Uncertain Ground - Chapter 5
For the second morning in a row Buffy woke up alone in the tent. As she sat up, she noticed that all of Giles’ things had been removed. A momentary panic swept over her until she heard him talking in a low voice outside their tent and she dressed quickly to join him in the morning chill. He gave her a half smile and indicated to a thermos that was sitting next to the stove as he held his phone to his ear, kneeling before his map.
“Andrew?” she mouthed silently and he nodded.
She poured herself a cup of coffee and foraged through Giles’ backpack for a protein bar and a pouch of scrambled eggs with sausage and cheese. The eggs didn’t appeal, but she knew she needed to increase her caloric intake if they were to continue their journey onto the glacier. She decided to munch on the bar first and settled down to watch her Watcher as he worked with his Director of Operations.
Giles leaned over the map and drew some lines to the area he had marked the previous night. “Now the cave system begins about a half mile west from Ethan’s location, yes?” he waited for confirmation. “Right, and the opening is an ice cave and leads into the mountain itself. We’ll need to take the left tunnel about half way in. Affirmative. Thank you, Andrew. We’ll check in when we make camp tonight.” He rung off and made his apologies to Buffy.
“I take it Andrew came through for us?” she asked, pouring some hot water into the food pouch.
He made his way over and sat down next to her to show her the map. “Yes, and we’ve come up with a more direct route for us to take that saves us some time.”
“Awesome!” she exclaimed with a smile. “You were right about him. I didn’t think he had any redeeming qualities.”
“The boy has definitely lived up to his potential, one part computer genius, the other mad scientist. Give him a room full of computers and gadgets and he’s in his element. His main problem is that he is too eager to please.”
“He still drives you crazy,” she noted with a knowing smile.
“God yes,” Giles laughed, reaching for the thermos and pouring himself another cup of coffee.
“I bought tea for you, you know.”
“But the coffee is ready now,” he countered with a wink, taking a sip.
Buffy gave him a wide smile. “We’ll have a cuppa when we stop for a break later, then.”
He smiled back, finding warmth in her mossy green eyes. Both felt better knowing where Riley’s base of operations was located and at having a more direct route to get there than the one she and Giles had planned out in the middle of the night. Their spirits had been bolstered and they found it easy to fall into a long lost familiarity.
Sitting in companionable silence, Giles finished up his coffee before placing his hand on her shoulder and getting up, leaving her to finish up breakfast. It was time to pack up and strike camp.
Progress on the glacier was slow, hampered by Buffy’s unfamiliarity with the gear and the fierce wind that blew unencumbered over the glacial sheet as they climbed higher and higher. She had never walked with crampons before and found that the spikes in front affected her gate. Giles had insisted on wearing helmets from the outset and when they encountered a narrow but deep crevasse that needed crossing, he insisted on them putting on their harnesses and roping themselves together for safety. Buffy had protested, citing her Slayer skills, but Giles had given her one of his patented glares over his glacier glasses and she’d relented.
Crossing the crevasse had been a relatively simple task and now she was trailing after him like a dog on a leash as he carried the excess rope over his right shoulder and his ice axe in his left hand, exuding confidence as though he had been Edmund Hillary’s disciple. He refused to uncouple himself from her and her mood had soured over the last several hours.
Giles stopped and looked at the sun, the sky was still unfamiliar to him and he checked his watch. They could still continue for an hour or so, but he was running low on energy and it didn’t pay to push things on the ice. Buffy was several yards away and appeared to be just as tired as he was and he decided to call it a day.
Dropping his pack to the ground, he called to her over the noise of the wind, “I think we’ll stop here for the night.”
“Don’t you think we should keep going for a little while longer?” she asked loudly, approaching him with a scowl.
He took off his helmet. “We’ve made good progress today. We should stop now and get settled.”
“I can still go, Giles,” the Slayer insisted with a hiss.
“I am sure you can, Buffy,” he conceded. “And I probably could as well, but the landscape is starting to look the same and I am tired. It’s best if we get some rest and start fresh in the morning. It would do us no good if we deviate from our path because of mental errors.”
