Giles came into the cafe during the slack time, after the lunch rush but before the afternoon coffee rush had started. Buffy saw him look her way, then look down. He made his way over to a booth in her section, moving stiffly, with one hand in his trouser pocket. He sat down, glanced at her once more then away, at something outside the window. Her section. He had to have done it on purpose, which meant he had to have been watching her. Which meant Buffy didn’t know what. How had he found her? She’d run a long way from Sunnydale, about as far south as she could get without a passport.
She thought about asking Terry to serve him, then knew it would be ridiculous. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She could take care of herself.
She marched over to his booth with her pencil and pad in hand. He was still looking down at his table, both hands now thrust deep into his jacket pockets. There was something about the way he looked sitting there, motionless, a little hunched over, that made Buffy’s anger feel ridiculous.
“Giles,” she said.
Giles looked up at her. A smile fleeted across his face. Then he said, quietly, “Hello. I, um. It’s good to see you.”
Whatever she’d been expecting, it wasn’t that. Whatever she’d been braced for, it wasn’t that. And the weird thing was, it was good to see him, too. She felt almost woozy with it, just for a second. If it hadn’t been Giles, she might have hugged him right there. Anyone else, in any other situation, but Giles wasn’t somebody you hugged. Buffy crossed her arms across her stomach, to keep herself from reaching out.
“Yeah, you too,” she said.
“I trust I find you well?” His tone was cautious.
“Yeah. And you?”
“Well enough considering.” He took his hands out of his jacket pockets and rested them on the table. Three fingers on his left hand were in splints. Buffy looked at his face and saw then the shadows of bruises around his eyes. It had been nearly three weeks since that night. For a second she saw Merrick, sitting next to him, with that gun in his hand. The guilt hit her in the stomach, and she looked away from Giles, across to the cook behind the counter.
“Giles. What do you want?”
“I-- I’m not here to badger you. But we need to talk.”
Buffy shook her head. “Look, I’m working. It’s my first week, and the boss is over there watching.”
“Sorry, sorry. Should I go?”
The worry in his voice made Buffy repent. “No, it’s fine, stay. But you should order something.”
The menu was wedged between the sugar canister and the napkin dispenser. Giles fumbled for it awkwardly with his right hand. “I’m not sure what’s appropriate.”
“Baked goods. Can’t go wrong.”
Buffy rescued the menu for him and turned it over to show him the back with the list of pies. None of them were homemade even the tiniest bit, but the place across the city that made them was a good bakery. Giles reached up to his face and adjusted his glasses. They looked new, wire-framed, smaller than his old ones. He laid his hand on the table again and said, “Apple pie and coffee.”
Buffy scribbled it on her pad. “Good choice. Traditional.”
She flipped the top sheet of the pad over and moved past Giles to the pair of teenagers sitting jammed up on the same side of their booth. One diet Coke and cottage cheese for her, one jalapeño cheeseburger with fries for him. She put the order in with the cook, who was grumpy as usual about the fries, then set up Giles’s pie and coffee. Dab of whipped cream on the pie, a clean creamer jug with fresh half and half. She’d already learned how to carry everything at once using her forearm as a tray. Waitress tricks.
Giles was doing something with his little leather-bound journal when she got to his table. He folded it shut and slid it away in the pocket of his jacket. Buffy set cup and plate onto Giles’s table, then perched herself on the seat across from him. She had a few minutes before the burger order would be up.
“Got a minute. You want to talk, talk. What made you chase me all the way down here?”
Giles touched the fork with splinted fingers, but made no move to taste the pie. “Many things. Some more important than others,” he said.
“I’m not going back.”
Giles touched his fork again, this time to shift it from the left side of his plate to the right. “I recommend that you do not.”
Buffy cocked her head. “Do I want to know why?” she asked, carefully.
“I spoke with your mother.” Giles’s voice was uneasy, and he looked at his coffee cup instead of at her.
“Oh.” Buffy could fill in the blanks on that one, probably. Her mother wasn’t going to let anything rest. It wasn’t a surprise; it was one reason why she’d left.
She watched Giles pour half and half into his coffee and spin his spoon around in it. He was using his left hand, the hand with the broken fingers. The spoon slipped free and clanked to rest inside his cup. Giles made no move to retrieve it. Buffy made herself look at his hands, at those splints. High-tech things. This was what happened when she let people get near her. This was the main reason why she’d left.
“Are you okay?”
Giles followed her gaze to his fingers. “I will make, uh, a full recovery. They say.”
“And the rest?”
“I’m more concerned about you.”
“Bruises. Gone the next day.”
“That’s not what–”
“I know what you meant.”
“Buffy,” he said, then stopped. He blinked at her through his glasses. “You’re right. We can’t talk here.”
Buffy thought once again about making Terry deal with him. All she had to do was turn her back and he’d go away. But no. She’d already decided to deal with whatever he wanted. She stood up and straightened her uniform apron.
“I get off at six.”
Giles nodded, and she snapped into waitress mode again. When she looked back at his table, a few minutes later, he was eating his pie. He held the fork in his right hand. When he paid his check, he left her a twenty percent tip. Buffy gave it to the cook.
She didn’t manage to get out of there until six-thirty, but Giles was waiting in the diner’s parking lot when she escaped. He was standing by his car, that battered gray hulk, leaning against the driver-side door. He’d taken off his jacket, but his tie was pulled up tight against his buttoned collar. She walked over to him. The heat shimmered up her legs. The sun was beating its way down the sky but the parking lot was a furnace. Buffy knew from experience that the asphalt wouldn’t cool off until ten at night on the hot days. And they were all hot days, down here near the Mexican border.
