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Buffy Summers, age sixteen, is a perfectly happy girl. She lives with her mom, her dad, and her kid sister in the closest you can get to idyllic suburban bliss. She’s a competitive figure skater and the alternate captain of the cheer squad, her bouncy blonde ponytail never has a hair out of place, and she has the best, sweetest, most romantic boyfriend in the entire world. Angel is the first person she texts when she wakes up in the morning, he’s the last thing she thinks about before she goes to sleep, and every Sunday, she walks the three blocks it takes to get from her house to his with a spring in her step.

It takes a lot of work to keep Buffy Summers this happy. If you looked a little closer, you might see that her mom is always at the art gallery, her dad is always off on a business trip, and her kid sister clings to Buffy like a limpet because Buffy’s the only other person in the house. Balancing figure skating and cheerleading would be hard even if Cordelia Chase didn’t hate Buffy’s guts, and it’s not like Buffy’s actually been able to captain the squad when the actual captain never calls in sick. But Buffy Summers has a guardian angel, and though it isn’t strictly his job, he’s gone a little bit out of his way to influence the way she looks at the world around her.

“Hey, Buff,” says Angel, leaning down to kiss her. Giles, who has never entirely understood romantic entanglements, politely averts his eyes. “How’s your day been going?”

“Eh,” says Buffy, but she’s still smiling, bright and breezy. “I think Cordy’s jealous of my Instagram followers. I swear she picks a new thing every day to mock me about.”

“Cordy’s jealous of your Instagram followers,” Angel repeats. “Isn’t she basically a brand on Instagram at this point?”

“Yeah, but she’s followed by a billion faceless strangers,” Buffy points out. “I have actual friends who actually like the things I post. Not just insta-like, they enjoy following me. Can’t say that about Little Miss Curated Aesthetic.”

“…uh huh,” says Angel, who looks more than a little bit out of his depth. Giles can relate.

“Anyway,” says Buffy, patting Angel’s shoulder, “I’ve got comp sci in like five minutes.”

“Why are you even taking that class?” says Angel, looking genuinely bemused. “This is your second year taking that class, and you tell me all the time that you hate it. What’s up with that?”

A strange frown flutters across Buffy’s face. Guiltily, Giles looks away. “I don’t know,” she says. “I just—you know, sometimes you get a gut feeling that something’s really important? When I’m in Ms. Calendar’s class, I kinda feel like that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all Greek to me, but…” She trails off. “I don’t know,” she says again, and shrugs, laughing a little nervously.

Over Angel’s shoulder, Giles makes eye contact with Katherine. Her mouth is set in a firm, disapproving line as she surveys him—coldly and dismissively, just like she always does. Irresponsible, she says.

Giles, who has honed this skill particularly well in the last three years, looks away.

“Do you ever get feelings like that?” Buffy asks.

Angel frowns, shrugging somewhat noncommittally. “Sometimes,” he says. “Maybe. I mean, I joined the football team ‘cause I like it. Is that what you’re talking about?”

Buffy’s smile trembles a little in a frustrated kind of way. It takes Giles’s hand on her shoulder for her usual bright grin to return. “I’ll see you after class,” she says, and stands on tiptoe to kiss Angel on the cheek. “Say hi to Xander for me, okay?”

“You know I fucking hate that kid,” says Angel indignantly. Buffy’s still giggling as she weaves her way down the hallway

Jenny looks up when Buffy comes in—or, more accurately, Jenny looks past Buffy, over Buffy’s right shoulder, directly at Giles. She can’t see him—no human can—but even knowing that isn’t enough for Giles to look unflinchingly into those deep brown eyes. He looks away instead, focusing on Buffy; her emotions are strange and tangled whenever they step into the computer science classroom. She doesn’t know why.

Giles, however, does.

“Hey, Buffy,” says Jenny, and only those who know her intimately well might see the tension in the way she holds herself. “Take a seat. Class is gonna start in five.”

Buffy smiles a little nervously and sits down next to Willow Rosenberg, who gives Buffy the same look of mingled confusion and admiration that she does every class period. As Jenny’s TA, Willow has graded enough of Buffy’s projects to know for a fact that Buffy is terrible at computer science—and yet Buffy continues to take the class. Willow, a straight-A student, can’t figure out how Buffy’s determined perseverance does not give way in the face of her continued lack of improvement. Giles, the cause of Buffy’s perseverance, knows that this is a class Buffy should drop, but—

His eyes flit across the room again. Jenny is still looking directly at him. She won’t let her distraction keep her from teaching class effectively—but she knows he’s there, because she knows him better than anyone.

