Title: Readings 1/3
Pairings: Giles/ Buffy (highlight if you really need to know)
Summary: After a string of ruined dates, Giles despairs of ever finding romance on the Hellmouth. Then a Tarot reading by Tara tells him something he doesn't want to know about his romantic future.
Spoilers: Early season 5, monkless AU.
Notes: Many thanks to penwiper26 for Tarot thoughts.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. I claim no ownership and am making no money.
King of CupsGiles poured two glasses of wine, a delicious riesling he'd had stashed for just such an occasion. Quick twist of the wrist at the finish to avoid dripping, and a suave step across his flat back to the sofa where Karen was waiting. She was leaning forward, examining the books he'd strewn across his coffee table in hopes that she, or someone, would be intrigued. A catalog for an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon artifacts he'd curated. A glossy book of photographs of Saxon weaponry. A visual survey of Russian icons. No demonologies. The text on vampire/human biology he'd been reading earlier in the day was well-hidden in his desk.
Giles had met Karen at a city meeting discussing downtown parking improvements. They'd commiserated over how parking meters drove away potential customers, and continued the conversation over coffee. A few dinner dates had followed, and now this. Giles had begun to feel hope. He was nearly certain he had not misread the flirting over dessert.
He held the glass down to her and leaned over her shoulder, a shade closer than necessary, to see what had attracted her attention. The icons. Ah. He tucked himself on the sofa next to her and sipped his wine. She sat back from the book and tasted the wine herself.
"Oh, Rupert, this is delicious."
Giles smiled. He launched into some small talk about icons, letting his arm slide over the sofa back. She was really quite attractive. She had the dark hair and dark eyes he always found alluring, shown off to perfection over strong dark colors and flowing skirts. Karen slipped her shoes off, and moved a little closer to him. A frisson of arousal tingled along his fingers where they brushed her shoulder. In a moment he'd put down the wine glass and kiss her. No rush. Draw it out, entice her. He slid a little closer.
The front door slammed open. Giles jumped back from Karen and then surged to his feet. Xander staggered in, Buffy's arm slung over his shoulder. Xander's shirt was drenched in blood. So was Buffy's face. She was unconscious.
"Head wound, heavy blood loss, coming through!" Xander said. He lurched Buffy toward Giles' bathroom without bothering to look around the flat or locate Giles.
"Er," said Giles, sparing a moment to glance at his date. "I need to..." Then he was in motion, taking Buffy from Xander and easing her onto the pedestal in the bathroom. He ripped open the chest of first aid supplies and started to work. Scalp wound, a lot of blood, bruising, nothing deep. He fired questions at Xander as he worked. At one point he was aware of Karen handing him a towel. He took it with a bare nod of thanks. It looked worse than it was. Scalp wounds often did. Buffy had probably been out for only a short time. Even concussions faded fast with Slayer healing.
"Wha?" said Buffy. She raised her head, disrupting Giles' attempt to bandage up the last section of the gash. "Did I get it?"
"Oh, yeah," said Xander. "You staked it then went over like you'd been pole-axed. What does that mean, anyway? Axed by a Polack?"
"Type of polearm," said Giles, distractedly. "How many were there?"
"Just the two," said Xander.
"Second one got lucky with that kick," said Buffy. "Headstone got in the way." She stood. Giles marveled, as always, at the contrasts that made Buffy. The fashionable shirt, ripped and smeared with vampire dust. The golden hair, soaked in gore. The staggering entry to the flat, followed by the controlled power of her stretches now as she took stock of her body. He beamed up at her from where he knelt on his bathroom tile. She'd be fine. She was fine already.
"Did, uh, we interrupt your date?" asked Xander.
"Oh, crap! Sorry, Giles," said Buffy. "We'll get out of your way. Thanks a million. See you on Thursday for the staff practice." She dipped down and kissed his forehead, and the two were gone.
Giles returned to his living room and looked around. Karen was also gone. Shoes, wrap, purse, all missing. He sighed. He picked up his wine glass and tossed it off. That was the only pleasure left to him for the evening. Might as well finish the bottle while he swabbed blood from his bathroom floor.
Five of CupsLate afternoon sunlight slanted in through the Magic Box front windows. At this time of year, in autumn, the light fell this way for an hour before vanishing behind the building across the street. It glowed through the stained glass ornaments in the window, through the feng shui crystals Giles had hung, through a faint haze of smoke from the incense he'd burned earlier, across to warm the Tarot table where he sat.
Giles was alone in the shop. Being alone did not trouble him. His friends were near. They had been with him earlier in the day; they would be with him again tomorrow. His Slayer would train with him tomorrow, and he would have the satisfaction of watching her at the peak of her skill.