Once again she had to sit on the urge to touch him, to hug him. Carefully, because he looked as if he were fragile. There was something about the way he pushed himself away from the car that made her think broken ribs. He shaded his eyes with a hand and looked over her shoulder, at the cafe and the busy street beyond it.
“Where shall we go?” he said.
“Take me to my place. I need a shower.”
Not at all to Buffy’s surprise, Giles seemed to know where that was without being told. She wondered if she had any secrets at all from him, if anybody else knew where she was, if her mother could find out as easily as Giles had. That creeped her out. Her mother. Here. Catching her and dragging her off to an institution. Buffy would probably fight to the death before letting somebody do that to her again.
Giles pulled to the curb outside her apartment building, on the far side of town. He set the Citroen’s parking brake. Buffy fiddled with the broken door handle until it decided to open. She closed it again with just as much trouble, then turned to Giles on the sidewalk.
“If you have any stuff in your car you want to keep, carry it up.”
Giles paused for a moment, then went around and opened the Citroen’s trunk without using a key. Unlockable, like the passenger door. Not that he ever locked anything. He pulled out a soft bag with a shoulder strap. Buffy took it from him and led the way. Up two flights of concrete slab steps outdoors, down the narrow hall, to her tiny studio. Six month lease, no pets, no smoking, her first place all on her own. Normal life.
Giles stood in the middle of the single room, hands in trouser pockets. He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.
“Back in a minute. There’s a fan in the window. Ice in the freezer.”
Buffy disappeared into the bathroom and took a fast shower, under water that was only just on the warm side of tepid, as cold as she could take it. It was a dry heat, a typical SoCal summer heat, but that couldn’t compensate for triple digits. The shower felt good, cool water on her head and back, suds in her hair, the smell of burnt coffee and fryer oil washing down the drain. She took longer than she needed to, it felt so good. She put on leggings and a tank top and draped the towel over her shoulders. She felt nearly human again, clean and cool. Almost ready for painful conversations with people she’d thought had moved on from her life.
Giles was sitting on her bed with a paperback in his good hand, what looked like a thriller, the kind of book guys read at the beach when she read romance novels.
Giles shrugged. “Fills the time.”
He dropped the book on top of his bag, which sat on the square of empty floor. Buffy sat on the bed next to him and brushed out her hair. It would dry pretty fast in the dry air, so much hotter than it had been in Sunnydale. Even Giles had yielded at last and taken off his tie. It lay across his jacket on the back of her single chair. A glass of ice water sat half-empty on her nightstand.
Buffy flipped her hair over her head and tied it up in a scrunchie, still damp. The fan was cool on the back of her neck. Giles was watching her, one eyebrow raised, but not saying anything. She couldn’t put it off any more.
“So. Now we talk.”
Giles said nothing further. Buffy felt that anger rise in her again. “If you’re not here to make me go back, what are you here for?”
Giles touched splinted fingers to his glasses. “It’s complicated.”
“What does that mean?” Buffy said, more sharply than she’d meant to.
He sounded infinitely weary, and Buffy felt the guilt start to pour into her stomach again, in place of the anger. She closed her eyes for a second and shook herself all over.
“Sorry. It’s just-- Never mind. Can we start over? Giles. Hi.” She gave him a tiny finger-wave.
He smiled at her, then, the way he had in the cafe, tentatively but with a sweetness that made her feel a little better. “Hello, Buffy.”
“What brings you down here to San Diego?”
He hesitated before he answered, and when he spoke, it was clear he was treading cautiously. “I, I wanted to make sure you’re all right. To warn you about your mother. To ask you-- ask if there’s anything I ought to know. About what happened.”
Buffy wrapped her arms around herself. He’d walked right into the territory where she didn’t want him to go. Giles took off his glasses and looked at them instead of her.
“I don’t need a recap of the events. Just the tactical situation now. Are there any, any remaining, ah, threats?”
He said this to his hands, not to her, to the fingers with splints on them, and Buffy apparently needed the reminder that he had a reason to be worried. He had a right to know there wouldn’t be a repeat. She pulled herself together and answered as carefully as he’d asked, so he would understand she knew what he needed to hear.
“No. The threats are gone. All of them.”
Giles folded his glasses up and fidgeted with them. He didn’t ask the followup questions she feared, about the hows and whys. That was a relief.
Then he said, very quietly, “I’m sorry.” Buffy knew from how he said it that he meant it, though she had no idea how he could find room in himself to be sorry, though he was the only person in the world she could have tolerated reacting without sympathy. One of the things she’d thought about, on that long bus ride south, was how she never wanted to be there when Xander found out and did some kind of obnoxious dance.
Giles stuck the glasses back onto his face and finally looked at her. “How are you feeling?” His voice was soft.
Buffy shrugged, because it was all too complicated. Mostly she felt numb. She’d been angry right afterward, furious with Angel for not figuring out his own curse, with Willow for recursing him when it was too late to do anything but make it worse, with her mom for making her have to pick between Slaying and a life. She’d calmed down by the time she got here to San Diego. Everything was so far away. She felt as if she’d been slowly going to sleep, every day she’d been here. Asleep was better.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“Buffy–” Giles said, then trailed off. He probably knew she was covering up. He always did. She slapped on a cheerful smile and plowed on forward, because what else was there to do?
“You hungry? I’m not.”
Giles shook his head. “The heat,” he said.
“Look. Tonight’s laundry night, 'cause if I don’t do it now I’ll have nothing to wear tomorrow. You can hang out with me while we watch the clothes spin.”
