Uncertain Ground - Chapter 6
Buffy and Giles had mostly played ‘follow the leader’ the two previous days as they had hiked up into the mountains and onto the Vatnajökull glacier, but as they started out on the last leg of their journey towards Riley’s lair, the two walked side by side in amiable companionship. The cloudless blue sky served to bolster their mood, however the sun reflected intensely off the snow and ice, making it difficult to see at times even with the glacier glasses. For safety, they wore their harnesses and helmets and had roped themselves together.
Being tethered to Giles the day before had grated on Buffy’s last nerve. She’d thought he only considered her as a novice on the ice and snow, and though she was, she could rely on her Slayer gifts to take care of herself. What she had learned since was that Giles still cared for her and that made being tethered to him tolerable. She’d felt it in his arms when he’d consoled her after her dream, also when he’d stayed in the tent and continued to watch over of her until she awoke, and again when he hadn’t pushed her away when she’d snuggled into him. Their relationship was volatile, she knew, but the affection was still there, and in her case, she grimaced, the stirrings of something more.
“So what did you and Dawn do last week?” Buffy asked conversationally.
“We toured the southern part of the country stopping at all the lesser known Celtic and Roman sites we could find. She catalogued our trip with drawings of various artifacts and architectural elements that interested her. She’s quite talented.”
“Yeah. She spends most of her free time drawing various objects at the medieval museum. It’s her favorite place in Paris. You should have seen her in Rome, though. I’ve never seen such joy on her face. She dragged me to the Colosseum, the Forum, Pallantine Hill, the Pantheon, and we spent an entire day at the Vatican. It was nice though, she got to do her thing and I got to be all glamorous and touristy. Very Audrey Hepburn.”
A little smile graced Giles lips, he had no difficulty imagining Buffy as a more modern Audrey Hepburn character, although maybe more Regina Lampert from Charade than Princess Ann from Roman Holiday. Her sense of fashion always harkened back to a more glamorous style and he figured it had to do with her love for old movies.
“The architectural drawings she made when we were there are incredible,” Buffy continued, pulling Giles from his musings as he imagined his Slayer wearing big sunglasses, a scarf, and a classy, sleek, black mini dress.
“Uh, yes, they are,” he agreed, clearing his throat. “She’s shown them to me. I think it’s fitting she’s going to study both art history and archaeology. I can get her an internship at the British Museum over the summer holidays if she likes. I still have influence there.”
“I am sure she’d jump at the chance.” They walked on in silence for a few minutes before Buffy gave voice to her thoughts. “You know, it’s funny, Dawn was created from my blood, but she’s so much like you: a brainiac, interested in history and archaeology. Makes you wonder about the whole nature versus nurture argument.” she mused.
“I don’t know, I think Dawn is very much like you. She’s strong and independent, knows her own mind, is capable and caring, and willing to sacrifice for others. Obviously she’s very intelligent, as are you. Your interests just weren’t necessarily academic, although you showed an interest in psychology and counseling, which is what makes you the great leader you’ve become,” he countered. “B-but she does... remind me of you.”
Giles ducked his head and walked a little faster, not sure why he’d said all he had. It was all true, of course, and when he was with Dawn, he missed Buffy even more, but the hurt and the anger had trumped the ache of their separation, fueling the divide between them.
Buffy smiled inwardly. He’d given her a compliment. Other than the occasional rush to her defense or supporting her position when they worked with the Council elite, he never said anything complimentary to or about her and she positively radiated with the knowledge that she still had his approval.
As they approached another crevasse, having encountered several of them throughout the day, Giles surveyed the feature. “About the same as the others. I’ll hold the line tight, are you ready to jump?”
Walking over to inspect the size of the crevasse, Buffy looked down and across. “I’ve got this. Should be a piece of cake for you too.” She took a few steps back and said, “On three.” Buffy sailed across the crevasse and made it to the other side, sliding down the snowy embankment for a few feet before getting up and motioning to Giles that she was well.
“Are you ready for me?” he called across the divide.
“I am now,” she confirmed, her voice echoing off the various peaks surrounding them. “The line’s tight.”
Giles gave the count and ran, leaping the eight foot chasm and sliding along the snow, much as his Slayer had. Turning over as he slid, he jammed his ice axe into the snow to stop himself from sliding further, and pushed himself up into a standing position before walking over to her.
“That’s so much fun,” she grinned, sitting down in the snow for a much needed break and pulling off her glasses to wipe the snow and water droplets from them.
Giles smiled back, the adrenaline flowing through his veins. “Indeed.”
