Title: Old Tricks
Characters: Buffy, Willow,Xander, Giles
Beta and chief comma wrangler: littleotter73
Notes: I thought it would be fun to see the core 4 in 2015. So here is fun, plotty, gen (no shipping) fic, that is set bang up to date. Some things never change though.
Placing one hand on the biometric reader, Buffy waved her electronic passkey at the door panel and scowled at the CCTV camera for good measure. It was a set of actions she’d done a hundred times before but she still couldn’t help muttering, “We’re not in Sunnydale anymore, Toto”, as the lights blinked her accreditation to enter the Incident Assessment Room. Willow and Xander were already there, sipping coffee, as well as Rose Manners, Buffy’s efficient middle-aged Chief of Staff and Kyle Jones, a young data analyst in Willow’s department, who’d joined on a graduate programme and seemed to like the long hours.
Rose Manners answered her. “We’ve lost another Watcher in London. It’s the same MO as last month and Toxicology have confirmed the same paralyzing agent is present in the blood stream.” She pinched her iPad screen and transferred some images to the eight foot presentation projector before running through the victim’s name and outlining his service record. The group stood in silence as she swept them through the official crime scene photos, grimly showing a young man in shirt sleeves and tweed pants, completely cut in two across his torso, his eyes wide open at the effrontery of his death.
“Anything missing?” Buffy asked briskly, and they all knew she wasn’t asking about his wallet. Rose shook her head. The pattern matched their previous victim, incapacitated, then halved with a single blow, but all internal organs had been left intact and there was no evidence of feeding. With no link between the two men, they were at a loss. Whoever or whatever was doing this, though obviously targeting Watchers, was seemingly picking them off at random.
“Have we got anything at all to go on?” Xander, gripping the back of a chair, spoke softly for the first time and Buffy felt his pain. They were his Watchers after all. Time had shaken the three friends into positions of responsibility but they remained close as a unit and she could still read his emotions. She thought of how he’d been depressed when he’d finally accepted the glass eye and the need for reading glasses, but how he had accepted his greying temples with good humour, being married helped with that of course. Twin girls of ten months probably accounted for some of the grey anyway.
“I’ve got a possible reference from the old records,” Kyle said, and they turned expectantly with their attention. “Ms Rosenberg’s project to piece together and digitise what archives we inherited from the Watchers Council has paid off.” He typed at his keyboard and the presentation projector filled with a scan of a handwritten report, badly charred. “In 1985, five Watchers were cut in half the same way as ours,” he explained. “By a demon they nicknamed the ‘Magician’, for obvious, if somewhat macabre, reasons.”
“Good work, Kyle,” said Willow and the young man blushed to his roots. “A re-invigorating ritual are we all thinking?” Willow continued, pushing her long red hair behind one ear and sitting at a console to work the data. “Thirty years seems like a significantly round number.”
“Demon’s on a quota,” agreed Xander, though still clearly unhappy at providing the raw materials from his staff.
“Except that back in 1985, their demon was destroyed.” Kyle, recovering his composure, produced further documents on screen and explained further. “A team led by Sir Thomas Wyatt tracked the Magician to an abandoned warehouse in London’s dockland area and killed it.”
“And we’re real confident about that because?” questioned Buffy, never having had a lot of assurance in their predecessors competence at the best of times.
“In the circumstances we’re not,” admitted Rose. “But Thomas Wyatt was a highly respected Watcher, if he says he killed it then he probably did.”
Buffy nodded. “So what did this thing look like?”
“No surviving records I’m afraid.” Kyle sounded apologetic as if it were his personal fault. “And no body was recovered, but sometimes they do just ‘poof’,” he added with a conjuror’s hand gesture.
“Could it have possessed Wyatt or one of his team?” Willow asked. “Because I’ve got nothing in the database to suggest chopping up Watchers extends anyone’s life. So maybe it’s a transference thing? What do we know about the people involved?”
She looked to Kyle and he brought up the details promptly.
“There were only three of them,” he began. “Wyatt, and two junior Watchers. A Frank Palmer, who died in the attack – cut in two actually, so I think we can say they were in the right ballpark - and um…the Duty Officer on the night of the assault, um… Rupert Giles.”
“Seriously?” Buffy frowned at the limited options. “Are we sure this Palmer guy is dead?”
“Oh yes, there are pictures of his body. No question. ” He turned to work the screen but she had had enough of sliced tweed for one night and laid a hand on his arm to stop him.
“That’s OK. Where’s Wyatt now?”
“He’s in a nursing home on the south coast of England. He’s in his eighties now. I think our most promising bet is um… well obviously it isn’t him, being as how he was your Watcher, but nevertheless um…”
“Giles,” Buffy supplied for him.
“Yes. In those days he did have a somewhat checkered career with the Council. He resigned from working here fourteen months ago but I’ve looked up his current address and you can find him at-”
Buffy cut the eager young man off. “Thanks, but I know where we can find Giles.”
“Oh, but I…”
“As you said, Giles used to be Buffy’s Watcher,” Xander explained.
“Ah, yes.” Kyle looked to make amends. “It’s probably not him anyway,” he rallied, then wavered again in the face of the way the evidence was pointing. “Probably um…”
Xander cut into the young man’s ramblings and offered, “1985 is long after Giles took the tweed.”
The three friends knew Buffy’s Watcher’s ‘somewhat checkered career’ had gotten off to a faltering start with the Oxford rebellion, ill-advised dark magick and a dead body in the basement, but by the time body glitter and shoulder pads were all the rage, he was back licking boots and sliding in the Council’s good graces, surely?
“It isn’t Giles,” Buffy said resolutely. “But something nasty is out there and it’s got my attention. Make the travel arrangements to London, I’ll handle this one in person.”
