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The sun has fallen early, now that the clocks have been changed back to proper time, and the first autumn storm has come in hard, with wind and rain which makes Giles think nostalgically of England. On this early November night in Dallas, it's nicer inside than out, with lamplight and friends and good food and drink, and --

Fucking hell, this hand is possibly the worst one dealt since the invention of poker.

Giles looks at his cards one more time, sighs, then throws them face-down on the table. “Fold.”

"Lost your nerve, old man?" Spike says, rattling his poker chips for effect.

Giles smiles coolly and pushes back from his dining-room table. “No, Spike, it's just that you deal cards as well as you make plans. Or, more accurately, as badly.” Over the ensuing splutter: “I'm out for a bit. Lindsey, Terrence, I hope you take the stupid berk for everything he's got.”

“Buddy, it shall be done,” Lindsey says with his best lawyer's smile.

Terrence rubs his shaved head – his signature move for luck -- before settling his green visor more firmly over his eyes. “Less talking, gentlemen, more playing.”

Before they could play out the hand, however, Lindsey tugs on Giles' sleeve. “Hey, listen, you think I can get away with a cigarillo before Anya gets here?”

Giles' mouth waters at the very mention of a smoke. But it's been years since he'd indulged – well, rather, since his partner has allowed him a cigarette. Luckily he adores her beyond all telling, or he'd be tempted to break the rules even now...

He glances at his watch, then shakes his head. “She should be home presently, mate. Can't risk her wrath, you know she'd bloody smell it.”

"No smoking in front of my baby sister, anyway!” Buffy calls, at which Dawn punches her in the shoulder. He doesn't blame Dawn, however; no twenty-something Watcher would appreciate such a sodding belittling term, even from the Queen Slayer. Not of course that he would be foolhardy enough to let Buffy know he occasionally thinks of her with that unapproved New-Council nickname.

He always has been good at keeping secrets.

Terrence calls Lindsey's and Spike's attention back to the game, and after a quick glance to make sure that no one requires a refill of their wine or beer, Giles wanders off to Anya's old ice-cream table (which he'd wrestled down from the storage room and put under one of the big windows for the party), where Buffy and Dawn are laying out Anya's vintage Monopoly board.

He rests his hands on their shoulders, a connection, a way to signify his pleasure at their presence in his and Anya's home. Dawn of course is in and out of the flat all the time, now that she lives and works in Dallas – but that latter fact means that Buffy and her, er, consort visit often too, when apocalyptic rumblings are down to a simmer and the New Council and Slayer-children in London have everything well in hand.

He registers Buffy's tension as well, however. She and said stupid-berk consort aren't quite getting on at the moment; they've been snappish and avoidant ever since they'd got off the plane two days ago. Even now she's quite markedly not looking at Spike, who's putting on his own theatrical unconcern.

Giles sighs, and then looks out the undraped window. Anya's light-catcher focusses the diffuse city evening, makes everything seem rich, warm blue and red, changes the cold falling rain to gems. Beyond and above, the Blind One's windows are shuttered light.

As soon as Anya gets home, he'll turn the problem of Buffy and Spike over to her. This is not his area, never has been.

His attention is recalled by Dawn rubbing her cheek against his arm. “Hey, Giles, should I get another chair? Are you going to play Monopoly with us?”

“That would be a No, Dawn, as you're well aware. Er, since Anya will be joining you once she returns.” Idly he picks up the top card from the stack Dawn has just tidied. Chance, it says.

"You guys okay?" Buffy says. Projecting, no doubt.

He makes his smile as reassuring as he can. “We're perfectly fine. It's, just, well, with competitive sports or games and the like...”

Dawn makes a deeply annoying exploding-bomb sound. “Yeah, I forgot. It's so funny -- you guys work together all the time under the worst circumstances and you're great, but once a game starts, so does World War III.”

“Er, this is because with game-playing, there's always a winner and a bloody loser. Neither of us is particularly good at losing.” Grinning, he flicks her nose with the Chance card, as if she were still the teenager she'd once been. “Poor child, to have stumbled into the crossfire so very often...”

She grins back. “I know. The yelling, the accusations of cheating, the dramatic slamming of doors and the fake-tears – I'm totally scarred for life.”