For once the table was clear of books and the detritus of research, and was living up to its name. Giles slowly sorted through his Tarot cards. He had unearthed his copy of the Thoth deck from the back of a desk drawer. The edges of the heavy card stock were worn. The colors had faded, and had never been that clear to begin with. If he brought one to his nose he could detect aloeswood and herb, faint remnants of parties past.
He chose a card and let it fall to the table. Lust.
No, being alone in the shop was not troublesome. It was being alone at home, in the evenings. Every evening. And every morning.
Olivia had found the Hellmouth too frightening to stay, and that had been nearly a year ago. Since then, he'd had a number of pleasant meetings for coffee, a handful of enjoyable dinners, and then the one visit to his flat, last night, which had ended so abruptly. His apologetic call to Karen's cell this morning had received a flustered response and a promise to call back some time. His second call hadn't been answered. Giles could see how this would go. What could he do? His vocation had to come first. The safety of humanity had to come first. If he were able to explain it, his dates would likely agree. And then would follow Olivia's example.
Giles let another card fall. Eight of Swords. Interference.
A simple local businessman was attractive and boring. A local businessman who at night was a sworn Guardian of Light was romantic and attractive and anything but boring. And utterly frightening in three-dimensional reality. It would be a rare woman who wouldn't be put off by the regular appearance of a gorgeous wounded twenty-year-old in his flat at odd hours of the night. Jenny had been strong enough not to mind, and to understand that the place she had in Giles' heart was her own. Jenny had fought alongside him. And had died because of it. He still missed her.
Another card from the deck drifted to the table. Five of Swords. Defeat. The green of the card glowed sickly against the dark wood of the table. This wasn't looking cheerful. He collected the cards and reshuffled.
The bell on the door jangled. Giles looked up, prepared for the end of his quiet time. The light was behind the person entering: female, round hips, long skirt, hair tied back. Tara, and alone. His peace need not end. He had half hoped Willow would be behind her. They'd exchanged angry words two days ago, over a grimoire Willow had liberated from a locked cabinet. Giles had been angry; Willow, defiant. They'd both expressed themselves freely. He felt it was past time they patched it up. No Willow today, however. His apology had to wait.
Giles continued shuffling the cards. Tara approached quietly. When she saw what he was up to, she made as if to move away, but he motioned her back. She sat and watched.
Giles cut and chose another card. Lust, again. Eight of Swords, again. He turned over the third: Five of Swords. He fanned out the deck, puzzled.
Tara leaned over the table. "This is the Crowley Thoth deck?"
"Mm, yes. I've had it for twenty-five years, more."
"May I?" At his nod, Tara picked up his deck, then dropped it to the table. Her face twisted in distress.
"This... I sometimes get mixed feelings from the Thoth deck, but this is way beyond anything I've felt before." She held her hands over the cards, eyes closed. "Chaos. Very strong chaos. And, and malice. But laughter over that. Mr Giles, has anyone else handled these cards? Done magic with them?"
Giles knew very well who had. "Yes. A friend. Well, he was a friend once. A chaos mage, so you're quite right there." He held his own hands over the deck and concentrated. He could taste Ethan, faintly, and Ethan had certainly worked magic with these cards. He'd had a bit of a cartomancy phase before the demon-summoning one. Giles wasn't as sensitive as Tara, and couldn't detect any malice. How long had it been since he'd touched these cards? He couldn't remember.
"You cannot get a true reading using this deck. The forces are... not helpful. I hate to suggest this, but you might want to destroy the deck. Or, or, you might be able to cleanse the cards, but it might be easier just to start fresh."
"Oh. As bad as that. So much for doing a reading for myself," he said, ruefully.
"I, I have my cards. If you'd like me to... I wouldn't want to presume."
"Would you, Tara? I would be most grateful."
Tara smiled at him. He reboxed the cards and got up to put them away behind the counter. Too many memories were bound up with those cards for him to destroy them. He'd store them away, and buy a fresh Crowley deck from the Magic Box stock. Wholesale, even. He returned to the table, where Tara had set out her deck and started sorting through it. Tara's deck was also worn with age. The Rider-Waite. She saw him looking.
"They were my mother's. I like to stay traditional. Willow likes the decks that have round cards, or only women in them, or cats, but," here Tara looked around herself guiltily, "I think that's silly."
"I do too, but then I'm a patriarchal oppressor." They shared a smile. Willow had called him that during their argument, when he had told her that some magic was kept secret for a reason.
