Oh - and it's un-beta-ed, because I've only just finished it and there wasn't time to get someone to look over it. So please forgive any typos (although please do point them out.) If the plot doesn't work, I've only myself to blame!
FEEDBACK: Will be appreciated
Buffy blamed some of that on time zones, some of it on her own busy schedule and a lot of it on Giles’ stubborn commitment to duty which for a long time had been one of his more endearing qualities, had – briefly – become a source of extreme irritation and, more recently, turned into a cause for concern.
He was working too hard. Everyone said so, and that included a few members of the old brigade who rather expected it of him. There were good reasons for it, but Buffy was no longer a woman solely driven by destiny and she was well aware of how much damage being driven could do to a person’s soul. Willow’s mega-magic may have freed her from the burden of being the sole ‘chosen one,’ but it had dumped a whole load of wearisome responsibility onto her Watcher’s shoulders, and she was beginning to think it was about time she took a little of it back.
Hence the trip. And the planned celebration, which he did know about – starting with the Scoobies’ attendance at the multi-faith ‘Festival of Light’ which was being held at Westminster Cathedral over the weekend, and ending with the dedication ceremony at the newly refurbished Temple of Remembrance in the grounds of the equally refurbished Watcher’s Academy. There’s going to be a stone for every slayer named in the diaries, she remembered Andrew announcing with awe. In remembrance of the sacrifices they made to save the world. And Dawn had giggled and asked if Buffy was going to get three …
“Can I help you, miss?” The young man behind the reception desk was smiling at her, and she smiled back, tugging her ID out her bag so she could wave it at him with authority.
“You could let me in,” she grinned, amused at the way his eyes widened as he realised who she was.
“Of course, Miss Summers.” He practically fell out of his chair in his haste to hit the entry button and she bit back a laugh as he scrambled to retain his dignity and wave her through as if he let the Prime slayer into the building every day of the week. “Do you want me to …”
“No,” she interrupted, halting his reach for the telephone. “No need to announce me. I’m expected – and I know the way up."
The building was a wonderfully baroque affair, with pillared passageways, high vaulting windows, grandly elegant staircases that curved in multiple directions, vast marbled floored rooms on the first two floors and a whole maze of smaller offices and corridors on the three above. It had been badly neglected after the Second World War, the Council having deemed its prominent position in the Capital to be unsuitable for an organisation as secret and unobtrusive as theirs was supposed to be. By the time Caleb blew up the main council buildings in Hampshire, the London site had become little more than a shell of its former glory, its rooms and offices hired out to faceless men from faceless companies while its grand galleries and ballrooms were being used as additional storerooms for several of the London Museums.
Which is why Giles had known all about its existence, of course, and one of the reasons why he’d been able to negotiate its reacquisition with very little fuss. The British Museum still had use of two of the vaulted cellars, and a great many of the paintings that decorated the semi-public areas on the lower floors were on loan from the Tate. Or the Queen - who, it had turned out, was officially a member of the Order, albeit a very low key and generally uninvolved one. Buffy hadn’t met her yet, although she knew Giles had. Something about needing royal approval for his appointment as Director – as if that was going to make any difference. They could have run the new council out of a roadhouse in Cleveland – hell, Robin and Faith were, as far as the American Slayers were concerned – but there were some traditions Giles had been reluctant to abandon altogether, and so far the nod to prior establishment was proving to be a good move. It had enabled them to make use of some of the Old Council’s political and personal connections in a way that probably had Quentin Travers turning in his grave – and it had helped get access to the assets and the bank accounts that had been so desperately needed in the early days.
Buffy’s grin was wry as she climbed the marble staircase, recalling how – on the first day that they been given access to the building, both she and Dawn had insisted on taking the long ride down its polished rail. They’d been like a pair of giggling school kids let loose in an abandoned toy factory, charging around with abandon and delight while Giles and Xander pointed at plans, poked at walls and made muttering noises about dry rot, rewiring and restoration work. It seemed like forever ago now, as far away as her life in Sunnydale, a piece of the past turned into a distant country, one that she now revisited with wonder and just a little sense of regret.
She’d run away from this. Run away from the demands of business and bureaucracy, from the day-to-day hassles of organisation and operation, seeking freedom from responsibility, diving headlong into the dizzy temptations of living without a moment’s need to look back. Giles had let her go without a word of protest. Just opened his arms and let her fly, never asking more of her than she was willing to give, never calling on her unless she was really needed – and often not even then. Three years of heady, hedonistic freedom, a gift she’d seized and celebrated … and now she was ready to come back, a little more centred, a little more mature – ready to repay a little of that generosity, ready to reassume the responsibilities of her destiny.