Beside them, Buffy makes a strange, unhappy gesture. He doesn't quite know what it means, if her unease is about their shared Sunnydale history or Dawn's history without her. So he contents himself with a squeeze of Buffy's shoulder and a quiet, “Right. Well, er, I'll just go check on the food...Anya had a few surprises hidden away, I should find them before she gets in.”

“Where is she, anyway?” Dawn says.

He merely smiles at her as he walks away. He always has been good at keeping secrets.

In the kitchen Ruth and Brick are arranging some spinach-and-feta snacks on a baking tray. Giles privately appreciates Ruth's courage: to be in a chattering crowd, including two not-quite-strangers (one of whom has fangs), usually exacerbates her social anxiety, but she appears to be quite well, laughing with Brick over the patterns he's making with the tiny squares.

Of course it's hard not to feel good around Brick – who's on his own tonight, since his partners Michael and Horace are off bowling on the Blind Willie's team in the Deep Ellum league. (Bowling. Honestly. Giles and Brick are as one in their poor opinion of that particular sport.) So Brick has put on his best Marlon Brando T-shirt, jeans, and motorcycle boots, and his red party kimono and his eyeliner, and come to join them. He's the only one who could ever hope to compete with Anya at Monopoly...

“Rupert-Rupert!” Brick says, with a sidelong glance. “You didn't answer Shiny-Hair out there. Where is our gypsy Anya?”

Giles checks to make sure that no one is close enough to hear. “Shhh. She's helping Tyrone with an important purchase – but that's not for public knowledge.”

The commitment band on his wrist hums pleasantly for just a second, and he smiles.

But Ruth frowns, before wiping her hands nervously on her jeans and saying only for his ears, “Weren't they going to buy it at North Park? Is, um, is Tyrone going to make sure she's okay in the parking lot? In the dark?”

He had forgot that Ruth's in on the plan. Just as quietly, “I'm sure he won't let her walk by herself. Not these days, when it gets dark so soon, and...”

His commitment band hums again, less pleasantly.

At times Anya's independence in these small everyday matters worries him. He realizes her insistence is a reaction to her past – the way she once remade herself for Xander, and for Olaf, and her resulting personal disasters – which sometimes makes him a trifle insecure in turn, regardless of the strength of their partnership. And whenever he tentatively broaches the subject of regularizing their relationship beyond their commitment-bands, she always turns the conversation, or seduces him...

That isn't important. However, he also worries that she might dance herself into trouble. Smart and competent she is, but her active nature can make her less cautious than he (or, at least, than he is these days. He learnt a great deal from his last Los Angeles hell-visit, and some of the recklessness he once had to suppress has dissipated on its own).

At least the supernatural and paranormal villains should be tucked away for the moment. He and the Blind One meditated together that afternoon, and the boss confirmed his own sense that the hidden world is ticking along well. Dawn's Slayer can easily handle what threats remain. Probably.

“Dawn!” he calls through the open window between kitchen and living area. “Is LuAnn patrolling tonight?”

“Yes, there's a possible vamp nest on Turtle Creek. But she's got a sorority thing first,” Dawn says brightly. “She's going after chapter, she said.”

It's a near-run thing, but he manages not to roll his eyes. Dawn's Slayer is now attending Southern Methodist University – which he approves, of course – but she's also pledged one of those American sororities. He'd commented acerbically to Anya that he didn't quite see how being a Kappa Kappa Gamma fit with Slayer-powers, but she'd pointed out that he was a fifty-something Englishman, how could he understand American college customs, and anyway he should just have Buffy talk to the girl. “It's hard to be normal,” she'd said. “Buffy knows.”

He looks again at Buffy arguing with Dawn over who gets to be the shoe, and then at Spike – who's positioned himself with his back to Buffy. He looks at the empty chair which will be Anya's, whenever she gets back.

Normal. Right.

Giles takes out the worry-talisman Anya gave him on his first full day in Dallas and begins to roll it around his palm. The feel of it soothes him. He sometimes fancies he can feel its eternity-symbol against his skin.

“Giles?” Ruth says hesitantly, recalling him from his drifting thoughts.

