“Tell me again what this is about?” Buffy stood in the middle of REI, with a pair of hiking boots laced on her feet and an internal-frame backpack strapped on her back. Giles and the sales clerk were examining the pack critically, periodically tugging at things she couldn’t see. Giles’ warm hand rested for a moment on the back of her neck while he pulled at a fastener. Then he took his hand away and stepped back. Buffy shuddered.
“We’re going on a bit of a ramble,” Giles said, absently. “I think this will do nicely.”
The clerk agreed. He unsnapped things and gently lifted the straps from Buffy’s shoulders. She allowed him to remove the pack, then sat to unlace the boots. The clerk was cute, in a shaggy granola way, and he’d been trying to catch her eye. Buffy didn’t have the energy for it. The clerk added the pack and the boot box to the impressive stack of gear Giles had selected over the last couple of hours.
“Now let’s get you some practical clothes,” Giles said to her. “Something you can hike in. And something warm.”
“Aren’t you spending kind of a lot of money?” Buffy asked.
“Council credit card,” Giles said, flashing her a little smile. Once upon a time that would have set Buffy’s pulse racing: somebody else’s credit card! Free rein! Now, however, she just nodded, and let him pick out clothes for her. Her closets had been emptier than she remembered them being, when she came back. If her memories were right. Buffy couldn’t trust things like memory any more.
It was too loud and too bright in the store, and they’d been there a long time. Giles sat her down on the bench outside with a Tiger’s Milk bar while the clerk rang him up. It was more calories than Buffy wanted, but it was sweet. It actually tasted like something. She ate the whole thing.
“Tell me again, Giles?” Buffy said, again, this time from her perch on a kitchen stool. Giles was busy at the stove, tending a pot and a saucepan. Willow was seated at the kitchen island as well, with a textbook. Buffy avoided looking at Willow.
“We’re going hiking for a few days.” Giles turned off the gas under the pot. He had a bunch of plastic baggies set out on the counter, the heavy-duty kind. He’d taken her grocery shopping as well, on the way home from REI.
“Where are we going, exactly?”
“To a place of power in Sequoia National Park.”
Giles set a bowl of stew in front of her, a spoon already stuck in it. “Why?” said Buffy. She picked up the spoon and poked at a carrot.
“To perform a ritual.” Giles had said this the last time she asked. Buffy couldn’t figure out why. The carrot tasted like something, and so did the potato she tried next. They reminded her of something she’d known once, before.
“Oooh!” said Willow. “Sound neat. Need some help from a powerful Wicca? Since you’re not so much with the casting on your own.”
“No thank you, Willow, we will not be requiring your help. It is a strictly Watcher/Slayer ritual.” Buffy heard in his voice a touch of the anger she’d heard last night, when he and Willow had laid into each other in the kitchen. While she’d been on the deck with Spike. No simmering threats this time, though, from either one of them. Just the insult and the rebuff and then the silence.
Buffy still wanted to know why, but she wasn’t going to ask it in front of Willow. She wasn’t so good with picking up what was going on with Giles any more, but anybody could see that he wasn’t going to talk in front of Willow. Buffy held onto the question and watched Giles measure out stew into the baggies and carefully zip them shut. Then he put them in the freezer. She had another spoonful. It was pretty good.
When Dawn appeared, Giles greeted her with a hug and set a bowl in front of her. He studiously ignored Willow, who just as studiously did not ask for any stew. Serious badness brewing there. Buffy shrank into herself.
In the living room, a little later, Buffy watched Giles assemble the tent. He’d pushed aside the coffee table to make room for it. One tent. Room for two people. Giles put it together methodically. Then he took it apart, and did it again. He made a satisfied sound, then disassembled it a second time. He packed it away into a bag that was smaller than Buffy would have expected.
Then he started fitting items into the backpacks. He seemed to have a plan for everything. Tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear, clothes, rope, lights, and an assortment of tools. All new. Buffy remembered seeing some of this stuff when he’d gone on that Watcher retreat, but it had all been older gear. Probably Giles had taken it back with him to England when he’d gone home. Where he’d probably be going again soon.
“Try this,” he said to Buffy. He held up her loaded pack for her. The weight was nothing, of course. Buffy could have carried ten times that. Especially because it was so well-balanced. She smiled for a moment at Giles and bent her knees a little. He adjusted some of the straps.
