Disclaimers in Part One
Misery loves company they say. But not when it’s the kind of misery that pounds behind your eyes, burns in your sinuses and shivers through every fibre of your being until your bones turn completely to rubber. Not when it’s murder to breathe and wretchedness not to. When your throat seems filled with razor blades, your lungs are clogged and your normally well behaved brain seems to be running on fitful clockwork and at far too slow a pace.
That kind of misery builds up walls of impatient and frustrated irritation. Demands merciful silence.
And promises to bite the head off the next person to even so much as dare think about asking you how you feel.
Which is why, when the doorbell to his secret, well hidden little London flat rang just before lunchtime, Rupert Giles seriously contemplated shooting whichever well intentioned pillock dared disturb him and his pestilent wretchedness. Since this was a distinct improvement over contemplating shooting himself, Giles decided he might be feeling a little better – and dragged himself out of bed to answer the door.
“There’d better be an apocalypse …” he started to say, and then stopped, because – despite his lack of glasses and the inevitable fuzziness brought about by fever – he could have sworn that it was Buffy standing in his hallway.
A tanned, curvaceous Buffy, tucked into a stylish red leather coat and with her hair somehow dragged up on top of her head in a glorious confection of plaits and ringlets. She looked – she looked adult, and confident, and utterly amazing.
His mouth dropped open. He blinked in total disbelief – and shut the door again, quite unable to believe his eyes.
It’s the fever, he concluded feverishly, resting his weight on the wall beside the door and waiting for the world to swim back into focus again. It wasn’t possible, of course. Buffy was still in Rome, she had no idea where his hideaway was, and even if she did there was no way she’d just turn up like that, out of the blue. He’d have swallowed his sense of disappointment with firm determination – except that swallowing anything hurt like hell,and he was too busy wondering if he’d started to develop genuine hallucinations or if the First had somehow managed to find a way to escape from under the hellmouth and come to torture him instead.
A little torture didn’t seem like a bad thing, right there and then. At least it would keep his mind off the flu …
The doorbell rang again, so he dutifully answered it, blinking owlishly at the figure in the hallway.
God help him, but it still looked like Buffy.
“Oh my God, Giles. You really are sick. You look terrible!”
It sounded like Buffy too, although shrilly and a little overloud within the confines of his pounding head. Since miracles can, occasionally happen, he shuffled back a bit to let her in, wondering – as he did so, if he were entirely out of his mind.
“It’s just the flu,” he mumbled – an evil necessity linked to the rawness of his throat and his current inability to breathe.
“What?” she questioned, pausing in her shimmy past to look up at him with incomprehension. It was a surreal moment. There should have been no sense of her at all beyond the delusion of his eyes. No sense of body heat, since that was entirely drowned by the fever of his own, and no signature scent either, since he’d lost all sense of taste and smell hours ago. But she was right there, unutterably and ineffably Buffy, in a way that neither his heart nor his soul could deny.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded, staring at her with bleary disbelief. His mental image of her was still clearly stuck somewhere back in High school, because this – woman - in her styled Italian coat and her carefully coiffured amber gold hair, was not his Buffy at all. But she was.
And she was grinning at him.
“I’m your 11:30 appointment,” she said, completing her shimmer so that she could stand in the hall and start taking her coat off.
“Yeah.” Buffy was still grinning, although her expression was beginning to take on a worried tinge. Did he really look that bad? He leaned forward so he could stare at himself in the mirror. Good Lord. He really did … “Sent by the Vatican and everything … But I guess that can wait. You really are sick, aren’t you. Do you have everything you need?”
She looked even more Italian without her coat, draped in dark golds and accented reds; something that said expensive and which had stepped straight off a catwalk rather than a hanger. It should have looked ridiculous. On her it looked good. Elegant. Even less like Buffy than before.
“I don’t need anything,” he snapped, unsettled by her astonishing arrival, by her unfamiliarity, by her invasion of his private spaces and by his own discomforts which had denied him any chance to armour himself against unexpected intrusions. “Just peace and quiet for a couple of days.”
