From the second Jenny stepped into the house, she knew something was off about it. It wasn’t the décor, or the thin layer of dust coating absolutely everything, or the strange way the lights flickered—though that did add quite a lot to the whole “creepy murder house” vibe she was getting from it. But Jenny had that clawing, twisting feeling in her chest she always got when there was something watching her, and that feeling had never once been wrong.
She whipped around, staring behind her with wide, panicked eyes, half-expecting Angelus and his sickly-sweet smile. No one was there, but the feeling didn’t let up.
“You know what?” she said to the house. “Fuck you. I have been scared for long enough and I am not going to let that fear rule my life, okay? So whatever you are, I’m staying, and you’re not going to chase me out.”
The curtains rustled disapprovingly. Maybe disapproving breezes were just a staple of summertime England. Everything seemed so over-the-top British, here, though maybe that was just because of all that time spent in Sunnydale, putting down roots—
(don’t think about that)
“Fuck you,” said Jenny to the house again, too scared to feel stupid for talking to an empty house. Horrible things had happened when she had been so sure she was alone.
Jenny brought her things in and set about redecorating. The house looked like it hadn’t been touched since the late nineties, but the furniture looked like it was from the early twenties; lots of antique bookshelves full of dusty volumes. It seemed like she’d have to do some cleaning before she did anything to make this house a little more her own, so she got out a damp cloth, tied a kerchief around the lower half of her face, and got to dusting.
“Goddamn,” she muttered, working at the thin layer of grime on the coffee table. “You’d think the real estate lady would at least make attempts to tidy this place up a little.”
A book fell out of the bookshelf. Jenny flinched, heart pounding, then relaxed, noticing the precarious position of most of the books. There must have been a draft, and that was fine. She was fine.
“Jenny Calendar,” she said to herself, “you had better get yourself together.”
The curtains rustled again, almost frustrated. Jenny ignored them.
It took about half an hour to get the coffee table looking acceptable, at which point Jenny began to fully realize the extent of the work she would have to do on the living room alone. Already exhausted, she decided to explore the house instead. Maybe one of the bedrooms would be clean, or something.
She hadn’t actually intended to buy a mansion in England. She’d been thinking more of a small, respectable flat in LA at first. But Buffy and Willow and Xander had pulled together some ridiculous GoFundMe stunt that had made her chest ache when she’d found out about it, and Buffy had said, fiercely, if that awful troll is gonna fire you, you should at least have fun with where you’re going, and then Jenny had had a respectable sum of money and the world at her fingertips.
Okay, not the world. Not really. But it had been enough for a cheap plane ticket to England and an astonishingly cheap six-bedroom mansion with expansive grounds. This place was scary huge for something that had cost Jenny less than half of the money that Buffy and friends had given her.
It’s the least I can do, Buffy had said, hugging Jenny tightly at the airport. After what you went through thanks to me.
Jenny’s hands shook as she opened the door to the hallway. Solitude had seemed an excellent concept after three weeks of oppressive attention in Sunnydale. Now, however, the absence of any friends to protect her made her acutely aware of the largeness of the house, and its relative isolation, and how, if there really was someone who wanted to hurt her, they wouldn’t have to work that hard to pull it off—
“Kitchen!” she said very loudly, trying to drown out the endless loop of this was a terrible idea.
The kitchen wasn’t as dusty as the living room, but it had clearly been a while since it had been used. Jenny would have to go for groceries at some point. She’d been reassured that everything in the kitchen was still in working order, even though the newest appliance was the early-1970s fridge.
“It’s 2018, people,” said Jenny to the kitchen. “Is it that hard to get something that’s at least got one of those nifty ice dispensers?” She opened the fridge. “Ooh, statement rescinded,” she said cheerfully. “I can do with a nifty ice drawer.”
There were a few things in the fridge. A lump of extremely moldy cheese (Jenny’s nose wrinkled), a half-finished dish of fossilized casserole (which added some weight to Jenny’s solidifying theory that no one had lived here since the nineties), and a note, written in blue ink.
you aren’t welcome here, jenny calendar.
“Oooh, scary,” said Jenny, turning away from the fridge with note in hand. “Reminds me of that time Warren Mears attached a Post-It death threat to my computer. Do you know how old Warren Mears is?” She waited, expectantly, for an answer, a bubble of anger beginning in her chest. How dare someone try and shatter her illusions of safety again? “Sixteen,” she said, when no answer came. “He’s sixteen. So, like, this has the exact same level of maturity and imagination as the sixteen-year-old idiot boys I teach.” She picked up the note, made a point of ripping it in two, and dropped it to the floor.
The crumpled pieces of the note stopped halfway, hovering in midair.
“Whatever this is,” said Jenny flatly, “I am a grown woman. I am not getting run out of my house by some ridiculous attempts at frightening me.”
She turned back to the fridge to shut the door. When she saw the next note, her heart began to pound.
that’s what they all say.
Jenny ate dinner loudly and aggressively, making a production of how Incredibly Not Scared she was. Honestly, she really wasn’t, but that was mostly because she was way too angry to be scared. Whatever this was, it hadn’t made any attempts to hurt her, but it clearly wanted her to think that it might.
“Coward,” she said to the air. “That’s what you are. Whatever you are. You’re playing off the fact that I can’t see you, and that you can see me, and—you know what?” She stood up, shrugging off her jacket. “I don’t care. Watch how much I care.”
She then proceeded to undo the first three buttons of her blouse. A nearby stack of books fell completely to bits, as though someone had stumbled backwards and fallen into it.
“Like it?” said Jenny. “I’m guessing it’s as much action as you’re getting, because hanging around and scaring people is way too sick for anyone to even like you.” She undid the rest of the buttons, then discarded the shirt, tossing it over her shoulder and taking a step towards the books. “I don’t know what this is,” she said. “I know you want me thinking there’s a ghost in this house, but I don’t know how you’re doing the books and the notes and the rustling curtains. And you know what? I’m fine with not knowing. All I need to know is that you’re trying to scare me off, and all you need to know is that I don’t scare easily.”
Another stack of books knocked over, but this time it seemed more deliberate.
“I don’t,” said Jenny fiercely, and she was not—she was not thinking about Angelus and Buffy and blood on the computer lab floor. She was stepping out of her shoes and unbuttoning her jeans. “This is what you want, isn’t it?” she said. “You want my attention? Hasn’t anyone ever told you that pulling a girl’s pigtail on the playground isn’t cute? You get more than you bargain for if you pick the wrong girl.” She was standing in her bra and underwear, now, and didn’t feel like stripping further; she felt like she had made her point.
The room was still. Jenny whirled, casting an accusing glare in every direction. “Bit off more than you can chew, huh?” she said. Leaving her blouse, heels, and jeans on the floor, she stalked out of the grand, grimy dining room, not even bothering to grab her travel suitcase as she hurried up the stairs. God, she hoped there was a bedroom up there.
A door was ajar on the landing. Jenny stepped inside, slamming it shut behind her.
The room was lit with a single flickering stained-glass lamp, and a pair of glasses rested on the nightstand next to the large, luxurious queen-size bed. The walls were lined with a ridiculous amount of bookshelves, all stuffed with books like Wizarding 101 and What to Expect When You’re Expecting A Demon Attack.
“This room I like,” said Jenny, feeling a warm flutter in her chest. After whatever the hell her day had been, being cocooned by knowledge felt familiar and safe. “Whoever slept here?” she said to the room, which felt significantly less ridiculous after the confrontation in the dining room. “Excellent taste. My compliments.”
The door creaked ajar again.
“Please,” said Jenny, suddenly very tired. “Please, just…give me some rest, okay? You can go back to scaring me silly in the morning, but I’m about to have a whole bunch of unrelated nightmares and I don’t…” She trailed off. “I don’t need more ghosts,” she said. “I can’t let my life be driven by ghosts.”
There was a long silence. Then Jenny heard footsteps, and a single book was pulled out from one of the shelves, falling to the floor.
“Is this a reading recommendation?” said Jenny. She crossed the room, half-expecting icy hands to grab at her as she stooped to pick up the book. Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress, it read. “Oh, wow,” she said. “Thank you so much. So you write threatening notes, you knock books over, and now you’re deciding to give me advice on a problem you’re only making worse?”
The curtains rustled. This time, they sounded a little ashamed.
“You should be ashamed,” said Jenny, resenting the wobble in her voice. She considered, then added, “And your house is too big.”
She heard a strange squeaking noise from the window above the bed. Crossing to look, she saw letters forming on the fogged-up windowpane: I’M SORRY.
“That doesn’t fix anything,” said Jenny.
I DON’T LIKE OTHER PEOPLE IN MY HOUSE, read the next message. Then, I MAY HAVE GONE A BIT OVERBOARD. I DIDN’T CONSIDER THAT YOU MIGHT BE SUFFERING FROM POST-TRAUMATIC at which point the ghost ran out of space on the windowpane.
Jenny snickered, then glared. “I’m still mad at you,” she informed the window.
A blank notebook flew off the shelf, landing neatly on the bed in front of Jenny. A blue pen followed suit, nudging the front page open and scribbling you have every right to be.
“Okay, you know what?” said Jenny, holding up a finger, and hurried over to the bureau, opening the top drawer. The pen made an irritated scritch against the paper. “I left all my stuff downstairs!” said Jenny impatiently. “I know you don’t like it when people touch your things, but I am standing here in my bra and underwear, and it’s getting chilly.”
They’re My Things, the notebook read.
“What happened to you being all I didn’t consider that you might be suffering from post-traumatic something or other?” Jenny shot back.
I ran out of space on the windowpane, the pen wrote, somehow conveying sarcasm through writing alone.
Jenny smirked. “Fair enough,” she said, turning back to the bureau, then stopped. Considered. Turned around. “Okay,” she said. “What if I ask permission to borrow some of your clothing? Does that make this situation any better? I know I didn’t exactly ask to be in your house, and your social skills definitely need work, but I’ve read enough ghost stories to know that respecting ghosts can sometimes make a world of difference.”
The pen didn’t move for so long that Jenny started thinking she might have just imagined the whole thing. When it finally did, she jumped. Try the green sweater in the third drawer, it said. It’ll be a bit big on you, but at least I won’t be staring, and then it scribbled out the last bit with embarrassed haste.