“Right then,” he said. “All packed except for the food and water. We’ll stop at the Magic Box tomorrow morning to get the dried herbs for the ritual,” he told Buffy, exactly as if she knew what was going on.
He set the two packs in the hall, by the front door, along with their boots. He then led her upstairs. “Bedtime,” he said. “We have an early start.”
“But patrol—” Buffy began.
“Spike can do it,” Giles said. “To bed with you.” Buffy didn’t like sleeping, not as such, just then. She’d been looking forward to going out and finding something to fight. Something that hit back. She felt that. Felt the skin of her knuckles when they hit vamp-teeth and ripped open. The rest of this living stuff was not so much fun. Too bright, too loud, too harsh, and at the same time too far away. But it didn’t matter much. If Giles was going to call the shots for a while, Buffy would go along with it. She brushed her teeth and changed for bed.
When she’d shut her light off, her door opened and Giles came in, wearing pajamas, with a pillow and a blanket clutched to his chest. Buffy worked up to a “Hey!”
“Just avoiding a repeat of last night,” Giles said.
“Oh. Yeah. Okay.” Buffy pulled the covers up to her chin and resigned herself. She’d had a nightmare and it hadn’t been too good. Giles had talked her down, then rocked her back to sleep. Buffy had woken up in the morning to find Giles sitting in the chair next to her bed, watching her with a strange expression on his face. He’d started this project right away, dragging her out shopping for all the outdoorsy stuff. He’d been on the phone to England, too, in a tense and grim series of conversations with different people.
He bunked down on the floor next to her bed. Though that had to really bug his back. That was the last thought Buffy had before morning, when Giles was brushing her awake, one warm hand gentle on her shoulder. It was barely light out. They ate breakfast quietly. The house was still asleep.
Buffy balked on the way out the door. “But Dawn—”
“I talked with Tara about Dawn last night,” said Giles. “She’ll be fine.” He escorted her out the door. It shut behind her with a quiet click. Buffy followed Giles obediently to the drive, where his rental car was.
First stop was the Magic Box. Anya was there, which surprised Buffy.
“Thank you for opening so early for us, Anya,” Giles said. “I think it’ll be worth your while.” He gave Anya the Council credit card and a conspiratorial grin. Anya grinned back. Buffy felt a little left out. She drifted over to the tarot table and zoned while Giles put together a bunch of ingredients in little baggies. And he got a funny chunk of crystal on a chain from the glass case where they kept the really expensive stuff. Anya looked at Giles, looked at Buffy, and said, “Oh.” Then she got busy with the cash register, and gave Giles a receipt in duplicate, and they grinned at each other again when she ran the Council AmEx through the machine.
Before they left, Giles gave Anya an envelope. “Our route plan,” he said. “Keep this to yourself unless we’re late by more than two days. We’ll be back on Thursday. Don’t tell Willow what we took.” Anya nodded to him, then solemnly hid the envelope away. Buffy wondered what was up with that. She’d always thought Willow was Giles’ favorite, and now it was all insults and bitten-off yelling.
They drove north up the 101 and were quickly in territory Buffy had never traveled before. Had never hoped to travel. Town names she’d heard of, as pretty places to visit. Places the Slayer was never going to get to see. Places the Slayer wasn’t seeing now, really, except as scenery going by outside the windows of Giles’ rented car. Fog along the Pacific, outside Giles’ window. Cliffs and sea.
At Paso Robles, they turned onto an even smaller state route, and went up over the coastal range, heading inland, to a part of California Buffy knew nothing of. She’d lived there all her life, and hadn’t ventured more than a hundred miles from LA, in any direction. Recently, well okay, before Glory, she’d stopped hoping to go more than twenty miles out of Sunnydale. And here she was, just a week out of the grave, speeding north with Giles. Who was going to show her a lot of trees.
Buffy thought about sleeping. Giles didn’t seem inclined to talk much, and the radio couldn’t pick up anything she felt like listening to for more than five seconds. Sometimes Giles would ask her what she thought of the view. Buffy would just shrug. She started thinking about all the things she wanted to have done in her life, that she didn’t get to do before she died. She’d never be able to do any of them. She tried not to make any noise, but eventually she had to blow her nose and Giles noticed. He handed her a handkerchief, prepared as always. Giles, the never-changing rock. Giles, in a tweed jacket and a sweater vest, nudging up his glasses and always producing a handkerchief.
