Disclaimers in Part One Continued in Part Two and Part Three
It was too quiet without her.
The saving grace of those times were the days when he had family to stay. His family – Xander, snatching a moments pause from globetrotting and regaling him with tales of Africa, India and the Far East; Willow, sometimes with Kennedy in tow, choosing his hospitality over that over the various covens that begged her time and her attention; Dawn, visiting for the occasional summer break from school and – more recently – university; even Andrew once or twice, although the young man was best dealt with in small doses, and on a long rein. Buffy’s visits were a rare and greatly cherished pleasure, and he’d been more than looking forward to seeing her there over the weekend.
But his London sanctuary was different. The only visitors he ever saw in London were the postman, the delivery staff from the local take-aways, the occasional courier and, even more occasionally, his secretary – and the only reason that Sandra knew anything about the place was because he was the Head of an International organisation dedicated to protecting the world … and despite the number of Slayers they now had on staff, it was still essential that he be contactable should an emergency arise.
Buffy’s intrusion should have felt like … well, like an intrusion. Which it had. For about the five minutes it had taken him to realise it really was her, and the five minutes after that in which his flu fuddled brain had wrestled with what she was doing there, and insisted on throwing up a whole series of irritated protests about wanting to be left alone and not needing a nursemaid, thank you very much.
But after that? After that, after his mind had caught up with it’s Buffy and she’s here, a whole series of oddly comforting reflexes had seemed to just click into place with remarkable ease. Old habits, they say, are hard to break – but there was a lot more to the reassurance of his Slayer’s presence than mere habit. It was as there’d had been something vital missing from his life, a nagging absence that he’d carried for so long that it had sunk below conscious awareness – and it was only now, with her sudden and breezily unexpected arrival on his doorstep, that he was able to acknowledge that missing part of himself.
Which wasn’t missing anymore.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Giles groaned, tugging the duvet tighter around his huddled ball of misery and shivering despite – or perhaps because of – the heat his body was generating. He should know better than try and have a reasoned conversation with himself when he was burning up with fever. Either his thoughts weren’t making sense anymore, or he’d just collided with a truth he’d been desperately avoiding for extremely good reasons. Of course he missed her. He’d been missing her every day since that dismal moment when they’d shared a hasty goodbye hug at Heathrow airport and she’d gone racing off to pursue the life she’d always wanted without so much as a single backward look. She was his Slayer – the cause for which he’d been born and bred, the Chosen One he’d been raised to serve and to whom he’d dedicated practically his entire life. Was still serving, in fact; no matter how many other Slayers Willow’s spell had awakened, his sense of dedication and duty were still irretrievably entangled with that one girl in all the world who’d walked into the Library at Sunnydale High that day …
It hadn’t been that long ago, he realised, stopping to stare at the spectres of the past that Buffy’s unexpected arrival had set dancing through in his fevered brain. Only a few years – and yet it felt like a lifetime. Two … three lifetimes in fact – Buffy’s lives, measured out in prophecy and protest and personal purgatory. The longest surviving Slayer on record had died twice – and both times on his watch and under his care. The first such occasion had shaken him to the core. The second had shattered his soul; an event which – despite her miraculous return and the healing influence of time and subsequent event – still occasionally brought him to shivering wakefulness deep in the night. He had a great many other nightmares to contend with, of course, but that one … that one had retained its intensity over the years.
Giles shivered again and tried to sink himself deeper into his cocoon. The rawness in his throat made the lump that rose there even harder to swallow. He tried to tell himself his eyes were only watering because of the flu – and that the tight, angry pain around his heart was one born from aching limbs and congested lungs – but all to no avail. Lying to himself had been easy once, but now, made vulnerable by misery, and worn down by exhaustion and stress, it was all too easy to recognise the falsehoods for what they were.
He’d missed her. Had been missing her, all this time, all these years, yearning for the piece of his soul he’d given away without thought or hesitation – and trying so hard to deny the pain of that loss that he’d closed his eyes and locked away his heart and pretended that it was just the ache of having a loved one fly the nest. Except that he’d felt no such ache for Willow, or Xander – or even Dawn. Just pride at their achievements and a deep centred satisfaction over the way they’d all turned out in the end.