The laundromat was two blocks away, an easy walk even in the heat that rippled up from the sidewalk. Giles slung his jacket over his shoulder as they left her apartment, though he left the tie behind. Buffy refused to let him carry her laundry bag, then had to assuage his pride by handing him the box of detergent. The laundromat was air conditioned, but the heat from the dryers and the sun nearly overwhelmed it. There was absolutely nobody else inside. Quieter than usual, which made Buffy uneasy. But it was also earlier than Buffy was usually there, so maybe that was normal.
She dumped her stuff into a wire wheely cart and squeaked it over to the row of washers. Two machines, one for hot and one for cold water. Buffy sorted anything that was vaguely light-colored into the hot washer, spun dials, and fed quarters into them. Sorting things out for herself. Doing the things any adult had to do to make a living, wash her clothes, scrub her bathroom. Normal things. Boring things, but boring was a step up from what she’d had. Swords and stakes and blood and giant statues of demons. Her vampire boyfriend with a sword through his gut, vanishing; her friends with broken bones, lying in hospital beds; her Watcher tied to a chair, dripping blood onto the floor.
Buffy turned away from him, standing there looking at her so calmly, as if he weren’t still in those splints. She busied herself at the Coke machine, mentally counting quarters. Seventy-five cents for a can was a total rip, when she could get Mexican Coke in glass bottles for twenty cents less at the corner grocery. She’d just turned away when Giles appeared next to her. He fumbled in his trouser pocket with his right hand, sorting out quarters from a huge mess of change. He fed them into the machine and pressed the button for diet. The can thudded into the tray at the bottom. Buffy stared at it and made no move to pick it up.
“That’s what you like, isn’t it?” Giles bent to retrieve the can, grunting. He popped the top and took a sip. He winced. “Take it,” he said. “Or it’ll go to waste.”
Buffy made a face at him, but reached out for the Coke anyway. Her fingers brushed his and she froze. Giles was holding still, and his eyes were closed. He opened them and met her gaze for a slow breath, then the can was in her grasp and his hand was in his trouser pocket. Buffy shivered. She turned away from him, Coke in hand, and went back to the washers.
There was a row of plastic bowl chairs on a metal rail facing the line of washers. The color scheme was vintage 1978, with orange and blue chairs alternating. Buffy perched herself on the chair on the end, blue, where she could keep an eye on her two machines. Giles lowered himself onto the chair next to hers, and Buffy once again wondered how many ribs were cracked. He was close enough to her that she could smell him, could tell that it had been a long hot day for him. She didn’t mind the smell of Giles’s sweat and never had. Strange, because she’d been over-sensitive to the smells of living things ever since she’d become the Slayer. Cats, dogs, demons, werewolves, Old Spice, Chanel Number Five. Giles always just smelled like Giles.
Buffy toed off her sneakers and tucked her feet under herself on the seat. Strange that she didn’t mind seeing him again. She’d cut off the feelings for everybody else she’d known in her life. It was for their own good, but it had been easy to do, easy to stop caring, to let all those feelings slide under. She would be okay with never seeing Xander again. Or Willow. Or her mother. She snuck a peek sidelong at Giles sitting next to her and wondered what made him okay with that plan. Only one way to find out.
“So what’s up with my mom? Assuming I want to know.”
“I went 'round to see her. The day afterward, when it was clear you were not, not in Sunnydale.”
“That must have been a fun conversation. Was she still denying that vampires exist?”
Giles’s lips quirked for a moment. “You are delusional, mentally unstable, though it might be all my fault for leading you on.”
“How mad was she?”
“Incandescent. She slapped me.” Giles’s hand rose to his face, and Buffy wondered if he could still feel it. Then she felt furious for Giles’s sake, because the guy had to have been fresh out of the hospital. Where did her mom get off hitting an injured man?
Giles was saying, “Then she informed of her plans for you, if she should see you again. And her plans for me if I ever set foot on her property again.”
“I can guess. Same game plan as last time, I bet. Mental hospital.” Buffy drank some Coke and set the can below her chair. “I’m not going back.”
“I’m glad you’re not going back.”
Giles reached out and touched her arm then, with his good hand. Warm fingers lingered on her bare skin, and Buffy shivered. There it was again, that strange feeling when he touched her. A strangely good feeling. She’d felt that the day she’d met him, when he’d leaned over her in the school hallway and made everything inside her that was the Slayer wake up. Safe, it had said to her. Partner. Watcher. It had wigged her out so badly she’d run.
Giles lifted his eyes and gazed at her, and she looked away from him. There was something in his face that made her uneasy. Was he feeling the same thing she was? She bent down, away from his hand, and made a big deal out of snagging the Coke and drinking a few big gulps. She had been missing him more than she’d let herself think, that was all it was.
“How did you find me? I mean, I tried to vanish. Picked a city I’d never been to and everything.”
He looked puzzled, as if surprised by the question. Then his face changed. “You never read the Slayer handbook.”
Buffy shrugged. Too heavy at the time. Too much resentment bubbling. It still didn’t seem to her to have mattered.
“I know where you are. Roughly. I can concentrate, reach out to you, and know with greater precision.”
Now that was odd. “Because you’re my Watcher?”
“Because I am the Watcher, and you have been my Slayer.”
His emphasis was peculiar. Buffy circled around that in her head.
“Meaning I’m not any more?”
“There is a sense in which you will always be my Slayer, and I your Watcher, but yes. You needn’t be the Slayer. You needn’t slay vampires again.”
Once again Giles had shocked her by saying something completely unexpected. So quiet, so contained, sitting there next to her in his shirtsleeves, and gazing her solemnly.
“You’re really not going to make me go back?”
“You’ve said most clearly you don’t wish to.”
“But I thought-- You’ve always been about my sacred duty.” Though honestly Giles hadn’t had to lecture her in months. Not since her birthday. She hadn’t needed anybody else driving her. Giles had sort of switched modes when she had.