“In two persons,” Willow stood up and gave a cheeky smile that wiped twenty years off her face. “If you’re going to take on a Magician, who better to have on your side than a witch?”
“Tickets for three actually, Rose,” intoned Xander. “I’ll need to visit the bereaved family. I know the London office will sort out any pension, but I’d like to see what I can do.” Willow reached for his hand and he nodded. “And it will be good to see Giles again, too.”
“Of course, however there is another matter.” The Chief of Staff worked her iPad and began to show her screen to Buffy. “I would like a minute to run though our investigations to date on that slight accountancy blip in the Cayman Islands.”
Buffy wasn’t terribly interested in Rose’s financial irregularities. There never amounted to much and always had an innocent explanation. “Thanks, but that will have to wait. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Keep me posted, in the meantime.” She smiled. “We’re off to see the Wizard.”
Xander picked up the keys to an executive black Audi at London Heathrow and drove them into the city. Willow sat in the front while Buffy snoozed in the comfortable rear, regenerating after the long flight and the tedious preceding day talking to politicians and their staffers. Twisting hearts and minds to support their new Council had been quite the unlikely skill set, but she had grown into the role and was proud that they remained delicately independent of all major powers. She woke refreshed as they neared their objective but then frowned some concern to see their car nosing through what looked to be quite a run-down suburb and attracting some envious attention from passers-by.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place, Xan? I thought he’d be in the centre of London. Isn’t Charing Cross Road where they keep all the bookshops? Near Nelson’s Column and the pigeons?”
Willow turned her head. “Haven’t you been here before?”
“No. He only bought the place last year, I haven’t been in Europe since then.” They drove past a burnt out sofa. “God, I hope he hasn’t sunk all his life savings into this venture.”
“I think he gets a lot of internet orders,” Willow said in Giles’ defence. “His esoteric book search website ranks very high on Google.” Buffy widened her eyes and Willow giggled. “Yes, I helped him with it.”
Xander found a gap in the street parking and reversed in. Two black teenage girls sat on a wall opposite and watched as the three friends climbed out. Xander buttoned his dark suit jacket against the slight breeze and straightened his tie, Willow pulled her blue shawl across her shoulders while Buffy took a long time to work the sleeves of her soft leather jacket, all the while casting a security professional’s eye around the neighbourhood and their two spectators in particular. She didn’t want to be that person who made assumptions based on race and economics, but there was something about those two that troubled her.
“Come on, Buff,” Xander called. “It’s freezing out here.”
She joined her friends in walking to the single shop window at the end of a row of decaying housing stock. Every other property seemed to boarded up and marked by crude gang tags but the shop of the corner held an impeccably clean black and white sign proudly proclaiming:
Esoteric and Arcane a specialty. Est: 2014. Proprietor: R. Giles.
They pushed the door and a bell tinkled overhead that took Buffy straight back to the old Magic Box days, except this time the store was a hell of a lot more cramped. Suffocatingly so, as bulging bookshelves swung into every eye line to maximise the space and even then there were volumes piled on top and stacked on the floor. Had a small bomb triggered, it probably wouldn’t have been able to do any damage, such was the density of books in the place.
Giles appeared out of the stacks in shirtsleeves and wearing a maroon red button vest. Inevitably, he carried a book in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. He was a little sturdier in build since Sunnydale but the weight was evenly spread and his hair, though thinning and now completely grey, was still resolutely spikey at the front. He looked at his three visitors in surprise and then horror.
“Oh god, has something happened to Dawn? What is it? Xander, your girls? Tell me…”
“No, silly.” Willow rushed forward and hugged him. “We’re all fine.”
Giles put down his book and tea and stammered, “Because I thought all three of you together meant…” He stopped and removed his glasses. “Sorry. Being foolish.” He sniffed and clutched Xander to his chest and then Buffy hugged him in turn, flattening her palms against his back, reassuring him all was well.
“Right then.” Giles pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and cleaned his glasses. “Is it an apocalypse?”
“Not exactly,” Buffy admitted. “But we do need your help.”
“That bad, eh?” With a lopsided grin, he pushed past them, dropped the Yale lock on the shop’s front door and turned the sign to ‘Closed’. “Follow me then.”
He led them round a corner to where he kept his desk, and four two-seater leather sofas that circled what used to be his weapons chest but now supported a stack of paperbacks and some coffee coasters. Buffy marvelled he could spare the space for such luxuries as seating, but Giles explained there was a book club every Wednesday afternoon– “We’re doing ‘Elizabeth Is Missing’ this week.” And some people just liked to browse –“Doesn’t seem right to discourage actual reading.” He made coffee for them all and produced a packet of chocolate digestives before sitting down.
“You should think about getting a Starbucks concession in here,” Buffy suggested, and was amused when he gave her a mild glare and pointedly offered the cookies to Xander and Willow first. But his projected earnings weren't amusing her. She'd privately thought Giles had always been better suited to a non-profit making librarian role than dabbling in commerce, and if it hadn't been for Anya, heaven knows if the Magic Box would have turned a profit. And now she was kicking herself for not taking more of an interest in his plans, and specifically, from stopping him from picking such a poor piece of real estate for his business. She rather hated the idea he was sinking his pension fund into an abyss.
“Have you heard anything about the two Watchers who have been killed recently?” Xander asked, focusing to their primary concern.
Giles shook his head. “I’m sorry for the losses. Do you have any leads?”
The shop door bell tinkled and Buffy frowned. “Didn’t you lock that?”
“Ah. Maybe… excuse me a minute.” Giles slipped agilely past her and started a hushed conversation with his visitor. Buffy leaned her body back to see and hear more. It was one of the teenaged girls from across the street who was whispering to Giles rather aggressively. That was until she caught sight of Buffy and gestured to Giles that they had an audience.
