Buffy slammed the stake in with precision, shattering ribs and spattering cold blood everywhere. Vampire and blood and stake dissolved into a scream and were gone, revealing Giles with his sword raised against mere dust. Buffy grinned at him.
"And the throw goes from Watcher to Slayer for the put-out at first."
Giles stared at her in bewilderment for a moment, then his eyes went wide "Behind you!"
Buffy went down on her hand and kicked out behind herself at where he'd been looking. She connected with undead flesh with a satisfying crack. Coil to a crouch, spring up, catch the stake Giles tossed to her, and spin again. There it was: vamp, fangy, with the vacant yellow eyes of the new-fledged and confused. Confused, but strong and hungry and driven. And tragically, dust.
"Weak grounder to short, out number two!" she said. "Not that I'm implying I'm short or anything like that."
She turned to enjoy the baffled expression that one had to have given Giles, but found he was otherwise occupied. There was a third vamp, and this one wasn't so vacant. Giles had it at bay at the point of his broadsword but wasn't making any progress on killing it. It had a lit torch in hand, which Giles was treating warily. It was the sire of the first one, Buffy guessed, had probably been waiting at the graves for its new progeny to rise. Two brand new little minions for a would-be master vampire. Too bad.
The vampire lunged at Giles with the torch. Giles parried but the vamp swung again, brutally fast, and his sword went flying. Giles stumbled backwards, giving ground desperately, but he tripped over a tombstone.
Buffy was there before the vamp could flambé her Watcher. She yanked on its shoulder and spun it around. "Hey! I'm tastier."
The vampire tilted its head at her. "I do believe you are." It showed her a mouthful of fangs in what passed for a smile in the undead community. And then it lunged at her.
Buffy went to stake it and found her hands empty. Whoops. No stake. She'd carelessly lost that one, too. The torch swept at her and she dodged back. Again, low, and she jumped. "Giles," she said. "Got any more stakes?"
"Bugger!" Which she translated as "no". She could see where his sword had landed, not so far from her, but if she went for it she'd catch a face-full of torch. But then Giles was there, tapping the vampire on the shoulder. He held his empty hands out and shook them.
"I'm far tastier than she is," he said.
And then it was chasing Giles again, because vampires were completely stupid as well as vicious. Buffy moved fast. A Slayer-powered leap, a roll, and when she came to her feet again the sword was in her hand. The blade flashed in the torchlight and she hacked through the vampire's neck. The torch fell to the grass amid a shower of dust.
"And the side is retired," she said. "Perfect game intact."
Giles was bent over, hands on knees, breathing hard. He straightened as she approached. "Sorry," he said. "Made a right mess of that."
"No big. It died."
Buffy laid the sword across her arm and proffered it to him. He took it and saluted her with the blade. She scooped up the torch and thrust the business end into the damp earth of the ruptured grave. It sputtered out. Only Buffy could prevent forest fires. Cemetery fires. Whatever.
Giles hadn't sheathed the sword. He held it in a guard position that Buffy should be able to name but couldn't, and was scanning around them.
"No more vamps. Trust me. Post unification thingy, I couldn't stop the honing even if I wanted to."
Giles nodded and sheathed his sword in his baldric. The hilt jutted up over his right shoulder. It was a reassuring sight, a simple timeless weapon, guaranteed effective against almost any demon. Low tech. The kind of tech Buffy liked. After the Initiative's fall, she had a thing against electronic gizmos and anything that glowed blue and went zap. She had some more grudges against soldiers in uniforms, chains of command, and medical labs. All she needed in the cemetery with her were sharp stakes, sharp swords, and the reassuring sharp brain of her Watcher.
Who was standing with his hands on his hips, looking annoyed. "I have a bone to pick with you," he said.
"I think your evil sensors are not as finely-tuned as you claim." He pointed with his chin at something behind her, but made no move to draw his sword. Buffy made a face at him and turned.
Quentin Travers stood at the edge of the path, watching. Behind him a limo idled quietly, headlamps off. As Buffy and Giles walked over to him, Travers raised his hands and clapped, slowly.
"Miss Summers," he said, and he sounded polite. "It is always an inspiration to see you work."
"What are you doing here?" Buffy said.
"I was in the area. A bit of Council business in Los Angeles. I thought I would drop by to see how you've been getting on. I trust I find you well."
"Yes, thanks. I, er, sorry, but I very much doubt you just dropped by."
"Ah. Rupert. I wasn't talking to you."
"That's a comfort," Giles said, under his breath. Buffy suppressed her urge to snort.
"I am surprised to see you, I must say. I would have thought you would already be off with your new, ah, employers."
"Say what?" Buffy said.
"Sorry?" Giles looked baffled, which made Buffy feel a little better about being entirely clueless.
"Your employment circumstances. Ring a bell?"
"Since you sacked me, that's been none of your business at all."
"Your circumstances, yes. The Slayer's, however, are our entire business."
Travers tugged as his cuffs as he said this. Business. Something about it made Buffy want to push his teeth through the back of his head, but she restrained herself nobly. Giles was always after her to find non-violent solutions to problems.
"Not your business, either, remember?" Buffy said.
Travers turned to her then and half-bowed to her. "Miss Summers, my apologies. It was not my intention to ignore you. Quite the opposite. You are the reason I have come to be here at this hour." He gestured to indicate the cemetery.
Buffy was not mollified; instead her hackles rose and she looked around for signs of impending attack. But there was nothing, no vampires nearby, no humans either. Just the limousine idling at the curb, with headlights off.
Buffy widened her stance ever so slightly. "You're not getting the message. I fired you guys a long time ago."
Travers shook his head. "You need a Watcher, Miss Summers. You know this. Someone to translate the prophecies for you. Someone to do your thinking for you. Rupert won't be doing that for you any more."
"Read my lips. No. Freaking. Way." And then what he'd said hit her, and she saw red. Giles's hand closed around her arm for an instant, just long enough to get her grounded again. She breathed in once, twice.
Travers was watching her closely. She met his gaze and he nodded in satisfaction. "You may expect to meet your new Watcher next week. Please do be here to welcome him. We should take it amiss if you chose to abandon your post in favor of chasing Rupert. Your, ah, devotion to each other is touching, but ill-placed."
Travers made as if to leave, then turned back. "Rupert. A word of advice. The Slayer is ours. We bear you no ill will and wish you luck in your new endeavor. But you cannot take the Slayer with you."
Giles's chin lifted at those words, but he said only, "Good night, Quentin."
"I shall see you in a day or two," Travers said. He retreated to the door of his limo and vanished within. The car rolled off, leaving the street empty and quiet.
Buffy turned to Giles, hands on hips. "So. That was unexpected."
"Going to tell me what it was all about?"
"Not here," he said. "Home." He wasn't looking at her directly, which made her uneasy.
They walked back to Giles's apartment side-by-side, silent. The summer night had gone chilly as the marine layer had drawn in. Buffy zipped her hoody up to her neck. July on the California coastline: not so hot without the sun part. Giles's arm brushed warm against hers every now and then as they walked. It was, aside from the visit from Travers, exactly like almost every night they'd spent since the unification spell had done its strange thing to them. They patrolled together, trained together, meditated together. They had been in each other's pockets since that night.
Buffy hadn't minded a minute of it. More than that, she'd been enjoying it. She was more than a little upset to think about this situation ending for any reason. Even more upset to think about Giles not being her Watcher any more, about going off to do other things.
Giles stood aside to allow her to precede him down the brick steps to his courtyard. She leaned again the wall and watched him open his front door. Unlocked as usual, for who would burgle the Watcher's flat? And besides, the door was warded. Buffy felt the magic tingle across her skin as she stepped over the threshold.
Giles hung his baldric on the coat rack. Buffy kicked off her Chucks and padded barefoot over to the couch. She tucked her feet under herself. On a normal night, what would happen next was they'd debrief from the patrol, then Giles would work on any specific issues he'd spotted during the fights. They'd talk and do the mental side of training until three in the morning, usually, sometimes later. Sometimes until dawn. Night-time studying, on the Slayer's schedule. Then maybe she'd run home to her mother's place, taking advantage of the cool night and the empty streets to run intervals, Slayer-style. Or she'd stay here and sleep on Giles's couch until noon, when they'd both wake up and spar before lunch. She'd spent the last couple of nights away from him, so maybe she'd stay here tonight.
He wouldn't mind. She knew that. The unification spell had done some strange things, starting with that shared dream and not ending there in the least. She'd carried that awakened Slayer spirit within ever since. That unruly Slayer spirit that had been troubling her dreams and driving her out to hunt at night, but Buffy was at peace with that drive now. She was doing it right, sitting here with her Watcher now. The Slayer spirit liked Giles. It liked her being close to him. Her inner Slayer had good taste.
Was he really thinking about finding a job somewhere else? It didn't feel like he was thinking about leaving her, not with how much time they'd been spending together. Not since he'd agreed to be her Watcher again, formally.
Giles sat on the other end of his little couch. Like her, he'd removed his shoes. He set one socked foot onto his coffee table. She watched his toes flex. He had small feet for such a tall man. He was deceptively tall, over six feet, but he hid it slouching around in those baggy sweaters. And those over-sized tweed coats he used to wrap himself in. But even the baggy sweater couldn't disguise those broad shoulders. Or that jaw, which was as rugged as jaws got. Yes, she was was grooving on her Watcher's body and had been ever since the Slayer spirit had smacked her upside the head and told her to look at more than his mind.
She'd have been wigged out about that once upon a time, a time before the unification spell. Now... well. She grooved.
"You know what I regret?" she said, dreamily.
"I didn't tell Travers to bite me." Giles smiled, though it was a bit wan. "What do you suppose Toad was really doing in LA?"
Giles shrugged. "Perhaps exactly what he said. I don't think he's evil, Buffy. Just a trifle, ah, conservative in his methods."
"Neanderthal, I'd say. He seems to think I'm his property or something."
He made a little harrumphing sound in response. They didn't need to discuss what Giles thought of that attitude. Buffy already knew.
"So. Spill already, Giles. What's the deal with you landing a new gig?"
He took his glasses off and tossed them onto the coffee table. "Ah," he said. "He seemed to have the wrong end of the stick."
Which was a stuffy British way of saying Travers was wrong. Buffy let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. But the next question was, what was at the other end of the stick? She opened her mouth to ask Giles. And the phone rang. What was it? One in the morning? Later than that.
It rang again. Giles stared at it without moving through a third ring, then he scooped up his glasses and went to answer. Buffy listened in shamelessly, because phone calls after midnight were generally important, in the sense of requiring Slayage eventually.
"Hullo? This is he. Whiting, good lord, we haven't spoken in donkey's years. What's the occasion?" Giles paused and his brows came together. "Oh. I see."
Whatever Whiting said next made him look even more puzzled. "Thanks, that's very kind of you, but I'm afraid we weren't very close. I--"
Then he was silent again, listening to whatever the man on the other end was saying, and the puzzlement on his face faded. He looked curious, and that was an expression Buffy liked seeing on Giles's face. Though she didn't mind anger, when it was aimed at somebody else. She'd seen him far gone in righteous fury once or twice, and he was awe-inspiring like that. But now, he looked as if he'd been sucked in by a fascinating problem, and his body was tense with excitement.
"I should like to know a little more before I go booking--" He fell silent for a moment, then he glanced at Buffy. Then he pulled his desk drawer open and fished inside for a pen. He wrote something on the back of an envelope. He exchanged courtesies with whoever it was he was talking to, then set the phone down. His hands were on his hips and he was staring at the phone, brows together. Glaring at it, almost.
"What was that all about?"
Giles went into the kitchen without answering. Tea break, she guessed, and perched herself on one of his kitchen stools to watch. He set the kettle on the stove and leaned back against his sink. Buffy leaned her chin on her hand and waited. There went the glasses, off, fumbled with, polished with the hem of his shirt.
"One of my cousins has passed away. Not a close friend, but I knew him when we were at school."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yes, well, it might have struck nearer home if I'd seen him since. There was some family dust-up after he'd gone off to university that ended with my father forbidding us to mention his name again. I was never privy to the details."
"Stranger yet, I was just strongly encouraged to attend his funeral. By a university connection I also have not spoken with in twenty years."
The kettle went, and Giles turned to deal with the tea-making. Buffy watched him pour water and do his little dance with the pot and the tea cozy. He did make great tea, she had to give him that.
"So let me get this straight. First Travers the annoying shows up to tell me I've got a new Watcher coming next week. Then you get invited to the funeral of somebody you barely knew."
Giles said, "And Travers warned you against accompanying me."
The tea-timer in his head went off and he un-cozied the pot to pour two mugs full. No business with the tray and cookies this late. It was just a soothing mug before bedtime. Giles poured milk into one mug then offered it to her. Buffy turned the mug in her hands. The heat soaked through the ceramic and warmed her fingers. She carried it back out to his couch and returned to her favorite corner.
Giles sat next to her, nose deep in his tea.
"So. Toad-boy seemed to think you got a new gig."
Buffy cocked her head at him.
"I need to make a confession to you," he said. He looked contrite. He also didn't look as if he were confessing a big bad to her, as if there were danger he'd been hiding. Buffy bit back the anger and made herself calm down her body language.
Giles drank some more tea. "I sent out some feelers last month, after we-- when we started training together again. I felt I wasn't being all the Watcher to you I could be."
Buffy reached out and squeezed Giles's knee. "No way. Don't ever think that."
Giles's eyes crinkled at her over his teacup, but he shook his head. "It's a matter of resources. Better research assistance than what I can provide on my own. I'm quite cut off from the Council's materials. As you heard."
"Has it ever mattered? I mean, they've never actually helped us when we needed it. Like the Ascension. They were sans clue."
"Just because they didn't doesn't mean they couldn't. Or that another group cannot. The Council is not the only group fighting demons."
"So you're looking for a new Council to join? Maybe one that's fifty percent less evil?"
"Something like that."
"I don't like it."
"Your opinion might not enter into it."
Buffy bowled right over this. "Because you're mine. My Watcher. And I need somebody I can trust now that I'm going through all this ur-Slayer weirdness. And--"
"The unification spell affected more people than just you, Buffy."
Buffy snapped her mouth shut and kept it shut. His voice was sharp in a way it hadn't been in a long time. She'd just disappointed him, and she didn't know why yet.
"Just as you have been wrestling with the deeper aspects of your Slayerness, I've been wrestling with what it means to be a Watcher."
"Xander and Willow--"
"No doubt are experiencing something similar, and unique to them."
And that shut her right back up again. When had she last seen either of them? Willow was on vacation somewhere with Tara. Xander was-- he'd left town too. Not Giles. She and Giles had spent time together every single day since the unification spell but not an hour with the others. That was interesting. The Unification had sent Xander and Willow away to discover who they were, but it had driven them together. If she read this right. Except that Giles had something else going on.
What did it mean to be a Watcher? Was it her Watcher he was thinking about being, or just a Watcher? Was the job something that needed a Slayer? But even as she formed the question, she knew it was silly. A Watcher needed someone to watch.
Buffy reached out and took his hands in hers and squeezed for a second. To her surprise, Giles squeezed back. "Sorry."
"You weren't to know."
"Not everyone is all blurty like me. Especially not you."
"Of course you came to me with your concerns."
"Yeah, but that goes both ways, mister."
"I'm sent to you as your helper. My needs are subordinate to yours."
"We're a team."
Giles shook his head, but did not argue his point further. He didn't need to. She knew what he was getting at. She did the fighting; he provided support. One thing Travers had said had been true: she needed somebody with Watcher skills. She would be in deep trouble without Giles, as she'd learned over the last year. She needed him happy, sober, and fully functional. What was good for him was good for her, in a roundabout way. Though she was suspicious of funky old organizations. If they were evil, she was going to tell him no. She knew he wouldn't go against her wishes, though he might be miserable about it. She'd seen him do it. Not that she wanted a repeat of that. She'd rather see her Watcher happy.
She had a swig of tea.
"So," she said.
"What does it mean to be a Watcher?"
The question pleased him, for his eyes crinkled up again. "Many things. Some of them are the things I've been doing for you all along. The translation. The research. And some of them-- some are newer. I'm meant to fight alongside you, I think. It feels-- I'm happier doing it than when I'm sitting at home fretting."
"But when you fight with me, you're at risk."
"Yes. The incident tonight isn't the only one we've had and it won't be the last. I need to be an asset to you, not a liability. The Council's answer is to have me stay at home while you fight. I don't find that acceptable."
"I can protect you. Most of the time."
"Slayers die protecting their Watchers more often than the Council likes. It's one rationale for the Cruciamentum, to break whatever bond of, of friendship has begun to develop. Harden her. And him as well."
"No. And I begin to think, shouldn't work. But it still leaves us with the problem. I'm not the sort of man who can stand back from combat. Not any more."
Not ever, Buffy suspected, except when he'd been so uncertain of himself and so bound by Council ways at the start. The more Giles revealed of his true self, the more she saw that he was himself a warrior. Ripper was not a mocking name for a persona; it was a true name for a facet of the whole man. Ripper was the guy who got back onto his feet and distracted the vampire without stopping once to think of the consequences.
Or maybe he'd thought about them on a quiet night sitting like this, on his couch with a cup of tea. She had. She'd spanked the inner moppet and accepted the fact that she'd get hurt a lot on her way to eventual death. Again. The cause was worth it and nobody else was going to do it as well as she could. Giles might have come to the same conclusions.
So. Trust his thinking.
"So you're looking for backup, I take it. These people you sent out feelers to. What kind of groups?"
"Quite a wide variety. There's a coven in Devon. A convocation of sorcerers in Scotland. A number of pure research groups, archivists. I was expecting to hear from one of those, in fact, given my credentials."
"You heard from your college buddy. Who invites you to a funeral, minutes after Travers congratulates you on an offer you haven't even heard about."
"Not a coincidence."
"So that means your college bud was making an offer."
"Of some kind. But I can't imagine what. He was an indifferent scholar, if I recall. Much more interested in the rugby pitch. Though the town-- The name is familiar somehow. Where have I heard Wells Cross mentioned?" Giles pinched the bridge of his nose underneath his glasses.
"Seems to me like there's no downside to investigating. We get information and we annoy Travers. Double win."
"Yes. If my hunch is right, that is."
"If not, we get a nice vacation in your motherland. You can show me the sights. Feed me some warm beer."
"Buffy, I'm not sure you should--"
"Hellmouth is quiet. Summertime, remember? Besides, Travers wants us separated. That means I have to stick close to you. Trust your Slayer."
Giles tossed his glasses onto his coffee table and sighed. That was acquiescence, because he'd been saying the same thing to her for the last couple of weeks. Trust the Slayer instincts, trust the reflexes, the senses beyond the human that told her where evil coiled and where good rested. He said, "Very well. I'll book our flight. For tomorrow night if I can manage it. The funeral's in three days."
"I'll go pack."
Two days later their plane was landing in Heathrow, slamming down on the runway as far away from home as she'd ever been, and Buffy was still wrangling with Giles over whether it was a good idea or not for her to have come. At worst, it would be a vacation for a working Slayer who hadn't been out of town since that family vacation in Cabo. At best-- well, she wasn't sure what would happen. Giles might make contact with an organization that would help the two of them fight evil.
From the delayed flight, the traffic on the M-something-or-other dinky sub-freeway, and the even smaller winding roads they drove on after that, it was past dinner time when they reached the inn in the middle of nowhere. Not nowhere; Giles explained they were vaguely near Glastonbury, which Buffy had heard of because Oasis had played the festival. But that was not going on now, and they were miles away from the site anyway, in a village near nothing in particular. Giles had been directed here because his cousin's funeral would be in the village church.
The twilight had just begun to shade into night when they got themselves checked into their inn. The room had two narrow beds and had its own bathroom attached, which looked ridiculously tiny to Buffy but that Giles seemed to think was a major feature in an inn like this. Buffy was a strange combination of exhausted and wired, not ready to sleep yet. Besides, she was hungry.
They dropped their luggage onto their beds, unopened, and went downstairs to the pub. Giles ordered himself a pint of something and Buffy, stabbing wildly at the confusing list of names on the chalk board behind the bar, ordered cider. Giles's beer came in a tall straight glass and was black with creamy foam on top. She tasted it; it was warm like they all said English beer was and it was bitter and sweet at the same time. Giles snagged his glass back while she was pulling a face and drank deeply from it. He set it down on the table between them with a thump. He looked relaxed, sitting there slouched on the bench across from her, satisfied with himself. He'd been in a strange mood all day, alternating between being happy to be in his home country and anxious about something. At the moment he'd settled on happy. The beer left a bit of foam on his upper lip, which he licked off. Buffy watched his tongue and thought about how long she'd known Giles and how much she knew about him, and how comfortable they'd become with each other, that she could steal sips of whatever he was drinking so casually.
Buffy's own drink looked like carbonated apple juice. It was sweet and completely nummy. She drank as deeply as Giles had, and sputtered.
"This cider tastes funny. Is this alcoholic?"
Giles laughed at her. "It's cider."
"Which means extra-chunky apple juice where I come from, but I'm guessing it's like applejack for you Englander types."
"Not that strong. But possibly we should eat a bit of dinner now to cushion the blow."
Giles was always telling her to eat more to fuel the Slayer metabolism. Her inner Slayer spirit had now joined forces with her Watcher, so Buffy had given in. Food it was. "I could do that. Like, about three dinners."
"What would you like?"
Buffy flapped a hand at him. "Anything. Delight me with the cuisine of your people."
Giles made a face at her, then called over the waitress for a brief conversation. She saw them looking at her a couple of times, but she resolutely ignored them in favor of sipping at her cider. She was determined to demonstrate to Giles that she'd moved on from last year's beer incident and had indeed learned to hold her liquor. Though he probably wouldn't want to know how she'd learned, and she honestly wasn't all that proud of it, either. Her first year of college had featured stupidity, study, and slayage in about equal measures. Probably it had been a typical freshman year, aside from the blood and mayhem.
Buffy turned her cider glass around and around, watching the bubbles rise against the glass.
"Everything all right?"
"Yeah, just thinking. What's the name of this place?"
"The Lancer's Rest."
"Weird name for a hotel."
"Typical for an inn this old. And suggestive." Buffy waggled her eyebrows at him. Giles smiled at her. "Not that sort of suggestive. I mean that it hints at the answer to our question. I believe I've worked out why I was asked to come here."
Giles raised a forefinger. "I believe my cousin to have been a member of the Order of St George. A peculiarly English group, in service of a peculiarly un-English saint."
"George, the guy who killed the dragon?"
"The same. He is alleged to have founded several orders of knights in various countries. Which, since the historical figure lived before knights existed, is quite unlikely." He punctuated this announcement with a healthy swig of his black beer.
"So the Order wasn't founded by him. Frauds?"
"Hardly." Giles had more of his beer and licked his lips. "They are quite authentically a medieval demon-hunting group that survived and is operating to this day. Rather like the Council in some ways, different to them in others. They've always been rather more explicitly military, where the Council are more scholarly. Though the Council have always preferred to have, er, the Slayer do--"
"The dirty work."
Giles nodded. "The Order trains men to be demon hunters. From childhood, usually, as the Council does. There might or might not be a mystical component. It's rather secretive. Again, just as the Council is."
"But they don't get along."
"Apparently not, given how my father reacted to my cousin's choice. There is a fierce rivalry. There often is between these groups. Seems counter-productive, but there it is."
He shrugged and drank more of his strange beer. Dodgers versus Giants, then, no sense to it, just ritual hatred. Buffy turned her attention to her cider again, which continued to be alcoholic yet tasty, and thought about rivalries and baseball teams. Did they compete for the star players? Was Giles a star player?
"So. These George guys called you because why? Sale on swords?"
The waitress chose that moment to arrive with their dinners. Giles leaned back in his chair and waited until she'd gone to answer.
"I don't know. They weren't a group I attempted to send feelers to. They must have heard somehow. Otherwise they'd have recruited me immediately after our break with the Council." Giles shrugged.
They'd find out, she supposed. Buffy looked down at the strange food on her plate, and was surprised to realize it was perfectly ordinary roast beef in sauce, with veggies and a potato. One hundred percent normal food. She found Giles waiting for her reaction with a cocked eyebrow, so she decided not to play his little game. She ate like the starving Slayer she was and said nothing at all to him about the food.
Two dinners and one more pint of black beer later, they returned to their room together. Giles was still in a good mood, but more mellowed out. Buffy beat him into the bathroom to change into her pajamas and brush her teeth. When she emerged, Giles traded places with her. She was wired despite the flight, the drive, and the cider. Her body seemed to have no idea what time it was, really, even though it was dark out. The dark was her time. Hunting time. Wakeful time. Was there anything to hunt? Their room had one tiny window that looked out over the roof of another wing of the inn. She tugged it up and open and stuck her head out. Starlight, wispy clouds over a half-moon rising, the sound of an owl hooting somewhere nearby, a car driving past. No vamp-tingle even in the least. It was odd to not feel it. It battered at her every time she paid attention in Sunnydale.
Giles emerged from the bathroom with his toiletry bag in hand. He bent and replaced it in his suitcase, then turned to her. His eyebrow went up in silent inquiry.
"No vamps," she said and it came out a little whiny.
Giles made a sympathetic noise. He yanked the bedding free from his mattress and climbed in. Buffy left the window open and turned off the light at the door. She sat cross-legged at the end of his bed. Giles didn't object, but he drew up his knees and clasped his arms around them. The blankets covered him up to his waist. Dark red blankets, his arms pale against them, his t-shirt shimmering white behind. She'd seen Giles in various states of undress, but she'd never spent the night with him like this. She'd spent the night in his apartment, had slept on Xander's basement floor with him and the gang, but she'd never been alone with him in a tiny little room, thousands of miles away from home. She wasn't sure why that mattered, but it did.
She was strangely aware of his body, of his masculinity. And he was definitely male to her just then. And he had gray at his temples, and was nearsighted, and stammered when he was nervous, and had to hide in his flat alone after too much time spent with their noisy friends. But he never seemed to mind her company. She was maybe as much as a refuge for him as he was for her.
Something flared hot in her chest and she reached out and took his left hand. She'd done it without thinking, but it felt right. He squeezed her in return for a moment then let his hand relax in hers.
This was the hand Angel had damaged. There were thin scars along the fingers he'd broken. It was Giles's sword hand. He'd made a good recovery, but even now he was still working to build the gripping strength he'd used to have. He'd told her that just recently, when she'd resumed weapons training with him. This hand, callused and scarred. It was suddenly unbearably desirable to her, this man's hand in hers. She held herself completely still, mind controlling her body's impulses for now. Only her thumb moved, stroking over his.
"Buffy--" he said.
Buffy braced herself for the moment when he distanced himself, but he was gazing at her steadily and silently. His eyebrows came together and he studied her for an uncomfortably long time. Buffy didn't flinch. She continued to stroke his hand with her thumb. Eventually he seemed to find whatever he'd been looking for, and he looked down at their joined hands. He shifted and leaned forward. His fingers grazed her palm, and she breathed in. He raised her hand, turned it in his, and brushed a kiss against her knuckles. He lingered there for a moment, then released her.