"Would you hold this, please, while I shuffle? And please meditate on your question." Tara handed him the King of Cups. Giles was surprised. He'd have thought she'd pick an air card for him. He held it and thought about what it meant she made of him. A family man, Giles who was unmarried and childless. A gentle and loving man, Giles who had human blood on his hands, who every day taught a young woman to kill. An old-fashioned man, a restorer. That at least he could make sense of. He turned his mind to his question. Love, on the Hellmouth. Love, while he was Buffy's Watcher, while Buffy had to come first in his life and his heart. Was it possible?
Tara laid the first card on the table. The Lovers. "This is your question," she said.
The Hierophant, reversed. "The root of the matter."
The Five of Cups. "You, the seeker."
The Five of Wands. "The environment."
The Seven of Swords. "The answer."
Tara sat a moment, considering the cards. So did Giles. An odd reading. The Lovers, that was easy, and evidence that Tara's reading had struck true. The Hierophant ill-dignified he could make little sense of. The minors were no better.
She cleared her throat, then began. "Your question is about matters of the heart. You're seeking a soulmate. Perhaps you have already met your soulmate. Perhaps you have been a mentor to this person, though a poor one. Or it's been a troubled relationship." She tapped the five. "The next card shows your current attitude. You've been focusing on your past losses rather than looking at what you have right now."
"True enough," murmured Giles. Perhaps the clearest card in the reading. Hadn't he just been moping?
Tara moved to the next. "Conflict. You've recently been in conflict with this person. Perhaps your authority has been tested by him or her. And this last card, your answer." Tara looked almost alarmed. "You must act as a thief, and use your wit and your cunning to win your goals. Perhaps, well, perhaps your soulmate is with someone else right now, and must be stolen away." Tara looked up at him wide-eyed, as if she'd just had an unwelcome realization.
"I think," Giles began. "I'm not sure..." He stopped, unwilling to step on Tara's interpretation. It was, after all, her reading. She nodded to him to continue, however. "The Hierophant has always meant the Council to me. Ill-dignified, as Crowley put it, means as a malign influence. Disappointment, Strife, Futility. The... Well. My return to the Council separated me from a lover I once thought might be my soulmate. This, this person might actually have been my soulmate. We, um, we, we've fought every time we've met since. I'm looking back at that loss, and others. But this last card is, um, not encouraging. Futility." That last card said that any efforts he might make would not be enough. He lacked the energy to repair things with his soulmate. With bloody Ethan. Not that he wanted to repair things with Ethan. He craved a different sort of lover these days. The sort of man he'd have to be to be with Ethan again, that wasn't who he wanted to be.
Tara twisted her mouth in doubt. "Those meanings might apply to the Thoth deck, but I'm not sure they... Well. You probably know better than I. If you have strong associations with the cards."
"No, no," said Giles. "I'm sure you're right. Though neither reading is encouraging." He sighed.
"I like your reading better," said Tara, decisively. "You're not a thief. You shouldn't be too discouraged by that last card. Futility, you said? That's only one possibility. Have a more positive attitude, and pursue this person again."
Giles sighed again. Pursue Ethan? The very idea. He thanked Tara, and sat with his chin on his hands thinking.
Tara packed up her cards and unpacked her history homework onto the Tarot table. It now looked much more like it usually did, littered with books and papers. Giles liked it that way. They all had a base once again, a place where they could find each other, gather resources for whatever battle had them occupied. He retreated behind the counter to watch the newest member of his makeshift family, head bent over her textbook. Did he truly not want to bring Ethan back into his life? Could the man fit in? He wouldn't have even considered it before that damn reading. Now the idea troubled him. Ethan was always such a royal pain. Perhaps it was best that the card told him not to bother. Then he felt a flash of irritation. What business did a foolish Tarot card reading have telling him not to bother? If he wanted to get back together with Ethan, he damn well would.
The Hierophant invertedThe first task would be to find out where Ethan was. Giles didn't believe for an instant that Ethan had stayed in the Initiative's custody more than a day. He was a trickster, a wily thief. He'd always had a clever turn with magic, and just enough power to be dangerous. No. He'd not been in captivity for long.
First thing in the morning, at a decent hour Greenwich Time, Giles pulled his address book from a drawer, and looked up Ethan's sister. He still sent her Christmas cards. She wasn't to blame for her brother's bad behavior. Samantha wasn't in. Giles left a message with the Magic Box number. Next, mutual friend Trevor. Another message left. On a whim, he tried the last working number he'd had for Ethan, with no luck. Well, he'd shake the tree a little more as the day progressed.