“See, that’s incentive for me to just stay indecent,” Jenny teased, extremely amused.
She felt something brush against her, and realized that the third drawer had opened on its own. Before she could realize what was going on, her arms were lifted as if by a breeze, and then a sweater was tugged gently over her head. Whoever had worn the sweater was at least a head taller than Jenny, because it ended only an inch above her knees.
I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to talk to me before, the pen was writing, let alone reason with me.
“That wasn’t reasoning,” said Jenny. “That was arguing. You are a terrible person and I’m still very mad at you.” It was kind of hard to stay mad at the ghost while she was wearing a warm, comfortable sweater, though, and so she lay down on the bed, watching the pen hover above the page. “I should’ve known there was a reason I got this place dirt cheap,” she said.
The pen touched the page apprehensively, pulled back, then wrote pardon my asking, but aren’t you rather well-off to be buying a mansion in England? The last few people who tried to buy this house were quite wealthy.
“I’m an American computer science teacher who got unofficially fired,” said Jenny. “You do the math.”
But that doesn’t make sense, wrote the ghost.
“I don’t think we know each other well enough for me to talk about what got me here,” said Jenny flatly. “Especially not after you spent the last few hours trying to drive me away.”
The pen set itself down. It didn’t move again.
After a good ten minutes of no rustling curtains, Jenny found herself regretting how sharply she’d spoken. She sighed, rolling onto her back, feeling the vastness of the house even more now that the ghost had gone. “Guess we’re even now, huh?” she said. “You drive me away, I drive you away…I don’t know what that says about the kind of people we are. Probably nothing good.”
She felt a soft, fluttering touch at her cheek: it didn’t feel human, but it did feel something like comfort.
“I don’t want to talk about what got me here,” said Jenny. It was more honest than she’d intended to be—with the ghost, with herself. “I want to forget about why I’m here. I want to spend this summer…processing, I guess. Which is weird, because I’m not the kind for solitary brooding, but…” She laughed, quiet and bitter. “I’m not the kind to get fired from a job I genuinely love,” she said. “Lots of extenuating circumstances, I guess.”
And there was that touch again, at her temple this time.
“You’re still here?” said Jenny, and the vulnerability in her voice surprised her.
As if in answer, the covers were tugged out from under her, then tucked gently around her.
“I have a whole bunch of questions,” mumbled Jenny, eyes already slipping shut. “Can you answer them when I wake up?”
“I’ll do my best,” said a voice, but in the morning, Jenny wouldn’t remember whether or not she had imagined it.
Waking up, it took Jenny a moment to realize where she was. She’d been half-expecting to wake in her cozy little Sunnydale apartment, clothing strewn on the floor, purse hanging off the doorknob. This place was brighter, warmer, bigger, and—
—and oh my god, there was a note on the door. A letter. Written in the neat blue ink that Jenny knew belonged to what might or might not be a real live ghost. She pulled herself free of the covers, tripping over herself to read the note.
I must again apologize for my complete inhospitality upon your arrival. I am quite unused to
guests newcomers irritatingly attractive women who strip in my dining room just to make a point company.
Jenny grinned. There was really no point in pretending she was still angry at him.
It has been twenty-one years since I have been spoken to so directly, and I must admit I wasn’t sure how to handle it. As such, I handled it like a complete cad, particularly considering whatever it is that has left you so shaken. It’s clear you are nowhere near the sort who have previously attempted to buy this house—something I should have realized much sooner. I am extremely sorry.
Let me know when you’re up; I’ll make you tea and answer questions. I’m sure you have many.
“Rupert,” Jenny echoed, trying out the name. She grinned a little. “Very British.”
The teakettle was whistling as Jenny entered the kitchen, which looked a touch less grimy than she remembered. A sponge was moving itself across one of the counters. “Spring cleaning?” she asked.
“More like summer scrubbing,” said a quiet, hollow voice.
Jenny jumped. “Oh,” she said in a high-pitched voice. “You know, somehow it was a little less creepy when things were just floating around and I couldn’t hear you.”
The sponge stopped. “You can hear me?” said the voice a little shakily. Accented, deep, kinda sexy, shut up, subconscious, Jenny told herself, hoping that Rupert couldn’t tell she was blushing. “That’s…quite new.”
“We’ve already established I’m a little different,” pointed out Jenny, who felt somewhat calmer knowing that Rupert was as on edge as her. It made her feel better to know that no one had the upper hand in this encounter.
“Yes, well,” stammered Rupert’s voice, “there’s a stark contrast between—between you being a bit more than I expected and you being the first person to hear me.”
“Maybe I’m just the first person to pay attention,” said Jenny quietly.
Somewhat haphazardly, the sponge started to move again. “That’s a glum thought,” said Rupert, a nervous laugh in his voice. “Doesn’t say much about the other people who tried to buy this house, that’s for certain.”
“Who did try to buy this house?” Jenny asked, swinging herself up to sit on the counter that had already been cleaned. Rupert made a little reproving whine of a noise; she fixed him with a pointed look. “It’s my house too,” she said.
“Would it be too much to ask that you not sit on the counter?” said Rupert plaintively.
“You need to get used to living with other people,” Jenny informed him. “And where’s my tea?”
“God, you’re demanding,” said Rupert, but he sounded all but delighted by it.
Something in Jenny ached at the thought of anyone being alone in this big, dusty house. She’d barely made it a day without snapping, and here Rupert was after twenty-one years of living a quietly solitary life. As a mug of tea floated over to her, she directed her warmest smile in its general direction. “Thanks,” she said.
The tea sloshed and very nearly spilled. “You’re, you’re—yes,” Rupert managed.
Jenny took the mug, taking a long sip. “So you didn’t answer my question,” she began.
“What?” Rupert sounded extremely flustered.
“Who tried to buy this house?”
“Oh,” said Rupert, as though this was the furthest thing from his mind. He paused before answering. “I’ve been largely focused on…reading,” he said, but there was some degree of hesitance to the statement. “I didn’t particularly wish to have that life disturbed.”
“Sounds like pretty much anyone could annoy you if you live like that,” Jenny pointed out. “What makes you so sure that these other people were so terrible?”
She felt a gentle tug on the sweater she was still wearing. “They didn’t ask,” said Rupert quietly. “They didn’t listen. I—” He swallowed audibly, then said, “The first family wanted to throw out all the books in my family’s library. The second wanted to just tear the whole place down and use the land to build a bed and breakfast. No one wanted this house as it was.”
“What if I told you I believed in book-burning?” Jenny asked him, doing her best to keep a poker face. “Would you kick me out?”
“No,” said Rupert immediately.
“Is it because I was the only one who did a strip tease for you?”
“What—no,” said Rupert, sounding affronted by the very notion. “Didn’t you hear a single thing I said? None of them listened to a word I had to say, and my initial attempts at communication scared them off. I decided not to waste time and energy on people who wouldn’t listen—”
“—and just scare all of them off,” Jenny finished. “Indiscriminately. Because anyone buying a mansion as big as this couldn’t possibly be buying it for the reasons you wanted them to.” She hesitated. “To be honest, I’m kinda conflicted,” she said. “I agree with you that the people you scared off probably weren’t the greatest in the world, but change is life.”
“I’m not alive,” said Rupert. There was that hollow note again.
For a moment, Jenny was lost for words. Looking down, she found herself staring into a mug of tea, and a thought came to her. “Dead people don’t make tea, Rupert,” she said, looking up at him. “And dead people don’t apologize. Maybe you’re not exactly alive, but you can’t tell me that you aren’t still living.”
Rupert made a few stuttering noises, then said, “I-I suppose I hadn’t considered that.”
“See?” Jenny raised her mug, taking a sip. “You’re learning. Changing. That’s life.”
“Ms. Calendar, they…they wanted to throw out my books,” said Rupert helplessly. “Some of those books were promised to the British Museum after my father’s death—it was why I came back to the house, I was supposed to sort through his things—”
“Rupert, if you’re not using this house anymore—”
“Who said I wasn’t?” said Rupert indignantly.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe the solid inch of dust on everything in the living room?”
“I don’t use the living room—”
“So what do you use in this house?” Jenny persisted.
Rupert opened his mouth, stopped, and shut it, glaring at Jenny like it was her fault his argument didn’t hold water. “It’s still my house,” he finally said. “I should get to choose who resides in it.”
“See, I’d agree with you if people actually knew you were here,” Jenny began.
“You know I’m here,” said Rupert.
“And am I up to snuff?” challenged Jenny.
Rupert blinked, frowning quizzically at her. “Of course you are,” he said. “Why on earth would you ask that question?”
His genuine confusion made an unexpected warmth blossom in Jenny’s chest. “Oh,” she said, forgetting all about their argument. “Um—”
“Not a single person who set foot in this house has bothered to try and speak to me,” said Rupert earnestly. “I told you that. But it says even more about you that you’re willing to listen.”
“It’s not like it takes too long to listen to somebody,” said Jenny awkwardly.
“Still,” said Rupert. God, his voice was so gentle.
Jenny fumbled to remember what she’d been so annoyed with him about. It really wasn’t working. “So you’re saying you chased all those people off because they couldn’t see you?” she said.
“Not exactly,” said Rupert sheepishly. “Mostly I just didn’t want anyone here. But you’re—reasonably tolerable.”
Jenny started laughing.
“Reasonably tolerable?” Jenny laughed. “You’re setting your standards low, huh?”
“Hardly,” said Rupert, sounding a bit flustered. “Listen, my, my point is…it’s exhausting, being ignored. I don’t think I would have been able to handle it on a daily basis. It wasn’t entirely why I scared everyone else off, but I’m sure it was at least a small factor.”
Jenny pressed her hands to her mouth, still smiling. “Well, I’m not planning on ignoring you,” she said.
There was a surprised silence.
“You still there?” said Jenny.
“What?” said Rupert, sounding all but astounded. “Oh…yes.”
“You must have had some awful people in this house if you think I’m a total catch,” said Jenny with a weary smile.
And there it was. A fluttering, gentle touch at her cheek, one that felt less insubstantial and more like a brush of fingertips. “Don’t you ever say that again, all right?” said Rupert softly.