“Always the voice of reason,” Buffy grumbled to herself. She dropped her pack and sank down onto the ice. It felt good to sit and she relented, taking off her helmet.
After they set up camp, they prepared their dinner of beef stew for two. “You know, I don’t meant to complain, and for camp food this is good, but I could tear into a porterhouse steak with a loaded baked potato right now,” Buffy mused after swallowing a bite of stew, and Giles agreed wholeheartedly.
To boost their morale, he pulled out the s’mores dessert and they savored the chocolate, marshmallow and graham cracker-y goodness. Toasting the marshmallows over the camp stove didn’t quite provide the same taste or atmosphere that a proper fire provided, but there was no wood to be had up on the glacier.
“I’m afraid any ghost stories I have to tell wouldn’t have the same effect in the daylight,” Giles lamented, checking the doneness of his marshmallow and popping it in his mouth when he was satisfied with it.
“That’s okay,” she yawned. “I seem to be hitting a wall. What time is it?”
“Half nine,” he replied, looking at his watch.
She picked up their trash and added, “Mmm, I’m surprised to have stayed up this long.”
“No, no,” he said gently as he took the refuse from her, his fingers lightly touching hers. “I’ll take care of it. You’re tired. Go get ready for bed and I’ll join you shortly.” She giggled at the domestic implications of his words and he turned a particularly lovely shade of scarlet.
“Shall I go slip into something more comfortable?” she teased.
Flustered, he stuttered, “I, er, t-there was no good way-”
“Chill, Giles, I know what you meant.”
She refused to leave him with all the clean up and made sure their garbage was secured and stored away before heading into the tent, leaving her poor embarrassed Watcher to clean and stow the cooking gear.
“My sister will kill you for this,” Dawn ground out between clenched teeth.
Riley answered his captive, “Nah, you see, Dawnie, she has no idea where you are and once she finds out, well, she’ll have to get through my army and there’s not a chance in hell she’s going to succeed. Not after you open my Hellmouth for me.”
“What makes you so sure I can?” Dawn asked, stalling for time.
“Oh, you will, you’re the Key, Dawn, or did you forget? So busy at playing a real girl...”
Buffy ran through the tunnel, the chanting echoing in her ears, her heart pounding wildly. She was going to be too late and she knew it, but she couldn’t just give up. She’d never give up on her sister. She didn’t the first time someone wanted to use her to open a hell dimension and she wasn’t going to now. Giles followed behind, his ice axe at the ready, prepared to do battle with whatever came at them. It was hot in the tunnels and the smell of sulfur was overwhelming but they kept their grueling pace to prevent Riley from opening the portal.
As they entered the chamber, they stopped running and took up position to scout out the situation. She saw Riley, dressed in black ops camouflage pants and a black tank top, his face twisted in orgiastic anticipation, chanting a spell and standing before a gaping hole in the ground. Ethan was bound on the floor of the chamber, writhing in pain as his magick flowed out of him in a stream of burgundy glowing light and into Riley. The former commando held Dawn’s shoulders, her back facing him as he pushed her struggling form towards the hole.
Riley’s chanting grew louder and more intense. Buffy looked at Giles and motioned that she was going to tackle Riley from the side. She took off running, but the chanting reached its peak, causing a fire to rise up from the hole in the ground. Riley pushed Dawn in, her scream deafening all around until it was heard no more.
Buffy fell to the ground in despair, crying out for her sister, but Riley was too consumed by the ritual to notice. A green light flashed from the depths of the pit and extinguished as quickly as it came. Ethan’s body lay prone on the ground, his lifeless brown eyes accusatory in their glare.
“It’s done!” Riley crowed, his arms outstretched in triumph. “I am demon reborn and my army rises.”
Giles woke to his Slayer thrashing and screaming beside him. He quickly sat up and pulled her into his arms, trying to calm her as she came to consciousness. She wrapped her arms around his torso in desperation, burying her face into his chest as tears flowed down her cheeks, her tormented sobs pulling at his heartstrings as he ran a hand through her hair, uttering words of nonsense to console her.
