Buffy stood with her toes overhanging the edge of the Hyperion Hotel pool. She carefully balanced herself, and closed her eyes against the brassy Los Angeles sun. The sun felt good on her face, but it was almost the only thing that did. She wrapped an arm around her side where it hurt. The stab wound in her side was healing, but it was still agonizing, especially when she moved. Or breathed. Or stood still.
Someone came into the courtyard. Buffy listened to the footsteps. Xander. He came up beside her.
"I wouldn't suggest diving. Maybe a cannonball into that wouldn't kill you. But yuck."
Buffy sighed and blinked her eyes open. The pool was about a third full of green and scummy water. Stagnant. It probably bred mosquitos. The whole courtyard was dusty and dirty, trash blown in the corners, as if Angel and his friends never went there at all.
"Wish I could swim, though," she said.
Xander moved off to a little building at the side of the courtyard. He tried the door, and it scraped open. He disappeared into the darkness, and Buffy heard some clanking sounds. The battle had claimed Anya less than a day ago, and Xander hadn't said a thing about it since he'd found out. Not word one.
Xander came back with a battered metal toolbox. Its green paint had been chipped away. He carried it over to the end of the pool where the filter motor sat, hidden under a lumpy cover. He opened the box to reveal an assortment of tools, in good condition aside from the grime.
"Let's see what we can do with this filter thing," Xander said.
He knelt and started prodding. Buffy closed her eyes again and soaked in the sun. Giles had said something once, about sun and Slayers and recharging. He'd approved of her tans.
Quiet voices talking, at the edge of the courtyard. The man himself. The second voice she recognized by accent.
"--was so sorry to hear. Is there a memorial planned?"
Wesley. Somewhere on the other side of the courtyard. Buffy squeezed her eyes tighter shut.
"We were in no shape to do anything at the time. Things are no better now." Giles made a rueful noise.
Giles and Wesley were about twenty feet away, at the end of the pool near where Xander and the filter assembly were.
"Stay here as long as you need to. The Hyperion has the space."
"This haven of my rest, this cradle of my glory, this soft clime, this calm luxuriance of blissful light." Giles's voice sounded as if he were reciting.
Wesley laughed. "Apt."
Buffy stayed still, and hoped they'd go away. But the footsteps and voices moved closer.
"Hello, Buffy. I was wondering if I might--"
"I was just going in," Buffy said, abruptly. She didn't turn.
"Right. Shan't trouble you."
Giles was still for a moment, then he left, moving fast. Buffy listened to his footsteps. Xander dropped his wrench. The clank on the concrete was loud. Buffy opened her eyes in time to see Xander pick it up again and resume his work on the bolts holding the maintenance hatch in place. She should offer to loosen them for him. But she hurt.
Wesley came closer, and showed no signs of leaving. "What was that about?"
"That sort of treatment was once reserved for me."
"Things are different now."
"No apocalypse in progress, so his services aren't needed?"
"Services weren't needed for the last one, either. Giles isn't my Watcher. Anybody's Watcher. He's just another guy. None of us are special any more."
Wesley tilted his head, and smiled mirthlessly. "I see."
"Spike said... Spike said I'd surpassed him. And he was making mistakes, so I was right to--" Buffy broke off.
"Ah. Spike. One always takes vampire-slaying advice from a vampire," Wesley said. Despite his clothes and the roughness of his voice, his tone yanked her right back to when she'd first known him, in that little library. Starchy, prim, disapproving. "Very well. I have some Sumerian that needs translating. I had been about to ask Rupert to help me with it, but as he is outmoded, and you have surpassed him, I shall ask you instead. The tablet is in my office, if you'd care to favor me with your reading."
Buffy glared at him.
"No? Whatever is the matter?"
"That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean, then?" Wesley's voice was soft, but Buffy was not comforted. That voice was also dangerous.