“Okay,” said Jenny a little breathlessly, too surprised by the touch to remember how to argue.
“Good,” said Rupert. His hand must have dropped, because the touch was gone; Jenny had to bite back the ridiculous impulse to ask him to put his hand back. “The true marvel of this whole situation is you—believing me.”
“Huh?” said Jenny, who was doing her best to collect herself while still looking cool and casual.
“I’d have expected you to think yourself mad,” said Rupert nervously. “Hearing voices. Seeing things floating about.”
Jenny considered this. “Well,” she finally said, “if I was going crazy, I don’t think I’d have been able to imagine you up.”
“You’re way too annoying,” said Jenny, grinning.
Rupert really did laugh at that. “Finish your tea,” he said, a touch of affection in his voice. The sponge on the counter began to move again.
The mansion was even bigger than Jenny had realized. Not only did it boast its promised six bedrooms and four bathrooms, but it also had a library, an indoor greenhouse, and a sprawling backyard that extended into a huge, overgrown garden. This place would be hell to restore.
“What kind of childhood did you have,” said Jenny weakly, staring at the duck pond that she now apparently owned. Along with the garden. This was all very hard to process.
“I didn’t grow up here,” said Rupert, sounding startled by the notion. “This was more of a—this was my father’s home.” He said it in a strange way, which was enough for Jenny to pick up that this was something she probably shouldn’t press him on.
“And you still want to protect it?” said Jenny.
Rupert’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Someone’s got to,” he said.
“But why does it have to be you?” Jenny asked, more inquisitive than argumentative. “It’s not something you chose, or something you want to do—”
“I have always been a frightfully loyal person,” said Rupert from next to her. “I never truly had an opportunity to explore that loyalty when I was alive. Better a ghost with a purpose than alive with none, I think.”
Jenny let out a half-annoyed breath, looking skeptically up at where she thought he might be. “I don’t think you’re the kind of guy who should be left alone for too long,” she said. “You get all up in your head.”
She thought she could hear a startled smile in Rupert’s voice. “I must admit,” he said, “I was rather expecting words of comfort.”
“Do you want that?” Jenny asked simply.
It took Rupert a moment to answer. “I’ve made my choices,” he said. “I don’t wish to doubt them when I have already committed myself so wholly to them.”
Jenny felt the frustrating urge to reach out to him, touch him. He hadn’t been touched gently in twenty-one years, and she hadn’t touched someone gently in…god, how long had it been? Probably just as long. But she couldn’t touch someone who wasn’t there, and it’d probably be weird of her to try. “Then I won’t press it,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Rupert. He sounded a little relieved. “I must know—are you planning on doing anything drastic to this mansion?”
“I mean, my big goal is to at least make this place relatively livable by the end of the summer,” said Jenny dryly.
“Heavens,” said Rupert, a laugh in his voice. “You’re even more ambitious than the real estate mogul of last August.”
Jenny laughed too. “Yeah, it’s…dusty, here,” she said, “but I want to at least make it a little less eerie and a little more homey. Maybe we can try and clean the living room, at least?”
“Oh, let’s start with the library,” said Rupert hopefully. “There’s a rather excellent volume I was reading last Tuesday and I would quite appreciate your thoughts on the matter—”
“Rupert,” said Jenny, “are you trying to lure me into book talk?”
“Ms. Calendar,” said Rupert, “it has been over thirty years since I have had a proper friend to talk books with.”
Something in Jenny’s chest caught. “But you’ve only been dead for twenty-one years,” she said.
Rupert was silent for a moment. Then, awkward and a little pained, he said, “Yes, I have.”
Jenny did reach out, then, and didn’t even care that she was half-flailing at empty air. “Did I miss you by a mile?” she asked, trying to laugh.
“No, I think you hit me right on target,” said Rupert, a teasing note returning to his voice. “Were you aiming for my heart?”
“Is that a pick-up line?”
Rupert immediately devolved into stammers about how Jenny had really just reached for his heart and how it wasn’t unwarranted flirtation if he was being literal about the quantum mechanics. Jenny noticed with some degree of satisfaction that he didn’t once say no.
The first thing Jenny did was stock the fridge. “We’re lucky there’s a town within walking distance,” she announced, setting the grocery bags down on the counter. She frowned, squinting around the kitchen. “Did you clean while I was away?”
“A bit,” said Rupert from next to her. Jenny jumped. “Sorry,” he said, a nervous laugh in his voice.
“Hot tip: never apologize for cleaning,” said Jenny, reaching out and patting the empty air. “Did I hit your shoulder?”
“Do you really think I’m that short?” said Rupert.
“Hey,” said Jenny, indignant, “I was reaching a good inch above my own shoulder—”
“And you’re a completely respectable height, Ms. Calendar,” said Rupert immediately. “Nowhere near tiny. Obviously.”
“Ugh, shut up,” said Jenny, grinning at the counter.
The fridge opened, milk cartons and fruits and vegetables all floating into their proper places. “I’d like to pull my weight around here, that’s all,” Rupert explained, a bag of grapes playfully circling Jenny’s head before landing next to one of the apples. “Besides which, I won’t start sneezing if I dust the living room. Do you cook?” he added, one of the bananas freezing in midair as he waited for an answer.
“Not really,” said Jenny.
“That makes sense,” said Rupert. “This is largely just produce.”
“I wanted you to think I was a healthy eater,” said Jenny. “Did it work?”
“Not really,” said Rupert. “My psychic ghost senses tell me that you drink black coffee and call it a meal.”
“Do you actually have psychic ghost senses?”
There was a grin in Rupert’s voice. “The only thing in here that isn’t produce is an entire bag of coffee beans.”
“I thought I’d try and grind them,” said Jenny. “It isn’t that hard, right?”
“You need a coffee grinder,” said Rupert, who sounded on the verge of a giggle fit. “How are you still alive?”
“Look who’s talking!” Jenny shot back.
“It really says a lot if the ghost knows how to cook but the living person buys random produce—”
“So go grocery shopping with me next time!” Rupert didn’t respond. Assuming a mistake, Jenny winced, then said apologetically, “Is this one of those things where you have some kind of spiritual connection to the house and can’t leave it without disappearing forever?”
“What?” said Rupert with a bewildered laugh. “Oh, no, I—I can go wherever I like. I just—I don’t exactly know how I could talk to you in a grocery store without attracting attention.”
“Well, no one else listens, right?” Jenny pointed out. “Maybe you just come with me and tell me what to buy.”
“Do you really think you would just buy whatever I told you to?” said Rupert. “I haven’t known you a week and I can already tell you’d have objections to every single thing I think you should be eating.”
“Listen,” said Jenny, affronted, “if you’ve only known me for three days, you shouldn’t have any opinions on what I should and shouldn’t be eating.”
“How’s not produce?”
“Overstepping your bounds,” said Jenny, and stepped over to the fridge, snatching up a piece of celery and taking a bite. She immediately spat it out. “What, oh my god—”
“You should really wash that,” said Rupert smugly.
“…shut up.” Jenny replaced the celery, glowering in Rupert’s general direction. “Just…I don’t know, write me a shopping list or something.”
“That I can do,” said Rupert, sounding more than delighted by the concept of being helpful.
In all honesty, Jenny didn’t really want to think about the fact that Rupert was a ghost. The Jenny Calendar who hadn’t been (don’t think about that) might have wanted to dissect the mystery of his past, of his present, of what the existence of ghosts meant for what humans had once believed impossible. This Jenny, however, was tired, and sad, and a little scared, and any company in a too-big mansion wasn’t worth questioning. Especially if it meant that Rupert might disappear.
She always woke up half-afraid that he might be gone; he always left a teacup of black coffee on her nightstand. The little morning ritual comforted her in a way she wasn’t yet ready to express or explain.
“So I cleaned the master bedroom,” said Rupert at breakfast.
“What?” said Jenny through a mouthful of eggs. She swallowed, then said indignantly, “I thought we agreed we’d be doing the bedrooms last!”
“The master bedroom is really so much nicer than my old room, Jenny,” Rupert wheedled.
“It’s huge,” said Jenny. There must have been something in her voice, because even without being able to see Rupert, she felt the mood in the room shift. “What?” she said uncomfortably.
When Rupert spoke again, it was in a tone Jenny hadn’t heard before. “Someone hurt you,” he said. “Didn’t they?”
Jenny placed her fork carefully down on the plate, looking slowly up at the empty space where she knew Rupert was. Placidly, almost pleasantly, she said, “I don’t like open spaces, that’s all. Too many dark corners.”
“This house is a place of safety,” said Rupert, quiet and intense. “I would sooner die than—”
“You’re already dead,” said Jenny. “Don’t toss around platitudes.” She picked up her fork, then stabbed the eggs so hard that she broke the plate. “Oh!” she gasped, jerking her hands away to cover her face. Shards of china had stabbed at her as the plate shattered, and the blood was bringing her back, back—
paperweight shattered against the chalkboard ANGEL STOP
“Jenny,” said Rupert, “Jenny—”
ANGEL, I TOLD HER, I TOLD HER, IT WAS MY FAULT, DON’T HURT HER
Arms, tight around her.
Breathing, out of time, nothing close to rhythmic, more like wheezing.
“That’s it, darling,” Rupert was whispering, stroking her hair. “It’s all right. I’ve got you.”
Jenny felt like there wasn’t possibly enough air. She could feel Rupert, too, and if she squeezed her eyes shut, she could pretend he was there. This wasn’t breezes and floating objects and half-human touches—this was someone warm and solid, scratchy fabrics and the cool metal of a ring against her cheek. Forehead resting against hers. “I can’t—” she gasped.
“It’s all right,” said Rupert again. He sounded near tears. “Oh, Jenny—”
Eyes still shut, Jenny tried to steady her breathing. “It was—the china,” she tried to explain. “He threw a paperweight at me. In my classroom. It broke on the chalkboard and in the ER they said I was lucky it wouldn’t scar.”
“Where is he?” There was a strange, dangerous note to Rupert’s voice.
“He has a few months of jail time, probably,” said Jenny distantly. “And it’s funny, you know? I wasn’t even—I was just collateral damage.”