“Buffy, have you ever heard of a man named Ram Dass?”
“Huh?” Buffy swiped at her nose some more.
“He was a bit of a hippie guru. He was originally— uh, never mind that. He had a bit of advice that he was famous for. It’s, uh. Be here now.”
“Be here now.”
“Be here now,” Buffy repeated.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“A, a number of things. But mainly, for you, today… be where you are, in this moment, enjoying what is with you right now. Don’t spend too much time thinking about what has been.”
“That doesn’t seem do-able. How can I just… never mind.”
They stopped near the interstate for some lunch, in the middle of total ag country, in a place with the weirdest name Buffy had ever seen. Giles sighed and bought her fast food. Buffy ate fries, dipped in sugary ketchup. They didn’t taste like anything. Giles poked at his burger, then pulled one of those food bars from his coat pocket and ate that instead.
Giles bought gas, then got them back on the road, still heading inland through farmland, and then up and into the trees again. Away from civilization. Buffy zoned out. Be somewhere else now. Dreamland. It wasn’t a nice dreamland she was in, but it wasn’t noisy or harsh or glaring.
She came to a couple hours later, when Giles stopped the car. They were at a ranger station. Giles went inside for a while, and came out with some forms filled out. He taped some things to the inside of the windshield. Then they drove off again. Up and up. A long winding road to nowhere. To trees and more trees. Eventually he parked, and said to her, “We’re here.”
Buffy got out and shook herself awake again, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to be. It was cool and sunny at the same time. The air felt unfamiliar. It smelled strange. It was also way quiet.
Giles was pulling the packs out of the back seat. He took off his regular shoes and put on his hiking boots. Buffy imitated him.
“Ah, right, hang on a tick,” he said. He then cast a spell on her boots, and flashed her that little smile again. “Let’s avoid the blisters, shall we?” Giles had never been so casual with the magic before. Buffy wondered if it was jealousy about Willow, like she’d said, or something else.
Giles shut up the car. He helped her on with her pack, then settled his own on his shoulders. He paused a moment at the trailhead, to roll his shoulders and stomp his feet down in his boots. He took a very deep breath, then smiled at her. This one wasn’t the tight fast smile he’d been giving over the last two days. It was more like a happy Giles expression, and the echoes stayed around on his face.
“Deep breath,” said Giles. Buffy breathed obediently. “What do you smell?”
“Trees,” said Buffy uncertainly.
“Exactly,” said Giles. “Let’s go.” He strode off, not looking to see if she followed. Buffy trudged after him, up the trail. She caught up in a moment, pressing on a bit of Slayer speed. Giles was walking steadily, not fast, but with the kind of pace you could keep up for ages and ages. The trail went up. The only sounds were their feet, cushioned by pine needles.
Buffy remembered the questions she’d been holding onto for the last two days.
“So, now that Willow isn’t around,” she began. “Assuming she isn’t. Cause you seemed kinda jumpy about that.”
“We are protected against Willow eavesdropping,” said Giles, a little ominously.
“What are we doing here?”
“We are going to a place of power, where we will perform a ritual for the two of us.”
“Why did we come here? Aren’t there, like, places of power closer to Sunnydale?”
“Yes, but getting away from there was part of the goal. Also, this place is both powerful and sacred.”
“Have you been here before?”
“No,” he said. “I have, however, studied maps.”
“Are you sure you know how to do this camping stuff?” Buffy was a little suspicious.
Giles laughed for a moment, silently. Buffy remembered that laugh. It made her feel a little better, inside. “I’ve had thorough Council training,” he said, “in wilderness survival. Three nights of camping in a national park will be quite tame in comparison.”
“Three nights. Oh.”
They walked for a while. Giles didn’t seem to be having trouble with the altitude or the way the trail was heading up. He must have stayed in shape while she wasn’t there. Buffy wasn’t noticing the walk, herself. She thought she remembered that she had been in amazing shape, the best shape of her life, right before. Right before waking up dead.
“What’s this ritual thing?” she asked him, after they’d gone maybe a mile.
“I’ll explain it in detail tonight. But it’s to do with my being your Watcher.”
“What if I don’t want to do it?”