"I must try to sleep now," he said. "You should too."
Buffy opened her mouth to object, but he shook his head and she stayed silent. Net yet was the message. She slipped down from his bed and went over to hers and got in. He turned off the light. He rolled onto his stomach and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed.
Buffy lay in her own bed and watched him sleep with Slayer-sharp eyes. Something in her stirred, the same thing that made her hunt, but this time it wasn't driving her out into the moonless night. That belongs to you, it said. And it came along with a tickle of desire. Honor those impulses, he'd said. Honor the Slayer within. What would Giles make of this impulse? Would he tell her to honor this one too?
Buffy woke first, troubled by the time shift, and she slipped into the room's tiny bathroom to get in a fast shower. When she came out, Giles was sitting up and rubbing at his face. His hair was rumpled and his chin stubbly. He could sometimes be slow waking up, she'd noticed, so she gave him his space. She filled the room's electric kettle and plugged it in. Tea from bags, which Giles had taught her to sniff at. He'd gulp it down anyway. But then, she'd drink instant coffee in a pinch, herself.
Giles got himself out of bed when the kettle whistled. She poured his authentically inauthentic morning cup of tea, with two units of sugar for the Watcher with the sweet tooth. He came over to collect it from her.
"Breakfast?" she said.
Giles shook his head. "The tea will do." That was the first sign she'd seen from him that any of this was affecting him.
He carried his cup with him into the shower. He came out again ten minutes later, cup empty, half-dressed in trousers with bare feet, hair wet, a towel around his shoulders. He was bare-chested. He extracted a little black bag from his suitcase and carried it into the bathroom with him. He left the door open, set it on the sink, and unzipped it. A shaving kit, she saw. He ran water into the sink and lathered up his face.
She had seen him shirtless once before, at the beach last summer. He'd filled out since then, filled out and slimmed down at the same time. His year of jogging instead of shelving books was visible in that bare chest and in the legs inside those dark trousers. He'd been training her in weapons use a lot recently, maybe five hours a week, and it had begun to shape him. He had biceps now, and shoulders. The muscles in his forearms shifted as he braced himself on the sink. That was sword-fighting muscle. She hadn't realized what it took to fence with her until she'd watched Xander try to stand in a guard position for more than thirty seconds. His wrist had wavered inside twenty, and that had been with a wooden sword and not a steel broadsword.
Giles toweled his face dry and cast another one of those enigmatic looks at her, but remained silent. Buffy watched him button a white shirt and tuck the tails into his trousers. He fastened bracers to his trousers and slipped them up over his shoulders. A tie went on next, one with a diagonal stripe pattern that she'd seen him wear once or twice before. Cufflinks. The signet ring. He was in the full regalia this morning, then. For funerals, she left off the jewelry, but Giles put it on. Except for his earring: he wasn't wearing anything in his ear this morning, though she could see the dimple of his piercing. How often did he wear an earring? Often enough that the hole didn't close up.
Giles shrugged on his jacket and stood before her in somber glory.
"One might think you'd never seen a man dress."
"I haven't. Well, not in real clothes, anyway." Riley had worn a suit once or twice, but nothing like this.
Buffy stood and straightened his jacket collar for him. She brushed a bit of imaginary lint from his shoulders. It was just an excuse to touch him, but he didn't seem to mind. He tilted his head and said, "You're ready in rather better time than usual."
"No choices to make," Buffy said, and she shrugged. Funerals weren't flashy dress occasions and she hadn't brought much jewelry with her. Her taste had moved to more practical pieces these days anyway. No more dangling things in her ears that made her vulnerable when fighting. It was all solid sensible captive bead rings in her ears. Though she had her silver cross on its chain around her neck. She never went without that. Again, it was practical.
"What time is the funeral?" she said.
Giles glanced at his wristwatch. "In an hour. If you're in the mood, we could take a walk around the village. The church isn't far."
Buffy was in need of some motion after being cooped up in the plane and in the car for so long. She snagged her sunglasses and was ready to go.
They'd driven through town like this yesterday but she hadn't managed to get a good look at them. They'd been on main roads and this town was all about the little winding streets off the main road. It was utterly gorgeous to her eyes, everything green and growing. It had rained some time in the night and the grass was wet. Rain, in summertime, so strange. The houses looked like a picture-book, like they were from a movie not from real life. There was another inn, a pub, a grocer, a shop aimed at tourists, and a collection of houses where people lived. There wasn't much more: they'd walked all the way across the place in ten minutes.
It made Sunnydale look huge. Sunnydale was a one Starbucks town and this place was... Buffy hoped it never had a Starbucks, ever. It was too pretty for that.
The church they were heading to was outside the town proper, a short walk along a little winding road labeled merely "Wells Cross". There wasn't a sidewalk as such, a single-track gravelled path that mostly paralleled the official road. The occasional car passed them, also bound for the church.
The church itself was old, though Buffy had no way to make any guesses about how old. It was more of a weird agglomeration of little buildings than what Buffy thought of as a church, though it had a tall steeple and a bell. Its gray stone walls were flecked by lichen and broken by narrow arched windows. The steep roofs were shingled with wood. There were old grave sites right next to the walkway, with dates on them in the 1600s. So it was at least that old. She'd have to ask Giles later. It was also larger than she expected, given the tiny size of the village.
"Goodness," Giles said. He was leaning back and looking at the roof of the church, which fascinated him for some reason Buffy couldn't guess at. She was more interested in looking for signs of Travers or anybody else obnoxious. There were more people going inside than she had expected, somehow. Standing on the steps was a man who was looking around just like she was. Buffy saw him spot Giles and react. This had to be the Whiting guy they were there to meet. He came forward and shook hands with Giles.
"Rupert," he said. "It's been a long time."
"Gerald. Indeed it has."
Whiting turned to Buffy and hesitated, only for an instant but long enough that Buffy raised an eyebrow.
"Buffy Summers," Giles said, without bothering to explain who she was or why she was here. If Whiting knew Giles was a Watcher, which he almost certainly did, he'd know who she was already.
Whiting extended a hand to her. Buffy shook his hand and said what you were supposed to say when meeting somebody at a funeral, but only with the back half of her brain. The front half was furiously trying to parse this guy. He made her spidey sense tingle, but not in the creepy way. He looked like what she'd expect: suit and tie, conservative haircut gone a little shaggy and gray-shot, a face that was all character and once-broken nose. He had a handshake of surprising firmness, an upright stance and wide shoulders. An athlete in a suit, like Giles, only unlike Giles he wasn't bothering to hide it.
Giles was speaking. "You were close? Forgive me if I'm prying. I hadn't seen him to speak to since I was in prep school."
"At one time," Whiting said. "I hadn't seen him in some months. I had been traveling on-- business." That last was evasive.
"I am sorry."
"Death comes to us all. Sometimes unexpectedly."
"May I ask how he died? On the phone you said it was a heart condition, but--"
Whiting glanced around them, at the people walking past into the church. "Come walk with me," he said, and he headed off to the left.
They walked clockwise around the church, following a stone-flagged path in a grassy lawn. The grass and the stones were in the shadow of the church and still wet from the rain last night. The railing along the path looked new.
When they were out of easy earshot of the front, Whiting said, "I'm not entirely comfortable discussing this before outsiders, but--"
"Buffy knows what we do," Giles said. His eyebrow was up.
"Ah." He glanced at her again with slightly more interest than before, then turned to Giles. "I suppose you know what this is about."
"I've got a theory. This village is where tradition puts the Order of St. George."
Whiting nodded. "Tradition, legend, and reality. We are indeed here."
Giles's expression was faintly smug, but probably Whiting didn't know him well enough to read it. "And my cousin was one of you."
"Did he die well?" Giles seemed to hesitate over that mode of expressing it, but Whiting didn't mind.
"Alas, it was indeed his heart. Undiagnosed weakness, apparently. He did not die with his boots on as he would have preferred."
There was no irony in Whiting's expression as he said this. Dying quietly didn't count as dying well, somehow. Buffy understood the feeling at the same time she hated it. Did she want to die in action, going down fighting? Preferably winning as she died? Maybe. Maybe she wanted to die from a heart attack in distant middle age. Would heart attacks hurt? She had already died once, and while it had screwed with her head for a while afterwards, the actual death part hadn't hurt. She wasn't scared of the pain any more.
Whiting said, addressing Giles, "Forgive my directness at a moment like this, but we don't have that much time. I'll come to the point if I may."
"Alec's death leaves us with a gap in our ranks at a time when we are thin to start. There was something in his papers that attracted our attention to you. He wrote that he'd always thought you were a better candidate for our ranks than he had been."
"Yes. We attempted to approach you once, some time after you obtained your degree, but you had vanished deep within the Watcher organization and we judged it not worth the bother."
That sounded perilously close to an insult and Buffy folded her arms. Giles did not seem offended. He said, "Yes, I'd have been particularly keen on the Watchers at that point in my career."
"And not so keen now."
"No." There was a wealth of meaning in Giles's wry tone that Buffy knew was meant for her amusement. She let herself smile for an instant, where Whiting couldn't see it.
"Yes, we'd heard earlier in the summer that you were seeking new affiliation. You are truly free to do so?"
"Then perhaps we might find our interests aligned. We seek men like you, men who are born to fight demons. Warriors."
"I'm a scholar, not a warrior."
"I very much doubt--"
"He's a warrior," Buffy said, cutting him off. Whiting looked at her as if surprised she'd spoken. "Trust me."
Whiting laughed. "Forgive me, but I doubt you have any idea."
Buffy bit down on her urge to let him have it. "Oh, do I."
"Miss Summers is the Slayer," Giles said to Whiting.
Whiting rocked back onto his heels. "Oh! Oh. The Slayer. We hadn't realized that you were still working with Rupert. I mistook-- Well. Forgive me. You would indeed know a warrior when you saw one."
Whiting seemed genuinely apologetic. Buffy was mollified.
Giles said, "Sorry to surprise you like this. I thought you knew. Buffy left the Council shortly after I did."
Whiting shook his head and said, "We assumed that when the Council sacked you it retained the Slayer for itself. I'm frankly shocked they've allowed this."
Buffy said, "It was up to me, not to them."
She let some acid creep into her tone, maybe too much, because Giles almost stuttered as he said, "Miss Summers considers me to be her Watcher still."
Whiting frowned. "And is that what you consider yourself to be?"
Giles said, "Yes." His jaw was set in a way that Buffy knew meant he was a little grumpy, though she didn't know what had set him off. She thought Whiting had made a good recovery from his gaffe. "If you don't want the Slayer as well as her Watcher, we'd best end this discussion now."
Whiting leaned forward and just touched Giles on the shoulder. "I seem to have got off on the wrong foot here. Not much of a diplomat, I'm afraid. More comfortable with a sword."
Giles's jaw relaxed. "Sorry, I'm a bit on edge myself. We had a run-in with the head of Council a few days ago."
"He said something about seeing me here. I do expect to see my uncle, who's a staunch Councilman."
"Bother," Whiting said, in a way that made Buffy suspect he'd wanted to say something much nastier. "We shouldn't be seen talking. Look, old man, if you're interested, I'll take you to meet our chancellor tonight. Or do I need to give you a recruiting pitch?"
Giles looked at Buffy before answering, which surprised her. She shrugged ever so slightly at him and stifled her urge to tell him to say no. This had to be about him, no matter how much she wanted to make it about her. He might say no himself, after all, given how annoyed Whiting had just made him.
"No need for a pitch," Giles said, at last. "I should like to speak with your chancellor."
Whiting nodded. "I'll come round to fetch you at about seven and we'll have a bit of dinner first. I know where you're staying."
"Of course you do," Buffy said, under her breath.
"Best you enter the church on your own. Discretion." And he was off without another word, trotting away from them along the path.
She turned to head back the way they'd come, but Giles beckoned her to follow Whiting. "Never walk around a church widdershins, Buffy," he said, solemnly.
"The wrong way round," he said, twiddling a finger counterclockwise. "It's bad luck." He tilted his head and then she saw the smile on the corner of his mouth. They let Whiting get a good lead on them, then started walking.
"All this sneaking around," she said.
"Would you prefer to confront the Council head-on?"
"I owe Travers a punch in the nose."
"I shall endeavor to prevent you from meeting him again, then."
"Spoil-sport. Except he said he'd be here, so maybe you don't get to have a say. So there!"
"Let's try to avoid him, Buffy."
Giles's voice had gone serious and he looked uneasy, so Buffy gave in. If Travers was there, though, Buffy didn't spot him on their way into the church or even once they got inside. The church looked big on the outside but the part of it they were using for the ceremony was smaller than Buffy had expected. It was nearly full. They found seats in a row of pews near the back, which gave her a good view. There were more men than women in the church. Some obvious families, with scrubbed-shiny children mostly behaving themselves. In special pews on either side of the lectern was a pack of guys in their twenties, filing in together in a neat line. They all looked like they were football players, or something. Athletes. Wide shoulders and upright stances. Not a single desk jockey in the bunch of them. Buffy looked again, and saw the row of women behind the men, again with bodies that said athlete in a way she couldn't quantify. And their seats at the front had to mean something too.
A cluster of people were heading toward the front more slowly. They were grouped around a short older guy. Buffy saw first his white hair, then that he was in a wheelchair. It was a modern chair, lightweight, high-tech, with the wheels canted inward. The man seated in it didn't look as if he were about to play hoops, though. He was as well-dressed as the rest of them. He parked himself in a space alongside the row full of football players. Once he was settled, the funeral began, as if they'd been waiting for him.
The funeral was nothing like any of the ones Buffy had been to, and she'd been to too many. She watched Giles and did what he did, stood with him, sat again when he did. It caught her by surprise when he slipped down to kneel on the little stool in front of their bench. Other people were too, she saw, mostly older ones. Giles's head wasn't down, though. Instead he was staring in the direction of the coffin. His eyebrows were together and he looked almost angry. Thinking hard about something, Buffy knew, turning something important over in that huge brain. What conclusions he'd reach he might or might not ever tell her.
Then she saw that he wasn't actually staring at the coffin. He was staring at a group of people at the far side of church, near the front. Buffy narrowed her eyes and took a good look at the row of well-tailored backs, and then she spotted him. Quentin Travers, the toad with a beard. Next to him was another old guy, taller than the QT. Flanking them was a pair of broad-shouldered thick-necked hunks of meat. Travers had his back to them, and if they were lucky, he wouldn't turn around.
She rolled her eyes at Giles. Giles half-smiled at her in response, then turned his attention back to the front of the church. Buffy continued her scan of the people, as discreetly as she could. Religion bored her, but she did feel respect for the guy who was dead. Though if he'd died fighting evil, probably he didn't care so much what was going on at his funeral. He'd have moved on to better stuff, if she believed what Giles told her. He believed it, anyway, and that was usually enough for Buffy.
Buffy let her eyes drift up, to the funny arched ceiling. The church itself was pretty old, way older than anything that existed in the US. At moments like this she wished she'd paid more attention in history class, but it was one of those subjects she'd never managed to be interested in, not even after she'd figured out that college could be good. For instance, she wanted to know about all those shields that were on every wall of the church, some high up in the air. They each had a colorful design on them that shone out bright in the dim light of the church. What were they supposed to mean?
Eventually the service ended and the coffin was carried slowly out of the church by six of the burly men from the group in the front row. Resting on the coffin was, she saw, another one of those shields with a nearly-glowing design on it. Was it for the dead guy's family? She would ask Giles later.
She and Giles filed out to the churchyard at the very back of the crowd, dawdling even more to let them all get ahead. Buffy wasn't sure Travers had seen them, but she wouldn't bet against it. Giles offered her his arm. Buffy took it and allowed him to lead her away from the main crowd, away from the church and into the cemetery proper, with the procession pulling ahead of them. Had Giles ever offered her his arm before? It was a strange gesture, an intimate one in some ways but it let him keep his formal distance. Maybe he was trying to hint to her that he was interested. Maybe he was nervous. Maybe he was feeling extra-English. Maybe it was nothing. To experiment, she squeezed his arm a little bit. He responded by pressing her hand.
They meandered away from the church and deeper into the maze of greenery. This was the sunny side of the church, away from the buildings and the trees. It was warm and bright and there were flowers blooming everywhere around the graves. Cemeteries were cheerful places in the sunlight. Or so she thought. Maybe she wasn't mainstream on this topic. She spent so much time in them that she had developed some pet theories about them. This one was nice. Old by Sunnyvale standards, maybe a little overgrown and untended. The dates on the monuments were a hundred years back, a hundred and fifty. Victorian. There were no vampires in it that she could sense. No unquiet dead wandered here, just squirrels and birds and bugs. Bees blundering around among the flowers. And people, though there were none in sight. Not far away she could hear a man's voice speaking in the cadences of a ceremony. She couldn't make out the words but it had to be the funeral, reaching the last part, where they put the body into the ground.
Giles came to a halt and perched himself against the back of a bench. He tugged at the knot of his tie then snugged it back up again. He was gazing at a marble monument of the gaudy kind she was familiar with from certain older Sunnydale graves. An upright sword was cut into the stone. Alongside it was a man's name. He'd died at age twenty-five in 1961. One of the knights, perhaps, cut down before he had a chance to have a life. He'd lived longer than the average Slayer. Buffy shivered. She'd had enough of meditating about death. Good things never happened when she let herself get all self-pitying and maudlin.
"Nice ceremony," she said, and was surprised to realize that it had been. It had felt sincere, the right mix of pomp and people.
"Traditional," Giles said. "Rather pointedly so. And well-attended."
"Guessing those were the knights of Saint Jerry. Not to mention Mr Don't You Dare Attend, right up at the front. What's up with that?"
Giles frowned. "The man with him was my uncle, here to see his son buried. He's always been a staunch Councilman. I wonder." He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, thinking, then shook his head.
Politics. Family politics, Council politics, all the nonsense Giles had once told her about while attempting to explain what it had been like for him when he'd rejoined the Council after his breakdown. It hadn't been fun. It probably wouldn't have been fun even if he hadn't needed to prove himself to them constantly. Buffy had liked Travers even less after Giles had told her that story.
Giles straightened suddenly. "You might yet get your wish," he said. He pointed past her with his chin. Buffy turned and Travers headed their way, the two goons behind him.
Buffy touched Giles's arm to reassure him. She took one step to the side to give herself enough room to move if she needed it. She could sense Giles shifting his own stance as well. She found herself flexing her left hand without realizing she was doing it. Feint with the left, block his counter with the right, and then kick to break his nose. That was assuming he could counter. Travers's rounded shoulders signaled desk jockey all the way.
She grinned at Travers as he came closer, thinking about the crunch and how it would feel. That was the thing about the Slayer spirit. It totally enjoyed the violent solution to problems.
"Good morning, Quentin," her Watcher said, as cool and polite as he ever got.
"Good morning, Rupert," Travers said. "And to think you claimed to have no idea what I was talking about."
Giles shook his head but made no attempt to explain himself. Travers turned to Buffy. He gave her a half-bow that managed to convey her complete unimportance. It was amazing how he did that. It was weird that he did that, given that he allegedly thought that her allegiances mattered. "Miss Summers. I regret meeting you here."
"I don't," Buffy said. "Was hoping we'd run into you."
Giles folded his arms. "Where is my uncle?"
"He has more pressing concerns, this being his son's funeral."
Buffy saw Giles's jaw muscles flex. No doubt he was swallowing some particularly magnificent piece of sarcasm rather than speaking, which was criminal. When he finally spoke, his voice was mild. "Please give him my condolences and tell him I am sorry to have missed speaking with him."
"Of course." Travers cleared his throat. "I should prefer to hold this conversation elsewhere."
"I should prefer not to converse."
"I have no wish for conflict, Rupert. Truly."
"Then what is this about?"
"You must step aside. You must cease to cling to the Slayer as if she were your property."
"She's your property instead, is that it?"
Travers chuckled dutifully. "In a manner of speaking. She is our charge. Our duty. She is no longer yours. Your duty is ended."
"I swore an oath."
"Yes, yes, you swore to safeguard her. How can you do so if you become one of these fellows? Blundering about, flailing their swords around, getting themselves killed. Go and have adventures if you like, Rupert. Have your middle-aged crisis. Return the Slayer to our care."
"Hello! Right here. In front of you. Slayer with opinion about her own life. And here's my opinion: you can bite me."
Travers looked at her, blinked once, and turned to face Giles squarely. It was so very obviously a dismissal that anger burned her chest immediately. She ruthlessly tamped it down, as Giles had taught her, and looked for the threat beyond the taunt. Goons. Right. They were in motion and one of them looked like he was maneuvering behind Giles.
"Giles, step back," she said. He immediately obeyed. The goons froze in place.
Buffy walked around behind Travers and hopped up onto a grave marker. Great launching point if she needed to kick his head off, and the goon who spun to watch her seemed to know it.
She cursed the impulse that had made her choose shoes with heels instead of sensible sober flats. If she had to, she'd just kick them off. And trust to her reaction time. Though on the upside, she was probably going to get to punch somebody.
She knew Giles was aware of her position, though he didn't react. Neither did Travers.
Giles spoke. "It hardly matters, Quentin. Think of the long term. Fifty years from now, you'll still have the Slayers."
"It sets a precedent."
"If humanity is preserved, does it matter who saves it?"
"Your loyalty was always dubious. What could I expect from a man who would take a demon to bed?" He seemed to think that was about as savage a dismissal of Giles as was possible, and sure enough it made Giles flinch. Then he turned to Buffy, who didn't flinch because she was too busy keeping her anger in check.
"You're coming to London with us now, Miss Summers. This is no place for you. We'll take better care of you."
"No, you really won't," Buffy said.
Travers raised a hand and the man nearest her lunged for her. Buffy moved almost without thinking. Training and Slayer reflexes and every little bit of anger she felt for Travers, and the guy found himself on the ground before he'd run two steps toward her, curled around himself and his paralyzed solar plexus. Four heartbeats later Buffy had a knee in the small of his back and his wrist in her grip. Giles had showed her a way to hold an arm so that the victim broke it himself if he struggled. Maybe today she'd find out if it really worked.
Travers's hand was still in the air. He lowered it slowly. His second man now stood just before him, in a ready stance. Giles edged around closer to Buffy. The guy underneath Buffy struggled and she pulled his arm a little further up. He grunted.
"You will not harm a human," Travers said. "You cannot."
"Says who?" Buffy said, sweetly, to the man whose arm she held. "I beat up bad guys. I think I see a bad guy here. The good guys never carry knuckledusters, for instance." She put a little more pressure on his arm, and he swore and dropped them. "That's a good little baddie. Be nice and I won't turn your elbow into mush."
She had already put enough strain on the elbow and shoulder that this guy would be out of commission for a while, but didn't bother saying so. That was the secret: she'd never had any trouble punching out humans. Killing them, no, she'd need a huge reason to do that, but she could cheerfully pound them into hamburger. And she hadn't had a good fight in days.
"Never fight the Slayer, Quentin," Giles said.
Buffy shifted her grip and lifted goon number two up to his feet. Big guy, way over two hundred pounds and most of it muscle, and he was easy to lift. She gave him a little shove toward Travers. He stumbled, caught himself, and backed away from her, rubbing his arm, bent over. Buffy waved to him. He'd made a nice object lesson.
Travers turned to the still-functional gorilla and muttered something. The man relaxed and backed off. Travers shook his head and sighed.
"You must stand aside, Rupert."
"My answer is the same." The sarcasm there could have cut glass.
"Very well. That was your last chance."
And that was it. Travers turned tail and left. The three of them returned along the path back to the churchyard. Widdershins, Buffy noticed. She bent and picked up the knuckledusters where the meat-man had dropped them. Good quality, actual brass, nice and heavy. Worn smooth by use, or maybe by years sitting in somebody's pocket. Too big for her hand. She gave them to Giles, who examined them as carefully as she had and also tried them on.
"You're wrong, you know," he said, examining his fist. "About these things and, er, bad guys."
"You know I own a pair."
Giles frowned at them and uncurled his fingers. He tossed the dusters into a thick patch of grass. She looked her question at him and he shrugged. "Bad aura," was all he said.
"What the sweet merry hell was that about, Giles? Cause I seriously don't get it."
"How did he know? That's what puzzles me. That first visit, he knew something."
"Somebody tipped him off?"
"Here's what really pisses me off. He thinks I'm property. Some mindless fighting machine that you're in charge of, that he wants the pink slip for. Don't I get a say?"
Giles sighed. "You're rather older than any Slayer he's known. Most have been mere girls."
"I'd have smacked him if he'd said that to me when I was fifteen."
Giles tutted. "Violence."
"Solves all problems. Sure solved this one."
"Perhaps. Well. Shall we make our own strategic retreat?"
Giles offered her his arm again. Buffy took it. One step and and her shoe cracked under her. She said a bad word under her breath and kicked it off her foot and up into the air. She caught it and gazed in dismay at the missing heel. She considered the shoe for a second, thinking about how the heel had been attached. Then she wrenched the heel free from the other one. It was harder to do than the movies made it look. The first time she'd tried it she'd totally failed. But it was now neither the second nor the fifth time she'd sacrificed shoes to the cause of Fighting Evil. She stepped into her new really awful flats and looked up to see Giles with a wry look on his face.
"Sorry. Didn't think to tell you to dress for combat."
"I should always plan for it. Nice morning at church? Dress for trench warfare."
They spent their afternoon driving around the countryside and stopping to look at pretty things. The weather was good, which was something Buffy was not used to worrying about much, but Giles insisted they take advantage. She saw a lot of old churches, flotillas of sheep, and many miles of gentle hills covered in impossibly green grass. It was alien to Buffy, California girl all the way. She stood on a fence rail, leaning out over to scratch the head of a friendly horse, and thought about what California must have looked like to Giles when he got there. Golden yellow hills burned dry by the sun, the dusty olive leaves of scrub oaks, the morning fogs, the cold surf. This place was storybook to her, with the thatched roofs on cottages and the green hedgerows and sheep, but it was normality to Giles.
They spoke the same language here, but they did things differently. Those shields on the walls of the church, for instance. Buffy thought about those while she lay sprawled out on her bed back at the inn, watching Giles write in his journal with the fountain pen he always used. The last church they'd been inside had been cathedral-sized. It had had all kinds of funny things on its walls. Memorials to dead people, mostly, and some flowery carvings commemorating a military hero or two. No American church Buffy had been inside had ever had anything like that. The idea faintly scandalized her, in fact.
Everything was so old. All those churches they looked at, older than everything in Sunnydale except the Spanish mission. The Order was pretty ancient too, as these things went. Like the Order of Taraka, though Giles had said that was thousands of years old, plural, while this one was only about a thousand years old, singular. Babies! Compared to the line of Slayers, definitely babies.
Giles capped his pen and wrapped up his journal with its funky leather strap. Back into his suitcase it went, then he turned to her. "Whiting said he'd be by in an hour. I trust that will be enough time for you to dress."
"What do I wear? Funeral clothes again? Dress to impress?"
"Strike a balance, if that is at all possible for you."
