ORIGINALLY POSTED: May 4, 2008
AUTHOR: JK Philips
SUMMARY: Sequel to the Death Brings Clarity saga, now nearly ten years after The Fine Art of Blackmail. Giles wanted to prevent his daughter from inheriting her mother’s destiny. He wanted to give his son the choice he never had. He wanted Buffy to live a lifetime beside him. Fate had other plans...
SPOILERS: Everything up to “The Gift”
DISCLAIMER: I do not own these characters; they are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy & Fox. I simply am doing this for fun, and non-profit use.
SECOND DISCLAIMER: I gave Buffy the line "Wake up, go to work, get drunk, go to sleep" which is the chorus to a Pat McCurdy song. He's a rowdy bar musician with a cult following in the midwest (fun to see live if you get the chance). The words just fit too perfectly to pass up. Plus, it amused me.
EMAIL: . Feedback motivates me to write faster.
MY WEBSITE: www.jkphilips.com
---------------------------------------------------- Part 6: Sometimes Even Those Who Ace History Are Doomed to Repeat It More than two years ago… Giles stood between his son and daughter, their hands curled tight in his own. Tears streamed down both their faces, but he remained stoic. The plain pine casket, made by his own hands, lay in its final resting place. The cross, made by Xander’s more skilled hands, marked the gravesite. The first shovelful of dirt hit the wood with a thud that made both children flinch. Robin buried her head against his side and sobbed. Alex was trying to be brave, and Giles tucked him against his other side so he wouldn’t have to be. “It’s not fair,” Alex sobbed. “Everything has its time,” Giles reminded him gently. He wished he could have spared his children that particular lesson. “And it was a good death, a brave death, saving the both of you.” His eyes met Buffy’s across the open grave, and she gave him a sad smile as she continued pitching each shovelful of dirt onto the casket. “He’s not gonna…” Robin’s voice was muffled against his side, and he had to bend to hear her. “I mean, you know, he won’t be one of them, will he?” “A vampire?” She nodded. He smiled softly and rubbed her back. “No, no he won’t.” Alex pulled away from the comfort of his father’s embrace and studied the grave for a moment. When he met Giles’ eyes, his brow was furrowed with worry. “Can we conse-, conse-, make the ground holy? Just in case?” “Consecrate. If you like. He won’t rise, though. I promise.” Buffy handed Giles the shovel and brushed the dirt off her hands. “I’ll go get some holy water. You keep shoveling.” Giles finished filling the grave, and Buffy poured an entire bottle of holy water over it. He threw her a slightly scolding look, wasting that much holy water simply to soothe the children’s fears. A few drops would have sufficed. She merely shrugged a non-apology. They stood solemnly at the new grave, the children sandwiched between them, and each took their turn saying goodbye. Buffy ducked her head to hide her own tears, embarrassed perhaps, although she shouldn’t be. Leaky had been a good dog. A loyal dog. He had died protecting his family, and he could rest in peace knowing they were safe. *** Summer, just like every summer before, promoted April and John to every child’s favorite relation. They had a swimming pool. After Leaky’s funeral, Buffy and Giles took the twins there to lift their mood. Xander and Anya’s boys were already playing Marco Polo in the shallow end with John’s grandson. The twins had hardly said hello to their hosts before stripping down to their swimsuits to join them. The adults were circled around the patio table playing cards. One chair left. Giles offered it to Buffy, like a gentlemen, but she insisted he take it, and then made herself comfortable in his lap. “So, Buff, Leaky get his proper send off?” Xander asked. “Yeah. The kids were afraid he would… umm…” She tailed off, suddenly remembering April and John’s presence. “Well, they wanted us to bury him special. You know, special?” Xander laughed, shook his head, and added some chips to the pile in the center. “I’m in.” “That’s silly,” Anya insisted. “Everyone knows you can’t make a dog into a vampire.” The Scoobies threw nervous glances in John and April’s direction. “Because vampires aren’t real,” Anya added when she noticed her faux pas. “And neither are demons.” “Well, with the number of deaths by blood loss we get in this town, sometimes I wonder.” April seemed to notice the uncomfortable shifting of the others in their seats and regretted her comment. “Sorry, no more cop talk. Promise.” She added her own chips to the pot. “I’m in. And raise.” John sighed and threw his cards in. “Fold. Hmmm… Wonder where the kids got that idea. Vampires?” “My fault,” Xander covered. “Dawnie classic movie marathon.” “Really, Xander,” John scolded. “They’re too young for slasher movies. Vampires and werewolves… you should know better. They’re only ten. If I were Giles, they’d be sleeping at your house ’til their nightmares were gone.” “No, no, no, Harris household is full enough. Or will be soon.” He patted Anya’s round stomach with pride. “After little Danny.” “Danielle,” Anya corrected irritably. She tossed her own chips in. “I call. And it’s going to be a girl, Xander Harris. Danielle. A girl, I’m absolutely sure. Four boys would be ridiculous.” Xander folded, and the betting went back and forth between Anya and April, until Anya shoved her entire stack to the center and went all in and April matched her. Anya complained that her sizeable bet was meant to scare her opponent off, thus ensuring her the pot by default. Clearly April didn’t understand the nuances of bluffing and poker. “Full house, queens over tens,” April announced proudly as she spread her hand on the table. Anya grumbled as she flopped her hand down. “I’ve only got eights.” Xander leaned forward and counted them out. “But you have four of them.” “And that’s better?” “Yup.” She beamed and collected her winnings, counting them out into stacks. Anya always seemed happiest when counting money. “I’ve changed my mind. Feel free to call my bluff anytime you like.” Xander laughed and coached her kindly, “An, honey, it’s not bluffing if you think you might win.” “What are we playing for?” Giles asked. John motioned between Xander and Anya. “They’re playing for free babysitting. We’re playing for a little handyman work around the house. Shall we deal you both in?” Buffy sat up straighter in his lap. “Sure, we’ll play for free babysitting.” They didn’t really need babysitters. They still had next-door, on-call babysitting. Marianne had long since married and moved on, and they’d replaced her three times over, their current sitter a grad student named Laura. The twins got along well with Laura, but they preferred John and April, or Xander and Anya. “And what are you going to contribute if you lose?” John asked thoughtfully, as if he already had something in mind. “We’ll take all the babysitting we can get,” Xander suggested. His three boys were rambunctious and tended to gang up on unsuspecting sitters. Although, to be fair, they were nowhere near as bad if Alex wasn’t around to inspire them to new and bigger stunts. “April and I will take a weekend away with the pair of you. Ever since that academy of yours opened to the public, we hardly see you anymore. Well, I say we, I mean Giles. Buffy and April work together, but lately you, Professor, have managed to weasel out of every single police function April drags me to. I’ve been stuck making small talk with all the wives.” Giles grimaced in sympathy. He remembered what that could be like. John rescuing him from that tedium had been how they first met. He had been blessed that night to find a friend his own age, not to mention someone who could understand the emotional toll of having a wife with a dangerous job. That their wives now worked together as partners cemented that friendship into family. “All right, shuffle up and deal.” Buffy rubbed her hands together in anticipation. Giles suspected she would rig the game so they lost to John or April. She was always complaining that he worked too much. She didn’t seem to grasp the enormity of his task, even with all the money the Council had left him. Rebuilding an organization that had once spanned the globe, with bloodlines that had traced as far back as the written word. From scratch. Giles’ collection of watchers’ diaries, he and Wesley’s training, that was all that remained of the Council’s traditions and lore. When it was Buffy’s turn to deal, he noticed her dealing from the bottom. Smooth and practiced, she was a quick study. Of course, slayer dexterity gave her an advantage, and he had rationalized teaching her the card tricks of his youth with the excuse that it would help make her fingers more nimble. It had definitely improved her reload time with the crossbow. When Giles picked up his cards and saw his hand, he groaned. She was definitely planning to throw the game. She smiled at him innocently. He flipped his hand over. “I fold.” They played cards until the kids finally gave up on swimming. One by one, they each found a lap to sit in, each child pruned up and shivering. Anders, the youngest, didn’t want to take his little inflatable water wings off, cried when they forced him, then fell asleep against his mother’s pregnant belly. Robin complained that Nick kept splashing her. (The beginnings of a crush, perhaps.) Erik claimed Willow’s lap when she arrived, John dragging a chair out from the kitchen for her. Alex was the last out of the pool. His lips were nearly blue, and Buffy wrapped two towels around him, giving him a thorough rubdown to warm him up. Giles used her distraction to stack the deck in his favor during his deal. Laps full of hungry kids, they had to eventually abandon the game to put dinner on the table. But first, John counted out the stacks and insisted that Buffy and Giles had lost and would owe them that weekend away. Anya passed over the sleeping Anders to Buffy’s arms while she dried off her eldest, and reminded the pair of them that they would owe some babysitting duty as well. Xander took the toddler back from Buffy, giving Giles a wary look. In their back and forth game of irritating each other through their children: drum sets and finger-paints, toy guns with obnoxious sound effects, practical jokes the children learned and practiced ad nauseam, forts assembled from every movable scrap of furniture, sugar highs and missed bedtimes, musical stuffed animals that needed no batteries… Well, Xander might have started the game, but Giles was winning. With three, soon to be four, little ones in the Harris household, the numbers had finally tipped in Giles’ favor. He gave Xander a wicked smile. As they readied dinner, the mood was relaxed, teasing, a spot of normality in their otherwise destiny-filled life. Time spent with April and John offered a kind of sanctuary away from all things Hellmouth-related. The Tims remained ignorant of the supernatural, and the rest of the Scoobies took care not to shatter their innocence. And if John wondered why his grandson was always dragged into pretend sword fights against monsters when he played with the other children, well he probably just figured they all had good imaginations. Of course, even in this sanctuary, there were reminders. Willow came bearing a book for Buffy. Giles craned his neck to get a good look. He recognized the insignia of the Council on the spine, but he didn’t recognize that particular volume. “Willow found it at an estate sale,” Buffy explained in a hushed whisper. “Watcher’s diary.” Giles puzzled that out for a moment. When he was posted as the Watcher to the active Slayer, the Council had entrusted him with the original copies of all the diaries. They had retained their own copies, of course, copies that had been buried beneath the rubble after the Council’s destruction. But Giles couldn’t imagine where Willow might have found one he had never seen. “May I?” He took the book from her, flipping through the pages and skimming through the text. A watcher who had never had a slayer, who had trained a potential who was never Called. A diary that did not end as abruptly as all those in Giles’ possession. That explained it. He only had the diaries for those watchers who had slayers. The records for all the other watchers distilled their noteworthy experiences down to the necessary facts, sometimes an entire generation of watchers filling barely a page in the Council history texts. Their diaries passed back to their families. Archiving every diary from every watcher who ever lived was more than even the legendary Council Archives could manage. She snagged the volume back from him. “You can have it when I’m done.” “Since when have you had any interest in reading watcher diaries?” John saved her from answering when he appeared at Giles’ side. She stuffed the book in her purse and out of sight. And John distracted his friend in conversation, monopolizing his attention for the rest of the evening. Later, as they slipped into bed for the night, the thought of that watcher’s diary nagged at him. Not in and of itself, but because now that he thought about it, Buffy had been dipping into his collection of watchers’ diaries lately. He had a sick suspicion why. As she pillowed her head on his chest, one arm and one leg wrapped over him, he mustered up the courage to ask her. “What are you looking for in the diaries, Buffy?” She tensed in his arms, as if she’d been afraid of having this conversation, and then held him tighter, as if afraid he’d bolt. “Final battles.” He remembered their research session in the Magic Box all those years ago, when a close call during patrol had sent her on a similar quest. I realize that every Slayer comes with an expiration mark on the package. But I want mine to be a long time from now. The diaries had been no help then, and she’d gone to Spike for the tales he could tell. Giles felt the familiar ache in his chest when confronted with her inevitable death. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t answer her. He also couldn’t guess at what crisis had prompted her quest. “Giles, I haven’t found any mentions of slayers my age.” No, there wouldn’t be. He’d sheltered her from the brutal truth. To put a definite age to expected slayer life expectancy seemed akin to a doctor telling a terminal patient just how many months they had left to live. But now she was coming to the answer on her own. And better from his lips than a long-dead watcher’s pen. “You’re the oldest now, Buffy. The oldest slayer in history.” He could only have made that confession in the darkness of their bedroom, where he would not have to witness the fear in her eyes. Where she would not see the terror in his. She absorbed that for a moment, very still against him. No nervous energy, unlike him who couldn’t stop his hand from stroking up and down her bare arm. “And the silver medal goes to…” “Twenty-six.” That, too, she took in so very calmly. He wanted to scream and swear and shake his fist at Fate: I defy you, stars! She seemed to simply accept this knowledge. He prayed that she would ask him no more questions. This was a topic he desperately tried to avoid both discussing and thinking about. All those watchers’ diaries, whose pages ended so abruptly and failed to record their slayer’s final battle… Giles had told her back then that the journals stopped because it was too painful. Too painful to put to paper, yes, but also too painful to read. What watcher could have possibly read the accounts? None who had slayers of their own, that’s for sure. “There’s something else you never told me from those diaries, you know.” A teasing note crept into her voice. She was changing the subject, thank God. “You never mentioned how many of them ended up like us.” If he had any doubt what she meant by “us,” she clarified her meaning with wandering hands. “Well, not all of those— ah!