He dropped his shoulders in a gesture of being put-upon. “I’m afraid your book won’t be in until tomorrow.” Buffy heard him say.
“Are you sure about that?” the girl said in such a challenging way that Buffy seriously thought about standing up and going to help.
Giles certainly sounded flustered. “Yes, I assure you there are no problems with the order, but come back tomorrow.”
“Buffy!” Xander raised his voice to pull attention towards him. “I haven’t shown you the twins’ latest pictures.” He thumbed his phone and sat next to her, blocking her view to the door. “We had a picnic last weekend; both of them are so close to walking on their own. I’m kinda hoping they wait till I get home from this trip. I’d hate to miss it.” Buffy viewed the photos of his two adorable children, basking in his happiness and how right he was to treasure the moments.
Giles returned, his worrying visitor gone, and sat next to Willow. “Sorry about that. Where were we?”
Buffy waited for him to settle before observing, “She didn’t seem the esoteric book loving sort.”
“School books,” he answered. “I get the additional reading lists from the local schools, and because I get a trade discount, it helps with the costs for the kids and the parents in this area.”
It sounded exactly like an altruistically Gilesy thing to do but Buffy was still hesitant. “She seemed a little on the pushy side. Is everything OK?”
Xander interposed. “My Watchers, guys? The reason we’re here, remember?”
“Sure,” Buffy acknowledged his justified impatience, and returned to the business at hand. “We think we’ve been losing people to a demon the Old Council called the Magician.”
“Can’t be,” Giles interrupted her very quickly. “That demon is dead.”
“Well, he’s saved his best trick for last then, because I’ve got two victims and no other explanation. Our current theory is that he didn’t die, he just possessed someone new instead.”
Giles sat back on the sofa and folded his arms. “And when you say ‘possessed someone new instead’, does your current theory posit this homicidal demon spends his free hours running a break-even book store?”
“No,” said Willow, rubbing his shoulder fondly. “We know it’s not you.”
“Of course not,” Buffy added though couldn’t help herself from teasing. “Demon possession being so not your thing in the past.” Giles opened his mouth to protest but she smiled to deflate him. “We know it’s not you, but we’re here to ask about what sort of demon are we dealing with. You saw the thing, what can you remember about it?”
Giles grunted and retrieved a diary from a desk drawer and flipped the pages. “Ah. Oh.” He turned back a page. Willow shamelessly tried to read over his shoulder. “Yes, that was the night Frank Palmer died. Bad business that, bloody awful business really. He was a good friend. One of the few I had in those days.” He shut the diary with a snap.
“So what happened?”
“I was Duty Officer that night, which meant glorified messenger boy in those days. You logged calls and passed them on to someone more important to deal with. Frank called me to say he’d got a lead on the Magician’s hideout. I told him to sit tight and I’d get an assault team to join him, but he said there was no time and he was going in, ‘with or without my help’. I knew he would go in on his own anyway, and as I said, he was a friend. I wasn’t technically supposed to leave the office but I wanted to help and perhaps I also saw a chance of glory for myself. The Magician was frightening everyone and we’d had no leads as to how to stop him. To be the hero was a great temptation.” He sipped a little of his coffee. “As it was, any such opportunity was promptly short-lived as Sir Thomas Wyatt caught me sneaking out the office and demanded to know why. I was glad it was him actually, anyone else would have given me a bollocking for leaving my desk, but Wyatt was a good man and a good Watcher. After I told him everything, he agreed that time was of the essence and we took his car.”
“No other back up?”
“No. That’s why Wyatt was good. He could be pragmatic about things that mattered. Frank was at risk on his own and it would have taken at least thirty minutes to get anyone else. Anyway, there was no sign of Frank when we got there, so we went in with weapons. I went in first as I remember.” He drank more coffee. “Frank was already dead, there was a battle and the demon was destroyed.”
Xander blew out his cheeks. “Gotta say, man, I’d hunkered down for some nice exposition and that story ended a bit abruptly.”
Willow agreed. “I’ve heard you tell longer battle stories about paper-cuts.”
Buffy however, fixed Giles in the eye to ask, “You’re sure the demon was destroyed?”
“Yes.” And the years just fell away, because there he was, lying to her again.
“You even signed Wyatt’s report to that effect,” she reminded him sharply.
He had the good grace to look a little uncomfortable and break eye contact. “Hmm, yes I did, didn’t I?”
“Giles,” Buffy pressed, then softened her tone. “Cut the crap and just tell us what really happened.”
He fought through his hesitation and came clean. “Alright, I never actually saw the Magician. Afterwards, Wyatt just told me to sign the report so I did.”
“Why not? Where were you?”
“I got knocked out almost as soon as I entered the warehouse,” he admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. Willow rested her head against his shoulder briefly at the familiar story. Xander and Buffy just grinned. “When I came round, Frank had been cut in two and Wyatt looked like he’d been in a hell of a battle. He told me the Magician was dead and I had no reason not to believe him. Why would he lie?”
“Well, possibly because he was possessed by the demon?” suggested Xander.
Giles looked uncomfortable. “I really doubt that. He’s in his eighties now and lost both legs to cancer. He’s hardly running around, chopping up Watchers with a Care Assistant. They don’t pay much above minimum wage.”
“So just to summarise,” Buffy began. “You were out cold and as if by magic, this possible possessing demon just… disappeared?”
There was a very long pause.
“I’m so glad we still don’t think it’s me,” Giles said woodenly.