Buffy stuck her tongue out at him and Giles grinned. He hid in the bathroom to change, which made Buffy a little sad because she'd enjoyed watching him dress up that morning. Getting dressed herself was a good distraction, though, because she had to solve the problem of looking just so from only the clothes she'd brought with her, sans her only pair of really nice shoes. Jewelry yes, sexy looks no. Something midway between professional Slayer and California college chick. Something that would look like a match to formal Giles, so that she wouldn't look out of place on his arm. And no heels, just in case.
Giles emerged. He was more conventionally dressed than he'd been that morning. Same tie, same cufflinks, different trousers. He looked more English than he usually did. Usually he pinged her as eccentric professor, any nationality, but tonight he looked like what he was, an Englishman. She wasn't sure what was doing it. Maybe it was the tie. Maybe it was the cut of the jacket, which was different somehow. Or his shoes, which weren't those stolid boring Oxfords he'd worn so often in Sunnydale. She said nothing, however, merely absorbed the differences and filed them away for future pondering. Then she realized he was staring at her right back, or at least looking at her in a way he didn't usually. Had she overdone it? No, she was not showing too much shoulder, way less than usual. Maybe it was that the black dress was what she thought of as serious-face clothes, for adult dinner parties not teenager flings. Had Giles seen her wearing it before? No. Apparently he liked it.
Whiting showed up on time. He looked as well-pressed as he had in the morning, and just as exhausted. It didn't seem to slow him down at all; he led them across town to a little restaurant inside a house off the main road, talking animatedly to Giles the whole way.
Buffy wasn't sure what she'd been expecting from the restaurant. It was quiet to the point of hushed, old, dim in the corners, cozy. And the food was amazing in an understated way. She had no idea what she was eating, other than that Giles told her she didn't want to know. She ate the food, tasted the wine more for curiosity than pleasure, and listening to the two men talking. They started out catching up with each other, discussing the careers of mutual acquaintances, and doing the usual boring reminiscence thing. Buffy found her attention wandering, though she did notice when Whiting tried to find out what Giles had been up to when he'd been away from the university. Giles gave a vague non-answer that didn't satisfy him, but he didn't dig. Too polite, probably. The discussion wandered to monsters they'd fought, and Buffy was able to join into the conversation on equal grounds. Giles was showing her off to Whiting a little bit, she thought, and Whiting was showing off a little himself. He'd done his time in the demon trenches for sure. He'd had some run-ins with vampires himself, since they were common in the older cities of Europe. The Slayer couldn't be everywhere, after all.
Whiting pressed Giles for examples of battles he'd fought on his own. Buffy found herself recounting the story of how the Hellmouth had nearly been opened again, during her senior year, and how Giles had helped her fight back the tentacle-thing. Giles automatically corrected her with the species identification, but for some reason he was reluctant to grab his fair share of the glory. Maybe boasting wasn't the done thing for him, but Buffy wanted to be sure Whiting understood the depth of Giles's demon-hunting résumé.
After dinner Whiting excused himself to the street outside the restaurant, where he had a brief conversation on his cellphone. When he came back in, he said, "Shall we head over to the grounds? Sir John would like to speak to you now."
Sir John, Buffy deduced, was the leader of the knights.
Giles drove them in the little rental car. He followed Whiting's directions out of the village and onto a tiny road heading west, deeper into the countryside. The sun was still well up from the horizon. The landscape glowed where it touched, though long shadows were over the fields. Buffy was torn between gawking out the window and watching Whiting. He looked more somber than he'd been during dinner. Then they got near the grounds and she had no eyes for anything but the view. There was a castle tower there, right there, a gray round thing with crenellations on top and tiny windows. Winding away from it was a long gray stone wall with an iron gate set in it. Before the gate was a little building with a light on inside. As they pulled up to the gate, a man came out of the building. Whiting leaned out the window and raised his hand. The man opened the gate. As they drove past, Buffy could see that he had a sword on his hip.
Whiting had Giles drive along a winding road until he reached a rambling stone house. Two stories, older than Victorian but not crazy old, and some parts were newer than that. Buffy didn't have much time to gawk at the suits of armor standing in the hallway, because Whiting was leading them into a dimly lit side room. The walls were hung with antique weapons and the furniture was the solid wood and leather kind Buffy'd seen in period films.
The white-haired man in the wheelchair was there, holding a glass of something. There was an older man standing smoking by an empty fireplace. A few younger men, one of whom Buffy remembered seeing at the funeral, stood by an open window. The one she'd remembered popped out because of his hair, which was magnificent and long, as if Braveheart had been more into shampoo than blue body paint. It was a little odd seeing a man with that much hair in a gorgeous suit like that one. The cascade of hair was caught in a band at his thick neck. The guy was huge. He wasn't fat; those were muscles on his muscles. The guy he was talking to was a burly guy too, but he looked like a waif next to Braveheart. He was exactly the sort of man Buffy could imagine wearing real armor and riding one of those giant horses into a muddy, bloody battlefield, with a rippling banner on his lance.
Buffy's nostrils flared. The inner Slayer liked that one.
The man in the wheelchair was Sir John Conway. Whiting introduced her first as the Slayer and then mentioned her name. Conway nodded to her. She wasn't sure what that meant. Giles he introduced as the candidate they'd come to meet, and Giles was immediately the center of attention. Buffy could see that he wasn't happy about that. He'd made himself shorter than he actually was, somehow. His shoulders were a little curled in. He was nervous and instead of responding by sticking his chin out he was hiding. Buffy wanted to help but had no idea how. She wasn't sure if helping was a good idea. He had to figure it out himself.
Somebody offered her a drink, and Buffy shook her head. Giles accepted a glass of Scotch. He sniffed at it and said something appreciative, and there followed a bit of discussion of whisky, which Buffy ignored.
The upside of Giles being the center of attention and not here was that Buffy felt free to observe as much as she could without feeling rude. Seven men in the room. She was the only woman. Conway was the oldest person there, going by the white hair. He was in a wheelchair, yes, but he still had the athleticism of everybody associated with the Order she'd seen. He looked as if he could land a punch hard enough to knock her teeth out without needing to stand up. There was something about him that said he'd done some punching in his time and was willing to do it some more. The jaw, maybe. He had one that could rival Giles's, which had always ranked as the stoniest cliff of a jaw she'd ever seen.
He and Giles were already deep into an intense conversation. Giles's glass of Scotch sat forgotten on the little table beside his chair. Time to pay attention again.
Conway was saying, "We have the difficulties with recruiting that any esoteric order has in these times. We locate people with the demon-hunter destiny upon them, only to discover that they are skeptical in the face of all evidence. Or are cowards. And so our numbers are always low. Lower than usual at the moment."
"So Gerald told me."
"Yes. And here we come to it. We need demon hunters. Whiting tells me that you are one."
"I am called as you are."
"Then we may begin."
Buffy saw Giles's knuckles whiten where he gripped the arm of his chair. He was definitely nervous.
"You are no longer with the Council of Watchers and are seeking affiliation, I am told."
"You did not attempt to contact us directly."
"I sent out more general feelers into the community. Your organization was mere rumor to me. I know what you were historically but nothing of what you are."
"I suspect that you can guess what we are. We train our men and women, we induct the worthy candidates into our number by granting them the dub, and then we send them out into the world to fight evil as they see fit. When they need aid, those of us who wish to aid go. We are all knights-errant."
Buffy wasn't sure what that was, other than a general adventuring sort of guy with a sword and a giant horse. She had a vague memory of The Boy's King Arthur and a painting of Lancelot with his armor chopped up pretty unrealistically. But Giles seemed to get him exactly, and to be pleased by the term.
"We have changed little in our means and even less in our motive. In this we resemble the Slayer." Finally Conway turned to her and seemed to acknowledge her presence in the room. "She fights with little more than a wooden stake, if I understand it correctly."
"Usually," Buffy said. "I've tried to go high-tech but it didn't work out." Bullets worked against demons only sometimes, and against vampires never. The simple, timeless weapons were the ones Buffy used. Stakes. Swords. Flames.
"So we have found as well. When one goes to slay a dragon, bring a sword and shield."
So they weren't like the Initiative. That was good.
Giles said, "You are dragon-slayers, then, like your namesake."
"All evil is our prey. Your Slayer's enemies are often ours, though we do not share her special affinity for the vampire."
Buffy stared at him hard, but he seemed to mean nothing special by that. He was focused on Giles, not on her. Giles's body language had changed a little. He'd forgotten to be nervous and was now leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees.
"You seek to recruit my Slayer?"
"We are uninterested in the Slayer."
Buffy felt the urge to protest that she was recruitable, but she sat on it. Besides, she'd just finished dealing with an organization that had been interested in her. Interested in the capture, dissect, and re-implement sort of way. Now the Council was interested in her again, and though they were more interested in keeping her alive than killing her, she wasn't counting it as am improvement. She could deal with a good dose of complete indifference.
Conway's indifference seemed to annoy Giles for some reason. He had his jaw set again. He said, "Why not? Do you not recruit women?"
"Historically we have not. However, we have revised our charter. We have been actively recruiting women for a decade now."
"Since you took command," from the huge guy with long blondish hair. Conway waved him off, however.
"Why not the Slayer, then?" Giles said.
Whiting spoke up. "The Slayer does not need the sort of assistance the saint offers. She already has her own power, if I understand the myths. She is bound to a different Power. As you know."
Like hell she knew that. How did Whiting know something about herself that she didn't? And why did he sound a little snippy? Buffy shot a glare at Giles, who glared right back. Another one of those things she was supposed to have learned from the Slayer handbook, then. She'd make him tell her later. If she cared enough. What mattered was her relationship with the Slayer spirit inside, not with any of this other crap. Besides, Giles would have told her already if it had mattered, in one of those intense Slayer training sessions they'd had recently.
Giles subsided back into his chair. He picked up his tumbler and hid his face behind it for a second. He set it back down and glanced over at Buffy. She wrinkled her nose at him, trying to make him smile. He didn't bite, however.
Conway said, "You no doubt have questions."
"How many of you are there?"
"Twenty-five active knights. The number has never been more than thirty, at times as few as ten. We cannot say why."
"Twice that number again, most of them here in Wells Cross. A handful of student candidates."
Giles caught her glance briefly. He'd once told her that the Council had dozens of researchers on staff. This outfit was much smaller, which might explain why he'd only heard rumors of it.
"Would I be among your support staff?"
"You would take the dub as one of our knights or not join us at all." That was as blunt as it got.
"What obligations would you lay upon me?"
"Aid to your fellows, if they should need it and you be in a position to assist. Attendance here at certain yearly ceremonies. The saint's feast day, for instance."
"That seems very little to ask."
"And risking your neck daily in the fight against evil is not a great thing to ask?"
Buffy said, "He does that already."
"Ah." Conway did not seem entirely impressed. Buffy wanted to set him straight right then and there, maybe with a boast about Giles's vampire-staking skills, but once again she managed to shut herself up. Giles's show, not hers, she reminded herself. And a good demonstration was always better than mouthing off about what he could do. Pity there hadn't been any vampires around. Maybe in London they could find some. Big cities were usually crawling with them.
Giles picked up his tumbler of Scotch and turned it in his hands. He wasn't drinking much, Buffy thought, more toying with it to be polite. From behind the glass, he said, "I am curious what the Order might offer me. What advantages would I gain allying with you instead of returning to the Council?"
"Beyond the gifts of the power, you mean?"
Giles set his glass down. "I suppose I had better ask what those are."
"You don't know?" Giles shook his head. "They are similar to the gifts granted the Slayer in kind, though not in degree. We are stronger, faster, and better-coordinated than ordinary men."
Buffy sat forward sharply. That was good. Then she thought about Conway's wheelchair. "Healing?" she said.
Conway fluttered a hand in the air. "Perhaps some minor advantages over ordinary humans. Nothing like what you have."
Buffy wasn't so happy about that, because half the time what she worried about with Giles was that he'd get hit on the head and not wake up. Though if he were stronger and faster, he'd be able to avoid a lot of those situations. It would be stupid to complain about only getting a ten times supernatural boost instead of the full Slayer fifty. Or whatever the numbers were. It was still a boost. She met Giles's glance and shrugged a shoulder at him.
He said, to Conway, "I had no idea. I, I'd been supposing I'd find a more mundane sort of organization to support us. An archive to assist in research. Firepower in case of threats too great for the Slayer. This is entirely a surprise."
"Does our order still interest you?"
Giles looked at her, eyebrows raised. She pointed at him to say, up to you. He turned to Conway and said, firmly, "Yes."
"And now I shall determine if we are interested in you. What would you bring us?"
"I am fluent in five ancient languages. I can read a further--"
Mr Braveheart was out of his chair again. "We don't give a ruddy damn about books."
"Such a pity." Giles had been stammery to start with, but his retort was all sharp around the edges.
"Eric? Perhaps you'd care to explain. Politely, if you are able."
Dust-dry sarcasm in turn, and was that the ghost of a smile Buffy could see on Conway's face? The Braveheart-hair guy didn't seem fazed by it. He stepped into the middle of the circle. Buffy looked him over from shoes to the top of that shaggy head and just barely refrained from licking her lips. He said, "We need warriors, not librarians. You don't look like much. Can you fight?"
Giles pushed his glasses further up on his nose. "I like to know what I'm fighting before I leap in. But I can fight, yes."
"You'll need to prove it. We don't hide behind little girls."
"Neither do I," Giles said, and his voice had gone quiet in the scary way.
"He'll be tested with weapons, Eric. We shan't skimp on it." Conway turned to Giles and said, "You will forgive the nuisance, but we had trouble with the last adult candidate we dealt with."
Conway didn't say any more, though Buffy was dying of curiosity. More than one Council refugee? Wesley had been fired too, but he'd ended up on Angel's team. Somebody else, then. Mr Hair nodded as if satisfied, then turned to look at Whiting. Everybody was looking at Whiting, in fact, waiting for something they knew to expect.
Whiting cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. I played rugby with Rupert, so I have no doubts on the courage score. It's his later career I'm concerned with. His dealings with the Council appear to have left him with certain, ah, encumbrances."
"Hey, wait a minute!"
Whiting cut her off. "I refer to oaths he has undoubtedly sworn to the Council, oaths that are in force on his soul no matter what his worldly employment status is."
Conway said, "Are you encumbered, Mr Giles?"
"The answer is yes, of course I am encumbered, as you put it. I have sworn two oaths on my immortal soul in my life."
"The Watcher's oath," Conway said.
"Yes. Sworn when I became Watcher to the active Slayer. That oath binds me to her service so long as she shall live." Giles glanced in her direction and away again, to Conway. "I will not break it. If this interferes with your order's requirements in any way it's best we end this cordially now."
Conway steepled his fingers together and tapped his forefingers against his lips. "You were fired from your post."
Buffy shifted in her chair, but Giles didn't budge. "Yes."
"And you feel you have not broken your oaths."
"Quite the reverse."
"Ah." Conway turned his gaze to her instead of Giles. Buffy glared right back at him. She was starting not to like him much. "And the other oath?"
"Oh! That. I swore to defend this world against evil with my life. I suspect you would ask me to swear the same, if not with those exact words. The Council was not named. Just the defense of humanity."
Whiting shrugged. "If that satisfies you." He relaxed back into the depths of his armchair and crossed his knees.
"If I may ask." Giles paused, but no one spoke to stop him. "The Slayer's goals are compatible with yours. My oath should not stand in the way. I am sworn to the same fight you are, unless I have misunderstood you."
"You have understood us," Conway said, slowly. "Well. Neither of us will make any final decisions tonight. My proposal is this: that you both spend the next few days with us. We will each investigate the other."
Giles said, "This is acceptable."
"We will fit you into the framework of our order as best we can, to give you the flavor of it. Many of our knights begin their careers here in their teens, as pages. All of us served as squire to one of our knights for a period of at least two years. We will begin there, I think." Conway smiled at Buffy in a way she didn't completely like. "Yes. I have it. You will serve as your Slayer's squire for the next few days. This will suit you both."
"Your Slayer's page will explain the requirements to you. Good? Yes. I believe we are done here. Good night, Miss Summers."
Her page? What page? Buffy grimaced at him, because she couldn't manage to think of anything polite to say that wasn't also sarcastic. They all stood, except Conway who could not. Giles gave him an odd little half-bow. Whiting headed to the door, and they followed him out into the hallway. The door clicked shut behind them. Buffy let out a long breath. It had been oddly stuffy in there despite the open window.
"That went better than I expected," Whiting said to Giles, quietly.
"Most candidates don't last ten minutes. Sir John likes to recruit them young. Teenagers. Impressionable characters he can mold. Men of our age either have the mentality he seeks or not."
Buffy spoke up. "His opinion rules? I thought Saint George was the decider there."
"John sends him candidates with a good chance of success. Failure can crush a man's spirit."
"Or a woman's," Giles said.
Whiting waved a hand as if to say "whatever." Buffy was seriously confused by this guy. His attitude toward her was one of cool respect, like he'd prefer her to be on the other side of the world fighting vampires and not over here. She also couldn't tell if he liked Giles or not. That morning he'd seemed to be Giles's biggest ally but just now he'd played hard-ass.
"Young Ellen is here to take care of you, I see. I leave you in her capable hands."
And with that Whiting was gone, vanished back into the room they'd come from. Buffy turned to look for the person he'd mentioned. There were two teenagers standing in the hallway, dressed in some kind of dark uniform, a dark boy and a girl with red hair. The girl was built about the way the field hockey players at Sunnydale High had been. The boy next to her looked like he played football, though probably he didn't. If what she'd just learned was right, these two kids were in training to be demon-hunters, and their sport was sword-fighting. They were maybe sixteen at most, about the age she'd been when she'd started. The girl straightened up and came toward them as they approached. Giles raised an eyebrow.
"Ma'am, sir. My name is Ellen. I'm assigned to you during your stay." She ducked her head to Buffy awkwardly. The boy hovered against the wall and didn't introduce himself.
"Hi, Ellen," Buffy said. "I'm Buffy."
Ellen didn't seem to react to the perkiness. "I'll, um, I'll take you to the dormitory. We have your rooms ready for you."
Giles cleared his throat. "I'm afraid we'll need to return to town to our inn for the night."
"We've already taken care of your things, sir," Ellen said. "We packed everything."
"I see." Giles didn't sound entirely happy. Buffy tried to remember if she had left anything embarrassing in her luggage. Nothing special. Nothing valuable. Mr Pointy was in her purse, as usual.
"What about our bill?" Giles said.
"Settled, sir. We have an arrangement with that inn."
"Carry on, then." That appeared to have been what Giles was annoyed about, because he relaxed in a way Buffy couldn't, really, knowing that somebody else had packed her makeup bag for her. Ellen the page girl and that page boy over there loitering against the wall, packing her makeup. She imagined the guy with an actual pageboy haircut and had to cover her mouth to keep herself from laughing out loud.
The kid with the perfectly normal haircut vanished back into the hallway somewhere without ever having spoken. Ellen scurried off to hold open the big doors for them.
They followed Ellen across the grounds in twilight. There were several buildings separated from each other by broad green lawns, linked by a wandering gravel lane. The buildings looked like the older buildings on her college campus in some ways. No, they looked like what her campus buildings were imitating. Gorgeous and stately in the midsummer twilight, vine-covered, peaceful. Beyond them Buffy could see fields and past that, trees.
The page led them up broad shallow steps to the doorway of something she said was the knight's dormitory. Buffy was fearing a dreary college dorm like the one she'd been in the last year, cheap carpet and cheaper paint job, furniture that fell apart if you jumped on it, but this place looked more like a nice hotel, the old-fashioned kind. Inside was a staircase covered in carpet that switchbacked up to a hallway that ran the length of the house, with numbered doors along it. Somewhere in the middle Ellen stopped.
"This is Miss Summers's room. Mr Giles is next door. I'll be by in the morning with breakfast." She unlocked the door and opened it for her, then handed the key to her. She bowed and turned away. Giles shrugged at Buffy then followed.
The room they'd given her reminded her of her dorm room, sort of, only it was larger and had much better furniture. It looked more like a place where an adult lived, if that adult needed a walk-in closet with a gun rack in it. And beside the gun rack was something that looked a lot like the rack where Giles hung all the bladed weapons. Empty, unfortunately, and she had nothing to put into it. Buffy hadn't taken much with her in her bags, out of a general fear that some customs official inspecting her luggage might get the wrong idea about pointy objects.
That luggage sat unopened on the end of the bed. Buffy stared at it a second, then went to the side door. The knob turned easily under her hand. She opened it onto a little corridor with a bathroom to one side and a door at the other end. She peeked in at the bathroom: nice deep old-fashioned tub, solid medical kit under the sink. Then she went through the far door and was surprised to find a second bedroom, smaller than hers. Giles stood in the middle of it with his hands on his hips.
Buffy said, "Huh. Our rooms are joined."
Giles rolled his eyes at her. He opened his suitcase on the bed and poked at something inside. Buffy checked out the room he'd been given. His bed was a narrow iron cot tucked against the wall between her room and his. There was a writing desk underneath the two broad windows. The furniture was plain wood, obviously nice stuff but spare. The windows made it light and airy, but it was definitely second class compared to hers, like they were making a point of reminding him he was her squire. Or maybe it was just a room where he wasn't expected to spend any time.
"A servant's room?" she said.
"That's almost the flavor of it. It reminds me more of the rooms given to potential Slayers in the Council buildings."
A squire's room, then. "My room is much nicer than yours. Come see."
Her windows were doors that opened onto a little balcony covered with flowers growing from heavy red pots. And she had a double bed with high posts, very old-fashioned, not huge but plenty of room for two. She hoped that she'd be able to coax Giles into sharing it with her.
Giles opened the windows and stepped out onto the balcony. Buffy followed.
It was midsummer, near the solstice. The sky was still light off to one side, but darkening fast. Buffy breathed in deep. Warm sweet air. It smelled like freshly-mown lawns and like the river. Green, even in the dark. No eucalyptus, no dust. Rolling hills, rounded down by age, checkered by hedges. Somewhere in a field close by, someone was riding a horse. Buffy could hear the hoofbeats, the jingle of the tack, the horse wuffling. She gazed off into the dusk and tried to imagine hundreds of years of people here, training to fight demons.
What else was here? She closed her eyes and drew on that Slayer within, tapped into her deeper senses, reached out into the night air. When she opened her eyes again, she found Giles watching her closely.
Buffy shook her head. "No vamps for miles and miles and miles."
The sound of horse and rider grew louder. Buffy looked for it and saw the rider approaching along the lane. First she saw the white star on the horse's forehead, then she saw that the rider was a woman. And that she was carrying a long spear in her right hand, a spear with a little flag on the end. It didn't look like lances as shown in those Boy's King Arthur illustrations, but that had to be what it was. The horse was trotting and the pennon on the end fluttered as the lance rose and fell. The pair went past the balcony and the horse snorted and shied. The woman said something to it that Buffy couldn't catch. Then they were past, heading away from the cluster of buildings and toward the stubby remains of the castle.
"This is quite the place," she said.
"Mm. Living history, in some ways. But oddly modern in others."
"The Council hasn't done as well with cultural shifts."
Meaning women. Buffy leaned forward against the railing and looked down at the ground. Fifteen feet, maybe. An easy drop. And she could probably use the vines to climb to the next balcony over, not that she had any idea why she'd want to. Giles leaned his back against the railing and seemed to be studying the side of the building above them. There was a story above the one they were in, with windows in dormers jutting out from the slanting roof. Thirty knights active tops, Conway had said. Thirty pairs of rooms like hers. Though most of these rooms were empty. The knights lived elsewhere, scattered all over Europe, questing after demons where they were personally drawn to go. Knights errant.
"You know, I just thought of something. If they were in there grilling you suspiciously about your motives, why was some kid off collecting our luggage at the same time?"
"A conflict of opinion?"
"Or the boss had made up his mind."
Giles shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets. "It's you. The Slayer seems to be someone they respect."
Whiting had seemed to have a different opinion, but Buffy thought over Conway's reactions again. She said, "I do have good taste."
"You do not."
"In Watchers I do."
"So. What's the decision?"
"First, a question. Do they, er, check out?"
"To the Slayer within, you mean."
"Yeah. They check out. Weird and baffling, but they're okay. Everything feels good. Nice, almost. Your buddy Travers always creeped me out, but these guys don't."
"He was never my buddy." Then Giles shook his head and turned away from her. His shoulders slumped. They'd talked a little bit about why Giles had gone along with the Council, why it had been so hard for him to break away from them. And why he didn't regret going rogue, once he'd gotten over the pain of separation. Buffy suspected he had never really trusted himself after the Eyghon thing had happened, had never believed himself to be one of the good guys at heart. He'd been doing penance and the Council had told him exactly how. It was only recently that he'd seemed comfortable with himself and his decisions. Was he looking for a group to join just to get somebody to second-guess himself with? These guys didn't seem like they did a lot of hand-holding. Sword-sharpening, yes, but they trusted their knights to know what they were doing.
Buffy liked that approach. She said, "Anyway, I like the perks."
"Help if we need it."
"And I'll worry less about you when you're patrolling with me."
Giles grunted. "I'll be an asset, not a liability."
"You're an asset now. Just a kinda fragile one."
Giles rolled his eyes at her but did not object. Which was smart, because the skillset was right. If he was going to patrol with her, being a knight of St George would make him more than useful. It would turn him into a second weapon, a weapon like her. Not as fast or as strong, but he would still have the years of study. The years she probably would never have.
Then she brought up the lurking objection. "The question is whether it makes us do something we don't want to."
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and was silent. "I think not," he said at last. "The obligations laid upon me are sharper than I might have made them on my own, but they're what I would do for you anyway. Train you. Advise you. Serve you."
"Serve me. That one's not in the Council list."
"No. That's where the contrast is strongest. Service is a crucial element of this order's charter. Its conception of itself. To one's lord in the hierarchy. Or lady. For me that would be, er, you."
"But I'm not joining them. They were pretty clear on that. Unless you being one of them means I need to do something."
"No obligation is laid upon you save those you already bear."
"Okay. Most important question. What's the Watcher within say?"
He was silent again for some time. "It's different for me, but I think, I believe-- It feels right. It feels as if this is what you need."
"I want to know what you need. You're not just my sidekick."
"That's what a Watcher is, Buffy. The fellow standing behind the Slayer who keeps her alive as long as he can. Dies instead of her if necessary. The first time in my life I was a true Watcher was when I decided to fight the Master for you."
"Which there was no way you were going to do."
"The point is, the point is that I had decided to."
"It's my job to do the dying. Not anybody else's. I'm okay with dying. We all gotta go sometime."
"Not if I can help it."
He seized her and pulled her into a rough embrace. Before she could react to that he was kissing her. His eyes were closed, and he'd tangled his fingers in her hair. Buffy closed her own eyes and let him hold her. Her body was responding to him so fast that she was almost weak at the knees. She laid her hands on his chest and leaned against him. His hand slid down to her waist and pressed her close.
All she could think was, at last. At last.
Then Giles let go and stepped back.
"Forgive me," he said. Buffy's impulse was to pout and protest, but she held onto the urge and instead simply looked her question at him. "I, this is too much for me."
"Good night," and he'd already fled through the door into his own room before she could say anything further.