Buffy missed whatever Wesley said next, but it must have been dismissive, because he stalked off. Xander watched Wesley leave in the same direction Giles had gone. Buffy watched Xander. He turned his head. Buffy saw the patch on his eye, over a still reddened cheekbone, and felt that stab of guilt again. She'd seen him putting medication onto the place where his eye had been, yesterday on the bus. Xander met her glance for an instant, then looked down and fiddled with the spacing of his monkey wrench.
"Did Spike really say that?"
Buffy shrugged, then winced. Her side was killing her, still. That wound was deep. Spike hadn't been the only one to say it. The First had also been saying things to her about Giles. And about everybody, but some topics hurt more than others.
"Among other things."
"Huh," said Xander. He wasn't looking at her, but was instead peering at the head of his monkey wrench. He twiddled the knob, then gave the wrench a pull. The bolt came free. He levered the plate aside and stared into the filter assembly. "Doesn't look so bad. I think I have to drain the pool."
"Get the Potentials to do it," Buffy said. They were in better shape than she was. The ones who'd lived, that was. Which nearly hadn't included her.
"Naw. The point of getting the filter working is to use the pump to drain it. Besides, I heard there was a Turok Han problem. The girls are gonna be busy."
"Good for them," Buffy said, but her next thought was to wonder why nobody had told her.
Xander reached into the motor with a huge flat-bladed screwdriver and flicked gunk out. "Yeah, can't blame you. There are lots of Slayers now. Time to let somebody else do it."
For a second, Buffy wanted it. "Maybe. Would be nice to be asked."
"I think that was what Giles had been about to say to you. Hey, Buff. Free advice, worth what you pay for it. About Spike and Giles. I think the leopard is always spotty. That's what I think."
Buffy considered this. "You never liked him, did you." She didn't bother to specify which one, because she knew what Xander felt about Giles. But it was a true thing to say about both of them. And, for that matter, about the First.
Xander didn't answer. He tilted his head and looked at her with one clear brown eye. Then he walked over to the dusty maintenance shed and pulled out a heavy coil of dark green hose. He carried it back to the edge of the pool and dipped one end into the water. Buffy watched it extend out into the deepest part of the pool. Stagnant green water. Algae and mildew.
"What are the chances this doesn't have any holes in it, ya think? Another item for the Home Depot list."
Buffy watched him patiently uncoiling the hose. "Why are you doing this?"
"You said you wanted to go swimming." Xander sounded puzzled.
"No, I mean-- Never mind. Where's Willow?"
Xander dragged the free end of the hose over to the filter. "Look for that Texan chick. Fred. They were bonding over Powerbooks when I saw 'em last."
"Yeah, sounds right. And Xan? Thanks."
Xander nodded, and picked up his wrench again.
Willow was in a computer lab, sort of: one of the hotel suites, taken over by ethernet cables and industrial power strips and the white noise of a hundred tiny fans spinning. There was a big rack full of of pizza-box-sized computers with the word "Sun" on them, with sticky printed labels that Buffy found mysterious. The other was lined with bookshelves. Science books, mostly. Chemistry, physics, mathematics. Quantum mechanics. Homotopy theory. All Greek to Buffy. Or Sumerian. Wesley's comment had hit her where it hurt. Buffy trailed a finger along the spines as she made her way over to the desk where Willow was.
She sat with her feet on the pan of the chair and a Powerbook resting on her knees. "I read you loud and clear, Fred. Just got the Google home page on my browser."
"Peachy!" Fred's voice came from the other side of the room, underneath a table. Buffy could see bare legs and a bright flower-print dress, but no more of Fred.
Willow looked up and spotted Buffy. She pointed to the ceiling and twirled her finger. "Airport. Latest thing."
"Neat! I think. Like, helicopters on the roof?"
Willow grinned, a big relaxed happy thing. "Different kinda airport. Wireless network. Eight oh two eleven. We're getting everybody linked up."
"I'll nod like I understood you, and you'll pretend I did, and then we'll move along to my question."
"About the First. I wanna talk about the stuff it said."
Willow's face changed. She closed the laptop and set it aside. "Woah, Buffy. You go right for the hard stuff."
Fred appeared from under the table with a bright orange cable in hand. "Need a crossover. I'll go fetch one and let y'all talk."