She didn’t think she was making much sense, but Rupert didn’t seem to care. “Let’s get you to bed,” he murmured, tugging her up. Keeping her eyes closed, Jenny buried her face in his shoulder—tweed, she thought. Solid. Warm.
“I want you to be real,” she whispered, disoriented and a little exhausted. “Stop being so—I want to see you.”
Rupert buried his face in Jenny’s hair for a moment, still holding her to him. Then he picked her up, bridal-style, and began to carry her. “Up to bed, all right?” he was saying, stroking her hair as they walked. “Not the master bedroom if you don’t want it. Let’s go to my room and I’ll make you some tea and fix up the scratches on your face…”
He talked, soft and soothing, all the way up the stairs, pausing only to open the door to his room. Jenny opened her eyes, then, and found herself floating in midair, no Rupert in sight. Something about that hurt so much—that he could be so present and calming but still an intangible ghost.
Rupert set her down. Jenny closed her eyes again, focusing on his touch, pretending he would be there when she looked up. “I’ll clean up the living room,” he promised. “I don’t need sleep, and it’ll give me a pleasant bit of busy work. Can’t be worrying about you all night, can I?”
Wordlessly, Jenny reached up, tugging at his hand. It felt so good, being able to touch him when she wanted to.
“Oh,” Rupert murmured. The mattress creaked as he sat down on the bed next to her.
“Just stay,” Jenny mumbled, curling into the sheets. “Till I sleep.”
“Jenny, don’t—don’t sleep, I still have to fix your face,” said Rupert anxiously.
“I’ve had worse,” Jenny informed him, but sat up, too exhausted to be ashamed of her loss of control.
“Can you open your eyes?”
Jenny swallowed, hard. Then she said, “When I open my eyes you won’t be there.”
Rupert didn’t answer. It was different, though, because Jenny could feel his hands at her face. With him touching her, she knew where he was, and she knew he was real, and he didn’t need to be talking to prove that. “You know I’m here, don’t you?” he asked softly.
“I could be going crazy,” said Jenny.
“Didn’t we already establish that that wasn’t the case?”
“That was before I completely lost it when a damn plate smashed,” Jenny snapped, eyes still squeezed tightly shut. “For all I know I’m just finally fucking losing it.”
“Losing, um, what?”
“It’s a colloquialism, Rupert!”
“Don’t yell,” said Rupert, sounding hurt. “I’m trying to help.”
Somehow, that made Jenny feel even worse. “Well, don’t,” she said. “Okay? I—” Rupert dropped his hands, and without thinking, she opened her eyes, reaching out and grabbing his shoulders.
For a single moment, she saw him.
“What?” said Rupert, and then he was gone.
Jenny stared down at her hands, floating in midair. She could feel the solidity of his shoulders, knew that they belonged to a man with soft eyes and spectacles (glasses didn’t really describe the way they sat on his nose) and an expression of gentle concern. Everything about the man she had just seen was gentle.
“You look like you’ve seen a…” Rupert trailed off. “Ghost,” he said slowly. Then, “Jenny—”
Something had settled in Jenny’s chest. “I’m not crazy,” she said.
“I don’t think you are,” Rupert agreed.
“You’re really—you’re a ghost,” said Jenny.
“Did you see me?” Now Rupert sounded more curious than concerned.
“Kinda,” said Jenny, and squinted, but there was no sign of the cute professorial guy whose eyes matched Rupert’s voice. “Not anymore, though.”
“Did it help?”
Jenny moved forward and settled herself in Rupert’s arms. He stiffened, surprised, then relaxed, hugging her back. “Yeah, it did,” she said. “I think…I may have some unresolved issues to work out?”
“Really,” said Rupert.
Jenny swatted his shoulder. “Shut up,” she said, no bite to the words. “Not all of us are bespectacled spectral dorks.”
She felt Rupert’s quiet laugh rather than hearing it. “You saw my glasses?” he said.
“They’re terrible,” said Jenny, just because she liked being difficult.
“Oh, you just don’t like anything antiquated,” said Rupert, pulling back a little bit.
Feeling his hand brush one of the cuts on her cheek, Jenny hissed in pain. “Can you—I don’t know, not do that?” she managed.
“They need seeing to,” said Rupert. He hesitated, then said, “Will you be all right if I go find the old first aid kit?”
For a moment, Jenny was about to say no, I won’t; even in Rupert’s bedroom, the sprawling loneliness of the mansion was oppressive without his voice. And then, unexpectedly, she remembered Rupert’s face, a face she had seen in front of her. “You promise me you’re real?” she said.
“I promise,” said Rupert, as quiet and serious as he had when he was promising her safety.
What the hell, Jenny thought, you had to trust someone at some point. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll wait up here. You find something to fix my face.” Playfully, she added, “Let’s hope my exquisite beauty isn’t forever marred by little bits of china, huh?”
“Rest assured, Ms. Calendar, you look stunning even with the embedded glassware,” said Rupert, then made an embarrassed little squeak of a noise. “I—um—”
Jenny laughed, smiling so hard that her face stung. Her heart was fluttering for a reason she wasn’t yet ready to think about. “Well, it’s good to know I’ve got your vote of confidence,” she teased, lying back into the pillows and squirming a little for effect. Looking up through her eyelashes, she added, “Fix me up, Doctor Giles?”
Rupert made a few incoherent attempts at answering before stumbling off the bed, nearly knocking over a lamp as he hurried out of the room. Jenny closed her eyes, trying to call back every little detail from that momentary glimpse of him, and waited for him to come back, warmed by the certainty of knowing that he would.
The cuts healed pretty quickly, but Rupert fussed over all of them even after they’d faded away. Rupert fussed over everything, though, which was honestly starting to grow on Jenny. That said, it was a little annoying when he was laundering the curtains for the fifth time just to make sure they were really clean enough to be hung up.
“Do we even need curtains?” said Jenny. There was a very long silence, which she knew probably meant that she was receiving some kind of disbelieving/annoyed look from Rupert. She stuck out her tongue, then continued. “I mean, all they do is keep the sunlight out, and it’s summer—”
“It is the principle of the thing, Ms. Calendar,” said Rupert with some exasperation. The curtains picked themselves up out of the laundry basket, hanging themselves up on the clothesline. “Besides which, I haven’t seen the living room clean in twenty-one years. It’d be nice to get the full effect even if we aren’t going to use the curtains.”
“Ooh, can you make me a curtain dress?” said Jenny, stepping up to finger the velvety plum-colored fabric. “Like in The Sound of Music? I think I’d look great in purple curtain—”
“I am not capable of everything—”
“Kinda thought you were,” said Jenny, turning to grin at him. “You cook, you clean, you launder, hell, you can probably sing and dance—”
“I do play guitar,” said Rupert a bit proudly.
Jenny stared. “Then why the hell are we wasting time with laundry?” she demanded, extending her hand palm-up and waiting until she felt Rupert’s fingers lace with hers. He always took her hand, even if he didn’t really know what she was up to. She liked that. She liked a lot of things about him. “C’mon, England, show me where your guitar is!”
“We have laundry to finish, Jenny,” said Rupert irritably.
Jenny beamed. “I love it when you call me Jenny,” she said.
“Really?” said Rupert, sounding surprised and a bit shy. “I’d have thought it too informal—”
“Do I look like someone who’s bothered by informal?” Jenny gestured to herself, forgetting that she was still holding Rupert’s hand, and accidentally yanked him straight into her. Rupert, carried forward, stumbled, falling directly into Jenny and knocking her into the velvet curtains. All three fell in a heap to the ground, Jenny on top of the curtains and Rupert—well. On top of Jenny.
“Um, I’d say not,” said Rupert, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to start laughing or just straight-up die of mortification.
“Damn straight,” said Jenny, whose hands were now braced against Rupert’s chest. With a groan, she added, “And now we have to wash the curtains again.”
“I have to wash the curtains,” said Rupert, “you put bubble bath in the washing tub—”
“Maybe don’t put the bubble bath and the laundry detergent in identical containers, then!”
“Have you ever,” said Rupert, “ever done laundry at a place that isn’t a laundromat?”
“This is bullying,” said Jenny, and pushed gently at his chest. To her surprise, she felt Rupert’s hands at her elbows, and then she half-floated to her feet, landing smoothly upright on the ground. “Oh! Thanks—”
“Of course,” Rupert murmured. He hadn’t dropped his hands.
Jenny raised a hand to her hair, looking up at the empty space in front of her, and for a moment she thought she saw the air shimmer—
The doorbell rang.
“Should that be happening?” said Jenny.
“I don’t know,” said Rupert, sounding just as puzzled as Jenny felt. “Is there anyone who might be visiting you?”
“No one even knows I’m here,” Jenny began with a laugh, “no one but—” And then, abruptly, she knew who was at the door. Without hesitation, she pushed her way past Rupert, scrambled up the stairs that led back into the mansion, tumbled down the hallway, and skidded to a stop in the foyer, steadying herself against the doorframe before yanking the door open.
Buffy Summers was standing on the doorstep, a battered lavender suitcase clutched to her chest. She looked much, much smaller than seventeen, and as soon as she saw Jenny, she dropped the suitcase and burst into tears. “I’m so sorry!” she wailed. “I’m so-o sorry, Ms. Calendar, I just, I didn’t know where else to go, and my mom said it was my fault all this happened ‘cause I didn’t tell her about Angel and I said I didn’t know to tell her till he started getting bad and then I couldn’t and she said that if I couldn’t tell her something like that then maybe I shouldn’t be living with her and I packed all my stuff and I used up all my birthday money on a plane ticket and I flew here because I didn’t know where else to go-o-o—” She curled in on herself, sobbing too hard to speak.
Wordlessly, Jenny pulled Buffy into her arms, hugging her tightly. Buffy buried her face in Jenny’s shoulder, clinging to her, and Jenny began to awkwardly stroke her hair. “It’s okay,” she whispered, and was reminded of another moment like this, months ago. “It’s okay, Buffy.”
“It’s all my fault,” Buffy sobbed.
“Shh,” Jenny murmured. “No, it’s not.”
Motherfucker, she’d forgotten about Rupert. Jenny raised her head, but before she could say anything, Buffy snuffled, looked up, and said, “Who’s he?”
“What?” said Jenny.
