Uncertain Ground - Chapter 4
Buffy woke to the smell of coffee wafting through the air. The campground had been rather crowded when they’d arrived the previous evening, so she hoped it was coming from her camp rather than someone else’s. As she turned over in her sleeping bag, she noticed she was alone in the tent and her spirits brightened, figuring Giles had gotten up early and started fixing breakfast already.
The trip the night before had been somewhat akin to crossing the threshold into another world. The clouds had rolled in, periodically covering the sun and bathing the light green fields and grey rocky outcrops in an otherworldly light as they traveled along the Ring Road towards Skaftafell National Park. Even the ocean to their right had looked like quicksilver as the escaping rays of sunlight danced off the waves. Giles had told her stories of the Hidden People, the mythical Icelandic elves and fairies that inhabit the island, to distract her from her worries and, looking out the window of the car, she had no trouble believing that there could be invisible beings out there coexisting with the rural population amidst the craggy landscape. Iceland certainly had its own ethereal charm.
The morning air was cold and she dressed quickly before exiting the tent and heading to use the bathroom facilities. Upon her return, Giles handed her a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage.
“How did you sleep?”
“It’s kinda tough to get used to this twenty-one hours of daylight thing. I had to scrunch down in the sleeping bag to get it dark enough, but after that I was fine. You?”
“Fine,” he disregarded. “And yes, the sunlight will mess with our internal clocks. We’ll have to watch the time, listen to our bodies, and not use the sun for clues so that we don’t overdo it.”
“Any word from Andrew yet on where the best hiding places might be?”
“Nothing yet. I broke out the map earlier while you were sleeping. It’s a little over 28 miles as the crow flies from here to the caldera.”
“Uphill,” the Slayer added. “On ice. Oh and not flying.”
“Yes, well, it will be a bit longer for us, but we have a few days time before the solstice and we’re both fit.”
“Some fitter than others,” she teased with a smug smile, earning a glare from her Watcher.
“Yes, do remind me how old and decrepit I am compared to a Slayer of twenty-four,” he groused.
“Chill, Giles, I’m ancient in Slayer years, remember?” Buffy reminded him. “On my third life, and I haven’t exactly been training for the Ice Capades either.” She took his empty mug from him after having just finished up her breakfast. “Go pack up the tent and I’ll do the dishes. We should head out soon.”
They started their journey through the heath and up towards the glacier, their path taking them past the basalt hexagonal columns of the waterfall known as Svartifoss and through busloads of tourists coming to ogle one of the main attractions of the national park. The columns and pillars reminded Buffy of the pipes on the organs found in the great Gothic cathedrals throughout Europe and when she shared her observation with Giles, it opened up a whole new topic of conversation for them that helped while away the time as they followed the path Giles had plotted out on his map.
Several hours later, they stopped for lunch in a meadow heavily dotted with a kaleidoscope of colorful wild flowers. Between the pleasant conversation and the beautiful scenery, the Watcher and Slayer enjoyed each other’s company despite the animosity they’d faced over the past two years and, if they let their guard down, they could almost believe that they were on a picnic together instead of tracking down a delusional ex-demon hunter who had kidnapped a human-and-mystical-ball-of-energy hybrid who could apparently still open portals to hell dimensions and a self-absorbed chaos mage who’d been locked up in a military prison for four years.
“Is this the type of stuff you’d do on Watcher’s retreats before coming to California?” Buffy asked him as she stretched out in the high grass and watched him heat the water for their meals.
“Which? Mountain hiking? Camping? Sometimes,” he answered. “More often when I was at the academy. It’s always been more of a private passion, really, but I haven’t been in years.”
“You seem really at ease out here.”
“It’s refreshing to get back to nature,” he agreed.
“Looking around, it’s hard to believe that there are volcanoes out there waiting to blow sometime. Everything is so peaceful.”
Giles passed Buffy a spoon and her lunch in a pouch. “There is a ‘calm before the storm’ feel to it, sitting atop a geologically active area.”
“Probably just foreboding. I mean we’re up against a deadline with a guy we know has a history of medical issues thanks to a crazy Doctor Frankenstein wanna be,” she reflected. “Poor Riley. I figured he’d be retired and living on a farm in Iowa by now, raising pigs and growing corn with his wife, a little kid following him around... probably a little girl he’d call ‘princess’ and another baby on the way.”
Giles tilted his head after taking a bite of his chicken and dumplings, watching the emotions play over her face. Buffy had stopped eating and set her food down next to her, lost in thought.
After a few moments, she continued, “I wanted that for him, you know... after I got over my annoyance at him having found the perfect woman while I was wallowing in my despair, indulging in my death wish with Spike.”
“And what did you want for you?”
Buffy held his eyes a second and then looked away. “I-I don’t remember,” It was a lie and they both knew it, but Buffy clearly didn’t want to talk about it and Giles wasn’t one to push. “You know, we’re assuming Riley is down with the whole solstice timeline. He could just be crazy and do what he thinks he needs to do whenever he’s ready.”