Giles walked steadily along the trail for a while. At last he said, “Then we will spend a few quiet days in a lovely national park, looking at sequoias.”
Buffy thought maybe she’d hurt him, a little bit, with that question. So she tried to make up for it by asking him about things she didn’t really care about. Like what that noisy blue bird with the black head was, and what animals lived around here. Marmots sounded kinda cute, but she could do without the bears.
“But what about these sequoias we’re supposed to be seeing?” said Buffy.
He stopped her to point out a cluster of trees. Buffy wasn’t sure what the deal was. It was kinda redwoody. Buffy had seen those, of course. Anybody who lived on the California coast had seen a redwood. He led her up to them. Now that she was up close, she thought she could see differences. The bark was a different color, maybe.
“They need fire to sprout,” Giles said. “Forest fires heat the cones and release the seeds. And the fires clear out debris. For years the forest service suppressed fire, thinking they’d protect the trees that way. But really these trees can’t be harmed by ordinary brush fires.”
Buffy ran a hand over the bark. She craned her head back and looked up. Yeah, giant was the word. Okay, she’d seen sequoias now. She looked around herself. Probably she’d seen hundreds, all day, but she hadn’t known what she’d been looking at. She didn’t know why, but she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the tree as far as they would go. Which wasn’t very far around. She tried to sense something, anything, special. But it was just a tree. It smelled nice, she guessed.
They set off again. After ages of walking, but while the sun was still up, they reached their campsite. There was an outhouse-y pit thing, which was yucky but Buffy used it anyway, because what choice did she have? When she came out again, Giles had the tent up in one of the spots, not so far from a place where people had obviously built fires. Giles sent her off to gather fallen wood while he set things up. When she came back, with a big armful of branches, he had the little stove going. A blue flame hissed under the panful of stew.
They ate dinner in the fading light, Buffy from a bowl and Giles from the pan, with funny flat spoons. Buffy ate more than she usually let herself eat. It tasted kinda good. Giles boiled water and had her make cocoa from packets while he cleaned everything up and then lit a fire.
Giles took all the food, even the food bars Buffy had stashed in her fleece pocket, and put it into a canister. He put that inside one of the metal containers that Buffy had thought were dumpsters, or something. “Our packs will go in here, too,” he said. “Just before we go to sleep.”
“Bears,” he said. “They can’t get inside those containers.”
He went over to the fire and sat with his knees pulled up under his chin. Buffy sat close to him, on the pine needley ground. She watched the fire burn for a while. Fire got through the layers of plastic wrapped around her, sometimes. She imagined reaching in and grabbing a log. It would hurt, for a while. Then her Slayer healing would fix it, and it would be as if it hadn’t happened. But she didn’t. The fire wouldn’t change her, wouldn’t release anything.
Giles shifted and stretched out his legs.
“What’s this ritual?” Buffy asked, for what felt like the millionth time. He’d promised to answer this time, though. When he answered, he hesitated a lot. Not stammering, exactly. Just as if he were being very careful about how he said things.
“It’s about my guardianship of you. It needs to be renewed, after… after your resurrection. When I was made your Watcher, back before I met you, I was given a little bit of your soul, to guard. It was… taken from me, when you went… where you went.”
“Oh.” Buffy thought about this. She thought that maybe there was a problem with his plan, but she’d wait a bit before bringing it up. “What does that do?”
“Many things,” said Giles. “Slayers are exposed to many dangers, not just physical ones. Spiritual dangers. They can lose their humanity, their connection with the life they are charged to protect. My duty is to prevent that. One of my duties.”
That was pretty wild, and mystical, and all that. Buffy wondered why Giles had never explained it before, then figured she knew the answer to that. She’d never put up with any lecture about mystical stuff that lasted more than thirty seconds. Buffy had been pretty idiotic, while she’d been alive.
“I did it the first time before I’d even met you,” Giles was saying. “It’s stronger when the Slayer participates, though. I’ll be able to guard you more closely. If you consent, that is.”
Time to bring up the big hitch.
“Giles?” she said. “Do I have a soul to guard?”
“Yes, Buffy,” he said, very gently. “You have a soul.”
Buffy scuffled at the dirt with a toe. “I thought maybe I’d come back without one. Wrong. Because of how I feel.”
“You came back fine,” Giles said. “That spell…”
“It sounded kinda dark. With the snakes, and stuff.”