Giles packed a lunch and headed off to open his shop. He made a few more calls through the day. He connected with Samantha, who said her brother had been ill over the spring and summer, and gave him a current number. So he had escaped. Thank goodness. Giles thanked her profusely, and asked her to let Ethan know to contact him. She drily registered her surprise. "Just tell him all is forgiven," Giles said. He rang off and immediately tried the new number. Giles left yet another message, repeating his numbers for the fifth time that day.
The door jangled. It was a bit late for customers; in fact, Giles should consider closing up. It wasn't a customer, however, but Buffy. Giles smiled at her. She'd wanted quarterstaff training today. His smile got a little brighter. He loved fighting with staves, almost as much as he loved swordfighting.
"Anya, would you mind taking charge? I'll be in the back with Buffy if you need me." Anya nodded.
Giles moved close to Buffy and examined her forehead. She'd removed the bandages already, of course. The gash along her scalp had faded to a pink line. "No trouble from the head?" he asked, tipping her chin up to check her pupils.
"C'mon, it's been more than a day," said Buffy. "When I left your place I was mostly okay. I was hunky dory by this time yesterday. Let's go smack each other!"
Giles snagged his gym bag from its spot by the training room door, where he'd dropped it in the morning. He stepped behind one of the changing screens and undid his tie.
"Hey, Giles," Buffy said, from behind her screen. "Wanted to mention to you. I'm seeing an extra-big surge of new vamps. Total newbies, not attached to any particular sires."
"Interesting," he said. He pulled on a faded Dingoes t-shirt. "How long has this been going on?"
"Dunno. Been sorta building, maybe, over the last few weeks. The numbers aren't huge, but they're higher than usual for this time of year."
Giles toed off his shoes and exchanged his trousers for sweats. He carried his trainers out to the mats and sat to lace them. Buffy joined him there to begin stretching. "I'll have Willow check the missing persons reports," he told her.
He fetched the staves from the weapons rack and tossed one to Buffy. "Remember, the padding's not enough. So maintain control, or you'll kill your Watcher." He'd long since learned that Buffy got sloppy when she thought she didn't have to worry about form. A few mistakes, a few incidents of watching him writhe on the mats in pain, had inspired her to pay attention. Well worth it, he thought. Everything about working with Buffy was worth the investment.
Giles came alive during these sparring matches. Of all the exercises he did with Buffy, meditation, yoga, mysticism, he loved the combat lessons best. The rush of beating a Slayer at her own game, every now and then, through superior cunning. The thrill of being beaten by her, and knowing it meant he had taught her well. The tingle he got seeing her in motion, face flushed with exercise. The smell of fresh Slayer sweat, calling to the Watcher in him. Shouts and grunts and barked laughter. The moment when she stopped him to show him a kata she'd invented.
"No, really, Giles. Watch this. It's great. It's gonna really slay 'em." She gestured for him to stand back. "Ho! Ha-ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!" She bonked herself in the nose, gently, and staggered backward.
He stared, then swept his staff out to knock her over, and rolled on the mats with her, laughing.
"What's so funny?" Riley, standing in the door, dark glasses on.
"Spin!" said Giles.
"Thrust!" Buffy said, pointing at the ceiling. She craned her head up. "Ready for dinner, sweetie? Just give me a sec to rinse off and change."
Giles sat up. His giggle died. Buffy would be off on her date now, he supposed. She tucked her feet under herself and sprang up. She pulled Giles to his feet.
Anya stuck her head in the door. "Giles, there's a phone call for you. A friend of yours, calling from London. Don't take too long. A real customer might call."
Giles left his staff on the mats and ran to take it. Late night their time meant trouble. "Hello? Oh, Tonker, it's you."
Or it could be just one of his night owl friends. "What's the occasion?"
He held the phone to his ear and toweled off neck and face while he listened to Tonker. He'd had heard, through a fast-moving network of Giles' occult friends, that Giles was looking for Ethan.
"Yes, yes, I talked to Samantha today."
"Ah," said Tonker. "But she doesn't know the real story of what happened to Ethan in America. I do."
Tonker told him. The towel hung around his neck, forgotten, while Giles listened.
When he hung up, Buffy and Riley were hanging out by the table, talking to Anya. Giles stalked over to them.
"What's wrong?" Buffy, coming to the alert.
"God damned Initiative," said Giles, through his teeth. "God damned American military."
"What about it?" said Riley.
"They're a pack of bloody-handed torturers, that's what. Do you know what they did to Ethan? Do you know what they did to my friend? I just found out. They had him for one fucking week and they nearly killed him. It took months for him to walk again."
Riley stepped back from Giles' anger. "I thought you didn't like him. I thought he tried to kill you."
"He played a prank on me. Not that it bloody matters. You can't torture people just because you don't like them. Not if you're civilized."