He smiles at her, regardless of his inner feelings. “Sorry, Ruth. Just... er, thinking about where Anya had put the good veggie-crisps.”

“Pantry?” Brick says. “Just a guess.”

At that moment Spike growls, Lindsey crows over his winning hand, and Dawn turns up the stereo -- one of Anya's favourite mix-CDs, which unfortunately features Brick and Anya's shared musical obsession. Brick crows louder than MacDonald and that horrifying Stevie Nicks. (Giles knows Anya had done some vengeance-work for Ms Nicks, but he never can bring himself to ask for specifics.)

“'Stand back!'” Brick sings dramatically, then, “Ruth my dove, could you open the oven door for me?”

Laughing, she does. Giles feels the wave of unbound heat all the way across the kitchen. Brick, singing properly, slides the baking tray inside, slams the door, and then twirls so fast that his untied red kimono flutters free.

Giles closes his eyes, but the red seems to fill his inner vision, expanding to cover the world. Flutter becomes a beating, a tide of blood...

“Who's the winner then? Who's the fuckin' badass?” Lindsey says smugly over Brick's singing and Terrence's irritated rumble.

“I'll bet you everything you've got,” Buffy says. To Dawn, perhaps, but perhaps not.

Outside, a sudden gust of rain-heavy wind rattles the windows. Inside and nearby, just barely audible in the commotion, comes the scrape of a dial turning, and then the ticking begins. Timer has been set.

Giles closes his fist over his worry-talisman. He needs to feel that eternity-symbol.

.......................................

 

“I know you've got to go... but are you sure Dawn will like it?” Tyrone says for the fifth time.

Through the plate-glass doors of the NorthPark Neiman Marcus, Anya can see the rain sweeping across the parking lot. It's going to be a nasty drive home, she needs to get started. But because she loves Tyrone despite his male stupidity, she takes a breath and then says as kindly as she can, “I told you, the ring is the perfect choice. In my espionage before this mission I confirmed that she likes diamonds' sparkle plus that little emerald in there to honour her glowy Key heritage, and it'll fit, which I've also checked twice. You did good, okay?”

He shoves his hands into his pockets – which ruins the line of his Italian suit, something she knows he'd never do if he weren't so rattled. “Okay. Okay, Anya, I'm sure you're right.”

“Your wobbliness is just pre-proposal nerves, it's perfectly understandable. Now it's almost time to actually propose.” She pats his shoulder briskly. “Also, you can do so with the knowledge you got a good deal.”

“Thank the Lord for employee discounts,” he says, with the charming expression Dawn always calls his 'Will Smith grin.'

“I'm all for discounts in the right place,” Anya says. “Now, since we've got that settled, I want to get home to Rupert and the party we're giving!”

“Yeah. Yeah, I really do appreciate your help. The party's a great, um, deflection-tactic for Dawn, too – but let me get my raincoat and I'll walk you out.” He arches an eyebrow. “Of course, if you'd used the valet parking like I asked you to...”

She's already moving, one hand to her umbrella, one hand almost to the cold glass. “There is no reason to spend good money that way, and, sweetie, I can walk by myself.”

“I could have validated. Anyway, Anya, just hang on. You know there's the... thing.” He looks around – ever the stalwart Neiman Marcus management-type, who won't talk bad stuff in front of customers – before saying in a lowered voice, “With all that car-jacking lately, I'm damn sure Giles wouldn't want you to go out alone. Let me get my coat.”

Anya pauses. Storm's so close she can almost feel the rain on her face, but she's still on this protected side. “I've been walking by myself for a thousand years, Tyrone. There's no need to be so conventionally male about this – you or Rupert.”

“Thing is, you don't have to walk alone any more.” His hand catches at the belt of her charity-shop 70s Bill Blass topper --

But then a highly lacquered saleswoman coughs right behind him, and says, “Mr Henderson, could you spare a moment? We've got a question about the latest memo from Purchasing...”

Conscientious Tyrone hesitates just long enough for Anya to slip out the door, calling, “See you at the party in a little while!”