Giles took off his glasses and fidgeted with them. “I should-- I should like you to be safe. To have the normal life you wish for. I think enough has been asked of you.”
That made Buffy wonder how much Giles had figured out about what happened that night. He would have been able to ask the others about what they’d done. She didn’t want to know what.
“You, too,” she said, suddenly.
Giles blinked at her. “Sorry?”
“You should retire too. You’ve given enough already. You and me both.” One dead partner for each of them. She’d been drowned once; Giles had spent a night being tortured. That had to be enough for the universe from them both.
“Perhaps,” Giles said. He stuck his glasses back onto his nose.
“That means you won’t.”
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said, and now he looked nervous. Buffy had no idea what to brace herself for, so she just sat and watched him until he worked himself up to tell her whatever it was. Eventually he said, “I’ll be leaving Sunnydale.”
Buffy sat motionless in her chair. She’d somehow assumed Giles would stay in Sunnydale, high school librarian to eternity, there just in case she needed to find him. The thought of him going away for good made her angry. Or something like angry. Upset. Freaked out. She wasn’t sure what to do about that. The pit of her stomach felt strange, like she was falling.
“Going back to the mother-lode of tea?” she said, groping for the casual despite the strange things going on inside her.
“No. They’re sending me to investigate-- Are you sure you want me to bother you with this? Would you rather avoid anything to do with the, er, Slaying?”
Buffy waved her hand around at the empty laundromat. “Got nothing else to do but watch the machines. Might as well tell me.”
Giles leaned his elbows on his knees and folded his hands together. Explanation mode; Buffy had seen it many times. He said, “The events of that night were, were, well, I’m not sure how to describe them. Mystically powerful, for certain. They seem to have disturbed the balance somehow. The Hellmouth is fluctuating. The Hellmouth might in fact have split into more than one, er, mouth.”
Despite all her resolutions, Buffy was curious. The Hellmouth had been a fixed part of her life for the last two years, and there was town history Giles had dug up that made it clear it had been there for a hundred years at least.
“I thought it was a special deal,” she said. “Just one high-speed elevator to hell per planet.”
Giles sat up straighter in his chair and raised his index finger. Buffy smiled despite the funny feeling in her stomach, because he looked goofy and sweet whenever he got excited about research.
“There is only one, but it moves. There are a number of other sites that have, ah, potential. They’re experiencing greater demonic activity. One of them will settle out as a new Hellmouth. We think. It happened once before that we know of, more than a thousand years ago, but we have more speculation than theory.”
“I. Though I shall be consulting the new Slayer. Kendra’s successor.”
Giles’s excitement subsided, and his gaze glanced off her and away to the floor. But Buffy found that that upset had also faded. Pace, Kendra. She wondered who’d wound up with the hot potato this time. Some Slayers enjoyed their jobs, Giles had claimed. Maybe the new chick would be one of those. Now the feeling in her stomach was jealousy, and that was about as stupid as feeling like Giles was leaving her when she was the one who’d left him.
Then something occurred to her. “Surprised your honing thing didn’t send you to her instead of me.”
Giles didn’t react to the edge she’d let creep into that. “I have no sense of her. I would assume her own Watcher has that connection.”
Buffy felt relieved, then annoyed with herself. If she wasn’t going to be with Giles, then she should want him to have another Slayer. Somebody to protect him. “Every Slayer gets her own Watcher, I guess,” she said.
“I believe so. I’m not entirely sure how this works. It’s never happened before last year, to my knowledge, two Slayers at once. But it does offer you a chance no Slayer before you has had. To retire, to lay down your burden.”
“Won’t they try to drag me back into it? The other Watchers?”
“Ah. I have already considered this. I shall tell them that I visited you and found that your powers had gone dormant.” Giles paused. “It’s even true, isn’t it. That you haven’t been as aware of them.”
Buffy shrugged. She hadn’t tried to use the deeper Slayer skills, so she didn’t know. “No vamps down here, so I haven’t even been tempted. Think they’ll buy it?”
“I promise you. You can live in peace down here, or wherever you wish.” Giles smiled at her with one half of his mouth in the way that meant he was teasing, and said, “I’d recommend that you stay away from the new Hellmouth. To avoid temptation.”
“Yeah, so long as you also promise to write to me and tell me where it is.”
“Of course. Will you write me back?” He was almost anxious, which surprised her.
“Yeah. I can do that.” Buffy poked his arm, and once again felt a ripple of something pass over her.
“Ah,” Giles said, and his gaze was on her, sharp and clear. He’d noticed. She could hide nothing. “I apologize for coming,” he said to her, abruptly. “I ought to have left you undisturbed.”
“You haven’t disturbed me. It’s been nice seeing you.”
“You shivered when you touched me.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Buffy.” He sounded a little exasperated. A familiar sound, she had to admit.
“Okay. I shivered. Is that some big mystical deal?”
“It’s complicated,” he said, exactly what he’d said before, but he wasn’t stammering this time. “More of that business from the handbook.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, and she gestured at him. He might as well tell her. It couldn’t hurt.
“Close contact between Watcher and Slayer tends to, ah, awaken latent powers. It would have been easier for you if I’d stayed away. Or simply written to you.”
“But you wanted to come down here.”
Giles cleared his throat and seemed to become very interested in the floor. Or maybe in his own shoes. “I wanted to see you before I left. I’ve become rather-- well, I’m fond of you.”
“You too,” Buffy said.
She wanted to hug him then, and almost did. She stopped herself, feeling self-conscious about what he’d just said. But Giles smiled at her anyway, with that sweet smile that he only ever gave to her, and Buffy felt warm inside. All jealousy forgotten.