Giles set his food pouch aside and tried to reassure her, “The more intelligent demons follow rituals and the earth cycles-”
“He is not a demon! He’s a soldier!” she snapped, standing up to face him, “methodical and calculating. If the situation changes, he will adapt. It’s what makes him dangerous. It’s what made Adam dangerous.”
“From what Captain Miller has-”
“Can you please just call him Graham?” she interrupted, clearly agitated from her trip down memory lane.
Trying again, the Watcher’s voice was low and calm, “From what Graham has said, Riley believes he is turning into a demon, and as such, he will follow demon customs. Trust me, Buffy. Riley isn’t stupid, he was a graduate student in psychology and he learned about the demons he hunted and captured. Professor Walsh drilled the information into his head in the early days, grooming him for her vile purpose. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re here days from the summer solstice, the symbolism of which is rebirth.”
“You really think he will wait?”
He stood and brushed the dirt and grass from his grey hiking trousers before walking over towards his Slayer. Shoving his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders in an effort to put her at ease, Giles presented his case. “Riley spent six months in a military hospital biding his time, convincing doctors he was on the path to recovery. Graham was right to have his doubts. My guess is that Riley used that time to regroup and research his situation, the hallucinations fueling the paranoia of a transformation. That harpy Walsh was his mentor and he had great respect for her until she tried to have you killed and he found out what her plans were. His delusions may have taken him back to a time before that, when he still respected her, idolized her even. With the loss of his wife and his squad, it’s only natural to turn inward, to the memories of when things were good and made sense. A time when things were simple, when all he had to do was follow her orders. She wanted him to be a leader and a demon, so now, after losing so much, he’s decided that’s what he’ll be.”
Buffy had calmed considerably while Giles expounded his theory. It was like being back in the Magic Box, sitting around the research table collaborating and working through the latest mystery to hit Sunnydale - only without the rest of the gang. “So Riley’s had time to plan his ‘rebirth’ and find a way to take his place leading a demon army for Walsh, and the only way he can do that is by using a sorcerer to invoke some ritual using the Key to open a portal to bring his army through.”
“And where rituals are concerned, timing is everything.”
“The solstice,” she agreed as she lifted her eyes to meet his.
“You could still be wrong, you know,” she said gravely.
“Do you think so?” Giles asked, challenging her.
“No,” Buffy replied, an encouraging smile spreading out across her lips. “I really don’t.”
He returned her smile with a small one of his own. “It’s the best theory we have at the moment, but I think it’s sound, and it means we still have four days to find Dawn.”
The duo finished up lunch and cleaned up after themselves, leaving their resting spot as pristine as when they had found it. They had several more hours of hiking ahead of them before they could stop for the evening, but their talk had eased the minds of both and made them long for the days when their relationship had been a partnership.
When the footing got a bit more uneven amidst the moraine, Buffy asked, “Why didn’t you ever take me out on hikes like this?”
He stared at her incredulously, but opted for a snarky comeback, “I worried for your ankles with your usual choice of footwear.”
“Ha ha. I get it. You could have forced the issue, you know, Watcher/Slayer bonding time.”
Giles stopped and looked off towards the distance. “Perhaps I should have,” he muttered to himself, regret in his voice. Perhaps if he had, there wouldn’t have been such a chasm between them now. Maybe the time together would have been enough to bridge the gap between them after her resurrection. He looked ahead to where she was, keeping a steady pace and stretching out the distance between them. He sighed. Maybe not. He recognized the metaphor just below the surface: they always managed to find common ground, a peace, but it never lasted long before the chasm would open up even wider the next time they fell out. It was best to be aware of the pattern and brace for the eventual split. Maybe the next one would sever the ties permanently. He steeled his resolve and resumed his progress, following her.
They set up camp for the night in a sparse field next to a stream along the edge of the ice cap. After a full day of hiking up into the mountains and clearing the site to set up their tent, Giles was ready to be off his feet.
“That water is cold!” Buffy declared, returning from the stream after filling their canteens. “How many purifying tablets did Andrew give you?”
“A thirty days supply, but we won’t need them unless we are melting glacial ice. The water in the rivers and streams comes from underground and gets filtered through the basalt rock. It’s amongst the purest water on the planet.”
“We’re still using them. I’m not risking this mission for some sort of weird parasitic infection. Give,” she insisted, holding out her hand.
“As you wish,” Giles replied, walking over to his backpack and digging through an outer pocket for the tablets. Handing her a couple, he said, “Only the water we intend on drinking tomorrow though. The rest of the water can be boiled, killing anything harmful in the process.”
“Thanks, Giles.” When she was done, she assisted him in setting up the tent, driving the stakes into the rocky ground. “Are you hungry or do you just want to chill for a while?”
“I think I want to take off my boots and relax,” he responded, retrieving his sleeping pad so he could sit comfortably on the ground.
Buffy continued to putter around the camp, breaking out the stove to boil water and start preparing their dinner while Giles pulled off his boots and stretched out on his side. Within a few moments he had closed his eyes and rolled over onto his tummy, pillowing his head on his arms, fast asleep. Deciding to let him nap for a while, Buffy put off dinner and unrolled his sleeping bag to drape over him. It was getting cooler and they had worked up a sweat during their trek.