Buffy stood up. “I need to have a talk with this Wyatt guy. Giles, you’re with me.” They all rose at her action. “Will, Xan, see if you can dig up any more information on relatives, this warehouse, or this guy Wyatt’s career. Anything you can.” She turned to Giles with a thought. “You got Wi-Fi for that?”
“Yes, I’ve got Wi-Fi, but hang it all, I quit working for you over a year ago. You can’t just order me about.”
She folded her arms and glared at him until he snatched up a brown corduroy jacket from his desk chair and pushed his arms through like a sulky teenager. “We’re taking my car though,” he added petulantly. Willow produced the MacBook Pro from her bag and exchanged a knowing look with Xander.
“You two kids be careful out there,” the latter shouted to their retreating backs.
Buffy followed Giles across the street to where his car was parked. With some dismay she stopped to see that he had flipped the locks on an old style silver Volvo whose offside headlight and wing were sporting serious damage. Buffy, never having been the world’s most cautious driver, knew her way around vehicular impact at speed and the resulting insurance claims, but for all the world, it looked to her like he'd either repeatedly hit something at slow speed or more worryingly, that someone else had taken a tyre iron to Giles’ stationary car.
“Ah, yes. I’ve been meaning to get that fixed,” he muttered.
She grabbed him by the sleeve, concern in her eyes. “Is everything OK? Seriously, can I help? Is it a question of money?” He looked at her in puzzlement and she clung on further. “You can tell me. Let me help.”
“Oy!” A shout suddenly came from across the street and the threatening teenage girl from the shop approached them.
Buffy gritted her teeth and prepared for battle. “Get in the car, Giles. I’ll handle this.”
“Oh, now really, this isn’t necessary you know,” he protested, and Buffy made to push him away and get herself in line with his persecutor.
“You’d better get your hands off him, lady,” the girl hissed as she drew close. Buffy let go of Giles’ jacket and folded her arms.
“Or what? Did you do this?” She pointed to the car. “Is it protection money you want, because believe me, you have no idea how protective of this man I can get.”
“Oh dear lord.” Rather than get in the car to safety, Giles had chosen to lean his elbow on the roof and his chin on his hand.
The girl ignored Buffy and asked Giles, “Where are you going? Where is she taking you?”
She took a step forward and Buffy reacted defensively with a hand, saying, “That's none of your business.” The girl looked her in the eye and then suddenly slapped away the hand; Buffy reacted equally swiftly with a punch and an attempted neck hold. The girl was not so easily fooled and the two of them wrestled to the ground.
“Enough!” Giles shouted and pulled them apart and to their feet. “Please, really, what will the neighbours think?”
“They’ll think that you’re not some easy mark, Giles. Leave this to me,” instructed Buffy, taking another swipe at her opponent.
“Bring it on, bitch,” the girl taunted. “No-one messes with the book man.”
“Ladies, please!” With tightened fists, they stopped and looked to Giles. “Allow me to make some introductions. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, meet Miri, who is also the Vampire Slayer.”
Miri was the first to process the information and spot an apparent flaw. “She can’t be a Slayer. She’s ancient!”
Giles began his explanation, “Buffy was the first Slayer-” And it was Buffy who was wounded by that.
“Hey, I’m not that ancient!”
He took a deep breath. “Buffy was the first Slayer in the current lineage who begat its expansion.”
Even Buffy, who had a pretty good idea of the gist of what he might be saying, looked dumbfounded at those words. Miri, she realised with amusement, had the familiar glazed look of one who spends way too much time with Giles.
Buffy took advantage of the confusion to pull him aside and tackle the key subject. “How come I’ve never heard of a Slayer called Miri, Giles? You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“Touch him again, lady, and we’ll see who can begat who.”
Giles, having laid his elbows on the car roof and meshed his fingers, now rested his head on his hands in mock despair. “Flattering though having two women fight over me is, we do have somewhere else to be. Miri, I’m perfectly safe with Buffy. She’s an old friend. Everything is alright, and you can go home.”
If Buffy had any lingering doubts as to the other girl being a Slayer, they were dispelled by the fact Miri completely ignored his instructions.
“No way. It’s my day to stick with you, boss. Where you go, I go.”
“Alright.” Giles’ teeth ground and he looked on the brink of cleaning his glasses. “Alright, get in the car, both of you. Let’s get this over with.”
Both Miri and Buffy scooted round to the passenger side, simultaneously pulling on the front door handle, and bumping each other.
“Shotgun is my thing,” Miri said defiantly, but Buffy was not to be intimidated.
“It was my thing first,” she argued.
“They even have cars back then?” the younger girl taunted.
Giles lost it. “Just get in the damn car the pair of you and behave!” He climbed in and slammed the driver’s door, angrily pulling at the seat belt that safety locked and refused to give. Buffy muttered ‘Grouchy’ just as Miri muttered ‘Touchy’ and the two nodded coolly at each other as Buffy claimed the front seat.
“I always let my mum go in front anyway,” said Miri primly. “Older people need the extra leg room. For their blood clots.”
They sat in three chairs in the spacious common room as they waited for Sir Thomas to arrive. Miri had put herself between Giles and Buffy, but had otherwise slumped and was focused on her phone.
Buffy and Giles similarly checked in with Willow who reported that Xander had already left to visit the latest bereaved family.
“The warehouse was demolished and developed into apartments.” Willow’s voice came through clearly on the speakerphone setting. “Nothing spiking on our radar about it. We found an address for Frank Palmer’s wife. Nothing on her either, but Xander said he would drop by on his way back from paying his condolences to the family. Nothing untoward on Wyatt, he’s been in poor health, but no financial or career irregularities. I called Robson and he remembered Wyatt was a bit of a god in Watcher circles. Got the job done, but with compassion.” Giles nodded his agreement at the assessment and the call ended.
