Actions

Work Header

Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus – Chapter 1

by L. Inman

The bus was late.

            Elisabeth drummed the toes of her shoes on the smooth concrete, arm draped protectively over her bulging backpack on the bench next to her, and stared idly at the clock overhead.  With one finger she pushed her small glasses up on the bridge of her nose, sighed, and cast a weary sweeping glance across the bus station.  The bus was late.  The bus was always late.  Though she always had time to burn and then some, it never failed to be slightly aggravating, to expect a bus and end up continuing to wait in the place one wanted to leave.  It was the moving one wanted; the eating up of miles under big wheels, the slight blur of the countryside out the window, the constant artist’s perspective of telephone poles coming to meet one and passing behind.  Instead of which, one was sitting, quite stationary, on a bench waiting for a bus which was late.

            And she was running out of money.  The next town would probably have restaurants to waitress in, or, if she were lucky, a bookstore in which to do inventory and endear herself to the proprietor before getting the bug and moving on.  A job like that would keep her in youth hostels and bus tickets for a while.  Fortunately she still looked young enough to play the lost college kid if necessary, though she disliked doing that; unlike money, her pride was in good supply.

            A rumble and shudder ran its way through the station, and Elisabeth wondered what big vehicle was on its way through the area; a semi, perhaps.  No one else looked up.  She sighed again and looked down judicially at her scuffed oxfords, making a mental note to get them detailed when she had a spare twenty or so.  The shoes were her all-purpose wear, fit for urban hiking, working white-collar or blue-collar jobs, and in a pinch, beating a swift retreat. 

            The rumble came again, stronger this time, and a few people blinked around warily before returning to their business.  An earthquake, perhaps.  Gotta love California, Elisabeth thought.  An earthquake here is like a tornado back home.

            No, not home.  Not anymore. 

            Just as she was about to sigh for the umpteenth time, Elisabeth caught sight of a familiar boxy shape heaving into the bus station:  the bus, at last.  She gathered her pack and jacket; and an even stronger rumble sat her back down before she could even properly stand up.  There were a few yelps from the other people in the station.  She looked up.  The overhang didn’t look like the safest place to be; she heaved her pack onto one shoulder, picked up her jacket, and dug out her ticket.

            To her surprise, the bus driver not only let her on, but also appeared not the least perturbed that the earth was rocking gently beneath them.  Elisabeth lurched her way up the steps and found a seat near the back of the bus.  Probably this move was stupidity at its finest, she thought, but at the moment she felt she had very little to lose.

            The rumbling and rocking stopped.

            Other people wandered their way onto the bus.  By the time the driver picked up his mike, the seats were perhaps a third occupied.  Elisabeth liked this proportion.  It gave her room to spread out.  She began to do so, just as the intercom droned, “This is Bus 17, stopping at….” and a list of destinations.  Preparatory to writing, Elisabeth pulled out her notebook and found the first empty page, not listening to the intercom.  She then dug around and drew out her CD player and headphones.  Notebook, half a bag of peanut M&M’s from her pocket, and tunes; and the bus was moving.

 

*

 

Miles later Elisabeth looked over from her notebook out the window.  There was nothing much to see, but some of the buildings sweeping by seemed to indicate that a town was coming up.  Western suburbia, here I come, she thought, and returned to her writing.  She was playing with notes for a sonnet, thinking wistfully of rain (it hadn’t rained in a long while), and doodling in the margins.  She was almost of a mind to give up on the sonnet for the time being and dig out old Lord Peter from her backpack.

            In the end, she did neither, but stared mindlessly at the page, clicking her pen with the rhythm of the bus and making the older man in the seat across from her narrow his eyes disapprovingly. 

She didn’t see the sign for the town flash by the window.

            In good time the bus trundled to a stop at an indolent station, and Elisabeth debated briefly whether to get off or stay on.  The older man was glaring now, she noticed, and a town or two later would probably speak rudely to her.  Life was too short for that.  Elisabeth packed up quickly and heaved her way off the bus.

            Once out on the street beyond the bus station, she skipped a little, hitching up her heavy pack on her shoulders, and moved into her usual deliberate stride, checking out the establishments as she passed them:  a few coffee bars, a drycleaners, some fashion shops…novelties, antiques…a row of restaurants.  It appeared to be a college town, judging from the persistent color scheme, the cuisines, and the novelty offerings; and probably the college was nearby.  Elisabeth felt lucky; where there was college there was temporary work, and where there was temporary work, there were opportunities to lay in a store of cash for a while.  Peering down a side street, she spied the stately buildings that surely marked the beginning of campus; she would venture that way when she had explored—well, food.  She was hungry.  A vending-machine cinnamon roll and half a pack of peanut M&M’s were not enough to hold her through an entire day. 

            A new intersection, a new load of possibilities.  Elisabeth thought; Chinese? or Mexican? or that hamburger place across the way?  And were the prices reasonable, or was she going to have to find a McDonald’s?

            She struck off down the new street, eyeing the stores.  She was contemplating hamburgers when she noticed the quaint sign across the street and stopped, shifting unconsciously aside to allow others to pass her.  A magic shop.  A magic shop, with a shadowy promise of old books.

            Elisabeth was an age-old follower of Erasmus’s dictum: buy books first, buy food and clothing second.  She crossed the street, jaywalking confidently, and peered in the shop window, which seemed to be obscured not by dirt but by some sort of aged tarnish.  What she saw was inviting enough that she opened the door and stepped inside, under the slight jangle of a bell. 

            Elisabeth looked around her, her sight adjusting from the sunny brilliance outside to the relative dimness in the shop.  There was no one in sight, except a shadowy figure lurking about the herb canisters.  She ignored him (or her) and examined the shelf nearest her:  a collection of talismans, globes, and other gizmos, marked with strange symbols and carrying a scent—of what, she could not put her finger on. 

            It was the books she’d come to see, but she allowed the store to draw her slowly about, uncovering its wares to her, though she hardly understood them.  The shadowy figure (a woman, she realized) moved aside politely so that she could also examine the contents of the herb canisters, all of which were neatly labeled in a block, slightly stylized hand.  Elisabeth was not a New Ager herself, but she could tell that this merchandise was being seriously marketed—but for what, she could not imagine.  Witchcraft was a dream of the past; surely these people knew that.  Surely the proprietors of this store were not knowingly bilking these people of their money, selling them herbs and orbs that would do nobody any real good.  She sighed.  It was time to find the books.

            A man—the clerk, Elisabeth guessed—shifted a box beyond a half-open curtain at the back as she passed it heading for the book section.  And here she struck gold.  An octavo herbarium, Renaissance-vintage, found itself in her hands almost before she could think—so casually, as if these things were sold every day in a corner shop.  The binding was poor, but original…Elisabeth shelved it reverently after leafing through it, and picked up a 1910’s reprint of a book of—what looked like poems, but could have been spells.  Shabby paperback journals of forgotten scholarship on the supernatural; a badly-mauled Trianon Press William Blake without the slipcase (what a shame, she thought), cheek-by-jowl with what looked like an old library copy of Ellis and Yeats’ 3-volume treatment of the mad engraver; three oversize histories of magic with crumbling leather bindings of uncertain colors; and—she gasped—sandwiched in between two faded paperbacks of children’s tales, a cloth-bound, gold-leaf Victorian collection of fairy tales.  In marvellous condition.  With color plates, all intact, including the tissue guardpapers. 

            Hands trembling, Elisabeth checked the price: and drew in an ecstatic breath.  A man moved into her peripheral vision, but she gave him only a glance, long enough to identify him as the clerk she’d seen earlier.  He sniffed, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and straightened some books between a pair of bookends at the other end of the row.  Then disappeared she knew not where; she had eyes again only for her book. 

            Because it was already hers: a painless link to the past, a delicious entrance to another world, a secret entrance she had found long ago.  Before she could even think, she found herself at the counter, laying the book reverently atop the glass and already digging in her pockets for her wallet.  She had forgotten all about the ethics of buying from crooked purveyors of useless “magic” goods.

            “Will this be all?”  The clerk had—well, magically—appeared behind the counter and taken up her purchase to examine it.  “Very good choice.”

            His accent, she noted absently as she dug deeper in her jacket pocket, was Oxbridge, slightly rough around the edges.  Of course it was.  What else would you find in strange magic shops with battered Blakes but a washed-up don, or a librarian-antiquarian from the upper reaches of British academe?

            “This is embarrassing,” she muttered to him.  “I’m trying to find my wallet.”

            She didn’t look up at him exactly, but she could sense the movement when he cocked his head patiently.  Probably she wasn’t the weirdest customer he got in here. 

            But other problems were claiming her attention.  Her wallet was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t in any of her pockets, or her jacket pockets, or the umpteen places you could tuck things into her pack.  Exasperated, she let the backpack fall to the floor with a dusty thump and looked up, opening her mouth to begin negotiations for putting the damned book on layaway—of all the times for her wallet to disappear—but then she caught sight of the man’s face for the first time, and her mouth froze open in silence.

            Oh my God.  She didn’t speak it, but the words sprang from every pore in a sudden cold sweat.  Trembling, she tore her eyes from the ex-librarian’s face to snatch at a Wicca leaflet sliding off a pile of its sisters on the glass counter.  Turned it over, looking for the address.  A phone number, an unfamiliar street name, and in small sober letters:  Sunnydale, CA.

            Her throat was dry.  “Oh my God,” she uttered.  “I’m in—Sunnydale—”

            “Yes….” the man said, patiently.  Her eyes flew back to him.

            “And you’re…” —she grimaced fearfully up at him, hoping he’d deny it— “Mr. Giles?”

            He frowned, adjusted his glasses to peer at her; and her hope was lost.  “Do I know you?”

            “Of course not,” she said.  And tumbled heavily, awkwardly, into a heap on the floor, her chin narrowly missing the edge of the glass counter as she went down.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus – Chapter 2

by L. Inman

 

Her glasses were crooked on her face.  And her head was placed at a crooked angle.  She was lying on something hard and uneven, and when she opened her eyes, she thought the ceiling was crooked too.  There was an urgent British voice in the background speaking into a phone, a slightly familiar voice.  Whoever’s there, she thought, turn the damned TV off.  My head hurts.

            “My head hurts,” she mumbled aloud, her voice thick in her own ears.

            “Just a moment,” said the distracted voice, and suddenly there was that face again, looming from above.  She cried out and tried to ward him out of her sight, but her hands weren’t obeying her yet, and all she succeeded in doing was to startle the Giles-face into an even deeper look of concerned chagrin.  “Good,” he said, his voice still distracted, “you’re coming round.”

            To her relief he disappeared again and went back to the phone.  “Yes, it’s a…an interesting situation.  I’d appreciate your input, if you have the time….Yes…yes…right away…thanks, Willow….”

            Willow.  Elisabeth’s vision swam again.  Surely she was dreaming.  That was it; she’d fallen asleep at the bus station and was dreaming about characters from….

            “My head hurts,” she groaned again, struggling to identify her surroundings and sit up at the same time.

            The Giles-man turned from his conversation on the phone to put out an arresting hand.  “No—no—don’t try to get up yet…yes, she’s awake…I—I’ll see you soon.  Yes.  Goodbye.”

            He hung up and faced round to her again.  “Here,” he said, and moved quickly out of her vision, to return with a glass bouncing three-quarters full with water.  “Here, take this.”  He reached out a hand to guide her, but pulled it back as she sat up on the packing cartons and put out a numb hand for the glass.  He crouched awkwardly before her, watching her face.  “I’m dreaming,” she told him firmly, and pulled deeply at the water. 

            “Dreaming what?” he said.

            “This,” she said, gesturing with the glass and slopping water on her hand and on his shoe.  “You.”

            “Steady,” he said, watching the glass’s movements.

            “This is a dream,” she informed him.  “Sunnydale isn’t real.  I couldn’t really be here.”

            He blinked.  “How do you know that?”

            “How do I know that?”  Her eyes were beginning to smart.  “Because it’s a figment of a man’s imagination—it’s all—fairy tales—”  She took another drink of water, to hide her growing tears.

            “Steady,” Giles said again.  “Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out soon.”

            “You don’t understand.”  She shook her wobbling head.  “You’re not real.  Unless…unless I’m not real…my backpack—”

            She reached convulsively for it, lying forlornly near her feet where Giles had presumably dropped it after bringing her back here to recover.  She pushed the water back into Giles’s hand and tore into it, opening all the pockets and dumping it out onto the floor of the back room.  Clothing, some of it dirty and sealed in Ziploc bags, tumbled out, along with a scattering of pens, makeup, coins, CDs, and paperback books.  Her notebook.  Her notebook, which—she fanned the pages—was empty but for the scribblings she’d done while on the bus to Sunnydale.  None of her books had her name in them anymore, or her CDs.  The flap of her pack, which should have had a card insert bearing an ancient address scrawled in ballpoint pen, was bare. 

            As if following a different track through the woods to the same destination, Giles asked, “What is your name?”

            “Elisabeth,” she said.  “Elisabeth…but what’s my last name?  I don’t remember!”  Real panic closed her throat for a dizzying moment.

            “Steady,” Giles said for the third time, and she rounded on him.

            “No, I won’t be steady.  I’m in Sunnydale, and my name seems to have disappeared, and I’m discussing it with Rupert Giles, and you don’t seem to understand that this is a very big problem for me.”  She turned again and rooted desperately in her now-empty backpack for some scrap of paper with her name on it, but predictably, no such thing materialized.

            Giles opened his mouth again, but she headed him off:  “So no, I’m not going to be steady.  In fact, I feel perfectly justified in freaking completely out.”  Her words sped so fast they blurred.

            “Slow down, please,” Giles said.  “The only thing is to take this one thing at a time.  Where did you come from?”

            She straightened her glasses and glared at him.  “You know, I hadn’t considered how irritating a Rupert Giles might be in the actual flesh.  I mean, not as bad a prat as Wesley, but my God—”

            He opened his mouth again, whether to express wonder or indignation she could not quite tell, but she was on a roll anyway, and she plowed on:

            “And you needn’t get all offended, because either I’m your dream or you’re mine, and one of us is going to wake up soon, and this won’t be happening anymore.”

            “Now just hang on a minute!” For a moment they glared at each other silently, Elisabeth breathing hard, Giles burying a hand in his hair.  “You know, it’s quite possible that you are from another dimension and have strayed somehow into this one.  We could both be real, you know.”  He saw her shut her eyes and begin to shake her head, and hurried on before she could protest.  “Consider it.  Consider it as a logical possibility, however improbable.”  Giles noticed he was still holding the water glass and set it down at their feet.  “You say that in your world, Sunnydale is a fairy tale.”

            “In a manner of speaking.”

            “Then there was a point at which you crossed over from where it was mythic to where it was factual.”

            Elisabeth willed herself to breathe slowly.  “All my identification is missing.”

            “Then let’s not start there.  Where were you before you came to Sunnydale?”

            “On a bus…at a bus station.  This morning.”

            “Did you notice anything strange during that time?”

            “Well, no…nothing, really.  Except for the little earthquake.”

            “What little earthquake?”

            “The one that rocked the bus station just as the bus came.”

            “What was the bus number?”

            Elisabeth thought hard.  “17, I think.”

            Giles got up and went to the phone again.  He looked in the battered phone book on the desk and dialed.  “Yes…I’d like to know at what time Bus 17 arrived in Sunnydale this…” he glanced at her—she mouthed “afternoon”— “…afternoon.  Yes, I’ll hold….Are you sure?...You’re certain?...Any other—really.  Well, yes, yes thank-you-very-much….Goodbye.”  He put the phone down and turned back to Elisabeth.  “According to their records, no buses at all have arrived yet this afternoon.  And they have no record of a Bus 17 route.”

            Elisabeth was thinking now.  “But if the bus was my ticket to another dimension—and I’m not totally accepting that premise yet, mind you—wouldn’t it be tied in the Sunnydale dimension, rather than my own?”

            “Not,” Giles said, “if there was a—a sort of hazy period in which you and the bus were neither strictly here nor there.  It’s possible that you came down in this dimension and the bus remained in yours….”

            “—And it wasn’t complete until I stepped off the bus.  The Schrodinger effect.  Well.”  Elisabeth blinked thoughtfully.

            “Schrodinger.  Yes, exactly.”

            “And here I am.”  Elisabeth swallowed hard, remembered the water, and reached down for the glass.

            Giles was pacing now.  “But that still doesn’t explain why, if Sunnydale is a fairy tale in your dimension, you are still able to recognize me by sight.”  He paused to look at her; but Elisabeth kept her eyes on the rim of her glass, drinking.

            “Elisabeth,” he said, after a silence.

            She put the glass down and stared miserably at the floor.  “It’s…a modern version of the fairy tale…I—oh, I don’t want to explain it.”

            Even without looking at him she could feel the palpable disapproval of his stare at her.  “I will,” she said quickly, “I will explain it.  I know, I have to.  But just—just let me shovel my brains together…please?”  She worked her fingers up under her glasses and rubbed unmercifully at her eyes.

            His voice, when it came, was gentler.  “Well, we’ll be able to get further, I’m sure, when the others get here.”

            Elisabeth’s head jerked up, her glasses falling askew again.  “The others?  I thought it was just Willow.”

            “Well, she’s bringing whoever can come at the moment.”

            “No.”  Elisabeth held up her palms.  “No no no.  Dealing with one of you is hard enough.  I can’t deal with all of you at once.  No Xander, no Anya, and especially not Buffy.”

            Giles blinked in wonder, and opened his mouth, but asked instead, cocking his head: “Why not Buffy, in particular?”

            Elisabeth gestured vaguely.  “Because she…because she’s—Buffy.  She’s going to freak, and that will only inspire me to greater heights of freaking.  Not to mention she’s likely to want to stake me first and ask me questions later.”

            He frowned.  “Well, you may be misjudging Buffy a little bit.  I mean, she’s not entirely so precipitate as all that….”  He trailed off, frowning.  Then he turned his frown to her.

            Elisabeth sighed.  “Yes, I got there a second before you, amazingly.  There’s nothing here to prove I’m not a Big Bad of some sort, here to befuddle you….”

            Giles looked at her.  Then said, “Well, even if you’re only a Little Bad, we’re not going to mistreat you.”

            “Oh no,” she said, suddenly remorseful, “I didn’t mean—I didn’t mean that.”  She caught the little touch of humor in his lips and relaxed somewhat.  But then she remembered that she would have to Explain soon, and leaned her head back against the wall, trying to breathe evenly.

            She didn’t have much time to collect herself before the curtain billowed aside and Xander erupted into the room.  “So what’s the deal, Giles? where’s the fire?  Willow said—”  He paused, trying to make something of Giles’s sketchy attempts to gesture him into quiet.  But Giles’s efforts were too little too late:  Elisabeth groaned and put her head down between her knees.

            Giles raised his eyes to heaven and took off his glasses.  “For God’s sake, Xander, try to have a little delicacy.  We have a person here who needs calm and quiet till we figure out what’s going on.” 

            “Oh,” Xander said, noticing Elisabeth in her bent-double position.  “Sorry.  Willow said a stranger showed up who knew you.”

            “Yes, yes,” Giles said impatiently, “and it appears she knows you too.  When Willow gets here I’ll explain more.”

            It didn’t take long for Willow to get there.  Like Xander, she hurried in talking at full steam.  “I got here as soon as I could, Giles.  And I brought a few things for you to look at.”  She dumped a heavy backpack on the floor, raising a faint cloud of dust.  Elisabeth raised her head enough to look at it longingly:  its every corner declared its owner—unlike her own, whose bulges and pockets seemed to be losing their significance with every passing moment in this dimension.

            “Are we expecting anyone else, Willow?” Giles asked.

            “Buffy,” Willow said.  “But she had an errand to run first.”

            “Brilliant,” Elisabeth said under her breath.

            “Well—in any case—” Giles gestured with his glasses in Elisabeth’s direction.  “Xander—Willow—this is Elisabeth.  I believe she already knows you.”

            Xander waved, and Willow smiled—familiar gestures that left Elisabeth barely able to nod.  “Hi,” Willow said.

            Elisabeth wet her lips.  “Hi,” she croaked.

            “What did you bring me?” Giles asked.

            “I brought you…” Willow laced her fingers and glanced nonchalantly at Elisabeth, “…those books you asked for.”

            “Good.  If you’d….” Giles waved his glasses at a nearby table piled with books and papers, then put them on.  Willow knelt to get the books out of her pack.  “When Buffy gets here, we’ll get into that,” Giles said, looking about distractedly.  His gaze finally lit on a curled and beat-up legal pad; he picked it up and began rooting about for a pen.  Elisabeth picked up one of her own from the floor and silently held it up to him.  “Ah, thank you.”  He clicked it and began scribbling on the legal pad.  Then he looked up.  “Right, there you are, Buffy.”

            Sure enough, Buffy had arrived.  She moved through the doorway, dumping her backpack next to Willow’s.  “Yes,” she said dryly, “I’m here.  Let the fun begin.”  At that moment she spied Elisabeth breathing deeply and gripping her knees, and said, “Who’s that?”

            “That,” Giles said, scribbling again on his pad, “is an item on our agenda.  Her name is Elisabeth.”

            “Oh,” Buffy said.  “Hi.”

            Elisabeth pulled one shaky hand loose from her knee and used it to make a feeble wave.

            “We’re not certain,” Giles went on, “but we think we’ve determined she’s from another dimension; one in which we exist only as fairy tales.”

            Buffy wrinkled her nose.  “You mean, in some other world we’re a bunch of funny drawings in some moldy books?”

            Elisabeth sucked in her lips to avoid a smile, and shook her head, mainly to herself.

            “Elisabeth was just going to explain the nature of these fairy tales to us,” Giles said, glancing levelly up from his notepad at her.  Elisabeth shrank under his gaze for a moment, but drew in a breath and searched for a beginning.

            “I…well, you know that these days, most stories have a visual element to them,” she said shakily.  “It’s not so much about the written word anymore, and more about the power of an image.”

            “More’s the pity,” Giles muttered.

            “So any fairy tale with punch these days,” Elisabeth said, “is usually disseminated in picture form.”

            “We’re a comic book!” Xander said, grinning.  “Cool.”

            “No….”  Elisabeth shifted miserably in her seat.  “Sunnydale, and all of you, are part of a television series.”

            Giles pushed up his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.  Xander blinked.  Willow looked around wide-eyed.

            “We’re a TV show?” Buffy yelped.

            Elisabeth sighed.  “Complete with actors, props, and a creator-mastermind.”

            “Let me get this straight—”  But Xander cut Buffy off.

            “Who plays me?  It’s not some boy-toy, is it?”

            Elisabeth shook her head.  “It’s not like that.  Up till thirty minutes ago, the guy who plays you was more real than you are.”

            “In her dimension,” Giles elaborated, “the actors are us—or I should say—we are merely a script…is that right?”

            Elisabeth put her fingertips to her brow and shut her eyes tight.

            “But if they look just like us—” Xander mused—

            “You see why I’m having trouble with this,” Elisabeth said from behind her hands.  “I’m expecting to wake up any moment now.”

            “This is wild,” Willow said.

            “This is fascinating,” Giles said.

            “This is ridiculous,” Buffy said.  “A TV show?  Giles.  It’s—it’s—”

            “Ludicrous?” Elisabeth supplied, her head in her hands.

            “Exactly.”  Buffy whirled from her to Giles again.  “No dimension could be that stupid.  This has to be a trick of some kind.”

            “Where I come from,” Elisabeth muttered, “most people’d say the same thing about this dimension.”

            “What?” Buffy snapped at her.

            Elisabeth shook her head without looking up.

            “Now—hold on a minute,” Giles said, glancing between them.  “We don’t want to freak completely out.”

            “Freak out?” Buffy repeated.  “Giles, the last time you said that you’d been hitting the band candy.”

            Giles blushed.  Elisabeth sucked in another smile, but not before Buffy caught her at it.  “What?”

            “So that really happened, did it?” Elisabeth said, unable to stop the smile anymore.  “Man, that was a funny episode.  One of my favorites, actually.”

            “What was so funny about the band candy adventure?” Xander said.  Willow hushed him.  “Not in front of Giles,” she whispered.  Giles turned a basilisk stare on her.

            “Or at all, I should hope,” he said, his color still high.  “I’m with Xander—I fail to see anything funny about what happened then.”  He turned to Elisabeth, glaring.  “And you’re telling me that these occurrences in our lives have been made into stories for the consumption of the general public, who don’t even read?”  His voice sharpened into a near-shriek.

            “Actually,” Elisabeth said, “a large contingent of Buffy viewers are academics.  Who do read.  After a fashion.  I used to be one of them.”

            “It figures the show would be named after Buffy,” Xander pouted.

            “This is out of control,” Elisabeth groaned.

            “I agree,” Buffy said.  “Which is why you’d better tell us what you’re doing here.”

            “Now—” Giles began, but Buffy halted him with a raised hand, still looking at Elisabeth.

            Elisabeth looked from her, to Willow perched on the edge of a table, to Xander straddling a chair, to Giles standing with arms crossed over his notepad.  Then she looked up to heaven.  “It’d be awfully convenient if I could faint again just now,” she said.

            Buffy folded her arms.  “Too bad.”

            “I have to pee?” she tried.

            Only Willow looked sympathetic.

            “I don’t know how I got here,” she faltered at last.  “I don’t know what this is about.  I don’t even know my own name anymore.  I don’t have any proof that my story is true…maybe in my own dimension I got killed or something—” she shied away from that thought— “maybe…I don’t know.  I don’t.” 

            “It’s just crazy enough to be true,” Xander said.

            Giles agreed.  “I certainly can’t think of a more bizarre situation.”

            “Magic doesn’t even happen in my world,” Elisabeth said.  “Well, people say it does, but I’ve never seen it.  Logically, I suppose that if technology can exist, then magic can—in theory…I—”  She looked down at her shoes.  At the scuffs on the toes: and then her vision warped, and she saw her own shoes, with her feet in them, lying sideways on a dark ground, with cries echoing around her.  She glanced up, and saw two things at once:  Buffy staring a hole in her, and a cloud of darkness too thick with worry and anguish to be real.  Then she couldn’t see Buffy at all.  She heard her own voice:  What?  What is this?  I can’t…help me.  And then her voice ended, drowned by a buzz of other voices, which rose and dimmed in a rhythm like a lurching ship.  I’m going to be sick, she said—

            There was the room once more:  it had fallen crooked again, and her vision picked out the people in the gloom, all in poses half of hesitation and half of concern toward her.  A hand was gripping her upper arm, bracing her partially upright; she realized that the hand was Giles’s hand, and the room was crooked because her head was listing heavily to that side.  Light grew in the room, and her eyes cleared enough that she could look over at the ex-librarian.

            “I’d say,” Giles said dryly, “that Schrodinger is not quite done with you yet.”

 

*

 

Xander said:  “Who’s Schrodinger?”

Giles rolled his eyes.

            “A theorist,” Elisabeth mumbled, “who did work on the nature of time and destiny.”

            “So let me guess,” Xander said.  “This Schrodinger guy is behind all these things?  The surge of vamp activity, and the chop suey of dimensions?”

            “I wouldn’t say Schrodinger had much to do with any surges in vampire activity,” Giles said.  “Just with—”

            “With trying to deal,” Elisabeth said.

            “Well, I’m all for that,” Buffy said.  “What do we do?”

            “There’s very little we can do at the moment,” Giles said, “except to research the possible causes of the increased activity and, possibly, look for an explanation for Elisabeth’s presence in this dimension.”

            “Those books I brought you should help with the vamps,” Willow said, “but they may not help you with the other thing.  I’ll go and see what I can dig up on dimension-crossing.”

            “I’ll go with Willow.  Anya may know something that will help.”

            Willow and Xander packed up and left together without much ado, leaving Buffy and Giles to look at one another over Elisabeth’s listing head.

            “So what do we do in the meantime?” Buffy asked him.

            Giles drew a long, thoughtful breath.  “Well…I think I’ll finish interviewing Elisabeth and making notes.  And—I think it’ll be best if I take her home with me tonight, since you’ll have extra patrolling duties.”

            “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open,” Buffy said, and hoisted her backpack.  “See you later.”  The curtain billowed gently as she went out.

            The room was quiet, except for the clock on the wall.  Elisabeth gathered herself enough to sit up without Giles’s help.  He released her and went to pick up his notepad and pen.  “Now,” he said softly, “let me make a note of the times for our reference, while it’s still somewhat fresh in your mind.  You were to catch the bus at what time this morning?”

            “10:40,” Elisabeth said.  “But the bus was late.”

            “How late?”

            “I…don’t know.  I think it was half an hour when the quakes started.”

            “So then…” Giles made the notes on his pad, still crouched on the floor:  “11:10 or thereabouts, the 3rd September 2000….”

            “Three,” she corrected him.

            “Three what?”

            “2003.”

            There was a silence while their eyes met.

            “Ohhh,” she murmured.

            “Yes?”

            “How could I have forgotten?  Of course it’s 2000 here.  The magic shop….”

            Giles frowned deeply.  “Are you telling me,” he said, “that your knowledge of the stories is three years ahead of what is happening right now?”

            She gripped her knees hard.  “Yes.”

            His gaze on hers was nothing to trifle with.  “I think that that is a piece of information that we would do well to keep quiet for the time being.”

            She nodded.

            He sighed and glanced around.  “It’s time to be going home.  Can you walk?”

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus – Chapter 3

by L. Inman

 

It was passing strange to ride in Giles’s car through the streets of Sunnydale, the movements of the car responding to his hands on the wheel; it was stranger still to arrive at his home, to get out and heft one’s backpack and follow him through the courtyard to a very familiar door; and strangest of all to walk in past his ushering hand, into a room she knew well—and somehow knew not at all.

            She didn’t know she had stopped until he nudged her awkwardly so that he could come in after her.  “Familiar to you?” he asked.

            “Yes,” she said.  She walked forward, looking slowly around.  Yes, it was familiar: stained glass lamps, dark wood, bookshelves and all; and it was new: there was a faint scent of old cooking, mixed with that of incense, cleaning fluid—and the pervading influence of the books: like the white page, containing all the text.  Books were a scent she knew well; Elisabeth followed her nose to a shelf by the window and ran a finger down the spine of a cracked leather binding from the seventeenth century.  The book was well-cared-for, as she expected:  her touch drew only a faint stain.  She rubbed it off on her thumb and looked round at him.  He had been watching her, and he took his gaze away to go into the kitchen.  His voice came from out of her view.  “You were an academic, you said?”

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said, finding a spot on the couch to curl up and watch him through the breakfast bar.  “Anything to do with books, I’ve done a little of.  Librarianship public and private; research; academia; bookstores...jack of all trades and master of none, as they say.”

            “Indeed,” Giles said.  His back was to her, and she couldn’t tell from his tone what his state of mind was.  “Would you care for some tea?”

            Her stomach groaned audibly.  “Tea.  Yes.  Please.  And—Giles?”

            He glanced over his shoulder.  “Yes?”

            “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but—I’m starving.  Can there be something substantial to go with the tea?”

            She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was that humorous timbre to his reply:  “I think that can be arranged.”

            “Thank you,” she breathed.

            True to his word, Giles supplied her with a tray all her own, complete with a pot of tea (and a mismatched, Oriental handleless mug), a pile of shortbread cookies, and a generous slice of cold quiche.  Elisabeth demolished the quiche and half the cookies in short order, took the first cup of very hot tea too quickly, and finally sat back with the last bit of shortbread and her second cup, munching, sipping, and nursing her burnt palate.

            She found him watching her again, seated in a chair across from her perch on the couch, nursing his own mug of tea.  You could almost hear the precise workings of his brain: clickety-clickety, like an abacus, behind the glint of his glass-rims. 

            “So...may I ask where you were headed, if not to Sunnydale?” he said.

            She shrugged.  “Anywhere.  I’ve been playing the itinerant while I still have some youth in me.”  She dared a glance at his eyes, was relieved to find no judgment there.  “I pick someplace and stay there for a while, take a job of some sort, earn some money, keep my bills current...and move on when it looks like a good time to do so.  I’ve been moving faster in the past six months or so; it’s only taken a year for me to work my way down here from Seattle.”

            “So you’re not from California originally.”

            “No.”

            He waited a beat, then asked:  “Where are you from?”

            “Oh, the Midwest.  Land of Quiet Desperation.  I lit out after staying far too long; decided I wanted to live the life of Thoreau.”

            “Or Siddhartha,” Giles said. 

It was a bit too close to the bone for Elisabeth: she cleared her throat and looked away at the bookshelves, sipping deeply at her tea. 

The silence thinned to a fine torture while she studied the books on the shelves and he studied her face.  When she could bear it no longer, she looked at him and said abruptly, “Thank you for the tea.”

“You’re quite welcome,” he said, dropping his eyes to his cup.  Then he drew a breath and said, “Well, since you’re going to stay here till we figure out what to do, you should—perhaps—have a little tour? just so you know where things are? unless—”

“A tour would be fine.”  Elisabeth got up as quickly as he did, and to cover it, took up her tray from the coffee table.  “I’ll take this in.”

“I should do that,” he said.

“No, I’ll—It’ll give me an opportunity to see the kitchen.”

“Right...right.”

The kitchen was...Giles’s kitchen.  Elisabeth wanted to ask him if the ancient fridge worked by magic—she had always wondered that—but her tongue had somehow become a small warm stone in her mouth, and it refused to move.  She straightened her glasses and listened to Giles’s stammering docent act:  “Right...the uh, the pantry through there...pots and pans in this cabinet, dishes and glasses in that one.  Refrigerator.  Sink....Do remember, you’re welcome to help yourself to food if you’re—ah—starving again.”

Elisabeth nodded, and found herself blurting:  “When I was in high school I had this babysitting gig once, and the girl’s father and mother both told me repeatedly that I could eat anything in the kitchen that didn’t bite back.”

Giles blinked at her.

Elisabeth dug her nails hard into her other palm.  “I found it unnerving, myself.”

Giles blinked some more, and said:  “Yes.  I would think—I would think you would.  Ah...the lavatory is this way.”  He gestured with his glasses, and she followed him to peep duly into the bathroom.  Neither of them felt like lingering in that doorway, so they found themselves quickly back in the living area, where Giles stammered valiantly on:  “The books.  You’re welcome to all the books you can read while you’re here—”  He broke off.  “Elisabeth....”

“Yes?”

She watched the words forming in his face while he held up his finger to gain time.  “I...I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve just realized...there are some books here that I cannot let you read.”

It was her turn to blink.  “Of course,” she said after a beat.

“You understand?”

She nodded.

He drew a breath of relief.  “Good.  While I’m thinking of it, let me...gather a few....”  He duckwalked about the room, picking up books and putting them back down; keeping a few; muttering to himself.  When at last he had accumulated a sizable pile of mismatched volumes, he wrangled the books over to a shelf and used the flat of one hand to push aside a scattered collection of figurines, talismans, and a variegated orb.  Elisabeth jumped to help him, lining up the figurines at the farthest edge to give his books the most possible room; but when she reached for the orb, he said, “Don’t...touch that—” —and she backed off penitently and let him finish the job himself.

He stood back and looked at his handiwork, then turned to her.  “There.  I—well, to the best of my knowledge that’s—all the books you shouldn’t read.  The other ones, of course, are open to hospitality.”  He smiled nervously.

She smiled back.  “And the Lord God said to them, ‘You may eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden, but of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for on that day you shall surely die.’  I get it.  I mustn’t read from those books, or I’ll die.”

He said:  “Well—you might not die from reading the books, but—I might be forced to kill you.”

She started a quiet laugh.

“I wasn’t, you know, strictly joking.”

“I know,” she said.  “That’s why I’m laughing.”

“Well—then—this situation being irregular—as so many of them seem to be,” he uttered in parenthesis, rolling his eyes— “—I ought to lay down a few ground rules for you, as you are new to Sunnydale—though I realize it seems strange to lay down rules for a guest—”

“Giles...what are the rules?”

“Right.  Well...I must caution you not to invite anyone in unless I’m there and say it’s okay.”

She gave him a look.  “Giles...are you familiar with the phrase, ‘No shit, Sherlock’?”  Giles opened his mouth, but she went on:  “Well, I can’t think why you wouldn’t be, it’s been in circulation since before the twentieth century—but anyway—don’t worry about the door, Giles, I won’t let anybody in, unless they offer me some candy.”

He gave her a level stare.  “Come on,” she said, “that was funny.”  When he didn’t respond, she gave up and said, “Are there any more rules?”

“Perhaps I should just let you figure out what they are.”  He gave her the ironic smile.

Elisabeth shrugged, returning the smile.  “That’s what I usually do.”

 

 

*

 

A number of books later, Elisabeth took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes.  Her eyelids felt oily and hot to the touch, but she pretended not to see the significance of that—that and the nausea which was gathering in her throat: always a bad sign.  It didn’t have to escalate; it probably wouldn’t.

            Giles was cooking supper in the kitchen.  At the moment, he had something sizzling furiously on the stove, and the steam was rising, changing the light in the kitchen.  Elisabeth stopped looking that way; her vision was blurred enough.  She put her glasses back on and tried to concentrate on the page, but gave up after a moment and went to put the book back in its place.  Instead of reaching for another, she squatted down to look at his collection of LPs, flipping them one at a time like index cards on their shelf.  She didn’t expect to recognize most of them, and she didn’t—she had been neither alive nor in Britain in the early seventies, and retro classic rock was not her poison.  She did, however, find a clutch of Bachs, a Mozart Requiem, and, shoved at the back, an album of famous arias.  Elisabeth was pretty sure that the LPs, like the orb, were things Giles wouldn’t want her to touch, especially the ones that belonged to his groovy past.  She laid the LPs back the way she had found them, stretched wearily to her feet, and went to find the bathroom.

            In the bathroom, with the door closed, the sounds of Giles’s labors in the kitchen were muted.  Elisabeth finished, went to the tap, and washed her hands of book grime.  Remembering that she had used those dirty hands to rub her eyes, she broke one of her rules and looked in the mirror: and sighed.  Shaking her head, she took off her glasses, turned the tap full on, and scrubbed roughly at her face.  Then took her hair down from its straggling ponytail and scraped it back into a semblance of order before putting it up again.  She surveyed the result.  Her face had that look, the one she didn’t like to see: that look of almost-beautiful intensity, the buoyant moment before the rollercoaster plunges.  Her pupils were too narrow, and the very hazel color of the irises seemed scattered. 

            “Shake it off, Elisabeth,” she told her reflection, and reached for her glasses.

            When she came into the kitchen, Giles was pushing vegetables around in a large sauté pan, the sleeves of his sweater pushed up and his glasses slipping down.  He gave her a glance.  “Hello.” 

            “Hi.”  She wandered to the counter and stood watching him, arms crossed.  “Is this the mooted stir fry?”

            “Yes.”

            “Looks good.”

            “H’m.”

            She stood there and watched the vegetables turn over under his spatula.  She pretended not to notice the small peeks he was taking at her face, until he said:

            “You all right?”

            “Huh?  Oh, yeah.  I’m fine.”

            “Are you sure?  Because you’ve got a funny look in your eyes; and I don’t know you, but—”

            “But it doesn’t look good for the Mudville nine, does it?” Elisabeth sighed, resigned.

            “No.”

            “I’ve been better,” she admitted.  “I’ve also been much worse.”

            “What’s the Mudville nine?” Giles asked.  She looked up with her mouth open, scandalized—and saw that he was giving her a little sideways grin.  She shook her head, smiling.  “You really feed off the cultural difference jokes, don’t you?” she said.

            “A man has to survive somehow,” he said, turning the pan.

            “A time-honored philosophy,” she said, “one that also happens to be my own.”

            “Good,” Giles said abstractedly.  He looked pointedly up at a cabinet.  “Grab me a platter, would you?”

            She opened the cabinet he indicated.  “Like this one?”

            “Yeah.”

 

*

 

Neither of them was very talkative at the dinner table.  Nor was Elisabeth hungry any more; she pushed her stir-fry vegetables around, making a halfhearted attempt to eat them.  She caught Giles looking at her plate and said:

            “It’s not the stir-fry.  It’s my appetite.  It’s troughed again.”

            “Well, you seem to be making a valiant effort.”  But he wasn’t really looking at her.  Instead, he appeared to be staring off at a point somewhere beyond her elbow.

            “Shall I get you your pipe and shag tobacco, Holmes?” Elisabeth said.

            He smiled, but his eyes still didn’t quite focus.  “Thank you, I haven’t enough clues yet.”

            “Tell me about it.”  Elisabeth rolled her eyes.

            It was then that his gaze focused and moved to her eyes, and it occurred to her all at once that besides being herself, Elisabeth was also—was perhaps foremost a conundrum, a “case”, a possible source of difficulty and even evil to him.  He was trying to be kind about it, but nevertheless he was on the alert.  And ready to go on the offensive.  Giles was nobody’s fool.  It was something she’d always liked about his character; but then, she’d never expected to get those probing eyes turned on her.

            She broke their eye contact and looked down at her plate.  “I’m sorry,” she said after a beat, “I’m just not hungry.”  She got up and took her plate into the kitchen, scraped it over the trash, rinsed it in the sink.  Came back to the table and sat down to sip at her water glass.  Giles had meanwhile returned to eating, and for some time she sat and watched him finish his plate.  She couldn’t quite determine whether their silence was awkward…no, it was awkward, but perhaps it wasn’t quite unbearable.

            Giles took his plate into the kitchen and began to wash up.  She debated going in to help, but in the end she remained where she was, wearily staring across the table at Giles’s now-empty chair.  When she heard him turn off the sink taps, she finally got up and went into the kitchen.  He was drying the dishes and stacking them neatly, one by one, in their cabinet.  He glanced over at where she stood in the entryway, arms crossed again.

            “Elisabeth,” he said, “I’m going to have to do some research tonight.  I’m afraid I won’t be much of a host this evening—”

            “Oh, don’t worry about that, I usually prefer to entertain myself anyway—”

            “I trust there will be books enough to keep you busy.”

            “Oh yes.”

            “Good.”  He smiled at her again, but once more she was visited with the notion that he was looking through her rather than at her.

            “D’you need any help?” she asked him, glancing at the pans in the sink.

            “No—no, I’m about through here.”

            “Okay.”  Elisabeth retreated to the main room, to resume her examination of his bookshelves.

 

*

 

As it turned out, watching Giles research was nearly as interesting as dipping into his books.  She had kept quiet so as to make him forget she was there; and her efforts seemed to have met with success, for he was muttering unself-consciously as he flipped pages and made notes.  He stuck a pencil behind his ear, then forgot it was there and dug through his desk for another; he took off his glasses and chewed ruminatively on the earpiece; then, glasses dangling from his teeth, lunged over and reached to take another book from his pile.  She watched surreptitiously as he intently compared the two texts.  “Ah ha!” he said, then, “oops!” as his glasses fell from his lips to clatter on the desk.  He threaded his glasses on, knocking the pencil from behind his ear and startling him.  Elisabeth returned her eyes to her book just in time, as he looked up at her from his bobbling efforts to catch the pencil on its way down to the floor.

            “You may laugh,” he said.

            She gave him a sidelong look, then allowed herself a smile.  “You’ve been having an interesting few minutes.”

            “Well, at least I am serving a dual purpose here.”

            “Oh?”

            “Providing you with entertainment while getting my work done.”

            She smiled again, and returned her attention to her book.  Giles returned to his research.

            It was quiet for a while.  Elisabeth finished browsing that book and went to find another.  She was very pleased; not half an hour ago she had found a cache of actual literature.  Demonologies were all very interesting, but literature was her métier, and a good story would beat a glossary of uglies any day.

            She picked up a battered old hardback reprint of Jane Eyre and flipped through the pages.  Loneliness—Rochester—creepy Thornfield Hall—creepier St. John Rivers….Elisabeth shut the book and put it back. 

            She was stretching as she browsed, when Giles said:  “Elisabeth?”

            She turned.  “Yes?”
            He straightened his glasses to look at her.  “I’m going to be up for a while—quite possibly all night.”  He paused.

            “That doesn’t bother me,” she reassured him.  “I’ll probably be up a long time, too.”

            He shook his head.  “No, I’ve been thinking about it; and I think you had better take my room while you are here.”

            “Oh—” Elisabeth dug her nails into her other palm and tried to draw a calm breath.  “That’s really not necessary.  I have my own blanket and a small pillow, and I can sleep in just about any small space there is.  And I have the books.  I can read all night, and I sleep with the light on anyway.  The couch will be luxury for me—”

            “It’s not,” he interrupted her gently, “strictly a matter of courtesy.”  He waited, eyes on her face, for her to catch his drift.

            She frowned, thinking about it.  There was the obvious, of course, but with Giles it wouldn’t be the obvious.  There was his studious presence downstairs; but if he didn’t want to be interrupted, or spied on, why wouldn’t he have taken her to stay with one of the Scoobies?  —Spied on….Elisabeth stared at him in disbelief.

            “You’re afraid I’ll escape?” she said.  “Where would I go?”

            He didn’t answer, just waited for her to think out the rest of it.

            “Escape,” she thought aloud, “or let in an evil while you’re asleep.  Maybe I’m a spy for some creepy Big Bad like the Mayor.  That’s it, isn’t it?”

            “I’m afraid so,” he said.

            She pursed her lips and frowned back at him.  “Well, I have nothing to prove myself to you with.  But weren’t you the one who said to consider my presence here, and my story, as a logical possibility?”

            “Yes,” he said, “but there is more than one logical possibility.”

            “True,” she said, pursing her lips harder.  “But I don’t want to sleep upstairs.  I don’t want to create any more displacement than I have to.  I’m not just a guest, you’re right—and by that token—I—”  She stopped.

            He stood up, and she recognized his worried thinking-face as he moved round the desk.  When he looked at her she realized that to hope she would not cause him difficulty was to hope the impossible.  She stood still and watched him drift, thinking, about the room.  Finally he stopped, hands in pockets, fixed his gaze on the floor before him, and spoke:

            “I said that we would not mistreat you.  On the other hand, circumstances are—I can’t treat you as a free agent.  Not till I know more.  And, forgive me, but you haven’t exactly been forthcoming about your past and your purposes.”

            She blinked, wide-eyed.  “But I did—I mean, I have.  I told you what I’ve been doing and where I came from—”

            “Yes, the Midwest.”

            “Yes.”  Her spine stiffened.

            “The Midwest, as I recall, is a fairly large region.”

            Her cheeks went hot.  “I’ve just met you.  You’ll excuse me if I don’t trot out my whole biography for your dossier.”

            She didn’t immediately know what made him jerk still, and she was too angry to care.  He moved ahead of her to the window and stood looking out.  She could see him working to breathe calmly. 

            She waited, but he didn’t move.  Abruptly she went over to him, hand out to grasp his shoulder—but just as her hand reached him, he whirled and grasped her hard, and the next thing she knew she was pinned tight against the wall and his taut face was glaring close into hers.  A hot electric flash went through her fingertips.  “Down boy,” she breathed.

            If she hadn’t liked Giles’s probing gaze at the dinner table, it was nothing to how she felt about this.  And judging from the intensity of his glare, he wasn’t about to let her go easily.  She sighed, partly in an attempt to relax.

            “Blunder number one,” she said on a breath, “blindsiding an ex-Watcher.  All right, I—”

            He pinned her tighter, so that now it hurt. 

Elisabeth was getting mad again.

“All right, you don’t have to go all Ripper on my ass—let go—”

This was the wrong thing to say.  She grunted in pain and opened her mouth to protest again, but he cut her off:

“If you are who you say you are,” he said, his voice quiet and rough, “consider this: how unfair it is for you to flaunt your advantage in this fashion.”

My advantage?  Elisabeth’s lips formed the words; but she got no further than that.  As she met his eye, it was gradually becoming clear to her what he meant. 

“Oh,” she whispered finally.

As quickly as he’d grasped her, he let go of her; in the sudden warp of her gravity, she almost wished he’d take hold of her again.  He turned away from her, stalked over to the table, pushed aside the centerpiece.  He went over to a cabinet; when he turned back to face her, she saw that he was holding a bottle of whiskey.  Her shoulders went down, and she hung her head.

“Forgive me,” she said.

He gave her a pointed look, but made no reply.  Instead, he set up the table with the whiskey and—she noticed now—two glass tumblers.  He looked over at her again.  “Let us make a trade, shall we, for my forgiveness.  Sit.”

“You mean,” Elisabeth said shakily, “you’ll forgive me if I let you drink me under the table?  Giles—you should pick something that’s harder to do.”

This earned a little smile from him, but she could tell she wasn’t off the hook yet.

“Sit,” Giles said again.

Still shaking, Elisabeth crossed the room slowly and took her seat across the table from him.  He poured himself a generous measure of whiskey, and (she didn’t know whether to be flattered, encouraged, or unnerved by this) poured her measure as equal as he could make it.  He set the bottle aside, lifted her glass by the rim and set it in front of her.  Took a sip of his own.

“Now,” he said.  “Talk.”

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus – Chapter 4

by L. Inman

 

“Talk,” Elisabeth repeated.  “You mean...oh—talk.  As in, tell you what I know.  About the stories.  About the future.”

            “Are you familiar with the phrase, No shit, Sherlock?”

            Elisabeth rolled her eyes.  “All right, I deserved that.”  She reached for her whiskey, trying to be nonchalant and not betray how much she was still shaking.  She got it to her lips without the liquid wobbling too badly, and took a longish sip.  The burning vapor of the drink billowed through her sinuses and warmed her throat as the whiskey went down.  By the time she set the glass down and licked her lips, she felt steady enough to look him in the eye again.

            His eyebrows were raised above his glasses.  “I thought you said you couldn’t take strong drink.”

            “I didn’t say that,” Elisabeth said.  “I only said I couldn’t take much of it.  I can drink it just fine.  Learned how once when I had a bad cold.”

            Giles made a little facial shrug and waited for her to begin.

            She took another small sip of dutch courage, then laid three fingertips down on the table before her.  “Okay, three ground rules.  Three reasons why I might withhold something from you.”

            He raised an eyebrow but didn’t otherwise protest.  She went on, tapping the table for emphasis at each point.

            “One.  I haven’t seen all the episodes, so I don’t know all the stories.  Two.  I might get on one thread of story and forget something else.  And three:  If I foresee an Oedipus Rex type situation, I won’t tell you about it.”

            He pursed his lips and thought about it.  “Sounds fair.”

            “Okay,” she said.  She drew a breath: opened her mouth: and nothing happened.

            Giles was giving her the smartass look, the one where he laughed at his opponent sardonically from behind his glasses.  “Stop it,” Elisabeth said, reaching for her glass again.

            “I’m going to take that away from you if you don’t start talking.”

            “This is difficult,” she insisted.  “I’m trying to think where to start.”

            He resettled his glasses on his nose and waited, arms crossed on the table.

            “It’s hard,” she said, “because you’re all so...yourselves through the whole thing.  You expect dark things to happen, and they do.  And even if you expect them, they hurt anyway.  And you all still grow and change through it all.  And—the one who’s always hurt the most is—”

            “Buffy.”

            “Yeah.”  She dared a glance up at his face, then fixed her eyes again on her glass.  “I’m trying,” she said again.

            He waited.  The silence seemed to bend; and then it snapped.  Elisabeth looked up.

            “I’m sorry.  Giles, I just can’t.  I’m going to have to go unforgiven—it’s just all Oedipus Rex.  If I tell you—who knows what you’ll all try to do to deal with it?  It might just make it all worse.  And there’s nothing in the stories about you being prescient about what happens.”

            His eyes were hard.  “You can’t tell me any of it.”

            It was difficult, but if she couldn’t meet his gaze now— “No.”

            There was an unpleasant silence as they stared at one another across the table.

            She said finally:  “I can’t tell you any of it, except in generalities—things any gypsy with a decent acting talent could say.  I can’t even pull a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  I...I can’t meet my half of the deal.”  It seemed futile to repeat that she was sorry, so she ended it there.

            Giles scraped his chair back abruptly, tipped half his liquor down his throat, and stood.  Without another glance at her he went upstairs; she heard the door shut firmly in the loft.  Not knowing what would happen next, Elisabeth took refuge in another long sip of whiskey.  Her body heat was redistributing itself, unevenly, between her core and her extremities.  Another bad sign. 

            The loft door opened again, and Giles came down the stairs.  Her hands went cold; perhaps he had armed himself with a crossbow.  Or something worse. 

            Giles was carrying a pillow.  And as he reached the base of the stairs, she saw that he was also carrying a blanket, neatly folded.  He crossed to the couch, where he dropped his burdens gently and began to arrange them with an unhurried calm that fooled Elisabeth not at all.

            At last he looked up at her, sitting stranded in her chair at the table.

            “I’m turning in,” he said.  “I’ve brought you some bedding; this couch may be a luxury on the continuum of sleeping quarters, but it goes better with more than an airline pillow.”  He paused, took off his glasses, polished them on the tail of his sweater. 

            “But—”  She couldn’t get any more out.

            “If anything happens, don’t hesitate to rouse me.”

            She sat there, helpless to say anything.

            “Good night,” Giles said, and moved back toward the stairs.

            “Giles?”  Elisabeth stood up, trembling.

            He turned.  “Yes?”

            “What about the precautions—?”

            “What about them?”

            “You said....”  Her voice trailed off again.

            “Good night,” he said again.

            “But, you should.  You should take some precautions.”  Elisabeth suddenly found herself babbling.  “You could chain me up in the bathtub, like you did with Spike.”

            This raised a smile from him.  “I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said.

            “Darn,” she said, in a vain attempt to sound jocular.  “And just when I thought I might get to have some fun.”

            He smiled again.  “Good night,” he said, for the third time, and mounted the stairs.  She stood, waiting, and heard the door to the loft click softly shut.

            “Well,” she murmured to herself, “I guess I’ll go to bed too.”  She went to where her pack lay dumped on the floor by the couch, dug slowly through it for her t-shirt and pajama pants.  She carried them and her pack of toiletries to the bathroom, where she dressed for bed—washed her face—brushed her teeth.  Carried her pile of clothing back to her pack and folded it into her dirty-clothes bag, which was already beginning to bulge.  Drew out her little pillow and light down blanket, and arranged them along with Giles’s bedding to make a nest for herself.

            She turned off all the lights except for three of the Tiffany lamps, and curled up in the nest she’d made, hugging her little pillow.  Giles’s pillow smelled not of books but of clean human warmth. 

            So she’d gotten what she wanted.  She’d won a little moral battle with Rupert Giles of all people. 

            It felt awful.

            She kept as still as possible, curled half-hedgehog, moving only to wipe silently at the tears that spilled one by one down her nose and cheek and rolled under her temple.  When she was reasonably sure Giles couldn’t hear her, she allowed herself to release a few of the sounds that were caught swollen in her throat. 

            A long time later, she fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 5

by L. Inman

 

By the time early morning dawned, Elisabeth was in such a deep stupor that she did not hear Giles come downstairs and enter the kitchen.  She did not wake when he put on the kettle to make himself a cup of tea, or when he moved quietly about the room with his cup, packing books into a satchel. 

            Giles found his keys and set them by his satchel near the door, then went to look at his sleeping charge.  She was curled on her side, every limb precisely placed for maximum protection, the airline pillow guarding her chest.  It would be folly to wake her by touching her.

            “Elisabeth,” Giles said quietly.

            No response.

            “Elisabeth,” he repeated, louder.

            She twitched, but did not otherwise stir.

            He bent closer to her and spoke her name again.

            She dragged her eyes open…saw his face, and cried out.  He pulled back sharply, and watched as she twisted and sat up convulsively, hands over her mouth to stifle the strangled noise in her throat.

            “Do you remember where you are?” he said anxiously.

            Wet eyes shut, hands still covering her mouth, Elisabeth nodded.

            “Will you be all right?”

            She nodded again, opened her eyes.  Swiped at the here-and-gone tears.  “Yes.  What’s up?”

            “Nothing very much,” Giles said, apology in his voice.  “I just thought I’d better let you know that I’m leaving for the shop now.  I should be back in the later afternoon.  In the meantime, make yourself at home; get some rest….”

            She nodded and drew a long ragged breath.

            “Right, then,” he said.  “I’m off now.”

            But he kept glancing anxiously at her as he went to get his satchel and keys.  To reassure him, she sat up all the way and gave him a wave from over the back of the couch.  He nodded back, smiling nervously, and disappeared out the door in a blaze of sunlight.

            Elisabeth waited till she was sure he was gone, then stumbled out of her nest and down to the bathroom.  This time she managed to avoid the mirror; it was better not to know. 

            She made herself a cup of tea, reheating the water Giles had left in the kettle.  But once the cup touched her lips she felt the qualm of nausea she had been trying not to expect, and after a few attempts she gave up and dumped the tea down the sink.

            She wandered out of the kitchen and stood surveying the main room.  On the table still stood the whiskey bottle and their two glasses from last night.  Elisabeth went sleepily to pick up the glasses; she took them into the kitchen and washed them along with the mugs she and Giles had used for tea.  Dried and put away the mugs.  Took the glasses and replaced them in the liquor cabinet with the bottle of whiskey.  Then stood and looked around the room again.

            You could tell the sun was shining brightly outside; though the window in the livingroom didn’t face east, light was spilling into the room between the half-opened drapes, making the lamplight look dingy and yellow.  Between the two sources of light, Elisabeth’s head was beginning to spin painfully.  More than anything she wanted to lie down again, but the restlessness had begun, and she knew it would do no good to lie down.  If only there were something to do around here.  The dishes were all clean.  The bathroom, as she recalled, was spotless.  Damn Giles.  He’d even cleared off his desk before leaving for the shop. 

            Elisabeth wanted to leave:  much as she had always adored Giles’s apartment onscreen, it had now taken on a nightmarish larger-than-life quality that only disoriented her further.  She knew this was a by-product of the ferment going on in her head, but there was no gainsaying the discomfort, and besides lying down, and straightening the house, more than anything Elisabeth wanted to go out walking, and keep walking, and not look back.

            Not that even a full-blooded run would help her now.

            But perhaps a bath would.

            Elisabeth drew a full tub, peeled off her pajamas, and slipped gingerly into the water.  She lay back, listening to the echoes, and ruminated fretfully on the quality of consciousness.  The eye, she mused to herself, focuses on one point at a time, but the brain reads the points so quickly it seems as if all the points are focused at once.  In its normal state consciousness was the same way.  Unfortunately, Elisabeth’s brain at the moment wasn’t linking the points, and her thoughts were shards broken on the echoes of the bathroom.  It was frightening no matter how many times one experienced it: Elisabeth hit the water feebly with the palm of her hand, cursing it under her breath.

            The bath wasn’t working.  But at least she was getting clean.  She washed her hair, splashed her face.  Sat desultorily in the water until it grew tepid.  Then she pulled the plug and reached for a towel.

            Elisabeth wasn’t going anywhere today.  Not only did it seem vaguely treacherous to Giles for her to leave his apartment, but she was also now far too disoriented to go out into the world.  She put her pajamas back on and went into the livingroom, where she decided to fold her blankets and pile them with the pillows on one side of the couch.  She briefly debated turning on the television, decided the noise would only make things worse, and plopped down on the couch, dragging her bag toward her.  Definitely past time to take some medication.  She dug into the pack, feeling her way toward the bottom.  Came up empty.  She started looking as she dug.  Still no luck.  She sighed exasperatedly and dumped out the bag for the second time in as many days. 

            There was no medication. 

            It took Elisabeth some befuddled time before she made the connection.  Her prescription bottles had her name on them.  And everything that identified her was missing.  Q.E.D. 

            Elisabeth swore aloud.

            “Now what am I going to do?” she said to the empty apartment.  As much as she hated the thought, only one answer was coming to her: she was just going to have to ride this attack out by herself.  “Bloody hell,” she muttered.

            Brilliant.  Just brilliant. 

            She sighed, her throat constricting as if in tears (though of course she was past tears now), and leaned over against the pile of folded blankets and pillows, without bothering to repack her bag.

            And that was how Giles found her when he came home.

 

*

 

He couldn’t have known it, but the door slamming behind him as he came in undid the progress that the last two hours of keeping still had made.  Elisabeth winced, and attempted a hard swallow.

            “Elisabeth?” he called.  She heard him go into the kitchen looking for her, then come out and see her at last, curled rigidly on the couch.  “Ah, there you are.”  He came toward her.  “I’m thinking of ordering out Chinese.  Do you like Chinese?...” He stopped.  “Are you all right?”

            She shook her head resignedly.

            “What is it?”  He moved closer to her, but she put a hand out to forestall him.  In addition to everything else, at the moment he looked impossibly tall.

            “What is it?” he repeated.  “Schrodinger playing you up again?”

            She shook her head.  Her voice sounded tinny in her ears as she answered:  “Not Schrodinger.  Something a little bit more mundane and close to home.  My own personal hell….You can order in Chinese.  I can’t eat.”

            He was plainly at a loss, and though she didn’t blame him for looking blank, she felt vaguely furious that she should have to play this out with Giles around.

            “Can I do anything?”

            She shook her head.

            After another chagrined look, he went into the kitchen.  She heard him opening and shutting cabinets; the clink of a bottle coming out of the fridge.

            Giles came out again.  “Have you eaten anything today?”

            “No.”

            “Well—you should try, shouldn’t you?” 

            “Can’t,” she said.

            And now, of course, he was getting annoyed.  Not precisely at her; but that mattered very little right now.  This was all part of it too.  Elisabeth sighed, and swallowed down a wave of nausea.

            He was coming toward her again.  Elisabeth sat up dizzily.  “No, don’t,” she said.  “I really just need to be left—”  And the nausea took over.  She stumbled to her feet and down the hall to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her a little harder than she meant.

            Several dry heaves later, Elisabeth sat shaking on the tile floor and laid her forehead on her updrawn pajama-clad knees.  She was past cursing now; there was only the enduring.  In a quarter hour this would begin again; and the quarter hour after that.  Until she was worn out and drained of adrenaline.

            There was a tentative knock at the door, and he opened it and sidled halfway in.  “Elisabeth,” he said.

            She nodded without lifting her head, to show she was listening.

            “Can you tell me what is wrong with you?” he said.

            She lifted her head, keeping her eyes closed, and recited the shameful litany.

            “Anxiety attack.  Starts out with acute disorientation.  Progresses to the physical.  Takes hours or days to run its course, depending.  My prescriptions identify me, so of course they’re missing from my bag.  So I’m just going to have to ride it out on my own.”

            He hesitated.  “Do you know what’s triggered it?”

            Shame made her wax sarcastic.  “I don’t know.  Maybe getting ripped out of my own dimension and sent to Sunnydale has something to do with it.”

            She put her head back down on her knees again. 

            He sighed.  “Of course.”

            “Sorry,” she grunted; but he made no sign of recrimination.

            She could hear him thinking, and it made her own head hurt.  “I haven’t any tranquilizers, unfortunately,” he said.  “Perhaps you could take a brandy?”

            “I’d love a brandy,” she said, “if I could still swallow.”

            “Oh.”

            “I’m just best if I’m left alone to deal with it,” she said, lying through her teeth.  She was best, of course, with a friend nearby, close and even touching her; but such a creature was not to be had, and Giles was no substitute.  She hoped she would not have to spell that out to him—it would sound like the merest ingratitude, no matter how she put it.

            It was coming up again.  “Please go,” she groaned.

            “I’ll be nearby,” he said, and disappeared, shutting the door softly and leaving her to her vigil at the toilet.

 

*

 

There is a moment in the height of an anxiety attack in which one confronts the miasma of intolerable hurt and restlessness, stares one’s other, insane, self in the eyes, and—amazingly—survives, though not unscathed.  It is at that moment that the body’s reactions become perceived not as causes but effects, aftershocks radiating from that epicenter in the mind, waves slapping without mercy but with lesser and lesser intensity.  By the time the cycle has worn itself out, one sits or lies insensible, waiting glassy-eyed while the world rearranges itself out of chaos.

            It was dark night when Giles returned to the bathroom and softly opened the door to check on his strange guest.  He found Elisabeth sitting propped awkwardly against the bathtub, bare feet splayed, hands astray on the floor.  She looked up at him and blinked; and the film that separated herself from the world cleared a little.

            “Bedtime?” he said.

            She gave a small listless nod and moved, as if adjusting a rickle of bones, to begin to rise.  Almost without thought she lifted her arm, found his hand there, took it, and used it to lever herself swaying to her feet. 

            Without any words he walked her slowly back down the hall to her nest on the couch, which he’d made into a bed again, and helped her into it.  She collapsed wordlessly into a heap there, and lay, not sleeping, but quiet.

            It was yet longer before her mind and vision cleared enough for her to make sense of what she saw sitting on the coffee table before her:  two glasses, one short, one tall—one filled with deep amber liquid, one with clear.  Furthermore, a man was sitting in the armchair across from her, deep in a book.  She shut her eyes; and it was an index of her mending that she could smile a little, without being overcome by her pride. 

            After a moment she opened her eyes again and numbly snaked out a hand for the water glass.  He saw it and glanced over; then returned his eyes to his book.  He made no other movement, but she could see anyway that he had relaxed a little.

            A few sips of water later, Elisabeth felt well enough to open her eyes fully and watch him read.  “You look like Atticus Finch,” she said in a whisper, “sitting there reading like that.”

            “Atticus Finch, really,” he said quietly, turning a page as he glanced at her.

            She turned over until she was mostly on her back, and pulled the covers up to her chin.  “Atticus Finch,” she said muzzily, “is the sexiest character in American Literature, capital A, capital L.”

            His crow’s feet smiled before his mouth did.

            “And it’s not because of Gregory Peck, either.”

            “Hmmm.”

            “It’s in spite of Gregory Peck.”

            “Haven’t seen the movie,” Giles said.

            “Good movie.  Book is better.”

            “The book is always better.”

            “Amen, brother.”

            He chuckled.

            Silence.  Giles turned another page.

            Her head was clearing, slowly, gradually.

            “You read Dante?” Elisabeth asked at length.

            “Yes, I’ve read Dante.”

            “Purgatorio,” she murmured.  “Peccatum, peccatum, peccatum…the thing I like about the Purgatory is the hope with which everyone suffers.  It is terrible, but it isn’t meaningless.”  She reached for the brandy glass and took a sip; it was a very good brandy.  “And one can always afford to be kind to one’s neighbors,” she went on, eyes half-closed.  “Everyone is going upward, whether they’re more sinned against or sinning.  I’d quote some right now, but I can’t remember any of it.  All my Dante must be with my other half.”

            He was smiling.  A full smile this time, almost-shyly directed into his book.

            Elisabeth swallowed as much as she could stand of the brandy and put the glass back on the coffee table; then settled back into the nest he’d arranged for her.  “Goodnight, Giles,” she said. 

            And amazingly, fell asleep within minutes.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 6

by L. Inman

 

It wasn’t very good sleep, but it was enough that Elisabeth woke early, when the light in the room still came from the lamps.  This time she didn’t startle at her surroundings; instead she absorbed the lamplight and took mental stock of herself.

            She was still a little nauseated, but she recognized this nausea as the kind that comes from being terribly hungry.  The tautness in her sternum was easing somewhat.  Her head was still cloudy, but her vision was fine.  This was good.  This was more than good, this was excellent.

            She reached for the water glass and drained it.  Then she hauled herself upright, grunting, and moved the covers so that she could get up and visit the bathroom.

            Another bath was in order, as was breakfast, but she thought perhaps she’d better see if Giles was up and needing the bathtub first.  She shuffled her way back down the hall, yawning; and was headed to her backpack (Giles must have repacked it: Elisabeth shook her head) when she heard a faint skizzling sound from her left.  She looked over: and went into a slow wry smile.

            He was asleep at the desk, facedown on a large book.  And ever so faintly snoring.  His glasses lay abandoned and glinting across his knuckles, and a pencil lay fallen from his fingers.

            Elisabeth went over to him and bent her head sideways to examine the situation.  He was pretty well conked, she decided; she would have to wake him, if only to banish him to a proper bed upstairs.  Knowing him, however, he’d stay awake and do things.  So maybe she should leave him there.  On the other hand, that looked like a pretty cruel thing to do to one’s back, sleeping like that.  It would hurt her, and Giles had twenty years on her.

            So she was going to wake him.  Her heart beat nervously.  Blunder number one, blindsiding an ex-Watcher…. She bent close but not too close.

            “Giles,” she said.

            No response.

            Louder:  “Giles.”

            She straightened.  Boy.  He was three notches up from dead.

            “Giles.”

Still no response. 

She was going to have to touch him.  She lifted her hand, wiggled the fingers hesitatingly, then (deciding the direct, constant approach was the best), laid it on his shoulder, light and firm.  She joggled him gently and spoke his name again.  He moved, snorted, but didn’t wake.  She rocked his shoulder a little harder, said his name for the umpteenth time.

Finally.  He started, jerked his head up, felt for one eye and rubbed it.  She backed off.  “…was just dozing, Willow,” he mumbled.  Then he got his eyes open and saw his own apartment, and Elisabeth, standing next to him.

“Apparently not,” he amended.  He felt about the desk for his glasses and put them on with two hands, squinting hard.  “What time is it?”

Elisabeth glanced round at the clock.  “About 7:30.”

“God.  That late,” he muttered.  His hair was sticking up, and he ran a hand through it, making it worse.  Even with his glasses on he was squinting his eyes almost shut.  He drew the deep breath one takes on waking and stretched his shoulders painfully.  “I have to stop doing this.”

“No kidding,” she said.  “It looked painful.”

His eyes were marginally more open as he blinked at her.

“You’re looking better,” he said.

She nodded silently.

            For a moment neither of them said anything else; she stood and watched him brace a hand on the nape of his neck and turn his head, stretching.

            “You should hit either the sheets or the shower,” she told him.

            He was stretching his long arms in front of him and wincing.  “Shower,” he said.  “I have work to do.”

            “Thought you’d say that,” she said, and turned away to the kitchen.  “I’m making coffee.”

            It hadn’t actually occurred to her to make coffee before that moment, but it seemed like the right idea, so she went into the kitchen and started poking around for the necessary items.  Those assembled, she opened the fridge, studied its contents, and pulled out two eggs and half a package of cream cheese. 

            The coffee was going by the time she heard Giles stumping up the stairs.  Maybe he would go to bed after all, she thought, mentally crossing her fingers.  But five minutes later she heard him come back down, and saw him pass by the kitchen with an armful of clothing.  The bathroom door shut flatly; the taps started running.  Digging in the cabinets for a skillet, Elisabeth caught the sound of his disembodied voice humming tunelessly through the shower water, and smiled to herself. 

            By the time Giles emerged, dressed, clean and damp-haired, Elisabeth was sitting at the table munching a piece of toast loaded with scrambled eggs, and swinging a foot under her chair.

            He went into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.  “Your appetite back, then?” he inquired through the breakfast bar.

            “Sort of,” she said. 

            He went to the front door, opened it (Elisabeth winced at the sunlight), retrieved the paper, and dropped it onto the table across from her.  He plopped himself down gently with his coffee cup and settled himself to read.

            Elisabeth captured stray bits of egg with her fork.  “Is the paper clean?”

            He grunted.  “So far.”  He rattled a page over.  “I almost wish it wasn’t; then I’d have a clue.  Not,” he added, looking at her over his glasses, “that I want anyone dead, mind you.”

            “Understood,” Elisabeth said.  She picked up her empty plate and took it back into the kitchen, then came back with a fresh cup of coffee and sat back down.

            Giles read the paper.  Elisabeth sipped at her coffee.

            It took a moment to gather her courage before she ventured:  “Giles?”

            “Yes?”  He didn’t look up.

            “I want to go out today,” she said.  “I can’t stay here all day again, it’ll drive me crazy.”

            Now he looked up at her, amazed.  “What…did you think I was holding you here?”

            “Well, not exactly….I—had scruples.”

            His mouth quirked humorously as he returned his eyes to the paper.  “Well, doff thy scruples and deny thy name, and I’ll no longer be a martinet.  Go.”

            She started laughing.  He didn’t raise his eyes from the paper, but he couldn’t quite keep the complacent look off his face.

            “As if you ever were,” she said.  She got up and dug through her pack for a fresh change of clothes (she really needed to do laundry), and carried them and her pack of toiletries to the bathroom.


  1. Brushing her teeth, she dared a look into the mirror, and was relieved to see that her face was fully human again.

            In this world, that actually meant something.

 

*

 

Some time later Elisabeth was striding comfortably down a street in Giles’s neighborhood, running his directions through her head.  How do you get to Bensonhoist?  Foeh blocks oveh, t’ree blocks up.  You gettin wise wit me?  Only the dead know Sunnydale, she thought wryly, and made her turn at the corner Giles had suggested.

            It took her a while without wheels, but at last she found the main drag of town.  It was nothing like Brooklyn, of course; and nothing like Hollywood either.  It was here that Elisabeth blinked and realized fully a thought that had been slowly coming into her mind.

            The longer she was in Sunnydale—the more she saw of its familiar and unfamiliar landmarks—the less Technicolor it seemed:  the sun beat down on the pavement, turning it the same dull color as pavement in any other part of the world; people went about their business, not like extras, but like the same people she had always jostled in her journeys.  The landmarks seemed to grow less recognizable with every moment; and yet there was always the odd breathtaking moment to remind her that this was a time and a world dearly familiar, but not her own.

            “Gives new meaning to the phrase déjà vu,” Elisabeth said to herself.

            It briefly crossed her mind to check out the library on the UC Sunnydale campus and see if she could get in without a university ID, but she decided she’d had enough of books for the time being; she wanted to window-shop.

            She found a bead store near to campus and spent some time in it tracing her fingers through pots and plates of all shapes and sizes, examining glass beads and ceramic beads and plastic beads and wooden beads and bone beads and cloisonné beads.  Laying her hands on many textures was therapeutic, but the scent of the incense burning in the shop was sickeningly sweet, and she had to leave before she was finished looking. 

            The vintage clothing shop also had an unpleasant smell, this time of sweetly ancient fibers, but it was faint, and the associations it raised for Elisabeth were relatively painless, so she stayed long enough to try on a number of hats.  There was one small velour hat in particular that with her glasses looked very pixieish and somehow provocative; like a ripening little ingénue—which Elisabeth thought, rolling her eyes, she probably still was.  She put the hat back and stuck her tongue out at it, then made her escape.

            A smoothie bar.  Elisabeth licked her lips; remembered she had no money; passed on.

            An antique store.  She peeped in, but this store had the worst scent of all, so she didn’t even cross the threshold. 

            The magic shop.  Giles was inside, hands under his crossed arms, discussing an amulet with a very serious-looking young man with spiked black hair.  She waved as she passed the door; Giles saw her and lifted his chin in a brief greeting.  Elisabeth moved on. 

            An open-air coffee bar, decked out in campus colors for some game.  She remembered again that she had no money, so she didn’t go in; but then she saw someone waving and realized they were waving at her.

            Tentatively, she went toward them. 

            “Hi,” Willow said.  “How ya doin’?”

            She shrugged, smiled vaguely.

            “Tara,” Willow said, “this is Elisabeth.”

            “Hi, Elisabeth,” Tara said.

            Elisabeth cleared her throat.  “Hi.”  She couldn’t quite meet Tara’s eyes, but she knew that Tara would notice it, so she dared to touch gazes with her once before glancing down again. 

            This was going to be even harder than she thought.

            “Elisabeth is the one I told you about,” Willow said, “who got shanghaied out of her own dimension and is spending some time in Sunnydale.”

            “Oh,” Tara said, smiling.  “How are you doing?”

            “Okay,” Elisabeth said.  “Not so great.  I’ve had some nervestorms.  Poor Giles has been at a loss, I think.  I’m out and about today, taking a sanity break.”

            “Oh, good,” Willow said, “then you can hang out with us for a while.  If that’s okay,” she added to Tara.

            “Sure,” Tara said. 

            “How’s the research coming?” Elisabeth asked.

            “Not so good.  There’s lots of stuff about crossing dimensions, but most of it’s how to do it on purpose; it’s much harder to find out how to undo an accident.”

            “Unless it’s not an accident,” Tara said. 

            Elisabeth looked sharply at her.

            “You mean, like a conjunction of fate?” Willow said excitedly.  “Those don’t usually happen unless something big is on the horizon.”  She frowned.  “Of course, big doesn’t always mean good.”

            “Especially in Sunnydale,” Elisabeth said. 

            Willow looked thoughtfully at her.  “Do you think it might have anything to do with Buffy’s thing with—you know, with the new Big Bad in town and—and—do you know anything about that?”

            Elisabeth nodded, her throat constricting.  It was very much time to divert this conversation.

            “I don’t think it has to do with that,” she said.  “But my being here at all could have anything to do with anything.”

            Tara stared across Elisabeth’s shoulder, thinking.  Willow shifted in her place at the table.  Elisabeth was afraid to break the reverie, afraid that she couldn’t even speak.  She had gotten somewhat used to speaking with and looking at Giles, and moving about in his flat; but to stand here at a loss, conversing with Willow and Tara, was—  She felt she was having to start all over again. 

            “Perhaps you’d like to come have lunch at our place,” Tara said.

            Elisabeth blinked.  She had not realized that Tara had ceased to stare into space and was now looking searchingly at her.  She felt a moment of real panic.

            “Great,” Willow said.  “Let’s make that pasta salad with those little googly things in it again.”

            Elisabeth’s stomach contracted.  Pasta salad with googly things.  With Willow and Tara.  She opened her mouth to make an excuse.

            “Let’s go,” Willow said, reaching for her bag.  She and Tara led Elisabeth out of the coffee bar.  Elisabeth’s mouth was still uselessly open; she shut it.

            She just hoped she could keep it shut.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 7

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth returned from her afternoon out to find that Giles’s front door wasn’t locked. 

            Thankfully, Elisabeth opened it and swung herself wearily inside.  If the door was unlocked, it probably meant he was home—that and the fact that his car was parked out front.  Briefly she wondered whether she ought to have knocked; but then her exhaustion reassumed its supreme place in her mind, and she shut the door behind her and went to drop herself onto the couch and dig through her backpack for her shower bag.

            It wasn’t till a few moments later that she realized Giles was nowhere to be seen.  Or heard.  She let the flap of her pack fall and cut her eyes slowly around the room.  Nothing.  She got up and checked the kitchen.  All dark—no Giles.  No Giles in the bathroom, or the utility. 

            The only other place he could be was upstairs.  Elisabeth stood in the livingroom, hugging herself gently and debating.  Finally she moved toward the stairs and mounted the first few.  “Giles?” she called.

            No answer.

            She went up a few more stairs.  “Giles?”

            No answer.

            Throwing hesitation aside, she hurried up the rest of the steps and knocked on the closed loft door.  “Giles!”

            She was relieved unto faintness when his muffled voice answered, “Who’s that?  Buffy?”

            “No—it’s me—Elisabeth.”

            “Oh.  Uh—just a moment.”

            “No, really, I just wanted to know where you—”

            But his footsteps were coming, and before she could scarper, the door opened to reveal him robed and glassesless, with shaving soap on half of his face.

            Her face went hot.  “Really,” she said, “I just had a moment of worry.  I wanted to know where you were.”  She flapped her hands vaguely.  “Go—go on—as you were.”

            His eyebrow went up.  “Are you all right?”

            “Yes, I’m fine—I—”  She stopped, blew out her cheeks—put her hands briefly to her head, then took them away.  “Yes,” she said more calmly.  “I just need a soothing bath.  And then I need to go out.  Can we…?”

            “That was the plan,” he said, blinking complacently.

            “Thank God for your intuition,” she said impulsively.  “I’m going to have my bath now.”  Before he could say anything else, she hurried down the stairs and made her escape.

 

*

 

This time Elisabeth was able to get the full benefit of a good soak, without her consciousness pinging and warping on her.

            Not that she was serene by any consideration.  She wasn’t used to knowing people, to allowing herself to care about what happened to them.  And actually to know what would happen was—

            How could she cleanse her mind of the burden? 

            Elisabeth decided to sing.

            She started out softly, gauging the echoes of the bathroom for their acoustic idiosyncrasies.  Then she freshened the hot water in the tub and sang out a little stronger, running her voice over a few tunes until it became apparent that blues was the choice of the day.  Blues, furthermore, of an enthusiastically rude variety.

            The only song of that kind that she knew all the words to was “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.”  So she sang it several times, getting bolder with every rendition, as she reached for her bath gel and razor.

 

            I need a little sugar in my bowl

            I need a little sausage on my roll

            I could stand some lovin’ oh so bad

            I’m feeling so funny; I’m feeling so sad…

 

She paused to dip her head back in the water, reached for the shampoo, and settled back with the second verse for the second time:

 

            I need a little sugar in my bowl

            I need a little sausage between my roll

            You’ve been getting different, I’ve been told

            So move your finger, drop it in my bowl…

 

Nothing like the blues to lift your spirits, she thought.  In fact, she was feeling more cheerful by the minute.  She washed her face splashily and bawled out the finish before pulling the plug:

 

            What’s the matter, baby, come save your momma’s soul

            I need some sugar in my bowl (I ain’t foolin’)

            I want some sugar in my bowl!

 

She was in a highly good mood by the time she was getting dressed.  She pinned up her damp hair and applied a dash of makeup, then surveyed the result.  Not too bad.  Healthy, at the very least.  She put on her glasses and watch, gathered her bath things and dirty clothing, and swept out of the bathroom. 

            Giles was standing in the act of climbing (or descending, she couldn’t tell which) the stairs, holding a book in one hand and pinning the cordless phone to his face with his shoulder.  “No, it doesn’t say anything about it,” he said.  Whatever the reply was, it drew an eyeroll from him.  “…Tell me about it.  Listen, I’m going to go.  Keep looking, and we’ll meet up tomorrow…uh…how about at the shop?...Right…I’ll bring her with me…Yes—and, Willow?  One of you check in with Buffy this evening, would you—I may be out of pocket for some time, and we need to know how things are going on her end…Of course.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  He shut the book.  “Yes, goodbye.”  He took the phone away from his face and turned it off. 

            “Still no luck?”  Elisabeth said, from her position on the couch repacking her bag.  She reached for her shoes and began to put them on.

            “No, not yet.”  He sighed deeply.  “I’m going to have to resort to less bibliographic methods of finding information soon.  Are you ready to go?”

            “As soon as I tie this shoe.”

            “Good.”

 

*

 

On the road, he asked her:

            “Do you have a preference where to go?”

            “No,” she said.  “But can we go someplace where they serve grownup drinks?”  She made a wide-eyed child-face at him.

            He chuckled.  “Of course.  That narrows it down quite a bit.”

            “I’m here to help,” she said dryly.

            His next remark caught her completely off guard.

            “You have a good blues voice,” he said.

            She choked, and purpled.  “Oh, Gawd.  You heard that?”

            “I do come downstairs on occasion, you know.”  He was enjoying it, drat him.

            She shielded her eyes with one hand, shaking her head and suffering.  Giles decided to rub it in.

            “Although you could stand to work on your belting.”

            “Is that so.”

            “Yes; you know,” he gestured searchingly with one hand, keeping the other on the wheel, “you have to—have to give it umphWhat’s the matter baby, come save your momma’s soul—” he demonstrated.

            She sputtered and started laughing so hard she found it hard to breathe after a few seconds.  Finally, after drawing several little gasps and wiping her tears, she sat up in her seat again and went into a long head-shake.  “I’ll have you know,” she said at last, her voice still husky from the laughing, “that belting properly from the diaphragm is difficult when one is lying supine at a 130-degree angle submerged in water.”

            “I know,” he said.

            She started giggling again.

            It wasn’t till they had come to a stop at a teeming intersection that Elisabeth had recovered enough to take stock of their surroundings.  “Hey, look,” she said, “there’s an English pub over there.”

            Giles snorted.

            “It’s even called the Lion of Trafalgar.”  She looked at him with extra gravity.

            He snorted again.

            “Let’s go there.”

            “Are you mad?”

            “Well, yes, but what’s that got to do with it?  Let’s go there.”

            “It cannot possibly be a real English pub.”

            “I know that.  I’ve been to a real English pub.”

            “You’ve been in Britain?”  He looked over at her, eyebrows raised.

            “Not yet.”

            “Then you haven’t been to an English pub.”

            “I certainly have.  It was run by an English couple, very traditional.”

            “It was an American pub run by English expatriates.”

            “Hoity-toity,” she said.  “It was at least authentic, which is more than I would venture for this place.”

            The light turned green.  Giles accelerated slowly forward.  “And so why exactly do we want to go to this place?”

            “So we can make fun of it,” she said.

            “More to the point, so you can make fun of me,” he said.

            “You do know my methods, Watson.”

            She was pretty sure she heard Giles give a distinctly demonish growl, but nevertheless he turned into the parking lot of the bar and grill.

            Giles set the parking brake, put the ragtop up, and turned off the car.  “Since when,” he said to her, “am I Watson?”

            She said:  “If you want to be Holmes, you can.  After all—you’re buying.”

            “So I am,” he sighed.  “How I get myself into these things I’ll never know.”

            He undid his seatbelt, stopped again.  “Hang on—you don’t have any ID.”

            Elisabeth thought this over.  Then said in her best Soho-cum-Oxbridge, “Then we shall have to resort to subterfuge.”

            Giles groaned.  “Oh, God.  That’s terrible.”

            “It’s good enough for Sunnydale, anyway.”

            “It’ll hurt my ears,” he moaned.  “And you know you will have to keep it up all evening.”

            She gave him his own cat smile in return.  “I know.”  And she popped her door open.

 

*

 

She was kind enough to Giles, however, that she let him do the talking to negotiate them a table; and it was easy enough to say “Thank you” in such a manner as to make the hostess assume she was of the same country as her date.

            When the waiter came, however, things got a little dicier.

            “Can I see some ID?” he asked her first off.

            “Oh,” she said quietly, “all I have is my passport—and—oh dear—I left it at home.”  She held out an impatient hand to Giles.  “Here, Rupert, give me your keys.  I’ll just nip back to the apartment and get it.”

            “You propose to drive my car without a license?  I think not,” Giles said.  “If you’re going, I’m going.”

            Elisabeth pouted prettily.  “Sometimes I think you love your car more than you love me.”

            Giles flushed and opened his mouth, but before the apparently incipient argument could escalate, the waiter said, “Hold on, I think it should be okay—that is—if—”

            She smiled at him.  “It’s very flattering that you should ask for my ID at all, you know.”

            The waiter, who was after all male and undergraduate, smiled back.  “So what can I start you all out with?”  He handed them each a menu.

            “Grand Marnier, straight up,” Elisabeth said.

            “What sort of drink is that?” Giles scoffed.

            “What are you having, then?”

            Giles gave her a pitying look, then ordered a single-malt whiskey, neat. 

            “See?” Elisabeth hissed to him when the waiter had gone.  “You don’t even have to act!”

            Giles grunted and opened his menu.

            “Admit it,” Elisabeth whispered.  “You’re having fun.”

            Giles cleared his throat—Elisabeth suspected—to avert a smile.

            “Are you hungry?” he asked her.

            “Well,” she said, “the pasta with googly things I had with Willow and Tara have rather put paid to my appetite for a while.”

            Giles grunted again as he perused his menu.  “I’ve had that dish, I think.”