— were, ummm… were real— ah!— m-m-marriages. Oh, dear Lord!” He rolled them both until he was on top, cradled between her thighs. He kissed her deeply, chasing away his fears of her death with the taste of her now. He pulled back and finished his thought. He didn’t want her believing every male watcher ended up in bed with his slayer. “Historically, a girl spending so much time alone and unchaperoned with a man would have drawn undue attention unless he was her husband or relation.” “A marriage of convenience, huh?” Her gentle kisses along his neck were quickly driving away the lingering despair of their previous topic of conversation. “Quite so.” “But we’re not exactly trendsetters,” she insisted, while intently focused on stripping him of his nightclothes. “No.” He was equally intent on stripping her of hers. “It was not that uncommon, if frowned upon by the Council. Although, if I’d told you that in high school, you’d have run screaming from the library.” “Or maybe I’d have seen the light sooner.” There were no more words. Skin to skin, kisses both desperate and tender, soft sighs, startled gasps, merging of bodies, the way women and men have behaved since the beginning, before time. He should have wondered if maybe she had distracted him from the diaries on purpose. Outside, lightening flashed and a storm raged. *** The ancient tome, leather bound with the symbol of his world branded on its cover, promised blessed escape. He traced his long fingers across the grooves of that mark, circles and arcs repeated in mirror image across a thick dividing line that represented the glass divide between worlds, the window through which his kind had watched through countless eons, damned never to interfere, slaves to Fate. In his language, that symbol meant home. There was nothing left for him in this world. He had lost all. And so he read the sacred words from his stolen book, words that had never been uttered by his kind before. The portal opened before him, the glass divide cracked from side-to-side so that he might pass between worlds. The sky flashed bright, and the storm rose, both worlds rebelling at the gap between them. His eyes glowed purple. He could hear the echo of his race in his mind, a steady hum as familiar as his own heartbeat. He stepped through the waiting portal to the other side. The crack mended behind him. *** The storm had passed by morning, only the lingering damp on the ground as evidence. In the summer heat of California, that too would disappear before noon. April and Buffy’s first call of the day was to the morgue, the heat and humidity quickly forgotten in the frigid and sterile air of the autopsy room. The coroner waved them over to the body on his table. Buffy felt the familiar twist in her gut that signaled vampire. This thing would rise in the near future, and she would need to find a way to get April and the coroner out of the room so she could stake it before that happened. The coroner handed April his notes as he briefed her on the pertinent facts. “Total blood loss. I couldn’t even squeeze enough out of him for a blood type.” April didn’t seem phased. They saw that too frequently. This was the part of her day job Buffy disliked the most, having to face the victims she couldn’t save. On the other hand, if they had been turned, it made her job as the Slayer easier. She could stake them before they could fight back. “No ID, so I had someone upstairs try a missing persons search.” “Any luck?” Buffy placed herself strategically between the pair of them and the body on the table. Just in case. “Depends on how you define luck.” He was addressing her now. April was flipping through his notes. “They found a match.” He handed Buffy the photo. Dead ringer for their body, no pun intended. “So what’s the problem?” April set aside the clipboard and leaned over Buffy to get a look at the photo. “He’s been missing for forty years.” April compared the body to the photo. “That’s impossible. He hasn’t aged a day.” “That’s why I called the pair of you.” *** “So, Giles, if vampires drink human blood, what drinks vampire blood?” Giles was stumped. He looked across the table at Wesley, who looked equally stumped. Willow seemed willing to guess. “Some kind of uber-vamp?” “I’m still unclear on why we should care?” Stein had just returned from retrieving a potential and looked bone weary. The girl’s mother was a single parent, troubled apparently, and had overdosed on drugs. In the absence of living relations, Stein had arranged for her adoption and placement with her future watcher. The entire ordeal had been obviously taxing, and it was understandable if his patience was short. “Uber-vamp seems like something we should care about,” Buffy pointed out. “But if the thing only feeds on vampires, then why should we care? Roll out the red carpet. All-you-can-eat buffet.” “We don’t know what else its intentions might be,” Wesley warned. “For all we know, it could be draining vampires as a sacrifice to raise a more dangerous demon.” Willow perked up. “Oh! The mayor had to eat those nasty spiders before his ascension.” She deflated as the memories swept over her face. They’d so narrowly averted disaster then, and the number who had died to do so was disheartening. They could hardly risk a battle of that magnitude again when the Council’s numbers were still so small. “It deserves research, in any case.” Giles’ statement carried a finality to it that sent the other watchers from the room to begin the task. He wasn’t entirely used to that. He still felt the shadow of all his superiors over him; he sometimes forgot that they were all gone and he headed the Council now. His own authority often caught him by surprise. A book passed from Willow’s hands to Buffy’s, another watcher’s diary, under the table to escape notice. He noticed all the same, but dismissed it from his mind. A forgivable self-deception. *** Stein was the first to see the demon in person. He made his report that evening to the others after Buffy’s patrol. Wesley sketched the demon from his description, although it looked more like a wanted poster than a demon. The sketch looked human, an average man of weak build, if slightly taller than average. Pale, thin, as if a strong wind could knock him over. Fine boned with hollow cheekbones, sharp pointed nose, and a pronounced chin. Dark, unruly hair, and dark eyes. It was the eyes that gave him away. Well, that and the drained vampire at his feet. He spoke through some kind of telepathy, and when he did, his eyes glowed purple. Stein didn’t tell them what the demon had said to him. He edited the encounter to his own advantage. He had headed home after a dead-end research session. He had thought he was stumbling onto a vampire attack, that is until the vampire fell to the ground, still in game face, yellow eyes open and unfocused, motionless at the man’s feet. The vampire had been between them, but as he fell out of the way, Stein and the demon got a good look at each other. “I know you. I know your sin. They will know it too.” The eyes had changed to purple as the voice echoed in his mind. He didn’t tell the others what the demon had said. He told them only that the eyes had changed to purple as the demon turned on the telepathy. He told them that the demon had threatened him, which wasn’t entirely a lie. And then, for some unfathomable reason, the demon had departed instead of attacking, turning to mist and slipping away like fog. Although as he had melted away, he left with one more riddle, another clue that Stein kept to himself: “I leave you in peace, Watcher, for your death will change nothing. We are both slaves to our Fate, no matter how we may test our bonds.” Wesley added the purple eyes to his black and white sketch. A deep, royal purple that almost matched the real thing. Stein shuddered as he approved the final product. When Stein went home for the second time that night, it was the voice more than the eyes that haunted him. I know your sin. *** The demon hunted. This form acted almost as bait for the undead abominations that infested this world. They did not belong here. But then again, neither did he. He caught the attention of a female vampress. She stalked him at a slight distance, drawn to apparent easy prey. He could sense her following him, getting closer. He let her know that he’d seen her, and then pretended to flee from her, all the while leading her closer to his lair, allowing himself to even stumble as he ran down the hill, through the meadow, towards the cave. She seemed to enjoy the chase. His pheromones mimicked the smell of fear. His normal heartbeat simulated the rapid patter of a distressed human. Even his breathing continued the illusion of an easy mark. He let her catch him at the mouth of the cave. He always caught them off guard, and she was no different. His entire being radiated weakness, so when they first felt his full strength, they were always unprepared. He drained only enough to weaken her beyond the capacity for struggle. He carried her inside the cave, and laid her before the girl. His child was fading. He force-fed her the vampire blood, but she coughed it up. She could not exist in this world. It was killing her. She was too young to endure the riptide of time on this side of the divide. As each dawn dragged her under and spit her out into the new day, she grew progressively weaker. He was strong enough to bear it, but she was not. She would not survive another morning, no matter how much vampire blood she drank. And yet, he could not send her through the portal, send her home, and condemn her to a prison behind glass. Better to let her die here than damn her to the fate he had escaped. “Let go,” he told her. She did. She dissolved into mist in his arms, and he breathed her in. One moment of bliss, and then he breathed her out again. She faded to nothingness in the air around him and was gone. He finished off the vampress, but his hunger was not satisfied. He went hunting again. He encountered the watcher, read his fortune, as he had read so many fortunes before. Knowing the future never pleased them. And yet they never stopped asking for prophecy. “We are both slaves to our Fate,” he told the watcher. Her death had proved that to him. When dawn came for him once more, he was ready. He knew what he had to do. *** Giles set aside his research on the purple-eyed demon and drained vampires (thus far fruitless) long enough for his customary afternoon training with Buffy. When he entered their practice room, Buffy was not the only one waiting for him. Robin and Wesley were there too. Robin bounded over to him, giddy with excitement. “We’re all gonna train together today. Wesley said.” “Did he?” Giles’ glare would have cowed Wesley when they’d first met all those years ago at Sunnydale High. The years since had granted him a steel resolve that Giles had to admit was impressive. “Actually, my idea,” Buffy seemed oblivious to his irritation. She was grinning at Robin, and then showing off with a series of handsprings, cartwheels, and flips that landed her in front of him. She bounced up on the balls of her feet to give him a playful peck on the nose. “Double-date. Watchers and slayers.” She pouted at him when he didn’t return her enthusiasm. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. Slayer versus slayer.” Robin tried to tackle her, and Buffy flipped her, giggling, to the mat. When he made no move to start their training, Wesley took the lead, directing Robin to begin her drills. Buffy joined in. Mother and daughter were beaming at each other, as if enjoying a shared hobby rather than preparing for future combat. Giles watched, frozen, from the doorway, tension coiled in every muscle. On Robin’s tenth birthday, Giles had honored the bargain he had made with Wesley and allowed her to begin her training. Wesley had moved from LA to Sunnydale to take up the mantle of his calling. Her Watcher. Now in deed as well as name. Wesley’s relationship with Cordelia had previously ended. In fact, he mentioned that there seemed to be something between her and Angel now, which Giles frankly could not imagine. There was another woman Wesley spoke of with longing, a girl named Fred, whose affections were placed with someone else. So in short, he had nothing tying him to LA, in addition to a strong desire to be anywhere else. His new life in Sunnydale suited him, and Robin happily accepted his tutelage. Giles suspected she might even have a crush on her mentor, though she never said anything outright to confirm it. But she thrilled at her training and had blossomed into confidence over the past six months of Wesley’s sessions. She chattered about training over breakfast and dinner, eagerly demonstrated the moves she had learned – Watch me! Watch! Did you see that? Father?– until he had to scold her that shadow boxing in the house was going to end with something breaking. Most likely his heart, he didn’t add. Giles would give anything, absolutely anything, for his daughter not to be the Slayer. He loved Buffy. The generations of watchers’ blood in his veins connected him to her, Watcher to Slayer, a bond stronger than his marriage vows, stronger than anything he had experienced in his life. Molded over his entire lifetime to serve her, his sole purpose her survival, each day she lived another victory. And he had counted more victories than any watcher before him. She had lived longer than all the others. But no matter how much he loved Buffy, she was still his Slayer. She was the sword. He was the shield. But they were both crafted for battle. That, too, burned in his blood. He loved her, yes, but he sent her to fight all the same. Robin might be a potential, might even be Called as the Slayer one day, but she was his daughter. Parental love was different. What kind of father could ask of his daughter the same things he would ask of a slayer? Watching Buffy and Robin train together, daughter echoing the movements of her mother, Wesley calling out corrections, Giles felt something inside himself break. For the last six months, he had tried to ignore the reality of his daughter’s training, tried to pretend that this was not what Wesley and his daughter were doing behind closed doors. But they had shoved it in his face, and he could not stomach sharing in his daughter’s slayer education, could not participate in stripping away her childhood and innocence. He stormed across the training room and grabbed Buffy by one elbow, hauling her out into the hallway without breaking stride. He whipped off his glasses, and his eyes were murderous. His voice held the tone of absolute authority. “I am your Watcher, not Wesley. You train with me, not him. Am I clear?” She flinched back from his Ripper glare. “Jeeze, Giles, I only thought it would help Robin with—” “This is not open for discussion.” He released the bruising grip on her elbow and replaced his glasses. “Robin has her Watcher. And you have yours. There is no place for this… this slayer version of ‘Wife Swap.’” She crossed her arms, apparently rising to the challenge. “You know, there was a time when Wesley was my Watcher, and you were just the librarian. I’ve trained with Wesley plenty.” “Remind me again how out of control you and Faith were on his watch.” She seemed to stew on this. “If he’s such a terrible watcher, then why’d you give Robin to him?” “I never said—” He