Through the chatter, Buffy could hear one constant voice. It rose to an excited treble, threading through the busy conversation of their weekly meeting like a strand of copper wire. It was the bright but often keening voice of her sister, Dawn. Buffy was quite sure that Dawn had remained affixed to her cell phone since the day they moved in to their house on Meteor Street. Not a house, though, she reminded herself. Giles called it a flat. It was three stories, not counting the basement, yet to the English, that was flat.
Across from her, Giles sat tapping ballpoint pen to steno pad. His terse expression told her that he was quite ready for the meeting to begin. The others obviously paid no heed to the uptight British man. Willow, Andrew and Kennedy were chattering lightly about Andrew's newest lady friend, a school teacher named Nighna who came to London from Morocco. And Xander, bemused though he was, grumbled much over the idea that Andrew the comic-bookish geek boy could get more lovin' than he.
"Oh my God, I know," Dawn squealed over her cell phone. "Oh my God... I know! He so did not. Oh, bloody hell!"
Giles grimaced. He leaned forward, which indicated that he wanted to start the meeting. Still no one took notice, except for Buffy. She had a pad of her own, meant for taking notes. On it, she had drawn a big looping teardrop shape.
"Dawn," Giles said, on the edge of losing his Britishness.
She rolled her eyes dramatically and flounced out of the room.
"Geez," Xander said. "Were we ever that...?"
"Energetic?" Willow cut in.
"I was going for annoying," Xander said.
Giles leaned forward again. "If we're ready to begin, I'd like to discuss the new Slayer the coven located. Willow?"
Willow sat up, studiously, folding her slim hands on the table in front of her. "The newbie's in Scotland, in a romantic little fishing village called Plockton, near the Highlands."
Simultaneously, Andrew and Xander said, "There can be only one?"
Andrew grinned. Xander looked abashed and lowered his gaze to an interesting spot he found on the back of his thumb.
"Do you have to say it every time?" Kennedy asked.
Buffy could feel Giles tensing from across the room. He said, "Willow. Please continue."
Willow went on. She talked about taking a train to this Plockton place, where there was a rustic two-bedroom cottage with a built-in Jacuzzi and no one around for miles. Then Xander started saying something about the mission sounding more like a mini-break than Slayer collecting. Kennedy then mentioned giving him a mini-break in a painfully specific place.
But Buffy drifted. Their voices combined to weave a kind of net that let her swim off to the realm of elsewhere. She thought about the patrol route she was likely to take once this meeting adjourned, and about the Silver Edition Calvin & Hobbes book she'd ordered from Amazon.com for Xander. And underneath all these surface-y thoughts, her inner voice was chatting away. And these days, surprisingly, her inner voice sounded just like Spike.
God, she thought, even as her subconscious mind, the guy would not shut up. Buffy scribbled on her note pad, making a crosshatch pattern on the top of the loop she'd drawn.
Buffy, he whispered. Buffy... You're missing out, pet. Meal planning, mini-breaks... laundry detail. They need you to decide, Slayer. Will it be cutlets or chicken curry?
Shut up, she thought to herself. But she smiled. She looked down at her doodle on the page. She'd drawn a noose, which pretty much summed up her thoughts on weekly meetings. She covered it with her hand.
"What do you think, Buffy?" Willow asked.
"Hmm?" Buffy said.
"Hello, Buffy," Xander said. "London calling."
Willow said, "Can you cover the school on Monday, in case Kennedy and I don't get back in time? We have to cover the whole Slayer mission with her parents, and if she decides to, you know, join the gang, we may need more than just the weekend..."
"Sure," Buffy said. "Um, no problem."
"Great," Kennedy said brightly. "We're going up tomorrow. Our train leaves first thing."
Dawn sauntered in, sliding her phone to the table with a clatter. "I wanna come," she said. "I love riding the trains."
Willow shot Kennedy a panicked look, then straightened. "Oh, it'll be way boring. Just, you know, small town. Lots of sheep. And the cutest little fishing boats. But, we're meeting the girl's parents first thing. So, yea! Slayer mission."
Dawn settled back for a good, long sulk, but her cell phone rang, rescuing them all from the wrath. She answered the phone with "hullo, mate!" then bounced from the room.
"Good. Good," Giles said, making notes on his yellow pad. "And you, Buffy? How are you faring with the girls at the school?"