The adrenaline rush hit him. Giles' hands began to shake. He wanted to hit something. Anything.
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that your damned military are savages, that's what I'm saying!"
Riley strode up to Giles and shouted in his face. "We were fighting demons! We were at war."
"Not just demons," said Buffy, suddenly. "Remember Oz? None of us can forget what the Initiative did to Oz."
"I rescued Oz," Riley said, still in Giles' face.
"So don't defend them," Buffy told him.
"Who said I am?"
Giles snapped. "You were one of them. You let them cuff Ethan and put him in a van and you knew what they'd do. And I just let you do it. God!"
At that Riley raised his hands to shove. Giles was ready for it. He stepped back, fists up and out to block, then had Riley by the throat before the boy could react.
"Hey!" Buffy spread a hand flat on his chest and pressed him gently, but with enormous strength, away from Riley. "Giles. Go shower and change. I'll be with you in a few minutes."
Giles let himself turn and walk back to the training room. His hands shook on the collar of the t-shirt. He pulled it over his head and threw it at the wall. No bloody good pounding Riley into a pulp. That wasn't who wanted beating. He'd worn Ethan's silver shirt, mocked it, and laughed as they led him away.
When he emerged from the shower, once again dressed as a sober businessman, he was calm. He found Buffy waiting for him, idly tapping the punching bag.
"Buffy. I... I apologize. I ought not have picked a fight with Riley. Is he still out front? I should--"
"No, I sent him away."
"Oh." Giles ran his hand through his damp hair, then pulled his glasses from his coat pocket and put them on.
"You don't need to apologize to him, either. Torture can't be defended. Especially not to you." She met his gaze, and nodded. "He's starting to piss me off, Giles. He's been way moody. Wearing those stupid sunglasses indoors all the time. Screw him. Or, uh not." She tilted her head and made a face. "Hey, I'm free for dinner tonight. Wanna go get something to eat?"
Giles let his breath out. "Certainly. My treat. Chinese? No, wait, there's a tapas place I intended to take my next date to. That would seem to be you."
"You can tell me all about Ethan over tapas, whatever they are." Buffy took his hand, and led him out of the shop.
Once in the restaurant and seated, Giles found his stomach was not entirely in a mood to eat. He ordered mineral water, and an almost random selection of dishes for the two of them. He sat back, stretched out his legs, and moodily played with the lime from his drink.
"Spill," Buffy said.
"Spill what?" said Giles. He shrugged.
"Well, for one, why you're suddenly worked up about a guy you were trying to pulverize last time you saw him."
"Ethan is mine to beat up," said Giles. "I only do it when he's threatening you. Or me. And I use my fists on him. I don't lock him in a cage, and..." He looked away, unable to speak.
"Giles, don't tell me if you can't. I think I get it." said Buffy, gently.
"They peeled him open and wired him up and told him to use his magic to fix himself," Giles told her. "Only he couldn't, because you can't cast healing spells on yourself. They didn't believe him. He sat until the drugs wore off enough for him to teleport."
She stroked his arm gently. Giles fixed his gaze on his empty bread plate until he felt he could control himself.
The bread with garlic he'd ordered arrived. He watched Buffy dig into that, and the olives. His stomach was too tight to eat. He sipped his mineral water, and wished for wine to take the sting away. Which was exactly why he wouldn't order it. He'd been down that path last year. Never again.
"Is he okay now?"
"Hmm? Oh. Yes. Yes, he is, actually." Giles' mood lightened a little at that. He knew that torture could be survived, and recovered from. It had left its mark on him: he would be forever prone to waking up in a sweat in the pre-dawn dead, convinced it was still going on. But as the years passed, it happened less and less often. Perhaps, well, perhaps he could talk to Ethan about it. Let him know he wasn't alone.
Had he just seriously considered bonding with his ex-lover over shared torture experiences? He had. Only on the Hellmouth. Giles laughed, and took an olive. Buffy looked at him oddly, but said nothing.
The waiter brought a shrimp dish. Giles tasted it, and nodded in pleasure. A decent restaurant. He was glad he'd brought Buffy, and not wasted the evening on some woman who would run away at a glimpse of ridged forehead and fang. Or of the comprehensive contents of his first aid chest.
"You were bestest buds once, huh? With Ethan?" Buffy popped another olive.
"Something like that," said Giles, vaguely. He brought his legs under his chair and sat forward to pay more attention to the food. "We were very close, for a few years."
"Did you break up after that demon thing?"
"No," he said, distractedly, reaching over to spear another olive for himself. "We broke up a bit later, over another incident. He wouldn't stop summoning creatures."
"Aha," she said.
"Buffy. You're fishing."