            “On the other hand, I’m likely to get hungry again soon.  I think I’ll order an appetizer and munch on it.”

            “I could eat an elephant,” Giles said.

            “Do they serve that in England?”

            “Don’t you know?”

            They grinned at each other.

            “You are having fun,” Elisabeth said.

            He tipped his head, lifted his eyes in a little gesture of acknowledgment.

            The waiter came back with their drinks, took their orders, and disappeared again.

            “At my pub,” Elisabeth said, tasting her drink, “you can pay in pounds as well as in dollars.”

            “A few pounds do not an English pub make.”

            She grinned and took another sip of her drink.  “Mmm…” She held up the glass.  “Now that is exactly what one wants.”

            “At your pub,” Giles said, “can one order chips and salsa?”

            “No.”

            “Well, then it certainly has nothing on this place.”

            She laughed.  Then threw him a curveball.

            “So when are you going to let me help with the research?”

            “Whenever you like,” Giles said promptly.  Elisabeth smiled to herself.  The man could think on his feet, even when baited.  Or perhaps especially when baited.

            “Okay,” Elisabeth said.  “I await my marching orders.”

            “You won’t get any tonight.”

            “Understood.”

            They sat, taking leisurely sips of their drinks.  Elisabeth salted the napkin under her water glass, then drew patterns in the salt grains that had scattered over the table.

            When she finally looked up, she saw that Giles was looking curiously at her.

            “You are over 21, aren’t you?” he said at last.

            Elisabeth rolled her eyes.  “Giles,” she murmured, “I’m pushing thirty.”

            “Just checking,” he said.  “Ah, it appears our food has arrived.”

            “You’re joking,” Elisabeth said.  “That fast?”

            But the food had indeed arrived, and for a while neither of them had much to say.  True to her prediction, Elisabeth was not terribly hungry, but the artichoke dip she’d ordered was perfect for the occasional nibble while she watched Giles eat.  Her good mood was starting to wear off, and (she thought wryly) it was probably not a good idea to try and recover it by singing bawdy blues in here. 

            “Is it good?” she asked him at length.

            He looked up, chewing, and swallowed.  “I can’t believe I let you do this to me.”

            She tilted her head and pushed out her chin.  “It could be worse,” she drawled, “I could have chosen to imitate Spike all evening.”

            Giles raised his napkin and laughed into it.  “That’s really pretty good,” he said when he recovered.

            “Impressions by Elisabeth,” she said.

            “Do you do me?”  His eyes narrowed like those of a cat about to pounce.

            “Not to your face,” Elisabeth said.  “And not in this dimension, so far.  And really,” she added truthfully, “I haven’t been tempted.”

            He regarded her pensively.  “No?”

            “No,” she said, eyes on her hands crossed limply together on the table.  “Being here is different.”

            He looked at her a moment longer, but she did not look up; so he laid his napkin down on the table, popped a last french fry into his mouth, and went ever-so-gently on the offensive.

            “So tell me,” he said, chewing, “why are you running away?”

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 8

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth jerked her head up.  “Running away?”

            He took up his napkin again and wiped his fingers delicately with it, looking up at her over his glasses.  “Yes.”

            She recovered quickly.  “I’m not running away,” she said, lifting her nearly-empty glass.  “I’m following the dictum of Ronald Reagan.”

            “Ronald Reagan, really.”

            “Yes.  He says that if you lose your temper on the golf course, you throw your club ahead of you, so that you don’t have to walk back to pick it up.”

            Giles nodded and picked up his own nearly-finished drink.  “A nice dictum.  Except you have to walk back anyway, if you’re going to redo the shot.”

            “Except that I’m not a golfer.”

            “No?”

            “No, I’m just a flinger of golf clubs.”

            He nipped a smile in the bud.  “You know, some metaphors can be pressed too far.”

            “A lot of metaphors can get pressed too far,” Elisabeth said.  “I’m an English major, I’ve seen them.  Grading student papers.  ‘This essay will show that my thesis about art and culture is true—as my thoughts taxi down the runway of my mind and finally take off into the blue yonder—’”  She broke off, and looked at him levelly.  “What if I am,” she said.  “Do I have to have a reason?”

            “No,” he said.  “But people generally do.”

            He waited, but she merely met his eye without answering.

            “People generally,” he said, after a small silence, “have more than one.”

            She tapped her nose with one hand and pointed at him with the other; but the smile she put with it died quickly.  He didn’t press her.

            The waiter came back to ask if they wanted more drinks.  They did.  He disappeared, and Elisabeth leaned back wearily in the bench seat, hands on the table picking at a hangnail.  “I wouldn’t call it running, exactly,” she said.  “I don’t owe anything financially, unless you count student loans; I don’t owe anything emotionally to speak of; and I’m not going under an alias or anything, so it’s not like I’m on the lam.”

            “And nobody is chasing you?”

            She blinked.  “No.  I hadn’t thought of that.”

            The waiter returned with their drinks.  Giles took a quick sip of his, then said:  “Then perhaps I’m asking the wrong question.  I should perhaps be asking you what drives you to move so quickly from place to place.”

            “Are you asking me that?” she asked him, glumly swirling the Grand Marnier around the sides of her glass.

            He watched her a moment, and decided to relent.  “No,” he said.  “I was hoping you’d be able to tell me on your own.”

            She raised her eyes to his face.  He went on, “I don’t normally pry into people’s affairs.  But as you may have noticed, the books aren’t being cooperative with our research efforts.  If I can find out why you’re here—perhaps I can find out what it means, and how to….”

            “—Fix it?” Elisabeth finished.

            “Well, yes.  You can’t stay hovering between dimensions forever.”

            “No, I certainly can’t.”  Elisabeth sighed. 

            “And this isn’t exactly the safest dimension to be in.”

            “No,” she mused, “but mine’s no picnic either.  There are things in my dimension that you don’t have to worry about—no war, no September 11th—”

            Giles sipped his drink.  “What’s so special about September the 11th?”

            “My point exactly,” Elisabeth said, and tipped back a generous swig of her drink.

            “So can you tell me?  About what drives you?” he asked gently.

            “I don’t think I know well enough to say,” she said, drawing in the salt again.

            A small silence fell between them; Giles cast his glance around the “pub,” taking in the polished wood and upholstered booths, wincing only a little at the slightly-too-loud dance music.  When he looked back at her he found that her eyes were on him, steady and troubled. 

            She said:  “I find it very hard to keep my mouth shut as a rule.  These past few days…”  She shook her head, looking aside.  “…there’s, as Jane Austen calls it, an embargo on every subject.”

            “What period of English literature did you study?” Giles asked, and was rewarded when she brightened a little.

            “Mainly the Romantics and the Victorians,” she said.  “The age of revolution, the age of conservatism, and the age of syncretism.”

            “Followed by more revolution,” Giles responded, with one of his little smiles.

            “Of course.”

            “And how far did you take your studies?”

            “Through the Master’s level.  I had a TA-ship, taught writing—left that and did the library thing for awhile, left that and did temp work—and then I just left.  It was more than time.”  She braced the short pedestal of her glass between her hands flat on the table, looked up at him with an expression that he judged to be more natural, less strained.  “I still feel the call of academia.  And maybe I’ll go back sometime, when it’s a less exasperating time to find a Ph.D. program and a tenure-track position to follow it.  And,” she said, twisting her mouth thoughtfully, “when I’m a bit older and maybe have some patience to hoe one whole row at a time.  Right now for me it’s the quick project—the single paper—the short story—wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and I say you’re welcome and head out the door.”

            Giles said, “I can certainly understand the impatience with academia.  I couldn’t quite stick it, myself.”

            “Yes,” she said, “I know.”

            “You know a lot about me, don’t you?”  His incisive eyes came back to hers.

            She pressed her lips together and regarded him carefully.  “More than I ought to know about a stranger.  But I don’t know much why.  They left that for people to guess at.”

            He smiled a little.  “That’s right, I forgot.  The stories are mainly about Buffy.”

            She sighed.  “Xander pretends to mind, but I don’t think he really does.”

            Giles shook his head, agreeing.

            “And I’m pretty sure you don’t,” she said.

            “The male ego does not comprise the entirety of our souls, no,” he replied, grinning more with his eyes than his mouth.

            She responded with a silent laugh.

            “So,” he said, “I take it your lunch with Willow and Tara was difficult to get through.”

            Elisabeth shut her eyes briefly, fervently.  “Oh, please.  The less said about it the better.  It was just…so painful.  I can’t even explain….”

            “Because of what you know,” he said gently.

            She gave a small nod and lifted her glass for another long sip.

            “Willow mentioned to me on the phone that you seemed very disorientated.”

            “Disorientated,” she repeated.  “I hate that word.”

            “Yes,” Giles said, “it isn’t a very nice state to be in.  But, be that as it may—”

            “No, I mean ‘disorientated.’  I don’t like that construction.  Why can’t it be just plain ‘disoriented’?”

            He blinked, thought.  “I don’t know.  Is it a British/American English difference?”

            “I don’t know,” she said.  “It seems to be.”

            “Yes, those Americans,” he said, looking slyly at her, “ever innovative; always looking for ways to simplify speech and orthography.  You’ll have heard of Teddy Roosevelt’s failed political efforts in that area, I suppose?”

            “The Spelling Reform fiasco?” Elisabeth said.  “Yes, I remember.  I seem to recall that failed project nevertheless resulting in Americans’ dropping the ‘u’s out of words like colour and honour and valour and stupour—or did that happen earlier?”

            “Next century it’ll be all grunts, and—”

            “And hobo symbols.  Yes, yes.  I know.  Do you want me to break into a rendition of ‘Why Can’t the English’?”

            “Please don’t.”

            She smiled.

            He smiled back.  “You’re very talented.”

            “Oh?” Elisabeth’s brows arched.  “At what?”

            “At changing the subject.”

            “What subject?”

            “Yes,” Giles said, “very talented.”

            Elisabeth lifted her Grand Marnier and drained it.  Then she set down the glass and looked across at him, triumphantly.

            He smiled wryly, lifted his glass, and saluted her with it before swallowing the last of the drink.  “Shall we go?”

            “Yes, please.”

            Elisabeth sat quietly while Giles settled the bill.  Two Grand Marniers and she was feeling a bit…disorientated.  She didn’t think it was noticeable, but then when Giles got up, he politely offered her his hand to help her rise.  She took it without cavil.  She had told him, after all, that she couldn’t take very much.

            The night air outside was relatively quiet, fresh, and chill.  Once inside the car, Giles put down the windows but left the ragtop up.  He turned to her, his face and glass-rims faintly limned by the light from the bar windows.

            “Well,” he said, “now where shall we go?”

 

*

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Elisabeth said carelessly.  “Let’s just drive around.”

            He gave an acquiescent tip of the head and put the car in gear.

            Elisabeth had learned the art of town navigation the hard way; so as Giles’s car sharked gracefully through the streets of Sunnydale, Elisabeth paid careful attention to the street names and the landmarks.  It gave her a better idea of the town, and, additionally, kept her mind from going too diffuse. 

            She said suddenly, “Do you think this dimension extends all the way around the world?”

            Startled into—or out of—thought, Giles uttered:  “Well—”

            “I mean, for me.  Or would I leave this dimension if I left Sunnydale?”

            “I don’t know,” he said, and she could tell from his tone that the idea puzzled and intrigued him.

            A silence passed between them while they thought it over.  Almost in the same moment they turned to one another to speak.

            “Can we try it?” she said.

            “Do you want to try it?” he said.

            She studied his features as he turned his face back to the road ahead.  “D’you think it will put you in danger?” she asked him.

            “More to the point, will it put you in danger,” he amended.

            “I care about that a little bit less,” she told him.  “You’re important to this dimension.  I’m not.”

            “You don’t know that.”

            “Giles,” she said, “I’m not in any of the stories.  I’m expendable.”

            His shoulders hunched, and she wished briefly she had been a little less blunt.  “All the same,” Giles said, “—I’d rather not play roulette with your life if I can help it.”

            “The roulette wheel has already started,” Elisabeth said.  “We might as well choose a square.”

            “You and your penchant for distending metaphors,” Giles muttered.  “Very well, we shall try it.”  He made a left turn at a sign pointing the way to the state highway.

            Elisabeth relaxed in her seat.  Finally, finally she was having fun.  Giles ramped onto the highway, headed north, and she turned her face to the window, watching the light-poles blur by ever faster, watching the lights of the city change as they passed. 

            The city-limit sign whipped past them.

            “Feeling all right?” Giles asked her.

            “Just fine,” she said.  And it was true.  The smooth rhythm of the car’s speed; the quick alternation of light and shadow; the faint hum of the engine; and the changing glint of Giles’s glasses all presented themselves as a drink to be imbibed, more intoxicating than even the Grand Marnier.  She was comfortable, she was having fun, she was pleasantly tipsy:  running away, she thought—

            With Giles, no less.

            The chorus of a song suggested itself to her, and she leaned her head back sideways against the headrest, watching the changing night landscape and singing softly:

 

            Get out the map, get out the map and lay your finger anywhere down

            We’ll give the finger to those we pass on the way out of town

            Don’t drink the water, there seems to be something ailing everyone

            I’m gonna clear my head…

 

            “It isn’t ‘we’ll give the finger’,” Giles said idly.  “It’s ‘We’ll leave the figuring.’”

            She raised her head and turned to him in shock.  “What?

            “I checked the lyric myself once.  It’s ‘We’ll leave the figuring to those we pass on the way out of town.’”

            “You know the Indigo Girls?  Get out!

            “Oh for God’s sake,” he said, rolling his eyes.  “Give me some credit.  I know ‘Casey at the Bat’ and I know the Indigo Girls—their earlier albums, anyway.”

            Several streetlights passed overhead while Elisabeth stared at him.

            “You know,” she said finally, “it’s when you say stuff like that that makes me think I’m dreaming all this.”

            “What?” Giles said.  “I can’t have layers?”

            She stared at him; and all at once the whole thing seemed to unravel before her eyes:  the glint of his glasses, the vibration of the car, the sweep of the streetlights over them.  And inside she was unraveling too—too swiftly to fight with her thoughts.

            He was taking quick glances at her.  “Elisabeth,” he said sharply.

            She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it.

            “It’s much less real now,” she mumbled to him.

            “Less real how?”  His voice was quickly becoming the only clear-edged thing in her consciousness.

            “Less—real.  You…this….”

            “You’re certain it’s not one of your attacks?”

            “No—it’s more than that.  I feel like—the earth is trying to rotate backwards—”  She sat back in her seat, hugging herself tightly, and groaned.

            “Damn,” Giles said.

            “Are—you all right?”

            “I’m fine,” he said sharply.  “We’d better get turned around.”

            “Okay,” she whispered.  She felt the car slow as Giles looked for an exit.  Shadows, shadows dancing—like George Macdonald’s story…what did the shadows have to tell her?  Had she done something wrong?  Or had someone done something to her?  Conscience, conscience, consciousness—in French, two words in one…two meanings married.  The shadows were marrying, headlong, inside and outside her.

            The car was turning around; heavy inertia dragged her body to the side; Giles’s jacketed elbow flashed in her vision, hauling at the steering wheel. 

            They were on the highway again, speeding now; or at least Giles was.  Elisabeth was not entirely sure where she was, or even if she was; and she was far too confused to be properly frightened.

            Fairy tales—faërie.  The White Rabbit, late.  Time was a factor.  There was something about time, something about the marriage of shadows and the still, small point of tangential contact between worlds.

            “Fortune favors the brave,” she heard someone say; possibly herself.  Then, “What time is it?”

            “After moonrise,” she thought she heard Giles say.

            They were moving very fast, and the wind was whipping in harshly through the open windows.  They were moving very fast, and a steam, or a fog, was rolling coldly off them, as if they had gone through a cloud and cut it, carrying some of it with them as they went.  They were moving very fast, and Elisabeth blinked and lifted a hand to adjust her glasses, as if they were about to whip off her face in the wind.

            “This reminds me of ‘Restless,’” she said, through the cracking and whipping of the wind.

            “Restless?”

            “The name of the story in which you were all attacked by the First Slayer in your sleep.”

            “God,” Giles muttered.  “I’m sorry.”

            She said, dreamily, “Willow dreamed of being shamefully exposed; Xander dreamed of being out of the loop; Giles dreamed—sad things…‘It’s all your fault,’ she said….”

            Her eyes had somehow cleared enough that she could see his face; the orange light of a streetlamp passed over it, and there were hard, unnatural grooves about his mouth.  Grief lines.  Elisabeth thought, I shouldn’t have said that, about the dreams.

            “Where are we now?” she said, to cover the painful moment.

            “Nearly back within city limits,” he said.

            “Okay,” she said.  Her eyes were getting clearer.

            “You’re looking a little better,” he said, glancing at her.

            “Feeling a little better,” she said.

            “You came here from the north, right?”

            “Yes.”

            “And we were headed north.”  He began muttering, mostly to himself:  “From the north…it must mean that the nexus of the two dimensions is where you caught the bus…but then, why would you be most at home in Sunnydale?...Maybe we should have tried going south…but maybe then again, the nexus is both in Sunnydale and the bus station up north in your dimension…in either case, I don’t think I can conjure the link myself without seriously endangering your spiritual integrity…possibly it may take all of us to create a strong enough focal point to balance the energy, when we do—whatever spell it is we do….Damn!...I wish I knew what spell….And where to do it without killing you….”

            A whirl of red and blue lights sprang up from behind them.  “Bugger!” Giles uttered, glancing at the speedometer.  He slowed down and began to pull to the side.  To their surprise, however, the police car sped up and passed them, turning off its lights as it went.

            “A good omen, I think,” Elisabeth said.  She looked over at Giles.

            He accelerated again, but to a more modest speed than before.  “I think so.”

            He glanced over at her, and she started to laugh.  “Fortune favors the brave,” she said again.

            He chuckled too.  Then his face sobered.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I shouldn’t have done this to you.”

            “Done what to me?”

            “I shouldn’t have gone on with this experiment while you were in such a relatively fragile state.”  The worry lines on his forehead were sharp.

            “Oh, please,” she said impatiently.  “Giles—”

            He began to stammer:  “I realize that sentiment is not entirely copacetic with right-thinking feminist philosophy, but—”

“It’s not that,” she said.  “It’s—If I waited till I was unfragile to do things, I’d never do anything.  I decided that a long time ago.”  She waited, but he still didn’t look convinced.  “We did this on my terms.  Didn’t we?”

“Yes,” he agreed, reluctantly.

“‘Copacetic with right-thinking feminist philosophy.’ Puh.”  She shoved him gently in the shoulder.  Startled, he gave a small laugh.  She grinned back.  He returned the grin, tentatively at first, then as he saw her laughing at him, more confidently.

By the time they reached Giles’s apartment building and parked at the curb, they were howling with laughter. 

            “‘Copacetic…’”  She stumbled and almost fell out of the car, unable to finish it.

            “How many Grand Marniers did you have?” Giles sobbed, lurching out of the car himself.

            She lifted two fingers, facing him across the shiny red hood of his car.  “How many fingers am I holding up?”

            “Two, of course,” he said.

            “Then that’s how many I had.”

            “No, wait, it looks more like seven.”

            “You patriarchal hypocrite, you let me drink seven Grand Marniers?”

            He sputtered and started laughing again, his face reddening.

            “We’d better get inside before we make a ruckus,” she said.

            “I think it’s a bit too late for that,” Giles said, recovering enough to stand up straight and head toward the courtyard.  She followed him; as they went, one or the other of them broke into another mild fit of giggles, setting the other off again.

            Finally, Giles drew a deep sigh and dug in his jacket pocket for his keys.  She lengthened her stride to keep close to him in the shadows of the court: so when he stopped bolt-short, she cannoned hard into his back.  He put a hand back to steady her; she grasped the wrist and peered round from behind him into the shadows around his front door.

            Buffy was standing before them, arms crossed, feet planted, looking very deadly indeed.

            “Where, exactly, have you been?” she inquired, conversationally.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 9

by L. Inman

 

“Buffy,” Giles said, trying for a note of unalloyed pleasure.

            She clearly wasn’t buying it.  “What are you doing?” she said.  “I’ve been looking for you all evening.”

            “Didn’t Willow get a hold of you?” he said, holding on to his insouciance for dear life.  “I told her to check in with you, as I was going to be out of pocket this evening.”

            Buffy repeated:  “What have you been doing?”

            “I—”  He stopped, tried again.  “That is, Elisabeth and I—”  He gestured feebly behind him; Elisabeth let go of his wrist and moved out a little from behind him to face their inquisitor.  “We were out,” he said vaguely, “driving.”

            “A sort of experiment,” Elisabeth elaborated.

            “Testing dimensional walls,” Giles added.

            Elisabeth tried very hard to hold her lips in line; but she was too late to stop a small snort of laughter coming out her nose.  Giles heard it and giggled; then cleared his throat gravely and wiped the smile from his mouth with one hand.  “Excuse me,” he said, an edge of laughter still in his voice.

            Buffy thrust her face forward to scrutinize his.  “Are you drunk?” she accused.

            He stiffened.  “No,” he said, offended.  “What—do I have to be drunk in order to be enjoying myself?”  For reply, Buffy lowered her chin and regarded him levelly. He said hastily, “Don’t answer that.  Anyway,” he added, slipping into mild hysteria again, “if anyone’s drunk, it’s her.”  He pointed behind him at Elisabeth and snickered.

            Buffy’s basilisk stare turned on her.  Thanks a lot, Giles, Elisabeth thought.  She pinched him good and proper on the back of his elbow, where Buffy couldn’t see.

            “I’m not drunk either,” she said earnestly.  Her own hysteria had cooled, and she could see clearly that this conversation needed mending, fast.  “Giles took me out for dinner and drove me around town, by way of inquisitioning me about my life and morals.”

            “And we ended up having fun, if that is all right with you,” Giles said.  His hysteria, apparently, had cooled into outright irritation.

            Buffy’s glare returned to his face, and Elisabeth felt for the first time the palpable aura of Slayer pissitude.  “I don’t have time for this,” she told him severely.  “I’m swamped.  I have studying to do, not to mention the research, I have patrolling with a side order of extra vampires, and I have my family to protect—”

            —And I have my bride to murder on my wedding night, and a country to frame for it, Elisabeth thought giddily—

            “—and I don’t have time to chase after you, carousing with your—”  She flapped a hand in Elisabeth’s general direction.

            “I don’t think that’s quite fair,” Giles said, lifting his hands to plant on his hips.

            Elisabeth really, really didn’t need to be a part of this conversation anymore.  She stepped up next to Giles and held out a hand in front of him.  He didn’t notice.

            “I don’t have time for this—” Buffy repeated.  Sprouting eyes like a seraphim, Elisabeth thought.  Definitely time for her to make an exit.

            Elisabeth whapped Giles in the midriff twice with the back of her open hand.

            “What?” Giles said to her.

            “The key,” she said.

            Startled, both Buffy and Giles whipped to look at her.  “What about it?” Buffy snapped.  Elisabeth saw Giles shoot a worried glance at his protégée.  She groaned inwardly.  Open mouth, insert foot, she thought.

            Elisabeth pointed at the door behind Buffy.  “The house key?” she said.  “Giles?  Please.”

            “Oh!”  In the shadows, a suggestion of hot color rushed into Giles’s face.  “Here.”  He dug his keys out of his pocket and dropped them into her outstretched hand.

            “Excuse me, please,” Elisabeth said tentatively to Buffy.

            Very slowly, Buffy moved aside so that Elisabeth could get to the door.  Elisabeth fumbled with the keys, wishing Buffy would take that furious gaze off her.  She tried two wrong keys before getting the right one, and shakily stumbled her way into the apartment, pushing the door to behind her.  It didn’t quite close, but she didn’t care—she’d passed the gauntlet, and all she wanted for the moment was a glass of water.

            Her mind cleared as she gulped down her water in the kitchen, and she was able to hear again:  Buffy and Giles’s discussion had escalated into a full-blown argument.

            From beyond the door, Giles’s voice came clearly:  “I have told her nothing.”

            “Then why did she sound like she knew something about the Key?”

            “We can’t assume she knows about the Key.”

            “Well, why can’t you find out what she knows?”

            “That,” Giles enunciated, “is what I have been trying to do.”

            “And having fun,” she shot back.

            “Oh, God forbid!”  In the brief pause that followed, his voice gentled.  “Buffy—”

            Buffy was having none of it.  “I’m telling you I can’t spare any time for this.  I have too much to do—”

            “Which is why—”

            “—and I can’t afford to be worrying about you, too.”  For the first time a note of panic crept into her voice.  Elisabeth could hardly miss it even through the door; and she was quite sure it was not lost on Giles.  “You’re the only other one who knows.  You are not expendable—”

            “Buffy—” His voice grew even more patient.

            “I need you,” she said.

            “You have me.” 

No, it had not been lost on Giles.

            “Do I?” she challenged him.

            “Yes,” he said.  “You say you’re spread too thin.  No, listen to me.  That is why you should let me worry about this problem.  I’m more freehanded than you are, and what is more—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—I’ve got a clearer head at the moment.”

            Buffy spluttered, attempting to interrupt.

            “In fact,” Giles said over her inarticulate protests, “I think you would do well to chuck the extra patrol tonight and rest at home.”

            “I can’t,” Buffy said.

            There was a small silence.

            “You can only do one thing at a time, Buffy,” he said gently.  “This evening, let the wheel point to your family.”

            Elisabeth strained her ears, listening for the reply.  She was beginning to think she had missed it, when Buffy said:

            “And you’re not going AWOL on me?”

            “No,” Giles said.  “Cross my heart, King’s X, and all that.  Pax?”

            “Pax.”  Some of the humor had returned to her voice.

            “Go home,” Giles said, “and take care of Joyce and Dawn.”

            “Aye-aye, Cap’n,” Buffy said, but her attempt at jocularity was flat.

            Elisabeth decided she’d heard enough.  She put down the water glass and went down the hall into the bathroom.  Shut the door behind her and leaned against it briefly before going to use the toilet. 

            The mirror again.  Damn the mirror.  Elisabeth took off her glasses and peered in close.  She looked like—like a person who’d had two Grand Marniers and then had the fabric of her being stretched to tearing point.  She sighed, turned on the taps, splashed her face.  Dried it with the towel.  Resumed her glasses and braved herself up to going out there again.

            When she returned to the kitchen, she found Giles there, hitched up against the counter and downing a glass of water of his own.  He saw her and lowered the glass.  “Oh, hello,” he said.  “You all right?”

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said.  “Is she all right?”

            “Yes,” he said.  “I should have noticed sooner she was having a bad night of it.”  He made a wry grimace. 

            “Did you find out what happened—if anything?”  Elisabeth refilled her water glass at the tap.

            “No.  I don’t think anything did.  I think she’s just been out of the loop this evening and it made her nervous.”

            “Understandable,” Elisabeth said.  She took a long drink of the water, hiding behind the glass while she observed him.  She was aware again of his height relative to hers, and she wondered for a moment if this was the sign of another anxiety attack.  But no:  her mind was relatively clear.  Something else then; her memory played over a keyboard of images and ideas, striking odd notes—the illusion of grandeur associated with great size, the illusion of darling weakness associated with the miniature—the fairy great-grandmother at the beginning of Phantastes—the grief lines around Giles’s mouth, back in the car on the highway—the graceful slope of his shoulder now, as he poured out the remainder of his water into the sink.

            “Have you read any George Macdonald?” she asked him.

            He looked up, his eyes unfocused and searching the middle distance.  “Rings a bell...Victorian, wasn’t he?”

            “Yeah.  Did my Master’s thesis on him, and fairy painting, and William Blake.”

            “Ah,” he said, brightening—she knew not whether from recognition of the name, or delight in a faërie-related discovery about her, or both.  “Yes...,” he said, taking off his glasses and chewing thoughtfully on the earpiece.  “Didn’t he do an address on the writing of fairy tales, or some such?”

            “He did several,” she said, “but his most famous is ‘The Fantastic Imagination.’”

            “Yes,” he said.  “I remember now.  So what about it?”

            “I’ve just been thinking about him, is all,” she said.  “The way he warps reality with a perfect image—he’s so completely a man of his age, and yet there’s no one like him.  I’ve just been thinking about his fairy tale for grownups, Phantastes—have you read it?”

            “No,” he said, looking at her with interest, “I regret to say I have not.”

            “It’s amazing,” she said, “how he has this concentric worldview, and yet his picture of lived experience is entirely contiguous, both in and out of Faërie.  I wonder what he’d have to say about my experiences....I should get a copy of that book and look it over again.”

            “Do,” Giles said.  “It couldn’t hurt.”

            “Might help,” she said.  She put down her water and wandered out of the kitchen, toward the bookshelves by the ancient television.  She was pretty sure Giles didn’t have a copy of Phantastes, or any other Macdonald, but—something was niggling at her consciousness—not well-shaped enough to be a clue, yet not diffuse enough to pass unnoticed: like the writer’s urge, resonating in the fiber of her brain and breath and muscle.  Her eyes were fixed in their gaze on the shelves.

            Then she noticed what it was she was looking at.  “A chess set,” she said, reaching for it.

            “What?” Giles called from the kitchen.

            “You have a chess set here,” she said.  “Do you play?”

            “What...?”  He came into the livingroom.  “—Oh, yes, the chess set.  Haven’t played in a while.  Not since Spike was here.”

            A smile toyed with her mouth.  “You played chess with Spike?”

            He lifted his eyes in a familiar longsuffering gesture.  “Please don’t mention it to the others.”

            “Your secret dies with me,” she said, grinning.  “Play me?”

            His brows went up.  “You play?”

            “Well—I know how all the pieces move.”

            He dropped his shoulders and gave her his inimitable disparaging look.  “You don’t play, then,” he said.

            “I can learn,” she said, giving him a winning smile.

            He sighed at her, looking over his glass-rims.  “Chess,” he said, “is a complicated game.  You can’t possibly learn enough to play me a decent game in one evening.”

            “Aristotle says:  ‘We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning to do.’”

            “Bugger Aristotle,” Giles said; but he took the proffered chess set and carried it to the table.  “Set up the pieces—I trust you do know how to do that—and I’ll make tea.”

            She clapped her hands lightly and skipped over to the table to do as he bid.

            By the time he had brought the two steaming cups to the table, she was sitting waiting behind the ranked black row of chessmen.  He sat down and turned the board around so that he was behind the black.  “White goes first,” he said, “and you need all the advantage you can get.”

            “Egotistical, much?” she said.

            Giles chose not to answer that.  “Wait a minute—these are the rooks, and these are the bishops.” He switched their places on both sides, then sat back and eyed the pieces, perhaps to search for more mistakes in her placement.  But as it happened, she hadn’t made any more, so he relaxed, unbuttoned the cuffs of his red button-down shirt, rolled up the sleeves, and waited expectantly for her to make her first move.

            She tried to think of a strategy, but nothing suggested itself to her, so she chose a pawn along the edge and advanced it.  She half expected Giles to grunt or make a caustic comment, but instead he merely advanced one of his pawns in silence. 

            The next few minutes were silent, punctuated only by the sound of one or the other of them sipping noisily at the hot tea as they took turns moving.  “Ah-ah, can’t do that,” Giles said once; she grunted and amended her move.  “Better,” he said, and lifted one of his knights.  “Check,” he said.  She moved her queen in defense.  He moved a rook:  “Checkmate.”

            “Already?” she said, disappointed.  “How?”

            “You opened it up here, and here,” he said, indicating the breaches in her defense with one long finger.  “Set them up again.”

            She suppressed a sigh, and recast the pieces.

            A few minutes later, she was mated again.

            “Damn,” she said.

            “Set them up again,” he said.  She glanced at his face: his expression as he eyed the board was impassive, patient: the Sphinx-riddling gaze of the Watcher.  The writer’s-urge feeling rose in her again, whether inspired by the blank mystery of the board or Giles’s face, she was not sure.  She decided to ignore the feeling and let it come out into the open on its own.  Meanwhile, she had a chess game to lose.  Which she did, in short order.

            “Blast,” she said, and he looked up at her, the humor twitching in his mouth.  “Giving up?” he asked.

            “Not on your life,” she said, and set up the pieces again.

            “A word of advice,” he said.  “Pascal says:  ‘A man does not achieve moral superiority by reaching one extreme or the other, but by encompassing them both.’”

            She looked up at him, pausing in reaching for a pawn, and broke into the first full smile he’d seen from her.  “You insolent so-and-so,” she said. 

            He grinned at her with his eyes, over the rims of his glasses.  She pushed her own glasses up on her nose with one finger, and reached again for the pawn.  “What you mean,” she said, advancing it, “is that I should keep my goal in sight but watch my back.”

            Giles answered with his opening move.  “Very good,” he said.

            “Also easier said than done,” she said, moving another pawn to back up the first.

            “Again, very good.”

            Amazingly, as play continued, Elisabeth managed to stay alive for another ten minutes.  When Giles made the final move, his “Checkmate” stung a little less.

            Elisabeth began to set up the pieces again.

            “Where did you learn to play?” she said.

            “At home, during my childhood,” Giles answered, helping her to set up the board.  “It was the family pastime, and my first training ground.”

            “You mean, as a Watcher?”

            “Yes.”

            “I don’t doubt it.”  She made her first move.  He made his.

            “Stopped playing it for a while when I was trying to forget my calling.”  The fingers of one of his hands absently stroked the rim of his teacup; his eyes drank in the situation of the new game on the board.  “When I came back to my training, I came back to chess as well.”

            Which explained a lot; like the half-reckless, half-inexorable brilliance of his style.  Elisabeth knew next to nothing about chess: but she was beginning to know Giles, and she could recognize easily that his playing style, like his handwriting and his mobile face, carried the same curious amalgam of passion, unconventionality, and delicate-reined control.  With this in mind, she slowed down her moves, trying to drink in the board as she saw him doing.  “I am beginning to feel you out,” she murmured, moving a knight.

            “I can see that,” he murmured back.

            She studied the board carefully, then moved another pawn.  “Is it a sort of predestination, becoming a Watcher?”

            “You have to ask?” he said, taking her pawn with his bishop.

            “I don’t know much about the process.  I do know a little something about religious conversion, however, and I wondered if the experiences were comparable.”

            “I’ve never thought of my heritage in religious terms,” he said.  She listened carefully for any warnings in his tone, but found that his inflection was merely equable.  He was watching the board.

            “Surely you are not missing my point,” she said.

            “Please elucidate.”

            She bent a little, to sight along her bishop to one of his pawns, debating whether to threaten it or bide her time.  “You argue it all down to silence,” she said, “and then it ceases to be a question of what you want, or what you think, but what you will do; and it takes less than a moment—and it’s finished.”

            He was silent a moment, then said:  “Yes.”  He changed the position of his rook, in a seemingly meaningless move, but Elisabeth was beginning to know better.  “You’re a Calvinist, then?” he inquired.

            “Not in the least,” she said.  “In fact, I don’t hold much with the idea of Destiny-with-a-capital-D.”

            “No?” he said.  “Check.”

            “I knew that rook meant something,” she muttered.  “No.  You do, I suppose.”

            “I try not to think about it too much.”

            “Like Charles Lamb.  ‘Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less, as I never think about them.’”

            “I am hardly untroubled by it,” Giles said dryly.  “Check.”

            Elisabeth removed herself from check and congratulated herself that her move did not immediately land her in checkmate.  Now if only there were a move that was both defensive and offensive at once....

            “Now, destiny with a little ‘d’ I believe in,” she said.  “Like the white page of a book: nothing’s to be read that isn’t on the page; and yet it’s the words, not the page, that we read.  Stop ignoring the white page, you start losing concentration on the words; and then you lose your hold on the meaning.”

            He smiled, but did not raise his eyes from the board.  “You made that up just now, didn’t you?”

            “Yes.  Check,” she said, triumphantly.

            “Checkmate.”

            “Argh!”  She buried her hands in her hair.

            Giles offered her a little smile.

            “Can I take that move back?”

            The look he gave her was answer enough.  She made a wide-eyed grimace and began to set up the pieces again.

            The next game, she grew impatient and sent pawn after pawn into the fray without planning ahead.  She could almost hear Giles gritting his teeth:  maybe this would force a wrong move out of him.  “So, you don’t believe in Destiny with a capital D,” Giles said, refusing to be budged from his game.  She cursed to herself.

            “No,” she said.  “I prefer my philosophy to have some elbow room.”  She reached for her queen and lifted her for a long move.

            “Don’t you make that move,” he said sharply.  She looked up in surprise; he was glaring at her.  “Not if you want to throw the entire game away.”

            Still holding the queen, she looked down at the board.  “I don’t see it.”

            “You’re not concentrating.”

            “I am, though,” she said.

            He let out a compressed sigh.  “Look at the whole board.”

            “I don’t see it,” she said again, irritably.  “And I am concentrating.”

            “No,” he said, “you’re not.”

            She grew caustic.  “I’m doing my best.  Maybe having half my consciousness in another dimension has something to do with it.”

            “Oh, just bloody stretch,” he growled.

            She glared at him for a long moment.  He glared back.  Finally, she drew a long breath and set the queen back in its original place, then settled back to study the board, letting her eyes go unfocused.  When she refocused them, she saw immediately the weakness he had seen before her.  She grunted, and moved a knight to cover it.

            “Much better,” he said.

            “Thank you,” she said primly.

            Play continued in silence.  And lasted in silence.  In fact, Elisabeth kept the game alive for another half an hour before his pincers closed on first her queen and then her king.  She yawned and pushed her fingers up under her glasses, rubbing at her eyes.  “I think I’m all in.”

            “You’re improving,” he said.  “You may actually make a chess player some day.”

            She let her glasses fall back into place and gave him a smirk for answer. 

            “Help me clear up?” he said.

            “Certainly.”

            She carried the tea cups into the kitchen while he replaced the pieces in the case and put it away on the shelf.  When he came into the kitchen she was washing the few dishes that remained in the sink.  He took them from her one by one and dried them.  Then together they put them away. 

            He put his backside to the counter and wiped his hands idly with the dishcloth, staring again into the middle distance.  She came to a rest next to him, her gaze going idle, like his.

            “On the other hand,” she said after a silence, “perhaps I am destined to be a poor chess player.”  She had meant it for a jest, but the sad note crept out despite her efforts.

            His mouth moved wryly.  “You have the mind for it,” he said.  “It’s just that you’re used to using words instead of pawns.  And you’re not used to a limited board.”

            She smiled over and up at him.  “Thank you, kind sir.”

            “It’s not kindness,” he said simply.

            There was another silence, then he added, “And I should be thanking you.”

            “Oh?” She looked up at him again, and again there was that gathering of an urge in her consciousness; she remembered suddenly her abandoned sonnet-in-progress begun on the bus, and wondered what it had to do with him. 

            Giles pulled off his glasses and wiped delicately at the corners of his eyes with his thumb.  “Yes,” he said.  “Having fun is usually not on my agenda.”

            “I know,” she said.  “I’m glad you did.”

            “Though your British accents are deplorable.”  He glanced sidelong down at her.

            “Really?” she said.  “I always thought they were rather good.”

            “Oh, it’s not your intonation that’s the problem,” he said; “it’s the fact that you can’t seem to decide what part of the bloody country you’re from.”

            She laughed, and shrugged.  “Well, I can’t seem to decide what part of the bloody country I’m from at home, either.  So I don’t think that’s going to get fixed any time soon.  Ah well.  I can live with it.”

            Giles settled his glasses back on his nose and shot a supercilious glance out into the hall.  “Excellence in all things,” he said.

            For the second time that evening she gave him a little playful shove.  “I have had about enough of that from you tonight.”

            He laughed.

            It occurred to her suddenly what one of the elements niggling at her consciousness was.  She tipped her head and took in the sight of him: tall, inimitably poised on the divide between Air and Earth—a man of horizons, both comfortable and unpredictable at once.  His collar was awry, and she reached up and straightened it.  He looked down at her curiously.

            Impulsively she decided to risk it all by mentioning it.  Not what Giles himself would do; but then, she wasn’t Giles.

            “You know,” she said, tipping her head further, “it’s been a long time since I made any friends.  It’s nice.”

            His eyebrow quirked only a little.  “So it takes a lot, then?” he said.

            She waved a hand.  “Oh, you know, just the usual things.  Crossing dimensions—almost getting killed—having a panic attack—pretty easy, really.”

            He smiled.

            “And playing chess,” she added.

            “In more ways than one,” he said.

            The giddy feeling rose and fell within her again.  “Yes,” she said with a small unbidden smile. 

            His gaze was not the inquisitor’s gaze of earlier in the evening, but still he was searching her face, curiously, patiently.  At the very same moment that she decided to welcome it, she headed him off by blurting:

            “Did you know that in my dimension you’re a sex symbol among female librarians?”

            His reaction was immediate:  he doubled over, snorting into astonished laughter.  Nor did he recover quickly.  He took his glasses off and wiped tears from his reddened face, still giggling helplessly.  “You’re having me on,” he managed to say as he pulled out his handkerchief.

            “No, I’m really not,” she said.  She didn’t, however, mention that the phenomenon extended beyond the ranks of female librarians.

            He shook his head, still laughing.  “You come from a very queer dimension, Elisabeth,” he said, wiping his face with the handkerchief.  “Though I admit, that does feel nice to my ego.”

            “You must promise never to use this power for evil,” she said gravely.

            He started to giggle again.  “Very well, I promise.  In fact, I shall forget it directly.”

            She bent her head, flushing as she realized what an embarrassing position she’d just maneuvered herself into.

            He then proceeded to make it worse.  “And why do you tell me this?”

            She didn’t quite meet his eye.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I suppose I just had an urge to throw the game away.”

            “Stop doing that,” was all he said.

            “And,” she added, “I like watching you laugh.”

            “It doesn’t unnerve you?”  She caught a wistful note in his voice.

            “No,” she said, looking up at him again.  “I’m unnerved by much more inexplicable things; like being inquisitioned.”

            He smiled.  “Don’t you consider that part of the game?”

            “Now who’s distending metaphors?” she said.

            “Just shows what sort of nasty habits one can pick up.”

            She grinned.  “I’d say that that was all part of my evil plan, but in this dimension, that actually means something.”

            He grinned back.  Elisabeth felt distinctly odd.  But not unpleasant.  In fact—

            Giles was suddenly stammering.  “D’you think—would it—would it queer the pitch if—if I—”

            “No,” she said—he blinked, surprised, but she went on— “no, you’re not allowed to change metaphors at this stage.  We were doing games, you can’t just suddenly switch to music like that—”

            She hadn’t fully realized up to now that he had turned to face her.  He fumbled with the dishcloth; she took it out of his hands and laid it on the counter next to them.  He was laughing on a shallow breath.  “Not many people—” he said, “know that’s a music metaphor—” She laid a hand in the crook of his arm—  “But from you I expect no less….”  She lifted her head expectantly, gauging it by the nearness of his voice; but unfortunately he had moved quicker.  Their faces bumped, their glasses tangled, and as she pulled back they scraped across her cheek.  “Ouch!”

            They were laughing, both of them, as they disentangled themselves.  “Typical,” Giles said.  She got her glasses off, laid them on the dishcloth, then reached up and took his as he handed them to her.  “Now try it,” she said.

            But as he moved in close, she drew in a sharp shivery breath. 

            He cocked his head backward.  “Something wrong?”

            She gave her head many small shakes.  “It’s just—anticipation makes me nervous….”  Her voice petered out before she could finish the last word.

            “I know the feeling,” he said; and something in both his voice and his proximity eased her breathing, so that by the time he laid his cheek against hers she was relaxed, and her eyes were closed.  When he moved gently to kiss her, she kissed him back, without hurry.

            This was, Elisabeth thought dimly, another new thing to learn.  There were a number of things she hadn’t anticipated, but which pleased her very much:  the way in which his shoulders framed themselves close to her, almost perfectly placed for her hands to rest on; the scent of his skin up close; the unexpected blend of gift and demand in the touch of his mouth and hands.  So many borrowed words in English, she thought—one for every purpose, the Anglo-Saxon, the Norman, and the Latin—ask, demand, interrogate—  After this, all words fled from Elisabeth’s head like birds startled from a bush.  That, too, was a new thing.

            See, I am doing a new thing….

            Their kiss progressed naturally, and ended naturally; she drew breath, swallowed dryly, and bent her head forward to rest her mouth and nose against his shirt.  His arms went fully round her, tentatively at first, then more comfortably.

            “You seem to do all right in the moment,” he said quietly.

            She couldn’t remember what this was in reference to.  She breathed softly in his arms, searching her mind unhurriedly until she found it.  “That’s usually how it is,” she answered at last, her voice muffled in his shirt.  “I’m the kind who gets all freaky until it comes to the point.”

            “Better that than the other,” he said.

            “Yes.”

            “Remind me again why you’re running away?”

            She smiled.  “Nice try, Rupert,” she said.

            His shoulders moved a little as he laughed.

            His red shirt smelled like sage smoke, and clean linen, and cool leather.

            For not being part of the story, it was very nice.

            The story.  Her eyes came open, and the spell broke, silently.  She pulled back and away.

            “We can’t do this—”

            “We shouldn’t do this,” he said at the same moment.

            She drew in a sudden relieved breath.  “I’m—I’m so glad we’re on the same page.”

            “Yes,” he agreed, stammering again and looking at his feet, “it’s much more difficult when there’s no agreement on—such a point—”

            “Right,” she said.  She reached over and resumed her glasses.  Except that when she put them on, they felt odd, and her vision clouded painfully.  She took them off again and looked at them, then at him: he was just giving up the attempt to fit her small glasses onto his face.  They started laughing again.  “Here,” she said, and they traded.  “Better?” she said.

            “Much better,” he said.

            “I’m all in,” she said, for the second time that evening.  “I’m going to get ready for bed.”

            “Yes—a very—” he yawned— “a very good idea.”

            She moved around him, delicately, and went out to find her pack by the couch.

            He followed her, idly, and stood watching her from the doorway as she crouched at her pack and dug through it.  “It was a nice kiss, though,” she said without looking up.  “Thank you.”

            “It was,” he said.  “You taste of Grand Marnier.”

            She bent lower, so that he could not see the hot flush that was flooding her face.  When she had recovered a little, she pulled out her toothbrush and held it up for him to see.  “Not for long,” she said.

            He gave her a little wry smile.  “Goodnight,” he said, and as she stood with her pile of pajamas and toiletries, he moved out of the doorway and made his way—wearily, she noticed—across the room and up the stairs. 

            “Goodnight,” she said belatedly, and scuttled down the hall to the bathroom.

            A short time later she made herself comfortable in her nest on the couch, all the lights out except for one Tiffany lamp behind her head.  The house was quiet.  What a day, she thought, her head buzzing.  I’m never going to be able to sleep now.

            And fell promptly and profoundly unconscious.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 10

by L. Inman

 

The next morning Giles came downstairs, robed and tousle-haired, and went into the kitchen to make himself some toast.  As the toaster primed, he peered into the livingroom through the bar, to see if Elisabeth was awake yet.  She wasn’t.  Over her still head shone the single lamp; she had never turned it off after going to bed.  But then, he remembered suddenly, she had said she always slept with a light on.

            The toast popped up; he put it on a plate and buttered it, then poured himself a small glass of juice.  He carried the glass and the plate out to his desk and turned on a light.  He sat down and went through his notes from the previous day, alternately munching and sipping.  It was fruitless, really.  He had discovered nothing about Elisabeth’s home dimension, let alone a way to forge a link to send her there.  After a few desultory minutes hatching and cross-hatching in the margins of his notebook, he gave up and took the plate and glass back into the kitchen to rinse.

            Elisabeth was still asleep.  It was a good sign, he supposed, that she had sprawled a bit more comfortably than he had found her two mornings before.  Her bare feet peeped out from under the blanket; one derelict hand rested curled beside her ear.  Perhaps when he woke her this time, it wouldn’t instigate one of her attacks.

            And, with any luck, perhaps she would wake up on her own.

            Giles went upstairs, gathered together his clothing, and came back down to hit the shower.  He took his sweet time about it; he was achingly tired, his head hurt him, and on balance he would have preferred to stay in bed till the sun was much higher in the sky.  As he dressed, he paused to rub his chin and decided to forgo shaving; it would be one less chore out of the morning, and anyway his beard had not grown very much since last evening.  Buttoning his collar, he opened the door and made his way down the hall.

            Elisabeth was still not awake.

            Giles looked at his watch.  He had time to make himself a cup of coffee.  Another twenty minutes, and then he would wake her.

            The coffee-making noises did not wake Elisabeth:  Good God, Giles thought, taking his first sip, she must be half-dead.  He resolved to stay in the kitchen with his coffee and not go in to stare at her.  No one, he thought, likes to wake up to somebody staring at one.

            The twenty minutes were up.  Giles dumped out the last of his coffee and went into the livingroom.  She was still heavily asleep; he sighed and resigned himself to the inevitable.  “Elisabeth,” he said, bending over her.

            Her face stirred a little, but she did not wake.  “Elisabeth,” he said again.

            She groaned without waking and turned her face away toward the back of the couch. 

            He spoke her name again, and reached tentatively for her shoulder.  She was lying on her back, so that it was difficult to get hold of it; but he managed to slide his hand gently between her shoulder and the pillow and shake her lightly.

            “Elisabeth...wake up.”

            She groaned again.  He shook her a little harder.  She opened her eyes a fraction.  Muttered:  “Giles?”

            “Yes, it’s me.”

            “Giles?”


  1.             “Yes.”   He paused in shaking her.

            “Go away.”

            He smiled a little.  “Sorry.  You’ve got to get up.”

            “No....”  She moaned and tried to turn over onto her face, but he wouldn’t let her.  “No you don’t,” he said.  “Come on.  Wake up.”

            “I may have to hurt you,” she murmured.

            “Well, you have to get up first.”  Giles joggled her by both shoulders.  “Come on now.”

            “Why?”  She opened her eyes again.  “Something wrong?”  This idea seemed to wake her up faster; her eyes opened nearly all the way, and she looked up, searching his face.  “What is it?  What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing’s wrong,” Giles said, reluctantly.  “It’s only that you’ve got to get up now.  I’m taking you to the magic shop with me.”

            “Don’t want to,” she said, letting her head fall back again and shutting her eyes.  “Go away.”

            “You have to.”

            “Why?”

            “Research, remember?  Marching orders, remember?”

            “No,” Elisabeth said.  Giles decided she meant that she was choosing not to remember.  It was time to take drastic action.  Grasping her by the upper arms, he pulled her up into a limp sitting position.  “Come on now,” he grunted.  “I know you remember.  You said you wanted to help with the research, and I said you could, and you said to let you know when—and I said—”

            “And you yourself have said it, and it’s greatly to your credit,” Elisabeth murmured.  She held up her head and opened her eyes blearily.  “For you are an Englishman.”

            “Yes, so they tell me,” Giles said, rolling his eyes.  “Are you awake now?”

            “Yes,” she said, “no thanks to you.  Heartless bastard.”

            “You have enough time to get dressed,” Giles said.

            He let go of her, and she swung her feet down from the couch to the floor.  “Do I have time to take a bath?”

            “No.”

            “Completely heartless.”

            Wisely, Giles got out of her way so that she could dig in her pack for clothing and toiletries, get to her feet, and flatfoot her way down the hall to the bathroom.  Some fifteen minutes later she emerged, fully dressed and combed, if a bit rumpled—and went to her pack to put away her pajamas.  He stowed books in his satchel and watched from the corner of his eye as she unrolled an unwieldy bit of black cloth that turned out to be a worn bookbag and began stuffing books and CDs into it.  That done, she hitched the shapeless thing on her shoulder and presented herself.  “Here I am,” she grunted.

            “Excellent,” he said, shouldering his own satchel and grabbing his keys.

 

*

 

In the car, neither of them said much of anything.  Elisabeth maintained a dead stare, blinking only occasionally and saying nothing at all, except for three grunts and an “okay” in response to Giles’s forays into conversation.  Not that he was trying very hard; he felt very much the way Elisabeth looked.

            Giles let them in at the back of the magic shop.  Elisabeth made her way ahead of him through the darkened back rooms, until he nudged her from behind and showed her to a book-and-file-laden table, which he cleared somewhat for her to sit down.  She plopped down in the chair he drew up for her, let her bag fall from her shoulder to the floor, and pulled off her glasses.  Though she left her eyes open, she heard more than saw him go into the front room and begin to move things—a few clinks here, the sound of pouring water, the thump of books, the rollercoaster sound of the cash register drawer.

            Presently he returned to the back room and flipped on the light.  Fortunately for her the light was dim, so she stifled her groan.  He placed on the table before her a mug; when she reached for it, she found it to contain a steaming quantity of black coffee, which she sipped at without comment.

            Some minutes later he came to her with a large stack of books and maneuvered them onto the table.  “These are for you,” he told her.

            She put down her coffee and lifted the top one off the stack.  “Do I know what I’m looking for?” she asked him.

            He smiled wryly.  “No.”

            “Wouldn’t be the first time,” she said, as he disappeared through the doorway.

            Elisabeth resumed her glasses and settled herself down with the first book, her coffee, and a pad and pencil.  And promptly found herself nodding.  This would never do.

            She dug into her bag for her headset and a CD.  Something energetic:  Joan Osborne, perhaps.  She settled the earpieces in her ears, slipped in the CD, and pressed play.  This was a bit better.  She took another lingering sip of coffee and returned to the book, sighing to herself.  This one was not a demonology but a listing of known dimensions and their qualities.  Elisabeth had a feeling she was not going to find her dimension in it, but she was game.

            Some ten minutes later, she was working on the second volume of the dimension index and humming faintly with the music.  A few times Giles passed across her peripheral vision, carrying a file, or a cardboard box filled with rattling merchandise, or a stack of books.  A few times she took a deep pull at her coffee.  She was just beginning to wake up in earnest when two things happened almost at once.

            Giles reappeared in the back room, a sheaf of notes under his arm, and approached her.  She looked up at him in silent query, pausing the music and pulling the earpieces out of her ears.  “Any luck so far?” he said.

            “Not yet.”

            He pulled off his glasses and fumbled around the sheaf of notes to find his pocket and pull out his handkerchief.  She watched him attempt to rub the lenses with the handkerchief without taking the papers from under his arm, realize that this was totally infeasible, and transfer the papers to the top of her stack of books before returning to his lens-cleaning ritual.  “Do you want more coffee?” he asked her, glancing up from his little task.

            Elisabeth nipped her little smile in the bud.  “No; I’m good,” she said.

            “Well, there’s more coffee in the other room, if you want any.”  He turned the handkerchief over one-handed and went at a particular spot inside the right lens of his glasses.

            “You know what really works for that?” she said suddenly.

            “Hmm?”  His eyes flickered, but he did not quite glance up.

            “Shampoo.”

            He blinked and looked up at her.  “Shampoo for what?”

            “For cleaning glasses,” she said. 

            “Really,” he said, staring at her.

            “Oh, yeah,” she said.  “You take a bit of shampoo on your fingers with a little water, and clean the lenses with them.  Then you wash it off and wipe the glasses dry, and you’re good for at least a couple of days.”

            “Really,” he said.

            “My mother taught me that,” she said.  “I shed a lot of oil, so I need more than a handkerchief to really get them clean.”  She looked at him slyly.  “Of course, nothing can quite replace the eloquent statement one can make by cleaning one’s glasses at random.”

            One corner of his mouth twitched, and his color rose a very little; but all he said was:  “I’ll have to try your technique.”

            It was then that the second thing happened. 

            A bell tinkled somewhere, followed by a clackety-spat of footsteps—women’s shoes, coming their way.  Though they were both expecting it, Anya’s irruption into the back room was still startling.  She was shedding her cardigan and talking fast on her way through the door.  “Sorry I’m late, Giles,” she said.  “I was…well, I was—you know—”  Her hand waved, searching for the right gesture.

            He spoke before she could find it.  “In any case, I’m very glad you’re here.  We have a great deal of work to do.”

            Anya noticed Elisabeth for the first time.  “Who’s this?” 

            “Oh,” Giles said.  “That is one of the things I meant to—  Anya, this is Elisabeth.  Elisabeth: Anya.”

            “Oh right,” Anya said, brightening.  “Xander told me about you.”  She turned to Giles.  “How come all the exciting stuff happens on my day off?”

            Giles cleared his throat.  “I have no idea.”

            “I’m going to get the shop set up for our customers,” Anya said, and bustled back into the front room, the curtain billowing behind her.

            “Anya should be careful what she wishes for,” Elisabeth said quietly into her book.

            Giles frowned.  “You’d think as a former vengeance demon she’d know better.  You’re right.  I’ll have to leave someone with her if I ever decide to take a day off.”

            Elisabeth cleared her throat and managed to say nothing.  Avoiding Giles’s gaze, she buried herself in volume two of An Almanack of Dimensions.

            “I’m going to help Anya,” Giles said, gathering up his papers again, “and then I’m coming back to join you.”

            She nodded, already halfway deep into the book again.

            True to his word, Giles returned a while later, bearing his own stack of books, and cleared a space at the table across from her.  For a while they worked silently; Giles sipped occasionally at his coffee, and Elisabeth moved her lips to her music.

            As Elisabeth had predicted, there was no mention of her dimension in the Almanack.  She thumped the three-volume set aside in the pile of rejects and grabbed another book, this one a history of transdimensional spells.  Surely there would be something in here that might be useful.  She took up her pencil and turned pages, reading through account by account, spell by spell.  But the further she read, the more her skepticism recoiled at the mechanics of these spells.  What was so significant about placing five candles in a circle and chanting bad poetry?  How was that supposed to help?  According to these accounts, it did—and if Giles took it seriously, she felt she had to give it some credence.  And yet—

            A nuisance strand of Elisabeth’s hair was dripping out of her ponytail and into her face.  She kept wiping it away, but it slipped down again almost immediately each time she did.  Finally, frustrated with the book, her hair, and the search in general, she pulled off her glasses and her earpieces and dropped the pencil back onto the empty pad. 

            Her explosive sigh brought Giles’s head up.  He adjusted his glasses and looked at her with the sort of thin-lipped amusement that got her goat immediately.

            “Giving up already?” he said.

            She glared at him.  “No,” she said, with dignity.  “I’m a scholar, I have some stamina.  But I was just thinking—” she hadn’t meant to say this in case it was impolitic, but now she didn’t care— “that I don’t see how lighting five candles in a circle and chanting bad poetry is going to help anything.”

            His mouth quirked into an incensing little smile.  “How about six candles and some good poetry—John Donne, perhaps?”

            “That’s an English major’s idea of a hot night,” Elisabeth said, her eyebrows lofty.  “But I don’t think it’s any more likely to enable a person to cross dimensional lines.”

            He was laughing. 

            “I’m serious, dammit,” Elisabeth said.

            He hooted at this.  “Of course you are,” he managed to say.

            She folded her arms and waited for him to recover himself.  Eventually, he removed his glasses and wiped at his face with his handkerchief, and said, grinning at her with amused bare eyes:

            “So you find it difficult to give credence to a circle of candles and bad poetry.  I can respect that.  But magicians aren’t poets, you know.”

            “More’s the pity,” she sniffed.

            He smiled again and put his glasses back on.

            She gathered her courage and pressed on:  “But that isn’t my biggest objection, you know.”

            “Oh?” Giles was folding his handkerchief.

            “It isn’t just the form of the ritual; it’s the ritual itself.”  She wiped her hair out of her face and leaned forward earnestly.  “I admit my experience is of a different kind.  But the rituals I know—the ones in the Church—they’re meant for the humans, they’re not meant for the higher powers.  I mean, God doesn’t give a rat’s ass if I—” she waved a hand in search of an example— “turn around three times and spit when I make a request.  If I do a funny ritual like that, I do it because it connects my consciousness somehow with what’s going forward.  But to use a ritual to accomplish something in itself—to have some purpose not go forward because one leaves out a word, or moves one’s hand at the wrong time—it’s—a manipulation—like a key in a lock—”  She stopped, her face losing color.  He wasn’t laughing anymore.

            She paled even further as she recognized the impact of her last phrase on him.  She sat back in her chair and forced herself to take a breath.

            He pinned her down with his eyes and said quietly:  “I understand your point of view.  I even share it, to an extent.  But tell me this:  how is technology any different?”

            (A man of courageous reason, thank God.)

            “It isn’t,” she said, thinking hard.  “But…I can see—there’s a link there, a match—between the experiment and the result—”

            “Which is born of long familiarity,” he said.

            She leaned forward again.  “Is that all it is?”

            She watched his face:  one eyebrow went up, shrugging.  He was giving it back to her, damn him.  She flushed.

            “I’m not the one who should be answering.  I’m not the one who has to fight fire with fire,” she said.

            “But you provoked the question,” he pointed out.

            “I know I did.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”  She wiped her hair out of her face (a fruitless gesture), and folded her arms again.

            He shook his head, the little smile creeping up once more.  “You’re doing it again.”

            “Doing what?”

            “Throwing the game away.”

            She primmed her lips hard and said:  “Far better to throw it away than lose—or win a Pyrrhic victory—”

            “And yet you’re not a coward,” he said coolly.

            She inhaled sharply.  “Or hurt my opponent,” she finished.

            He pulled off his glasses.  “A ridiculous nicety,” he said, “—one which you would do well to jettison from your so-called arsenal.”

            “Well, now, there’s a mouthful.”  She sat back and breathed for a minute.

            He waited, fingering the earpiece of his glasses with his thumb, not yet putting them back on.

            Elisabeth felt the need to temporize.  “What were we talking about, again?”

            The touch of humor returned to his face.  He put his glasses back on.  “We were talking,” he said, “of the similarities between magic and technology.”

            “Seems like such a meek subject,” she said.

            “Not really.” 

            “Damn you,” she said.

            He chuckled.  “So have you an answer for me?” he said.

            She stared levelly at him for a long moment, then answered:  “Yes.  Technology is rarely capricious in nature, unless you count chaos theory, which I don’t.  Magic, on the other hand, is eminently capricious, unstable, subject to the whims of sentient and possibly amoral beings, and for that reason doubly dangerous.”

            “Well, I certainly agree with that last,” Giles said.  “Magic certainly shouldn’t be practiced by amateurs who have no respect for that truth—certainly not by the majority of the general population.”

            “Said the proprietor of a magic shop,” Elisabeth said, looking over her glass-rims at him.

            He smiled: a real, honest smile.  “A touch, a touch, I do confess’t.”

            She smiled back.

            “Nice to see you didn’t pull back on that one,” he said, then glanced aside.  “Yes, Anya?”

            Startled, Elisabeth turned to see that Anya was standing waiting in the doorway for an opening to speak.  “I can come back,” Anya said.

            “No, no.”  He waved her in.

            “It’s just that I had a question about the inventory….”

            “Right,” he said, getting up.  “Shall we continue when I return?” he asked Elisabeth.

            “Certainly,” Elisabeth said.  “I’ll hit the books, and study up on the Marquis of Queensberry rules.”

            He chuckled and made his departure with Anya.

            Elisabeth plopped back in her chair, letting out the breath she didn’t know she had kept pent up.  It took all of the time that Giles was gone for her to stop shaking enough to pick up the next book and make a serious shot at reading it.

            When he returned and took his seat, Elisabeth was firmly ensconced in her chair, now turning the pages of Sodayn Apearances.  This book had at least the amusing novelty of having been written in Chaucerian Middle English, and, being a sixteenth-century reprint, had woodcuts to match the fabulous stories in the text. 

            “‘And whanne that shadoe apered uppon the wall, she creyed out, God salve me, Benedicite!’” she read aloud, giving the vowels their full Middle-English weight in a voice of deep amusement.

            “Yes,” Giles said, glancing up, “I thought that one might prove amusing.”

            “Very,” she said.  “And much closer to my field.”

            “Which is, refresh my memory…?”  Giles wasn’t looking up from his manuscript, but she could tell he was listening, so she answered him.

            “The Romantics and the Victorians.”

            “Ah yes.  Revolution and syncretism.”

            “A few hundred years away from Chaucer, but who’s counting?”

            “Read any Latin?”

            “I have a faint grasp of the grammar, and I can gloss the cognates.  Which, I suppose, is like saying I know how the pieces move on a chessboard.”

            He smiled, still not looking up, and reached for a book on his pile.  “Add this to your assignment, then,” he said.

            She took the book without replying and placed it on her pile.

            After a moment he looked up.  “Aren’t you going to come at me with sticks?”

            “Nope,” Elisabeth said, turning another page of Sodayn Apearances.  “It’s your turn, Goliath.”

            “I’m afraid,” he said.

            Elisabeth gave this the snort it deserved and turned another page; except that the page came away in her hand.  “Uh-oh,” she said.  “There’s a page out.”

            “Oh, really?” he said, as one responds to the news of an acquaintance’s grave illness.

            “Yes.”  Elisabeth lifted the book gently and checked the binding.  “It’s strange,” she said.  “The binding seems okay.”

            “I thought I’d got them all,” Giles muttered.  “Some idiot picked up the book by the middle signature.”

            “No,” Elisabeth said, in genuine horror.

            “When the book came into my hands, the signature was practically pulled out altogether.  Horrible thing to do to a perfectly good binding.”

            “Well, we can at least tip the page back in,” Elisabeth said, sympathetically.  “Got any PVA?”

            He stared at her.  “You know what PVA is?”

            Elisabeth rolled her eyes.  “Hello, ex-library assistant.”

            “Right.  I forgot.  Yes, I have some.”  He got up and rummaged in a cabinet.  “Ah. Here we are.”  He came back to her with a small unlabeled squeeze bottle and a suede packet, and set them before her.  Elisabeth untied the suede strings and unfolded the packet to reveal a shining set of preservation tools.  “Wow,” she said.  “…An etched microspatula,” she added, sliding it out gingerly.  “You really do spare no expense, do you?”

            Giles folded his arms and shrugged.  “I found it cheap.”

            “Sure you did.”  She smirked over her shoulder at him, and flicked open the squeeze bottle.  “Do we have any water?”

            He gestured vaguely at the bottle:  “It’s already properly diluted.”

            “Ah.  Excellent.”  She was about to apply the nozzle to the flat of the microspatula when she became keenly aware of him leaning in behind her, tucking his tie out of the way.  “Why do I feel as if I’m in an exam?” she asked the room in general.

            Giles snorted.

            Elisabeth sighed, and went on with the task.  “Before my illness,” she said quietly, daubing imperceptible amounts of acrylic paste onto the ragged edge of the page with the tool, “my hands were a bit steadier.  It also,” she added, wiping excess paste delicately on the back of her finger, “helps not to have an audience studying my every move at close range.”

            He grunted softly behind her ear, but made no apology.

            Carefully, Elisabeth fitted the page into its place, using the other end of the tool to tuck the broken edges into symmetry.  She shut the book, eyed the lie of the closed pages, then opened it and adjusted the loose page before the paste could dry.  Then she handed the finished product to him.

            He held the book partly open and tickled the pages with two long fingers.  “Nice job,” he said, making a wry-mouth shrug.  “Though you could have avoided leaving this blob of paste on the binding…joking, I was joking!” he laughed, as she threatened him with the pointy end of the microspatula.

            Elisabeth was cleaning up when Anya returned to the back room.  “Do we have any more newt tails?”

            “No,” Giles said, cleaning his glasses, “we’re out.”

            “Okay, I’ll tell them.  Oh…I’d wondered what ritual those tools were for,” she said, watching Elisabeth slide the microspatula back into its place.

            “It’s not a ritual,” Giles said, in his best longsuffering voice.

            “Sure it is,” Elisabeth said, grinning.

            “So is this a librarian initiation?” Anya asked her, grinning back.

            “No,” Elisabeth said, “just the usual morning sacrifice of paste.”

            “Ah.”  Anya giggled, then caught sight of Giles’s face.  “Okay, going now.”

            “Next time you come back here,” Elisabeth called after her, “I’ll instruct you in the Mysteries of the Bone Folder.”

            Anya’s wicked laughter echoed back to them and mingled with Giles’s extra-strength snort.

            Elisabeth turned around and handed back to him his preservation tools.  “What?” she said, catching sight of his expression.  “I just can’t resist the bawdy preservation jokes.”

            “Yes,” he groaned, “but do you have to make them with Anya?  I’ll never hear the end of it now.”

            “That,” Elisabeth said, “was the plan, Goliath.”

            He snatched the suede case out of her hands with another great snort; but he couldn’t quite hide the twitch in his mouth.

            It wasn’t till they were both reseated and settled back to researching that Giles asked her abruptly:  “So what will you do if our efforts end by integrating you fully into this dimension?”

            She looked up, startled; thought it over.  “I don’t know.  Leave, certainly.”

            “Really?”  His face was impassive, which she knew meant that his questions tended toward a definite end.  She chose her answer carefully.

            “Yes.  I can’t stay here for very long.  It’s—it’s all a very delicate balance, and I can’t risk upsetting it by remaining in the mix.”

            “Where will you go?” he asked her, thoughtfully.

            “I don’t know…L.A., perhaps.  Find a corner of it that’s not Angel’s turf and settle down for a while.  Or, just keep moving.  I have time.”  She sighed.  “I have nothing but time.”

            Giles examined the book she’d mended before weighting it down beneath his pile of rejects.  “Of course, you can probably make yourself useful here.”

            “Giles, please be serious.  You’re under siege here, you must know that already.  I’m a liability, any way you slice it.”

            “You’re sure of it?” he asked, looking at her mildly.

            She blinked suddenly.  “You’re feeling me out,” she said.  “You’re looking for clues to the upcoming battle.”  For a moment, a small surge of anger went through her.  She let it pass, staring him straight in the eye; he did not blink, nor did he try to deny it.  Her anger finished, and cooled.  She drew a long breath and let it out in a great sigh.

            “You need knowledge, it’s true,” she said quietly.  “But you need each other more.  And if I stay here for the duration...well—” she shook her head apprehensively, staring across the open book in front of her— “talk about queering the pitch.”

            A little silence reigned, and lasted.  “About that,” Giles said uncomfortably.

            She looked up at him.

            “I—” He paused, took off his glasses, realized what he was doing, made as if to put them back on, and finally gave up and laid them down on the table.  “I’m not sure what I was thinking of.  I really—you’re not in the easiest of straits, and I should have been paying closer attention to—”

            “To what, exactly?” Elisabeth said, biting back a smile.

            “To the ramifications,” he said pointedly.

            “The ramifications of what?”  Elisabeth was not about to let him off easy.

            “The ramifications of what you just said.  The web of consequences—and what you haven’t said, its effect on you.  You’ve been ill, you’re exhausted, you’re split between worlds—”

            “Oh, hold on,” Elisabeth said.  “Let me get this straight.  You’re perfectly willing to checkmate me ruthlessly again and again for an entire evening—but you’ve developed scruples about kissing me?”

            He shot a glance at the curtained doorway, as if afraid Anya might hear her.  “It’s different,” he said, attempting to be quiet and intense at the same time.  “That was a game—” he stopped abruptly, realizing that was an invalid claim, and switched tracks— “of relative insignificance.  And I was teaching you to play.  You don’t seriously suggest that I was—”

            “Of relative insignificance,” Elisabeth repeated.  “That’s cute.”

            He looked sharply up at her.

            “I mean it,” she said.  “It’s flattering that you found the thing more significant than the literal chessboard, and amusing that you think that requires you to be more solicitous.  It’s cute.”  She looked at him levelly.  “And wholly unnecessary, not to mention hopelessly Victorian.”

            “But—”

            “Didn’t you just get through lambasting me for pulling punches?”

            “Are you suggesting that kisses and punches are the same thing?”

            “Aren’t they?”

            “No!”

            “Yes they are,” she said.  “They’re points of contact.  Significant points of contact: and if one’s going to engage, one might as well not fool around, and play it to the hilt—” She stopped, flushing hot.  “...Well, that was an unfortunate phrasing—but—you—you know what I mean—”

            He cast down his eyes, but did not attempt to hide his smile.

            “Listen,” she said, recovering, “I can deal with the chessmaster, and I can deal with the Victorian gentleman, but I can’t deal with you trying to be both at once.  Pick a role, and stick with it.”

            He raised his eyes, smiling fully now.  “It appears to me that it is you who are picking my role.”

            She cocked an eyebrow, ignoring the sudden thready gallop of her pulse.  “Do you object?”

            “On the contrary,” he said, “I insist.”

            “That,” she said with satisfaction, “is much more like it.”

            “I’m glad you think so.”

            “Good.”

            “Right.”

            Elisabeth pushed her glasses up on her nose.  Giles resumed his, and they both reached for the next book on their respective piles.  And actually managed to get back to work.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 11

by L. Inman

 

“No onions,” Elisabeth said.

            “No onions,” Giles repeated into the phone.  “And two bags of chips….”

            “Or tomatoes,” she added belatedly.

            He turned to her an aggrieved look.  “Why didn’t you say that before?”

            “Okay, then, I’m fine with tomatoes.  They’re easy to pick off.”

            He snorted and went back to ordering, then turned around again.  “What kind of chips?”

            “Cheetos.”

            “And you propose to touch my books afterward?  I think not.”

            Elisabeth rolled her eyes.  “Of course I’ll wash my hands.”

            “Thoroughly,” he said; and ordered Cheetos for her.

            “On the other hand,” she said wickedly, as he was writing down the total, “I can get my fingers just as clean by licking the orange off.”

            She sat back and listened to his voice, confirming the order, suffer a change in timbre—a stringendo that would have made a violin’s G string snap violently.  But he recovered himself (“Yes, thank you very much.  Goodbye.”), put down the phone, and turned to her, his face bland.  “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

            “No,” she said, equally innocent.

            “They said twenty minutes,” Giles said. 

            “Good.  I’m hungry.”

            Anya was due back from her lunch break in ten minutes; meanwhile, Giles and Elisabeth were in the front of the shop, he to mind the counter and she to explore.  Which she was taking her time about doing.  She had asked him about the Blakes (“Yes, very good trade I made with a demon in Iowa.” “Iowa??” “Don’t ask.”); examined the smudging sticks (“Not as expensive as some I’ve seen.” “And it’s quality sage, too.  Anya convinced me to run a special.”); and run her hand along the spines of a shelf of books she had not seen on her first visit. 

            Now, she wandered up to a display case of statues and idols made of various materials.  She lifted a tall, narrow wooden statue and turned to him with it.

            “What’s this for, or dare I even ask?”

            He glanced up from his pad and calculator.  “Hm?  Oh, that’s for fertility rituals.”

            “It is?”  She frowned at the statue’s chiseled face.  “But it’s so phallic.”

            “Well, you see, Elisabeth,” he said gravely, “there’s a certain thing that happens when a man and a woman—”

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  No, I meant that I thought fertility rituals depended on feminine icons for their power—like—like this.”  She held up a small, squat, full-breasted female figure.

            “Well, that’s a fertility god too.”

            “Huh.  So what do people do, do they use different idols for different rituals, or does it matter which one you use? or, I get it, maybe you need both.”  She held up the two idols facing each other and made them talk, giving them each different voices.  “‘I thought you were going to take care of this one.’ ‘No, you idiot, this one’s your fault.  He couldn’t perform, remember?  That’s your jurisdiction.’ ‘Well, what do you suggest?’ ‘I don’t know, you’re the male fertility god.  I just till the ground and add the fertilizing compound.  You’re in charge of the seeds.’ ‘Hey now—’ ‘Probably spilt them all on the way to the casting ground without noticing.  Isn’t that just like a man.  Now there’ll be things growing everywhere except where we want them—’ ‘I don’t need you to tell me my job, you hag—’”  (Elisabeth darted a glance at Giles: he had braced his elbow on the counter, sealing that hand over his mouth.  His eyes were shut, his shoulders were shaking, and his face was going deeply red.)  “‘I don’t care what you say, it’s not my fault she didn’t pass the rabbit test—’”

            “What about rabbits?” Anya said warily from the door.

            Startled, Elisabeth almost dropped the fertility statues.  “Nothing,” she said.  She hastily returned the statues to their place on the shelf.  “Just an expression.”

            “We were—” Giles, still red-faced, cleared his throat painfully— “discussing fertility spells.”

            “But there’s no rabbits in here.”  She eyed them both narrowly.

            “No,” Giles assured her.

            “Good.”  Anya came in all the way and shut the door behind her.

            “Excuse me,” Giles said, lifting a finger with the air of one drunkenly dignified.  “I must visit the restroom.”  He made his way from behind the counter and into the back.  Very faintly, the sound of his convulsive laughter emanated into the front room.

            “D’you think he’s all right?” Anya asked Elisabeth.

            Elisabeth shrugged. “I think so.”

            Anya shrugged in return, and went behind the counter to take up where Giles had left off with the pen and calculator.

            Disturbingly, Giles remained gone, and when the delivery boy arrived with their food Elisabeth cocked an eye at Anya.  Anya was not at all likely to fund their lunch from the till, so Elisabeth mentally girded up her loins and, telling the delivery boy to hold on, approached the little bathroom in the back hall and knocked on the door.  “Food’s here,” she said loudly.

            “One moment,” he said from behind the door, smothering a giggle.

            She decided not to hang around until he came out.  Instead she went back into the main room and told the delivery boy:  “The man with the money is on his way.”

            “Yes,” Anya said, “he’s the man with the money, and I’m the woman with the money.”

            The delivery boy just looked at her.

            Elisabeth said, “I’m sure it will be just a few…,” when Giles came in, considerably pinker around the gills and rather wet-eyed.  He paid the delivery boy, took the large brown sack from him, and retreated into the back room again.  Elisabeth followed.

            She found him examining the contents of the bag with a great deal of care.  “Let’s see,” he said, “this one should be yours—no onions—and this would be your bag of Cheetos….”

            She grinned.  “I do promise to wash my hands.  Thoroughly.”

            “See to it,” he said without looking at her, a flush creeping up his face again.

            Elisabeth plopped into her chair with her sandwich and chips.  She made sure that her piles of books and notes were neatly tidied aside before she unwrapped the sandwich.  For a few minutes she suspended thought in order to attack the food.  After several voracious bites, she looked up and saw that he had barely begun.  He pulled out his handkerchief and cleared his throat into it.  “Your appetite seems to have seen a resurgence.”

            “Yes,” she said, swallowing delicately, “buffoonery makes me hungry.”

            “H’rm, well,” he said.  “Good.”

            She grinned at him and held up a Cheeto preparatory to eating it.  “Didn’t think you’d find my little Punch-and-Judy show quite so amusing.”

            He dared a glance at her, then rolled his eyes and gave an acquiescent sigh.  “I’ll never,” he said, chuckling again, “look at those idols in quite the same way again.  And then—” he curbed another grin with one forefinger— “Anya coming in when she did was just—”  He didn’t try to finish the sentence, but shook his head, laughing quietly.

            “Yes,” she agreed, “that was funny.”

            “So,” he said, taking a large bite of his sandwich and talking around it, “have you quite got your revenge on me for getting you up so early?”

            It was her turn to smile acquiescently.  “I seem to recall swearing at you a number of times.”

            “You did.”

            “Poor Rupert,” she said.  “It was probably undeserved.”

            “It was.  I’ll have you know that I am, in point of fact, a very heartful bastard.”

            She giggled.  “I would not dare deny it,” she said.

            “Good.”  He swallowed and reached to open his bag of chips.  “Though I must say, I gladly accept being called names and tormented with laughter over giving you the shock I did the other morning and leaving you to suffer a nervestorm.”

            She looked up at him wide-eyed.  “Oh…you think you were responsible for that?”

            “Well, I doubt I was any help.”  But she could tell from his tone that he doubted far more than that.  Well, that was easily remedied.

            “You were not responsible for my nervestorm,” she said.  “That train had already pulled out of the station.  And I mean a long time before.  I was ignoring symptoms as early as….”  She thought about it.  “…tea, that first afternoon.”

            “Ignoring,” he repeated, frowning at her, but she went on:

            “The first day…how many days have I been here, exactly?”

            They both thought.  Giles moved his lips and unfolded four fingers, counting.  “Four,” he said.  “This is your fourth day here.”

            Elisabeth was about to say something about how much longer than four days it seemed, but he forestalled her.

            “Is it your common practice to ignore symptoms until it is too late to do anything about them?”

            She went still under his gaze, her pulse going faster.  “No,” she said carefully.  “It’s only that I hadn’t had a bad episode like that in—well, in years, really.  It usually takes much longer to ramp up to that point.  I…I thought that keeping the symptoms out of the fore would make it easier for me to focus on the—the problem at hand.  And I hoped in the meantime that the symptoms would solve themselves in my subconscious.  They didn’t,” she said, looking down at her half-eaten sandwich.  “It was a bad gamble, that was all.” 

            “You might have told me,” he said gently.

            She was too chastened to be angry, but that point needed clearing up.  She looked up at him.  “And if I had?  Could you have dealt with it on top of everything else?  We were still coming to grips with one another.  And—and you were already helping me far more than—”  She stopped, glancing away.

            “More than was comfortable?” he said, more gently still.

            She nodded, her lips tightening.

            There was a silence.  Then he said:  “It is no shame to accept help when one is in extremis.”

            She could not look at him.  “It might be a shame to be in extremis,” she said softly.

            “Well,” he said unexpectedly, “that is understood.”

            Startled, she brought her gaze back to his face.  She had forgotten: of course he knew what that meant. 

            The small smile on his lips was both sardonic and understanding.  “Do you have the courage to eat the bread of mortals?”

            She laughed softly, conceding the point.

            He was looking at her again, gently probing with his gaze; she thought she ought to be used to the sensation by now.  He said, his voice tentative:  “May I ask where it comes from?”

            “What, the illness?” she said, though it could hardly be anything else.

            “Yes.”

            She shrugged, managed a glance into his face.  “A number of things.  My personality, for one.  Years’ worth of bottled-up stress, for another.  Nothing earth-shaking, really.”

            “No.  Have you never wanted to stop it at the source?”

            She drew a breath and creased her napkin with a delicate precision.  “The source,” she said... “—the source, I don’t think is under my control.”

            “But the place where it meets you could be, perhaps.”

            She didn’t know, really, what he meant, and didn’t want to know.  But the silence drew the question out of her.  “What are you suggesting, exactly?”

            He paused.  “I was wondering if you had tried something deeper than symptom control.”

            Elisabeth sighed: so they were going to have this conversation.  “Cognitive therapy.  It works, up to a point.”

            He nodded.  “So I should think.  You haven’t tried any, er, non-clinical methods, then?”

            “You mean, like magicks?” she asked, twin tendrils of amusement and horror rising in her chest.

            He lifted his eyes in an endearing Professor-Giles-thought-gesture that only added to her distress.  “Well, not magicks precisely.  I meant more in the realm of meditation techniques.”

            She shook her head definitely.  “I don’t do meditation.  My thoughts move too fast and break themselves off before I can get to any type of meditative state.”

            “I meant, guided meditation.”  His eyes were on her face, gauging her reaction.

            She curled her toes inside her shoes and looked at him sidelong.  “You mean...like the kind you’ve been doing with Buffy?”

            He blinked.  “Well, perhaps not quite on that order, but yes, that’s the type I meant.”

            She shook her head again, harder.  “I couldn’t do that.  It’s too much like hypnosis for my taste.  I fear I’d be too easy to control—and then I would panic, and it would be very bad.”

            “But,” he said earnestly, “the point of guided meditation is to lay the power back into your own hands, not into someone else’s.”

            “I don’t know but what that’s scarier than laying it into yours,” she said. 

            For reply, he gave her a little sad smile.  She studied his face, searching for the slightest trace in his expression of a Messiah complex.  Finding none, she sat back, took a sip of her soda, put the can down, and levelled her gaze at him.  If what she was about to say backfired—

            “And this isn’t a ploy to dig into my brain for hints about the future?”

            He started visibly, blinking.  “I never thought of—”  Then, predictably, the color rose in his face.  He said nothing, nor did he really move, but she could see his anger growing, honing his eyes to a sharpness and thinning his lips.

            A small trembling made itself felt within her, but her face and voice were mercifully calm.  “You know I had to say it,” she said.

            He was working for control: it took a long time for him to reply.  “Do you think I would do that?” he said at last, his voice soft like a silk scarf, dangerous as a garrote.

            “No,” she said.

            “Then I fail to see why—”

            “Because if I didn’t, you’d look a fool.  It’s there, and if you were to try and reassure me yourself, you’d look foolish.”  She swallowed dryly.  “And I needed to know how you would respond.”

            One of his eyebrows quirked up.  “And are you satisfied with the result?”

            “Dammit, Rupert,” she burst out, “don’t get all supercilious on me.  I wasn’t going out of my way to insult you, I was trying to get things clear.”

            “And incidentally to get out from under all scrutiny.”

            “Do you blame me for that?”

            “Yes,” he said, startling her.  “Since as far as I can see, it’s entirely unnecessary.”

            “One doesn’t,” she said coldly, “have to have a criminal record to wish to avoid scrutiny.”

            His mouth moved a little.  “And do you have a criminal record?”

            She couldn’t help it; she had to laugh.  “No.”

            She was glad to see him smile in return.  He said:  “Then tell me: why the defense by means of offense?”

            “You mean, what am I protecting?”

            “If you like.”

            She breathed, and thought about it.  “I don’t know.”

            “Don’t you think you should try to find out?  For your sake, I mean.”

            She looked up at him.  “I don’t think this is a good time to go looking for trouble.”

            “There never is a good time for that,” he said.

            She couldn’t deny him that.

            “And,” he went on, “oddly enough, you’re in a relatively safe place for it.  There’s nobody here whose opinion is vital; no one to judge you one way or the other....”

            “Except,” she said, “your opinion does matter to me.”

            Their eyes met on it: he smiled wryly.  “And apparently your opinion matters to me.  So we are even.”

            There was a silence while they looked at one another over their forgotten lunches.  “Well?” Giles said finally.

            Elisabeth sucked in her lips briefly, her breath thick in her chest—daring—daring—  She quailed.

            “I can’t,” she said.

            He gave a single, accepting nod; then bent his attention to his sandwich, lying on the table with only one bite taken out of it.  He picked it up and began to eat again.

            After a trembly pause, she decided to follow suit, though her appetite had dissolved along with her bonhomie.

            So she wasn’t going to do it, wasn’t going to have to face up to the “source,” as Giles called it, of her illness.  She should be relieved; and she was.  It was probably for the best anyway.  It’d be madness, really, to tinker with her psychological makeup with half her psyche left behind in her home dimension.  She hadn’t even broached that with him, but he’d see the sense of that.  He might argue, of course, that they had very little to lose.  He might even argue that forging contact between her and her fears might clear the air for when they did do the spell.  When they found the spell.  The five-candle-bad-poem spell, whatever it was.  But he would have to concede that it wasn’t an argument that would hold nitroglycerin for five minutes.  Elisabeth chewed the bite she’d taken of her sandwich.  It was taking forever to get it chewed enough to swallow.  Giles seemed to be having no trouble swallowing his food, the—heartful bastard.  A very apt self-description, Elisabeth thought; probably more apt than even he knows.  Though, she mused, finally getting the first bite of her sandwich down, there seemed to be very little the man didn’t know of himself at this point.

            And the rest he would soon find out. 

