Disclaimers in Part One Continued in Part Two, Part Three , Part Four, Part Five, Part Six and Part Seven
He raised an eyebrow at getting clear, rather than milky tea, but after a cautious sip he smiled and drank the rest with slow, deliberated swallows. She brought him two more of the tablets to take, and then settled down with her own cup of tea, watching him with anxious eyes. His rumpled, unshaven look was a far cry from the smartly dressed image he projected as Head of the Council these days, yet somehow much closer to the dedicated Watcher she had come to love over the years. His face was pale under its stubble, and the lines on his face were etched deep, making him look washed out and weary to the bone. He’d sniff and struggle for breath, then grab for a tissue and honk out a sneeze before returning to the comfort of his tea. There was little more she could do to ease his misery, other than keep him company, but it didn’t feel like enough. Slaying viruses was much harder than Slaying vampires; it wasn’t a quick race and a rapid dispatch – this was an endurance event.
“Still planning that guide book?” Giles asked, and she grimaced, realising she must have been staring again. She couldn’t help it; it had been so long since they’d simply been together like this that she wanted to savour it – to sit and soak up the sheer Gilesness of the experience, which was rich, and vintage and totally unlike any other experience she could name. Even with the flu, croaky and cranky and miserable, being with him felt like home.
“Maybe,” she admitted, then grinned. “The Slayer’s Guide to English Watchers … It could be one of those big coffee table books. You know, the ones with the glossy photos and the celebrity comments at the top of every page? Or a pocket book,” she suggested, feeling a bit more enthusiasm for that idea. “With identification guides and maps of common habitats. We could issue it to all the new Slayers. In place of the old handbook,” she added slyly.
He laughed – and then regretted it, since it quickly turned into a hacking cough. “You never read the old handbook,” he pointed out once he’d got his breath back. “Why would anyone read a new one?”
“Because I wrote it?” She grinned, and he grinned back, well aware that she didn’t mean that the way it sounded. “And because it would have all sorts of useful information in it – like where to buy the best shoes and … how not to bruise your Watcher when you’re sparring with him.”
“That would be useful,” he agreed. “And … umm .. practical guides for flower arranging, too?”
“Ah …” She didn’t think he’d noticed, but she should have known better. “Well … Maybe. You like?” Her question was hesitant – it had been a bit presumptuous, to do quite so many arrangements, but she’d had to do something with the ‘get well’ bouquet his staff had sent over, and she’d been too well trained to simply stick the whole bunch into a handy vase.
“I like very much,” he said. “I know it’s traditional when one is ill, but … it’s been a long time since anyone bought me flowers.”
She relaxed a little – just a little, since she suspected that time since had something to do with red roses and memories neither he nor she would want to visit. “You can blame your staff for that. They sent the bunch. I just did the arrangements.”
“With consummate skill,” he observed, reaching out a hand to lightly brush the spray that fell from the top of the apples. “When did you learn ikebana?”
“Last year.” She relaxed a little more. He sounded genuinely impressed. “There was a class – in Rome. I went and … well, I didn’t think I’d get the hang of it at first, and then … my teacher? He talked the way you did – that year we trained, after the Initiative? All about balance and focus and chi … Using my inner eye and working out from the centre? It all just – clicked, I guess. It’s like meditating, but you do it with your eyes open, and you get a pretty arrangement at the end of it. Which is cool. I – uh – “ she glanced around the room with a hint of embarrassment. “ – guess I got a little carried away today …”
“Delicate, directed artistry …” Giles didn’t seem to have heard those last few words. He was still staring at the decoration on the fruit bowl, studying it as intently as he might a study some magical device or an ancient artefact. “You astound me, Buffy,” he said, reaching for another tissue before finally turning his attention back towards her.
“I do?” She didn’t know whether that was critique or compliment; it was hard to tell with all the nose blowing and the general raspiness of his voice.
“Often,” he affirmed, smiling at her from behind the tissue. “You are the most contrary of Slayers; you sought a life of your own, and made one, despite every effort of Fate to deny you all but your destiny. You would rather go shopping than Slay, and yet you are the most effective and successful Slayer in recorded history. You place friendship and loyalty ahead of duty and destiny, you reject tradition, you defy propriety, you refuse to recognise the rules, and yet … you serve with a certainty that even the most dutiful and obedient of your calling would be hard put to demonstrate. You don’t bother with formal styles, picking and choosing your fighting moves with total disregard for form or formality – and it is your unconventionality that wins the fight, every time. You can kill a vampire with a single blow, or dispatch a demon with panache – and you choose to master an expressive skill that requires you to manipulate the most delicate of materials without tearing a leaf or bruising a single flower petal. Yes,” he concluded, fighting a little for breath, “you astound me. And not least because you are here, and have no reason to be, other than a little pity – and perhaps a sense of obligation that, I can assure you, has no foundation whatsoever.”
He reached for another tissue as he spoke, and trumpeted the end of his speech with another determined effort to clear his clogged airways; Buffy was left staring at him, her mouth open.
“Wow,” she said after a moment, not at all sure how she should – or could respond to that. But she thought she’d better try. “Okay. Well … first off, if you think for one minute that I’d be sitting here, taking care of a snotty nosed, sweat soaked, grungy and grumpy Watcher – who’d better not be turning back into a Fyarl demon, by the way – simply out of pity, then you don’t know me as well as you think you do. And it has nothing to do with senses of obligation, either – unless it’s the sense that I’ve put off picking up my share of the responsibilities for far too long. You’re family, Giles. I’m here because I missed you and I was worried about you – and I stayed because I love you and it’s about time someone started looking out for you – taking care of you … especially because you don’t seem to have time to do it for yourself. As for the rest of it – if I’m the most contrary of Slayers – and I’m taking all of that as a compliment because I think you meant it as one – then you are the most stubborn and contrary of Watchers. You were the one that allowed me that life of my own – you threw away the handbook, you took Will and Xander under your wing, and you tried to protect all of us from the consequence of my choices. You defied the council, you got yourself fired, and you risked your life time and time again, when all you were supposed to do was stay on the sidelines, to watch and advise. You stayed when I didn’t know I needed you, and you left when I thought I did, because you knew I had to learn how to be strong. You were prepared to challenge me when all I wanted was blind loyalty, and yet you supported me in a plan that flew in the face of every rule and tradition you’d been raised to follow and respect. You helped me learn that not every person is good, and not every demon is bad – and that both can find redemption if they try hard enough. If they want it enough. You went through hell to save the world – several times – and you picked up the reins of the Council when any sane man would have walked away; walked away and left me with the mess I’d made. I may astound you, Giles – but … you never fail to amaze me.” She took a deep breath, fixing him with a challenging, yet hopeful smile. “There’s something I need to say to you – and now’s probably not the time, what with the flu and everything, but … I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Why I needed to get away … all the stuff I’ve done since. It was good and it was fun, but - it’s never been enough. It’s not who I am. I’m a Slayer. I can’t deny it – and I don’t want to deny it. Not anymore. It’s time I came back. And I can't do it ... without you. Deja-vu moment,” she half laughed, wondering if he’d remember. “I need your help. I need you to be my Watcher again.”
Continued in Part Nine