stopped, took a breath, and forced himself to calm. “You are mine.” It wasn’t said with jealousy, but rather conviction. “Look, I trust Wesley to do his duty by Robin. But he doesn’t know you as I do, doesn’t know what you need. Training with Wesley could set you back.” All true, and the implied corollary was that training with him would equally set Robin back. A lie of omission. Giles simply couldn’t train Robin. “Fine,” she acquiesced, perhaps swayed by his intensity. “But your rules, you enforce them.” She pointed back at the training room door. “Robin had her heart set on this, so you get to be the big bad.” *** Willow was with a student when Buffy dropped in on her office hours. She caught her eye, got a little nod of acknowledgment, and then hung back out of the way, browsing through Willow’s bookshelves as she waited her turn. She didn’t recognize the student. Future watcher, maybe. Or possibly a classics major. Willow had a lot of those, too, and the two of them seemed to be reviewing mythology. Buffy eavesdropped. “Her curse was that no one believed her, right? So they all treated her shitty. Like she was crazy.” Buffy smothered a laugh as she heard the overly-patient tone in Willow’s reply that indicated she was going the extra mile for someone who probably wouldn’t appreciate it. Buffy remembered that tone of voice from the many times Willow had tutored her through high school and college. “It’s not just that Cassandra was treated… unfairly… but that the curse trapped her. She was doomed to know the future, but because no one would believe her, she couldn’t do anything about it. Can you imagine: she saw the fall of Troy, all those deaths? She tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen. So then she had to witness it all happening for real, just like in her visions.” Buffy thought about Cordelia’s visions. She was lucky enough, at least, to be able to prevent most of them from happening. “But if she saw her own death, then why couldn’t she stop that? I mean, she believed her own visions, so that wasn’t the problem. She should have at least been able to stop her own death.” Willow exchanged another glance with Buffy and flashed one finger to signal one more minute. “Why do you think Cassandra died?” Her student puzzled that out for a moment as he rearranged his baseball cap. He flipped through the text in his lap as if someone else might have already provided the answer. “Maybe… maybe… Well, the Greeks were really into fate, right? So maybe knowing the future didn’t even matter, whether anyone believed her or not. It was all up to the gods anyway, and she couldn’t avoid getting killed.” “That’s one interpretation. Good answer.” He seemed pleased and rushed on with another idea. “That would mean her curse wasn’t knowing the future, or having everyone think she was crazy, or even not being able to change it. Her curse was thinking she could change it in the first place. You know, feeling responsible for stuff that was out of her hands anyway.” “Excellent! I tell you what: bring up that exact point tomorrow in class, and we’ll have a group discussion about it.” Willow walked him to the door, and then faced Buffy, locking the door behind her. She smiled, her patented hundred-watt Willow smile. “What brings the Buffster to UC-Sunny-D? You hardly ever drop in on office hours.” “Giles is in a mood, so we skipped training today.” They took seats on either side of Willow’s desk. Buffy felt faintly like she was in the principal’s office. And coming off their recent argument, she felt like Giles had sent her. Shaking off that image, she passed Willow a couple volumes from her purse. “I was hoping you could translate these. Not the whole thing, just any key parts.” “What kinda keys we looking for?” “Slayer battles. Umm… you know, the kind of battles that end with a new Slayer.” “Oh. Those kinds of battles. Are you okay? You’re not feeling particularly… mortal… are you? ’Cause you’ve been big with the watcher diaries lately, and Giles said something to me yesterday, and I think you’ve got him a little wigged.” Buffy sighed. Having Willow’s help would be, well, helpful. But this was sort of her personal project. No lives hanging in the balance, no apocalypse on the horizon. Willow’s time was probably better spent on any number of watcher assignments that lives actually did depend on. “C’mon, Buffy, share. Best friend, remember? You’re supposed to be able to tell me anything. It’s in the bylaws.” That decided her. She leaned forward, and Willow followed suit. She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and now she was reminded less of the principal’s office and more of a slumber party. “Alright. But please don’t tell Giles. So before… the last time I went searching through the diaries, I wanted to know what happened to the slayers: how they died, what mistake they made, so I could do it different. So it wouldn’t happen to me. “But since then, I’ve realized everyone already spends all their time researching how to keep me alive. Well, not just me, but you get the point.” “You’re worth it.” Willow reached across the desk and gave her hand a little squeeze. “Thanks, Will, but what I was getting at is this: everyone’s focus is on helping me, on helping the Slayer, but…” She sighed and gave Willow’s hand a little squeeze back. They all did so much for her, sacrificed so much. Did they know how grateful she was? She would have never lasted this long without them, all of them. “This time, Will, I’m reading the diaries because I want to know what happened to the watchers after their slayers died.” “Oh.” A pause. “And?” Buffy abandoned her chair in favor of pacing the small office, trying to shed the pent-up energy she hadn’t burned off in her usual training. She straightened towers of crooked books stacked across various surfaces, experiencing a sudden case of OCD only in the Overly Crappy Day kind of way. Giles’ sudden temper still weighed on her, and the maudlin topic of conversation wasn’t helping her mood. She hadn’t planned on discussing this with Willow, but now that she’d started, she was eager to get it all off her chest. “Most of the diaries just end. Nothing. Oops, she’s dead, maybe a date and time for when it happened, sometimes not even that.” She could hear the frustration in her own voice. It would have been nice to know the details, but she had already resigned herself to ignorance. The details, apparently, were beyond even the most emotionally repressed watcher’s ability to clinically detach and report. “Giles said, back then, he said if they were anything like him, it was too painful.” Buffy remembered the look they’d shared after his admission. Until then, she’d never considered how her death would affect him. After her death, she’d had a front-row seat. “I keep thinking about Marcus, letting himself get vamped, turning his Slayer—” “Giles would never do that!” Willow seemed scandalized by the mere suggestion. “Of course not, but I guess I worry. About him. And then I remembered that another watcher’s diary talked about Marcus, about what it was like for him after Nicole died, and I thought… Well, the diaries may not talk about their slayers’ final battles, but they sometimes talk about each other. Especially the beginning parts of the diaries, I’ve noticed that they usually mention the previous watcher.” “So…? Progress report?” Buffy imagined that Willow’s curiosity was as much for herself as for Giles. She was a watcher now, and at some point in the future she might have a slayer of her own. And if not her, then one of her many students for sure. Buffy rejoined her friend, perching on the edge of the desk now instead of taking the chair. She still couldn’t meet her eyes, focusing instead on a loose thread from the hem of her skirt. “Some of them died with their slayers, same battle. Too many of them managed to get themselves killed later. High fatality rate for watchers the first year after. I’m choosing to live in denial and believe it wasn’t on purpose. A few of them even went crazy, like literally. That leaves all the others who just… just stopped. Did nothing after.” “Maybe they needed to rest? Take a break from nightly life-and-death peril? That would be fair, wouldn’t it, Buffy? I think they would deserve it more than anyone.” “Sure. If we were talking retirement, golfing in Myrtle Beach and playing bridge at the clubhouse. I mean they did nothing. I mean: Wake up. Go to work. Go to sleep. Repeat until dead. They all sounded so miserable, Will.” “That won’t be Giles.” Willow’s total conviction might be more persuasive, if not for Buffy’s firsthand evidence to the contrary. Unraveling before her eyes when Eyghon first returned. Charging off on a suicide mission to hurt Angelus after he murdered Miss Calendar. The weeks after her swan dive off Glory’s tower, only Buffy’s ghost as witness to his private grief beneath the public face he showed the others. Buffy had hoped that Dawn, and then the twins, would anchor him, would force him to move on after he’d lost her. The more watchers’ diaries she read, the more fleeting she feared that tether to be. “You’re right,” Buffy agreed bitterly. “For Giles it’ll be: Wake up. Go to work. Get drunk. Go to sleep. Repeat until dead.” She held up one hand to forestall Willow’s protests. She finally met her friend’s eyes and saw the compassion reflected in them. Buffy smiled a sad, but hopeful smile. Hope was what had her pouring through every diary she could get her hands on. Buffy didn’t accept defeat. She always managed to raise victory from the ashes. She’d been dead twice and lived to tell about it, after all. In the face of impossible odds, she’d created for herself the kind of life slayers weren’t supposed to have: full of love and friendships and children, even. She’d always beaten the odds before. And so the longest lived slayer in history was determined to give her watcher a happily ever after. “Will, there’ve been a lot of slayers over the years. If I can find just a few watchers’ stories with a happy ending, maybe Giles will be able to follow in their footsteps, you know?” Willow nodded and set the volumes Buffy had given her to one side, promising to translate anything relevant. She seemed pensive, and it was at the door as they said goodbye that Willow gave her a fierce hug and a whispered promise that she would look after Giles and the children, though she hoped it never came to that. “You’re gonna be the first slayer to die of old age,” Willow insisted. *** Anya put a name to the demon. “The Vaurabyll.” Sometimes, in light of her current life with Xander, they forgot about the centuries she’d spent as a vengeance demon. She’d embraced the life of stay-at-home mom, overseeing the Magic Box franchises from afar, dropping in for spot checks occasionally, and carefully inspecting the financial ledgers more than occasionally. With three boys underfoot, and another (girl, she hoped) due in less than a month, Anya was often overlooked when it came to rounding up the Scoobies for crisis research. Xander even pitched in more often than she. It was only lucky coincidence that brought her into the middle of their research session that evening. Giles had taken his work home with him. Researching at home ensured that he spent some time with his family at least. School’s summer recess meant that, with the exception of Robin’s training, the twins spent their days with Laura for the most part. When they were younger, they had spent their days with him, first at the Magic Box, then later as he reconstructed the Council. Nowadays he didn’t have that luxury. He felt the guilt of a working parent. Robin avoided him. After the failed attempt at doubles training, either she was upset with him for ruining it, or she was afraid that he was upset with her. She hung on her mother all evening, letting Buffy braid her hair and paint her nails. The pair of them whispered secrets back and forth, stifling giggles whenever he or Alex glanced their way. Alex begged to help with the research. Ten was the traditional age at which watchers began their indoctrination into the Council. Giles vividly recalled his own father’s lecture about sacrifice and responsibility as he crushed ten-year-old Giles’ dreams for a future of his own choosing. Giles had promised Buffy their son would have a choice, and one day he would. But for today, the boy chose to play watcher beside his father quite happily. The pair of them searched through stacks of books for any reference resembling the purple-eyed vampire-eater. Alex bubbled over with questions, in some ways slowing down their progress, although Giles answered patiently, proud of his son’s inquisitive nature and sharp intelligence. Any volumes that were beyond Alex’s ability to translate, he set aside for his father. The translations he could handle, he double-checked with his father for accuracy. Giles suspected Alex only did so for the approval his language mastery earned him. The racket of Erik and Nick taunting each other announced their arrival before Xander’s knock could. Buffy let them in, Anya making a beeline for the bathroom as her pregnancy demanded. Little Anders’ eyes lit up when he saw the stacks of books, his little fingers scrunching and unscrunching repeatedly. He loved ripping pages out. All of his books were still plastic and indestructible. Xander grabbed him by the wrist before he could reach for any priceless and ancient volumes of demon lore. “I brought these by for you to sign off on.” Xander passed over a rolled-up set of blueprints for Giles’ inspection. “For the new addition. The top one we’ll file at the planning office. The bottom one includes all the special modifications. We’ll keep that one under lock and key.” Giles unrolled them, but only gave each a cursory once over. He trusted Xander’s expertise in these matters, and with good reason. The Council buildings finished so far had surpassed his expectations. He signed his name to both and returned them. “Oww! Stop it!” Robin complained. “Mother, Nick’s snapping rubber bands at me.” Anya returned at that moment and smacked the offending child upside the head. Erik had slipped to Giles’ other side so quietly, he hardly noticed. When he did notice, he wrapped one arm around the child fondly. He knew he shouldn’t play favorites, but Erik was the least troublesome of Xander’s boys. “I’m hungry,” Anya announced, pointedly in her husband’s direction. “Right, right. That was the other reason we stopped by. You guys wanna join us? We’re taking the kids out for pizza, let ’em burn off some energy climbing through the tubes.” Anya’s attention caught on Wesley’s sketch of the demon, resting on top of the stack of books. She grabbed it for a closer look. “What’s this?” “That’s what I want to know,” Buffy replied. “Don’t know if I should slay it or thank it. It’s been out killing vampires for me the last couple nights. Stein’s the only who’s actually seen it so far.” She nodded towards the sketch. “That’s his description.” “Killing vampires?” Anya’s tone sounded wary. “Draining them, more precisely,” Giles elaborated. She tossed the sketch back to the table and nodded. “Drains vampires. Eyes turn purple during telepathy. Fades to mist at will.” Giles removed his glasses, leaning forward eagerly. “You know of this demon.” “The Vaurabyll.” Buffy had perked up as well. “So does he go on my naughty list or my nice list?” “He shouldn’t be on any list. He shouldn’t be here at all. You’re sure someone saw him here, in person, walking among us?” “Even if Stein hadn’t seen him, this demon doesn’t exactly clean up after his meals. I saw one of the drained vamps myself.” Anya rubbed at her