            Elisabeth put her sandwich down and stared hard at it.  Licked a trace of mustard off the inside of her thumb.  She raised her head tentatively.

            “Giles?”

            “Yes?”  Except he had just taken a bite, and it sounded more like “Ymmmrphl?”

            Elisabeth didn’t even smile.

            “Would it...would it be absolute?” she asked, in a small voice.

            He swallowed his bite painfully whole and said, “Would what be absolute?”

            “The...the meditation thing.”

            A brief light sprang up in his eyes.  She supposed it meant that he was, well, proud of her, and had her suspicions confirmed when she searched his eyes a second later and found that he’d schooled the emotion carefully out of sight.

            “If done correctly,” he said, blandly, “it would be no more and no less than what you want it to be.”

            “Positive?” she said, not making it a question.

            He nodded.

            “Then I might try it.”

            He nodded again.

            “Would you...?”

            His eyes and voice were steady.  “I would.”

            “That is, if you’re not still mad at me for—you know, accusing you....”

            He sighed deeply.  “I had that coming.  Especially after my earlier efforts to worm information from you.  Pax?”

            She stuck out her hand across the table in reply.  Before shaking it, however, he tipped her hand delicately at the wrist and checked her fingers for orange Cheeto grime.  She laughed giddily as, finding none, he took her hand in a firm shake.

            “When shall we do it, then?” she said, now shivering a little.

            “Now, if you like,” he said. 

            “Okay,” she said swallowing.  Her mouth had gone completely dry, so she took another drink of her soda.

            “We should go someplace where the light is better,” Giles said, surveying the lamps and windows with a critical eye.  “There’s a table in the corner of the training room; that would probably be best.  And Buffy won’t be round to train till this evening, so you’ll have the room to yourself for, I should think, the required amount of time.”

            He got up and began to rummage in the same cabinet whence came the preservation supplies.  “I had my book and crystals put away in here, I think,” he muttered, mostly to himself.  “Ah!”  He drew out a thick leather case and set it on the floor, followed by a cloth-bound book with yellowed pages. 

            She stood up to follow him out of the room and down the hall into the training room.  “Here also,” he explained as they entered the room, “we are less likely to be disturbed—though a word in Anya’s ear wouldn’t go amiss—”  He turned and shouted through the doorway:  “Anya!”

            Anya clacked past the bookshelves into view.  “Yes?”

            “Elisabeth and I are going to be trying meditation techniques in here.  We don’t want to be disturbed, so don’t come back here or let anyone else come back here, please.”

            “Will it take a long time?” Anya asked.

            Giles shrugged.  “It might.”

            “Okay.  No visitors in the training room.  —Can I have the rest of your sandwich?” she said brightly.

            Giles blinked several times, assimilating this fresh blow to his British rectitude.  “Yes,” he sighed, “I suppose you may.”

            “You can have mine too,” Elisabeth told her, “if you want.”

            “Oh good,” Anya said.  “I thought I saw some Cheetos in there.”  She clacked off toward the back room.

            Giles had been moving on into the training room, but he stopped still and shouted again:  “And don’t touch the books after eating those disgusting chips without washing your hands first!” 

            They heard no response from Anya, but he pretended there had been, and moved again.  “Feel better?” Elisabeth asked.

            “Much.”

 

*

 

With the table set up in the middle of the training room, precisely placed to catch the most of the natural light streaming in from the windows, Elisabeth settled herself in her seat, trying to breathe naturally.  “Give me your glasses,” he told her, and she took them off and handed them to him.  He tucked them away in the inner pocket of his jacket and opened the book, leaving her to blink in mild myopia at the light of the room.

            Giles was hemming and hawing over his book.  “Now, I did say ‘guided meditation,’” he said, “but with practice these are techniques you can learn to use on your own.”

            “I can hypnotize myself?” Elisabeth said, skeptically.

            He glanced up at her with an amused smile.  “It isn’t hypnosis.  It’s a different order of mental therapy.”  He opened the leather box and inspected its contents, resettling his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

            She leaned forward and looked into the case.  Nested in cut foam lay several rows of crystals of varying shapes and sizes, neatly labeled in a hand she recognized as Giles’s.

            “What are the crystals for?” she asked.

            “They’re....”  He paused.  “Are you familiar with the art of photography?”

            “A little.”

            “Well, then, perhaps you know how color is derived in our vision.  A green leaf, for instance, holds all the colors in the prism except green, which it throws back at the eye, which then registers the leaf as green.  The crystal, in meditation, operates on a similar principle.”

            “It takes mental energy from me...”

            “...and focuses back one quality in particular.  Precisely.”

            “I see,” she said, cocking her head as she watched him touch first one crystal, then another.

            He was muttering again.  “Let’s see...need to find a good way of ascertaining the appropriate crystals...Do you know your Sun sign?” he asked her, not raising his eyes from the case.

            “Sagittarius,” she said.

            His mouth quirked into a wry smile.  “I should have guessed.  The wanderer and the philosopher.”

            “And the Archer,” she said.

            “And the Archer.”

            “I have you pegged for a Gemini,” she said lightly.

            His only response was a startled glance; pretending not to hear, he flipped through the book.  “Now,” he murmured, “what crystals are associated with...?  —Ah.”

            He chose one crystal, then another, then another, until he had a small cluster arranged on the table before her.  She peeped at the labels of the empty slots:  citrine, amethyst, aquamarine, jade.  And a large quartz dominating the group.  “May I touch?” she said.

            “Of course,” he said absently, his attention buried now in the book.

            She picked up the aquamarine and held it to eye level so that it caught the light.  It was a lovely color, shot through the heart with the light.  She laid it down and picked up the citrine.  Turned it over lightly between three fingers.  She was just trying to decide whether she felt anything toward these crystals, and whether it mattered, when he said:  “Any of them especially appeal to you?”

            “The citrine,” she answered him; it felt right.  “What does it do?”

            He smiled.  “Among other things, it promotes a better integration of the self.”

            She laughed.  “I guess that one’s called for, then.”

            “Very well.”  He collected the amethyst and the jade and set them off to one side, leaving the citrine, aquamarine, and the quartz in front of her.  It was then that she realized that he had been watching her.  “What is the quartz for?” she asked him.

            “That is primarily for focus.”

            “The F word,” she said promptly.

            “Well, yes, it does begin with an F.  Very good.”

            “Sorry.  That was a flashback to my high school band director.”

            He blinked at her, apparently unsure whether to smile.

            “Sorry,” she said again.  “You’re trying to tell me something, and I’m crackin’ wise.  Go on.”

            “It begins this way.  You take the light by means of the crystals—that is, see only the light that comes through first this one—” he touched the quartz— “and then the others.”  She tried this and found to her surprise that she could do it.  “You are surrounded by light, but the only light you see is at that one fine point.  Do you see it?”

            She nodded.  Found herself speaking:  “I read somewhere that young intellectuals are the easiest to put into a hypnotic sleep.  Why do you suppose that is?”

            He answered her with equanimity, and it wasn’t until later that it occurred to her that he might have a personal stake in the question.  “If anything, it is probably because they want to lay the burden of thought on a power not their own for a while.”

            She nodded again.  It made sense.

            “But you are not going to sleep.  You are coming more awake....”  His voice was even, detached, but also warm and ductile.  She was reminded again of Atticus Finch, but the thought did not register deeply enough to interfere with her eyes on the heart of the quartz.  “Your posture is changing, so that your spine is straight like a strong reed....”  And it was so.  Under the confluence of Giles’s voice and the focused light, Elisabeth’s hands relaxed on the table, her breathing evened, and her eyelids fell to the half-mast of contemplation.  She had no thought of doing anything except to stay here, in this place, where calm energy poured over her like clear water.

            Giles’s voice suffered no change, and so she did not immediately recognize where he was taking her:  “...and now that you are here, quiet and surrounded by light, you close your eyes, so that you are enclosed in the darkness of your mind.  This place too is quiet.  Before you is a stair going downward.  You take it...slowly...a step at a time...deeper into the darkness—”

            Elisabeth’s eyes popped open.  “But Giles,” she said, “I’m afraid of the dark.”

            “And if you weren’t, this would be a pointless exercise,” he said with some asperity.  “You must trust that you will be able to navigate not just in spite of, but because of the darkness.”  He said nothing else, but waited for her response. 

            She met his eye a moment, then looked back down at the quartz.  “How do I get it back?” she said.

            “We will simply resume,” he said.  “Breathe slowly and find the place where you were.” 

            She was finding it.  Elisabeth thought to herself that despite his assurances that she would be able to navigate, it was his voice she trusted, not her mind’s ability to find its way through the dark.  She closed her eyes again and let him lead her once more to the dark stair, and down.  It wasn’t until she was several steps down that she thought (dimly) that his voice had after all given the authority back into her hand: had she been at the surface, she might have trembled and wept at the grace of it, but she was deep now, and her mission lay not that way. 

            Her mission lay farther down, countless steps down into velvet-black ink, past forgotten thoughts, quiet like leaves undisturbed by any breath of wind

(What is the color of things in dark places?)

and then her hand unerringly found the door at the bottom.  She set it open; and though the darkness did not change, she knew she stood at the quiet junction of many rooms.  At her bidding any one of them would open to her.  But her mission did not lie here either.

It lay behind a solid wall at the center, which she walked through silently and without feeling resistance.  It lay under a mound, under a mould of thought-leaves and dirt, which rearranged themselves for her touch.  It lay under a blanket perhaps even darker than the darkness;

(What are you protecting?)

she reached out and pulled the blanket away.

Nothing.

At the center of it all was Nothing.

A cry, like the death-scream of a kite, rent the quiet air, like the breaking of a thousand ancient-thick stained-glass windows; the light and the darkness rent themselves together over and over; the Nothing rose and swallowed her, leaf-mould of thoughts and all, and all that was left was a voice, broken on the wheel and grieving past hope.

 

*

 

Glasses askew, Giles scrambled up from the floor without bothering to set his chair upright.  “Oh dear,” he murmured.  In his ears was her voice, alternately keening and sobbing, and scattered across the table and over the floor lay the shattered remains of the citrine, the aquamarine, and the quartz.  “Oh dear, oh dear....”

            He was picking up the pieces of crystal with shaking hands when Anya rushed into the room.  Her hands flew to her ears in a halfway attempt to shut out the sound of the weeping.  “Giles,” she said over a fresh wail, “what did you do?”

            “I didn’t—” he uttered, clearly panicking.  “Go—go and shut the door.  I’m sure it will run its course.”  He sounded not at all sure, however, and Anya hesitated before backing away from the sound and closing the door, leaving him alone with it.

            Giles stood up trembling with the bits of crystal in his hand and allowed himself to look at her.  She was sitting with her legs drawn up, her feet flexed off the floor, her arms up with hands clutched but not touching her head, her chin tucked in so that her face was hidden.  Rigid, and weeping harder than he had imagined anyone could.  He wanted to weep himself.

            Instead, shaking more than ever, he tipped his collection of crystal bits onto the table, brushing off those that stuck to the sweat of his palms, and wiped his hands on the flanks of his jacket, attempting to think.

            He couldn’t tell if she were still in the meditative state, or if she were with him in the room.  If the former, it would do no good and possibly harm to speak her name or to touch her.  If the latter, it might harm her if he didn’t.  He stood, waiting to think what to do.  And kept standing there.

            So that when the door opened and Willow and Tara bundled into the room, it seemed to him that he had been there with the weeping both forever, and no time at all.

            “Anya called,” Willow said, her voice low and nearly obscured by Elisabeth’s sobs.  “She said your meditation with Elisabeth went...” she glanced at where Elisabeth still crouched at the table— “wrong.”

            Tara’s eyes were wide.  “I’ve never seen an aura like that.”

            “I’m not—” Giles cleared his throat— “sure what to do.”

            Willow looked over at Tara. 

Tara had not taken her eyes off Elisabeth.  Now she said:  “I don’t think we can do anything but let her go.”

            Willow said uncertainly, “D’you think we could mind-walk with her?”

            Tara shook her head definitely.  “It’s too risky.  She’s in chaos.  We just have to wait till the chaos settles.”

            “How long do you think that will take?”  Willow was the one who said it, but the question was written more loudly on Giles’s face.

            Tara shook her head.  “I could try to give her a focus point, maybe.  But she may not be able to respond to that.”  Carefully, she approached the table and righted the chair Giles had occupied.  She sat down in it and placed her hands in a position half of prayer and half of preparation to dive, and rested them together lightly on the surface of the table.   Her eyes rested steady on the top of Elisabeth’s head, which bobbed slightly with every sob.

            After a few moments it became clear to them all that although the mind was nowhere near finished grieving, the body was growing tired:  Elisabeth’s head lowered and finally slumped to the surface of the table, cradled in her hands, and her feet found the floor again.  The weeping changed gradually from the hard keening to the sobbing of an inconsolable child.  Tara sat before her, quiet and unmoving; neither Giles nor Willow felt able to ask if there had really been a change. 

            Willow, in fact, had gone gradually rigid where she stood, the weeping filling her ears.  She broke away suddenly and strode as quickly as she could to the door.  “I’m going to—going to look up—”  She never said what it was she was going to look up, and the words did not appear to register in Giles’s face, anyway.  The door closed between Willow and Elisabeth weeping at the table.

            Giles now stood alone, watching Tara watch Elisabeth.  Time passed; and it wasn’t until he saw a change in Tara’s eyes that he could hear the change in the sound of Elisabeth’s weeping.  Tara moved her hands apart and cocked her head, looking for some sort of sight contact and not finding it.  “Elisabeth?” she said softly.

            At the sound of her name, she broke again into frightened sobs, curled her arms about her head, and buried her face in them.  And this time it was clear that she had come back to the land of the living, albeit badly shaken.  The sobs finished slowly, petering out one by one; and then she was breathing quietly, draped in exhaustion on the chair and over the table.

            Tara fingered the shards of crystal lying on the table, then turned to Giles, who came to himself at her glance.  He found that he had propped himself up on the pommel horse; the blood seemed to have pooled in his feet, and his head was giddy.

            “She’s asleep,” Tara said.

            He nodded.

            Tara looked at him steadily, like a cat observing and taking everything in.  “You might go and make some tea,” she told him.

            Giles cleared his throat.  “Yes,” he said huskily, “yes, I think I’ll do that.”  He patted his jacket fronts for his handkerchief, felt something hard, and reached into his inner pocket.  He pulled out Elisabeth’s glasses; stared at them a moment, drawing a shaky breath.  Then he moved (tentatively, making sure his feet made proper contact with the floor at each step) to the table and laid the glasses near Elisabeth’s elbow, for when she woke up. 

            “Tea,” he said; Tara gave him a confirming nod, and he made his way out of the training room, letting the door fall gently to behind him.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 12

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth blinked into the sun as the car turned west.  In the driver’s seat Giles squinted and put down his visor.  They had covered some road already in silence; the rest of the road—and home—lay before them.

            Giles made his turn onto a road going south; the sun was no longer in their eyes, and Elisabeth appeared to breathe easier.

            His lips twitched for a few blocks before he finally managed to ask her:

            “Are you angry?”

            At first he thought perhaps it was a mistake, and that she wasn’t going to answer him.  But after a moment she did answer.  “No.”  Her voice was low and still a little scorched.  Then she added:  “But I will be if you insist on sending yourself on a guilt trip.”

            It was her first full sentence since the crystals had shattered.  His jaw went taut, and he swallowed hard.  He nodded, realized she wasn’t looking at him, and said, “Right.”

            The shadows of trees were passing over them.  Giles had put the ragtop down, to get the benefit of the crisp, clear evening air.  He stole glances at her and saw her reach outside the car to tickle the moving air with slow fingers.  She was moving a little now, at least; but still as though it were effort just to meet the air around her.  He felt very weary himself; he certainly didn’t feel like cooking supper.

            “Do you like Indian food?” he asked her suddenly.

            She turned to him and offered a small, tired smile.  “What self-respecting Anglophile doesn’t like curry?” she said.

            She was trying to make him feel better with a jest.  He tried to smile back, but it felt crooked on his face.  He turned back to the road.  “I know a little place,” he said.  “We could get take-out.”

            She nodded hesitatingly.

            “I don’t suppose you’re really hungry.”

            She shook her head.  “But I should eat.  If they have some of that lovely lentil soup—I forget what it’s called—”

            “Mulligatawny.”

            “Yeah.”

            “You could eat that?”

            “I think so.”

            A couple of blocks passed, and she added softly, “I could try.”

            “I’m sorry,” he said, before he could stop himself.

            She heard the raw feeling in his voice, and flinched.  She masked it by pulling her hand back inside the car and laying it in her lap with the other.  “Please,” she said.  “Rupert:  I need you to let it go.”

            “Okay,” he said, keeping his eyes carefully on the road.  “Right.”

            They said nothing else all the way to the Indian cuisine shop.

 

*

 

Back at home, Giles ushered her in the door, setting his satchel and her bookbag on the floor next to the hall closet.  She drifted to the chair at the table that had become hers, and at his bidding sat down in it.  She let him gather forks, knives, spoons, and napkins; watched him set the table, first her place, then his; listened to him filling glasses of ice water for them; and finally reached out for her spoon when he set her soup down before her, served in one of his bowls rather than the styrofoam cup they’d brought it home in.

            At last he sat down himself with his plate and began to eat, like a man under orders.  She pretended not to see the glances he was giving her as she lifted small bites of soup to her lips, slowly, one at a time.  It was not so hard to eat the soup as she had anticipated; and she found she could even chase it with some of the flatbread he had bought to go with it.  It was harder to feel him watching her eat than it was to eat.  Which was only to be expected: the palpable aura of remorse surrounding Giles on the other side of the table was not going to be dispelled by a few words of hers.  It was why she had let him indulge all his solicitous urges; that, and the fact that she was so tired. 

            “Soup’s good,” she told him.

            He glanced up.  “Good,” he said.

            It occurred to her suddenly that it might be folly to try and make him feel better by letting him pamper her; a much better approach would probably be to brush him briskly off and take care of herself.  It was, after all, what she wanted to do.

            But she was just too tired.

            And it was too soon for her natural optimism to reassert itself.  Probably, now that she had been burnt clean like a field for planting, something better would grow within her.  Probably, it wouldn’t take too long.  Probably, time would carry her and Giles to the place where Giles found the spell and they performed it and she went home and got the Obligatory Female Life-Change Haircut, which would then grow back the way it was in six months, and she would be good as new, her shoes hitting new road.

            Probably.

            At the moment, however, she was lifting one spoonful of mulligatawny at a time and letting Giles carry the rest, from her bookbag to her glass of water to “the burden of thought,” as he had called it.  She was not going to feel guilty about it, despite the fact that he looked far more awful than she had any right to make him look.  This keeping-a-low-profile thing is not succeeding very well, she told herself, then, sharply, Soup.  Eating.  Not thinking.

            Which was easy enough to obey.

            After supper, he got up and carried the dishes into the kitchen.  Elisabeth sat while he cleared the table, and continued to sit and listen to him washing the dishes.  It’s not, by any chance, so you can stick me with the cleanup? he’d said shrewdly, at Buffy’s suggestion that they have Thanksgiving at his place in honor of his role as the patriarch.  Elisabeth wondered if that exchange had actually happened, or if it were narrative filigree drawn to embellish the half-obscured vision of—  This was too much thinking.  At any rate the point was that she, Elisabeth, was sticking Giles with the cleanup.  Oh, hell: she was feeling guilty.  And she couldn’t even get up enough wherewithal to scold herself rationally.  This, she told herself for the umpteenth time, is why there is an embargo on thinking.  Avoiding thinking was the M.O. right now.  Except the only way she could think of to truly avoid thinking was to take a nap.

            Time to go to sleep….

            Elisabeth shuddered.

            “All right?” Giles said, gathering silverware at her elbow.

            She startled, then nodded.  “I think I’ll take a bath now,” she heard herself saying.

            “Okay,” he said.  But he continued to look at her from where he stood.

            She got up slowly and went to her pack to dig for her bath supplies.  Then (feeling Giles’s eyes on her back) she carried them down the hall to the bathroom and closed the door.

            Thank God: a small room where she could be alone.  Elisabeth filled the tub, moved the little chair close and draped her towel over it, set out her gels and shampoo and paperback book on the seat.  Stepped into the steaming fragrant water and sat down, then leaned back.  The warm water was an impersonal embrace, soft, encompassing, and nearly silent.  She closed her eyes.

            Darkness.

            She opened her eyes again, trying to breathe calmly.  Decided that since she had seen the worst, it shouldn’t hurt her to be in darkness:  especially a darkness with warm water lapping at her body.  So she shut her eyes again and concentrated on her breathing.  In…out.  Slow and easy. 

            The last time she had been in this darkness, and opened her eyes, it had been to Tara’s mother-cat gaze.  It had taken a while to focus her vision; taken still longer to realize that the blur was partly due to the fact that her glasses were lying folded neatly on the table next to her elbow instead of on her face.  And that she and Tara were alone in the room.

            “Where’s Giles?” she had asked, in a nearly unintelligible croak.

            “He’s making tea,” Tara had said.  It wasn’t till later, of course, that Elisabeth discovered that Giles had been “making tea” for over two hours.

            “Could you take some tea?” Tara had asked her.

            Comprehension came at length, and with a cost; finally, Elisabeth had nodded.

            Tara had fetched her a cup of tea; sat and watched her drink it; and in time had acceded to Elisabeth’s motions requesting help to go into the bathroom and wash her face.  Elisabeth, the older woman by at least eight years, had felt small and childlike under Tara’s hands as they guided her to the bathroom and back to her seat and her cup of tea.  She had wiped her hair out of her face, decided to take out the ponytail and redo it; patted her clumsy efforts into place, and breathed.

            Now, with the water caressing her skin, she sank lower in the tub and pressed her lips together, swallowing the tears that ran down the back of her nose.  She hadn’t been able to look at Giles when he came into the training room again, placing his steps as if there were C4 in the soles of his shoes; she hadn’t looked directly at him even yet, though she knew it could only make him feel worse.

            Take my picture steal my soul….

            Their kindness was a lash flaying her alive.

            I want to go home.

            She shut her eyes; the burning flared under her lids and swelled into tears—different tears from the ones she’d shed in her extremity—tears of ordinary grief…Elisabeth leaned forward and turned on the hot tap, both to freshen the water and to mask any sounds she might make weeping. 

            Not, of course, that she’d be able to hide it from Giles completely.  He now knew her far better than was comfortable, for one thing.  For another, she knew him.

            Elisabeth splashed her face once, twice, three times, and kept doing it for several more before reaching for her facial cleanser and scrubbing at the tearstains that seemed still to remain on the surface of her face, and remained even after she splashed her face to remove the soap.  She turned off the tap, pulled the plug, reached for the towel and stood to dry off.

            She dressed in her last change of fresh clothing and pulled a comb through her wet hair.  Gathered her things and, drawing a long breath, opened the bathroom door to go and face him again.

            In the livingroom Giles was busily unpacking his satchel and digging through the pockets of his leather jacket, lining up odd items on his desk to inspect for—some sort of operation, Elisabeth could not tell what.

            “What’s up?” she said.

            He glanced up, startled.  “Ah good, you’re there…I—I’d forgotten, I’d made this appointment with—”  He stopped and straightened to look at her.  “I don’t know if you recall my mentioning it, but I had come close to deciding that I should look into, er—”

            “Non-bibliographic resources?”

            He blinked, apparently surprised that she remembered.  “Yes.  And I’m afraid that taking you with me to where I’d planned to go would…”

            “…mitigate your sources’ forthcomingness?  Of course.  Holmes must have no company in his missions to the docks and the opium dens.”

            She watched him swallow his irritation at the comparison.  He turned back to his task.  “Unfortunately, I think I have overbooked my evening, and you’re in no condition to—”

            “I can be alone,” she said.

            He stopped again and turned to look at her silently.

            “I can be alone,” she repeated.  “I…I need the quiet.  You can go to your appointment; don’t worry about me.”

            She forced herself to meet his eye; and so she could see the subtle changes fleeting across his expression: his recognition that she wanted him away, his easily-bidden pang of guilt, his gnawing worry, his eagerness to be off and doing something material.  “Very well,” he said at last.  “I’ll try not to be too long.  You can expect me before ten, if all goes well.”  He shoved two odd gizmos into the inside pocket of his jacket and shrugged into it.  Jacket on, he straightened the collar, reached for his keys, and paused.  “You’re sure you’ll be all right?”

            “Yes,” she said, becoming suddenly aware that she was hugging herself.  She put her arms down to her sides.

            She nodded several times as he continued to look at her.  Finally he caught up his keys and went to the door.  “I’ll be back soon,” he said, glancing back at her as he opened the door; she nodded a final time, and he disappeared, shutting the door firmly behind him.

 

*

 

The last time Giles had left her alone in his apartment, Elisabeth had nearly asphyxiated on the solitude.  Now, however, despite the renewed grief that the afternoon’s self-confrontation had brought her, she stood in the silence of his home and let the solitude pour blessedly over her. 

            After a few minutes of this she roused herself and went to her pack with a thought to organize its chaos; but when she looked inside and saw the load of crumpled laundry bursting out of its plastic bags, she quailed and ended by leaving her pack alone. 

            Music.  Something ductile and honest, and weighty enough for the ache inside her.  She went to kneel before Giles’s collection of LPs, and flipped carefully through them until she found what she was looking for: the Mozart Requiem.

            She set open the doors of his sound system and turned on the power; lifted the lid of the turntable and blew the dust off the needle.  With infinite care she removed the record from its cover and placed it on the turntable; she set the turntable spinning and used the velvet brush to clean the surface of the vinyl.  The scent of static and the spinning words on the center of the disk brought unbidden childhood memories.  She lifted the needle and (silently hoping that Giles would not be too scandalized at this liberty) laid it gently on the turning record; it landed perfectly, like a leaf falling to the surface of a river.

            As the Requiem began she looked around her for a place to imbibe the music; after a moment surveying the room with a thoughtful twist to her lips, she decided on the table.  She moved the centerpiece aside, crawled onto the top of the sturdy table, and arranged herself in more or less a lotus position.  She took off her glasses, laid them next to her on the table, and shut her eyes.

            For a long time she moved only to breathe.

            It was a good recording, well-directed, balanced in its voices.  Listening, Elisabeth felt her body beginning to make the old responses, the urge to half-dance the ponderous notes as they came.  This was good; and although it was bringing her back through the muffed numbness into pain, it was also bringing her back to the world she knew.  Her fingertips met the texture of the wood of the table under her; the air in her lungs was no longer scorching.

            She listened to the Requiem all the way through to the Lux Aeterna.  Then she got up and removed the LP from the turntable as carefully as she had placed it there, put it away in its cover, and closed the doors of the sound system.  Stretching, she wandered into the kitchen with a vague idea of looking for something to snack on with her copy of Lord Peter.

            A knock sounded on the door, startling her.  She crept out of the kitchen and went to stand uncertainly before it, wondering if she should even open the thing, or let anyone know she was there.

            The knock came again, and with it, a singsong voice she recognized:  “Knock, kno-oock….”

            “Who’s there?” she said.

            “Spike.”

            “Spike who?”

            Without warning the door was shoved open enough to admit the vampire’s quizzical face to her vision.  “Spike,” he said.  “Who the bloody hell are you?”

            “Elisabeth,” she replied, folding her arms in an attempt to disguise her nerves as a show of clement displeasure.  She had an uneasy feeling that it wasn’t working.  “And I know who you are.”

            “Then you know that dear Rupert is expecting me.”  He pushed the door all the way open and strode jauntily inside.  He paused in front of her and looked her appraisingly up and down.  “Rupert’s picking them younger and younger these days.”

            She had not quite realized how pungent was Spike’s talent for getting one’s back up.  “How very flattering for me,” she said stiffly, “but unfortunately for you, you’ve got it wrong.”

            “Oh I have, have I?”  Spike glanced around, sucking his front teeth.  “Then tell me, where is he?  Upstairs enjoying a post-coital smoke?”

            She reddened.  “Giles,” she said, “went on an errand.  He isn’t here.”

            “Well, I like that.  He tells me to come here with my information and he can’t even be bothered to be at home.”  Spike wandered around, with an air that was actually as impressive as it looked, and then paused to go into a well-honed Giles imitation.  “‘And for God’s sake, Spike, please knock this time.’  Heh.  Now I see why.  Don’t want to startle his new girlfriend now, would we?”

            Elisabeth felt the urge to open her mouth and set Spike straight about her relationship to Giles once and for all, but decided on balance that the less Spike knew about her, the better.  Spike, watching her face, saw her master her emotion.

            He grinned, tilting his head.

            “Am I making you mad, little girl?  What grade are you in, anyway?”

            Elisabeth snorted.  “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

            He approached her slowly.  “Maybe not, but a few threats might.  You know who I am…do you know what I am?” 

            Elisabeth stood her ground, though having Spike’s face thrust close to hers was hardly on her birthday list.

            “Yes,” she said, “I do.  You’re a bad Victorian poet who’s been made into a vampire.  Whose threats are, incidentally, quite empty.”

            Spike let out a growl and showed his fangs.

            A longsuffering sigh made them both look round.

            Giles was standing in his own doorway, hands thrust impatiently in the pockets of his leather jacket, watching them.

            “Spike,” he said.  “Elisabeth, are you all right?”

Elisabeth uncrossed her arms.  “Perfect.  I and Mr. Bloody-William-Intimations-of-Immortality were just having a piquant conversation.”

Spike bristled again.  “Hey now.  I don’t mind fun and games, but no one—no one—compares me—to Wordsworth.”  He pointed a sharp finger in her face.

Elisabeth raised one eyebrow in an unconscious imitation of Giles.  She was starting to enjoy this.  “No…not Wordsworth,” she taunted him.  “I’d say Patmore is more your line.”

For a flashing moment Spike showed his true face.  “Giles, who’s this?  She’s about to get killed.”

Giles rolled his eyes.  “As much as I’d love to continue with this vaudeville comedy, I have work to do.  Spike, have you any information for me, or not?”

With an effort Spike severed his attention from his new acquaintance to look at him.  “It’s gonna cost you.”

            “I’m prepared for that.  On the other hand,” Giles drawled, “I haven’t quite paid you out for wrecking my car.”

“I did you a favor!  That car was about as valuable as a broken toaster, and half the size.  And just look at the one you’ve got now.”  Spike gestured wildly out the open door, though Giles’s car was not in view.  “I bloody well did do you a favor.”

“Yes, and then cancelled this so-called favor, as I recall, by trying to get us all killed.”

Elisabeth piped up.  “Yes, Spike: you really were a prat to make that deal with Adam.  Don’t you know your Kipling?  ‘To win by his aid and the aid disown; He travels the fastest who travels alone’?”

Spike stared at her, then back at Giles.  “Who is this?”

Giles leaned indolently against his door.  “She has a point.  Although, Elisabeth, we shouldn’t bait the impotent vampire any more than is strictly necessary.”

Spike went so apoplectic, he forgot to assume his game face.  “Who you calling a bloody Welshman?  Forget this, I’m outta here.  See if I ever offer you information again.”

And he would have stormed out; except that Giles braced his arm across the doorway and caught Spike hard on the chest.  For a moment the two men, living and undead, stood meeting eyes.  Elisabeth was not quite sure what it was that passed between them, but unexpectedly Spike looked away and drew an impatient breath.

“I don’t know much, all right?” he said.  “Just that there’s this whacking great nebula of energy gathering around town, and our kind thinks it’s pretty.”  He tried to push past Giles again, but Giles firmed his grip on the doorpost and held him there.

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” he said pleasantly.

Spike heaved a sigh through his nose.  “I don’t know any more than that,” he said.  “It happens sometimes—the energy gathers, and burns itself out, and we come and watch the fireworks and drink beer.  And blood, if we’re lucky, which apparently I’m not.”

“Gathers.  Is it gathering right now?”

Spike grunted; Giles took this as an affirmative.

“How long till it burns out?”

Spike shrugged.  “Few days.  Hard to tell.”

“And the focal point: where is it?”

Spike growled.  “In case you haven’t noticed, this is the Hellmouth.  The whole bloody town is the focal point.”

Giles gave him a slow blink which conveyed perfectly the clement displeasure Elisabeth had been trying for earlier. 

Spike ignored it.  “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going off to buy some smokes with the money you’re about to give me.”

Giles kept his arm across the door for an extra moment to make his point; then he reached for his wallet, thumbed with maddening slowness through the bills inside, and finally held one of them out between two indolent fingers, his eyes cast up from his downturned face (to Elisabeth’s amusement) like some odd combination of Martin Sheen and Lauren Bacall.

Spike snatched it delicately and looked it over, then scowled.  “You said twenty.  This is a ten!”

“And you’ll get the other ten if your information proves any good,” Giles answered with equanimity.  He pocketed his wallet with such an air of finality that even Spike had to admit frustration.  The vampire folded the bill into his inner pocket as if it were a draft from the Bank of England for fifty thousand pounds; drew up his cloak of shadowy dignity, and stepped out across the threshold as Giles moved into the house; only then did he turn around to rake Elisabeth with his smirking eyes.  “Nice to meet you, Elisabeth.  You’ll have to tell me later if he’s any good as a lover.”

And before Elisabeth could spring forward to slam the door in his face, he grabbed the door handle and pulled it to after him with a rattling bam, leaving Elisabeth and Giles to look anywhere but at each other.

“For a legendary vampire, he’s not very subtle, is he?” Giles said dryly.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 13

by L. Inman

 

“No,” Elisabeth said, “he isn’t.  At least, not until he really hates you.”  She set her hands on her hips and glared at the closed door.  “Mind you,” she added to Giles, who had shrugged out of his jacket and was retreating into the kitchen, “it’s you he likes, not me.”

            “Oh lucky day,” Giles said, plucking the kettle noisily off the stove and turning on the kitchen tap to fill it.

            Elisabeth was beginning to feel just the least bit peevish.  “You might have told me he was coming.”

            “I meant to,” he said, turning up the gas flame under the full kettle.  “But I got sidetracked going out the door.  And then I meant to make it back here before he arrived; but that didn’t happen either.  My apologies.”

            Elisabeth thought she wasn’t the only one feeling peevish.  She went up to the bar window and crossed her arms upon it, pulling off her glasses and laying them next to his spice aumbry as she did so.  “No luck?”

            He straightened with his back to her and let a long breath out his nose.  “Nothing more definite than what Spike had to say.  No....” He opened a tin on the counter and rummaged busily through the teabags it contained.  “It’s been a bloody rotten evening, and I don’t know why I’m drinking nothing stronger than tea.  And weak tea at that: all my Darjeeling is gone, not to mention my Earl Grey.  D’you mind weak tea?” he asked her glumly, without looking up.

            “I don’t mind weak tea,” she told him consolingly.  “I like Earl Grey, but some brands put too much bergamot in.  I’m better off going with something that’s easy on the stomach.”

            He wasn’t really listening to her: he put down the tea tin as she was speaking, and when she finished, said:  “I’m working on it, really I am.  There should be a breakthrough soon, and when there is I can send you back home....”

            “We’ll find it,” she said, trying with her voice to reassure him.

            “I might have found it today, if I’d spent the afternoon working instead of—” he inhaled deeply— “meddling where I don’t belong—”

            “Giles,” Elisabeth said sharply.

            He looked over at her, the grief lines creased round his mouth again.

            “We’ll find it,” she repeated.  “We’re getting closer.  Spike said the energy source grows and burns itself out.  So at least we know now there’s a time factor.”

            “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Giles said.

            She was going to protest that Spike had said it also happened periodically; but before she could get the words out she thought two things at once.  First, that even if such things happened in a periodical fashion, it wouldn’t mitigate the problem Elisabeth had outlined to Giles earlier, that of her staying in Sunnydale for very much longer.  And second, that she had heard that phrase before.  Time was a factor...What time is it? she had asked Giles.  After moonrise, he had said—or she’d thought he’d said—

            “Elisabeth,” Giles said, his voice sharp in her ears as it had been before, in the car.

            It hurt—oh, this time it hurt—like the strings of bass violins tearing against the grain.  She fought to catch her breath as the—was it a form of frustration?—distilled itself in her brain, building, scalding like acid.  She shut her eyes tight:  and there was the darkness again, inexorable, the rooms flung open and voices chattering, accusing—I want to go home

            I have no home.

            The faintest of cries wound itself like a thread around her vocal cords, drew tight, and snapped. 

            Let it be the way it is.

            As always, the true dictum sounded like madness.  She resisted it.

            Let it be the way it is.

            So you have no home; let it be the way it is. 

            So you are frightened and frustrated; let it be the way it is.

            So you are stranded, so you are nothing-with-a-shape, so the fibers of your soul are torn; let it be as it is.  You will mend, and even if you do not, all will still be well.

            Elisabeth stopped resisting, and came toward recognition, there in the darkness.

            You see?  All will still be well.

            She could breathe again, and her eyes were open, and her sight was registering now:  and what she saw was Giles’s face at close range.  She was standing—she was still upright—partially because he was gripping her arms; as she regained her senses she stood under her own power and met his gaze with her own, her consciousness growing.

            “What happened?” he said.

            She began shivering; she drew a breath and let it pass off before she even thought of answering.

            He was holding her more gently now; but he did not let go.  “What was that?” he said again.

            “It was me,” she said, her voice sounding odd in her ears.  “I went to—that place again.”

            His eyes behind his glasses were intense and dark.  “Tell me.”

            “Tell you...what it was like?”

            “Perhaps not that,” he said (she noticed now he was very pale).  “Tell me how you brought yourself back.”

            “I did—”

            “You did.  I saw you do it.  Tell me how you did it.”  His voice had that inimitable Giles-calm with the—something—curling round the edges of it; he needed reassuring, and only knowledge would accomplish that.

            She swallowed, and blinked, to get her bearings.  “It was...that thing about the time.  Time being a factor...I had a thought like that, when we were in the car, you know, on the highway....”

            “Yes,” he said patiently, “I know.  Go on.”

            “And I was back there again.  And I was back where I was today, in the dark.  And I got frustrated and—afraid—like I do when I have a bad episode—” she swallowed again— “and I wasn’t going to be able to pull it out.  And then I thought what I do when it gets that bad: just to let it, you know, be as it is....”  She wanted to look away from him, telling him this, but it was the most important part, and he had not pitied her yet: so she went on.  “I had this thought, you see, that I wanted to go home; but then I had a thought that I had no home to start with; and that was what I had to accept.  It’s like....” she searched for a description— “it’s like—like a passion of accepting.  It’s what you have to do.  It’s what I have to do.  That’s how I came back.”  She stopped for a moment, grimaced at him.  “Do you know what I’m saying?”

            He released her gently and straightened; nodded; pulled off his glasses and made a quarter-turn away from her.  He fumbled a few steps to the table and braced his hands on its surface, his left thumb anchoring the earpiece of his glasses.  His head went down between his shoulders: and suddenly she understood what was happening.  The blood rushed hot into her face, and she uttered the words anyway, stupid as they were:

            “Are you—are you crying?”

            He made no response, but it may as well have been an affirmative; she saw a little flinch contract his shoulder blades under his shirt.

            Frantically, she pulled at the crook of his arm till his hand came free from the table.  Still he did not respond except to lift his other hand and transfer his glasses to it, then drop them to the table; he turned a sob into a cough.  She caught a sight of the side of his face, and stopped tugging at him.  “You can’t—”

            “Can’t what?” he said, choking on it, his eyes hard shut.

            She was dizzy.  She let go of him altogether and turned to stumble blindly down the hall and into the bathroom.  She slammed the door with her body, unsure for a split second whether to cry first or throw up first.  Tears prevailed; she slid down the door till she was sitting on the cold tiled floor.  Threw her head back to bang it once, hard, against the door, so that it hurt.  “No,” she uttered once. 

            It didn’t, however, take long this time before she was spent.  And when she was, a thought came to her sitting there, swollen-eyed, on the floor.

            Aren’t you a bit old to be embracing melodrama quite so enthusiastically?

            At this she barked a laugh, sniffled her last, and clambered up from the floor to go and find him.

            To her relief, he had not gone far; in fact, he had not moved except to sit down in his chair at the table.  His elbows were on the tabletop; his hands were steepled, and he rested the bridge of his nose on his forefingers.  His eyes were closed, not in pain but in the memory of pain.

            She went slowly to take the chair across from him.  She was not surprised when he remained as he was; and yet she knew he was fully aware of her presence.

            “I’m sorry,” she said softly.

            His eyelids flickered.  “Sorry for what?” he said, moving his lips only a little.

            “Pitching a childish fit and running away,” she said.  “I’m done now.”

            The corners of his lips moved in what was almost a smile.

            “It’s only,” she said, her voice catching a little in spite of herself, “it’s only that I shouldn’t be allowed to have such an effect on you.”

            His eyelids flickered again, and a faint line appeared between his brows.  “Why not?”

            “Giles,” she said, “I’m a shadow here.  For all I know, I’m a shadow everywhere I am, but I know I’m one here.  And I ought to—I have to—stay that way.”

            At this his eyes opened on her face; she met his gaze, but it cost her something to do it.

            He took his hands away from his lips and spoke.  “You seem to be calling me by one name or the other by turns.  I would like you to choose one and stick with it.”

            “Would you keep to the point,” she said irritably.

            “I am,” he said, his voice quite flat.

            She could acknowledge the point, but she didn’t have to like it:  she dropped her eyes to the table and pursed her mouth before answering.  “It isn’t that simple,” she said.

            “Yes, it is.  You aren’t really a shadow, you know,” he said.  “You want to be; but you are not.”

            Elisabeth shut her eyes.

            “It would be better,” she said, “if I were.”

            “Better?”  Skepticism.

            “Easier.”  She gave it to him with the voice of a recalcitrant child, keeping her eyes shut.

            “Yes.”

            She opened her eyes to glare at him.  “Is there something wrong with wanting it to be easier?” she demanded.

            “No,” he said.  His mouth was twitching in that almost-smile again.  “It’s just that you seem to be flirting with that complicated human closeness as it happens to suit you.  I think you said something about that just today—something about points of contact and playing it to the hilt.”  His tired eyes twinkled ever so faintly.

            She lifted her chin.  “Are you accusing me of being inconsistent?”

            At this he really did smile.

            “Damn you,” Elisabeth said.  She braced her elbows and put her head in her hands.  “Damn you, damn you, Rupert.”

            The silence in the room evened and deepened, as they both recognized the side she’d just come down on.  Giles cleared his throat painfully, breaking it.

            “On the other hand,” he said softly, “I am sometimes spectacularly wrong.”

            Without lifting her head, she whispered, “Not about this.”

            “Even after...?”  He stopped completely.

            She took her hands away from her head and laid them flat on the table, keeping her eyes on their squarely tapering shape, on her boyish knuckles and flat, fragile nails, which were bitten in places despite her efforts to control the habit.  When she opened her mouth, she spoke to them:  “That wasn’t your fault.”

            “I pushed you,” he said, his voice thick again.

            She shook her head, unable to find the words to build the argument that would stand against his palpable grief.

            Minutes passed as her thoughts moved, glacier-like, to the place they’d begun.  She shook her head again.  “I don’t know what to do,” she said, her voice low.  “I could try to make the touch—except—”

            “Except...?”

            “I might not be able to,” she said.  Her eyes filled, and she kept her gaze carefully on her hands.

            He cleared his throat again.  “What do you mean?”

            She opened her mouth, and after a few seconds she managed to say it:  “It was Nothing.”

            “What was nothing?” he said.

            “I was,” she said, her vision blurring.  “At the bottom of me.  There was Nothing.”

            He said nothing to this; she could almost hear him taking it in, trying to understand it. 

            “It’s like one of those cruel children’s tricks,” she said, the tears drying unshed in her eyes.  She had even stopped shaking.  “You know, on TV, where they have someone open a door, and then a smaller door behind that, and then another and another, hundreds of them, and finally you open just this little bitty door and there’s nothing there.”

            After a pause his voice scraped to life:  “That is what you’re afraid of?”

            “That’s what is,” she said to her hands.  “That’s what I found.  Nothing.  And not a homely kind of Nothing.  Just—this sick empty—” She broke off, and it was a long moment before she could say what came next:  “Isn’t...isn’t that what pure evil is made of?”

            “Yes,” he said, his voice a whisper.

            She lifted her eyes to his then, resolute as if standing before a firing squad at dawn.  “Then...?”

            His eyes met hers, quiet and earnest.  “I know you are human,” he said.

            The water came into her eyes again, but still did not spill over.  “But you don’t know what I should do,” she said.

            For the first time his eyes dropped; his shoulders went down a fraction, and the grief lines seemed permanently carved into his face.  He shook his head, and opened his lips to say, No, I don’t know: but the words never came.

            It was then that Elisabeth finally registered a sound that had been tumbling lightly in her ear like a mosquito: the kettle in the kitchen, whistling ever more weakly as the tea water boiled itself away.

 

*

 

They gave up on the tea, without even discussing it.  Giles went into the kitchen and turned the burner off under the kettle.

            It seemed too early to go to bed, so he got out the chess set.  She set up the pieces, and they both made a valiant attempt at playing a game before Elisabeth laid the tip of her forefinger on her own king, rocked it, and pushed it over slowly.  It rolled against the queen and stopped: she looked up at him wordlessly.  He nodded and began picking up pieces to put them away. 

            They went to bed.  Elisabeth changed into her ratty T-shirt and pajama pants in the bathroom, brushed her teeth, and returned to the livingroom to make up her bed on the couch.  By the time she settled into her nest he was already upstairs.  She lay there listening to the sound of dresser drawers opening and shutting, and the rustle of the covers as he pulled them back.  His light went off, leaving the lamp at her head the only source of light in the flat. 

            Silence, and Elisabeth couldn’t hold back anymore.  So many tears…she had had no idea how much she had been carrying.  And of course there was no one to take it from her. 

I have preserved all your tears in my bottle

            To do what with? she wondered.  It was her last clear thought as she put her face into Giles’s pillow and went into a paroxysm of grief as quiet as she could make it.

            She didn’t hear him get up and come down the stairs, but she knew when he was standing next to her nest on the couch.  She knew, too, when he bent tentatively over her, and his hand on her shoulder made no flutter of surprise in her.

            He spoke her name quietly, and she snuffled and coughed to get a full breath.  Turned her face aside, exposing to him the obvious signs of her grief.

            Almost comically, he was whispering, as if afraid of waking some other person in the flat.  “I—I know you don’t—I know that probably the last thing you want is me…but—”  He stopped, and she sniffed thickly and glanced up at him. 

            “But,” he continued, broad apology in his voice, “I thought perhaps if we were both going to be miserable, we ought to be miserable together.”

            She sniffed again and made a shrug with her face.  “What do you suggest we do?” she croaked.

            He straightened a little and cast a glance around the room.  “I don’t know…chess is definitely out.”

            “As are books,” she added.  “‘Oh canst thou not minister to a mind diseased…’”

            He smiled wryly and took up her quote.  “‘…Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?’”

            “You know the Scottish play,” she murmured.  “And of course the answer is, ‘Therein the patient must minister to himself.’…Let’s watch television.”

            He shut his eyes in a silent laugh.  “Very well, let’s.”

            He turned on the other lamp at the side of the couch and went to clear the books away from the television table.  He tossed her the remote; she had just sat upright enough to be able to catch it.  “Find us a program,” he said.  “I’ll make the tea.”

            Elisabeth had never seen a remote so old as this one; the markings under the buttons were very nearly worn away.  After a few tries she managed to get the TV on and begin flipping through the channels.  Giles rattled about in the kitchen for quite some time while she desultorily watched the end of a Law and Order rerun; when he came out, he was carrying a tray with several vessels on it and a plate with a heaped cloth napkin upon it.  He set the tray down on the coffee table, and Elisabeth lurched up to pluck away the napkin.  “Scones!”

            “Yes, scones,” he said, glancing askance at her as if she were about to launch a verbal attack on them.

            “I don’t remember seeing any scones in your kitchen,” she said.

            “I freeze them,” he said, “and then heat them up in the microwave.  It’s not quite the same as fresh, but it works all right, and they keep longer this way.”

            “Where do you get fresh scones in California?” she said, reaching for one and putting it on her saucer.

            “I make them,” he said, indignant.

            She smiled as she poured out tea for both of them; as she added milk and sugar to hers, he took his cup and settled (gingerly at first, but then more comfortably) on one end of the couch, arranging his soft purple robe over his knees.  She tossed him her down blanket and rearranged the other around herself, curled up with her scone and tea.

            “Oh!” he said, “I forgot the lemon curd.”  He tossed away the blanket and hauled himself to his feet again.

            “This gets better and better.”  Elisabeth worked herself more comfortably into the corner of the couch and reached for the remote.

            When Giles returned, he was carrying not only an old marmalade jar half-full of lemon curd, but also a small jar of Devon cream and two spoons to serve them with.  “Wow,” Elisabeth said.  “Do you make the lemon curd too?”

            He raised supercilious eyebrows at her.  “As a matter of fact, I do.” 

            “Then it should be good,” she said, and drew out a heavy spoonful of smooth yellow curd.  Once it was on her saucer, she stuck a finger in it and popped it into her mouth.  “Mmm.  I could eat this stuff straight.”

            He gave her a confessional glance that made one corner of her mouth quirk up into a smile.

            There was absolutely nothing on.  Elisabeth flipped through the channels, then gave the ornery remote to Giles.  He could handle the remote slightly better, but their luck still did not improve, until he hit the public television station and they found that what had been a telethon fund drive was now an episode of Antiques Roadshow.  “Wanna watch this?” he asked her.

            She shrugged.  “Okay.”

            So they munched on their scones and watched the episode, making rude comments every now and then (“He has a terrible toupee.”  “Disgusting.”), sipped tea and refilled their cups from the pot.

            Giles hit the mute button when the telethon came back on mid-episode.  Elisabeth was polishing off her first scone.  “Why,” she asked him around the last bite, “are scones supposed to be stuffy?”

            “I don’t know,” Giles said, instantly aggrieved.  “Nobody says that chocolate chip cookies or apple pie are stuffy.”

            “Scones get a bad rap,” she agreed, swallowing.  “I mean, they’re just flour and butter and sugar.  They have no nutritional value whatsoever.  It doesn’t take much to make them—”

            “—badly,” he said.

            She tipped her head to concede him the point.  “My scones are terrible.  Guaranteed to suck ninety percent of the moisture out of your body.”  She sucked in her cheeks and let them out with a smack.

            He smiled.

            “They’re crumbly and messy and nobody in their right mind would call them dainty.”

            “They’re maligned,” Giles said.  “And the worst of it is, the loudest among them probably haven’t even seen a scone.  Xander Harris, for example, probably doesn’t even know what a scone looks like.”

            “It’s probably because they’ve never been to Britain,” she said sagely.

            “You haven’t either,” he accused.

            “I’m an English lit major,” Elisabeth said.  “I’ve been everywhere.”

            He looked at her skeptically.

            “At least,” she said, “I can appreciate a good creamy scone when it hits me in the head.”

            “True, O Queen,” he said with a smile.

            “Give me another.”  She held out her curd-and-cream-streaked plate, and he obliged.

            She started in on the new scone, adding more cream and lemon curd; he poured her a fresh cup of tea, which she accepted gracefully.

            “I begin to see,” he said, “that I just need to feed you the right things to get you to eat.”

            She snorted good-naturedly.  “Right.  Oh, the show’s back on.”

            “Oh.”  He unmuted the television.

            They spent the next hour heckling the Antiques Roadshow judges (“I’ve got one of those in my attic in England—it can’t possibly be that valuable.”  “You have an attic in England?” “And a box to put it in.”), finishing off the plate of scones, and taking turns scraping out the last of the lemon curd onto their plates.  During one round with an ancient walnut secretary, Elisabeth broke off drooling over the furniture to glance at Giles, who was using his fingers to clean out the lemon-curd jar.  He froze with one finger in his mouth as she looked at him, caught red-handed.

            “I’ll never tell,” she told him.

            “My reputation would never recover,” he said with a smirk, and offered the jar to her.  She declined with a polite upturned palm.  He looked sadly into the empty jar.  “I’ll have to make some more soon.”

            “Indeed you will.  Look at that—it has a hidden compartment and they’re not even going to add money for it!”

            “You have a fetish for desks?”

            “Doesn’t everyone?”

            “Well....”

            “That was rhetorical, smarty.”

            He grinned over at her.  She saluted him with her teacup and drank off the last of her tea.  “On the other hand,” she said, “once that secret compartment is exposed to the public in an Antiques Roadshow marathon, it’s not so secret anymore.  So I guess it doesn’t rate extra money.”  She leaned forward to set the empty teacup on the table.

            “That’s one way to look at it.”

            “You are of my opinion, I know you are.”

            He saluted her with his teacup and drained it as she had done.

            When the next telethon interruption came, Elisabeth got up to take a bathroom break (“Thank you very much for the power of suggestion,” Giles said when she got back, getting up himself; “No problem,” she said), and came back to clear the coffee table of their cups and plates.  They settled themselves back on the couch again to watch the next episode in the marathon.  Except that this time Elisabeth curled herself up more lying down; as Giles unmuted the television she stretched out—tentatively at first, but then more boldly—ending by wedging her bare feet behind him.  As they watched the show he shifted his shoulders and settled back comfortably, snugly against her feet; and she relaxed. 

            The dance of antiques went on; Elisabeth’s eyes grew glassy, and she saw when she glanced at Giles that he too was feeling the hour.  He had run his hand through his hair, leaving a tuft to stick up at the back, and his glasses had slid down his nose.

            Her eyelids drooped, watching the screen. 

 

*

 

The television screen was a static palette of color ribbons.  On the couch, Elisabeth was stretched out asleep with one hand curled under her chin, Giles’s blanket tucked around her.  Her down blanket, rumpled and askew, lay across Giles’s lap; his head was back, his glasses half-fallen onto his broad forehead; his mouth was open, his breathing audible.

            Something made Giles wake with a snort; his head jerked up, and he brought up a hand to stop his glasses falling off his face.  Once they were straight, he took them off altogether for a moment and rubbed his eyes hard.  After a moment he pushed aside the blanket and got up to turn off the television. 

            Behind him, Elisabeth stirred and gave a little groan.  He turned to look at her.  Her eyelashes were fluttering as she blinked.  “Did I miss anything?” she murmured.

            He smiled faintly.  “No.” 

            “Mmm.”

            He turned off the other lamp, watching her.  She was no longer asleep, he could tell, though her eyes were closed.  There was just enough room on the edge of the couch for him to perch at her side, and he did so, straightening his robe over his knees.

            She moved a little to make more room for him, and he shifted to sit more comfortably close to her.  “It’s been quite a day,” he said softly, reaching out to tuck a wayward strand of her hair behind her ear.  His hand lingered, to smooth her rumpled hair over her temple.

            At first her only answer was an affirmative grunt; then she said belatedly, “I’ll drink to that.”

            “I think we did,” he said.

            “Mmm.”

            They were quiet together, his fingers stroking her hair lightly.  “With weak tea,” she said at length.

            He smiled.  “With weak tea.  I suppose it wasn’t all that bad.”

            She smiled without opening her eyes.

            “You have the smallest ears,” he said, his fingertip tracing the outer rim of her ear where it lay against her hair.

            “The worse to hear you with,” she murmured.  “Guess it means I’m not much of a mouser.”

            “A—what?” he said, snorting a laugh.

            “They say that you can tell whether a cat’s a good mouser by the size of its ears.”

            He chuckled.  “In that case, I ought to be an excellent mouser.”

            She grinned and opened her eyes long enough to glance at him; he spoke the truth.

            Another silence came and lengthened; then she said, “You feeling better?”

            “Yes.  You?”

            “Yes,” she said.  “I’ll be all right.”

            His fingertips faltered on her warm smooth hair.  “I know you told me not to apologize anymore—but—”  She heard his deep sigh.  “I’m sorry.  More than I can tell you.”

            She reached a hand from under her chest and patted his knee.  “You’re absolved,” she said quietly.  “It was going to happen sometime; it may as well have been now.  Just think how much worse it would have been if I’d been alone, or with people who couldn’t have understood what was happening to me.  I wouldn’t have understood it, probably.  No, it was better to face it now, and here.”

            He sighed again.  “These things are bound to come, but woe to him by whom they come.  It would be better that he should be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck….”

            “That’s not you,” Elisabeth said firmly, opening her eyes.

            “It’s not you either,” he said.  His gaze arrested her breath.  Once he saw he had her attention, he went on:

            “I hold by my former opinion.  I know what you think you saw, but I think it represents what you fear, not what is.”

            “Then why do I fear it?”

            He shrugged and adjusted his glasses.  “Because it’s a reasonable thing to fear.”  He returned his hand to its ministry upon her hair.

            She heaved a sigh and stared ahead of her, at the corner of the coffee table. 

            “Perhaps,” he mused, “it’s the only reasonable thing to fear.”

            “‘We have met the enemy and it is us,’” she quoted softly.

            “Yes.”  His voice was very wry.

            “It will still be well,” she murmured, closing her eyes again.

            “You think so?”

            “It’s one of those things,” she said.  “I have a faith that it will.”

            “I used to,” he said.

            The note in his voice made her massage his knee consolingly.  “I know.”

            Again they were silent together; his fingers, incisive like a scholar’s and paradoxically gentle like a soldier’s, continued to stroke her hair.  After a time she withdrew her own hand to curl it under her again, shut her eyes, and sighed.  Within minutes, sleep evened the lines of her face and slowed her breathing.

            He tucked a nonexistent strand behind her ear one last time.  “Goodnight,” he whispered.  When he stood she drew a sudden deep breath, but did not wake.  Relieved, he straightened the down blanket and pulled it over the other on top of her.  When he was satisfied that she was firmly asleep, he slowly climbed the stairs to his own bed.  Soon he, too, succumbed to a sleep as deep as hers, as quiet and as mercifully dreamless.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 14

by L. Inman

 

He woke with the plan forming in his head.  Today he would give her rest and space, first of all; which meant showering and dressing very quietly and getting out the door without waking her up.  At lunchtime he would leave Anya at the helm (he’d worry about the heart palpitations when they happened), and come back to check on her.  When he got to the shop he would call Xander and Willow and Buffy and ask them to meet there that afternoon to pool their information.  He was through messing around.

            His plan succeeded very well at the start…until he bobbled the bottle of Tylenol and the pills rattled like beads all over the kitchen floor.  “Shit,” he mouthed, watching them roll away across the tiles.  It was very difficult to crawl around on the floor gathering them without grunting.  You’re getting old, Ripper, he thought—pushed the thought away, and stood with the handful of caplets.  He looked at the bottle, glanced back at the sleeping form of Elisabeth on the couch, decided to dump the pills into a sandwich bag.  Less noise that way, and anyway the pills were a bit dusty now.  I’m going to be finding Tylenol on the floor for weeks, he thought sourly.

            He took the dose he’d laid out for himself before the bottle-spilling incident, and crept down the hall to the bathroom.

            The shower water seemed incredibly noisy, especially when it spattered against the shower curtain.  Giles could only be thankful that Elisabeth appeared to be a heavy sleeper: perhaps she would sleep through another person’s noises in the bathroom, especially if she’d gotten more comfortable in his flat.  Which she seemed to have done.  Too, she seemed to have gotten more comfortable with him, though he had an idea she had not at all abandoned her idea of keeping vigilantly clear of involvement with their world. 

            He could respect that.

            He could even wish—

            Giles looked sternly at himself in the bathroom mirror and whipped the shaving soap into a lather in the cup, unmindful for the moment of the noise it made.  He had made a choice:  the same choice, more than once.  Hadn’t he recently been told twice in the same evening, by two different people, that he was not expendable? 

            Giles wished he did not understand quite so thoroughly Elisabeth’s urge to cling to nonentity.  Is there something wrong with wanting it to be easier? she had said.  And, No, he had said.  He began to daub the shaving soap briskly onto his face.  He had a question for her…Is there something wrong with wanting to be significant?  And:  Do we answer those questions by the outcome—whether we get what we want?

            “The proof of the pudding,” he said dryly to his reflection as he began to apply the razor.

            After the Tylenol-spilling incident, the Quiet Plan seemed to go more smoothly.  Giles dressed, gathered things into his satchel, and slipped into his leather jacket, all without making undue noise.  He was congratulating himself on his success as he picked up his satchel to shoulder it, when a sound from the couch made him freeze.

            Elisabeth grunted, made a little groan, and finally sat up and looked over the back of the couch, blinking hard.  “Rupert?” she said.

            Damn.  He stood straighter, accepting being caught.

            She rubbed hard at one eye, then the other.  “Are you going?”

            “Yes,” he said, still holding his satchel at an awkward angle.  He finally lowered it to the floor.  “I thought I’d give you some rest.  I’ll come back here at lunchtime.”

            “Oh,” she said, with a little yawn.  “Okay.”

            He hefted the satchel again, and made to go.  “I’ll see you,” he said.

            “Wait!”

            He stopped and turned her way again.  She struggled with the covers, and finally stumbled off the couch and around the table to come toward him.

            “Yes?” He adjusted his glasses and peered at her in concern.

            “Before you go,” she said breathlessly, “I want to pronounce a blessing over you.”

            “A—a blessing?”

            “Yes,” she said seriously, “a blessing.  You look like you could use one.”

            For response, he raised one eyebrow.

            “Don’t be so skeptical,” she said, and cleared the morning gravel from her throat.  She lifted one small hand, palm flat and sideways like a priest, sighting from her forehead up to his.  She made the sign of the cross, soberly intoning:  “Minutum cantorum, minutum balorum, minutum carborata descendum pantorum.”

            He blinked several times, and by the time she had finished the sentence and gesture, he was frowning oddly.  She clasped her hands before her and watched him expectantly.

            He cocked his head, still blinking hard.  Then his mouth twitched.  Then he sputtered and began to laugh, still disbelieving.  Finally he dropped the strap of his satchel and grabbed his knees, his shoulders shaking. 

            When he recovered enough to stand—still giggling helplessly—it was to see her surveying him with satisfaction.  “I thought you could use an appropriate blessing,” she said, one corner of her mouth finally betraying the joke.

            “Where on earth did you pick that up?” he said, taking off his glasses to wipe at his eyes with his handkerchief.

            “Internet’s good for something,” she told him.

            He snorted.  But he was still smiling as he refolded his handkerchief and tucked it away in his inner pocket.  “Thank you,” he said, smiling down at her.

            “You’re welcome,” she said.  “So: lunchtime?”

            “Yes,” he said.  “Noonish.  I’ll pick you up and bring you back with me.”

            “I’ll be ready.  Should I eat beforehand?”

            “Don’t know what you’d have,” he said.  “I’ll pick up something.  There’s going to be a meeting at the shop this afternoon.”

            “Okay.”

            He saw her swallow hard, and reached out to grasp her shoulder briefly.  “Get some rest,” he said.  “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

            She nodded.  He shouldered his satchel and reached for his keys and the doorknob.

            Before pulling the door to, he leaned his head back inside to look back at her.  She was still standing there, in her ratty T-shirt and pajama pants, with her hair badly awry, watching him leave with a wry and faintly stoic smile on her lips.

            “Rest,” he told her, giving her a smile to match.  “Dream sweet dreams.  Dream of vaudeville.”

            She made a gesture, as of working a seltzer bottle, and smiled a little wider.

            He gave a silent giggle in return; and shut the door behind him.

 

*

 

Elisabeth did not dream of vaudeville, though she did go back to her nest and doze for a little while.  An hour or so later found her lying broad awake on Giles’s couch, staring up at the ceiling.  For a wonder, her mind was blessedly clear, and her thoughts, though tending toward the somber, did not hurt her. 

            It was time to think of the possibilities.  Whatever spell the gang found, there seemed only a few outcomes once they had taken action.  She could be integrated fully in Sunnydale—and that either because the spell pulled her through whole, or because in her own dimension—the thought came quietly—she was dead.  She could be reintegrated into her own dimension—either alive or dead.  In either case her life could quite nearly be over. 

            She didn’t have enough mental wherewithal to prepare for all four outcomes.  But one thing she knew: there wasn’t much room for fear.  In fact, it appeared to be the time for stepping out into apparent thin air, and not just in terms of physical safety. 

            Another phrase of George Macdonald’s came to the front of her mind:  We must do the thing we know in order to learn the thing we do not know.  She had always kept it in her mind next to the one of Aristotle’s about learning to do things by doing the things we are learning to do; and invariably when she thought the one, the other was not far away.

            Elisabeth studied the ceiling, hands crossed over her belly. 

So what was she learning to do?

            Not to be a shadow.

            And what did she know?

            Pain.  Honesty.  Fairness.

            The now-familiar creases of grief around Rupert Giles’s mouth.

            The way the pieces moved on a chessboard.

            Five-candle spells, a rogue Latin phrase, and a partridge in a pear tree.

            She smiled.

            It was time to get up.

 

*

 

Phase two of Giles’s plan was going well, even if the heart palpitations had indeed made their appearance.  He set the parking brake on his car, thinking of the bottle of scotch he’d stashed under the counter at the magic shop and wishing briefly that he’d taken a snifter of it.  Well, too late now.  Anya had managed the shop alone for such brief periods before, and the others should be arriving soon, so—he told himself—there was really nothing to get one’s knickers in a twist about.  He’d already dashed in and out of the store; all that was left was to pick up Elisabeth, and if she was ready as she had said she’d be, that shouldn’t take long either.

            He hurried up the walk and through the court; he paused on his own doormat to pick out the proper key; and froze.

            On the other side of the door he could hear music.

            He listened acutely, but he couldn’t tell what the piece was, only that it was classical, and being played very loud.  The last time he had walked into his own flat to music he hadn’t put on himself—

            With a trembling hand Giles reached out for the doorknob and pushed the door quietly open.  He put his head in, eyes wide, expecting to see disaster.

            Instead, he saw Elisabeth sitting on the dining table, fully dressed, though barefoot, with her legs crossed under her tailor-fashion and her eyes closed.  On the turntable was Bach: the Orchestral Suite No. 3.  As he watched, she lifted her arms, eyes still closed, and began to move them to the ebb and flow of the music, half-conducting, half-dancing it; stirring it in the air with her fingertips, bringing the curve of her spine into it.  Conjuring the healing that lay dormant in the plaintive strings.

            He came in silently, not even breathing, and stood watching, living through the movement to its finish along with her.  It seemed to last for a quiet eternity.  His eyes were on the unselfconscious grace of her arms and the lift of her chin and the line of her throat against the light from the window.  How long had it been since he himself had done something so simple and sensual, for spiritual reasons?  When she drew a long visible breath, he found himself drawing it with her.

            The burden of the music moved to its close; Elisabeth ended her dance with her hands before her face, and as the last tone died away, she lifted her head again and let her hands down to her lap, eyes still fervently closed.

            Giles came to himself.  This was not fair, watching her like this.  He needed some way of letting her know he was there without startling her unduly.  Quietly he reached behind him and pushed the door shut.  In the same moment she opened her eyes and glanced toward the turntable as it began the next movement.  At the sound of the door closing she turned her head, saw him, and let out a small cry. 

            He put out a hand.  “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to—”

            “You’re early,” she said, still catching her breath.  “How long have you been standing there?”

            “For most of the last movement.  I’m sorry,” he said again.  “I didn’t want to stop you.”

            Her cheeks were pink as she clambered off the table, the unselfconscious grace of her movements once again camouflaged, and went over to the turntable.  “I hope you don’t mind my using your hi-fi set,” she said, lifting the lid and turning down the volume on the Bach. 

            “Of course I don’t,” he said.  “Why—?”

            She was pulling out the cover to the Bach LP.  “Well,” she said awkwardly, “it’s clear your albums are well-loved.  I mean, if it were me I wouldn’t want just anyone messing around with my music.”

            He approached her slowly as she pressed the button to lift the needle from the record, and watched her stop the turntable gently and lift off the disc, handling it gingerly by the center label and the outer edge.  It was possible that she wouldn’t have been so careful with it had he not been there, but as he observed the way she slid the record back into its cover and the inner paper, he decided that it was merely the way she always treated music equipment, and his presence was only adding a sense of nervousness.

            “It’s fine,” he said.

            She darted a sideways glance at him, still blushing.  “Okay.”

            “You like Bach, then.”

            “Yes.  That piece in particular.”

            “It’s lovely,” he said quietly.

            “Isn’t it?”  She was kneeling to replace the Bach on the LP shelf and tidying the edges of the records, a bit unnecessarily.  “I’ve always thought it unfortunate that it should be called ‘Air for the G String’—I’ve known too many high school boys to be able to let that title sit comfortably in my head.”  She stood up, dusting off her hands, and finally turned to look at him full-face.  “I see you bear no food in hand.  Have the plans changed?”

            It was his turn to feel uncomfortable.  “Well, yes, in a way.  I ordered pizza at the magic shop.  It should be arriving—” he turned his watch around on his wrist— “about now, and so should the others.  I just came to get you.”

            “Oh!  Well, then I better get myself together.”  She hurried to the other side of the couch and pulled out her shoes and socks.  “Shoes—wait—I need to put my hair up—where’s my ponytail holder?  Oh, it must be in the bathroom....”  She stood up, patting her head distractedly.  He cocked his head, watching her: her hands were actually shaking, a far cry from the Bach-induced serenity of a scant minute before.

            “Are you all right?”

            “What?”  She looked up.

            “I said are you all right,” he repeated.  “You seem unduly flustered.”

            “I’m fine,” she said, pushing past him toward the bathroom.

            He gestured after her.  “You’ve only put on one sock.”

            She stopped, let her shoulders fall, and turned back to give him a sigh and a look.  “Oh, very well, I confess…I’m just a little bit nervous about meeting everyone again.”

            Giles blinked.  “But why?  I thought you’d gotten somewhat more comfortable here.”

            “With you,” she said.  “I’ve been with you practically 24/7 since I got here.  And we’ve talked a lot.  Nobody else knows what you know about me, except for what you’ve told them.  It’s bound to be awkward.”

            He took her point.  “Well, it’s certainly true that they don’t know you as well as I do; I haven’t told them much.”

            “Why not?”

            He met her probing look.  “Elisabeth:  I do keep confidences.”

            “You mistake me,” she said.  “I’m not worried about that.  I’m more worried that you might think you’re under some charge not to share vital information with them.  I mean, if they’re going to be helping, they ought to know everything you know, shouldn’t they?  Or whatever you see as important to the search.”  With a little shrug she continued into the bathroom and came out again a moment later, with her hands up binding her hair.

            Giles leaned against the hall doorway, watching her as she went into the kitchen to glance over the counters.  “You trust me quite a lot, don’t you?” he said.

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said absently, taking down her ponytail to start over again.  Then she heard the words for the first time and turned to look at him as she re-bound her hair.  “Yes,” she repeated.

            “When people do that—” he said, and started over.  “I’ve let a number of people down,” he said.  “Badly.”

            Elisabeth’s mouth quirked.  “So have I.  Drink five Bloody Marys and you won’t remember.”

            He squinted at her.  “What?”

            “Sorry,” she said, threading her hand through the ponytail holder.  “British comedian.  Told a joke about an Anglican vicar taking confession.”

            “Oh,” he said, deciding that the little comprehension he’d gleaned was enough.

            She smoothed her hair against her head and felt the ponytail to make sure it was even.  “Yes,” she said, “I trust you.  So what?  I see no reason not to—unless, you know, you were a serial killer in your dark past.”

            He snorted.  “No,” he said, putting his back against the kitchen doorway, hands in pockets.  “Just a foolish and occasionally dangerous young man.”

            “And now you’re a foolish and occasionally dangerous middle-aged man.”  She grinned at him.

            He pulled off his glasses and glared at her.  “Yes, thank you.”  He drew the other hand from his pocket and the ubiquitous handkerchief with it.

            “With,” she went on, “the grace of self-knowledge.  Which counts for a lot in my book.”  She was standing before him now, her eyes steady and humorous on his.  Then she put her hands on her hips and glanced around him.  “Now where the hell are my glasses?”

            Giles paused in cleaning his to gesture at the bar window.  “Over there, where you left them last night.”

            “Oh!”  She ducked around him to go and retrieve them.

            He put his glasses back on and folded away his handkerchief; came back into the livingroom to watch her lacing her shoe, her foot braced on the edge of the coffee table.

            “Five Bloody Marys, eh?” he said.

            She wrinkled her nose at him.  “If you like vodka.  Myself, I think it makes things taste like medicine.”

            He smiled, and she offered him a little grin in return before bending to put on her other shoe.

 

*

 

In the car, he asked her:

            “So you think I should tell them, then?”

            She looked over at him.  “Tell them what?”

            “That—that you know what’s to come.”

            She pursed her lips.  “Mmm.  Your call; but I kinda think not.  I mean, some of them will figure it out on their own; but some of the more preoccupied ones might freak if it was suddenly revealed to them.”

            “You needn’t be so circumlocutory.  I know you’re talking about Buffy.”

            She answered him only with a look.

            “—And I agree with you.  But, did I hear you say that some of the others might know?”

            “Well, I think Tara has it figured out.”

            He glanced at her.  “What makes you think so?”

            “Well, she’s a smart cookie, Rupert.  And she—she can read me.  She can’t really help it.  I’ve found myself disclosing things to her without saying a word—”  Elisabeth sighed heavily.

            “Well,” he said, to comfort himself as much as her, “she’s a steady sort of person; and I’m sure she’ll be circumspect...you don’t think she’ll tell Willow, do you?”

            “I don’t know,” Elisabeth confessed.  “She may just keep it to herself to think over.  But really, Rupert, it’s just a matter of time before they all figure it out.  And I want to—I need to be gone from here before that happens.”

            “Which,” he said, “is why we’re having this meeting.  I thought if we all pooled our information, we’d come to the solution faster.  It’s coming together; we just need the form of the spell and the knowledge of when to do it....”

            Giles made a left turn, musing to himself, and it was a few blocks before he noticed that Elisabeth had gone quiet again.  He shot a few glances at her morose profile, casting about in his mind for something to distract her.  “I want you to do something,” he said abruptly.

            She looked at him, startled, but clearly ready to cooperate.  “What?”

            “Sing for me.”

            “What?”

            “Sing for me,” he repeated.

            “You mean, a song?  With my voice?”

            “Well, yes.”  His eyes and voice were mischief embodied.

            “Now?”

            “Yes, now.  A song.  With your voice.  In the car, on the way.  Of your choice,” he added, forestalling her next question.

            “Oh, for—You really are an ornery so-and-so.”  She glared at him, but the shape of her mouth was not at all convincing as a threat.

            “I’m waiting,” he said, resting a casual wrist on the top of the steering wheel.

            “Bugger,” she said, throwing herself back in the seat to think.  She paused once, tapping her fingers on the door where her arm rested, to glare at him again.  Without taking his eyes from the road, he smirked.  She snorted and looked away again, thinking.

            Finally she sat up and drew breath.  She’s going to be timid about it, he thought.  Well, if I know the song I’ll help her out.

            She wasn’t timid.  She opened her mouth and belted, daring him to dislike it:

            “She came in through the bathroom window

            Protected by a silver spoon

            But now she sucks her thumb and wanders

            By the banks of her own lagoon....”

He was startled enough to put both hands back on the steering wheel; but managed to recover enough to come in with the harmony on the chorus, with Elisabeth beating rhythm on the dashboard:

            “Didn’t anybody tell her

            Didn’t anybody see?

            Sunday’s on the phone to Monday,

            Tuesday’s on the phone to me....”

“Now you sing the second verse,” she said.

            “Okay, um—oh, damn, what is the second verse?  Oh—right—got it—

            She said she’d always been a dancer

            She worked at 15 clubs a day

            And though she thought I knew the answer

            Well I knew what I could not say....”

And they finished off the song together, trading off on the harmonies and hitting the occasional sour note.  By the time they came to the end they were both breathless with laughter. 

            “Didn’t expect you to know any Lennon and McCartney,” Giles said when they had recovered somewhat.

            “Oh, give me some credit,” she said.

            “At the least I’d’ve thought you’d think that song was written by whoever made a cover of it last.”

            “Are you kidding?  This is my early childhood we’re talking about here.  I know from Lennon and McCartney.  Your problem is, you’ve been used to talking to young people who were born under the Reagan administration.”

            “And when were you born, the Carter administration?” he sniffed.

            “No,” she said, with dignity.  “Gerald Ford.”

            He tried to hold it in, but lasted only a second before he was laughing again.  She held out a few seconds longer before sputtering out into laughter herself.

            They were both still laughing hysterically by the time he pulled up in front of the magic shop.  And coming toward them along the sidewalk were Tara, Willow, and Buffy.

            “Well, well, well,” Buffy drawled, “if it isn’t Heckle and Jeckle.”

            That sobered them up a bit—but only a bit.  Giles set the parking brake, clearing his throat; Elisabeth ducked her head and put a quelling fist to her mouth.

            Before either of them could attempt to explain the joke, Xander poked his head out the front door.  “C’mon, the pizza’s getting cold!”

            “I’m sure it is,” Giles said, recovering his self-possession as he got out of the car.  “Elisabeth, grab that grocery bag from the back seat, would you?”

 

*

 

“You see, I was honorable this time,” Xander was saying as Giles lifted the lid of one of the pizza boxes and inspected its contents.  “I waited till you all got here to eat.”

            “Yes, Brutus,” Elisabeth said absently, hefting a two-liter soda bottle from the grocery sack, followed by— “Grapes, Rupert?”

            “They were on sale,” Giles said, not quite looking at her.

            Elisabeth shrugged and placed the bundle of grapes next to the pizza boxes, snapping one off the stem to pop into her mouth as she did so.  Then she grabbed the soda bottle.  “Do you have enough glasses for all of us?”

            “Um, I think so.”  Giles was thumbing quickly through a notebook at the counter. 

            “I know where the paper plates are,” Willow said, moving to get them.

            “Funny, Xander,” Buffy said with a smile, “you had all this time—why didn’t you set the table?”

            “He had his hands full being honorable,” Willow said loudly from the back.

            “Hey,” Xander said.

            “I’ll help you with the soda,” Tara said to Elisabeth; she nodded, and they went to the sideboard to count out tea mugs and glasses for everyone.  “How are you doing?” Tara said casually, glancing into her face for a moment.

            Elisabeth met her eye much more steadily than she had done a few days before.  “It was kinda touch and go for a while last night, but we came out of it okay,” she told Tara quietly.  “We ended up falling asleep on the couch watching TV.  It’s much better today.  For me, I mean.  You’d have to ask Giles how he is.”

            “Good,” Tara said, her voice soft and fervent.  “And he looks better too.”

            “I’m glad.”  Elisabeth glanced briefly over at Giles, who was alternately lining up a pile of books on a chair and helping Willow deal out paper plates.  “It’s not like he needs any extra grief.”  She fitted her hands through two tea mugs of soda each, to carry them to the table.

            Scooby meetings, as Elisabeth had suspected, were never precisely called to order, especially if there was food.  In fact, for the first ten minutes the only one who didn’t devote her whole attention to the meal was Anya, who kept making as if to dart toward the counter at the slightest indication that a customer might be about to make a purchase.  There were more jokes about Xander’s honorable forbearance, in light of numerous previous occasions in which most of the food had mysteriously disappeared before the others could arrive.  “I’m a growing boy,” Xander protested.  “I think that plea becomes null by the time you reach twenty,” Giles said, biting into his third slice.  Which prompted Xander to observe that he, Giles, seemed to have no trouble consuming a large share of the food at any given time.

            Elisabeth kept her head down for the most part, passing the bottle of soda when asked, and replenishing her little pile of grapes on her paper plate.  She ate two slices of pizza and listened to the easy banter; and by the time she was down to eating the occasional grape and taking the occasional sip of her soda, the meeting was ready to begin in earnest.

            Willow pulled her notebook out of nowhere and slapped it down on the table.  “Okay, I have three lists,” she said.  “A list of possible spells, a list of possible dimensional contact points, and a list of factors.”

            “What’s the list of factors?” Buffy asked, wiping her hands with her napkin.

            “Umm...vampires.  That’s all I’ve got on it.  Oh, and the Sunnydale city limits, but that mostly goes under dimensional contact points.”

            “Well, the list of factors seems to be my list,” Buffy said.  “I’ll take care of the vamps while you take care of the mojo.”

            “I don’t—think it’s that simple,” Willow said uncomfortably, looking over at Giles.

            “Yes, unfortunately,” he said, wiping his mouth, “they’re a bit more intimately related to the situation than we thought.  I received intelligence last night that the vampires are particularly attracted to the energy generated by the contact points.  I also discovered that the current contact being made should reach its peak in the next few days or so.”

            “Or so?” Willow said, raising an eyebrow.

            Giles rolled his eyes.  “My source was not very specific.  About anything, really.”

            “Was your source Spike, by any chance?” Buffy said shrewdly.  Giles studiously ignored her.  Elisabeth kept her eyes down.

            “Well—” Willow pouched out her lips— “the new moon is in two days.  That should give us a good index point if we don’t find out anything more, um, specific.”

            “Otherwise,” Xander said, “we’d have to follow a bunch of vamps around to find out where the focus is.”

            There was a small silence.  “We may have to do that anyway,” Giles said.

            Buffy heaved a sigh and raised her eyes.  “Do we have to talk to them?  I don’t have the patience right now to deal with smart-aleck vamps.”

            “Yes, dealing with the smart-aleck can be a sore trial,” Giles said, lifting his mug of soda for a sip.  Buffy gave him a look.  Then transferred the look to Elisabeth, who swallowed her smile post-haste.

            “Does that mean we’re all going out on patrol?” Anya asked Buffy.

            Buffy blinked.  “No.  No, I don’t want to have to take everyone out just yet.  I’m handling the vamps okay...unless you think the focus is going to happen tonight?”  She looked to Willow.

            “No, I don’t think so,” Willow said.  “I’m planning to do a spell tonight to try and assess the energies in town, just to make sure.  I’m still putting my money on the new moon, though.”

            “What do we do in the meantime?” Xander asked.

            “I’ll patrol tonight,” Buffy said.  “Xander, you and Anya keep reading.”  They nodded.  “Willow and Tara will do the assessment spell.  Giles, do you think your ‘source’ can be pumped for any more information?”

            Giles shook his head.

            Buffy shrugged.  “I guess otherwise we’ll just be marking time until we get a break.”

            “In the meantime,” Willow said, “I want to take care of some of the things on my other lists.  Which means I need to ask you a couple of questions.”  She turned to Elisabeth. 

            Elisabeth suddenly found the eyes of all the gang on her, and the heat rose in her face.  “Of course,” she said.

            Anya got up. “I’ll take everybody’s plates,” she said.  “This part is going to be boring.”

            Willow glared at her.  Anya ignored it, and Elisabeth felt quietly grateful to her for her forthright, and distracting, manner.  Anya collected all the paper plates and used napkins and carried them toward the back, her shoes clacking.

            “Can you tell me a little bit about your dimension?” Willow said.  “I mean, I know it’s where you lived, and that’s kinda hard to describe, but maybe if I got a little clue about how our dimensions fit together, maybe I can figure out what spell we need to do to get you back there.”

            “Well....” Elisabeth paused, choosing her thoughts carefully.  She had to tread lightly to avoid betraying her knowledge.  Under the surface of her mind she cursed Giles briefly for getting her into this.

            As if sensing her thoughts, Giles got up and went to the counter, leaving Xander, Buffy, Tara, and Willow to wait for her to speak.

            “I mean—” Elisabeth began awkwardly— “our dimensions are so much alike otherwise, it looks like.  I haven’t discovered any fundamental differences in things like American history.  All that seems different is that the population of individuals is—well, there are some people here that aren’t there, and some there that aren’t here.  On the other hand, there’s more war in my dimension than here.  Most of the wars here appear to be supernatural.  In my dimension, there’s just a bunch of human wankers messing things up.”

            Giles coughed into his handkerchief as he turned over a leaf in his inventory book.

            “We have no lack of human wankers here,” Willow said with a smile.

            “I didn’t think so,” Elisabeth replied, returning the smile.

            “What’s a wanker?” Xander said.

            “It’s another one of those British insults,” Willow said.

            “She’s been hanging out with Giles all week,” Buffy said.  “What else do you expect?”

            “Yes, but what is it?”

            Everyone in the room gave Xander a look.

            “A jerkwad,” Elisabeth said shortly.  “Or in that neighborhood.”  She waved a hand temporizingly.

            “Ah,” Xander said.  “I’ll have to remember that one.”

            “Hmm.”  Willow was thinking, with the end of her highlighter pressed into her upper lip.  “It’d be interesting if your dimension were a sort of mirror-back to ours, with more of the Hellmouthy spiritual stuff on our side and more of the human strife on yours.  And if it’s really close to us, it’d explain why we have no record of it.”

            “We can’t see the things that are closest to us,” Elisabeth agreed.

            “Of course, we don’t know that for sure,” Willow said, “but it’s worth looking into.  I think I know what book I want to try next.  Cool, thanks.”

            At this point Anya click-clacked back into the front room.  “Is the boring part over yet?”

            Elisabeth smiled at her.  “Yeah, I think so.  Unless there’re any more questions for me, I think we’re all just fixing to hit the books.”

            “‘Fixing to’?” Xander said quizzically.  “Where are you from, the South?”

            Elisabeth heard Giles give one of his longsuffering sighs, behind her at the counter.  “Xander, you really need to work on your accents and dialects.  Elisabeth is not from the South.  She’s from the Midwest.”  He paused to give a little sniff.  “To be precise.”

            At this, Elisabeth lifted her head and sat calmly straight for a moment.  Then, moving deliberately, she reached for one of the large grapes left on the paper plate, twisted around in her chair, and flung it at him, hard.  He had his back to her, comparing two vials of herbs in spirits; her missile went wide to his left as he dodged right without missing a beat.  The grape made a hollow squished thump as it hit the crystal-cabinet door, and fell to the floor, rocking gently.

            Giles replaced one of the vials in its stand and turned slowly round to look at her, adjusting his glasses on his nose.  Elisabeth hung her arm over the back of her chair and met his look levelly.  “So,” she said, “how did you know to dodge right?”

            “Well,” he said, his tone equally serious, “you’re right-handed; if you were going to throw something at me you’d probably have to twist to give your right arm enough freedom, and you’d be throwing across your body, so the missile would likely go wide left.  Which, as you see, it did.  Q.E.D.”

            “Here endeth the lesson,” Elisabeth said gravely, and turned around in her seat again, eyebrows high over her glasses.  As she did so she saw that all the Scoobies around the table were staring at her.  Willow’s eyes in particular were quite wide.  Elisabeth winked at her, and she flushed.

            Buffy flushed too.  She picked up a spork from the motley pile of plastic silverware on the table and began to score her napkin with it.  “If we’re all done with this exhibition, maybe we can make some plans.”  She paused in her maceration of the napkin to glare up at Giles.  “Are we going to follow vamps tomorrow night?”

            “If we don’t make a breakthrough sooner than that,” Giles said, keeping his equanimity, “I expect we will.”

            “And are we bringing her?”  Buffy pointed at Elisabeth with the spork.

            Giles blinked.  “I’m not sure.  She hasn’t had any training.”

            “Unless you can kill vampires with an etched microspatula,” Elisabeth said.

            Giles snorted into a giggle.

