The first time Buffy called him on her new cellphone was at two in the morning. Giles was asleep when the phone at his bedside rang. He slammed awake and was almost frantic with worry until her calm voice convinced him that she was not in danger. Just reporting in, she said. She was fine; her father was being nice; LA had lots of vampires and what was up with that? He was speechless with surprise, because she'd always resented being asked for kill rates, for an accounting of time. He cleared his throat, leaned back onto his pillow, and asked her softly how she'd found the vampires. She sounded more quiet and subdued than he remembered her.
The second time she called, he was in bed with a novel from the public library, lounging in his boxers with a splash of whisky over ice in a tumbler. He felt odd at first, talking to her so informally, so close to nudity, as if she could see him. She made her report, still in that quiet voice. Then she asked him how his day had been. Nothing much, he said. A day at the library. Cataloging. Inventory. Assisting the contractor in estimating repair costs. The earthquake damage had been extensive, from the floor under the skylight to the roof itself.
The third time, he was drowsing, light on, book slipped down onto his chest. He'd been waiting for her call, and dreaming half-lucidly about training her. He had warned her about dropping her shoulder. She'd grinned at him and launched a graceful kick at the hanging bag in their training space. The room had brick walls, upon which someone had drawn symbols of protection in white paint. It was their space, and it was home. The cordless handset buzzed in his ear, and he slid up to wakefulness, and her voice. "Hey, Giles. Killed four tonight."
She called every night.
He adjusted his sleep schedule to match hers. The Slayer was a creature of night as much as the vampires. He wanted to be awake for her calls. They came no earlier than midnight, no later than two. He told her about his new crossbow. She told him about her new shoes. A few days later, he told her about his new running shoes and she told him about the vampire she'd talked into handing her his sword, which she'd then used to behead it. She gave him kill counts, though he had long since stopped requiring them from her, and recounted particularly difficult fights. She asked him for weightlifting exercises. He reminded her to stretch. Sometimes he talked to her until she fell asleep, about anything that came to mind.
She never asked about Willow and Xander, though sometimes Giles volunteered tidbits about them. The one time he attempted to bring up the topic of the Master, she changed the subject, and instead asked him about the earthquake damage. He took his cue, and complained about delayed repairs on his library, about the tarpaulin over the broken skylight that made the space eternal twilight, even as summer stretched to its height.
And so one week passed, and then another. Giles felt he understood the rhythm of this summer, his first summer in the States. Long slow sunny days, under a cloudless sky that never changed. Short desert-cool nights, spent in solitary quiet, save for her voice in his ear.
One night she called him earlier than usual, a scant minute after midnight. He'd been in bed, but sitting awake to read and await her. She sounded distracted as she ran through the usual patrol and beach reports, and kept him on the phone longer than usual. Giles was tired following a long day with the contractor installing glass in the library skylight. He attempted to bring the conversation to a natural close, but she prevented him.
"Giles? You know the dream thing? How can you tell if they're prophecy or not?"
"Oh! Oh. Usually the Slayer, you, you will have a sense of it. You'll wake up knowing. They're more vivid and intense than normal dreams. And they're often repeated."
"Huh." She breathed in his ear for a minute. He lay back on his pillows, waiting for it. "So, ah, yeah. Dreams. So, like, I'm dreaming about having my heart ripped out."
"What? Gods, Buffy." Giles sat up, and reached for his journal.
"I'm chained up by demons and guys in masks. Then one of them rips my heart out, just like in that Indiana Jones movie. And then he drinks the blood and eats it. Though how I'm alive to see that part, I don't know."
"Masks? Humans in masks?"
"Yeah. And at least one demon."
"Masks of what?"
"I don't know. Just... masks."
"That's... There's got to be something in my books of prophecy. Or in the Pergamum Codex."
"I hate that book."
He jotted a note, then set the book aside. "Can't blame you. Are you... are you all right?"
"Yeah, sure, why wouldn't I be? Just another sucky phase of the sucky Slaying gig. I didn't ask for it, but I gotta do it. So, you know, get cracking with the research, fighter-pilot-guy. Though it's good you never did the pilot thing. You would look awful in those aviator glasses. Though those leather jacket things? Maybe you'd look good in a leather jacket. I'm trying to picture it and I'm not getting anywhere. Have you ever been anywhere near leather?"
"Been near a leather jacket. I still have it."
"My brain is now dribbling out my ears."
"Buffy? Is there something else about this dream?" She was silent in response. He made his voice as gentle as he could. "You can tell me anything. I'm here to help."
"It was... Giles, I died again. In the dream. Only this time nobody was there to help. I was alone."
"Buffy, oh, Buffy, don't worry. We'll stop it. It won't happen. And I'll be there. You'll never be alone." He soothed her until she calmed and began to yawn in his ear.
Giles hung up and pulled the chain on his bedside lamp. He lay for a time watching the shadows of leaves shift on his ceiling. Waxing moon. It would be full in a week, and the next night was the Solstice. High summer. She'd been given a scant month of respite. Not enough, not nearly enough. And she never would be given enough time.