Her face fell. “You’re not pleased to see me?”
Oh, good lord …
“Of course I’m pleased to see you, Buffy,” he ground out, grimacing at the effort it took to speak. “It’s just that …” He waved a despairing hand at himself; a dishevelled figure wrapped in little more than pyjama pants and his black dressing gown. He wasn’t even wearing his slippers for god’s sake!
She took a long, thoughtful look at him. For one, very hopeful moment, he thought she might have come to her senses and decided to leave him alone until he was both capable and coherent again. No such luck. He recognised the expression settling on her face with a dawning sense of horror; she wasn’t going to leave. She wasn’t even going to leave him alone. She was going to take charge …
“What you need,” Buffy concluded with an odd little gleam in her eye, “is some good old-fashioned TLC.”
“No, n- no , no,” he started to protest, some tiny part of him trying to cling to the idea that if he insisted hard enough she’d simply give up and leave him alone. The protest got lost in a scramble for his handkerchief and the explosive sneeze that followed it. The idea got swept away by the determined look on his Slayer’s face. Buffy didn’t give up on anything. Nothing defeated her – vampires, demons, gods, not even death itself. She certainly wasn’t going to be intimidated by a mere virus or two …
“I’m doomed,” he realised, a soft exclamation that was half heart felt terror and half knee-quivering relief. No, he realised almost immediately, the knee quivering was the flu – but the sense of relief was still a shock.
“Not now I’m here,” Buffy smiled, holding out her hand. “Let’s start by getting you back to bed. You look as if you’re about to fall over.”
“Well, there’s a surprise,” he couldn’t help but say. “I seem to recall someone ringing the doorbell. Maybe that was why I got up in the first place.”
Flu, or not, Buffy wasn’t about to let him get away with that much ingratitude.
“And here was I thinking you’d been single-handedly fighting off a nest of Girecokox demons again. Honestly, Giles,” she smiled, guiding him back to the bedroom and onto the edge of his bed, where she took a moment to tweak the duvet and plump his pillows, “did you think I wouldn’t get to hear about that? Willow was furious about it. So was I, when I heard.” She finished plumping, reached down to tug open his robe and helped him ease it off his shoulders. He was too bemused by her efficiency to protest. “You shouldn’t be taking risks like that.”
“At my age?” he added, not without a hint of bitterness, and she paused in her ministrations to give him a stern look.
“At any age,” she corrected pointedly. “Even I know better than to face down a Girecokox without backup standing by. And you took on a nest of the things! Kicked their butts, too,” she noted with pleasure. “Rescued the kid they’d intended for supper, held the fort until the cavalry arrived and still managed to get to your meeting on time. What do you do for an encore, these days?”
“Try to save the world,” he said, unable to help smiling at the pride in her voice. She laughed.
“Can you try and keep that down to once a month from now on in? You’re making the rest of us look bad. There.” She patted the pillow and he lay down with a distinct sense of relief. Even the brief trip to the door and back had let him feeling decidedly dizzy. Soft hands drew the duvet up over his shivering shoulders and tucked it in around him. “Better?”
He was, but he wasn’t about to admit it. He really didn’t need her to make a fuss. He just wanted to be left alone.
Possibly to die. Or something …
“I’m fine, Buffy,” he croaked. “I just need a few hours sleep …”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered, clearly taking a look around his less than tidy bedroom. He couldn’t entirely remember undressing before he fell into bed, but he must have done. There were probably clothes strewn all over the place. “Let’s see … oh, yuk. Okay. Gunky hanky … no tissues … Giles, have you taken anything for this?”
Had he? He couldn’t remember that, either …
“No, didn’t think so. All right. I’m going to take a look around, see what sort of supplies we have. You just – lie there and breathe, okay?
That was easier said than done. He clutched the duvet round him and huddled into his misery, feeling a vague nausea wash through and over him, adding misplaced vertigo to his general distress. The tightness in his sinuses speared into his brain, counter-pointing the throb of headache – and while he could just about breathe, he could only manage to do so by dragging the required air in through his mouth – which, in turn, scraped the rawness of his throat, and stirred the tickle that sat there into a feathery, maddening dance.