"Caught something, too."
He poked at her with his toothpick, and shook his head. He would have been angry if it had been anyone but Buffy. "You need to mind your own business."
"My Watcher's love life is my business."
"Your Watcher doesn't have a love life," he said, gloomily. "I meet women, go on a few nice dates with them, and then something happens. Vampire attacks while we're walking back to the car, usually."
"Staking vamps doesn't impress them?"
"The fact that the vampires know who I am certainly does."
"Oh. Ouch. Which reminds me, how did your date go after we left? Or do I want to know?"
Giles had forgotten about Karen entirely in his suddenly-urgent hunt for Ethan. She hadn't returned his last call. He supposed he wasn't surprised.
"Well, uh, it didn't. She'd gone by the time I got back to her." Giles sighed.
"My fault. I'm sorry. Did she overhear us or something?"
"Most likely. I had expected her at least to demand an explanation, or something equally dramatic, for the appearance of a lovely young woman dripping blood all over my flat."
Buffy patted his hand. "Was this the florist?" At his nod, "Anya didn't like her anyway." Giles pulled a sour face at her. "What? Anya has very good judgment. She also knew there was something fishy about the chick who ran the sandwich shop, and you know how that date turned out."
"Would have been perfectly fine if you lot hadn't sat behind us through the whole performance," muttered Giles. "It doesn't matter. I have decided to move on from all that and try something new."
"Getting back together with Ethan?"
"No!" he said, too quickly. He flushed. "Well, perhaps?"
Buffy looked disgruntled. "Dunno if I approve of that, Giles. The guy is dangerous. Gets up to too much whacky stuff, and not on our side."
Giles couldn't argue. It was the strongest reason he had himself for writing off the whole notion as insane. If only those damn cards hadn't put it in his head. But he couldn't leave it now. He had discovered that he owed Ethan a serious debt, a blood debt. One that would need to be repaid with blood and pain.
The waiter brought a dish with cheese, tomato, and olive oil. Buffy tasted it, then dug in. "This stuff is really good. You always feed me the best."
"The Slayer deserves the best." Giles toasted her with his mineral water. "This is easy to make at home, if you like it. Once you find the cheese."
The conversation turned to cooking, and the two bickered amicably about olive oil and pans for the rest of the meal. Giles dropped Buffy at her dorm feeling, if not at peace with the world, at least reasonably content. No longer sorry for himself, which he had to admit felt better.
The next afternoon, Willow appeared, Tara in tow. Giles, in his pervasive mood of bridge-mending, lost no time in trying to patch it up with her. The Initiative might well have chosen her to experiment on, if Riley had betrayed her to that harridan Walsh. He went to her with arms open.
"Willow," he murmured into her hair. "Let's not fight."
Willow sniffled and got his shirt wet. "Okay, Giles."
"Next time you want something, please ask. And please talk to me about what you're doing. I can be a help, you know. I did go through it all myself once." He pulled back and took her face in his hands. "Promise me you'll talk to me?" At her nod, he hugged her again.
"This is most unlike Giles," Anya said to Tara. "He's been all emotional for the last two days. Fortunately he has not attempted to hug me inappropriately."
Tara looked distressed. Giles made a face at Anya over Willow's head, then stepped back. Willow thunked down next to Tara at the Tarot table and dug in her backpack. She pulled out a handful of tissues and swabbed her nose.
Giles pulled his glasses from his coat pocket and put them on. Time for work. He leaned on the table across from Willow. "Buffy has reported some alarming news. Well, mildly concerning, anyway. She says that the fledgling vampire numbers are, uh, up over the last few weeks. I propose we do a bit of digging in missing persons reports, see if we can spot any trends. It, it may just be a random burst of activity, or it may be something more sinister."
"Can't know until we check," said Willow, brightly.
"Exactly." Giles shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled at her. "We'll likely need to start with some, uh, computer research."
"Just like old library times," said Willow, again overly-cheerful.
Giles pulled a chair out and joined them at the table. "You, uh, can use that network Xander installed?"
Willow held up a cable of some kind, then plugged it into her Powerbook. "Works like a charm. Thanks, Giles! Right, then, missing persons reports. Sunnydale police archive... there we go." Tara edged her chair closer to Willow's. Giles also moved himself in, so he could look over her shoulder at the data she was pulling up from the police reports.
"That looks like rather a lot," he said.
"Statistics from the last six months," Willow said.