Giles' morning was spent assisting the workmen who were completing repairs on the skylight in the library roof. He had no time to research Buffy's dream until the afternoon. They finished the job shortly after the lunch hour, and rolled away the tarpaulin. Giles had often grumbled about the sun allowed to shine in unfiltered upon his precious books, but now, after more than a month of darkness, he was glad to see it. He sat in the smeary sunlight gracing his study table, and opened his books to search for the interpretation of Buffy's dream.
The answer came more quickly and with more certainty than he liked. The Pergamum Codex had something that seemed to clearly reference Buffy. It followed the prophecy about the Master that had distressed them all so greatly, and built on it. Giles read it through once, supplying a rough translation from memory. He transcribed it into his Watcher's journal, then wrote out a more careful translation, Liddell-Scott at his elbow.
The valley of the earthshaker
that has not paid tribute
that has not honored its god
will be consumed in flame and ash
The masked ones of the earthshaker
who have sold themselves to the demon
who are drunk on the blood of the bull
will offer him the demon-killer's heart
On the longest day the earthshaker comes
At the sun's height the earthshaker tramples
The demon-killer risen from darkness
who has tasted death but not life
who has been known by neither man nor demon
will be a pure sacrifice
The watchman marked by darkness
who has dealt death but not life
who has been known by man and demon
will bring fire to the sacrifice
On the longest day the sun's tower falls
At the sun's height the moon's daughter dies
The god demands his due
sever the head
drink the heart's blood
their end will be flame and ash
Giles swore. He stared into space, at the dust motes floating in shafts of sunlight, then got up and moved into the dim stacks for a cross reference. What he learned did not calm him. He carried his Attic cults compendium with him back into his office and sat down heavily. The earthshaker's cult still lived. There was record of recent activity from them, in Los Angeles. The States were Christian, in the main, but Los Angeles was a cosmopolitan center, and the religions of Europe were tolerated. Though the bull cults would not be practicing openly, even there.
Vile. These men were vile.
He reminded himself that Buffy had already thwarted prophecy once, and could easily do so again. Or not thwarted rather; she had died. She apparently could not forget that fact, and neither should he. Prophecy had been fulfilled, and then twisted past. He would need to find a way-- But that was getting ahead of himself. First he needed to be sure this was the prophecy she dreamed of.
Before he left the school, he wrote a memo informing Snyder that he'd be away for at least the next week.
That night, he was unable to rest. He paced the lower floor of his flat, from door to fireplace and back, a glass of whisky in hand. At midnight he sat at his desk and watched the phone. By one, the glow of the whisky had faded and he was left with a faint headache and the taste of peat in his mouth. He thought about how to frame it, how to ask what he needed to know. If she'd been raised by the Watchers, he would know the answer. She would have been carefully guarded, raised to prize her chastity as sacred to the goddess. If she'd been a Watcher, he would know. She would have lost her virginity in school, to an older schoolmate chosen by lot as her mentor for the year, in a trembling-hands-solemn ritual deeply important for the both of them.
She was neither. She'd been raised by the ignorant, and he had some hope.
The phone rang at last. "Buffy? Oh, good."
She sounded better, once again cheerful as she reported. "I had the dream again last night. Noticed something new: they were dressed up like cows. Full-on Gary Larson cow-head masks. Thus tipping it right over into the surreal. Find anything, research-guy?"
"Yes. Buffy? I, er."
"What?" Her voice in his ear was amused, tolerant. He stammered, but couldn't get the words out. "Okay, now you're wigging me, Giles. What's up?"
"I need to ask you something rather personal. I assure you that I have a reason."
"Just ask, Giles. It's not like I can smack you."
He stammered out another apology.
"Giles. Ask already."
"Are you a virgin?"
A few breaths of silence in his ear. Then, "Oookay. That was totally not what I was expecting."
"I'm sorry. I need to know. The prophecy is--"
"Pardon?" he said, stupidly.
"Yes, I am. Did I give the right answer?"
"Damn." Dismay, and he confessed it, a breath of relief. Slayers were not supposed to taste that fruit.
"Sounds like a no."
Giles struggled to control his stammering. "I found a prophecy. In the Codex. It fairly clearly refers to, well, to you and to me. And to a Minoan mystery cult. They take a virgin girl and, and, and, give her to their bull god to be, be deflowered. And then sacrifice the girl. To propitiate the god. It might be Minoan. It might be a later corruption of the rite. Whatever it is--"
"Whatever it is, it's yucky."
Silence for a long minute. Giles would have given anything to be with her just then, to comfort her. Or even to be a target for more thrown books and punches. Anything but leave her alone with this news.
She spoke abruptly. "I need to see this prophecy. Come down here tomorrow."
"Buffy, it's in Greek--"
"I need to see it. Bring a bathing suit. For the hot tub. And hey. Giles? Could you bring me more stakes? I'm kinda out. Nursing my last one."