Buffy made her way back into the room slowly. She left the balcony doors open behind her, because the night air was sweet. She read for a while in bed, chewing through the novel she'd brought for the flight. She was too restless to focus on it. Giles. God, Giles. What was she going to do about him? Right now, nothing. Nothing to do but go to bed and sleep.
The time change had reached the stage of screwing Buffy up entirely. She woke when the birds started their morning conversation outside her open balcony doors. She listened to them for some time while the sky lightened, then gave up and rolled out of bed. She found Giles in the bathroom already, already showered, shaving. He did not shy away from her. He met her gaze directly and colored but returned her brief hug without hesitation.
She couldn't figure out what was going on in that giant head of his. A lot, as usual, and it was a little maddening to realize that she couldn't know. Not until he told her, and that was assuming he had a clue. He might take a long time to deal with whatever he was feeling and she was losing patience. But would pushing him get her what she wanted? Pushing him right now might be stupid. Honor what her inner Slayer wanted, sure, but she didn't need to pay attention to how it told her to get it. She pondered this while showering but reached no conclusion.
Ellen showed up at eight sharp and seemed surprised to find them both awake and dressed. She had a tray with plates of breakfast food for all three of them, and it was what Buffy called real food. She dumped half the yogurt over the granola and dug in. Giles fussed over the tea.
"So, Ellen, what do you do when you're not making toast?"
"Normally I'm in classes or training. We're between terms just now. Mostly I'm supposed to fag for you. Bring you breakfast. Serve at dinner. Things like that."
Giles spoke up. "She means she's an errand boy. Er, girl."
"Oh. How long do you that for?"
"Just while we're in school. Some of us go to university, some don't. Once you're finished with school you become somebody's squire. Usually your sponsor's. Depends on who needs help just then."
"What do squires do?"
Ellen ticked it off on her fingers: Keep their knight's arms in good condition, swords sharp, armor clean & repaired. Fight alongside their knight, in tight spots, to provide backup. Provide medical assistance, whether that meant wrapping bandages or calling emergency services. Above all, learn from their knight how to fight. Assist in the great never-ending battle against demons and the evil they wished to bring to the world.
That was as near a description of what Watchers did as any she'd heard, minus the research and translation side. Well, and the Watcher was supposed to be a better technical fighter than she was, so he could train her. Giles still had a technique advantage, though she'd always been able to overpower it.
Ellen cleared away the breakfast dishes and vanished with them off somewhere. When she came back, she had Whiting behind her, striding in as if he owned the room. He had circles under his eyes and looked more or less like hell, but he seemed to be in a good mood.
"Ellen taking care of you? Good, good. Has she boasted of her shooting yet? She was training for the biathlon before she came to us."
"Skiing and shooting," Giles murmured to Buffy. "Olympic sport."
"I'm doing the summer biathlon now," Ellen said. She was blushing. "Running and archery."
Buffy was impressed and said so. Then she felt more than a little outclassed. She'd never been into sports before gaining her powers. Cheerleading for them, yes, but only as a way to get access to boys. That was then and this was now, she reminded herself. What mattered most was what she did with her powers now she had them, and she thought she was on the right track with that.
Whiting said, "Many of our candidates are serious sportsmen. I was recruited because of the rugby while I was at school."
"Ah," said Giles. "I can see how it would translate."
"It's why I seconded your name when it turned up in Alec's papers. You never seemed to give a damn if you broke your neck. And you had the knack of not breaking it."
Giles laughed. At that point, watching Whiting, Buffy figured it out. It wasn't Giles he objected to. It was her. Or maybe Giles's loyalty to her more specifically. The Council was going to cause problems for them and Whiting wasn't happy about that. Tough nuts to him, though, because she wasn't going back to those guys. Nor was she going to give up Giles.
Unless he wanted to give her up. That thought gave her a pang, then she remembered his ferocity on the topic last night.
Whiting said, "Ellen will be looking for a knight to squire for soon enough, won't you? About a year from now."
"I'm sure you'll find somebody, with those skills," Giles said, politely.
Whiting rubbed his nose. Buffy got the impression Giles hadn't answered properly. He said nothing about it, but merely stood and said, "Shall we tour the grounds? Do let me show us off."
Buffy snagged her sunglasses and off they went.
The morning was bright and sunny, as it had been yesterday. There were little fluffy clouds moving above them. The sky was a blue it rarely attained on the hazy Californian coastline. Picture-book once more, especially once she got a good look at the bit of castle she'd spotted last night. It wasn't much of a castle, just one round tower made of gray stone, connected to the wall that the entry gate pierced. They stood at its foot, by a little wooden door with black iron hardware. Whiting made no move to open it.
"Norman," said Whiting, and Giles grunted. "This is all that remains of a larger structure. It's maintained, mostly used to store odds and ends. Not worth touring, though you can take a look later if you like."
"We aren't sentimental. Nor are we a tourist attraction."
"What happened to the rest of it?" she asked.
"Civil War. The Order were Royalist."
Giles said, "The Council were Roundheads."
This seemed to amuse the two of them. Buffy could tell Giles was curious about the castle fragment, but Whiting led them away from the entry road and toward a little cluster of buildings beside an open field with soccer goals at either end.
"Athletic facilities. Rather important to us."
Whiting led them inside the nearest building, which turned out to be a gym. It made Buffy's fingers twitch with longing. It was small, but it had all the equipment a Slayer could want: gymnastics equipment, bars and rings, free weights, and a three-story climbing wall constructed like the side of a stone building. Some of the equipment looked new and some looked old, but it was all in good condition. There were a few people in the gym working out. They mostly ignored the little tour group passing through, though some of them took second looks at Giles. There was a man hanging on a bar, pulling himself up to touch chest to bar over and over. He had a big colorful plastic brace on his foot and a crutch lay on the floor beneath him, but it wasn't slowing down his pull-ups at all.
Injuries. She remembered when the vampire Sunday had broken her wrist. A day later she was punching with that hand again with no fears. It wasn't so easy for the knights.
"Only one locker room?" Buffy asked.
Whiting shrugged. "The facilities were built about fifty years ago. Only the equipment's changed in that time. Sir John rather drove his new regime through. We were to recruit women immediately, without waiting for renovations. Either the saint would accept them when they came to be knighted or he wouldn't, and that would settle the issue."
"Nobody complained, huh?"
"Once the first woman endured the vigil and was given the dub, none of us would dare complain. The saint had made his opinion clear."
"They were accepted," Buffy said.
"Yes. And we never did get round to retrofitting most things. Our knights told us they didn't give a damn. They'd rather have the climbing wall than another set of showers."
That made sense to Buffy. She'd rather have that climbing wall too. She wasn't sure Whiting felt the same way, though. There was something in his voice, some hint of dry disapproval. She'd heard Giles in that mode once or twice.
From the gym they went past the stables, though Whiting explained to them that it was mere tradition that led them to teach horsemanship in these modern days. The weapons they used against demons were antique because modern weaponry was ineffective. The transportation they used was under no such constraints. They used modern crossbows made of high-tech composites, steel-tipped modern lances with carbon fiber at the core, and swords hand-forged at the smithy there on the grounds. Buffy watched the man hammering red-hot steel, with two younger apprentices hovering, ready to hand him tools. One apprentice was a woman, college-aged maybe, and her biceps put Buffy's to shame. All three of them were grimy and sweaty and completely absorbed in their work.
Giles watched and Buffy was surprised to see that he was completely fascinated. The smith lifted a spar of red-hot metal into the air. A spear? No, a sword. Buffy saw the shape of the blade, a classic straight blade.
The next workshop looked more modern and just as ancient, all at once. There were woodworking tools as well as welding tools. In it was a single man, bent over a work table. His hair was long and gray and held in a braid. He moved with a limp. He was fastening a leather facing to the frame of a kite shield. The leather had been bleached white. They stood and watched him work for some minutes without speaking. He saw them, and Buffy saw him gaze at Giles, but he didn't speak.
There were one or two other shields, of varying sizes but the same basic shape, hung on a rack near the door. Buffy leaned close to them to get a good look but didn't touch. The shape was the same as the shields that had hung in the church, as the one that had rested on Giles's cousin's coffin. They were eerie. Neither evil nor good, simply present in a space beyond the physical. Magical, then, but dormant.
Giles reached out and hovered his hand over the nearest. He felt it too, then. She caught his glance and nodded to him. What she really wanted now was a chance to tour the church where the funeral had been and take a good long look at the hanging shields. Maybe later. Whiting looked at his watch and beckoned them out. Buffy left quietly.
Next door to the smithy was the armory, where all the toys were kept. Buffy was amused to see that all four of them were excited to see all that sharp metal hanging in racks, all those wonderful ways of skewering demons ready to be used. Deadly. No Hollywood weapons, these, just clean blades, beautiful in their simplicity. Her senses gave her no eerie signals in here; they were just metal swords. Giles hovered before a particularly amazing sword, a bastard sword with a two-handed grip. It was as long as Buffy was tall. Giles would be able to wield it, though.
"You like the two-handers?" somebody said. Buffy turned. The questioner was a man in a leather apron and gloves, coming toward them from behind the racks. A pair of safety googles hung around his neck. He wore an eyepatch and there was scarring on his face below the patch. Buffy wasn't sure what from, but it looked as if it had gone deep.
He nodded to Whiting. "This the fellow?"
He walked around Giles, examining him closely. Giles smiled faintly at Buffy but said nothing. He had Giles stand straight and hold out his sword arm. When he saw Giles was left-handed he grunted. He didn't measure anything, but used his own body to compare to Giles's.
"I prefer a single-handed technique," Giles said, in answer to the question the man had asked earlier. He rubbed the back of his head.
"Right," the armorer said to Giles, and then he walked off. Whiting seemed to think they were done, for he led the little group out of the armory and over to what Buffy recognized as a shooting range. There was a little group of people already there. She spotted the wheelchair.
Whiting clapped a hand on Giles's shoulder. "Here's where I betray you, old boy."
Giles stopped in his tracks. "What on earth?"
"It's time. Your first trial is now. The examiner's waiting."
Buffy stood down from the alert, but she shared the grievance in Giles's voice. He said, "You might have warned me."
"If I'd told you this was on the agenda you'd have worked yourself into a fit. I remember you at university well enough."
Giles made a grumpy noise, but he said nothing. Whiting led them over to the group.
"Good morning," said Conway.
Giles returned the greeting cordially enough, but Buffy could hear the ironic undercurrent. She wondered if he'd indulge in a sarcastic outburst at Conway before they were through. She'd pay money to hear that. But he was in check for now.
Conway was dressed a little differently than he'd been last night, but he still looked one hundred percent tweedy. He was wearing a funky sweater with leather patches on the shoulders and elbows. His trousers had a crease down the front. His chair looked even higher-tech than it had in the dim light of the drawing room. That was carbon fiber she saw. He had fingerless gloves on now, too.
"Sir Ian is your examiner this morning." The man with the clipboard stepped forward. Buffy found herself checking him for signs of injury, but if he'd invalided out of combat she couldn't see it. "Has Gerald explained the testing? No? Well, not much to it. We shall see if the reality matches your reputation. No point fussing about. What's first? Pistol?"
"Longbow first," said the examiner, impatiently. He gestured at Ellen and she snapped into motion. Behind the group of men was a tarp on the ground with a pile of equipment on top of that. Ellen removed the cover from a huge bow. It was taller than Buffy by almost a foot, nearly as tall as Giles was. His face fell and he shook his head when Ellen offered the weapon to him.
"I have never held a longbow," Giles said. "I cannot pretend to draw it."
"Pity," said the examiner. He wrote something down on the clipboard.
"A specialty weapon," Conway said, calmly. "Some of us train in it for the sake of the thing itself. It has few uses in the field. What about the crossbow?"
"We use crossbows often. And swords."
"The sword-fighting we'll come to in the afternoon. Start with crossbow," Conway said, addressing the man with the clipboard and not Giles. Ellen was in motion immediately. She handed Giles a black case and a quarrel. Giles set them both on the tarp and knelt down to open the case. He took out what Buffy recognized as a tactical crossbow, and a nice one. She had some serious weapon-envy going instantly.
Giles asked, "How does the trial work?"
"Five shots with each weapon. Standard scoring."
"I'm not much of a shot with this."
"Self-deprecation has no place here." Conway, speaking sharply.
Giles straightened himself. "Right," he said. He stood and held the crossbow in firing position, unloaded. Buffy watched him fiddle with the sight until he made a satisfied sound. He cocked it by hand then took a bolt from the quarrel and loaded it.
"Take your time," the examiner said. He held a stopwatch up and pressed the button at the top.
Giles turned and lifted the crossbow to his shoulder. His thumb nudged the safety off. Buffy watched him breathe out, then the crossbow released. The shot was good but not in the center of the target. Giles paused to readjust the sight. His next shot was better. He took his time about the shots, in a way they never could when they were fighting for real. Even so, she could tell he was nervous. Ellen ran down the range, retrieved the target paper, and handed it to the examiner. He looked even more nervous after the examiner made a grumpy sound, wrote something down, and said nothing.
Ellen brought over the next weapon and handed it to Giles. Buffy recognized this one: it was an air rifle, the same model Giles owned. Buffy had learned to shoot with that rifle, with Giles leaning over her adjusting her stance. Once she'd learned how it worked it was easy. The Slayer hand-eye coordination was a scary thing. Giles was good at this, she knew, and she watched him group five darts around and inside the heart of the demon-shaped target, no fuss no muss. He was calmer now than he'd been during the crossbow test.
For the next test Ellen handed out goggles and earmuffs. Real bullets this time, then, and here came the rifle. She didn't know enough about guns to identify it, but it had some serious sights and a bolt action. The barrel was longer than anything she'd ever shot. And apparently you were supposed to shoot it while lying flat on the ground, for that was where Giles set it up.
Giles's body language was confident for the first time that day. He removed the bullets from the magazine and examined them, ignoring the examiner's assurance that all was in good condition. Then he took his time about zeroing the sights. He shot left-handed, or left-eyed as he had once explained it to her. He tweaked the sights again and made his second shot. The target was far enough away on this one that she couldn't see how well he'd done until Ellen came running back with the paper in hand. Then she could see that he'd grouped all his shots around the red heart. She could see his expression as he broke the rifle down afterwards. He was pleased with himself.
"Have you competed in this sport?" the examiner asked. The target was in his hands.
"Yes," Giles said, but he didn't offer any details.
He did nearly as well with the handgun test that followed.
Conway and the examiner were conversing about something. Giles was watching them and she could see the nerves starting to creep out again. She went and stood next to him and nudged him with her shoulder.
"Hey. Nice shootin', Tex."
"It's just a thing we say."
"I'll have words with Gerald when I see him next. Infernal bastard, springing this on me."
"You did okay."
"Haven't shot a sniper rifle in years."
"Hey, Giles. You did okay."
Giles made a grumpy sound and Buffy was about to argue with him, but Conway was on his way over to them. As usual, he skipped all the polite preliminaries.
"The rifle work was exceptional. Did the Council train you?"
"I did some shooting as a boy, but yes."
"What other training did you receive from them?"
"I trust you are not interested in the esoteric topics, or the purely academic ones? Hand-to-hand combat, something like mixed martial arts. Knife fighting. The use of a number of simple tools in assassination. What you might call spycraft."
"Was this training unusual?"
He cast a glance sideways at Buffy and said, "To some extent, yes. The basics are taught to all Watcher candidates. I was on the wetworks team for several years and received training specific to my role."
"Wetworks," Conway said. "You were an assassin."
That was news to Buffy. Giles offered no further details and Conway didn't seem to want to pump him, which surprised her. She would be pumping him if she could. She would be pumping him later, no doubt about that.
Conway had already dropped the topic, it seemed. He was saying, "It is traditional for our squires to participate in tournaments. They spar with each other, with their equals. Our knights do so as well. One of our knights has requested that you participate in this tradition."
"Ah. I should be delighted." Giles sounded wary, not delighted, but Buffy couldn't blame him. This was just more of Conway putting him on the spot, no warning, boom, perform. "Is this a group tournament, or?"
"It is a personal challenge to single combat. Five minute rounds until one of you is no longer able to continue. There are usually stakes to be won, but not in this case."
"You won't win," Conway said.
Giles's head shot up and he stared at Conway. It was just short of an outright glare. Why have him fight? Buffy wanted to ask, but then she knew the answer. To see how he fought. To see what he did when he couldn't win. To see how much he wanted it. "Perhaps I will surprise you," he said.
Conway merely smiled. "Eric Twombly has asked for the honor of combat with you. Eric won the prize at last year's games."
Eric. Buffy remembered that name from last night. And yes, it was Mr Braveheart, the man with the hair. Buffy needed to write a Homeric epithet for that guy and his hair. Homer would have dug him, would have written all about his epic battle with a myriad Trojans. Buffy sort of dug him, or at least what she had been able to see of his delts and lats under his coat. He was, however, the guy who'd objected to Giles's language skills, and that made him officially unsexy. Because brains were sexy, as were any skills Giles employed in her defense and preparation. But unsexy didn't matter and neither did that Homeric hair. What mattered were the muscles. Even if he weren't supernaturally juiced, he'd have been capable of dismantling Giles twice before breakfast. She wondered how many demons he'd killed. Probably more than Riley and his entire squad had ever dreamed of.
Not as many as she had.
She glanced at Giles and saw him straighten up and stick out his chin. Uh oh.
Conway said, blandly, "You may request another opponent if you wish. We could consider it, though it would be a bit out of the ordinary."
"I wouldn't dream of asking for special treatment," Giles said. His chin was still stuck out in a way that Buffy knew meant he wouldn't be giving in until knocked out, and maybe not even then.
"Excellent," Conway said, and he sounded pleased. Buffy gave him a sharp look. "Three o'clock in the sparring pit. Your page will give you what you need."
He turned and spun himself off without another word. Buffy glared at the vanishing backs of his retinue but contained her urge to say bad things to them. She didn't want to bring Giles down. Now that he didn't have to put on a brave face for the onlookers, the chin came in and his shoulders slumped. He was looking a little nervy. Buffy was sympathetic. Pre-battle jitters were a thing she knew.
Shortly after two, Buffy and her page rousted Giles out and led him to the sparring pit. "Pit" was the right word for it, Buffy decided as she looked down into it. It was a ten-foot deep hole in the ground, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Old-fashioned wooden bleachers loomed around it on three sides. It wasn't a crude hole, though. The walls were padded with something plastic and tough that had been patched more than once with black tape. The floor was plain dirt, though, nothing fancy there. Good footing, she decided. The only way you'd get hurt in here was from being smacked by your opponent. There were two padded wooden doors on opposite sides of the pit. Each doorway opened onto a short narrow passage leading to a arming room that looked like a tiny gym locker room more than anything else. Unlike any gym she'd been in, though, its walls were stone and the windows were mere slits at ground level. She saw that the light fixtures were powered by cables run along the walls held in place with metal brackets. This place was old, maybe nearly as old as the castle fragment. No wonder it felt primitive. It was.
The weapon racks weren't primitive, though. They were modern and they held a completely modern selection of sparring weapons. Buffy made a beeline for the nearest. Lances, swords, bo staves, polearms. The full array of demon-fighting weaponry in neutered form for practice, just like Giles had at home. She lifted out the plastic and foam broadsword and ran her hands all over it. She wondered where they'd bought this, or if they had them made. It was nicer than the ones Giles had, though the edges of the blade were battered from heavy use. It weighed maybe three pounds. Buffy knew from experience that getting hit by it would hurt. Weight didn't matter as much as how hard and fast your opponent could swing it. This one had nice pop and the right amount of flex. It also made a hugely satisfying smack when she hit the bench with it.
"That's the weapon for the match today," Ellen told her. She took the sword from her and laid it out on the bench. She turned to Giles and said, "Sir, you need to change into your sparring clothing now."
"I'm afraid I didn't pack any."
Ellen rubbed at her hair until it stood on end, which was endearing for Buffy. "There'll be something in the laundry." She turned and ran out.
Buffy went back to examining the gear. There was shelves with martial arts sparring armor in various sizes. Giles had first worn things like this before when doing weapons training with her back in the library days. She'd thought it was dorky at the time and had generally tried to knock him out when he'd worn it, as pure punishment for being a geek instead of fighting au naturel the way she did. Now that they sparred more seriously together, she sometimes wore padding herself. She was a little smarter than she'd been then, and besides, Giles hit her for real now. This stuff was better-made than the gear she and Giles used: lighter weight, stiffer, bad-ass looking. She began sorting through it, pulling out pieces that would fit Giles.
The kid came back, breathing hard, carrying an armful of clothing and a high-tech-looking cup. Giles turned it over in his hands, then looked at the two women and blushed. He opened a locker door and stood behind it to change. Buffy considerately turned her back on him to give him his privacy and coincidentally hide her grin. He'd kissed her last night, but he was still embarrassed about guy things in front of her.
Giles cleared his throat. Buffy turned to see him in baggy gray gym shorts and a plain white t-shirt. The shirt was tight on him in a way that none of his own clothes ever were. He tugged at the collar and rolled his shoulders. Buffy leaned back against the lockers and admired him silently. Nice pecs, nice flat stomach. His calves were nothing to write home about, but his quads more than made up for them. They had the right amount of fuzz on them for a guy, in Buffy's opinion. She was so over men with shaved chests and pits.
The page unceremoniously pushed him to sit on the bench and commenced strapping him into his armor. She insisted on putting the full kit on him, head to toe, with Buffy's complete agreement.
Giles squatted a couple of times, then tried a few side kicks. He made a grumpy sound. A tradeoff, armor for mobility. Buffy herself always made the tradeoff the other way, but then, she had Slayer healing to offset the risks. Here, Giles might break some bones, or he might get himself bruised up, and there was no point doing that for what was essentially a training exercise.
"Time?" he asked.
Ellen glanced at her watch. "You have about ten minutes."
She handed him the sparring sword. Giles stood and began running through a familiar series of stretches and warm-up movements, with sword in hand. They were exactly what he'd made Buffy do when he'd begun to teach her sword-fighting. She knew his fighting style well: it was idiosyncratic, a mix of eastern martial arts techniques with European long sword schools. He would be difficult to predict, at least. She watched him move and tried to turn the same critical eye on him that he used on her. Where were his flaws? It was strange to think about it from this perspective.
When Giles came to a halt, he was breathing freely and sweating a little under his arms. Properly warmed up, then, according to his own principles.
Buffy stood up. "You're ready. Let's go get him."
Giles nodded and took a couple of steps toward the entrance to the fighting pit. Then he turned back to her. "Do you, ah, might I ask for a favor? Your token, to wear while I fight."
"A ribbon, or some bit of jewelry. It's traditional," he said, in response to her puzzled look.
Buffy wasn't wearing much jewelry, just some silver rings and the usual stuff in her ears, which wouldn't work. No, wait, her cross would be perfect. She unclasped it and Giles bent forward so she could reach up around his neck to put it on. She tucked it inside his shirt, where it wouldn't get in his way. He looked pleased and reached up to touch it. She had an urge to grab his shirt and pull him down and kiss him right then, but it was the wrong time. The page was watching and she didn't want to distract Giles from what he had to do.
"Fight club time," she said.
Ellen led them along the passage to the pit. She opened the door but did not head through. Buffy saw people in the bleachers, more than she might have expected. Maybe twenty, thirty people, more than had been at the funeral. She looked for the wheelchair and the white hair but didn't spot it. Then she saw what Giles was looking at: Twombly, standing in the doorway opposite, also armed and ready. He seemed almost larger than the door, with shoulders wide enough to brush both sides.
Buffy said, "What do you think?"
"A decade younger, half a foot taller, and supernaturally augmented? Going to feel a bit like fighting you. Only perhaps he paid attention in his training, unlike some Slayers I could name."
"Hey!" Buffy said, but it was only in automatic response to the tease. She was mostly busy checking the straps on his armor. There was exactly zero chance that guy didn't pay attention. She could see the way he stood at the opposite side of the fighting pit. "My advice to you? Cheat."
"This is chivalric combat, not a street brawl."
"I don't think demons give a damn about chivalry," Buffy said. "Don't screw around. Just take him out the way you would a vamp. The way you tell me to." She met his gaze and he nodded. Message understood. Buffy closed the half-door between the tunnel and pit and hopped up on top of it to watch. She gave Ellen a hand and hauled her up beside her. Showtime.
Giles walked to the center of the pit where his opponent and a referee waited for him. They shook hands like modern men. The referee backed them up about ten paces, then stood with a brass bell in his upraised hand. He rang the bell, ran out of the ring, and it was on.
The MMA fights Buffy had watched on TV had always turned into grapple-fests. This didn't, probably because the fighters had swords that they knew how to use. And neither one of them was the cautious type, it seemed. They clashed immediately, rebounded, and came together again. The other guy, Twombly, liked to hold his weapon with both hands. Giles, she knew, preferred a single-handed technique with another weapon in his right hand. A dagger, or a stake. He had no second weapon for this fight, though, so he used both hands. Probably he had to if he wanted to hold onto his weapon against Twombly's ferocious battering. She thought at first Giles was being stupid, but then she saw his approach. He couldn't hope to outlast a supernaturally-zipped-up fighter, so he was trying to bait him into a mistake early, when he still had the strength to capitalize.
It was a good idea, but it wasn't working. When Twombly made mistakes-- and he did, falling for feints more than once-- he compensated with shocking strength. He beat Giles down to his knees and swung the sword back for a blow that make Buffy suck in her breath with fear. But Giles had already rolled aside, and the sword connected with the dirt instead of flesh. He rolled again and when he came up his sword was in his hands again.
Buffy gripped the top of the door so hard it splintered in her hands. He had to get inside the guy's guard. That was the only thing that would work. Time slowed down for her and she saw the combat as it would be if she were fighting: trajectories, possibilities, freeze-frames. The Slayer spirit told her to jump in there and dismantle him, protect her Watcher. But it was not her show. It was Giles's turn to shine.
Time sped up again. Giles's sword fell to the sand behind him.
That was the moment he started fighting for real, she decided afterward, because the next thing he did was smash his head into Twombly's face. The guy staggered backwards. Giles scooped up his sword. Twombly was on him again, relentless, tireless, swinging with a two-handed blow that would take a man's head off. Giles ducked and then he kicked: a vicious side kick, perfectly executed. His foot struck home in Twombly's gut. He closed in, punched with the sword hilt, then followed it up with a forearm blow to the face that sent blood spurting. Score one for the good guy.
A bell rang somewhere and Twombly froze. Giles took an uncertain step forward, then the men's pages were in the pit, pulling them to the sides and off their feet. Buffy leapt down to the dirt and to Giles's side.
"Fabulous fighter," Giles said. He was breathing hard. He flexed his sword hand and rubbed at his forearm. Ellen stuck a water bottle nozzle into his mouth and squirted water into it. Buffy took the water bottle away from the kid. She gave Giles another mouthful, which he swished around and spat onto the ground.
Ellen toweled sweat off Giles's neck and face. Buffy wasn't sure what to do. Rub his shoulders? Pep-talk him?
