmh,” she denied, shaking her head. “PMP, remember? Not going until I know … okay,” she agreed, subsiding under the twin glare of both doctor and patient. “I’ll … wait. Maybe – maybe I should phone Buffy. Let her know … you know?”

“Yes,” Giles breathed, because he did know – and it was a constant surprise to discover his young charges did occasionally worry about him. When they didn’t have more important things to worry about, that is. “I think that would be an excellent idea.”

“Go,” Thackery commanded, fluttering his hands to drive her from the now-curtained cubicle. One of the nurses arrived as she left, bringing the IV he’d asked for. “Nice kid,” the doctor observed, checking the equipment and nodding at the nurse to start removing the remains of his patient’s clothing. “Yours?”

“Good Lord, no,” Giles reacted, drawing in a sharp breath as the nurse’s hands disturbed his tender skin. “She’s … umm … a student of mine.”

“Student, huh?” Thackery sounded amused. “Good one?”

“Very.” The soft coldness of a swab brushed his arm, and then the IV needle sank into a vein, starting to feed him the fluid his body badly craved. “I …umm … tutor a- a special group. Gifted students. T-that sort of thing …” There was more than simple saline in the drip; a slow, insistent warmth began to spread through him, soothing away the constant scream of his skin and muting the deeper protests of torn flesh and abused muscles.

“Good for you,” Thackery smiled, lifting one of his wrists and gently starting the process of peeling away the makeshift bandaging. “And good for her, obviously. Wish I had your touch when it came to my interns. Ungrateful bunch. I doubt any of them would show me that kind of loyalty. You’ll have to tell me your secret some time.”

“N-no secret.” He hissed as the bulk of the cotton padding fell away, his arm spasming with the sudden resurgence of pain. “Just … well, I – I don’t know what, actually. They … tolerate my presence, seem to … Christ …consider me an expert in a few things. Even …listen to what I say. Occasionally.”

Thackery’s amused snort was a distracted reflex; he was actually staring at torn skin, carefully assessing the extent of the damage. “What the hell happened to you, Mr Giles?”

“It’s … Rupert,” Giles offered distantly, finding sudden appeal in a competent and professional adult addressing him by his given name. “And an insane gardener hit me with a shovel, tied me up with garden twine and attacked me with a rusty fork.”

“Really?” the doctor questioned, with a raised eyebrow that suggested he knew a lot more about the nightlife of Sunnydale than the average sane person would admit to. The Watcher sighed.

Really,” he said, and closed his eyes, letting the caress of the painkillers carry him away.

Show me your face
Clean as the morning
I know things were bad
But now they're okay

“Well, he said he was fine - but there was blood and unfocusy vision – and then the doctor kinda went into overdrive after I dragged him over to do something. So I don’t know.”

Buffy muttered something at the other end of the phone. Willow pressed a little closer under the hood, trying to ignore the slightly raucous drunks who were busy singing bawdy love songs to the receptionist.

“Oh, yeah, I know that – ‘cause he ordered an admission bed. The doctor, I mean. I think he's gonna keep him under observation for a while. That’s … yes, the concussion. And the - blood loss, I guess. Xander was right about the stitches. No – no, I-I don’t think you need to come over. I’m sure he’ll be fine. Yes. Yes, I will. Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow? Good. Night.”

She put the phone back on the hook and slowly walked back to the waiting area, wondering if a half lie was any better than a whole one. She wasn’t sure that Giles would be fine. She wasn’t sure how anyone could be ‘fine’ after something like that had happened to them. She was quite sure she wouldn’t be. It would be nightmare city for weeks, and lots of avoidy behaviour around plants and stuff – not to mention being traumatised by needing to be stitched back together and the prospect of being scarred. For life.

She sighed and dropped onto one of the long padded benches, pushing a pile of well-thumbed magazines out of the way so she could make herself comfortable. She suspected that guys didn’t worry so much about getting scars, and she also suspected that Giles would say he was fine, whether he was or not. But that wouldn’t make it right.

She flicked idly though a couple of magazines, got herself a cup of coffee, drank that as slowly as she could, then put the empty cup down with another sigh, glancing first at the still curtained alcove just beyond the nurses’ station, and then at the clock. It was past late and heading for all good souls should be abed – which was exactly where Buffy was going, and Xander probably was, and she ought to be but …

One of the white-coated nurses bustled out from behind the curtain, and Willow sat up for a moment – only to slump down again as the woman collected something from a trolley and vanished back behind the curtain again. The three nurses had been doing that for a while, waltzing in and out as if they were taking part in some obscure dance routine. Willow wasn’t sure if they were helping or hindering Dr Thackery; she’d seen all sorts of strange things being taken in to him, the most sensible of which had been a trolley bearing softly steaming bowls of water, and a tray of what had looked suspiciously like hospital tea.