The first washing machine chimed at them, and then the second one went. Laundry phase one done, and good timing, too. Buffy didn’t have any idea what to say to Giles next. White stuff from the machine she’d set to hot water, dark stuff from the cold one. Buffy dumped them all into the wire cart and wheeled it over to the dryers, with Giles hovering behind her. She emptied everything into the dryer on the end. The one next to it, the one that didn’t get hot, still had the out of order sign she’d taped to it last week. All the others were filled with other people’s clothes, though there was nobody else in the laundromat. Buffy wondered once again where everybody was.
Giles fed dimes into the slots from that heavy pocketful of change. Buffy didn’t protest this time, because now she understood. Let him express his fondness in whatever way he could.
“How many minutes?” he said.
“Thirty to start with.”
The last dime rattled in. Buffy pressed the on button and the dryer rumbled into a slow spin. The zipper on her jeans rattled against the metal drum. Giles stood next to her for a minute or two, watching the clothes tumble around. Clothes, spinning around. Once a week, every week, from now until she was too old and creaky to do her laundry. Was that really what she wanted?
Giles went back to his chair and retrieved his jacket from where it hung over the back. He pulled his paperback out of a pocket and then sat down with it pinned it open on his knee with his good hand. Buffy watched him read for a minute. There he was, her Watcher, sitting on a plastic orange bowl chair at a laundromat, with a trashy paperback. She closed her eyes and opened them to look at him again, trying to memorize him. Who knew when she’d see him again? He was battered, thinner than he’d been when she’d met him, and he looked tired. He glanced up from the book and met her gaze, then smiled faintly.
Buffy sat in the chair next to his and leaned her head against his shoulder. He shifted to snug his arm around her and just kept on reading. He was warm, and it was hot inside the laundromat, but she didn’t mind. It was good that Giles wasn’t going all emotional on her. He was just letting her be next to him, staying close, not talking. Maybe he understood that she didn’t have any way to say what she was feeling just then. He was fond of her. Buffy was fond of him. That’s why she had to be far away from him. It hurt, but he’d be safe that way, doing quiet research about baby Hellmouths. They’d both go dormant.
His thumb grazed against her bare arm, rubbing in little circles. Contact again, skin to skin. It felt better than anything had in months. Or ever, maybe. They didn’t touch each other much, Giles and Buffy. Only in training, when Giles was correcting her stance. Giles was always so self-contained, so wrapped away in his suit jackets. Miss Calendar had been the only other person she’d seen him touch like this. Getting it all out, maybe, all that repressed hugging, before he went away forever.
The laundromat door scraped open. A young-ish guy in a Padres cap came in. Buffy recognized him; he lived down the hall from her, in a studio apartment like hers. They’d met in the hall a couple of times, often enough that they nodded to each other and maybe even made brief eye contact. He worked a swing shift, maybe, judging by when she’d seen him. He smiled at her and went over to one of the dryers that had been sitting idle but full. It was impolite to snoop, but Buffy idly watched him pull clothes out and cram them into a canvas bag. Jeans, t-shirts. He wasn’t folding things. Typical guy.
Giles was looking at him, too, she saw, giving him a once over. Then his hand against Buffy’s shoulder relaxed and he stuck his nose back into his book. Buffy was puzzled until she realized Giles had been checking if he was a vampire or not. It was past sundown now, so it was possible. Buffy had almost started to forget to worry about that stuff. She had, at first, then she’d figured out that there were almost none down here for some reason. San Diego was a crowded place, though maybe LA had more going on at night. Or maybe they were all in Tijuana, which wasn’t so far away.
Her neighbor stopped in front of them, laundry bag in hand, and said hello to her in Spanish. Buffy said hello back, because she knew how to say that much at least. Then he looked relieved, and said something else to her, pointing at the door and saying a bunch of stuff way too fast for her. Buffy sat up and gestured for him to slow down. He said it again, more slowly, pointing out the door again. Buffy shook her head. Then Giles said something in Spanish back, a question, a bit tentative, and the guy burst out with an answer. They had a short conversation, none of which Buffy could follow.
Giles turned to Buffy, and said, “He wants to warn us. There’s a strange man, perhaps a mugger, loitering in the alley. He tells me to make sure you get back to your apartment safely.”
“Oh. Thanks,” Buffy said to her neighbor, who nodded to her and left the laundromat. That was sweet of him.
“I wonder,” Giles said. His brows had come together and he was tense again.
“The landlord told me this neighborhood has some petty theft but nothing big,” Buffy said. But Giles was watching the guy leave the laundromat and his face was anxious. Then the dime in her brain rattled into the slot. “You’re not seriously suggesting vamp down here.”
“I’ve been thinking there might be one around for some time now.” Giles stood and picked up his jacket from the chair. He rummaged in the pockets and came out with a stake.
“Look. Let me do this. You’re hurt–”
Giles made a frustrated noise. “Allow me to keep my promise to you.”
Buffy huffed out air through her mouth, but let him go. He went out the laundromat door, moving fast, and turned the same direction her neighbor had. She slumped back in her chair and folded her arms. He was right; this was exactly what she’d asked for. But she’d been on board with the protecting the others plan, not the endangering them plan. Xander and Willow: she was fine with never seeing them again, and that took care of their safety. But Giles wasn’t safe. He was out there staking vampires. Something was wrong with that, deeply wrong.
He had three fingers in splints. And cracked ribs.
Buffy took off out the door at a dead run. The door slammed back on broken hinges but she didn’t stop. Giles was standing at the corner of the laundromat building, staring into the alleyway that ran beside it. As she got closer to him, she saw that he was leaning against the building, stake in his hand. Buffy came to a halt next to him, in a fighting stance, looking where he was looking, into the darkness of the alley. Vampire dust floating in the air, charnel house and brimstone and blood. He’d staked it.