round belly as if the whole problem was giving her indigestion. “This is bad. Apocalypse bad.” Xander rounded up their boys and recruited (bribed stealthily) Robin to take them upstairs. Anya never sheltered them, just as straightforward with the children as she was with anyone else. Xander did his best to smooth over the harsh realities of their evil-fighting lifestyle and provide some semblance of security to the boys. They were far too young to worry about the end of the world. When the boys were squared away, Buffy got right to business. “Okay, the Vaurabyll. Give us the skinny.” “If you want prophecy, dependable prophecy, you open a window to their dimension and offer them a sacrifice of vampire blood.” “So they’re the demon version of a Magic 8 ball,” Xander joked. Anya glared at him irritably and maneuvered herself into the chair Robin had vacated. “We’re not talking your run-of-the-mill, average prophecies here. They’re not dodgy fortune-tellers with a dozen versions of what-might-be. Vaurabyll prophecy has never been wrong. Never.” Xander gave a low whistle. A perfect track record for prophecy did seem to merit some kind of appreciation. As far as Giles knew, prophecies were common enough in the supernatural realm, but once armed with the knowledge they foretold, they were also commonly escaped. Cordelia herself had inherited such visions from the Powers That Be, visions which Angel Investigations routinely prevented from happening. Buffy herself had thwarted prophecy more times than he could count. True, set-in-stone prophecy was a rarity that made you stand up and take notice. The Pergamum Codex had foretold Buffy’s first death. Giles remembered reading the words, feeling the trap close around him, trying to impress upon Angel the gravitas of this prophecy versus any other. The Codex was never wrong. Buffy’s fate was sealed. Anya’s next words only confirmed his budding suspicions. “And it’s not just demons that open a window and ask for a peek. Humans do it, too.” She held Giles’ gaze as she finished. “Once upon a time, even the watchers rendered unto the Vaurabyll.” “The Pergamum Codex,” Giles breathed. Anya only nodded. “So these demons read the last page first and hand out spoilers to anyone who asks nicely,” Buffy summarized, “and this is gonna end the world because…? Because no one likes to live out the rest of the movie if they already know how it ends?” Anya shifted uncomfortably, one hand pressing against the top of her stomach, as if trying to force a persistent foot out from between her ribs. “Look, no one – demon or human – has ever been stupid enough to open a door. To let one of them out, let them cross into our world. It’s never happened. A window, yes, but not a door. They were imprisoned in that dimension for a reason.” Alex, drawn in by the story, was the first to voice the question. “Why?” Anya shrugged. “Before my time. All I know is that these demons shouldn’t be here. Legend says they can unmake the world.” Before anyone could fire off more questions, Anya leveraged herself out of the chair and yelled loudly for the boys. “That’s everything I know,” she promised her attentive audience. “I never called on them myself. Personally, I wouldn’t want to know my future. Not if I couldn’t change it.” “Lottery numbers though,” Xander quipped. “I’d be okay knowing lottery numbers.” “Food, Xander Harris, right now, or I predict a violent and sudden death in your immediate future.” “Right, right, eating for two.” He faced Buffy and Giles, arms open wide, inviting. “I don’t suppose the apocalypse waits for pizza? No? Right, well then, have fun with research. Call me when it’s time to mount up or, you know, fix the damage after.” Xander gathered up the signed blueprints, rounded up his sons, and ushered his family outside. A quiet stillness followed in their wake. Another apocalypse to avert. Giles felt the weight of his years. “I better patrol, track down our little fugitive psychic.” Buffy stood, rolled her shoulders, and stretched her muscles. He could see the restless edge in her movements. He shouldn’t have let his own temper rob her of her afternoon’s training. She was wound tight with excess energy. “I should patrol with you.” She waved him off. “Naw. You need to hit the books. Figure out what I’m supposed to do with this thing.” She must have sensed his worry. Her recent preoccupation with final battles and watchers’ diaries, Anya’s discussion of inescapable fate, his memories of the Codex’s prophecy, all placed the idea of Buffy’s final battle front and center in his mind. He didn’t want to let her out of his sight. “Giles, I’m just gonna do recon. I won’t engage this Vera-bell demon. And if he tries to read my fortune, I’ll plug my ears and sing tra-la-la.” She came over and knelt between his knees, looping her arms around his neck. “I don’t need watcher backup tonight. I’ll be careful. Promise.” He leaned forward and touched his forehead to hers. “I’ll hold you to that.” And then she tipped her head up to press her lips against his. He deepened the kiss for a moment before the gagging sounds of the twins forced him to pull back, chagrined. “Gross, huh?” Buffy wrestled Alex to the ground and peppered him with sloppy kisses while he writhed, giggling, beneath her. He scrubbed each kiss away, protesting unconvincingly, “Mom! I’m not a baby! Stop it! I’m too old!” Robin sidled up next to Giles, laid her head against his shoulder. Her eyes, however, were watching her mother. “Can I patrol with you?” Giles’ heart stopped. Buffy seemed to take her seriously for a moment. “Hmmm… Let me think…” She tapped one finger against her mouth as if intently pondering the answer. “When I was your age did I go hunting vampires? Even half-dead vampires? Hmmm… Nope.” She hopped to her feet and headed towards the weapons closet. Robin shadowed her, wide blue eyes pleading. “Mother, please. I’ve been training for six months.” “You are not the Slayer,” Giles reminded her tersely. “Not yet,” she threw back at him. Oh, yes, the girl was most definitely still holding a grudge from this afternoon, and she knew exactly how to sting him. Why had he assumed his daughter would dread her destiny as much as he did? She loved her training, loved her mother’s tales of adventure, and was impatient to begin her own adventures. At her age, even considering who her parents were, mortality did not yet register on her radar. She wanted to slip into the role of slayer much like any little girl wanted to slip into her mother’s heels and jewels. Training with both her watcher and her parents must have seemed like the best of all possible worlds, and Giles had been the killjoy to her fantasy. He supposed he should be comforted by the fact that she was so well adjusted in spite of everything. That if Fate meant to steal her choice, she could at least be happy with her lot. He and Buffy had done their best to prepare her, to balance her life with both normality and destiny. Now he couldn’t help but wonder if they had unintentionally set her up for a fall. She sulked on the bottom step when her mother left without her. When she realized finally that her pout would not move her father to relent (as it usually did) when it came to this issue, she stomped up the stairs to her room. Alex flopped on the couch beside him. “Dad, can I help research?” Giles smiled fondly and passed his son an appropriate volume. Heads bent together, they shared the work between them. Somehow, having his son step into the role of watcher did not bother him half as much as it once had. As long as Alex made the choice freely, Giles would have no reservations in providing the boy with a watcher’s education. After all, this was not Travers’ Council anymore. And Giles was not the man his father had been. *** John coaxed his friend out of his office under duress. The one drawback to being a teacher and having his summers free was that no one else did. When his kids were young, it had been brilliant. Now he rattled around the empty house alone and lonely, waiting for April to get off shift. He had even considered teaching driver’s ed for the high school summer session, except he wasn’t that bored. There had been any number of previous summers when he could easily persuade Giles to play hooky for an afternoon or even a whole day. Usually the twins would tagalong, and sometimes John could even wrangle his grandson off his daughter for an outing. Jordan had a mild case of hero-worship for Alex. Since the majority of the construction for this new academy had finished, and the students had started accumulating, Giles hardly had any freedom left. Caged in by his own noble dedication. Well, no one was indispensable. And John boldly pressed Giles’ secretary to clear his schedule for lunch. He could spare time for lunch at least. Considering the pinched look and wan pallor of his face as he emerged from his office, Giles definitely needed the break. “I’m not taking no for an answer.” John clapped him on the back and steered him out the front doors. By the way Giles squinted against the sun’s glare, John guessed that he likely hadn’t been outside since the impromptu pool party a few days ago. Definitely time for a break. “So, do I get the tour first, Professor?” “Tour?” John twirled his hand in place to indicate the circle of buildings surrounding them. “Last time you showed me ’round, they’d just poured the foundations. Go on, give me the tuition tour.” “The what?” “Pretend you want to recruit my little Jordan, get your hands on his tuition money. Impress me.” Giles seemed amused. “I assure you, it’s not that kind of… academy.” The last word left his mouth as if he’d never tasted its syllables before. John was reminded of his second graders sounding out new vocabulary words. But at least his friend had cracked a smile. The cloud of stress hanging over him had lifted. “No tuition? You little philanthropist, you. So, tour?” “Right.” He pointed to each building in quick succession. “Administrative offices. Classrooms. Dormitories. Lab facilities. Library. Uhh… fitness center. Lunch?” “What’s that building?” John indicated the small, windowless structure he’d passed over. Giles stared at him for a beat, as if taking his measure. “Prison cells.” John held a straight face for the span of one breath before he busted out laughing. Giles joined in, the two of them nearly doubled over. He smacked the other man on the arm. “Fine, don’t give me the tour. But I’m starting to think you’re running some sort of spy school or something.” Giles’ laughter turned into a fit of coughing, and it took him a moment to catch his breath. By then, John was leading them to the car and tossing out suggestions for lunch. They enjoyed their meal together. Giles certainly seemed more relaxed. They’d been given a booth in the far back, as if it had Giles’ name on it. The waitress who took their order spoke very little English, and apparently for all the languages Giles knew, hers wasn’t one of them. They ordered by number, and when the food came, it was spicy enough to make them both sweat. When the check came, it brought a commotion with it. The cook ran out of the kitchen, shouting at their waitress. He had a hand pressed to his neck and looked panicked, but John couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other. From the kitchen came a clattering, then the sound of breaking dishes, followed by a shrill scream. Giles was on his feet and heading towards the kitchen door. John was on his heels a moment later. They pushed through the swinging door and found the teenaged busboy holding a wild man at bay with little more than a frying pan. Unfortunately for them, the busboy was on the opposite side of the room, and his crazed attacker was between them. At the sound of the door, the man turned to face the two new arrivals. John had never seen anything like it. Deformed in the face. His eyes were an unnatural yellow color. Must be special contacts. A fashion statement? Part of a gang? And then he actually, literally growled. “John, get out of here. Clear the restaurant. Call Buffy.” “Without you? Hell no.” The busboy had already used his attacker’s distraction to run out the alley door. The deformed man staggered towards them. He seemed drunk, unsteady. And unnaturally pale. Was that blood down his chin? Giles pulled something from his jacket pocket– a tent peg made from wood. John had never imagined him as a camper. The man enjoyed his creature comforts too much. But as weapons went, it hardly inspired fear. John lunged for a knife from the butcher’s block on the sideboard. He grabbed for the biggest handle, hoping for the biggest blade. Giles feinted at the crazy man, then jumped back out of reach. He tried a few more variations on the same theme, as if testing the guy’s reflexes. John couldn’t help but notice that he was also drawing the man away from him. “Go,” Giles demanded. “Call Buffy. Not dispatch. Buffy.” The man took a swing, and Giles ducked, coming up on the other side of the center island. The man shoved at the island counter, once, and it rocked, twice, and it tipped. He was stronger than he looked. Giles dove out of the way in the nick of time. John tried to snag the man’s attention, give Giles some breathing room, but his friend seemed to fancy himself James Bond. John had only been joking about the spy school. April had taught him some basic self-defense and taken him to the shooting range a few times, just in case, but as a second grade teacher, the worst violence he faced were six-year olds who liked to bite. Speaking of biting, the deformed man smiled, and he was in serious need of a dentist. Those teeth would certainly leave a mark. However well April had prepared him for such Good Samaritan antics, it appeared that Buffy had prepared Giles even better. Even armed with only a tent peg against a man who had the advantage in size and strength, not to mention the willingness to do great bodily harm, and Giles was still holding his own. And maneuvering the confrontation further away from John. “Call Buffy.” John was torn. Calling in the professionals would be sensible. But leaving his friend alone with this lunatic would be unforgivable. If anything happened to Giles, Buffy would kill him. Giles had backed himself down the narrow pantry hallway, and now he was penned in. The crazed psycho advanced, still staggering drunkenly. Maybe he was high. John couldn’t abandon his friend, couldn’t just stand there watching either, he had to do something. He was reluctant to use the knife in his hand unless he had no other choice. He had never harmed another human being before. Following the busboy’s example, he reached for a frying pan and adjusted his grip like it was a tennis racket. Mushrooms and peppers and onions tumbled to the floor. He stalked cautiously closer and swung, catching the man between the shoulder blades. The psycho stumbled, almost went down, but whatever drugs he was pumped up on allowed him to shake off the blow. He redirected his attention to John. Groggy, bleary-eyed, and growling once more, the psycho came at him. Giles opened the freezer door. John understood his intention. He shoved, Giles pulled, and between them they wrestled the man into the walk-in freezer. Giles turned the lock and barricaded the door with a maintenance ladder. John dropped both knife and frying pan. His hands were shaking now. Adrenaline. Delayed shock. He sucked in a few breaths. His heart was hammering. Is this what April felt? Quite a rush, no wonder she craved the danger. “Are you alright?” Giles was checking him over, unusually unruffled by their adventure. “Right. Next time I pick the restaurant.” That