The rain and wind is worse than it looked from the other side -- like cold knives gleaming in the dark (although rain here isn't actually full of blades; that was another dimension, one she hadn't liked to work). She stops for a minute to button her coat against the bad weather. As she works up toward her neck, though, her hand brushes against the sigilite pendant she always wears, and she smiles. Out of that Los Angeles nightmare those years ago, at least Rupert found this wonderful stone.

Before she does up the top button, she touches the pendant at its heart, right over the eternity-sign. Sometimes she thought she could feel the sign pressing into her skin. But those times she also thought about how eternity was for many individuals a punishment full of pain, violence, and nibbling bunny-teeth, so she doesn't let herself think that way tonight. She just thinks about Rupert, and feels warm in the cold.

From behind her comes a hoarse male voice. “Ma'am? Do you... are you waiting for me?”

She glances over her shoulder – yep, it's the valet, and he looks miserable, poor man. “Thank you, but no! Stay there!” she says, and waves, and steps herself into the rain.

Without putting up her umbrella first. Tactical error. And one which can't be retrieved, since she 's already soaked in just those few steps.

Frowning, umbrella-less, she goes on.

She's got a long way to go, unfortunately. Last Christmas (Hanukah Solstice Kwanzaa, and their fourth anniversary of exchanging commitment-bands) she and Rupert agreed to buy a new vehicle to replace her old compact car, which somehow turned into Rupert, Tyrone the car expert, and Lindsey all going to some highly secret car-purchasing location and coming back with a 'gently used' Mercedes sedan. It's the pride of Rupert's heart, although at the time he claimed it was a joint present for them both, ha ha, and so he insists on babying it with practices such as always parking away from the crowd at the furthest reaches of the parking lot. (Didn't stop them christening the backseat with a quickie, of course. That had been another cold night: the leather of the seat cold against her back even through the T-shirt she kept on, the air chilly on her bare legs as Rupert pulled them around his hips, but he had been warm, warm as anything, when he'd come inside.)

The rain's interfering with her vision on this long journey. She wipes away precipitation, curses, and only then steps ankle-deep into a puddle.

This minor catastrophe makes her think about validation, somehow. Not the valet-parking kind.

During the past couple of years – after Los Angeles, and all of that awfulness– she catches Rupert watching her sometimes. Part of it's just Rupert: surveillance, detachment, and all that jazz is in his blood. Part of it, though, is as if he's got a question he's not asking.

He loves her, she knows that. He's shown her, not least with the rooftop garden he made for her (and himself) after that LA trip. But she wonders if she's failing him somehow. It's like he tests her, or maybe that's just her own fear talking. She meditates with the Blind One too, and she practices introspection, which she finds unpleasant but necessary, and she stops herself from going down bad paths most of the time, but....

In the past year or so he's occasionally brought up marriage in an idle way, and for her it's always like a splash of icy water, like fear expanding to fill a tight place. Is there a right answer to his question? What does he want? How much has she earned?

She walks on in the rain, alone under the lights.

Dawn and Tyrone, she thinks, are going to be fine. Tyrone, for all his education and easiness with metaphysical and/or supernatural weirdness, can be kind of a conventional guy – and he wants to give Mama Henderson a grandchild, because Shanice doesn't want one. (Shanice and her long-term guy Walter, a DPD cop with his own streak of independence, won't get married either, because of philosophical reasons. Mama Henderson starts breaking cookies into her coffee and muttering complaints to Jesus under her breath whenever this comes up, as Anya's witnessed.) And Dawn craves her own family, something not imposed on her by crazy-ass monks, even though she loves her created one too.

For a moment Anya feels the sigilite pendant lying snug against her skin, and she thinks of sparks and transformation. But it's just the strange hum from the parking-lot light overhead as it fades for a moment. Just an ordinary loss of light.

She's almost to the car, anyway. Not to worry.

She stops by the car door and starts rooting around her purse for her key. It's somewhere here, she'll find it by touch.

The roar of the Central Expressway just on the other side of the divide swells. The light overhead begins to brighten. Her cold-numbed fingers touch the ring on which her keys chime --

And then she is pushed against the Mercedes by rough hands. She tries to protest, but she's kicked against the door. She loses breath in the sudden pain. From far away she hears the valet shout “Hey!” and then Tyrone shout her name. From nearby, a couple of male voices growl – hurry you fucker, gotta take the bitch -- and the keys are ripped from her hand.