            “And sacrificed paste,” Anya added brightly, carrying over a pile of books to be reshelved.

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said giddily, “we could paste his lips shut so he couldn’t bite anyone, then stab him with the bone folder—oh, wait, that’s not made of wood.”

            “A bone folder?” Xander said faintly.  “That sounds pretty darn painful.  Kill him; don’t make him suffer.”

            “I wish I’d known about bone folders when I was a vengeance demon,” Anya said.

            “Don’t think Giles’d take kindly to that kind of use of his preservation tools,” Willow said with a little smirk.  Tara dropped her eyes and covered her mouth.

            Buffy’s napkin was in shreds.  “Nobody has answered my question yet,” she said, with asperity.

            “I wouldn’t worry about it, Buffy,” Giles said.  “I can give Elisabeth a little training tomorrow, and if I think she sets up well, we can take her along.”

            “Great,” Buffy said, scoring her shredded napkin harder.

            “And no,” Giles said, his eyes half-veiled, “you can’t use my bone folder to fight evil.”

            “Darn it all,” Elisabeth said, grinning at him.  “And here I was looking forward to the training and everything.”

            The head of the spork snapped under the pressure and flew into a shelf full of jingling trinkets.  Buffy dropped the handle, glaring at them with her mouth a small hard line.

            “Buffy,” Xander said, “you just killed an innocent spork.”

            Buffy ignored him.  Willow glanced worriedly at Tara, who made a facial shrug.

            Giles cleared his throat.  “Well, I think that takes care of most of the meeting.  Elisabeth—”

            “I’d like to speak with you,” Buffy said quietly to him.  “Alone.”

            “Yes, of course.”  Giles wasn’t looking directly at her.  “Elisabeth, there’s nothing in the kitchen for us to eat tonight.  I wonder if you’d be willing to shop for our supper.”

            “Of course,” Elisabeth said with alacrity.  The waves of danger coming at her from Buffy’s direction were not getting any fainter.

            Giles pulled out his wallet and thumbed through the bills.  “I think this should do it,” he said, handing her a fifty.  “Get whatever you’d like.  Xander, you drove here, didn’t you?”

            “Yeah,” Xander said, still looking at the decapitated spork and the ravaged napkin.  “I’ll take her.”

            “Excellent.  Here,” he said, working his housekey off the ring, “Elisabeth, here’s the house key.  I’ll meet you back home when I’ve closed up here later this afternoon.”

            “Okay.” Elisabeth pocketed the key and the fifty, then looked at Xander.  “I’m ready if you are,” she said.

            “Yeah,” Xander said, with a final glance at Buffy, who had folded her arms and was sitting looking stonily at them.  “Let’s go.”

            Pulling on his jacket, Xander ushered Elisabeth out the door before him; and shut it behind them on the sound of the tinkling bell.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 15

by L. Inman

 

“Where are you parked?”  Elisabeth asked Xander as they strode down the sidewalk.

            “Just around the corner there,” Xander replied, gesturing.

            Behind them, the door of the Magic Box jerked open and Anya’s voice called out: “Hey!”

            They stopped and looked back at her.

            “He’s my boyfriend, remember,” Anya told Elisabeth loudly, leaning out the door and not closing any of the distance between them. 

            “Of course,” Elisabeth reassured her, as Xander groaned, “An!”

            “Just so you remember,” Anya said firmly.  She made as if to retreat back into the shop, but added, “But you can have Giles.  I’m okay with you having Giles,” with the air of a child offering her playmate the use of a toy she clearly thought was second-rate.

            “An!” Xander said again, now blushing hard.

            “Okay,” Anya said, “bye!”  She popped back inside and shut the door.

            Xander groaned again and turned back toward his car.  “I’m really sorry about that,” he muttered to Elisabeth as she jumped to fall back into step with him.

            “That’s okay,” Elisabeth said, pretending that her own blush did not exist.  “Anya’s cool.”

            Xander glanced at her, and Elisabeth had a sense of his feathers going down in relief.  “I keep forgetting that you know her,” he said.

            Elisabeth decided this was a point worth nailing home:  “I don’t,” she told him.  “I just know what she’s like.  There’s a difference.”

            “Yeah,” Xander said, thinking, “I guess you’re right….This is it.”  He pointed to his car parked by the sidewalk.  Elisabeth waited while he unlocked the door on her side and opened it for her, then got in and unlocked his side for him.  “Buckle up,” he told her automatically as he got in and settled himself behind the wheel.

            “Done,” she said.

            Xander’s car smelled of peppermint and hot vinyl; the sun had warmed the seats and the dash.  Elisabeth wriggled out of her jacket and laid it over her knees.

            “Listen,” Xander said, as he pulled out of his parking space and began to negotiate the Sunnydale streets, “about Buffy…don’t—don’t worry too much about what happened back there.  It’s complicated…there’s a lot going on, and—well—”

            “It’s okay,” Elisabeth said, for the second time.  “I know what Buffy’s like, too.  I’m not the kind of person she’d readily get along with.  Add to that what you just said, and—”

            “Well, she’s kind of in hyper protection mode right now.  I’d just—just kinda be careful.”

            “I will.”

            Elisabeth was, in fact, beginning to feel a small upwelling of worry, coming uppermost of a whole host of new feelings.  See, this is what happens when you decide not to be a shadow, she told her new improved self.  Now, if she could just keep Xander from saying anything about Giles….

            To her relief, Xander didn’t seem anxious to discuss Giles with her.  Instead, he contented himself with asking:  “How much did he give you?”

            “Fifty,” she told him.

            “Hey, you could do some damage with that.”

            “Thinking about it,” Elisabeth said with a smile.  “He didn’t say I had to bring back any change.”

            “He also said you can get whatever you like,” Xander recalled.  “This is your big opportunity.  I mean, you’ve been eating his cooking all week, and now it’s your chance to decide the meal.”

            “Poor man,” Elisabeth said, and Xander laughed. 

            “Yeah, there was this one time where Giles and I were cooped up in his apartment researching, and he made me cook when I complained one time too many.  He’ll tell you we had to call the fire department—” Xander looked over at her— “but don’t believe him.  We did not have to call the fire department, we just had to throw out his stupid toaster oven and make popcorn.”

            Elisabeth chuckled.  “Well, he hasn’t really cooked very much this week.  We’ve mostly been living on takeout.”

            Xander gave her a brief smile and returned his attention to the road. 

            By the time they reached the grocery store, however, Elisabeth had caught Xander studying her surreptitiously as he drove, his expression unreadable.  Elisabeth was pretty sure that his glances weren’t hostile, but she had an idea that Xander was putting together a thought-puzzle of his own, one that may not form an altogether positive picture of her.

            Once through the door, Xander asked her, “Cart or basket?”

            “Aah, better make it a cart.”

            Xander wrangled a cart out of the bunch and wheeled it to her.  “Here,” he said.  “I guess you probably want to push.”

            She smiled at him: her first spontaneous smile since her hour of grief.  “No—you push,” she said.

            He grinned back and began to drive the cart through the lobby.  Xander Harris was a man of simple pleasures.

            “Now, I don’t know this place at all, so help me,” she said to him, skipping a little to catch up to the side of the cart.

            “Okay, what do you need?”

            Elisabeth thought.  “We should get a staple or two, so, milk and eggs….”

            “Okay, dairy’s over that way.”  Xander pointed, ignoring the woman in a business suit who glared at him as she maneuvered her cart awkwardly around them. 

            “And where’s the deli?”

            “Next to the dairy.”

            “Excellent.”

            Elisabeth found that she did not have to wait for Xander to catch up to her as she strode down one aisle and across the back to find the dairy section, as he was quite nimble with the cart.  Counting pennies in her head, Elisabeth chose a carton of milk and a box of eggs, then headed over to the deli.

            “So,” Xander said as she stood finger to lips, examining the contents of the deli case, “I’m curious.  What are you going to feed Giles?”

            “I’m kinda thinking an antipasto indoor picnic sorta thing,” Elisabeth said, without taking her finger from her lips.  “With salami and various cheeses, and olives and stuff.”

            “Huh,” Xander said.

            She ordered a quantity of sliced salami from the deli attendant, then tossed it into the cart and moved on toward the specialty cheese case.  From this, she selected a wedge of Brie, a small wedge of Gloucester, and a bit of Stilton.  “Do you like this?” Xander asked her cautiously. 

            “Of course I do,” she said.  “Well…I’m okay with Stilton but I probably won’t eat very much of it.  Giles’ll probably turn his nose up at it,” she added, studying the label, “if he notices this ‘English Stilton’ is made in Wisconsin.”

            “I promise I won’t tell him,” Xander said, with his hand over his heart.  “And anyway, if he doesn’t want it he can always palm it off on Anya.”

            Elisabeth chuckled to herself as she counted up the prices in her head.  “Okay,” she said finally, “we have enough left to get some olives and crackers.  And tea.  Don’t let me forget the tea.”

            “Tea,” Xander repeated firmly.

            It was as Elisabeth was choosing a box of English cheese biscuits that Xander finally said:  “Can I ask you something?”

            Elisabeth looked up apprehensively, but Xander’s expression was too hopeful to be the prelude to a catastrophic question.  Then again…. “Yes?”

            “I mean,…about the show.”

            “Yes?”  Elisabeth compared the prices of two boxes of biscuits, glancing up at him occasionally, waiting for his answer.

            “Is it…is it cool?”

            Elisabeth’s lungs suddenly felt much less constricted.  “Oh, way.  Completely cool.  I watched it whenever I could, before I—started traveling so much.  I mean, before I got here—I was doing the see-America thing.”

            “You didn’t wind up in a ladies’ strip bar in Oxnard, did you?” Xander asked her anxiously.

            “Haven’t been to Oxnard yet,” Elisabeth said.  “Note to self:  avoid Oxnard.”  She pantomimed writing on a small notepad as she tossed her choice of cheese biscuits into the cart.  Xander laughed.

            “So, the show’s cool,” he said casually, as she led the way toward the beverage aisle. 

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said.  “It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind show; I mean, the critics really don’t know what to do with it—but it’s got a huge cult following, though that took a while to build up, I mean, because the movie sucked so bad.”

            Xander ran two steps and jumped onto the cart, to ride it a few strides ahead of her.  “Cool.  I mean, your dimension sounds pretty crazy, but at least it has one good TV show.”  He grinned at her.

            They turned the corner into the beverage aisle, and Elisabeth stopped in front of the tea selection to deliberate.  “Yeah, it’s been pretty successful…though I don’t think as many people have migrated to Angel as may have been hoped—”

            Xander halted.  “Angel has a show?” he yelped loudly.

            She looked at him, startled.  “Umm…yeah.”

            But he wasn’t even looking at her anymore; instead, he had turned to the aisle at large and was appealing to the old lady buying Ovaltine for backup.  “I don’t believe this!  Angel has a show!  What is the matter with these people?  His own show!  That is just all kinds of wrong—”

            Elisabeth turned back to her tea decision, to hide her smile.

            Xander was still fuming by the time she had chosen two small packets of tea and turned to add them to the cart.  “Look at it this way, Xander,” she said, dropping in the Earl Grey and the China Black, “all the people you don’t like are on Angel, instead of on the original show with you:  Wesley—Faith—Cordelia—”

            “Oh—dear—God,” Xander said, making an anguished face.

            Elisabeth could no longer hide her smile.

            But Xander recovered quickly from this reversal of fortune, and as they were waiting in the checkout line, he said to her, “Can we send Spike to Angel’s show too?”

            Elisabeth laughed.  “If you can make him go.”

            Xander sighed.  “I doubt we could.  Damn.”

            Elisabeth sighed too, thinking of her recent introduction to Spike and hoping her bad-tempered taunting didn’t come back to bite her.

            Xander’s mind seemed to be similarly occupied.  “So,” he said, “was Spike Giles’s source?  I mean, if he was, we might want to look elsewhere….”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said, drawing out the carton of milk and thumping it onto the conveyor belt.  “But he had others too, apparently, so it’s not just his word we have to rely on.  Not that the other—um, sources—are any more reliable, but, you know….”

            “Yeah….So did you see Spike?”

            “Yes,” Elisabeth growled, before greeting the cashier and pulling the fifty out of her pocket.

            Xander watched the side of her face for a minute or two, but she didn’t turn to look at him.  “I guess it didn’t go well…?”

            “He kept insinuating that I was jailbait for Giles,” Elisabeth said with a scowl, holding out her hand for the change.  “I ask you.  Do I look fifteen?”

            “No,” Xander said quickly.  “No, not at all.  I mean, you look—very—” his face took on the treading-quicksand look— “not jailbaity.  At all.”

            “I mean, really,” Elisabeth said, hoisting the grocery bags and stalking toward the exit, “asking me what grade I’m in, for God’s sake.”  She snorted loudly.  “It’s perfectly ridiculous, a) to assume anything about Giles and me at all, and b) to further assume I’m some kind of young bimbo.  So I can pass for an undergraduate.  That doesn’t mean I’m a kid, for God’s sake….Oh, who am I kidding,” she said suddenly, her shoulders slumping with the combined weight of the grocery bags and the world.  “I’m never going to look like an adult.  Spike’s right, damn his hide.” 

            “Yeah, well,” Xander muttered as they reached the car, “I can sympathize.”

            Elisabeth stopped and gave him a commiserating look.  “If it helps at all, you know,” she told him as he opened her door for her, “you at least have some growing room.  I, on the other hand….” She set the grocery bags on the back seat and slumped into her seat in front.

            When Xander got into the car and started the engine, she said glumly, “Hello, my name is Elisabeth, and I’m a dignity addict.”

            Xander started laughing.  “Hi, Elisabeth.”  He gave another little giggle and said, “My name is Xander, and I’m a dignity addict too.”

            Elisabeth was provoked to another smile.  “Hi, Xander.”

            They rode in an amicable near-silence to Giles’s place.

            Xander parked in front of Giles’s apartment house and turned to her:  “Would you like help getting the stuff in?”

            “Yeah, thanks,” Elisabeth said. 

            They each took a grocery bag and went up the walk and into the court, where Elisabeth dug out the key Giles had given her.  Once inside, Elisabeth went straight into the kitchen with her purchases, while Xander excused himself and, leaving his bag on the counter, went to visit the bathroom.

            By the time he came back, Elisabeth had put away the milk and was filling a pan of water to heat on the stove.  “What’s that for?” he asked her.

            “For the eggs,” Elisabeth said.  “I’m hard-boiling them.”

            “Oh.”

            She glanced sharply at him, suddenly worried.  “Does he like hard-boiled eggs?”

            “Who, Giles?  Listen:  he pretends to be all finicky and English, but the man’ll eat anything.  I’ve seen him.  And anyway, I’m pretty sure he grew up on hard-boiled eggs.  Don’t they have special little cups for breakfast eggs over there?”

            “What, in England?”  Elisabeth gave him a sideways smile.  “Well, I’ve never been there, but I have seen it in stories.”

            “I swear it’s like a foreign country over there,” Xander said, hiding a small grin.

            Elisabeth chuckled as she carefully dropped three eggs into the water.

            “Can I do anything to help?” he asked, after a moment.

            “You have time?” Elisabeth raised her eyebrows at him, her hopes rising.

            “Yeah, sure.  What do you need done?”

            Elisabeth put her finger to her lips.  “Well, there’s nothing to do with the eggs until the water boils…I know.  You can help put the salami on the—platter…platter…where did I see him put…?”

            “I think it lives here,” Xander said, opening one of the cabinets.

            “Ah! Yes, thank you.  Here, let me show you what to do.  Take these salami cuts…roll them up one by one like this…and lay them next to each other on this end of the platter.  The rest of the stuff will go on the other end.”  She dusted her hands and stepped back to reach for the tea towel hanging on the oven door handle.  “There.  That shouldn’t result in a call to the fire department.”

            “You don’t know me,” Xander snorted, but he was smiling as he bent to take over the salami-rolling task.

            Elisabeth meanwhile got out a cutting board and the cheeses and began to slice them.  She studied the inside of Giles’s refrigerator and discovered a hunk of dill Havarti which passed the olfactory test, so she got it out as well.

            She was arranging the cheese slices on their own plate, quite happily adjusting each piece for maximum tessellatory effect, when Xander said:  “Your water’s boiling.”

            “Oh!”  She went over and checked the eggs, reduced the heat, and glanced up at the clock to time them.

            Meanwhile Xander had stopped rolling salami to check out her handiwork.  He gave a little laugh.  “Cool cheese art,” he said.

            She snorted.  “Thanks.  How’s the salami coming along?”

            “Pretty good.  I’m making a pyramid now.”

            “Cool.”  Xander’s work, she observed, was actually quite neat and pleasant to look at despite his self-deprecation.

            “Now for the olives,” she said, reaching into the grocery bag for the tub of kalamata olives.  She drained the brine into a bowl and put the olives into another bowl, then returned the brine to its original container.  Xander watched with interest. 

            “Why’d you do that?” he said.

            “In case there are any left over,” Elisabeth explained, sucking the brine delicately off her fingers.  She returned her attention to the eggs, which were done; she fished them out with a colander ladle and put them in a bowl of cold water she had waiting.  “I’m not so big on eggs myself,” she said, searching through Giles’s implement drawer for an egg slicer, “but I reckon Giles can eat them with a salad if there’s any left over.  Oh! which reminds me.”  She went to the fridge and plucked a few leaves of romaine lettuce from the bunch Giles was keeping in the crisper; then came back and gently shifted Xander’s pyramid of salami rolls so that she could rearrange them on top of the lettuce leaf.

            “Wow,” Xander said as she evened the rows of salami, “you’re really making with the presentation here.”

            Elisabeth shrugged as she set the bowl of olives in the center of the platter.  “I want to do something nice, you know?” she said.  “I mean, Giles has been really good, letting me camp out on his couch all week and buying me meals and suffering various and sundry griefs.  Best I can do, really, is to treat him with his own money.”  She didn’t quite look at Xander as she said this, which was just as well; a hint of mild skepticism had crept into his thought-puzzling expression.

            “Giles is a good guy,” was all Xander said; “Yes,” Elisabeth answered, “he is,” as she busily dumped the egg water into the sink.

            Xander helped Elisabeth slice the eggs and arrange them on the platter with the olives and salami.  “And now,” Elisabeth muttered, dropping a cloth napkin over the platter and another over the cheese plate, “for the pièce de resistance.  I believe he’s got a wine rack around here somewhere—ah!”  She opened a lower cabinet and squatted to examine the bottles one by one.  “Merlot—not an easily replaceable vintage, and possibly he’s saving it for a special occasion—no—a Riesling—ah, that would be lovely—but maybe we’d better go red—yes—cabernet—and a shiraz—hmmm…shiraz it is.”  She rose with the bottle of shiraz, rearranging the tea towel she’d thrown over her shoulder to wipe the dust off the label.  “I’ll wait a little bit to open it, though….”

            “Is this a date?” Xander asked her.

            Elisabeth almost dropped the shiraz to disaster.  Trembling, she set it on the counter and turned her head to stare at him wide-eyed.  “Does it look like a date?” she asked, her voice quivering.

            His dark eyes regarded hers steadily.  “Well, I’m not asking what it’s supposed to look like.  I’m asking if that’s what it is.”

            She put up a nervous hand to resettle her glasses on her nose.  It was a moment before she could answer him:  “Honestly?  I don’t know.”

            “I know it’s not my business,” he said gently, “but I think you’re running out of time to figure that out.”

            Elisabeth raised her eyes and drew a breath; turned to take the tea towel off her shoulder and wipe more dust from the bottle of wine.  “You mean, I need to have it figured out before he comes home?”

            “Yeah…I think you oughta be clear.  I mean, not because of Giles….” Xander sighed deeply.  “You know why Buffy’s on such a rampage, don’t you?”

            Elisabeth’s shoulders went down, and she stopped wiping the bottle.  “Yes.  Yes, I do.”  She turned her head again, hands braced on the counter, to look Xander in the eye.

            “I’m okay with it,” Xander said, putting up his palms gently.  “I even think it’s kinda cute—in a TMI sorta way.  But…I don’t think Buffy’s likely to see it that way.  There’s—this way she is about Giles….”

            “He’s her Prime Mover,” Elisabeth said softly to the bar window.  “The thing that makes the world go round in a regular clockwork fashion.  I know.”

            “Yeah,” Xander said, drawing a long breath. 

            Elisabeth stood, hands braced, thinking.  There didn’t seem any way to explain herself without either stating the obvious or sounding whiny; and in any case Xander appeared not to need any explanation from her, because he said after a long moment:

            “Look, I’m not saying don’t do it.  I’m just saying—count the cost, you know?”

            She straightened and threw the tea towel back over her shoulder.  “Yeah,” she said, meeting Xander’s eye again.  “I’ve been counting the cost all day.  As for how it adds up…I’ll let you know.”

            Xander gave her a wry smile.

            “Well,” he said after a moment, “speaking of TMI….”

            “You have to go.”

            “I have a girlfriend too,” he said, looking at her cautiously, as if afraid of offending her.  He relaxed when she smiled.  “And she’ll be wondering where the hell I am.”

            “That she will,” Elisabeth said with a chuckle.  “You’d best get a move on.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Thanks for helping me cook.”

            “No problem.  I mean, hey,” Xander said, stopping to lift his hands in a shrug on his way to the front door, “I have something to brag about now.  No 911 calls—and I even have an idea for a date.”  He pointed his finger at her like a gun and gave her a wink, making her laugh.

            “See ya,” he said as he went out the door.

            “Bye, Xander,” she called, just before he pulled it to behind him.

            When he was gone she turned to put her back against the kitchen doorway and let out a hefty sigh.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 16

by L. Inman

 

This time there was no music emanating through the front door.  Giles breathed a weary sigh of relief and lumbered across the threshold.

            Elisabeth was not immediately visible, but he could hear sounds from the kitchen area.  He glanced left, toward the dinner table, and received his first surprise of the evening.  She had set the table with two full place settings—plate, knife and fork, cloth napkin, placemat—and filled two glasses with cold water.  The condensation on the glasses was still fresh, and between the place settings stood an opened bottle of wine and a single stemmed glass.

            He stopped, staring thoughtfully at the bottle of wine.  He was still staring when Elisabeth popped busily into view, slinging a tea towel over her shoulder.  She saw him and said, “Ah, you’re there.  Help yourself to the wine; dinner’s almost ready.”

            Giles put down his satchel and slipped off his jacket to hang on the desk chair.  He went slowly to the table and picked up the wine bottle—read the label—poured himself a full glass.  He took glass and bottle with him into the kitchen, where he found Elisabeth slicing a pear onto a plate.  “Won’t you have some wine, too?” he asked her.

            “Got some,” she said, indicating her own glass with her knife.  She had either poured herself a full glass and drunk three-quarters of it, or poured a half-glass and drunk half of it; Giles could not tell which.

            “Ah,” he said, and set the bottle down on the counter, taking a sip of his own.

            “If you want,” Elisabeth said, with her eyes on her task, “you can take plates to the table.”

            “Certainly.”  Glad of a task, he went to set his wineglass by his plate and came back to help.  On his way back to the kitchen he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, pulled his tie loose, and unbuttoned his collar.  He took the platter she indicated, which was draped with a cloth napkin, and carried it to the table.  “So what is on the menu?” he asked her, twitching the edge of the cloth napkin out from under the platter.

            “Well, it’s not a secret,” Elisabeth said from the kitchen.  “You can unveil the dish.”

            He glanced at the top of her head, visible through the bar window, but she did not look up.  The corner of his mouth twitched thoughtfully.

            The platter, when he took off the napkin, proved to hold a bowl of olives, a quantity of salami rolls, and an arrangement of hard-boiled egg slices.  He went to get the other plate, which he found to contain an assortment of cheeses, meticulously arranged.  Elisabeth set a small basket on the bar; he went to get it and found that it was full of different kinds of crackers.  When he turned around she had put up the plate of pear slices too.  “An antipasto meal,” he said as he picked it up.  “It looks nice.”

            Elisabeth was scraping bits of pear skin off the counter into her cupped hand.  “That was my whimsy,” she said airily, dumping the bits into the trash.  “But I forgot to buy any fruit.  It’s lucky you had this pear in the fridge.  Otherwise we wouldn’t have all the four food groups.”

            “Well, you got the alcohol group,” Giles said.  “That’s the important one.”

            She smiled, eyes downcast as she dusted her hands together over the trash.

            “Is it all ready now?” he asked, tentatively.

            “Yes—go ahead and sit.”

            He did as she bid him; and a moment later she came out into the livingroom with her glass and the bottle.  She poured herself another glass of wine, set down the bottle, took a reverent sip, and sat down across from him, only to notice that she still had the soiled tea towel over her shoulder.  Her hands fluttered to grab it off, and she got up and took it back into the kitchen, then came back and plopped herself into her chair.  He was taking his napkin out from under his silverware when she heaved a deep sigh, shut her eyes briefly, and said:  “Thanks to thee, Lord, for these and all thy mercies.”

            “Amen,” Giles said promptly.  He went back to his efforts to free the napkin and drape it across his lap.

            For several minutes there was only the silence of them choosing elements to build their crackers with.  Giles watched her surreptitiously, and saw that she was building her crackers as meticulously as she had arranged the plates.  “So tell me,” he said, swallowing and clearing his throat in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner, “is this how you eat when you’re at home?”

            “Are you kidding,” she said.  “When I’m left to myself it’s cream cheese and saltines.”

            “Ah,” he said, as if that cleared everything up.

            “No,” she said, with her eyebrows casually high, “for other people I’ll take some trouble, but not usually for myself.  But sans presentation, of course, this is the sort of thing I like to eat.”  She took another sip of wine, eyes closed.  He followed suit.

            “If this were summer,” she added after a moment, “I’d be going more for the vegetables.”

            There was nothing to say to this.  Giles refilled his plate with several bits of cheese.  He glanced up in time to catch her looking guardedly at him; their eyes met, and both of them looked away again in an instant.

            Without quite looking at her, he could see her drawing a long tense breath.  She reached for a large square cream cracker and a salami roll.  She bit off half and unrolled the other half onto the cracker, then piled it with two slices of cheese and a single olive on top.  When she raised the cracker to her mouth, the olive rolled off onto the plate.  She picked up the olive and put it back on top of the cheese slices; but again before she could take the first bite, the olive rolled off, this time onto the placemat and almost onto the floor, except Elisabeth caught it first.  She would have tried to balance it on the cracker again, but at that moment she looked up at to see him watching, made a wry grimace, and popped the olive into her mouth.  He tempered a grin.

            This seemed to give her courage: she took another breath and spoke, with the air of plunging in.  “So…how’d it go with Buffy?”

            Giles shut his eyes.  His hand made a move to pinch the bridge of his nose, but he had a laden cracker in the other and couldn’t take his glasses off to do it.  “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said wearily.

            “That bad, huh?” Her voice was mild, but when he opened his eyes to look at her she compressed her lips and dropped her eyes to her plate again.

            There was another long silence while they consumed crackers and cheese and salami, and the level of wine in their glasses sank steadily.  Occasionally he glanced up at her—caught her glancing at him—lowered his eyes to his meal again.  This was intolerable: he would have to say something.  She’d gone to all this trouble—

            “Elisabeth?” he said faintly.

            She looked up immediately, flushing.  “Yes?”

            “I—”  Of course he had had nothing lined up to say.  He watched her resettle her glasses on her nose—which was ever so slightly off-center, he noticed for the first time—and set her eyes on him expectantly.  When she saw that he had really nothing to say, her mouth quirked into a grim smile.  “It’s like a British film,” she said.  “All full of people walking into rooms and saying, ‘Oh…dear….I should go.’”

            He glowered at her a moment before allowing the justice of the remark.  He offered her a smile and hooded glance before reaching toward the plate at his side.  “Pear?” he said, proffering the plate across the table.  “I’ve been hogging them.”

            “Oh, no,” she said, her hand making a broad refusal.  “I don’t much like pears.”

            He couldn’t quite stop the shadow of hilarity crossing his face, but he could mask it by picking up one of the last slices of pear and biting off a large chunk.  “Are you sure?” he asked her coolly, chewing his bite.  “You’ll miss out on the fourth food group.”

            “Quite sure,” she said, lifting her chin.  The corners of her mouth were drawn suspiciously tight.

            “Because,” he said, “if you’re only pretending to dislike pears to give me a chance to eat them all with a clear conscience, I beg of you—”  He held out the plate again, and she refused with her hand again.

            They looked at each other for the briefest of moments, then as one they began to laugh—silently, painfully, at first; then he snorted and set her off into a storm of giggles.

            Before long they were both sobbing and red-faced.  Giles dragged off his glasses and wiped at his streaming eyes.  “It’s awful, isn’t it?” he choked out.  She nodded, pulling her napkin from under her silverware to dab at her face, laughing too hard to speak.

            They were still giggling uproariously when a voice said, “Oh, for God’s sake.”

            They turned in their seats to see Buffy standing impatiently just within the open door.  She was wearing black jeans, a dark leather jacket, and an expression of slightly hysterical exasperation.  Their laughter choked to a stop; and for extra emphasis Buffy dropped her weapons bag with a thump on the floor of the entryway.  “Is that all you two do, is laugh?”

            “Of course not,” Giles said, wiping his mouth with his napkin.  He lifted the plate toward her.  “Pear?”

            Elisabeth put her hand to her mouth too late to stop the snorting giggles.  Giles was marginally more successful at holding his expression in check; his face purpled, and he sucked in his lips.

            “No,” Buffy said, for all the world like Humphrey Bogart.

            “Well, then,” Giles said, not yet back to earth, “I can’t imagine what’d bring you here this evening, if not pears.”  Elisabeth groaned and took her glasses off to put the heels of her hands in her eyes, still giving the occasional sob of laughter.  Giles set down the plate and looked at her with a bright expectancy that only seemed to incense Buffy further.

            “I’m here,” Buffy said, “because I’m about to go on patrol.  You know, that certain thing I do, with the funny pointy sticks?”

            “Yes,” Giles said gravely.

            Buffy drew a sudden breath, as if to strengthen herself.  “And I want to take Elisabeth with me.”

            “What?”  Elisabeth took her head out of her hands to stare at her, still red-faced.

            “What?”  Giles squinted at her.  “Why?”

            “Because,” Buffy said, “I want to see what she’s like in the field.”  She straightened her spine, in that way that made Giles instantly suspicious.

            “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he said mildly.

            “Well, if we’re going to do a group patrol tomorrow, there’s no time like the present for finding out the unknowns.”

            Even Elisabeth appeared to think this speech rehearsed: she exchanged glances with him, her hilarity gone.

            “I’m not going to have her do any slaying,” Buffy said.

            “I should think not,” Giles said.  “Buffy….”

            She did not invite him to articulate his protest by mounting any further defense; instead, she merely raised her eyebrows and looked at him: a mild look she had learned from Giles himself.

            “Buffy, she’s a civilian,” Giles said gently.

            “But, if I’m not mistaken, she knows how a patrol works, for the most part.”  Buffy lifted her chin.  “And we’ve taken civilians on patrol before.”

            He opened his mouth in an attempt to conjure the words for a protest, but none came.  A moment later Elisabeth spoke quietly.

            “I think I’d probably better go,” she said.

            He turned sharply to look at her.  “Are you sure?”

            Elisabeth was looking very shrewdly at Buffy.  “Yeah,” she said slowly, “I think I should.”

            He was wishing fervently now that he had related the afternoon’s confrontation with Buffy to Elisabeth; but looking at her now, he saw that although her eyes were steady on his Slayer, her hands folding her napkin trembled a little.  It occurred to him that Elisabeth had a very good idea what she was getting into; and that she intended to find out the rest of it on her own.

            “Well, then,” Buffy said.  “Shall we go?”

            “Sure,” Elisabeth said quietly.  “I’ll get my shoes and jacket.”

            He watched helplessly as she got up from the table, leaving her napkin beside her plate, and went to put on her shoes by the front door.  She shrugged her (slightly faded) black twill jacket on over her black cotton shirt and turned to Buffy.  She and the Slayer were much of a height, and they were dressed much the same, but there the similarities ended: Giles was struck by the contrast between Elisabeth’s shabby-academic air, her glasses and straggly ponytail, and Buffy’s blond warlike beauty.

            “Later,” Buffy said to him, hefting her weapons bag.

            Elisabeth gave him a single silent wave.

            “I’ll do the washing-up, shall I?” Giles said, evoking a sudden smile from his new friend; she nodded, and followed Buffy out into the evening.

            Giles sighed to himself as the door closed.  This couldn’t possibly go well.

 

*

 

The night was still quite young, but darkness had descended completely over Sunnydale.  Buffy strode quickly from street to street, taking sudden turns as if varying a bobby’s beat; Elisabeth kept up with her a half-stride behind.  Neither of them spoke.

            Elisabeth wasn’t sure if it was her awareness of the Hellmouth that made her think so, but it seemed as if the absence of sunlight was thicker here than she had ever known it.  The few people who were out and about seemed to move with the subconscious alertness of rabbits feeding far from their holes.  Indeed, the whole air of the town seemed both unnerving and commonplace at once.

            Buffy too wore an unnerving air—but for altogether different reasons.  Her strides were long and slack, like those of a lioness stalking a waterhole, and her eyes cut unerringly from corner to darkened corner.  Elisabeth tried not to think she had made a mistake putting herself in the hands of a Slayer on the hunt; but the feeling persisted despite her attempts to ignore it.

            They continued at the same pace through more neighborhoods; Buffy showed not the least sign that she was tired, nor did she say anything at all to Elisabeth.  Elisabeth did not attempt a conversation: the sudden exercise was giving her a bit of a headache, and it was hard work enough maintaining her composure between the malignant shadows and the cold anger of the young woman beside her.

            Apparently Buffy had decided that the areas populated by the living were clean, for she struck off into a park path that ended in a low stone wall dividing the park from a large churchyard.  Among the population of Sunnydale dead it too was quiet; but Elisabeth had an idea that that was an illusion:  Buffy’s movements became even more feral as she made a one-handed jump over the stone wall, and she landed in a crouch, lowering her weapons bag to the ground and swiftly taking from it a long, thin object that glinted in the distant streetlight.  Only the dead know Sunnydale, Elisabeth thought again, climbing quietly after Buffy over the wall and letting herself gingerly down the other side so as to make little noise. 

            They worked their way silently over the perimeter of the graveyard.  Twice Buffy held out an arm to stop her when the wind kicked up and changed the shadows of the foliage.  Once she looked sharply at Elisabeth when their change of position put them in the light of a streetlamp, which glinted sharply off Elisabeth’s glasses and made her give her head a shake. 

            Finally they circled their way to the center and thence halfway to the main gate; Buffy, who had retrieved her weapons bag when they had completed the perimeter, now set it down next to a headstone bearing the name “Goodwin”; she glanced around her at the quiet graveyard as one who has come to rule, and then deliberately set her eyes on her companion.  Elisabeth’s mouth went dry.

            “So,” Buffy said conversationally, “what are you?”

            “What am I,” Elisabeth repeated, unsure what to do with this question, though she had a fair idea of what Buffy meant.

            “I’ve hit a large number of demonologies recently, looking for demons who can take human form, and I’m just wondering, y’know, just out of curiosity, what variety you are.”

            “I’m not,” Elisabeth said.  She pushed her glasses up on her nose, hoping that her hand did not shake too visibly.

            “Not a demon,” Buffy said, eyes narrowing as she gave a casual tilt to her head.  “Then something else.  A mage, or some other kind of evil, with the power to enchant several people at once.”

            Elisabeth’s pique rose despite herself.  “And who am I supposed to have enchanted?”

            “Giles.  Tara and Willow.  Xander.”

            “But for what purpose?”

            “You tell me for what purpose,” Buffy said, taking a step as if to circle her opponent.  “I don’t know, maybe you’re just doing it for fun.”

            “What,” Elisabeth said, “like Ethan Rayne?”

            It was a grievous mistake; Elisabeth knew it by the way Buffy’s eyes widened sharply.  “You know him?” she asked, her voice low.

            Elisabeth drew a difficult breath.  “I know who he is; like I know who you are.”

            “Maybe you work for him,” Buffy said, taking another circling step.  “Maybe you’re his little girl lackey, sent to torment Giles some more—”

            “Oh for heaven’s sake use your wits, Buffy,” Elisabeth said, her sharp voice betraying an edge of fear.  “If I worked for Ethan Rayne, would I volunteer his name to you?”

            Instead of refuting Buffy, this merely deflected her reasoning into a new path.

            “Or maybe you are him,” Buffy said, looking at her closely.  She was only an arm’s length from Elisabeth now.

            “I think that’s a bit farfetched, don’t you?”  Elisabeth worked for another breath.

            “Farfetched?  Oh, sorry, I forgot.  You come from a world in which all our lives are a TV show.  ‘Cause that’s not at all farfetched.”

            Elisabeth breathed a shallow sigh and shut her eyes briefly.  “I don’t deny my story is fantastic.  But it’s the only story I have to give.”

            Buffy stared her in the eyes for a long moment.  “I don’t trust you.”

            “I don’t blame you,” Elisabeth said hardily.

            “Oh, that’s noble of you.”  Buffy folded her arms.  “If you want to be noble—if you really want to make my life easier—why don’t you just get out of town?”

            “Tried that,” Elisabeth said.  “Didn’t work.”

            “Tried to take Giles with you, you mean.”

            Elisabeth pursed her lips.  “You know,” she said, a new note in her voice, “I don’t think you’d be half so suspicious of me if Giles weren’t involved.”

            “Oh?”  Buffy’s voice carried a deadly lightness, but Elisabeth went on without heeding it.

            “It’s priceless how you keep showing up at a moment when we’re laughing, because you know? most of the time we aren’t.  It’s been damned hard for him this week, and damned hard for me too, but you don’t know anything about that.  All you know is, his attention’s suddenly divided: and that’s what makes me evil, isn’t it.”

            Buffy’s fury rose without her having to move a muscle, but Elisabeth was too angry to stop.

            “Suspect me all you want, but why don’t you give Giles the benefit of the doubt for once?  For God’s sake, you won’t give him any independence though you demand it from—”

            Elisabeth saw the fist coming, but it was a blur and she was not nearly fast enough.  She had a short-lived sensation of flying through the air; the ground smacked her hard in the back, winding her and rattling her brains in her skull.  Before she could recover, she found herself under the full weight of the Slayer, sitting on her chest with her knees pinning Elisabeth’s elbows.  Elisabeth’s glasses were askew on her face; that, and a thin film of tears were responsible for the blur of her vision of Buffy sitting astride her.

            “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Buffy’s voice was light and almost sweet; Elisabeth had never heard her so angry.

            “Let me go—”  Elisabeth’s voice was strangled, her chest still heaving to get her breath back.

            “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Buffy said again. 

            Elisabeth got her breath back enough to retort:  “Am I supposed to agree with that?  Is that how I’m supposed to say ‘Uncle’?”

            Buffy was going to hit her again: Elisabeth could see it coming, and could do nothing about it.  The blow took her glasses off her face altogether and crushed her head between hard earth and harder fist; a sharp light lanced behind her eyes.  She lay in the pounding aftermath, tears sliding down her temples and a small whimper aching to get out of her throat.  She swallowed, but the whimper escaped anyway.  “Please,” she said, before she could stop herself.

            It was difficult to tell through tears and myopia, but Elisabeth had the distinct impression that Buffy’s expression was that of one who had committed herself to a task she no longer quite felt able to see through.  When she spoke, the tremor in her voice confirmed it.  “‘Please,’ what?” she said.  “‘Please let me waltz in and blame you for doing your job’?”

            “No—”

            “Then what?”  Buffy’s voice shook even harder.

            But Elisabeth could no longer articulate what.

            Instead, she lay there and worked to get her breath back.  She listened to Buffy also breathing hard, and her eyes soon cleared enough to see her as well.

            “Let me get up,” she said quietly at last.

            “Why?”

            “Because—”  Elisabeth stopped.  There were two faces looming above her, not one, and she suddenly knew what it meant.  “Because there’s a vampire behind you.”

            Buffy rolled her eyes.  “That old chestnut,” she said, just as the undead man took hold of her arms and bent his head to hers, fangs bared.

            It happened quickly: Buffy reached up and yanked the vampire forward over her head, then let the momentum carry her off Elisabeth’s chest into a roll somewhere above Elisabeth’s head.  Elisabeth scrambled to a sitting position and felt frantically for her glasses:  where there was one vampire, there may be more, and she wanted her vision back.  She found them finally, lying scattered upon a flat headstone; she put them on hurriedly, and although they didn’t sit right on her face, she could at least see better what was happening.  Her face throbbed hot as she got shaking to her feet.

            In the thick of her fight, Buffy saw Elisabeth rise.  “Stay down!” she cried, ducking a heavy-handed swing.  Elisabeth did as she was told:  she got behind a large marker and put her back to it.  Several stones away, she could see the weapons bag; Buffy’s first blow had knocked her farther than she thought.  She peered around her stone to see how Buffy was faring. 

            Buffy was hardly out of her depth with this vampire, but he was big, and not easily knocked down.  Once, he grabbed her arm before she could go for the stake in her belt, and twisted it behind her; she broke his grip so quickly Elisabeth couldn’t tell what she’d done, and sent the vampire staggering backward into a large obelisk.  “Oh, I get it now,” the vamp said, ducking a kick.  “You’re the Slayer.”

            “You get a gold star,” Buffy said sweetly, and swept in close to pummel his midriff.

            Despite being unobtrusively hidden behind a grave marker, Elisabeth felt horribly exposed; with Buffy’s attention cornered by this vamp, Elisabeth would certainly be less well protected.  That and—well, Elisabeth did not think Buffy would neglect to protect her from evil, but she wasn’t going to take her goodwill for granted, either.

            Elisabeth glanced about through her skewed glasses—all was clear except for Buffy’s fight—and began to crawl quietly back toward the weapons bag.  If she was going to be alone in a Sunnydale cemetery, she was sure as hell going to have a stake in her hand—not, of course, that she knew how to use one—

            She made it to the weapons bag without mishap: opened it and dug inside.  The wood items rattled together like beads.  Stakes—crosses—a small vial of holy water—a small hatchet with a broad, paper-sharp blade (good, Elisabeth expected, for beheading)….

            She took for herself a cross and a stake.  The Goodwin headstone was not big enough to hide behind, so she crawled again, awkwardly, with the weapons clutched in her hands, to the stone she’d occupied before.

            Neither Buffy nor the vampire was getting tired:  they closed with each other for the umpteenth time, then broke apart as neither gained an advantage.  Through the throbbing in her face Elisabeth watched as Buffy went for her stake at last and made a graceful dive beneath the vamp’s lunge; when she was on her feet again she was in range to stake him—except the vamp caught her hand before she could raise it, and pinned it viciously against the obelisk.  Again she moved too quickly for Elisabeth to follow, but whatever explosive thing she did could not stop the stake from winging out of their mutual grip, yards away out of reach.

            Quicker than thought, Elisabeth raised the stake in her own hand.  “Buffy!”

            Buffy had knocked the vamp down, and she took advantage of the moment to glance sharply back at Elisabeth.  Elisabeth flung the stake toward her handle-first.  Buffy’s hand was out to catch it, but the stake fell short and dropped into the grass.  She dropped sideways to lunge for it, but just then the vamp took her in a flying tackle and they rolled over and over on the ground, fetching up against a small stone, which cracked on their impact.  Elisabeth, horribly chagrined, had a glimpse of Buffy’s face, nose wrinkled in a grimace, as the vamp’s large hand clutched her throat and squeezed.  The vamp rolled into his advantage, his shoulder blocking Buffy from Elisabeth’s view.

            Elisabeth, heart pounding, found herself on her feet, about to go and help; but before she could, the vamp suddenly went flying, landing several yards away on his back, as Elisabeth had done earlier, but with a lot more force.

            Buffy wasted no more time.  In a swift roll she had reached the place where the stake had fallen in the grass, and two dancing strides later she had reached the vampire as he got to his feet.  Before the vamp could react, she drove the stake into his solar plexus, and he exploded into dust.  The scream of the demon’s demise, not a physical sound but an evil vibration of spirit, cut through Elisabeth where she stood.  The wind dispersed the dust and carried it past her: Elisabeth smelled stone, and nothingness, and shuddered.

            Buffy went to find her other stake.  When she returned, the two stakes crossed together in one hand, Elisabeth still had not moved.  The throbbing in her face had become rich and thick pain, with a sheen of heat at its surface.

            The two women stood facing one another, unsmiling.  Elisabeth poked her glasses in a useless attempt to straighten them.  She held her mouth firm, but she was shaking.

            “You’re not hurt?” Buffy asked her, finally.

            Elisabeth snorted, shaking even harder. 

            When Buffy spoke next, it was as if the words were resentfully pulled from her.  “So you’re not a demon.”

            “No,” Elisabeth said, shaking so hard her voice wobbled.

            Buffy’s gaze was sharp on hers, and Elisabeth saw the living pain in it; for the moment, it only made her angrier.

            “No,” she repeated, her voice reedy, “I’m something much more inconvenient than that.”

            Buffy’s eyes widened.  “What?”

            “I’m an ordinary human being.”

            And she turned and stalked off across the cemetery, up the main path and out the front gate.

            “What are you doing?” Buffy cried after her.  “Are you insane?”

            Elisabeth kept going.

            “Come back here!  It’s not safe—”

            Which was amply illustrated when the second vamp tackled Buffy from behind.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 17

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth strode quickly past the churchyard fence on the other side of the street.  She heard Buffy’s voice shouting behind her, and broke into a lope; the beat of her feet pounding on pavement was a different beat from the throbbing in her face, and between the two she felt sick.  Her glasses were bounding precariously up and down on her nose, so she slowed to a walk again, measuring her progress streetlight by streetlight. 

            Even in her own dimension, this was the sort of stupid thing she never did, walking alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night.  Elisabeth threw back her shoulders and lengthened her stride, to give a tacit appearance of confidence, but there was little more she could do than that.  At least she still had the cross: not that that would protect her from human marauders, which she was sure Sunnydale had aplenty.  Elisabeth gripped the cross like a marionette’s control and gritted her teeth. 

            She wasn’t sure where Giles’s neighborhood was from here.  But Sunnydale was small enough that she could find her way to the main drag and to Giles’s place from there.  She’d get back to his apartment soon enough—provided she didn’t get mugged or bitten on the way. 

            Back to Giles’s place, the scene of her ignominious non-date.  Honestly, what had she been thinking?  These people were at war; why was she getting mixed up with them?

            The town was still as quiet as it had been an hour or so earlier, when she had walked this beat with Buffy.  Elisabeth looked over her shoulder.  Buffy should have caught up with her by now and started giving her what for for running off alone on the Hellmouth—but that was okay, she had a fairly good retort waiting on her tongue—

            Still looking behind her, Elisabeth cannoned straight into someone in the path ahead.  “Oh!” she said, jerking her head around to look briefly at the man standing there, “excuse me.”  And she moved to go around him.

            Except he grabbed her arm and spun her back to face him.  “Where you going?” he said.

            “None of your business,” Elisabeth said, yanking her arm free with an effort.

            But the man’s eyes were glinting with a strange light.  Elisabeth took one step back, then another.

            “You’re not thinking of running away, are you?” the man said, in a tone of mock concern, following her step for step.

            Elisabeth suddenly remembered: she brought up the cross and shoved it close to the man’s face.  He winced hard and bared his fangs, then swung a paw-like cuff at her wrist.  It knocked the cross out of his face, but not out of her hands.  Elisabeth regained her balance and drew herself into a crouch, ready to run—but the vampire was ready first, and brought a boot up to kick her wrist from the other direction.  The cross went spinning out of Elisabeth’s hand into the street, where it rattled hollowly, practically the only sound in the night.

            Before Elisabeth could decide whether to dive for the cross or take off into a run altogether, the vamp had grasped her jacket lapels and lifted her off her feet, his grinning face close to hers.  “What’d you do that for, huh?”

            Elisabeth tried to kick him, but he was holding her up too close and her center of gravity was too far off.  “Let go!” she snarled, her glasses half-falling off her face again.  She pushed her hands against him, his elbows, his arms, in an effort to make him drop her, but merely touching him proved to her that his strength was not that of an ordinary man:  there was no tension in his muscles lifting her at all.  The vamp laughed.

            “Hey, Tom!”

            “Yeah?” said the vamp, not looking away from Elisabeth, whose eyes were beginning to tear up.

            “Come on—never mind that one right now—Jake’s getting his ass kicked in the cemetery—by a girl—”

            At this Tom looked around at the smaller vamp beside him.  “Come on!” he said again.

            Tom the vampire looked back into Elisabeth’s face and gave her a gloating growl; then dropped her unceremoniously into a heap on the sidewalk and took off with the other, their footsteps strangely muted in the thick darkness.  Elisabeth struggled to a half-sitting position and watched them disappear, her glasses dangling precariously from one ear across her face. 

            We sit around and watch the fireworks and drink beer—and blood, if we’re lucky, Spike had said.

            “Well, hoo-ray for you,” Elisabeth said bitterly into the night.  She got to her feet slowly—with new aches and scrapes to add to her collection—and retrieved the cross from the street.  She set off at a limping trot for the next street, breathing hard and wiping her wet face.  That was almost my epitaph, she thought to herself:  Here lies Elisabeth Bowen, done to death by vampires with low I.Q.s.  “Oh, God,” she said explosively into the night. 

            It was only several yards later that she realized that she had just filched her own last name out of the ether.  And with it, a whole host of memories, close enough to bear a scent.

            We sit around and watch the fireworks

            I want to go home

            There: down the street, the familiar lights of Giles’s apartment house.  Safe from vampires at least, Elisabeth thought bitterly, and strode down the walk.

 

*

 

She knocked sharply on Giles’s door, and waited gazing off into the darkness of the court for him to open up.  When he did, she straightened her glasses but did not turn her head to look at him.

            “You know,” he said, “since you’re staying here, you don’t really need to knock.”  Elisabeth looked at him at last.  “Though,” he added, “I must admit it makes a nice change to know when people are coming into my— What happened to you?”

            Elisabeth firmed her mouth and flounced past him into the house.  “Sunnydale happened to me, is what.”  Leaving him holding the door open behind her, she went into the kitchen and opened his fridge.

            “And where’s—”

            “I’m taking one of your beers,” she said loudly from the kitchen.  “I don’t even like beer.  But this is a special occasion, calling for noxious libations.  And for God’s sake, why don’t you keep your beer in a warm place, like Englishmen are supposed to—”

            “Would you mind explaining this special occasion to the uninitiated?  And where’s Buffy?”

            “Still patrolling,” Elisabeth said with a heavy false jocularity.  She heaved herself up onto the kitchen counter and applied Giles’s churchkey to the beer bottle with a savage flourish.  “Still out there kicking ass, God bless her soul.”  The beer cap skittered across the counter and pinged to the floor.

            “What happened?”

            Elisabeth took a long swig of the beer.  “We patrolled.  That’s what happened.  Or to be more precise, Buffy patrolled.  That’s pretty much it.”

            She took another swig, wiped her chin on her sleeve, and added:  “And don’t give me that look.”

            His eyes narrowed, taking stock of her, from the smudges of dirt on her jacket to the cross she’d dropped on the bar counter to her skewed glasses and the large swelling on her left cheekbone.  She could read the suspicion plainly on his face.  “…Buffy didn’t give you that, did she?” he said quietly.

            “What, that same look?” Elisabeth said, gesturing with the bottle at his face.  “Of course not: that thing’s a Rupert Giles original.”

            “You know what I meant.”

            Elisabeth didn’t bother to defend her misdirection.  “See this?” she said, holding up the bottle again.  “This is me drinking, not discussing.”

            Giles opened his mouth, but whatever he had planned to say to that was lost.

            “Yeah, I gave her that,” Buffy said from the doorway.

            Giles rounded on her.  “Why?”  But Buffy wasn’t looking at him.

            “Are you stupid or something?” she demanded of Elisabeth through the bar window. 

            Elisabeth’s voice, answering her, was quiet and hard:  “I admit I’ve done a number of unwise things in the course of the evening.”

            Buffy flung down her weapons bag and pointed out the open door into the night.  “I’ve been checking alleys for your body.  You don’t just run off like that—you don’t just run out into the streets without protection—”

            “Oh, like I was so fucking safe with you,” Elisabeth retorted, reddening.

            Buffy swelled visibly.  “I wasn’t going to let you get killed by vampires!  Mighta done it myself, maybe—”

            “That’s a comfort,” Elisabeth snorted.

            “Just hold on a minute!” Giles put up his hands to distract them, and left them up, shoulders hunched, to squint at Buffy like she’d just announced her application to clown school.  “Why did you hit her?”

            Buffy gave him her high-eyebrow look.  “Thought she was a demon,” she said.  “Guess she isn’t.”

            Giles put his hands down but squinted at her harder than ever.  “Don’t you think you could have ascertained that without violence?”

            “No.”

            Elisabeth gave a mordant grunt and took another swig of beer.

            “Anyway,” Buffy said, as if that were all cleared up, “I’ve come to take Elisabeth home with me.”

            “Oh, brilliant,” Elisabeth murmured .

            Giles’s voice shot up an octave.  “What?”

            Buffy gave him a level look but did not otherwise answer.

            Giles drew a long breath.  “I would think,” he said, slowly and with the utmost patience, “that if you mistrusted Elisabeth the last thing you’d want to do is take her home with you, to stay with your family.”

            A muscle moved in Buffy’s jaw: clearly Giles had made a point.  She didn’t, however, look as though she were going to back down; but Giles pressed his advantage before she could argue.

            “And it’s not as if you’ve given her any reason to want to go with you—”

            “Doesn’t matter,” Elisabeth said.

            They both turned to look at her.

            She shrugged and lifted her beer again.  “Since I’m at your collective mercy,” she explained.  “I don’t get to call any of those shots.”  She put the bottle to her lips again.

            Giles stared at her: she could see his eyes widen wonderingly at the bitterness of her tone, but he left it for the moment to turn to Buffy and say:  “Then I have a say, and I say—”

            “After all,” Elisabeth went on, not caring whether they listened to her or not, “I have every reason to be grateful for any and every place of sanctuary—considering I’m lucky to be alive—”  She broke off to swallow at length from the beer again, then put down the bottle to wipe a stray tear from the round of her cheek.  She glanced over and saw that both of them were staring at her, each with their own shrewd look.

            “What happened?” Giles asked her quietly.

            “I told you,” Elisabeth said, “I admit that I’ve done a number of stupid things this evening….”

            “Were you attacked?”

            Instead of answering, Elisabeth took another shaky sip of beer.

            Buffy was watching Elisabeth with a look of grim understanding.  “She was attacked.”

            Elisabeth put down the beer and shut her eyes briefly.  “They left me when they got the news that one of their number was getting their ass whipped by a girl in the cemetery.”  She had gone quite pale.

            “Were you hurt?” Giles asked her, more quietly still.

            “No.”  He opened his mouth again, but she forestalled him.  “Not hurt, not bitten, not turned.  Just a few bruises.”  She picked up the beer bottle again and ran her thumbnail under the damp edge of the label.  “Yes,” she said, “rather stupid.”  She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose, shutting her eyes.

            Neither Buffy nor Giles said anything.  Finally Elisabeth took her hand away and opened her eyes to look at them:  they were having a silent and furious conversation, Giles with his hands on his hips and his lips very thin, Buffy hard-fisted and wide-eyed, with the look of one resisting chastisement to the last.

            “Well,” Elisabeth said sharply, “aren’t you going to decide what you’re going to do with me?”

            They turned to look at her; then almost as one they looked back at one another.  Buffy swallowed and lifted her chin, but Elisabeth saw that her eyes had dropped.  Abruptly she turned on her heel, swept up the weapons bag, and shut the door behind her without a backward look.

            Giles stood staring at the door for a long moment after it had closed, then turned to Elisabeth, but she had seen his look coming, and turned her gaze to her knees.  She was painfully aware of him as he came into the kitchen.  “I think I could do with a beer myself,” he said.

            She thrust out her own bottle toward him.  “Have this one,” she said.  “I still hate beer.”

            He took it from her and examined the level in the bottle.  “Nevertheless you seem to have consumed an appreciable amount.”  He took a swig.

            “Yeah, well.”  Elisabeth braced her hands on her knees and turned her eyes away from him.  “I had to notice what I was drinking sometime.”

            He moved to put the bottle on the counter a few feet from her, so that he was standing in her sight line.  She was prepared to look away from him again, but he kept his gaze forward and braced his hands on the counter’s edge.

            For a long moment neither of them spoke.  Then he said, wearily:  “I should have stopped you going.”

            Elisabeth lost patience, and let out a deep pent-up sigh.  “Please don’t do this.”

            He looked over at her questioningly.

            “Please don’t start looking for ways to blame yourself.  All it means is that you didn’t have control over what either I or Buffy were going to do.”

            Looking at him, she thought:  well, that’s torn it—I’ve made him mad now.  He continued to stare at her impassively, his eyes dark and very intense.  Then she thought:  well, let him be mad.  She stared back.

            “That’s what I know,” he said finally, carefully.  “I thought it would end badly, but I certainly didn’t think it’d end with you alone and attacked by a vampire.”

            “So, then,” Elisabeth said, as if spelling a sentence out for a child, “it’s not yourself that you really want to blame.”

            Yes, she’d made him mad.  Good.  She watched him take a deep swig of beer.

            “Well, yes, then,” he said finally, his lips primming as he put down the bottle.  “Yes, you were stupid.”  He wheeled a little to look at her, saw that she hadn’t crumpled up from this assertion, and went on.  “I told you first day you were here to be careful, and you mocked me.”

            Elisabeth had forgotten.  She registered his point with a blinking wince.

            “But you seemed to know what you were talking about, so I left it.  You knew what the Hellmouth was like, and yet you ran off into the night alone, without the Slayer.  I’d like to know what you thought you were playing at.”

            Clearly, Giles had not planned to say quite so much, but he was well warmed up now, and he kept going.  “And you seemed to know it was going to be unpleasant, so I don’t know what the hell possessed you to go at all if you were just going to mistrust Buffy and run off.”

            He drew a long shaking breath and took another drink of the beer, only to lower the bottle abruptly and cough on the next part of his tirade.  “I took you for someone with a bit of intelligence—I didn’t take you for someone with a mere wit for one-liners and a foolhardy sense of judgment—”  He broke off and took another swallow.

            Elisabeth spoke at last, her voice hard and shaking:  “I didn’t mock you just to be ornery.  I was whistling in the dark.”

            “Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it?  You didn’t listen to a word I said,” he retorted in a hiss.

            Elisabeth had gone pale again, but she answered him as levelly as she could.  “In that case, I owe you an apology.”

            For the first time Giles raised his voice.  “You haven’t understood yet, have you?  I don’t want a bloody apology.  It’s your bloody safety I care about!”

            Thundering silence followed.  Elisabeth bit her lip hard and swallowed tears down the back of her nose.  Giles braced his hands on the counter again, dropping his head between his shoulders.

            The silence lasted.  Elisabeth put up a tentative hand to explore the swelling on her cheekbone.  At length, he lifted his head without turning to look at her.  “I’m sorry I shouted,” he said softly.

            She did not have the voice to answer him; he turned his head to look at her.  She lifted her chin and studied the chipped paint on the cabinet door across from her, swallowing.

            “And,” he said heavily, “I daresay you’ve already been sufficiently chastised for your stupidity.”

            “You think?” she said on a breath.

            He opened his mouth, and tilted his head, perhaps to say her name or to otherwise comfort her, but she spoke before he could.

            “I wasn’t expecting it to go quite so badly either.” She drew a breath and found she was able to conquer the threatening tears.  “I thought I could talk it out with her.  I didn’t think I’d—make myself into such a sitting duck.”  She turned to look at him again.  “I didn’t think I would say and do so many foolish things at once.”

            He turned his gaze back to the counter.  “Well, you’re not the only one saying and doing stupid things.  I don’t know what the hell’s possessing Buffy, either.  I don’t know what bee in her bonnet has got her instincts so—phenomenally skewed about you.  Why’d she hit you?”

            If it wasn’t already crystal clear to Giles, Elisabeth certainly wasn’t going to be the one to enlighten him.  She shrugged.  “She thought I was a demon.”

            He gave her a withering look.  Elisabeth said, “Well, really, Rupert.  I’ve come out of nowhere, I say I don’t know who I am, there’re holes in my story a mile wide that I can’t do anything to fill—what is she going to think?”

            She wasn’t sure if it was amusement quirking up the corner of his mobile mouth.  “So, what, are you defending her now?”

            “Not defending,” Elisabeth said.  “Just…evening it up a bit.”

            One of his eyebrows went up and she amended, “Okay, defending a little.  My previous heated remarks notwithstanding.”

            It was indeed a little smile touching the corners of his mouth.

            “Nevertheless,” he said, “I hardly think that any suspicion would justify using violence on an unarmed human being.  Buffy should have kept herself under control.”

            “As you did, perhaps.”

            He went still for a moment, drawing a long rueful breath.  A long moment later he said, “I’ve been meaning to apologize to you for that.”

            Elisabeth rolled her eyes.  “Rupert—Rupert—my dear, stubborn, addle-pated man—you have gone and completely missed my point.”

            He turned his eyes sidelong to look at her, in that hooded gaze Elisabeth knew could turn to anger or humor in an instant.  “Which is?” he said coolly.

            “My point is, not that you are as guilty as Buffy, but that Buffy is as innocent as you.”

            His eyes were still wary, so she went on.  “You live on the Hellmouth, for heaven’s sake.  Frankly, I’m surprised you all haven’t decided to lock me up somewhere and bring me food every six hours.  Yeah,” she said, as his expression turned skeptical, “it frightens me and makes me angry…but I reckon that’s my lookout—my personal risk.  It doesn’t make your behavior any less understandable.”

            His eyes and mouth were still skeptical, but the humor had returned to his expression.  “Then you don’t think Buffy’s attitude toward you is wrong.”

            Elisabeth looked him directly in the eye.  “I think the problem is more with her attitude toward you.”  He blinked.  “That’s why she hit me.”

            “That’s why…because—?”

            “Because I said so.”

            Giles whistled.  “That was stupid.  Bit flattering, I admit.  But….”

            “Hey,” Elisabeth said, pointing to her swollen eye, “I worked hard for this.”

            He snorted a laugh and lowered his head between his shoulders again.  “I just don’t understand it though…she’s never felt quite such a strong animus against my other—”  He stopped abruptly.

            Silence.  A faint pressure of hilarity went through Elisabeth’s sinuses, and she waited for it to subside before she said gently, “…against your other girlfriends?”

            She could only see one side of his face, but the dramatic eye-rolling expression of humiliation that crossed it was, to Elisabeth’s mind, priceless.  “The killing irony of it is,” he said, his face beginning to glow pink, “that I’d scarcely got a moment to myself to even think of you—of it—that way before she buttonholed me.”  He snorted loudly.  “‘It’s disgraceful.  You’re old enough to be her father.  And I can’t have you carrying on like this when you have work to do.’ And then of course when I protest, she comes out with this—thing—about you—”  He broke off, scowling.

            “But you see why, don’t you,” Elisabeth said reasonably.  “I’m an unknown, a possible enemy, and she’s used to having your full cooperation, or at least your reluctant cooperation.  But without it, she has to add you to her list of people to full-on protect.”

            “Funny,” Giles said, looking at her, “you made the opposite argument a few minutes ago.  A few minutes ago the problem was her attitude toward me.”

            “It’s all of a piece,” Elisabeth said.  “Why do you need me to tell you?  You’re her primum mobile.  You go off rhythm, the world goes off rhythm.”

            He stood, frowning morosely ahead, thinking it out.  After a moment he said softly, “But that’s not fair to me.”

            “Of course it isn’t.  But she’s not going to figure that out today.  And there are times,” Elisabeth took a breath— “there are times when you don’t want her to.”

            He straightened slowly and turned to look at her.  His eyes behind his glasses had gone quite cold.  “You’ve made a study of my character, then?” he said quietly. 

            She drew herself up to face him.  “Do you object?”

            “I do, if you’ve formed your opinion before you ever met me.”

            “I haven’t,” she said.  “I’ve been watching you since I got here.”

            “Would I have provided you with that much knowledge in so short a time?”

            Her mouth primmed in a way that mirrored his, if she had only known it.  “If you’re hoping I’ll say I knew nothing about your character before I blundered into this damned dimension, then you’re in for a disappointment.”

            He had the grace to look slightly chastened; but he continued to face her unblinking.

            “And if this upsets you, then why are you blaming Buffy for throwing a punch at me?” she added.

            He drew a breath and let it out in a sigh.

            “Besides,” Elisabeth said, “if I’d known nothing before, I found out all I needed to know listening to your conversation with Buffy a few nights ago.”

            He looked decidedly more comfortable at this; then suddenly he blinked.  “You eavesdropped on our conversation?” he asked her, tilting his head quizzically.

            “Of course I eavesdropped on your conversation,” she said frankly.  “I needed to know where I was in your time.  And I found out,” she added, with a rueful glance at the ceiling.

            He studied her for a long moment, with that calculating look Elisabeth had come to know very well in five days.  She was not, however, sure what he would say next; she wet her lower lip, waiting for him to speak.

            He said:  “Does Buffy know now that you know what’s to come?”

            “No,” Elisabeth said, “but she was a bit distracted.  I’m sure once she calms down a bit she’ll put it together.  Then, as your people say, I’ll be for it right enough.”

            Giles sighed and put his backside to the counter across from her, folding his arms.  “Probably so.”  He stared down at his feet for a moment, then said without looking up, “And I suppose it’s all the worse that you don’t have any reassuring news to give her.”

            Elisabeth nodded. 

            He was moodily silent for several minutes.  She watched him, again waiting to see what he would say.  Again she was surprised.

            “Is it….”  He paused to stare off into the hallway, choosing and rechoosing his words.  “Is it—wrong—to want to be significant?”

            He looked back at her, searching her face for an answer.  Elisabeth felt a small ache under her solar plexus.  Her shoulders went down.  “If you ever find out,” she said softly, “tell me, would you?”

            His answering smile was wry and honest.  “It’s a bargain,” he said.

            They were still for a moment, looking at one another; then Elisabeth said, “I know you said you didn’t want it, but I ought to apologize for mocking you.  I didn’t realize it would leave a mark; but that’s no excuse.”

            He smiled again.  “It didn’t, really.  Lord knows I ought to be used to it by now.  In any case we will say no more about it.”

            “Good,” she said.

            There was another silence, in which Giles scratched his ear and then refolded his arms, and Elisabeth put up her hand again to check the progress of the swelling on her face.  She looked up to find him watching her.  “You should put some ice on that,” he said.  She tried to demur, but he went to the freezer and began to rummage in it.  “You forget,” he said, “that I have extensive experience with head wounds.”  His eyes twinkled at her over his glass rims as he reemerged with a package of frozen peas, which he began crushing in his hands, to loosen the contents.  He took the tea towel Elisabeth had used while cooking that afternoon from the oven door, wrapped the bag of peas in it, and handed it to her insistently.  She rolled her eyes, but shrugged out of her jacket and took the makeshift cold-pack from him, and began to apply it to her face.  “I hate putting ice on things,” she complained, holding the pack up awkwardly.  “It hurts worse than the actual wound, and it makes my muscles tired holding it there.”

            “Do you expect me to have an answer to that bit of whining?” Giles asked her, resuming his place across from her.

            “Of course not,” she said irritably, and he grinned.

            While she sat holding the pack to her face (moving it every now and then to ease the burning cold on her skin), Giles stood, arms crossed, eyes on the ceiling, thinking.  Presently he murmured:  “I have no idea what I’m going to do with Buffy tomorrow.  We were supposed to meet and make plans.”

            “Sounds like a barrel of fun already,” Elisabeth said.

            “Any ideas?” he said, turning his incisive gaze on hers.

            “You’re askin’ me?  With my abysmal Buffy batting average?”

            He could not quite nip his smile in the bud.

            “Ask Xander,” Elisabeth said.

            “Xander?”

            “Yeah.  He was awfully prescient about this evening’s events.  He told me to count the cost if I was going to—”  Elisabeth stopped short.

            “Going to what?” 

            Elisabeth was strongly tempted to stick her tongue out at that dry smirk of his.

            “You know,” she said uncomfortably, “flirt with you, and all that.”

            “Ah.”  His smirk became even more pronounced.  Then it became lost as he rethought what she’d just told him.  “Xander said this to you?”

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said.

            “You discussed it with him?”

            “Well,…he kinda noticed my elaborate dinner plans.  And I think,” Elisabeth said hurriedly, “he felt obligated to explain to me about Buffy.”

            “I see,” Giles said.  Elisabeth rather wished that he did not.

            “And,” she went on, “seeing as how the whole production was an unqualified disaster, I think he couldn’t have warned me strongly enough.”

            There was a new little smile playing on Giles’s face.  “Entirely unqualified, d’you think?”

            She gave him a look.  “Is this the place you want to be?”

            He had to concede that point, at least.  “No,” he said, with a wry twist to his mouth.

            Elisabeth sighed and lowered her pack to her lap.  The lump on her face was now shining and red; she could almost see it herself.  She looked over at him, expecting a remonstrance for taking the ice off her wound, but instead she found that he was looking tentatively at her.  Their eyes met and he spoke.

            “Do you…does she—ever figure it out?”

            Elisabeth blinked.  “Who?”

            “Buffy.”

            “Figure what out?”

            He lowered his eyes to his shoes again.  “What you said.  About me.  About….” He gestured with one hand, but was unable to go on.

            “You mean,” Elisabeth said, “without you doing something drastic?”

            He dropped his shoulders and raised his eyes to the ceiling.  “I see your point.  It’s better not to know.”

            She drew an easier breath, relieved that he had accepted it so easily.  She said:  “But of course there’s a reason why she’s the greatest Slayer there’s ever been.”

            He said nothing to this, and glanced into her eyes only briefly, but she was alive to the subtle change in his face and posture: the contentment in his eyelids, the mother-cat pride he took in her, his best-kept secret—or worst, depending on your point of view.

            The words were drawn from Elisabeth almost before she knew what she was saying:  “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            He lifted his eyes, humorously acknowledging the reference, but when he saw her face, the lightness fled his expression, leaving him pale.  He looked away, his eyes moving inward, putting it together.

            When he returned his eyes to hers she saw that his face was haunted, and reading her own fearful expression did nothing to ease the lines in his face.  When he spoke, his voice was quiet as a breath.  “You’re telling me something…aren’t you?”

            There was a beating as of wings under Elisabeth’s ribs.  She said, her voice as quiet as his:  “I figure it’s something you already know.”

            For a long moment their eyes met; then he gave a few stuttering nods and looked away, looked inward again, as if there were a gnawing pain in his vitals.  Even so, it took Elisabeth a long moment to realize what she was seeing. 

            With the cold pack gathering damp in her hand, she watched him run the progression of his thoughts, as if she could read them straight from his face:  the lonely glow of his pride in her, the helpless clamor of his need for recognition, the buried acknowledgement of the inevitable conclusion—the whole delicate complexity of their relationship—laid out for her view as if it were a little planetarium of strange and wistful delights.  And she felt a moment of terror.

            Terror, because she saw her fingerprints all over this delicate instrument—had, at the very least, been given a privileged pass to watch an unrecorded, vital moment—and had probably, merely by being there, introduced a subtle change to the silvery workings of this universe….

            He stirred from his reverie, turned to look at her, and caught sight of her face before she could mask her expression.  He moved, suddenly, to stand up from the counter and cross to her; but he waited for her tacit invitation before he took the cold pack from her hand and put his arms around her.  She settled her own arms around his shoulders and shut her eyes, embracing him.

            For a long moment there was only silence, a silence complete enough that Elisabeth could hear the kitchen clock faintly ticking.  Neither of them made any move except to breathe, and for the first time that evening, she found she could relax.  Her closed eyes softened; and presently she put up a hand to touch the back of his hair.

            He spoke, his voice pleasantly deep and whiskered in her ear.  “Thought you were committed to staying uninvolved….”

            She let out a pent-up sigh with her words:  “Oh, screw it.”

            She felt him laughing silently.  “Thank God,” he said.

            “But it’s complicated,” she said into his shoulder.  “I hate complicated things.”

            “No, you don’t,” he said, “you’re afraid of them.  There is a difference.”

            She opened her eyes briefly.  “Now who’s doing character studies?” she said.  He chuckled again, and again they were quiet.

            A brief trickle of thought came and went in her mind, about the love of friends and the balance of opposing forces, but she let it go its way and peter out without mining it for something to say.  Instead she smoothed the back of his hair and let out a contented sigh.  Every now and then he made a movement to smooth her shirt down her spine.  The kitchen clock ticked complacently.

            At length he pulled back to look at her, and suddenly she found the heat rising in her face.  Nevertheless she met his eyes and said lightly, “I am sitting on your kitchen counter and still you’re taller than I am.  This is untenable.”

            He smiled.  She put her hands to his shoulders and moved him delicately back a step.  “Excuse me.  I must go in search of ibuprofen.”

            “There’s some Tylenol in the drawer over there,” he said as she jumped down from the counter.

            Accordingly she went to the drawer he indicated and pulled out first a bottle of Tylenol, then a sandwich bag with a handful of pills in it.  She opened the bottle and upended it; a lone pill dropped into her hand.  She looked up at him.

            “Spilt them this morning,” he said, with a little shrug.

            “So that’s what that noise was.”  She gave him a small smirk.

            He rolled his eyes.  “I was trying to be quiet.”  He looked down at the sandwich bag, the self-deprecating humor fading from his face a little.  “Seems like a lifetime ago,” he murmured.

            “No kidding,” Elisabeth said, dipping her hand into the bag and adding one pill to the one in her hand.  “Floor’s clean,” she said, “I reckon I can take this.”

            He had glanced around the kitchen as she spoke and spotted her glasses lying forlornly on the counter where she’d been sitting.  He went over to pick them up.  “Would you like me to try and repair these?” he said, looking up from his examination of the bent frame, only to see Elisabeth choking and making a nauseated face.  “What’s wrong?”

            “I took the Tylenol with the rest of the beer,” she said.

            “For heaven’s sake.  Why’d you do that?”

            “Dunno,” she said, clamping a hand to her mouth.  “Questioning my judgment.  Not for the first time.”

            But she recovered enough so that when he said, “Perhaps you’d rather have the last of the shiraz?” she was able to answer almost normally:  “What, there’s some left?”

            His eyebrows went up.  “And what are you trying to imply with that?”

            “I was implying that I thought we drank it all,” Elisabeth said tartly.  “Don’t be touchy.  And yes, I would like the rest of the shiraz.”

            So he took out the wine bottle and poured her a glass, turning the bottle upside down so that it emptied completely.  He surveyed the result and said, “On second thoughts, perhaps you shouldn’t drink too much in your medical state.”  He put the glass to his own lips and took a significant drink of it.  “There.”  He handed the glass over to her, his eyes half-hiding a viperish smile.  She returned the look exactly and accepted the glass of wine from his hand.

            “Now,” he said, “let’s see what we can do about your glasses.”

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 18

by L. Inman

 

They sat at the table, Elisabeth dividing her attention unequally between cold pack, wineglass, and Giles’s tinkering efforts on her glasses with a lit candle, a set of mini-screwdrivers, and a pair of needlenose pliers.  A selection from The Well-Tempered Clavier was playing softly on the turntable. 

            Giles held the stem to the heat of the candle-flame, letting the disturbed air warp the flame around the sturdy copper wire.  The dancing flame reflected itself twice over in his own lenses; Elisabeth watched, her eyesight slightly misted from the effects of alcohol and post-adrenaline torpor.

            He took the frames away from the candle and applied the pliers for the second time; this time, the bend in the earpiece straightened without warping, and the hinge moved much less loosely.  “There,” he said.  “Try this.”

            She put down the cold pack; he took a wet corner of the tea towel wrapping it to wipe the earpiece and cool it for her.  She took the glasses from him and put them on, then turned her head from one side to the other, modeling them. 

            “How’s it feel?” he asked.

            “Good,” she said.  She tilted her head back and looked at him full-on.  “How’s it look?”

            “It doesn’t seem quite centered,” he said.  “But if it feels all right, that must be an illusion.”

            “It’s probably my nose,” Elisabeth said.  “I didn’t even notice my nose was slightly crooked till I was twenty.  One day I looked into the oven window to check on a casserole, saw my reflection, and went, ‘huh.’”  She tilted her head back again and curled her upper lip, imitating her moment of discovery.

            He smiled, and turned to zip his glasses-mending tools back into their pouch; but before he could so much as blow out the candle, Elisabeth reached out impulsively and touched his chin, to hold him there facing her.  He looked at her mildly; and she opened her lips, to express something of the urge, the large but homely magnitude of what was moving her.  He saw it, and even as she gave up the idea of saying anything at all, he withdrew politely from her touch.  “What?” she said, with a little anxiety.

            His eyes were, thankfully, honest on hers.  “You had the look of one about to give me a compliment I cannot possibly accept,” he said softly.

            The earnest lines of her face softened somewhat.  “Would I do that to you?” she said.  “I was merely going to say…I was going to say, ‘You’ll do.’”  She gave him a little grimacing smile.  “Is that a compliment you can’t accept?”

            A pleasing softness had come into his face.  “On the contrary,” he said, “it seems to me that’s a compliment I cannot possibly refuse.”

            She laughed softly, and let him go.  He snuffed the candle, packed up his tools, and got up to put them away.  She too got up, to get out her pajamas and toothbrush, and made her way to the bathroom.

            When she came out, washed and brushed and dressed for bed, she found him in the kitchen, washing out the wineglass.  He had removed his oxford shirt altogether and was standing at the sink in his T-shirt, which was partially untucked from his trousers, the tea-towel still doing valiant duty slung over his shoulder.  “Going to bed?” he said, looking up at her.

            She had suddenly forgotten how to say ‘yes.’

            After a moment, however, she did remember how to nod, and she did so, hoping her bruise would camouflage the heat in her face. 

            “It is late,” he said, upending the wineglass on the draining board and turning off the tap.  Had she imagined the studied casualness of his tone?  “I should go to bed too.”  He turned suddenly to look at her.  “How’s your war wound?”

            She shrugged.  “It hurts.”

            “Are you feeling dizzy?”

            Elisabeth certainly felt something, but whether she could categorize it as dizziness she didn’t know.  Anyway, she was fairly certain it had very little physically to do with her “war wound,” as he put it, so she said:  “No.”

            He took the tea towel from his shoulder and dried his hands.  “Well, we ought to check if you’re concussed, anyway.”  He came past her into the hallway, tipping his head for her to follow.  She followed him to his desk, where he dug around in a drawer and finally came up with a penlight.  She took off her glasses, correctly anticipating what he was going to do.  Sure enough, he instructed her to look at him and shined the penlight directly in her eyes; then he grunted, and dropped the penlight back into the drawer.

            “What’s the verdict, doc?”  Elisabeth said.

            “Normal,” he said.

            “Good,” she said.  “That means I can go to sleep.”

            She put her glasses back on.  Giles took a clothing brush from the desk drawer, went to pick up her jacket from the chair at the table where she’d carelessly hung it while they were repairing her glasses, and began to clean the smudges of dust from it.  She watched him work, watched the short hard strokes of his arms going over first one rumpled sleeve, then the other.  The jacket looked considerably smarter when he’d finished with it.

            “Thanks,” she said feebly, as he went to hang it up by the door.

            For answer he gave her a smile over his shoulder.

            It was just as well she was going to bed. 

            By the time she had got herself firmly ensconced in her nest, with an accent pillow borrowed from the easy chair to elevate her pillows, and her copy of Lord Peter open on her lap, he had finished puttering around, and came out of the kitchen with a glass of water, turning the light off behind him.  He came to stand by her bed on the couch; she took her eyes out of the book and looked up at him, letting the book fall back on her lap.  “Thought you might want this eventually,” he said, gesturing with the glass of water.

            “Thanks,” she said.  He put it down on the coffee table, then looked over at her, clearly wanting to sit by her side; so she gave him one of his own humorous looks and closed her book.  She took off her glasses, pinned them with her thumb to the cover of the book, and arched her back to put them both on the end table behind her head.  “Budge up,” he said, and she scooted over to make room for him to sit.  When they had both settled comfortably in, Elisabeth found herself lying in the same position she had been in that morning, hands crossed over her belly, except that now instead of looking at the ceiling she was looking at Giles.

            What did she know?  The way the pieces moved on a chessboard—

            Apparently Giles’s mind was similarly occupied.  “Have you any more blessings for me?” he asked her softly.

            “No,” she snorted.  “You’ve exhausted all my Latin.”

            He ducked his head and laughed into his lap.

            She added, “I used to know the one that means, ‘No, I don’t want an ear of corn,’ but I’ve forgotten it.”

            He took his glasses off, still laughing, and turned them over in his nimble fingers.  After a moment he looked up at her again and said:  “What are you like when you’re not in dire straits?”

            She leaned her head back, thinking; drawing a blank, she looked up and served it back to him.  “What are you like when you’re not in dire straits?”

            He leaned his elbow on the back of the couch and scratched his head quizzically, still smiling.  “I’m not sure,” he said, turning his eyes down to her again.

            “Neither am I,” she said.  “A little less prickly, probably.”

            “It’s endearing,” he said.

            She snorted again.  “Have you noticed how debatable that is?” she said.

            He lowered his eyes and smiled wider.

            “At any rate,” she said, “any peace I get is usually the eye of the hurricane.”

            He nodded sympathetically, and reached forward to lay his glasses next to hers on the book above her head, so that when he pulled back, he was resting with his arm braced along the back of the couch, looking down at her.  A small part of her mind noted how well and subtly it was done; the rest of her (feeling no objection to any such subtlety on his part) was focused on him, on the quiddity of him—his hair (sticking up in back again), his crow’s feet, the pink marks his glasses had left on either side of his nose; his well-worn white T-shirt.  She let her eyes travel the length of his arm above her, with some idea of studying the bones of his wrist; but her eyes were arrested at the soft pale hollow of his forearm, and the small dark tattoo riding the base of the broad muscle.  Unthinkingly she reached up her forefinger to touch it, to trace the sigil; it looked as fresh as if it had been drawn there yesterday.  Without looking at his face, she could sense the hard lines of worry taking over the gentleness of his expression.

            A thought came to her; she blinked and looked up at him.  “It won’t do anything, will it? touching it like this?”

            He cleared his throat.  “Not,” he said, trying to be light, “unless you know the proper incantation.”  He frowned.  “You don’t, do you?”

            She raised her eyes from the Mark to his.  “No.”

            “Well,” he stammered, “good.”  He let out a heavy sigh and turned his own eyes to the tattoo.  “Were you even born when I acquired it?” he murmured.

            “Does it matter?” she said.

            Again their eyes met.  He was the first to look away.

            “She was right about one thing,” he said morosely.  “I am old enough to be your father.”

            Elisabeth sighed.  “You’re what, twenty years older than I am?  Tell me, would you have made me a good father at twenty?”

            He snorted.  “No.”

            “And,” she said, watching him carefully, “are you tempted to father me now?”

            He tilted his head to look at her, as if seeing her for the first time.  She watched the changes in his face as he studied her features, and didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until he shook his head.

            She made a little shrug where she lay against the pillows, and sat back to let him figure it out.  To her gratification, much of the trouble cleared from his face within a minute.  Finally he looked down to meet her eye.

            “I have, however,” he said, “been suffering a temptation to opportunism.”

            “Opportunism?” she asked him, mockingly.

            He raised his eyes and tilted his head again, in that gesture that always sent the hilarity through her sinuses.  “Well, yes,” he said.  “I mean, I find you attractive, and you’re good company, and with a little practice you can play me chess—and you seem to like me—and I, well,—”

            He stopped, flushing.  She was smirking at him.

            “Rupert.  That’s not opportunism.”

            “No?”

            “No.  It’s called good luck.”

            “Oh.  Is that what that is,” he said, with a sudden little smile.

            “Yes,” she said.  “So let’s put your suffering to an end, shall we?”

            “Right,” he said.

            But he seemed suddenly paralyzed, unable to do anything but look at her.

            “And anyway,” she said, “if anyone’s suffering from a temptation to opportunism, it’s me.”

            “Are you sure it’s not good luck?” he said softly.

            “In Sunnydale?” she said.  But it was a gentle jest; he read her eyes and smiled.

            They sat this way, looking at one another, mutually paralyzed, until she said, flushing:  “At what point of these proceedings are you going to kiss me?”

            It was enough to break the spell, and he sputtered a short laugh.  “Whatever point you like,” he retorted with a grin.

            “In that case….”  She reached up an inviting hand, and as he bent close, she murmured, “now would be good…,” just before his lips touched hers.

            She would have rushed it.  In her nervousness she would have pressed the kiss too far too soon, but after the first awkward moment she sensed his delicacy and began to take his lead.  Which, she discovered almost at once, was quite effective.  He made one kiss out of very many little kisses: a kiss she could draw a breath through, and did, trembling.  She slipped her hands up to the back of his collar; he took his arm down from the back of the couch, from which it had already begun to slide, and nestled it snugly alongside her.  She moved to accommodate his touch, and at the same moment their kiss deepened under his influence, flavored faintly, sharply, with the last of the wine.

            Outside their notice, the well-tempered clavier finished its perambulations, and the needle arm took its bow and returned to rest.  The turntable stopped with a click.

            She felt his fingers bury themselves in her hair, still careful of the bruise on her face; her hands had already found a place, one in his hair and one at his collarbone.

            Strengthen me with apples, refresh me with raisins—or is it strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples—or is it—refresh me—?

            She was kissing him with the same leisured abandon he was using to her; and in fact, though he was the one guiding them, she had somehow come to feel as though his kiss waited upon hers, and had always done so.  How do you do that? she wanted to ask him, but that would involve breaking the kiss, and she had not the smallest intention of doing that.  Instead, she brought her hand round from the graceful back slope of his skull and traced the rim of his excellent-mouser’s ear; then buried her fingers once more in his hair.

            In response he gathered her closer, his left hand conforming where it touched her; she arched comfortably into his new embrace, and tilted her head to get a better angle for kissing him.  He moved his kiss unexpectedly, from the corner of her mouth to the round of her unbruised cheek, to her closed eyelid, to her temple....

            “Do I still,” she whispered breathlessly, “taste of Grand Marnier?”

            She felt his equally breathless laughter in her ear, then the warmth of his kiss beneath the angle of her jaw.

            She drew a deep, sudden breath as every fiber of her body tingled awake.

            It startled her; it startled him.  He lifted his head, abandoning his kiss at her throat, to look her in the eye at close range.  For a moment they breathed together; then she murmured:  “Now look what you’ve done.”  Before he could respond, she lifted her head enough to give him the smallest kiss on the mouth; and with a little sound in his throat he melted into the kiss, no longer holding back.

            There followed several confused, incandescent moments, in which Elisabeth’s skin glowed hot and Giles’s hands sought a closer fit to her contour—

            With a wrenching effort he pulled himself clear of the kiss and rested his forehead on hers, breathing hard.  “That,” he said after several hard swallows, “was rather unexpected.”