"Hold out another five minutes," she said. "Survival."
"Easier said than done."
So much for pep. She fell back to the shoulder-rub plan. Sixty seconds of rest wasn't nearly enough time. Mouthguard back in, sword back into his hand, up on his feet again, and Ellen was vanishing into the tunnel with the stool and the water bottle. Buffy followed reluctantly, to join her perched atop the little wooden door.
It didn't take long. They fenced with less of the brutality of the first round but it was clear that Twombly had the advantage and was merely playing cautious. He was giving Giles no more opportunities to kick, no more opportunities to head-smash. Then Giles parried and his wrist twisted a little too far, the point of his blade swinging wildly to the side. He slid-step backwards and tried to wrestle the point back into line, but so slow. Buffy sucked air and tensed before the blow. Twombly's edge slashed against the unprotected forearm and raked up against Giles's thumb. His blade fell to the dirt. Giles ducked to recover it but Twombly was there, kicking his feet out from under him. Giles was down, Twombly was straddling his chest, kneeling on his elbows. Giles had no leverage to move his arms. Twombly reversed his sword, point down over Giles's throat. Buffy wanted to leap down, knock that demonic giant away. She leaned forward. Giles raised two fingers.
"Surrender," Ellen said, next to her on the wall.
Twombly sprang to his feet. He bent over Giles and clasped his arm. He pulled Giles to his feet again. The two stood for a moment there, gripping each other's arms, heads bent together. Then Giles stepped back and bowed. The victor saluted him with sword touched to forehead, then walked over to the bleachers where Conway and the others sat. He saluted them.
Buffy missed whatever happened after that because she was sprinting across the dirt to Giles. He was swaying on his feet. She went to his side but carefully did not touch him or offer him any support. They made their way together to his side of the pit, where Ellen was waiting. The page took the sword from him and only then Giles staggered. Buffy caught his arm and steadied him. He leaned back against the wall of the fighting pit, head tipped back. His chest was heaving. Still in serious oxygen deficit, she guessed. She brushed the kid away and undid the strap on his headgear herself.
"Went all out," he said.
"Had my arse whipped anyway."
"Felt like fighting you. Not, not as fast. Strong. God."
Buffy unbuckled his armguards and threw them aside. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ellen scrambling to collect the gear. Giles shrugged out of the chest protector and handed it to her. His arms were slick with sweat. Blood was spattered all down his t-shirt. Damn.
"His blood or yours?"
"Sorry?" Giles swiped at his nose and looked at his fingers. "Ah. Mine, apparently."
His nose was bleeding. And there was a weal across his upper arm, right about where his elbow guards would have ended. It was wet with blood. "Your arm," she said.
Giles looked down at his arm in surprise. Couldn't tell what was hurting and what wasn't, she guessed. She'd been like that after particularly nasty fights sometimes. Adrenaline, Giles would explain, usually while shoving her down so he could bandage her up. She shoved him down to the ground-- sauce for the gander-- and beckoned the page back.
"First aid kit."
Ellen took one look at the blood and ran out. She returned very shortly with a guy in a white jacket with a case under his arm. Giles sighed at him.
"It's only a scratch."
"I'll be the judge of that."
But Giles held his arm out to the medic to be swabbed clean obediently enough. His breathing had gone back to normal already. He really was fitter than Buffy had realized. She always beat him up so easily in training that it was hard sometimes for her to think of him as in shape or strong. But she had to think about normal human levels of ability here.
The medic taped some gauze into place. He was done and packing up already. Buffy went to check his work, because she wasn't trusting anybody else with her guy. Giles nudged her aside, however, and struggled to his feet. Buffy was about to complain and shove him back down again, but then she saw that Conway was approaching down the narrow hallway. Not just Conway, but his whole entourage, including the guy with the clipboard. He had the thing tucked under his arm for once, no pencil in evidence, though he had the same cool detached look of indifference he'd maintained all day. Buffy stepped to the side to watch. It was, as before, Giles's show.
As usual, Conway wasted no time on courtesies. He said, without preamble, "I congratulate you, Mr Giles. You acquitted yourself well."
Giles inclined his head. "Thank you."
"You have the physical skills we require. We had some worries on this point, as you know, since not all of the Council-trained candidates we've seen have been so well-prepared."
Buffy glanced over at Giles after that bombshell, but he wasn't looking her way. His attention was completely on Conway.
"I trust your injury is minor."
They both looked down at the arm with the gauze taped to it. Below the tape was the black of the Eyghon tattoo, stark against his pale skin. Conway rolled himself closer to look.
"That tattoo is interesting. Does it hold any meaning to you?"
"At one time it did."
Conway continued staring at him without saying anything. Giles looked down at his arm and brushed his fingers over it. The back of Buffy's neck itched, where she'd had a copy of the tattoo, thank you Ethan Rayne. It had stopped bugging her Slayer senses when the demon had died, and that had been about when Giles had started wearing short-sleeved shirts every now and then. During heat waves, anyway.
"The symbology is odd."
"Etruscan. It, uh, it was the ritual mark of a demon. Eyghon the Sleeper. Used in--"
"I know what it would be used in. You did not choose to inform us of this. Why not?"
"The demon is dead. Any past affiliation would... not signify."
"We might, however, wish to know that our newest candidate is the sort of man who would choose to mark himself as a demon's vessel."
Conway leveled a glare at Giles that was megawatt intensity, the sort of glare Giles used to aim at her when she was slacking off. Now was the time to say something in his own defense. But Giles said nothing. Buffy opened her mouth to say it herself: he'd just been a kid when he'd done it, but then she shut it. It was his business, not hers.
Then Giles said, quietly, "You are quite right. I ought to have told you."
"Yes." The glare subsided, but Conway's next words weren't any kinder. "There is some argument about whether we understand your character well enough to take you into our order. Ordinarily we'd have watched your development for a period of years in our school. I had been arguing in your favor. Now, however--"
Giles said nothing. He stood very still and his face was carefully blank. Buffy knew that look.
"You'll spend tomorrow squiring properly for your Slayer. You may rest in your room until then." Conway looked at her for a moment, and Buffy wondered how much he knew about their sleeping arrangements. "The refectory is open for dinner any time between five and eight."
It was a dismissal. He spun his chair around deftly and was off, with his little flotilla of knightly ducklings trailing along afterward. Buffy suspected he got a charge out of making them having to run to keep up with him. It almost made her like him. She turned to find Giles staring off where Conway had gone, hand absently rubbing his ribs under the blood-spattered t-shirt. He'd taken a good whack on them, one that would probably leave bruises even through padding.
The page had finished getting Giles's armor off while they'd been talking. She ducked her head to the pair of them then scurried off toward the gym.
"Well," Buffy said.
Giles massaged his shoulder and smiled at her faintly. "Well," he said. His voice told her everything she needed to know about his mood. She decided to keep him distracted for a while, so he wouldn't sink into his one of his guilt-fits. She'd had enough of broody men in her life.
"Come on. Let's get you showered and then scarf some early dinner."
The refectory reminded her of her college cafeteria, except nicer and more breakable. Like a restaurant buffet, with a half dozen teenagers dancing around instead of a waitstaff. The food was plain but healthy. Lots of fresh vegetables and protein, exactly what Giles had always been after her to eat. Buffy was hungrier than she'd thought. They loaded up their trays and carried them over to a free table in the corner. They'd come at a busy time, it seemed, for the room was nearly full.
There weren't a lot of women in the room, and they were younger than the men, mostly. The generational thing Conway had mentioned was in evidence, she guessed. The women must be more recent recruits. They had the same hard-body look as the guys. There was something about the way they sat in their chairs, every one of them. Upright, alert, poised. Buffy would not have wanted to be the demon who picked a fight with them. She said as much to Giles.
"They all remind me of you, a little," Giles said. "The Watchers were always more bookish. And a little more cloak and dagger."
"Yeah, these guys don't have a wetworks team. I bet they have a dueling club, though." Giles gave her a wan smile, but she pressed on. "Is that why Carbuncle there is nervous about you? Because you did that for them?"
"I rather suspect it's mostly the, ah. The demon." Giles's hand strayed to the inside of his elbow.
Buffy shook her head. They'd been nervous about him before that. And something about Conway's total lack of surprise made her suspect he already knew everything about Giles, and therefore about his little nervous breakdown. No use talking about it with Giles, though. He had a guilt complex a mile wide about that incident.
She thought about wetworks teams and Giles with a sniper rifle. Killing people. She'd been in the Slaying business long enough to know that there were human beings who preyed on other humans just as viciously as vampires did. It wasn't her business to take them out but she might, some day, if the circumstances were right. If she could think of no other way. Just as she'd been willing to kill Angel, who'd had a soul, for the rest of the human race. The Slayer spirit would let her do that.
Though if the Council had been running Giles and giving him targets, there was no guarantee he'd killed only bad guys. That was a creepy thought.
Just then a pair of women came up to their table, trays in hand, and asked if they minded being joined. Buffy grinned and shoved out a chair with a toe for them. They wanted to meet the Slayer and her Watcher, and grill the guy who was maybe going to be one of them. They were friendly and more than happy to talk shop about demon-killing.
This was the first time Buffy had met other women who could talk about crossbows with her. Other than Faith, and she'd never hit it off with Faith. Partly her fault, partly Faith's fault, partly just the phase she'd been in. Right now she was in an Initiative-backlash phase. No more bands of testosterone-soaked brothers who didn't get that women could do this stuff too.
Speaking of testosterone, here came the victor of the day, Mr Braveheart Twombly and his mane. Buffy couldn't help but track him as he came across the room, and one of the other women was doing the same. She wondered if Twombly was dating or if he was into women or not. He beelined toward them and folded himself into another chair at the table, right next to Giles. To her surprise, Giles seemed happy to see the guy. They shook hands and immediately started talking to each other in low voices. Buffy couldn't hear and didn't really want to eavesdrop. She shrugged and went back to discussing the problem of finding weaponry made for short people with the woman next to her.
Some time later Giles touched her arm. "I'm off with Twombly here for a talk."
"See you in the rooms later?"
"Feeling tired, so I shouldn't be long."
Buffy watched the pair of them head toward the refectory door together. Giles was a tall guy and he looked slight next to that giant. Buffy turned back to her table. Somebody was pulling the cork from a bottle of wine. Buffy had a glass happily. The Knights of St George were okay and she could sense that deep in her bones. The Slayer spirit was at rest for the moment. She settled in to talk shop with the first peers she'd ever met.
There was no one in her room when she finally got back. She went through the passageway between their rooms, tapped on Giles's door, and opened it. She peeked in: Giles was sitting in the little armchair. He was in a pair of loose jeans and a baggy t-shirt, and was barefoot. He looked tired but he smiled at her when she came over to him.
"Thought I'd find you asleep."
"Couldn't manage it. Been reading to relax."
He held up a little battered hardcover book she'd seen him with before. The Aeneid, untranslated, his usual comfort reading. Only Giles would read something written in Latin to relax. Though now that she thought about it, not only Giles. She could picture poor Wesley doing the same. Maybe anybody raised as a Watcher, as that rare intersection of warrior and scholar.
"Did you have a good talk with Fabio?"
"Fabio? Oh, Twombly. Yes. Most informative."
Giles didn't seem to be in the mood to share whatever information he'd learned, however, so Buffy prodded. "About... hair care?"
There was the flash of amusement she'd wanted to see. "We talked about training, mostly. Combat readiness. The fellow works hard to be in the sort of shape he's in, even with the boost."
"Nothing earthshattering. Lift heavy weights and run."
Buffy made a face. She never lifted weights if she could help it. Running, on the other hand, she liked. She hadn't been for a run in nearly a week, come to think of it.
"Was it weird, talking to him?"
"Why should it weird? I rather like him."
Buffy gestured, hoping he would supply an answer without needing her to say something about Twombly being the guy who'd beaten Giles, disarmed him, knocked him down, and made him lift two fingers in surrender. Giles wasn't rescuing her, was in fact gazing at her and waiting for her. "Because, I don't know, because he looks like he walked out of a storybook only with abs like the cover of Men's Health?"
"Am I supposed to envy that?"
"Yes? I guess? Don't you?"
Giles looked tired. "I do. Of course I do. If that's what it takes--"
"Takes to what?"
Giles shook his head. It was Buffy's turn to stare him down. At last he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I suppose, I-- What it takes to get your attention."
Aha. Buffy controlled her impulse to leap on him and kept it light. He was feeling a little down after all. "You think it's muscles I want? Not sure that's what I'm looking for in a guy."
"I might be looking for a guy who can speak five languages. One who takes a minute to figure out what he's doing before he goes and kills the demon. Know where I can find one of those?"
"Bonus if he can fight with a sword too."
"I don't give my favor to just anybody."
Giles's face changed. "Oh! That reminds me."
He stood and dug deep into his hip pocket. He opened his hand to her to reveal her necklace. It glittered in the lamplight.
"Thank you for the luck of your favor. It was not sufficient to bring me victory, but it was solace in my defeat."
He was all formal and husky as he said that. Buffy came closer and touched his outstretched hand. Giles looked down instead of holding her gaze. She took the necklace and began to reach around behind her head. Giles stopped her.
"May I?" he said.
Buffy handed it back to him and turned around. He fumbled for a moment with the clasp then it was around her neck. He touched it, adjusted it so the the little cross was centered. She felt his breath on the back of her neck. Then every so gently, his lips, on her nape. Buffy held her breath. He lingered. His lips were warm and soft against her neck. Buffy wanted to shiver. She held herself completely still, so she wouldn't scare him away. His hand came down and rested on her waist. Another kiss, tentative, on her shoulder. She breathed out unsteadily.
He stepped back and Buffy wondered for a moment if he'd turn and flee from this one as well. But no: he turned her in his arms and bent to kiss her again. He was licking at her lips. He said her name as if he were pleading with her. Buffy clasped him tight in response. He gasped in pain and she let go instantly, shocked.
He had a hand on his ribcage, where he'd been kicked. "Sorry, I'm a bit, ah, battered."
"Been there," Buffy said. She touched the bandage on his arm, to show that she understood. "I'll be more careful."
Giles breathed out deeply and shook his head. "You'll forget. In the heat of-- Perhaps I should simply go to bed."
Buffy wanted to argue, but couldn't. She did tend to forget when carried away. She'd bruised Riley more than once. "My bed. From now on. Got it?"
"If you insist," he murmured, but she could see he was pleased.
Buffy left the bedside light on low. She stretched out on the bed, on top of the sheets, and waited for Giles to join her. He did, tentatively, lying facing her with his arm under his pillow. He looked tense. Buffy stroked his shoulder; he was definitely tense. His traps were like rocks.
"You're totally knotted up. Stress monster."
"I suppose I am."
"Massage time. Take your shirt off."
"Do you know what you're doing?" Giles said, eyebrows up.
"I read your massage book. And I have some practice."
"Don't want to be torn limb from limb," he muttered.
He was taking his shirt off anyway. He pulled it over his head and winced. Buffy could see why; he had broad red marks on his rib cage that would blossom into alarming bruises. The fight had been more brutal than she'd thought while watching it. He rolled onto his face and folded his arms under his head. Buffy knelt up next to him. She touched his back, stroked him to let him know she was there, then began to explore.
Solid muscles. Something to dig into with her fingers. There was more muscle there than she'd expected. He had muscles after all; he'd just been hiding them. Where from? Weightlifting? She didn't know what Giles did to keep himself in shape, other than the jogging, but he obviously did something. Had to, to have earned himself lats like those. Riley had felt like this under her hands, though he'd had more sheer bulk. Angel had been bulkier as well. Giles was less sculpted but more brutal. It was beyond wonderful to discover that Giles had been hiding this body.
"So, weightlifting and running, huh," she said.
"Mm. Joined the local YMCA last year. Something to fill the time."
"Did you hang out with all the boys?"
"I left my cowboy costume at home."
Buffy stifled a giggle. She straddled his thighs and leaned forward to get proper leverage. She found the pressure points on his trapezius that had always been the important spots for Riley, and was rewarded by a soft grunt of pleasure. Slayer strength came in handy at strange times. He sighed underneath her and stretched.
"You have wonderful hands," he said, into his folded arms.
"Strong. Ow. No, don't stop. That's the spot. You did more than read my book."
"Took a workshop. Couples massage, bring your own sweetie. During that gooey phase with Riley, you know the one."
Mentioning Riley had been a mood-killer, judging by his voice. Buffy cursed herself for a second, then set it aside. Concentrate on his shoulders. Nice shoulders. He had a little scarring across the left one that she'd never seen before. Didn't look like knife cuts, more like claws. What had clawed him? There had been that thing right after her eighteenth, when he'd been all overcompensating. For Giles, overcompensating meant throwing himself in front of a hellbeast to distract it for her. A wave of affection ran through Buffy and she had to restrain herself from leaning forward to kiss his back. Shoulders. Concentrate on those delts.
Then Giles said, tentatively, "He's in Texas, you said?"
He? Oh, Riley. "I don't actually know."
"So that's quite over, then?"
"Yeah. I could swear I told you that."
"You did. I was just, er... verifying."
That explained some of the hesitation, maybe. Maybe it was simply Giles being unsure of himself. The man who stammered and got nervous about asking people out on dates was here, just as much as the man who didn't hesitate about jumping into the ring with a guy guaranteed to beat him senseless. Contradictions. Delicious contradictions. She had him at last, though. He was hers at heart, if not yet in body. He'd kissed her and stayed. And he was in her bed now.
His breathing was shifting, slowing. Buffy slowed and softened her touch against his skin. His eyes were closed again. He'd fallen asleep. Buffy smiled at him and stroked the hair at his temples. Turnabout. She tugged a light blanket over him so he wouldn't wake up cold, then turned the light out. She could see perfectly well without it. She sat on the armchair by the bed for a while, looking at him. It had taken her a long time to see that he was gorgeous. Time and the push from that Slayer spirit coiled inside her, her spirit sister. The strong jaw, the eyes, the crinkle-marks from smiling. The little line between his brows from worrying, maybe about her, or about the world in general. Not a pretty man, but a handsome one, and he would be hers.
Buffy knew she should be satisfied for now. She was satisfied, except that something wasn't settled. She was restless. Not ready for sleep even with this handsome guy half-undressed in her bed. Not even in the least. It was time to hunt.
She changed into dark clothing. Her hair she tied back and hid under a black watch cap. It wasn't that she was sneaking, except she was totally sneaking. She tucked a stake up her sleeve by habit, and also because something was bothering her. Vampires, here? Every time she'd done the honing thing here the answer had been a resounding nothing. Utter safety, for miles and miles and miles. Now... Buffy stood on her balcony and honed, and wasn't sure.
Buffy climbed over the railing and got a grip on the vines. Solid vines, a good hundred years of growth, more than up to supporting her weight. Getting up again would be easy. She let herself drop about ten feet up from the grassy lawn and rolled to take the impact. She followed through and bounced to her feet.
The lane wound around the dormitory building directly to the front gate. The gate looked impressive, all heavy iron. She maneuvered herself around to a spot where she could see inside the kiosk. Inside was a guy in uniform, no doubt with sword like the night before. The stone wall looked easily climbable, but she didn't feel like it. They didn't guard anything beside the front gate, according to what she'd been told, because who would attack a building full of heavily armed extra-strong people? And what did they have that was worth stealing, anyway? Buffy could see the point of not bothering to defend the place. And whatever was troubling her wasn't here. Which way was the town? Vaguely east, and not all that far if she cut across the fields and woods of the order's estate.
She set off at an easy run.
It felt good to be out at night again, hunting. All that sparring had been fun, but it wasn't what her power was for. Her power was for this, for running silently along the lane, leaping over the ditch, side-tracking into an orchard, and dodging through the trees at breakneck pace. She breathed in the sweet air of nighttime country. This place was gorgeous at night, with the moon nearly full and the owls hooting. The knights were on a beautiful piece of countryside. According to what Giles had said, they'd been here for hundreds of years. That remaining castle tower had been Norman era, he'd said, and that made it the oldest building Buffy had ever been near in her life. And they'd been here ever since, guarding themselves magically, training knights, and sending them out into the world to fight dragons. They seemed good. They felt good, if Buffy trusted her Slayer senses. So what was bothering her?
Not nearby, if so. Or muffled. Or maybe it wasn't a vampire at all. Maybe it was. People were talking. Two people. A man's voice, one she didn't know, and a girl. It was Ellen's voice. Buffy's skin crawled. What was Ellen doing outside at night?
"What's she like?" the man's voice said.
"The Slayer? What do you want to know?"
"Can she possibly be what they say?"
"I haven't seen her do anything. She keeps stakes in her bag, but--"
The voices came closer. Buffy saw two figures in motion in the orchard. Ellen and somebody else, somebody tall. Coming right toward her. Without thinking she leapt straight up and grabbed onto a branch over her head. She pulled herself up and kept right on climbing until she had some foliage in between herself and the ground. The tree was an apple tree, an old one. She found a branch wide enough to flatten herself along and shimmied out until she could see the conspirators. What were they doing? Why were they talking about her?
The second person, the man. Buffy squinted and recognized him. It was the boy who'd been loitering in the hallway with Ellen that first night. What were they doing now? They'd stopped and were grabbing each other. Then she realized they were kissing. Buffy pressed a hand across her mouth to stifle the giggles that wanted to escape. Here she'd been thinking doom and gloom and evil plots, and it was as simple as two people sneaking out of the dorm to make out. She hoped they weren't going to do much more than that, because she didn't want to be trapped in the tree as a reluctant voyeur. She even went so far as to wonder if she could manage to leap to the next tree over, squirrel-style, without making too much noise. No freaking hope, she decided. Just then they mercifully broke the clinch and walked on, hands in each other's pockets.
Buffy listened until they were well out of the orchard, then made herself stay where she was for a little longer. Then she scrambled down from the tree. She brushed dirt and bark from her jeans and trotted off back the way she'd came. The town would have to wait. She'd been silly enough already tonight. Maybe she'd just needed the run. The last few days had featured way less activity than usual for her, and she hadn't hunted at all since she'd left Sunnydale. She should try to get in a workout in that yummy gym.
She scampered up the vines to her balcony and popped over the railing again. She slipped inside and pulled the balcony door nearly shut. Giles was in her bed, rolled onto his face with his arms under his pillow. She undressed silently and crawled back into bed with him as quietly as she could. Giles shifted and turned toward her, awake after all. He flung an arm over her and pressed himself against her.
"C'mere," he said. "Wondered where you'd got off to."
Buffy smiled. The wakeful Giles might be nervous, but the half-asleep one was already hers.
Buffy slept in, curled up cozily with Giles. She woke once when rain began to spatter against the balcony doors, but when she woke again it had stopped. The skies were cloudy but clearing. The air smelled fantastic, all damp and green and fresh in a way that Sunnydale never smelled at this time of year. When she got out of her shower, Giles was in her rooms talking with Ellen, who had circles under her eyes. Buffy held her urge to giggle in check, remembering Ellen in the orchard and remembering her own adventures in sneaking out to see boyfriends. She'd been up late, but Ellen had probably been up later.
Ellen was holding a bundle of clothing for Giles. His uniform for the day, she explained.
"Uniform?" Giles said.
"They want you to squire properly, I think. There's a formal dinner tonight. I can explain what you need to do."
Giles held up the trousers and looked at the waist.
"They should fit," Ellen said, but she sounded doubtful.
Giles bundled it all up under his arm and disappeared into his own room to change. Buffy watched his back vanishing through the doorway, deprived once again of the pleasure of watching him get dressed. He came back with a sardonic look on his face: he was wearing more or less what Ellen was, only the patch over his breast had more ornamentation on it. The pants were baggy but the shirt fit well, at least to Buffy's taste. Giles probably thought it was snug.
"So, get squiring! Um. Sharpen stakes for me? I'm not sure what to do that's knightlike."
"They're sparring today," Ellen said. "At the ring. Probably all day, if you want to watch. I think that's what most of the knights are doing."
Buffy wasn't sure she cared about that, but then Giles looked at her and she could see he was eager. "Sounds good," she said. "So long as we hit breakfast first. I need my OJ."
There were more people at the sparring pit than there had been yesterday. Buffy counted a couple dozen people then stopped bothering. It was as Ellen had said. Most of the knights were there, lounging on the bleachers watching the sparring, or heading into the pit to take their turn. Buffy could see a few pairs dotted throughout the crowd, full knights in athletic clothing with their dark-clad squires beside them. A handful of pages were there fetching water and wrangling the combatants.
Buffy watched a pair of women fence in the pit, facing off against in each other in 5-minute rounds as Giles had done with Twombly the day before. They held practice swords and wore full body armor, but it was as violent as her vamp fights usually were. Buffy pulled her feet up under herself, hugged her knees to her chest, and watched with an analytical eye. They had good skills and were evenly matched. Buffy couldn't decide which one was likely to win. She thought she'd met the one with the blonde ponytail last night, but she hadn't seen the woman with the dreadlocks before.
"German school," Giles murmured in her ear. "Fairly standard European style. Vulnerable to mixed-mode fighting. Think what a kick would do right now."
"Assuming they're not fighting that way 'cause of a rule."
"Oh, it's Eric now?"
Giles ducked his head. "Well, we did have that talk last night. Anyway, he said rules vary. The two combatants can agree to fight any way they wish."
"Speak of the devil," Buffy said. Fabio Braveheart was there in full gear, leaning against the far gate. The match between the two women ended in victory for the one with the dreadlocks. Twombly opened the gate and clapped the victor on the back as she went through. Giles sat up straighter. Buffy watched him watching Twombly and grinned. That was a serious case of man-crush if she'd ever seen one.
Twombly moved into the center of the ring and greeted his opponent. The knight he was fighting was a little guy who fought with a heater shield and a one-handed sword. Well, little in comparison with the six and a half footer. Twombly had the same two-hander he'd used yesterday with Giles. This match went on much longer than the one with Giles had and it got pretty fierce at some moments. The two were evenly matched; Giles had been badly outmatched. Buffy found herself getting a little steamed about that mismatch as she watched, in fact. It had been so unfair. Giles had been going to lose no matter what.
Giles didn't seem to be pissed off. He was completely absorbed in the fight. She saw his hand hand tighten on the wall. He leaned forward. Exciting, yeah, watching those two guys scramble around in the sand beating the crap out of each other.
Maybe it was what she'd thought earlier, Conway testing his character. Or maybe it was to show him a taste of what he'd get if Saint George bestowed his gift on him. Make the point the painful way about super strength. Though Giles needed that lesson less than any other man would. He lived with a Slayer.
"You wanna be like him," she said, suddenly.
Giles shot a glance at her. "Yes. Do you mind?"
"It's okay by me. He's kind of sexy." Giles turned to her and stared. "Going to grow out your hair?"
Now he figured out that he was being teased, and he aimed a withering glare on her before turning back to the fight.
Twombly won. Of course he won. He always won. He accepted the congratulations from his foe graciously then took a victory lap around the ring. He stopped below them and waved to Giles. He took his helmet off and shook his hair free. He really was magnificent.
"Did you see what I meant?" he said, addressing Giles. "Mobility is crucial."