earned him a chuckle and an affectionate shoulder pat. He plucked the wooden tent peg from Giles’ fingers and gave it a bemused inspection. “And what the hell did you think you were going to do with this, Professor Bond?” He heard the sirens. Someone had managed to call in the cavalry, possibly their waitress or the cook. John was grateful to step aside, but Giles swore under his breath when he heard the familiar wailing. “Go. See who they sent,” he ordered. “If it’s Buffy, send her back here. If it’s not, don’t tell them about the man in the freezer. Keep them busy until Buffy gets here.” He took back the tent peg. Good luck charm maybe? Hardly a useful weapon. He’d be better off with a can of mace. “Look, I know both our wives are cops, but they don’t give out badges by proxy. We’ve done enough. Let them do their jobs.” “John, please, you need to trust me.” Giles was fishing out a cell phone from his pocket. Apparently, sending John to call for help had merely been a clever ruse to get rid of him. Possibly sending him to delay the cops was another one. John crossed his arms, eyeing his friend warily. This was a side of Giles he had never seen before: completely in command, so very much like April on duty. “What the hell is going on?” But he had already connected with Buffy apparently, and John gathered from the one-sided conversation that she was now en route. Giles headed towards the dining area as he snapped the phone shut and waylaid the officers before they could investigate the kitchen. John watched at a slight distance as Giles handled the officers, as he in fact lied to them. John trusted his friend enough to keep silent for the moment. Knowing that April would arrive with Buffy helped relieve his apprehension. She would be able to size up the situation better than he. He would defer to her judgment. When April and Buffy arrived, the responding officers left. They had already sorted out the other restaurant patrons and staff. Apparently, the cook had been injured, his hands pressing against a wound in his neck. He was woozy on his feet, and he had been taken from the scene by ambulance. Just the four of them remaining, plus the man madly thumping against the freezer door in the back room. This probably went against every regulation, their wives taking their statements. Considering that Giles had already lied to the responding officers, John didn’t think he was overly concerned with regulations. “In the middle of the day?” Buffy asked, the moment they were alone. “He’s mad with starvation. Half-drained, I should think.” “Only half?” Giles led them back to the scene of the crime, so to speak. April surveyed the damage wrought on the kitchen and turned worried eyes in her husband’s direction. John waved off her concern, far more interested in her reaction to Giles’, and now Buffy’s, odd behavior. Another thump echoed in the closed space, and they all jumped. “I thought there’d be less thumping, and more… wafting,” Buffy complained enigmatically. “And destroy the only clue we have at the moment?” “Fair enough.” Buffy picked her way across the floor, stepping over broken plates and overturned pots. April shadowed a step behind her, hand hovering over her sidearm. “He’s all base instinct at this point,” Giles warned. “Capture, not kill.” “Yeah, yeah.” Kill? John studied his friend curiously. Former museum curator, librarian, shop owner, and current University founder. When had his mild mannered friend turned into this mysterious stranger? Kill? He almost missed Buffy’s clever misdirection, by which she slipped through the freezer door and ditched April behind her. April yanked on the door handle, trying to leverage it with her shoulder, desperate to provide backup to her partner. The sounds of a struggle replaced the previous thumping. Then silence. The entire skirmish had lasted only moments. And when the door opened, it was Buffy who was standing there victorious, the psycho unconscious and handcuffed at her feet. April knelt and reached one hand towards the deformed ridges of the man’s skull. “My God, I’ve never…” John’s eyes drifted back and forth between Giles and Buffy. They were having a silent dialogue between them. And they were entirely too unphased. Buffy was a cop, sure, but even April was taken aback by the man’s weird appearance. “What the hell is going on?” he asked the pair of them. Buffy squirmed and bit her lip. “I don’t suppose you’d believe government experiment gone awry?” “Plastic surgery fetish?” Giles tossed out. “Radioactive spider bite?” “High on PCP?” “Elephant man?” “Yet another cautionary tale in support of helmet usage?” “The aliens have landed?” “Genetic throwback to the Neanderthals?” “Deliverance-scale inbreeding?” Buffy hummed the movie’s famous banjo duel, tapering off as April stood and faced her, betrayal writ across her face. She shook her head, clearly not buying their ridiculous explanations. The scar marking the curve of her jawline stood out in white contrast to the red flush of anger in her cheeks. She had gained the scar in the confrontation that had killed her last partner and paired her with Buffy. “I’ve worked with you for the last seven years. I put my life in your hands every day. What secrets have you been keeping from me?” Another silent dialogue passed between Buffy and Giles. Buffy broke the silence first. “It’s time they knew.” Giles nodded, then dropped his eyes and bowed his head. He seemed defeated by that. “I’m the Slayer.” John heard the capital letter in that statement, not a description, but a title. His stomach plummeted to his toes. The title sounded like something the papers would dub a serial killer. The Hillside Strangler. The Zodiac Killer. The Unabomber. The Slayer. It had the same sort of ring to it. Except that he trusted them both. He knew them. Or at least, he had thought he did. April had the same doubt and hesitation on her face. “The Slayer?” She kept her hand subtly near to her sidearm. Buffy looked helplessly towards Giles. “You wanna give them the speech? You like giving the speech.” “The speech?” “You know, the speech: ‘This world is older than you know… wasn’t always a paradise… demons once walked among us…’ Or the other one: ‘Into each generation a slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a chosen one…’ The speech.” “You seem to have hit the salient points.” The deformed man began to stir, and Buffy bashed him once across the back of his skull. He fell silent again. “Buffy!” April was horrified, and frankly, so was John. Such callous brutality was not something he would have ever expected from Buffy. She pointed at the unconscious man cuffed at her feet with a sneer of contempt. “That’s a vampire. I’m a vampire slayer. And Giles is my Watcher.” He could hear the capital letter in Giles’ title as well. “Watcher?” April echoed. “I train her and support her.” “You do know how crazy this sounds, right?” John ran his fingers through his hair. He imagined he would find quite a bit more grey peppered through it come morning. “You don’t expect us to believe this?” April seconded. Buffy shrugged. “I’d give you a demonstration, but we need this vamp to hopefully stop an apocalypse.” “Apocalypse!” they repeated in unison. “We need to get this guy back to HQ before he wakes up again.” Buffy spied a pile of tablecloths waiting to be laundered and grabbed a few to wrap the so-called vampire in. John gasped as she hefted the guy over her shoulder like he weighed nothing. “Come with. We’re telling the truth, and we’ll prove it. I swear, you’re gonna believe us.” A beat. “I hope.” Giles leaned towards John and murmured softly, “Looks like you’ll get that tour after all.” *** Willow came. Xander put in a token appearance as well. Whatever they could do to smooth things over for John and April. They did it out of friendship, but Giles was painfully aware of the possibility that if they couldn’t persuade April to their side, she could make things complicated with the legal authorities. Once upon a time, the Council would have vanquished any bureaucracy with the stroke of a pen. But Giles had yet to establish the same level of influence. They shackled the half-drained vampire in one of the containment cells in the windowless prison house. April inspected her surroundings with a careful and suspicious eye, attentive and alert. Her hand never strayed far from her holster. John took in everything in a kind of daze, refusing to even look in Giles’ direction. Giles felt the ache of loss squeezing his chest until he could hardly breathe. Willow revealed her magic skills as further evidence. Floating a pen around the room, summoning a small orb of light, small glamours that changed her hair color. The last she did mostly because she was enjoying showing off. Xander confessed that he had married an eleven-hundred-odd-year old ex-demon and had been fighting evil since sophomore year of high school. Buffy showed them her training room and demonstrated some of her more dramatic slayer skills. They finished with a quick circuit of the other training rooms, dropping in on any watchers who were in the middle of training sessions with their potential slayers. Giles, for his part, gave them the same tour he gave each watcher candidate, and the same lecture. They finished at the Council Library, Buffy and Giles almost holding their breath as they awaited the verdict. April browsed some of the stacks of books, fingers tracing over the titles on the spines. She had relaxed over the course of the tour. Her hand had dropped away from her sidearm. She was overflowing with questions, eyes bright with curiosity and wonder. Behind those eyes, the wheels were turning; she was making connections. As a cop in Sunnydale, she had to have witnessed things that had no explanation at the time. She had to be assembling the pieces of all those separate puzzles into the cohesive whole that corroborated their story. In all likelihood, she was imagining how she could fit into their evil-fighting gang. John looked sick. That, in turn, made Giles’ stomach turn. He had treasured this friendship. For them to fall out would be a harsh blow. John was the only friend he had in this country he counted as solely his friend. The others would always be Buffy’s first. Ethan would always be too untrustworthy for unguarded company. And the other watchers would always be too aware of the uneven power dynamic between Giles and them for any kind of real relationships. April nodded, mind made up, and threw her proverbial hat in the ring. She joined the other Scoobies at the center table, and they briefed her on the current threat: the purple-eyed prophetic demon with the alleged power to unmake the world. John wandered off by himself, drawn to a reading nook with a large picture window overlooking the center courtyard. Giles followed, trying to feel out whether his approach would be welcomed or spurned. “It’s a lot to take in,” he offered sympathetically. “April seems to be taking it in just fine.” John’s eyes never left the view of the courtyard, fixed intently as if counting each blade of grass. The sunlight washed out whatever color was left in his face. He looked like a ghost. “Yes, well, she’s… remarkably adaptable.” John’s quiet reflection reminded Giles of Olivia’s final visit, when the realities of his life had overwhelmed her. Too scary? he’d asked her. Though her words had claimed indecision, her tone had held certainty. Why should John be any different? “What must I have looked like to you?” His voice was barely above a whisper. “Naïve fool? Stupid schoolteacher?” “No. No, of course not. John, I—” “All the things she… All the years April served, she never protected me, never lied to me, like I couldn’t handle it.” Giles swallowed hard. He had read his friend wrong. Apparently the monsters didn’t bother him half so much as the secrecy. “I thought you understood. I thought we were cut from the same cloth. Both our wives – cops. Partners, even. I thought that we, of all people, could be honest with each other.” He turned his head to meet Giles’ eyes then, and his expression was cold, not terrified as Giles had originally assumed. “Did it amuse you? Having a friend so completely in the dark? Did I give you a good laugh?” “It was never like that. I never—” John barked out a laugh of his own and rolled his eyes skyward. “Professor Bond. I thought I was being clever. Huh. C’mon, now. All our conversations over the years. Knowing what I know now. Even I have to admit the comic irony ran high. I must have been good for at least a chuckle every now and then.” “You were never a joke. Not to any of us.” “A child, then, who couldn’t hack the big, scary truth. Even this afternoon. You did everything you could to get me out of that kitchen. And I was under the illusion that I had your back.” Giles could feel their friendship slipping through his fingers. “Keeping both of you in the dark, it wasn’t a joke or a game. And it certainly wasn’t because I thought less of you or doubted your ability to handle it. If anything, I was being selfish. You don’t know what it meant to me to have one piece of my life that was untouched by all of this. I value our friendship a great deal. You have to believe—” “I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know who you really are anymore.” “I’m the same man I was before. Just… under more pressure. And just maybe… even more in need of a good friend.” John turned and walked away, hands stuffed deep in his trouser pockets, and rejoined April at the center conference table. Giles was left standing alone. *** Buffy watched the thing mindlessly struggle against his shackles and wanted nothing more than to stake it. Willow, on the other hand – “I wonder what blood volume is required for higher brain functions? Or do they come back piecemeal? Like first language, then host memory, then vampire memory? Ooo… maybe… Do you suppose there’s a blood volume where the demon is suppressed and only the host is aware?” – wanted to run the thing through mazes and show it inkblots. “Seems to me a vampire gets more demony, the hungrier it gets.” Buffy wrinkled her nose as the thing charged the cell bars, and then snapped back at the end of his chains. It roared. “Crankypants! Behave, or no blood for you.” Willow wiggled a packet of blood in front of the bars. The vampire growled and charged the bars once more. “So they’re not usually like this?” April clarified. She remained a step behind Buffy and Willow, still understandably skittish around vampires, even properly restrained ones. She kept one hand close to her firearm, out of instinct. They’d already explained that you couldn’t kill a vampire with a bullet. Wooden stake to the heart, beheading, fire, sunlight, enough holy water. Crosses burned, but didn’t kill. She’d had the full briefing, but she still depended on her gun to feel safe. Understandable. Trained as a cop, not a slayer. Personally, Buffy had never drawn her own gun except in target practice. “Typically, they reveal the inner demon only when they feed.” Giles slipped into his usual role of lecturer. Since John had left after the tour, white-faced and shaken, Giles had gone into detached computer-mode. Knowledge guy. Research man. Repressed watcher. “Feed, fight, f—” Giles glared at her. “Fraternize,” Buffy finished smoothly with a winning grin at her watcher. “Otherwise,” Giles continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “they retain the human face of their victim. You wouldn’t necessarily recognize a vampire.” “Take Spike for instance,” Buffy pointed out. “He can even pass for a decent guy. And I can’t believe I just admitted that.” Xander patted her on the