Buffy sat a little straighter. This was a point of pride for her. She ran the Summers School, which for Londoner passers-by specialized in martial arts and self-defense training. It also had the handy double as Slayer Training HQ, UK. Faith had her own school in New York; Robin Wood, son of Slayer and former Sunnydale principal helped out with that. Rona and Vi had another school in Cleveland. They saw a lot of action there, since Cleveland rested rather unpleasantly on another Hellmouth.
London was less demony. Vampires a-plenty, but nothing they couldn't handle.
"The girls are good," Buffy said, nodding to Kennedy. "We each have four now. Lots of girls, kicking ass. Handy with the stakes and holy water. I'm still doing solo patrols for now..."
"Not ready to share out with the vamp killing good times?" Xander put in.
"No," Buffy said. "No, it's not that. They're not ready yet. I want to firm them with the footing, before they get knocked flat."
Giles nodded his head once. "I think you're right. Give them time to settle in. Rita's been here the longest, and she arrived less than a month ago."
"Plus, we haven't worked out all the kinks with our training schedule yet," Kennedy said.
Buffy chewed her lip. She said, "Getting up at 5 a.m. is the best way to go. That way they're getting all worked out before the body grasps what they're doing to it."
"Yeah, but if they're going to be patrolling at night, a 5 a.m. wake up call doesn't leave time for sleep," Kennedy said.
"Welcome to my world," Buffy said.
Dawn re-entered the room, still chatting, her phone snugged between shoulder and ear. She dropped a stack of mail into the center of the table before breezing back out.
Giles reached for the bills straight away. Willow snatched a post card from the stack.
"Oh look, it's from Robin and Faith," she said. She turned it over, revealing a sparkling Jamaican beach on its front. She read aloud: "Dear Buffy & all. Hope this finds you well. Found one VS here in Ocho Rios... sending her to Rona and Vi in Cleveland. More soon, take care. Robin. Huh, that's nice."
She held the card closer to her face. "There's a scrawly bit, I can't read it."
Buffy took the card from Willow. "Wish you were here. Wait, no I don't. Later, suckers. Love, Faith. Not surprised."
Xander shifted in his seat. "Why does she get all the Baywatch Slayer assignments? I could so see me on a beach somewhere..."
"Add a striped shirt and a peg-leg and you're a commercial for Captain Morgan's," Willow said.
"I hate the beach," Andrew moaned. "All that sand. And sharks." He shuddered.
"Yeah, but sun," Xander said, gesturing expansively, "And sparkling water. And the bikinis and br..."
Giles jumped in. "Andrew, you're working on invocation lessons with Dawn?"
Xander slouched. Andrew perked up. Since moving to London, Andrew had gone into complete Giles Junior mode. The resemblance was somewhat off-putting, especially to Giles. Tonight, he wore a brown flannel over-shirt and kept a cup of tea close at hand.
Andrew cleared his throat before beginning. "Thank you, Mr. Giles," he said. "Um, Dawn is remarkably edacious. I'm happy to say she's progressing in the demon invocation arts, and in demon vanquishing. Lately she's been less attentive, but I'm thinking it's a blip, due to this guy Lane she's been talking to."
"Lane?" Buffy and Xander said in accord.
"What happened to what's his... with the orange hair and the piercing?" Buffy asked.
"What, Brody?" Andrew said, laughing. "Yeah, he's like so yesterday."
Buffy sat back. "Huhn," she said.
"Speaking of boys," Willow said. "How's that thing, you know, with that Tom fellow?"
"Tim," Xander corrected.
"Tim," Willow said. She wiggled her eyebrows. "Right, so?"
The corner of Buffy's mouth twinged almost imperceptibly, but Giles caught it and frowned.
"I dunno," Buffy said. "Guys here are so hands-offy and gentlemanly. Not that that's bad, but... they're just so... British. No offense, Giles."
Giles waved a hand. "Used to it," he said.
Buffy continued. "Besides, we are way off topic now. Like Off Off Topic. We were discussing Dawn's apprenticing with Andrew. God, does it sound weird to anyone else that I just said that?"
Everyone the table round shrugged, including Andrew.
Andrew cleared his throat again. "Well, I'm not sure how you all will feel about this, but... Dawn is like really young, and she knows so much already. She's like Demon Vanquish Queen, which makes me a teeny bit jealous, but still I'm thinking this boy phase isn't so bad a thing."
"You're right," Buffy said.
"I am?" Andrew said. "Yes!"
"Dawnie's finally getting to be a kid here. We don't know long it will last, so let's just let her enjoy it while it does," Buffy said.