"Yes. You remind me of Buffy, a little, in your willingness to take a beating to gain an advantage."
"I remind you of this little thing?"
"The Slayer," Giles said, and the pride in his voice was unmistakable. Twombly looked at Buffy and seemed to see her for the first time. Buffy favored him with her scary smile, the one she used on vamps right before staking them. He didn't know to be scared by that smile.
"Fight me," he said, and Buffy was shocked. "I've never met a Slayer and who knows if I'll live to meet you again? Fight me."
Buffy stole a quick look back at Giles to see what he made of this challenge, but his face was completely blank. What did she want? Oh, heck, she knew what she wanted.
"Okay," Buffy said, and she grinned.
"Wonderful! I'll wait for you." He leapt out of the ring into the viewing stands and sat himself down in the front row, still wearing all his gear.
The next sparring match began while Buffy headed back to the locker room, Giles and Ellen in tow. Now there were more people in it, changing, stretching, men and women both. Ellen gave Buffy her own gear, extracted from her locker. It was a little big but stretchy tights were more or less one size fits all. She tried to refuse the protective gear, but Ellen insisted she wear it, claiming it was a rule that none of them dared break. Giles in turn insisted that he be the one who strapped her into it. He double-checked every strap and fastening, strangely zealous.
She went out to the ring feeling a strange mixture of anticipation and nerves. There was a fight in progress, right on the other side of the gate, but she didn't much feel like watching it. Instead she tried to remind herself of everything Giles had ever told her about sword-fighting. Guard stances, named moves, foot positions. Oh crap. Too late for that.
Their names were announced by a guy standing in the place where Conway had sat for Giles's match yesterday. Twombly hopped down into the middle of the pit and shook himself, like he was a giant dog. Buffy turned around and leaned her back against the gate.
"Oh my god, he's huge," she said.
"You don't have to fight," Ellen said. "You're not one of us. You're not a knight."
She blushed bright red but Buffy gave her the stink-eye anyway. "As if."
"She is the Slayer," Giles said. Ellen didn't seem to get it. She would soon enough, or so Buffy hoped. Twombly looked even bigger to her now than he had yesterday.
"See you on the flip."
Buffy vaulted over the door without bothering to wait for Ellen to open it. She trotted to the center of the ring. It had rained off and on that morning and the sand in the sparring pit was damp and heavy under her feet. It wasn't soggy, though. There must be good drainage under here, secretly.
"Hail," Twombly said to her, gravely.
"Hey," she said. She met his outstretched hand with hers and pretended to wince when he squeezed her a little too hard. He smiled at her just long enough to make her decide to win a little more decisively than she'd been planning to.
The referee or whatever he was stood between them and explained the rules of the match to her. There weren't many. They were expected to hold back enough to prevent permanent injury to each other. The fight went until one could not continue, or until one fighter was able to administer a mock coup to the other. Or until one of them surrendered. Fat chance of that happening.
The referee vanished and a bell rang. It was on.
Giles had warned her. The guy was huge and fast and strong, inhumanly so. Not at vamp levels, but then he was trained in a way vamps almost never were. It took her by surprise anyway. He was on her and inside her guard instantly. Buffy parried and backpedaled, watching and thinking. He was huge. She was fast. Faster than him? She attacked and an instant later regretted it. That was her sword, held in the relaxed grip Giles taught her, flying out of her hand. Her sword was way the hell over on the opposite side of the ring. Forget about it. Buffy scrambled but he was chasing her and she had nothing to use to defend herself.
He struck like lightning in a clear sky. She dodged but he kicked and caught her in the face. Physics was what it was. She went down and saw stars in the blue mid-day sky. Into them loomed a helmeted head, peering down at her.
He laughed. He laughed. It wasn't a mean laugh. It was an "I'm going to win just like I always do" laugh.
She called on the Slayer inside and pulled on the power lurking there, the way she had sometimes in the past in emergencies. Fighting the Master, fighting Angelus. It had taken fear of death to get her in touch with that power before, but now it was hers in all ways. She'd accepted it. She knew who she was. She was the Slayer. And that meant no penny-ante knight of Saint Curious George was going to kick her in the face.
"Now I'm mad," she told him.
He spun his sword lazily and stepped forward to administer the mock coup. Buffy sprang to her feet and kicked the sword out of his hands mid-spin. Her second kick was aimed at his face, but he blocked high. Buffy dropped low and kicked up. And if her foot accidentally caught him in the athletic supporter area, who could blame her? Just passing through. Backwards roll and she was on her feet. He was bent double, but an uppercut to the jaw straightened him up fast. Time to finish him off.
Buffy ran up his chest and did a little spin-kick off his face. He went over backwards. Then she did a forward flip and landed with both feet on his chest, right over his solar plexus. That was just to be sure he was out, and not in any way as revenge for Giles, nope. His sword she drove all way down to the hilt into the dirt next to his head, and that she knew was gratuitous. But if he'd been a demon, he'd have been dead three ways to Sunday.
Whatever that meant.
Buffy bent over him to check that she hadn't overdone it. His eyelids fluttered open. She said, "Yeah, not so much with the cracks about hiding behind little girls, huh? Do you get it now?"
"You are magnificent!"
Twombly's voice was slurred despite the enthusiasm. Buffy hauled him to his feet, but he went right down again onto his butt. Then he turned and puked. Oops. She'd definitely overdone it.
"Little help here?" she said. But the medical guy was already in the ring with her, flinging himself on the man trying to breathe again while he writhed on the ground. Buffy wondered briefly if she ought to regret it, but Giles gave her the tiniest of smiles as he came up to her. She followed him out of the ring to the locker room. He knelt at her feet and unlaced her protective gear and that's when he let the smile flash out full-strength. So the man-crush didn't overcome his dedication. Revenge was sweet, and it was okay with him if she was the one to get it for him.
Giles did all the work of removing her armor while she stood distracted, talking to people. Everybody was pleased she'd kicked Twombly's ass, though not in a mean way. He didn't seem to have any enemies. What you saw with him was what you got, apparently: big muscle-bound guy who lived to fight evil. It was refreshing to think about that, refreshing to talk to other people about the fight. They were fellow enthusiasts, in some ways, fellow warriors, fellow practitioners of a dangerous art. For these people it was as it was for her and for Giles, about the defense of humanity.
By the end of the afternoon, she'd seen each of the knights at least once in the ring, some more than once. They fought with swords, with knives, with staves, bare-handed. Buffy felt no need to accept any further offers to fight, but lounged in the bleachers with Giles and Ellen, watching the matches and commenting. It was one of the best afternoons she'd ever spent, and when it ended for tea in their rooms she was disappointed.
Giles-brewed tea was almost enough of a consolation. She hadn't realized how hungry she was after that workout.
"What's next?" she asked, while Ellen cleared everything away. Having a page wasn't bad sometimes; at home she'd have been doing the clearing.
"Feast night," Ellen said. "Because everyone's here. Lady Amanda made it in at last from the Himalayas. Sir Eric will be happy to see her."
"Cool. We invited?"
"You are. Mr Giles will be squiring."
"In kitchen, probably." Ellen rolled her eyes. "Just for another year and then it'll be the kids doing it."
Buffy groaned. "Time to dress for trench warfare again."
Ellen was confused, but Giles laughed. Buffy vanished into the shower to get herself ready.
Dinner was in the great hall next to the castle fragment. Giles led her there at the time he said was right. He was wearing the uniform he'd been in all day but his body language had changed. He was being careful to open all doors for her and hold them. He was a polite man even when under stress, but the two of them had never stood on ceremony with each other. This was different. He was squiring, and that meant he stood just behind her and to her left and was silent.
The hall was old. Buffy knew this without having to be told. The heavy wooden beams arching across the ceiling told her that, as did the simplicity of the stone walls of the building. So did the castle tower just beyond it. This was the oldest part of the grounds. The knights had been meeting and feasting there for centuries. And they were ignoring it all: wandering in, talking to each other, absent-mindedly handing glasses to pages darting around among them. And it wasn't just the young knights, the ones who had come in from wherever their questing had taken them. She saw the armorer there, with his patch and his long gray braid, talking to Whiting.
Buffy spotted other men and women in the uniform of squires, each of them following their knight around. An evening of high ceremony, Conway had said, much higher ceremony than usual. They celebrated two events in their lives with ritual: the knight's dubbing and his or her death. Both events got the order's full attention.
Dinner wasn't quite what she'd expected. It was neither the whole roasted pig carousing thing movies showed, nor a white tie restrained thing with six different kinds of fork. The knights ate a lot of food and talked a lot, but were perfectly well-mannered about it. The dinner seemed better attended than the funeral. Buffy counted chairs. Forty people, maybe, seated at the long table that ran down the middle of the hall. And then more: about a third of the people at the table had people in dark clothing standing behind them. Buffy was the youngest person with a squire present. Most of the squires were young, more like Buffy's age than Giles's. She was doing the role reversal, as usual.
Buffy was aware of Giles behind her through the whole thing. Two hours, standing behind her chair, coming forward to pour water for her or to refill her wineglass. He held her chair for her again when she stood up when it was all finally over. She wasn't sure which one of them it was more of an ordeal for. He'd only had to pay attention to her, while she'd had to talk to the guy who'd taken her into dinner about how much he liked archery. It hadn't been all bad; the archer had been friendly and enthusiastic, like Xander on a tear about Babylon 5. The woman across from her had been one of the people she'd met in the refectory and she'd been friendly too. The older guy to her left hadn't talked to her at all. After a while she placed him as one of the men who'd been in the room when they'd met Conway the first time. She had no idea what his name was, but it didn't seem to matter.
After dinner they all filed out of the dining hall and into another, smaller room further down the hall. This room had a different flavor. There were benches, old battered wooden things, lined up facing a dais. Behind the dais was a huge painting of a man in armor fighting an odd, coiled-up dragon. He was shown thrusting a long spear into it from horseback. Saint George himself. Buffy slipped herself into a back bench for lack of any better idea. She wasn't sure she was supposed to be there. The pages and squires weren't; Giles had vanished along with them.
Conway spun silently along the aisle and levered himself up the shallow steps onto the dais. The conversation fell silent.
"We are here to discuss the candidate Rupert Giles," he said. No introduction, no greeting. Straight to the point.
"What is there to discuss?" someone said. He stood and Buffy saw it was the man with the long braid, from the workshop, the one who'd been making a shield.
That was Whiting, standing up from a spot in the very front row. Buffy shifted on her own bench in embarrassment and considered booking out. Nobody was staring at her, though, tucked away in the back the way she was. She hoped it didn't look like she was sneaking, because she wasn't. Not this time.
The shield-maker shrugged. "What about her?"
Whiting said, "Accepting Rupert Giles to our number is tantamount to accepting the Slayer as one of us."
"She is our sister in arms," the shield-maker said, and he sat down again.
Conway said, "They are both free agents. I propose they join us, since they seem to wish to."
"It's beyond the simple fight of human against demon. It's about politics. You know this."
"Does that matter?"
"It does when it pits us against the Council."
Silence fell. Then a woman's voice said, "Don't see why it should."
"Pure naivete. They want her back in their control and we must not intervene."
"I don't care." Twombly stood. He was once again in a nice suit with his hair reined back. Sitting next to him was a darkly tanned woman that Buffy hadn't seen before. "I'm sponsoring him."
"If I choose to allow it," Conway said.
Twombly strode up the aisle and got right up in Conway's face. "Choose? It is not your choice."
"Unprecedented," said a man in the back. "The decision is not yours. It never is." The murmur got a little louder.
A woman on the other side of the room said, "Seems a lot of bother over a single candidate. Are we so hard up for them?"
"He'll be worth the trouble," Twombly said.
Whiting shook his head. "I'm not so sure."
Twombly turned to him, hands on his waist. "You supported his candidacy."
"From what I knew of the man at Oxford. His career has been questionable since. To say the least. It shook me when I learned of it."
There was no arguing with that. Buffy'd known about the demon-raising, and about having to kill his friend, but she hadn't known about the wetworks thing. From the viewpoint of somebody who didn't know the Council was bad news, it would look bad that they'd fired him, too. For that matter, would her career look good? She hadn't made the smartest decisions about Angel. And the Initiative deal had put her on the side of demons. Sort of. Briefly. The enemy of her enemy was her friend for a day.
Whiting was on a roll with the topic. He said, "We get a man with uncertain morals, an unbreakable oath to a power not ours, and we anger the Council into the bargain."
Twombly said, "We gain a lion of a man and this little Slayer."
"Would we truly gain her?" Whiting said. "She belongs to another Power."
"We could ask her. She is in the room with us," Conway said. The room went silent. They all turned and look at her.
Buffy waved. "Yeah, sorry, I'll leave if you want me to."
"Stay," said Conway, at the same moment that Whiting said, "Yes, go." Buffy stayed put.
"To answer your question, I belong to me. I work for myself. Giles works for me. We fight evil where we find it. The end."
"There you have my objection in a nutshell," Whiting said. "Do we want a man who'll forever be answering to another power? Or a man who answers to us?"
"I don't get it. Didn't you guys answer this question the first time you talked to us? We're on the same side. Us versus demons."
Conway said, "I have a question for you. Why do you want him to become one of us?"
"He thinks it'll make him a better fighter. I can never get him to stay home instead of fighting, so if he's out there getting hit on the head, I'd rather have him be juiced up on whatever you guys are juiced on."
"It doesn't matter to you that your Power is different from ours?"
Buffy reached within and found that the Slayer spirit had the same reaction she had. She could almost see it as well as feel it inside: she and the Slayer within were shrugging as one. "Whatever," she said. "We fight the same way."
"Do we truly? Do you know what it is to be like us?"
Conway said, "You may yet die in bed, Gerald. She will not."
"Didn't," Buffy said, quietly. "Died once already."
"Died?" Whiting was surprised. Conway was not. It was probably in her file. For Whiting's benefit, Buffy decided to explain.
"Drowned by a vamp. Another Slayer was called. That generally means deadness for the previous occupant. Got CPR just in time."
"The Slayer line moved on? But that means--" Whiting covered his mouth with his fingers and paced away from Buffy.
"What does it mean, Gerald?"
"There is another Slayer operative." Whiting's answer sounded reluctant.
Buffy said, "She's sort of in jail. Not very big with the mental stability or on the being on the side of the good guys."
"Does this change your view?"
"No." Whiting paced away again. He came to a stop just behind Conway's chair.
"Does it bloody matter what we think? He is the only one whose opinion matters." Twombly pointed to the painting on the wall behind Conway. The saint, then. The Power. Whatever it was.
Whiting cleared his throat. "We cannot have this conversation with an outsider in our midst."
"You're right, Gerald. Miss Summers, my apologies."
Conway sounded, as usual, as if he were not in the least sorry but at least this time he was bothering to be polite. Buffy bore no grudge against him for it, however. She waved to him and to Twombly, ignored Whiting, and made her way out of the hall.
Giles wasn't in their rooms. She dug up the mystery paperback she'd brought for plane reading and sprawled out in the armchair Giles had been reading in the night before. She found the page she'd dogeared on the plane. She was about at the part where the detective, a thick-necked weightlifter named for a poet, would inevitably discover he was completely wrong about who'd done it or possibly even what the real mystery was. Normally it would be sort of comforting to read a story where the bad guys always lost and justice always prevailed. But she couldn't sink in. Giles wasn't back yet, and somewhere a bunch of knights in a room were debating whether he should be allowed to join them. Or try to join them. And something was itching at the back of her neck. It wasn't a vamp tingle like she got in Sunnydale every night. It was more that she was reminded that vampires existed after a few days of blessed silence and peace. England had to have them, she supposed. Where was the nearest big city? She should dig up a map. Giles had one in his bag.
Just as she stood up from the armchair to go find it, the doorknob rattled. The door opened to reveal Giles. They smiled at each other. He looked a little goofy and sappy, in fact, not that Buffy minded.
"The festivities over?" he said.
"All over but the shouting," Buffy said, thinking of the mulish look on Twombly's face. "Did you get anything to eat?"
"Me? Oh, yes. Just now. There's a table in the kitchen where they fed us. One middle-aged man and a cluster of teenagers."
"You must have felt right at home."
Giles rolled his eyes. "At any rate, I am released from my squiring duties."
"I guess we go to bed, then."
His gaze flickered to her and hovered. His hand was on the door to his room, but he made no move to open it, nor to return to her.
"Change and come back here to me."
"Ah," he said and dipped his head to her. He went into his little bedroom and shut the door.
Buffy changed into something she could sleep in or easily take off if things went that way. Pajamas seemed like they'd set the wrong mood. She didn't go for the negligee, though she'd packed one. Giles had never seemed to appreciate that side of her, or register it, really. He'd always reacted more to her Slayerness, if that made sense. Which it suddenly did. That was a puzzle piece snicking into place in her head. Watchers needed Slayers as much as Slayers wanted Watchers.
She pulled out a tank top she'd been saving to wear on a hot day. It showed off her shoulders and arms. She considered them in the mirror of her bathroom as she brushed her teeth. She wasn't a bulky chick by any measure, but those arms had visible muscle in them. She had to end up with a guy who liked that. With a guy who didn't mind that she'd always put demon-hunting first. With a guy who also put it first.
Giles returned to her wearing the same pajama bottoms and t-shirt he'd worn the night before. He favored her with that shy smile and paused with his hand on the light switch. He clicked it off and leapt toward her. Buffy met him halfway and they were kissing hungrily.
What was it like to kiss her Watcher at last? At last, at last, that's what the Slayer spirit inside her was saying in its wordless language. He was hers and he ought to have been hers before now. She took a fistful of his t-shirt and pulled him against her hard. He groaned.
"Mmm. I like that. It's a thing for me. Do you have a thing?"
"I have many things." He rolled his eyes at her slang, as he always had.
"What's your favorite thing?"
"Perhaps you will discover it. Perhaps not."
"Oh, you're going to be like that, are you? Now I have to find out."
"I would never interfere with any pleasure of yours," he said, solemnly, but his eyes were crinkled.
Buffy followed her hunch and moved fast, before he could react. A hand shoved against his chest and a foot hooked around his ankle, and he was falling back onto the bed. She was on him, pushing him down, straddling him. She pinned his wrists with her weight. The threat of supernatural strength was in her grip, but he had the advantage of at least sixty pounds on her, and leverage from his longer arms. He could make her work hard to keep him down if he wanted, mortal though he was. She knew this from experience. Why wasn't he using them on her now? Instead he lay under her, muscles tensed just enough to make her have to work to hold him down. Interesting.
"Didn't know you were kinky."
"Only very slightly kinky."
"So I haven't found your thing."
But close. Buffy shifted herself and leaned down to lick his lips. His mouth opened easily to her. She kissed him deeply and tried to figure it out. It wasn't the struggle, though he didn't mind that. It was maybe the way he yielded to her. He liked his women bossy; she'd known that since watching him with Miss Calendar. How bossy did he want her to get? She licked his neck and then bit, gently at first then harder, just short of breaking the skin.
Giles held himself very still. Buffy licked where she'd bitten him and he moaned.
"God," he said, and he shuddered. She was close to his thing, then. She tried kissing him again, this time with a little tongue involved. He seemed to like that a lot. She had this plan to seduce him right away, get to the mutual happies phase so it wasn't looming or taking up too much of her attention. The way it was right now, matter of fact, with that feeling of wanting him constantly tugging at her.
Then she realized Giles wasn't kissing her back any more.
"Buffy?" His voice was tentative. She let go of his wrists immediately. "Would you mind terribly if-- that is, I can't concentrate."
"Bad case of nerves."
Buffy shifted herself off of his hips and knelt on the bed next to him. She should have guessed that what she'd been hoping for wasn't going to happen just then. It probably wouldn't happen until the situation with the knights had been resolved one way or the other.
"I'm easy to please," she said. But Giles shook his head.
"Not, not about you. About the Order. Joining them. Been torn between anticipation and fear all day. It's all happening so quickly. Am I making the right decision?"
"I get it," she said. "Rain check on the smoochies?"
"Afraid so." When Buffy made a tiny pouty sound of protest, he said, "Believe me, Buffy, I don't mean to tease you. I just--"
"Are teasing the hell out of me. It's okay. I'll return the favor some day."
"I shan't complain," Giles said, under his breath, but Buffy heard him clearly, no doubt as he'd intended.
They got out of bed to get under the sheets properly. Buffy folded the blankets down. Giles pulled his t-shirt over his head and winced. He dropped the shirt onto the floor and turned back to her. Buffy laid a hand on his side gently. Last night's red marks had blossomed black and purple. She made a sympathetic noise.
"Look at you. All bruised up."
"Bruised and sore." He sighed.
She gave him one last slow kiss, then turned around so they could sleep spooned up. Giles draped a heavy arm over her waist. His hand rested over her belly. Buffy laced her fingers through his. He might be nervous, but she wasn't. A little turned on, a lot comfortable. There were no demons anywhere near the sanctum of St George, and there probably wouldn't be any. She could wait. He wanted it as much as she did, so he'd be hers after the ceremony. She'd make him hers one way, then make him hers in another way.
Giles shifted his hand to lift her tank top. His fingers traced around her belly button, right on the edge between ticklish and erotic. Buffy drew in a shaky breath. Make that a lot turned on. He trailed his fingers down her stomach, down to the waistband of her panties. Inside, further down, until his fingers rested just over her sex. Buffy moved, then, and pressed her own hand over his.
"May I? I'd like to."
Soft voice, breathy, tempting. But Buffy tugged his hand up and back to its resting place against her stomach. "No. I want to wait for you."
"I don't need--"
"I have definite plans for our first time, and they include good times for you."
"You do, do you."
"Yes. So just chill out and get some sleep."
Giles's breath was warm against the nape of her neck, her shoulder. He nuzzled her. Soft lips, scratchy chin. "You are the strangest girl," he murmured.
"You like me like that."
"Indeed I do."
Buffy slept late into the morning in the deep sleep of a safe Slayer, a Slayer who had her Watcher wrapped tight around her. She was aware at some level that the sun was up, but she was too comfortable to want to wake. The Slayer spirit was at peace already, even if her body wasn't yet satisfied. They were awakened at last by knocking on the door. Buffy stuck her head under the pillow but Giles untangled himself from her. He was politer than she'd have been asking who it was.
"A message, sir, from Sir John."
Giles opened the door. Buffy pulled her head out from under the pillow. It was the black-haired boy who'd been hanging around Ellen, dressed in the neat uniform of the pages. He stepped just inside the door but did not come in any further. Buffy yanked the blankets up to neck level anyway.
In daylight, she could see why Ellen would sneak out to be with this kid. He was handsome, with straight black hair falling into his face and nice broad shoulders.
Giles said to him, "What does Sir John want?"
"He wants to see you now. I'll take you to him as soon as you're ready."
"What's this about?"
But the boy had ducked out again and shut the door behind himself. Giles laid his hand on the doorknob then stood there motionless. Buffy rolled out of bed.
"Guess I gotta get dressed fast. Arm for battle, you think?"
"I believe he meant only me."
Buffy rolled her eyes at Giles. "There's no way. You know that."
Giles smiled at her. "I should know better by now. But I doubt we need arm ourselves."
The walkways and grassy lawns were wet with morning dew. Everything smelled fresh and green and lovely. It was another storybook day in the English countryside. Buffy had forgotten her sunglasses but the sun wasn't the same sun that beat down on her in California. It was mellower. The latitude, maybe, or maybe it was all those fluffy clouds in the sky, scudding around. As they walked, she tried to guess what the summons meant. The knights had reached a decision last night after they'd kicked her out. That was easy to guess. Harder to guess: which decision? She could imagine Conway summoning them over to deliver bad news and kick them out. If so, Ellen would be in their rooms packing their stuff already. they would have made clear that the summons was for both of them, if that were the case. Could it be good news?
Giles's hands were deep in his pockets and he was looking at his own feet instead of at the gorgeous day around them. Nervous, probably. Or bracing himself. Buffy wanted to say something encouraging, but she couldn't with the page there, leading them up the steps and into the house where Conway lived. Buffy looked and saw it: the ramp built over the steps on the side, so Conway could get in and out without aid.
He was waiting for them in a room with walls lined with bookshelves, sitting behind a great wooden desk. There weren't any chairs on their side of the desk, so they stood. Giles's head turned; he was looking at the bookshelf near his elbow, and apparently interested by whatever he saw. Buffy was more interested in the wall behind Conway, where a shield and a sword were hung, not for display, but as if waiting to be used. The colors on the shield were red, gold, and black, and the design was abstract. Conway's arms. She wondered when he'd last swung the sword.
"Mr Giles. Good morning. And Miss Summers, of course you came. I did not summon you, but you scarcely need summoning, do you."
"Sorry about that," she said, in a tone of voice that made it clear she wasn't sorry.
"What's this?" Giles said.
"Miss Summers attended a portion of our debate last night. She didn't tell you about it?"
Giles cast a glance at her sidelong. "No, she didn't. Nor was I aware there was a debate."
Buffy shrugged. "They argued. It was boring. I left before anybody won. Who won?"
"It was a stalemate. The saint himself will decide for us. If he decides to accept you during your vigil, Mr Giles, then you are one of us."
So despite Conway's description, Twombly had won. He'd been the one arguing that the decision wasn't theirs to make. Conway either agreed, or secretly felt that Giles would make the cut.
Giles said, "This vigil-- the vigil of arms?"
"Yes. You may be familiar with a similar ritual from other traditions. Ours is... more real. You will keep vigil over your arms while the Power-- the saint who gives our Order its name-- examines your soul. If he finds you worthy, you will know. If he does not, you will also know."
Giles said nothing, but there went the hands deep into the pockets again. He probably wanted to be cleaning his glasses.
"I trust you are still interested in accepting our offer."
"I am," Giles said. "When?"
"Tonight, at sunset. You have today to rest and prepare. You will need to learn your part in the ritual. It's all here."
Conway pushed a little book across the desk. Giles picked it up and opened it to a page at random. He closed it again and thrust it into his trouser pocket.
"We'll send someone round about five to get things started. The rest of the day is yours. I suggest you read the advice to aspirants and take it straight away. Do not break your fast. That will be all."
Dismissed, with all his usual politeness. Buffy followed Giles out of the building and back out into the brilliant sunshine. Once safely out, Buffy hugged Giles, careful not to squeeze his ribs too tight.
"Congratulations," she said.
"Don't go indecisive on me now."
Giles shook his head. The boy, whose name Buffy still didn't know, was nowhere in sight, so they made their own way back to the dormitory. Somebody had been in while they were gone and made their bed. Buffy sat down on it and reflected that she was happy not to have grown up as a page with these guys, because she'd have hated making other people's beds. Though maybe that didn't happen every day. Mostly the knights lived elsewhere, on their own or with squires, just as she did on the Hellmouth. They made their own beds. Sharpened their own swords.
Giles was in the armchair again, this time with the ritual book instead of the Aeneid. He'd kicked his shoes off and was slouching in the chair. Buffy snagged her mystery novel again and sprawled out on the bed to read. When her book bored her, she would tuck her finger into it and watch Giles read surreptitiously. Moments when she could quietly admire this guy without him noticing were rare. Usually he was the one watching her. He was reading quickly, turning pages at a rate she might have found improbable if she hadn't seen him in fast information absorption mode before. He would read it all again more slowly later, and commit more of it to memory than was fair. If she could figure out how he did that, she'd have far better grades than she did. Maybe he could be convinced to teach her.