“Very dark magic,” he said. “There was a reason Willow waited until I’d gone. And there will be a price to pay for it.” He looked grim for a moment, then shuttered it away. “But it was also powerful magic, and she made her bargain with the right god. So you are truly here. Completely. With a soul.”
“If you say so,” Buffy said, doubtfully. She had a thought, and spoke it before she’d thought it a second time.
“Giles, if the spell hadn’t been so evil, would you have helped them? If you’d been here?”
Giles looked down. “No. No, I wouldn’t have. I missed you more than I can say. My heart was… But no. I couldn’t have done such a thing to you.”
“Weren’t you worried about me being in a hell dimension?”
“No,” he said, so softly she had to strain to hear him. “Slayers don’t go to hell when they die, Buffy. The Powers know what sacrifices they… you, made.”
“Oh,” she said. Her big secret wasn’t so much a secret with Giles.
“I’m sorry you have to sacrifice even more, Buffy. Not sorry you’re here with me now, but sorry about what brought you here. To have you here, with me again, I… the summer was… Um.”
“Be here now?” Buffy said.
Giles made a funny laugh. “Yes, thank you. Good advice.” He took off his glasses and gave them a good wipe on his fleecy shirt.
Buffy shifted around and got closer to the fire. It wasn’t exactly cold out, but the air had an edge.
“So, tell me about this ritual thing. What does that rock have to do with it?”
“It’s a… well, a window. To the soul. We’ll use it to help the transfer.”
“Let me show you,” he said. His voice reminded her of being in the library, with an eager young Giles pulling out a new weapon to teach her. This burnt Giles, with the lines in his face and the scars on his fingers, reached inside his shirt to pull out the crystal he’d taken from the Magic Box that morning. He lifted the chain over his head and held the stone in his hands. He repeated a phrase in a language Buffy couldn’t recognize, slowly, three times.
It began to glow a rich green that streamed through his fingers and warmed everything around them.
“The last time I looked into a stone like this, I could see your soul there with mine. A spark, right at the heart. When we do the ritual tomorrow night, I’ll be able to see you again, and feel you there.” Giles held the crystal cupped in his hands, gazing in. “I miss feeling you. I didn’t realize it, at first, what was missing. Why I didn’t believe that Willow had raised you. Why when I touched you I felt hollow. It’s because we aren’t connected any more.”
“Can I look?”
Giles extended his cupped hands to her. Buffy looked into the stone, and saw Giles. Green. His eyes. Plants, growing in pots in the library office. The jasmine along the wall outside his flat. The glowing glass of his dragonfly lamp. Dried leaves in a bowl, smelling of sage. The soft black wool of the afghan thrown across his leather couch. A teapot, pouring into a great cup until it overflowed. Cookies on a plate. Paper and ink and a fountain pen. The sound of a man’s voice singing. Smoke and guitar strings and a wooden stake that had budded and flowered.
Buffy gasped and pulled back. Giles was smiling at her. “An odd experience, isn’t it?”
“Wild,” Buffy said. “That was… you. All kinds of you. Concentrated Giles.”
Giles hummed in assent.
“This works for anybody?”
“Would you like to see yourself?”
Giles waved his fingers over the stone, a sharp gesture of finality. The glow faded. “Here,” he said. Buffy cupped her hands, as he had, and received the crystal from him. He repeated the words to her. She said them tentatively, three times, still afraid of what she’d see. Or not see. What if it didn’t…
But it was glowing for her. It was a different color. It was an orangey yellow, hot, intense, like the sun in the early morning. Buffy looked in, and almost didn’t recognize herself. Coals, molten metal, poured into a mold. A staff in her hands. A shout of joy at the oncoming battle. A sword, ringing as it was drawn. Dancing at the Bronze. A cup of mocha, with whipped cream. Mr Gordo. Creamy white lace. A daisy. Light on water. Her arms around her friends, fierce and possessive and protective. A wooden stake, newly sharpened.
“I have a soul,” she said, in wonder. Then she burst into tears and dropped the crystal. Giles had an arm around her and was rocking her again, saying soothing things to her that she couldn’t understand. He picked up the crystal, then her, and carried them both to the tent. He helped her take her boots off, then climb into the sleeping bag. He blew her nose. He held her for a long time and gradually she felt better.