Giles nodded, but didn’t volunteer any details. He looked calm, as if the fight hadn’t been bad. Then she saw that his cheekbone was scraped up and he was breathing hard. Buffy swore under her breath, then closed her eyes, trying to sense around the corners of the laundromat, seeking more vamps. Nothing. She had a feeling Giles knew that already. He’d been aware before she had been that there was something in the neighborhood. She opened her eyes.
Giles stuck his stake into his pants pocket. He pushed his glasses higher onto his nose, and said, “Just the one.”
His breathing was back to normal already. Buffy turned away from him and took one step into the alley.
“Don’t go in there. Buffy.”
Buffy went in anyway, five steps, enough to see what was behind the dumpster. She was long past throwing up when she saw dead people, even if she had to stare at the concrete wall of the laundromat for a minute, swallowing. Then she made herself look at the body. A woman she’d seen in the laundromat before. Probably her clothes were waiting for her in one of those dryers. Buffy made herself look again, waiting for that prickle against her Slayer senses. She felt strange, nearly as strange as she had when she’d first tried to hone, when Giles had told her to pay attention to senses she’d never known she had. She felt as if she were wrapped in cotton wool, half-asleep even though she was walking around.
She turned back to Giles, waiting at the alley entrance. The full moon peeked up over the horizon behind him, a big silver disk half-way up the sky, so bright it made the yellow streetlights seem dim.
“Did he get away? My neighbor?”
Giles shook his head, and the expression on his face was strange. Buffy figured it out, then, at last, and slumped against the wall. It didn’t matter if she had retired; she should have been able to figure out faster than Giles that the guy had been a vampire. She should have known.
Giles laid his hand on her shoulder. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”
She shook herself. “Let’s get my laundry then get the hell out of here.”
Home again, or at least to her apartment, where Buffy turned on the fan again even before she reached for her bedside lamp. She occupied herself putting her clothes away into her improvised drawers. Giles sat on the bed and watched her, silent. She could feel his sympathy in that silence. She kicked off her shoes and sat on the bed, her heels on the edge of the mattress and her arms around her knees. Giles scooted over next to her, unnervingly close. She looked at the crease on his trousers, rumpled just above his knee. There was a dust stain there. He’d had to stake a vampire. A vampire she hadn’t noticed.
“I didn’t see he was a vamp,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure myself until I saw him change.”
Buffy shook her head, frustrated. “No, I mean, I’ve learned to hone. Since Ang-- since my birthday, I’ve been working on it. You know I have.”
“Yes, I know. And, and you’d made great strides.”
“Fat lot of good it did me. You were wigged while I was oblivious. How did you know, anyway?”
Giles sighed. “A technique I learned from you, when we first met. Secondary signals. Something was off about him.”
Buffy picked at a loose thread on her leggings and thought about this. She hadn’t noticed anything. She’d seen shy neighbor, then she’d dismissed him from her mind. “How come I didn’t?”
“For me it’s training, a consciously won skill. For you it’s more like, like breathing. A function of your powers. And I think they have indeed begun to go dormant.”
“Without you around.”
“Think back to how you felt shortly before we met. When you were not acting as the Slayer. You’ll feel like that again. The strength will be there, to some degree, but the other senses will be dulled. The urge to hunt as well. Or, or, they will be. I apologize again for any disturbance my visit may have caused.”
What had he done that first day, when she’d tried to run? Planted his hand on the wall next to her head and got right up into her face. That’s what had sent her into overdrive, had made her feel good again after months without Merrick, what had awakened that drive for the hunt. For battle.
So now she knew. Now she knew she could have what she wanted. The price was any chance of seeing Giles again. But she could live a normal life. Or as close to normal as she could get without her mom or her friends or her senior year of high school. But that was closer to normal than she’d ever thought she’d reach.
Was it too late to ask if that was what she really wanted?
“It’s late,” Giles said. “I should find a motel.”
He made no move to get off her bed, though, and Buffy didn’t want him to. If he left, that would be the end of it. He’d go, and the most she’d get of him was letters from strange places. The decision would be made. It wasn’t his visit that was disturbing her. It was when he was close to her. When they touched each other. Buffy wanted it suddenly, so badly her hands shook.
“Don’t go. Stay here. You can sleep in my bed. I’ll stay on the floor or something.”
She expected him to object and say something about propriety. But Giles cocked his head at her, and said, “Are you sure? You’ve felt what happens when we’re, when we’re close.”
“I’ll deal with it after you’re gone. It’s weirder that you’re saying yes.”
“It is… an indulgence. As coming here to see you was. Difficult to explain. Reassuring myself that you’re well? I’m not certain.”
Giles reached out to her, left-handed, and brushed his fingertips against her arm. Buffy wondered once again if he had his own version of the touch jones, if Watchers went into Slayer withdrawal the way she was going into Watcher withdrawal. But it was different for him, she suspected. The things that made him a Watcher worked completely differently. If she’d read the handbook, maybe she’d understand.
Giles got off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom with his shoulder bag. Buffy traded her leggings for pajamas while he was in there, safely hidden away behind the door. The shower ran for maybe two minutes, tops. When he came out, he was wearing blue striped pajama bottoms and a white undershirt. His hair was damp. He set his bag on the counter and rummaged inside it. Three of those brown plastic pill bottles came out and were ranged on the counter next to each other. Super-strength ibuprofen, nothing weird. Antibiotics. He took the pills in a handful, washing them down with long swallows from his water glass.
Buffy said, “Are you ever going to tell me what happened?”