Not something Giles would be thankful for, she’d suspected when she saw it; hospital tea wasn’t real tea – not like the kind of stuff he drank, anyway.

Another glance, a further sigh. She wasn’t going to leave until she was sure he’d been properly taken care of. Because someone ought to. Giles didn’t really have anyone … well, there was Miss Calendar, but that was all tentative and first date kind of stuff, not the way that Buffy had her Mom, and she had … well, she and Xander had each other, right? And they all had Giles looking out for them, even if he pretended to be grumpy about it most of the time.

Well, okay , she admitted to herself, sometimes he is grumpy, and not just pretending …

But she knew that was because he cared, and that his gruff lectures were a way of venting his frustrations at not being able to keep them out of trouble. A way, too, of dealing with the fear that haunted him, every time he sent Buffy out on patrol. He was her Watcher, and he was supposed to feel responsible for her – but no-one had asked him to feel responsible for the rest of them, and yet he did. Seriously did, which was kind of cool in a way; cool and oddly comforting – because knowing someone really cared, rather than said they did because they thought it was expected of them, was a whole dose-worth of warm fuzzies, all on its own.

There were, of course, lots of other ways that being around Giles inspired the warm fuzzy moments; the sweet glow she got whenever her praised her, the way he trusted her with his books, even the way he’d sometimes greet her arrival in the library with a smile.

But she’d never tell him that.

“Miss Rosenberg?”

The friendly-looking older doctor with the twinkling eyes and the cute laugh-lines was smiling down at her. He looked tired; his hair was tousled, his coat was rumpled – and there were spots of blood on it, darkening red blotches staining his sleeves. For the briefest of moments Willow feared the worst. She felt her stomach clench and her heart drop into her shoes. “Yes?” she squeaked, wide eyed and apprehensive. “Is – is Giles okay?”

“He’s fine,” Doctor Thackery assured her, offering her a hand to help her up. “At least, he will be, given a few hours' sleep and a little time to heal. We’re going to keep him for the night – if that’s okay with you?”

She nodded warily, her sense of relief un-knotting her stomach while she made herself breathe as slow and as evenly as she could manage.

“Nothing to worry about, of course.” The doctor gently steered her towards the still curtained cubicle. “We just want keep an eye on him for a while - make sure that bump on the old noggin isn’t going to give him any problems. They’re going to be taking him up to the ward in a minute. I thought you might like to go with him. Tuck him in,” he added with a grin.

Thank you,” she declared, her gratitude totally heartfelt and not all because he’d had the kindness to remember her in among the busy bustle of the evening. She was grateful that he’d listened to her concerns – and that he cared enough about his patients to step in when he was so obviously needed. Although if she caught sight of the other doctor – the one who’d put Giles way down on the list and had left him lying in misery for hours – then it was likely she’d give him a piece of her mind.

“You’re welcome,” Thackery smiled. “So’s he. And don’t look so worried. Most of the damage is superficial; he’ll be up and about in no time. Little … tender in places, for a while anyway,” he confided warmly. “But nothing to panic over. Nothing to sue over, either,” he suggested, not entirely in jest. Willow found him a wan grin of her own.

“Don’t worry,” she said, still looking anxious despite his reassurances. Tender was not fun. “I don’t think … Giles doesn’t like to make a fuss. Not unless it really needs to happen. And not so much about himself, either. Now,” she added, a little ruefully, “if that had been me lying there …”

Thackery chuckled. “That, I can imagine,” he said, his expression wry. “He’s very fond of you, you know? Fond of all of his students by the sound of it. Good teachers like that are hard to find. I’d hang on to this one if I were you.”

“Oh, we will,” Willow assured him, pushing through the curtain and coming to an abrupt halt at the sight that awaited her. “We will …”

Gone was the bloodstained, dishevelled figure she’d left lying pale and shivering amongst the pillows. In its place was a much more reassuring vision; Giles was lying on his side rather than his back, an IV tube taped to one arm, and a blanket covering his legs. They’d replaced his torn and blood-soaked clothing with a clean hospital gown, and the hasty makeshift dressings and bandages with layers of pristine and professional linen. His face was still pale and his hair was still faintly tousled, but he looked so much better lying there that Willow felt all the knotty anxiety that had sat inside her for the past few hours simply melt away. She thought he might be asleep, but the sound of her voice flickered his eyes open; he blinked, focused, and then smiled at her with bemused delight.