He swallowed his urge to complain that she was sloppy with them, and merely promised to bring more. He'd been planning on going to her anyway. Though he didn't know what he could do. The Codex was reliable, unlike so many other books of so-called prophecy. It was a true oracle. And if it applied to her, and to him-- What if it didn't? What if it was made not to?
He went to bed turning the implications over in his head, and wondering at himself for even daring to think it.
In the morning, he packed stakes and holy water, the Codex and his journal, and a couple of paperbacks to keep himself entertained in his motel. The daily weaponry was hidden in the boot of his car, as always: knives and stakes and holy water. He prepared a second bag with more serious weaponry: his new crossbow and a bundle of bolts, a pair of wickedly sharp combat knives. And his finest fighting sword, the steel xiphos his father had given him on his election to the Hundred, the day he became a Watcher.
He stood considering the contents of his closet, wondering what to pack. He took out a tweed jacket, and laid it across his bed. He hadn't worn a suit coat since the day Buffy had left for Los Angeles. It would be nearly ninety degrees there today. He pictured himself red-faced and sweating in front of her, clumsy and fumbling. No. She needed to be able to lean on him. Trust him in ways she had not yet learned to trust him.
Giles rehung the jacket. He found a pair of jeans and pulled them on. Then a light long-sleeved henley. He never wore short-sleeved shirts, no matter the weather. To do so would be to expose his shame, the place where he'd allowed himself to be marked as the possession of something evil.
At the last moment, he took an earring from his jewelry box and looped it through his ear. He'd worn it every day until the day she'd appeared in his library. He'd taken it out and hidden it away in fear; it didn't fit with the role he'd chosen with her, the role she'd seemed to need: the safe and respectable geeky textbook with arms. The buttoned-up man.
Merrick's diaries had been clear about her allergic reactions to the wilder aspects of Slayer lore, to magic and the presence of the gods. She'd been raised Christian, of all things. And he'd seen himself how she responded to prophecy. He'd wanted to spare her knowledge of the frightening reality of the world, where gods and demons walked and sometimes meddled with the lives of mortals. Buffy needed him to be another man, now, a different sort of Watcher. She needed knowledge from him. Knowledge unfiltered by her own fears, if she were to live.
He carefully did not think about the implications as he ran his morning errands and left a note for Xander and Willow.
He found his prescription sunglasses and wore them on that drive south and east in blinding sunshine, through hills scorched yellow and brown by the relentless summer, down into the glittering grid of haze that was Los Angeles. South through the freeway maze, choked slow even in early afternoon, to Redondo Beach and Buffy's father's home. Avenues all lined with palms, wide streets in straight lines, four lanes of streaming cars, in eternal sunshine. Giles had memorized Buffy's directions and followed them carefully south, to the more expensive part of town in the hills, with its identical houses on twisty little streets in a great maze.
He parked the Citroen on the street and diffidently rang her bell. He heard nothing from inside. He stood waiting, attache under his arm. Not a single human being was in sight. Rigidly maintained landscaping; shuttered windows, red terracotta tiles on the roof. The house gave away as little as the street did.
The door opened. Buffy glowed out from the dimness within. "Hey. Wow, it's the anti-Giles."
She stood in the doorway considering him, then stepped aside to let him in. Her tan was magnificent, displayed under a white tank top. Her hair was a lighter blonde than it had been two weeks ago, straw-pale and straw-dry. She was wearing long dangling earrings in silver and turquoise. She was thinner than she'd been. Her bare arms showed muscle, biceps and the line of the pectorals disappearing under the cotton. The twinned scars where the Master had drunk from her were white against her neck. Even with Slayer healing, she'd likely bear a scar. Vampire bites did not heal easily.
The bulldancers of Minoan Crete had been forced to leap the bull's horns in ritual dance. Over and over. Until they were gored or trampled. No matter how graceful they were, no matter how skilled, the bull was the one that left the palace on its feet. The Master had gored her, but she was alive yet. How many more leaps would she survive?
Buffy showed him the house. She was shockingly out of place: vibrant, alive, almost wild, in this dead place. It was a lovely tomb, however. Tasteful. The hand of a professional decorator was visible in the leather and the wood and the framed prints on the walls. No personality of the residents was visible even in the least. Giles had visited Buffy's home in Sunnydale only twice, but that had been discernibly marked by the taste of Buffy's mother and dusted over with the evidence of busy lives. Either Buffy's father had no personality, or he did not truly live here.
Giles stood uncertainly, watching her demonstrate the usefully-complete expensive weight machine her father had in the den. She was friendly, open, happy to see him. They hadn't touched, and that was both as things were between them, and unusual. They'd been separated less than three weeks, but their relationship had shifted since he'd seen her last. He'd spoken with her nearly every night, in the intimacy of his bed, her voice in his ear. It had been easier to be casual with her. Now, without the protection of distance or a jacket to shrug around himself, Giles was uneasy. They were alone here. Alone for the first time, without their usual context of school and library and friends.
Giles folded his arms, unsure of the impulse that had driven him to dress casually that morning.
"Guess we should talk about this prophecy, huh?"