Giles pulled a pack of index cards and a pencil from his pocket. He put his head together with Willow's and vanished into research mode. He made notes while she scanned and dictated to him. He could work with Willow at times the way he could always work with Buffy, and to a lesser extent Xander: smoothly, nearly wordlessly, communicating in the private language of people with deep shared experience. Married couples sometimes had languages like the language of the Scoobies, as Xander called them. Giles and Willow spoke it to each other, heedless of the other two people in the shop, as they worked on yet another in a long list of vampire problems. Tea appeared at Giles' elbow. He took it, addressed brief thanks to the air, and drank.
Noise entered the room, in the form of a fast-moving Buffy, with Xander and a box of donuts. Giles sat back, realized his legs had cramped, and stood to stretch. Watch-glance: four in the afternoon. Could have been worse. He'd come to after these sessions to find it was four in the morning, and he'd had nothing to eat since breakfast.
"Whadda we got?" said Buffy. "Any big bads?"
"We do have a spike in missing persons reports," said Giles. "Mostly male." He snagged a jam donut, and tried not to get sugar on his tie.
"Single," said Willow.
"With ages ranging from twenty to, umph..."
"Right," said Giles, through a mouthful of donut.
"Most are from the coastal side of town, which means lower income brackets. And three of them were going to the same alcohol-abuse recovery group. Which is a slim lead, but it's all we got." Willow sat back and closed her Powerbook decisively.
"Worth investigating. Xander, would you like to attend a men's alcoholism support group with me tomorrow night?"
"Ooh, and me not even old enough to drink! Yeah, I can pretend to be a drunk. I've seen enough of 'em to know what they act like."
"Wow," said Buffy. "Sounds like you guys turned up a lot today."
"Giles had the insight about the support group," Willow told her.
"Good work yourself, Willow, thinking to use the street grid," said Giles, ducking his head and smiling. He was relieved they'd repaired things so easily. He hated being at odds with any of his friends, and most especially with Xander and Willow.
Tara put her arms around Willow. "My baby is the brilliantest."
"Uh, right," said Willow.
"Not to interrupt the Giles-Willow love fest or anything," said Buffy, a trifle peevishly, "but could I talk to you for a sec, Giles?"
Giles stuffed the last of the donut in, and snatched a paper napkin. He alternated licking his fingers and scrubbing them as he followed Buffy back to the training room. He leaned against the pommel horse and waited for her to speak.
"It's, well, it's Riley. I'm kinda worried about him. Could you, um, come patrol with me tonight? I got a lot of stuff to dump on you, if that's okay."
"It's always okay, Buffy," he said.
"Meet me at ten at Restview. Bring your sword. You always have fun with it."
Giles brought not just his sword, but also a staff for Buffy. She often neglected to bring along tools, preferring a spontaneous fight to a planned one. Giles wished to change that habit. She was there before he, doing idle handstands on the grass. She backflipped toward him, and landed neatly square-on to him, in perfect position to kick his head off. Giles realized that the look on his face was hopelessly fatuously happy, but that was how he felt, to see her so balanced and in such perfect form. He handed her the quarterstaff, with a faint "ho!", and was rewarded by a matching grin. They walked side by side deeper into the cemetery, following the winding road back toward the newer plots. Giles was content to let Buffy lead; she usually had a plan.
"What's all this with Riley? It sounds like you're not getting on."
Though the fellow had lasted much longer than Giles had expected. Though perhaps it had been easier since Riley was a warrior. He'd had more in common with Buffy than the pretty boys she'd dated in high school.
Buffy didn't answer at first, and she sounded resigned more than upset when she did. "Yeah, it's kinda been more off than on recently. He didn't cope well with losing the hyper strength. Or his jobs. He's not finishing his degree, either. Total collapse. And he's been twitchy. Getting into fights."
"I am sorry about that, you know."
"And I told you not to angst about it. He had it coming. Ends and means. And it sounds like their ends were not so great, either."
Giles watched Buffy's feet moving on the cemetery path. She led them to a mausoleum and peeked in. "I always check this one. This is the one that has the secret entrance down to the Master's uber-creepy lair thing. With the altar and candles. Caved in during the quake, but you never know when somebody's gonna tunnel out."
There was nothing there, nor in the whole of Restview, nor in Shady Rest, nor in St John's. Giles was beginning to wonder if Buffy's reports of increased vampire sightings had been a one-time surge. They fetched up on a marble bench near the church in St John's, for a spot of tea from Giles' thermos. Moments like this Giles sometimes wished he were still a smoker. Perfect moment for a fag and bit of a think. He tapped his fingers against his lips.
"He's been skipping out on dates," Buffy said. Giles blinked, then realized she meant Riley. "Just not showing up. Hasn't been on patrol with me in three weeks, and has had some lame excuses. He always liked patrol before. Gave him a chance to do familiar things."