Buffy woke trembling. Noises outside the tent. Shuffling, grumbling. Demon? She tried that honing thing, but couldn’t sense anything dangerous.
“Bears,” said Giles, from inches away, in the other sleeping bag. Buffy shivered. “You can handle them if you need to, but you won’t need to.” He kissed her forehead, soothingly, the way she’d seen him kiss Dawn’s forehead when he’d first appeared in the Magic Box. The bears shuffled around, banging something. Buffy wriggled her sleeping bag closer to Giles’.
After a while it stopped. She was certain she’d never get back to sleep again. But the next thing she knew, it was morning, and the walls of the tent were bright. Giles wasn’t in the tent, and his sleeping bag was already rolled up. But she could hear him moving just outside, and hear the hiss of the fuel stove. After she’d made another trip to the yuck-place, he fed her bland oatmeal and really awful coffee. Buffy realized that she’d started tasting stuff enough to dislike it. That was an improvement. Or maybe not, she thought, wrinkling her nose. She drank the coffee anyway.
She helped Giles strike the tent. She wasn’t sure what “strike” meant, when you were talking about tents, but that was the jargon and she was sticking to it.
Giles didn’t seem to be particularly in a hurry, but there wasn’t much to do to clean up. They were walking up the trail again in no time. Buffy realized she had no idea what time it was when they got going. It didn’t matter. Sunrise, sunset, walking in the daylight: that was all that mattered.
The pack was lighter today. Less water in it, she realized. Giles had given it all to her, and said that if he was going to take a tenderfoot Slayer hiking, he might as well have her carry all the heavy stuff. Giles was slower today than he’d been yesterday, however. Buffy didn’t mind. This was starting to feel almost okay.
They didn’t talk much that morning, but it was a comforting quiet. Buffy had thinking to do, about what it meant that she had a soul but still felt like she was dead. The possibility that she didn’t have to feel that way had occurred to her.
They stopped on a rock with a view to eat lunch. Buffy was hungrier than she’d been in ages. Hungrier than even that time she’d decided she had to lose five pounds before the junior prom. Giles gave her a couple of thick slices of wheat bread and big chunks of cheddar. Buffy slapped them together and chewed. Giles had his own handful of bread and cheese. They ate apples as they set off again. Giles took her core from her and tucked it away in a bag.
Later in the afternoon, she had to ask Giles what she was supposed to do if she had to go out there in the woods, which was ultra-humiliating. But he just explained it carefully, exactly as if she’d asked how to use a pike.
They had climbed pretty high by late afternoon. Giles stopped them by an oddly shaped rock. He consulted his topo map and his GPS— go technology guy!— and announced that this was the landmark. They left the main trail. In a minute Giles had found a faint track, heading off. He made a noise of satisfaction. Just half an hour of walking brought them to an flat stretch of granite, with a pillar at its center. In front of the pillar was a shallow depression in the rock, where many fires had burned. It overlooked a valley far below. Buffy hadn’t realized how far up they’d climbed.
They advanced onto the rock and stopped. The hair on the back of Buffy’s neck stood on end. “Oh,” she said. “Wow. So this is a place of power.”
“Indeed,” said Giles. He had his eyes closed and his hands raised, fingers spread. “Goodness.” He opened his eyes again and blinked.
“People come here, still,” Buffy said, looking at the fire pit.
“Vision quests,” Giles said. “This place brings visions. It’s one reason I brought us here.”
“Will we have one?”
“Perhaps. I hope so.”
They found a place for the tent, not so far away, and got everything set up. Giles fed her more stew. If Buffy had been any less hungry, she might have started to get bored with it.
Giles repeated the trick with the food in the canister again. This time he tied a rope to it. Then he tossed the rope over a tree branch, and pulled until the can was high in the air. He hitched the rope to a second tree.
“Okay,” said Buffy, “I give up. Why are you hanging our food up?”
“Bears again,” said Giles. “The canister is supposedly bear-proof, but I’m old-fashioned. I like to hang it.”
Buffy had a moment of imagining bears playing tether-ball with their food.
They both gathered wood this time, enough for a larger fire. Giles set it all up. They sat together and watched the sunset. Giles explained the ritual to Buffy, helping her memorize her part. Which wasn’t that bad. Just a phrase in Latin. There was herb-burning, and a chant Giles had to do to awaken their souls and excite the crystal. Then he would swear an oath to guard her, still in Latin, and that was it. She’d be guarded again. And Giles would feel like he was her Watcher again.