She led him to the kitchen, which gleamed with hanging copper pans and brushed metal appliances, and sat him at the table. He extracted what he needed from his case and handed it to her. She gave him iced tea in a tall glass. Giles ran his finger through the condensation, tracing Greek characters. θυσία. Sacrifice. Droplets ran down from the endpoints of his strokes, blurring the word. She held in her hands the Codex, opened to his marker in the relevant section. Next to it flat on the table was his leather-bound journal, with his translation and notes. She traced her forefinger under the words, sounding out the Greek letters. He hadn't realized she'd known them. Her face was drawn in concentration.
One prophecy of sacrifice and death fulfilled, and a month later another one. The end times, according to the Codex, though it didn't specify what was ending. Her life, his life, the Council, the human species, the world.
Buffy spoke, and he jumped. "You're sure about this?"
"My Greek is excellent. I've gone over it again and again--"
She made a thoughtful sound. "Does this 'skopos' mean you?"
"It usually means watchman. Or lookout. Or spy. Likely it's me, given the description."
She glanced at him and away, but asked nothing further. She paged back in his journal. He twitched, as if to stop her, then checked himself. The journal recorded her exploits, and he shouldn't mind if she learned what he made of them. She paused at his drawing of the bones of the Master, broken on the library study table, in pen and ink and wash. And then his description of their final disposition in sacred ground.
"This is good," she said, tapping the page. He recognized it for a delaying tactic and kept his peace. She would reach her conclusions sooner without his interference.
Eventually, she said, "Why?"
"Why sacrifice people?"
"Desperation. The Aztecs believed the sun would not return if they failed to sacrifice. In this case, the cult probably believes they are preventing earthquakes. They fear the Earthshaker will consume Los Angeles."
Buffy made a face at him. "That's silly."
"I'm afraid it isn't. The earth god has many names, but the bull is one of his manifestations. He is quite real, Buffy. A-and he can cause earthquakes if he wishes."
"Yeah, okay. I can buy that. A year ago, no way. But now? With everything I've seen? I believe it." She looked down at his journal open on the table in front of her. "Everything they ever taught me was wrong."
Giles busied himself with his glass of tea. With this, he could not argue.
"But... I ask again, why? What good does sacrificing people do?"
"Ah. Blood and soul. Blood is life, and life is power. With blood, you can work strong magic. It is how vampires live. And if you are willing to play with souls, if you are that black, there is great power in the moment a soul is ripped from a body. Demons drink that deeply. And it's like wine to the gods of the underworld. They will step between the worlds to taste it."
Giles looked at her, sitting luminous and graceful at the kitchen counter. "The force of life is so strong in you, Buffy. In any Slayer. Because of what you were given when you were made a Slayer. Many beings crave your blood. Vampires. Other demons. And these men, these cultists."
Though men sacrificing humans to gods did not always awaken what they imagined they would. Sometimes they invoked a god to find they'd summoned a demon. A demon whom they'd unwittingly granted power over themselves. Giles ground his teeth. He'd been that foolish once, and lived with the memory of it every day.
Buffy turned and studied his face carefully. He schooled his expression back into calmness. "So they want to sacrifice a Slayer."
"According to the prophecy."
"When is this living sacrifice thing supposed to happen?"
"Solstice," Giles said, putting down his drink.
"That's the twenty first?"
"At a bit past eight in the morning. So we have until the evening of the twentieth."
Buffy handed him back the Codex and his journal. He tucked them away in his leather attache.
"I should go find myself a motel--"
"My dad's in Taos all week. He left last night." Buffy rolled her eyes. "My mom would so have a conniption if she knew. I'm not supposed to have unstructured time until I demonstrate I'm responsible." Giles met her glance; a more responsible teen it would be difficult to imagine.
She continued. "But anyway, you can sleep here. Till Friday."
Giles nodded uncertainly. He went out to his car to fetch his bag from the boot. The infernal glare, on tarmac and car roofs, on glass. So much hotter here than it was in Sunnydale, on its sheltered south-facing coast. Buffy's father's house was a relief, with its air conditioning and slat-shaded windows. He carried his bag in and closed the door on the glare.
"In my room."
He followed her voice down the hall to a room in the eastern corner of the house. It contained a double bed, a sofa, a dresser, and his Slayer. The decorator hadn't touched this room; the furniture was an assortment of leftovers. The windows were open onto the yard, to sunlight and the smell of eucalyptus. It felt almost livable. His Slayer was brushing her hair, gravely inspecting herself in the mirror over the dresser. He opened his his bag and took out a dozen stakes, from the stock he'd made for her.
"Stakes," he said, and cleared his throat.
She took them from him and hefted one, gripped it, made a few test plunges. "Why are your stakes always better? Xander whittles 'em for me, but they don't feel right."
"Because I'm your Watcher." He tucked himself down onto the sofa and watched her dance with her stake. Not karate, empty-hand, meant for show. Her hands were meant to hold weapons. Swords and stakes. The martial art of the Slayers. Meant to kill.
"How does that make your stakes better?"