shoulder. “We won’t tell.” “Spike? Dawn’s Spike?” April looked at each one of them in turn, as if they were joking. “The heart wants what it wants,” Xander explained. “Says the man who married an ex-vengeance demon.” “Spike is… complicated,” Giles supplied. “Sufficed to say, he can no longer harm any living thing, and the experience has… reformed… him.” “So they can be reformed? But you just kill them? Without trying?” Buffy couldn’t meet her partner’s eyes. Memories, clear as yesterday, flooded her mind. Memories of Angelus, and her own reluctance to kill him. Giles had paid for her hesitation, in Jenny’s blood and his own. “It is extremely rare. As far as I know, it has happened only twice.” Giles stepped in with the dry facts. Dry facts were his security blanket in times of emotional stress, and in his buttoned-up demeanor, she recognized how bothered he was by John’s cold withdrawal. “You must understand that the person they once were is dead. The soul has passed on. They are only a demon wearing their victim’s face.” “What about Spike?” “I have no explanation for Spike. Being unable to kill, he was forced to change allegiances, allied himself with us out of sheer self-preservation, and as a consequence forged different emotional attachments. He would claim it was love that reformed him, first for Buffy and then for Dawn.” “And the other one? The second example of reformed vampire?” “Angel.” Buffy told the story, to save Giles from doing so. “He was cursed and got his soul back. But that means he can’t ever be happy. “Look, April, vampires are evil. We can’t save them. They’re gonna kill people or worse. So it’s my job to dust them. If I were turned into a vampire, I’d want someone to dust me. That goes for everyone here.” The others nodded in agreement. “This isn’t human justice. I’m the Slayer. I’m the law when it comes to this stuff.” April backed down, but Buffy wasn’t entirely sure if she’d completely accepted it yet. “Guys,” Willow called for their attention. She’d been busy tossing packets of blood into the cell while everyone else discussed the merits of vampire rehab. “He’s getting calmer. I think it’s working.” They all took a step closer. She teased him with another packet, dangled just out of reach. “Hey, big guy, can you tell us who sucked you almost dry?” He grunted and grabbed for the blood. “Think he’s still zombified,” Xander mused. “Maybe he was stupid when he was alive,” Buffy added. “Maybe this is as good as he’ll get.” Willow flipped him the packet, and he sank his teeth into it, sucking it down in record time. When he’d finished, she tempted him with another. “Tell us who did this to you, and you’ll get all the blood you want.” “Girl,” he growled out. It was the first word he’d spoken, but it was barely articulate. “A girl?” Willow clarified, trading glances with Giles. “You’re sure?” His head bobbed up and down, eyes fixated on the packet of blood just beyond his reach. He was coherent enough now that he didn’t strain pointlessly to reach it, just waited. Willow tossed him the packet, and waited with the next. It was almost like when they’d taken Leaky to obedience training and rewarded him with treats after each successful command. With that memory, Buffy felt a stab of loss. Poor Leaky had been gone less than a week. She blinked away tears quickly, embarrassed to be choked up over a dog she hadn’t even wanted in the first place, a dog Giles had brought home without consulting her, just so he could win favor with the twins. Brave little guard dog had kept a vampire at bay long enough for the twins to escape inside the house. She turned her head and wiped away a wayward tear. Willow bribed the vampire with the next packet. “Describe this girl.” “Girl,” he repeated. He angled his hand to indicate her height. Maybe three feet. “Blonde.” He mimed pigtails to either side of his face. He pointed to his own yellow eyes. “Purple.” Purple eyes clinched it. Another demon like the one Stein had seen. A child, from the sound of it. If one should not exist in this world, what would Anya say about two? And if a child demon could do this to a vampire, what exactly was Buffy up against? Willow rewarded him with blood, and this time after he’d fed, his vampire face smoothed out to human. His yellow eyes darkened to brown. April jumped back in surprise. His eyes tilted up to focus on Buffy now, forgetting for the moment the hand that fed him. “Slayer.” She crossed her arms and stood straighter. “It’s always nice to have a fan club.” “You’re asking the wrong question.” His diction had improved markedly with the last batch of blood. “Okay, I’ll play along. What’s the right question?” “Why was I spared?” Buffy arched one brow. “Survey says…?” “I am to bring you to your fall, Slayer.” He smiled, and Buffy shivered. Maybe she had been reading too many watchers’ diaries, had been dwelling too much on final battles, but she couldn’t stop herself from remembering Anya’s words: Vaurabyll prophecy has never been wrong. The vampire drew himself up to his full height, eyes never leaving hers. “As they have said, so shall it be.” *** “All in favor of immediate staking?” Xander raised his hand, looking to the others for an expected unanimous vote. They had retreated to the Library, joined by Wesley and Stein, all the watchers buried in research, while Buffy, Xander, and April brainstormed battle plans. “And if I’d killed the Anointed One, how would I have found the Master? We might need him. Possible apocalypse still looming, remember?” “How is it we can’t find a single reference to the Vaurabyll?” Wesley was practically pulling his hair out in frustration. “Well, the Pergamum Codex was lost in the 15th century and only recently recovered. If the Codex did indeed come from the Vaurabyll,” Giles speculated, “it’s possible that any accompanying text was lost with it. If we knew where Angel had obtained the Codex…” “I’ll have Spike get right on it,” Willow volunteered. Off everyone else’s puzzled looks, she smiled sheepishly. “He likes getting bossy with Angel.” “Yes, well, this time,” Giles said, “perhaps we can forgo the middleman.” Laura delivered Robin for her training, Alex tagging along and eager to dive into the research. Wesley departed with Robin for their regular session. April decided she should return to base and log the pair of them out for the day. She promised to finish off their paperwork and cover for Buffy if she needed to miss the next day too. The rest of them (Giles, Willow, Stein, and Xander) stayed and researched, Alex fetching and re-shelving books as their aide. Buffy waited only as long as wouldn’t be suspicious, then she slipped out of the library on her own private mission. Technically, she wasn’t breaking any rules. Giles had only insisted that she not train with Wesley. She would obey that to the letter. But he never outlawed attending Robin’s sessions. Other parents took their kids to gymnastics and little league and sat in the bleachers with pennants, cheering on their kids. They weren’t quite like those other families, but unlike Giles, Buffy could be supportive when it came to this. If her daughter was going to end up becoming the Slayer, then Buffy would do everything she could to make it easier. And if Robin enjoyed her training, Buffy would rally behind her, hoot and holler, and show pride in her accomplishments. She wouldn’t get a letterman jacket for her sport, but maybe one day a glittery toy umbrella and the gratitude of her peers. Robin had a one-woman cheering section as she faced off against Wesley in hand-to-hand. He was teaching her Aikido, a discipline that evened the odds when one’s enemy had the advantage. He showed her how to use her opponent’s strength against them, how to redirect their momentum without expending much energy herself. A clever dance of constantly shifting angles, and Robin took to it like a fish to water. As Buffy watched, she understood why Giles had forbidden her from training with Wesley. The knowledge Wesley imparted to his charge was chosen specifically for Robin. With her strengths and weaknesses in mind, he taught her the skills that best served her. Giles had never taught Buffy Aikido, and he likely never would. Maybe if she asked. But it didn’t really suit her. Her fighting style was more aggressive, spontaneous. She usually came at her enemies and put them on the defensive. Buffy stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a loud piercing whistle when Robin managed to send Wesley to the mat. She gave a little bow, and he rolled his eyes, challenging her to do it again. She did it once more before the session was out, and although Wesley had put her to the mat more than a dozen times, she beamed pride for her two victories. “Mother, did you see that?” she gushed, bouncing straight over the moment Wesley called a halt for the day. “I sure did. You’ll give me a run for my money before long. Now, go thank your Watcher for your training and help him put away the gear.” The puzzled look on Wesley’s face clearly indicated that he couldn’t remember Buffy ever thanking him or helping clean up when he’d been her Watcher, nor could he imagine her doing the same for Giles. And he was right. But with age, came wisdom. And Buffy thought she should teach Robin to demonstrate a little more appreciation and respect for her watcher than Buffy had shown for hers. Maybe then Robin wouldn’t end up blowing him off for a year to go play with the commandos while he drank himself into a perpetual state of self-pity until he eventually decided to call it quits and head back to England. Or something like that. Maybe she was just trying to raise her daughter to be polite, always “please” and “thank you.” Joyce had tried with both Buffy and Dawn, and everyone knew how that turned out. Wesley smiled as Robin helped spray off all their protective padding and tuck it away in the appropriate storage lockers. She helped him clean and put away the mat. She thanked him dutifully, and then dashed over to her mother, overflowing with boundless energy. If Buffy hadn’t been the Slayer, she couldn’t have hoped to keep up with her children’s youthful vigor. She didn’t know how Giles managed. Speaking of… They bumped into him on the way out. He’d been tracking Buffy down for her own training, and his expression darkened as he guessed at her activities. “No training,” she promised him. “Just cheerleading.” Robin tugged on his sleeve. “Father, guess what – I put Wesley to the mat twice!” He praised her half-heartedly, and then pulled her in for an earnest hug. Buffy noticed the pain that flashed across his face as he squeezed his daughter tight, laying his hand tenderly against the nape of her neck, his eyelids fluttering closed. Robin pulled away first, and he released her, his previous sorrow swallowed back and a warm smile on his lips. “So,” Buffy ventured once they were alone, looping an arm through his and leading them both towards her more hard-core training room. “Any leads on getting rid of the purple-eyed pests – either by slaying or banishing?” He shook his head. “We’ll work on your speed and dexterity today. There’s a chance that you could strike a blow, if you’re fast enough to hit before they turn to mist.” “But there’s two of them now. Apparently.” “Yes, well, you’ll need to take them out one at a time. Decapitation is the most universally effective. Barring any new information—” “Swords it is.” He pushed her hard, almost punishing her. As if he’d caught her in watcher adultery with Wesley. She’d told him they hadn’t trained. Did he not believe her? Or maybe he blamed her in some way for scaring John off, not good enough at playing secret identity. Or maybe this was about Robin. He resented Buffy for giving him a daughter who would become the Slayer, damning him to losing both of them. Or maybe she was just the stand-in for Fate, as he railed against prophecy and destiny. The vampire’s words echoed in her mind with each clash of their blades. I am to bring you to your fall, Slayer. When Giles was panting and out of breath, he would take a break, recover, sip water, and blot the sweat from his skin. He allowed Buffy no break. He demanded drills, calling out corrections, chastising her speed, snapping at her should her form turn sloppy. After he’d rested, he would resume their sparring, using every weakness he knew against her. The fury in his strokes was breathtaking. He forced her on past their usual end-time, and now with no end in sight, she didn’t know how long even her slayer stamina could keep up the pace he’d set. His energy was nowhere near flagging, not with the frequent breaks he gave himself. And her sword arm was aflame with strain, sweat down her face, heart racing, breathing rapid. At twice the length of any previous training session, he continued their sparring once more, freshly rested and merciless with his sword. She shoved him back, sent him stumbling several steps, although he regained his balance before he could fall. She deliberately held her sword to the side and released it, clanging to the ground. “Enough!” Whatever he was trying to get out of his system, she was done being his punching bag. Two strides, and the point of his sword was pressed to the hollow of her neck. “You’re dead.” He flipped up his faceguard, and she saw not anger in his eyes, but desperation. “You’re dead,” he repeated. “Because you quit.” He forced her back by the point of his sword until she felt the wall flush with her back. “You’re dead. Because you gave up before your opponent. Because you thought the outcome was already decided. Written in stone.” Because you wanted it. Spike’s words from long ago echoed back to her: Every Slayer has a death wish. Giles hurled his sword across the room with reckless abandon, and it slid end over end until crashing against the far wall. He pressed her to the wall now with his hands to her neck and the steel of his gaze. “Bugger prophecy. You fight, Buffy, you fight to come home to us. You don’t stop fighting.” His lips crushed hers, and she could taste the salt of his sweat, smell the musk of his exertions. His hands were bruising as they claimed her. Slayer and Watcher waged a different battle between them. She rolled them both to pin him against the wall, rising to the challenge, damned if she was going to let him win this match. He was rising to the challenge as well. He took advantage of her slayer strength, as rough with her as he had ever been. She in turn marked him with her teeth, wrestled a groan from his lips with her hands down his pants, and punished him, partly for the grueling session he’d just forced her to endure, but mostly for calling her a quitter. She was determined that, in this match, he would be the one to beg, “Enough!” She restrained his hands and went down to her knees. She teased him out to the limit of his stamina as he had done with her moments before. Then she returned to his mouth, swallowing his moans of frustration with her kiss. She had the advantage in strength and stamina (although, in regard to the latter, he had burned out most of their inequity during her training), but he had years of experience, expert training, and the leverage of his height and mass as his assets. He escaped her hold and put her to the mat. Score one for Giles, she thought, laughing. They tangled, each trying to get the upper hand, and were it not for the protective padding and clothes slowly shed across the mat in their wake, Buffy wouldn’t have been sure if they were sparring for real or only as a euphemism. He took her from behind, and she gave in, quitter after all. She arched into his touch, both of them slick with sweat from