Giles lit the fire after sundown, when it had gone fully dark. He lit it with magic this time, standing over it and speaking a single word in a commanding tone. He made them sit downwind, where the smoke from the fire blew over them. He mixed the herbs from the baggies and threw them onto the fire in big fistfuls. They smelled odd, acrid. Buffy’s head went a little swimmy.
Giles sat down behind her, his long legs stretched out. “Lean against me when you need to,” he said. He took out the crystal and they held it together. He began chanting. The crystal glowed green, like it had last night. She repeated the words he’d taught her, earlier. She said them again, together with Giles. He swore the oath to her, his voice all solemn and choked up. And as he finished, a yellow-orange spark appeared in the center of the soul crystal. Buffy felt weird. Not bad-weird, just strange. Warm. Like somebody had her cupped in his hand.
She recognized that feeling. She’d had it all the time before, when she’d bothered to pay attention. Sitting on the study table kicking her heels. Drinking tea seated on that leather sofa. Stretching on the mats in the back of the Magic Box. She sighed and breathed in deep, and got a good lungful of herb-smoke. Now she felt really weird, and not entirely good. Queasy. She leaned back on Giles for a moment.
Time stopped. Buffy was somewhere else. No smells, no sound, no feeling, just a diffuse white light. It was familiar, but she couldn’t say from where. Vision quest, she guessed.
“So, kid. We meet again.” The funny little guy with the hat, who’d told her how to close the portal, had appeared from somewhere. What was his name? Oh, yeah. “The big guy upstairs has a couple of things he wanted me to say to you.”
“Yeah, you know. Him.” Whistler fidgeted with his hat.
“Oof,” said Buffy.
“You ain’t kiddin’. So the deal is this. You got ripped out unfairly. You probably figured that out. That little witch, whew, she really did a number on you. You were supposed to be done with it, gone on to your whatsit, your reward. You can either be done with it again, or you can stick around because He has some stuff for you to do. Some stuff you were supposed to do before, maybe, but you didn’t get around to. You get to pick which, because He thinks you did pretty well and deserve to have a say this time.”
“I could go back?” To peace, rest, and maybe another talk with her mom.
“Yeah, right now.”
“That’d kinda be required, yeah.”
“But Giles…” Buffy didn’t like thinking about what it would feel like for Giles, to have her soul taken away from his guardianship again.
“We’d make it easy on him,” Whistler said. “He wouldn’t know you chose to leave him. We’d fix it so it looked natural.”
Buffy thought about the sequoia trees, which she’d seen yesterday for the first time. And bears, which had been only a few feet away, leaving tracks. And the hawk Giles had pointed out. And marmots, which she hadn’t seen yet. And Dawn, waiting for her back in Sunnydale. And Giles, who was right behind her this moment, though she couldn’t feel him. The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. But sometimes it wasn’t hard. Sometimes it wasn’t a burden. Sometimes it was endless joy.
“I’m staying,” she said. “Tell me what I have to do.”
“Good on ya, kid,” said Whistler. “It’s gonna be okay. I think you’ll like this gig. Lots better than the Slaying.”
Whistler was gone, and time moved again, and Buffy was aware of being outside, on the rock near the fire, with the smell of the burning herbs in her nose. Her head spun again, and time went funny in a different way. Giles clutched at her shoulders and gasped. Buffy knew he was going with her this time.
It was like memory, only it hadn’t happened yet. Giles laughing against her neck, his weight on her, his body moving inside hers. Buffy lying on a sofa, her head in his lap, his hand clasped in hers against her belly. Fighting vampires, side by side. Glimpses of the others, of Xander and Anya and Dawn and Tara. A garden in mid-summer, drowsy and hot. Giles again, skin to skin with her, whispering in her ear. Then a blinding moment of the two of them, together on a bed, a newborn held to her breast.
It ended. Buffy was on her back, on top of Giles, who was flat out on the rock. Buffy sat up slowly. Her head still felt weird, spinning, like she was drunk or worse. Giles groaned and sat up behind her, his legs still stretched around hers.
“My God,” he said.