Sometimes Giles forgot that Buffy was feral. The display of grace before him now, so deadly, so pure, so much better than any he'd seen from another Slayer. He could forget everything when he watched her fight. But how was he to explain this so she understood?
"I was dedicated to your service. When we learned you needed a new Watcher. I have a connection with you, an affinity. There are certain things only I can do for you. And other things I will always do better than others. There's a, a, a prayer, an incantation, that I say, as I carve. It, ah, makes them yours."
She came to a smooth halt with the stake at her eye level, poised for an overhand thrust. She held the position for a second, then relaxed. "Dedicated. Creepy mystical stuff, huh?"
"Fasting, ritual purification, and creepy religious stuff, yes." Creepy was a better word for it than she knew. It still made the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end, to recall the experience of being accepted and taught by the god himself, deep in the Watcher shrine. Of emerging to sensation and shock among his peers, that he had been chosen to serve, the tainted man beloved of Apollo after all.
"That's all it takes to make a Watcher?"
Giles smiled faintly. "That, and the twenty years of study."
Buffy was silent. She sat on the sofa, in the corner opposite him, and curled her bare feet under herself. She examined the stake he'd carved for her, ran her fingers along the bare wood of the pointed end. "It belongs to me. It won't slip out of my hand. It won't break. It will almost come when I call it. And all because you chanted when you made it?"
Giles nodded. She eyed him speculatively. "There's a lot I don't know yet about what your job is, I'm guessing."
His smile grew to an outright smirk. "The handbook is in my office, if you ever change your mind about reading it."
"Nah. I'll just make you tell me. More efficient. Wanna get some dinner?"
They had Mexican for dinner, at a little place Buffy directed him to, near the beach. They sat at benches at long tables covered in deep blue tiles. Painted wooden fish hung from the ceiling. Custom was light. Two tables over, a pair of middle-aged Hispanic men in straw hats drank their way through a bottle of añejo. The slow-setting sun glowed in through the west-facing windows. Giles ate tamales with black beans and green chiles and a ferocious salsa. He could not get a decent curry in this country, but the spice of habanero and jalapeño more than compensated. Sweat dripped from his forehead and he smiled in endorphin-stoned pleasure. Buffy rolled rice and beans and fish into corn tortillas and smiled with him. He drank tequila straight. It was complex and straightforwardly rough on his tongue, sharp and smooth going down.
Buffy watched him closely. He had a second drink, to numb his urge to writhe under the twin points of that stare. And to give himself courage. He knew what he'd have to discuss with her before the evening was over.
Afterward they walked west, toward the Pacific, descended steps toward the beach. This, unlike Sunnydale's rocky coastline, was the California of the movies. Palm trees and convertibles and flat stretches of pale sand warm under his bare feet. Giles held his trainers in one hand, socks tucked into them, and followed Buffy down to the water. The tide had turned and was on the way in, successive waves pushing kelp and foam further and further up the sand. The orange sun glowed on the water, but it was sinking fast. The air cooled. The tequila was still hot in his blood.
"Beach is lousy with vamps after sundown," Buffy told him. "Venice is worse, but we get a bunch here too. Feeding on the homeless. Though not so much the last few nights. I think word is out."
They walked south along the beach in gathering dark. Buffy's white shirt was luminous against the deep rippling blue of the ocean.
"So. What makes a chick not a virgin any more?"
Giles answered the question with dust and ink in his voice. "The prophecy is ancient. The sense of the description would have been traditional."
"So fooling around doesn't count."
Buffy turned and walked up the smooth stretch of beach, away from the water surging up and hissing back. Giles tread in her footprints. She chose a spot on the sand about ten feet up from the high water mark, seemingly at random. She sat, facing the ocean. Giles hovered for a moment, then sat next to her. Six carefully-judged inches between them, closer than he would ever have dared sit with anyone else. She'd never seemed to mind, or even to notice.
He leaned back on his elbows and listened to Los Angeles at dusk. Traffic. The shouts of three teenagers on their way past, tossing a frisbee. A runner heading north, at the water's edge, breathing hard. Two surfers, dark dots bobbing in the water, calling to each other. The rush and ebb of the waves, hissing closer up the slope of the beach.
"Giles, what's the deal with these prophecies?"
"What do you mean?"
"What if I'm supposed to subvert it? Go there as a virgin and make it end differently? Having my heart eaten might be metaphorical."
"I thought about that. There isn't much leeway."
"Literal virginity. Literal heart-eating. I'm not so into that."
Giles wasn't either. He'd been with her less than six months, and already he knew he could not sacrifice her. Despite everything they'd ever taught him about how Slayers were sacred, set apart. Not meant for men. Meant to die this way. He found his voice. "My suggestion is th-th-that you make sure it can't apply to you."
"You mean lose my virginity."
"Forgive me, yes."
Buffy flopped back onto the sand. "You know, adults are supposed to say the opposite. Don't let anyone so much as kiss you until you're thirty!"
Giles made no reply. She sat up again and sighed.
"So I have until Friday night to find somebody to do it with."
"Sooner would be better."
