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Thirty-ish Days (and Thirty-ish Years)

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1. Unconditional


May, 2003 – somewhere in California


The armed truce lasted six days.


For the first few days after their world ended, there was too much to do. Their group had injuries to attend to and new Slayers to deal with and more new Slayers who would have to be located and no end of ideas and plans for the future. For those reasons and more they were still someplace or other in California, although they could have probably been in Cleveland by now if only they could decide if they were actually headed there or not.


There was no time to waste thinking about how they felt about each other at the moment, about their savaged friendship. They were the two leaders of the team and everyone looked to them to play their parts. That was that.


Buffy had to steel herself to knock on the door of Giles’s motel room. She tried not to think of all the times she’d entered his home or his office without knocking, never giving it a thought.


“Come in,” he called.


“So, is that really the best idea?” she asked as she entered the room. “Just ‘Come in’ without even checking to see if the person on the other side of the door is hiding a pair of fangs or— Oops, sorry, didn’t know you were on the phone.”


Giles waved her over to one of the chairs to wait. He sat on the bed scribbling in a hardbound notebook, papers spread all around him.


Several minutes later, he hung up the phone and came over to join her.


“What did Robson say about the money?” He gave her a look and she protested, “I wasn’t listening in. Okay, I was listening a little but taking care of everybody is kinda my business, so I figured finding the money to do that is kinda my business, too.”


“You’re quite right.”


“Oh. So how is the money situation?”


“Better,” he said. “Well, protentially better. I can’t overstate how fortunate we are that Robson’s name is on so many of the Council’s legal and financial documents. There’s red tape, of course, but he’s certain he’ll be able to unsnarl all their business matters sooner or later. He’s actually quite the shrewd businessman.”


“Yay,” she said, without enthusiasm. “Aren’t we lucky the only Watchers left are the two halfway useful ones.”


It came out much snarkier than she intended and Giles flinched.


“Well. Good to know I’m of some use, at any rate.”


Buffy opened her mouth to apologise to him, to explain, but the right words just wouldn’t form. This was what they did now. Maybe it was what they were now. Two people who used to be closer than close, who had always understood one another shockingly well considering their many differences. And now, they couldn’t seem to say the most innocent thing without hurting each other’s feelings.


She swallowed the lump in her throat and stumbled to her feet. “Not actually what I meant, but okay,” she said, and left the motel room before they had a chance to turn it into another of those lovely exchanges where neither of them could say the right thing and both were constantly primed to take offense.


“Buffy!”


She was almost at the door of her own room when he called out to her. She stopped and waited for him to catch up, expression guarded, arms folded across her chest.


“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot to ask what it was you wanted when you stopped by.”


“Oh, nothing major. Just that I was gonna see about rustling up some clothes this afternoon. The ragtag part of our ragtag little gang is getting kinda literal. Just thought I’d see if we had enough money for shopping, and I found out, so… Oh, and I guess get your sizes if you want me to pick up something for you.”


“I, uh, I think I’d rather take care of that myself.”


She almost smiled, almost cracked a joke about his fashion sense, but she didn’t. Just nodded and started to turn away from him.


“Buffy,” he said again, and it sounded strangely reluctant. She waited expectantly. “Could you … do you think you could ‘rustle up’ a dress or something decent for yourself?”


Buffy stared at him. “I suppose I … why?”


He ran a hand through his hair, and if he’d been wearing his glasses he would have taken them off and cleaned them. “I, um. Ah, yes, well,” he stammered. “I rather hoped I could take you out to dinner tonight. Just the two of us.”


“Right. Okay. Suppose we do need to talk.”


*****


It was a good thing it wasn’t a date, because being driven to a nice restaurant in a big, yellow schoolbus was surely going to end up on her list of dinner experiences she didn’t especially want to repeat. But Giles had taken one look at her stylish heels – which weren’t even that high; she’d patrolled in way worse – and refused to walk.


Inside, the place was clean and cheerful and there were little lamps on the tables instead of candles. The patrons spoke quietly, but their voices weren’t actually hushed. Just exactly the right kind of ambience for a couple of friends to hash out their problems so they could hopefully avoid becoming ex-friends. Even thinking the term hit her harder than she’d expected, left her momentarily short of breath.


“Are you quite all right?” Giles asked her once they’d been seated.


“Huh? Oh, yeah. I guess.” He kept giving her that uncertain look, so she added, “Well, not so much. I kind of had a thought pop into my head that I’d never actually thought before and it wigged me out just a little.”


“Dare I ask?” His voice was tentative, and that added to her concern rather than diminished it. It was the same question he might have asked her at any point in their time together, but once upon a time he would have sounded like a man who had every right to ask the question and every hope of having it answered.


Buffy shook her head. She fidgeted with the ring she wore as the silence grew between them.


Were they too far apart even for small talk? They didn’t used to need it. If they weren’t talking about slaying stuff or research stuff or personal problem stuff, then he would tell her about things he knew and she would pretend to be interested. And sometimes she was interested and she would pretend not to be. He did much the same when she talked to him about school or, well, life.


They shared, before. And now they seemed to have lost the knack for sharing just as they’d clearly lost the knack for trusting.


As they waited for the food, they made any number of false starts. One of them would start to say something and then chicken out and fall silent again. And the one thing they both needed to talk about was too big and scary to mention.


The food arrived and they talked about that, although Buffy wasn’t sure she actually tasted it. He talked knowledgeably about the wine but her palate wasn’t experienced enough – or perhaps interested enough – to pick up any of the notes he claimed were there.