A young man in a shapeless purple nursing smock and dark pants wheeled the old Watcher in and explained that the other residents were at lunch so they wouldn’t be disturbed before leaving them to it.
Despite his age and disability, Sir Thomas Wyatt still cut an imposing figure. His shoulders were square and he held his well-groomed head high. The upper half of his body looked fit and taut, as if he could rise from his wheelchair and sprint out to meet danger at the drop of the pin. In fact he would have done so, or at least risen to shake hands had not a blue tartan blanket covered his midriff and then stopped abruptly at the edge of his stumps, hanging limply down thereafter. His grey eyes displayed no self-pity, indeed they had keenly been assessing his visitors from the moment he’d entered the room.
All three of them had risen. “Thank you for seeing us,” Buffy began, but Wyatt ignored her momentarily as he reached for a handshake from Giles.
“Rupert Giles. Alive and Kicking.” Wyatt was amused. “This is a turn up for the books. But then you always did display remarkable resilience considering our line of work. You know, most Watchers of my generation never got to meet a single Slayer, and here you turn up with two of them. Seems indecently like hoarding somehow.”
“This is Miri, and this is Buffy.”
At the names, Wyatt’s interest shifted to Buffy. “Oh yes, I’m very honoured to meet you Miss Summers.” They shook hands and Buffy felt his strength, his pride, his very life blood of service. Then he did the same with Miri. “Any Slayer is an honour, of course, my dear young lady.”
“Whatever,” the girl responded coolly.
They sat and Giles pulled his chair closer, but it was Buffy that took charge of the questioning.
“We’d like to talk to you about the Magician. Thirty years ago, there was a demon who specialised in halving Watchers. You and Giles defeated it. Can you tell us exactly what sort of demon it was?”
Wyatt blinked innocently at her. “Is it not in the files?”
“We don’t have all the files. Not after the old Council was destroyed in 2002.”
“Ah.” He nodded and seemed to brood on unnamed lost colleagues. “I’d retired by then. I used to think I was fortunate in missing the explosion, but too many late nights and cheap cigarettes cut me down to size in the end. How things work out, eh?” Buffy asked him again about the type of demon. “Oh I don’t remember. A non-specific type of demon, I suppose. The Magician was just a name we made up. I’d have remembered had there been a top hat and card tricks. I could tell you about plenty of other demons I’ve faced.”
Miri, showing no patience for walks down Watcher lane, put forward an unexpectedly blunt question.
“How did you kill it, then? You’d remember that. You always remember that.”
“Oh really.” He looked flustered, his eyes dulled, he was suddenly old and frail and waving his hands.” I don’t know. It was a long time ago.” But it was an act and Buffy saw right through it. He waved a hand towards Giles. “You were there, my boy. Don’t you remember?”
“Giles has already told me he was working on his concussion stats,” Buffy said firmly, cutting off that line of retreat. “So I’m asking you. This Magician is killing Watchers again so I need to know how to stop it.”
“Can’t be the same one,” the old man replied with rapid assurance, the spark in his eyes returning. “Must be a copycat.”
“Something is looking to extend its lifespan again by chopping up Watchers. I’ve got two dead bodies so far, how many does it need?”
He was amused. “You think it’s a recipe?”
“I think it’s a ritual,” Buffy snapped. “To get a new lease of life by taking over a new body.”
“Ah, you’re thinking of a Dormant Demonic Possession, I see.” He seemed to consider it an academic question. “Well, usually the new host has to be someone quite physically close when the demon has achieved enough power to transfer. It is a means of extending its life,” he conceded, “Making it more resilient even.” His eyes twinkled. “Ah and you’re worried Giles here is the demon?” He found the idea funny. “Did you bring two Slayers, Rupert or did they bring you, I wonder?”
“Or you’re the demon,” Miri challenged.
“Then I got a very poor bargain, my dear,” he answered sharply. “No, in this case I can categorically assure you there is no ritual at work. The Magician is dead. You will just have to take my word on that and look elsewhere.”
Buffy had spent most of her teenage years not accepting the word of members of the old Council, and however much she rather liked Sir Thomas, she wasn’t going to start now.
“If you are so confident it’s dead,” she confronted. “Why did you make Giles sign the report?”
“What?” Wyatt was perceptibly caught off guard for a split second before his face regained its composure. “I just thought it would help his standing with the Council. A bit of a confidence booster for him to get some credibility in the field. You must understand that a lot of Watchers were unhappy at his reinstatement.” He looked almost fondly at Giles. “It wouldn’t have looked good on your permanent record to have missed the fight, my boy.”
Buffy wasn’t buying. “Giles has missed plenty of fights,” she said dismissively.
“Thank you,” the man himself interjected haughtily.
She looked across to him and pulled a wry face. “Oh get over it. This wasn’t about protecting your career. He didn't do it for you.”
Giles swallowed his battered pride and took up the questioning.
“Then why was it so important that I corroborate your account?” The old man ignored him, picking up some fluff on his blanket instead. Giles spoke again, softly, “You didn’t kill the demon did you? Why?”
“It’s obvious innit?” Miri broke the spell with another dazzling display of impatience. “Because he killed the other geezer!" She looked at Buffy and Giles like they were both six years old. "You said when you woke up, he was all bashed up after a fight and this other Watcher is the only other bloke who was there.”
It made a horrible sense and Giles was dumbfounded. “You killed Frank?”
“It’s not what you think,” Wyatt put a hand up, with a chuckle and nod to Miri. “Though I can see who is the brains of the outfit, here.”
“Tell us why it’s not what we think,” Buffy said sternly, dragging control back.
