It was a beautiful summer’s day. Buffy felt the warmth of it seep into her bones as she emerged from the taxi, coat in hand. It had been raining when she had left London, water droplets falling from the grey sky in a fine mist that soaked to the bone. But out here, in what Giles had once jokingly referred to as the provinces, there was not a cloud to be seen. Instead of drizzle, the soft light of the afternoon sun greeted her, the air alive with the drone of insects as they drifted along in the warm, country breeze.
Buffy shook her head gently as she shut the car door, trying to clear the mood that had settled upon her during her journey. Her head felt fuzzy, as if filled with cotton wool, still full of the fog of the city and the life she had there. Behind her she heard the growl of the engine as the taxi set off back down the winding country lane, back to civilisation, leaving her alone. With a sigh, she cast her eyes over the wrought-iron gate that blocked her path. It was nestled within a box hedge so large it obscured her view of the house beyond. She placed her hand against the cool metal and pushed.
It was locked.
A sudden flash of inspiration lit Buffy’s mind. Questing fingers dug into her handbag and, with a grunt of triumph, she pulled from it a blank cream envelope. It was heavy in her hands, the paper thick and expensive beneath her fingertips. She flipped it over, sliding a shiny, forest-green nail under the flap as she opened it, proceeding to tip its contents into her palm. An old-fashioned key fell from the envelope. It was matte black and incredibly ornate; it the kind of key she doubted would look out of place in a period drama. Attached to the key with a golden thread was a small note. It read:
No. 7. Orchard House. Leyford. Gloucestershire.
Below the pristine black handwriting was a seal. The red wax bore the imprint of a lion’s paw holding an apple branch. Giles’ seal, the one carved into the black onyx of his signet ring.
A small curl of anxiety settled low in her belly at the sight of his mark. A flush of embarrassment coloured her cheeks as she remembered the disaster that had been their last encounter. It had been out of office hours and, as had become somewhat of a habit over the last six months, she had been drinking. Not the casual after work sort of drinking with her Council colleagues, but the lonely oblivion-seeking kind. The kind that created more problems than it solved, leaving her with nothing but a hangover, a stranger in her bed and all the feelings she had been drinking to forget.
She was self-destructing, and she knew it. As, apparently, had Giles.
She’d been in one of her dodgier haunts when he’d found her, almost paralytic from cheap wine and even cheaper gin, shamelessly wrapped around a man whose name she doubted she’d remember even if she’d asked. He was warm and male and quite willing, which had been good enough. They had been in the process of getting more intimately acquainted, her head swimming, when she had felt a pair of strong hands take her shoulders in a vice-like grip. Seconds later she had found herself pitched indecorously onto the floor, blinking up at the stern face of her former Watcher.
She remembered her slurred protestations, but not what she’d actually said. It had just been noise. She’d been too drunk for that sort of clarity, either of speech or recall. She did, however, remember that he had remained silent, glaring down at her, his hands clenched into tight, angry fists at his sides. And, much to her embarrassment, she remembered what she had done next, once she had levered herself up from the dirty nightclub floor.
She had kissed him. It had been sloppy, drunken, and he hadn’t responded. Instead, he he’d merely waited for her to finish her boozy assault upon his lips, his face an impassive mask. As she’d drawn back, he’d grabbed her hand, halting its quest up the front of his thigh, and dragged her from the club. Without a word he’d parcelled her into the waiting Council car, slammed the door and mumbled something to the driver before stalking off into the night.
That had been two weeks ago. Buffy hadn’t seen him since, neither at meetings nor in the Council refectory. He was avoiding her and she didn’t blame him. It had been stupid, foolish. A moment of drunken madness that had potentially ruined the bond they had worked so painstakingly to rebuild. It had been three years since Sunnydale and all the badness that had almost torn them apart; three years of tentative forgiveness, of careful friendship and, if she were honest with herself, the distinct possibility of something more. Something she’d no doubt destroyed in her thoughtlessness. But, as much as she had told herself otherwise, deep down, she knew exactly why she’d done it.
He was Giles. Safe. Dependable. Her knight in somewhat dented armour and she so desperately needed rescuing.
It wasn’t that her life a bad one, quite the contrary. She had a nice flat in central London, a good job with the new Council, plenty of friends, both old and new. No, on paper, her life was peachy. Only, Buffy felt as though she were about to explode, once again trapped in a life she didn’t really want.
After the activation of the Potentials, Buffy had thought things would be different. And they were, in a way. She was the Slayer no more. Instead she was one of many, a Slayer, the burden now shared across a generation of young women. She’d assumed that it would mean a little more freedom for her; the opportunity to return to College, perhaps, or to have a day or two without encountering something of the supernatural persuasion. The chance to live a somewhat normal life. To be ordinary.
Only it hadn’t.
Instead she had found herself more trapped than ever, shoved unwillingly into a position of power and influence within the new Council. Though it had been several years since the bombing, it was still a shadow of its former glory. With so few surviving Watchers and so many Slayers to train, she had been left with little choice. It was almost the same as before, back when she’d been the Chosen One, only now her destiny was all paperwork and politics, the responsibility for every big decision thrust upon her reluctant shoulders. Buffy had been given the role of Director of Slayer Operations. A good job, yes, but not one she cared for. It meant she lived, ate and breathed the Council, her every waking moment consumed by it in one form or another. It was too much.
That was why she drank, why she brought home unsuitable men, why she had kissed Giles: to escape. To be someone else, anyone else, if only for a moment. Someone who didn’t have to be responsible, be in control, make the big decisions. She only hoped that he understood.
A hope that had buoyed within her as she had walked into her office the day before last and seen the small, cream envelope sitting upon her desk.
Shaking herself from her reverie, Buffy grasped the large, round knob at the left hand side of the gate. Her fingers shook with the slightest of tremors as she slid the key home into the lock. The levers and gears inside let out a loud clunk as they shifted, the gate swinging open with a creak. Taking a deep breath, Buffy stepped through the entryway and began to make her way down the gravelled pathway towards the house beyond.