            If you wanted to get technical, Elisabeth thought, it really wasn’t—but she knew what he meant.  Her temperature had turned the blankets over her into a veritable earthenware oven, and his warm proximity wasn’t helping any.  What could be more natural than this? and yet, how did they arrive here so quickly?  And, speaking of arriving—

            She opened her eyes just as he raised himself to look down at her.  She felt his forefinger move to stroke the crown of her head under the surface of her hair. 

            There seemed nothing to say.  She unearthed her fingers from his hair and smoothed it once, and then once again.

            They stared at one another long enough for his breathing to slow.  At length, he blinked several times and drew a long breath.  He opened his lips, but no words came out.

            Elisabeth thought she understood.  And in fact, meeting his eyes again, she knew she did.  She sighed.

            “So,” she said quietly, “is this us, deciding not to—”

            He took another breath.  “Yes,” he said hoarsely, “yes, I think so.”

            “For a number of excellent reasons.”

            “Yes, quite a few.”  He sat up with an effort, scraped his hands down his face, and swallowed again.

            His absence left her a little cooler, but it was a poor trade-off for not touching him any more.  She said tentatively, “What’s the reason you were thinking of?”

            He cleared his throat; cleared it again.  “I was thinking,” he said, still hoarse, “that perhaps making…er, stronger ties in this world would do you harm when you’re trying to get back to your own world.”

            “That’s a good reason,” she said, looking at him steadily.

            They looked at one another for another moment, then he said:  “What was the reason you were thinking of?”

            “I was thinking perhaps I didn’t want to carry my involvement too far.  I mean, there’s involved, and then there’s involved, y’know?”

            “Quite,” he said.  “That’s…that’s a good reason.”

            “And,” she added, “for the record…I think it’s more likely that I’ll hurt you than that you’ll hurt me.”

            The calculating look was back in his eyes, though his face still looked warm.  “I’m not the only one with an overactive urge to protect, it seems,” he said.

            She lowered her eyes, accepting it.  Then she looked up at him again.  “Otherwise…,” she said.

            She watched a smile come into his face without quite touching his lips.  “Yes,” he said. 

            Elisabeth’s mouth was dry, and her pulse was, sadly, returning to normal, leaving her slightly shaky.  “I think I’d like that water now,” she said.

            “Oh! of course,” he said, reaching for it.  She sat up a little and took the glass from him.  He sat and watched her sip the water; she raised her eyes over the rim of the glass as she drank, meeting his gaze.  When she was finished she handed the water to him; he made a facial shrug at it and took a drink of it himself before putting it back down on the table.  Then he drew a long breath.  “I’d better go to bed,” he said.

            “I was going to say, you have a cold shower to take, don’t you?” she said, sympathetically.

            He rolled his eyes.  “Something like that.”  He rose reluctantly, wearily, and retrieved his glasses from the end table at her head.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

            “And therwithall, so swetely did me kysse, And softly sayd: deare hart, how like you this?” Elisabeth murmured as he moved to the foot of the couch.

            He turned, his mouth quirking.  “‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek,’” he said.  “I hope you’re not feeling ill-used, if you’re quoting Thomas Wyatt.”

            “By Fortune,” Elisabeth said, “not by you.”

            He grinned. 

            “By the way,” Elisabeth said as he began to turn away, “something else happened this evening.”

            “Oh?” he said, looking rather apprehensive.

            “Yes.”  Elisabeth picked lightly at the blanket covering her.  “I remembered my last name this evening.”

            “Oh,” he said, his tone changing.  “That’s…encouraging.”

            “Yes,” she said; but she did not quite smile.

            He stood looking at her for a long moment, until she gave him a question-face.

            “What is it?”

            “What’s what?”

            He smiled dryly.  “Your surname.”

            “Oh.  It’s Bowen.  Like Elizabeth Bowen, the twentieth-century Irish novelist, except my first name’s spelled with an ‘s’ not a ‘z.’  I say that to people when I tell them my name, and they look blankly at me, and then I think, oh, I’m such a dorkNobody knows who Elizabeth Bowen is, I might as well save my breath, but I keep doing it.  See?  I do keep doing it.”  She stopped to breathe.

            He was smiling.  If he wasn’t kissing her, at least he was smiling.

            “Well then,” he said, with a sort of dry gallantry, “goodnight, Elisabeth-Bowen-spelt-with-an-‘s’.”

            She smiled back.  “Goodnight.”

            She lay back and listened to the sounds of him brushing his teeth in the bathroom; he came out, gave her a friendly blink, and went upstairs, where she heard him moving about the loft bedroom.  At last the loft light went out, and a small creak announced his getting into bed.  With the single Tiffany lamp burning above her head, Elisabeth listened to the now-familiar nocturnal settling noises of the flat.  Beyond that there was no sound; she heard no faint snores from upstairs.  Whether that meant that Giles was as wakeful as she, she could not tell.

            At any rate, she heard nothing from him in the eternity it took her to fall asleep herself.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 19

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth was wakened next morning from unpleasant, sluggish dreams involving growling vampires and items missing from her backpack tantalizingly dangled before her, by Giles’s hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently.  She groaned.

            “Wake up,” he said softly; then, as she tried to pull the covers over her head, “No, you don’t.  Come on now.  I’ve got a cup of tea here for you.” 

            He persisted in shaking her till she had opened her eyes and reluctantly struggled up onto one elbow.  “There.  Drink your tea now, we’ve got a lot to do.”

            She glared puffy-eyed at him as he retreated into the kitchen.  Today he was wearing a midnight-blue oxford shirt, partnered with a grey tie with gold flecks in it.  Sitting up and swinging her feet to the floor, she turned her attention away from his sartorial splendor to the cup of tea (properly milked, she noticed) sitting on the coffee table.  But before she could reach for it her head gave a horrible throb, and the various aches and pains and pulled muscles in her body reasserted their bid for her attention. 

            Giles looked through the bar window and caught sight of her sitting lumpishly, with her head in her hands.  “All right?” he asked.

            “Headache,” Elisabeth mumbled.  “Actually, pretty much an all-overache.”  She lifted her head heavily and reached at last for the teacup and saucer.  “Ahhh,” she moaned as she took the first sip, “the healing balm.”

            Tea really was magical in that respect.  Elisabeth could recall very few situations that had not looked better after a cup of tea.  And Giles had milked and sugared it exactly right.  Elisabeth held cup and saucer and sipped at the hot elixir, her eyes coming more open.

            “I woke you up in time to have your bath,” Giles said from the kitchen.

            “Good boy,” Elisabeth said.  For answer she heard a single grunt of a laugh.

            “But only if you do it with relative celerity,” he added.

            “I’ll give you celerity,” Elisabeth muttered into her tea.

            “Hmm?”

            “Nothin’.”  Elisabeth set down the cup.  “Going to take my bath now.”

            She made a dismal discovery when she opened her pack:  she had worn her last fresh clothes to go patrolling in, and they were all-too-obviously smudged with sweat and dirt.  The rest of them she had stuffed into the pack, so even if there was anything wearable, it was badly wrinkled.  Muttering imprecations against herself for putting off laundry this long, Elisabeth pulled out her creased all-purpose-but-mostly-for-interviews black skirt and her grey cardigan.  She shook out her little white T-shirt, sniffed it, decided it smelled okay, and put all three articles into a pile with her bra and bath things.

            In the kitchen, Giles was buttering himself a piece of toast and glancing over the paper, which was spread out awkwardly over the kitchen counter.  “Can I use your clothes dryer?” Elisabeth asked him.

            “Certainly,” he said, taking a bite out of his toast at the same time.  “You finished with your tea?”

            “I abandoned it,” Elisabeth said, “in the interests of celerity.”

            “Ah,” he said.  “By the way, thank you for having the presence of mind to purchase the tea.”  He lifted his own cup for a sip.

            Elisabeth grunted.

            “And I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Talking to you in the morning.”

            She gave another grunt, but with humor this time.  “’Lis’beth not happy without her bath.  —Of course this naturally leads to the question why I choose a way of life that mostly involves nasty shower stalls.”

            “Yes,” he said, burying his eyes in his teacup.

            Elisabeth moved on down the hall to the bathroom.  She set up her bath things and turned on the taps, then took up her clothing and went to find his dryer.  She threw them inside unceremoniously and set the timer for thirty minutes.  That ought to take care of the worst of the wrinkles, she thought; and went back to her bath.

            She made the water extra hot, to soothe the aches in her calves and shoulders; and, celerity or no, she leaned back in the water as the tub filled and shut her eyes, letting the warmth wash over her, comforting and achingly needed, like the tea.  It was only when she heard Giles’s footsteps in the passage that she decided to sit up and actually wash. 

            She didn’t much like putting her pajamas back on after getting out of the tub; they smelled sour and needed a wash as badly as anything in her pack, but it was either that or wear a towel into the passage to retrieve her clothing from the dryer, and Elisabeth knew without question which she preferred.  She ventured cautiously into the passage and went to find her clothing, only to discover that Giles had taken it upon himself to iron it all and put it up on the wall rack on a pair of plastic hangers.  She shook her head.  “Rupert, someday your friends are going to perform an intervention on you for terminal punctiliousness,” she murmured as she took down the skirt, cardigan, and T-shirt.

            “You’re welcome,” Giles said, passing through the other end of the passage.

            She snorted good-naturedly and returned to the bathroom to get dressed.

            She had a brief bad moment when she looked in the mirror and recoiled at the sight of the dark bruise on her cheek.  Some of the swelling had gone down, but she still looked like the proverbial prizefighter who’d forgotten to duck.  She debated for a moment whether makeup wouldn’t just make it worse; she decided that she’d use the pressed powder and if it looked hideous, she’d just wash it off.  In the end, however, she merely looked like a decently-made-up person with a bad bruise on her cheek, and when she put her wet hair up the image was complete.  She sighed deeply, put on her glasses, and gathered up her things to carry out into the livingroom.

            Giles was packing his satchel with new books.  “You look nice,” he said as she sat down in the armchair with her socks and shoes.

            She held up her hands, briefly modeling the cardigan and skirt.  “Witness the bitter end of my clean laundry.”

            “Ah.”

            “So what are our plans today?” she asked as she tightened the laces on her shoe.

            He lifted a hand and ticked items on his fingers.  “Meet with Buffy, meet with Willow, plan the spell, plan the patrol, and do various other things like eat meals and earn a living.”

            “That does sound like a full day,” Elisabeth said blandly.  Giles grunted and returned to cleaning out his satchel and repacking it. 

            By the time they left, the sun was a little higher in the sky, and a feathering of cirrus clouds magnified the light outside.  Elisabeth rather wished she hadn’t lost her sunglasses a couple towns and a dimension ago.  They didn’t say much in the car, but then again, there was very little need for them to say anything.  Giles’s lips were tightly primmed, and he drove with both hands firmly on the wheel.  Elisabeth decided not to ask him if this was because he was anticipating talking to Buffy, or because of something else; in any event, it mattered little.

            And considering that Buffy hadn’t quite pulled off the moral victory she’d planned, it was too much to hope that Elisabeth’s own (unavoidable) next interview with her would be anything but painful.  But maybe at least it would result in her not going on the patrol tonight.  Elisabeth had seen quite enough of vampires, and last night, in between trying not to think about the exquisite subtlety of Giles’s hands, she had been trying not to think of the silent scream of the demon as it cut through her vitals, dying; or of the other vampire’s uncanny strength, lifting her off her feet.  Between the two sources of unbearable tension, however, she seemed to have survived the night, weighted in the center, without any annoying psychological detritus. 

            Lost in thought, she came to herself to find her eyes on the aforesaid subtle hands, curved over the wheel in a strong grip.  As she watched he dropped the right one to the automatic gearshift, light and restless….Elisabeth took her eyes deliberately away and looked out her window at the world falling away behind the car. 

            “We’re nearly there,” he murmured, unnecessarily.

 

*

 

No sooner had Elisabeth and Giles unlocked the shop and stepped in than Anya arrived with Xander in tow.  “Hi,” she said brightly to both of them. 

            Giles grunted.

            Elisabeth gave them both a single noncommittal wave. 

            Anya’s face fell, and she gave them both a sympathetic look which mystified Elisabeth for the moment; Anya brushed lightly past her to set up the counter for business. 

            Xander said:  “Nice shiner.  Where’d you get that?”

            At first Elisabeth didn’t know what he was talking about; she saw Giles’s shoulders stiffen as he headed toward the back, and it gradually dawned on her.  “Oh!” she said, then, laconically, “Patrol.”

            “Really?  Buffy took you out last night?  Color me impressed.  You bag a vamp?”

            “Nah.  Vamp almost bagged me instead.  It’s rather depressing,” Elisabeth told him more truthfully.

            “Ah, don’t worry.  Everybody’s an amateur at first.  Except the Slayer, of course.”  He eyed Elisabeth shrewdly as she put up her fingers to trace the lump on her face.  “Want some coffee?  I’ll make it.”

            Elisabeth really wanted more tea, but she nodded gratefully and let Xander go to the sideboard and begin futzing with the coffeemaker.  She took her seat at the back table, hanging her jacket on the back of her chair, and watched the shop come awake.  Giles returned from the back with a small pile of dusty books; she saw him turn a wide-eyed grimace to where Xander was coaxing the coffee machine to life, but he said nothing, and looked at Elisabeth not at all.  Elisabeth decided she would put no construction whatsoever on that fact, and laced her hands firmly in front of her on the table. 

            Xander poured coffee for everyone and delivered it to them where they worked (or in Elisabeth’s case, sat lumpishly), after inquiring after everyone’s tastes in creamer and sugar.  When he placed Elisabeth’s coffee on the table in front of her, she gave him the smile she was beginning to think of as the Xander Smile: not broad, but simple and slightly less wry than the smile she found herself habitually giving Giles.  Her eyes went over to where Giles was writing fussily in a notebook:  punctilious, she had called him, but it didn’t quite fit; if the glory of his being had a name, it would not be punctilious, with all its sanctimonious overtones of checked lists and compared marks. 

            She came to herself again to find Xander glancing surreptitiously between her and the Watcher, who was now scrubbing irritably with his eraser at a mark and brushing off the debris with his free right hand.  She dropped her eyes as Xander’s look came back to her.

            Before he could say anything, however, Buffy walked in.

            Like Giles, she was dressed resplendently, though in her own way:  a flowing blue sundress topped by a white cardigan sweater so soft Elisabeth would have instinctively reached to touch it if she’d been near enough.  Of course, there was that other instinct keeping Elisabeth from getting near enough; Buffy’s chin was high and her walk a bit too regal to be convincing, which spelled alert, though exactly for what Elisabeth didn’t know. 

            “Ah, Buffy,” Giles said, closing his notebook without a second glance.

            “I’ll be in the training room whenever you’re ready,” she said to him.  Without sparing a glance for the others, she swept past them all into the back and disappeared.

            Elisabeth cast her eyes down into her coffee cup and lifted it for a sip, and as she did so she found that her remaining animus against Buffy had vanished entirely.  She looked up to see that Xander’s eyebrows had gone up, and even Anya was blinking thoughtfully in the wake of Buffy’s disappearance.

            Giles smoothed his tie with an absent preciseness and said, “I won’t be too long.  If you could hold the fort, Anya….”  He wandered behind Anya and around the counter, drew a sudden long breath as of girding his loins, and strode toward the back.  Distantly, the door of the training room shut with a soft click.

            Xander’s gaze, following Giles, had become thoughtful; and before Elisabeth could take refuge in another sip of coffee, he turned it upon her—and more specifically on the prominent bruise on her face.  His mouth went grim.

            “I’m thinking,” he said to Elisabeth, “that we’re going to have a talk.”

 

*

 

When Giles entered the training room, he found Buffy at the far end of it, fingering the knife collection on the wall desultorily.  At his entrance, she straightened a little, to resume her regal air; but the effort was only halfhearted, and by the time he shut the door, she had dropped her hand from the knives altogether.

            They stood for a long moment, looking not-quite at each other.

            At the very moment Giles drew breath to say something horribly inane about their plans for the day, Buffy blurted:  “Are you still mad at me?”

            He swallowed grimly and dropped his eyes.  He hadn’t brought his coffee cup, so he couldn’t buy time with a sip of coffee; he reached for his glasses, but never even got them off his face before he gave up and dropped his hand as Buffy had done.  “Yes,” he said quietly.

            She had surely been expecting it, but he saw the little flinch anyway, and he added, after a pause:  “But it’s negligible.”

            He saw her swallow and reply, in the ghost of her wise-cracking voice:  “Does that mean you’re gonna get over it?”

            A flicker of a smile came into his mouth; he felt fairly certain that Buffy knew exactly what “negligible” meant. 

            “Yes,” he said.

 

*

 

“Yes,” Elisabeth said, in answer to Xander’s unasked question.

            Xander and Anya were seated, like two friendly inquisitioners, across the table from her, and under their scrutiny Elisabeth had forcibly taken her hand from the bruise on her cheek.

            Xander’s dark eyes were disquietingly stern.  “You did listen to what I told you yesterday,” he said, not making it a question.

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said again, looking him in the eye.  “I did listen.  But if you’re saying I should have been able to stop that train, I just don’t think so.”

            “Excuse me,” Anya said, “but Xander, what are we talking about?”

            “Buffy was the one who hit Elisabeth,” Xander said quietly.

            Anya looked, startled, at Elisabeth’s bruise.  Elisabeth resisted the impulse to cover it with her hand.

            Xander, meanwhile, was already conceding Elisabeth’s point.  “I’m not saying you should have been able to stop it,” he said.  “I’m just saying….”

            “Count the cost,” Elisabeth said.  “Well, I did.  With middling success.  The patrol part was pretty much an unqualified disaster.”

            “I thought we were going to talk about Elisabeth and Giles having sex,” Anya said, putting out her lower lip.

            A strangled squeak came out of Elisabeth’s throat, and her face went bright hot.  “Jeez, Anya,” Xander said, blushing himself, “could you be a little less subtle, I don’t think we all got your meaning.”

            Anya folded her arms.  “Well, I thought it was time we cut through all this riddling crap of yours, Xander.  Why did Buffy hit Elisabeth?”

            “Because—” Xander looked at Elisabeth for help.

            Elisabeth said, “Because she wants to protect Giles from me.”

            “Why?” Anya said.  “Are you evil?”

            Elisabeth had to smile a little at that.  “No.  I’m human, and agendaless.”

            “So what’s the problem?”

            “It’s complicated,” Xander said.

            “I don’t see how.  I mean, all Buffy has to do is find out if Elisabeth is lying about not being evil, and that’s pretty easy to do.  I mean, we could even get Spike to hit her like he did Tara, if she needs proof.”  Anya looked from one to the other.  “You want me to get Spike?”

            “I think I want to have a hit-free day today,” Elisabeth said feebly.

            “Well,” Anya said, shrugging, “then Buffy’s just going to have to learn to believe you.”

            Xander and Elisabeth exchanged looks.

            “Well, then, let’s get to the main topic on the agenda: sex.”  Anya laced her fingers and sat up straight in her chair.  “Specifically, referring to you and Giles.  Because, I mean, we could talk about me and Xander and even Buffy and Riley, but that pretty much happens all the time and for the purposes of this discussion, it would be boring.  Though not,” she hastened to assure Xander, “boring in the act.”

            “Thank you,” Xander said, in a strangled voice.

            “Anyway,” Anya said, including Elisabeth again, “it shouldn’t be that hard.  He already likes you, so all we have to do is—”

            “Oh, I don’t think—”  Elisabeth squirmed in her chair.

            “Of course, he didn’t say much to you this morning, did he?  I bet that’s just nerves, especially with Buffy being all—”  Anya wiggled her hands in the air.

            “‘And is not general incivility the very essence of love?’” Elisabeth quoted softly, so that she fell behind listening to Anya’s next sentence.

            “—so all we have to do is just plant a few subtle hints here and there and we’ll make him into a Casanova in no time—”

            Elisabeth caught up abruptly with Anya’s meaning, and held up her hands in panic.  “No—no—waitjustaminute—I am not on board with this—”

            “Oh come on,” Anya said pleadingly.  “Everyone else is getting orgasms, it’s just not fair for Giles, and he hasn’t had any in months.” (Elisabeth felt sure her face was turning purple; she wished she had enough breath to retort something that was copacetic with right-thinking feminist sensibilities.)  “And you like him, don’t you?  I’m sure you do.”

            “I—don’t—”

            “Anya,” Xander said, but she paid him no heed.

            “So you don’t want him at all, do you?” she said, in tones of deepest skepticism.

            “No,” Elisabeth said, in a very small, indignant voice.

            Which plainly convinced Anya of the opposite, for she broke into a beatific smile.  Xander’s look, meanwhile, said plainly, You gotta do better than that.  “Well, it’s settled then,” Anya said.

            “No, it isn’t!

            Elisabeth gripped the edge of the table hard, her pulse pounding in her temples.  She spoke in a clenched hiss.  “I’ve got more important things to worry about than ministering to Rupert Giles’s libido.  I might be dead in forty-eight hours.  I’m trying to avoid getting killed by the Slayer on one hand and on vampires on the other, and research ridiculous-sounding spells, and not rip apart the fabric of the universes by merely being here, and here you are playing a sex game with my possibly-quite-short life, for f—”  She stopped abruptly, yanked off her glasses, and pressed the bridge of her nose hard with both sets of fingers, trying to breathe deeply.

            The silence came at her from the other side of the table, like a breeze rolling off a cool river.  “Sorry,” she croaked, without taking away her hands.  “I’m sorry.  I just—”  She stopped, and didn’t attempt any more.

            “You know,” Anya said in a very small voice, “you’ll probably make it through fine.  These things happen, people cross dimensions all the time, and it usually works out.  And we’ve done this sort of thing before, so….”

            “Yeah,” Xander added, equally softly, “we do this dimension stuff all the time.”

            “Oh, I trust you,” Elisabeth said, her throat aching suddenly.  “I’m just—a bit—stressed out.”

            “You know what’s good for that?” Anya said tentatively.

            “Anya,” Xander reproved in a murmur.

            “Well, it is,” she said.

            Elisabeth started laughing quietly behind her hands.  She braced her elbows on the desk, leaned her head into her hands and chuckled, wearily, for a long time.  When she lifted her head she saw that both of them were regarding her with concern.  “I’m all right,” she said in an attempt to reassure them.  She put her glasses back on and looked levelly at Anya, and the humor was back in her voice when she said, “No, I’m not on board with the Casanova Plan.”  She folded her arms.

            “Okay.”  Anya’s voice was meek enough, but Elisabeth figured she hadn’t heard the end of it yet.  She reached for her now-cold cup of coffee and sipped at it.

            “I’ll tell him,” Anya said triumphantly, “that you had nothing to do with it.”

 

*

 

“So that’s what it was then,” Buffy said.

            “Yes.”

            “Giles…why didn’t you tell me it was that she knew about Dawn?  I mean, instead of letting me think….”

            “Well, I see now that that was a mistake,” Giles said, earning a dropped-chin look from his Slayer.  “But as I recall, I did tell you that I was finding out what I could and that you should trust me in the meantime.”

            “And I was going to, but then Willow told me about that thing that happened with the meditation, and the crystals, and how you reacted…it just sounded really freaky to me.”

            Giles drew a taut breath.  “I wouldn’t argue too hard against that description.”

            “She said it was like—”  Buffy paused before going on.  “Like you went away with her, to this really horrible place—she said it was like being erased—”  She stopped at the look on Giles’s face.

            Giles spoke after a moment, his voice guarded.  “And what sort of conclusion did Willow draw from that?”

            Buffy said reluctantly, “Well, she didn’t decide Elisabeth was evil.  She just said she was spooked.”

            Giles sighed heavily.

            “And then the next thing I know, you’ve got that lovesick-sheep look of yours, looking at her—”

            “I do not have a lovesick-sheep look,” Giles said indignantly.

            “Yeah, okay,” Buffy said, “but it just seemed kinda….”

            “Dodgy?”

            “Suspicious.”

            “I see.”

            She folded her arms and gave him a mirthless smile.  “What?”

            He raised an eyebrow.  “I was going to say, if that’s the case then why do I get the feeling that it isn’t the whole story?”

            She heaved a sigh and looked away.  “Giles,—it’s complicated, okay?”

            “I grant you that,” he said dryly.  “In fact, that was the objection Elisabeth herself raised last night.”

            “Objection…to what?”

            A faint flush crept into Giles’s cheeks, but he spoke with equanimity.  “To taking any sort of involvement with our lives while she’s here.”

            “With you, you mean.”

            “Oh very well, with me.”  He fixed her with an exacting eye.  “But also with everyone else.”

            Buffy looked at him, at first steadily, but then drew a breath and dropped her eyes.  “So then what about this patrol,” she said flatly to the table between them.  “Are we going to take her?”

            Giles knew dimly within himself that he ought to press her for an answer to his question, but, as so often he felt too tired in spirit to do anything but let Buffy change the subject.  “I’ve been thinking about it,” he said, taking off his glasses and swiping gently at the dust on the lenses with his handkerchief.  “And I think we may have no choice but to take her.  That is, if we want to get a sense of where the focus is.  I’ll know more after I meet with Willow, when she gets here.  What’s your opinion?”

            “Well,” Buffy said, “she knows what to do in a fight—keep her head down and get armed—but I don’t know if she’s consistent.  If you train her a little, I think I can take her.  If she can still trust me,” she added, a little bitterness creeping into her voice.

            “Well,” Giles said evenly, “as to that, you’ll have to ask her.”

 

*

 

While Anya served a customer at the register, Xander went to dig under the sideboard.  When he returned to where Elisabeth sat, he brought with him a small box that turned out to be—

            “Animal crackers?” Elisabeth said, with a little smile.

            “Yeah,” Xander said.  “I bought them for a snack a couple meetings ago, and then forgot about them.  I think I’ve eaten all the monkeys.”

            Elisabeth opened the box, the little smile growing in her face.  “All the monkeys?”

            “Yeah,” he said sheepishly, “I eat all the monkeys first.  They used to scare me when I was a kid.”

            Elisabeth made a facial shrug.  “Makes sense to me.”  She dug out a seal and popped it into her mouth.  “I’m surprised Rupert hasn’t polished off the rest,” she said, chewing.

            “He must not have known they were there,” Xander grinned.

            Elisabeth pulled out another animal cracker—this time, a tiger—and experimentally dipped it into her cold coffee.

            “Is that good?”

            She looked up into Xander’s face, chewing thoughtfully, swallowed, and shrugged.  The next cracker she decided not to use for biscotti.

            “Listen,” Xander said quietly, “don’t worry about Anya’s talk.  She has a thing.  You—you just do what you want.”

            Elisabeth nodded, blushing.

            “And,” he added, taking her shoulder briefly, “don’t worry about the spell.  You’re in good hands.”

            “I know,” she said softly, without lifting her head.

            She saw Xander jerk his head up just as she heard it too:  the door to the training room clicking open.  She caught a brief glimpse of his dark intent eyes before looking over her shoulder herself; it was Giles who emerged from the back and, moreover, looked and headed directly for her. 

            It wasn’t immediately apparent from the stern calm of his expression, but Elisabeth somehow knew to breathe easier when she saw him.  So it wasn’t disaster.

            By the time Giles reached her, Xander had retreated to the counter to chat with Anya.  Discretion is the better part of valor, Elisabeth thought with amusement, and raised her head to await whatever Giles was about to say.

            He opened his mouth, but blinked when he saw the box she held.  “Animal crackers?  Where’d you get those?”

            She grinned at him.  “Xander found them for me under the sideboard.  Want one?”

            He took hold of the proffered box and dug out a handful of the little cookies.  “Buffy’d like a word,” he mumbled through the first animal cracker.  “If you want to talk to her.”

            “Oh,” Elisabeth said.  “Okay.”

            She surrendered the box to Giles entirely and got up from her chair, waves of cold affect rippling over her limbs.  Drawing a long strengthening breath much as Giles had done, she turned toward the back and headed for the training-room door.

 

*

 

She hadn’t been inside the training room since the meditation disaster; so it was with a trepidation almost wholly unrelated to Buffy’s presence that she entered the room and blinked at the calm slant of light.  Unaccustomed clouds were gathering outside, rendering the light of the room dimmer and softer than she had seen it before, light scarcely strong enough to pick up the heart of an aquamarine.  Elisabeth smoothed down one sleeve of her grey cardigan, as if to chafe warmth into her arm with one stroke, and turned her eyes from the windows to find the Slayer.

            Buffy was sitting at the table with her feet on the seat of the chair and her backside on the back, elbows on knees; she looked as if she’d been there a while, and Elisabeth reflected that it must have irritated Giles to talk to Buffy sitting that way.  Which would be the primary reason for doing it.  Elisabeth smiled to herself.

            Buffy was looking up at her guardedly, her mouth small and grim.  Elisabeth said quietly:  “Giles said you wanted a word.”

            “Yeah,” Buffy said, in the same tone.

            Elisabeth pushed the door gently shut behind her and came to sit in the chair that Giles had vacated.  She laced her fingers tightly together in her lap, and pressed her lips together, eyes downcast.  A long, impossible silence sat on their shoulders and devoured the room.  Buffy broke it, uncharacteristically, by clearing her throat.

            “Are you all right?” she asked.

            Elisabeth looked up at her, surprised at the opening, and saw that Buffy’s face was taut with—not quite concern, but with the gnawing misery of a general after a losing battle.  She nodded, and forced her voice to work.  “Yes.  I’m all right.”

            “Good,” Buffy said, and alighted from the chair to pace the floor of the training room.  She turned after a full circuit to look hard at Elisabeth again.  “Do you think you’re up to going on patrol tonight?”

            Elisabeth dropped her eyes again.  “It’s still being considered that I should go?”

            “Yes….”

            “I mean,” Elisabeth said, in answer to Buffy’s unspoken question, “since I made such a fiasco of the first one.”

            “You had help,” Buffy said dryly.

            Elisabeth was chagrined to find that tears were trembling in her eyes.  She lowered her gaze, to hide them from the Slayer.  Of all the times to start crying, she chided herself.  Pull yourself together, Elisabeth.  She sat and relaced her fingers in her lap, swallowing.

            When she felt strong enough to look up, she saw that Buffy’s eyes were very wide in her face.  Their gazes touched briefly, and the Slayer turned her head a little, to look at the wall.  “Giles says you know something about—about Dawn,” she said quietly.

            Elisabeth blinked.  “He said that?”

            Buffy turned to look at her full-face once more.

            “What do you know?” she said.

            Elisabeth’s heart constricted; she said nothing, and Buffy repeated her appeal more urgently.  “I need to know.”

            With difficulty, Elisabeth got down a swallow.  “I know what you know,” she said softly.

            Buffy had actually gone pale and quiet.  “You haven’t told anyone else?”

            “No—of course not.  But—” Elisabeth wrung her hands apart and smoothed her skirt over her knees.  “—but it’s hard to walk like I don’t know anything.  You understand why I have to get out of here, as soon as I can.” 

            Buffy turned away again.  “It makes sense,” she said quietly.

            “What makes sense?”

            “Why you’d confide in Giles.”

            “Oh,” Elisabeth said.  “Yes, I suppose so.  But in actuality, he had to pin me to a wall first.”

            Buffy turned back to her, eyebrows raised.

            “I’m not exactly an unsuspicious article,” she said.  “I’m not really sure how I got him to trust me.  I’m not even sure how he got me to trust him.”

            Buffy gave a snort of mordant humor.  “You must think we’re all crazy.”

            Some of the humor came back into Elisabeth’s mouth too.  “Like I told Rupert, I figured that’s life on the Hellmouth.”

            The two women looked at one another, the elder one sitting with eyes upraised, the younger one on her feet, holding herself lightly.  It was another moment before Elisabeth spoke.

            “Even in my own dimension, you know, this isn’t the sort of entanglement I relish.”

            Buffy’s mouth moved wryly, acknowledging the point.

            “This is the kind of problem I usually solve with a bus ticket,” Elisabeth said, for good measure.

            Buffy turned her gaze aside then, to stare into the middle distance.  “I used to think I had that luxury,” she said softly.

            Elisabeth’s voice, answering, was both strong comfort and apology.  “I know.”

 

*

 

“It looks like it’s going to rain,” Xander said, peering out the front window into the street and tilting his head to get a good glimpse of the greying sky.  “Hope Will doesn’t get soaked on her way here.”

            “Well,” Anya said, slapping the register drawer back into place with a slightly vindictive flourish, “she’s a witch.  It’s not hard to do something about that.”

            Giles was studiously ignoring them both, writing in his ledger again and pausing only to wish a proprietor’s goodbye to the customer who’d just purchased ten ounces of his best sage blend.  He continued to ignore Anya as she wriggled past behind him to replace the canister with its fellows, but when he raised his head to reach for his gum-eraser, he was confronted with Anya at his elbow, with an earnest look on her face that boded nothing good. 

            “Yes?” he said, warily.

            “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away,” Anya informed him.  And having delivered herself of this aphorism, she swept behind him, around the counter, and into the back room with her inventory clipboard.

            Giles shut his eyes in a wince, shook his head, and returned to his work in the ledger.

            Buffy and Elisabeth sure were taking a long time in there.  Giles kept his head down, working, but he couldn’t stop the suspense from plucking at his nerve-ends.  He had told himself he wouldn’t go into the training room even if he heard shouting, but his resolve was ebbing fast, and he was beginning to formulate excuses for intruding on their conversation that would not make him a complete ass.  Instead of coming up with a good excuse, however, he merely managed to ruin his task with the ledger; after his third long session with the gum-eraser, he gave it up and shut the book.

            The shelves needed dusting.  Giles got out his featherduster and began to swipe delicately between and under the merchandise, working his way slowly around the room.  When he came to the shelf on which stood the two fertility idols, tall and squat, he smiled to himself, remembering the ache in his gut from laughing so hard, remembering the mixture of stealthy triumph, hilarity, and wonder in Elisabeth’s face.  He took down the stone female idol and swiped it lovingly with the duster.

            “Also,” Anya said, “studies show that plenty of sex helps a person maintain good sleep levels.”

            For the second time that week, the idol was nearly dropped to destruction.  Giles whirled to see that his shop assistant had appeared at his elbow again, as if she had teleported there.

            “Anya, for God’s sake,” he said—but she was already clacking away into the other room. 

            He was debating whether to go and find her and put a stop to this drive-by sex talk, or (alternatively) to go and barge into the training room, excuses be damned, when the phone rang.

            He went to pick up before Anya could return from the back.  “Thank you for calling the Magic Box,” he said, tucking the featherduster under his arm.  “How can I help—”

            “Giles, it’s me,” Willow said breathlessly.

            “Oh.  Willow.  Is everything all right?”

            “Yes, it’s all right, I just wanted to call and tell you—Tara and I did the spell last night, and it’s definitely tomorrow night, and we almost found the focus, but the energies got too chaotic.  I’m online right now trying to find a spell that will calibrate the target dimensions exactly enough so that we know where we’re sending Elisabeth.  So I don’t think I’m going to come to the shop after all,” she finished, taking a breath.  “Okay?”

            “Oh—oh yes—by all means—keep searching—” Giles said.

            “How are things there?”

            “Erm—I think they’re all right,” Giles said.  “I’ll be able to tell you more later.  You’re coming on the patrol tonight, of course?”

            “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

            “Good.  Good, then—I’ll see you tonight, and perhaps you can come over to my flat tomorrow—I’m thinking of closing the shop tomorrow for a holiday, to plan things.”

            “Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow then.  Bye, Giles.”

            “Good-bye,” Giles said, and put down the phone.

            Those books on the upper shelf needed dusting and straightening.  Giles climbed the ladder to the book loft, anchoring the handle of his featherduster in his teeth.  The task seemed to take no time at all, and as he descended the ladder again Giles reflected on watched pots and high-school clocks.  Buffy and Elisabeth showed no signs whatsoever of emerging. 

            Anya was waiting for him at the bottom of the ladder.  “And here’s some good advice that I learned the hard way,” she said.  “You should check your supply of condoms to make sure they’re fresh, because they do expire after a while, you know.”

            Giles brandished the featherduster dangerously.  “Anya—what the hell are you on about?  Not that I look forward to knowing—”

            “You.  You and Elisabeth, you silly, obtuse man,” Anya said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  “Clearly, neither of you is happy enough today for you to have done it last night, so I’m just—subtly encouraging you to get a move on while she’s still around.”  She rocked back and forth on her heels, smiling.

            Giles dropped the hand holding the featherduster and raised his eyes in appeal to the painted tin ceiling.  “And why,” he moaned, “are you making this your business?”

            “Because,” Anya said, beaming, “a sexually satisfied boss is a happy boss.  A boss who might give me a raise.”

            Giles reddened, and lowered his chin to look piercingly into her face.  “Anya,” he said softly, “I will never, never give you a raise, if you say one word more to me on this subject.”

            “That’s the frustration talking,” Anya said sagely.

            Giles raised the featherduster again, but he—and Anya—were saved by the sound of the training-room door opening.  Elisabeth came forth, followed by Buffy: Giles was faint with relief to see that neither of them was bleeding or crying, and in fact, Buffy was even smiling slightly.

            “So,” she said, “is Will here yet?”

            “Er,” Giles said, recovering, “she’s not coming.  She called to say she’s deep in online research and will see us at the patrol.”

            “Oh, okay,” Buffy said.  “I’ll drop by her place then, later.  Right now I gotta go.”  She strode quickly toward the door, much more comfortable in her walk than she had been earlier that morning.  “See you all tonight,” she said, and swept out.

            “Later, Buffy,” Xander said, as the door fell shut behind her.

            “Well,” Anya said, looking pleased, “there’s one problem solved.  Now you can—”

            “Rupert,” Elisabeth interrupted, “why are you holding that featherduster like a weapon?  Are there some rabid dustbunnies in the shop?”

            Anya shrieked.

            “It’s just an expression,” Xander said soothingly, coming up and gently maneuvering Anya away from them and back to the counter.

            Giles looked at his watch.  Thirty minutes until the shop closed; never had he been more grateful for the shorter Sunday hours.  “Good one,” he murmured to Elisabeth.  “You saved us.”

            “Not for long,” she murmured musically back, just as with a peal of thunder the rain began to spatter against the window.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 20

by L. Inman

 

It took several blocks’ worth of road before Giles could stop fuming so visibly, and a few more before his feathers went down enough to ask Elisabeth calmly whether she wanted drive-thru hamburgers for lunch.  Elisabeth had been watching the rain come down in sheets, listening to it rattle violently on the ragtop over her head, and reflecting on the way traffic signals sparkled in the rivulets of water pouring down the windshield, so she almost didn’t hear him; but before he could ask again, the sense of his question got through to her and she answered noncommittally that she would like drive-thru hamburgers just fine.  He grunted in response, and they were silent again until they reached the Doublemeat Palace and pulled into the drive-thru.

            The barely-intelligible voice crackled over the intercom, asking what they wanted, and Elisabeth was forced to lean close to him to read the menu board.  She caught the smell of him as she did so:  the sage of his shop and dry-cleaned fabric, both scents dampened by the rain they’d been forced to run through after closing the shop.  Elisabeth could still feel the occasional droplet rolling ticklishly cold on her scalp under her hair, and her glasses were smudged.  She took them off and squinted, unthinkingly leaning a little closer.  It wasn’t till she heard him clear his throat at close range that she startled inwardly and pulled back.  She gave him her order and began tugging at the hem of her T-shirt, trying to get enough slack to wipe her glasses on.  With one fluid motion he pulled out his handkerchief and held it out toward her between two fingers, as he leaned toward the window and shouted their orders into the intercom over the rain.

            With Giles thus preoccupied, Elisabeth accepted the handkerchief and, using it to clean her glasses, surreptitiously sniffed at the linen.  She was startled to recognize the scent of—not more sage, but lavender.  Familiar lavender.  She searched her brain for the connection, then lifted the collar of her cardigan and breathed in its scent.  Yes, Giles had applied lavender water to her clothing when he’d ironed it; the scent was sharper and cleaner than the usual sweet scent of her bath gels.  Elisabeth shook her head and tried to nip her little smile in the bud as with a jolt Giles pulled forward to the cashier’s window.

            She had to stop cleaning her glasses to take the paper sacks of food he passed to her, and it took some maneuvering to bolster the two large sodas between her shoes, as the car’s cupholders were too small for them.  It was quite a bit awkward nevertheless, and in fact she had to keep a hand on top of the cups to keep them from tumping over onto Giles’s clean upholstery.  In the end, Giles gave up and parked in the Palace’s parking lot, where they divided their orders and ate them on the spot, the rain drumming on the ragtop and the windows growing more and more thickly obscured with sticky white fog.  Elisabeth, munching her cheeseburger, resisted the temptation to draw on her fogged window, as she was sure that was the sort of thing that would put Giles over the edge.  She reflected further that the fogged-up windows were not likely to help him forget Anya’s parting words, shouted at them over the rain and causing several hurrying passersby to glance up startled:  “And don’t forget what I said about the condoms!  Oh—and make sure when you buy more that you get the right size.  You don’t want to make that mis—”  At that point Xander had stuffed her into the passenger side of his car and cut off the tail end of her advice.

            Now, Elisabeth stole a glance at her companion as she dragged a fry through a watery blob of mustard on her napkin.  He was chewing slowly and staring morosely at his burger.  As she watched, he swallowed and, instead of lifting the foil-wrapped burger for another bite, he lowered it, so that his hand was resting against the steering wheel.  “I don’t know why I brought you to this place,” he said.  “There’re a hundred better places I could have taken you.”

            Elisabeth felt rather relieved that she didn’t have to pretend to like her cheeseburger anymore.  “Is there any cheese left over from last night?” she asked him.

            “I think so.”  He brightened, but only for a second, and he made no move to turn the engine key.

            Elisabeth felt a smile creeping up her face, and she turned it to him, waiting for him to look at her.  He did finally, but instead of smiling back the lines deepened in his face and he scowled back at the burger in his hand.  She was disappointed, but at least she understood.

            “Tired of everything being so ridiculous?” she said.

            His mouth moved a little, acknowledging her point.

            “Can’t even laugh about it any more?”  She smiled sadly at him.

            “No,” he said, like a pouting child refusing a mother’s comfort.

            The grin started creeping back up her face again.  She reached out tentatively and stroked his temple, smoothing a tendril of his hair that had been draggled by the rain.  “Rupert,” she said.  He moved one shoulder in a halfhearted attempt to shrug her off, but made no real effort to stop her continued lazy movements, stroking his hair.

            “Are you going to tell me it isn’t so bad?” he grumbled.

            “No,” Elisabeth said, lengthening her stroke to include more of his damp hair.

            “That it could be worse?”

            “Well,” she said, “I suppose it could.”

            For the first time a hint of a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth.

            There was a little silence; then he rewrapped the foil of his burger and laid it distastefully on the dash.  He pulled off his glasses and reached into his inner jacket pocket; Elisabeth took her hand away, to pull his handkerchief out from under the paper bag in her lap.  “Looking for this?”

            The movement in his mouth grew into something recognizable as a smile.  “Yes,” he said, gently taking the linen square from her hand. 

            She sat and watched him clean his glasses: he took his time about it, wiping each lens thoroughly and squinting through them to check for smears.  By the time he’d finished and put them on, Elisabeth had a message waiting for him, written in the steam on her window:  the words “Casanova Plan” with a circle and cross drawn over them.

            He leaned forward to read the message, which was already filling with fresh steam, then grimaced, gave a groaning laugh, and bent to thud his forehead against the steering wheel.  “I want to kill Anya,” he moaned, without lifting his head.

            Elisabeth picked up the paper bag and began stuffing their burgers into it.  “Yes,” she said, “I gave her an earful before you came out, but it made very little difference.”

            “Anya’s problem,” he said definitively, raising his head, “is that she doesn’t understand the virtue of a terminal snog.”

            Elisabeth could appreciate the virtue of a terminal snog, as it was pretty much all she’d ever had; but she had a feeling that the man didst protest too much.  But she knew better than to say so.  She contented herself with a hearty laugh, leaning comfortably back in her seat.

            “Well, let’s go home,” he said, reaching for his drink and taking a deep pull at the straw.  “Let’s go see if we can’t make an omelet or something.”

            “Oooh, that sounds good,” Elisabeth said, rolling the top of the paper sack down and stowing it at her feet.

            “But first I’m going to have to put on the air and de-fog these windows.”

            “Yes, and a good thing, too,” Elisabeth said.  “I was starting to feel opportunistic again.”

            He paused in reaching for the engine key.  There was a sudden stillness.

            “What,” he said casually at last, “Anya didn’t scare it out of you?”

            His eyes were fixed ahead on the dash; hers were on her finger-drawing on the window.  “No, funnily enough,” she said, in a tone to match his.

            He turned to look at her.  She kept her eyes carefully on the window; then, abruptly, she reached out a hand and clawed a swipe across the banned words.  She turned back to meet his eye at last.  “I’ve just put finger-marks all over your window,” she said gravely.

            “Yes,” he said, more gravely still.  “It’s just dreadful.  I work so hard to keep this car clean, you know.”

            “Yes, I know,” she said.

            The rain picked up again and drummed hard on the ragtop roof.

            Elisabeth and Giles stared at one another silently for a long moment.

            Then:

            “Do you like omelets?” he said.

            She raised an eyebrow.  “If they’re well made; yes.”

            “Good,” he said, and finished the motion of reaching for the ignition.  The BMW roared to life; Giles put the A/C on full blast, and with a violent throat-clearing, he put the car in reverse.  Elisabeth drew a shaky breath and smoothed her T-shirt over her belly.

            It took until they were nearly home for the fog to clear from the windows completely.

 

*

 

It was still raining torrentially when they pulled up at Giles’s place; and again they had to run for it, Giles trotting, Elisabeth following him in a bounced walk, her damp cumbersome skirt flapping at her ankles.  When they’d got the door open and bundled inside, Giles’s first move was to go upstairs and change out of his suit; Elisabeth, meanwhile, headed for the bathroom and spent several quiet minutes sitting on the lid of the toilet, wiping her glasses free of the rain.  She was damp, and cold, and the tickle of stray raindrops on her scalp made her feel as if there may be other things crawling under the surface of her skin.  She sat there, holding her newly-mended glasses in her lap, and tried to gather the threads of her thought into a clean, untangled bunch.

            How many times had she fled for refuge into Giles’s bathroom this week?  A fair number, she thought, recounting recent events in her mind.  There was nothing particularly appealing about his white-tiled bathroom, except that he kept nice towels, and strong, soft lights, and a deep claw-footed tub—the ultimate refuge.  And he had shared all this with her without cavil or even reluctance….

            She was going to have to find some way to repay him in kind, something that would give him a reciprocal feeling of—safety—quiet—of refuge.  Her mind flitted back to the kiss they’d created last night, skimmed over the surface of that memory like a startled waterbug…no, not something like that.  That was different.  That was something one did on equal ground, like a chessboard, in which each player had the same pieces….

            You take white.  White goes first, and you need all the help you can get.

            —Egotistical much? she had said.

            Or maybe, she thought, she should just thank him.

            But not in idle words.  It would have to be something deliberate.

            She let the thought go, like Noah sending out the dove to find dry land, and got up to follow the sound of clattering in the kitchen.

            Giles had changed into jeans and a moss-green sweater that was hardly less appealing than his dark-blue oxford shirt.  He had pushed up the sleeves to cook, and was now cracking eggs into a large bowl.  He eyed her as she came into the kitchen, carrying her glasses in one hand and massaging her damp-sweater-clad arm with the other.

            “You know,” he said, “if I thought any of my clothing would fit you, I’d insist you put on something of mine.”

            She smiled at the thought of herself in one of his large sweaters.  “Thanks anyway,” she said.  She put her glasses down on the counter and backed up against it, rubbing hard at her eyes.

            “You all right?”

            “I’m fine.  Just tired.  I slept badly last night.”

            Giles made no answer to this, but even with her fingers pressed to her oily, twitching eyelids, she could feel him looking shrewdly at her.

            She was tired of people looking shrewdly at her.

            When she made no response to his look, she heard him move again; so she took her hands away from her face to see him rubbing the rest of the Gloucester cheese block against a mandolin cheese grater.  The small curls of cheese dropped lightly, clump by clump, into the bowl.  She was pleased to see that Giles, like herself, preferred a large proportion of cheese to egg.

            He added a splash of milk and took a beater from the drawer.  Elisabeth appreciated the swift motions of his arm, beating the eggs, but at the same time the quickness of his movements and the loud scrape and splash of egg in the bowl seemed suddenly overpowering to her senses.  She half-shut her eyes, as if to block out the part of his motion that would overstimulate her.

            “You know,” he said casually, giving the bowl a few last scrapes before tapping the excess drips off the beater wires, “as I recall you had a very similar look in your eyes the first night you were here; which, you later told me, was when you noticed the first signs of an impending attack.  Call me simple, but—”

            “I’m not having an attack,” Elisabeth said.  “I’m just tired.”

            There was a brief silence while he poured the egg mixture into the hot pan he had waiting.  “I wonder,” he said, “if that’s strictly the truth.”

            He made no further effort to prove his point, instead turning his attention to the omelet.  Elisabeth watched him turn the pan handily and prod here and there at the edges of the cooking egg with his spatula.

            “Dammit,” she said finally.

            She didn’t say anything else, and he made no response except to tighten his lips sympathetically, keeping his eyes on his task.

            It wasn’t until he’d turned the omelet that he spoke again:  “Can I do anything?”

            “You can make me an omelet,” Elisabeth said dully.  “Then I think I’ll try to take a nap.”

            “Okay,” he said.

            “Meanwhile,” she sighed, “I’m going to go AWOL from my glasses and flop on the couch.”

            “You do that,” Giles said, with a gentle smile.

            She nodded, and, leaving her glasses on the counter, went into the livingroom to carry out her plan.  It was easy enough to strip off the damp grey cardigan and pry her shoes off without untying them; easier still to unfold her blanket and huddle it around her, little caring whether she wrinkled her skirt by curling up on the couch.

            Giles came in a little later with a plate for each of them, and they sat companionably on the couch and ate the omelet in a comfortable silence.  When she had finished he took her plate along with his and washed up.  He came out then, turning off the kitchen light behind him at her request, and settled himself at his desk with a stack of books (“Let me know if you need anything,” he said; and, “Okay,” she said).

            To her own mild surprise, she found herself dropping off within minutes, and in the few moments before sleep took hold of her, the faint sound of the rain and the scritch of Giles’s pencil gathered themselves to a fullness in her consciousness.  This fullness morphed slowly into the raging numbness she had learned to endure before sleep.

            There was darkness and quiet; and the darkness was the cold burnt aftermath of scalding pain.  There was a certain peace in darkness like this, like Emily Dickinson’s lines about the calm blank eyes of despair.  There was a voice, muttering, slightly querulous, and oddly familiar.  She searched her mind for the match, and drew blanks until she finally recognized that the voice was her own.  She was asking someone for help; my backpack, she said, I’m looking for my backpack.  She moved forward, toward the place where the voice came from, but her voice seemed to oscillate from one direction and then another, and she was blind.  She moved aside and walked into a body, a not-warm body, which grabbed her; she flailed to get away, but her arms were pinioned.  She tried to cry out, but her voice got stuck in her throat, and she stretched out hands—

            Someone was saying her name—a voice she trusted, though it aroused a faint sadness in her.

            “Elisabeth.”

            The dream changed, mainly by announcing itself as a dream.  She saw her notebook had fallen down the crack of the couch, and she reached to dig for it.  Her hand met an obstruction, and she couldn’t see it there anymore.  Swallowing panic, she lifted her head and attempted to get her eyes open.

            “Elisabeth.”

            Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t waking up.  She hated when this happened.  She was still digging down the couch for her notebook, but realized suddenly that it wouldn’t have any reason to be there, as she was pointed to her right, at the meeting-place between cushion and settle-back, whereas her backpack and notebook were lying under the coffee table to her left.  She lifted her eyes and saw Giles leaning over the back of the couch, looking intently at her but not as yet reaching toward her.

            “Are you all right?” he asked her.

            She still wasn’t properly awake.  She uttered, “Still—dreaming—” and shook her head, hard, to clear it.  When she was able to open her eyes and see straight again, she found that she had twisted herself up in a half-sitting position in her sleep, tangled in her own blanket. 

            Giles had come to sit on the edge of the couch at her feet.  She sat up and pushed the blanket off her arms; took several breaths; and gradually reality stopped bearing that distressing resemblance to shattered water.

            “Well,” she croaked out at last, “my nap-taking plan didn’t work so well.”

            “You were dreaming,” he said.  “You were talking about your backpack.”

            “Was I?” she said, startled.  “I heard myself say something like that, but I wasn’t feeling the voice.”  She studied her hands for a moment, reclaiming herself.  “It was like I was two people for a little while.  I guess I really am.”  She gave a short laugh.  “I’m not used to thinking of that as anything but a—a metaphor to describe my odd psychology.”

            She paused to swallow and take a few more breaths.

            Giles said:  “I had forgotten.”

            “Forgotten what?”  She looked up at him.

            “Forgotten what position you were in.  You seem to be so—”  He broke off.

            “Stable?” Elisabeth supplied, bitterly.

            He lowered his chin in a look of gentle reproach.  “I was going to say, so much a part of this world.”

            She met his eye miserably for a moment, then said, “D’you ever get tired of people finishing your sentences?”

            He smiled a little, but she could tell she was not off the hook.  Finally he spoke, and proved her right. 

            “Pride I can understand,” he said.  “Self-flagellation I can understand too.  But put limits on it, Liz.  And if it comes to instability, you’re in good company.”

            In another lifetime, a speech like that would have made her cry with the relief of gratitude.  As it was, the flicker of feeling turned over in her chest and quirked up her lips into a little smile.  The faint urge she had felt a moment before, to challenge him, even to hurt him for knowing her, died mercifully; and she let him read it in her face, finally unafraid.

            “Now,” Giles said, “would you like brandy or water?”

            “Tea,” she said.

            His face cleared.  “Tea it is, then.  An excellent idea.  I think I’ll take a cup with you.”

 

*

 

They sat and sipped hot fragrant tea and listened to the voice of the rain, whispering and plinking on the other side of the window.  Elisabeth’s eyes no longer felt so oily, and she shut them gratefully to sip again at her steaming tea.

            When she looked up at Giles, she saw that he was frowning at the curtains.  “I hope this doesn’t keep up.  There’s nothing more unpleasant than a patrol in the rain.”

            She didn’t answer him; he turned after a moment to glance at where she was curled, knees up, on the other end of the couch.

            She made herself say the words.  “Do I have to go?”

            “You don’t want to?”  His eyes searched her face, gently.

            She shook her head.

            “That’s rather intelligent of you.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid you don’t have much of a choice.”

            She had known that would be the answer; she said dully, “Because I have to help find the focus.”

            “You have to help draw the focus,” he amended, apology in his voice.  “Since we don’t know the locus of the energy, we need all the factors in one place if possible.  Of course, it also helps Buffy to have a group patrol once in a while, especially at times like this when there’s a lot of vampire activity and she’s got pressing concerns elsewhere.  But don’t,” he added, “tell Buffy that I said that I was glad for an excuse to call a group patrol.”

            In response Elisabeth held up a silent right hand.

            And because she knew it was coming, she leaned her head down against the back of the couch and waited for him to ask:  “Can you tell me what happened?”

            “His name was Tom,” she said, after a moment.

            “The vampire?
            She nodded.

            “He told you his name?”

            “No.  His friend came up and addressed him.”

            “How did you meet him?”

            A little snort of a mirthless giggle escaped her throat; this was sounding like a dating quiz game.  “I was looking over my shoulder to see if Buffy was following me, and I walked into him on the sidewalk.”

            “Were you armed?”

            “I had a cross.”

            “Did you use it?”

            So she told him how she’d twigged that he was a vampire; how she’d belatedly remembered to use the cross in her hand; how the vamp had disarmed her and lifted her into the air; how the cavalry had come in the form of the other vampire, bringing news of Buffy’s fighting prowess.  “So, Mr. Watcher,” she said dryly at the end of this recital, “what should I have done differently?  Other than sticking close to Buffy, of course.”

            He did not rise to the gibe, but instead answered, with equanimity:  “There’s probably very little you could have done, under the circumstances, unless you’d had some holy water to throw in his face.  But that would only distract one vampire; it wouldn’t have protected you from any subsequent attacks.”  He took another sip of tea and thought it over.  Elisabeth let him turn over the matter without answering him; she returned her attention to her own tea and breathed the relief of confession.

            Without warning, Giles put down his tea, got up from his seat, and crossed the room behind her to a cabinet, where she heard him rummaging in a drawer.  He came back holding a leather pouch whose contents rattled familiarly.  He sat down and drew from it a long, finely-honed stake.  She shrank from it at first when he held it out to her, handle first.  “‘Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand?’” she said.

            “No,” he replied with a smile.  “Just a stake.”

            Tentatively she took the stake from him and turned it over in her palm.  “Show me how you hold it,” he said.

            Instinctively she grasped it point down, with her thumb toward the top and her wrist cocked outward.  “How’s this?”

            “Fairly good.  Does it feel right?”

            She looked a mute question at him and he answered her by pulling out two more stakes and holding them toward her.  She took each of them in turn and weighed them lightly in her grip, finally deciding that the first one was her favorite.

            “I’m struck how phallic these things are,” she said suddenly, holding the stake point up before her nose. 

            “Well, they’re weapons,” Giles said, diffidently.

            “Yes.  Wielded by a girl, the chosen one.”  Elisabeth was sure the irony of that had never been lost on the Watcher’s Council, but she refrained from saying so.  “On the one side, darkness, perversion of goodness, raw soulless power; on the other, the Slayer...and Mr. Pointy.”  She wiggled the tip of her stake at him with a little smile.

            He gave her a hooded glance and returned the other stakes to the bag.  “Well, if you’re up for it, we may as well give you some training now.  Put down your Mr. Pointy, and I’ll show you some escape moves.”  He set down the bag and got to his feet, draining the last of his cup of tea.

            “Oh, my stake’s not going to be called Mr. Pointy,” Elisabeth said, getting up and following him into the kitchen with her cup.  “I’ll give it an auspicious name, like Macbeth.”  She giggled.

            Giles snorted, and took her teacup from her outstretched hand, to rinse in the sink with his.

            “Or—I know.  Like my ancestor Robin the Bold.  That’s it.  My stake’s name is Robin the Bold.”  She giggled again.

            “Well, the next phase of your training won’t be involving Robin the Bold,” Giles said repressively, though she was fairly sure she wasn’t imagining the twitch at the fine corner of his mouth.

            Elisabeth grinned at him and followed him out of the kitchen and into the main room, where he pulled the chairs out from the table and shoved it aside.  Watching him, Elisabeth chafed her now-bare arms nervously.  “So what does this phase of my training involve?” she said.

            “Have you ever wrestled?” he asked her. 

            She shrugged.  “I’ve roughhoused with siblings and cousins, but otherwise, not really.”

            “Taken any self-defense courses?”

            “A few quick lessons from a friend.”  She shrugged again.

            “Then you’ll show me what you know.  I, of course, will play the vampire.”  When she cringed, he said, “Are you going to go squeamish on me?”

            She straightened her spine.  “Of course not.”

            “Very well then.”  Giles moved the last chair out of the way, removed his glasses, and set them on the desk.  “First, I will show you a few basic holds and how to get out of them; then, we’ll move to defensive attack.”

            She gave him a terse nod.  “Right.”

            “Right.”  He beckoned her forward, and she went toward him and into his grasp.  She found herself quickly pinioned from behind, in a grip that masqueraded as ungentle.  His large hands held her wrists crossed in front of her, and his arms had her corralled close.  “Show me how you would get out of that,” he said, his voice cool and impersonal.

            She thought about it for a moment.  She knew fairly well what she would do, but the problem was, he didn’t smell right—he didn’t smell of stone, and his presence was warm.  This is important, Elisabeth told herself sternly.  This is training.

            So she dropped like a child squirming out of a parent’s grasp, threw the back of her head into his thigh, and when he grunted and tipped forward involuntarily, she wrenched her arms out of his grip and scrambled backward away from him.

            She stood up faster than he did, panting slightly; when he came up from rubbing his thigh, he had a faint smile on his face.  “Your friend gives good lessons,” he said.  “And you seem to know what you’re doing.  The only problem is, you telegraphed what you were going to do five seconds before you did it.  If I’d been a real enemy, I’d have had a countermeasure ready in the time it took for you to try to escape.  Never hesitate,” he said.

            “Right,” she said, catching her breath.

            “Never—hesitate,” he repeated, looking her hard in the eye.  “I can’t possibly stress that enough.”

            She nodded, to show she understood.

            They tried several more holds, and with each successive lesson Elisabeth grew in confidence, so that finally, in a close scuffle, she managed to place a foot behind one of his and trip his knee from behind; he went backward and put a hand down before regaining his balance.  “Very good,” he said, making her flush.  “Now let’s try a defensive attack.”  He brushed off his hands from the last one and then held them up, as if preparing for a wrestling bout.  “Assume you’re unarmed,” he told her.  “Assume your escape route is behind me.  What do you go for?”

            She looked him over appraisingly.  “I’d say the eyes, the throat, or the groin.”

            “Try one,” he suggested.

            So (remembering his dictum never to hesitate) she made a fist and drove it at his throat, but he caught it, deflected it, and used it to put another hold on her.  “You’re still telegraphing,” he told her.  “Try it again.”

            She tried it again, and again he read her, preempted her, trapped her in a hold; again he let her go.  “Try it again.”

            This was beginning to remind Elisabeth of their chess match, and she said so.  “Little wonder,” he said; “chess is quite applicable here.  So is poker.  You have a poker face, I know; use it.  Try again.”

            She glared at him, tried again, was foiled again. 

            “You’re too tentative,” Giles said flatly, letting her go for the third time.  “You won’t succeed if you don’t put aside your inhibitions.”

            “I don’t want to really hurt you,” she said angrily.

            “And I told you to put that thought out of your head.  You let me worry about me.”

            She stood, fists clenched, breathing hard at him.

            “This used to be my job, remember,” he said testily.

            “I’m not the Slayer,” Elisabeth said, jaw taut.

            “Evidently,” he said.

            She didn’t know exactly what happened next, except that some synapse seemed to click in her mind and she found that she’d already gone for him, had closed with him, had caught him unguarded at the throat and tripped him from behind (it’d worked before), and he went crashing down, rattling the dishes in the drainer with his impact; she rolled out of the way, then returned savagely to the attack before he could get up.  By the time she actually came to herself she found she was sitting on his chest with his left elbow pinned under her skirt-clad knee, as Buffy had done to her; her left hand gripped his hair and her right was drawn back to hit him.  He saw it and made an involuntary resigned wince; and the synapse unclicked.  She scrambled backward off him, shaking, and stood back against the wall to watch him recover from a distance.

            For a moment all he did was wince and blink.  Then he dragged his head up and propped himself slowly on his elbows.  He smiled, still blinking painfully.  “Much better,” he said.  He sat up and ran a hand through his hair; looked up, and saw her face.

            “That was good,” he said again.

            His words did not have the desired effect; Elisabeth’s eyes filled, and she continued to shake, her fists still clenched and held close together at her chest.  She swallowed, and swallowed again, and began to recover.

            “I’m much less worried about you now,” he said, frankly.  He was still sitting on the floor.

            Her voice trembled.  “That wasn’t strategy,” she said.  “It was blind fury.”

            “Better blind fury than blind fear,” he said, meeting her eye.  “Now you know you can do it; which was the whole point of the exercise.”

            He raised a knee and began to push himself to his feet, grunting.  Belatedly she jumped to help.  “Thank you,” he said, his lips twitching into a near-smile as he straightened his back with an audible crackle.  “So, now what shall we do?  Shall we play a game of chess?”

            “I thought we already were,” Elisabeth said.  She had recovered enough to fold her arms comfortably and regard him with a little smile.

            He smiled back.

            When he actually spoke, his voice held the faint irony that made her heart beat faster.  “You’ll do,” he said.

            She didn’t know whether to exult or be terrified; so she wound up doing both, looking straight back at him.

            After a long moment she said:  “D’you think your day’s taking a turn for the better?”

            “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I have a new bruise on my backside.”  He rubbed the offending part of his anatomy.  “But at least you didn’t knock me unconscious…and on the whole—yes, yes I think so.  You?”

            She twisted her mouth and raised her eyes, thinking.  “On the whole?...I think maybe.  Yeah.”

            The shadow of a speech crossed Giles’s face, and in its wake he blushed a little.  Elisabeth said:  “What?”

            He stammered a little, getting it out.  “I—I was going to say—to ask, I mean—if you’d stopped at all feeling opportunistic.”

            Elisabeth knew where the wind lay, now.  She tried to put a stop to the little smile that threatened to wring her mouth.  “The question you should be asking,” she said, with mock severity, “is, ‘Do I appreciate the value of a terminal snog?’”

            He sputtered and burst out laughing.  “Very well,” he said when he recovered.  “Do you?”

            “I have a great appreciation for the terminal snog,” she said gravely.  “The terminal snog is my old friend.  But I thought you wanted to play chess.”

            “We can’t do both?” he said, with a thin feral smile that made her stomach jolt.

            “You mean, both at once?” she said.  She found that at some point one of them had taken the other’s hand, and they had moved to face one another closely.

            “Yes, I mean both at once,” he said, as if this were obvious.  “That is, unless you’re still throwing the game away.”

            “Try me,” she said quietly, and at her tone his expression elevated.  He bent his face close to hers, and her eyes fluttered shut.

            The phone rang, splitting the quiet of the flat.

            Elisabeth’s eyes sprang open, and Giles startled visibly.

            “Shit!” he said, and turned away.  Elisabeth grinned, but swallowed it when she saw that he was really perturbed.  He kicked the back of the couch, kicked the chair, and stormed into the kitchen, cursing all the while.  The phone rang again, and a third time, and Elisabeth realized that he was too startled and irritated to answer it; so she went over and picked up the receiver herself.  “Hello?”

            “Elisabeth?”

            “Buffy?”  (“Shit!” said Giles.)

            “Yeah.  Um, is that Giles swearing in the background?”

            “Ah…yeah,” Elisabeth said, glancing back into the kitchen.  “He’s having a bit of a day.”

            “You mean, more of a day than when I saw him last?”

            “Yeah.  We had an unfortunate lunch at the Doublemeat Palace—”

            “Ew,” Buffy said. 

            “Yeah—”

            “I seriously need to have another talk with Giles about his dating skills.”

            Elisabeth smothered a laugh, watching Giles fume in the kitchen out of the corner of her eye.  “And,” she added quietly, “I don’t think he’s quite gotten over Anya’s parting words to us when we closed the shop.”

            “Oh God.  Yeah, Xander told me and Will that she was going all TMI.  Oh—TMI means—”

            “I know what TMI means,” Elisabeth said, amused, “and yes, that’s what she was doing.”

            “Poor Giles,” Buffy said.

            “Yeah.”  Elisabeth had almost forgotten to be nervous, talking to Buffy.  “On the bright side, the training session went okay.”

            “Good,” Buffy said.  “Listen, I only called to tell Giles that we’re going to meet at the Rosedale Cemetery at eight.  So—”

            “Right, I’ll tell him.”

            “Okay.”

            “See you later this evening.”

            “Yeah.”

            Elisabeth put down the phone and turned to Giles, who had gone into the hallway between kitchen and livingroom and put his forehead to his upraised arm against the wall.  “She says Rosedale Cemetery, eight o’clock.”

            He made no sign that he’d heard her.

            She went closer to him.  “Rupert, did you—”

            “Yes, I heard you.”

            She hesitated, then said, “Are you okay?”

            A faint groan was her only answer.

            He didn’t lift his head, but it seemed he could sense her sympathetic smile, for he gave a small growl a few seconds later.

            She smiled wider, and reached for his free hand.  “Come here,” she said.  He resisted, scowling, at first, but eventually let her lead him into the room and toward one of the chairs which she pulled toward him.  “Sit.”

            “What? why?”

            “Sit,” she ordered, pointing at the chair seat.

            He glared at her, then moved to put his backside in the chair, but she grabbed his arm before he sank too far.  “No, not that way, the other way.”  At her indication, he turned and straddled the chair, grumbling. 

            “What are you doing?” he said, as she laid her hands on his shoulders.

            “I’m giving you a chair massage.”

            “Oh.”  His voice sounded more puzzled than acquiescent.

            “Haven’t you ever had a chair massage before?”

            “I—I don’t think so.  How do you massage a chair?”

            She snorted.  “Ha ha.  I’m massaging you while you sit in a chair.  Now hush.”

            He said fretfully, “I don’t see how a massage is going to help anything.”

            “Didn’t I just tell you to hush?”

            He made another little growl, but otherwise went quiet.

            She started easy, letting her hands reclaim their muscle memory from the years past in which she had done this for friends.  “I suspect knots,” she said softly, mostly to herself, as she probed the broad muscles of his shoulders with careful fingertips.  “And judging from your posture, I would put them right about…here.”  She dug gently into the soft flesh under his left shoulder blade, and her fingers found what they were looking for: a corded knot under the surface of the muscle that shifted under her touch like a twanged guitar string.  He flinched.

            “Didn’t know that was there?”

            “No,” he murmured.

            “Thought not,” she said.  She worked lightly at it with her thumb, then said, “Here—” and lifted the hem of his sweater.  He helped her pull it over his head; she smiled to herself and put the sweater on the desk in a heap next to his glasses, then turned back to resume her ministrations over his T-shirt.  She glanced around at the side of his face; he had shut his eyes, but he had not at all melted into her touch.  “Relax,” she said softly.  “It helps.”

            He drew a breath, which he clearly thought constituted relaxing. 

            Elisabeth bent her attention to her work.  Clearly this was not ten minutes’ work sitting in front of her.  She decided to work slow, so as not to tire her hands before she was finished.  She began with long, slow strokes along the furrow of his spine, followed by broad circles moving outward, with the heels of her hands, followed once again by smaller circles within them.  She wrung the muscles as best she could, to loosen them before she set to work on the knots themselves; and although he had become more acquiescent since she began, he was nowhere near pliable enough for her to continue on the broad scale. 

            Her fingers sought out the knotted cords in the muscles between his shoulder blades:  there were a lot of them, and they were all connected to one another, a taut and unruly web beneath his flesh.  She went after them with the angles of her thumbs, and each time she pressed one of the nexus points she heard him stifle a grunt of pain.  “Well, now I believe that you’ve never had a chair massage,” she said.  “Or any kind of massage at all.”

            “I wouldn’t go that far,” Giles grunted.

            She leaned into his lumbar vertebrae with the heel of her hand, releasing a dull snap.  “Don’t they have chiropractors on the Hellmouth?”

            “Chiropractors,” Giles snorted, “those quacks.”

            “Said the proprietor of a magic shop,” Elisabeth retorted with a grunt of her own, as she worked her way up his spine.

            “My services are actually useful.”  He was gripping the back of the chair and wincing.

            From the top of his spine she radiated her pressure across his shoulders, without answering him:  Her own muscles were beginning to protest, and she couldn’t quite spare the breath.

            He went on, punctuating his sentences with small grunts of pain.  “And furthermore, how am I supposed to be able to search for a proper massage therapist and keep up my shop at the same time?  And besides, in a country that doesn’t know what a Turkish bath is—ow!”

            For Elisabeth, to save words, had smacked him lightly with the backs of her fingers across the back of his head.

            “What was that for?”

            “For not relaxing when I told you.”

            He growled mutinously, but otherwise kept quiet.

            Despite his grumbling, however, Elisabeth found that he had become much more pliable than before; he was moving both with and against her strokes, and it was giving her a much easier resistance to work with.  Presently he made a little growl that could have been one of pleasure; she worked up to his neck, and when he bowed his head and made the little growl again, she knew she’d been right.

            The skin of his neck was seasoned and creased, not young.  Nevertheless she handled it gently, and was rewarded to feel him draw a long, shuddering, childlike breath and give up the tension there.  She smoothed his skin up through the base of the skull, then bent a little to glance at what she could see of his face.

            His eyes were softly shut now.  She smiled: finally.  This was what she had wanted; an opportunity to give back to him out of what she had.  She decided to keep that part of it her secret, and make the gift as rich as she could.

            She moved the stroke of her hands again down his back and up to the knots at his shoulder blades, which were considerably less rigid now; thinking encouragements at him:  You get these from the way you hold yourself, ready for defense at all moments.  Just for a moment—let it go.  Just for the present let your eyes go soft behind their lids, and be safe.  Be at home.  Briefly she felt an urge to say these things to him, but thinking them at him seemed to be enough; as she worked he drew another long breath and let it out, and his shoulders let out with it.  Elisabeth’s hands were on fire now, from unaccustomed effort and friction, but she kept up her work, using her knuckles to rest her fingertips.  When she moved for the first time to wring and smooth the muscles of his arms down to his wrists, his fingers when she reached them were like water.  She shouldered a straggling tendril of her hair out of her face, smiling to herself.

            She worked on him until she could no longer feel any knots in his muscles, then smoothed her hands down his back lightly and, to finish, laid her hands against the sides of his head and massaged his temples, ever more lightly, then took her hands away like a conductor guiding a last lingering note into silence. 

            For a long moment his only movement was a soft little breath.

            “Are you asleep?” she asked him quietly at last.

            A little “mm” was his only answer.

            “You have time.  Maybe a little nap is in order.”  She reached down and took his limp hand; he rose obediently with her help and let her walk him to the couch, where he flopped down with his face in the pillow he’d lent her and his sock feet resting on the lamp table next to the couch arm.  She tugged her blanket out from under him, making him grunt, and draped it loosely over him.  She watched him settle down; he seemed to melt almost instantly into sleep, so that when she spoke his name a few moments later, there was no response.

            Satisfied, Elisabeth went into the kitchen and made herself a second cup of tea; then took it to the livingroom and sat down in the easy chair to relax, to rest her aching hands, and to watch Rupert Giles sleep.  It was a good sleep, too, she could tell: not only were his eyes soft (or at least the one eye she could see was), but his mouth was soft as well, and half the creases in his face seemed to have vanished.

            The rain was letting up; but while the sound of it was still in her ears Elisabeth put the tea down on the coffee table long enough to pull out her notebook and flip through its pages to her notes for a sonnet, untouched since she’d abandoned it on the bus to Sunnydale.  She sat and stared at the half-formed phrases for a long while, then put the book patiently away—it would come—and got up to dig out her jeans and black shirt from last night (for another night’s patrol it wouldn’t be too bad).  In the bathroom, changing, she discovered as she shook her creased black skirt that she’d popped a seam at the thigh, probably straddling Giles’s chest during their infuriating training session.  Clucking her tongue at herself, she carried the skirt back out to the livingroom, dug out her sewing kit, which resided in an old cough-drop tin, and sat down to mend it.

            When that was done, she put kit and skirt away, rinsed out her tea cup, and puttered around a little before going to check on Giles.

            He was still quite out.  Not even her hand smoothed along his back stirred him.  Elisabeth was pleased.

            It was getting close to dinner time.  She thought about what she might do, and finally decided that she’d look up pizza delivery services.  A delivered pizza would save her and Giles eating omelets for the second time, and would also give Giles more time to sleep.  It was while she was running her fingers down the column of numbers in the phone book that she realized: she didn’t know the flat’s phone number.  Damn.  And she wasn’t about to wake up Giles just to find it out.  She stood, her face in a thoughtful scowl, turning over the possibilities in her mind.  Then decided, finally, to let it ride till Giles woke up on his own.  She went back to her seat in the easy chair and breathed out, to relax.

            A knock sounded at the door.

            Elisabeth glanced sharply at Giles, but he didn’t even twitch.  Swiftly, she got up and went to the door, stood on tiptoe to look through the peephole, and then pulled it open.

            Standing before her, in a shiny red rain slicker and with Tara wielding a large umbrella at her back, was Willow.

            “Hey,” she said.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 21

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth put her finger to her lips.

            “Shh.  He’s asleep, and I’m trying to keep him that way till he wakes up of his own accord.”  She tipped her head backward to welcome them in.

            Willow carefully unzipped her slicker and hung it up on the coat rack next to Elisabeth’s jacket; Tara furled the umbrella and followed her companion, her footsteps more naturally quiet than Willow’s.

            Willow had spotted Giles’s sock feet protruding from the side of the couch, and went toward them, treading very carefully.  Elisabeth wanted to tell her that it wasn’t necessary to be that quiet, but decided to hold her tongue.

            “Wow,” Willow said softly, with her eyes on Giles’s motionless figure.  “How’d you get him to do that?”  Then she seemed to realize what she’d just said, and turned abruptly, hand up as if to ward off the possible answers to that question. 

            Elisabeth shrugged, with a little dry smile.  “I gave him a back rub.”

            Willow’s lips pursed.  “Good.  Maybe finally he’ll accept one from one of us.”

            “I had to badger him into it,” Elisabeth assured her.

            Willow had been staring at Giles again; she took her eyes away from his sleeping form and turned to Elisabeth, pulling her crocheted purse over her head and unbuttoning the flap.  “Well, I came to tell him what I’ve found, but I can write it down for him for when he wakes up.”  She pulled pencil and paper out of Giles’s desk (Elisabeth jumped to move his sweater and glasses out of the way) and, using the list she’d pulled from her purse, made a copy of what looked like source notations, followed by a list of magical objects and symbols that left Elisabeth none the wiser.  “There.  I think he’ll understand that.”

            “So…have you found a spell?” Elisabeth asked her, tentatively.

            “Well—”

            Tara helped.  “We kinda put a few spells together.”

            “—But we’re still looking for one that works by itself, so tell Giles to keep going through his books.”  Willow scribbled some more on the paper, then scratched a hasty but neat heading over this latest list:  “Things we need.”  She added “Things we have” to the list she had already compiled.  “There.  And if he has any questions, he can call me.”

            “Oh!” Elisabeth said, “speaking of calling—can you give me the phone number for this flat?”

            Willow looked at her quizzically.

            “I was wanting to order a pizza, but I don’t have this number to give to the delivery people.”

            “Oh right,” Willow said.  She bent and wrote Giles’s phone number on a corner of her list.  “There you go.  Listen: Giles and I probably won’t have time to go over the spell tonight—spell-planning and patrolling really don’t go too well together—so tell Giles, in case I forget, that I’ll come over here tomorrow and go over it with him—I mean, if he’s still planning to close the shop tomorrow—which I think it’s a good idea—”

            It was news to Elisabeth, but she was inclined to agree.

            “—especially since we’re all going to have to anchor this spell, and Giles gets all scattery after a full day in the shop,” Willow continued.

            “Does he,” Elisabeth said.

            “Well, Tara said that once, and I think she’s right.”  Willow smiled over at her partner, who hunched her shoulders and gave a half-smile.

            “So anyway,” Willow finished, “tell Giles I’ll see him tomorrow morning, bright and early.”

            “Uh—not too early, would you?”  Elisabeth’s hands sought her pockets.  “I’m hoping he’ll sleep in.”

            “Who, Giles?” Willow said with a snort.  “You’d have to do something majorly drastic to get him to sleep in.”  Then she blushed.  “I mean—that is—”

            Elisabeth’s smile turned very dry indeed.  “Buffy says that Xander told you about Anya’s Casanova Plan.”

            “Uhh…yeah,” Willow said, her eyes not quite on Elisabeth’s face.

            Elisabeth sighed.  “I could have done without that little drama, but I think it’s run its course.  I hope so, anyway.”

            “Yeah,” Willow said.  “So…you talked to Buffy?”

            “Yeah, she called a few hours ago.”  Elisabeth gestured vaguely at the phone.

            “No,…I mean before.”

            Elisabeth was aware as she shrugged that it was more of a sudden jerk of the shoulder, but there was nothing she could do about it now.  “Yes, we talked.  Didn’t she tell you?”

            Willow’s eyes were on Elisabeth’s left cheekbone.  “Well, she was kindof in moving-on mode, so we didn’t really discuss it.”

            Elisabeth nodded, as much to herself as to them.  “Well…she’s not going to take out adoption papers for me or anything, but she doesn’t think I’m evil anymore, so I think we’re okay.”

            “And you’re coming on the patrol.”

            Elisabeth nodded unhappily.

            “Patrols can be fun,” Willow said, correctly interpreting the look on Elisabeth’s face.

            “And you’ll be well-protected,” Tara added.

            “And if you ask Giles, I’m sure he’ll give you a little training.”

            “He has,” Elisabeth said.

            “Oh.”  Willow looked uncertainly at her.  “And it didn’t go well?”

            Elisabeth gave another convulsive shrug.  “It went fine.  It’s just…the—demony part I’m not looking forward to.  And the rain.”

            Willow waved a dismissive hand.  “Oh, it’s supposed to clear off within an hour.”

            Elisabeth’s eyes drifted to the window; the light coming in was still dim.  “Rupert will be happy,” she murmured.

            “I think we all will,” Tara said.

 

 

*

 

Elisabeth saw Tara and Willow out the door, and watched them walk away through the court.  The rain had lightened and was now dripping pleasantly from the stonework and the leaves of potted plants.  Too, the temperature had dropped so that there was an uncharacteristically pronounced chill in the air.  She lingered for a moment, imbibing the patterns of light and color, of dampness and sheltered dry places, before retreating from the cool wash of air into the still dim warmth of the flat and closing the door softly.

            She looked at the clock on Giles’s desk:  if she was going to order a pizza she had better do it soon.  She picked up the phone, but remembered after a moment that Giles, the man with the money, might not have the proper amount of cash on hand.  She put the phone down in its rest and went over to look at Giles’s sleeping form and think. 

            She had noticed when massaging him that he was not keeping his wallet in his jeans pocket; so probably it was upstairs.  Elisabeth’s stomach knotted uncomfortably—she was faced either with waking him and inquiring after his cash flow, or with going upstairs to check the situation herself.  After a moment she drew a shaky breath and went to mount the stairs to the loft.

            She had gone up these stairs only once before, and that to come right back down again in a flustered hurry.  The urge to do so now kept seizing her, like the lighting of a firefly, but she ignored it and crept into the loft room with only a little hesitation.

            Like the rest of the flat, Giles’s bedroom was neatly kept, with rich, simple furnishings:  a washstand, complete with ewer, basin, and towel; a full-size bed with plenty of pillows and a thick sage-colored duvet, the top hem of which was folded back to reveal soft linen sheets; a large, polished walnut wardrobe (with a wicker hamper next to it); and a chest of drawers with a scattering of Giles’s belongings on the top of it—a pocketknife, a handful of change, a dirty handkerchief, and his wallet.

            Elisabeth went to the chest of drawers and examined the wallet’s contents just long enough to ascertain that there was plenty of cash for pizza; then she laid it back where it had been and turned, meaning to go downstairs at once.  But the view from this angle of the room arrested her for a moment: the slant of rainy-day light from the small window, the simplicity of the unadorned wall, the savory-custard opulence of the bedding.  Next to the bed was a small nightstand, the surface of which was crowded with a pile of books that nearly lifted the sage-colored lampshade of the little brass lamp, as well as a pillar candle that had seen a good deal of use.

            It was the sort of room that she herself would have, given unlimited money and a desire to settle down.  Her lips twitched, thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s introduction to Pemberley: if she hadn’t been so jumpy and stubborn, she herself could be sleeping here, reading Rupert’s bedtime books and luxuriating between clean, soft sheets.

            And without the moral victory, she reminded herself.  Not to mention the worse damage to her host’s back from sleeping on a couch too small for him.  Elisabeth flexed her hands; they still ached a little, but satisfyingly so.

            Struck with a sudden curiosity about Giles’s bedtime reading, she crossed to his bedside and tipped her head to read the titles on the spines of the books.  Sun Tzu’s The Art of War had pride of place on the top of the stack—a book Elisabeth had always meant to get around to, but had never read.  She sat down delicately on the bed—yes, it felt as luxurious as it looked—and took it up; it was a paperback printed many years ago, and the edges of the pages were rounded and fuzzed with use.  She wondered if the use were his own, or whether he had acquired the book secondhand.  A glance inside the front cover gave her a clue: Rupert Giles was scrawled on the half-title in faded schoolboy ballpoint.  She laid The Art of War in her lap; she would return to it in a moment.

            The next book, a battered hardcover, had an unwieldy title and was written to keep the reader abreast of post-WWII physics.  Beneath that was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (this Elisabeth had read); followed by—a smile spread over Elisabeth’s face—The Screwtape Letters, also in paperback and without Giles’s adolescent imprimatur.  The sort of book that gets given to godchildren, Elisabeth thought, remembering C.S. Lewis’s preface to his stepchild book; the sort that lives a life of undisturbed tranquillity in bedrooms along with The Road Mender, John Inglesant, and The Life of the Bee.  None of the books Lewis had named were here on Giles’s nightstand, however.  Under Screwtape was an illustrated history of the relationship between astronomy and astrology; and under that, an unillustrated paperback of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana

Strangely unblushing, Elisabeth flipped through the pages of this last, her lips pressed thoughtfully together.  It made sense, that he would have a copy of the Kama Sutra close by, without the illustrations, couched in Victorian language.  But she wondered where the illustrated copy was.  Maybe he’d hidden it during the year that his younger compadres had been trampling over his flat at all hours.  She set down the copy she was holding, thinking about it: maybe he had no illustrated copy.  But somehow she didn’t think so.  At last she dismissed the conundrum and replaced the history book, Screwtape, the Kuhn, and the physics book, leaving The Art of War to dip into more deeply.

            It was as she was skimming the translator’s preface (heavily annotated in Giles’s more grown-up handwriting), the book held up close to compensate for the lack of corrective lenses, that she heard it.  Downstairs there was the distant sound of a creak; then, slow footsteps.  She waited to hear if the footsteps were headed toward the bathroom: but no, they were coming her way; they were coming up the stairs.  Elisabeth froze, her blood momentarily cold, her face very hot.

            But by the time he had reached the top step Elisabeth had accepted the situation; and when he appeared in the doorway, still blinking sleepily, her blush had almost wholly dissipated.  She looked up at him mutely for a moment while he continued to blink at her from the doorway.  Then she said, her expression gravely straight and her voice matter-of-fact:

            “I came up here to see if you had cash enough to order pizza.  Then I got nosy.”

            He nodded, a faint humor waking his face.  His eyes moved from hers down to the cover of the book she was still holding open.  She looked down at it too. 

            “I’ve always been meaning to read this,” she said.

            “You mean you haven’t?” he said, with a clearing of his throat.  “For shame, Elisabeth.”

            She shrugged.

            “You know,” he said, leaning against the doorframe, “most people’s idea of nosy involves snooping in the medicine cabinet rather than the bedside bookshelf.”

            “Darn,” Elisabeth said, “I didn’t even think of that.  Do you have an interesting medicine cabinet?”

            He shrugged in his turn.

            Elisabeth lowered The Art of War to her lap and said mildly:  “I was just wondering, incidentally, where you keep your illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra.”

            She fully expected, and was rewarded, to see the feral warmth come into his eyes.  “On its shelf downstairs, of course,” he responded.  His eyes twinkled even more wickedly as he added:  “I keep waiting for Xander to find it.”