“Because there was no demon, just a human, it was all Frank Palmer. He was the one who was killing our people. He led you into a trap that night just as he’d done the others. Oh I didn’t know this at the time, like you I was expecting to battle this Magician demon, but when you went in first, I had a fraction of a second to see him club you from behind, so I ducked back to the shadows and waited to make my move.”
“That’s impossible,” said Giles. “Why would he?”
“He was young, ambitious, driven, on reflection possibly a wee bit unstable. There was a general feeling upstairs that he wasn’t half the man his father was and he had been overlooked for one or two promotions. That sort of thing can rankle.”
“I confronted him and he boasted about how he wanted to frighten the Council and to settle some old scores along the way. He saw his victims as rivals. I checked the pattern afterwards, it made a twisted sense.”
“But my career was hardly a threat to anyone. The office cat was held in a higher regard.”
“On the face of it, no you weren’t, but you’d been allowed back in to the Council and that in itself was almost unprecedented. It might not have been obvious to you, but the people upstairs did rate your potential to work with a Slayer someday, and a jealous Frank Palmer saw it too. Besides, that cat was an excellent mouser, don’t put yourself down.”
Even Miri snorted at that, but composed herself quickly. “Go on. Tell us how it went down.”
“Frank counted on Rupert abandoning his post and falling into the trap, he just hadn’t counted on his bringing anyone else along. He probably reasoned you had no other friends at the Council who trusted you.” Buffy and Miri both flicked their eyes to Giles who pulled a face. Wyatt resumed. “I waited until I saw the guillotine blade and the crude rope and apparatus he had primed for you, and then I had no doubts. I challenged him, he crowed of his success, we fought and I managed to stop him, but only at the cost of his life.”
Buffy asked, “Why not tell the truth?”
“Afterwards? To be honest I felt pretty sick that a Watcher should have been behind it, and well, he had a young wife, there was a pension to consider. It seemed kinder to say he’d died in the line of battle and the demon destroyed. There was no harm to the lie and even Rupert's career did alright by it.”
“So if there was no demon and this guy is well dead,” Miri summarised. “Then anyone could be slicing up these latest blokes.”
“And we’re back to a copycat,” agreed Buffy. “Damn.”
Giles was thinking quickly, he turned to Buffy. “But you’ve got to know what you are copycatting. You have to know about it. Cutting people in half is a very specific thing, very unusual. It’s got to be someone who was involved or who was told about it because it’s utterly meaningless as a ritual for anyone else. Maybe Frank confided in someone?”
Sir Thomas Wyatt coughed and raised a hand to get their attention. “Well, as I said he had a wife.”
Giles and Buffy looked at each other in horror. Her Head Watcher was compassionately making a routine courtesy call on Frank Palmer’s wife.
Buffy sat in the silent car and looked at her watch again. Six minutes. Six and a half minutes really. She tried Xander’s cell phone again but was still being transferred to voicemail. She tried Giles’ and his did the same.
Miri lent forward from the back seat impatiently. “We should be in there with him. We should have just stormed the place.”
Buffy didn’t entirely disagree with her tactical analysis. They were parked outside a leafy suburban set of houses, somewhat shamed by the expensive German cars on the street around them. Frank Palmer’s wife lived in a pretty Edwardian terrace that seemed to have more than its fair share of period architecture and nesting swallows and whose human residents were wealthy enough to have converted their front lawns to take make additional car parking. So the pension from the Old Council must have been really good thirty years ago. Her watch said seven minutes now.
A motorcycle approached. Buffy paid it little heed until she realised it was ridden by Willow. Her long flowing dress and blue shawl weren’t entirely appropriate to her transport and she herself probably wished for better shoes but she expertly pulled up opposite their car, removed her crash helmet, and shook her long hair free.
“Giles insisted on ringing the doorbell,” Buffy said by way of explanation. “Where did you get the bike?”
“It’s Giles’. I know where he keeps it.” Willow switched off the engine and looked sternly at both Slayers. “And you let him go inside on his own because?”
Well. Because they had watched him nervously from the car, ready to spring to his aid, but it hadn’t been necessary. Because Mrs Palmer had seemed surprised, then seemed to recognise Giles, at least as an old colleague of his husband’s, and hugged him, wiping a tear and inviting him in. Because Giles had surreptitiously gestured to give him ten minutes and followed her inside. It had all seemed like English politeness and a harmless false lead, though that had been eight minutes ago now.
Willow frowned as she pulled the bike up on its kickstand and got off. “Oh but Buffy!” she spluttered and pointed to a black Audi, two cars along. “That’s our car!”
Buffy scrambled out. “What?”
“That’s our rental. Didn’t you recognise it? Xander is here. He’s inside already. And now she’s got Giles too!”
“Shit. I didn’t memorise the license plate.” She turned to Miri who was out the car and had already popped the trunk, pulling weapons. “Find a back way,” she instructed.
The younger Slayer snapped, “On it.” And took off at a run to the end of the block.
The heavy front door was not locked and Buffy and Willow entered the house with the utmost stealth. The hallway was narrow with a steep flight of stairs to the right and three doors and kitchen to the left and ahead. They could hear Giles’ voice, at least the soothing comfort of the tone if not the words, and walked cautiously along the hallway towards that sound.
Buffy had a hand on the doorknob, ready to turn, when a female voice was heard.
“Shut up, shut up. I know who you are. I know what you’re trying to do.”
The two friends looked at each other. The voice had sounded agitated enough to merit action but it wasn’t clear what they were going to find on the other side of the door.
“Hello, is anyone home?” Buffy sang brightly. “The front door was open, hello?” It was the best bluff she could think of, a breezy passer-by, concerned by an open door was checking there were no burglars and that everyone was OK. She pushed open the door and entered. “Hello?”