But Buffy …
He’d let her go because he’d had no choice. Had done so with a determined heart, since it was what she wanted and was – almost undoubtedly – for the best. He’d turned his attention and his energies to the legacy she had given to the world, accepting his place as guide and mentor to an entire generation of Slayers while desperately trying to salvage what was left of the ancient order into which he’d been born. A new order, new slayers, a new council – and an old Rupert Giles, feeling older every day, emptied out by all the demands on his time and his wisdom, and unable to find anything to refill those echoing spaces in his soul.
He’d been doing it rather well, he’d thought. Working hard. Supporting his family as they spread their wings, and contenting himself with the thought that she was happy, finally living the life she wanted.
Even if he didn’t play much of a role in it.
And here he was, practically knocked back to square one, simply because she managed to turn up on his doorstep unannounced and unexpected, at a moment when he was ill-prepared and inexcusably vulnerable …
“Hey, Giles!” Buffy’s call was cheery, heralding her return to the flat with animated enthusiasm. He winced as the brightness of the sound speared through his head and into his heart with equal savagery. He’d always expected that his Slayer would be the death of him someday. But he’d never suspected that she might end up killing him with kindness. “I’m back.”
“You surprise me,” he croaked as she appeared in his bedroom doorway, her arms full of carrier bags and a bright smile decorating her face. “I was rather hoping that was a demon at the door, coming to kill me.”
The smile slipped, revealing a flash of anxious concern that he hadn’t been expecting to see. “Really?” she asked. “That bad, huh?”
“Worse,” he admitted, tipping his head back with a groan. “Right now I’d be happy if you killed me.”
Her eyes narrowed, and her lips pressed into familiar, determined lines; it was the look she tended to adopt when faced with a stubborn vampire or a demon that was proving harder to kill than first expected, and – since it had never boded well for either vampire or demon – Giles suspected that he ought to feel afraid.
“Uhuh. No way. Not on the action plan, mister. All I’m planning to slay is the nasty little flu-bug that’s busy treating you like prime real estate. No-one gets to chow down on my Watcher, vampire or virus.”
Her vehemence was disconcerting. He’d known she’d had a tendency to be possessive about him in the past, but he’d always dismissed it as the inevitable result of the dependency she’d developed over the years and which he’d tried – all too successfully - to break once he’d realised how heavily she’d been leaning on him. He’d thought too many bridges had been burned between them for that particular perspective to raise its head again.
And yet here she was, filled with the fire of determination, her eyes flashing with that most fundamental of the Slayer’s emotions.
“That’s … good to know,” he said faintly, not entirely sure that it was – or if it was, what exactly it meant. To him – or to her, who seemed oblivious to the implications underlying her bold claim.
Buffy had never read the handbook. Had never bothered with formal rites, bonding oaths or guardianship rituals … well, except for that one time, and that hadn’t exactly been the kind of experience to encourage her to explore the concept further … and yet, and yet …
It’s just the flu, Giles told himself severely, conscious that he was more than a little feverish and that his thoughts – along with his conclusions – could not be completely trusted. His thinking was fuzzy, his mind was sluggish and his emotions seemed to be skewed towards maudlin sentimentality.
“Okay,” she was saying brightly,” so … first thing we have to do is bolster your defences.” She dropped the carrier bags on the end of the bed and began to rummage around in them, keeping up a running commentary as she produced item after item and stacked them on his bedside table. “We got … the tablet things for daytime, and the liquid stuff to take at night … and these are the medicated throat sweets, so that’s only one an hour … and these are the non-medicated ones, so you can suck as many of those as you want – and I got cherry and peach, and blackcurrant, because I didn’t know which you’d prefer … and then this stuff is to help you breathe – I think we rub it on your chest or something … and then there’s …”
“Buffy. Buffy.” He interrupted her with difficulty, blinking at the growing pile of sweets and pills and patent remedies that now littered his furniture. “I have the flu. There was no need to buy out the entire pharmacy.”
“Who’s the patient and who’s the nurse here?” she challenged, adding a bottle of cough medicine to the pile.