Of course Giles would teach her. He would teach her anything he knew, freely and without hesitation. That was how it was between them. That was one of the the charges laid upon him.
Buffy tossed her book aside and got up. She perched on the arm of Giles's chair. He rested his hand on her thigh and stroked. "Hmm?"
"Mind if I peek?"
Giles handed the book over to her. It was a lot like the magic guides Willow read sometimes, with color coded diagrams showing the positions of everything. There were two ceremonies described: the vigil and the accolade. The words felt odd to her, like things from the Boy's King Arthur again. Swords and spurs and oaths of fealty, definitely storybook instead of real world. Courtly love and quests and the king waiting for his moment to return from a mist-shrouded isle.
"Isn't this all kind of, um, over the top? Kneeling and stuff?"
Giles pulled one foot up onto the chair and tucked it underneath himself. He said, "We English are more accustomed to ceremony than you Americans are."
"Your judges do have those funny wigs."
A flash of a smile from Giles to that. "As you say."
"Conway's giving you the dub?"
"Head of the order. Traditionally. Though in modern times--"
"It would be the Queen. If this were an official knighthood." He sounded faintly wistful.
"I shan't bore you with the details, but no, it isn't. This is a secret order. The titles are private, not official. It's a private act. Something between me and the Powers. Or rather, the Power that chooses to invest me with its strength."
"What is that, anyway? Saint George as in for England, Harry, and Saint George?"
"He's the one. A messenger of the Powers, possibly. An avatar. I found something in their library about it, but I haven't had the time to read more fully."
"They said a different Power made me."
Giles's face changed and he touched his fingers to his lips. When he spoke again, he did so slowly. "I'm not sure what made you. I asked my tutor once, when I'd found a thread of something in one of the Watcher histories, but he had no answers for me. Not the same thing, I suspect."
"Nobody ever gave us a choice. I like George better."
Though Giles had chosen it. Twice, more, if this counted as a separate choice. Over and over, even though he lost friends and lovers and risked himself. Sometimes she thought he had as much free will as she did about this. If somebody had asked her now if she wanted to stay the Slayer or move on, she'd pick being the Slayer. And wasn't that a trip.
"Does the Council do anything like this?"
Giles snorted in answer.
"What was that about no food for you?"
"I'm fasting. Only water until tomorrow morning after the ritual is over. It's usual for these things. The magic might make me ill otherwise. But also there's an element of mortification of the flesh."
"That sounds gruesome."
Giles shook his head. "Hardly. It's more of a symbolic gesture. A spot of doing without something I want."
"No sneaking off for nookie with your Slayer, then?"
"Not even if I order you to?"
"I'm not your squire. More's the pity."
"You didn't mind following me around all day and fixing my armor?"
"I didn't mind. Rather the reverse." That last was in a lower voice than before. Giles cleared his throat and fiddled with his glasses. Buffy rubbed her nose thoughtfully. That comment had obviously meant more to him than she might have expected. She reached out and touched his shoulder. He smiled at her but made no gesture in return. This didn't faze Buffy. It was true that he had more important things than nookie to think about right now. Though she sort of didn't. She was feeling restless again for some reason. There was only so much sitting around a Slayer wanted to do, especially a Slayer that hadn't been hunting.
"I was thinking of going off and trying out that climbing wall. Want to come with?"
"No. I, I think I'd rather stay here alone. I should like some time to meditate. I feel unprepared. It's all so, so sudden."
"I could fail. The saint might find me unworthy." His hand drifted to the inside of his left elbow, then away.
"Remember that I want you. I choose you."
He shook his head, which just wouldn't do. On a whim, Buffy gripped his shirt and tugged him over to her. She kissed him. He didn't respond, but neither did he pull away. She kissed him a second time, lingering for a moment, and this time he kissed her back. His hand came up to rest on her waist and his eyes closed. Buffy tried to make it comforting, not carnal. Then she had a thought.
"Would you wear my favor tonight? For luck. If it's not traditional, it should be."
She took her cross off. To her surprise, Giles got out of the armchair and went down onto his knees before her. His hands were crossed on his chest and his head bent. It was a strangely formal posture, deliberate. It reminded her of something, though she couldn't remember what. She slipped the chain around his neck and did the clasp. He remained in place. He was breathing fast. Buffy rested her hand on his head and his breath caught for a moment.
"When it's over, tomorrow night, whenever-- when it's over, I'll give you a better token. Something you can keep." It couldn't be her cross, because it was too obviously feminine. She would think of something by then.
"When it's over," he repeated.
He rose to his feet and the mood was broken. He picked up the book again and opened it. His attention was already shifting away from her and toward his upcoming ordeal. Buffy took her leave of him and went off to leave him to his preparation.
The ceremony for Giles's vigil of arms began when the sun dipped below the horizon. The entire order assembled at the church in town, where the knights had been standing vigil for many hundreds of years. They wore the same somber clothing they'd worn to the funeral scant days before, though many of them now wore colorful sashes across their chests as well. The ones who had been knighted had the sashes, Buffy deduced.
Buffy waited inside the church with Ellen. They had seats in benches that ran alongside the altar. Conway waited behind the altar. His sash was wider and brighter than the others and a little medal was attached to it over his heart. The sign of the head of the Order, perhaps. Or maybe it was like a military medal.
Somewhere high in the church tower a single bell rang and silence fell.
Giles led the procession into the church. He was bare-handed and bare-footed, in a white with a red and black surcoat over the top. His hair had been cut in the hours since they'd parted. Behind him walked Twombly and Whiting, carrying his arms: sword, shield, spurs.
The shield they laid on the altar, the spurs beside it. The sword Giles held before himself, sheathed, with the tip resting on the flagstones before the altar.
A woman Buffy had met once, whose name she couldn't remember at all, stepped forward. She was dressed in long robes of red velvet. The sword in her hand was a fighting weapon but it also dripped with magic. She paced around the circle clockwise, starting in the east and ending there.
Buffy watched quietly from her place beside Ellen. This was real magic in action, serious magic, deep. She could feel it in her bones. It was neither good nor evil to her. It simply was. Magic was power and it could be used for any purpose a human being had. The circle was drawn, the quarters were invoked, tall candles lit at the points of the compass. At the last, the woman called upon the saint himself to come and test the aspirant fully, to try him and find his mettle. Through all of it Giles stood motionless before the altar, his hands resting on the hilt of his sword. When they were done, the air shimmered and Buffy heard a sound like crystal bells ringing very far away. A dome rose over the circle, enclosing Giles and the altar at its center. He would remain inside, sealed away from the world, until Conway ended the ritual at dawn. By then he would know whether the saint had accepted him or not.
The knights of the order left the church in solemn procession. Conway followed them slowly and Buffy trailed along behind him. She was reluctant to leave Giles alone all night.
Whiting and Twombly were there on the church steps, as well as Ellen. She stood at attention outside the door. Like Giles, she was dressed in antique uniform, with a surcoat and belt. She grasped a polearm twice her height. Buffy wondered if it was a practical weapon or if she were there merely as an honor guard. Or if it were part of her own path to knighthood, eventually, another task performed in the service of the candidate she'd been assisting.
Twombly touched his hand to his forehead as she approached.
She said, "Sorry about the, you know, pounding."
Conway snorted. "Took that to get it through his thick head that there are beings in the world stronger than he is."
Twombly simply laughed. "Now I understand why he was so set on recruiting your Watcher. You will be a powerful ally for us."
"Assuming your saint guy likes him."
"Bah. A man with that courage cannot fail."
"It is out of our hands now," Conway said.
Whiting sighed. "The ceremony seems diminished to me. Sad, almost. In other times we would have ridden here. Two dozen men on horseback, surrounding the fellow they would make one of their own. Now we are driven in vans."
Conway said, "And our cripples are with us instead of home in bed. Or dead in the field."
Whiting made a sound Buffy couldn't interpret and gave Conway a half bow. "I do not argue with all your innovations."
"Only most of them."
"The dangerous ones."
"It's why I tolerate you, Gerald. Anyway. Miss Summers. Come with me."
Conway spun his chair in place with a single quick hand motion and moved away without waiting for a response. Buffy shrugged at Twombly then followed Conway back into the church. He led her through a door on the side that went through an odd little chapel. There was a statue of a man with a sword fighting a lizard, with a lot of candles in a rack before it. About half of them were lit. They were the only light in the chapel. Behind the statue was a tiny wooden door in the stone wall. Behind it was a narrow spiral staircase that wound upward. Three-quarters of the steps' width was covered by a ramp just wide enough for Conway's chair.
Buffy wondered if she should push him, just to be polite, but he seemed to have no trouble powering himself up the ramp. He was still a knight, though no longer a fighting one, and the saint's strength was with him.
The staircase opened up onto a tiny balcony at the very top of the church. Buffy went to the railing immediately and looked down over the space. The floor was beautiful from above. Now Buffy noticed that it was patterned in the same double-barred cross shown in the diagram in the ritual book, only it was more decorative than that. A tourist could walk right across it and not notice that was a stylized sword, hilt in the east under the altar. The glittering dome exactly covered it. And inside that dome was Giles, enduring whatever it was the saint wanted him to endure. He was on his knees now, in a completely different place in the circle. He was leaning forward, head down, weight on his right fist. He was rubbing his chest with his left hand.
"Hang in there, tiger," Buffy said under her breath.
Conway came up beside her. She didn't take her gaze off Giles. "Nice view," she said.
"I find it useful to know what a candidate does when he is alone before the altar."
"What is going on in there?" Buffy said.
"We don't speak of it to outsiders," Conway said. She glared at him but he smiled at her. "It's difficult to describe to anyone without an experience of the vigil. A conversation with the saint? An examination of one's life. A weighing of one's soul. One sees one's death and either meets it with courage or not."
"I didn't get any of that. Just woke up one morning and blam. Slammed doors, shattered glasses for a while. Also had really weird urges to skewer flies with thumbtacks, just because I could. Nobody asked me if I could handle it."
"Once my first Watcher showed up. But it was rocky for a while. Didn't really figure stuff out until Giles. He's special."
"Are you two lovers?"
She didn't feel like going into details with Conway. Not that she disliked him, because he had good vibes in all ways to the Slayer sensors within. It was more that it was a private thing. It was her business and Giles's business, and Giles didn't like parading his relationships in public.
"Would you have a problem with that?" Buffy said.
"No," Conway said. "I was attempting to make small talk."
Like hell he was, but Buffy couldn't be bothered to argue the point. Something was itching at her nerves. She paced the length of the hidden gallery, taking care to muffle her steps. Giles looked okay down there, so that wasn't it.
"Giles was controversial, huh?"
"More than usual. We nearly refused him. It's easy for a man to join us for selfish reasons."
"Or a woman," Conway said, easily. "Imagine the Slayer gifts given to anybody who wanted them."
Buffy imagined it, and mostly what she saw in her head was Faith, who had grooved on it. Grooving was okay, but she'd gone from grooving to getting off on what she could do to other people. Not on the job, but on the power.
"What made you decide to support him?" she asked.
"Ah. Our contact in-- never mind where. Our contact sent in his full report on his career as the black sheep of the Watchers."
"So you didn't mind the demon thing."
"If the Slayer had accepted him, it was likely that the 'demon thing' was no longer an objection. Particularly this Slayer. Your file was included with his. It was clear his loyalty to you was untouchable, but was he loyal to a force on our side?"
"The Council is not aligned with us. But you are. We fight the same enemy in the same manner."
"So you totally disagree with Whiting."
"Gerald is my conscience. It is his duty to argue with me."
Buffy went to the other end of the balcony and leaned over. There were shields hung on the wall within reach. Each one had been carried by a living, breathing knight who had died. From battle, from old age, from illness, from accident. The nearest one was a deep blue with a pattern of golden diamonds on it. There were dents and scratches in the leather, but it didn't look old. She could sense the magic latent in it. Could anyone pick it up and wear it? She hovered her hand over it. No. It belonged to one person, a man or a woman she didn't know, but its bearer was long gone. Everybody died eventually. She would. Giles would. The question was how.
The scent of the candles reached her: warm sweet beeswax, with incense below.
Buffy pulled away from the railing and paced over to Conway. He considered her, head tilted.
"We are puzzled by the Power behind the line of Slayers. It chooses oddly at times. And at other times it chooses... spectacularly well."
"Giles says he thinks it takes risks sometimes. Rolls the dice to see what happens."
"George is more methodical."
"George. Your Power has a name."
Conway fidgeted with his gloves. "His avatar is known now with that name, though it was not what his contemporaries called him. Nor is it what we call him in our ritual."
"Not sure I get this stuff."
"It matters little. What matters more is what he makes of it all." Conway gestured at the balcony rail. Buffy drifted back to it and looked down at Giles. He'd moved again and was now on his knees at the exact center of the pattern on the floor. For the first time Buffy noticed that the points of the cross were at the compass points, and the magical dome was raised exactly upon the line circumscribed around them. The altar was at the eastern point. Was that significant? Probably. Probably she'd never need to know the details.
"So did you lie? When you told Giles it wasn't about me."
"I may have, ah, concealed part of my motive."
Buffy frowned at him, but didn't feel like arguing. This guy was no Maggie Walsh. No Quentin Travers, either. He'd risked his own neck. His own legs. He hadn't paid the ultimate price, but he'd paid enough. She wondered if he'd been angry or depressed or freaked out when whatever it was had happened to put him in the chair, how long it had taken him to get used to it. She wondered what she would feel if it happened to her.
"You may ask if you wish," he said.
Buffy realized she'd been caught staring and flushed. Conway did not seem angry, however, so she dared take him up on it. "What did it?"
"Holy-- I mean, woah. A dragon?"
"A small one. We slew it, but I began celebrating too early and was careless. Its death throes were my undoing." He gestured toward his legs. "The tail caught me. Shattered both legs. The bones refused to mend."
She felt a little pang. She might get smashed by a dragon the same way, but her bones were guaranteed to fix themselves. Up to a point. "How long ago?"
"Twenty years. I was able to get about on crutches until recently. Age has proven to be a worse enemy than any dragon."
"I wouldn't know."
"You might yet learn."
"It's a dangerous life we lead," Conway said, and he shrugged.
Buffy scratched the back of her neck. Her nerves were seriously on edge now. She paced along the little balcony and gave serious thought to doing a high-wire routine on the railing. She was that tense. Worried about Giles? What would Giles say if he were with her now? He'd tell her to hone, duh.
Buffy closed her eyes and honed. And then she got mad. She stomped over and stood four-square in front of Conway and glared.
"There's a vampire out there," she told him. "You send that to make his vigil more exciting? Give his test some teeth?"
"The trials he faces are emotional. Daggers of the mind. If there is a vampire out there--"
"There is." Buffy wrinkled her nose.
"It was not our doing. Perhaps--" Conway trailed off. He rolled himself closer to the edge of the balcony and looked down. Buffy felt her body shifting into fight mode, almost without her conscious intent. The vampire was nearby now, inside the church even. That was one brave vampire. Buffy looked into the shadows beyond the circle. There it was, moving into the candlelight, approaching the circle where Giles knelt, unaware.
"You told him he'd face his death."
"You know what death looks like to a Watcher? It looks like that."
Giles would think it was supposed to kill him. Maybe he wouldn't defend himself. Maybe he'd go all over noble and resigned. Buffy found herself crouched on the balcony railing, ready to jump down. If she leapt down and broke the circle, he'd fail the test. Better that than die. But Buffy held herself in place on the balcony railing, poised. Only if started to bite him. Only then would she make Giles fail.
The vampire crossed the circle. The barrier sparked and Buffy saw the vampire wince. But the circle did not shatter: the vampire was not a living being. The vigil had not been broken.
Giles scrambled to his feet as the dome shimmered. He turned and saw there was someone in the dome with him. Buffy hovered, ready to move, but the two figures below her were motionless. Then Giles reached inside his tunic and pulled out his cross, the little gold one she'd given him to wear. The vampire recoiled and snarled. Its face transformed. It leered at Giles open-mouthed.
"You're not what I expected," the vampire said.
"Oh?" Giles held his ground. The cross didn't waver.
"No. But you'll do."
The vampire reached for him. Giles stepped back, and again. The vampire would have him pinned against the altar in another instant. Giles held the cross steady before him, however.
The vamp lashed out and the cross went flying. Buffy forced herself not to jump. But Giles didn't need it. He braced himself against the altar and kicked. The sword was in his hand and the next moment was raised. It flashed in the torchlight and darkened, and there was a spray of blood that turned to dust in the air and was gone. Giles stood frozen in place for a moment, then he turned slowly, sword still overhead in a guard position. He was breathing hard, but his posture was solid, ready.
He'd done it. He'd killed it.
Giles knelt before the altar and returned the sword to its place. He touched a hand to his forehead and bowed it, then backed away, still on his knees. His posture had changed from what it had been when he'd first entered the circle, she decided. His head was up, now, shoulders back. Did he believe he'd faced what he was supposed to face? Was that what he was supposed to face?
Buffy slid down from the railing and tried to make herself relax. Her palms were sweaty. Adrenaline rush, even though she hadn't been the one fighting.
"He has been accepted," Conway said. "Look." He pointed. The shield resting on the altar was shimmering. While she watched, it rippled through the rainbow, then settled into a deep green. It shimmered again, and something appeared on it. Stylized lances. Three silver lances on a green shield.
"His device, chosen by the saint himself."
Or by some power, some thing that had never been and never would be human, but whatever it was, it was on their side. Buffy decided to be okay with that.
"We will knight him in the morning," Conway said. "You'll participate. He'll need someone to gird his sword on."
He hadn't phrased it as a request, but Buffy didn't mind. She'd figured out Conway. He was doing her an honor by including her, and in his world there was no reason she'd ever have to refuse.
"It is pure formality, of course. The Power has already taken him as one of us. But we do like our rituals."
"Wild. Does George usually summon demons for you to fight during your vigils?"
"No. It is a thing I have never seen, and I have watched a hundred vigils." Conway touched his fingers to his lips. "Could it be-- Tell me, young woman. What does the Slayer think is going on?"
Buffy stared at him for a second. She'd started thinking of the Knights as Slayers but they weren't Slayers. They were a different thing. No vamp sense. Then she snapped to and honed. Nothing in the dark corners, though her Slayer senses were still going haywire because of all the magic flying around. But further out, further out--
"Shit," she said.
"Another two. At least."
"Two?" Conway gripped his rails with both hands. "No demon has dared approach this place in five centuries. Why are they here now? Attracted by you?"
"Attracted, sent, I don't know. I just know they're out there." She produced a stake from her sleeve. "Stay inside the church. They'll come in here if they really want to, but usually it takes them a while to work up the nerve. You should be safe."
"I am not helpless, young woman," Conway said. He shook his arms just so, and was holding a dagger in each hand. Wooden in the right, silver in the left. Buffy grinned at him, turned, and booked down the spiral ramp. Leap feet-first, rebound from the wall, grab the railing and swing her body around, roll and come to her feet running. Through the side room thing, out into the main hall, away from the glittering magical dome.
The great wooden doors swung open silently and the form of a man stepped inside the church. Buffy would have known it as a vampire even without the Slayer spirit inside her straining for the fight.
"Sorry. Services are over. You'll have to come back Sunday morning."
The vampire's face transformed. "Slayer," it said.
"Got it in one."
"I was promised your blood tonight. So sweet."
The vampire smiled, or rather, bared its teeth. They were already bloody. Buffy cursed herself briefly. She hadn't moved fast enough. She didn't waste time with this one: a flurry of punches to get it off balance, wait for an opening, kick to the face to knock it against a wall, stake between the ribs just so. She yanked her hand back to keep the stake, because she was going to need it. The dust fell to the church floor behind her as she ran for the doors.
The situation outside wasn't good. Somebody was slumped face-down on the church steps. Somebody else was struggling with a vampire. Ellen. She had her polearm wedged up between her body and the vamp, but it was a losing battle.
Buffy tapped the vamp on the shoulder.
"Can I have this dance?" she said.
It responded by tossing Ellen away down the steps. Buffy swore and kicked its feet out from under it in revenge. It went down and came up snarling.
What happened next was what happened every night of the week in Sunnydale: a bare-fisted brawl with a demon. It didn't feel like she was fighting for her life, though if she screwed up badly enough it would turn into one fast. It was tactical. Dance with the vamp until it revealed its weaknesses to her, then take it out. The young ones died fast. The old and canny ones took more work. This one was canny indeed. It had been playing with Ellen when it could have eaten her.
Buffy realized two minutes into the dance that it was nearly an equal adversary. Three minutes in she admitted to herself that it was fun. She could screw up and die at any moment but God, this was exciting. Her blood was pumping and every single little bit of her was alive. She laughed and launched herself into the air at it in complete joy.
It met her mid-air, snarling, and they fell together in a heap. It recovered first. Buffy felt it grip her throat and lift her into the air. Before she could get her stake hand in motion, it had flung her.
Buffy hit the step railing so hard she bounced. Her vision went strange and her knees wobbly. She tried to stand and couldn't. Uh oh.
"Ah, little Slayer," the vamp said. It closed in with triumph on its face. Buffy could smell the blood on its breath. It wrapped a fist in her shirt and lifted her from the ground. "Such a pity. I was enjoying our dance."
"I wasn't. You stepped on my foot."
"I could turn you," it said to her. "You and I could do this every night forever."
The buzzing faded and Buffy's feet started working again. And the stake was in her hand even yet. "Sorry, no."
"Then you will die."
"Yeah, eventually. But not right now."
Buffy jabbed up with the stake. It looked shocked. Its face transformed to human again and dissolved into dust.
She sprang up to a crouch, stake still at the ready, but there was nothing left to fight. Standing up straight hurt. Buffy made a face and gingerly touched where she'd hit the railing. That was going to be one deep bruise. It might even last until morning. And of course she had vamp dust on her face.
She walked slowly up the church steps to where the body of a man lay face-down. She could see Conway there, parked beside it, with Ellen sitting on the ground beside. Ellen was crying.
Buffy turned the body over gently. Whiting. Dead, with a stake still in his hand.
Buffy had long since moved past sentimentality about vampire victims. She felt sorry for them, and that went double for the ones she'd known. But there were things she had to do as a Slayer, and she had to do them now. There was blood on Whiting's mouth and the faintest aura of demon about him. But not enough. The vamp who'd killed him had started to turn him but stopped for reasons she couldn't guess at. Or it had been interrupted. Maybe Whiting had fought back. Fighting back usually did no good for ordinary humans, and sometimes no good even for a Slayer involuntarily turned, but it should have worked for a Knight of St George.
Buffy tossed her stake, caught it, and considered the puzzle of Whiting. The Council had to have somebody on the inside of the Order. Conway had as good as admitted he had somebody on the inside over there. It wasn't Whiting. They wouldn't have killed him. Not unless he'd disobeyed orders for some reason, if he'd turned out to be a good guy after all. Either way, she'd have to warn Giles that the Council was out to get them for real now.
Buffy stood and went to Conway. "He won't rise," Buffy told him. She handed him the stake. Conway turned it over in his hands and said nothing. "Was he working for them?"
"No. That was Alec. I suspected at first your Giles was to be his replacement."
"And you were going to take him anyway?"
"You must learn to play chess some day."
"I don't have time for that."
"You will, I think. Remember me when you do."
And that was the oddest thing he'd said yet. Buffy didn't know what to do with it, or with the exhaustion on his face. The Slayer spirit inside her was restless yet. Buffy stood on the church steps and reached out into the night with those senses, searching. Nearby but fading fast. And nearby, a car engine revving high.
Around the curve came a van being driven by a maniac. Buffy coiled herself, ready to fling Conway bodily away from its path if necessary, but it slewed to a stop half on the walkway. The side door slammed open and six knights leapt out, one of them Twombly. They were all carrying swords. The cavalry, about ten minutes too late. Conway signalled them and they ran off into the church, swords drawn. The van's driver trotted up to the group at the top of the steps.
"You need to leave now. Vampires. On the grounds." Then the man spotted the body on the steps. "Where?"
He started to draw his sword. Buffy grabbed his arm and stopped him. "They're dead."
He glanced at Conway, who nodded. "The Slayer dispatched two and our new knight the other. What were their numbers?"
"Another three at the gatehouse. We were taken by surprise. We'd set no guards at all. We were lax--"
Conway silenced him with a gesture and the fellow straightened up. "Casualties?"
"Everyone is accounted for. But we need to get you to safety. There might be more."
Buffy didn't wait to hear Conway take the guy's head off for that "safety" crack. She held up her hand. "They're gone. There were more, but they're far away now. Can barely sense them."
"Take Ellen to the infirmary. And send someone here for the body. Go. Now." That was said quietly but with force. The man took Ellen's arm gently and helped her to her feet and into the van. They drove off. Buffy watched the van vanish around the bend down the road and listened until the engine noise was faint. The noises of the night resumed: the wind in the trees, the hooting of owls. The vampire-itch was far, far away now. The Slayer spirit had no further messages for her.
No, it had one message left: a pulsing reminder that she had a death to avenge. But there Buffy could no longer tell what was her own urge and what came from the Slayer spirit. Probably it didn't matter.
The church doors opened. Twombly and another man emerged. Their swords were sheathed. The other man stationed himself at the door. Twombly strode over to Conway.
"The Church is secure," he said. "The ritual is undisturbed."
"The Slayer took care of that before you arrived," Conway said, sharply.
"He has his device."
"I am aware of that as well."
Twombly didn't appear to notice. He knelt beside Whiting's body and touched the its forehead gently. Then he put his hand over his heart and bowed his head for a long moment. Buffy turned away and scanned the road toward the town, just to give him privacy.
"He died well," Twombly.
"He died fighting. It's all we can ask. But he would have said that you should have predicted this."
Conway made a frustrated noise. "I predicted a breach, but not this violent or direct. Not during our most sacred ritual."
Buffy said, "Have you ever met Quentin Travers?"
"Not yet," Conway said.
So that was what he sounded like when he was angry. Buffy shivered. She wanted to be there to see it when it happened. Could the Knights of St George take human life if they had to? Giles could. Giles had. She hadn't done the deed directly before, though she'd let people die, had watched them hoist on their own petards. Could she do it? The Slayer spirit was silent on this one.
Conway spun his chair and faced away from them. He said, addressing the church doors, "Go back to the dormitory."
"You're crazy. There's no way I'm leaving Giles."
"The Order is here now, guarding this church. Your man is safe. You said yourself they were leaving."
Twombly said, "I'll guard him for the rest of the night, little Slayer."
"You will not. I want you both presentable tomorrow. She's coming to do the deed herself."
"She is?" Twombly laughed in pure delight. Apparently he knew who "she" was. Neither of them seemed inclined to clue Buffy in. "Come on, Slayer. Let's rest while we can. Let the old man stay up all night watching. We'll do the fighting for him tomorrow."