She saw the back of a middle-aged woman in her fifties with stringy grey hair and a sloppy cardigan, on her feet and partially shielding Buffy’s view of the standing Giles. She walked in further, Willow at her heels. “Hi, your door was open, my friend and I were worried and-” She broke off as she assessed more of the scene. Between the woman and Giles, Xander was lying very still on a low coffee table. He didn’t seem to be bound, but he wasn’t moving. Above him, a huge blade was rigged with pulleys and tackle over a ceiling hook and to a dead weight. The woman held the tethering elasticated rope in her left hand and glared at the newcomers.
“Well, darlings, you haven’t exactly come to sell the Church magazine,” she said shrewdly.
“Xander!” exclaimed Willow, making to go to his aid.
“No, don’t,” Giles said quickly. “Don’t move any further, Willow, he’s alive, I promise you.” He raised his hands in placation. “She’s drugged him but he’ll be alright.”
“I think that rather depends how the next ten minutes plays,” their hostess reminded him.
“Alison, this can all end calmly.”
“Calmly, Rupert? Do you really think so?” She turned slightly and Buffy and Willow caught sight of the small gun she held in her other hand.
It was a snub nosed automatic that looked more like a toy but Giles was giving it a lot of respect and, as he was a lot nearer and had the thing pointed at him, Buffy opted to bow to his experience of firearms and regard it as real.
“I’ve got two Watchers and now two Slayers who’ve just burst into my house. It doesn't feel like a cause for calm."
Outside the French doors, Buffy caught a glimpse of Miri stealthily approaching with a crossbow in hand. She spoke loudly, for distraction.
“What’s this all about? There’s nothing to be gained from killing Xander. He was a wife and two baby daughters. It’s cold-blooded murder, nothing more. Think of his family.”
“Watchers shouldn’t have families,” the woman said with bitterness. “They shouldn’t have people to leave behind.” She dropped her head and, unfortunately, from the corner of her eye, she too saw Miri. “Oh my word it’s just like Christmas.” She snapped back up and pointed her gun firmly at Giles, raising her voice. “You’d better come inside, dear. I can shoot him faster than you think. Leave the armoury where it is, that’s a good girl.” Reluctantly, Miri dropped the crossbow and stepped inside. “That’s far enough.” They were spread around the room like points on a compass. “Will there be a fourth coming down the chimney as well?” the woman asked politely of Giles. “Because three Slayers seems more than enough for anyone. You always did get more than your fair share, didn’t you? I remember Frank saying so. The prodigal son returning, how everyone had to make allowances for you.”
Giles tried his calm voice again. “Alison, this can all end with everyone walking away.”
“Not for long, not for me.” With her gun hand she punched herself in the chest and the side of her head. “Cancer, eating me from the inside out. I wanted Wyatt to be the one to figure it out and come here. But you’ll do. Watchers are all the same, aren’t they? However you slice them.”
“Why don’t you let us take that rope?” Willow delicately suggested. “It must be getting heavy.”
But Frank’s wife, whilst mad as a box of frogs, was not to be easily distracted. “Don’t patronise me! This is my house and you interrupted our little fireside chat about the old days.”
“Let Xander go,” said Buffy. “And we can still talk about this.”
“Oh but it’s a lot of effort setting all this up. Such a shame to waste it, unless,” she fixed her eyes at Giles. “Unless you’re going to take his place instead, Rupert?”
He made no hesitation. “If that’s what you want.”
“No, Giles,” Buffy said sharply. “No-one is pulling a Sydney Carton here. Be reasonable, Mrs Palmer, what happened thirty years ago wasn’t Giles’ fault.”
“No.” Oddly, it wasn’t spoken as a question but in agreement, the older woman suddenly thoughtful. “I actually think you’re probably right about that.” She smiled at them all in turn. “But do you know what else I think, Slayers? I think you probably can’t save both your Watchers.”
In an instant she fired two shots at Giles and horrifyingly let go of the makeshift guillotine rope.
Miri was the most alert and bundled Giles over with no ceremony and, mercifully, no gunshot wounds. A better shooter might have found her target, but Frank’s wife had just wildly sprayed bullets. She made to shoot again but Buffy rushed forward and tackled her, snapping the gun free and punching her squarely in the jaw to unconsciousness. They all looked and gasped to Xander, and saw that despite the safety rope gone, the guillotine blade was still improbably suspended in thin air over him. As if by magic.
Willow smiled girlishly and inspected her fingernails. “Three Slayers indeed. I’m quite insulted.”
Buffy went ahead and took charge of the coffee maker, heaping in a tablespoon each, Giles didn’t make it strong enough to her taste, and then one for the pot.
“Well,” Xander began as he cautiously lowered himself onto one of the couches in the back room of the shop. “If you ever had any doubt as to my qualification as a Watcher, I’d say getting captured and almost sawn in half by the crazy woman of the week, should put your mind at rest.”
Willow having supported his arm, swooped next to him and tugged her knees up. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Besides, that sort of thing used to happen to you long before you became Chief Watcher.”
“Indeed, don't let it worry you,” Giles agreed as he removed his jacket and put it on the back of his chair. “You went in with the best of intentions. If it’s only consolation, I got taken hostage too.”
Xander grinned. “I learned from the best.”
Buffy had called the London office and arranged a clean-up team to deal with Mrs Palmer while they had gotten Xander checked out at a hospital. He would be prone to dizziness, but suffer no lasting effects. The doctors had advised against driving for a couple of days and to rest as much as possible.
“I noticed Miri made herself scarce before the team showed up.” Having added water and hit the switch, Buffy decided the time had come to tackle the question of Giles’ questionable motives in hiding Miri from them.