She falls. Her head hits the pavement, and it's all roar and blackness swallowing her up.

..........................................

 

The edge of the metal burns through the kitchen cloth, singes Giles's fingers, makes him curse under his breath. Then, louder, “Fuck it all!”

He spills the spinach-and-feta appetizers onto the plate Ruth's laid out, then drops the hot tray into the sink and turns on the tap. Cold water hisses onto hot metal – at least until he shoves his reddened, aching fingers under the flow.

When he shuts off the tap, his hand hurts like anything.

“Nice move, Giles,” Buffy says from behind him. When he turns, she's got a teasing gleam. “You haven't learned much kitchen magic from those days in Sunnydale, huh? Remember that Thanksgiving we had at your place?”

He's ready to say something caustic about the way she and the Scoobies had invaded his space in those days, or at least something rude about ricers, when Spike says from behind her, “Ah yes, good times. Planning to tie me up again, Slayer?”

“No,” she says briefly. Spike sags against the countertop, and Giles can see bafflement and frustration in his eyes. But what does the git expect, bringing up that element of their past....

She takes one of the hot snacks, hisses like water on metal at the contact, then pushes past Spike to go back to the room with the games.

Giles blows on his burn to ease it, to give himself time to think. Once he's certain he's centered, he says calmly, “Problems? Anything I can do?”

Spike's expression is half-smirk, half-sadness. “You think you can ever do anything, old man?” But he pats Giles on the shoulder in an awkward return of kindness before taking two beers from the refrigerator. As he goes back out, he says with burning self-mockery, “'You made a bear! Undo it! Undo it!'”

Giles laughs. Then he recalls that it was Buffy who summoned the bear, and he thinks of old stories and new perspectives, and he thinks about undoing.

Then he pours himself a glass of Shiraz and tells himself to forget it.

Before he can leave the kitchen with his wine in hand, however, Dawn arrives – with his sword-stick. Beaming in a rather Anya-like fashion, she says, “Hey, big guy. I'll trade you your cane for that Chance card you stole.”

“I what?”

“Stole a Chance card.” She points to his shirt pocket, where in fact the edge of a card glows orange, although he doesn't remember taking it. “How can we play without all the cards? And anyway, I know you're hurting a bit, you're doing the not-quite-limping thing.”

He's annoyed at her perception, but she's not wrong. It's growing impossible to ignore his old war-wounds on a damp night like this. So he manages a smile and says, “Deal.”

When he hands over the card, however, he reads it – Go back three spaces – and his smile fades.

Christ, he wants Anya. He wants Anya home.

The phone rings. About time, he thinks, as he reaches for it. The Caller Identification thing shows Tyrone's mobile, which is slightly worrying: “Giles here. Hullo, Ty.”

“Giles. Ah, Jesus, Giles.” Tyrone's voice on the phone is ragged enough that Giles slowly puts down his wine. “It's... Anya.”

The air seems to have been sucked out of the room. Giles swallows hard. “What's happened?”

“Car-jacked.” The word is bitten-off.

“What?” Giles says. The flat has gone silent. There's nothing except the hammer of wind and rain and Tyrone's words.

“Jesus,” Tyrone says again. “Look, Giles, we've called the cops, and Walter's on it, but... I told her to wait for me, but she just went out to the car by herself, I couldn't....” He stops. Collects himself. “Okay, here's the deal. Joaquin – the valet-parking guy – and I saw them from a distance. Two men. They hit her, took her keys, put her in the car, and drove off. I followed on foot, tried to catch them...”

Tyrone's voice fades in Giles' ears. He can't hear anything now, he's gone cold with the effort of imagining this horror. His Anya, hurt, frightened, alone -- “Oh, God, no.”

Vaguely he knows that Dawn's taken the phone away from him, she's speaking to Tyrone fast and purposeful, but he's detaching, as he always has done when the hurt is too great.

When he shoves his hand into his pocket to catch up his talisman, the stone rubs against his burn. He barely feels it.