            She broke into a sudden laugh.  “You’re ornery,” she said, with joy.

            He smiled and withdrew from the doorway; his footsteps thumped ponderously down the steps.  She put The Art of War back on top of the pile and got up to follow him.

            “So does pizza sound good to you?” she asked him as she swung on the newel post and dropped the last few steps to the ground floor.

            “It sounds fine,” he said, opening one of his book cabinets and frowning myopically at the contents.  “I’ll call it in—what toppings do you like?”

            She dropped herself into his desk chair, thinking the question over.  Meanwhile, he had found the book he was looking for and handed it over to her on his way to the kitchen.  She opened it to the florid frontispiece.  “Hardy, har,” she said.  “I’ve seen illustrated copies of the Kama Sutra already, thank you.”

            “Well, I thought, if you haven’t read The Art of War....”

            “Yeah, yeah.”  She got up to put the book back in the cabinet, flipping the pages with interest as she went.  She paused at a particularly arresting depiction of “the congress of the crow”; then she snapped the book shut and slid it back into its place.

            “Have you made Buffy read The Art of War?” she asked him through the bar window.

            He gave an emphatic snort.  “I’d do better if I forbid her to read it.”

            “Well, there’s an idea,” Elisabeth said.

            “You still haven’t said what pizza toppings you want,” he said.

            “Cheese,” she said promptly.  “Plain cheese.”

            “Very well,” he said, shooting a little smile at her through the bar window before coming out to pick up the phone.

            When the pizza was duly ordered, Giles went about turning on lights, as the dimness of the grey day was giving way to evening.  “Thank God the rain’s stopped,” he muttered as he flicked open the curtain for a brief look outside.

            “Saves the pizza boy a grim trek,” Elisabeth added with a grin.

            He gave her a surprised blink.  “Yes, I suppose it does.”

            “But it’s still a little chilly out there.”

            “Hmmm,” was his only answer.

            A silence fell between them as they waited for the pizza to arrive—a comfortable silence for the most part, but not without its fine-drawn tensions.  Giles opened a cabinet that he had kept shut during her stay, and drew out a bundle of arrows, a pair of crosses, a soft leather bag, and a crossbow, laying each item on the table.  Elisabeth, watching from the desk, found her eyes drawn to the big crossbow, its mechanism matte-black, smooth, and swiftly efficient, though at the moment it was unstrung.  As she watched, Giles treated the string with a resin he pulled from the leather bag; then he anchored the string and worked it taut.  He took from the bag a small bottle of oil and treated the mechanism in a few key places.  Then he set the crossbow aside (wiping his oily fingers absently on the tail of his rumpled T-shirt) and took up the bundle of slim arrows, sighting along them one by one and wiping them with a soft cloth.

            From her seat at the desk, Elisabeth watched.

            After a moment he paused in his work and said:  “I didn’t plan this very well, did I?  Now the table’s covered with ordnance and there’s no room for eating.”

            She smiled.  He grinned back.

            “We can eat in the kitchen,” she said.

            He was about to agree to this plan when the aggressive knock came at the door.  Giles slid easily out of his seat, hurried upstairs, and thumped quickly back down, wallet in hand.  He opened the door to the pizza boy, paid him, and retreated back into the flat with the large pizza box.  The smell, sirenlike, drew Elisabeth along behind him into the kitchen. 

            They dispensed with the formality of plates and stood hitched along the counter, each munching their own hot, cheese-dripping piece with the pizza box open between them.  “We need something to drink,” Elisabeth said, gathering up a long string of cheese and hoisting it into her mouth.

            “I know just the thing.”  He pushed the last bit of his slice into his mouth in one huge bite, wiped his hands on his jeans, and opened the refrigerator.  She heard the clink of bottles, and sure enough, when he shut the door he was holding two beer bottles between the fingers of one hand.  He had already pried the cap off one before he could swallow his massive bite of pizza and say:  “Oh that’s right, you don’t like beer, do you?”

            “I’ve heard it’s good with pizza,” she said, taking the open bottle and lifting

 it for a swig.  She swallowed and smacked her lips thoughtfully.  “Not bad; but I still like draft cider better.”

            “Well, why didn’t you say so before?” he said, aggrieved.  He dropped the churchkey back into the drawer and returned the unopened bottle to the fridge.  He dug around for a moment (the cold seeped along the floor and breathed on Elisabeth’s bare toes) before emerging once more with a bottle of cider.  “There.”  He opened it and exchanged it for her bottle of beer. 

            “Cheers,” she said.  They clinked the bottlenecks and drank.

            They ate, getting messier and messier until Elisabeth tore off some paper towels for them; Giles wiped his hands and then used his to wrap his condensation-wet bottle.  “That’s a good idea,” she said, doing likewise.

            When they finished (Elisabeth tucked her chin down for a silent burp), there were a few pieces left; “These will heat up nicely for lunch tomorrow,” Giles said, shutting the box.  “And oh, yes, by the way, I’m closing the shop tomorrow so we can work on the spell.”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said, “Willow told me.”

            He turned to look at her.  “When did Willow tell you that?”

            “She and Tara came over while you were asleep.  Oh, yeah, and she left a list for you, of many things which I do not understand.  It’s in there on the desk.”

            He went and retrieved it and his glasses, and came back reading it with a frown.  “How come it has my telephone number on it?”

            “I got her to give it to me so that I could call in the pizza, but you woke up before I could do so.”

            “Ah,” he said, still reading the list.

            “So I take it you slept well.”

            He looked up from the list: a slow smile grew in his face.  “An understatement,” he said.  “Thank you.”  He moved to put the unwieldy pizza box in the fridge, detouring as he did so to kiss her temple lightly.  “I’m your slave forever.”

            It was a light, mocking jest, but when he looked back at her over the fridge door, she was shaking her head seriously.

            “You don’t owe me anything,” she said.

            “I beg your pardon,” he said, his voice still light.  “It was a very good massage.”

            Elisabeth swallowed the ache in her throat.

            “No,” she said.  “On the other hand, I may have eased my debt to you a little.”

            He paused with the fridge door open, looking at her.  “What debt?”

            She lifted her hands and let them drop, indicating the flat around them.  “What debt?” she repeated.  “You’ve put me up all week, and bought my meals, without a breath of complaint.  You’ve got a quiet apartment full of books, and a bathtub so delicious I suspect you of having put spells on it—”

            He lifted his eyes in a half-joking gesture.  “Well....”

            “You don’t even know me,” she finished.

            “Don’t I?” he said.

            All the cold air was running out of the fridge over her feet.  She quelled the random urge to point it out to him.

            “You didn’t to start with,” she said.

            He shook his head.  “You still don’t owe me anything.”

            She tried to stare him down, but his gaze wouldn’t budge from hers.  She said finally, “You know, you’re putting an awful lot of work on that old fridge, keeping it open like that.”

            His mouth moved humorously, and without words he bent to follow her advice and put the pizza box away.  His fingers trailed gracefully over the top of the fridge door, effortlessly snaring Elisabeth’s eyes.  Presently they slipped from view, as he needed both hands to make room for the box inside the fridge.

            “I was obeying the law of hospitality,” he said from behind the door.

            “Rupert,” she said, “you’re English.  It’s not like you’re from a desert country where the law of hospitality is the biggest law there is.”

            “All the more reason to follow it,” he said.  “Besides, you know perfectly well that the Hellmouth operates on the same principle as a ‘desert country.’”  He straightened—without a trace of a groan, Elisabeth noted to her subconscious satisfaction—and shut the fridge door at last.  He adjusted his glasses on his nose and set his eyes on hers once more.  “You owe me nothing,” he said again.

            “And you don’t owe me either,” she countered.

            He smiled.  “Sounds like a bargain to me.”

            She hesitated only a moment; then she put forward her hand.  He took it firmly, and held it a moment longer than a natural handshake before they both let go.

 

*

 

This time, as Giles sat at the table and cleaned his weapons, Elisabeth sat at the table with him to watch.  “Did Willow mention what spell she’s actually found?” he asked her as he held up his crossbow to check the action of the oil he’d applied.

            “Just that she and Tara cobbled some spells together.”

            “Yes, I recognize the references.  I’m just wondering how she plans to balance the pressure that’s going to be on us as anchors.”

            “She did say to keep looking.  Other than that I understood nothing.”  Elisabeth sighed, toying with one of the sharp wooden bolts.  “I’m the pawn in this business, remember.”

            He shot her a glance of mixed sympathy and irritation.  Elisabeth took up the bolt and tried to hold it like a pen, but the weight of it was wrong, and she gave up and let it drop back to the table with a little clatter.  Her hands lay still on the table, numbly hungry for something to do.

            “On the other hand,” Giles said carefully, fiddling with the mechanism in a way that Elisabeth thought might possibly be unnecessary, “a little preparation on your part might do the spell a significant bit of good.”

            A little curdle of indigestion threaded itself around Elisabeth’s stomach.  “Like what?” she said.

            “You are a player in it, you know.”  Giles wasn’t looking at her; his fiddlings were clearly superfluous now.  “Your energies feed the spell—they’re integral, actually.”

            Elisabeth’s stomach clamped.  “But what do I do?”

            Giles put down the crossbow and the pretense, and looked up at her.  “You—you come to it with a sense of volition.  You give your intuition its head.  You focus.”

            A small nebula of chaos was forming in Elisabeth’s insides.  She pressed her lips hard together.  “Okay,” she said.

            The irritation had left Giles’s expression, leaving only the sympathy.  “If you make a stab at any of those things, it helps.  It gives you a little power.”

            He was meeting her eye with such lucent understanding that she knew her next words would give him no surprise.  She itched her back against the chair uncomfortably and said, “I’d almost rather be the pawn.”

            At this he turned mildly back to his now-finished task and said lightly:  “Don’t underestimate the pawn.  Pawns win games sometimes.”

            Elisabeth took up his words and intoned them back to him, like the announcer of an old-time radio show.  “Never underestimate the mighty power of the pawn!  Under that squat, unobtrusive figure—lurks the wrath of ages to ages!  Between the long-ranging bishops and free-moving queens, the pawn—”  Elisabeth broke off.  Giles was smiling.

            She got up and followed the tickle in her consciousness to the shelf where Giles’s chess set lived—got it down—carried it back to the table and pushed aside some crossbow bolts to make room for it.  Her hands, unhurried, set up the pieces; a dent formed between her brows.

            Giles, packing his ordnance neatly into a leather satchel, watched her out of the corner of his eye.

            Elisabeth began a game, her right hand playing against her left, paying close attention always to the pawns.  Her play was reckless and all over the board on both sides; she made random captures and bided the consequences; she lost important pieces for first black and then white.

            Gradually she became aware, as she scoured the board for dangerous moves, that he had approached her from behind and was now hanging over her shoulder like a cat, one hand braced behind hers on the table and the warmth of his breath on her shoulder.  He did not move, and she sensed, without looking round, that he was following her as closely in mind as he was to her in the flesh.  With an effort she returned her full attention to the game.

            White lost its queen.  Giles’s hand hesitated, then lifted from the table and snaked out to move the white rook, helping.

            At length the opening came, and Elisabeth took the opportunity she had been playing for:  she moved the white pawn to the last square, then reached and replaced it with the lost white queen.  She straightened, staring at what she’d done, and Giles moved a little to accommodate her.

            “Yes,” he said, “something like that.”

            “I’m not sacrificing any of you to get that power of movement,” Elisabeth said quietly, her eyes stinging.

            “You don’t have to.  There’s no rule that says you have to lose a queen to gain a queen.”

            “There isn’t?”

            “No.”

            She drew a deep, shuddering breath and relaxed a little.

            He laid a comforting hand on her other shoulder; she relaxed further into his touch, and he moved his thumb, stroking once, and then again.

            “Is there a spell like this?” she asked him.

            Giles was thinking, almost audibly.  “There are a few spells that work on the same principle,” he said at last.  “The thing is…the thing is—what is missing? what are you missing now that would make you a queen?”

            Something clicked into place.  She said:  “My words.  I’m missing words.”

            He took in a sharp breath.  “Words.  Of course—”  Within an instant, he was gone from her, striding to the bookshelves and fanning his fingers over the titles, searching, searching.  “There’s a book—” he muttered, “it ought to be right here—where is it?”

            “Is it on the shelf of forbidden fruits?” Elisabeth asked mildly.

            He paused, turned to give her an appraising look (which she met with impeccable innocence), then went to the shelf of books he’d set aside and plucked the book from among them.  He could hardly stride fast enough to the desk to sit down with it.  Elisabeth went to read over his shoulder as he flipped feverishly through the ancient pages.  He found the page he was looking for and bent his nose close to read; she bent close likewise, though the text was in a language she did not recognize, and rested her hand on his shoulder.  He covered it with his and turned a page, still reading. 

            His hand had begun to warm hers before she said:  “What spell is this?”

            “It’s a binding spell,” he said, “that works by means of word placement.”

            “A binding spell?”

            “Yes.  The words are written in such a way that it binds together two disparate entities, making them more powerful than either would be alone.”

            “My two selves—”

            “—Could be bound together by the words you’ve been missing—your identification.  If we enact this spell in the presence of a dimensional opening—”

            “It could give me the power to cross over whole,” Elisabeth breathed.

            Some tautness in him fell relaxed under her hand, and he sat back with an explosive sigh.  She tightened her hand on his shoulder; he raised his head to look at her at last, removing his glasses.

            “You found it,” she said.

            “You found it,” he said.

            They were still a moment, meeting eyes.

            “Shouldn’t we,” Elisabeth murmured at length, “be getting ready to go on patrol?”

            “Yes,” he said.  His eyes skittered down from hers to the clock on his desk.  “Oh, dear—yes!” he uttered.  “In fact, we’re running late.”  He rose swiftly and reached to mark the place in the forbidden book.  Elisabeth let go of him so that he could get up and finish packing his satchel.

            All she really had to do to get ready was put on her socks and shoes and jacket; that done, she was free to watch with amusement as Giles bustled about trying to do several things at once—he held open the flap of his satchel while struggling to work his hand through one sleeve of the moss-green sweater he’d retrieved from his desk, and wriggled into the other sleeve while carrying the satchel to the front hall to nestle briefly beside his crossbow.  She watched from behind as he bent to right the crossbow on the floor while tugging down the hem of his sweater.  He straightened and directed a sudden glance over his shoulder at her; her gaze wandered nonchalantly off across the room.  She thought she heard him make a small sound between a grunt and a snort as he lumbered back to the desk.  “You ready?” he said.

            “Yes.  You?”

            “Nearly,” he muttered, digging furiously through his weapons chest.

            Elisabeth took her eyes away from him and fixed them on the objects in the hall; though of course looking at the crossbow was a very poor distraction.  She went to squat next to it, examining every inch of its dangerous efficiency with her eyes.

            “And don’t touch the crossbow,” Giles said.

            She brought her head up sharply to look at him and found herself staring at his back.  “You’re not even looking at me,” she said, making him snort.  “And anyway, what do you take me for?”

            He half-turned to answer her.  “I take you,” he said, “for a woman of great curiosity.”

            She gave him a snort of her own, in an unsuccessful attempt to mask her gratification.  Just as he was turning his eyes away, she reached out with her fingertip and gave the crossbow the merest brush, watching him mischievously to gauge his reaction.  She was fairly sure that was a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth as he turned away.

 

*

 

It turned out they were to get to the Rosedale Cemetery on foot.  Giles moved along the darkened streets in a deliberate hurry, the satchel slung over his far shoulder like a baldric, the crossbow anchored in the crook of his left arm.  Elisabeth gestured at it and asked:  “Don’t the cops object to this sort of thing?”  She was taking two strides to each of his in an effort to keep up.

            “The cops,” Giles said with distaste, “are not very consistent in this town.  It’s best to go ahead and hunt without worrying about them.  And anyway,” he added, “they know fairly well what we’re about by now.”

            “I see,” Elisabeth said.

            He shot her a narrowed look from the corner of his eye.  “Was that an innuendo?”

            She gave him a frowning blink, then suddenly grinned.  “Relax, Rupert.  I’m just exercising my curiosity.”

            They continued in silence for several more strides, Giles’s head tilted at an imperious angle.

            “Besides,” Elisabeth said finally, amused, “I suck at deliberate innuendo.  It usually blows up in my face as much as the inadvertent kind.”

            His feathers went down.  “I can sympathize,” he said dryly.

            They were passing beside an iron fence, beyond which was a vast lawn populated with gravemarkers of various shapes and sizes.  “Is this it?” she asked him nervously.  But before he could respond, she answered herself, “Well, I suppose it is, isn’t it, judging from the presence of those Scoobies up there at the gate.”

            The hush of the hunt seemed to have taken over, for neither group hailed the other at sight; instead, the others waited for Elisabeth and Giles to make the long approach up the street to where they stood under the wrought-iron sign.  “All here?” Giles said when they met.

            “Yes,” Buffy said.  “You’re late.”

            Giles chose not to answer.  Anya grinned.

            “I think it’s best if we split up,” Buffy went on.  “Willow, Tara—you take the back perimeter.  Giles, Elisabeth, Xander—you take the little woods on the side.”

            “What about me?” Anya said.

            “You’re with me.  We meet up back here in an hour.  If anything goes wrong, evacuate, and Giles, you and Xander get Elisabeth out of here.”

            Perhaps it was the military terminology that prompted Willow to ask her quietly, “Where’s Riley?”

            “Couldn’t get hold of him,” Buffy said briskly.

            “Is everyone properly armed?” Giles asked.

            Buffy glanced around the group.  “Everyone?”  They all nodded.  Xander mutely produced a cross and a stake.

            “You have everything, Elisabeth?” Giles asked.  “Cross?”

            “Check.”

            “Holy water?”

            “Check.”

            “Robin the Bold?”

            Elisabeth pulled her stake from the belt loop of her jeans.  “Check.”

            “Okay,” Buffy said, giving Robin the Bold a dubious look, “let’s go.”

            They began to disperse into the cemetery, but Buffy suddenly paused.  “Giles—the Doublemeat Palace?  What were you thinking?”

            Giles opened his mouth, fishlike; shot Elisabeth a dirty look.

            “We will discuss this later,” Buffy said firmly.  “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 22

by L. Inman

 

“Thank you very much,” Giles said sarcastically to Elisabeth, once they were within the cover of trees, pacing as quietly as they could among the wet fallen leaves on the path.

            “Thank you for what?” Elisabeth was unwilling to be perturbed until she knew precisely what had nettled him.

            “For telling Buffy we’d gone to the Doublemeat Palace for lunch.  I’m never going to hear the end of it now.”

            “Well,” Elisabeth said, “I’m sorry about that, but not that sorry, seeing as how the alternative was telling her why you were really swearing up a storm when she called.”

            Xander was skipping to keep within two steps behind them.  “Oh yeah?  Why was that?”

            Giles shot him a glare, Elisabeth gave him a sidelong look, and his question went unanswered.

            Elisabeth asked Giles, “Which would you rather have:  Buffy twitting you about your choice of lunch date venues, or Buffy making heavy weather of your love life again?”

            “They’re not the same thing?”  Giles checked the safety on his crossbow, a sour expression crossing his face in the darkness.

            “Well, one leads to drive-by comments, the other one could possibly lead to my being knocked flat on my ass in a graveyard again.”

            “Ah, I see.  So it’s every man for himself.”

            “Precisely.”

            “You’re right,” Xander said.  “I really don’t want to know.”

            Giles peered warily around as they entered a particularly dense clump of trees.  “I do think we have gotten past that particular danger,” he reassured her, absently.

            “Well, you’re the best judge of that, not me,” Elisabeth said, making him look back at her with amusement.

            Shadows passed over them as they walked beneath the branches of shedding trees, and grew deeper as they probed further into the wood, away from the soulless light of the streetlamps.  Their feet squelched through mud and leaves; Elisabeth said quietly, “I’m sure the vamps can hear us coming a mile away.  D’you think they’re going to—?”

            “Shh,” Giles said, raising his crossbow.

            Then Elisabeth heard it too:  a double thread of voices, ahead of them in the dark wood.  “Now would be a good time to get the stake out,” Xander breathed in her ear.

            “Oh—right,” she whispered back, following his advice.

            They had stopped on the path.  Giles had his crossbow raised, the safety off, his eyes cutting from side to side ahead of them.  Elisabeth felt Xander behind her tense in waiting, his shoulders sheltering hers, his attention focused on their flanks, ready for any attack from the rear.  Briefly Elisabeth had a mental picture of the image they must be making, like a “Charlie’s Angels” silhouette, and had to swallow a hysterical giggle.  She coughed.

            “Quiet,” Giles said, and the hysteria dissolved in Elisabeth’s stomach, into plain fear.  She gripped Robin the Bold, transferred him briefly to her left hand, wiped her right on her jeans, and gripped the stake again.

            The voices grew nearer, and took on a distinctly human timbre.  A few seconds more, and they recognized both voices as female.  Behind her, Xander relaxed a little, but Giles continued to wait with his crossbow raised. 

            The voices were crossing the path ahead at right angles; one of them said something in a terse mutter, and then they all heard Anya say distinctly:

            “Well, just because he’s like a father to you doesn’t mean he’s dead from the waist down!”

            They didn’t hear Buffy’s reply, and within seconds their presence faded.  “I mean, really...,” they heard Anya say just before they dropped out of earshot again.

            Giles lowered his crossbow and snapped the safety back on; Elisabeth didn’t even need to see his face clearly to read the aggrieved eyeroll in his gesture.  “Come on,” he muttered, and stalked off ahead.

            “The Surgeon General should issue warnings to Watchers when they come to the Hellmouth,” Xander murmured.  “Fighting evil in this town could be dangerous to your dignity.”

            Elisabeth sucked her lips in and stifled a snort of laughter.

            “Are you coming?” Giles called imperiously, from a few yards ahead.

            “Yeah,” they both answered, and hastened to make it true.

 

*

 

“I’m worried about Buffy,” Willow said as she moved aside a dripping branch of overgrown rosebush so that she and Tara could pass.  “I mean, she’s making with the protection so much that I’m afraid something’s gonna—something’s gonna blindside her.  And then,” she said with a sad glance at her lover, “I’m afraid that I won’t—that we won’t be paying attention enough to be her safety net.”  She heaved a petulant sigh.  “I wish there was a book somewhere that listed everybody’s to-do list to keep the world running smoothly.”

            Tara smiled.  “On the other hand, you wouldn’t like to lose your freedom to something like that.”

            Willow folded her arms.  “That’s what’s annoying me.  There should be freedom and cheat-sheets.”

            Tara smiled again.  They crossed a rank of graves into a host of shadows.

            “On the bright side, what about Giles?” Willow said suddenly, snapping out of her reverie.  “He looks pretty chipper, don’tcha think?  Pretty conquer-the-worldy?  You think they’ve done it yet?”

            Tara thought it over.  “No; not yet, I don’t think.”

            “But there’s still that big sex vibe, right?”

            “Oh yeah.”

            “Much as I hate to say it,” Willow said with lofty eyebrows, “I think Anya’s right.  Giles needs a little, y’know, tender companionship just like anyone else.  I only worry about—well—”

            “Getting her home alive?”

            “Yeah.”  Willow frowned.  “This was supposed to be a cheering-up topic.”  She roused herself with an effort.  “So d’you think they’ll do it tonight?”

            Tara’s smile pursed subtly, like a cat’s.  “I think so.  At least, I think they should.”

            “Yeah.”  The shadows grew deeper, and Willow instinctively drew her stake as they moved forward. 

            “They make a cute couple,” Tara said.  “And, I think they’ve been good for each other.”

            “Give or take a few shattered crystals.”  Willow peered ahead into the darkness.  “She brings out his sense of humor, which is a nice change.  Sometimes Giles shellacks himself in irony.  It’s not good for him.”

            Tara agreed with a nod.  “And I think he’s been good for her too.  I think she’s wanted a man around who acts like a grownup.”

            Willow made a wide-eyed grimace.  “Well, Giles is that, all right.”

            Tara ran her hand over the top fronds of a bush, gathering rainwater over her fingers.  “Well, a grownup man is definitely the best kind to lose your virginity with.—Not that I know personally—”  She held up her wet hand reassuringly, but she had lost Willow at the first sentence.

            Willow stopped dead, looking at Tara. 

What?” she shrieked.

 

*

 

As they moved through the shadows, Elisabeth wondered if Giles’s total silence meant that he was brooding again about his loss of dignity, and if that further meant that all her work on his back was being undone.  Though of course it would cost her nothing to massage him again if it was necessary.  Maybe she could persuade him to accept a proper massage, with aromatic oils on his skin.  It would certainly put the best cap on an arduous evening of slayage.  Her eyes sized up his silhouette moving ahead of her, and the odd impressionistic glimpses of texture through the shadows—his jeans pocket—the heel of his boot—his graceful elbow bulked by his leather jacket—the black-matte glint of his crossbow—

            We have to worry about surviving the arduous evening of slayage first, Elisabeth reminded herself, forcing her breathing into a slower rhythm.

            Though there didn’t seem to be much slayage of any kind, arduous or otherwise, in the offing tonight.  Giles’s silence seemed suddenly like the eternal attentiveness of radar dishes nestled in tropical forests, poised to receive extraterrestrial messages that never came.

            “Xander,” Elisabeth whispered over her shoulder, “aren’t there usually vampires on the scene by now?  Not that I’m anxious to see one, but—”

            “You never know,” Xander murmured back.  “We always have to play it by ear.”

            “And I would think,” Elisabeth said, “that this is a good place to catch newly-turned vampires, but not old ones.  Are we expecting a new generation of vamps?”

            “Yeah,” Xander said.  “Buffy says that the nest she raided two nights ago had had plans to turn a bunch of people and whoop up on the town.”

            “Ah,” Elisabeth said.  “So when we get through here….”

            “Buffy will go look for the older vamps.”

            “So we get to help kill the nestlings.”

            “So to speak.  You’re not insulted, are you?”

            “Are you kidding?  I’m highly reassured,” Elisabeth said, and cannoned into Giles’s immobile back.

            “Ouch, Rupert.  I didn’t know you’d…stopped….”

            She peered around Giles’s elbow into the clearing they’d just stepped into.  Facing them were several dark human shapes, backlit by one of the white streetlamps, their elongated shadows curving over the ground toward them.

            There was a slight rustling in the trees behind them, and Elisabeth knew that the hunters had become the hunted.

            “Oh, shit,” Xander said from behind her.  “I hate this part.”

            One of the shadow-owners reached up a hand and brushed crumbles of dirt from his hair.  “I think we’ve found what we’re looking for,” he said, in a soft gloating voice. 

            For answer Giles unsnapped the safety of his crossbow and raised it, aiming, waiting.

            Behind him Elisabeth pulled her cross out of her pocket and gripped it in her left hand, Robin the Bold still clutched in the sweaty grip of her right.  She used the top of the cross to push her glasses up on the bridge of her nose.  One of the vampires noticed her motion: she saw a shadowy smile cross his demon face.  Surely, she thought, it wasn’t her they were all staring at.

            Another of the vampires spoke, this time from behind them.  “Looks like the van of crusaders has a sweet, chewy center.”

            Shit, Elisabeth thought.

            “Then I get a taste,” said a female voice from their left.

            “Everyone gets a taste,” the first vampire said.

            “Where the hell’s Buffy?” Xander muttered, digging in his pocket for his cross.  “They keep up this mixed metaphor of chewy centers, I’m going to kill for a Snickers bar.”

            “Xander,” Giles said softly, “when I give you the word you get Elisabeth out of here.”

            “Out which way?” Xander retorted in a hiss.  “They’ve got us surrounded.”

            “I’ll open you a way to my right.  That’s the direction we last heard Buffy.”

            “Okay,” Xander said.

            “You don’t find Buffy, just get her out of the cemetery and into a house.”

            “Right.”

            “Rupert—,” Elisabeth said.

            “You’re not to engage them,” Giles murmured to her, “unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

            “Understood,” Elisabeth whispered.  “But, what about y—”

            From afar off, a shriek cut the chilly air, startling everyone:  “What?

            “Now!

            Giles cocked to his right and shot his first bolt; before it hit its target he was reloading with a savage jerk of the arm; Xander snatched Elisabeth’s upper arm in an almost bruising grip and hauled her along with him.  They barreled through the echo of dust left by Giles’s kill, with two vampires close on their heels.  “What—about—Rupert—” Elisabeth uttered breathlessly, trying to keep her feet as Xander dragged her along.

            “He’ll be all right,” Xander grated back, “he’s the one with the damned crossbow—”

            A vampire lunged into their path.  “Shit,” Xander said again, and used his momentum to bowl the vamp over, leading with his stake.  As they scraped past the vamp clutched at Elisabeth’s waist; she backhanded him with the cross in her free hand, and saw him scream in rage as the welt bloomed across his face—he let go, and Xander pulled her on.

            Another figure, compact and agile, suddenly blocked their path.  Xander raised his stake.

            “It’s me,” Buffy said.  Anya appeared at her shoulder.  “Xander—” Anya said—but the two vampires were upon them, and Anya lost what she was going to say as Buffy shot forward and engaged them.

            It was quick.  Buffy wasn’t fooling around, and she dispatched the first vamp against a tree without ceremony.  The second vamp uttered, “The Slayer—” and tore off through the trees to his escape.  Buffy rounded on Xander, who had bent to grip his knees.  “More of them,” he said hoarsely, heaving for breath.

            “Where’s Giles?” Buffy said sharply.

            Xander lifted an arm to point back the way they’d come, and Buffy took off in a sprint.

            Elisabeth marked with her eyes where Buffy had disappeared through the trees, and stalked off at a near trot, following her.

            “Wait a minute,” Anya said, but Elisabeth did not answer or stop.

            “Elisabeth—Elisabeth, come back,” Xander called.  “Where are you going?”

            “To help,” Elisabeth said, beginning to jog.

            “But Giles said—”

            “Giles said to get to Buffy,” Elisabeth said, jogging faster.  “Buffy’s this way.”

            Xander was trotting to catch up with her, coughing to get his breath back in the crisp air.  “Yeah, well, safety is that way.”  He pointed behind him.

            “Where Buffy is is safer,” Elisabeth answered shortly, and lurched into a sprint considerably slower than the Slayer’s but too fast for Xander to keep up anymore.  He slowed to a trot, and then a walk, clutching the stitch in his side.  “Elisabeth!” he called after her.

            When Elisabeth reached the clearing again she found that the scene had changed considerably.  Willow had her hands up, pinning a vamp invisibly to an obelisk while Tara swooped in with her stake; Buffy was fighting two vampires at once; and Giles had put his back to a large tree and was digging in his satchel for a fresh arrow as a large vampire advanced upon him.

            Giles glanced left; Elisabeth’s eyes followed, to see what he saw:  a vampire barrelling toward Willow from behind.  “Willow!” Elisabeth shouted, as Giles cried, “Look out!”

            Willow turned in time to avoid the worst of the vampire’s blow, but Giles paid dearly for his selfless moment:  his vampire reached him and struck the crossbow from his hand, then backhanded him, knocking him to the ground.  Elisabeth had her mouth open to cry his name in horror, but her throat had dried to a salt.

            Buffy had dusted one of her vampires.  Xander’s voice shouted from behind her.  Tara had staked their first vamp and was now jumping to help Willow with the other.  Two silent demon screams cut through Elisabeth’s insides. 

            Giles was almost up, his glasses askew, a cross in his fist, his teeth bared in a snarl.  The vamp brought a big paw back to sweep the cross from his hand.

            Elisabeth found herself running toward him.  (“No!” cried Xander from behind.)

            Giles was up.  He advanced the cross and opened his mouth to cry in shrill Latin:

            “Minutum cantorum, minutum balorum, minutum carborata descendum pantorum!

            It was enough to puzzle the vamp for the few more seconds it took Elisabeth to reach him from behind.  She raised Robin the Bold and drove for the center of his back, left of his spine, right in the spot she would feel her own heart to be.

            Except that her sweaty hand slipped its grip on the stake and her strength was not enough to drive it in more than half an inch.  “Oh, damn,” she muttered, as the vamp let out a crescendoing growl.

            Splashy footsteps, many of them, thudded behind her, and a huge impact caught her from behind, knocking her forward, the vamp under her howling with rage as they all went down.  She lost hold of Robin the Bold just as another impact knocked the breath out of her—she felt a sharp pain as her chest, weighted from behind, forced the stake deeper into the vampire under her—

            The vampire exploded into dust, and quite suddenly Elisabeth was on the ground in two inches of murky water, her chest still pressing the stake into the rain-softened mud.  She tried to speak, but she had no breath to do anything more than croak.

            “Ow, Buffy!” Xander said in her ear.

            Everything was dark and clouded, and it seemed that whoever was on top of her was taking forever to get off.  She couldn’t quite breathe.  Her insides felt dirty from the close contact with the demon’s scream.  Plus she had the distinct impression that she was very wet.

            There was a wriggling scramble above her, digging the stake harder against her chest, and she managed to puff out a small cry of pain.  The weight lessened, then lifted altogether, and she felt Xander’s gentle hands grasping her arms and lifting her to her feet.  “You okay?” she heard him say.

            She coughed, then went into a hard spasm of coughing, and got her breath back.  “I think so,” she croaked, putting a hand to her chest where the stake had bruised her.  She looked down to see if she was bleeding, but then realized she couldn’t see much of anything: her glasses were splashed liberally with mud.  She took them off and began to wipe them on the tail of her black shirt, her fingers cold and fumbling.  “So,” she said to the blurred shape that was Buffy, “guess I’m two-for-two in the category of dumb patrol antics, aren’t I?”

            Buffy shrugged.  “Actually, I think you’re improving.”

            “Yes,” Giles said dryly, “I found her antics this evening rather useful, myself.”

            “Giles,” Willow said, “what was that spell you used on the vamp?  I didn’t recognize it.”

            Giles ignored her.  Elisabeth smiled, lifting her glasses to put them back on, but then realized that, far from cleaning them off, she had rubbed even more mud on them from her shirt.  “Give them here,” Giles said, pulling out his handkerchief.  Elisabeth handed them over without quibbling.  She pinched a little of her shirt and pulled the fabric squelchily away from her skin.  “Jeez,” she said.  “I don’t think I’ve been this muddy since my mother let me and my sister turn the hose on her empty garden patch in our swimsuits.” 

She blinked a bit of mud out of her eyes and looked up to see Xander staring at her with an oddly vacant look on his face.  She frowned at him quizzically, then blinked again, understanding.  “I was eight,” she told him.  “It was not sexy.”

            It was Xander’s turn to blink.  “Oh,” he said.  “Right.”  He looked away, only to catch Anya’s glare—and Giles’s, which was considerably more potent.

            “Hey,” he said, “don’t tell me you didn’t go to the same mental place.”

            “Yes,” Giles said, rubbing the second lens furiously with his handkerchief, “but it was my mental place.”

            Anya grinned.

            “Speaking of mental places,” Buffy said, rolling her eyes, “I have an escaped vamp to track.  Is everyone okay here?”

            “Yeah,” Willow said, picking bits of mud and leaves off her patchwork sweater.  Tara nodded in agreement, reaching to brush her off from behind.

            Giles finished cleaning Elisabeth’s glasses, gave them the glance-through, and handed them back to her.  “How’s that?”

            She put them on.  “Pretty good,” she said, looking up at a streetlight.  “I’ll give them a thorough washing later.”

            “You should carry a handkerchief.”

            “Didn’t need one in my home dimension,” she retorted with a smile.

            “I think we’re fine, Buffy,” Xander said.  “You go on.”

            “Okay.  Thanks, guys.”  Buffy gave them all a wave and strode off, disappearing finally through the cemetery gates.

            “Well,” Xander said, heaving a sigh, “that was certainly enough excitement for me for one night.  Come on, Anya, let’s go home.”

            “Are you sure it was enough excitement?” Anya said as he put his arm around her.

            “Ohhh yeah.”

            “You mean you don’t even want to have sex?”

            He blinked.  “Who said anything about not having sex?” 

            Still bantering, they headed toward the cemetery gates, leaving Willow, Giles, Elisabeth and Tara all looking at one another.

            Giles bent finally to pick up his crossbow and examine it for damage.  “Yes,” he said wearily, “let’s all go home.”

            “Goodnight, Giles,” Tara said.  “Goodnight, Elisabeth.”

            “Goodnight, Tara, goodnight Willow, goodnight John-boy,” Elisabeth said, making Tara grin.  Willow, however, was silently giving Elisabeth a calculating look, until Tara pulled at her hand and she said, “Oh! goodnight.” 

 

*

 

Some ten minutes later Elisabeth and Giles were walking slowly home.  Giles was fiddling with his crossbow.  Elisabeth was cold, wet, and giddy.

            “How is it?” she asked, gesturing at the crossbow.  “Is it okay?”

            “Oh,” Giles sighed, smiling, “it’ll live to fight another day.”

            “That’s good.”  Elisabeth stared at the mechanism for a moment.  “Have you ever read Michael Herr’s Dispatches?”

            Giles, who was getting used to Elisabeth’s apparent non-sequiturs, merely answered:  “Book about the Vietnam War, isn’t it?”

            “Yeah.”  Elisabeth chose her words, staring at the crossbow.  “There’s this part where Herr is talking to this officer of some kind, and the officer is pointing out this combat helicopter.  And the officer says: ‘That is sex.’  And that was totally opaque to me.  I didn’t see how a helicopter could possibly be sex, I mean, except metaphorically.  But—”  She stopped.

            Giles raised his eyebrows and looked at her with interest.  “Yes?”

            She was still staring at the crossbow.  “Oh, nothing.  Just that I think I’m getting the idea.”  She looked up at Giles at last.  “I know what you’re thinking,” she said.

            “I doubt that you do,” he said.

            “I bet I do, too,” she said loftily.  “You’re thinking: ‘What do they teach them in these schools?’”

            He blinked.  “Actually, that was rather what I was thinking.”

            “Toldja.  In these schools,” she informed him with a facetious grin, “they teach you that it’s possible to find the erotic in everything.  Then they let you go out and do it.”

            “Do it...meaning, find the erotic in everything?”

            “Yes,” she said, with a slight blush.  “Most papers nowadays are dedicated to delineating the sexual politics of every text under the sun—a great deal of fun, you must admit.”

            “But it hardly plumbs the deeps of scholarship,” he said, playing along.

            “Yes, but those who do otherwise are usually extremely bitter, so you can’t trust any of them.  We are knaves all.”  And she skipped ahead of him, declaiming:  “As soon seek roses in December, ice in June; hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff; believe a woman or an epitaph; or any other thing that’s false, before you trust in critics.”

            He was laughing.  “Is that Donne?”

            “Donne?  No, it’s Byron: ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.’  My favorite lines: Bowles! in thy memory let this precept dwell—Stick to thy sonnets, man! at least they sell.”  She was gesticulating dramatically as she quoted, and paused when she saw the indulgent smile he was giving her.

            “What?” she said.  “Don’t the Scoobies quote poetry after they come off patrol?”

            “No,” he said.  “Xander sometimes sings ‘The Best of Queen.’”

            “Ah,” Elisabeth said.  She whipped Robin the Bold from her belt loop (she had been careful to retrieve him from the puddle she’d dropped him in) and held the stake like a microphone:  “‘Weeee are the champions, my frie-ends—’”

            “Yes, yes, just like that.  You can stop now.”

            Elisabeth grinned at him.

            “And it’s rather tempting fate to claim victory when we’re not yet home,” he said.

            “Ah.  Good point.”  Elisabeth stuck Robin the Bold back in her muddy belt loop.

            They walked along; despite his word of caution, Giles’s grip on the crossbow was lax, and his stride was comfortable.  Elisabeth leaned her head back and took in the stars through her slightly-smudged glasses.  Her blood felt like shaken champagne in her body.  Lower in the sky she spied the moon, delicate in its last phase, a bright sliver against the dark.

            “Y’know,” she said, gesturing at it, “I’ve had this simile in my head since I was a kid, and I haven’t been able to shake it.  Whenever I see the moon like that, I always think of a silver toenail clipping.  Isn’t that disgusting?”

            He snorted and started laughing.

            “Which makes me think,” Elisabeth babbled on, “that maybe T.S. Eliot wasn’t such a crackpot after all, using such stupid similes for such beautiful things....Let us go then, you and I, while the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table—”

            “Oh, God,” he groaned, still laughing, “not the Eliot.”

            “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets—”

            “Oh, please—Elisabeth—”

            “Streets that follow like a tedious argument—of insidious intent—to lead you to an overwhelming question….”  She skipped ahead of him again, looked back at him; he was grinning, and he quirked his eyebrows back at her.

            “Oh, do not ask ‘What is it?’  Let us go and make our visit,” Elisabeth finished, triumphantly.

            “You know,” Giles said, still smiling, “I think I prefer the Best of Queen.”

            Elisabeth got out her stake-microphone again.  “‘Anght—anght—anght—another one bites the dust—’”

            “Or,” Giles said hastily, “I could take my chances with the Eliot.”

            “Well,” Elisabeth said, dropping the act, “anyway, we’re home.”

            “Thanks be to God,” Giles said with a snort, digging in his pocket for his keys.

            “Oh, do not say, ‘Bad kitty!’  Let us go and prowl the city,” Elisabeth sang at him, skipping through the court to Giles’s front door.  He laughed so hard that in the end she had to take the keys from his feeble fingers and unlock the door for them.  Her own fingers felt dipped in electric current as she swung with him over the threshold.

            “Home again, home again,” she sighed.

 

*

 

While Giles put away the crossbow and the arrows he’d retrieved (to be cleaned later), Elisabeth shrugged out of her wet jacket and headed for the bathroom.  She returned to the kitchen with Giles’s bottle of shampoo.  “Behold the magic,” she told him.  With him watching over her shoulder, she took off her glasses, turned on the tap, and began to rub a daub of shampoo onto each of the lenses.  She hummed tunelessly as she worked it into a weak lather and scrubbed at the smudges with her thumbs, inside and out.  “Get me a paper towel, would you?”

            He was ready with the paper towel when she rinsed the lenses clean and turned off the tap at last.  “There,” she said finally, showing him the result.  “And God said, Lo! let there be clean eyewear.”

            “Amen,” Giles said gravely.

            She grinned at him, but instead of putting her glasses on her face, she folded them and set them down on the counter.  “Hints from Heloise,” she told him.

            He smiled.  “It looks,” he said, “as if the patrol was a success.”

            “It certainly looks that way,” she said, mock-seriously.

            “You seem to have come off without any bruises this time.”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said.  “…Wait.  No, not quite.”  She felt for the tender place over her breastbone.  “I think there’s one where my chest drove the stake into the vampire.”

            He winced.  “Ouch.”

            She lifted the neck of her black shirt and peered down at her chest, squinting past the dimness and the mud.  “Yep.  Pretty nasty, looks like.”

            He hesitated.  “May—may I see?”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said, “if I can—hang on—”  She attempted to pull down the collar of her shirt to show him, but it wouldn’t stretch far enough.  “Oh, hell,” she muttered, and peeled the muddy wet shirt off altogether.  “It needs to hit the laundry bin anyway.”

            She wadded up the shirt and dropped it onto the bar counter, then turned to him with a frank, grave expression on her face.  His eyes did not meet hers, and she turned her own to look down at herself, at her pale skin smudged with mud, at her damp red cotton bra, and the round, angry black bruise just above the cup line.  The area around the bruise was mottled red and purple, like a nebula.

            “You don’t think anything’s broken?” he asked softly, staring at the bruise with a thoughtful frown.

            “No,” Elisabeth said.  “The crunch I felt was a skin-crunch, not a bone-crunch.”

            He winced sympathetically.  “It does look nasty.  You should put some ice on it.”

            She gave a little whiny groan.  A flicker of a smile touched his mouth in response, but he did not take his eyes away from the bruise.  “I suppose it would be counter-intuitive to touch it,” he said thoughtfully.  Then paused.

            “Oh, you think?” Elisabeth said, playfully sarcastic—then she too stopped.

            There was a silence; then he straightened away from her a little, without raising his eyes from her breast.  She watched his face, watched the pink come into his cheeks; watched his eyes take on a faint shine.

            She reached for his hand, lifted it in both hers, and placed it upon her chest so that it covered not only the bruise but a fair portion of her collarbone as well.  Then she reached for his other hand and arranged it gently next to the other.  As she did so he raised his eyes to hers, and there they stood for a moment.  Then deliberately she reached up and removed his glasses, dropped them lightly behind her on the bar counter, placed her own two hands along his face and brought it down to hers.

            He stood acquiescently for a long moment exactly where she’d arranged him, kissing her back.  But as the kiss progressed, as they stood reacquainting themselves with one another’s taste, he trembled and moved his hands instinctively, to caress her, to explore her skin.

            Her response was a quivering welcome, unmistakable, unequivocal; he gathered her in, stroking her, and she made a little pained sound in her throat as she moved close.

            In no time at all, they found themselves exactly where they had left off the night before, and then some.  At the same moment they realized it, and with an effort they broke their kiss to look one another in the face, breathing hard.

            “D’you think anything’s changed?” she asked him.

            His voice, answering, was as husky as hers.  “No.”

            They met eyes a moment longer, searching; then they made a mutual facial shrug and reached hungrily to kiss again.

            With that last obstacle overwhelmed like an inadequate levee, they put up no resistance at all to the impulse that urged Giles to anchor her against the bar counter, or Elisabeth to seek the soft spot at the nape of his neck.  His fingertips found the furrow of her spine; her lips the hollow under his jaw.  Then he sought her mouth again with his own—

            There was a sudden odd, unpleasant taste and a squeaking crunch between Elisabeth’s teeth.  She pulled back.  “Ouch,” she whispered.  “Graveyard mud in my mouth.  Not my favorite dish.”

            “That can happen,” Giles said, leaning in again; but she had caught sight of his face, and began to laugh breathlessly.

            “Somehow I have smeared mud all over you,” she said.  “Look at this.”  She wiped a finger along his cheek and held it up to show him.  He gave it a little snort.

            “I don’t care,” he uttered.  He bent close again, but she leaned back.

            “Well, I do,” she said.  “I think I need to take a quick bath.”

            “Oh, please don’t say that,” he said.

            She laid her hands along his face once more and smiled into his eyes.  “I’ll make it worth your while,” she murmured.

            He melted, so that his whole body was conformed to hers.  “Please...?”

            She drew a breath and made the judgement.  “Definitely a bath.”

            “It goes well with my mental place,” he said, pleadingly.

            “I can see that.  But it doesn’t go so well with mine.”  He gave her a question-face and she added, “First time out of the gate, and I want to be clean.”

            He made a look of deep pain and let his head fall forward.  “Oh, Elisabeth.”  But he let her slip out of his arms and out of the kitchen.  He raised his head in time to see her kneeling by her pack, drawing out piles of dirty clothing.  “This is pathetic,” she muttered.  “I have no excuse leaving my laundry this long.”  She rose to her feet again, carrying her bag of bath things.  The wet places on her red bra, he noticed, had dried and faded a little. 

            When she passed the kitchen doorway he said, “Shall I put your things in the washer?”

            “If you like,” she said.  “Oh, look at that lip.  Poor, poor man.  I told you I would make it worth your while.”

            His look changed subtly from pitiable to winsome.  She laughed in delight and continued down the hall.  The bathroom door closed gently, and within moments he heard her start the bathwater.

            It was all very well, he thought, promising to make it worth his while; but clearly she had no idea of the effort it took to call a halt to the screaming velocity of every pulse in his body.  He drummed his fingers hard on the bar counter.  Well, he had better make himself useful.  He went into the livingroom and sat down with her pack.  He sorted her laundry into two piles, lights and darks, and carried the load of lights down the hall into the utility area.  He dropped them into the washer, and poured in a cup of detergent after them.

            He was waiting for her to turn off the bath taps so that he could start the load, when the import of her words finally caught up with him:  her blend of knowledge and inexperience, her blush at Spike’s taunting, her endearing propensity to throw away the game—all these things took one weighty shape, as of a puzzle becoming a whole picture—to lead you to an overwhelming question

            “Oh dear,” Giles said softly.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 23

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth decided that this was a very appropriate occasion for using her last packet of milk-bath powder.  She filled the tub deep and stirred in the powder with her arm, then got in and settled herself in the rich opaque water.  She tugged out her ponytail holder, dropped it onto the floor next to the pile of dirty wet jeans and underwear she’d left behind, and submerged herself, to rinse the worst of the mud from her face and hair.  (Her brief glance in the mirror had made her giggle at the ridiculousness of it all.)  She came up, blowing the water from her lips and wiping her eyelashes, and leaned back to relax with her eyes closed.

            Except that she was not precisely relaxed.  Despite the luxury of the warm water (a heavenly balm after her wet, chafing clothes), Elisabeth was beginning to doubt the wisdom of separating herself from Giles long enough to take a bath:  long enough, more to the point, to think, to entertain worries, to tense up in both mind and body.  To cut herself off from the momentum that would make it easier.

            On the other hand, she had never before felt such desire and such safety at once, as if the two states were a sort of stereoscopic vision that rendered her world of loving suddenly and wondrously three-dimensional.

            She didn’t know if she’d ever be able to express any of this to him.

            She didn’t even know if she ought to try.

            A tentative knock came at the door.  Elisabeth opened her eyes.  “Yes?”

            He opened the door a few inches and stuck his face in, carefully keeping his eyes averted.  “I brought you something to put on when you get out,” he said, “and if you want to fling your wet things out here I’ll put them to soak....”

            “Rupert,” she said, smiling, “you know you may as well come in here.”

            “Oh.  Right,” he said, going pink again.  His eyes moved from the ceiling corner to her face.  After a brief hesitation he came in the rest of the way and closed the door behind him, his soft purple robe hanging over one arm.  She nodded over at the chair sitting next to the tub, with her clear-plastic pack of bath things on it; he moved toward it, draped the robe over the back, and picked up her bath bag before sitting gingerly down with it on his lap.  She looked up at his face, still smiling gently.

            “How you doing?” she asked him.

            He blinked and gave several little nods.  “I’m—I’m all right.  You?”

            She was staring at him and almost forgot to answer.  “Yes—all right, too.”

            He turned to look directly down at her, frowning; she frowned back and said, “What’s up?”

            “Elisabeth,” he said, “can I—can I ask you—?”  He stopped.  She encouraged him with a look. 

            He started over.  “When you—when you said, ‘first time out of the gate,’ did you mean, first time out of the gate with me? or did you mean...er—altogether?”  He regarded her anxiously, waiting for her answer.

            Comprehension brought the warmth to Elisabeth’s cheeks.  She heaved a sigh and sank an inch in the water.  At last she drew a long breath and confessed to the tap, dejectedly:  “I meant altogether.”

            A little silence settled on the room, except for the faint lapping of her bath water.  Then Giles cleared his throat.  “Were you never going to tell me?” he said softly.

            She looked up at him with a little grimace.  “I was...debating,” she said.

            “Well, you cut it awfully close,” he said, the first faint suggestion of pique in his tone.

            She compressed her lips, thinking, then looked up at him again.  “But does it matter?”

            “Yes,” he insisted.

            “Why?”

            “Well—physically, for one thing,” he stammered.

            She gave him a look.  “I know myself fairly well.  Do I have to explain that?”

            “I—no,” he said, raising his eyes and flushing again.

            “Then—”

            He looked back down at her, and she broke off abruptly.  “It makes a difference to me,” he said.  “It makes a difference in how I handle it.”

            “But I don’t want there to be a difference,” Elisabeth argued.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” he challenged her.

            She looked away from him and chewed her wet thumbnail.  She did not answer him at once; or at all.  He leaned back in the chair and folded his arms, staring at the side of her face, waiting.  When she couldn’t stand it anymore she gave him a reluctant glance.  “I don’t expect you to understand,” she said at last.

            His face was impassive.  “Try me,” he said.

            She waved her wet hand in a circling gesture.  “It’s like—it’s like trying to get an actor’s union card.”

            He squinted.  “What?”

            “You know,” Elisabeth said glumly.  “You have to get a gig to get a card, but you have to have a card to get a gig.”

            He was still clearly nonplussed, but judging from his face he was unwilling to say that he didn’t understand.  He frowned at her, puzzling it out.  She decided to help.  “For some people, Rupert, it’s damned difficult to get in the club of People Who’ve Done It, without selling your soul in the process.”

            This he seemed to understand.  “I see that.  I know that.  However, it doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me before.”  His eyebrows lowered in a stern expression.

            “Doesn’t it?” she said, lifting her head.  “Suppose I had told you earlier in the week, instead of leaving you to figure it out.”  She met his eyes with a glare.  “You’d have pitied me.  You wouldn’t have been so ready to give me an equal footing.  You’d certainly never have let it get this far.”  She was sitting up straighter in the tub, and as she argued she wiped a wet strand of hair from her cheek.

            “You don’t know that,” he argued back, uncrossing his arms.

            “There is a nineteenth-century streak in you a mile wide, Rupert.”

            He braced his hands on the rim of the tub and glared back at her.  “Except this isn’t about sexual politics, Elisabeth.  This is about you and me.”

            “You’re damned straight it is,” she said, with energy.

            He narrowed his eyes.  “About sexual politics?”

            “About you and me.”

            “Oh,” he said.  He let go of the tub rim and rearranged the plastic bath bag on his lap, folding his hands on top of it.  “I see.  It is about you and me.  Which means that this ‘equal footing’ you speak of lies in your not having to tell me anything about yourself, while carrying an extensive knowledge about me.”

            Elisabeth flushed.  “I didn’t say—that’s not what I meant!”

            “Isn’t it?”

            But Elisabeth had sunk back into the tub with primmed lips, quoting softly.  “That is not what I meant at all.  That is not it, at all.”

            Giles rolled his eyes.  “Would you leave Prufrock out of this?”

            But Elisabeth quoted on, almost manically, under her breath.  “Do I dare disturb the universe?  In a minute there is time, for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse—”

            “Elisabeth—”

            “Highbury bore me, Richmond and Kew undid me—”

            “Elisabeth!”

            She stopped, dropped her shoulders.  Her chin fell almost to her chest.

            There was a long silence in the bathroom, except for the faint sound of the water in the tub.  Elisabeth stared at the play of light on the white turbid water, a hot wetness gathering in her eyes.

            Giles cleared his throat gently.  “Can I ask you something?”

            His voice was soft.  Elisabeth bit her lip hard and nodded.

            And of course he asked what she knew he would.  “Can I ask why you waited so long?”

            After a moment she looked up at him; and in the anxious lines of his face she read—she had been going at him wrong, she had misunderstood—

            “You think there’s a story,” she said in a new voice.

            He waited.  She sighed, and turned her gaze again to the water.  Brought up a hand from the white depths to splash the drying skin over the bit of her breastbone that was above the water.  “The thing is,” she said to her new bruise, “there isn’t a story.  That’s what’s so humiliating.”

            “That in itself,” he said quietly, “is a story, is it not?”

            “Okay,” she granted him.  “So I’ll give you the short version.”  She spoke slowly, choosing her words.  “In high school I was naïve, and protected, and self-righteous.  In college I was on my own, and—and I figured out that I was afraid of people.  And then—in graduate school I figured out that I was even more afraid of myself.  So I bolted.  I mean, it doesn’t take experience to figure out that if you tie yourself to a person that way, you risk….Anyway, I liked my independence, and I could handle the loneliness okay.  Plus you can preempt the rejection if you stay out of the game.  So…that’s the story.  Pathetic, but not really tragic.”  She offered him a glance, then let her eyes fall back to the water.

            She couldn’t see his face, but she felt the tension in his presence ebb a little.

            “So…so what’s changed?” he asked her.

            “Well….”  She lifted her eyes.  “I’ve been to hell; and I came back.  And—…”  She raised her face to look up at him at last.  “And I like you.”

            She wondered if those two sentences were enough to explain, or if she should try again, to convey something of her new consciousness to him.  But in the end she just watched as the beginnings of a smile played at the corner of his lips.  His eyes fell to his hands, and the smile grew.  “I like you too,” he said softly.

            Elisabeth felt shaken.  She sat up in the water and held onto the rim of the tub.  It was a moment before she could speak.  “I must confess,” she said finally in a whisper, “to feeling a sense of triumph.”

            His smile grew wider, his eyes still on his hands.  “We seem to be thinking along the same lines.  While we’re being confessional, I have to say—I—  Bit of a triumph for the old man, isn’t it.”

            “I know you were never dead from the waist down,” Elisabeth said dryly.

            He broke into a sudden laugh.  Then he put his hand to his forehead and groaned.

            “And for the record,” she added, making him look up at her, “I haven’t been dead from the waist down either.”

            He smiled.  “I believe you.”  He reached forward and wiped back a strand of her hair that had dried to her forehead.  His hand lingered, tracing the round of her cheek with the blunt-soft side of his finger.  She shut her eyes and leaned like a cat into his touch.  He bent forward and down, awkwardly, so that the bath bag slipped from his lap and flapped onto the floor, and kissed her mouth lightly; testing; savoring.  She reached her wet hand up to touch his, and kissed him back.

            She was warming the water by the time he drew a long shuddering breath and pulled back.

            He was going to stand, but he paused to look at her.  “It does make a difference,” he said.

            She met his eye ruefully, honestly.  “I know.”

            Their eyes met on it for a moment.

            “Well.”  He stood achingly and replaced the bath bag on the chair for her.  “I’ll take these for you.”  He gathered her dirty clothing into a bundle under his arm and carried it with him to the door.  “I’ll start this load, and then,” he said with a wry eyeroll, “I guess I’d better go upstairs and check the expiration date on my condom supply.”  There was a touch of color in his cheeks as he said this, and a mischievous twitch in his lips.

            “And you’d best make sure they’re the right size,” Elisabeth said gravely.

            He flushed and laughed.  “So you did hear that.”

            She smiled at him with humorous pity.  “You can’t buy a break, can you, Rupert?”

            “Apparently not.”

            He had opened the door and was backing through it when she said, “Except maybe now.”

            He stopped and looked up at her, the shine growing in his eyes again and the little smile on his lips.

            “But there’s just one thing,” Elisabeth said.

            “Oh?”

            “It’s a dealbreaker.”

            “…Yes?”  He looked at her narrowly, hugging her clothing to him.

            “You don’t call me Liz.  Because that just doesn’t happen.”

            He smiled suddenly in obvious relief.  “Ah.”

            “Got it?”

            “Right.”  He paused.  “Well, then I have a condition for you.”

            “Oh?  Name it.”

            “You don’t quote me any more Eliot.”

            She started to laugh.

            “No matter how apropos he may become.”

            She stopped laughing enough to place her right hand over her bruise and lift her left hand toward God.  “I promise, no more Eliot.”

            “Thank you.”

            They shared one more little smile; and then he swept quietly out of the doorway and pulled it closed behind him.

 

*

 

She mounted the stairs, the hem of his robe trailing and flipping a few steps below her as she went.  When she entered the loft room, she gathered the excess length of the robe and let it fall straight around her feet.

            He was at the washstand in T-shirt and boxers, patting his face dry with the towel he’d taken from the rack; which was why he had not yet seen her in the mirror.  After a moment his eyes appeared above the towel and met hers in the glass.  He hung the towel and turned around.

            For several seconds she watched him try valiantly to control the twitch in his mouth.

            “It’s all right,” she said finally.  “You can laugh.”

            And at this he did smile.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I must confess that I did not foresee….”  He gestured vaguely at the folds of robe falling around Elisabeth’s feet, smiling wider; then put a fingertip to his grin.

            “Your taste must not generally run to short women,” Elisabeth said, smiling back.

            “At the moment,” he said, “my taste runs exclusively to you.”

            Which, for the moment, appeared to be all that needed to be said:  Elisabeth went still, and not even her eyes flickered, meeting his.

            He crossed the few feet between them without ado; reached to touch her, to lower his head and kiss her mouth.  She returned the touch and the kiss—minced two steps closer, to close the little distance left between them—her eyes were closed—

            There was time, oh there was time, for their kisses to linger, for his hand to cradle the back of her damp head, for her arms to find a snug hold around his waist.  When he moved his kiss inch by inch to the hollow under the angle of her jaw, she drew in a long breath.

            “You smell good,” she said.

            “Mm,” he murmured back, “I thought I’d follow your good example in the matter of personal hygiene.”

            She snorted into a laugh.  He raised his head to look her in the face, and she saw that he too was smiling.

            “God,” he said suddenly, “but it’s good to see you laugh again.”

            She closed her eyes a moment and let that soak in, smiling.  Then her eyes popped open.

            “You don’t, by any chance, think that means your mission is accomplished?”

            It was his turn to laugh.

            “Rest assured,” he said, his eyes dancing as he bent to kiss her—

            “Rest assured of what?” she teased him, several minutes later.

            “I just told you,” he said.

            “Oh right.”  She pulled his head down and kissed him again.

            His touch was just the right blend of hard and soft; it turned her own hands into quick learners: and his mouth taught hers likewise, to be an instrument of both benediction and hunger….

            His hands told her that he wanted the robe off her.  She wanted this also: but at this moment thoughts broke in, and she caught her breath and pulled back from him, to see his face again. 

            His face was very pink; she suspected hers was too.

            “Can we have the light off?” she asked him, swallowing.  “I…I want to feel my way through.”

            His eyebrows went up.  “You want the dark?” he said, hoarsely.

            “Not—not exactly—”  She turned, still in his arms, and saw the candle on his nightstand, next to the lamp.  She felt him release her so that she could go to it and open the nightstand drawer, digging for a match.  He followed close behind her.

            “Are you shy?” he asked her softly.

            “No,” she said.  “…Yes.  Not so much about myself, I mean…but a little—”

            “About me?”

            She nodded, pulling the matchbook out of the drawer and working a match loose.  “But that may change…later,” she added, giving him a half-smile over her shoulder.

            She struck the match and lit the white candle, which took on a warm glow that only increased when she turned off the bedside lamp, leaving the rest of the room in dimness.

            He was close behind her: he brushed aside her damp hair to kiss the nape of her neck, his hand stroking her arm.  “I can round up five more and my copy of Donne, if you like,” he said in her ear.

            She shut her eyes in a silent trembling laugh, and leaned back into him.  “I think this will suffice,” she whispered.

            “One candle?” he said, embracing her from behind.

            She turned to face him.  “One candle’s enough,” she said.

            He kissed her closed eyelid.  “I can at least quote you some Donne…‘Come madam come, all rest my powers defy—’”

            “‘Until I labor, I in labor lie,’” she finished.

            “Though we’re not doing much lying down as yet,” he mused.  “Think we should do something about that?”

            She leaned her head back and regarded him with a mischievous little smile.  “‘For shame, thou everlasting wooer: still saying grace, and never fall to her!’”

            He broke into a loud laugh.  “Is that Donne?” he asked her, still giggling.

            “No.”

            He kissed her; and she encouraged his roving hands with her own.  “Who is it then?” he mumbled, his mouth in the hair at her temple.

            “I forget,” she said, helping him find the belt tie of her robe and pulling it undone.  “Does it matter?”

            “Not anymore,” he said, slipping the robe from her shoulders to the floor.

 

*

 

She had anticipated difficulty.  She had anticipated fright and determent, like a cat walking a narrow parapet and finding no place to jump except into empty space.  She had anticipated it for years, so that secretly she expected never to get past it.

            As it happened, she passed that fine line of fright without even noticing it.

            With his hands and voice guiding her, she followed his touch below the surface of thought, as she had that afternoon in the training room, the day the crystals had shattered. 

            He lay back and invited her to rest upon him—

            Except that where she was going now, he was coming with her.  And not into an empty darkness, but into a warm, small darkness of their own, lighted only by the swaying candle flame, the quiet broken only by the whisper of his voice and hers.

            Oh my new world—my new found land—

            And what she gave him he laid back into her hands: and this time what she sought lay here, in the continual mutual gift and abdication of power.  Without marking it, she met him with the same boldness he measured to her, in a rhythm that grew without breaking.

            When thou knew’st what I dreamt—

            The delicious human otherness of him, guiding them seamlessly close.  The taste of the salt of his palm.  The candle flame, warping and weaving the shadows in the room, across the walls and the ceiling.  His intimate touch, the farthest thing from impersonal and miraculously free of threat.

            It was this last that raised her breath and her voice to a soft cry. 

            As lightning, or a taper’s light—

            She held him close against her.

 

*

 

It wasn’t till afterward that she could measure the impact—or the impact could measure her: she was somewhere between laughing and weeping, and nowhere near articulate speech.

            When she did open her eyes fully, it was to meet his looking down into her face; his expression was ambivalent, as if waiting for the signal to start worrying.

            She gasped into a fresh laugh even as new tears slid down her temples.

            “It’s all right,” she whispered on a breath.  And when the pained hope came into his face, she reached up and pulled his head down, so that his brow came to rest on hers.  Together they slowly regained their breath.  “It’s all right,” she said again.  “Rest on me.”

            He gave his head a little shake without quite lifting it from hers.  “You don’t want all my weight.”

            “Yes I do.”

            After a moment, she felt him acquiesce and relax heavily upon her, laying his head down; she too relaxed then and shut her eyes, laying her cheek against his hair.  His hair, especially at the nape and temples, was now damper than hers.

            Her blood cooled wherever the flushed surface of her skin met the air; and as it did so, she became aware of the near-ridiculous awkwardness of the way they were lying: it had always been awkward, she supposed, but she had been carried past it till this moment. 

            She smiled: she knew of no poet who had mentioned this.

            “John Cleveland,” she said.

            He moved, shifted upon her, turned his head over so that she could meet his eye in the candlelight.  “Who?”

            “John Cleveland.  The name of the poet.”

            “What poet?”

            “The poet I quoted to you a while ago.”

            “What poet?”

            They grinned together.

            He shut his eyes.  “I’m sorry, love, but I can’t answer for anything we said after you came in here wearing my robe….”  He shook both of them with a silent chuckle.

            “That,” she said, “is as it should be.”

            They were silent again, except for their breathing.

            “Okay—” she said after a long moment.

            “Yes?”

            “—now my extremities are going numb.”

            “I told you.”

            “It was worth it.”

            He plied the strength of his arms to arrange them so that she lay alongside him.  “Better?”

            “Yes.”

            Again there was silence between them, as of banqueters resting before a fire.  Which, Elisabeth thought, in a sense they were—they had fed one another with themselves, and were both well pleased.

            A small shiver began in the muscles of her limbs: it spread, gradually, to the pit of her stomach, so that she was soon shaking visibly in his arms.

            He moved his head, but with her head tucked under his chin, he was in no position to look at her.  “Are you cold?” he asked her.

            She was chewing her tongue to stop her teeth from chattering.  “No,” she answered, controlling a hard shudder.  “It’s not cold, it’s reaction.  It’ll pass.”

            The only way to get it to pass was to relax into it, that she knew; so she sighed heavily and tucked her head deeper under his chin to wait.

            Presently she said:  “I can feel you worrying.  Stop it.”

            He made no answer except to let out a pent-up breath and attempt to relax with her.

            “And anyway,” she added, “it’s not so much the sex as it is the self-disclosure.”

            As soon as she said this, it seemed to her that it had been unnecessary, for he nodded without asking questions and gathered her a little closer.  “You know,” she said.

            “I know,” he said.

            She shut her eyes, and they relaxed together.  Gradually her shivering dissipated under their mutual touch.

            After a long moment she lifted her head and tilted it back to look at him.  “Do you want some tea?”

            “Tea sounds wonderful,” he murmured.

            “I’ll go down and make it,” she said.  She extricated herself gingerly from him, wincing, and rolled over to sit on the edge of the bed.  She bent to lift his robe from the floor, turning on the lamp as she did so.  “I don’t know about this robe,” she said.  “If I come up here carrying cups of tea, I’ll probably trip over the hem.” 

            He chuckled.

            She sighed deeply.  “Guess I’ll have to dig around for some of my own things from downstairs.”  She made as if to rise from the bed.

            “You can’t,” he said.

            “Can’t?”  She stopped and glanced round at him.  “Why not?”

            “Because I put all your clothing in the wash.”

            At this she really did turn round to look at him.  “All my clothing?” she said.  “I hope you separated them properly.”

            “Oh, I did,” he said, smiling.  “The second load is in the washing machine now.”

            She regarded his innocent look with a sardonic smile.  “Well, well, well.  You are a devious man, aren’t you?”

            “Devious?” he repeated, still innocent.

            “Yes.”  She stood and went to his dresser.  “Very well, then, I’ll put on something of yours.”

            His eyes followed her wistfully across the room.  “Must you?”

            She smiled over her shoulder for answer, then bent to dig in his drawers, finally unearthing a T-shirt which she pulled unceremoniously over her head.  The hem of the T-shirt fell to mid-thigh.  “I’ll be back in a bit,” she told him, and disappeared out of the room and down the stairs before the little smile could fade from his face.

 

*

 

With a cup of fully brewed and doctored tea in each hand, Elisabeth mounted the stairs for the second time that evening, going slowly to avoid spillage, and reentered Giles’s room.

            What she saw there made her laugh all over again.

            He had cleaned himself up; donned his own robe and his glasses; straightened the bedclothes; and wonder of wonders, rounded up a cluster of candles that stood burning on every level surface in the room.

            Elisabeth counted the little flames with her nose.  “There’s more than six here,” she said, still grinning.

            He shrugged, his eyes twinkling from over his glass-rims. 

            “A lot more than six,” she said, handing him his cup and (holding her own cup carefully high) crawling into the bed to snuggle alongside him.  His arm went round her shoulders as he drew his first sip.

            “Did I make it right?”

            “Yes,” he said, sipping again.

            “Good.”  She blew on the surface of her own tea and tasted it; the hot steam spiraled back and tickled her nose.

            For a while they said nothing, but sat together and sipped lightly at their tea without any need for commentary.  His hand stroked her hair with an absent affection, occasionally waking to caress her neck and shoulder.  Occasionally she tipped her head a little to rest lightly on his breast, taking in his scent.  “Beats the cigarette,” she said once, burying her nose in her teacup.

            “Mm?” he said.  “What beats the cigarette?”

            “Tea.  An afterwards cup of tea.”

            “Yes,” he said, “it does beat the cigarette.”  He chuckled and buried his face briefly in her hair.

            She was nearly finished with her cup.  She lowered it to her lap and nestled her head under his chin, letting her eyes fall closed for a moment.  The warm amber light of the many candles danced behind her eyelids.

            “Are you finished?”  His voice was as warm as the candlelight, magnified in his chest under her ear.  She opened her eyes.

            “Oh—yes.  Here.  I’ll take them.”  She took his empty cup, nested it carefully in hers, and scooted across the bed to the night table.  She nudged a space for the cups among the candles, turned back, and found him staring at her.

            “God, but you’re a beautiful woman,” he said.

            She stopped where she was, half-kneeling facing him, and her eyes went wide.

            “I am?” she said faintly.

            His lips moved, perhaps to smile; his eyes were as warm as his voice, shining over the glint of candlelight on his glasses.  “Don’t you know?” he said.

            She tried to frame an honest answer.  “I’ve been told that before,” she said finally.

            “But you don’t believe it.”

            “Well...it isn’t disbelief exactly; more like...it just doesn’t seem quite real.  Plus,” she added, her mouth going wry despite herself, “there always seemed to be some kind of agenda attached to the compliment.  Like, you know, to dial up my self-esteem, or—well, something else.”

            “Something else,” he repeated, with a wry smile to match hers.

            “Yeah.  But,” she said, more cheerfully, “there’s no way you could have that agenda.”  She reached out and touched the tip of his nose playfully.  “I’ve seen to that.”

            “Yes,” he said smiling, “you have.”

            “And—you haven’t tried to tell me I’m flawless or anything like that.”

            “No,” he said thoughtfully, “not flawless.  Something else.”

            “Something else?” she repeated.

            “Yes.”  He cocked his head and surveyed her face with a little, affectionate squint.  “I’m trying to think how to put it.”

            She waited while he searched her face with his eyes, until his mouth moved to speak his evolving thought.  “You’re like…you’re like a medieval illumination,” he said.  “Earthy, not ethereal…rich in color—lively, full of movement—detailed, especially in the eyes.”  He stopped, and smiled dryly, casting his eyes down to his lap.  “That’s probably not a very flattering compliment,” he said with a little laugh, and raised his eyes again.  “But it’s the best an old librarian can do….”  He went still, looking at her face.

            She was sitting on her heels, unmoving, her brimming eyes bright in the light of the candles.  She swallowed hard a few times, and drew a long visible breath before she could speak.  “Thank you,” she said in a whisper.  She crawled forward and curled up with him, her face buried safely under his chin, her hands honest and soft conforming to the flesh under his robe.  He put his arms around her and shut his eyes.

            After a time she moved, disturbing his stillness.  “I owe you,” she murmured.

            His eyes popped open.  “No you don’t,” he said, scandalized.

            “I mean,” she said, “because I said I would make it worth your while for waiting.”  She sat up enough to look at him.  Her hand moved in a proprietary caress over the soft fabric of his robe.

            “Well, that you have,” he said, a grin teasing at his mouth.

            “Mmm,” she said, “I had something rather more specific in mind.”

            “Oh?”  He looked unsure whether to be gleeful or nervous.

            “Yes,” she said, “I had the idea during the patrol.  I planned to give you a proper massage as a means of seducing you.  But,” she continued with a grin, straightening the fold of the robe at his neck, “you met me half way on that, so it proved to be unnecessary.”  She leaned forward and dropped a kiss on his smiling lips.

            “Oh,” he said, his tone much changed.

            “Then,” she said, “I decided to do it to reward you for waiting while I had my bath.  But, you tell me, I’ve already rewarded you for that.  So,” she concluded with a mock-sad sigh, “I guess I won’t be needing to massage you after all.”

            “Oh—but—now—”  Giles stopped, tried a different tack.  “I did get this terrible crick in my neck when that vampire knocked me down….”

            She was smiling, her head cocked at a teasing angle.

            “Do you have any aromatic oils?” she said finally.

            As a matter of fact, Giles did.  He directed her to one of the top drawers in his dresser, where a small box of dropper-capped bottles reposed (slightly coated with dust), along with two slightly bigger squeeze bottles of carrier oil.  Elisabeth sniffed lightly at each of the bottles, deliberating; but when she came to the bottle of jasmine essence her search was over.

            She arranged him, his robe and glasses removed, on his stomach with a pillow gathered in his arms under his chin; then got onto the bed herself, holding her newly-prepared jasmine oil in one hand.  She found a seat on his backside and settled herself in comfortably.  He uttered a low purr.  “I haven’t even started yet,” she said with a smile.

            But she did start, without ado, beginning in long strokes along his back, followed by a gentle kneading.  Something in her touch drew a small shudder through his body, followed by a prickling of gooseflesh over his skin like a gust of rain over a puddle.  She smoothed her hands over it, and as the oil warmed between her hands and his flesh the goosebumps melted.

            She had planned this as a gentle ministry—her fingertips strong under her weight, digging into the fiber of his muscles—but she had not quite been prepared for its effect upon herself.  But gradually she became aware of the heat in her hands as a reflection of something glowing, growing in warmth within her.  She removed one hand from his skin, added more oil to her other hand, moved on; let it gather as it would, meeting it lightly with a sense of delight.  When he made a little noise, a plaint of gratitude, she breathed it in as gratitude of her own.

            She felt an urge to hurry the last strokes, to get to the part that was coming next; but she held herself deliberately back, so as to finish the work she had begun.  And this was good, as it only increased his pliability and her warmth.  By the time she had turned him over, to sit half-propped on pillows with her straddling him, his eyes were glowing, and so were hers.

            She found the hem of her T-shirt and pulled it over her head, dropping it off the side of the bed somewhere.  His hands, not primed by oil and work as hers were, slipped up to steady her hips.  She smiled and bent to kiss him.

            “My turn now,” she murmured, just before her lips touched his.

 

*

 

Afterwards, she sighed and collapsed gently against him, like a tired child.  He let out a soft breath and let his hands arch gently over her spine, supporting her.  He felt like a tired child too.

            He shut his eyes comfortably; and they went still together, except for his breathing and hers.  It would be so very inadvisable to fall asleep like this, their bodies cooling and sticking together, her form and weight growing awkward curled around him like a caterpillar that had chosen its twig for becoming a chrysalis….He moved one hand along her spine, soothing her unnecessarily, eyes still closed.  It would be most inadvisable to fall asleep like this.

            Presently she lifted her head.  “I’m hungry,” she said.

            He opened his eyes.  “Hungry?”

            “Yes,” she said.  “Are you?”

            He thought about it.  “Maybe a little.”

            “I was thinking about raiding the fridge and eating the rest of the pizza.”

            “It’s been done before,” he said gravely.

            She smiled.

            So they went downstairs, dropping from step to step lazily, Giles belting his robe around him, Elisabeth back in the T-shirt and wearing a pair of his sweatpants, the bottoms rolled up in ridiculous balls and the waist turned over and over.  They had had fun blowing out all the candles (“Make a—I guess you don’t do that in this dimension,” Elisabeth said.  “Not out loud, anyway,” Giles said); and nearly as much fun straightening the bed together.

            She thumped down the last few steps and made a little groan.  “I am so going to feel all of this in the morning,” she said, making his grin slide wickedly for a moment.

            Elisabeth decided she wanted to eat the pizza cold.  She halved one of the slices for Giles and sat down with the rest loaded onto a napkin at the table, and ate voraciously.  She looked up halfway through the second piece to catch him watching her with open admiration.  “I guess you really were hungry,” he said.

            “Researching—slaying—losing my virginity—I’ve been working hard,” Elisabeth said, swallowing a mouthful. 

            She had said it to win another smile from him, and it did, but the smile was short-lived.  She could see him reverting, albeit regretfully, to Giles the Second-Guesser—mind feeling the edges of every horizon, tentative, calculating, cautious.  The lines under his eyes were more pronounced than she had ever seen them, and it startled her to realize that what had energized her almost past expression had worn him out.

            “You’re so tired,” she said to him, with a little smile.

            He shook his head quickly.  “No.”

            “Yes you are.”  She got up from her seat and went to him, sitting across the table from her. 

            “No, really,” he said, slipping his hands around her waist as she laid hers on his shoulders.

            “You should go on and go to bed,” she told him.  “I’m really, really wired, and there’s no way I’ll be getting to sleep any time soon.”

            “I’m not tired enough to go to bed,” he said, his Adam’s apple sliding down as he swallowed a yawn.

            She laughed.  “Rupert—you don’t have to prove anything to me.  You should go to bed and get some sleep.  You’ve earned it.”

            He met her eyes finally and ventured, “You really wouldn’t mind?”

            “No.  I really wouldn’t.”  She bent and kissed him lightly, then let go of him.

            “Very well, then….”  He stood achingly and kissed her goodnight; and she stayed where she was briefly to watch him mount the steps to the loft bedroom.  As she sat down to finish her pizza, she saw the lamp go out, and heard the faint creak of the bed as he got into it.

            She hadn’t been lying to him: she was wired.  After finishing off the pizza she cleaned up her mess and began to pace the livingroom slowly, meditatively.  She was wired, and stirred up, and aching in all sorts of new places, literal places.  Giles’s sweatpants were quite ridiculous on her frame; her ankles, bulked by the rolled volume of fleece, brushed together as she walked.  This is the sort of thing you don’t dream, she thought to herself as she skimmed a hand over the top of his couch—her bed for this past week.  You don’t dream rolled-up sweatpants and you don’t dream about sex that doesn’t go wrong or abort itself in some way.

            With her hand still out as if to confirm the reality of everything in his flat, she passed his desk, upon which still lay the ancient book they’d consulted earlier, the cloth bookmark hanging limply from between the thick pages.  The book of her destiny, in a language she didn’t know.  Tentatively she reached out and touched the seal on the front cover, a complicated sigil, one that could look ominous or noble in an instant.  She wondered what it meant.

            Without pausing to do more than brush the surface of that thought, she moved on to the window next to the mantelpiece, insinuated herself between the curtains, and looked out on the neighborhood.  Giles’s previous girlfriend, Olivia, had looked out this same window and received the fright of her life.  Elisabeth waited stolidly for a grisly monster to show its pallid face; but the night remained quiet and commonplace.

            She leaned forward to let her face rest against the glass.  It was just cold enough that at her touch condensation spread across the pane, radiating from her face and turning the streetlights misty.  Elisabeth looked out on this world that was not her own, and knew herself to be afraid: not with the racing pulse and shoehorned breath, but with a steady knowledge, that would not change moment to moment. 

            She stood there a long time, so long that a new ache gathered between her shoulder blades; then she rose silently and backed out of the little world behind the curtains, into the quiet livingroom.  From the kitchen the clock ticked faintly, familiarly.  She reached out and turned off the one Tiffany lamp still burning; stood for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the darkness, and padded quietly up the stairs to the loft bedroom.

            She could tell by the sound of his breathing that he was asleep.  She worked the sweatpants down and let them drop to the floor, then reached for the covers and lifted them to get in.

            It woke him, but not completely.  He gave a snort, and a snuffle:  “Wha—?”  In the darkness she saw his hand come up, ready to defend himself.

            “Shh! it’s okay, it’s just me,” she whispered.

            He relaxed with a faint moan of relief, and perhaps a little irritation.  But nonetheless he moved the hand he’d raised to welcome her in; and when she’d gotten under the covers with him he drew her close, with a languid, not forcible, touch.  Obligingly she nestled close to him and pillowed her head on his chest.  He had gone back to the T-shirt and boxers, she found.  He let out a long sigh, returning toward sleep.

            Under her ear she could hear his breath, and, more definitely, the strong thud of his heart.  She didn’t like it; she could remember a number of times, even from back in her childhood in her father’s arms, that she had shied away from holding a person close enough to hear the sound of their heart.  She could remember thinking that hearing it was too close to hearing it stop: too close to the sacred, fearful nexus between life and death.

            “You all right?” he murmured, and she realized that he was no longer falling asleep, that he was lying quietly attuned to her rigid stillness.

            She made herself relax before she answered with a silent nod.

            “…Yes,” she added, belatedly.

            His heart was still beating under her ear, and she was still afraid.

            He moved his hand, to stroke her once; then he sighed again and lay still.  Under her ear his heartbeat and breathing slowed and became regular.  And gradually she relaxed.

            Sleep crept up on her, and she dreamed:  she was in a garden, in a manuscript, with illuminations that had come to life, and she among them, one of them, dancing in colorful cloaks and jerkins and hats with feathers, red and blue and gold and green, dancing to the edge of a page, and suddenly she was stopped blindly at the precipice of the margin:  “Rupert,” she said, and he said, “I’m right here.” —and though he did not say it, he may as well have: she was going to have to jump.

            She had nearly resigned herself when the dream dissolved, and she fell even deeper asleep, resting.

            Waiting.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 24

by L. Inman

 

In the morning Elisabeth’s quiet sleep was broken gently by a familiar hand stroking her arm.  She stirred and drew a deep breath without opening her eyes.  Her body was lost in a deep, warm languor which, so far, nobody was demanding she leave immediately.

            “Time to wake up,” a familiar voice said.

            She groaned, and moved to turn over and corner her face in the back of the couch; Giles would have a very difficult time digging her out of there.  She moved her left hand to meet the hard upholstery at her right, but it kept moving in empty space.  Come to think of it, the nest she’d made was strangely soft; her left hand touched down finally in plush fabric, far from her body in a delicious expanse of room.  Like a bed.

            She relaxed, without trying to complete the turn onto her side, and blinked her eyes open a fraction.  She saw, in the daylight streaming in at the window, her own arm and hand resting in the soft blankets of his bed.  She shut her eyes again and turned back onto her back, a little smile creeping up in her mouth.

            “You waking up?” he said.

            She smiled wider.  “I wasn’t dreaming,” she murmured.

            “No,” he agreed, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

            She opened her eyes, blinking slowly, and took him in:  he was sitting on the side of the bed, fully dressed in corduroys and a sweater (dark red this time), smiling quietly down at her, his hand still resting on the covers over her waist.

            “There’s tea,” he said.

            She drew in another luxurious breath.  “Tea?”

            He indicated the cup and saucer he had set down on the nightstand beside her.  He had removed the extra candles to make room for both it and the books, which had been pushed nearly off the nightstand during the previous night’s proceedings.  The small tower of books still leaned drunkenly toward the wall behind the nightstand.

            Elisabeth pushed herself up slowly into a sitting position and reached for the cup and saucer, pausing to nudge the books back into stability.  When she was satisfied they wouldn’t fall, she turned and found him holding the tea out to her.  She took both cup and saucer and settled back against the pillows to sip it, looking at him over the rim as she did so.

            The tea, of course, was perfect.  Elisabeth let the hand holding the saucer drop slowly to her lap as she took in both the taste and scent of the hot tea.  He watched her silently.  Minutes passed; and Elisabeth marveled to herself at the small miracle of the sunlight, the tea, and her friend sitting before her, watching her come awake as if he could think of nothing at all better to do.  She lifted her eyes to meet his, and smiled.

            “Good morning,” she said.

            His mobile face changed to an expression somewhere between pleasure and question.  “I hope you are well,” he said.

            She let her eyes go unfocused and took mental stock of herself.  “Pretty good,” she said finally, offering him a grin.

            “Your bruise is healing nicely,” he said, reaching out almost to touch her left cheek.

            She set the saucer down on the comforter to peer down the front of her borrowed T-shirt.  “This one looks worse,” she said, cheerfully.

            “Only to be expected,” he murmured.

            She let the neck of the shirt fall and picked up the saucer again, lifting it and the teacup for another sip.  “How are you?” she asked him.

            He smiled.  “Very well, thank you.”

            She made a rueful mouth at him.  “Well, Willow said I’d have to do something majorly drastic to get you to sleep in.  Looks like I wasn’t quite successful.”

            “You were,” he said.  “I’ve only been awake three-quarters of an hour.”

            “What time is it?” 

            He turned his watch over on his right wrist.  “It’s close to half-past eight.  I called Willow and she should be coming over in about half an hour to plan the spell.”

            Elisabeth nodded and downed the rest of her tea.  “I need to get dressed.”

            “That was the plan,” Giles said with a smile.  “I’ve brought you some of your clothing.”  He indicated a small pile of her clothes on the foot of the bed behind him.

            Elisabeth grunted; she handed the cup and saucer to him, and he rose, leaving her to pick through the pile of clothing and begin to dress.

            It was all there—olive-colored T-shirt, bra, underwear, and frayed khakis, all neatly folded.  She sniffed the fabric; he had not applied lavender water to her clothing, but he had used fabric softener—her clothes were agreeably soft.

            She pulled the borrowed T-shirt over her head and slipped off the bed to stand, shivering slightly, in the silence of the bedroom.  It had been a while since she had stood quietly naked in daylight, without hurrying to cover herself.  Feeling slightly silly, she nevertheless indulged the impulse to examine her own body as if with another’s eyes:  pink, healthy palms, uncallused; tapering fingers, small and strong; narrow childlike wrists—and downward, over the pale skin of her arms, breasts (that bruise had turned a frightening blackberry color), belly, and thighs—down at last to her bony feet.  It all looked the same, except of course for the bruise.  A sedentary body, somehow curvy and scrawny at once, like a stray kitten.  And still, oddly, all hers.  Funny.  Elisabeth would have thought otherwise.