“What?” said Rupert.
Buffy stepped back, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her white leather jacket, and gave the air behind Jenny a strange, assessing look. “You’re looking at me really weird,” she said.
“Hold up,” said Jenny, who was feeling too many things to properly categorize all of them. “You can see him?”
“Why wouldn’t I be able to see him?” Buffy sounded bewildered by the question.
“Oh, I can think of a multitude of reasons—” Rupert began.
Jenny held up a hand. “Okay,” she said weakly. “Um, Rupert, can you make some tea? I feel like we have a whole bunch to sort out.”
“Peppermint tea,” said Rupert to Buffy, who squinted up at the floating mug with red eyes. Of course, it wasn’t a floating mug to Buffy, who could somehow see Rupert perfectly enough to assume he was alive. Jenny did her best to disguise her disquieting envy. “Helps a bit with stress.”
“Thanks,” Buffy mumbled, and took the mug.
“Should I call your mom?” said Jenny carefully, testing the waters.
To her credit, Buffy seemed to seriously consider the question. “Do you think she’s gonna come and drag me back?” she asked timidly.
“I think that she’s probably very worried about you,” said Rupert quietly, “but that she can’t make you do anything that you don’t want to do.”
“I’m still a minor,” Buffy muttered.
“Not in England you’re not,” said Rupert, a note of gentle teasing in his voice. Buffy looked up, giving him a watery smile.
Jenny headed into the hallway, hurrying to the mostly-dusty telephone and spinning the rotary dial to Joyce’s number. The phone was picked up on the first ring.
“Is this Jenny Calendar?” came Joyce’s thin, half-panicked voice.
“Breathe, Joyce,” said Jenny. “Buffy’s okay.”
“Oh, thank God.” Joyce sounded like she might cry. “I-I saw that she booked a ticket to England, and that’s where you were going, so I just assumed—”
“Yeah, she turned up on my doorstep about ten minutes ago,” Jenny informed her. “I obviously wanted to make sure you knew, you must be worried sick—”
“Thank you so much.” Joyce really was crying. “Thank you. You’ve gone above and beyond in protecting my daughter and I just—I am so grateful.”
Jenny had never felt anything but afraid and incompetent in that dark classroom, but that wasn’t what Joyce needed to hear. “She’s safe with me,” she promised.
“So you’ll be sending her back?”
Jenny winced, trying to think of an answer that wouldn’t further upset Joyce. There really wasn’t any good way to spin this. “Joyce, I don’t want to put her on a plane back to you if she doesn’t feel comfortable with the concept,” she said.
“Pardon my French, Jenny,” said Joyce flatly, “but fuck comfortable. She’s my daughter.”
“That’s not what I mean—look, if I put her on a plane and she doesn’t want to come back, she’s just going to run away again,” Jenny persisted. “Until she is completely ready to come back, I really don’t think—” She stopped, sighing. “It just doesn’t seem right to force her into this,” she said.
Joyce was silent on the other end of the line. Then she said, “I handled things poorly, with Buffy. I guess part of me wants her back so we can try again, but…” She trailed off. “This time around, I don’t think that’s my choice to make,” she said. “The things I said to her were way out of line. As long as I know she’s safe with you, she can stay as long as she needs.”
Jenny smiled slightly. “Can I tell her you said that?” she asked. “I think it’ll really help.”
“Jenny, you have my express permission to tell her anything if you think it’ll help,” said Joyce, a wet laugh in her voice. “And—tell her I love her, all right? And that she can come back whenever she’s ready.”
“Of course,” said Jenny. “I’ll keep you posted, okay? I think I still have your email.”
That made Joyce really laugh. “You do, at that,” she said.
They exchanged a few friendly words, and then Joyce hung up. Jenny, feeling simultaneously relieved and exhausted, rounded the corner into the kitchen, where Buffy was silently drinking her mug of tea.
“Jenny, tea?” said Rupert tentatively.
“I don’t need—” Jenny began.
“Coffee, then,” murmured Rupert, and the chair he must have been sitting in moved itself out for him to get up.
“Hey,” said Buffy suddenly. “How come you were so surprised when I said I could see Mr. Giles?”
“Oh, just call me Giles,” said Rupert, who was rummaging through the cupboards for the instant coffee Jenny had bought the week before. “And it’s because I’m a ghost.”
To Jenny’s surprise, Buffy cocked her head a little, squinted, and said, “That makes sense.”
“Really?” said Jenny, astonished.
“Well, if I look really hard, I can see the toaster through his left shoulder,” said Buffy. “Plus he sounds like a staticky radio when he talks.”
“No, I don’t!” said Rupert indignantly.
“Rupert, how would you be able to tell?” said Jenny, trying not to laugh.
Buffy had no such qualms. Setting the mug down on the table with a clunk, she started giggling, looking young and delighted in a way Jenny hadn’t seen her since…freshman year, maybe. Something about that made Jenny’s chest tighten in a painful, wonderful way that had nothing to do with jealousy. “Oh my gosh, he is a ghost!” she laughed. “I wasn’t looking at first ‘cause I was all upset, but it’s totally obvious now that I am!”
“So you don’t think he’s some sort of collective hallucination?” said Jenny, just to clarify.
“Put a little trust in your own mind, Ms. Calendar,” said Buffy with a small, tentative smile. “You’re the only one who noticed me and Angel, remember? It’d make sense that you’d pick up on stuff other people didn’t.”
The unguarded appreciation in Buffy’s eyes felt well worth the slightly painful phone call with Joyce. Jenny sat down at the table, stretching a hand across to rest it over Buffy’s on the mug. “And you see the good in people,” she said. “Makes sense that you’d see Rupert—he’s good people.”
Buffy’s smile widened; she sniffled. “Gosh,” she said. “It’s been a weird day. Does this place have an extra bedroom for me to stay?”
“It has five,” said Rupert, sounding extremely pleased. “See, Jenny, cleaning the bedrooms did pay off!”
“Okay, you could not possibly have known that Buffy would come to stay—” Jenny objected.
Buffy’s gaze flitted between them and she tilted her head, grinning in a way that seemed almost mischievous. “You know, Giles,” she said, “if Ms. Calendar ever does see your face, the game’s gonna be up in a second, right? You’re not all that good at hiding your, uh, emotions.”
Jenny blinked, bemused, and looked in the direction at which Buffy was leveling that teasing little smile.
“Um,” said Rupert, “that’s—”
“Ms. Calendar, you are missing out on some quality faces,” said Buffy sweetly.
“Buffy, don’t harass my ghost,” said Jenny. “Rupert—”
“I’ll make you that coffee,” said Rupert very loudly, clattering around in the cupboard.
Jenny turned back to Buffy. “So, hey,” she said, smiling.
“Hey,” said Buffy, looking a little sheepish. “Did my mom chew you out?”
“Actually, your mom wants you to know that she loves you very much and that you can come home whenever you’re ready,” said Jenny, squeezing Buffy’s hand. “You’re very loved, Buff. Don’t forget that.”
Buffy’s mouth trembled. “Okay,” she said in a small voice. “I just, I really screwed up, Ms. Calendar—”
“You really, really didn’t,” said Jenny. “Look at me, okay?” Buffy didn’t. Very gently, Jenny tilted Buffy’s chin up. “Absolutely nothing that happened was your fault,” she said. “He had all of us fooled, remember? Literally everyone said that he was the one special case—”
“Everyone but you,” Buffy reminded her.
Jenny raised an eyebrow. “What teenager listens to their computer science teacher over their mom, their dad, and their friends?” she said. “Besides which, I could have—” (should have) “—pushed harder if I had honestly thought it was an issue. The blame is on the adults when something like this happens.”
“It’s not your fault either,” said Buffy. “You didn’t know he was older, I told you he was going to a different school—”
“Coffee’s done,” said Rupert, pointed and a little too loud, but not in an uncomfortable way—more like he wanted to make sure they knew he was still there. The coffee mug floated over, landing gently in front of Jenny. “Black, how you like it,” he added.
Jenny and Buffy kept looking at each other for a few seconds, neither of them entirely sure what to say. There wasn’t really a manual for this kind of thing. “Thanks,” said Jenny, and picked up the mug, taking a sip.
“Should I go find a room?” Buffy asked tentatively.
“I’ll show you to it,” Rupert offered. As Buffy was getting up, mug still in hand, Jenny felt him touch her shoulder, gentle and reassuring. Involuntarily, she closed her eyes, wanting him to keep his hand there—forever, maybe. Hopefully.
The night of Buffy’s arrival, Jenny dreamed about Buffy and Angelus and that night in the classroom. She woke up gasping for breath, blankets tangled around her, and rolled onto her side, scanning the nightstand for the cup of coffee without even realizing what she was doing. She didn’t see it. She didn’t see it. She didn’t see it and he must not have put it there and he must not have ever been here, he must have never, never existed—
“Jenny, Jenny, darling, shh,” Rupert murmured, gathering her into his arms as she shook. Jenny clung to him; in the dark, she could almost pretend that he was there. “It’s all right. Do you want your cup of coffee? I can go and get it if that’s what you’re searching for—”
“I want you,” Jenny whispered, arms tightening around him.
And maybe she imagined it—she must have imagined it—but for a moment, she felt Rupert’s heart pounding.
Jenny woke up from a different dream, after that, one with Rupert’s half-remembered mouth on hers and his reverent hands at her waist. It was mid-morning, the sun shining through the window of Rupert’s bedroom, and a teacup of black coffee was resting on her nightstand.
According to Rupert, the library was “of a modest size.” Jenny, who had never once lived in a house with a built-in library, found this description ridiculous, especially since the library was something like four times the size of her apartment bedroom back home. The wall-to-wall bookshelves were tidy, without much dust; it was clear Rupert had been reading pretty often for the last twenty years. The windows, coated in a thin layer of grime, overlooked an actual fucking fountain, at which point Buffy informed Rupert that he clearly had no idea what modest-sized houses were. “Like, seriously,” she was saying, scrubbing haphazardly at the windows, “you wouldn’t last a day at my house. Or Ms. Calendar’s, probably, I mean I’ve never been to Ms. Calendar’s house but—”
“This is Ms. Calendar’s house,” said Rupert, as if it should be obvious.