“Yeah, you can say that again.” Buffy inhaled, deeply, and let it out again. Her breath plumed out in front of her. Cool night air. Pine, wood smoke, the bitterness of the herbs they’d burned underneath it. It was the best thing she’d ever smelled, that night air. The rock was cold under her butt, Giles hot against her back, her skin warm where it faced the fire. She reached down and stroked her fingers against the rock. It felt almost alive. Rough, solid, present. Little tracers of fire ran on the rock, where her fingers pressed on it. Everything in the world was connected to everything else, and it was all alive.
“Be here now,” she said to Giles.
“Yeah, I am.” And so was he. And Buffy had just been smacked upside the head with the reason why she was here, now. And why she was back. And the knowledge that it wasn’t going to be bad, this time. It wasn’t going to end in a swan-dive into a coffin six feet under. “Did you get what I got, in the vision?”
Giles’ voice sounded cautious, behind her. “Perhaps. I… Did it end with us, holding…”
“Holding a baby? Yeah. We’re gonna be parents.” Buffy’s worldview was shifting around, like tectonic plates shoving up mountains in mega-time-lapse. Giles: not tweedy Watcher guy any more. Giles: a guy, a man, who could hold her like that and make her feel like that. A guy who was supposed to do those things. It had never occurred to Buffy before, but now it felt all kinds of right. That was who Giles was supposed to be for her. Had been supposed to be all along, only she’d gotten distracted. Vampires. She’d been obsessed with the dead.
He slowly slid his hands around her and let them come to rest on her thighs. Buffy laid her hands on them and insinuated her fingers between his. His hands were alive. Strong. Potent. Buffy thought about all the connotations of that word. Giles, potent. Giles, alive and growing, with deep roots and a crown all the way in the stars. She wasn’t sure what she was, but it was something just as alive.
Buffy wanted to move. She jumped up and did a handstand, walked on her hands for a few steps, then flipped over to her feet. She spun and grinned at Giles. He was still sprawled on his ass on the rock, but laughing like an idiot up at her. He held up his hands, and she yanked him up. He wrapped his arms around her and spun her around a few times. Then he pulled her up and kissed her, and things slowed down again. Buffy let herself sink into that kiss. It started gentle and grew into a huge breath-stealing blood-pounding thing, all clumsy and desperate, until Buffy started crying again. Giles looked worried, at first, but she shook her head at him and smiled and tried to tell him it was all okay. He released her.
She walked to the edge of the circle of firelight, and looked up at the stars while Giles did something to the fire that made it die down. The little traceries of light ran around up there too, connecting everything. Blue and red and green. The stars wheeled over Buffy, who looked up in awe.
Giles came behind her and put his hands on her hips and snugged himself up.
“You know what all these stars are, don’t you.”
Buffy felt him laugh, against her back. “A few of them. The famous ones.”
“Ssh. You know everything right now. You know all the secrets.”
They walked the short distance back to the tent, holding hands. No bears. They crawled in. Buffy took her boots off outside, like Giles had shown her. She zipped the tent shut, shivering a little bit. It was cold up here, and the inside of the tent wasn’t any better. Giles was already undressing, stripping to t-shirt and underwear. Buffy snuck a peek. He had a nice body, hidden under all those clothes. Pretty soon she’d be seeing and feeling all of it. He kept the crystal around his neck, and it glowed a little, still. It was the center of more of those radiating patterns, those complex webs of blue and red. Buffy watched them grow and spin for a minute. But it was all fading now.
Buffy undressed fast, while Giles was looking away and folding up his hiking pants. He had zipped the sleeping bags together into one large one. Buffy hadn’t known you could do that. He slipped in and held the bag open for her. “Come on, then,” he said. Buffy slid in next to him, a little shy to be so close to Giles and wearing so little. But it was Giles, who smelled good and felt good and who held a little bit of her soul in his guard. She rubbed her face against his neck.
Giles zipped up the sleeping bags, bundling her up close. He turned her around and pulled her back against his chest, wrapping himself around her in every way possible. Buffy felt the last tension leave her shoulders. She rested her head on his arm.
“Aren’t we gonna…”
“Not just yet,” Giles murmured. “No need to go too fast.” He brushed his lips against the back of her neck and Buffy shivered. A good shiver. An anticipation-shiver, fizzing in her blood. She took his hand, where it was spread across her belly, and pressed it tight.