She studied him for a few minutes, not having considered him much over the past few days because of her annoyance and anger with him. He was leaner, his hair a shade lighter from the encroaching grey, and the lines on his face a little deeper, but there was still a boyish charm about him. She wondered if he slept more soundly these days than he did back in Sunnydale because at the moment she felt a volcano could erupt next to him and he’d just sleep through it. Her Watcher was exhausted.
His soft little snuffles were endearing and she couldn’t help but smile, though it was bittersweet. Their truce wouldn’t last long, their peaceful moments never did. It seemed like the other’s presence would lull them into a sense of security until he decided to rip the earth out from underneath them again. Buffy blew out a deep breath. That wasn’t entirely fair. It took two to people to screw up a relationship, but it was Giles who kept walking out the door.
She’d thought they’d resolved everything after Sunnydale. That they had finally mended the rift between them, spending most of their time together reconnecting, training, and talking. They’d both changed so much over the past couple years since her death and the constraints of their previous relationship as mentor and student no longer applied. They had become equals. There had been a part of her that told her to stay guarded, to not trust in their newfound closeness in those few weeks after closing the Hellmouth and she should have listened to it, but her heart would have none of it. She’d missed his presence in her life too much and their newfound intimacy had been addicting.
Wiping the tears that welled in her dark green eyes, Buffy stood up, needing to put some distance between her and her Watcher. She turned off the stove and decided to patrol the perimeter of their encampment. Not that she expected company of any kind, but an evening patrol was a habit she never could manage to break, the routine a comfort even in her quasi-retirement from active slaying.
There wasn’t a whole lot to see on her patrol, they were in a depression with the ice cap to their north and mountain peaks surrounding them on the other sides. She tried not to reflect any more on their personal situation but on the problem at hand concerning Riley and the plight of her sister. The problem was that her mind kept wandering back to Giles. At least they had a truce with no expectations, he’d made that clear earlier when he’d said they’d go their separate ways when it was all over. Maybe that was all she could expect now, but it only made her feel empty inside as the anger she’d felt earlier had been replaced with fonder feelings and memories of happier times.
Making her way back to camp, Buffy sat down on the ground next to Giles. He hadn’t moved, looking peaceful in his slumber, the two days growth of stubble highlighting his high cheekbones.
“Oh, Giles,” she whispered. “What are we going to do?” Reaching out she lightly ran her fingers along his bristly jaw line.
In half a heartbeat his hand caught her wrist. She raised her eyes, meeting his questioning ones, a blush rising over her cheeks and she momentarily looked away. “I-I thought I should wake you. It’s getting late and we should eat and get ready for bed. I mean-”
Giles released her hand and sat up, letting the sleeping bag fall. “You’re quite right. I’m sorry. I really didn’t sleep much last night and we’ve had a full day hiking.”
“I thought you said you’d slept well,” she said, standing up and turning the stove back on to reheat the water. Looking at him now, she realized that he hadn’t slept well in days.
“It wasn’t important,” he dismissed, getting up from his sleeping pad and putting the sleeping bag in the tent.
Something wasn’t right, Giles could feel it as his mind crawled its way back to consciousness. There was a tingling sensation around him and he turned over to check on Buffy. Her sleeping bag was empty and he frowned as he quickly grabbed for his grey trousers and his boots. He dressed in record time and unzipped the tent. Looking about he saw Buffy standing near the stream, her head tilted upwards, scanning the heavens. He raised his eyes skyward and grimaced as he watched the green and purple lights dance across the darkened sky, too dark for that time of year.
“It’s amazing,” she announced when she heard him join her, her voice in awe. “I’ve never seen the Northern Lights before.”
Giles frowned, his voice full of concern, “We shouldn’t be able to see them. It’s the wrong time of year.”
Buffy looked at her Watcher as he spun around watching the light display. “What are you thinking?”
“Ethan’s conjuring,” he answered as he quickly turned to head back to the tent.
“How do you know?” she asked after him.
“This isn’t natural,” he called back, digging through his backpack. He returned with his map, a bag of herbs, and Ethan’s necklace. “If I am right, and it is Ethan, then perhaps he’s lowered the cloaking spell.”
Her eyes went wide with the implications. “What can I do to help?”
Giles knelt on the ground and unfolded the map. “I need a bowl,” he replied and she ran back to the tent to retrieve it. When she returned, she handed him the bowl and a picture of her sister from her wallet.
“I thought this might help,” she suggested as she handed him the photo.
He nodded with a knowing smile. “Ready?”
“When you are.”
Giles lit the herbs in the bowl, clearly chanting in Greek and invoking the god Hermes for the spell as he held the necklace and the photo in his left hand. There was a moment of disappointment when nothing happened, but then a point of light appeared on the map south southeast of the marker indicating the volcano.
Giles pulled a pen out of the sleeve pocket of his coat and marked the spot before the spell wore off. He raised his eyes to his partner. “There must be a cave system there. We’ll need to phone Andrew to confirm.”
Buffy spontaneously leaned over and gave him a hug, happy to be one step closer to finding her sister. “I’ll clean up, you make the call.”
On to Chapter 5