“She means my place in Sunnydale,” said Jenny, feeling strangely embarrassed.
“Oh,” said Rupert. There was a strange note to his voice. “So you’re, you’re planning on returning to Sunnydale, then?”
Buffy had stopped scrubbing, and turned inquisitive eyes to Jenny. “You know, the school board was really mad about what Snyder did,” she said carefully. “He fired you without checking in with any of them, which he isn't supposed to do, so technically the job's still yours. I think even the Mayor—”
“I have to go get more cleaning solution,” said Jenny, and dropped the sponge she was holding, hurrying out of the library. As soon as she was in the hallway, she stopped, leaning against the wall and closing her eyes.
She’d meant to leave Sunnydale behind. After—
(Don’t. Think. About. That.)
—she had wanted to pack up and run. What had happened had all been because she’d gotten caught in the crossfire, and it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been in Sunnydale. Leaving that situation behind had seemed the most logical thing to do; it wasn’t like anyone was chasing her, after all. But her words from that first day echoed back, now: I can’t let my life be driven by ghosts.
The statement worked in more ways than one. Jenny could have set up shop anywhere in the world, but there was a very particular reason that she felt so hell-bent on staying in England.
“…don’t know how to help her,” Buffy was saying, and Jenny realized that she had left the door ajar.
“It isn’t your job to do that,” said Rupert quietly. Still leaning against the wall, Jenny tried to decide whether to shut the door and leave or head back in and pretend she hadn’t heard them talking about her. “You’re seventeen, Buffy, you don’t have to—”
“No offense, Giles, but you have no freaking clue what you’re talking about,” said Buffy quietly. “I told her something she shouldn’t have needed to know. What happened to her was my fault.”
There was a silence. It suddenly occurred to Jenny that this was a perfect window for Rupert to ask Buffy what had happened, and god, she didn’t—she didn’t want him to know. She didn’t feel ready for him to know. She straightened up, preparing herself to burst back into the room and conveniently interrupt, and that was when Rupert said, “Whether or not that’s the case, I know Jenny well enough to know she’d never want you blaming yourself for it.”
Jenny felt a violent rush of affection for Rupert, enough to bring tears to her eyes. She let her head fall against the wall with a thud.
“Jenny?” Rupert called.
Jenny felt a twist of mortification; she hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. “Yeah, just, just give me a minute,” she called, and took a shaky breath, then reentered the library.
To Jenny’s relief, neither Rupert nor Buffy commented on the fact that she’d very clearly been listening in. Instead, Buffy gave her a small, tired smile, handed her the sponge she’d dropped, and said, “You know you don’t have to go back to Sunnydale if you don’t want to.”
Even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to see his face, Jenny couldn’t bring herself to look in Rupert’s direction. “I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen after this summer,” she said, eyes on the window as she began to scrub. “I don’t think I can say definitively that I’ll go back to Sunnydale, but…” She trailed off, not quite willing to finish that thought.
“Well, you’d be missed if you did,” said Rupert softly.
“Oh?” said Jenny, scrubbing the window a little harder to disguise her blush.
“Oh my god,” muttered Buffy. “You grown-ups are so obtuse.”
Buffy was over the moon when Rupert offered to paint her nails. “I haven’t had the time or the energy,” she explained, “and last time I tried my hands got all shaky, so this is—this is so nice, Giles, thank you,” and she looked up at the empty chair in front of her with big, shining eyes.
“Of course,” said Rupert, and added a little glittery swirl to the nail on Buffy’s ring finger. “I used to paint my—” A strange, deliberate pause, then, “—boyfriend’s nails. Before we went out.”
Buffy blinked, then grinned a little. “Bi?” she said.
“Sorry?” said Rupert, sounding a mixture of confused and nervous.
“We should start a club,” said Buffy, visibly delighted. “Can you do my thumb with the bi flag?”
“What?” said Rupert.
Jenny fought back laughter.
“I’m bi,” said Buffy, as though this should be obvious.
“Bisexual,” said Jenny patiently. “And Buffy thinks it’s funny because I’m bi too.”
“What—oh,” said Rupert, and now his voice was colored with that warm, startled delight that Jenny was feeling too. “Oh, that’s—then, yes, I’m, I’m also bisexual.” He exhaled, almost a laugh. “We really should start a club.”
“Ms. Calendar sponsors the Sunnydale High GSA,” Buffy added proudly. “Me and Willow—that’s my best friend—we hit it up all the time together.”
“Willow and I,” said Rupert.
“What about Willow and you?” said Buffy curiously.
“No, it’s—” Rupert let out a small, amused huff; Jenny could all but picture him rolling his eyes. “Never mind.”
“You should paint my nails,” said Jenny suddenly.
“Wow, way to ham in on my amazing idea, Ms. Calendar,” teased Buffy.
“Hey, take it as a compliment!” Jenny sat down at the table, watching Rupert fuss with the blue polish.
“How did you pinpoint that I’m bisexual?” Rupert sounded somewhat bewildered. “I’ve never mentioned any attraction to women—”
Buffy burst out laughing.
Still laughing, Buffy waved a hand between Rupert and Jenny, wheezed, “Like you and your moony eyes would ever need to!” and buried her face in her hands, giggling furiously.
It felt unspeakably wonderful to see Buffy lit up and laughing, enough so that the possible cause of her amusement didn’t seem quite as important. “Rupert,” said Jenny helpfully, “you just zigzagged on the polish.”
“What—um—yes,” stammered Rupert. Then, “Buffy, for my peace of mind, please stop laughing.”
Buffy managed to control herself, but the delight in her expression hadn’t gone away. “So we’re all bi!” she said. “That’s cool! There should be, like, a flag—oh wait,” and then she dissolved into giggles again.
Jenny smiled, knocking her shoulder against Rupert’s. “Nice going,” she said quietly.
“Did I do something?” Rupert sounded both bewildered and pleased.
“You made her happy,” said Jenny, and leaned forward, judging on instinct alone. Remarkably, she managed a quick kiss to what felt pretty solidly like Rupert’s cheek. “That’s definitely a win in my book.”
Buffy’s bi-flag nail turned out a little messy.
The house still didn’t look anywhere close to livable, but it was beginning to feel lived-in. Rupert had started making proper dinners for Jenny and Buffy in the dining room, Buffy’s clothing was strewn all over the master bedroom, and Jenny had finally set up the wifi router so that they could all watch Netflix on her laptop.
“Net-what?” said Rupert, then, “That’s not a computer.”
“You are unbearably adorable,” Jenny informed him, settling into the pillows with Buffy at her side. “Buffy, what show do you think we should use to illustrate the glory of the twenty-first century?”
“Will you kill me if I say Riverdale?” said Buffy.
Jenny hit her with a pillow.
“But it’s so small,” Rupert was saying, fiddling with the keys of Jenny’s laptop.
“By modern standards, Ms. Calendar’s laptop is pretty much a dinosaur,” Buffy informed Rupert, neatly dodging another pillow.
“Hey, I like vintage things!” Jenny objected.
“Since when?” Buffy scoffed.
Jenny did her best not to look in Rupert’s direction.
“At any rate,” said Rupert, sounding a bit flustered, “I should appreciate us settling on something to watch in the next decade or so. I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
“You’re also not getting any older,” Jenny reminded him, but began scrolling through titles. “We could always watch a classic—”
“I am not watching a single episode of one of those ultra-popular workplace sitcoms,” Buffy informed her. “Xander made me sit through a billion episodes of one of those and, like, they’re fine, but I wanna watch drama.”
“You and Cordelia Chase should hang out sometime,” said Jenny innocently, and immediately flattened herself against the headboard to avoid the pillow Buffy lobbed at her. “What? I’m just saying, you two have incredibly similar tastes in TV—”
“Cordelia Chase?” Rupert repeated.
“She’s the absolute worst,” said Buffy indignantly, “and Ms. Calendar knows it.” Jenny directed an angelic smile in Rupert’s general direction. “Okay, you can’t pull that,” Buffy informed her. “You don’t get to use the big Bambi eyes on him just so he’ll be on your side—”
“You two are both ridiculous,” said Rupert. “Does this thing have any history documentaries? I’d like to catch up on the politics I missed.”
“Oh, we’re ridiculous?” said Jenny. “Here you are with a prime streaming service and you’re going for the history documentaries? What about the sexy Netflix exclusives? What about the high school dramas where everyone’s going to parties and not doing homework? What about—”
A pillow picked itself up and launched itself at Jenny’s face. She shrieked, falling back into the bed with a laugh. The laptop was very nearly knocked off the bed.
“Thank you, Ms. Calendar, that’s quite enough,” said Rupert with a surprising amount of dignity for a guy who had just contributed to a pillow fight. “You asked me what I’d like to watch—”
“No one wants to watch a history documentary,” said Buffy, picking up the laptop from the edge of the bed. “No one. This isn’t school, Giles.”
Jenny pulled herself up, still giggling. “Okay, here, let’s compromise,” she said. “Period drama.”
“Perhaps,” said Rupert.
“Maybe,” said Buffy. “But it has to be dramatic. And campy. And kinda dumb.”
“I can live with it,” said Rupert, and gently tossed a pillow in Jenny’s direction. She caught it, grinning.
Rupert taught Buffy and Jenny how to do laundry.
“This is not how it works at my house,” said Buffy, squinting at the washing board and bucket of suds. “And it shouldn’t be how it works here either. This house has a fridge and a phone and wifi—”
“To be fair,” said Jenny, “I added the wifi.”
“—so why shouldn’t it have an actual washing machine?” Buffy finished, directing an expectant glare at Rupert.
“My father found it inefficient,” said Rupert, a strange, flat note to his voice.
Buffy seemed to sense that she was close to crossing a line. “Still,” she said, keeping her tone purposefully light, “what we’re doing feels way less efficient than a good old-fashioned washing machine.”
“Actually, Buffy,” said Jenny, grinning a little, “this is the good-old fashioned way.” She stepped over to the bucket, rolling up the sleeves of her sweater. “So we what, just splash them around and hang them up?”
“Precisely,” said Rupert, and a splash of soapy water caught Jenny’s cheek. She felt that now-familiar rush of affection, looking at empty space and knowing he was there. “Would you get started on the jeans?”