“Did she?” he answered vaguely. “She said something about homework, I think.”
“And if she’s lurking outside now, then she’s good, cos I couldn’t spot her.”
“Homework is traditionally done at home,” he suggested.
“So when were you thinking of telling us about her?” She fixed him with a steely look. “Because it looks a helluva lot to me like you’re running an illicit Slayer.”
“Hang on, Buffy,” Willow interposed. “There’s nothing illicit about being a Slayer that’s not on our books.”
“No, but there’s something fishy about it, or else why hasn’t he reported her existence to us?”
Giles, looking with disapproval at the sludgy tar that appeared to be dripping into his coffee pot, reached for his tea caddy and switched on his kettle. “Not every girl wants to join the big sinister Slaying organisation,” he explained. “She has that right.”
“She does. You don’t.” He turned to face her at that. “This is totally irresponsible of you,” Buffy continued. “We have a duty to care for these girls. We have a whole financial and support package available, and you want to play maverick and have your own Slayer again? It’s not fair on her. You can’t expect these girls to support themselves, procure weapons, transport, food even? That’s the kind of barbaric thinking that Quentin Travers and the like favoured.”
Comparing him to Travers was a stinger and she knew it.
“May I remind you that when I worked for you, I was instrumental in setting up that support network,” he answered hotly. “Do not lecture me on the financial costs of helping a girl with Slayer powers.”
“Business is that good, you can afford to run a Slayer, huh?”
Willow intervened. “Giles has a point about the big sinister Slaying organisation; many of these girls are suspicious. How many have walked away because they don't want our help, or they don't trust what they have to give for it in return? And what about the ones that chose to walk away in a bad direction?”
Over the years, Buffy knew they had lost several girls to mental health issues or even the darker forces of vampire and demon worship. They never spoke of the Slayers for whom they had had to take direct action, but she often saw their faces before she fell asleep. She knew Willow, Xander and Giles did too.
“We still have to keep trying our best by the girls we have given superpowers to,” Giles said softly. “Or, god forbid, they end up in the prison system, or worse.”
The kettle began to hiss and rattle its way to completion, and suddenly Buffy knew there was a little more to this story than he was telling her.
“My god,” she reasoned. “She isn’t the only one, is she? She said it was her turn to stick with you. How many more are you running?”
“I'm not running, I'm supporting,” he said primly, though he was unable to resist a small smile before adding, “albeit with occasional field trips to vanquish evil.”
Ignoring the kettle, he poured three mugs of Buffy’s coffee and put them down with cream and sugar options, saying defensively, “You have to remember London is a very densely populated city with historic roots in ancient magicks and the occult.”
Giles’ kettle boiled steam insistently until it clicked itself off.
“Seventeen,” he said sheepishly.
“Seven-teen! How can you afford to pay for…?” And she made the connection to Rose’s occasional financial irregularities that always had such an innocent explanation. “The Cayman Islands blip! You're stealing from me.”
“No. He’s not, Buffy. That’s enough.” It was Xander speaking firmly. He reached for his coffee. “Giles isn’t the one stealing from you, because I am.”
“We both are,” Willow added in solidarity. Buffy looked incredulously around her three oldest friends. It was astonishing they could have cooked up an entire mini-organisation without her knowledge.
Giles, having poured water into his tea pot and swirled it, sat down. “I started it though,” he muttered childishly.
But Xander silenced him. “Kinda not the issue right now, man.”
“But why?” Buffy spluttered, aware she was the only one standing now. “Why don’t I know this? Am I such an ogre that you couldn't come to me with this plan?”
“Not an ogre… no. It’s just you're awfully close to the politics,” Willow explained. “You have to answer to statesmen and financiers, and you’re very, very good at that. It’s just better if you don’t … know everything. We’re really, really sorry.”
Buffy sought clarification of the mission statement. “So Giles basically reaches out to the ones that don’t want to play ball?”
“Oh yes,” Willow enthused. “And it's much better with Giles. They think he’s a total rebel. He’s like the acceptable face of free thinking and radicalism.” They all looked to Giles who was delicately pouring his tea through a strainer.
“Yes, well,” he said self-consciously. “And now that we’ve all taken a moment to appreciate that irony, what do you intend to do with this knowledge?”
Buffy sat on the arm of a couch and brooded. “I thought you’d retired. I thought this was all going to be quaint. I should have known better.” She smiled despite herself and sipped her coffee. It was far too strong but in the circumstances she would rather die than admit it. “OK, I'll call off Rose from checking the books so meticulously.” She wagged what she hoped was a reprimanding finger. “Just don't get yourself killed. And guys, let me know about anything important like this in future.”
“Of course,” they demurred.
“Wouldn’t dream of not.”
Buffy finally gave up the pretence of being the stern leader, instead she rose and tipped her coffee down the sink. Giles had already begun to pour her a tea when she flopped down on the couch beside him.
"Will you be sending me detailed reports?"
Giles lifted the lip of the teapot and passed her the cup. "Nope, but maybe verbal updates, if you're in town."
She was about to add sugar when a final thought struck her.
“Hang on, did I buy you this bookshop too? Cos if I did, I'd have picked a way better location. With tourists. And pigeons.”
Giles smiled. “No. The bookshop is my own money, I promise, and the location is actually very useful.”
“OK, if you say so." She stirred her tea and grinned. "I guess this means we'll be dropping by more often for updates then.”
“I’d like that. You’re always very welcome.” The four old friends smiled warmly at each other, content and quiet, surrounded by books and good company. They might all have been children again. “And just one last trick if I may…” Giles muttered, reaching back to his desk. With a flourish he produced a box of Jaffa Cakes and all four of them giggled helplessly.