"Hear here for the brat chat," Xander called out.
Willow craned her head to check the grandfather clock in the entry hall behind them. "Hey, here's a thought, Giles. I don't mind the weekly meetings. In fact, I love them in the same way I love mini-highlighter pens, but do you think we could move them to Thursdays? Some of us might have plans for Friday nights."
"Yeah, like Dawn and Lane," Kennedy said.
"Or Tom and Buffy," Andrew added.
"Tim," Xander corrected.
"Nope. No plans. Just patrolling," Buffy said. "But Thursdays work fine for me."
Giles scribbled the note on his pad. "Thursdays noted. Is there anything else?"
Willow and Kennedy both jumped up, practically knocking over their chairs. But they weren't fast enough to evade Andrew, who approached with dreaded meal plans.
"I wanted to discuss next week's menu with you since we need groceries and you'll be out of town for the weekend," he said, chasing after them. His voice grew smaller as they headed upstairs, with him behind them, still talking away. "I'd like to make a nice leg of lamb and we need some tofu since Dawn's eschewed all meat..."
"Meal plans," Buffy muttered. "Ah, God." She scratched over her noose sketch with long, loose strokes of the pen.
Giles pushed his notebook away and sat back. "Nothing else then?" he asked.
Xander got slowly from his seat, stretching. "Nope," he said. "Think I'll head down to the pub, you know. Have a pint. Ponder some pretzels. Then I figure I'll crawl back home to lonely, lonely sleep. What do you say, British one? Up for some Guinness?"
"In a while," Giles said.
Xander cleared out of the room, taking his coat from the stand in the hall and heading out into the misty night.
Once Xander was gone, Buffy got to her feet.
"That was some meeting," Buffy said.
Giles looked at her. It was the look a professor gives to a student when he knows said student has been zoning out during class.
She braced herself.
"Buffy, may I have a word?"
"Sure," she said, trying to sound aloof.
"Is everything all right? You seem..."
"Sullen? Broody? Melancholy?" she offered.
"A bit," he said. He took of his glasses and fastidiously cleaned the lenses.
"It'll pass," she said, trying at once to be brisk and reassuring.
"I'm sure it will, but if you'd like to talk," he said.
Buffy stepped away from her chair and pushed it in. "Would it help? I mean, really?"
"I think so, yes," Giles said.
"No," Buffy answered. "I'm going to patrol. Kicking. Screaming. General violence. That helps. Plus, I have other things to keep my mind occupied. Like the school, and finding our girls."
"Buffy, I..." Giles began.
"I just miss..." She caught herself. "I miss things, from before. I need to get them out of my system, is all. Since they've gotten me out of theirs."
An expression flashed across Giles' forehead. It may as well have been a giant Times Square billboard of disappointment. "Spike, I presume," he said.
"Not just him. Obviously," Buffy said.
"You know it's for the best," Giles said.
"It's ridiculous, Giles. I know it. But you said it yourself. We relied on each other. And I thought... or I think, some days, that I did everything wrong."
"I don't see how that's possible, Buffy. You saved the world and sealed the Hellmouth," Giles said.
Buffy went on as if she hadn't heard Giles at all. "He's become the voice in my head, Giles. I hear him, talking to me. I know how pointless it is. That whole not-knowing-what-you-have-till-it's gone thing's really sinking in about now. I could just call him. He's in LA. I could pick up the phone."
"Don't," Giles said, darkly.
"You're right," Buffy said, revving up to a nice rant. "He didn't call me. Why should I call him? 'Hey, Buffy! I'm alive and in Los Angeles, working with our old pal, Angel.' Of all people. Grr. You know what, I'm passed it. I'm going out. Now."
Buffy strode over to the coat rack and took her own jacket. As she tugged it on, Giles rounded the table and came to stand by her.
"Buffy," he said, gently. "This is a place for starting over. We left all of it behind us. I'm not saying it will happen tonight or tomorrow, but eventually, you will put all of it out of your heart. You'll be better for it, I promise."
Buffy zipped her jacket and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. Her fist closed around the stake she kept in the right one. "Putting it behind me," she said, nodding. "I'll be back whenever."
She turned smoothly on the toe of her boot and headed out the door.
"Buffy," Giles called.
She turned, hesitantly, her hand on the doorknob. "What?"
"Be careful," he said.
Buffy gave him a thin smile, and then stepped out into the chilly London night.