“How many pairs of jeans did you bring,” Buffy groaned.
“I live here, remember?” Jenny reminded Buffy, picking up the first pair and beginning to scrub them against the washing board. “All my clothes are here.”
“So you left your furniture in Sunnydale, but you brought all your clothes?” Rupert teased. “Intriguing priorities.”
“I am a fashion icon,” said Jenny, tripped on a lingering patch of soapy grass, and fell directly into the bucket of water.
She felt the soft splash of her back hitting the water, but a second before her head connected with the washboard, she was snapped back and up, gentle hands on her waist putting her world to rights. “Really, Jenny,” said Rupert, his eyes gentle and amused behind his glasses, “what is it with you and laundry?”
Jenny stared at him, mouth half-open.
“Are you quite all right?” Even with the worry in Rupert’s voice, the overwhelming love in his eyes didn’t waver. “I did think I managed to pull you up before you hit your head—”
“Yeah, fine, I, I’m fine,” Jenny stammered, trying to take her eyes off him and failing spectacularly. All she could think was any second now, he’ll disappear, and maybe I’ll never see him again, and so she was mentally cataloguing absolutely everything he could. Eyes, the green-blue color of a tropical sea. Hair, a rumpled caramel-grey. Mouth, stuck in what seemed to be a permanent half-smile as he looked at her. He looked so startlingly real, and nothing like a ghost at all, and god, she had never been in love like this before.
Rupert managed a concerned little grin, then turned back to the heap of clothing. “Jenny, if you want to sit this one out, you can—” he began, already beginning to fade around the edges.
“No, Rupert, look at me,” said Jenny, unable to cope with him looking away. No one had ever looked at her with that much love, and the concept of her never being able to see that look in the eyes of someone she loved so much was—
Rupert’s head snapped up, those sweet green eyes round and wide. “How did you know I wasn’t looking at you?” he said hoarsely.
“Lucky guess,” said Jenny, heart pounding.
“Doesn’t seem all that lucky to me,” said Rupert.
Buffy cleared her throat, loudly splashing the water. “Still here, guys,” she said.
The interruption startled Jenny, breaking her concentration. Rupert shimmered, then faded away altogether. A lump in her throat, she said, “God, Rupert, I wish I could see you,” because now it really wasn’t a lie.
Rupert didn’t say anything, but now Jenny could imagine the look on his face. “All right, then,” he said, his voice trembling, and the laundry began to splash around in the bucket. “Buffy, if you’d please help me with the—”
“On it,” said Buffy immediately, hopping up alongside him.
“I’ll get the clothespins,” said Jenny, and hurried inside the mansion before they could call her back, making sure to shut the door tightly behind her this time around. As soon as she was sure she was alone in the hallway, she closed her eyes, trying to pretend that what she was feeling was fear and not a ridiculous, newly blossoming joy.
Jenny stayed up later than she should have, that night. She tried to bring back Rupert’s sweet smile and his eyes, tried to imagine what color his hair was, tried to imagine him there and real and with her. I can’t let my life be driven by ghosts, she’d said that first night—but Rupert wasn’t a ghost. Not really. He felt more and more real every day.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Jenny called, sitting up against the pillows, staring up at the peeling-paint ceiling.
“So we finished the laundry,” said Buffy, peering around the still-open door, then stepping all the way into Rupert’s bedroom.
Jenny winced. “Sorry,” she said. “I really meant to head back out, I just—”
“You’re totally good,” said Buffy, sitting down on the bed next to her. “You know, I think you and him would make a cute couple.”
“Did I read it wrong?” But Buffy didn’t sound like she thought she might have.
“No, it’s just…” Jenny sighed, wringing her hands. “Am I that obvious?”
“You’re not,” said Buffy, sounding somewhat amused. “He is.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” said Jenny, and despite herself, she smiled. “He’s just been looking at me like that all this time?”
“See, I called it!” Buffy looked delighted. “The second you saw him, I knew you were gonna put two and two together. Giles is such a nice guy, Ms. Calendar, but he is so not good at having sneaky fuzzy feelings for someone.”
“Neither am I,” said Jenny ruefully.
“No, I think you’ve just been pretending you don’t,” said Buffy helpfully. “I tried that for a while with—” She stopped, her wide grin fading.
“With Angelus,” said Jenny, quiet and reassuring.
Buffy’s smile was all but gone.
“It’s okay,” said Jenny, and reached out, squeezing Buffy’s shoulder. “It’s not like you have to avoid saying his name for the rest of your life.”
“Can I?” said Buffy, and fell back into the pillows, staring at the opposite wall with a tired, almost empty expression. “I think I’d kinda like to. It feels better, pretending all that stuff with him never happened. It feels like things get to be normal. And then I remember, and it’s like, boom, no more splashy laundry and Netflix and listening to Giles talk about old books. Someday I’m gonna have to go back to Sunnydale and—”
Without a word, Jenny reached out, wrapping an arm around Buffy’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said.
“It’s not,” said Buffy matter-of-factly.
“No, it’s not,” said Jenny, and rested her cheek on the top of Buffy’s head. She hesitated, then said, “I keep on wanting to tell Rupert about you and me and Angelus.”
“How come you haven’t?” Buffy sounded genuinely curious.
“At first it was because I didn’t know Rupert well enough,” said Jenny carefully. “And then you showed up, and…I feel like telling him has to be something we’re both okay with.”
“I’m okay with it,” said Buffy, then amended, “mostly,” then winced, and said, “maybe not.”
“Yeah, that’s where I’m at too,” said Jenny with a reluctant smile.
“I mean, do you have to tell him?” Buffy asked.
Objectively, Jenny knew, the answer was no. She’d known Rupert for half a summer, and that wasn’t nearly long enough to disclose something so painful and personal. Objectivity, however, didn’t take into account the way she felt every time Rupert touched her. “I’d like to tell him,” she said distantly. “That’s not the same, but…it feels just as important, you know?”
“I know,” said Buffy, and moved a little closer to Jenny. After a moment, she said, “Ms. Calendar, I-I don’t want you holding out on my account.”
“Oh, no, Buffy—”
“No, I—” Buffy exhaled, then said, “There are definitely parts that I maybe don’t want Giles knowing just yet, and I think you know what those parts are. But there are ways to tell your story without having to tell mine. Even if all this Angel stuff is tangled up and messy, it’s still something that affected you just as much as me, a-and it’s something you should get to be able to decide who you tell. You shouldn’t have to factor me in.”
It took Jenny a moment to formulate an answer to that. Finally, she said, “I didn’t know you thought that.”
“What, that you shouldn’t have to factor me in?”
“That it was something that affected me,” said Jenny. Her voice trembled. “No one thought that when they heard about it.”
Buffy swallowed, hard. Then she said, “I’m sor—”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” said Jenny sharply, hugging Buffy tightly to her without even having to think about it. She felt Buffy’s shoulders shaking with held-back tears. “What you went through was fucking terrible, and way too much for any seventeen-year-old to have to deal with. I was surprised because…” She trailed off, a lump in her throat. “It takes a lot to go through something like Angelus,” she said, “and still have space in your heart to care about what happened to me. In your shoes—”
“He threw you against a wall,” said Buffy in a small voice. “He tried to kill you. How am I supposed to not care about that?” She pulled back, looking up with half-frightened eyes. “You scare me sometimes, Ms. Calendar,” she said. “That you’d go through something like that and call it small potatoes.”
Jenny hesitated. “Well,” she said. “I could be compartmentalizing, a little.”
“Just a little,” said Buffy, heavily sarcastic.
“Just a little,” Jenny agreed with a touch of wry amusement.
There was a tentative knock on the doorframe, and Jenny’s stomach twisted. All of a sudden, the drawbacks of not being able to see Rupert felt plentiful.
“He literally just showed up,” said Buffy, curling a reassuring hand around the hem of Jenny’s sleeve.
Jenny smiled, feeling somewhat guilty about her relief. “Rupert,” she said, and she couldn’t help the way her voice softened on his name. “You wanna come in?”
“I’d assumed you’d gather that from the knocking,” said Rupert dryly. He paused, ostensibly taking the scene in, and when he spoke again, his voice was much softer. “Are you two all right?”
“We’re getting there,” said Buffy.
Jenny kind of liked that. It wasn’t a yes, but it implied a yes someday. “We’re getting there,” she echoed, and extended her free hand to Rupert. “Sorry I bailed on laundry.”
“Oh, Buffy and I agreed that you’re doing it all by yourself next time,” Rupert quipped, sitting down on the bed next to Jenny. She felt his hand on her shoulder and leaned into the touch, eyes fluttering shut. “And Jenny, Buffy, I feel I should clarify: if you want me to know what happened in Sunnydale, I’d be happy to, but I don’t desire it.”
“Why not?” Buffy asked. Her voice trembled.
Rupert took a moment to answer. “Because I rather think I’d hunt this Angelus down and kill him,” he finally said.
“Hey, ghosts can’t go to prison,” said Jenny, and tried to laugh.
Buffy, however, was studying Rupert with a half-hungry expression. “My dad said I should have known,” she said. “He said I should have been more careful.”
“The heart isn’t careful, Buffy,” said Rupert gently, which made Jenny think that he’d probably pieced most of the Angelus stuff together on his own. It wasn’t too hard to figure out even if you weren’t as smart as Rupert, which was what had made those last three weeks in Sunnydale so difficult. “There’s nothing logical or careful about falling in love.”
“Oh, isn’t there?” said Buffy, sounding suddenly amused, and directed a pointed look at Jenny.
Despite herself, Jenny smiled. “No,” she said, and looked to where she knew Rupert was, raising a hand to tangle her fingers in his. “There really never is.”
She heard Rupert’s breath catch, and knew he was smiling. His thumb stroked the side of her hand.
Buffy fell asleep in Rupert’s room, clearly emotionally exhausted by their conversation. Rupert had gone downstairs to wash dishes, so Jenny headed down to join him, feeling much less nervous than she probably should. She’d never been in love before. This was completely uncharted territory, and yet…
The radio was playing when Jenny entered the kitchen, some crooning vintage ballad that felt extremely appropriate. “Mood music?” Jenny asked, grinning.
