Disclaimers in Part One Continued in Part Two, Part Three , Part Four and Part Five
Oh dear Lord …
Giles waited until Buffy had vanished into the depths of his flat before allowing himself to relax the way he needed to; he collapsed back into the pillows and let everything go, feeling the aching weight of his body slump down, feeling his shivering limbs sink like boneless jelly. The tablets Buffy had insisted on were beginning to work their arcane magics, distancing him from the protests of his all too mortal flesh – although not so far as to mask the lingering impact of her lips, that soft and endearing contact which, once again, had managed to leave him breathless for reasons other than the sinus clogging onslaught of the flu.
He couldn’t quite understand why this one thing – this little, almost inconsequential thing – seemed to hold such significance. It wasn’t as if it meant anything – anything more than a general familial affection that is – although it had never been something Buffy had favoured him with before. He was sick, and she was caring for him, and … well, ever since their victory over the First every one of the Scoobies had developed the habit of seeking some kind of physical connection in their interactions with each other. Xander would rest his hand on an available shoulder, share a manly punch to the arm or a slap to the back; Dawn would sneak herself into the curve of a friendly arm, or find excuses to hang onto it; Willow would hug at every opportunity, arriving or leaving; and even Andrew insisted on a firm handshake – although Giles always had the distinct impression that he too would prefer a hug, given half a chance.
Buffy had been no exception, except that her hugs had become few and far between, often no more than brief affirmations of contact shared in moments of crisis – or even less in public, since even for the Prime Slayer hugging the Head of the Council seemed to be awkward at best and totally inappropriate much of the time. And then she’d left, returning only when duty demanded or for rare informal gatherings in which he’d deliberately sidelined himself, choosing to watch and savour the delight of having all his family safe and happy and under one roof.
In fact, he realised, thinking back with a frown, there hadn’t really been a moment in the past three years when he and Buffy had been alone like this – just the two of them, with no-one else around.
Has it really been that long?
His frown deepened as his mind slid back, past mountains of paperwork and endless financial meetings, past business plans and development strategies, through days spent lecturing to newly found Slayers and longer ones persuading re-found Watchers to return to the fold … Times in between had been scarce and impossibly precious – taking Dawn to Oxford to help her choose her college; one wonderful weekend spent with Willow and the coven; that brief respite meeting up with Xander in Zanibar …
Oh dear Lord, he thought a second time, colliding with the truth of his life and not liking what it revealed. Too much work, too little time, and the things he cared about sliding out of his grasp almost without him seeing it happen … and choosing it – choosing to let go, to let his flock fly free without him …
No wonder his life seemed so empty these days, despite the hours of work with which he tried to fill it. It was empty – empty of meaning, empty of purpose and empty of everything except for all too brief reminders of other people’s lives …
Bloody hell, Rupert, he told himself severely, angrily twisting over so that he could bury himself into the warmth of the duvet. You’re sick, you’re feverish and you’re trying to make mountains out of molehills. You’re not some lonely old man, sinking into some pathetically depressed existence – you’re the Head of the bloody Council you pillock. Friends in high places – and a few more in some very low ones, if you look hard enough.
Besides, he added, unable to help a small smile at the thought. Buffy’s here, isn’t she ?
He didn’t know why, and he didn’t know for how long, but right then he didn’t really care. What mattered was the reassurance of his Slayer’s presence, filling his heart and soothing his weary soul. And it was with that thought, rather than those bleak reflections on his life, that he let himself sink into much needed sleep.
She unpacked the rest of her purchases, stocking the fridge, filling some of the shelves and loading up the ginourmous fruit bowl that she found on the table in the sitting room – at least she assumed it was a fruit bowl, since it held a withered apple, an equally wrinkled mandarin orange and one a very lonely grape. By the time she was done it was piled high with fresh fruit and handfuls of still shelled nuts and topped with an artistic arrangement of flowers in the formal moribana style she’d learnt at her ikebana classes in Rome.
After that she went over the printout Randeep had made for her, checking that she’d done everything she was supposed to do to make her patient comfortable; she’d been amused by some of the options the web search had offered, since her general query had also suggested help for such things as Aids and Alzheimers … Buffy paused and half glanced over her shoulder towards the bedroom, not entirely sure if she should be grinning at the very idea, or terrified at the possibility. There was a stubborn little piece of her that had always considered Giles – her brave and brilliant, stalwart and stubborn Watcher – to be as immortal and indestructible as the monsters that they fought on a regular basis. She knew that wasn’t the case – had, in fact, feared for his life on more than one occasion – but it had taken this simple sickness, this normal, everyday encounter with human frailty, to shake her out of confident complacency and get her to realise that he wasn’t always going to be there. That one day – and probably sooner than either of them wanted – he would be gone. Not now, of course, and not soon – not if Buffy had anything to do with it - but it would happen … and that made every moment in between – every moment in which she could cherish and appreciate this man who had given so much of himself in her service – very precious moments indeed.