“I think you may have found yourself a climbing and hiking partner.”
“Oh?” He looked surprised and a bit shaken by her statement as he coiled the rope and hoisted it over his head to carry across his body.
Her cheeks were flush and rosy from the cold, and her green eyes sparkled like emeralds in the reflected light. “Sure, why not?” she challenged as she stood back up and put her glasses back on. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
Momentarily speechless, Giles corrected her, “It’s ‘lay on MacDuff’.’”
“The line from MacBeth, it’s ‘lay on MacDuff’,” he repeated. “Everyone misquotes it.”
Buffy suppressed a giggle, and as she walked past him to restart their progress, she rolled her eyes for effect. “Whatever, MacDuff, we still have a ways to the go to the entrance of the ice cave.”
Their journey became more challenging as they continued up higher in elevation, in some cases climbing the sides of snow and ice covered mountain peaks. After one particularly arduous climb was cleared, Giles took off his pack and fell over onto his back, breathing heavily.
“And here... is where I... run out of... steam,” he panted, staring up into the clear blue sky.
Buffy stood with her hands on her knees, her breathing labored as well, “We’ll take a break. It’s time to get something to eat anyway. We’re both running out of gas.”
After taking off her backpack she took a moment to sip the sports drink from her canteen before handing it to her Watcher. “Get some electrolytes back into you, and I’ll pull out a couple of the protein bars and some trail mix.”
Giles sat back up and accepted the canteen from her, drinking small sips in between his shallow breaths. Sitting down next to him, Buffy handed him a bar and a packet of trail mix before taking off her helmet.
“Thank you,” he said, his breathing slowly returning to normal. “I have to remember I’m not twenty-five anymore and haven’t been for a long time.”
She smiled at him, “I’m almost there and I feel like I’ve been hit by a steamroller. Don’t knock yourself. You’ve been amazing. I couldn’t do this without you.”
Taking another swig of the sports drink to swallow the emotional lump in his throat, Giles looked at the ground between his knees before glancing sideways to give her a sad smile. There was a time they’d tell each other just that. Years ago. And a time when he told her that she could and she had to. It had broken his heart to do so, and when he’d returned, he’d been right. She’d managed well enough and gotten her life back on track, but in the end, it had taken all of them to defeat Willow. He’d also learned a valuable lesson that day: he and his Slayer were stronger together. Always stronger together.
“You know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, Giles,” she said, taking a bite out a peanut butter and chocolate protein bar. “We keep telling the big wigs that the Slayers need Watchers, not a platoon of Slayers to one Watcher. We need to get back to a one Slayer one Watcher ratio.”
“Yes, we’ve agreed to that,” he answered, taking off his helmet and wondering where her train of thought was headed. “But we don’t have nearly as many Watchers as Slayers and, a-as you so wonderfully pointed out the other day with my cousin’s son, those that we do have aren’t ready. In about seven years time we’ll be at strength to provide something like that, perhaps a little earlier should recruiting and training go well.”
“I know,” she sighed, reaching over and taking his protein bar from him to remove the wrapper. Handing it back, she said, “You need to eat.”
Giles wasn’t really hungry, but Buffy was right, they needed to replenish their energy levels and he made a face after reluctantly biting into the protein bar. He didn’t really care for peanut butter. It was an American staple that he just couldn’t quite get used to, but Andrew and Buffy were both fans and that was the only flavor either of them had packed.
“We keep running into recruiting quotas arbitrarily assigned to us by the Council brass. I mean, they don’t fundamentally understand how important it is that a Slayer and a Watcher bond. We can get there in much less time if they open things up a bit,” she continued.
“So how do you propose we do that? The Council has unlimited funds at its discretion, but where we are lacking is people power. We don’t have the resources to train both the Slayers and the Watchers. I understand their argument.”
“I do too,” she said, blowing out a breath. “But there has to be a better way. We can hire some of the retired Watchers, maybe not full time, and maybe just as consultants to teach the Slayer history and demony stuff. And for the other academic stuff, we can hire college professors part time. The physical training can be outsourced as well. I mean there is no reason to waste a fully qualified Watcher, who could be out there with his or her Slayer, on training recruits.”
“It’s a good idea, but I am not sure it will persuade them to modify the plan.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s because they don’t see how important it is. And I think we’re partly to blame for that.”
“Oh? How do you figure?”
“Well, you’re in London, I’m in Paris. We haven’t really gotten along and they know that,” Buffy explained, facing forward and refusing to look at him.
“Not getting along is quite an understatement, Buffy.”