He set the glass down next to the sink and turned off the light in the kitchen. He stood very near her. “I expect not,” he said, at last.
“It was bad,” she said, more to herself than to him.
“It was bad,” he echoed, but his voice was matter-of-fact. “It is now over.”
“You saved the world.”
“I rather think that was you.”
Giles’s voice was strange when he said that. Buffy wondered what Angel had done that had finally made him break. He would tell her if she asked. He would tell her anything, if she pushed at him. Just as she would tell him what happened if he pushed. Instead she went to stand by the window, in front of the fan. She rubbed her bare arms and wondered what she was going to do. She’d been mad at him for showing up and digging everything up again, and now she was sick to her stomach about the idea of him leaving again.
Giles pulled the covers back from the bed and slid himself in. No fussing, no hemming and hawing, no tutting about propriety. He just lay in her bed, underneath the single sheet that was all she could bear, and waited while she turned out the bedroom lamp and got in next to him. He didn’t object, just sighed and said her name, under his breath.
There he was, inches away from her. He wasn’t asleep, but was instead breathing as if he were trying to fool her. He’d never been able to, not about anything important. He wasn’t freaked right now to be in the same bed with her, but he was tense about something. Something that wasn’t exactly her.
“Nights are hard,” she said. Maybe it was a guess, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she just knew.
Giles shifted next to her, and to her surprise, he answered. “Yes. I’m grateful for company. My Slayer’s company, in particular.”
“Is that all I am? Your Slayer.”
Giles half-sat up in the bed and leaned over her. He took her chin in his hand and bent to kiss her cheek. His lips just brushed the corner of her mouth. Then he’d let go and straightened again, before she could react.
“Even when you’re not my Slayer, you’re the world to me,” he said.
He rolled onto his face and pulled the pillow over his head. His breathing slowed and deepened. He was asleep. Her turn to lie awake wondering what the hell was going on. The corner of her mouth tingled where his lips had touched hers. He had to have done that on purpose, had to have verged on the edge of kissing her for a reason. To tell her something. What?
As if she didn’t know.
Buffy lay next to her sleeping Watcher and watched the ceiling. Patterns of light through her blinds, from passing headlights, from the rising moon. Noises from her neighbors. Giles breathing, slow and steady. He slept, and things rose inside her. Who was she? She turned onto her side and laid her hand on Giles’s arm. He stirred and said something into the mattress without waking. She closed her eyes and listened, and was asleep before she knew it. She dreamed. She was in bed somewhere, not Sunnydale. It was cold in the room. Buffy could see her breath. Giles was standing beside the bed, looking away from her.
“Come to bed, Giles. It’s midnight.”
But Giles turned away from her and opened the blinds; the room was flooded with light from a sun high in a strange green sky. “You can sleep if you want to,” he said to her. “But I can’t.”
Buffy surfaced far enough to feel the fan blowing cooler air over her. Giles was asleep next to her, head and arms hidden under his pillow, legs sprawled out beneath hers. She found the blanket at the foot of the bed and spread it over them both. Even she could translate that dream. Was it better to go back to sleep and forget the shadow world? To live when the sun was hot in the sky? She couldn’t save Giles with that choice. She’d be the only sleepwalker. She shifted in bed, restless next to her peaceful Watcher, and was asleep again.
This time she dreamed prophetic dreams, dreams she knew were true even as she slept, about deep water and something evil drowned deep underneath it. A cold blue lake, white ice floating on it, yellow sulfur and gray plumes of smoke. She sat on a black rock, waiting for the evil to awaken. When it did, she would destroy it. The danger was great, but what she felt was anticipation. Thrill. Satisfaction.
Buffy woke again when the bed shook under her. Eyes open. Sunlight was just starting to burn through the slats in the messy blinds. Giles was next to her, sitting up and swinging his feet to the floor. He yawned and stretched, then caught his breath and froze in place. He reached down and touched his side. Then he carefully levered himself out of bed. Buffy watched him pad across the room to the bathroom door, hand bracing his side. She listened to him doing what human beings did, then flushing. The water ran in the sink, and the pipes clanked the way they always did. When he came out again he had a wet handprint on his t-shirt, right over his stomach.
Buffy leaned up onto an elbow. The little mattress shook under his weight as he slipped back into bed.
“Sorry if I woke you.”
Buffy waited for him to get settled. He was facing her, with his right hand underneath his head. She scooted over close to him. She was in bed with Giles, and it wasn’t weird or strange or anything but comfortable. Under the tweed was solidity. Hard muscles, not gym-sculpted, not the kind of body that would be on a magazine cover, but practical solidity. The kind that could fight vampires if it had to. It had taken her a long time see past the bad ties and the soft voice to the dangerous man. Not dangerous to her. Buffy rested her head on that solid arm and let herself shelter. Giles stroked her shoulder, then slid his hand up to run his fingers through her hair.
“Oh, Buffy,” he said, “I shall miss you dreadfully.”
Was he fond of her that way? Was she fond of him that way? She could be. She wouldn’t have guessed it back there in Sunnydale, with the both of them stuck as who they were. Giles in tweed behind his library desk, making the rebellious Buffy read books, train. It didn’t have to be that way at all.
“Do we get to be with other people, Watchers and Slayers? Or it is just us?”
Giles said, “I thought we could. I thought things with Jenny might work out.”
“Just you and me, then.”
“It seems so.”
Buffy didn’t mind that nearly as much as she expected to, as she might have a year ago. She touched the side of Giles’s face with her fingers. Giles blinked, then met her gaze. They looked at each other for a moment, longer, long enough that Buffy knew it had to mean something. Giles was holding his breath, she realized, and his heart had sped up. Then he blinked again and looked away from her. But something had changed. Buffy was afraid to say it, afraid to move. If either one of them did something, the other one might run away.