“Morning, everyone,” says Jenny, smiling in a hard, harsh way for just a moment before it softens into placid professionalism. “Let me just write down what we’re gonna be doing today on the board before we get started, okay?”

Giles can’t leave Buffy’s side, but as long as he focuses on their connection, he can move around a bit. He crosses the room to Jenny, placing his hand over hers as she turns to the whiteboard. She can’t tell he’s there—no human can—but she closes her eyes for a moment, a single tear slipping down her cheek. Her fingers tighten around the erasable marker.

I’m sorry, he says. I’m so sorry. I’ll never be as brave as you.

It’s said that when two lovers are destined to be together, their guardian angels match just as neatly. Giles prefers to think of any time Buffy falls in love as more of a compatible partnership: the angels work together to ensure that the lovers support each other and make each other better people. Faith’s guardian angel—a prickly yet gentle woman named Diana—has always been firm with Giles, reminding him not to foster a martyr complex in Buffy. Most of the times Buffy has loved Faith have been bloody and miserable, Buffy chasing Faith down with ragged desperation until her feet are bloody and her eyes swollen with tears. Don’t let her hurt herself, Diana has reminded Giles. Just because Faith loves Buffy too doesn’t mean she’s within her rights to hurt Buffy like that.

Lifetimes ago, Will’s guardian angel—quiet, protective Drusilla—shyly, gently deferred to Giles’s better judgment, bending like a willow reed in whatever direction she was pressed. It’s taught him and Buffy both to be careful with a man like Will, who would easily kill himself for Buffy if she asked nicely enough—but he’s grown stronger, over the centuries, and now the times he and Buffy meet find them intertwined as equals.

Angel’s soul is the youngest of all of Buffy’s great loves—strange as it is, Buffy is an older soul than all of her loves combined—and yet he has had two guardian angels in such a short span of time. Katherine was called three years ago, after the first guardian angel fell from grace, too tangled in her worldly emotions to exist as anything but human.

Angel’s first guardian angel was just as young and flighty as his own soul, an impetuous celestial who had had no patience or understanding for the wealth of knowledge Giles had accrued while guarding Buffy. He’d had trouble comprehending how such a free-floating, inconsiderate being could be linked so closely to the gentle, quiet Angel—but after a handful of lifetimes meeting her, he’d begun to understand. Angel runs from confrontation and blame, hiding in a cloak of guilt and self-pity. The way he loves Buffy is pure and true, but the way he hates himself is violent in its intensity.

His first guardian angel was much the same way, for a while. She grew into herself slowly, lifetime after lifetime, until her manic energy was tempered into infectious excitement and her combative fury became playful teasing. Or perhaps it was just that Giles grew to know Jenny.

“Ms. Calendar looks so sad today,” says Willow, almost to herself.

This catches Buffy’s attention, though she won’t know why. Guiltily, Giles does his best to temper his influence. “Doesn’t she kind of always?” Buffy says idly.

Buffy and Willow are friends, of a sort. In the classroom, they collaborate on projects, giggle to each other in furtive whispers, send each other silly emails while Ms. Calendar is explaining the lesson. Outside the classroom, Willow is busy with the GSA and with her LARP group, and Buffy focuses determinedly on her ice skating and her cheerleading. High school is a strange and lonely place.

Willow exhales. This is her very first life. Over her shoulder, Oz—who is bizarrely centered for a guardian angel so young—tilts his head almost knowingly at Giles, his eyes flitting quietly to Jenny.

“I don’t really get adults, sometimes,” says Buffy, zipping up her backpack to sling it over one shoulder. “I mean, I guess I get that someday that’ll be us, but it’s kinda weird to think about our teachers having whole lives outside the classroom that we just don’t know about. It makes me a little sad.”

“Sad?” Willow echoes.

These are not Buffy’s feelings. Giles knows this. This is the danger of a guardian angel who does not remember his place. But Buffy opens her mouth and says, with an ageless misery that is not hers at all, “Someone should be there for Ms. Calendar when she’s sad. I don’t know if anybody is, and the not knowing—”

“Yeah,” says Willow. Lucky thing, that Willow is so enamored with Jenny; any other classmate might have responded to Buffy’s interest in her teacher with bemusement or distaste. But Willow is following Buffy’s eyes to Jenny, and Giles—

The words he cannot say to Jenny are burning a hole in his chest, eating him from the inside out. Soon enough Jenny will die, leaving him permanently, and a world without her is unimaginable—but Giles’s calling has always come before all else, and he cannot imagine leaving Buffy to live and die and live again. Every life with her is a wonder.