Everything ached, from his scalp down to his toes and all the places in-between, shoulders and ribs and lungs and belly and groin and ankles and knees. His limbs felt heavy, weighted like wet sacks of sand; his stomach was rolling and his lungs felt as if they’d been filled with wallpaper paste.
The thick, glutinous kind.
He drew in an incautiously deep breath and the tickle turned into a hacking cough – one that forced him to haul himself up from his cocoon and huddle miserably at the edge of the bed, wracked by coughs that spasmed across his aching ribcage, and hawking up mouthfuls of mucous and phlegm. It was a most unpleasant experience, not helped by his struggle to breathe, or his awareness of how Buffy came running, the moment the fit began.
“I’m all right,” he growled, trying to shoo her away with a feeble wave of his hand. He was very fond of his Slayer, but this was not the time. Feeling vulnerable put him on the defensive and feeling defensive unsettled him; he detested being ill, he disliked being fussed over while he was, and he abhorred the inevitabilities that made the second the necessitous result of the first. She did, at least, halt her anxious reach to support him; she stood by the bed and frowned at him instead.
“So this sudden impression of demon snot monster is normal behaviour is it?” she asked pointedly. “Or are you turning back into a Fyarl, and haven’t bothered telling anyone about it yet?”
The look he threw her was both pained and pleading. “Buffy …”
Her anxious expression softened into immediate sympathy. “That bad, huh?”
He nodded, then immediately regretted it. The whole room span. When the world stopped going round something white and fuzzy had materialised in front of him. “Blow,” Buffy ordered, not unkindly. Giles blinked and made an effort to focus. She was holding out a clean handkerchief – probably one of the ones he’d turfed out of a drawer earlier that morning.
“Ah. Right,” he acknowledged, grabbing the pristine cotton and doing just as she advised. The effort to clear his nose hurt like hell – but the relief, the brief wonder of drawing sensible breath, was well worth the effort. It didn’t last, of course, but the moment was savourable.
Buffy, it appeared, was trying not to laugh.
“What?” he questioned irritably. It was bad enough that she’d invaded his life like this, without warning or invitation. But did she have to find his predicament quite so amusing?
“You sound like a walrus,” she said. “Actually, you sound like a grumpy walrus that’s swallowed a frog, and … I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh at you , but … Giles, you don’t get sick. Not like this. It feels a little … surreal.”
“So good to hear that your time in Rome has improved your vocabulary,” he snarled, not at all amused. “Of course, I get sick. Not very often, but …” He had to pause to breathe, fighting past a snuffled gulp and painful swallow. “Damnit, woman,” he cursed, packing a whole load of misery and just a hint of painful past resentments into the accompanying glare, “I am only human, you know …”
“I know.” Her gentle sympathy was almost his undoing. He could just about cope with feeling helpless and vulnerable when there was no-one around to witness his misery; but confronted with someone who cared – and who did so unreservedly, despite, or perhaps because of, all the complications of their relationship over the years – his weakened defences collapsed like a line of dominos.
“Oh, good Lord,” he groaned softly, closing his eyes for a moment and swallowing against a lump that had nothing to do with his sore throat and everything to do with the young woman sitting next to him. “Buffy, I really am not at my best here …”
“I noticed. Come on …” She helped him back into bed, this time propping the pillows up behind him so that he was sitting up rather than lying down. The change of angle helped his breathing a little, and he found himself relaxing as she gently tucked the duvet back around him. “Try and rest up a little, huh? Hankies are here in case you need them, okay? I’ll go make you some tea and see what I can do about getting in some supplies.”
“Tea would be … extremely welcome,” he croaked.
She grinned. “Thought so.” She bent and pressed the lightest of kisses to his fevered cheek. “Don’t go anywhere, walrus o’mine. I’ll be right back …”
Continued in Part Three