“Buffy, tell me what’s wrong, what did you see?” he entreated when she got her sobbing under control.
“We were too late,” she managed through her tears. “He, he threw her down a hole. He’s going to open a new Hellmouth.”
Giles held her as tightly to him as she held him to her, rocking her in his arms.
“Ethan... He ripped the magick out of Ethan to perform the ritual. Oh god! I can’t lose her, Giles, I can’t lose Dawn. She’s all I have left.”
“I know, Buffy, I know,” he soothed. “We won’t let it happen. We know where Riley is. We know what he’s up to, and we know how he’s going to do it. This gives us the advantage. We’ll save her.”
“God, the dream was so real,” she whimpered, easing her grip on him and pulling herself from his arms to look at him.
He cupped her cheek. “It won’t be, we won’t let it be real.”
Buffy leaned back into him, her breathing still ragged. “Hold me a little longer?”
“I’ll not let go,” he murmured into her hair. Closing his eyes, he took a moment to enjoy the privilege of having her in his arms, feeling at peace for the first time in a long time.
Resting her head against his chest, Buffy listened to his steady heartbeat and felt his solid strength surround her, comfort her as she relaxed into him. She didn’t want to give up the safety of his embrace, but she knew that the moment couldn’t last. This was not how they were. In the past they had drawn strength from each other during times of crisis, but that was ancient history and time had moved on.
Sniffling and wiping the tears from her face, Buffy pulled away from him. “Thanks, I’m good now.”
“Are you sure?” he asked quietly, ducking his head to meet her eyes.
She held his gaze and drew in a deep breath. “Yeah. I have to remember these dreams are informative and can be changed. They’re just so jarring, though.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve had one,” he guessed, his voice soft and comforting.
“Yeah,” she voiced, moving back over onto her pad and situating herself in her sleeping bag.
Giles laid back down and nestled himself into his bag. Even with the body heat, he was cold. She’d soaked his shirt with her tears and he was starting to chill.
“Thanks for getting me through that.”
“If you should need me, I’m right here. Just reach out.”
“Sleep well, Buffy.”
Giles woke early as he had done every morning on their journey and, not wanting to risk waking his Slayer, he decided to keep watch over her instead of heading out into the elements to start the day. He didn’t expect her to have another nightmare, but he didn’t want to leave her to wake on her own after such a traumatic vision. She had been so frightened and vulnerable after waking from the prophetic dream in the middle of the night that he wanted her to get as much rest as possible.
Lacing his fingers behind his head, Giles stared at the ceiling of the tent and contemplated the details of the dream she shared with him. He felt fairly confident that they could stop Riley in time. The former Initiative agent had no idea they were coming or that they knew what he was up to. Overconfidence and underestimating a Slayer’s abilities were flaws he shared with his mentor Maggie Walsh.
In a way Giles dreaded their journey’s end. He’d reconnected with Buffy and for now things were stable between them, but he didn’t expect it to last and that knowledge caused a tightness in his throat and an ache in his chest that he didn’t want to acknowledge.
Buffy stretched and rolled over into Giles’ side, her eyes still closed as she nuzzled into him, taking in his masculine scent. “Mmm, it’s been a long time since I woke up next to someone. Nice.”
“Until you remember who it is you are waking up next to,” Giles commented dryly, remembering her reaction at finding out they would be sharing a tent.
“Well, you’re definitely not Steffano,” she replied groggily. “Wrong accent.”
He chuckled. “Boyfriend?”
“No boyfriend. The footballer I had a date with the day you called.”
“Ah, so you do remember with whom you are sharing a tent.”
“I am sorry to pull you away from your holiday. Perhaps you’d be waking up next to Steffano instead,” he apologized, his voice neutral.