This life has been rocky and strange, veering into uncharted territory. Buffy has found Angel early, which Giles had thought would be a blessing—but with Katherine by Angel’s side, his love for Buffy is flat and shallow. When Jenny had been by Angel’s side—

Giles draws in a sharp breath.

“Eesh,” says Buffy, rubbing her arms. “It’s getting chilly. Walk with me to English class?”

“Sure!” says Willow, perking up. They fall into step together, chattering aimlessly about boyfriends and girlfriends and the absolutely insane amount of homework Ms. Robinson assigned—and Giles, though there is only one place he wants to be, is tugged along with them, watching the door swing shut and Jenny disappear behind it.

Anya is sitting on Jenny’s desk the next day, quiet and disapproving. She doesn’t make herself visible, most days—she’s not very interested in socializing with other angels, and certainly not with Giles—but it’s clear that the events of the previous day have crossed some kind of line. You need to stop this, she tells him, quiet and clear, while Buffy is fumbling through a programming exercise that she clearly has no interest in finishing. You’re hurting Buffy, and you won’t stop hurting her until you make a choice. Fall like Jenny, or cut your ties with her, permanently, for Buffy’s sake.

Man, I hate to say this, but I agree, says Oz, shifting from foot to foot behind Willow’s chair. My job is to protect Willow. If my feelings for someone on earth bled through and hurt her—

You don’t know what you’re talking about, says Giles sharply. Neither of you do. You’re both young and insolent and guarding two new souls. I have been around for millennia—

Maybe your thinking needs to be updated, says Anya.

She reminds him of Jenny. Sharp-tongued and acerbic, impatient with his stupidity, refusing to let him stay still and stagnant in the old ways—angels often match the people they watch over.

I can’t—

You won’t, says Anya. God, does she remind him of Jenny. There’s a distinct difference. And until you figure it out, you are not going to hang around the woman I’m charged with protecting. Either you let go of her or you let go of Buffy. Can’t have both.

How can I possibly—

But Anya is gone, now, as is Oz, and there is only this: Buffy, in front of Giles, switching between the window with her programming and the window with a BuzzFeed quiz advertising its ability to tell you which kind of pie you are. Jenny, standing at the front of the classroom, smiling wistfully and distantly with the quiet wisdom of one who has been alive for a very long time.

No matter what he chooses, something will break.

(Something has already broken.)

I love you. I’m sorry. She’s crying. I’m sorry, I know—this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, we’re—we’re supposed to be bigger than this—

Abruptly, he realizes that in a thousand years of living, there is nothing he has wanted more than to take her in his arms. His obligations, once such proud and treasured things, tether him down. Force him to watch tears spill down her cheeks.

I’m sorry, she says. There’s no way I can do anything but fall. I can’t—I can’t live like this, Rupert, I just—I can’t let go of the feelings I have for you. I’d be a shitty guardian angel, but— She looks up at him, almost smiling. I think I’ll be an okay human.

Jenny, he says. Please, I—

If you love me, she says, don’t ask me to let these feelings go.

So she knows. She will know for the rest of her life that he loves her, but that he is too cowardly to let go of the only life he knows. She will die, and her soul will return to the world again, and she will no longer remember the handful of treasured years she spent with someone who loved her too furtively to put it into words.

Would that be freeing her? Giles doesn’t know. He wants to see Jenny smile again, but knows that he won’t in this lifetime—and maybe not the next. The connection between them remains as solid as it always was; if he chooses to never break it, she’ll live out all of her lives bereft without ever understanding why. But if he chooses to break it—chooses to give himself wholly to Buffy, turn himself away from the only love he’s ever known—he will never feel anything again.

And if he fell—

Thinking of falling makes Giles’s chest hurt with a desperate longing. To be with Jenny, properly—to kiss her, to hold her, to have her as an unabashedly essential part of his life—it feels positively impossible, but he can’t deny that it is a possibility. And yet that would mean letting go of Buffy on a whim.

(Not a whim, says a traitorous, disloyal part of his heart. Nothing you haven’t wanted for a very long time now.)

Buffy lingers outside the door to computer science a week later—not through any action of Giles’s, simply because she and Angel are having a giggly, involved conversation—and Giles takes the time to slip back inside the classroom, moving to sit down on the desk by Jenny.

She looks up, her face shadowed and tired. She doesn’t say anything—just reaches out, palm-up, and smiles a little sadly when Giles places his hand in hers.

This is why he has always loved her. This is why he knows nothing else but loving her. More than anyone in this world or the next, Jenny knows the pull of duty’s call—knows what it’s like to be tied to a person you never chose but still want to help. She broke free of it; she chose herself over Angel. Giles doesn’t know if he can do the same—but he also knows that for all of Jenny’s anger and misery, she will still always understand.