If she could.
The Director’s office was on the second floor, part of a suite of rooms that lay between the more public areas of the building and the restricted sections beyond. In the eyes of the everyday world, Rupert Giles was Director of a registered charity, one that sponsored the education of gifted young people across the globe. They hosted a number of private collections – books, maps, antiquaries – which had been donated to them over the years, and they supported any number of worthy causes, from environmental and humanitarian concerns to the preservation of history and heritage.
Behind closed doors, of course, he was Director of a whole lot more than that – and a lot more than mere Director, too …
“Hey, Sandra,” she called, strolling into the outer office and waving at Giles’ PA as she went by. She didn’t recognise the other two people standing by the desk, although the younger one was clearly a Slayer. All three of them looked up at her entrance; the Slayer reacted with admirable alertness, her body tensing and her stance shifting into a subtle readiness for action. The one that looked like a Watcher – man in his late twenties, bookish expression, corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches – blinked in bemusement, while Miss Parkinson looked decidedly startled.
“Ah – Ms Summers? What are you … umm .. He’s not …”
Buffy breezed past with confidence, putting both hands to the inner doors so that she could push them wide open with dramatic effect. Her steps were eager and her smile was bright, although her stomach was churning a little, suddenly anxious about the reaction she was about to receive. She’d flown all this way assuming he’d be glad to see her, but she couldn’t guarantee that. He was a very busy man …
… who wasn’t even there.
The main office was completely empty.
Buffy’s confident step faltered, her intended greeting dying on her lips. The room felt like Giles, with all the bookcases groaning with books, the hat-stand in the corner with a couple of broadswords propped against its base, the ornate leather chairs for visitors, the marble topped coffee table and the heavy, antique desk. But there was no sign of the man himself, at the desk, at the window, or even sitting at the computer in the corner.
“Ms Summers?” Sandra Parkinson arrived at her side, looking a little harassed. “We weren’t expecting you today, were we? I thought your flight was later in the week …”
“Friday,” Buffy said, trying to read the clues the room was offering. There was no work spread across the desk, which had an ominously clean and not being used look to it. Nor was there a jacket or a coat hanging on the hatstand. Not even a scarf, which – given the bite to the outside air – she’d have certainly expected to see. “Dawn and Andrew are flying in on Friday … and yes,” she assured the anxious woman, turning to her with an attempt at a smile. “You are expecting me. Meeting with the Vatican’s representative? 11:30.” She glanced at the antique clock sitting behind the desk. “On the dot.”
He’s just popped out for a moment, her head was sensibly suggesting. Called into research to look at a prophecy. Trouble with a Slayer in training. Needed to visit the john …
Sensible thoughts or not, the knots in her stomach had tightened with sudden and desperate anxiety. Concerns raised about just how hard Giles had been working danced through her mind. Maybe Willow hadn’t been joking when she made that remark about long hours and too much stress leading to nervous collapse or even a heart attack …
“Oh - Oh. I see.” Miss Parkinson immediately looked relieved – and a little embarrassed. “I didn’t realise that was you. Did Mr Giles know you were coming?”
“No,” Buffy said, watching her warily. The woman didn’t look upset or anything. In fact she strode back to her desk and pulled the appointment’s book across to take a look at it. “I was … going to surprise him … “
“Oh, you’d have certainly done that,” Miss Parkinson laughed, sharing a knowing smile with the other occupants of the room. “Ah – here we are … yes, Mr Robson said he’d take that appointment. You’ll find him down the corridor. Room 17.”
“Room …” Buffy echoed bewilderedly, but the woman had already returned her attention to her other visitors.
“I’m afraid I don’t have another free slot for you until the 22nd,” she said brightly. “If it’s really urgent, I could fit you in with one of the senior Watchers instead. I think Mr Gambit has some free time tomorrow – or Dr Sullivan? He might be free now.”
The man frowned. “Well,” he said “I was hoping that Mr Giles would able to advise us …”
“Sandra.” Buffy was a Slayer – no, make that the Slayer – and as such not entirely renowned for her patience. She grabbed the woman by the shoulder and spun her round. “I didn’t come all this way to see Robson. Where’s Giles?”