“Oh—Jenny,” said Rupert, all but breathless, and dropped a plate. By some miracle, it didn’t break, and he hastened to pick it up. “No, I, I just—I like love songs.”
“Yeah?” Jenny extended a hand.
Rupert got the message. Smart guy. She heard him cross the room, felt him take her in his arms, and…god, did it even matter that she couldn’t see him? She knew him. “A bit slow for your taste, I’d think,” he quipped, beginning to waltz them around the kitchen.
“Even if you say you don’t want to know what happened,” Jenny began tentatively, keeping her eyes trained on her hands. She could feel the scratchiness of tweed at her palms, knew that they were resting on Rupert’s shoulders. “I feel like…” She trailed off. “Like it’s something you should know,” she said.
“There’s a difference between wanting to tell someone and being ready to tell them,” Rupert reminded her.
“So maybe I’m not ready,” said Jenny, raising her head to look at him as they swayed, thinking of those soft green eyes behind round spectacles. “I’d rather tell you when I’m not ready than run the risk of never being ready, you know? I want you to know.”
“Jenny, I already told you,” said Rupert quietly. “I’d be perfectly fine if I went my entire life without knowing—”
Jenny frowned, distracted by the turn of phrase. “You’re dead,” she said. “I hate to say it, but there’s no entire life ahead of you.”
Rupert shook his head. It took Jenny a moment to fully register why she knew that he’d shaken his head, and then her breath caught in her chest all over again: that mouth, that rumpled hair, that wry, loving look in his eyes. “I feel vibrantly alive around you, Ms. Calendar,” he said softly.
Somehow, it was the one way he could have said I love you without making panic rise in Jenny’s chest. She’d never been in love before, and some part of her still felt like she wasn’t built for it. She could do casual things, playful intimacy and passionate kisses, but the way it felt to be held…the concept of commitment had always frightened her.
But losing this man frightened her more. And wasn’t that something to realize?
“I love you,” said Jenny. “So much.”
Rupert leaned in, brushing his nose against hers, bumping their foreheads as they waltzed around the kitchen. Home, Jenny thought, and she knew she wouldn’t ever return to Sunnydale if it wasn’t with him. “Will you turn tail and run if I say I love you too?” he asked.
“Jury’s still out,” said Jenny.
“What if I disguise it in thinly veiled metaphors and cooking you breakfast?” Rupert suggested.
“God, you think you’re so funny—”
“You love it,” said Rupert. He stopped, then grinned, stunned at the truth to his words. “You love it,” he repeated. Not once had she seen him this happy.
Jenny’s smile had snuck up on her. Twining her arms around her neck, she stood on tiptoe; he gathered her into his arms as the love song ended.
“How are you asleep?” Jenny bumped her shoulder against Rupert’s, then kissed the soft spot just under his jaw. “Ghosts don’t sleep, do they?”
“Not—usually, no,” said Rupert with a bitten-off yawn. “Though as far as I know, ghosts also don’t generally have passionate and enthusiastic sex, so today’s actions are anomalous across the board.”
Reluctantly, Jenny smiled. “Can we talk?” she said.
That woke Rupert up. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah, just…” Jenny trailed off. Then she said, “Can I tell you what happened?”
“Always,” said Rupert, and he took her hand in the dark.
Jenny woke up in a bedroom she didn’t recognize, one with too much empty space and ostentatious furniture. She sat up slowly, noting that her clothing was strewn haphazardly across the room; it took her a moment to remember why that was the case. Buffy had been asleep in Rupert’s room, so they’d gone to the master bedroom and…
Heart pounding, Jenny reached for the empty space on the mattress. There was absolutely nothing there. “Rupert?” she called, but she couldn’t bring herself to raise her voice louder than a whisper. She knew what a room felt like with him in it, and this wasn’t that.
Slowly, terribly, she turned to look. There was no cup of coffee on this bedroom’s nightstand.
“Huh,” said Jenny. She felt like her insides had been scooped out and thrown away. It made sense, didn’t it? Rupert had been lonely, had craved connection, had stuck around even after death until he finally found it. It made sense for him to be gone so fast, so painfully, without even saying goodbye. That was the way ghosts worked.
It took Jenny twenty minutes to pull herself out of bed, and another ten to get haphazardly dressed. For a brief moment, as she was pulling on her sweater, she remembered what it had felt like when Rupert had tugged it off—slow and deliberate, all but reverent, just like she’d imagined—and then she gritted her teeth, heading downstairs, unable to think past anything beyond out.
She heard the whistle of the teakettle, and stopped in the doorway to the kitchen, eyes stinging. “Rupert Giles, you fucking idiot—” she began, a ridiculous swell of relief and love all but overcoming her, and then she actually saw him.
“Jenny, you usually sleep in till ten,” said Rupert, sounding horrified. Two sturdy mugs—one tea, one coffee—rested on the breakfast tray he was holding. “I was so certain I’d be in and out before you noticed—”
Jenny could barely hear him. She didn’t know how, but she knew that something huge had changed. “Rupert,” she whispered, a tearful laugh in her voice, and she all but tumbled across the room to him, nearly sending the breakfast tray flying. Ignoring his worried inquiries, she pressed two fingers to his neck, and there, there it was, a steady heartbeat against her fingertips, oh my god—
“Jenny?” There was a different cadence to Rupert’s voice now, all wonder and shaky hope.
“Don’t drop the breakfast tray,” said Jenny dizzily, then cupped his face in her hands. Warm to the touch. “I think I’m gonna kiss you silly.”
“I think,” said Jenny, “sometimes, inexplicable, stupidly wonderful things just happen, and you have to roll with the punches.”
“That works when it’s you stumbling into my house,” said Rupert weakly. “I don’t think the same logic applies to me coming back from the dead—”
“Fuck it,” said Jenny, “I have a thousand mugs at home,” and she knocked the breakfast tray out of Rupert’s arms, pulling him into a fierce, hard kiss. Rupert’s knees gave way and he fell against the wall, but he kissed her back with just as much desperation. Before this, every moment between them had felt stolen and fragile, but now Rupert was solid in her arms, his heart pounding enough for Jenny to feel it—
“Okay,” said Buffy from behind them. “I think I’m gonna go back to bed and put on some music. Loud music. I won’t be out for, like, a good—four hours? How long do you guys need? Probably the whole day, right? You two have been doing the long-term pining thing—”
Jenny pulled back, laughing and crying at the same time. “Buffy, Rupert’s alive,” she said breathlessly.
Buffy blinked. “For real?”
“I believe so,” said Rupert, and reached up, checking his own pulse. “Goodness,” he said, eyes wide and wet.
Buffy stared down at them both, lips parted. Then, without warning, she raced down the stairs, colliding with them both as she pulled Rupert (and, by extension, Jenny) into a fierce, tight hug. “Totally solid,” she said, and she sounded near tears herself. “And you’re all warm!”
“Yes, well, some of that is probably the coffee,” said Rupert, wincing at the splattering stain on his jacket.
“Whoops,” said Jenny unrepentantly.
Buffy pulled back, sniffling, to examine Giles. “And you’re for real alive?” she asked.
“I think I’ve been alive for a bit longer than this,” said Rupert. Over Buffy’s head, Jenny received one of the most tender looks in the world. “This just makes it official.”
“God, you’re corny,” said Buffy, a wet laugh in her voice. “At least that hasn’t changed.”
“So, breakfast?” said Jenny.
“Someone will have to clean this mess up,” Rupert objected.
“Jenny, you knocked all of it over—”
“I’ll do it,” said Buffy, scrubbing at her eyes and smiling at them both. “You two crazy kids get started on breakfast.”
Rupert extended his arm. Jenny took it. “Breakfast,” he said wondrously. “You know, I could really do with some pancakes.”
“Oh, I can cook!” said Jenny.
“No, you can’t,” said Rupert, kissing her on the cheek.
“No,” said Jenny, grinning. “I really, really can’t.”
six months later.
“How many boxes?” Rupert was asking.
“Twenty?” said Buffy hopefully, holding the clipboard out to him.
“See, now is where you tell her Buffy, my girlfriend and I do not have enough room in our tiny apartment for twenty boxes of chocolate,” Jenny informed him, breezing into the library and setting down her purse in the middle of the table. “Are you going to tell her that, or—”
“Buffy, my girlfriend and I will be happy to store our twenty boxes of chocolate in the mansion she owns back in England,” said Rupert, and grinned up at Jenny before signing the form. “When will I receive my candy?”
“As soon as I show this to Snyder,” said Buffy brightly.
“Giles, will you buy my candy?” said Willow suddenly. “It’s going towards the robotics team—”
“Ooh, yeah, buy that!” said Jenny.
Rupert gave her an extremely annoyed look, then said, “We have donated to the robotics team, remember?”
“That was last semester,” said Jenny. “And Willow has this amazing project, but I don’t want to play favorites—”
“—so you enlist another faculty member to do it for you?”
Jenny coughed. It sounded a lot like “Buffy.”
“Hey, he’s allowed to play favorites when it’s me!” Buffy objected. “I knew him way back when he was a ghost!”
As they always did when talk of Rupert’s origins came up, Willow and Xander exchanged their usual skeptical looks. Buffy’s new girlfriend, however, grinned a little, tilting her head to look at Giles. “Yeah, I can see it,” she said. “He dresses kinda like an eighteenth-century professor or something.”
“1997, Faith,” said Rupert irritably.
“Sure,” said Faith.
Leaving the study group to their usual friendly bickering, Jenny stepped into Rupert’s office, straightening the nameplate atop his desk. Rupert Giles, it read. Sunnydale High School Librarian. She smiled a little, tracing the L in Librarian, then said, “You followed me in here?”
“You didn’t even look up,” said Rupert from behind her, a laugh in his voice.
Without turning, Jenny reached behind her, taking Rupert’s hand and tugging him next to her. “I always know where you’re at, Rupert,” she said, turning into his arms and giving him an open-mouthed smile. “One of the lingering perks of dating a ghost.”
“Well, I’m not a ghost at present,” said Rupert, grinning a bit. “One of the lingering perks of falling in love with a lonely soul.”
“You are nauseatingly romantic,” said Jenny tenderly, and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.