“I kinda like fermented grape juice,” she said abruptly, which made him laugh. It was the first time she’d heard him laugh in … well, she didn’t know how long it had been since she’d heard him laugh. Possibly a year. Okay, well, that was probably reasonable. None of them had exactly had a lot to laugh about in far too long.


Giles kept on putting in the effort to sustain the conversation, until watching him grew too painful to endure. One of them would have to say something of substance.


“Giles?” she interrupted quietly.


He stopped whatever he was talking about immediately. “Yes?”


“I wanna trust you again. And I just can’t do it quite yet.”


Giles looked as if he’d finally been dealt a blow he’d been expecting for a long time. He nodded gravely. “I understand that, Buffy.” He took a couple of deep breaths before he spoke again. “I want to trust you, as well,” he said. “I think I shall be able to manage it well enough, given—”

“Oh, how nice,” she said, with sudden bitterness. “You’ll be able to manage it now that the reason you didn’t trust me is conveniently dead and gone.”


He could only look down at his plate, refusing to meet her eyes. Well, good, she thought. He deserved to feel ashamed of himself.


“I still kind of hate you a little.” She hadn’t intended to say it, but it slipped out before she could stop it.


“Yes.”


“You probably hate me even more,” she ventured.


His head shot up. “I don’t … hate you, Buffy,” he said with difficulty. “I don’t think I could.”


“Not what it looked like to me.”


“I hated some of the choices you made,” he admitted. “I found some of your actions hard to accept, even verging on—” He stopped himself just in time.


Her eyes flashed. “Oh, go on,” she dared him. “What’s that word you’re afraid to use? Irresponsible, unreliable? Childish? Enthralled, maybe? Too stupidly infatuated to be trusted to make the right decisions, even though you were the one who kept on telling me I had to be the general.”


“I never said any of those things to you,” Giles pointed out coldly.


She glared at him. “Oh, no, of course not. That would be bad manners, wouldn’t it? Not quite cricket. You just thought them really hard while you were stabbing me in the back, right? And hey, I’m lucky it wasn’t literal, like you tried to do to Spike.”


“Ah, yes, there we go. The crux of the matter. The dearly departed St. William,” he said, letting go with the sarcasm at last. “Well, I can’t tell you how terribly sorry I am to have had so little trust in an unchipped vampire with a history of being used by the First – not to mention that little history of betraying and manipulating every single one of us, over and over again. How wrong of me not to have automatically placed his feelings above the safety of thirty or forty people in that house.”


“Yeah, well, look who was right.” Her eyes felt hot and moist, and under the table her hand curled into a tight fist, nails biting into her own flesh. “Guess I was wrong about something, though. We’re so not ready to talk about this yet.”


Without another word, Giles stood and reached for his wallet. He stuffed cash inside the little leather folder and strode away from the table. When he noticed she wasn’t with him he turned back to look at her. “Are you coming or is my company so objectionable you’d prefer to walk back to the motel?”


“You really want me to answer that?” But she followed him out of the restaurant anyway. As he opened the door of the bus she muttered to herself, “I thought walking in heels was something else you don’t trust me to do. Jerk.”


“Pardon?”


“Nothing. Just called you a jerk.”


“Quite right, too.”


“Say what?”


“You’re quite right to call me a jerk,” he repeated. “Although pillock or bastard might be nearer the mark. And then there’s insensitive clot.”


She flopped down into the seat behind his and sat regarding him.


He was pretending to fiddle with mirrors that were already perfectly adjusted for him. Without looking at her, he said, “I know you’re grieving for him, and I’m sorry.”


Buffy could only manage a small nod. She was, and it hurt more than she would have ever imagined. But it wasn’t only Spike she was grieving for. It was all the people they’d lost, in the final battle and before, it was her home and her memories and the whole stupid, evil, stupid town. It was all the years she’d spent there fighting against hell itself, and it was her mother’s grave that was lost down in the middle of that crater.


Maybe it was him, too. Maybe their friendship – and what a ridiculously insufficient word that was – lay buried there as well.


He started the bus, then switched off the engine again and turned to look at her, his arm draped across the back of the driver’s seat. “May I say something?”


“I don’t know. Is it gonna be pillocky?”


“There is no such word as pillocky,” he scolded, though the corner of his lip quirked up in a reluctant smile.


“Dickish, then.”


“No, it isn’t.”


“Okay.”


“I had wondered, before now, if my love for you actually was unconditional, or if there was something that could … Well, either way, I’m delighted to find that it is.”


Unconditional love?


Well, that was about the last thing she’d expected to hear.


It had seemed pretty damned conditional, the last few weeks especially, but the lights in the parking lot gave her a good look at his eyes, and there was just as much love as he’d ever shown her. Nothing else. No conditions, no reservations, no rebuke.


She wondered if she’d be able to be so unconditional towards him. Probably not, at least not for a while. The pain of betrayal was still too raw and achey right now, but at least she had some tiny hope that the burial of their friendship would prove to be premature after all.


Then in an instant she realised she had it all wrong. That wasn’t what he was getting at at all.


“Unconditional love” really only meant that you didn’t stop loving someone when they disappointed you, even if the betrayal and hurt ran unspeakably deep. It made no promises about being able to like or forgive them, or about repairing the bonds of a broken friendship. All it meant was that their love for each other wouldn’t necessarily die even if their relationship did.


The thought gave her a strange sort of comfort even as it chilled her to the bone.


She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “So. Apparently we can be childish and unreliable and backstabbing and untrustworthy and hateful—”


“I think we proved that in spades,” he interrupted.


“—and still, deep down, manage to love one another.”


It wasn’t a question and Giles didn’t take it as one. “It would probably be best from here on out if we tried not to be any of those things, though.”


“Deal,” she said, and reached for his hand across the back of the seat.