Buffy was done running away.
She slid her hand around the back of his head and tugged him over to her. He didn’t resist, simply tilted his head and met her in the kiss. There it was again, in this touch, what she’d felt when she’d stroked his back last night. That tug. What did the Slayer handbook say about kissing her Watcher? Did it say anything at all, or was this left for them to discover for themselves? Sheets over them, body-warm from sleep, the blinds drawn, and both of them hundreds of miles away from anybody who knew them, who expected them to be people they weren’t.
Giles’s eyes were open. He seemed calm, not surprised, which was not what she’d expected at all. He let her kiss him for a long time, without pushing or trying to take over. He didn’t shy away from her, didn’t pull back, just rested his hand on her back and opened his mouth to her and let her in. He tasted good to her, different, strange, but good.
Buffy slipped her hand under his t-shirt and splayed her fingers out against the warm skin of his back. Giles sighed, and kissed the end of her nose. His hand, the one with the splints on it, rested at her waist.
“Afraid I’m not up to much more than this just now,” he said, but Buffy didn’t really want more than this. Not yet, anyway. “Next time I visit?”
“Yeah.” She pulled away from him and settled herself onto his arm again, but close up against his body now. Next time he visited. That was one way it could go. She could have him in her life anyway. Then she yawned, which made her feel silly, but Giles just tugged her closer against him.
“What time do you have to be at the restaurant today?” he said, quietly.
“Shift starts at ten.”
“Sleep a while longer, then.”
“Your ribs okay like this?”
“They’re fine. Get some more sleep.”
So Buffy did, and for once she dreamed about boring things, quiet things. She was walking in a place that was cold, but then she stopped and stood by a natural hot spring, fizzing steaming water near a volcano. Fumaroles and blue ice and black rock. It was weird but peaceful, even though she had a sword with her. Giles was there as well, not saying anything at all, but she knew what he was thinking. His eyes were the same green as the sky. Somebody else could have been there with him instead of her, but she’d decided. It was her choice. It had always been her choice.
When she woke up she was alone in the bed, but Giles was in her apartment, fussing around in her kitchen. He was dressed already, with a tie looped through his collar but not yet knotted. His shirt had broad blue stripes. The tie didn’t match. Buffy thought he’d look better in solid colors, olive greens maybe. Green and black. He’d look good in those, in that strange deep green from her dream, the one that matched his eyes.
Buffy stretched luxuriously, slowly. She felt better than she had in weeks and weeks, like she’d really slept for the first time since her birthday. Maybe it was the first time. She got out of bed and went over to him. She pulled the tie free of his collar and laid it over the back of her single chair. Then she undid the misaligned shirt buttons and redid them correctly. She straightened out his collar. Giles stood still for this, and bent his head to meet her when she reached up to kiss him. She thought maybe he’d snuck out of bed to avoid any more of that, but he kissed her willingly. When she stepped away from him, he cleared his throat and touched his glasses.
“Tea? I, er, brought some with me.”
He’d found her kettle and the little pot she’d found at the Goodwill. Also her two mugs, one advertising a real estate agent and the other the Zoo. She was glad she’d bought two so Giles could drink tea at the same time she did. At the time, in the thrift shop, it had felt like a luxury. Outfitting a kitchen had been more expensive than she’d realized it would be.
She’d donate it all again, so somebody else could start a kitchen.
Giles poured tea into the zoo mug then leaned over to open the fridge door. Milk out, splashed in. He put in one spoonful of sugar, then looked at her and dumped in a second, this one heaped up. Buffy took the mug from him and rotated it so she could grab the handle. It was hot. She closed her eyes and inhaled tea-scent. When had she last had tea? It was a staple of late-night library conversations with Giles. There was something comforting about it that wouldn’t have been true about the instant coffee Buffy made for herself in the mornings. Or maybe it was just the fact that Giles was there, leaning back against her kitchen counter, holding the mug with the phone number of the real estate agent. Premier San Diego retirement estates.
Tea in a cold land. She saw a very strange place as if she were standing there in person, a place she’d never been before but would recognize. Giles in a long black coat holding a thermos full of tea, standing by that icy lake under a midnight sun. She was next to him with a sword that was almost as tall as she was strapped to her back. Black rock, white water, red steam. A demon. A flash of sight, sound, and sensation, and then she was back in her tiny stifling apartment with a hot mug in her hands.
She was going to be drinking a lot more tea where they were going.
Giles leaned toward her and touched her elbow. “Are you well? Buffy?”
She looked up from the tea and smiled into his worried face. “I had prophetic dreams last night. Because you were with me, I think.”
Giles’s expression shifted from concern to interest. “What about?” he said.
“The new Hellmouth. It’s in a strange place. One of those places where the sun doesn’t set at the solstice. There are volcanos and the water is cold except for the hot springs.”
“Iceland? That was one of the possibilities.” Giles had that excited expression now, the kind he got when a new kind of demon showed up in town, full-bore enthusiasm. “There are some most fascinating myths about what’s buried there. From the time of the earliest settlements. I’ve never been, but I hear it’s fascinating.”
“I’ve never been either. It’ll be the exact opposite of San Diego, I guess. I got rid of all my warm clothes.” Buffy pouted.
“You got rid-- Buffy. What?”
“I’m going with you,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
He looked startled, then pleased, but hid his face in his mug. She took it away from him and set it on the counter. She laid her hand on his chest, over his heart. Giles laid his hand on her shoulder, the hand with three fingers in splints, and drew her closer. Buffy slipped her arms around his waist and leaned against him.
“If I get to choose–”
“Then I want to be there when the Hellmouth wakes up.”