            She reached for her clothing and got dressed, her lips in a meditative pout, and thumped slowly down the stairs, still thinking it over.  She went to the chair that had become hers at the table and plopped down in it, swinging her bare feet a few times over the rug.  Without discourse Giles came out of the kitchen with a skillet and unloaded a mass of scrambled eggs onto her plate, then moved to his own.  The next time he came out he set down a plate of buttered toast and the salt and pepper shakers.  He came out a final time with two glasses and a pitcher of orange juice; Elisabeth had already got to work loading a piece of toast with eggs and dusting it with salt and pepper.  She had dug in hungrily by the time Giles had poured them each a glass of juice and sat down to his own plate.

            For a long while there was silence in the flat, except for the sound of their forks and cups and quiet chewing.

            Elisabeth was still thinking.  They were still each their own, then.  This was all to the good.  Her eyes flicked over to the erstwhile-forbidden book, which was now open to the marked page, the bookmark curled limply on the desk next to it.  If all went as planned, that book would send her home by midnight tonight.  She would go home, and live through whatever had happened to her home-self in that earthquake.  She suspected her home-self had been knocked out à la Watcher-off-his-guard: her shadow had been awfully quiet lately since the disastrous meditation experiment, had surfaced only in dreams—in fact, hadn’t even seen fit to make itself felt during the lovemaking last night, a time when surely her two selves would have made some contact across dimensional lines if ever. 

            Unless they had made contact, and she hadn’t noticed.  Would that be a good sign?  It might mean that the integration would be easier come time they did the spell.  But then again, it might mean that her Sunnydale-self was growing too strong.  Bother these split-self things! Elisabeth thought.  It’s as bad as interpreting prophecies made about Angel.

            A voice threaded into her consciousness, and she realized with a start that Giles was speaking to her.

            “Oh! I’m fine,” she said.

            “I asked if the eggs were to your liking,” Giles said gently.

            “Oh.  Yes, they’re very good.”  Elisabeth looked down at her plate and realized that she’d been holding up her piece of toast without eating it so long that it was threatening to droop out of her fingers altogether.  She took another bite.  “Quite good,” she said around the mouthful.

            He nodded, with no other reply except a speculative look, and Elisabeth’s eyes drifted past him again to the open book.  This time, however, she took care to keep eating.

            If her Sunnydale-self was the strong one, what would it do in her home world?  Would it wither up and let the home-self take over?  Or would it make her more competent in the dimension of her birth?  Would what she had learned here make any difference there?  Would—Elisabeth swallowed a glut of egg with difficulty—would a meditation back home result in a howling nothingness, now that she had learned something?  It occurred to Elisabeth that she may after all have had mixed motives for sleeping with Giles.  Or—to get down to the bottom of it—not mixed motives, but mixed understandings of who she was.  Surely she wasn’t just a garden-variety undine, unable to have a mortal soul unless she—what was it—slept with, or bore a child to, a mortal man?  She shuddered inwardly.  Bad thought.  These patriarchal fairy-tales tended to have the last laugh.  There was a reason they were called the dominant fiction.  And fiction, Elisabeth had known almost since the cradle, was truer than the empirical fact.

            But fiction, she reminded herself, was a synthesis of imagination and experience, and even if her imagination ran away with her, her experience was telling her that the difference in her between last night and this morning was not at all the same sort one would expect in an undine.  She had no more great assurance, one way or the other, of having a whole self this morning than she had yesterday morning.  And didn’t other humans talk of the same uneasiness, the same suspicion of unwholeness—Pascal’s God-shaped hole, reduced in these times of agnosticism to the hole shaped only like Angst—?

            A knock at the door scattered Elisabeth’s rabbit-chasing thoughts; the last bit of egg plopped off her toast to the plate with a small, dull smack.  Giles got up to answer the door.

            “Hi guys,” Willow said cheerfully, heaving a heavy backpack into the flat with her.  Giles shut the door on the dazzling sunlight.  “Here I am with books and herbs and candles galore.”

            “Have you had breakfast?” Giles inquired.  “I can make you an egg too.”

            Willow shook her head.  “I ate already.”

            “All right.  In that case,” Giles said, “I’ll do the washing-up while you and Elisabeth set up the table.”

            “Okey-dokey.”  Willow waited till Giles had removed his own place-setting before hauling the backpack off her shoulder and thumping it onto the table.  Elisabeth made a move to rise with her own plate, but he had come back in for it before she could take it to him.  “Thank you,” she said, handing it over to him with a little mischievous smile.  He curbed a grin in response and disappeared with her plate and juice-glass. 

            Willow began taking books and candles and packs of herbs out of her backpack, glancing furtively at Elisabeth; but she waited to speak until Giles had started the dishes.  She sat down next to Elisabeth at the table and said quietly, under the cover of the running water:

            “So...how’s everything going?  You guys...okay?”  She waved a hand back and forth, as if to indicate communication.

            Elisabeth regarded her with an amused smile.  She wondered how aloof it was polite to be in such situations.  “We’re fine,” she said.

            “So—” Willow pressed on, with the fine and transparent nonchalance of a young cat stealing a tidbit from the table— “did everything...go okay last night?  I mean—”  She waved her hand again and gave Elisabeth a wide-eyed significant look.  “I mean...between the two of you.”

            Elisabeth sucked in her growing smile and looked back through the bar window, at Giles’s back.  He was humming casually, a tune that eluded Elisabeth’s recognition, occasionally murmuring a few of the words under his breath as he splashed in the sink, scrubbing the frying-pan.  She looked back at Willow dryly, without saying a word.

            Willow’s mouth twitched into a smile.  “Well, obviously,” she said, and lowered her voice even more for the next words, “he’s happy.  But—”

            Elisabeth raised her eyebrows and waited.  Giles’s voice, behind her, broke into full song for a few bars as he applied a rough sponge to the skillet.

            “I mean,” Willow said in a whisper, “are you okay?  Tara said—” she broke off and snatched a look at Giles’s back— “Tara said you hadn’t, you know—”

            Elisabeth stared at her; then she leaned her head back and rolled her eyes.  “Of course; Tara got a full reading from me.  I must have been screaming it.”  She returned her eyes to Willow’s face.  “I’m fine,” she said.  “I’m even...” she smiled— “pretty good.”

            Giles had gone back to humming: his voice grew even thinner and more pleasant, like Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, Elisabeth thought; and altogether too casual, though not so much as to belie the real cheer beneath his tone.

            Willow was looking at him suspiciously too, but when she turned to Elisabeth again it seemed she had other thoughts on her mind.  “Does he—does he know?”

            “Oh—you mean—about me?  Yes,” Elisabeth said, flushing, “I told him...beforehand.  He didn’t like it.”  Her mouth twisted ruefully.  “But it proved not to be an insuperable obstacle.”

            Willow shook her head smilingly at Elisabeth’s heightened diction.  Then her look grew serious.  “You don’t think it’ll make—complications?”

            “What,” Elisabeth said, conscious that she had gone very pink, “that I might be lovestruck by the new experience?  I think we’re safe.  It was purely a friendly thing.”

            “Well, no...I meant complications in the spell.  But while we’re on the subject—” Willow pointed a mock-serious finger at Elisabeth’s face— “you’d better not break his heart, or you’ll have me to answer to.”

            Elisabeth laughed appropriately, but checked herself after a moment; she knew Willow wasn’t kidding.

            The water in the kitchen shut off; after a few moments Giles returned to them, wiping his hands on a dishcloth, which he hung on the back of his chair before going to retrieve the book on his desk.  “So,” he said, “where are we?”

            “We’re at the pulling-books-out-of-my-backpack stage,” Willow said, brightly.

            “Har, har,” Giles said, with a little smile as he sat down and made room on the table for the big book.  Willow finished the task she had abandoned to speak to Elisabeth, and Elisabeth helped shunt the candles and herbs to one side to make room for Willow to open her books to the places she’d marked.  “I’ve got three sources for transdimensional spells,” she said, “two of which are specific to the dimension.  What’ve you got?”

            “A binding spell,” Giles said, “with which to bring together Elisabeth’s two selves in the presence of a dimensional portal.”  He explained his idea to Willow in more detail, some of which lost Elisabeth.  She tried to pay close attention anyway. 

            “But,” Willow said, running her finger down the page of the big book, “what words are we going to use for this?”

            “The words that make up Elisabeth’s identity,” Giles explained.  “Her name, and if necessary, whatever she can remember from her missing possessions.”

            Elisabeth got up and retrieved her notebook from her backpack.  She sat back down at the table flipping through it.  Giles and Willow, making notes, looked at her only once each.  They were discussing the order in which to do the two spells: it seemed the logical thing was to do the binding spell first, so that when they prayed to open a portal, the portal would (they hoped) by default be the one between Elisabeth’s home dimension and theirs.

            “I think,” Willow said, “that if that works, then we can use this generic portal spell, plus a chant modified from one of these for the circle.  And cross our fingers.”

            “So,” Elisabeth said, looking up in amusement from her nearly-empty notebook, “you just change the Collect for the service?”

            Willow gave her a quizzical look. 

            Giles snorted.

            “O God, the King of glory,” he intoned, “who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven:  We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.”

            “Amen,” Elisabeth said.

            “Elisabeth,” Giles said to Willow, “is making an obscure joke.”

            “Obscure?” Elisabeth grinned.  “I’m not the one making mischievous quotes from the Book of Common Prayer from memory, to the detriment of my apostate soul.”

            Giles ducked his head and laughed.

            “Hello, tangent police,” Willow said.  “We still need to make the diagram.”

            Giles cleared his throat; Elisabeth dropped her eyes to the empty pages of her notebook, and work was resumed.

            Elisabeth had forgotten how much writing she had done in this notebook; now that she had lost all of it except for her abortive sonnet, she could see how much volume of blank expanse she had actually filled day to day in the past year.  She wished she could remember some of her work in manuscript, but the image of her own handwriting was obliterated in her mind’s eye; she could manage to discern a whisper of coherence here and there, but not so much as a word presented itself in a definite form.  She sighed, and turned to the lonely page of her messy bus-joggled lines, covered with her own editor’s marks.

            Harriet Vane, in Gaudy Night, had written half a sonnet, and Lord Peter her love had written the other half.  Elisabeth didn’t see a Lord Peter surfacing to finish this one for her; if she was going to make anything of it she would have to work it out herself.  Unless, of course, Giles—

            Elisabeth studied Giles thoughtfully: head bent with Willow’s over a sheet of scratch paper, he didn’t look at all like the sort to finish sonnets.  His creative force was not writerly, but—Elisabeth put her head on one side, trying to think what his creative force was.  Nurturing, perhaps; the obverse of guardianship.  And of course there was the singing.  But none of these seemed to get to the bottom of him.  Elisabeth was unaccountably pleased to find him so complex, though she knew that the deeper shades of his character were likely of a far more somber hue than he usually presented to the world.  She resolved to put The Art of War on her immediate reading list.  The if-she-survived-past-midnight reading list, that is.

            Meanwhile she had a sonnet to write.  She turned to a fresh page in the notebook and copied out the first few lines, the ones she liked the best.  They had come with a stray image, a sense-memory of winter: a Midwestern winter, not a SoCal winter, complete with long, low slate-grey skies, the middays nearly as saturnian as the evenings.  This was where she had come from; but where she was going was anyone’s guess.

 

Footstep, footstep, one before the next;

Walls to walls, and walls to walls again;

A glimpse of sky, a glimpse of honest text

 

Honest text.  Elisabeth remembered the first time she had tried to write a sonnet, clumsily chanting rhythms under her breath and laboriously working out abab bcbc cdcd ee—not, as she recalled, entirely successful, but workmanlike, like something made in shop class.  She had not known then the meaning of octave and sestet, stress-shift and enjambment: it had taken Shakespeare, Spenser, Drayton, and Donne to teach her those.  And Wyatt...Whoso list to hunt I know where is an hinde

            She was getting off track again.  The sonnet before her was not an apostrophe to the vagaries of courtly love, it was winter, and Saturn, and if love had any place in it, it would be as a passing mention, an optical illusion that made you think the surface was closer to hand—

 

A glimpse of love, glasses speckled with rain.

 

She had gone AWOL from her glasses again.  Never mind.

            “Don’t complete that circle,” Giles warned Willow, anxiously.

            Willow gave him a look:  How dumb do you think I am? and went back to filling in symbols on their diagram of the spell.

            She knew where she’d come from; where was she going?

 

From room to room, from word to word abstain

From solitude

 

She had worked hard to follow Giles’s tacit advice, to let go of her desire to remain a shadow, but it was hard not to want to skulk.

 

From solitude and from all others’ eyes;

To pages, as though pages could attain

The hard world’s labyrinthine qualities;

 

(Five candles and bad poetry.  Or six, and John Donne.)  From where to where? Elisabeth asked herself. 

 

To confrontation with legion demands,

To reveries, and strange unpleasant dreams

 

She was losing the winter.

 

To fumbling keys in cold, wind-battered hands,

To shaping and reshaping former schemes.

 

The question was the answer.  The question was always the answer.  Dammit.  Elisabeth recopied the lines afresh on a clean sheet, and added a rueful couplet, turning the whole thing into a toast.

 

Footstep, footstep, one before the next;

Walls to walls, and walls to walls again;

A glimpse of sky, a glimpse of honest text;

A glimpse of love, glasses speckled with rain.

From room to room, from word to word abstain

From solitude and from all others’ eyes;

To pages, as though pages could attain

The hard world’s labyrinthine qualities;

To confrontation with legion demands,

To reveries, and strange unpleasant dreams,

To fumbling keys in cold, wind-battered hands,

To shaping and reshaping former schemes.

One lifts a glass in toast to living—losing—

One drinks, knowing the complexity of choosing.

 

Elisabeth wasn’t really satisfied with it, but she knew it was done, as one senses the moment at which a sketch is about to become a fully-fledged bad drawing.  The line about love was terribly cheesy, she thought, and the meter had a trace of unbecoming cant.  She stuck a title over the top of it—“Not Getting the Memo”—to announce her verdict of the sonnet below, and shut the notebook on it.

            Giles looked up.  “Have you managed to tease any more words out of the ether?” he asked her.

            Elisabeth shook her head.

            “You know?” Willow said, a germ of fresh excitement in her voice, “I don’t think she’d need to.  Once the spell starts, her other self could bring them.”  She scribbled on the page.  “We set the terms of progression, and ask it to finish itself.”

            “If we can get my home-self to cooperate,” Elisabeth said.  She had not meant it to sound that skeptical.  “I mean,” she amended, “seeing how she’s gone quiet for the most part.”

            Willow exchanged a look with Giles; when she turned to Elisabeth again her expression was that of the bearer of bad news.  Elisabeth decided to spare her.

            “Well, if the spell works, there are two major possibilities, right?” she said blandly.  “One is, I come out of the spell integrated and alive, either here or there.  The other is, I come out integrated but dead, here or there.  Or—” a new thought occurred to her— “integrated in some other dimension entirely.  Let’s hope it’s not one where humans are cattle and slaves.”  She had meant that last as a joke, but neither of the others laughed.

            There was a silence.  Elisabeth broke it impatiently:  “I have thought this out, you know.  I’m going into this with a philosophy two parts Julian of Norwich and one part chaos theory.  Don’t worry about me.”

            Willow pressed her lips together, her gaze still searching Elisabeth’s face.

            Giles was the first to come to himself.  “Right,” he said to Elisabeth.  To Willow, he said:  “If you’ll show this diagram to Tara, the two of you can begin putting together what we’ll need.  Get Anya to let you into the back of the shop and start setting up before it’s time.  We will meet you all there tonight after dark.”

            Willow nodded and began putting books back into her backpack.  “One good thing,” she said, with an attempt at cheer, “we’re learning a lot about transdimensional spells.  That ought to come in handy.”

            “I would think,” Elisabeth said.  Giles’s eyes flashed to hers over Willow’s bent red head.

 

*

 

Once Willow had gone, Giles and Elisabeth each chose a task for their hands:  Giles got out his crossbow and set himself to clean it of last night’s mud, and Elisabeth carefully repacked her backpack with the pile of folded clothes Giles had left on the couch for her.  She retrieved her notebook from the table where Giles had shunted it aside to make room for his work and laid it on the top flap of her backpack.  She would put it inside when it was time to leave.

            When it was time to leave.  Elisabeth stared down at her packed bag, swallowing the urge in her throat to close.  Had she really done everything to prepare?  Bring your intent to it, he had said.  Elisabeth wanted to make a good end, if this was her end.  Her eyes on her backpack, she waited until it came to her.  She looked up.

            He was still diligently cleaning his crossbow and arrows; but he seemed to sense her gaze, because he looked up briefly to catch her eye before returning his attention to his work.

            Elisabeth sat down with a clean pair of socks and her shoes; then, properly shod, she went to retrieve her glasses from the bar window before approaching him where he sat.  She laid her glasses down among the arrows; he looked up, and she lifted his glasses like a lid on his face, bent down and kissed him.

            He reached up and took his glasses off altogether, kissing her back.  Elisabeth took her time reacquainting herself with his taste before she pulled back to look him in the face.

            He drew a breath and swallowed.  “What was that for?”

            She smiled.  “I just wanted to see if it still worked.”

            His glasses were threaded in his fingers, over the back of his warm hand cupping her shoulder.  “I think it does,” he said, smiling back.

            So she kissed him again.  A minute passed; under their closed eyelids it gathered time up into itself.  Another last thing.

            She pulled back again, her face warm, a small nervous tremor in her insides.  “I’m going out for a bit,” she said.  “There’s something I have to do.”

            He blinked, momentarily surprised; then his lips firmed knowingly, and he gave her a short nod.

            “I’ll be back in under two hours, I think,” Elisabeth said.  She donned her glasses, letting his hand slip from her shoulder, and went to get her jacket.

            He made no move to stop her or ask questions as she shrugged into her jacket (which was still a little damp in front).  Feeling privately thankful for his acquiescence, Elisabeth gave him a last wave and slipped out the door, shutting it firmly behind her.

            She didn’t know where she was going, but she thought it ought to be easy to find what she was looking for.

 

*

 

Giles took his time getting up after she had left, giving her a head start.  He had an idea of what she was planning to do, and he wanted to keep an eye on her without interfering, if it was possible.  He put away his crossbow and its accoutrements, got his own jacket and let himself quietly out the door.

            From the front gate of his flat, he had a good long view of the street in either direction.  He could just see Elisabeth disappearing around the corner to his right without a backward glance.  Good.  He followed quietly.

            When he reached the same corner, he found that she had disappeared completely, but this was not to worry.  He knew the neighborhood, and if he was right, she would find her way eventually in the direction he now took.  The only question was whether he’d wind up ahead of her and in her line of sight, destroying her privacy.  He went slowly, looking behind him as well as ahead.

            The sun was shining, as it always did in this part of the country, carelessly and brightly, and only the faintest of nips in the air suggested that this was indeed autumn.  There was nothing, in the ordinary slant of light, or in the scent of the air, to mark this day as the day of Elisabeth’s personal apocalypse.  Unthinking, Giles hurried his feet.

            Houses were giving way slowly to businesses, and as he reached another corner Giles saw what he was looking for down the side street to his left: a row of three churches, two of them separated by less than a block.  And Elisabeth, standing on the sidewalk, studying the front sign of one of them.

            She had not seen him.  Slowly he moved back from the exposed intersection and crossed the street to take up a less visible position behind a bush, though he did not stoop so low as to crouch like a criminal.  His luck held; Elisabeth did not look round as she disappeared into the front doors of the old adobe building.  He waited a few minutes to see if she would come back out; then, when nothing happened, tentatively approached the church.

            He saw why she had chosen it almost immediately.  The sanctuary was open for prayer on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and the church itself looked comfortably ancient—something, no doubt, Elisabeth would find reassuring.  Giles himself had misgivings; quite apart from the tendencies of ancient Sunnydale edifices to harbor evil, he hadn’t set foot in a church (for purposes of worship, that is) in years.  Which seemed odd considering how glibly he could still quote the Prayer Book.  Not for the first time Giles wished he could clean out the attic of his brain; his memory would surely turn against him with advancing age.

            He went up the steps to the front doors, opened one as quietly as he could, and peered in, letting his eyes adjust to the incense-scented dimness within.

            He saw two ranks of wooden pews, polished and darkened with age; a worn red carpet leading up the center aisle to the chancel, and, further up, Elisabeth’s small form, kneeling at the altar rail.  She had removed her jacket.  The faint brass shine of the altar cross winked at him from the very back.

            Giles withdrew without going inside.  Instead he made his way around the side of the church, to the parish hall entrance, and went in, looking quietly around him at every step.  The place seemed deserted, but he found, and followed, a thread of noise further down the main hall to a set of offices.  The secretary’s desk was empty (Giles looked at his watch; it was still conceivably lunchtime); but there were signs of life in the vicar’s office.  He went to the open door and peered in.

            The vicar was indeed in; he was reclining at his desk with a book forked in his right hand and a styrofoam cup of coffee in his left.  A rolled-up McDonald’s bag perched on the edge of a stack of papers, a fresh grease stain spreading mildly on the crumpled paper.  The vicar looked up, and sat up in his chair with a bump.

            “Oh, I’m sorry!  I didn’t know anyone was there.  Can I help you?”

            Giles cleared his throat self-consciously.

            “Well, it’s not for myself,” he said, watching the vicar mark his place in the book, his mind making an absent note of the title, something about John of the Cross.  “It’s just—I have a friend—”

            The vicar looked up, the faint beginnings of an amused smile on his face.  “Yes?”

            Giles sized him up.  His eyes were intelligent, which would be a good thing if he proved trustworthy.  “My friend,” Giles explained, “is in the sanctuary, kneeling at the altar.  She doesn’t know I’m here.  I think—” he paused, trying to gather his words economically— “I think she might appreciate some priestly assistance.”

            Well, he had certainly burned his bridges now.  Even if the priest didn’t blow the gaff on him, she would doubtless figure out that he had meddled.  Well.  He would take his medicine when it came to the point.

            The vicar nodded and rose.  Leaving his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair, he came toward the door.  Giles moved aside, but the vicar paused to lift a stole from a hook behind the door before coming out.  “Thanks,” Giles said, his eyes on the stole as the priest folded it carefully over his arm.  His grey clerical shirt was slightly frayed at the cuff; it had clearly seen better days.  It seemed to be all of a piece with the air of passed grandeur, of shoestring neatness, that hung about the place.  Giles didn’t know whether to find this reassuring or not; but he was committed now, so he moved quietly back down the hall, without another word to the vicar, and left the church.

            The obvious thing would be to go back home; but instead he found himself going back to the front doors and opening one to slip inside.  He found himself in a small, cramped narthex crowded with pamphlets and orders of service.  In one corner of the visitors’ table was an old wooden offering box, with a flimsy lock on the front.

            Giles looked up the aisle, and saw that the priest had come out from the sacristy, wearing his stole and carrying fire for the altar candles.  Giles watched him light the candles, saw Elisabeth look up, saw the priest nod kindly to her.

            It was that piece of diplomacy that had decided him.  He took out his wallet and pulled out a few bills to stuff into the offering box.  Then he went on silent feet to a pew near the back, and sat down to wait.

            He had chosen the back, so as not to hear what passed between the priest and Elisabeth, but he soon found that even watching her kneeling with her hands between his hands was too much; he dropped his eyes to his lap.  He waited this way, in the quiet of the sanctuary, under the light slanting in through stained glass, glancing up only once, to confirm what the faint murmur of the priest told him, that he was serving her communion.  His own heartbeat was quiet, his hands still, nested together in his lap.

            After some time Elisabeth stood; he heard the sound and looked up to see her coming back down from the chancel.  She paused to pick up her jacket from the front pew, her eyes flicking up to the back of the church but not quite to where he sat.  Nevertheless Giles knew without mistake that she had seen him.  Sure enough, she came down the aisle purposefully and stopped deliberately before him, her jacket over her arm, waiting.

            He dared a glance up at her face, and was relieved to see no anger there, only a mixture of humor and strain in the lines of her mouth.  He stood and moved out of the pew (long-forgotten habit made him jerk his head in a little bow toward the altar), and went with her out the front doors without a word; and they turned for home.

            On the way back, as they walked silently along, she took his hand.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 25

by L. Inman

 

“We have some time to kill,” Giles said when they’d reached the court of his apartment house.

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said lightly.  “I was thinking of curling up with a good illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra.  Know where I can find one?”

            He smiled at the joke, but answered her thought rather than her words.  “I have an idea that even the charms of the Kama Sutra will not be enough to combat cabin fever.  I was thinking we could go driving.”

            “Yes,” Elisabeth said, “except I thought we established that I can’t leave town.”

            “That’s the nice thing about small towns.  They have many miles of back road that are not precisely outside city limits.”

            “Heh,” Elisabeth said.  “You don’t know the half of it.  I come from small-town America, Mr. Severn-and-Thames.”

            Giles snorted.

 

*

 

Some fifteen minutes later they were on the road, cruising Sunnydale with the top down.

            “Hungry?” Giles asked.

            Elisabeth wasn’t, but it was now quite some time since breakfast, so she agreed to stop for something.  They found a bakery franchise, specializing in coffee, tea, and sandwiches besides their signature breads, where Elisabeth ordered a Caesar salad and a bowl of soup.  She found to her surprise that she could eat after all, and in fact she cleaned her plate, which was unusual with her.

            Giles was staring idly out the window, pausing between forkfuls of salad.  Elisabeth followed his eyes to the serene blue of the sky, a chameleon abstraction which for her currently embodied the broad expanse of waiting, as in airports, or gas stations on the highway.  She hummed the first few bars of “Wild Blue Yonder,” and reached for a stray sourdough crouton that had fallen from Giles’s plate to the tray beneath.

            He looked at her, his expression humorous, only to catch her in the act of popping it into her mouth.  “Hey.  I was going to eat that.”

            Elisabeth could only answer, chewing, with a little wicked smile and shrug, a non-apology apology.

            He smirked back and bent to eat more attentively.

            For a while there was a companionable silence between them as he finished his plate.

            “Do you swim?” she asked him, when he had settled back on his bench seat with his cup of lemonade.

            He blinked at her, then said equably, “Tolerably well.  Do you?”

            “Tolerably badly,” she said.  She opened her mouth to say more, but closed it again and took a pull at her own drinking straw.

            He waited, and after a few minutes she said, casually:  “My mom signed me up for swimming lessons at the Y when I was seven or eight.  They had to give up on me because I wouldn’t let go of the instructor long enough to paddle in the water.  They didn’t make too big a deal out of it.  They just said some kids were just like that.”

            Giles toyed with his drink, making condensation rings on the table, and looked up at her mildly.

            “I took longer to learn to ride a bike than any other kid on the block.  I walked around with a bike between my legs for two years before I rode anything.”  Elisabeth drew in the water left behind by her cold lemonade with a forefinger.  “And my toys?  They’re packed away somewhere at my parents’ house, still looking like they just came out of the box.”

            “On the other hand,” Giles said, a half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, “you jumped into things admirably well last night.”

            She raised her eyes to his with a small, sad smile.  “I had something to look forward to,” she said.

            “Not necessarily,” he said.  “You didn’t know it would turn out well.”

            “You know what I mean,” she said.  “I had the appetite.  I had it in me.”

            “It was made easier by wanting.”

            “Yes.”

            “Then why hadn’t you done it long ago?”

            She looked up at him, mute.

            “...You wanted to do it right,” he said for her, after a moment.

            She took in a hard breath and let in out in a heavy sigh.

            “Don’t do this to yourself,” he said.  “You’ve already shown me that you can rise to the occasion.  Don’t torture yourself with worrying.”

            “Worry is my stock-in-trade,” Elisabeth said, attempting a smile.

            “Yes, well,” he said, lifting his cup for a last drink, “I know a little something about that too.”

            They were silent for a while; Giles used his extra napkin to wipe up the condensation water on the table, folding it into smaller squares as he went.

            “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I get back,” she said, watching his hands as he folded the wet napkin one last time and dropped it onto his tray.

            He looked up, but she didn’t meet his eye.

            “I’ll probably think I was having a really crazy dream,” she said, using the corner of her napkin to draw lines through her own condensation rings.

            “Probably,” he said, equably.

            “Maybe,” she said, even more softly, “I won’t remember at all.”

            “Maybe not,” he said.

            His voice had suffered no change; she looked up at him at last, trying to divine his expression.  “I think,” he said, when he had her eyes, “regardless of memory, all this won’t have been for nothing.”

            Her eyes stung for a moment.  “You think so?”

            “I do,” he said.

            She propped her chin on her hand and looked out the window again, blinking into the blue until the sting had gone from her eyes.  “I guess that’s the point, isn’t it.”

            “It usually is,” he said softly.

 

*

 

They spent the rest of the afternoon driving the back roads of Sunnydale, as he had promised her.  They didn’t speak often, but it wasn’t necessary.  The nip in the air increased with the drag wind of the car; Elisabeth zipped up her jacket and put her cold fingers out into the stream, to catch the breeze under her palm.  They drove until the sun began to sink behind the ridge; then Giles took a road that began to lead away from the semi-desert they had been exploring, and headed back toward the center of town.  “All right?” he asked her, as they picked up speed toward civilization.

            She nodded, wiping a strand of hair uselessly out of her mouth; the wind whipped it back into her face immediately.

            Once back in the main part of town, Giles inquired, “D’you fancy a drink?”

            She looked over at him, her eyes wide, whether from the wind, or his words, or just plain fright; he did not know which.  “Yeah,” she said after a moment.  “Okay.”

            They stopped at a quiet little bar, and this time, whether it was because she looked a little haggard, or because of the level looks both of them gave the waiter, she did not need to impersonate a British woman to get an Irish coffee.  When it came, she curled her hands around the glass mug and warmed them before delicately slurping off the whipped cream.

            “They put whipped cream on everything in this country,” Giles complained, observing her as he lifted his whisky for a sip.

            Elisabeth said nothing; she had got to the bottom of the whipped cream and was now fortifying herself with the hot black whisky-and-coffee.  She had consumed nearly a third of it before Giles said mildly:

            “Don’t take your Dutch courage too quickly now.”

            “It’s an Irish coffee,” Elisabeth said flatly, sipping again.

            “Nevertheless,” he said, and stopped.  She was not looking at him, but he saw a shiver pass over her body.

            “Would you like something to eat?” he asked after a moment.

            She shuddered visibly.  “No.”

            He decided not to press her.

            Eventually Elisabeth came to the end of her drink; she looked up at Giles’s glass to see if he had similarly finished his.  He had not.

            “D’you think...d’you think I could get another?” Elisabeth asked him.

            He shifted in his seat.  “I’m...not so sure that’s a good idea.”

            She stared at him wide-eyed over her glass-rims, and he added:  “We need you somewhat alert.”  He glanced at his watch.  “In fact, we’d probably better be going in a few minutes.”  He put down the rest of his whisky and began to dig for his wallet. 

            “I can’t do this,” she said.

            He paused with his hand in his inner jacket pocket and looked up at her.  She was gripping the edge of the table, her nail-beds white as ivory; her glasses had slipped down her nose, and her eyes had a sharp, bright look, as if polarized between paralysis and flight.

            Giles took his hand out of his jacket.  “Yes,” he said, “you can.”

            She gave her head many small shakes before he had finished getting the words out.  “No,” she whispered.  “No, I can’t do it.”

            “Elisabeth,” he said gently, and though she was quite beyond tears, her voice caught itself in a dry sob.

            “I’ll have to jump,” she said.  “I can’t do it.  I can’t, I tell you,” she repeated, as she saw his lips move to form more reassuring words.

            His hand moved to cover hers on the edge of the table.  “Yes you can,” he repeated, softly, steadily.  His hand was warm; hers, cold.  She was shaking like a forest of aspens.

            Neither of them said anything more, but waited with his eyes locked in hers and his hand covering hers on the table.  Slowly her hand warmed to his and the expression of her eyes backed away from the brink of panic.

            “Let’s go,” he said quietly at last, and pulled out his wallet to pay for their drinks.

 

*

 

He unlocked her side first, and opened the door for her to get in; but she paused, looking at him, and instead went forward to bury her face in his shirtfront, glasses and all.  He sighed and let the car door fall shut again, to touch her, one hand supporting her shoulder and the other stroking her hair.

            She spoke, her voice muffled in his shirt.  “What if I’m not worth your confidence?”

            “I know you are,” he said.  “I’ve put myself in your hands, remember?”

            The faintest humor crept into her muffled voice.  “How could I forget?”

            He smiled, stopped his hands, and bent his head to kiss the top of hers.  In a bar parking lot, barren and urban, with the sound of traffic droning closer and farther away.

            He held her for a few long minutes, until she sighed at last and lifted her head to look up at him.  He straightened her glasses on her nose with a forefinger, and she reached up to adjust them more comfortably.

            “Shall we go get your things?” he asked softly.

            She nodded, shivering a little, and he reopened the car door for her.

 

*

 

It was already black dark by the time they pulled up in front of Giles’s apartment house.  Elisabeth was sure now that she was not imagining this quirk of the Hellmouth.  It was also preternaturally quiet all up and down the street, but Elisabeth attributed this to the shock of nerves, and thought nothing more about it.  Soon, she thought, if all goes well, I will be in my own home, and my nervous worries will be only that and nothing more.  A reassuring thought.  Yes, very reassuring indeed.

            She slipped her hand into the crook of Giles’s arm as they found their way through the darkness of the court to his front door, and felt him respond by drawing his elbow closer toward his body, and her hand with it.  She let go of him when they reached his door and fumbled over his keyring for the lock.  Briskly he unlocked the door, without flourish, so she was taken by surprise when without preamble he stopped, leaving the keys in the door, and turned to her.

            But he said nothing.  His lips moved briefly, as if almost ready to tell her what he had stopped to tell her, but he remained silent.  She thought, reading his face in the dim light of the door lamp, that she understood some of what he wanted to say.  She was not the only one feeling the need to give—reassurance, a parting gift between friends who were briefly lovers—and receive the same in kind.  He bent slightly toward her, and she lifted her face, ready to kiss him.

            It was as he bent his head that she saw the demon-face behind him, and a club raised to swing.

            Without thinking, she grabbed Giles’s lapels and pulled him down across her, out of the reach of the vampire’s swing: caught off-balance, Giles toppled forward against her, hand out to catch himself on the courtyard wall but too late to keep his feet.  In the same instant, the vampire struck, and before Elisabeth could duck, the swing of his club caught her a full blow across the head, knocking her flying over Giles and against the door, which banged open at her impact.  She fell in a heap halfway over the threshold, blackness roaring in her eyes and ears, and fumbled uselessly for a hold to pull herself—which way was upright, anyway?

            There was scuffling and grunting overhead: that way must be upright.  Elisabeth blinked—her eyes were all but useless—trying to make out the shapes struggling above her.  She needed to help Giles fight.

            And then the entire universe made a 180-degree lurch, and Elisabeth’s Irish coffee churned horribly in her stomach.  There was the sound of a heart monitor in her ears—she could not open her eyes—her arms were pinioned—dead weight—

            It all spun again, and she caught a moment’s clear sight of Giles, teeth bared, gripping the club and attempting to thrust it under the vampire’s chin—she needed to help him—God, she needed a stake, where was a stake when you needed one?

            The men’s shapes blurred, the world was still spinning, and she expected any moment to be thrust back into that other place, but instead the blur increased, and Giles seemed to be standing alone.  Then he was not alone.  Perhaps time was cutting out on her—folding over—she felt a demon’s death scream but there were two figures standing over her; one of them stooped to her, its breathing frantic.  “Elisabeth—”

            There were hands, gentle shaking hands gathering her up and lifting her the rest of the way over the threshold.  She could not help him, she was too heavy—dead weight—

            Get the doctor, said a female voice somewhere.  Her BP’s slipping

            “Elisabeth,” Giles said urgently.

            The blow had done it.  The vampire’s blow had done it.  She had to tell him.  “Rupert,” she muttered, dragging her eyelids open as best she could.

            He had got her propped up against the wall and was slapping her cheeks lightly in an attempt to wake her.  “’m awake,” she muttered.  “Rupert—”

            “Look at me,” he said, still breathless.

            She tried, and found that she could, with great effort, bring him into focus.  Her face was sticky-wet, and some of it was stinging in her left eye.  New bruise for the collection, she thought.  This one’s gonna be a doozy.

            “I’m awake,” she said again.  “Rupert—”

            “What the fuck were you playing at?” he hissed at her, mopping at her face with his handkerchief.  “You should have let me take that blow, you imbecile—”

            Another voice drawled in from the background, ironic and mimicking.  “‘Oh, Spike, thank you so much for saving my life!’  No problem, Rupes, always glad to be of service. ‘But Spike, I really owe you.  What can I possibly do to repay—’”

            Giles did not look round from his task.  “Spike, either continue to help, or get out.  In either case, shut up.”

            “Well, I like that,” Spike said.

            Giles ignored him, preferring to vent his ire on Elisabeth.  “What the hell were you playing at,” he growled again, feeling her over for broken bones.

            “Wanted to save a Watcher another knock on the head,” Elisabeth murmured.  “Rupert—listen—”

            “That’s my lookout, dammit—”

            “Rupert.  Listen to me.  It’s started.”

            It took him a moment to register her words.  “Started, what’s started?”

            “The—vortex,” Elisabeth said.  He was slipping out of focus again, and she wasn’t strong enough to bring him back.  “My other self—hit on the head—I was there for a moment—”

            “Fuck,” Giles said under his breath.  “We have to get you some medical attention,” he told her.

            “No time,” she said.  “It’s already happening.  Have to do the spell.”

            “But—”

            “Now.”

            “Damn it.”  Giles rose, in an impatient movement like Angelus on caffeine.  “Spike, if you’re still in it, get her bag from the couch.”

            “Are you sure that’s gonna be a help?” Spike drawled.

            “I don’t have time for this,” Giles said tensely.  “I’m getting her out to the car.  Help or not, but make up your bloody mind, and I mean fast.”  He crouched again, and Elisabeth felt his gentle hands working their way under her body, preparing to lift her.  She tried to help him, but she couldn’t get her limbs to work.

            With several grunts and lurching, dizzying shifts, Giles managed to stand with her in his arms.  He half turned when Spike said, “This it?”

            “Yes, that’s it.”  He stopped to grab his keys from the door lock—Elisabeth heard them jingle amid the roaring in her ears—and stagger with her out into the courtyard again.

            Giles was awkwardly trying to situate her in the front seat of his car when Spike’s voice made him let her fall the rest of the way.  She grunted.

            “Uh-oh,” Spike said.  “More of them.”

            “Just what we need,” Giles said.

            “I’ll hold them off,” Spike said.  There was a silence tinged heavily with Giles’s suspicion.  “Look, do I have to explain?  They’re boring thugs.  Watching you lot come to smash on your own is much more interesting.”

            “Right, fine,” Giles said, just as the sound of scuffling began.  Elisabeth heard him get into the car on her other side and start the engine.

            “My backpack,” she murmured.

            “—Is in the back seat,” Giles reassured her.  “We’re going now.”

            There came another demon scream.  Elisabeth moaned, and Giles gunned the engine, just as she felt Spike vault into the back seat.  The BMW fishtailed slightly as it peeled off down the road.

            “Now this,” Spike said, “is a much better engine than your last.”

 

*

 

            “Are they still following us?” Giles said.

            “Yeah,” Spike said.  “Put on some speed, gramps.”

            “Yes, well, the vampires unfortunately don’t have to obey traffic laws.”

            “Oh, just run the damn stop sign, there’s nobody coming!”

            Elisabeth felt fairly certain that Giles had been going to do that anyway, but he put on an extra burst of speed, and Spike was silent for a moment.  Elisabeth was glad; everything was whirling again, and the urgent voices in her head were growing clearer and then more distant by turns.

            Then she felt the vampire’s face close to hers, thrust forward from the back seat of the car.  “So,” Spike said in a conspiratorial whisper, “tell me, what’s he like?”

            Giles’s voice was dangerously even.  “Spike, I’m giving you fair warning....”

            “Oh, never mind Mister Grouchy Pants,” Spike said to Elisabeth.  “Go on, you can tell me.  What kind of lover is he?”

            “He’s quite wonderful,” Elisabeth drawled, and caught a glimpse of the vampire’s lips bowing into a wicked smirk.  “You’re missing out.”

            The smirk dropped off Spike’s face, and he disappeared from her sight.  She looked up at Giles in time to catch him rolling his eyes briefly; but his attention was fixed urgently ahead of him, and he did not seem to be sparing more than a stray thought for Spike’s antics.

            Several lurching turns later, the car stopped in what seemed to be a dark alleyway.  “Quick,” Giles said.  He got out and banged loudly on a door.  “It’s us,” he said loudly.  “Give us a hand.”  Before anyone inside could respond, he was at Elisabeth’s side of the car and lifting her carefully out.  She found enough strength to cling to him as he hefted her.

            “What the hell happened?”  Xander’s voice.

            “Vampires,” Giles said.

            “And they’ve followed us,” Spike added.

            “Xander, quickly.  Grab her bag,” Giles said.

            “Was she bitten?”

            “No, just hit.  Quickly now.”

            Giles carried her into a faintly familiar room, lit with candles; she realized it must be the back room of the magic shop.  “Five candles,” she said, dreamily.

            “Actually, it’s ten,” Anya’s voice said.

            “Move,” Giles said.  “We have to put her down in the circle.”

            There was a scrambling and scraping, then sounds of a fight.  “Xander!” cried Willow’s voice.

            The slam of a door.  “Take that, you wankers!” Xander cried.  Then, “Got it,” he said.  “Where do you want it?”

            The sounds of fighting were continuing outside the closed door. 

            There was a rattle and bang from the front.  “Oh, shit,” Xander said, helping Giles to prop Elisabeth’s head and shoulders on her backpack.

            “I’ll take the front,” Buffy’s voice said.

            “No, Buffy, we need you to help anchor the circle,” Willow protested.

            “Won’t be any good with vampires crashing the party.”  Buffy’s voice trailed away, and soon the sounds of fighting were coming from both directions.

            “My backpack,” Elisabeth said faintly.

            “We’ve got it here,” Giles said.  She caught a glimpse of his eyes meeting hers from above.

            “No—inside—my notebook—”

            “Something in your notebook?”  She nodded.  “Here—Tara—hold her head.”  Tara’s hands.  Giles digging in the backpack under her head.  She saw at last that he held the notebook. 

            “The last page,” she said.  “Last page with writing on it.”

            He flipped through and found it.

            “Tear it out,” she said, and he obeyed.

            “You want this for the spell?” he asked.

            “No,” she said, “for you.  Take it.”

            He glanced over it hurriedly, then folded the torn page into messy quarters and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.  “Okay,” he said.

            She nodded and shut her eyes.

            The sounds of fighting were growing fiercer.

            “Everybody get around the circle,” Willow said.

            Elisabeth dragged her eyes open enough to see them, seated around her, hands joined, faces eerie pools of color in the candlelight.  Willow began the chant, and at her encouragement they took up the chant with her.  There was a brief disturbance, and Buffy took her place between Giles and Tara; the chant flowed on, and ceased to be a mere mingling of voices.  It swelled to a substance and became palpable magic, the same sort of magic that must have brought her here, Elisabeth thought—it felt commonplace, as if it were its own universe.

            A tendril of mist shot with blue rose and curled above her eyes, then spread to a plane, like shining, gossamer silk, delicate and yet replete with power.  The plane of mist grew vertically, cutting her body in half:  and Elisabeth began to see with two sets of eyes.  Two scenes, two rooms, two selves; a circle of men and women chanting in one, a circle of men and women shouting to one another in the other.  There was a high whine, like a stalled machine, in her ears, and then she felt it, like the beginning of turbulence on an airplane: the first insistent, black and downward tug of death.

            Her first instinct was to fight it.  She moved her hands, to scrabble at her chest and make room for her to breathe, but her hands would no longer obey her, and remained still where they lay.  Her head fell back, and voices closed over her head like waters to drown her.

            She’s flatlined.  Get the cart—

            Over here, doctor—

            Quick—

            No!

            Xander, don’t break the connection—

            Keep up the chant—

            Clear—

            The tug came again, harder, and one last fragment of thought struggled to life in Elisabeth’s mind:  All you have to do is let go

            She let go, and the blackness claimed her completely.

 

*

 

A soundless tearing, like a tree uprooted amidst a gale: then a glut of color and sound and breath hit her like a locomotive at full speed and she was thrown through the air, against a wall, and fell to the floor in a messy heap, eyes closed.

            Silence.

            Then, as if for the very first time, painfully—against compounded gravity—she opened her eyes.  Saw in front of her six people, grouped in a circle looking over at her dumbstruck, and within the circle a fading blue mist.  A voice:  Call it—time of death 11:26 p.m.—, and then the mist disappeared like a soap bubble, taking the voice with it.

            There was still nothing to break the silence.  No one moved.

            She moved on the floor, lifted her head, gathered her limbs for an effort to rise; and after two tries she was successful in getting to her feet.  The others watched her, wide-eyed.

            A backpack she recognized lay on the floor before her where it had skidded out of the circle, blurring the chalk lines that had been drawn to make it.  Her eyes followed the chalk lines and after a moment the squiggles and shapes made sense to her in two places: a name.  Elisabeth Bowen.

            There was an unaccustomed weight in her jacket pocket.  She slipped her hand in and drew out a slim leather wallet.  Inside were a few crisp bills and a frayed sheaf of IDs, all with the same name that was written in the circle.

            She looked up, as if to confirm with the others what this meant: but only the eyes of the eldest one seemed any the wiser.  His eyes behind their glasses reflected back to her the sudden pain she drew in with her breath.

            She let the wallet drop to the floor.  It hit with a small smack, but she did not wait for the sound before she broke.  Before anyone could stop her, she ran to the back door, flung it open, and fled out into the dark night.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 26

by L. Inman

 

Buffy took charge.

            “What are you waiting for?” she said sharply.  “Find her!”

            They all broke into sudden motion—Xander to hit the light switch and snuff the candles, the others toward the door.  “Tara—Willow—you go out the front.  See if you can spot her as she comes out of the alley.” They spun to follow the command.  “Xander, Anya, take the right.  Giles—Giles, move.  Come with me.”

            Dragging Giles with her, Buffy pelted out the back door, scenting.  There was a drift of vampire dust over the back of Giles’s car, and another at their feet.  Spike was nowhere to be seen.  “Probably too much to hope that they all killed one another,” Buffy said to herself.  “What?” Giles said.  “Nothing,” she told him.  “This way.”

            Within seconds the vicinity of the Magic Box was completely vacated as they fanned out in their search for Elisabeth.

 

*

 

She was still running, her breath coming in sobs, her head throbbing nauseatingly.  She put up a hand in a habitual gesture, to secure her glasses, only to find that she was not wearing any.  She wondered at what point she had lost them.  The third pair of glasses she’d lost in a fortnight, she thought manically, and had to stifle a barking laugh.  She dodged in and out of alleyways, little caring how dark or light they were until she had gone some distance, and was too tired to move fast enough to thrust herself heedlessly into dark places.  At one point she stopped, shuddering like a sick horse, and listened for the preternatural silence before going into a particularly dark slot between buildings, less than five feet wide.

            Instead, she heard voices, crying, calling; seeking her out.  Then footsteps, more than one set.  She plunged into the darkness of the little alley and flattened herself against the wall, behind a set of trash cans.  The footsteps came closer, and she held her breath.

            They were voices she knew, the ones calling; female and male, they drew ever nearer to her, and soon she could distinguish their footsteps through the rushing gale in her head.  The male voice cried out again, hoarse and half-broken:  “Elisabeth!”

            Rupert.

            Her breath ended in her throat, so that she could not have cried out even if she wanted to.  She made no move except to flatten herself even more tightly against the brick wall.

            “Come on,” said the female voice, a voice she also knew; and the footsteps echoed beyond her and out of earshot.  Faintly, she heard others crying for her.

            She wasn’t sure what to do with herself: perhaps sink down onto the seeping concrete here and remain, always.  She could not think more than a few seconds ahead, and it was taking an unpleasant amount of effort to maintain the connection between her consciousness and that name she had seen written on the floor in the magic shop.  Without even making any decision about it, she turned and plodded further into the alley, toward a dim light and the faint sound of traffic.

            She did not see a dark shape glut the alley, though she was looking that way.  When she had nearly reached the mouth of the alley—she could see cars parked along a street—she found herself grasped roughly by the arms and shoved back against the wall.  The back of her head connected with the brick with a dull, hollow sound that almost of itself was enough to reawaken the pain in her wounded temple.  There was a small cry, half-swallowed, that she recognized for her own.

            The face looming in hers had high, lean cheekbones, and she caught the sheen of platinum hair.  “Spike,” she uttered.

            “Got it in one,” Spike said.

            “But you’re not—supposed to be able to hurt a human,” she said, her voice catching in her throat.  “Unless—unless I’m not—”

            Spike rolled his whole head as well as his eyes.  “Or you could draw the other conclusion—that I’m not trying to hurt you.  God, what is it about this town that robs people of their brains?”

            “Pardon me for not being—” She couldn’t remember the rest of the sentence she had been going to utter.  “I’ve just recently died, you know.”

            “Is that so?”  Spike appeared to be uninterested.  “You look pretty alive to me.”

            She wondered what he was doing with her—did he plan to take her back to the others?  “How’d you find me?” she asked dully, hearing her own words as if she had not spoken them.

            “Well, in case you’re not aware, your bloodscent is leaving a trail blocks long.  You’re lucky it’s me found you.”

            “Oh?” she said.  “How lucky?”

            He grinned.  “Well, it’s all relative.”

            She caught her breath on a dry sob.

            “The Scooby gang is looking for you, you know.”  He laid an ironic emphasis on the words Scooby gang, and Elisabeth looked up at him in plain appeal.

            “I can’t go back to them.  I can’t see them.”

            “They want to help you.”  Again the ironic emphasis, on help.

            Elisabeth shook her head, but stopped when she found that it hurt to move it.  “I don’t—want them—”

            Spike cocked his head.  “—Crowding around, making cooing noises?  Well, it’s not as if I don’t understand that.”  He peered closely at her, checking out her wound.  “That’s a pretty nasty knock you’ve got there.  Probably needs stitches.  I don’t have a first aid kit at my place, but I could wipe you up a bit at any rate.”

            Elisabeth squinted at him.  Spike, offering her help.  She wondered what the appeal was.

            As if reading her thoughts, he met her eye and grinned.  “Be fun to let them wander all over town wondering where you are for a while.  Come on.  It’s not far.” 

            He let go of her, but her knees buckled and he had to grab hold of her arms again.  “Steady on,” he said.  “This way.”

            He led her, half holding her up, out of the alley mouth into a street Elisabeth did not recognize, and they continued unremarked through the moonless night.

 

*

 

“Not far, you said,” Elisabeth muttered as she stumbled along in Spike’s grasp down yet another block.

            “Well, nowhere’s very far in Sunnydale.  Unless of course you’re mortally wounded.”  Spike bared his teeth in the night air.  “How’d you like me to quote you some of the Agamemnon?”

            “I wouldn’t,” Elisabeth said.  “You fancy yourself a Cassandra?”

            “Actually, I was thinking of Agamemnon’s death scream, but now you mention it—yeah.”

            “No,” she repeated.  “Don’t quote me any.”

            Spike sucked in a little grin.  “Thought you liked literature.”

            That was before I was trapped in it, Elisabeth would have said, except she needed that effort for holding herself upright.

            They crossed a street and entered a small cemetery—not the Rosedale one, Elisabeth noted, but another—she seemed to recall someone saying there was a disproportionate number of them in this town, or was that a fanfic she had read?  It didn’t matter.

            She stumbled, and almost fell; Spike’s hands lifted her effortlessly and set her properly on her feet—a vampire’s hands, unwarm, unliving, yet deceptively human—and Spike had always been oddly human for a vampire. 

            “Rupert....” she heard herself mumble.

            Spike snorted.  “Bet he’s in a right state.  Serve him right.  He never did pay me the other ten.  Well, here we are, crypt sweet crypt.”

            Spike helped her down the steps into his abode, straight down into a darkness that made Elisabeth whimper despite herself.  “Don’t worry, love, I’ll get you a light,” came Spike’s disembodied voice, unerring in its interpretation of her fright.  His hands guided her in one direction, now in another; one hand left her, and a match struck and lit up Spike’s pale face and paler hair.  He used the match to light as many candles in a candelabrum as he could before the flame crept too close to his fingers and he dropped it with a mild oath.  Then he took another match, lit it from one of the candle flames, and used it to light the remaining candles, apparently forgetting that Elisabeth was sinking in his grip.  He noticed with a start when she threatened to unbalance him, and he dropped the match, leaving the last candle unlit.  “Right,” he said, stamping on the glowing match, “better get you someplace to sit.” 

            He seated her on a stone bench against a pillar.  She watched dully as he moved about the crypt, humming, pouring water in a basin and finding a clean cloth to dip it in.  Then he came close with the basin, squatted before her, and lifted the wet cloth to her temple gingerly.  “This might hurt,” he said.

            She made no response except to quirk a weary eyebrow.

            Spike dabbed patiently at the left side of her face; it did hurt, but she did not change expression as she stared blurrily at the sheen of his black leather jacket in the candlelight.  The cool dry air of the crypt touched her face where he had wet it with the cloth.

            Spike sat back on his heels.  “It’s still bleeding fresh,” he said.  “That knock really opened your head up good.”  She could feel a fresh tickle above her ear, confirming what he said.  Spike wiped at the tickle with his thumb and brought away a rich smear that even in the candlelight was clearly bright—fresh, as he had said.

            He stood up, the rag in one hand, his eyes on the other hand, looking at the blood.  As she raised her eyes to him she caught him giving her a furtive glance.

            “It’s not like you can put it back in me,” she said.

            His face cleared a little.  “True,” he said; but he still was looking askance at her face.  Seeing she meant what she said, he popped the thumb into his mouth and sucked it delicately clean.  It was probably a mistake, she thought as she saw the fire come into his eyes; but as seconds passed he evinced no stronger reaction than that, merely rolled the blood around on his tongue and swallowed thoughtfully.

            At last he gave his verdict.  “You need more iron in your diet.”

            “Tell me a new one,” Elisabeth said.

            Spike gave her a catlike look that was not quite a smile, in which she thought perhaps she could discern a faint respect; but that, she decided, could be merely her imagination.

            He got a fresh basin of water and a new rag.  “All the same,” he said, as if they had been discussing it, “we probably ought to put a stop to it.”  He wet the rag, wrung it out, and made her hold it tightly to her temple over the wound.  “And I’m thinking,” he said, looking up at her at last from his crouch at her feet, “it won’t happen here.”

            She blinked at him.  “You mean....”

            “I mean you need stitches.  And I’m no doctor, but you look fairly well concussed to me.”

            As if to underline his words, a qualm of nausea began to stir and turn over in Elisabeth’s insides, and her head gave a galactic throb.

            “I don’t want to move,” Elisabeth said, through the fresh miasma in her head.

            “Well, either you’ll have to move, or someone’ll have to do the moving for you.  And there’s plenty of people to volunteer for that.  Isn’t that right, Buffy?”

            Spike had not moved his eyes from Elisabeth’s face, but at his words she jumped and looked to her right.  Sure enough, Buffy was standing there silently, just outside the pool of light cast by the candelabrum.

            Now she moved into the light and crossed the floor to stand before Elisabeth.  Spike rose, his eyes now fixed on the Slayer at his side.  Buffy ignored him.

            Elisabeth had let the hand holding the rag fall to her lap, watching them both; now she looked up at Buffy, searching her face wide-eyed for judgment.  But there was no judgment in the Slayer’s face.

            Buffy bent and reached gently to touch the side of Elisabeth’s head.  “This needs a doctor,” she said quietly.

            Spike jumped in: “I was just telling her that.”

            “Shut up, Spike,” Buffy said, not taking her eyes from Elisabeth’s face.

            Silently Spike’s feathers went up: his mouth worked, ready to spit out the retort that never came.

            “...a small emergency center down the street a few blocks from here,” Buffy was saying.  “If you feel you can walk it....”

            Elisabeth was looking at Spike: he was staring at Buffy as if trying to bore a hole in the side of her head with his eyes, and in his face was an expression of avidity barely masked by his show of fury.  Buffy ignored him steadily, her gaze on Elisabeth.

            With an effort Elisabeth brought her eyes back to Buffy’s face.  “I’ll walk it,” she heard herself say.

            “Okay,” Buffy said, and reached out hands to help her up.  Elisabeth found that, though she was still unsteady on her feet, she could walk with a little aid.  Carefully they made their way through the shadows to the crypt steps.

            Spike called savagely after them, “You’re welcome!”

            Elisabeth turned around, “thank you” on her lips, but Spike had eyes only for the unresponsive back of the Slayer.  She turned around again and let Buffy lead her out of the crypt into the quiet night.

            “How’d you know where to find me?” she said as they headed toward the cemetery gate.

            Buffy shrugged.  “I figured if Spike wasn’t dusted, he’d find you first; and if he found you, he’d probably take you home with him.  He has this thing for damsels in distress.”

            “To save or to eat?” Elisabeth asked, in the ghost of her old dryness.

            Buffy wrinkled her nose.  “You know, I think it’s all the same thing to him.”
            Elisabeth grunted.  “You’re probably right.”

            After a few steps Buffy asked her, hesitating:  “So, why’d you go with him?”

            Elisabeth answered without thinking.  “Because he’s dead.”

            There was a long silence, in which they crossed the threshold of the cemetery and began to limp their way up the street, one of Elisabeth’s arms over Buffy’s shoulders.  The Slayer’s hands, strong, small, and warm, held her up—one under her ribs, the other bracing the wrist that was slung across Buffy’s shoulder. 

            Tentatively, Buffy broke the silence.  “I died once.  I guess you know.”

            Elisabeth nodded.  The nausea wasn’t getting any dimmer; and she didn’t want to encourage Buffy in her apparent attempt to draw a connection, so she drew in the corners of her mouth tightly, trying to think of some way to head it off.

            But she found she didn’t need to, for Buffy went on:  “But it wasn’t any big, really.  I kind of wasn’t there for a minute, and then there was Xander, and I remembered everything that happened.  It all...fit together, and I didn’t really have to think about that part of it.  The dying part, I mean.  It was more—what was done to me—that freaked me out.”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said faintly.

            There was another silence, and Elisabeth spoke again.  “You walked toward it.”

            “Yeah,” Buffy said, her voice both mild and grim.

            Elisabeth’s stomach was beginning to contort and jerk within her.  She couldn’t think properly anymore.  “You saw what happened?”

            “Yeah,” Buffy said, “I saw.”  They plodded a few more steps and she added, “You chose it.”

            “I expected it,” Elisabeth said.  “So what am I doing here?” She hadn’t meant for her voice to go so raw on those last words, but there was no taking them back now.

            Buffy said nothing.  Elisabeth’s stomach jerked more insistently.

            “I cannot tell you,” Buffy said at last.  “And I can’t begin to imagine—”

            Elisabeth stopped abruptly, and Buffy’s hands fell away as she turned to face her.

            “What is it?” Buffy said.

            “All I had to do—was let go—” Elisabeth wasn’t really talking to Buffy anymore, but the younger woman still stared at her as if trying to puzzle out her meaning.

            “You should keep walking,” Buffy said, reaching for her arm again.  “Come on.”

            But instead of turning to walk, Elisabeth spun shakily and began to heave into the grass.  So much, she thought briefly, for the Irish coffee....

            For a long moment she crouched suspended in a single act of consciousness, retching into the grass, the Slayer’s hands holding her by the shoulders, the only thing keeping her from toppling forward onto her face.  The visceral twist and clamp of vomiting relented slowly, and she took small inching breaths and swallowed.

            When she was able to straighten a little, Buffy said, “It’s not far now.  You’d better keep walking while you can.”

            “It’s coming back,” she gasped.

            “Then best keep moving.”

            Shaking, Elisabeth acquiesced and turned to move, one step at a time, toward the fabled emergency room.  Buffy was muttering:  “...should have brought Giles and his car.  Stupid, parading her around town smelling of blood: stupid....new upholstery be damned...much easier to argue with him when he had the Brave Little Toaster....”  But Elisabeth suspected that even Buffy wasn’t listening to herself.

            “This is it,” Buffy said aloud at last, and Elisabeth turned to look up blearily at the small, unprepossessing building, from which bright light was shining out of the glass doors.  “Come on.”

            They mounted some stairs; entered the glass doors; and Buffy steered her toward the admittance booths of Emergency.

            It was Buffy who had to explain to the languid woman on the other side of the glass that Elisabeth had been hurt in a—bicycle accident—and was concussed and bleeding and needing immediate attention.  Elisabeth sat, her eyesight blurring uncontrollably, and barely managed to spell her name for the woman.  No, she didn’t have health insurance.  No doctor, no address.  No (and here tears rose in her eyes), she had no next of kin to notify.

            “She has me,” Buffy said quickly, before the woman could react.  “I’m a cousin.”

            “And she has us,” said another voice.

            They all turned.  Behind them stood Rupert, with Xander and Tara behind him.

            “I gambled on where you’d end up,” Rupert said to Buffy.  He came forward with something in his hand, and laid it on the booth ledge.  It was Elisabeth’s wallet.  “She needs to be seen immediately,” he told the receptionist.  “I’ll take care of the paperwork.”

            Five minutes later Elisabeth was walking unsteadily toward the back, on the arm of a nurse. 

            Another five minutes, and they learned to ask questions not of her, but of Xander and Tara, who had come back with her.

            An hour later found her reclining uncomfortably on a gurney, her shoes smudging and wrinkling the paper at its foot, while a young resident infiltrated her temple with local and began to stitch her up.  She had been duly diagnosed with a concussion after having a series of strange faces loom in her vision with various medical implements, and it had been decided that she would be kept for observation for a few hours, and not allowed to sleep for a few more.

            With her vision bracketed by the patient face and hands of the resident, Elisabeth could only hear the snatches of murmured conversation that went on behind her, just within earshot:

            “She needs quiet.”

            “Is it as bad as—?”

            “No, not so bad.”

            “Do you think she’s—?”  Xander’s voice, persistent.

            “She can be whole, I think.”

            Then:  “We’re not going to be able to send her back, are we.”

            Later, Buffy’s voice:  “Giles, I think I’m going to go home.  Are you going to be okay?”

            There was no voiced response, and Buffy said, “Are you sure?  Because I can—”

            “No.”  His voice scraped to life.  “Go home.”

            “…Okay.”

            A few murmurs, and then Elisabeth didn’t hear Buffy’s voice anymore.

            The stitches were finished, cleaned, and covered with a bandage; Elisabeth put up a tentative hand to feel the gauze—it felt thick and large, as if her head was twice its usual size.  And then she was left alone, with no urge to move except occasionally to flip the finger that wore the pulse-ox clip, and to cut her blurred vision around the sterile room.

            Gradually her consciousness cleared enough that she became aware of another presence in the room: she cut her eyes to her left side, the side with the bandage, but could see only the faintest outline of someone’s knee, seated (as she supposed) in a chair.  She was too tired to move her head, and anyway she knew who it was.  She let go of the effort to think and let the bleak impressions of the room drift ad libitum through what remained of her mind.

            Time passed without any marks except for the various hums of the fluorescent lighting, the monitors, and the faint electrical efficiency that pervades a hospital.  Elisabeth’s head began to hurt her very much.

            He shifted in his chair, cleared his throat gently.  She waited, but he did not speak.

            She decided to speak the scrap of thought that had come to her, but made no effort in her mind to narrate herself a meaning from it; she was so tired of sewing rags together over darkness.

            “You ever keep African violets?” she asked him, not using his name or even thinking it.

            He cleared his throat again.  “No.”

            “I had a coworker once who did,” she said, swallowing to renew her cracked voice.  “She had such beautiful violets, all in a row in her windowsill, all different kinds of purple.  She told me that you can grow a violet—I guess you can grow a lot of plants—just by cutting off a leaf.  She gave me some of her trimmings.  Told me to put them in a glass of water and the leaves would grow roots all by themselves, and then I could pot them and have violets, too.”

            He cleared his throat a third time.  “So then,” he said softly, “did you have violets of your own?”

            She was silent a moment before replying.  “No,” she said at length.  “I forgot to water them.  They dried up and died.”

            He made no answer; and presently she made the effort to turn over on the gurney and look at him.  He was sitting with his glasses held in both hands over his knees; and the tears were standing in his eyes.

            Slowly Elisabeth turned back over and stared, dry-eyed, at the edge of the monitor.

            After a while she said, “Is it time to go home yet?”

            He drew an audible breath.  “Nearly.”

            “Okay,” she said.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 27

by L. Inman

 

It was a subdued homecoming, to say the least.  Rupert walked Elisabeth down the steps the way she had come, put her into his car, and drove her back to his flat, where he walked her just as gently through the court to his front door.  She felt his muscles tense, waiting, straining his senses for signs of another vampire attack; but she knew there would be none.

            It wasn’t till she was inside the flat that she turned mutely to him.  He gave her a questioning glance, but she had nothing to say, so he helped her off with her jacket.  “Let’s get you up to bed,” he said.

            “I’m not supposed to sleep,” she mumbled, her voice sounding like a small child’s in her ears.

            “I’ll be sitting with you,” he said gently.  “Would you like some tea?”

            She shook her head, slowly so as not to waken the dizziness and pain.  “I’ll throw it up.”

            “Okay,” he said.

            He let her mount the stairs under her own power, but she felt him moving close behind her, as if anticipating her fall.  Once inside his loft bedroom, he ushered her to the bed, where she sat numbly and watched him open drawers and dig through his clothing.  “Tara,” he said, “will bring your backpack in the morning when she comes.  It’s still at the shop.”

            “Oh,” she said.  She had not thought to ask.  “Where did Tara and Xander go?”  This she had meant to ask, but it had got lost on the way to her mouth, several times on the way home.

            “They went back to the shop to help Anya and Willow close things up.”

            “Oh,” she said.  She had not marked their going, though she suspected dimly that it must have been difficult for Rupert to get them to leave him alone.

            He shut the various drawers he had opened and dropped a rumple of soft blue clothing onto the bed next to her: the shirt part of a two-piece pajama set.  She nodded and began to pull off her shirt; except she got hung up on the way trying to raise her arms past her bandaged temple, and gave a small choking grunt.  His hands came to her rescue, working the shirt off with minimum contact with her head; she undid her bra from the back, and he was ready with the pajama shirt, draping it over her shoulders as she pulled the bra away.

            She gave up after the first button and let him button it the rest of the way down, watching him, taking in the look of calm concentration on his face as he worked.  When it came time, she helped him remove her pants without quite standing up, and numbly moved to get her weight off the covers so he could pull them back and arrange the pillows to make her a propped-up nest.

            “I think,” he said, when he had got her tucked in, “I could do with a cup of tea myself.  Will you be all right for a few minutes while I make it?”

            She nodded.

            In the stillness that followed, she fixed her eyes on various points in the room, one at a time, concentrating not on staying awake but on beating back the waves of nausea and panic that rose for her every so often.  In the distance, downstairs, she could hear the controlled clatter of Rupert’s tea-making; and presently, she also heard his steps coming wearily up the stairs.

            He appeared soon with the cup and saucer in one hand and his desk chair in the other, lifted high to prevent scraping; and she understood why his footsteps had come so slowly.  “Well,” he said, unnecessarily, as he set down the chair carefully next to the bed and placed himself in it, “it’ll be a while before you can go to sleep, so I thought I’d better bring a chair so I can keep you company.”  He took a long sip of his tea, then raised his eyes to her face.  “Are you—” his tone changed— “are you all right?”

            She gave him a little nod to reassure him, but as he continued to stare into her face, she changed it to a little shake.  His lips tightened.

            “What can I do?” he asked her quietly.

            She didn’t know that he could do anything except sit there; it seemed that her consciousness was stooping over her vision in dark clouds, and what could he do about that?

            She opened her mouth and a reply bounced out, apart from anything she’d thought:  “Read to me.”  Her voice was a faint rasp.

            His taut face brightened a little; but then a faint edge of panic crept into his expression as he glanced around, and she could veritably read his thoughts:  Oh my God, I don’t have anything to read!

            “Water, water everywhere,” she murmured, and he let out a short bark of a laugh.

            “Ancient Mariner’s a little too apt at the moment, I think,” he muttered, raising his backside from the chair to run his fingers over the titles on his night table.  The tea swung dangerously toward the lip of the cup in his hand; she made a little noise, and he looked first at her, then at it, and finally put the cup and saucer down on the night table.

            “Read me Screwtape,” she said.

            He looked at her quizzically.  “Elisabeth...are you sure?  I wouldn’t think Screwtape very...congenial reading at a time like this.”

            “I know it backwards and forwards.  I’m just glad you have C.S. Lewis in this dimension.”  She didn’t say any more than that, as talking made her head throb.  Rupert shrugged and subsided back into the chair with the paperback.  He flicked through the opening pages, found a place, and began to read:  “My dear Wormwood, I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading—”

            “No, no, no,” Elisabeth said, “start with the Preface.”

            At this he gave her a little smile.  “The Preface?”

            “It’s one of the best parts.”

            He wiped pages gently back.  “Which Preface?”

            “The first one.”

            She was comforted to see him smile a little wider.  “Very well,” he said.  He cleared his throat.  “It was during the second German War that the letters of Screwtape appeared in (now extinct) The Guardian....”

            So Rupert read, and Elisabeth clung to the rich thread of his voice, spinning it into a web that held her across the chasm of her own consciousness, training her eyes on the details of his face and his mussed tired hair and the glint of the bedside lamp on his glasses; on his fingers as he supported the spine and turned pages, on the softness of his corduroy-clad knees, the half-broken angle of his shoulders, the movement of the soft skin under his throat as he read and swallowed.  He paused once, to clear his dried throat and reach for his teacup; he swallowed, made a faint bared-teeth face at the cold tea, and returned to reading.  He read, despite his weariness, with great expression, and even though Elisabeth could scarcely listen to Screwtape’s devilish advice, she could still appreciate the way Rupert could make the text come alive with the nuances of his voice.

            But it took its toll on him: Screwtape was expatiating on the Law of Undulation when Rupert broke off to yawn painfully and give a dry swallow.  “Terribly sorry,” he said, and stole a peek at her face before returning to the page.  She gave him a friendly bright blink, he returned it with a not-quite-smile, and went back to reading about the uses of Trough Periods.

            She wasn’t quite sure at what point he broke off, whether it was after a letter or mid-sentence; but some time later she heard him say, “Just going to rest my throat a bit,” and then silence.  Her eyelids fluttered, but she couldn’t quite focus on him; she was hovering unpleasantly between passing-out and sleep, and chaos was still calling.

            Time contracted and expanded like something in a film she had seen in a physics class, so that without actually sleeping she soon found that morning was creeping into the room; her consciousness was fretted and frayed but more or less intact; and at her feet Rupert Giles was slumped across the foot of the bed, his glasses snarled in his limp fingers:  the first morning of the rest of her life.

 

*

 

He woke with a start and looked sharply up at the daylight, then at the clock, then at Elisabeth’s face in the bed.  She blinked at him, the smudges under her eyes dark and oily, the bruises on her face bloomed into their full harsh glory.  She didn’t look as if she had slept any, though apparently he had.  He didn’t even remember attempting to rest his head on the foot of the bed.  He put his glasses on, reached down and picked up Screwtape from the floor where he’d been dropped, and rose slowly from the chair, straightening his lumbar region with a fist weak from sleep. 

            He bent over Elisabeth and spoke her name softly; his throat hurt him, and he cleared it roughly.  She gave him a nod and moved her lips, but made no sound.  More or less satisfied that she was all right, he took the abandoned tea and his robe downstairs and hit the shower. 

            He stood under the spray motionless for a little while, letting the hot water course over him and call his blood awake.  He had no thoughts, except for one stark one:  We do what we have to do—but even this seemed to miss the mark somehow, as if all their careful planning had left them somewhere up the river from where they were.  She was dead and alive, and this they had not planned.  And he was beginning to understand the urgency of her insistence that she not remain here; but what was he going to do with her?  It was foolish of him to have taken her at her word that she should simply leave town should the spell result in her staying in Sunnydale.  Leave town?  She was in no condition even to leave the bed.

            One thing was certain; this was no longer something he could quite handle alone.  Rupert felt a faint shame at this, though he could think of very little he could have done different short of having the gift of prophecy.  Even Elisabeth, who after all did have a gift of prophecy—of sorts—could not have predicted this.  He felt the faintest whisp of desire, to know what it was she had seen, even if it spoiled everything for him—to trade places with her, let him be the one to bear the knowledge and she the one to stay here—

            He shook his head and pushed his face punishingly into the shower’s spray, washing the thought away with his breath.  That was the sleeplessness talking, and he didn’t have time to be tired.  He would talk with the others; he would find a place for Elisabeth to go, a safe place where she would be taken care of; and he would bloody well get to work on this infernal problem of Dawn and the demon woman.  Dawn, who didn’t belong here either, and yet was inextricably here, enmeshed in relationship with them all, and for God’s sake how did that work?  No wonder Elisabeth had shied away from meeting her....

            With an effort he roused himself to wash and, once out of the shower, to shave, eschewing soap and razor for the quicker electric clippers.  He belted his robe around him (trying not to think of the endearing way it had brushed the ground when Elisabeth wore it) and hurried out of the bathroom, to go and dress.

            Except that as soon as he hit the passage he could hear Tara’s knocking at the front door.  Too hurried to feel embarrassed, he went to let her in.

            “Running a bit late this morning,” he told Tara as she came in bearing Elisabeth’s backpack on one shoulder.  “I’ve got to get dressed, and then I’ll....”  He gestured futilely.  “You’re welcome to make yourself a cup of tea, or whatever.”

            Tara nodded.  She put down the backpack next to the coat tree and moved toward the kitchen.  Rupert, who had learned not to expect her to speak unnecessary words, went upstairs without any further ado.

            Upstairs, he found that Elisabeth had taken to dozing fitfully, but she snorted awake when he appeared, and the expression of her eyes looked scattered, in a way Rupert didn’t like.  “Tara’s here,” he told her as he pulled a clean T-shirt over his head.  “She’ll be staying with you today.”

            Elisabeth gave a little nod.

            Quickly Rupert buttoned his oxford shirt, stuffed the tails into his trousers, hiked up his braces and knotted his tie with a messy flap.  He wasn’t satisfied with the result regarding his tie, but decided he didn’t care, and sat on the bed to don his shoes, making Elisabeth draw another long breath and blink her eyes open.  A pang hit him, and once he’d finished tying the last lace he stood and went to smooth her hair and look in her face.  “Are you looking back at me?” he said softly. 

            It was nearly a nonsensical thing to ask, but she raised her eyes to his and to his quiet and immense gratitude, the spark of humor was still there amidst the morass of chaotic pain.

            “I’m going now,” he told her.  “Tara will be here.  She can finish Screwtape if you want.”

            She licked her dry lips and said in a croak, “Spoiled for an English voice now.”

            He gave a small wry hoot of a laugh and went to grab his suit jacket.

 

*

 

Elisabeth was growing extremely tired, but still she could not sleep.  She heard Rupert’s voice downstairs, speaking quietly to Tara; then the front door closed below and she did not hear him any more.

            Presently she heard Tara’s soft footsteps coming up the stairs, and she could not decide whether to feel vaguely relieved or vaguely terrified.  Of all the people she had wished to avoid during her stay in Sunnydale, Tara was right up there at the top of the list, even ahead of Buffy; but there was a small comfort in knowing that perhaps she wouldn’t have to talk.

            Perhaps, she decided as she moved her head to look at Tara when she came into the room, perhaps she was too dizzy to talk anyway.

            Tara took her seat in the chair Rupert had vacated and searched her face thoughtfully.  She was holding a cup of something steaming—the same cup Rupert had served her tea in the first afternoon she arrived.  “It’s tea,” Tara said, holding it out, her motion for a moment reminding Elisabeth sharply of Willow.  “Would you like some?”

            Elisabeth shook her head slightly; and Tara lifted the cup to her own lips and sipped.

            It was as Elisabeth had hoped:  Tara sat quietly with her as the daylight in the room changed, saying nothing, only her eyes occasionally searching Elisabeth’s face for signs of need.  It was Elisabeth who opened her lips to speak some time later.

            “I must look pretty awful,” she croaked, putting up a derelict hand to push a hank of her hair from the side of her face and encountering the gauze bandage.

            “You’ve got a pretty impressive collection of bruises,” Tara admitted.

            Elisabeth looked up at her.

            Tara continued, cupping her tea in her hands:  “But I think you’ll be okay.”

            “I feel awful,” Elisabeth said.  “What kind of reading am I giving?”

            Tara hesitated, but it seemed merely to be a habitual hesitation rather than reluctance to give bad news.  “Pretty normal,” she said finally.  “I think you’re all there—all here, I mean.  For better or worse.”  She offered a little rueful smile.

            “Normal,” Elisabeth repeated.

            “Yeah.”

            There was a small silence, and suddenly Tara said:  “You know what’s to come, don’t you?”

            Elisabeth had shut her eyes; now she opened them wide, a pang of horror spreading in her chest.  She looked at Tara in mute appeal, and in answer to the look Tara said hastily, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.  I just—it’s just that—it seemed to me to be the logical answer—”

            Elisabeth closed her eyes again; and it was a previously unimaginable relief just to nod, to give Tara the affirmative without fighting it.  If she had had any tears, she might have quietly shed them: instead, she let out the breath she’d ratcheted in and let her shoulders relax against the pillow.

            After a moment she opened her eyes.  “Have you told anyone?” she asked Tara.

            Tara shook her head, making the silver hoops she wore in her ears swing and catch the light.

            “Please,” Elisabeth said, “don’t.”

            Tara sucked her lips in, then stammered, “That’s what I thought.  That it shouldn’t be—I mean—”  She stopped.  Then asked:  “Does Giles know?”

            Elisabeth nodded, a new little misery settling in.

            Tara accepted this with a nod that seemed to be mostly to herself.  After a moment she looked up from the teacup in her lap to Elisabeth’s face.  “I’m sorry, you know,” she said, “if I got too close.”

            A little bit of a smile began to touch Elisabeth’s lips.  She closed her eyes and left them that way.  “You figured out I was a virgin.”

            “That was an accident,” Tara said.  “And I didn’t mean to blurt that out to Willow.  That was an accident too.”

            Elisabeth really did smile this time.  “Well, I’ve taken care of it,” she said.

            “The virginity?”  Tara began to smile too.  “Or Willow’s anxiety?”

            “Both,” Elisabeth said.  Then thought.  “I think.”

            “I think Willow’s fine now,” Tara said, answering her thought.

            “Fine now,” Elisabeth repeated, shutting her eyes again.  Willow would not always be fine.  She pushed the thought away, but as she did so, she found others crowding to take its place:  Buffy diving with abandon into the death meant for her sister; Xander walking bitterly in a heavy rain; Dawn crying, over and over; and ghosts, ghosts of the dead slain here and elsewhere, Potentials and Jenny Calendar (and here she was, lying in Rupert’s bed); Jonathan; Joyce; Tara herself.  Ghosts; shadows; and it was not safe to open her eyes.  Or to keep them shut.  Her throat swelled shut with the salt of unsheddable tears, and she drew a stertorous gasp and opened her eyes to see Tara just in the act of putting the teacup on the night table and reaching toward her, taut concern on her face.

            “Shh,” Tara said, as Elisabeth fought to get a breath in and a small whimper out.  Tara’s hands quieted her, touching her forehead and her temples where there was no bandage; soon she could breathe, but her head still hurt her very much and the room was spinning slightly.

            “What you need,” Tara said, “is to sleep.”

            “I can’t,” Elisabeth said.  “I’ve been trying.”

            Tara pursed her lips, thinking.  “You think you could maybe take a cup of tea?”

            Elisabeth’s stomach was roiling, but she said, “Yeah, maybe.”

            “Okay,” Tara said, drawing a visible breath.  “I’ll go down.  If you need me, go ahead and call.”

            Tara took the cup that held her own cold tea and disappeared in a gentle whirl of her voluminous skirt.  Elisabeth shut her eyes and shivered, listening acutely to the sounds of Tara moving in the kitchen below, as she had done with Rupert the night before.

            When Tara returned, she was carrying the same cup, but now it held a steaming liquid once more, and with her came into the room a scent both squeaky-sweet and bitter, like green grass after rain.  She sat down with the cup and offered it silently to Elisabeth.  Elisabeth shook her hands free of Rupert’s pajama sleeves and took the handleless cup, felt the heat soaking into her fingers.  She looked down into the light depths of the liquid; bent-lifted her head to smell it.  She looked up at Tara.  “This...isn’t exactly tea, is it?” she said.

            Tara shook her head.  “It’s an herbal potion,” she said.  “It’s for sleep.  But even if it doesn’t put you to sleep it should calm you.”

            Elisabeth swallowed dryly.  “Okay,” she said, her voice a little quivery, and lifted the cup for a first sip.

            The taste reminded her of ginseng tea, pinching her tongue as it went down; but the aftertaste was a balm, not quite sweet, but clean and honest.  It was this that helped Elisabeth to trust the brew; she drank thirstily, as quickly as she could without burning her mouth, and found that her nausea was reduced by half before she had got halfway down the cup.  Her head still hurt, but the sickening quality of the throb began to dissolve and she nearly wept at the relief, except she needed what little moisture she had left in her body.

            She felt full before the tea was gone, but she went ahead and tipped the last mouthful down her throat and handed the empty cup back to Tara.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  She felt better, though perhaps, she thought, only because she had been so dehydrated before drinking the potion.  She lay her head back and closed her eyes.

            And was asleep before she knew what had come over her.

 

*

 

The light had changed in the room, she knew, even before she opened her eyes.  She left them softly closed and listened, relaxed, resting, for the other changes in the room.  She began to register voices, and then she recognized the voices, a few feet away from where she lay.

            “...looks much better,” Rupert was saying in an undertone.  “Thank you.”

            “Yeah, she needed the rest,” Tara answered softly.

            “She’ll probably need more before she’s done.”

            “I left you some more of the herbal mixture, downstairs in the kitchen.”

            “Thank you,” Rupert said again.

            “Plus instructions for the blessing....You know, you maybe should take some yourself.”

            Rupert’s voice, answering, was gently dismissive.  “I’ll be fine.”

            “Well,” Tara said mildly, “there’s enough for both of you anyway.”

            “Thanks.”  There was a pause.  “She does look much better.  I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to be moved very soon....”

            “She will have to be moved, then...?”

            Rupert sighed.  “Yes.”

            “Because she knows what’s coming.”

            There was a heavy silence.  Rupert did not sigh again, but his answer was weary enough without it:  “Yes.”

            “I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Tara said.

            “Yes....”  Rupert drew an audible breath.  “Yes, I think that would be best.”

            Another silence, then Tara said:  “Giles...you really do look tired.  Do you want me to...?”

            “No.”  There was a strain in the kindness of his voice now.  “It’s only...only that I’ve had a lot to do.  Made a great many phone calls today, working on—arranging things.  But it’s done now—or very nearly.”

            “Oh,” Tara said.  “Where is she going to go?”

            Elisabeth listened: and to her relief the answer Rupert gave was her own.

            “England,” Rupert said.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 28

by L. Inman

 

Rupert, as Elisabeth discovered when she went downstairs, had bought groceries.  He was in the act of putting them away when he saw her descending slowly, step by step, still weaving a little from the remaining effects of her concussion.  His face brightened.  “Oh, hallo,” he said.  “Are you feeling a little better, then?”  He delayed turning to put the milk in the fridge, watching her face.

            She came down the last few steps with a thump.  “Yeah,” she said, clearing her throat to get the word out.  “I see you went to the store.”

            “Yes.”  He turned finally and continued, his voice buried in the open fridge.  “I also got some Chinese, if you feel up to eating.”  He shut the fridge door and turned as she came into the kitchen doorway.  “How do you feel about egg drop soup?”

            She offered him a little smile.  “Sounds good.  I’m gonna—gotta—”  She gestured down the hall to the bathroom, acknowledging his swallowed smile at her pointing finger half-lost in the sleeve of his pajama shirt.

            As it turned out, the egg drop soup was a healing balm almost as efficacious as the potion Tara had given her.  She had almost forgotten what it felt like to be hungry.  She looked up from scraping the last bits of egg out of the bowl to see Rupert watching her, nakedly, a faint hopeful light in his tired face.  “You were hungry,” he said.

            “Yeah,” she said.

            “Oh! I forgot something,” he said suddenly.  He got up from his chair across from her and went to where he’d draped his suit jacket over the couch.  After a quick shuffle through the various pockets, he straightened and came to lay next to her plate—her glasses.  “I had them repaired,” he said as she picked them up and unfolded the earpieces.  “They couldn’t do much about the looseness of the frame, but they did smooth the scratch off the right lens.”

            She wasn’t ready to cry, not yet, but a small thread of a silent wail went up inside her.  She cleared her throat.  “Unlike Peter Rabbit,” she said, “I don’t remember when I lost them.”

            He gave her a small rueful smile.  “You lost them on my doorstep.  I just missed stepping on them when I dragged you in the house.”

            She didn’t want to talk about what had happened.  “Thank you for rescuing them for me.”  She attempted to put them on, then realized that the bandage over her temple was an uncomfortable obstruction.  She gave up and folded the glasses back again.  “So no bread and milk and blackberries for me tonight; dose of chamomile and bed actually sounds good.”

            “The tea Tara left does have some chamomile in it,” Rupert agreed, rubbing absently at his temple.

            Elisabeth opened her mouth to say that Tara was right and he could do with some of that tea himself; but she realized in time that that would mean revealing she had heard their conversation, and she didn’t want to talk about England either.  She shut her mouth.

            After dinner Elisabeth found her backpack and took it with her into the bathroom, where she unpacked it while her bathwater ran.  She pulled out item after item, as if her pack were a dimensional Christmas stocking and she had no idea what would be in it; and indeed some things were a surprise.  Her books, blank before, had her name written neatly on the half-title in pencil, as they had always been; her CDs once again carried the little return address stickers she’d put on them several addresses ago.  Elisabeth looked closely at the Joan Osborne: the sticker was rucked on the corner where she’d tried to pick it off and given up in disgust, just as she remembered.  The latest Indigo Girls CD, however, was still missing.  Of course, Elisabeth thought: they haven’t recorded it yet.  She sighed and set her CDs in a small pile next to her folded clothing.

            She shook her pack lightly; there was a rattling, and she reached in again.  Drew out first one amber prescription bottle, then another.  A fresh tightness growing in her chest, Elisabeth ran her thumb over the label on the tranquilizers.  The doctor’s name had worn away, and she could no longer remember it.  Guess this means it’s time to get a new doctor.  She rattled the pills lightly in the bottle.  She had no intention of taking any tonight; not only did she still feel the perennial need to conserve her meds, she now also felt she would rather drink Tara’s tea.

            Does this mean I’m turning into a mystic? she wondered.  Quite apart from her native distrust of chemicals and faceless scientific medicine, she was beginning to feel a movement within herself toward the rhythm of the old knowledge...the knowledge that had preserved her so that she could die in one piece, then kicked her back here whole....