"Go," Conway said, and Buffy didn't mind that it felt like an order. She was tired, and a guy who'd broken his body slaying a dragon had all the credibility anybody needed with her.
Twombly drove her back to the great house, where a worried-looking teenager barred her way through the door with a polearm gripped white-knuckled. It was the boy she'd seen hanging around Ellen, the boy she'd been smooching in the orchard. He held a cross up to her face.
"It's safe now," she told him, but he didn't lower the cross until Buffy had touched it unharmed. Good training. It was nice to think there were other people other there being trained to fight demons. It meant she wasn't actually the one girl in all the world.
He bowed to her and lifted the polearm aside and she went in and up to her room without encountering anyone else. Buffy conked out face-down in bed, still dressed, and slept until shaken awake by Ellen.
She took a three-minute shower and came out again in leggings and a tank top. They had a knighting to participate in. It was more high ritual, more magic, and a serious occasion. And for the knights, that meant dress armor, old-fashioned armor, of the kind they would never wear again to real battle. Ellen began dressing her in the armor, silently, robotically. She looked as under-slept as Buffy was. More than that, she looked thrashed.
"Hey," she said. "You doing okay?"
Ellen nodded, but she wasn't looking at her straight on. Her chin was set in a way Buffy had seen before. On Giles, mostly, though sometimes on Xander.
"You knew Whiting?"
She finished fastening the strap she was working on before she answered. "Sir Gerald was my cousin. He recruited me, would have sponsored me."
Ellen nodded again.
"People get hurt in this business, you know." Which was sort of a stupid thing to say, but sometimes the reminders hurt.
"I know. They tell us that all the time. Didn't know what it would look like. To see him like that."
"Yeah. It's not-- It sucks. It's why I'm out there patrolling every night."
"I'm going to do it too." Ellen's voice was fierce.
The first thing that came to mind was something all Harrison-Ford-y about how the kid should calm her jets or something. But Buffy restrained herself. What was Ellen, four years younger than she was, tops? So she shut up and stuck out her hand to shake on it with her. Ellen had a solid grip and wasn't afraid to look her in the eye.
Ellen was done, and Buffy was dressed in chain mail. Over the top of it was a white surcoat with a red double-barred cross on it, and a silk belt over that that hung down over the surcoat. It jingled. And it was heavy. It didn't fit exactly right, but it didn't need to. It was for show, not for actual battle. She could walk, that was the important thing. Giles had told her once that armor that didn't fit could make it impossible for the wearer to move.
Buffy stared at herself in the mirror. She almost didn't recognize herself. It didn't feel quite right, either. The Slayer within was itchy about it; it was never comfortable wearing protective gear. It would go naked if Buffy let it, not that she would. Could she move properly if she had to fight?
No fighting this morning, though. Not with the full assembly of knights in one place, every single one of them armed. This morning was about watching Giles be knighted.
"You remember what to do?" Ellen asked, and Buffy could hear the anxiety.
"Yeah, we rehearsed."
"It's just-- Well, it's the Queen, and it needs to be perfect."
"It's for Giles, and it'll be perfect. Wait, the Queen?"
"She sometimes comes. I've never seen her before. But she'll be here this morning."
"Why this one?"
The dub was to be given in the New Hall, before the assembled Order. Buffy met Twombly outside the doors. Twombly saluted her and Buffy returned the salute. He then handed her a pair of silver spurs.
"Yes. Ordinarily it would be for me to put them on him, but you should. I'll give him his sword."
Buffy nodded. She had no idea what it meant, other than that Twombly took it seriously. His expression was solemn.
Giles came through the door behind the dark boy who was Ellen's friend. He was dressed differently than he'd been last night. He was in bright chainmail exactly like hers, only his surcoat was completely white. Leather boots, leather belt with an empty sword hanger. Bare hands. He wasn't wearing his glasses. There was nothing to reveal that he was a twentieth century man. There was nothing in this room that would not have been there three centuries ago, save Conway's wheelchair.
He looked tired but confident. He'd conversed with the Power, or whatever it was, faced his death and found peace with it, and killed a vampire. Had he finally decided he was an okay guy who deserved this? Probably not. Probably he'd be angsting about his past right up until the moment he died bravely. Which he wouldn't do one instant before Buffy herself did, no matter what he said about defending her. They'd have to compete on that one.
Buffy smiled at him and he returned it with one of those brilliant grins that were so rare in him.
"Shall we?" she said.
Buffy and Twombly led Giles down the long stone-flagged hallway to the hall. Twombly was setting a measured, slow pace, which Buffy tried to match.
A pair of pages swung the doors open and the trio stepped inside. Buffy saw a full hall, rows of benches filled with men and women, familiar faces, all standing. And in front of them all, on the dais, was a woman sitting on a throne. Buffy recognized her from photographs and the news, though she was older than Buffy had expected.
She could tell the moment Giles saw that the real, actual Queen of England was in the room because he almost stumbled. He caught himself and kept walking straight on ahead to the dais. He moved forward smoothly and came to a halt before his queen, head up. He bowed.
She was taller than Buffy was, but not by much. Buffy didn't bow. She was an American, after all. Her nose twitched and she breathed in deep, trying to sense it. Power. The Queen had power. And it was a mixed thing, a tangled mess. There was more than one presence there inside her, though how Buffy didn't know. The presences were overall good, nothing she needed to fight, but they went deep and into dark places. That was... interesting.
Leaning against the throne were Giles's sword and shield. The shield glowed in the morning sunlight.
The Queen stood and Giles knelt on the pillow before her, his hands pressed together. She took her hands in his, and he swore an oath. It wasn't the one in the book, to Buffy's surprise, though it was close. For one thing, after he swore fealty to the Order of St George, he swore it to the Slayer. To her. He swore to lighten her burdens by carrying what he was able. See her name honored after her death. At least they didn't flinch away from that one. And finally, he swore not to traffic with traitors.
All this he swore upon his immortal soul. His voice was steady and clear. Tears had started in Buffy's eyes and she was grateful that she didn't have to speak.
Then the Queen stood and drew her sword. She drew it as if she knew what to do with it, as if she had drawn it with purpose earlier in her life. Or lives, Buffy thought. She held the sword out flat and Giles bent his head.
The sword struck his right shoulder. "In remembrance of honor and bravery."
His left. "In remembrance of your oath and obligations."
"Be thou a good and wise knight." The Queen touched the crown of his head with the sword, and held it there.
"Rise now, Sir Knight."
He lingered on his knees for a moment longer. Buffy saw his shoulders rise and fall in a long breath. Then he rose gracefully and stood before his queen.
She said, "Your title will not be known to the world around you, because we fight this fight in secret. But know that I know, and that the men and women who follow you will know."
Twombly nudged her, and Buffy's hands started shaking. Time to put the spurs on. She fumbled for a second then figured out how they went on. Strap around the top of the foot, snapped like so. One spur, then the other. She stood and stepped aside. Twombly replaced her; he buckled the sheathed sword onto Giles's belt. And finally, the shield, which Conway handed to him. Giles strapped it to his arm himself. He stood before them all for their applause. Giles would be hating being the center of attention, secretly, deep inside, Buffy knew, but he stood and bore it for the sake of the tradition. He looked fantastic in his armor, far better than most of them did. He looked as if he'd been born to wear it. And Buffy decided she liked the new shorter haircut.
Next came the feast in his honor, which was more like an extra-formal brunch than anything else. The pages led them all to the feasting hall and darted around getting everybody settled and all the plates filled. Ellen was there at Buffy's elbow, pouring her glass full of orange juice and unfolding her napkin for her. No, no orange juice, but mimosa. Buffy had a healthy swallow of her celebratory mimosa and settled in to observe.
Giles was seated to the Queen's right, across from Buffy. He wasn't eating much, even though he'd been fasting for more than a day. He was even quieter than usual, but Buffy could see in his face that he was happy. The mood of the knights overall was somber, however. Conway in particular looked grim. Now that Buffy was near him she could see that he looked as if he hadn't slept all night, even more tired than Giles looked. And there was something more in his face. Whiting had been his friend, she thought, closer than just a colleague.
The Queen was speaking. Buffy stopped her people-watching to pay attention.
"I offer you my congratulations, Sir Rupert."
Giles's ears pinked. "Thank you, ma'am."
Buffy stuffed a forkful of fruit into her mouth to prevent herself from giggling. Why did Giles have to been given such a silly first name? Though maybe he didn't think it was silly. She wasn't ever going to be using it, no matter what he thought. It didn't feel right to her. Not between them, anyway.
"I had heard your name before, of course, as the champion of the Slayer. It is good that you will remain her champion."
"It is my earnest hope that this change will assist me in that task." Giles was stammering. His hand went up to his face to reach for glasses that were not there.
The Queen said, "What will be your first act?"
"I plan to return immediately to the Hellmouth with the Slayer, ma'am. The vampire population must not be allowed to rise."
"Surely you will stay for Sir Gerald's funeral."
Conway said, "Sir Rupert hasn't been briefed on what happened during his vigil."
Giles looked at Buffy, not at Conway. She gave him the news tersely, knowing that he'd fill in the gaps. "Vamp attack. Six. Gunning for me, not you, but one of them got to you anyway. All dusted, but--" She made a gesture.
"It was real?"
"Yeah. You did a nice job with it."
Giles said, "Council?"
"Yup. Sharpen that sword. They might be waiting for us back home."
"You have allies," Conway said. "We will not wait for them to attack you again."
"Hostilities, Sir John?" The Queen's voice was sharp.
"Blood calls for blood, ma'am."
The Queen was silent for a moment. She and Conway stared at each other. He was braver than Buffy was, because she wasn't going to get into a contest of wills with that strange power. Well, maybe she might. If it were important. The two of them stared at each other to the point where Buffy wanted to squirm.
At last the Queen said, "Blood calls for blood. We acknowledge your grievance. Both the general and the personal."
Conway reacted to that, to Buffy's surprise. She saw his fist clench upon nothing where it rested on the table.
But all he said was, "May we expect the favor of your support in this matter?"
"The last time we meddled it did not redound in your favor, nor in ours."
"No, ma'am, it did not."
"We will intervene to end the matter once it is clear you have made your point."
They both seemed detached, cooly neutral, as they spoke, but Buffy was aware of a tension in the room that extended into the realm of the supernatural. That is, her inner Slayer was aware of it. More politics. Royalty was hedging its bets about which one would win. Or maybe royalty was smarter than the lot of them and knew it would need both groups in the long run. Buffy didn't have much of an opinion about that. Her job lasted for the duration of her lifespan, natural lifespan preferred. If she left the world in good shape when she checked out, she'd feel she'd done the job well.
The brunch ended when the Queen left. The room stood as she did. Some kind of ceremonial leave-taking speech was made that Buffy didn't pay much attention to. It seemed like it came out of a book. She paid attention when the little woman asked Sir Rupert and the Slayer to accompany her for a moment. That was off-script. Giles exchanged a look with Buffy that she couldn't interpret, then bowed gracefully.
They followed the Queen through the great doors and out. The doors closed on the feast hall behind them, and Buffy could hear the conversation start up again within. It was quiet in the hall as they walked. Giles's spurs ticked against the stone floor. The mail in his coat and hers rang faintly. It ought to have been ridiculous, the sight of the two of them jingling along in full armor trailing a tiny woman in robes nearly as antique, with a crown on her head. But it wasn't, at least not in that place at that time. The magic of the dubbing was still in the air around them tingling on Buffy's skin.
Waiting in the entry hall for them was a man who Buffy's senses told her to be a sorcerer of very great power indeed, and a pair of broad-shouldered men in quiet dark suits. Conventional security and magical security side by side. The Queen nodded to them, then turned to Giles.
"You two are causing sensations yet again, I see." Not the royal we, not the collective.
"I am afraid so, ma'am. But my duty is clear."
"I suppose it is. It does cause me some slight difficulty."
Buffy shifted uneasily. She'd never really questioned her decision to sever ties with the Council. It had always felt right to her. But she hadn't ever thought about it affecting more than just her and Giles.
"Ma'am, if you feel we ought to reconcile with them--"
"We came here to give you the dub ourselves for a reason. Do not doubt your choices." The collective again, Buffy noted. Just how real was the royal we anyway? The back of her neck prickled. Real. Very real. "The world needs its Slayer, and this one is legendary. So shall you both be. Serve her well. "
Giles bowed deeply. "Yes, ma'am, I shall."
The Queen raised a hand and the court magician did something and the little party was gone. Buffy could smell the magic, almost, smell the place where royalty had been standing. She shivered. That had to have been another human being touched by the Powers. Had to.
"Well," said Giles. He looked as if he'd been poleaxed. "She approves."
"Of you and me, anyway. Not so sure she likes the Council."
"I have my orders, I suppose."
"People keep telling you to do what you wanted to do anyway. Have you noticed?"
Giles ducked his head. "Yes. Save Travers."
"Who tried to kill me. What lesson do we learn from this?"
Giles smiled with half of his mouth, all sardonic because he knew where she was going with this. "Trust in myself."
She poked him in the arm. "Just what some wise man has always been telling me."
"Shall we go back in?"
Giles offered her his arm again. Buffy took it solemnly. This time as they walked they were dressed up like they were at an SCA tournament, except their swords were sharp. Buffy's hand rested on a fine metal mesh instead of fine wool. But it was the same Giles beside her, the same Watcher who'd been at her side for years now.
It was hours before Buffy could see Giles again. There was the rest of the feast, then then a demonstration of jousting outside in the fields and other demonstrations of feats with old-fashioned arms. These were not things the knights used in the field, but skills they preserved out of sentiment. Buffy liked the impulse; it made a charming contrast to how deadly serious they were about their daily weapons. Then they all went back in for tea. This was all allegedly in Giles's honor, but he had slipped off sometime in the middle of the jousting to sleep and recover from his vigil.
The mood of the knights was odd. They were happy to welcome the newcomer but they talked among themselves in grim little clumps. Buffy spotted Twombly and Amanda with their heads bent together over a map she recognized as being L.A. War was coming. She couldn't avoid it because half of it was about her. Hers was the face that had launched the ships. Which was about as hilarious as it got. All she wanted to do, really, was settle down and become the best staker of vampires that ever held a stake and did the jabbing thing.
No such luck. At least she had a few days of vacation before it started. A few days to spend with Giles.
She bailed on the second cup of tea and trudged her way back to their rooms. She'd been in the chain mail all day and it was starting to wear on her nerves. Twenty pounds of metal on her back all day, or however much it weighed.
Giles was there on the balcony, with his own tea service on a tray. He turned and saw her and came into the room. He was dressed in normal clothing again, his usual cotton trousers and too-large pullover. His hands were in his pockets. He leaned against the doorpost and smiled at her. He looked almost shy.
"How you feeling?"
"Rested, thank you."
Buffy closed the door behind her and as an afterthought, locked it. "Do you feel, I don't know, different in any way?"
She started undoing the straps on her greaves. After a moment of hesitation, Giles came over to her and began to help.
"Yes, yes, I do. It's difficult to describe. I feel balanced, somehow. As if my body could do anything I asked of it. And restless, a bit. Except I'm terribly clumsy. I broke a teacup just now."
Buffy laughed. "Yeah, I know that one. Lasts a few days then it kinda snaps into place."
Giles started working on the other greave. "Odd to experience what I have merely read about, as a thing one's Slayer goes through."
They were on more even ground now. Except that he still had twenty years of head start on her in education. Buffy suspected she'd never catch up with him, but that didn't mean she had to be a slouch. She'd find her own field to be an expert in. Something relevant to demon-hunting that he didn't know much about. She didn't have to find it right away. And meanwhile she didn't have to worry about him getting hurt as much as she used to.
Though it was a dangerous line of work and nothing would ever fix that. She'd found her peace with that.
"You got more ceremony than I did. I just woke up one day, boom, hello, Slayer now. You got the whole cap and gown thing." Buffy held up her surcoat in demonstration, then laid it across the back of the armchair.
"Er. Different sort of pomp and circumstance." Giles cleared his throat. "Turn 'round."
Buffy obeyed and held her arms up over her head. Giles lifted the mail shirt up and off. Major relief. Underneath was a padded cloth shirt. Buffy undid the buttons herself and shrugged it off. She kicked off the leather boots, and that was it. She was wearing her own clothes, just a tank top and leggings. Her kind of fighting gear.
Giles showed her how to arrange undershirt and mail on the armor stand next to the sword rack. It looked pretty now that she wasn't wearing it.
"Shiny stuff," she said. "You have a set now too?"
"Come see the shield." He stepped aside from the doorway and gestured toward his little room. He bowed slightly as Buffy walked past him.
His knight's clothing was set on the chest at the end of his little bed, folded neatly. On top of it rested his spurs and the sword. The shield leaned against the chest at the end of the bed. It didn't look like much in the sunlight streaming in through the windows. It was a heater shield, like the one she'd carried when they'd been teaching her how to joust, simple leather stretched over wood, with bosses where it was attached to the frame. Buffy crouched down before it to take a good look at the design on it. The leather had been dyed a deep green. The silver lances glittered faintly, as if they were truly the metal and not more dye or paint. Buffy brushed her fingertips over them. She couldn't feel where one color stopped and the other began, but her fingers tingled a little. Magic, then.
Buffy turned her attention to the spurs. They were like the shield, more fancy than practical, big silver rollers with decorations chased all over. They weren't something she could imagine Giles wearing on patrol with her. The sword was something else again. She'd expected the kind of fancy glittery thing you saw in the movies, the hilt covered in gilt, the blade impractically thin and light. This sword was simple: leather-wrapped hilt, plain sweep of steel blade. It was well-balanced, which she could feel even though it had been made for somebody taller than she was, somebody closer to Giles's height. Not that the weight was a problem for her.
She said, "I like it. It's the kind of thing you can use every day."
"Yes. The shield I'll hang on my wall, but the sword I will live with."
That was a good way to put it.
Giles was standing watching her, alert and erect, his hands folded behind his back. It was the squiring posture he'd been in earlier. That was interesting, very interesting indeed.
He said, "Er. I have your cross. It did indeed bring me luck."
"And I have something for you," she said.
She led him back to the room, to the dresser where her jewelry was laid out, such as it was. She hadn't brought much, but what she did have was some extra earrings.
"You asked for a token to wear. I have one for you." She took one of her captive bead rings, one she'd been wearing herself until that morning. It was gold and one of a pair of rings she'd bought a while ago for her left ear. She was still wearing its twin.
She tipped it into Giles's outstretched palm. He held it up and he smiled. "Thank you. I haven't worn one often recently, but I should be glad to do so." Then, diffidently, "Would, would you put it on for me?"
Buffy took the ring back. "I can't reach. You'll have to kneel."
Giles's face changed when she said that. His eyes went dark and his lips parted. And then she got it. That was what he needed. She hadn't imagined it. He wanted it just as much as she did, and in exactly the same way.
Giles went to his knees gracefully, at her feet. He folded his hands in front of himself and bowed his head, just like he had when waiting for the dub. He was looking up at her this time, though, and breathing as if he'd been running.
Buffy flexed the metal and let the captive bead drop into her hand. She took his earlobe in her fingers and found the place where it was pierced. He hadn't worn anything in it recently, by the look. She set the end of her ring in place pushed it into his lobe. It was a thicker than whatever he'd been wearing before, but it threaded through with only a little resistance. Buffy popped the little gold bead into place and rotated the earring so it hung properly. It looked good on him, not gaudy at all. Understated.
She gave it a sharp tug and he sucked in a breath and tensed up. She waited until his shoulders dropped again.
"No taking this off," she said.
"Of course not."
She gripped his shirt and tugged him closer to her. "You're mine now."
"Have I not always been?"
"Now it's official."
He hadn't moved from his knees. That was good.
"Do you like kneeling for me?"
"Yes." Very softly, but he'd spoken with no hesitation. She stroked his head again and thought about what to do with him now. She'd told him it would be tonight, and it was going to happen for sure, but she hadn't thought it would happen like this. But now she knew what he wanted-- wow. Her heart was hammering and her body was awake.
She put her lips to his ear and whispered. "I think I like it too."
He groaned, outright groaned, when she said that.
Giles wrapped his arms around her waist and laid his head against her belly. Buffy stroked his hair. Soft hair, shorter than it had been. He was hard in his trousers, but it seemed to be something he was patient about. Buffy had an impulse to touch him, to stroke him and find out what he felt like, but held onto it for the moment. She could be patient, too.
She bent to him and whispered, "No more nerves?"
"Good. Undress for me."
Buffy stepped back from him. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed. Then he stood up and pulled his shirt over his head. There it was, the wince because of his ribs, but neither one of them was going to worry about that tonight. Shoes kicked off to the side, socks following. He turned away from her to shed his trousers and his boxers. Buffy frowned, but then he turned back to her. He knelt again on the bedroom floor and folded his arms behind his back without being asked.
There were bruises on his ribs and shoulder, dark blue shading to red. From the sparring, mostly, though maybe some were from the vampire. They were neither sexy nor off-putting. They were a fact of life for them. Places on his body she had to be careful of. Honorable marks of honorable combat. Combat he'd won.
He was also magnificently hard.
God, she wanted him. She wanted him whatever he looked like, whatever he was wearing. Tweed. Leather and mail. Or naked as he was now.
She knelt before him and wrapped her arms around his waist, pressed herself tight against his bare chest. She liked men. Not boys, men. Strong men, muscled men, intelligent men, headstrong men. Men who'd fight alongside her. Men who weren't frightened of who she was. A man who'd kneel like this for her and hold himself still when she cupped her fingers around his balls and lifted them. Heavy, solid, a good handful. Giles tipped his head back but otherwise did not move. She could feel him trembling, though, and his breath was coming fast.
Buffy left him kneeling there and sat on the bed to undress. She took her time about it, though unfortunately she didn't have much to take off. His eyes were down mostly, but she saw that he was sneaking glances at her. She smiled to herself.
Buffy sometimes worried about what she looked like. Too much muscle, not enough cleavage. She was wiry rather than slender and it was obvious when she was nude. The first boy she'd been to bed with hadn't reacted well. Riley had eventually revealed his ambivalence about it, about her ability to pick him up and throw him. But Giles, Giles's face was avid. He liked what he saw. The expression on his face was triumph and no amount of bowing his head could disguise it. She turned away so he couldn't see the mirror on her face. The Slayer spirit inside was exulting and it was all she could do to keep it contained.
"Time to go to bed," she said.
He stood gracefully and sat down on the edge of the bed. Buffy laid a hand flat against his chest and pushed him backwards. "Lie on your back."
Giles stretched himself out obediently. There was a faint smile on his face as he did so. Cheeky guy. Buffy would see what she could do to make things a little harder on him.
"Grab the headboard." He reached up and searched until his hands found the crossbar. "Don't let go until I tell you you can." He nodded and clenched his fists tighter.
Buffy knelt beside him and looked at her Watcher, her knight. There was fuzz on his stomach, across his chest, brown salted with gray, darkest under his arms, which smelled faintly like his sweat. Scars on his arms and chest, traces of old wounds. She could see what training had done for him in the last year, in his shoulders and pecs, in the lats flaring when he pulled at the headboard, in the muscles of his forearms.
She ran a hand down his chest, to his belly, next to where his sex lay. His whole body was trembling, but he still held the headboard as he'd been commanded. Buffy stroked a finger over him quickly. He gasped.
She said, "Do I have to tell you to wait until you have permission?"
"It'll be difficult."
He looked away from her. "It's been a while for me."
"You'll just have to try harder."
"Of course, sorry, didn't mean to imply-- of course I'll wait."
Now to test his resolve.
Buffy knelt between his spread thighs and grinned up at him. He held her gaze and his lips parted. She licked him. His whole body shook and then he held himself still. She tasted him again and was gratified to hear him moan. She set out to drive him mad, for not other reason than that she liked doing this, liked the sounds he made when she did, liked the way he said her name, pleading with her to give him release, to allow him to touch her.
She backed off to give him time to cool down. She'd been all rumbly at him before about holding off, but she didn't want to make it truly hard for him or let him screw up. That wasn't her game. Tease him a little, make him wait, make him explode when he finally got there-- that was her game. She knelt beside him on the bed and stroked his face until his breathing slowed down and he wasn't trembling any more. He shifted his grip on the headboard but didn't let go.
Now it was time for what she wanted and had been waiting for since that first night in bed together. She straddled his hips and took his penis in hand. He watched her intently. As she sank down onto him, he closed his eyes. Buffy kept her eyes open. She wanted to watch his face.
She held herself in place over him. God, what a sight, this man moving underneath her, his whole body taut and straining upward to join with her. He felt good inside her, solid, just right. They were moving together as if they had always been doing this, had been making love to each other for years and years.
She was so charged up that it took her no time at all to reach her crisis point and tumble over. When she caught her breath again, she leaned down to kiss Giles. His face was red and he looked strained. He hadn't let go of the headboard even for a moment.
"God, Buffy, please."
On wicked impulse Buffy rocked her hips against him. "Want something?"
"You can let go now. Go ahead."
One last thrust upward and he was there, head thrown back, face flushed, eyes shut, his expression either agony or pleasure. The only way she knew which was because of his voice.
Buffy touched herself and brought herself over the edge again, while his body was still hard and satisfying inside her. When she caught her breath again, he was relaxed underneath her, hands resting gently on her thighs. He helped her up. Buffy knelt next to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"You good now?"
"More than. Come here." He tugged at her until Buffy yielded and lay down next to him. Giles curled himself against her side. His head was on her shoulder and his arm flung across her waist-- heavy, damp with sweat. Buffy's hunger for his body was eased but not gone. She wanted that feeling again and again. Many times more. Tonight, if he could be coaxed into it. It was all right if he couldn't. They would have time. Lots of time. Time to learn to play chess? Buffy doubted it, despite Conway's prediction. But enough for a good life.
Giles shifted next to her. His hand on her hip tightened for a moment. "Mmm," he said.
"Sounded like a good mmm."
"Was that okay? Just now?"
"Almost unbearable not being able to touch you. Wanted to be kissing you." He kissed her shoulder and sighed.
"An astonishing week. Who could have seen this end to it?"
"Not me," she murmured. Her Slayer spirit could have, Buffy wanted to say, but she couldn't have predicted more than ending up in bed with him. The rest of it-- the Order of St George, the fighting, the encounter with royalty, the honor done Giles-- none of that could she have seen coming.
Giles sat up and stretched. He ran his hands over his thighs and rolled his shoulders.
"So strange," he said. "My body feels strange to me."
"Takes a while," Buffy said.
"Even sex is different to what it was before."
Now that was interesting. Buffy hadn't had sex before she'd become the Slayer, not even the solo kind. "Good different or bad different?"
"Neither. Though Eric did tip me off. Took me aside solely for the purpose of warning me."
"Warn you about what?"
Giles laughed softly. "There's another way in which I am more like you now."
Giles made no answer but to move. He rolled onto her and grasped her wrists in his. He pulled them up over her head and pinned her down, just as she had pinned him two nights before. Buffy strained up against him just enough that he could feel it, not enough to be truly fighting him.
Against her thigh she could feel him hardening again, already. She grinned up at him in the darkness and saw him grinning back.