Buffy watched her bounce out. Fred was, in Buffy's expert opinion, flat-out gorgeous, and that dress was adorable. She saw that Willow was also watching, with a glint in her eye, and she wondered where Kennedy was. Another item on the list of questions to ask later. Over a pair of extra-large margaritas, maybe.
"I was wondering what it said to you. Because you didn't talk about it."
"Unfun. Turns out I've known a lot of people who are now dead. Some of them are pissed off."
Willow shrugged. "According to the First."
Buffy plunked herself onto the floor in front of Willow's chair, then had to cover up a wince. Sudden movements still contraindicated. Slayer healing was taking its own sweet time fixing this one. "What was it like for you?" she said.
Willow wrapped her arms around her knees.
"Xander and I had a long talk about it. Jessie showed up to both of us, and it was-- And then it used Tara's form, and I nearly went to pieces. The First said a lot of stuff. Remember when Spike said that stuff to us to get us four to break up so we couldn't fight Adam? It was just like that. Only nastier. More personal. Because the First knew secrets."
Buffy nodded. It sure had. Big secrets. All the secrets. "Anything a dead person knew."
"Yeah. All our weak spots. All our insecurities."
Willow stared at her feet. Buffy did too. She was wearing mismatched sneakers with holes in the toes. The sneakers had red-brown dust ground into the white laces: Sunnydale dust. After a while, she went on. "Xander and I decided to ignore anything it said. We reminded each other of how much we'd come through together. Yellow crayons, you know. Not destroying the world because Xander loved me. Stuff like that. Made the First seem kinda petty."
"Oh." Buffy now felt about six kinds of stupid. It was like Xander had said, only this time she hadn't been the one to clue in first. Looked like she was last.
"What did it say to you?"
Buffy shrugged. As Willow had said, it was all stuff that couldn't, shouldn't be talked about. Private things. Even though Willow was her best friend, it was too much. Too intimate. Too much like the things she said to herself at three in the morning when she couldn't sleep. "Stuff. Mostly I've been thinking about the damage it did, to friendships and stuff."
"Like when we threw you out of your own house."
Buffy went very still.
"Did you ever talk to anybody about what it said? Like, talk to Giles? 'Cause I think you got it worst. You were the one it was trying to split off from us."
Giles might have figured out what Willow and Xander had, about the overt attack. Though he might not. The attack on Spike might have been the result of the First working its mojo. Just as Spike's problem with Giles was the same. Buffy's new question was: How long? How else? How long had it been manipulating them? Its rise was tied to her resurrection, so that meant it might have been in action the whole time since.
The whole time. Buffy thought about that. Breakups. Separation. Suspicion. Willow and Tara. Xander and Anya. Buffy and Spike. Buffy and Dawn. Buffy and her Watcher. Buffy and the world.
"You probably should now."
"Yeah, okay, I think I will. Hey, Will. Dinner, you, me, Mexican."
Willow flashed a sly grin. "Got a plan tonight."
Buffy leveled a finger at her. "Soon. And you're going to tell me all."
Now the hard one. The most damage to repair; the trickiest person to talk to even at the best of times. And, apparently, Mr Absent Man. He wasn't in his room. He wasn't in Wesley's suite. He wasn't in the library. Angel hadn't seen him.
In desperation, Buffy went to Harmony at the front desk. Harmony the vampire, chewing gum, painting her nails, and reading Cosmo, safely in the dim light of the lobby.
She pulled a pair of white buds from her ears. Buffy caught a few seconds of tinny Britney Spears before Harmony found the pause button. "What do you want?" she said. The stupidity shone out from a point between Harmony's eyes.
"Do you know where Giles is?"
"Yeah, he and Wesley went out together about half an hour ago. They were totally rude to me when I asked them if they could please not make long-distance calls from their rooms on the hotel's account, because I don't care what Angel said, I have to--"
"Harmony. Shut up. Could you call Wesley's cell and tell him I need to talk to Giles? Tell him it's important. It's about the Sumerian thing. I'll be in my room."