I love you, he thinks. He doesn’t say it. Either way, no one who matters would be able to hear him.

Jenny’s fingers curl and close into a loose fist. Quietly, she says, “You knew so much more than me when we met. I was so…jealous, in a lot of ways. You were so confident, so sure of yourself, and you dedicated yourself to Buffy with this intense, insane determination.” She laughs a little wetly. “God. This is fucking pathetic.” Shaking her head a little, she continues. “I don’t…I don’t know why it still feels like you, like we—like there’s still something there. I used to be able to just tell when you were in a room, you know? Nothing to do with Buffy or Angel or anyone. Just you.”

I love you, Giles thinks. It holds no power until he says it.

“I am never gonna be able to dedicate myself so selflessly to another person,” says Jenny. “I don’t know if I was just made wrong, but I can’t—I can’t give myself up for the sake of someone else. I know what I was made to do, but meeting you…” She trails off, the ghost of a smile on her face.

I would give anything to talk to you again, says Giles. Really talk. I have so many questions that I’ll never get to ask you—

“You know I want you here, right?” says Jenny suddenly, talking over him—because, of course, she can’t hear him. “More than anything. But more than that, I want—” She sniffles, eyes wet. “I want to know that you made a choice, Rupert. Because I can still—I can still feel you, every time you’re here, and you shouldn’t be here if you’re watching over Buffy. You can protect her or you can be with me, but there’s no way you can do both.” She straightens in the chair, letting her hand drop as she turns to look directly into his eyes. “That’s unfair to both of us and you know it.”

The feelings are burning him, choking him, and after years and years of nothing it is fucking terrifying to look into Jenny Calendar’s eyes—

“I love you,” says Jenny very clearly, eyes fixed on his. “I gave up my duty because my feelings for you are more important than that, but it was the hardest decision I have ever made. I know you might not be able to follow me; I didn’t do this expecting that you would. But you need to make a choice now, instead of dicking around and waiting for somebody to make that choice for you. Okay?”

(Picture this: in a small, sleepy town—some silly name, like Shady Groves or Sunnydale—a man is walking to the high school two blocks from his house. It’s his first day on the job, and he is—understandably—more nervous than words can say. He catches sight of a woman—dark hair, small frame, and the kindest, brightest smile he has seen in his immeasurably long life—and he stops in his tracks, watching her until she realizes she’s being watched.

She turns, smiling, as though they’ve known each other forever. She hurries back down the stairs to the building and places her hands on his chest, looking directly into his eyes. She tilts her head forward-and-up, grinning at him, and then takes that last step into his arms.)

Am I brave enough to choose you?

Jenny hears the words, knows them, even with every force in the universe separating her from someone else’s guardian angel. She closes her eyes, trying to bring back that well of patience that always felt so easy when she was immortal—but being acutely aware of her own mortality makes a difference. Humans and angels alike, they all waste so much time.

She opens her eyes again, looking into the empty air. She can feel him there, a cloud of misery and uncertainty and self-hatred. Immobilizing himself in his attempt to be nothing but the best by convincing himself that he’s nothing but the worst. And she knows him—knows what he wants more than anything, even if he’s never allowed himself to admit it.

“I hope you are,” she says, very softly—just a whisper of wind, really. “God, I hope you are.”

She feels a brush of something against her cheek, unspeakably tender. And then—very briefly—a halting breath against her lips, the sensation drawing away almost as quickly as it came. Jenny—

Jenny closes her eyes.

Rupert’s lips brush against hers again, solid and warm. She feels his shaking hands move to tentatively cup her face, his fingers threading through her hair, and squeezes her eyes tightly shut; she’s terrified that she’ll open her eyes to a completely empty room. But then he kisses her again, and again, until his newfound need for air seems to knock him dizzy. His mouth drops from hers, his breathing heavy and uneven as he tucks his head under her chin.

She doesn’t say anything at all. Just buries her face in his hair, breathing in a somehow-familiar scent—old books, pressed linen. Home, in a way she’s never truly been able to articulate—in a way she now has an overabundance of time to figure out.

(Picture this: in a small, sleepy town, a bright-eyed high school sophomore sheepishly quits her computer science class. When asked why she was so hell-bent on continuing in a class she didn’t at all enjoy, she shrugs a little, a curious smile flitting across her face. “I don’t know,” she says. “It never felt great to be so shitty at it, but…I just kept on expecting I’d get better at some point if I worked hard enough. And then one day I woke up and realized that if I want to quit something that’s making me totally miserable, I can just, you know, quit it. Spend my time working on something I’m actually good at.”

“Quite a good point,” says the school librarian, and smiles back.)