“I know,” she managed around the rising emotional tide welling within her.
“Look, I don’t wish to rehash our history, nor do we have time for this. We have to stop Riley and save Dawn and Ethan,” he interrupted as he stood up, pocketing his half eaten protein bar to pick up his backpack. “We should be going, we’ve tarried long enough and I’ve recovered.”
Buffy didn’t trust her voice to not crack under the disappointment she felt. “You’re shutting me down?” she asked softly. Giles put his helmet back on. A fire rose through her as he ignored her and she lashed out. “Fine, go ahead and figuratively walk out the door again. It’s what you do best, you know, leaving me!”
Pulling off his helmet, Giles threw it into the snow at his feet, unable to control the hurt and the anger rising through him, and approached her. “Get your gear,” he ground out. “We’re not discussing this here.”
“Why not? We have time, we haven’t even stopped for lunch yet.” Buffy challenged, standing up and crossing her arms over her chest.
“Why?” Giles yelled, pacing in frustration. “Why do you want to do this now?”
“When are we going to do it, Giles? When Dawn and Ethan are safe again? You’ve said it yourself. We’ll go our separate ways, remaining at a safe distance, communicating through Dawn and working together for the sake of the Council, but we’ll avoid our issues and continue to hate each other. No, we end this now. Either we fix what’s broken or we go our separate ways for good.”
Giles stopped his pacing and shrugged off his backpack. “I can’t do this anymore, Buffy. It’s always extremes with you. Ultimatums.”
“I asked you to stay, but you walked. Who was left without a choice? Again?”
“I didn’t give you an ultimatum,” he said, trying to regain his calm.
“No, you didn’t, Giles, you’re right, you just didn’t give me any say at all. You told me you were going to work for the Council and there was nothing I could do about it. Even after you said leaving me the first time was a mistake, you just keep doing it.”
“I left for you, Buffy. Right or wrong, I did it for you.”
“Thanks, but I think I can make my own decisions. I’m tired of the men in my life making them for me,” she grumbled bitterly.
“You made your decision. When the dust had settled, you told me that your priority was taking care of Dawn and I respected that, but there were thousands of young girls out there stranded, not knowing what had happened to them, in need of leadership, care, and explanations. And we had a tattered, archaic organization, still in its own disarray, willing to step in and impose the same outdated standards of support and well being that it has always shown to the Slayer on these girls. We couldn’t let that happen. The Slayers deserve better. You and Willow unleashed a great power when you activated the Potentials, and at that moment, we had a great responsibility thrust upon us to care for them. The choices we had were either to work with the Council and change the policies from within to gain access to their resources, or start at the very beginning with nothing. In the end there really was no choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” Buffy hissed.
“And I made the one that made sense!” Giles reiterated forcefully. Taking a deep breath he started again, his voice low and gentle. “I’ve never begrudged you for playing mother to your sister, for making her your priority. Never. It’s what you’ve struggled with ever since your mother passed. And it’s wonderful to hear Dawn talk of how happy she is since the Hellmouth closed. To hear of how close the two of you are, and to see her grow these past years into this beautiful, confident young woman. That is your doing. But someone had to look out for the welfare of these new Slayers, and the Council leadership asked me to help. I couldn’t say no, Buffy. You see, I had originally thought we’d do this together, but when you came to me in those early weeks after Sunnydale and told me that you would be focusing on Dawn, I knew it fell to me to support the Slayers. To give them a voice in the Council, to change the focus away from the organization itself, and turn it onto the warriors. I left for you. To give you the space you needed for Dawn.”
“Christ, Giles, can’t you see it? I needed you! I need you! Not to raise Dawn for me, but to raise her with me. You’re the only father she’s ever known. The memories she has of my dad, they aren’t real and she knows they aren’t. He never held her when she cried or chased the nightmares away. He never ate ice cream and watched movies late into the night with her. He never took an interest in her or helped her with her homework, even by phone, or took her on vacation to Disneyland, or introduced her to high Gothic architecture on a trip to various European cities. You did all that... And we could have done all this stuff together. We do do some of it together... just cities apart.”
“I can’t play house with you, Buffy.”
It would’ve hurt less if he’d slapped her. “You’re right, Giles. Never mind. Just indulge in your fantasy and play father from 215 miles away.” She turned from him and looked down towards where they began their climb.
“Is this about us, or my relationship with Dawn? Because for the last two years, my darling Slayer, we’ve had no relationship.” Giles was tense and his tone hinted at barely controlled anger.