            Elisabeth shook her head, to clear the thought.  Thoughts like that impeded her recovery, and prolonged by hours, days, the time she’d have to spend in Sunnydale.  The time was for action; and oddly enough (barring the odd soul-shaking thought) Elisabeth felt quite up to it—she felt—rather—

            Full.  The bath had run full, and she hauled herself up from the floor to turn off the taps, undress, and slip into the water.  She sighed in as much bliss as could be expected of one who was recovering from a concussion, slid low in the water, and closed her eyes.  She hadn’t had a bath since—since the night she and Rupert had—

            This was not exactly a welcome thought either, but only because it was pleasant and bright, like a small sun in her consciousness.  Elisabeth kept her eyes closed and lay silent in the warmth, moving only occasionally, to wet again the surface of her skin that rose out of the water. 

            At length a tap came at the door, followed by Rupert’s muted voice.  “Elisabeth?”

            Elisabeth opened her eyes, but did not otherwise move.  “Yes?”

            “All right in there?”

            “Yes,” she said.  She shut her eyes again, but after ten seconds opened them again.  “Rupert,” she said.

            The door opened a crack, just enough to admit one of his eyes and a few mussed curls of his hair to her view.  She smiled.

            He gave a short nod, moved a hand to poke his glasses into place on the bridge of his nose; withdrew silently.  The door clicked softly shut.

            Elisabeth sat up and, wincing, peeled the dressing from her stitches so that she could wash her hair.

 

*

 

Later, she submitted to Rupert’s ministrations, sitting quietly while he cut lengths of adhesive tape for a new dressing.  “I’ll try to make it small,” he said, “so you can put your glasses on.”

            “Okay,” she said.

            Rupert seemed in the mood to make small talk.  “The doctor said you were awfully lucky that ‘tree’ caught you on the bony part of your temple.  He said if it had hit the soft place, you might have been killed.”

            “Little did he know,” Elisabeth said.

            Rupert answered with a mordant grunt.

            She kept her eyes on the old framed map on the livingroom wall and let her consciousness focus on his gentle fingers pressing the bandage into place.  “There,” he said.  “It looks a little clumsy, but it should do.  I don’t suppose you’ll want to sleep directly on it.”

            “No,” she said.  She didn’t much want to sleep at all anymore, now that it was dark; and her head still hurt her a good deal.  She turned her head to look at him.  He had a soft, fuzzy look about him, the look of one who has resigned himself to being too tired.

            “Shall I make you a cup of the tea Tara left you?” he said.

            She left it for you, too.  “All right,” she said.

            She sat at the table and waited while he brewed the mixture in the kitchen; watched as he said the blessing over it, looking off an unfolded piece of notebook paper.  He brought it to her and put it into her hands with the faintest air of ceremony.  She took it with a compressed smile and carried it with her upstairs.  “Goodnight,” Rupert said from below.

            “Goodnight,” she said, and disappeared into his bedroom.

 

*

 

She drank half the tea.  It was all she wanted, all she needed to sink back into the softness of Rupert’s bed and drift off.  Rest; rest imbuing the fullness of her limbs, straightening the room of her mind.

            She didn’t know how long she had been asleep when she woke again, slowly in the tired yellow light of the single bedside lamp.  She was not well.  It was her only clear thought as she came up out of unconsciousness.  She was not well; and then a second thought: she should drink the rest of the tea.  She struggled for mobility and finally got herself sitting upright.

            More thoughts came; not clear ones, but still mostly-formed.  It was still dark.  Elisabeth looked at the alarm clock: it was just past one.  She reached to touch the cup on the night table; it was cold.  Perhaps it would not work cold.  Perhaps she should heat it in the microwave and bless it again.  She looked up.

            There was still light downstairs.  Forgetting the tea, Elisabeth slipped gingerly out of the bed and padded out to the upper landing.

            Below her Rupert was working at his desk.  The desk lamp, one of several that were lit, picked up the glitter of stubble on his cheek.  If he were to grow a beard, Elisabeth thought, it would probably be gray.  As she watched he pulled off his glasses and rubbed mercilessly at his eyes, then put them on again and stared closer at the page of some ancient book.  Even from above, Elisabeth could see that the open page of his notebook was empty of everything but doodles.  Piled near him, on the desk and on the table, were many more books, and Elisabeth could not tell if they were books he had gone through yet or not.

            “Kind pity chokes my spleen,” she murmured, and he looked up.

            “Elisabeth.  Are you...all right?”

            “I’m fine,” she said.  “You should be in bed.”

            “I’m all right,” he muttered.  “I’m just working.  Go back to sleep, Elisabeth.”

            “Why don’t you come to bed,” she said flatly.

            Of course, he took no more kindly to anything that sounded like an order than she did herself.  He looked up again, more than a little annoyance in his face.  “I can’t.  I have to work.  I’ve gotten behind.”

            She let his words sink into the silence, as clear an indictment of her continued presence as anything else he could utter.  He did, however, have the grace to begin to look mortified, and it was this as much as anything that made Elisabeth suddenly furious.

            “You won’t find anything on the demon woman tonight,” she told him.  “Come and sleep.”

            “Is that a prediction?” he flashed back.

            “It’s common sense.”  Elisabeth folded her arms over the shaking in her chest.  “Look at you.  You can barely read.”

            “I can read well enough,” he said.  Not only did he have the air of digging his heels in, he was getting decidedly Rippery about the shadowed eyes.  Elisabeth thrust out her chin.  As if she didn’t have enough nonsense to deal with.

            “Tara left that tea for you just as much as for me,” she said at last.

            “It is very kind of Tara, and you, to take such a concern,” he said coolly.

            “Damn straight.”  Elisabeth’s Midwestern drawl was coming out.  “Don’t you patronize me with the truth.”

            They stared each other silently to stalemate.

            She decided to leave it that way.  “If you are at all inclined to pull your head out and take some advice,” she said quietly, tidying her drawl away, “the potion is very good for what ails you.  I’ll leave a space for you in the bed if you change your mind.”  She turned.

            “And why,” he said, “shouldn’t I bed down here?”

            She turned back to look at him, and suddenly read correctly his sardonic look.  “Because that couch’ll kill your back,” she said tartly.

            He gave her a sweet little smile.

            Elisabeth bristled.

“Fuck you,” she said.  “If I wanted to get in your pants, I’d just...get in your pants.  As it happens, I’m rather more interested in recovering from a concussion at the moment.  Good night, Rupert.”  She turned on her heel and went back into the bedroom.

            Well, she said to herself, that was such a success, Elisabeth.  You’ll be up for Tactician of the Year before you know it.  She reached for the cold cup of potion and downed it in three swallows.  Whether it worked or not, it would at least wet her throat.

            She flounced back into the bed and burrowed herself into the covers, making sure that there were pillows enough for him should the impossible occur and he decide to get some sleep.  She reached out and turned off the lamp, leaving the room shrouded in shadow, a darkness in which she could feel her nerves thrumming all the more strongly.  She ignored them and closed her eyes.  And the cold potion seemed to be working, for she began to fall asleep almost at once.

            She woke again, some time later, to the sound of him moving about in the darkness of the room.  All the lights in the flat were out.  She almost opened her lips to speak to him, to ask if something was wrong; but instead she listened, and heard him undressing, slowly, fumbling and—she knew it somehow—still angry.  She kept still as he felt his way around to the other side of the bed and slipped under the covers.  He shifted and wriggled a little, letting out a long sigh, and became as still as she except for the faint remaining quiver of Giles pissitude.  She listened with all her senses:  his quiver of anger subsided and was replaced with a faint shivering of a different character altogether, something that smoothed over her own anger and left her listening without rancor till his breathing evened.

            “Kind pity chokes my spleen,” she mouthed into the darkness, and fell asleep again, this time for good.

 

*

 


  1. He watched, to make sure she was breathing, and drew breath himself when he saw the faint lift and fall of the covers over her side.

            Stealthily he slipped out of the bed; donned a pair of sweatpants and his glasses; picked his way quietly downstairs into the dark livingroom.  On his way to the bathroom he gathered up a fresh T-shirt and boxers from the pile of folded laundry atop the washer.  He showered, shaved with a meticulous hand, ran his hands through his damp hair.  Then he went to make coffee.

            He should not have said that to her, about getting behind.  He had been so careful to breathe not the faintest word of recrimination to her about her presence: it wasn’t her fault, and what could she do about it?  It was he who had failed to prepare her, comfort her, save her.  And what he could do for her now was imperfect at best. 

            And she was tired; why else would she have savaged him like that?  Indeed, if he’d been rendered helpless in somebody else’s house for a week and change, he’d have started in with the savaging a lot sooner.  Not, of course, that he had responded to it wisely.  Rupert sighed to himself and poured a strong cup of coffee; it was a morning for drinking coffee black.  Perhaps she would overlook what had happened last night.  Perhaps they would need to say nothing about it.

            He was on his second cup of coffee when he heard sounds upstairs.  Presently Elisabeth puttered softly down the stairs and into full view, bleary-eyed and tousle-headed.  She gave him a brief wave and disappeared down the hall to the bathroom.

            When she came out he offered her a cup of coffee, which she accepted wordlessly and began to doctor herself, pulling out a spoon and retrieving the milk from the fridge.  To Elisabeth, it seemed, no day was a black-coffee day.  The bruises on her face had shaded off into many brilliant colors—green and yellow where Buffy had hit her, blue and purple and black where the vamp with the club had followed up.  She was wearing her own pajamas again: baggy flannel pants and a T-shirt clearly chosen because it was no longer fit for public wear—he wasn’t even sure what color it was supposed to have been.  He wondered if she had had it new or acquired it from someone else.  There was, in fact, very little he knew about her even yet—where she had come from, what sort of family she had had, what had driven her to leave home and wander.  She was an odd sort of person, both prickly and vulnerable, both savvy and gullible, chary of touch yet harboring a good lover’s instinct; a description, he realized suddenly, that could well be applied to him.  Perhaps that was the only thing that made her difficult for him to know.

            “How are you this morning?” he heard himself asking her.  Rupert, that was stupid.  He at least knew she disliked talking in the morning.

            She gave him a raised eyebrow, but there was still the touch of humor at the corner of her mouth and in her eyes.  “I’m all right,” she said.  She lifted her doctored coffee and took a sip.  “You?”

            He shrugged on a long breath.  “Oh, I’m all right.”

            She nodded and carried her coffee out to the table.

            He said, “I have time to make some eggs before I go out to the shop.  Would you care for some?”

            She looked back at him briefly, her face serene.  “Okay.”

            He got out the frying pan, a bowl, a few eggs, butter, and cheese and left them on the counter, then went upstairs to get mostly dressed.  When he came back down she was still sitting in her place at the table, sipping at her coffee; she gave him a brief smile as he passed.  Good; she appeared not to be angry with him.  He mirrored her brief smile and went to make the eggs.

            “So what are the plans for today?” she asked him over the sound of his whisk beating the eggs.

            Good question.  “I’m going to be in the shop this morning.  This afternoon I thought I’d take you with me to—” he paused— “get a few errands run….”

            “Before I go to England?” she said.

            He stopped beating the eggs and turned to look at her.  There was a silence.

            “Yes,” he said finally.  “There’s the matter of your passport, for one thing…”

            “I have one,” she said.

            He stopped again and looked at her.  “You do?”

            “Yeah,” she said, nonchalantly.  “Found it in the inner pocket of my jacket last night.  All shiny and new.  I hadn’t used it yet.”

            “Well,” Rupert said, nonplussed, “I suppose that saves us the trouble fudging one for you.”

            He could feel her eyes on him even as he turned to pour the egg mixture into the hot buttered pan.  “When am I to leave?” she asked him.

            He cleared his throat.  “Day after tomorrow.”

            She made no answer to this, and he was afraid to look at her. He kept his attention on the cooking eggs.

            “I always wanted to leave the country,” she said cheerfully as he loaded two plates with eggs and a few pieces of toast.  “I was planning to go to Europe once I’d saved enough money.”

            “You’ll have money enough to visit Europe if you’d like,” Rupert said, carrying the plates and a handful of silverware out to the table.  He put hers down in front of her and sat down with his.  He arranged his silverware and began to pile eggs onto a piece of toast, when he saw that she had not moved to touch either her silverware or her plate.  He looked up at her:  she sat motionless, her eyes on her food, and tears were sliding down her face.  As he watched, she began to quiver slightly, and the tears fell faster.

            “Elisabeth,” he said—so she was angry after all, then—and at the sound of his voice she put her hands up and covered her face.  A faint mewling sound issued from her throat.

            A joke flashed through his mind—Didn’t know you were that tired of eggs—but he quashed it, put down his fork and stretched a hand across the table toward her, though she couldn’t see it.  “Elisabeth,” he said, more softly, “if this is about last—”

            “I want to go home,” she wept.

            He flinched, as if by her words she had actually kicked him in the stomach rather than merely making him feel that way.  He sat transfixed, watching her break down; then forced himself to move.  He scraped back his chair and went to her.  She did not acknowledge him, so, tentatively, he touched her hair.  When she made no move to push him away, he touched her shoulder, trying to gather her in—and she turned slowly to press her face into the lee of his shoulder.  For a long moment he was lost with her as she cried, half-kneeling next to her chair, holding her as she shook; then he woke to himself and realized he was speaking to her—useless promises—“We’ll try it again,” he was saying, “we’ll do the spell again....”

            After a moment it seemed she too could hear what he was saying, because she lifted her head and pulled back to stare at him, her face wet and flushed.  “You can’t,” she said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand.  (Rupert wished he had his handkerchief on him instead of upstairs in his suit jacket pocket.)  “The focus has passed.”

            “There’ll be another one,” he said helplessly.

            She tilted her head and gave him a hard, tearful stare.  He sighed and gave up.

            “Besides,” she said, wiping her face and shivering, “it won’t change the fact that—that I died back there.”

            “No,” he whispered.  “It won’t.”

            She wiped at her wet face, uselessly; he rose and plucked a cloth napkin out of the centerpiece to give her, then pulled out the chair next to her and sat heavily in it.

            She was recovering her self-possession: she gave him a mortified glance from over the napkin as she blew her nose.  “Sorry,” she sniffed.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—lose it like that—”

            He gave her a look, and she desisted with the apology.  She searched out a dry spot on the napkin and blew her nose again.

            He sat silently as she finished.  Presently she put down the napkin and picked up her fork.  “I should make an effort with these,” she said, beginning to pile eggs onto her toast.

            “They’re probably cold,” he said, reaching to pull his own plate over.

            They were; but the meal was still edible, and they ate without comment.  He was relieved to see the alertness back in her movements when she turned and asked, “Is there any juice?”

            He began to rise.  “I’ll get some.”

            “No—” She jumped up.  “No.  I’ll get it.”  From the kitchen she asked:  “Want some?”

            “Please,” he said.

            She brought them both cups of juice, and they finished their meal in a silence much less charged than it had been before.

            “So,” she said finally, swallowing hard, “England.”

            “Yes,” he said.

            She gave him a sidelong look.  “It’s a big island.”

            “London,” he said.

            She looked at him, gathering her question.  “How’s that...how’s that gonna work?”

            He sighed.  “I’ve found a place for you to stay, with a friend of mine, till you get on your feet.”

            “Oh,” she said, very softly.  “Okay.”

            “And you will,” he said.

            She lowered her eyes to her plate and prodded the remains of her eggs.  He decided to be brisk.

            “I’ve made some arrangements already, for your care in the interim.  You’ll have a place to stay, and some money.  There are a few loose ends to tie up yet, but that will only take a few phone calls, which I’ll probably make this morning and tomorrow.  You’ll probably need new clothing for the London climate, but I suppose that can wait till you get there—you and Olivia can do the shopping—”

            Elisabeth’s head jerked up.  “Olivia?”

            His fork hand paused.  “Yes....”

            She stared fixedly at him.  “Olivia,” she repeated.  “As in, Olivia-who-used-to-be-your-orgasm-friend Olivia?”

            He put down his fork altogether and folded his arms over his chest.  “Yes,” he said, daring her to make something of it.  Orgasm friend, indeed.

            “Let me get this straight.  You,” she said slowly, “are sending me to stay with your ex-girlfriend.  The ex-girlfriend who left you because she got freaked out by Hellmouthy stuff.”

            He heaved a great sigh and folded his arms tighter.  “Yes.”

            She left her chair and paced the length of the table, her hand out feeling its edge; then returned to her place without looking at him.  Finally she gripped the back of her chair and turned her gaze on him with full force.  “Are you insane?” she inquired.

            “Not last time I checked,” he said, with a serenity he did not feel.

            “Check again,” she said.  She began to pace the room again.  Rupert sat, watching her silently, trying not to glower.

            She turned on him again.  “What did you tell her about me?”

            Rupert sighed.  “I told her you were a refugee of sorts.  That you’d washed up in Sunnydale and needed a fresh start.  That you’d been through a difficult time.”

            “And that other little key piece of info, namely that I’ve also been in your bed?”

            Rupert waved a hand without quite unfolding his arms.  “Oh, she’ll take that for granted.”

            She had been going to turn away, but stopped and stared at him in frank incredulity.  Rupert blinked, winced, shook his head.  “I—that didn’t—come out right.  I meant—”

            “—to make a slap at your own whoredom, I presume,” Elisabeth said, now folding her arms in her turn.  “Also to underline the Bloomsburian character of your circle of friendships.  I understand,” she said, though he would have thought that such understanding would have calmed her tone of voice.

            “I’m not sure you do,” he said.  “Our relationship is not what would concern Olivia....”

            “No,” Elisabeth said, “just the fact that I’m screwed up in the head by being an alien in this dimension.  Of course the fact that you and I shagged takes a back seat to that.”

            He flushed hot and uncrossed his arms.  “It’s the best I can do,” he enunciated.

            She went quite still where she stood, and the color left her face.  Her eyes dropped.  For a moment Rupert felt a salt satisfaction at his victory, but it was short-lived; she opened her lips, trembling, and he felt cheap.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

            He sighed through his nose, said:  “No—forgive me.  You’re quite right.  It’s—perfectly damnable, and if I—if I could do better, I would—”

            She lifted her eyes to his.  “Rupert....”

            He went on.  “Olivia’s reliable.  She’s of independent means, relatively unencumbered, and—because of her discomfort with supernatural matters, relatively incurious about what’s going on here.”  He couldn’t look at her anymore; he dropped his eyes and began to plait his fingers together on the table.  “She’ll be kind to you, and she won’t pry into your affairs if you don’t want.  She’s...my only friend who fits all those descriptions.”

            “I’m sorry,” she said.

            He lifted his face, trying to articulate some antidote for her need to apologize, and ended up merely shaking his head helplessly.

            Elisabeth sat down in the nearest chair and sighed.  “Beggars have no right to be choosers,” she said.

            If she had said it bitterly it might have angered him further, but there was real penitence in her voice, and for the second time that morning her words gave him a visceral flinch.  To cover the sound that would have come from his mouth, he said, “You’re not.”

            She lifted her eyes skeptically.  “Not what?”

            “A beggar.”

            “How do you define the term?” she said dryly.  “It’s like I just got born—I’m at square one, totally powerless....”

            “Well, not totally,” he said.  “You do have your knowledge.”

            She snorted, but gently.  “A power I can’t use.  Except perhaps to nettle you with.”  This last she delivered with a small glance at him, a veiled apology that undid completely all the sinews of his resentment.  He dropped his gaze; his shoulders and head followed, and his eyes grew wet.  There was a silence, then he said:

            “You are more gracious than I.  Forgive me.”

            When he looked up at her she spoke, cutting across the whole of their cross-talk.  “You want your domain and your focus back.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

            His throat ached.  “Nevertheless,” he said huskily, “you have something to forgive.”

            She met his look soberly, then gave him a small smile.  “I will forgive you,” she said, “if you let me drink you under the table tonight.”

            He blinked, then recognized what she was referring to.  “I thought you said that was difficult for you to do.”

            “With Tara’s tea,” she said.

            “Oh,” he said.  He drew a sudden, relaxed breath.  “All right.”  He hesitated a second, then stretched an open hand across the table to her.  For a moment she stared at it, as if it might become a snake, then looked up into his face.  What she saw there must have reassured her, for she reached out slowly and took his hand in a strong clasp, and as she did, the color came back into her cheeks. 

She let go of him and got up from the table.  “You’d better get going.”  She reached for both their plates.

He looked at the clock.  “Oh, God.”  He stood and reached for his empty juice glass, but Elisabeth came out of the kitchen and took it away from him.  “I’ll wash up.  You go.  Go,” she repeated when he hesitated.

Rupert went.  Upstairs, knotting his tie, he drew another long breath, poised between regret and relief.  He shrugged into his jacket, grabbed his wallet and keys, and hurried downstairs.

She was running water and scraping their plates into the trash.  “You sure you’ll be all right?” he said anxiously.

She looked round at him.  “If I’m not,” she said, “I’ll call.”

He nodded.  “Right.  I’ll—I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

She gave him a little smile, which he found himself able to return.

 

*

 

He was gone, and the flat was quiet.  Elisabeth finished washing the dishes and wandered into the livingroom, finally choosing the easy chair as her refuge.  He was gone, and it was quiet: it was safe to cry, and she did, hugging a throw pillow to herself and tucking her head against the side of the chair.

            He was the only tiny tendril of a root she had put down in this dimension, and he was tired of her.  She couldn’t deny him the justice of his need to get back to his work, to end what to him was an excursus from his life and purpose; but it hurt nonetheless.  She had lost her convenience to him, she thought bitterly, just like it always happens…no.  She would not project her ignominious past onto him; she had never been convenient to him, and he had always been warm-hearted toward her—still was, as a matter of fact.

            It didn’t help.

            The fact was, Elisabeth had never exactly planned for being really alone.  Oh, she lived in a vagabond solitude, but she hadn’t actually planned never to see her family again…just not before she had written some books and gotten older and possibly wiser and could walk back in with her own money and her independence and no need to toe any more lines….

            “It was a stupid fantasy anyway,” she said aloud to herself.

            An impossible fantasy, now.  She was now quite literally dead to them.

            And why wasn’t she properly dead, anyway?  She had prepared for it, as much as one can.  She had been, more or less, ready.  And it was a far better proposition than living here (here including whatever she might find in England), living on the bounty of Rupert and Olivia….

            Elisabeth sat up and pressed her head back against the back of the chair, and drew a breath in through her teeth.  “I will not feel sorry for myself, I will not, I will not,” she said under her breath.

            Self-pity she could combat; but grief she could not, and it came for her then, and she curled in a little ball in the chair and wept bitterly for a long time.

            When the worst of it had abated, she got up and went into the bathroom for some toilet paper with which to blow her nose; and ended up washing her face at the sink altogether, again avoiding the mirror.  After she’d dried off, she liberated the roll of toilet paper from the dispenser and carried it with her back to the livingroom.  She had a feeling she was not done crying yet.

            She was debating whether to crawl back into the chair again when the phone rang.  Elisabeth sniffed and cleared her throat as best she could, and went to answer it.  “Hello?”

            “Elisabeth.  Hi.  Giles leave for the shop?”  It was Xander.

            “Yeah,” she said.  Her voice had gone soft corduroy from the crying.  She cleared her throat again and hoped it wasn’t too obvious.

            “Okay.  I’ll catch him there.  So you on for tomorrow?”

            Elisabeth blinked.  “What’s tomorrow?”

            “Giles didn’t tell you?  We decided if you’re going to England you need a real coat.  Apparently it rains a lot there, you know.”

            Her eyes went wide.  “Oh, Xander, you don’t have to….”

            “I know we don’t have to.  Don’t worry about it.  We’re all going in on it, so it’s not like it’s crunching anyone’s wallet.  So anyway, tomorrow I’m taking the day off work and Anya and I are going to take you shopping.”

            In the background, a small voice said, “Ooh, ooh.  Can I leave school and go shopping too?” followed by a loud chorus of “No.”

            “Damn it.”

            “Dawn.”

            “Are you at Buffy’s house?” Elisabeth asked.

            Xander gave a little laugh.  “How’d you guess?”

            (“Well, you cuss.”  “Dawn.  School.”  “Okay, okay.”)

            “Listen,” Xander said, “I gotta catch Giles before I go to work myself.  I’ll see you tomorrow, kay?”

            “Okay,” Elisabeth said faintly.

            She held onto the phone briefly after Xander had hung up, staring into the middle distance, before putting it back on its rest.  Her other hand was not free; she looked down and saw that she was still holding the roll of toilet paper.  She rolled her eyes mildly and set the roll on the desk.

            She needed something to do.  She stood thinking about it for a few minutes until it came to her.

            “When in doubt, clean,” she said, and went to find the broom.

 

*

 

By the time Rupert came home she had scrubbed out the bathtub, swept the kitchen floor (finding two Tylenol as she did so), scrubbed down the stove, laundered the sheets on Rupert’s bed, dusted the livingroom, put away Rupert’s folded clothing, gotten dressed herself, and read two chapters of Murder Must Advertise.  She was starting on the next chapter when he came in, dragging his satchel with him and looking more tired than ever.  “Hallo,” she said.

            “Hallo,” he replied.  “Are you ready to go out?  I think I’d better keep moving before I….”

            “—completely plotz?” Elisabeth finished.  “Sure.  Let me get my shoes.”

            He wandered further into the room and stopped at the desk, as she retrieved her socks and shoes and started putting them on.  When she looked up, she saw that he had noticed the roll of toilet paper sitting there; he had picked it up and was frowning thoughtfully at it.  She hurried with the laces of her shoes.  “Sorry,” she said, plucking the roll out of his hand, “I forgot to put this back.  I needed a tissue.”  She offered no other explanation, instead choosing to retreat into the bathroom and return the roll to its dispenser; but when she came back she had a feeling he had read it all correctly, for his mouth was a small grim line.  But all he said was, “Shall we go?”

            “Yes,” she said briskly, “we shall.”

 

*

 

Since her passport was in order, they agreed that all her other errands could be accomplished at a large drugstore.  Inside, he handed her a shopping basket with an amusingly British gesture and said, “Get whatever you need.  More is optional; less is not.”

            She drew a deep breath.  “Okay.”

            Without further ado Rupert wandered off to the magazine section and left her to it.

            Elisabeth sought out the travel-size section and loaded up on shampoo and bath gel, toothpaste and deodorant; they were small and would fit better in her pack, Elisabeth would tell Rupert if he protested.  She cut through the feminine product aisle, headed for the vitamins, but stopped.  That was going to be an issue quite soon, she realized; so she chose a few things there, then went to the analgesics aisle and got a bottle of naproxen—that would double nicely for both cramps and the nagging headache she still had left over from her injury.  Elisabeth noticed that a woman was staring at her halfway down the aisle; she met her eye, and the woman flushed and scuttled away.  It took Elisabeth a moment to remember that her face was florid with bruises, topped by an awkward bandage and finished with her crooked glasses as a pièce de resistance.  She shrugged and went to find Rupert.

            She tracked him down finally in the clothing section at the back.  “What do you think of this?” he said, turning around with a garish orange and red T-shirt.

            She winced.  “Honestly, Rupert?  I don’t think it’s your color.”

            “Not for me.  For you.”

            She suppressed a smile.  “I don’t think it’s my color either.  And anyway,” she added, more seriously, “if I bought something new, you know, I’d have to throw out my entire wardrobe.”

            He didn’t answer in words, but she could tell he didn’t think that was a half-bad idea.  She added dryly, “And that can wait till I get to London.  I think I’d be better off shopping with a woman than with someone who’s been known to wear brown-and-peach paisley scarves.”

            He flushed.  “I’ll have you know that that scarf was an heirloom.”  He shoved the awful T-shirt back onto the rack.

            She groaned and turned toward the checkout center, and he trailed after her.  “I was hoping that scarf didn’t actually exist.  Ah, well, at least you didn’t buy it.  But what could possess you to wear it?”

            He caught up and matched her stride.  “I happen to like it,” he sniffed.

            “Uh huh, so why aren’t you wearing it nowadays?”

            He lifted his chin austerely.  “It doesn’t go with my new suits.”

            “I should say not.  Your new suits are very nice.”

            “Just for that,” he said, “I’ll take it out and show it you when we get home.”

            Elisabeth caught sight of the same woman who had stared at her bruised face opening her mouth in horror at Rupert’s last remark, then disappearing down another aisle.  Elisabeth sucked in her lips and tried not to laugh.

            “What?” Rupert said.

            She shook her head, and he subsided.  As they reached the checkout line, she dared a glance up at him, just as he was darting a glance at her.  His lips twitched; Elisabeth looked away smiling.

            “Indian food, after this?” he inquired, as she heaved her basket onto the counter.

            “Okay,” she said.

 

*

 

Darkness had begun to descend by the time they arrived back home.  Rupert went upstairs to change, and Elisabeth went off to the bathroom to rake over her booty and stow it in her pack.  When she was finished she changed into her pajamas and took the pack upstairs with her.

            She found Rupert dressed in sweatpants and T-shirt, sitting on the bed, reading something on a piece of paper.  It wasn’t till she had dropped her pack in the corner that she realized what it was he was reading.

            Some of her new things fell out of her pack as she dropped it, and she bent to gather them up.  “It was a stupid gesture,” she said without looking at him.  “I wish you’d throw it away.”

            He looked up.  “It’s not bad poetry,” he said.

            “It’s execrable poetry,” she said, refolding the T-shirt she had worn during the day.

            “I don’t think so,” he said.

            She shook her head, suddenly unable to answer him.  A small part of her mind noted with clinical sarcasm, We are now leaving the Denial stage and entering the Anger stage.

            “I hope you don’t mind if I keep it,” he said quietly.

            Elisabeth bent and shoved the T-shirt hard into her pack.  “As you like.”

            She took as long as she could returning her things to her pack.  When she stood finally and faced him, he was tucking the folded sonnet away in his copy of The Art of War.  He finished, laid the book down in its place, and lifted his eyes to hers.

            They were silent a moment.  An ache lodged itself under Elisabeth’s tongue.

            He brought his hands together as if in appeal, humility in his face.  “Is it time for my tea now?”

            She swallowed hard and nodded; then abruptly turned and went downstairs to make it for him.

            She followed the directions on the piece of paper Tara had left; when she came to the blessing she hesitated only a little.  Perhaps, she thought, it wouldn’t work for her; but at any rate the herbs would be good for him.  She carried it carefully upstairs and found that he had gotten into bed and arranged himself on the side that had become his.  He took the cup from her hands as she sank down on the bed next to him.

            “Are you going to have some too?” he asked her, as he lifted the steaming cup to his lips.

            She nodded.  “Later.”  He sipped thoughtfully and she said,  “I don’t know how potent my blessing is, but it shouldn’t change the virtue of the herbs.”

            He smiled and sipped again.  “I don’t imagine there’ll be a problem.”  He was looking sleepy already.

            She sat silently while he drank the potion off, slowly so as not to burn his tongue.  When he had finished he handed the cup back to her and let his head fall back on his pillow.  “Goodnight,” he murmured.

            He was asleep within a minute.  Elisabeth smoothed down a wayward curl of his hair and decided that between his exhaustion and the tea, there was little to choose as to what made him drop off.  She took the cup downstairs and brewed another serving for herself; and after making sure the house was battened down for the night, she took it upstairs with her and settled into the bed next to him.  She drank the potion with another chapter of Lord Peter, then subsided quietly under the covers, blinking sleepily.

            Her eyes lit on the corner of the torn notebook page sticking out of The Art of War, and rested there.  And despite the tea, it took her a long time to follow Rupert to sleep.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 29

by L. Inman

 

Elisabeth woke before the sun had properly risen, after a nebulous half-hour’s bout of twitching and turning, half-alert to avoid hitting the other occupant of the bed with her thrashing.  That was the problem with sharing a bed: and the odd clarity of that thought woke her with a blink.  She found herself staring into Rupert’s sleeping face.  She couldn’t help a faint recoil at the proximity of him, but after the first shock she subsided onto her back and breathed evenly, blinking up at the ceiling.

            She slipped out of the bed quietly, so as not to wake him, and padded downstairs to make tea.  In the days she had been here, she had learned where almost everything was, so it was not difficult to find a cup and a teabag while she waited for the water to heat.

            Rupert, she realized afresh when she opened the fridge, had done some serious grocery shopping the other day.  She got the milk out for her tea, shut the fridge door, and glanced around at the new things peeping out on the counter and atop the fridge.  Yes, he had replenished nearly everything and bought extra things as well:  Elisabeth’s eyes fell on a bag of potato chips tucked next to the microwave.  He had been long overdue for a shopping trip, and she wondered how much her presence had prolonged the wait for the proper opportunity.  Elisabeth checked the impulse to beat herself over the head with her intrusion, but couldn’t quite squelch the wistful sense of being a stranger to Rupert’s solitary rhythms.  You will develop rhythms of your own, she told herself.  Give it time.

            She curled up in the armchair with her tea; and the sun rose as the level in her cup sank.  By the time Rupert stirred upstairs, woke, and shuffled down tousle-haired with clothing over his arm, she had nearly finished it off altogether.  “There’s water on the stove if you want to reheat it,” she told him.  He nodded, squinting, rubbed scratchily at his face, and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

            By the time he was out and dressed, Elisabeth had washed her cup and gone upstairs to retrieve clothing and bath things from her pack.  When she went down she found him making coffee, clean and shaven but not much more alert than he had been at first.  She felt a sudden shyness, all the more disconcerting because of the rapidity with which they had grown intimate.

            She scuttled past him into the bathroom, and opted for a quick shower rather than a languorous bath.  Within fifteen minutes she was combing her wet hair before the mirror.  She was about to put it up, but then realized that leaving it down would conceal some part of the small shaved patch and the unsightly black row of stitches on her temple, like some horrible caterpillar that was slowly eating her hair.  She combed the fall of her straggling hair and hoped that its current look of studied looseness would remain once it had dried.

            Nothing, however, could be done about the bruises, or the dark circles under her eyes that suggested illness.  Elisabeth washed her glasses, wiped them clean with her pajama T-shirt, and settled them over the bridge of her nose: the result was merely that she could see her pitiful face more clearly.  She winced and stopped looking in the mirror.

            When she came out she found Rupert packing his satchel.  “Xander just called,” he said.  “He and Anya should be here any moment.  I’ll wait till he gets here before I go in to the shop.”

            “Okay,” Elisabeth said, picking her quiet way over to the table and sitting down at her place.  She laced her hands together on the table and sat waiting, watching him pack.  She wanted to ask if he had slept well, but feared it might nettle him: nobody, she reflected, likes to be maneuvered into doing what is good for one, and continually referring to the fact could only make it worse.

            He was moving briskly, and it occurred to Elisabeth that once Xander arrived he would expect her to be fully ready to leave.  She got up and went to find her shoes.

            Waiting at the table, with her jacket in her lap, she watched Rupert put the finishing touches to his packing.  He paused, one hand on hip, one hand seeking the back of his head, a thoughtful frown on his face.  He had not yet put on his suit jacket, and Elisabeth noted the quirked hang of his tie (which she hoped he would not fix, as she found it endearing), the straight fall of the creases in his trousers (Rupert had such long legs), the soft crispness of his drying hair.

            He felt her eyes on him and turned to look at her mildly.  She took her gaze away and looked back at the front door, sucking in her lips.

            Mercifully, the loud knock came then, sparing her any further diffidence, and sparing them both from placing too much emphasis on a stray moment.  Rupert moved to answer it just as Anya turned the handle and pushed it open.  “Hi there,” she said, barging straight in, Xander lumbering in behind.

            “Yes, do come right in,” Rupert said, lifting his eyes to the ceiling.  Xander shrugged an apology at him, then turned to where Elisabeth sat at the table.  “All ready?” he said.

            Elisabeth released her lips from between her teeth.  “Yes.” She got up and shrugged into her jacket.

            “Okay,” Xander said.  He turned to Rupert.  “We’ll meet up back at the shop later.”

            Rupert nodded his agreement.

            Less than a minute later Elisabeth, Xander, and Anya were out on Rupert’s doorstep.  “Giles is kindof a cranky-pants this morning,” Anya observed as Xander shut the door behind them.

            Xander looked at Elisabeth; Anya’s eyes followed.  Elisabeth could only shrug.

            They took Xander’s car, Elisabeth automatically choosing the back seat; she was usually the person with the shortest legs.  “This is going to be fun,” Anya said, grinning at her over the back of the passenger seat.  “Almost as much fun as it would be if we were going shopping for me.”

            “Anya,” Xander said; but Anya ignored him.  Elisabeth smiled back at her: it seemed to her a great compliment that Anya would find this trip fun at all.

            “Where are we going?” she asked Xander tentatively.

            “Where all roads lead, of course,” he said.  “The mall.”

            Elisabeth had not been to a mall for a long time—that is, for the purposes of shopping.  She had been to many malls in search of temporary employment, though she considered herself lucky that most of her jobs had been in independent establishments.  She wondered, wasn’t there some nice Burlington Coat Factory around Sunnydale?  Things were likely to cost a great deal more at the mall.

            Xander was watching her face in the rearview mirror.  “Relax,” he said.  “It’s going to be fine.”

            They arrived at the mall without fanfare, and Xander steered them gently to a department store which Elisabeth knew to have good sale racks, but whose merchandise was usually quite out of her star.  Unhappily she followed Xander and Anya to the coat section.

            To her amazement, she was met with a proliferation of coats that did not at all correspond with the usual weather in Southern California in the winter.  She gave Xander a look of mute confusion, and he said, “Giles said this was the place for travelers.”

            She drew a long breath.  “Okay,” she said.

            Anya said, ticking off criteria on her fingers: “We’re looking for a coat that repels water, that can stand up to cold and wind, and that you can beat up pretty good.  Other than that, anything you want.  So, go on—choose a coat.”  Anya flapped her hands at Elisabeth in a shooing motion.

            Elisabeth disappeared among the coats before Xander could reprove Anya again.

            It had been a very, very long time since Elisabeth had chosen anything off the rack, and it took her a while to begin her patient search.  She felt herself drawn to the traditional burberry types, but didn’t know if that was actually what she wanted.  She did know that she wanted something dark, probably black, but she worried that it might make her look all Boris and Natasha.  She mentioned this to Xander as she passed him among the racks, along with a musing aside on Cold War culture; Xander laughed appropriately, and she moved on.

            However, Xander wasn’t laughing when he caught her reeling in the price tag on the sleeve of a coat.  His hand caught the tag before she got hold of it, effectively obscuring the price.  “You’re not supposed to be worrying about that,” he said.  “Choose what you like.”

            Elisabeth finally balked.  “But what if what I like is too expensive?” she said, glaring up into Xander’s face.

            “It probably won’t be,” Xander said.  “But if it is, we’ll let you know.”

            “That will be embarrassing,” Elisabeth muttered, casting wet eyes down to the carpet.

            Xander sighed.  “Tell you what.  Choose three things you like best, and we’ll work out which is the best buy afterward.  Okay?”

            Elisabeth nodded, clenching her teeth against the ache under her tongue.

            Xander grasped her shoulder for a moment, and then left her alone again.

            Elisabeth did find it easier, to choose three coats and let Xander and Anya guide her toward the best-priced one: a black trench with a zippered liner, made of a soft, almost moleskin-like material.  On the whole, she was rather relieved that her choice and her friends’ pockets were so compatible, and so she wandered off toward the doors, idly sniffing at perfume testers, while Xander and Anya paid for the coat.  They caught her up after a few minutes; Anya presented the coat to Elisabeth, swathed in yards of plastic, for her to carry out; and as they stepped out into the bright sunlight, heading for the car, Xander drew her into a brief, strong side-hug.  He let her go before their stride was compromised too much.  Elisabeth ratcheted in another long breath, willing herself to relax.

 

*

 

In the car, Elisabeth comforted herself by saying:  “Well, my birthday’s coming up soon, so I think I’ll look at this as an early birthday present.”

            “There you go,” Xander said.

            Anya turned to Xander with a frown.  “You know, I haven’t gotten any early-birthday presents.  Or any right-on-my-birthday presents.  Or even any late-birthday presents.”

            “Well,” Xander said, “you never told me when your birthday is.”

            “Well…I can’t remember my birthday.  It was over a thousand years ago, you know.  Dammit!” Anya said.  “I’m getting gypped out of all my birthday presents because I can’t remember when my birthday is.”

            “You can make up a birthday,” Xander suggested.

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said.

            The trouble cleared from Anya’s face.  “Good idea!  Except—” she frowned again— “if I pick some arbitrary day, nobody will remember it.  I want an exciting day for my birthday that everyone will remember.”

            “There are pitfalls to picking arbitrary days, though,” Elisabeth said, “if something exciting but bad happens on the day.  Like the people born on what’s now Pearl Harbor Day.”  Or September 11th, she reflected to herself, and then thought—Oh, God: I’m going to have to relive that all over again.  She put a hand to her forehead, as if pressing against a nonexistent headache, and stared for a moment out the window.

            Xander’s voice recalled her.  “You could pick a holiday.”

            “Okay,” Anya said.  “What’s the best holiday?”

            “Well, there are holidays and holidays,” Elisabeth explained.  “You don’t want to be too close to Christmas, because people tend to give you a Christmas-slash-birthday present, and you get gypped.”

            “Okay, then Christmas is out,” Anya said firmly.

            “And you don’t want to be too close to Thanksgiving either, like me,” Elisabeth went on, “because everybody has family duty, and you can never have a party that everyone can come to.”

            “Okay,” Anya said, as if making a list.  “No Christmas.  No Thanksgiving.”

            “Easter’s a moving date,” Elisabeth said thoughtfully, “though the Equinox has something to be said for it…Columbus Day is the pits….”

            “Clearly,” Anya said, “I’m going to have to start making a list of available holidays and debating the pros and cons of having my birthday on them.  That’s our project for this weekend,” she told Xander.

            Xander grinned, and nodded acquiescently.

 

*

 

They stopped, on their way to the magic shop, at the university, so that Elisabeth could model her new burberry for Tara and Willow, and pay her last respects.

            She had tried it on in the store, of course, but now, wearing it with the tags off and adjusting all the various buttons and straps to her liking, she found it was beginning, just a little, to feel like her own.  She turned, the long hem of the coat swishing gently, to survey herself in the mirror.

            “It’s nice,” Willow said, from where she lounged on the bed.  “It looks very….”

            “Watchery,” Tara supplied, helping Elisabeth straighten the shoulders.

            “Really?” Elisabeth said.  “You think it says ‘Watcher’ and not, y’know, ‘Boris and Natasha’?”

            This prompted a number of Bullwinkle jokes and impressions which left them all grinning and giggling.

            “Well,” Willow concluded, “this oughta do you good in England.  Good job, Xander and Anya.”

            Tara said tentatively, “So…it’s all arranged then?  All the stuff for moving…?”

            “Yeah,” Elisabeth said, concentrating on adjusting the sleeves.

            “Cause,” Willow said, growing bolder with each word, “Giles was freaking out pretty heavily the other day about getting it all done.”

            Elisabeth looked up to catch Xander frowning at Willow.  But Anya picked up where Willow left off.

            “He called his old orgasm friend to take you, and then when we questioned his judgment he bit our heads off,” she said.  “But not literally.  It’s a metaphor.”

            “Just barely,” Willow muttered.

            Elisabeth tried not to think too hard over her answer.  “Well, the biggest bit of difficulty, I think, is getting my visa and passport all in order.  I don’t know very much about that; he said he’d take care of it.”

            But it didn’t deflect the attention of the others.  “So,” Tara said, “you don’t think it’s going to be a problem?  Staying with Giles’s friend?”

            “What, Olivia?”  Elisabeth looked at them and gave up trying to misdirect.  “Rupert said he’d worked it out with her.  I asked him if she’d mind that we’d had a—you know—and he said, no, she’d probably take it for granted.”

            Everyone blinked.

            “He said that?” Willow yelped, causing Elisabeth to regret instantly what she’d done.  She hurried to walk it back.  “Well….”

            But she didn’t get the chance. 

“What’s wrong with him?” Tara said, with some concern.

“Oh!” Anya said, before anyone could stab at a guess.  “You know what this means?  This means Xander and I get money.”

“Anya—” Xander began.

“Yes!  We get money.  Xander and I bet ten dollars that Giles would screw up the Olivia thing.  And he did, boy howdy.”

“You made a bet?” Elisabeth asked, frowning intently at her.  But Anya paid no attention.

“Anya—” Xander said.

“Ten dollars,” Anya said, holding her hand out insistently.  “From each of you.”

Tara and Willow rolled their eyes acquiescently and went each for their wallets.  Elisabeth watched, standing blankly in her black trenchcoat with one sleeve adjusted and the other drooping over her knuckles, as Tara counted singles out of a wad in her change purse and Willow snapped a crisp ten out of her wallet.

“Does nobody know the meaning of tact anymore?” Xander asked the ceiling.  Everyone ignored him.  Elisabeth watched Anya happily counting the money, growing more and more indignant. 

Finally she stuck out her hand.  “Where’s my cut?”

Anya finally looked up, startled.  “You don’t get any.  You weren’t in the bet.”

“He said it to me,” Elisabeth said, not lowering her hand.  “I think I should get paid.  Not to mention you wouldn’t have the money if I hadn’t told you what he said.”

“She does have a point there, An,” Xander said.

“But that’s not how gambling works,” Anya protested.

“I need vengeance money,” Elisabeth insisted.

Anya wavered.  “Well…okay.”  She began to peel a one off her takings, but Xander reached over and tugged out the crisp ten.  Anya made a face of protest, but reluctantly handed over the ten to Elisabeth, who folded it away into her pocket with satisfaction. 

“I’ve got to recoup my losses somehow,” Anya said.

“Well, strictly speaking, Giles ought to pay Elisabeth ten dollars,” Tara said, folding her arms with a wicked smile.

“‘Taking it for granted,’ indeed,” Willow muttered.  “He’s such a guy.”

“Hey!” Xander said.  “Y chromosome here.”

“That’s it,” Anya said.  “I’ll make Giles pay me ten dollars.”

“Now wait a minute,” Elisabeth said.

“You don’t want me to make Giles pay me ten dollars?”

Elisabeth hastened to explain.  “Oh, no—I don’t mind you taking ten dollars from Giles—it’s just—I already gave him an earful about what he said, and then I told you all about it, and I don’t want to twist the knife….”

Everybody made a derisive noise.

“If he didn’t want it to get around to the fambly,” Willow said firmly, “he shouldn’t have said it.”

“Plus he gave us an earful the other day,” Xander said.

Elisabeth relaxed.  “I see.  Payment for all the guilty bystanders.”

“Who’s a guilty bystander?”

They turned.  Buffy was peeking into the room, and at their notice she came inside altogether.  “Will, I came by real quick to get your history notes before I go pick up Dawn.”

“Right,” Willow said, going to her backpack on the floor.

“So who’s a guilty bystander?”

Willow stood up, indignant all over again.  “Giles,” she said, “told Elisabeth that Olivia would take it for granted that she slept with him.”

Buffy stared.  Elisabeth blushed.

Buffy said: “Well, that’s setting a record, even for a guy.  I clearly need to have a talk with him.”

“Hello,” Xander said, “still have a Y chromosome here.”

“We know, sweetie,” Anya said, patting his chest.

Willow dragged a notebook to the surface; Elisabeth saw that “19th c. European History” was printed neatly on the cover.  “Here,” Willow said, “just take the whole thing.  I’ll come get it tonight or tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Buffy said.  “You’re the best.  I’d better get going.”

“Better say goodbye to Elisabeth,” Tara reminded her.  “Her plane leaves tomorrow morning.”

“Oh! right,” Buffy said distractedly, looking at Elisabeth at last.  “Hey, nice coat.”

“Thanks,” Elisabeth said, blushing again.

Buffy passed the history notebook from one hand to the other.  “Well…good luck in England.  Bring us all some souvenirs…which…you would do if you were coming back.  I’m sorry.” Buffy grimaced.  “Brain, clearly on the fritz.”

Elisabeth offered her a diffident smile—then had an idea.  She pointed, her unadjusted sleeve flopping.  “Oh! tell you what.  I’ll shoepolish Quentin Travers’s car for you.  ‘U…SUCK.’” Elisabeth pantomimed drawing the block letters, her hand half-lost in her black coat-sleeve.

Buffy broke into a genuine smile.  “You do that,” she said.

She reached to shake Elisabeth’s hand.

 

*

 

In the end, it was Xander alone who brought Elisabeth back to the Magic Box; he had successfully convinced Anya that she could get her ten dollars from Giles just as well tomorrow as today.  Elisabeth had taken leave of Anya and Willow and Tara with dry eyes until the very last moment when Tara drew back from their hug and said, “Take care, okay?”

            Now, pausing outside the door of the shop, she turned to Xander and said quietly, “Thanks.  For everything…you know.”

            He smiled, self-deprecating and affectionate at once.  “No problem.”

            They hugged, briefly, tightly; then Xander held the door for Elisabeth to enter the shop.

            Rupert looked up from his desultory efforts with the ledger.  “Oh, hallo,” he said.  “Good hunting?”

            Elisabeth held up the arm over which lay her coat.

            Xander poked her.  “Show it to him.”

            She rolled her eyes good-naturedly, shucked off her jacket, and shrugged into the coat.  She buttoned two buttons and gave a half-twirl for Rupert’s benefit.

            He smiled.  “Very nice.”

            “Well, I’m going to head out,” Xander said.

            Elisabeth and Rupert both turned.  “I’ll see you tomorrow, then, or the day after,” Rupert said mildly.  Xander nodded.

            “Bye,” Elisabeth said, offering him a small wave.

            Xander stopped in his movement toward the door and came to shake her hand.  “Good luck in England.”

            She returned his handshake firmly.  “Thanks.  The same to you.”

            Xander grinned, and with a final wave, departed.  The bell gave a lonely little ring as the door shut behind him.

            With a sigh Elisabeth took off her new coat and resumed her jacket.  “Said my goodbyes to everybody today,” she said as she put her hands into all the pockets, making sure she had everything.  She wasn’t quite ready to move her wallet and other paraphernalia into her new coat.

            “Yes,” Rupert said softly.

            “They were,” Elisabeth said, drawing out her wallet and looking carefully through it, “very kind to me.”

            Rupert had no reply, and after a moment’s silence she looked up at him.  He was looking at her, head cocked, an abstract and unreadable expression in his eyes.  He had, she noticed, straightened his tie since the morning.

            Elisabeth moved her glance from him to their surroundings: this was, if she were lucky, the last time she would ever be in the Magic Box.  Her eyes fell once more to the wallet in her hand, and she opened it to finger the bills inside.  “Listen,” she said as she counted money, “I want to—”  Pulling out a few bills, she looked up to catch the look of scandal and horror crossing Rupert’s face.

            “Elisabeth,” he uttered, “you mustn’t think of—”

            He stopped.  She said:

            “Can I buy that book from you now?”

            Relief softened his face into a small, bright smile.  “Of course,” he said.  Then frowned nervously.  “—If, of course, I still have—I shoved it somewhere when you—hang on, let me see—”  He bustled around the counter and began rooting around beneath the cash register.  Elisabeth drifted toward the counter and fetched up against the glass, resting her open wallet on the top surface.

            All she could see was the top of his head as he muttered and grunted and shoved things aside.  Several rattles and crackles later, he cried, “Aha!” and emerged with the book, slightly dusty but none the worse.  He looked inside the cover, tilting his head back and raising his brows above his glass-rims.  “Would you like a student discount?”

            “Absolutely not,” Elisabeth said, straightening her spine.

            He grinned and rang the book up; she handed over her money, and he gave her her change.  “Would you like me to wrap it?” he asked, with the faintest of courtly bows.

            Elisabeth wavered.  Usually she declined the wrapping of any book, as the whole purpose of buying it was to get her hands on it as soon as she was out of the shop.  She looked up at him, and raised her chin.  “Yes, please,” she said, folding her wallet away with a regal air.  “I would like it wrapped.”

            She watched with pleasure as he covered the green-and-gold book with decorated brown paper.  He finished with a small flourish of scotch tape and handed the book over.  “Thank you for shopping with us,” he said, with a little smile.

            She gave him a majestic nod, clutching her purchase close.

 

*

 

Elisabeth resisted the temptation to unwrap the book as Rupert closed up the shop for the night.  She contented herself with holding onto it and occasionally fingering the stars and moons on the wrapping paper.

            Her eyes were on the book as Rupert locked the front door, and as she followed him to his car; and it wasn’t till she was seated and he was turning the ignition that she remembered with a bump that she had another leave-taking to make.  “Oh!” she said.

            He looked up, leaving the car unstarted.  “What?”

            “Can we stop by that church before we go home?” she asked.  “Just for a minute.  I want to let the priest know what happened.”

            There was a brief silence as their eyes met.

            “Very well,” he said quietly, and reached to start the car.

 

*

 

It was quite dark by the time Rupert and Elisabeth arrived home.  Both of them listened carefully to the darkness as they approached the door of his flat, but nothing came at them, and Rupert’s hand finally relaxed in his jacket pocket as he unlocked the door with the other hand and ushered Elisabeth in ahead of him.  Elisabeth hung one new purchase neatly on an empty hook, and carried the other to the table, where she sat and contemplated it for a moment, running a fingertip idly under the edge of the wrapping.  At last she smoothed the wrapping intact and took up the book to carry it upstairs.

            “You’re not going to unwrap it?” Rupert asked, smiling from the kitchen where he was getting out pans and bowls preparatory to cooking.

            Elisabeth paused scarcely a second on the landing to answer.  “Not yet.”

            After tucking the book safely away in her pack upstairs, Elisabeth came down to help with dinner, which they prepared and ate with the usual brevity of comment.  Elisabeth kept her eyes on her food—for the most part—except when she flicked up her gaze to study him furtively on the other side of the table.  He had been freaking out, Willow had said.  Elisabeth wasn’t sure what she ought to make of that; wasn’t sure if it betokened a pleasing concern for her, or a worrying and guilt-inducing tendency to take too much on himself.  Or both.  Complicated, it was so complicated—and would be even if she hadn’t actually slept with him.  Which she hadn’t regretted yet.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life—  Elisabeth smirked to herself over a bite of salad.

            “What?” he said, startling her.  She realized he had been watching her face.  She blushed and shook her head.  “I couldn’t explain,” she said, diffidently.

            He offered her a little smile and went back to eating.

            She sat idly stirring the last bits of her salad with her fork and thought about the ending of Casablanca.  Obviously Rupert was putting her on a plane with—well, sending her to Olivia, though Olivia, from all Elisabeth knew, didn’t frame well as a Victor Laszlo.  Rupert was putting her on a plane with—her book, that was it.  She was Escaping From Sunnydale, and Keeping Her Marriage to the Fairy-Tale….

            She was getting far too silly now.  Besides, there was no Louis for Rupert to nudge and say, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Then it struck her, the hilarity of Rupert Giles as Humphrey Bogart.  It took a great deal of effort to keep the laughter off her face.

            She dared a glance up at him once more.  His eyes were on his plate, his expression somber.  Elisabeth felt all over again the strain within her, between wanting to offer him something, having nothing to offer, and having instead to accept all that he gave.  It was too much to think about, and she pushed it and her plate away.

 

*

 

Elisabeth volunteered to do the dishes, and Rupert, after only a moment’s hesitation, let her tackle their plates and the pans while he went up to change and get out his notes for the evening’s research. 

            Once the dishes were done, Elisabeth opted for one last long bath, as she was certain she would get no chance to bathe the next day.  This she told Rupert as she gathered her bath things; but her unavowed desire was to get away alone to think.

            But once she sank into the warm water, all desire to think left her.  The two-and-a-half years of history she had to relive—the bitter cup of accepting a coat, a plane ticket, and a provisional sum of money—the loss of her past—none of these would bear dwelling on, and instead Elisabeth closed her eyes and stirred the water around her skin, letting the scent and the flow draw her attention.

            She stayed in the bath as long as she could, letting its pleasant associations lull her.  But duty urged her up before too long: she had to go over the next morning’s procedure and make sure she was properly packed.  Elisabeth quashed the tendril of anxiety that wound around her breath, and pulled the bathtub plug.

 

*

 

Wet hair pinned up, glasses perched damply on her nose, Elisabeth sat down with Rupert to work out the manner in which she would leave the country of her birth.  He explained it all very simply and carefully, but she felt her competence and then her attention slipping the longer he went on.  He glanced up from the papers on the coffee table to her face: she hitched an attentive look back on and nodded at him to continue.

            “All right?” he asked, when they had finished.

            “I don’t know if I’ll remember any of this in the morning,” she said, pushing her glasses up to rub her eyes.

            “I expect it’ll go so fast you won’t even notice,” he said, laying a hand briefly on her shoulder.

            By the time she had her hands away from her face and her eyes open to look at him, he had taken his hand away and begun shuffling the papers into a single pile.

            Inside her stomach was a fuzz of anxiety and frustration:  she wanted something simple, something single in purpose….

            She took off her glasses, rose, turned: dropped the glasses on top of the papers he was piling, took his shoulder, stilling him, and kissed his mouth.

            His hand came up to steady her, and for the first few seconds he was even kissing her back.  But even with her eyes closed Elisabeth knew it was all wrong, and stubbornly she pressed the kiss forward in an urgent appeal.  Perhaps a little force would get them over whatever stile—

            He got hold of her shoulders and held her gently away, and their kiss broke despite Elisabeth’s efforts to maintain it.  “May I ask,” he said softly, eyes steady on hers, “what you are doing?”

            “What does it look like I’m doing?”  The sharpness of her own voice stung her, and she dropped her gaze and her head.

            “Well….”  He was too gracious to finish the sentence.  Elisabeth tried to do it for him.

            “I was just—” she faltered— “I only wanted to—”

            “Prove your membership in the Bloomsbury club?”  He said it gently, but she jerked her chin up in protest.

            “No!”  His hands were so gentle, holding her arms.  Elisabeth’s eyes stung and filled.  She couldn’t look at him any more.  “That’s a…better motive than the one I was thinking of,” she managed at last.  And finally she dropped her shoulders and let out a great sigh, hoping it would curtail the impending tears.  “I’m sorry.  Damn!”

            He tilted his head, mouth wry, which was in itself a speech she didn’t want to hear.  “Come here,” he said, shifting back to recline further on the couch.

            She resisted, but in the end found herself acceding to his touch; they shifted and clambered, and finally she found herself tucked around him, his long legs gathered onto the couch somehow, her head under his chin.  For a long moment they were silent together as he stroked her hair; Rupert mercifully did not speak, and Elisabeth could not: she was fully occupied with chewing the inside of her cheek and fighting tears.

            When she thought she had voice again, she whispered:  “I’m too proud for all this, you know.”

            He said nothing, only moved his chin over her hair, acknowledging her words.

            “I hate accepting things I can’t pay for myself.  It makes one so helpless.”  She gave a small bark of a laugh.  “You’d think after wrestling so hard to accept that tenet on a theological level, that it wouldn’t bother me in the mortal plane.  But here I am.”  She sighed.

            Rupert made a small sound, but otherwise let her speech go unanswered.

            “I come from a long line of proud people,” Elisabeth said, keeping her eyes on the knickknacks on the mantelpiece.  “My father dug ditches to put himself through college.  His father was an Okie who went to earn a living horse-breaking instead of going to high school.  My mother came from Presbyterian patrician stock.  I was an adult before I figured out that that was a problem for him.”  She sighed again and closed her eyes.  “Of course being an intellectual dilettante doesn’t exempt you from the Bowen pride.  It just makes things a little harder.”

            After a little silence, she said:  “Are these some of the things you wanted to know?”

            For answer, he sighed and held her closer.  Elisabeth shut her eyes again.

            “They’re all dead to me now.  Or I’m dead to them.  But it doesn’t feel like that.  I don’t…I don’t understand it.  Why I’m alive again.  What I’m doing here.”

            He shook his head a little: she could feel the movement of his cheek against her hair.  He was warm, and her warmth added to his made their nest very snug.  She left her eyes softly closed.

            “‘There seems no plan because it is all plan.  Blessed be He!’” she murmured.

            He grunted a laugh.  “You must be feeling a little better, if you’re back to quoting,” he said.

            “Don’t be fooled,” she said, smiling with her eyes closed.  “I have a quote for all weathers.  I’m trying to remember the one from Byron about buffooning when one’s depressed, but it’s escaped me.”

            He gave a little laugh, shaking them.

            After a little silence, she felt him clear his throat.  He said:  “It may not be worth much, but for whatever it’s worth—I for one am glad you are not dead.”

            Briefly she opened her eyes; then shut them again and tightened her hold on him for a moment.  In response, she felt his lips on her hair.

            They were quiet together, and their breathing was soft.

 

*

 

Later, he came upstairs to find her stretched out on the bed, lovingly turning pages of her book with all the care that a librarian-antiquarian brings to reading.  He smiled.

            “So you unwrapped it after all,” he said.

            She gave him a wry guilty smile.  “Couldn’t help it,” she said.  “Plus I figured I’d better unwrap it here, in case airport security decides it’s a bomb.”

            “Highly unlikely,” he said, smirking.  He sat down on his side of the bed and reached for the alarm clock.

            “What time are we getting up?” she asked him.

            “Oh—” he thought about it— “like to leave about a half-hour for getting there and parked, and an hour for security—”

            “Oh, you’d better leave more than that,” Elisabeth said, alarmed.

            He turned to look at her.  “I’ve never known it take more than an hour, even considering it’s your first time leaving the country.”

            Elisabeth shook her head.  “Sorry.  I forgot.”  She turned back to the book.

            He didn’t move his gaze from her face.  “Security takes longer in your world,” he said.

            “My old world,” she reminded him gently.  “And yes.”  She sighed and closed the book.

            To her relief he dropped the subject and returned to setting the alarm.  That done, he got under the covers and began arranging his pillows.

            She took his cue and went to pack the book before getting into bed and turning off the lamp.

            In the darkness they both sighed and settled under the covers.  “Am I crowding you?” he asked.  “No,” she said.

            He sighed again, and after a few minutes was still, though she could sense that he was not yet asleep.

            There was so much she could say to him now, in the darkness, in the safety of her imminent departure.  She could leave behind some trace, some imprint of who she was, before leaving, like Abraham, to seek a fortune the shape of which she could not see.

            But the silence was soft, though filled with the unspoken anxiety and wistfulness of her leavetaking; and despite the suspense, Elisabeth soon found herself dropping into a heavy sleep.

            Beside her, Rupert breathed quietly, shadowing her sleeping body with his own.

Chapter Text

Shadow Though it Be:  An Excursus – Chapter 30

by L. Inman

 

The alarm went off far too soon.  Rupert shut it off and dragged himself halfway upright, forcing his eyes open.  He reached over his companion and fumbled the lamp on.  She stirred only a very little: he saw, too, that she had reverted to her protective sleeping position, whether because of the alarm or for some other reason he did not know.

            It didn’t bode well.

            Mindful of the omen, he let her sleep as long as he possibly could, dressing in near-silence, brewing coffee for himself, packing carefully all the necessary papers in his satchel, before carrying a glass of ice water upstairs.

            He sat down gingerly by her side, momentarily putting down the glass, and began to stroke her shoulder and hair.  He used her name once, softly.

            She made a faint gravelly noise of protest and curled harder into herself.  It seemed to Rupert that it would be fatal to force her awake too soon, so he continued patiently stroking her and talking to her until he gauged that the spirit was willing, if not the flesh.  Then he began to uncover her gently and urge her to sit up.

            She sat up with his help, eyes still tight shut, hands curled protectively against her chest, shivering; when he tried to get her to take some of the water she resisted, with an unconscious convulsive movement as of nausea.  “Don’t want tea,” she muttered.

            “It’s water,” he told her.  She dragged her eyes open enough to see the glass; and slowly she took it and sipped at it, first slowly, then more deeply.

            He let her wake up slowly, puttering about the room and getting out the clothes she’d chosen for the day.  He put them next to her on the bed: she stared at them for a long time, clutching her water glass, while he made certain her backpack was properly packed, book, notebook, clothing, and all.

            At last he straightened, glanced at his watch, and said to her:  “Best get dressed now.”

            She offered a jerk of a nod, began to uncurl herself and put down the water to dress.  Something in her movements made him think of a dying insect, with its legs beginning to shut against its body—and then the impression passed and she looked human again, childlike and smooth-limbed.

            He left her alone so she could dress.

            When he came back she was numbly attempting to shove her pajamas into her pack on top of her books.  Gently he took over for her: she acquiesced, blinking hard into the light, and took up her water glass again.

            In a very short time he was escorting her downstairs step by step, carrying her pack.  He set it down by the table long enough to get her jacket and hold it for her to get into; then she took a little initiative and picked her pack up before he could take it again.

            He shrugged into his own jacket, took down her new coat and shouldered his own satchel.  She trailed after him to the door; but when he opened it and moved a hand to usher her out, she paused, looking back.

            He watched her eyes, still bleary behind crooked glasses, sweep over the landscape of his flat, with an expression of one making sure she hadn’t missed anything, mixed with a numb hint of emotion, whether regret or relief he could not tell.

            She turned back to him.  “Ready?” he said; she nodded, hitched her backpack on her shoulder, and strode wearily past him into the blackness of the wee morning hours.

 

*

 

He worried that she might fall asleep again in the car on the way to the airport.  She did not; she sat quite straight and silent with the streetlights flicking smoothly over her glasses.  She moved once, when they passed the city-limit sign on the highway, headed toward the city airport. 

He worried that the dimensional warp would take her again.  It did not; and a small knell fell inside him: he knew it meant both death and life to her.

He ran over the procedures in his mind, and worried that she wasn’t up to a one-stop flight.  She was so fragile, so tired, so obviously ill.  Could she handle both LAX and Logan?  Curse the airlines—it was the best he could do under such short notice.  He wanted to ask her if she would be all right, but realized that such a question would be counterproductive: he wanted to reassure her, not ask for her reassurance.

He took the exit for the Sunnydale Airport, which quickly sheared off toward winding lanes over which terminal signs brooded brightly; found the proper parking lot, pulled into a space.  The headlights zeroed in on a half-pillar acting as both curb and fence, and went out when he shut off the car.

“We’re here,” he said.

 

*

 

So that they would not forget, she took her new coat over her arm rather than letting him carry it; but she ended up handing it to him anyway when she bellied up to the airline counter to sign for her ticket.  The man at the desk looked askance at her papers, her one-way fare, and the bruises on her face; but it wasn’t the first flight from Sunnydale he’d seen (in all senses of the word), and he made no comment except to give Elisabeth a mordant smile, which she did not return.

            Ticket in hand, they went their way toward the security gates.  “I suppose I’ve got to do the major passport stuff in L.A.,” Elisabeth said.

            “Yes,” Rupert said.  “Would you like to go over the papers again?”

            Elisabeth shook her head.

            “Call me,” he said, “if you run into any trouble.  Any trouble at all.”

            “Is your number on the papers?”

            He started; he had forgotten that minor detail.  Thinking quickly, he rummaged in his jacket pocket and pulled out a Magic Box card.  “Just had them printed up,” he said, with a ridiculous little smile of pride that he regretted until he saw that it had elicited a little smile from her in return.  He found a pen and wrote his home number on the back, including the area code.  “Can’t think how I forgot that,” he said.  “Of course you’ll want to call me when you get to London—that is, I hope you’ll call me.  Don’t mind the hour; I probably won’t be asleep.”

            Elisabeth nodded.

            They passed through the security gates so uneventfully that Elisabeth couldn’t help a glance backward at the scaffold door and X-ray conveyor belt, as if unable to believe they hadn’t stopped her.

            “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Rupert asked her as they walked.

            She took a full ten seconds to answer this, staring off into the middle distance, as if the world depended on a serious answer.  “Yes,” she said finally.

            It didn’t take long to stop at a kiosk; Rupert purchased two coffees, and waited to hand her hers while she rearranged the things in her hands so that coat, ticket, and papers were in one arm.

            They reached the gate sipping, and found it more or less deserted.  The plane had not arrived yet, and the sky outside the windows was still dark.  Rupert and Elisabeth sat down in seats she chose, for their view of nearly everything within and without the building.  They sipped their coffee, said very little.

            Rupert, for his part, was trying to conceal how very inadequate his efforts were beginning to look to him.  He wished he had bit the bullet, taken a few days of vacation, and gone with Elisabeth to London, just to make sure she was well taken care of.  Not that she was incapable of taking care of herself—and surely that is what she would say to him if she knew—but—so much could go wrong, and here he was tossing her gently like a fledgling into the wind.

            On the other hand, he would certainly be doing her a disservice, coddling her.  And she clearly did not even want him to do so.  He had not forgotten her little speech about pride.

            Not to mention the work Rupert needed to get back to.  He pushed away the thought, but it came back with force: Dawn, the mystery of her existence, the mystery of the woman who was seeking her.  He needed to get information; it was the only way he could help Buffy.  And yet his very mind had been fractured kaleidoscopically by the magic that had been worked to fit Dawn among them: trying to figure out where Dawn had come from was like trying to figure out where his power of language had come from; it was far more seamless, and ultimately less acceptable, than what had just happened with Elisabeth.  Who now also had her place among them outside the natural course of things, even though she was leaving to keep it to a minimum.

            He gave a small sigh.  Elisabeth had a hard row to hoe ahead of her.  As would Dawn, if she ever found out the truth.

            He glanced over at Elisabeth and saw, to his surprise, that she was looking at him with a small, affectionate smile.  He relaxed in his seat and smiled back wryly.

            “All right?” he asked her.

            “Yeah,” she said.

            “You look more awake.”  Rupert kept his eyes on her as he sipped again at his cooling coffee.

            She rolled her eyes.  “Yeah.”  She looked down at her own coffee, made a faint face, put it down on the endtable.  Rupert thought suddenly that the way she looked now—scruffy in black jacket, with her old army pack at her feet, coat on her lap, glasses permanently askew—was going to become another of his indelible images of her, like the one of her playing Punch and Judy with his fertility idols, of her sitting on his kitchen counter looking him intermittently in the eye, a bruise swelling on her cheek, of her splashed in mud, pupils wide, hands stroking his laid on her breast.

            He cast his eyes down, breaking off that thought.

            There was a faint stir in the other few people in the gate, elicited by a growing high-pitched efficient whine; Elisabeth and Rupert turned to see the plane nosing in to dock, just as the P.A. voice said:  “Pre-boarding for Flight 17 from Sunnydale to LAX.”

            Elisabeth looked down at her ticket.  “Flight 17,” she murmured.  “It figures.”

            “Eh?” Rupert said.

            She looked up at him, her habitual wry look not quite masking a small swell of fright.  “I came here on Bus 17.  Looks like I’m leaving on Plane 17.”

            Rupert could not but see the humor.  “Well,” he said, “let us hope Schrodinger does not hijack—”

            “Don’t,” she hissed suddenly, “talk about that sort of thing in an airport!”  He blinked; she recovered and said, “Yes, let us hope I don’t hop dimensions this time.”

            They got to their feet.  “You’ll call me,” he said, “when you get in...?”

            She nodded.  “I will.”

            The plane was boarding.  Elisabeth gathered up her things and started toward the gate, Rupert drifting after her.

            She turned, shoulders straight, looking him in the eye.  “I guess this isn’t really goodbye,” she said quietly, “seeing as how you’re bankrolling my future.”

            “Not for long,” he answered, just as softly.  “I have every confidence.”

            Both of them moved in a faint urge as toward a kiss, but restrained it: for his part, Rupert was thinking of her desire for independence, not to mention the disastrous interruption they’d had the last time they tried to kiss goodbye.

            She put out a hand; he met it with his and they shook firmly.  Oh what the hell, Rupert thought after a second, and pulled her into a quick, strong hug.

            She hugged him back, one-armed and awkward with her burdens, but no less forcefully for all that.  The moment lasted a few extra seconds.

            And then she was withdrawing, she was waving with her ticket, she was saying, “Take care—”

            “And you,” he managed to answer before she passed the attendant and disappeared through the gate.

            Rupert moved out of the way to the window and watched until the plane was shut and began to pull out of the gate.  The faintest hint of grey now tinged the eastern half of the sky.

            “Godspeed,” Rupert murmured, audible to no one but himself.

 

*

 

On the way home in the gathering dawn, Rupert stopped for more coffee and a doughnut.  He felt his mind beginning to turn again toward the daily round of his life’s work, and probably not too soon.  Though it had been nice, having a girlfriend for a few days—despite the almost constant disaster that had attended their courtship.  At least the disaster hadn’t ended the courtship, as it had certainly done to him before; and the ridiculousness that had taken them over had made them both laugh more than once.  All in all, it had been a remarkably positive Hellmouth romance.

            Rupert crossed his fingers for Elisabeth on the plane.

 

*

 

Elisabeth did her best not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size and busyness of the airport in L.A., but it was tough work.  When it came time to present her papers and passport, she assumed her best air of dignity, pretending that her face was not bruised and her hair was not straggly and her glasses were not crooked—helped, somewhat, by changing into her nice new coat in the restroom before approaching the desk. 

            They asked her questions.  Elisabeth answered them, trying not to stammer; but they were all looking at her closely and suspiciously until a brisk man, obviously a superior, passed behind them.  “Student, are you?” he asked her kindly.

            Elisabeth did not answer him yes, but she straightened her shoulders and drew in a breath, in a way that he could, and did, take as an affirmative.

            The man jerked a quick nod, and just that quickly it was all over and she had her ticket and papers in hand, free of further inquiry.  She stumbled away from the desk, looking over her shoulder, feeling like a refugee in one of those movies where women and children are fleeing from totalitarian regimes.

            Now all she had to do was find out how to get on the plane.

            She checked her ticket carefully over, then read the monitors overhead.  Her flight to Boston was, apparently, on schedule.  Good.  She set off in search of the gate.

            An hour later she was comfortably ensconced in a window seat (happy miracle), waiting for the plane to taxi to the runway.  It had been years since she last flew, and despite the hellish stress of large-scale solitary travel, she was enjoying the novelty she had always felt as the airplane picked up speed and lifted from the ground—the view from high in the air—the weightless speed of their going.

            And she had a window seat.

            She leaned back in her seat, taking in the characteristic scent of air travel, pulled down the window shade a little to cut down the brilliance of the sunrise, and sighed contentedly.

            As the plane climbed and finally reached its level height, Elisabeth had leisure to think about Rupert.  She wasn’t sure whether she missed him yet; though she suspected that as time went on she was going to miss him badly.  She had dared to warm to him and connect with him not only knowing she might soon die, but expecting that that death would save her from the pains and difficulties that would surely result.  Now, not only had she died, she had remained undelivered from that future.  It’s just typical, she thought; but she did not notice that there was more humor and less self-pity in the statement than had been in her before they met.

            Elisabeth cast her glance down through the window to see what the rising sun was doing to the earth below.  She did enjoy flying.

 

*

 

Rupert sat himself down to an egg sandwich and some juice.  His flat was oddly quiet around him: the sheer energies of another person’s presence, now withdrawn, left him slightly disoriented in his own home.  He frowned thoughtfully at his sandwich, gave a mental shrug, and took another bite.

            He was just polishing the last of it off when a knock came at the door.  Rupert waited for whoever it was to barge in, curious as to whether it’d be Spike in a whirl of blanket and smoke, Xander and Anya, nattering and bickering, or—

            Nobody was barging in.  Rupert got up and opened the door.

            It was Buffy.

            “Hi,” she said.

            “Hi,” he said.

            “What?” she asked him dryly.

            “Nothing,” he said.

            “Come on.”  Buffy’s wicked smile grew.  “You know you have something smartass to say.”

            Rupert cleared his throat.  “I was merely thinking,” he said, eyebrows lofty, “that it was a nice change to have my door knocked on by someone willing to wait for me to answer it.”  He stood back for her to come in.

            Buffy grinned in response, and entered.

            Rupert shut the door, and, to give his hands something to do, took his plate and cup into the kitchen to wash.

            Buffy came to rest against one of the dining-table chair backs, and watched him for a moment before beginning idly:  “So...Elisabeth’s gone off to England now?”

            Rupert glanced back at her, slotting his dish carefully into the rack.  “Yes.  I took her to the airport early this morning.”

            “She okay?”

            He finished washing the cup and turned off the water.  “Yes,” he said, drying his hands on the dishtowel, “I think she will be.”

            “Are you okay?”

            Rupert hung up the dishtowel on the oven door handle.  “Of course,” he said.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

            He could feel Buffy’s probing look, but she did not come out with the hard sell.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said quietly.  “Love on the Hellmouth tends to be a pretty risky proposition.”

            Rupert snorted.  He came out into the kitchen corridor and leaned a hand against the doorway.  “You didn’t come here to ask about that,” he said.

            As an attempt to turn the tables, it went surprisingly well.

            “I’m not that self-interested,” Buffy said, straightening in mild pique.  “I wanted to find out how you were.  Because, you know, everything’s been so complicated.  And....”  She trailed off and finally let down her shoulders, admitting defeat.  “I’ve missed talking to you.”

            He gave her a smile all the more gentle for carrying a strong tinge of guilt.

            “You’ve been very busy,” he said.

            She nodded.  “And it’s been—so crazy.  Everything’s all right; everything’s all wrong; and I can’t figure out moment to moment which one it really is.”

            He nodded fervently.

            “It’s like life keeps dealing me these flash cards, and I have to keep asking myself what 6 times 7 is.”

            “Forty-two,” Rupert said.

            “The answer to everything,” Buffy said dryly.  “Supposedly.”

            She stopped and looked up at him, clearly at a loss what to say next.

            For answer he went to her and gathered her into a hug.

            It was a method of communication he rarely employed with her; but he found that his response was the right one: she hugged him back firmly around the waist, her odd, incongruous strength adding an unwitting pressure to his ribs that he bore without flinch or comment.  And they stayed like that for a long minute.

            Finally Buffy moved her head to speak to him.  “Have you forgiven me for hitting your girlfriend?” she asked.

            He smiled wryly, though she couldn’t see it, and hugged her tighter.  “Yes.”

            “Okay....Are you sure?”

            “Buffy.  She has forgiven you; I hardly think I have a right to bear a grudge.”

            “Okay.”

            This time Rupert hitched and winced a little.  Buffy loosened her grip.  “Sorry.”  She pulled back to look him in the face.  There was a hint of suspicion in her expression, whether over his assurances that the quarrel was finished or over his unwonted blatant affection he could not tell.

            It seemed to be the latter, because as they parted she said:  “You give good huggage when you forget you’re British.”

            He was halfway back to the kitchen before that caught up with him.  “Hey!” He turned around, indignant.  “British people hug,” he insisted.

            Buffy broke into a full grin.  “Gotcha,” she said, and sailed off to the door.  “I gotta go,” she said.  “I have this odd urge to go to class.”

            “You do that,” Rupert said, grinning in spite of himself.

            Buffy opened the door and turned to face him.  He waited, with pleasure, for her parting shot.

            “And Giles?” she said.  “Thanks for the encouragement.”

            He blinked.  “Well—you’re welcome.  Though—I didn’t say anything materially useful.”

            “You didn’t have to.”  With one last wry, grave smile, Buffy was out the door in a flash of denim and organdy.

            Left alone once more, Rupert stared thoughtfully across the living area.

            It was high time he got back to work.

 

*

 

Boarding her flight to Heathrow in Boston, Elisabeth wished fervently that she had thought to get a hat; her hair was growing stringier by the minute, adding to her bedraggled state by a power of ten.

            Though for all that, the trip was going well, with a minimum of delay and frustration, although she was certainly looking forward to arriving and not having to navigate her way through endless cavernous corridors.

            As boarding continued, Elisabeth pulled her backpack out of the upper compartment to retrieve her book.  She had spent a good part of the flight to Boston reading it, though she had also spent a good part watching the land move past beneath her and thinking of her old home, somewhere down there and a dimension away.  Now, however, they would be over ocean for a long time; she could read, and sleep.

            The movement of the plane, the dim cabin lights, and the darkness outside quickly put paid to Elisabeth’s reading plans.  She stowed the book back in her pack, folded up her new coat (carefully, as she did not feel ready to mistreat it yet), and added it to the little pillow the flight attendant had given her.  Within minutes she was drawn just under the surface of sleep, haunted by plane sounds and voices and the shadows of ocean and travel and time.

 

*

 

Rupert spent his first hour at the shop that afternoon arguing with Anya, who for some inexplicable reason wanted him to pay her ten dollars from yesterday.  “Anya,” he had explained in what he thought was a very patient manner, “we agreed on this.  You agreed to take a vacation day without pay, in exchange for not chipping in for Elisabeth’s coat.”

            “Oh, that’s got nothing to do with it,” Anya said, and proceeded to explain the entire thing.  Rupert listened with half an ear, until she was nearly finished; then he turned on her and whipped off his glasses.  “What?” he demanded.

            “I paid Elisabeth vengeance money for what you said to her, so now I’m asking you to remunerate me,” Anya repeated, as if the instant he understood he would be happy to oblige.

            He stared at her, squinting quizzically.  “No,” he said finally.

            Thus the argument: in which was canvassed the gaucheness of gambling over relationships, followed by the history of vengeance, the traditions of the Mafia and their relation to those of demonkind, the obtuseness of English men, the callous clumsiness of men in general, the specific horror of said clumsiness in relation to young, vulnerable girlfriends, and the utter implacability of even former vengeance demons regarding such peccadilloes.

            In the end Rupert paid her the ten dollars as much to stem the lecture as anything else.  But Anya’s parting shot gave him something to think about.

            “And if I were you,” she said, folding the bill neatly and slipping it into the pocket of her sweater, “I would send her flowers.  Posthaste.”

            Rupert snorted.  But half an hour later, outside Anya’s purview, he drifted to the phone book and began to study the florists’ pages.

 

*

 

Elisabeth was waked when the intercom scratched to life, alerting them to the plane’s approaching descent.  She blinked herself into as much a semblance of alertness as possible, gathered her things neatly, and sat waiting for the plane to land.

            In the slow scramble of the passengers gathering their possessions, Elisabeth put on her new coat, smoothing out the wrinkles as best she could, checked the pockets of her jacket, and got down her backpack, trying to avoid the thought of who was waiting for her.

            Dawn had spread in the sky outside, and as she shrugged her weary way up the gate to the terminal, she felt the unreality of morning twilight in her bones as well as all around her.

            Nevertheless she could not help a small smile of pleasure at what met her in the airport:  British voices all around, British spelling and vocabulary on the signs, all the novelty of a foreign land upon which her feet were now standing—the faintest of triumphs, but still her own.

            She caught sight of Olivia before she saw the little sign soberly lettered, “Elisabeth Bowen,” that she held in one hand: tall, magnificently black, and stylish, she was scanning the erstwhile passengers for her new charge.

            Elisabeth went toward her, swallowing the dryness in her throat; and Olivia saw her at last.

            “Hello,” she said, with (which pleased Elisabeth) no smile but a cordial voice.  “You must be Elisabeth.”

            “Hi,” Elisabeth croaked.

 

*

 

Fortunately for her nerves, it seemed Olivia was a sensible person, for apart from a handshake and an inquiry about the flight (the handshake was too languid for Elisabeth’s taste but the inquiry was the right blend of smart competence and sympathy), followed by an inquiry after the essentials of restroom, luggage, and breakfast, she did not expect too much conversation out of Elisabeth.  After a half hour getting free of the airport, Elisabeth felt it safe to let Olivia manage the details of getting them back to her London flat, and spent a good portion of her time rubbernecking out windows and glancing (almost disastrously) in every direction at once.

            Elisabeth liked Olivia’s flat as soon as they got up the stairs and in the door; it was small by American standards, but made good use of space and was marvellously decorated.  “Those are very lovely prints,” Elisabeth said, gesturing at the walls of the—what she supposed she must now call the lounge.

            “Yes,” Olivia said briskly, “friend of mine did them; instead of putting them in the gallery I snapped them up myself.  I’ll pass the compliment along; he doesn’t get tired of them, though they come regularly.”  She offered Elisabeth a small mischievous grin, then tipped her head for Elisabeth to follow.

            “This will be your room while you stay here,” she said in the doorway.

            Elisabeth wandered in tentatively and looked around.  Clearly the room had been a sort of library-cum-office recently; one wall held bookshelves full of well-thumbed art books and two large filing cabinets.  In the other corner was a bed and a small dresser.

            “It’s very nice,” Elisabeth said, setting down her backpack.  She was beginning to feel again the small helpless urge of gratitude.

            “Care for some breakfast?”

            “Actually,” she said, turning round, “I’m dying for a shower.”

            Again the mischievous grin.  “Of course.  Bathroom’s down that way, towels on the rack, and—I’ve got an extra wrapper, I’ll get that out.”

            “Thank you,” Elisabeth said.

            Ten minutes later, however, Elisabeth returned awkwardly to the kitchen, clutching the borrowed wrapper around her.  “Olivia?”

            “Yes?”

            “Um...could you show me how to work the faucets?  They’ve defeated me.”

            “Oh! of course.  They are a bit tricky.”

            At last, bathed, dressed in fresh clothes (which smelled of Rupert’s flat and gave Elisabeth a sudden jolt of what could only be called homesickness), Elisabeth reappeared, ready to do damage to whatever was for breakfast.

            “You had a delivery while you were in the shower,” Olivia said, with a small smile.

            “Oh?”  Elisabeth drifted to the table and found a small potted African violet, complete with card.  Slowly she took out the card and read it.

            “I expect it’s from Rupert?” Olivia said.

            She nodded.  “It says, ‘Mazel tov.’”

            Olivia gave a small snort of laughter, which Elisabeth understood: it was hardly the sort of thing one would expect Rupert to say.  She looked from the card to the violet, and was taken by the growing conviction of a memory, of a conversation in a hospital room, of Rupert’s voice without his image.

            “He asked me to call him,” she heard herself saying, “when I got in.”

            “Of course.”  Olivia brought her the phone and showed her how to make the international call.  Elisabeth put it to her ear and waited.

            “Hello?”  Rupert’s voice was gravelled but alert.

            “Rupert,” Elisabeth said.

            “Oh, you’ve arrived then?  Everything all right?”

            “Yes, just fine.  How are you?”

            “I’m fine.  Thanks.  Er....”

            “Thank you for the violet,” Elisabeth said, answering his unasked question.

            “Ah,” he said.  “Yes.  You’re quite welcome.”

            A small silence fell.  Elisabeth broke it.

            “Thank you,” she said again.

            “Thank you,” was his soft reply.

            “Well...I’ll let you go.  Take care.”

            “And you.”

            “I will.”

            “Right.”

            “Okay.”

            “Bye then.”

            “Bye.”

            “Care for some toast?” Olivia asked, as she put the phone away.

            “Yes, please,” Elisabeth said.  “I’m just going to....”  She picked up the violet and carried it into her room.

            She found a place for it on top of the little dresser, and stood for a moment regarding its dark blooms and spreading leaves.  There was so much she could have said to him.  But perhaps it was just as well she had not.  And after all, he knew.

            Elisabeth gave the violet one long last look, and then returned to the kitchen.

            “Now,” she said, “where’s that toast?”

 

*

finis