“I say,” the man reacted with indignation, pushing her hand off Miss Parkinson’s shoulder and glaring at Buffy with what might have been an intimidating glare - had she not been familiar with staring down demons, hell gods, and Giles in his most Ripperish of moods. “That’s no way to behave! We were here first, young lady, and …” He broke off with a strangled urk - the inevitable result of finding the point of a letter opener pressed up under his Adam’s apple.
“Wrong,” Buffy said icily. “I think you’ll find that I was here first. Fighting the First, in fact.” She glared at the younger Slayer, who was in the middle of a half bounce forward to defend her companion, and the girl froze in place, her eyes going wide.
“Miss Summers,” the man was muttering. “Buffy Summers? Oh, good Lord!”
“If I were you, Hilary,” Miss Parkinson advised with more than a hint of amusement, “I’d back away. Very slowly. Buffy – Ms Summers … there’s really no need for this. Rupert isn’t here. I sent him home this morning.”
Buffy turned to look at her and the man – Hilary – immediately backed away with a hint of wary terror in his eyes. “Home?” she queried.
“Home,” Miss Parkinson reiterated, gently reaching to tug the letter opener from her hand. “There’s been this … bug, going round the office. Everybody’s had a touch of it. Coughs, sneezes, sore throat, that sort of thing. Nothing serious – just a two … three day flu thing. When Rupert came in this morning, looking white as a sheet, croaking like a frog – of course I sent him home. Well,” she corrected pedantically. “it took me and Mr Robson and Dr Sullivan and at least six of the girls … but we finally persuaded him we could cope without him for a couple of days, at least. And that the best thing he could do was go home, wrap up warmly, drink plenty of fluids and sleep the whole thing off. I’ve been waiting for him to go down with something. That poor man works such long hours. He’s so dedicated, you know?”
“Yes,” Buffy agreed distractedly. “I know … He’s sick?”
It was an alien concept. Giles was never sick. He got knocked down, knocked out, broke bones, got shot, speared, beaten half to a pulp, and – Buffy swallowed convulsively – even tortured from time to time … but she’d never known him be sick. Not once, in all the years she’d known him …
“But – he can’t be sick. We’ve got the celebration coming up and … everything.”
Miss Parkinson smiled. “I’m sure he’ll be fine by then. It’s just a touch of the flu.”
Everything seemed to be falling apart. All her careful planning, all her fine intentions, all her hopes and schemes, her expectations of the next few days … “People die of the flu,” she said, in a very small voice.
“Not in this day and age,” the man called Hillary observed scathingly. “Dammed inconvenient if you ask me.”
“We didn’t,” Miss Parkinson said, throwing him a warning look. One that had Ripper’s influence stamped all over it. Hillary subsided immediately.
“No. Right. Well … I suppose we can speak to Sullivan if he’s around. Nice … umm … confronting you, Miss Summers.”
“We’ll do it again, sometime,” she said, a suggestion that had him hurrying even faster from the room. The girl rolled her eyes, nodded respectfully to Buffy and bounced after him, leaving her alone with Miss Parkinson. “He’s the calibre of Watcher Giles is assigning these days?” Buffy queried bemusedly. “Did we run out of all the good ones?”
“More or less,” Miss Parkinson said with a grin, walking round to the other side of her desk. “But don’t think too badly of Hilary. He was brought up in the old school and hasn’t learnt any better. Yet. His Slayers will see the worst of it knocked out of him soon enough. They’re off to Northern Alaska next week. There’s a nest of vampires up there who seem to have adapted to the six months of summer, six of winter arrangements rather well. Rupert was looking for someone to hunt them down during their summer hibernation, and Hilary got the job. He speaks fluent Russian, knows a little Inuktitut and he’s a pilot,” she explained, scribbling thoughtfully on a piece of paper. “We needed someone who could fly a plane. Here you go.”
“Oh,” Buffy said, taking the paper as it was handed to her. “I guess that makes sense. How many slayers does he Watch? And what’s this?”
“Six. And that’s what you were going to ask me for.”
The paper held an address and a rough sketch of its location, somewhere near Baker Street Tube station. “It is?”
“Uhuh. There’s a flat, just off Regent’s Park, that Rupert uses on those days when he’s working late, or needs to be back in the office early. Which is most days of the week, these days. It’s a long way back to Bath when you feel like death warmed over. That’s where you’ll find him.”
Continued in Part Two ...