Turning back towards him, she lashed out, “And whose fault is that? You left again without talking it through, giving me no say in the matter.”
“You said everything you were going to! You walked out. You told me you were going to keep her in school in California and then three weeks later you packed yourselves up and moved to Paris without saying a word. You could have come to London, but you didn’t.”
“Of course I walked out! What more was I supposed to say? We weren’t talking anymore. You told me we were done.”
“Done running around in circles. Done yelling. Done fighting,” Giles explained, shoving his hands in his pockets. “It hurts too much, Buffy, loving you... you call me a commitmentphobe, though I don’t understand. I’ve done everything, whether it turned out to be the right decision or not, for you. And the times I left? Do you honestly think that was easy for me?” he asked, searching her face. “They were the hardest things I’ve had to do other than watch you jump from that tower and then bury you. But nothing hurts more than knowing you are just over two hours away by train, alive and well, and not be able to share my life with you. Not one single aspect of it. If there is a commitmentphobe on this mountain, Buffy, it is you. You’ve done nothing but run from those who love you since you returned from the dead, barring your recent commitment to your sister, of course.”
“Oh don’t even start. I see Willow and Xander-”
“On occasion, when they are in town,
“I have Dawn-”
“Who is a young woman heading to university in a few months! She can stay home on her own for a long weekend now and again, or you can visit with Xander and Willow when she comes to see me.”
“And the Slayers in training?”
“Use the resources at your disposal, there are countless of young Watchers who can babysit.”
“I thought we were talking about us.”
“Alright then, talk.”
“You know what? This isn’t working. Let’s just get moving again,” Buffy insisted, shoving past him to gather her gear.
“Fine,” he grumbled, now in a black mood. He secured his helmet and threw his pack onto his back. After checking the knot on his harness, he turned to see his fuming Slayer pacing back and forth like an enraged tigress ready to go. “Is your rope secure?” he called to her.
“Just go. It’s fine,” she returned in obvious irritation, tugging on the rope.
Giles started back onto the path with Buffy following behind still tethered to him. As disappointing as it was to lose the comfort they had found, he couldn’t say he didn’t expect a falling out at some point. He just hadn’t expected it so soon. Behind him, Buffy trudged onward, walking in his path as he forged ahead, berating herself for trying to fix their relationship. What the hell had she been thinking? The words that had been spoken at their last parting had wounded both of them deeply, perhaps too deeply for them to come back from, and all she had managed to do was widen the chasm between them.
They pushed on for another hour before he declared a rest break. His Slayer sat off by herself about fifteen feet away. Looking at his map, Giles determined that they had maybe another three miles before they found the entrance to the ice cave. They also had reached their maximum elevation, and would be heading downhill the rest of the way, for which he was eternally grateful.
Giles pulled out his thermos and poured a cup of tea before trekking over to where Buffy sat, handing her the cup as a peace offering. She took it gratefully, warming her hands first and then drinking down the hot beverage. Passing the cup back, she thanked him politely.
Putting the thermos away, the Watcher wandered back over to where he’d set down his things and readied himself to start back on the path towards the cave. Slinging her pack onto her shoulders, Buffy took several steps to her right when the momentum knocked her off her balance, and as she fought to regain it, the snow gave way beneath her feet.
She screamed as she fell through the crack in the ice, trying to reach something of substance to grab onto. Giles immediately turned towards her when he heard her cry out, watching the rope uncoil quickly as she fell further down the crevasse. Knowing he had to break the fall, he grabbed his axe and threw himself forward into snow and ice, jamming the axe in, hoping it would bite into something solid to save them from plummeting to their deaths.
As soon as the slack in the rope tightened, he was dragged along the ice towards the crack by the weight of his Slayer on the other end. The momentum pulled him about eight feet before his axe bit into something and stopped his progress. He held on, feeling the jar of the rope as Buffy’s fall stopped.
“Buffy!” he yelled. “Buffy?”
“Grab onto the wall!” he instructed.
“I can’t,” she called back in a panic. “It’s slick ice. Oh my god!”
Giles felt a slight tug on the rope and a sickening feeling washed over him when he no longer felt the weight on the rope. He heard her screams as she fell and he quickly shot up and ran over to the ledge, dropping to his knees, desperately searching for her in the void.
“Buffy?” he yelled frantically when the screaming stopped, “Answer me! Oh god! Buffy, can you hear me? Buffy?” No answering call came forward and Giles sank down further into the snow and let out whimper before the tears started. “Oh dear god!” he cried as he pounded the ground with his fist. “No, no, no!”
On to Chapter 7