training, both of them still breathless and pumped full of adrenaline from swordplay. His forehead pressed to the nape of her neck, each exhale sending shivers down her spine, he set the pace, and she yielded the match. “Say you don’t believe in prophecy,” he demanded. “I don’t,” she rasped, too lost in sensation to voice more. “Say it,” he ground out fiercely, halting their cadence so abruptly she whimpered. “I don’t believe in prophecy,” she groaned. “Again,” he begged, resuming their tempo. “Prophecies suck.” The words were harder to choke out. She was so close. “Because…” He prompted, as he increased the pace. “Wrong, so wrong.” The only answer she could manage. “Again.” Their rhythm escalated to a frenzied pitch of desperation. “Never… come… true,” she promised him. Her words gave him the victory he had been seeking, and he shuddered, then collapsed against her. She wept, because the words had tasted like lies on her tongue. She turned her face away from his kiss, afraid that he would taste them too. “Shhh,” he soothed her, gentle now, his touch tender as his fingers sought to bring her to her own victory. Stalwart champion, his life’s mission to ensure she always achieved her victory. *** The children’s faces were each wet with tears as Buffy tucked them in for the night. She worried they had overheard too much about the looming apocalypse. Alex especially, with all the research Giles had permitted him to help with. Too much on their shoulders, too young. Buffy could relate, except that she had had five more years than this before destiny dropped the slayer bomb on her. Thankfully, their sadness was more mundane. “I miss Leaky,” they admitted separately, in their own words. They had spied a neighbor walking a dog, and it had driven home the reality that they would never walk Leaky again. Buffy kissed them each in turn, and repeated the promise for each of them, the same promise Giles had made her after her mother’s death, “It will get better.” She thought she had wiped away all trace of her tears when she came downstairs, but Giles’ attention to detail zeroed in on the trails they had left in her makeup. She shrugged off his concern, embarrassed to admit what she was crying about. “The kids are missing Leaky. No more walkies… No more throwing the tennis ball… No more begging at the…” She choked up before she could get the last word out and started crying in earnest. He pulled her into his arms, and she tried to resist, protesting, “It’s silly.” “No, it’s not,” he countered, and she melted against him. “Honestly, I miss him too. I’ve grown so accustomed to him sleeping under my feet, every time I get up from a chair, I still take care not to step on him.” She heard the rough edge of emotion in his voice, and it surprised her. “You never had a pet before, Buffy, but it’s typical that they should become part of the family. And grieved for when they’re gone.” “Should we have put the twins through that? Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten them a dog.” “Loss is a lesson everyone must learn. They’ll get past it. In time.” *** The demon waited for dawn to break, resigned. Nothing had changed. He had started the new day full of hope, certain that his beloved would be waiting for him, would be restored to him. If anything, time had solidified around him, the ripples smoothing out, and he was trapped as if in amber. Slave to Fate evermore. The Vaurabyll were cursed, no matter which side of the divide they walked. Now as he waited for the dawn, he had only one thing left to live for. *** Giles woke first. As always. Slayers, by necessity, did not hold to “early to bed, early to rise.” Watchers often needed to keep such hours, too, but that did not mean they were inherently night owls. He had always been an early riser, when given the chance. Buffy had twisted the sheets around them both at some point in the night and made herself comfortable across his chest. Untangling himself from both her and the sheets without disturbing her demonstrated an impressive amount of patience, stealth, and reverse engineering. He should have stayed in bed, waited for her sleepy morning grin, and made love to her. *** At breakfast, the twins were just as melancholy about Leaky as the night before. Stein called with urgent news. Buffy yawned and stretched as she appeared beside the twins and poured herself a bowl of cereal. He kissed her cheek as he passed, and she waved him goodbye, mouth too full of Cheerios to say a word. He should have stayed with his family, helped Buffy to cheer up their children, and wore the hat of husband and father rather than that of watcher. *** Fred had driven down from LA with some alarming charts and graphs and a spinning metal cage that fascinated Stein. Her latest experiment had unexpectedly soured that morning, and she and Stein traded physics jargon that escalated into a full-blown argument between them. Fred’s voice pitched higher and her words tumbled out faster as she grew more animated, supplementing her dialogue with a constant flurry of hand gestures. Stein’s voice rose in volume, but deepened in pitch, and he crossed his arms, growing more still as he defended his own hypothesis. Not speaking their language, nor understanding the significance of the numbers they tossed out, or the calculations they each scribbled and erased on the board, Giles had to wait for them to interpret. “Ya’ll have had some weird weather, haven’t ya? Rain four nights in a row? ’Ccording to this—” She petted her metal gadget with affection. “—there’s a direct correlation.” He polished his glasses, peered through the lenses, and then gave them a second cleaning. “Everything contains the energy of its source.” Stein had finally remembered he was there and tried to explain their quandary. “The demon that shouldn’t be in our dimension.” Giles understood now the general topic being analyzed. “Exactly. Typically, even energy from another dimension doesn’t resonate so differently from ours as to be incompatible.” Winifred jumped in eagerly, one finger shoving the bridge of her glasses higher up on her nose. “Else I wouldn’t be here. Back and forth from cow-slave dimension and here. But this critter you got here, his energy’s like oil and water. Or more like picric acid and sodium hydroxide. You gotta kill him or send him back before—” She mimed an explosion with her hands and made the accompanying sound effect. He measured Stein’s reaction, wondering at the two physicists’ earlier disagreement. “You don’t concur?” “We agree on the basics.” Fred shrugged her shoulders sheepishly. “Just the size of the kaboom we’re fussing over. He reckons California’ll slide off into the ocean. I ain’t sure it won’t be bigger. Pro’bly fracture the wall between both worlds like glass, and when everything starts spillin’ over, one t’other—” She mimed another explosion, bigger than the last, and widened her eyes to stress the seriousness of her forecast. “We’re running out of time. The energy levels are off the scale this morning. Maybe because there’s two of them. Maybe they’re even breeding. We kill the demons or send them back today, or we don’t see tomorrow.” “You’re gonna get a big storm tonight, yes sirree.” He should have insisted they give him a third option, one that didn’t require he send Buffy into battle, unprepared. *** He fetched Buffy and left the twins in Laura’s care. Robin tugged on her mother’s sleeve and begged to come along. Alex echoed the same plea to his father. It broke his heart to turn them both away, but they were too young to face down an impending apocalypse. He should have noticed the defiant glint in his daughter’s eyes, the same blue eyes as her mother, and the same expression as his slayer had worn before. *** When Buffy went home after dinner to check on the twins, it looked like monsoon season. Rivers of water ran through the streets, too heavy a downpour for the ground to soak and the gutters to take all at once. She called him from home on her cell phone to tell him the power was out and the trees were banging against the upstairs windows. She’d shut the shutters and wondered if there was anything else, home-maintenance-wise, she should do before returning. He should have made sure she hugged both son and daughter, told them she loved them, and kissed them both hard enough to prove it. But she was the Slayer. She probably did that anyway. *** “This is ridiculous, Giles!” She slammed closed the book he was reading. “We both know there’s a better way to find these demons. We got ourselves a tour guide in lockup, and we don’t have time to be picky. Getting close to sunset.” He should have refused her plan, come up with a better one himself, and left that vampire to starve in its cell. *** Buffy turned the lock and freed the vampire. “Wanna bring me to my fall, better start with the bringing.” Giles kept his crossbow trained on the vampire who had cost him his friendship with John, who might still cost him his Slayer. The vampire didn’t give the weapon even a first glance. He tilted his head and smiled, as if at a private joke. “Watcher. They gave me your fortune, too. Do you want to hear it?” “No.” He pressed his chest against the lathe of Giles’ crossbow, the stock lined up with his heart almost in challenge, and lowered his voice so as not to carry even the few feet to Buffy. “You will let her fall.” He should have pulled the trigger, put a bolt through him, and dusted the cocky pillock right there. *** Buffy kissed him once, for luck, before she charged off, sword ready. He should have pulled her back for a second kiss, told her he loved her, and never let go. *** Vaurabyll prophecy has never been wrong. Never. I am to bring you to your fall, Slayer. As they have said, so shall it be. You’re dead. Because you thought the outcome was already decided. Written in stone. Loss is a lesson everyone must learn. You will let her fall. *** If you want the tale of Buffy Anne Summers Giles’ final battle, there is only one who can tell it: Rupert Giles, her Watcher. But it is as lost to him as it is to history. His diary will record nothing more than the date of her passing. If he owes future watchers and slayers a more detailed account, it is a debt that will remain unpaid. He honestly can’t remember. Like a bleeding wound in his memory, his mind has scabbed over the experience. His watcher’s perfect recall has failed him. Or perhaps, this time it has saved him. Either way, the pages of his diary are blank. *** Giles stopped at the porch as if the world paused in its spinning orbit beneath his feet. The turn of the earth stuck on this moment, and he could not go forward. Every watcher came home alone eventually, and he was no different, no better than all the watchers who had come before him, now a cautionary tale to all those who would come after. He could not go back and save her, but neither could he go forward into their home without her. Time itself paused. His world stopped. The door opened on its own. Laura waiting. Tears glittering in her eyes. Sympathetic tilt to her head. Someone had called her. Warned her. She took his choice away from him. Forced the world to spin beneath him. Hand to his elbow, she reminded him to keep moving forward. God only knew what reminded his heart to keep beating, his lungs to keep breathing. She gave Robin a hug, and he dismissed his on-call sitter, knowing he would never call on her again. Couldn’t suffer to look on the woman who had forced him to walk through that door alone. Alex stood at the landing. Laura wouldn’t have told him, would have left that to Giles. But he was a clever boy. He didn't need to be told why his father had come home alone. His eyes hardened into accusation, and he fled into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The bathroom locked, and his room did not. Giles heard the choked sobs of his son, but knew he wouldn’t be granted entry to console the child. Honestly, he doubted whether he had the strength to deal with his son's grief while his own was still so overwhelming. He collapsed to the bottom step, uncertain whether his legs would support him if he tried to climb the stairs just yet. Robin curled up on the floor at his feet, tentatively tipping her head towards his lap. He pressed her head down, his thumb tracing from the back of her skull, down the ridges of her spine, then rubbing, palm flat, firm circles across the middle of her back. She broke beneath his hand. Clutching his leg, her face pressed to his thigh, she shook with silent sobs. He rubbed steady circles over her back. The turn of the earth paused again beneath his feet. They might have stayed like that for hours. Or it could have been minutes. Time had stopped for them. She made no sound, just the steady hitch of her shoulders with each shaking sob. He felt her tears wet his trousers. But he was too numb for tears. He felt like a sleepwalker waking to a changed world. He remembered leaving the house. And now coming home alone, but everything in between was a blur. He knew these things: Buffy had died. The demon had gone. The demon eggs were destroyed. The apocalypse wouldn’t come tonight. The storm had broken. He knew these things like he read them in a book. Like a nightmare shaken off and forgotten in the morning. He honestly couldn’t remember who had taken Buffy’s body. Stein? Wesley? Willow? Xander, even? They were the only ones he would have trusted. He was certain Willow had been the one to steer him home, to remind him of his responsibility to Alex and Robin. He couldn’t remember what Buffy had looked like in death. Peaceful and untouched? Or had the demon marked her? When he closed his eyes, he could only picture her at the bottom of Glory’s tower, as she had died the last time, serene and satisfied with her noble sacrifice. He felt Robin still beneath him, her sobs evening out as she dozed off. He rubbed those steady circles across her back until he was sure she had fallen asleep. Then he lifted her into his arms and carried her to bed. He slipped her shoes off and tucked her in, as he had when she was small and life seemed so much kinder. He caressed her cheek with his knuckles, and she turned into his touch with a contented sigh. As he stepped into the hallway, he noticed the bathroom door standing open and Alex’s door closed. His hand hovered over the handle, but he decided against intruding. If Alex had wanted him, he would have left his door cracked. Instead, Giles went into the bathroom and prepared himself for bed. He picked up his toothbrush and stared at it. If he closed his eyes, he could still taste Buffy in his mouth, that last casual kiss. He laid the toothbrush aside, unwilling to wash away any lingering traces of her. The bed still smelled of her. Her pillow still bore the indentation from her head. The sheets were still twisted from when she woke that morning. He had given up years ago on trying to get her to make the bed. He sat heavily on his side, as if he still had a side, as if the whole damn thing wasn’t his now. He tossed and turned, sleep eluding him. He had done this before. She had died, and he had mourned her, but he couldn't remember it hurting this badly before. The clocked marked two hours of hopeless attempts at sleep when the door creaked open. Robin hesitated at the threshold, uncertain of her welcome. At ten and a half, she was far past the age of climbing into her parents’ bed. But after what they had endured, he could hardly refuse. He held his hand out to her, and she melted with relief, scurrying over and making herself comfortable in the bed beside him. She wrapped one arm around his waist and fitted herself tightly against his