Harmony looked annoyed, but turned to punch at the phone behind the counter. Buffy didn't wait to listen to Harmony's half of the conversation. She stabbed the elevator button and waited. Normally she'd just book up the steps, but it would be too much strain on her side. The blade had gone in deeper than she'd thought. She rode up the elevator and tried not to worry too much about the strange wiggles it made as it moved. There was an inspection card from 1984 over the button panel. Maybe Xander could find a manual.
She rode the wiggly elevator all the way up. Her room was on the top floor of the Hyperion. She'd picked a north-facing window, so she could look out to where Sunnydale used to be. Not that she could see anything: the haze brought the horizon in close. The blue-white sky was infinitely far away. She leaned on the windowsill looking out, thinking.
Two big things had changed. First, the Hellmouth was gone. No locus of vampire activity existed now, as far as she knew. Second, she wasn't the only Slayer any more. She wasn't even one of two. She was one of twelve. Maybe more. That meant she wasn't special any more, except that she was. She could be in charge if she wanted. She could kick off and go drinking in Cabo for a couple of years if she wanted.
Apocalypses, Buffy decided, were easier than the peaces between them. When the world was going to end, you had a certain purity of focus. Priorities were obvious. Stopping the apocalypse was important. Everything else was not. Take that focus away, and what you had was the usual mess of life.
She thought maybe that brown haze, way out on the horizon, was the dust of Sunnydale. Sunnydale: not as important as stopping the Turok Han. Focus. Purity. So what about Sunnydale? Dust. Brush it off, move on.
So what about Spike? Dust. Not in the way she'd always expected, either. He'd died a hero, and she knew better than anybody what that meant. Heroism like that was rewarded. She'd miss him, but she didn't want him back, not when she knew what he'd have to give up to return. Godspeed, Spike.
Buffy's new task was with the living. Twelve Slayers, three friends, one sister, and a world full of demons to fight. Now she had the mess. Now she had to figure out how to handle people. What to do with twelve Slayers who'd lost their families and their Watchers. A friend who'd lost his one-time fiancee and the town he'd lived in his entire life. A sister who'd lost her stable home. A friend who'd lost-- what had Giles lost? Buffy didn't know.
There was what Wesley had been saying about a memorial. Twice denso-girl in one day, that was Buffy. The Council had been blown up. Watchers had been murdered by Bringers, as well as potential Slayers. That meant Giles had lost friends. Colleagues. Maybe more than any of the rest of them.
She waited for the knock at her door, and planned what she would do when she heard it.
The sky began to glow with the colors of sunset, and she was still waiting and thinking. A spectacular sunset, red and raging. The dust of Sunnydale in the air, Buffy supposed. But at last the knock, and item one on the messy important list of life post-apocalypse.
"It's open," she said.
She turned and leaned back against the window. Giles came in and shut the door behind himself. He had his leather duffle bag in his hand, the big battered thing he'd been living out of for the last few months. Over his shoulder he had a new-looking messenger bag. He was wearing his leather jacket, a strange thing to wear on a warm spring evening. He was packed. He was leaving. Buffy opened her mouth to complain, then closed it. She knew why Giles might be taking off without saying anything to her.
Giles bent to set his bags by the door. He straightened, took a step further into the room, shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets. He wasn't smiling. He looked wary.
"Buffy, what is it? Wesley said the oddest--"
She pointed to the dusty couch. "Sit. We need to talk."
Giles looked as if he were going to speak, but didn't. He took off his jacket and folded it. He draped it over the back of the couch, then sat. He sneezed. The inevitable handkerchief came out of his jeans pocket. Buffy went over to him, and tossed all her plans aside, and went with what her Slayer instincts told her. She climbed onto him. She sat astride his lap, facing him, hands resting on his shoulders. Alarm flashed across his face, and he said again, "Buffy, what--"
Again she interrupted him, with a finger against his lips.
"When did we do this last?"