“Good Lord,” he murmured, a soft pumped full of painkillers drawl. “Willow?  Are you still here? I thought I told you to go home.”

“You did,” she smiled, moving to stand by him and wondering if he’d object to her reclaiming his hand. “But I didn’t. I guess I can now. Since you’re all – stitched up and everything.” She gave in to the impulse and dropped her hand over his where it lay on the top of the blanket. He gave her a slightly startled look – then turned his palm and let her lace her fingers through his own.

“I certainly am,” he sighed wearily. “And that sounds like a jolly good idea to me. You have school tomorrow, remember?”

She nodded; she didn’t need the reminder, but Buffy certainly would have done. She found herself wondering if he wished that it had been Buffy who’d brought him to the hospital, if he’d have been less startled if it had been his Slayer who’d stayed … and then his hand tightened around hers with almost imperceptible pressure, and his smile widened just that little bit, and she knew it didn’t matter one way or the other.

Because he was really, really glad to see her there.

“Thank you,” he said, managing to pack more gratitude into those two words than a whole slew of gift-baskets and Hallmark cards would have conveyed. “F-for staying, I mean. And for … berating doctors on my behalf. I know you would have … much rather been elsewhere.”

“Well yeah, but … so would you,” she countered, a little self consciously. Being praised by Giles was always nice. Being thanked by him was even nicer. But she never felt entirely deserving of the first, and she didn’t feel deserving of this at all. “I shouldn’t have left you,” she said, then coloured, realising how that might sound. “Not to be ‘going on alone guy,’ I-I mean. You’re not – Buffy, you know.”

“A fact I have been painfully reminded of tonight.” He sounded vaguely embarrassed about it. “I was the one who told you to go – there’s nothing to feel guilty about in that. And you kept your wits about you later. Picking up on my hint about the roof. You acquitted yourself well tonight, Willow. Much better than I did.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, half embarrassed by his adding praise to praise and half annoyed that he should seek to belittle himself after everything he’d been through. “It wasn’t your fault that Simon hit you with a shovel. And you were all with the stoic bravery and stuff afterwards. You only screamed the once …”

She tailed off. He was looking at her with a slightly pained expression – one that had nothing to do with the cuts and the bumps and the bruises – and she suddenly felt extremely small. Sorry,” she gulped. “Not helping here, huh?”

His hand tightened on hers a second time, a little more firmly and with a lot more reassurance. “Actually,” he said gently, “you’re helping a great deal. But you should go home.”

“I will,” she promised, and grinned – because suddenly she knew everything was going to be okay, and they’d all be laughing about this by the end of the week – even Giles. “Just as soon as they get you into a real bed. Doctor Thackery,” she confided happily, “promised I could tuck you in.”

The upward roll of his eyes was perfect. As was his pained look and the inevitably martyred sigh. “Oh good Lord,” he groaned.

But she knew he didn’t mean it. Because he held on to her hand – and went on holding it, all the way up to the ward and afterwards. Right up until he finally fell asleep.

Tell me this feeling lasts till forever
Tell me the bad times are clean washed away…

Outside in the dark, three nurses leaving their shift – who were also three cheerleaders, still in school, and three other creatures altogether – paused to glance up at the still-lit windows of the ward, and smiled.

“I think they handled that pretty well, don’t you?” the plump one said, a note of affection in her voice. The tallest one snorted.

“Sure,” she drawled cynically. “And he’s really going to survive the next few years with his slayer taking such good care of him, isn’t he.”

“He will,” the middle one said, linking one arm with her older sister’s, and the other with her younger’s as they headed down the road and into the night. “Few bumps in the road, the odd knot in the thread and a little heartache on the way, but … they’ll make it. All of them. They have Fate and Chance and Destiny on their side.”

“Yeah,” the plump one chuckled. “Nice to know there’s someone you can rely on to save the world. Again.”

Their giggles floated back as they vanished into the darkness, their shapes blurring and fading into nothing but a lingering hint of starlight. The very last thing that might have been heard – if anyone had been around to listen – was the voice of the tallest, dropping into thoughtful tones.

“Now then,” she said.  “Where in the hell did the next one of those cursed things take root …”

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul
Something's coming to eat the world whole
If we fight it we've still got a chance
But whatever they offer you
Though they're slopping the trough for you
Please, whatever they offer you
Don't feed the plants!