"I was, uh, kinda ahead of you on this. Last night I tried to get in touch with this guy I used to know. My boyfriend, I guess, after the Slaying wrecked my life the first time. Pike. He was in Vegas last I heard. Numbers didn't work."
Buffy pulled a dried piece of seaweed from the sand between them. "We almost did it once. I was ready to. Only he passed out. Pike drinks a lot. Drank. I don't know any more."
He pushed his feet into the cool sand. The day's heat was no longer memory. Every word out of her mouth was a step further along the path he'd seen in front of him when he'd first read the prophecy.
"Here's a thing I don't get. If I dodge this prophecy by making myself not qualify for it, aren't I just dooming some other Slayer? Some other girl is going to get sacrificed because I wasn't?"
"If the prophecy was meant to apply to you, you wouldn't be able to avert it. There'd be some reason why you couldn't, er." He paused, then blurted, "And I don't care. It's my duty to save you. Keep you safe. Not some future Slayer. Just you."
The surfers swam to shore and carried their boards out of the water. They walked up the beach, wetsuits streaming with water. Giles watched them both take sneaking looks at Buffy on their way past. He sat up and hugged his knees to his chest. The sun had vanished entirely, leaving only red-stained clouds to the west.
"We could call Angel," he said to her.
Buffy's mouth twitched, and her expression changed. Giles couldn't make out what she was feeling. "We're kinda moving in that direction, but we're not there yet. This is... this isn't for him." Another sigh. "You know it's going to be you, don't you."
Giles said nothing.
In his duffle, inside the toe of a pair of athletic socks, was a fistful of condoms. A variety pack. Colored, flavored, plain, lubricated and not. He'd gone to the sex shop near the campus and bought them that morning. He'd told himself that Buffy would need them, and she would appreciate not having to buy them herself. There was no telling if the young man she chose would be responsible on his own. Or so he'd told himself. Now he understood that this moment had been inevitable, since he'd first read the prophecy in the Codex.
His oath, the one he'd sworn and sealed with his own soul's blood when he was dedicated to her: that oath had been to her. To her, not the Watchers or the gods. To guide and defend her with all he was. She'd already died once under his care. No more. Tradition and custom and law were set in conflict with that oath. And with his affection for her.
Now he would see where this path before him led. See his end. His stomach dropped away; his head spun. The tequila had faded, leaving only his oath and his fate coursing through him.
Buffy knelt up on the sand and turned to face him. "You're not arguing with me."
"What I said about duty. And dedication. I'll do anything to keep you safe. And I will do this for you." He'd done it. Iacta alea est.
"Giles--" Buffy trailed off, and left whatever it was unsaid. She stood, and stuck out a hand to him. He gripped it, and she pulled him up. She went around behind him and smacked sand from the seat of his jeans. Giles allowed the intimacy; it was a taste of what was to come between them. He followed her up the beach and to the parking lot where they'd left the car.
They sat side by side on a bench. Giles brushed sand from his feet and pulled on his socks. The bench faced east, toward the haze-blurred hills. The moon, gibbous and waxing, had crept into view. It shimmered red through the miles of sun-heated air. Watching him. The Slayer's virginity was sacred to its goddess. Would losing it lose Buffy her favor? Would taking it earn Giles her enmity? Would she even notice? The Watchers might, and he knew what they would make of his temerity. His hubris. His life would be forfeit if the Watchers learned what he proposed to do in her defense. And they would, eventually. He shivered.
Buffy looked up from the laces of her sneakers. "It'll be okay, Giles. You're my Watcher. You'll make it all right for me, I know it."
He almost laughed aloud at the irony. "I will. Buffy? May I ask a favor? Could we wait until the morning?" He didn't want the goddess watching them.
"Sunlight. Yeah. Okay." She didn't understand, but that was fine. He would not be able to explain to a Christian what troubled him.
"Come on," she said, and she led him not to the car, but to the alleyways stinking with rubbish tips, the places where the streetlamps had burnt out, where the chainlink fences had been torn open, behind the back of the city. She hunted, and Giles shadowed her. She was everything he'd dreamed she could be, every fantasy he'd ever had of what his Slayer might be. Canny, graceful, bold. Her form wasn't perfect, and she had much to learn about tactics and planning, but that was his task, and they had time. He could teach her. Giles followed his Slayer, stake in hand, and Watched.
She had an agenda, a list of places to check. Together they canvassed a section of downtown Redondo Beach, and staked four vampires. Buffy brushed the dust of the fourth from her hands, and turned to him with satisfaction in her face. "That's it. Nobody else around. They're staying away from me. I'm gonna get you to drive me to Venice tomorrow night, 'cause I know there are more there."
Giles assented. The Slayer was drawn to the hunt, as always.
They walked back to his car. The sweat from the chase and the exertion of the last fight cooled on his face. Buffy rearranged her hair as she walked. He watched her under his eyelashes, let himself look at her bare arms raised, at her slim body. So tiny. So powerful. Giles opened the passenger door for her. She nimbly slipped under his arm and into the seat. He got in next to her and drove. He stopped at a traffic light, in a line of cars. She was quiet next to him. Her face was still and serious, thinking about something. Giles had no idea what.