Giles shook his head. "Two years. More. You--"
He shook his head again and fell silent. Buffy knew what he meant. Infinities of meaning, in one head-shake. Their last intimate talk had been the last time it happened between them. After that had been two years of disconnection, so complete that he'd feared her when she'd climbed onto his lap.
She slipped his glasses off, gently, and set them aside. Giles blinked. He looked vulnerable without them. Buffy stroked his temples. The worried look slowly faded. He sighed, and his shoulders relaxed at last.
Buffy kissed his forehead. "Missed this."
Softly, "As did I."
"I screwed up. A lot."
"No more than did I. But you came through in the end. As always."
Giles smiled up at her, and Buffy's heart turned over. That was the smile she'd been missing all this time. She leaned forward and kissed the end of his nose. He shifted and slipped his arms around her. Buffy rested her chin on his shoulder and let him hold her close. She breathed in Giles-scent, that old-fashioned clean smell of his cologne. The hand caressing her face smelled faintly of india ink. She remembered the first time she'd been aware of his scent, that cologne. He'd been teaching her how to throw a knife, and had stood close behind her to guide her through the correct arm motion. She'd held still for a second and sniffed. He'd been alien to her and familiar at the same time.
Familiar. Safe. Hers. Every Slayer needs a Watcher. Every general needs an adjutant. Every queen needs a vizier. Giles was warm underneath her now. The hand bracing her back was solid. Buffy nuzzled his ear.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"What on earth for?"
She gave him a look. The man was moving out without saying anything, and he asked her what she was sorry for. There were a lot of things she could apologize for, but Buffy started with the most important.
"For all the people who died. When the First blew up the Council." Giles tensed again beneath her, but said nothing. "How many friends did you lose?"
Giles sighed, and tightened his arms around her. "I never counted. An uncle, my oldest nephew, several cousins, more schoolmates than I care to think."
"You never said anything."
"There was no point. It would have distracted you from what you needed to do."
Buffy gripped his sweater and shook him, gently. "No. Wrong. There was a point. You were grieving. I should have been your friend instead of the Slayer machine. We turned into these, I don't know, robots. Marching around making self-righteous speeches. Not talking to each other. Scheming against each other. How the hell did I not hug you for all that time? What was wrong with me?"
Giles shook his head again. "You were distracted--"
"No. Remember what I said the first time? About not screwing up by ignoring you again? Well, that's exactly what I did. And I finally figured out why. Took me this long, but now I know. It was the First. Working on us. All along. Driving us apart."
His eyebrows went up. "From the start? I mean, from the moment you, you returned?"
"Yeah. That's when Willow gave it a foothold."
"My goodness. It fits. I wonder how. The spectral visits were obvious manipulation, but it must have--"
"Giles. It's over. And I know how to fix it. No more apartness."
Buffy pressed herself against his chest for a second, then bent her face down to kiss him. He returned the kiss gently, chastely. Buffy stroked the back of his head. Then she kissed him again, and made it blatant, like she had the first time she'd reclaimed him. He stopped her with fingers laid across her lips.
"Buffy, I must ask. What does this mean? What do you intend? I don't know if I-- the last time, it was marvelous, but I-- It was hard to bear not knowing if it would happen again."
His face was strained and vulnerable again. Buffy was serene, though. She knew the answer to this one.
"I'm serious. This time. Serious about everything. No more excuses. I have a life to put back together, and I want you in it. I have a bunch of Slayers to lead, and I want you helping. I want you. Got it?"
Giles drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Dear Buffy. I do love you so. You know that, don't you?"
"I know. Silly guy. Known all along. But I didn't know you had an uncle. And now you're going to tell me all about him. What his name was. What he was like. And about your nephew. And if you need to cry, you're going to cry."
"No," Giles said.
Buffy's heart almost stopped. "No? What--"
"First I'm going to patch up the injury in your side that's making you wince and move oddly. And then we'll talk, and I'll tell you everything you want to know. And then--"
Buffy's breath caught.
"There's a Turok Han loose in Los Angeles."
She smacked Giles on the shoulder. "I know just the chick for the job."