He blinked again, opened his mouth to answer the question – and was overtaken by a sneezing fit, which had him groping desperately for his well used handkerchief. She watched as he fought through a whole series of explosive sneezes, then pointedly reached out, tugged the handkerchief out of his hands and offered him an open box of tissues instead. “Use these,” she ordered. “Much more hygienic. And I got man-sized, so don’t start grumping that they’re not big enough. They’ve got aloe too – so they’re all soothing on sore noses.”
She was dangling the –admittedly very well used – handkerchief as if it were something she’d just slain. He glared at her for a moment, annoyed at her presumptive tone – and then grabbed for a tissue and blew into it. Hard. He was half hoping that it would disintegrate, thereby demonstrating that she didn’t know what she was talking about – but no such luck. It was, in fact, a lot more absorbent than the cotton. Softer too.
“I thought,” he growled, unwilling to admit she might be right and that all this fuss was actually necessary, “that you were called to be the Slayer. Not Florence Nightingale.”
She grinned at him. “I have many skills. Actually,” she admitted after a beat, “nursing isn’t one of them, but … I’m a quick learner. And you’ve always been a great teacher.”
Giles stared at her, thrown by the unexpected compliment and hearing echoes of confrontation, a time when angry words had cut deep – and deeper still for carrying an edge of truth to them. The memory stirred inside him like an old ache, adding to his burden of misery.
“I thought there was nothing left I could teach you.” He kept the words as mild as he could, but there was still a hint of challenge in them, an unspoken question that asked, almost too clearly: why are you here?
Buffy froze for a moment. The hand that had reached back into the carrier bag trembled slightly, betraying the reaction she managed to keep from her face. Giles started to brace himself, cursing his bluntness and expecting her to offer dissemblance, even determined denial. He got neither. She lifted her head and gave him a quiet, half embarrassed, half apologetic smile.
“I was wrong.”
The words were gentle - not admitting guilt, but acknowledging fault – and they hung between the two of them with quiet import, filling the silence with a weight of emotion that would be hard to name and even harder to describe. The sincerity in her words, the sheer maturity of her response, took his breath away. He’d been being petulant, petty, in a way that was really quite unforgivable – and here she was, asking him for forgiveness with the grace and wisdom of someone at least twice her age.
Good lord, he thought, dizzy from more than just the flu. She’d always been beautiful to him, unmatched and incomparable, but … when did she become so sophisticated? So much a woman – and so consummate a soul?
The moment passed. Buffy’s smile bounced back into breezy confidence and she went back to rummaging in the bag as if nothing of note had occurred, as if the whole matter didn’t matter. Giles grabbed a fresh tissue and forcefully blew his nose, suddenly feeling extremely grateful for this beast of a cold. Because it was a good excuse for the way his eyes were watering, and because, after those three soft words, it didn’t matter. Not anymore.
“The web-doctor said I had to make sure you had fluids – and tea’s kinda okay, but it ought to have salts and other stuff - like a sports drink? They don’t sell Gatorade here, and Randeep suggested this would do instead, only …” She’d produced a very familiar looking orange bottle and was staring at it, somewhat doubtfully. “I wasn’t sure … Do you drink this stuff? I mean … would you drink this stuff? You don’t really care for … pop or cola, or …”
Now he was grinning, because she had no idea, no cultural reference to understand what she held in her hands.
“When I was young,” he croaked, “a bottle of that was an essential part of being sick. And not just because being sick was the only time I was allowed anything fizzy or … quite that sweet. They didn’t have sports drinks back then – that was sold for invalids, not for athletes.”
“Really?” Buffy looked at the label with puzzlement. “So it’s not some ‘Star-Wars guy gets into charity’ deal?”
Giles rolled his eyes and regretted it. His face ached, and all those muscles hurt. “That would be Lucas-aid, not Lucozade,” he groaned, and she laughed.
“Yeah,” she admitted. “I kinda got that. You want some? Because you need to take those tablets and this would help.”
“Yes. Thank you.” He had no idea if it would taste the same – or even if it did, whether the taste would match his memories – but since he suspected he wouldn’t taste it in the first place, it really didn’t matter. And she was right. It would help.
“Okay,” she grinned. “’I’ll go get a glass.”
Continued in Part Five