He pulled into Buffy's driveway this time, now that he knew her father was away. He turned off the engine and listened to the metal tick. He was starting to feel nervous, now that he knew he'd be going through with it. Even if she weren't the Slayer, and sacred, even if she'd just been an ordinary girl, he'd be sick with nerves. He'd been that way in school, with his first protege.
She had already climbed out of the car, and was unlocking her front door. He pulled his shoulders back, and followed her in. He found her in the kitchen, listening to a cheerful phone message from a male voice. She poked at the answering machine and told him, "My dad. Telling me he bought me more jewelry in Taos. He gave me all this silver stuff after his trip last week."
She would look better in gold, Giles thought. Gold and green. But he held his tongue.
"There's dust in places I don't want to mention, and I'm sore. Let's do some hot-tubbing. Mellow out for a while. Did you bring your suit?"
"Though hey, doesn't matter! We're gonna get naked together anyway."
She was grinning at him. "But for the sake of the neighbors, get your suit on and let's soak."
Giles changed in the bathroom. He pulled on the ragged long-sleeved t-shirt he'd brought for this purpose, the one with the age-faded Fender logo. He joined her on the back deck, moving timidly. She was in a bikini. He slid his eyes away. Looked at her bare feet, brown on the pale decking. She'd polished her toenails with something that glittered in the light reflected up from the tub.
She stepped up to him and tugged at the hem of his t-shirt. "Giles. What is this? Take it off."
It was silly. Tomorrow he'd be showing her far more of himself. He bent to allow her to pull his shirt over his head. She studied his chest until he crossed his arms nervously. He knew he had nothing to be ashamed of. He had the muscle any Watcher had, sharpened in recent months by the rigors of training with her. The hair on his chest had begun to gray, his belly to soften, but he wasn't ashamed of that, either. He was ashamed of what his hand covered on the inside of his left elbow.
She hadn't noticed it, for she did not comment on it. She drew him over to the tub and pulled him into the water after her. The water was hot, frothing from the jets she'd turned on, flickering with blue lights from below. He imitated her, and submerged himself to the chin.
Giles moaned in pleasure. "Gods! This is good."
He let his feet drift off the bottom and leaned back. The muscles in his shoulders and neck were in knots and had been since she'd told him of these dreams. No, he had to be honest. For weeks. Since he'd first learned of the prophecy of the Master and the child. He tipped his head back against the edge of the tub and sighed. England wasn't much of a country for outdoor baths. There were public baths, but Giles avoided them. Had done so since the incident. His hand moved to the inside of his elbow again, but he forced it away.
Buffy moved to the far side of the tub and pushed at a switch. The jets subsided, and the water quieted. Giles straightened on the seat to cool his chest and shoulders. He'd begun to sweat a little.
Buffy slid down under the water again. "That was a whacky prophecy. Almost like poetry."
"It is poetry in the Greek. Strict form."
"Is translating stuff hard?"
"Depends. I'm fluent in Latin and Greek, but the idioms can be difficult. And connotation is always tricky."
"We were studying that in class. Shakespeare. Sometimes words meant slightly different things to him than to us. Or they are supposed to remind you of something different."
"Mm. Yes. Connotations change as the culture changes."
Buffy turned a sharp gaze on him, and Giles shifted uneasily in the water. "And sometimes they stay. Like know. The word know. It said I haven't known men. But the Watcher has. And demons. What does that mean?"
Giles hesitated for a moment, then took a resolution. "What you think it does."
"You had sex with guys. And with demons?"
"A single demon, as far as I know."
"Jeez, that's gross. How could you get near a demon?"
"You've kissed Angel, you said."
"Yeah but that's diff-- Oh. Oh." Buffy worked this one through. "Was it a vampire?"
"No. I'm... not comfortable talking about it. It went badly. It usually does. Human and demons aren't, aren't... meant to be together." Giles had had to kill to deal with the consequences. It had been the first time he'd taken human life, but not the last. Not the last. His hand drifted to the inside of his elbow. He'd tried to scratch off the tattoo, while he'd been captive, and in the days after. It couldn't be marred. He'd paid, oh how he'd paid, for that mistake.
"Okay, one demon, who we won't talk about any more. How many guys?"
Giles laughed nearly silently. "I lost count long ago." At her shocked stare, "I had a wild period, after university. I slept with anyone who would have me."
"Yes. Men and women both."
"Woah. Mister wild man."
"When I was younger. I came to believe it wasn't something I should be so casual about. Or perhaps it was that intimacy mattered more than pleasure, and intimacy... shouldn't be casual."
He glanced sidelong at Buffy. He didn't expect a girl her age to understand it. Or for a Slayer ever to understand it. Her leap over the bull's horns was a thing of power and grace, but it was brief. He wished for her to taste all the pleasure she wanted, while she was in flight.