side. Barely ten minutes later, Alex stood nervously in the doorway. Giles held his free hand out to his son, but the boy seemed to debate himself, part of him wanting his father’s comfort, part of him still blaming his father for everything. The lost little boy won, and Alex climbed over Robin and then Giles to claim a place on his father’s other side, no longer his mother’s side. He tucked himself against Giles just as tightly as his sister had. His fingers sought his sister’s, and they clasped hands across their father’s stomach. They slept in the shelter of their father’s arms, and even if Giles could manage no more than restless dozing, he survived that first night by clinging tight to his son and daughter. *** He had shed no tears yet for Buffy. The others thought he was trying to stay strong for his children, who broke at the slightest trigger. So they each took their turn alone with Giles: Willow, Xander, April, Wesley, Spike, even Anya. But they were mistaken. It wasn’t strength that kept his grief bottled up, but rather a bone-chilling numbness that frosted over his heart and mind. John came the day before the funeral. The house was full of helpful friends and relations, and the refrigerator was full of gifted casseroles. Giles had found a secluded spot on the back porch where he could call Hank Summers and give him an earful. Buffy’s so-called father had said he would come to Sunnydale as soon as he could, but he dithered on the exact date. Giles described for him in no uncertain terms, and peppered with a sprinkling of colorful phrases, just exactly what he intended to do to the man if he didn’t make it to Buffy’s funeral. He snapped the phone closed before Hank could make anymore excuses, and clenched the cell phone in a trembling fist, resisting the urge to either crush it or fling it in a pique of anger. John rescued the item from Giles’ fingers before he could give in to the impulse. “I am an ass,” John informed him simply. “If I doubted that fact myself, April has been kind enough to build the prosecution’s case and present the evidence to me. I am an ass. You have every right to throw me out. Except that I won’t let you. I’m not going anywhere until you talk to me, and there’s nothing you can do about it. After all, I am an ass, remember?” Giles thumped the step beside him in invitation, and the awkwardness between them evaporated as if it had never existed. “So what’s your strategy?” Giles inquired. “My what?” “You know, how you’ll ‘uncork the bottle on my grief,’ as Willow phrased it. I’m beginning to think they’ve laid bets on who can wring out my first tears.” He reached up for his glasses, but they were in the house. He had nothing to do with his hands. “You planning to take me drinking?” “From what I hear, Spike did a bang up job of that last night. Surprised you’re still on your feet. If you must know, I thought fishing.” “Fishing?” Giles’ wrinkled brow conveyed what he thought of that idea. “Sure. Hours of silence, stuck with each other in a tiny boat, it’s a time honored custom for male bonding.” “Sounds dreadful.” John chuckled and without warning, the chuckles degraded into choked sobs. Giles looped one arm around his friend’s shoulders while he had a good cry. When John had regained his composure, he complained, “That wasn’t how this was supposed to go.” “You obviously needed it.” “Not half as much as you.” Dry-eyed, although red-rimmed now, John examined his friend. “Willow’s right. You shouldn’t bottle it up.” Giles wished for his glasses, or a glass of scotch, or anything to keep his hands occupied. They felt empty. He finally confessed to John what he hadn’t told the others. “It’s not real yet. I’m waiting to wake up.” “I’m sorry. I wish…” There was no point in finishing that statement. They all wished. But there were no Grief Demons to wield the power of the wish on behalf of despondent widows and widowers everywhere. There was Marcus’ spell, but Giles had promised. The risks were too great. “I buried her once before. We weren’t… I loved her, but she didn’t know. I thought that was the end. She was in the ground for five weeks, and I never thought…” He swallowed hard, the memory of his grief in those weeks more real and more cutting than the unreality of his current numb stupor. “Jesus. She came back… from the dead?” Giles nodded. “Twice. The first time she drowned, and Xander gave her CPR. This is the third time she’s died. I can’t even count how many times I almost lost her.” John didn’t press for details. He would likely ask one of the others later, now that he knew the big secret. He only shook his head and muttered, “I can see how this wouldn’t feel real.” “Her department is providing her an officer’s service, a proper line-of-duty affair. Twenty-one gun salute, the flag, the pipes. I allowed it. I think Buffy would have liked it. For some reason, we watchers have no proper rituals to honor our slayers’ sacrifice. Traditionally, at their deaths, they are given back to the families we stole them from.” “April made sure they offered Buffy full honors. No one deserves it more.” John took a deep, steadying breath. “She’s retiring, if you can believe it. My April turned in her badge. They’re hoping she’ll reconsider after she’s had time to heal, but she won’t take another partner after Buffy.” Retirement had never been an option for Buffy, but Giles managed not to envy John his small victory. *** The funeral came and went. The out of town guests dispersed. The many tasks involved in laying Buffy to rest were complete. The days trickled by like molasses. Giles looked after the twins, comforted and consoled them as best he could. He made sure Robin ate. He made sure Alex had activities to occupy himself constructively. Long summer days without school. Even longer summer nights without her. He made brief appearances at the Council, handled most things by phone from home, and left it to Willow and Stein to manage the daily grind. They arranged for Faith’s release from prison on good behavior. The world still needed a Slayer, after all. Giles collapsed into bed each night, sapped of strength. The bone-chilling numbness would not leave him. He still had not grieved, mourned, cried, not even truly said goodbye. His heart was frozen, as if he had died with her. The days trickled by, and Giles had no sense of their number. Without his journal entries, he had no mental tick mark by which to count each passing day. No school for the children to force a weekly schedule into his brain. He existed in a murky limbo. He understood now the custom of stopping all the clocks at the moment of death. For him, time stopped all on its own. *** Ethan took one look at Giles and mentally cursed the man’s dim-witted, selfish, so-called friends who had left it this long. What a bunch of miserable tossers. They should have called him sooner. He had known Ripper longer than any of them, longer than most of them had been alive, in fact, and he knew what Ripper needed better than any of them. “That settles it. We’re going out.” Giles, still struck mute by the unexpected visitor on his doorstep, had been forcibly escorted halfway to the curb before he could dig in his heels and muster up a protest. “The children!” “Will be fine.” Ethan dragged him along, one arm across his back, the other firmly gripping his elbow. “Willow will drop by soon enough to make sure the little terrors don’t burn down the house. She’s the one who suggested I visit, after all.” “Meddlesome witch.” “The term is warlock, as you well know.” “I was referring to Willow.” He didn’t protest again, surrendered himself into Ethan’s hands, and blandly accepted whatever mischief Ethan had planned for the two of them. Not a good sign at all. Ethan first tried pints at a quiet, dim pub, a private corner booth where their conversation would be free to turn serious without risk of an audience. They reminisced, and laughed, and toasted each round of drinks. Ripper raised his glass to his Slayer once, and Ethan thought the facade might have cracked, a spark beneath the frozen tundra. But Ripper deftly evaded Ethan’s prodding, continually dancing the conversation around the pink elephant in the room. When they were drunk enough to impair their judgment, but no so drunk as to impair their balance, Ethan took him to a livelier bar. He scouted the room for the right sort of targets, the kind he could hold his own against. If things got too bad, he could always cheat and use magic. Easily provoked, the larger of the brutes wasted no time in spinning Ethan’s head with a wicked right cross. Ethan stepped aside and let Ripper have a go at him, setting his sights on the smaller of the two. Soon, their petty squabble erupted into a full-fledged bar fight, and it was like old times again. Nothing of Giles left in the man furiously pounding the younger ruffian who had wrongly assumed his youth would easily give him the edge against a couple of old geezers. Ripper through and through. The young man was quickly being reeducated in the advantages experience, training, and fury had over youth. After they stumbled from the bar, Ethan laughing, Ripper brooding, and the bartender cursing the both of them, Ripper seemed to regret his temper. “Don’t fret, mate, I imagine you’ve inspired him to actually use his bloody gym membership.” Quiet, companionable drinks had failed to break down the walls. A common bar fight had let loose the fury, but not touched the grief. Ethan had only one more trick up his sleeve. And this trick would be the deal-breaker on the tenuous truce between them. *** It should wound him that Ripper thought so little of him, that he would believe him capable of such a thing, that he should fall for the trap Ethan had laid. It should wound him, but it didn’t. Like the scorpion, it was his nature. Ripper would have been more the fool to not fall for the trap, and it was by his distrust that Ethan hooked him and reeled him in. Nothing of the setup was implausible. The site of a slayer’s death echoed with power for many moons after their passing. Any sorcerer knew that. A temporary magical hotspot that could fuel spells that would otherwise be beyond a caster’s ability. The spell. He dropped enough hints to Willow. They would mean nothing to her, but Ripper would solve the puzzle in short order and understand their significance. He would never question whether Ethan was capable of tampering with such forces if given a reason and opportunity. Resurrection. The darkest of magicks. A life for a life. Blood for blood. That was the bargain that came with meddling in death. And this particular spell needed a particular sacrifice. Ethan snatched Ripper’s son. Following in the footsteps of Randall’s father, Ethan ensured Ripper’s reaction by who hung in the balance. He promised the vampires an easy meal. After all, Ripper would need an outlet for all that rage, and Ethan’s self-preservation ran too high to offer himself as a punching bag. The board was set, the pieces at play, and Ethan monitored the game from a distance. He regaled Alex with tales of his father’s less noble exploits, tales that a repressed Giles would never share, and passed the time corrupting the boy and shattering his illusions as best he could in the little time he had. When Ripper had taken the bait, Ethan returned the child and waited for the fallout. For once, he had done the damage without magic. He had forced Ripper to battle on without his Slayer. He had forced his oldest friend to stand once again in the spot where she had died. He would never be forgiven for this. *** Ethan slipped into the hospital after visiting hours under cloak of magic. The hallway lights were dimmed. The skeleton crew performed their duties with quiet efficiency. He peered over the charge nurse’s shoulder to spy Ripper’s room number. He needn’t have bothered. Willow was standing in the hallway just outside the door, deep in conversation with a surgeon in hospital scrubs. Normally, Willow would have sensed him, or at least his magic, even with the cloak, but the gorgeous lady doctor absorbed her full attention. Ethan indulged a momentary impulse and tipped a handy linen trolley over into Willow. Like dominoes, she was knocked forward into the doctor, and the pair of them then fell down to the floor in a tangle of limbs. He smiled at the image that quickly flashed through his mind: sandwiched between these two redheads in bed, and then sighed as he just as quickly dismissed it. Oh well, Willow could thank him for his cupid’s arrow in other ways. He ducked into Ripper’s hospital room, still unnoticed. His eyes skimmed over the wrecked man before him: ghostly pale as if drained of blood, but no visible bite marks, so probably just shock, glistening with a thin sheen of sweat, probably too stubborn to admit to the staff that whatever medication they’d given him hadn’t completely dulled his pain, and his left leg cocooned in plaster and elevated with wire rigged to a pulley. Ethan flinched in sympathy. A mace. Ouch. When Ripper opened his green eyes, they focused on his erstwhile friend, and then flared with a spark of anger that might have left Ethan black and blue under other circumstances. He pressed his hand to the man’s chest to restrain him from doing something stupid. Well, too late for that, as the white cast proved. But to restrain him from doing something else stupid. “I know, I know. You’d love nothing better than to give me a good thrashing. I’m afraid, old mate, you’re just not up to it at the moment.” Ripper relaxed back against the pillows, apparently conceding that point. “Come to gloat?” “Well, it does bear at least a mention… If you’d trusted me for once, you wouldn’t be in this mess.” “Trusted…? Trusted you?” The laugh was hollow and choked, tears glittering in his eyes. “You kidnapped my son!” “Borrowed. Only borrowed. We had a marvelous time.” Ethan pulled up a chair, and as he said the next, he heard the hurt in his own voice and realized that although he claimed it didn’t, Ripper’s distrust stung. “Did you really think I would harm the boy? That I would honestly raise your Slayer?” “If someone was paying you, or threatening you, it wouldn’t surprise me. You’ve done worse.” Ethan had no witty reply on his tongue, and they sat in silence, broken by the occasional page over the hospital intercom. Ripper had closed his eyes, tighter and tighter as the seconds ticked by on the clock on the wall, until they were clenched shut. Tick. Tick. Each advance of the second hand echoed through the small room. Time moving forward and now carrying Ripper along with it. When he spoke, his words were softer than the clock. “She’s gone. She’s really gone.” And he broke. The frozen numbness shattered, and his raw grief surfaced finally. He turned his head from Ethan, the only escape he had, trapped in the bed as he was. But he couldn’t hide the sobs that shook his body, that rattled his cast where the wires attached to the pulley. He squeezed his eyes shut, but his tears leaked out and betrayed him anyway. Ethan rested one hand over Ripper’s heart, felt the steady thrumming beat increase in tempo and felt the twist and tangle of his energy, his aura, as it burst free of its icy prison and struggled to realign itself. “Let it out. Let it all out, old mate. I’m here. I’m right here.” Ethan stayed while Ripper wept. He stayed until sleep claimed them both. Willow woke him and shooed him out of the room before the others found him. They were likely less understanding of his latest piece of mischief than her. She took his place at Ripper’s bedside. And Ripper never spoke to him again. ***
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