Even moments spent with him snuffling and grumping like a grizzly bear, snapping and snarling in petulant misery … even, she had to admit, with him whining and whimpering – because even like that, he was magnificent; defiant in his wretchedness, determinedly crabby, fighting for every inch of his dignity, no matter how much easier it might have been to have simply surrendered himself to her care.
It was time I came back, she decided, feeling vaguely guilty that it had taken her so long to realise it. He needs me to be here. To support the work, to make sure he doesn’t take on too much. And I need him - to give me purpose …
She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did. She’d felt aimless for a while, un-centred in herself and unfocused in her actions; she’d taken a break – a long one – and it had been good for her. But it had simply been a break; she had a calling to answer and a destiny to serve. She remembered that day she’d sat in audience with the Pope, and the text he’d chosen – something from the psalms, intending to comfort and inspire. …thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name's sake lead me, and guide me … He’d been talking about God, of course, but her thoughts had turned to her Watcher - and the sudden, yawning ache in her heart had filled her with a longing she’d had no way to describe.
She’d been on the phone the very next day, booking tickets, making plans … and here she was, right where she needed to be, that nagging ache replaced by a warm and fuzzy sense of home that she hadn’t felt for a very long time.
She called Miss Parkinson and arranged for her bags to be sent over, along with some hand blended oils suitable for clearing blocked noses and pampering sick Watchers with; she firmly refused the offer of sending the daily reports along with her gear and equally firmly insisted that Giles would not be coming into the office for the rest of the week, since he needed to rest and recover before the ceremonies at the weekend. Miss Parkinson assured her that that would be fine, and promised not to disturb either of them unless something apocolypty arose – and even then, only if it were of hellgod proportions and the duty Slayers were having difficulty dealing with it.
Having dealt with that, Buffy made herself some sandwiches for a late lunch and headed for the guest room, where she spent a happy hour turning out the linen cupboard, sorting out some clean towels, making up the bed, and generally making herself at home. Her bags arrived as requested, along with a thoughtful Slayer on driving duty, who called her mobile rather than ring the doorbell, so as not to disturb her patient – and after the two of them had unloaded her cases and the other things Miss Parkinson had added to the load, she sent her fellow Slayer out for a few more supplies, including as much ice-cream as the flat’s tiny freezer would hold.
She unpacked her bags, repacked the freezer once the ice cream arrived, sent the helpful young lady back to the Council with the promise of a sparring match in the near future, and set about exploring the rest of Giles’s private kingdom, finding familiar volumes on the shelves, some slightly less familiar CDs on the storage racks and all sorts of intriguing treasures tucked away in cupboards. Some of those treasures proved to be exactly what she was looking for and they helped keep her busy for the rest of the afternoon,.
Every ten minutes or so, she’d pause to check on her patient, who snored and snorted and was tossing fitfully in his sleep – but he didn’t wake, even when she crept in to resettle the duvet around his fevered shoulders. It was easy to see, looking at him like that, that this flu was merely a symptom of a much more fundamental exhaustion, a deep seated weariness that had served to lower his defences and make him vulnerable to attack. Buffy knew that he’d been working hard for months, but she hadn’t realised until now just how much his dedication was costing him.
It had always cost him; she remembered the times he’d spent pulling all-nighters in the library, working to find the information she needed; remembered the occasions when she’d forget to pull her punches and had left her sparring partner black and blue beneath his padding; remembered, too, the other ways he’d paid over the years – the loss of Jenny Calendar, the marks Angelus had left on his skin, her own death …and the agony of her resurrection, which had forced him away from her. And the grief he’d never expressed, the death of the old Council and the friends he’d known there … he’d not said a word about that, through all the desperation of their fight against the First, nor afterwards, when the new Council had risen from the old one’s ashes – but Buffy knew. Knew now, at least, although she hadn’t then, and her heart shivered at the realisation that he’d deliberately concealed that pain, keeping from adding it to the burdens she’d carried in those dreadful days.
A Watcher is never off duty, Robson had told her only that morning as she’d handed over the Vatican’s scrolls for safe keeping in the Council’s vaults. Even with the flu … He’d meant it as a joke, and she’d laughed because he’d expected her too. But she hadn’t laughed at the photograph on his office wall – the one from his graduation year at the Academy; he’d reeled off the names like a roll call of honour, listing date and cause of death for well over two thirds of his class. Some had died in the field, some had served in conflicts she’d barely heard of – and at least nine of them had been inside the old headquarters on the day of Caleb’s bomb.
We don’t forget, Robson had murmured softly. Rupert and I – we remember them. Friends and colleagues and old lovers, all lost … but the world was saved. Thanks to you …
She’d shivered then, and she shivered now, gently closing the bedroom door and retreating to the living room; there was rain softly pattering against the windows, and for a moment she felt as if the world wept, mourning lost souls and fallen heroes … and then she shook herself impatiently and went back to work, knowing better than to dwell on things she had no power to change. There was nothing she could do for the dead. But the man sleeping in the next room was another matter entirely. She intended to be taking care of him for a long, long time to come …
Continued in Part Seven