Giles made a random soothing noise, stopping just short of an "oh dear". Was he to be expected to be a relationship counsellor now? To patch up Buffy's relationship with the young prat? He wanted the opposite. She could do so much better. Giles hadn't yet met the man who was worthy of Buffy, but he was sure the fellow was out there somewhere.
"How long am I supposed to wait to let somebody get over depression? Like, how many months do I give him before I can bail without feeling bad?"
Giles ground his teeth. "Well. Er. Do you love him? If you do, you wait as long as it takes. If not..."
"That's the thing. The answer is kinda no."
"Well, then." He felt his jaw muscles relax. He stood up. "Shall we continue? We're nearly done with the downtown circuit."
"Yeah. No. Duck!"
Giles' eyes widened, then he flattened himself. He felt Buffy's hands on his shoulders, shoving him hard to the side. He rolled and came up with stake in hand. Buffy was already engaged in the fight. Giles' heart raced and he moved forward in fighting crouch, ready to intervene. This vamp seemed to have some hand-to-hand combat skills, beyond what the demonic strength granted. Buffy was not in danger, but neither was she dispatching it immediately.
She looked happy, if anything. Happy to be using some of her fancier moves. And if he wasn't mistaken, she was playing with it. Setting it up for a showy kick in the chest, followed by a pirouette and at last! the quarterstaff driven deep into its chest.
Buffy nodded in satisfaction and pulled the staff out of the ground. She'd driven it six inches deep into the turf. Giles breathed himself down from the fight. Adrenaline ebbed, and he calmed enough to relax his grip on his own stake.
"Fun! Nice change of pace. That thing was a soldier. Definitely one of the ex-Initiative guys. I've seen him on campus. ROTC, I think."
Giles pocketed the stake and went over to her to dust off her shoulders and arms. "I thought they'd all cleared out after the unit was dissolved."
Buffy frowned. "Allegedly. Riley suspects they just moved it. He says most of his buddies are in Ohio now, for some reason. Cleveland. They complain about it to him. But yeah, you're right that most of them shouldn't be in town any more. And he's not the first I've staked."
Giles thrust his hands into his pockets and followed her along the cemetery driveway toward the street. He chewed the problem over. Missing persons reports up, vampire population up, some of those vampires seeming to be ex-Initiative. Most of the reports from the coastal flats. Not enough information; he and Xander would definitely attend the support group.
"And another thing. Look at this vamp. The one coming right at us from the street. Yeah."
Vampire in motion. It was wearing a lab coat, of all things, and glasses. Buffy cartwheeled and kicked it in the chest. It fell over. She pinned it and beckoned Giles closer.
"This thing has a pocket protector. What. I ask you. What. I am resigned to seeing last year's fashions on vamps. They can't help it. They're stuck where their humans died. But this! This is beyond untrendy."
"Do you mind? I need the pocket protector."
"To protect my pocket!"
"From the, er, ink. He's got the old-fashioned sort of ballpoint in his pocket, see?" Giles removed one and held it up.
"Well, jeez Louise, guy. Buy a modern pen! I got a roller pen that does glittery scented ink the other day."
The vampire gave Giles a pleading look. Giles shrugged, as if to say, what can you do with her?
"Right. Let me up so I can just head off and do that."
Buffy shook her head. "Nope, sorry. Pocket protectors are no good against Mr Pointy." And that was the end of the vampire.
"Lab technician," Giles said to her. "And recently turned."
"I killed another one of those three nights ago."
"Well. I think you're right. Something's up."
Buffy gave him a lopsided grin. "Oh, as usual, dear. You and Xander are on the case, though."
She wound her arm through his, and Watcher and Slayer made their way back to his car in perfect amity.
Seven of SwordsLunch hour at the Magic Box. Giles sent Anya off first. He'd fallen easily into his library-days habit of bagging a healthy lunch for himself in the mornings, and throwing in some extra in case of demonic emergencies or hungry Slayers. He usually had the pleasure of feeding Buffy bananas in the late afternoons. He sat at the Tarot table with his sandwich and the new deck he'd chosen. Not another copy of the Thoth deck, despite his intention, but instead a pagan-inflected Rider-Waite deck. He'd thought it was time to move on from the occult pretensions of his demon-raising days.
He broke the plastic and rotated through the stack slowly, sandwich in one hand, a card in the other. He'd have to keep the box in his jacket pocket for a few days, Tara had told him, to let the cards absorb his presence. She'd then said something about his aura, but he hadn't quite caught her meaning.
The bell on the door rang. Giles put down the sandwich and wiped his hands, ready to move into his magic shopkeeper role.
TO BE CONTINUED