She didn’t want reality to close in just yet and casually draped an arm around his middle. “No, too public. Too many paparazzi. Can’t risk letting my secret identity get out, it would irritate my Watcher,” she teased, refusing to open her eyes. “Besides, I’d only just met him and I’m not a jump into bed on the first date kind of girl. Although I guess I probably would’ve dumped him by now. Still. The fantasy was fun. What about you? Any morning cuddles for you recently?”
“Besides you burrowing into my ribcage? Not recently, no.”
“Shouldn’t you be telling me how inappropriate this is?” Buffy asked. She lifted her head and finally opened her eyes to the reality of morning, finding her Watcher’s pale green ones staring at her. She’d know those eyes anywhere, but it seemed like a million years since she’d actually seen them.
He held her gaze for a moment and grinned cheekily. “Not at the moment, no. Right now I’ve come out ahead to some young buck footballer named Steffano.”
She smiled and it turned into a laugh. Three days ago she’d cursed Giles’ name, regretting having to break things off with the Italian soccer stud, but at that moment there was no place she’d rather be and she laid back down to look up at the ceiling, resisting the urge to rest her head on his shoulder and snuggle into him. The logical part of her screamed at her to get up and leave, to protect herself before their next falling out, but the closeness was something her entire being craved, and she ignored that tiny part of her brain calling for self preservation.
Giles felt a wave of disappointment when she laid back down onto her pad, the moment of intimacy fading with the loss of touch. He sat up, unzipped his sleeping bag, and searched his backpack for clean clothes.
“Well, as pleasant as this has been, we’re running past schedule and we still need to eat, strike camp, and get kitted up for the day,” Giles directed. He’d slept in his long underwear and quickly pulled on a pair of rugged, lined climbing pants.
Not wanting to face the morning chill without getting properly dressed first, he took off his shirt, his back facing Buffy, and applied deodorant. He then quickly dressed himself in layers, starting with a long sleeve t-shirt, followed by a Henley, and then a sweater. It was a highly intimate moment that he clearly had thought nothing of, and he put on his boots without tying the laces before pushing himself to his knees to leave the tent.
He was only gone a few seconds before he climbed back in the tent and rummaged through his pack again, pulling out a clean pair of long johns bottoms when he found them.
“I, um, I need to answer the call of nature, if you would kindly wait until I’ve done so and changed before coming out, I’d appreciate it. In return I promise to start the coffee.”
“Uh, yeah, totally,” Buffy stuttered awkwardly as she sat up. “Take your time. I’ll be a few, because, you know, I gotta get dressed too.”
She watched him crawl out of the tent and bit her lip as the fabric stretched across his rear end, accentuating what a great butt he had. After he zipped the tent flap back up, she laid back down. He had great shoulder, arm, and back muscles too. Groaning inwardly with irritation, Buffy knew she was in trouble. They old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” rang so true and she knew that she preferred the reality of Giles over the fantasy of someone like Steffano, but with the track record she had with her Watcher, it was only a matter of time before things would degenerate and she wondered why things were so difficult between them.
Escaping into the cold morning air, Giles headed off towards a couple of large boulders for some privacy. He shivered in the wind and pulled his collar up higher over his neck as he thought back on Buffy’s behavior in the tent. He was confused by it. Perhaps she was just affectionate in the mornings, it certainly beat waking up to someone who needed their caffeine fix to start the day. But was she flirting with him as well? She’d rested her arm across his waist, but only lightly. She didn’t hug him or curl her fingers around him, or even caress him, but the intimacy they had shared in that safe space between dream and reality seemed perfectly natural to the both of them.
The bemused Watcher hadn’t wanted the moment to end, but he knew it was for the best if he bid a hasty retreat. Between enjoying holding her in his arms the night before and having her happily wake up next to him, he risked letting his defenses down. They’d declared a tentative truce and there was no sign of a peace treaty on the horizon. Once Dawn was returned safely to her sister’s arms, the two young women would beat a hasty retreat back to Paris and the skirmishes between him and his Slayer would inevitably begin anew. It had become their way and he had no idea how to fix it.
On to Chapter 6