He let himself look at her, at the figure so small and so alive across from him in the water. She wasn't beautiful to him. Not yet. She'd begun the transformation from girl to woman that would make her beautiful, to lose the childish roundness of her face and sharpen to her adult form. She would not have long to achieve it; just two more years and then the Watchers would--
And what did his oath to his Slayer say about that tradition? Giles tried to push the thought aside, but he knew. Already he knew.
The Watchers could go hang. They hadn't told him what it would be like, what she would be like, what he would come to feel for her in the very first week. Though he'd been told this moment might come, oddly. The god-- The god had said something. Memory returned, in a spinning crystalline moment of certainty. The god had said he would find no satisfaction with men, had told him he would only truly know his Slayer. Had commanded him to love her, and give her life.
Giles pushed himself up and out of the tub in one frantic surge. Buffy came alert and stared at him. He got control of himself and sat on the edge of the tub and trembled.
"Yes, yes. Just a bit overheated."
"Don't lie to me. You're freaked." She laid a hand on his knee and he flinched. "Is it because I'm so much younger?"
Giles shook his head; she'd misunderstood, and he didn't know how to explain. "No, that's not a problem at all." His salvation, in fact, because it allowed him familiar custom as his guide. He breathed himself down. "Where I come from, it's... normal. No. It's because you're the Slayer. It's forbidden. Beyond forbidden. But I mean what I said earlier. I will do this."
He considered her, once again relaxed and floating on her back in the water. He tried again to see her as a man might, not as a Watcher did. It was difficult. Grace radiated from her, and power. The sign of the god's favor. It was Buffy that he loved, though, not the Slayer. Buffy who'd charmed him and made him laugh when he least expected to. The god had said she would. Had said a number of things that tickled now at the back of his memory.
"Did you know that you're special to Apollo?"
"No. Does he even exist?"
Giles laughed. "Yes. Oh, yes. The gods exist, Buffy. This is another place where you were taught lies. Apollo exists, and you are special to him."
"Because I'm a Slayer?"
"Partly. All Slayers are blessed by him, because he's the god of the sun. But you specifically. He told me so. Told me to keep you alive. He spoke to me, when I was chosen as your Watcher."
"I am... so not believing this, really."
"I don't suppose it matters if you do," Giles said, softly. He felt chilly now, in the night air.
Buffy said, "But you believe it. I've learned to believe you. To trust you. I think... I think that's why it has to be you, not Angel. I trust you more than anybody. All the way down. You're like... you're like the stakes. You have to do right by me, don't you."
Giles shivered. "Yes."
"So. It's you. Come on back in the water."
She held out a hand to him. He took it and allowed her to pull him back into the warmth. His shivers stopped. She sat close to him in the water, and the conversation turned to lighter matters. She asked what he'd made of her fighting earlier in the evening, and he told her. They discussed technique for a time, the concepts of using your opponent's momentum to defeat him. Of inertia, and the difficulties of changing direction, and of using centered stances to preserve her flexibility while luring the vampire into committing to an action. She was intent on his words and on his hands gesturing, as she had never before been when he talked about tactics. Perhaps some part of her had disbelieved the whole thing, had been convinced it was all a dream, until the Master had drunk from her. She had changed, Giles was convinced, in some fundamental way.
Buffy eventually sighed and stretched. "Well, I'm cooked. You?"
"A limp noodle."
"Well, let's pour peanut sauce over us and serve us chilled, then." She launched herself out of the tub with a single hand planted on the edge. Giles marveled, as always, to watch her move. They didn't tell them, likely couldn't tell them, what it would be like to be so close to such divinity, to the power of the gods in the flesh of a girl. A girl who treated it casually, as if it were no more wondrous than the fact of the sun's rising in the morning.
Buffy handed him a thick towel, and Giles shook himself out of his daze.
He refused to sleep in her father's bed, though she offered it. Instead he stretched himself along the sofa in her room, modestly clad in sweatpants and a t-shirt. He lay listening to the quiet sounds of deep night. Her breathing, slow and steady in her sleep. The hiss of the ever-present traffic, faint with distance.
She trusted him. He wouldn't trust himself. He'd wavered and fallen and spent as many years as she'd been alive branded by his error, his selfish pursuit of a moment's sexual thrill. But she was right. For her, he would rise above himself. In the morning, he would make love to her, and on the Solstice, she would not be offered to the bull god. And on her eighteenth birthday, she would not be offered to Artemis. He'd offer himself instead. And if she died, it would be because he had died first, facing her enemies. Thus he would fulfill his oath, sworn to his god Apollo and to her. This decision brought him peace, and Giles let himself sleep.
Giles woke in the middle of the night to find Buffy huddled against him, trembling. He closed his arms around her reflexively.
"Buffy? What is it?"
She dug her hands into his shirt. "Dream again. Really nasty this time. Blood and fire everywhere and people screaming. Eternal night. Hung up on a wall. And the demon was-- it-- Jesus, Giles."
He shushed her and crooned nonsense into her ear until she fell asleep in his arms, wedged tight between his chest and the back of the sofa. When he woke again, sunlight streamed over them from the windows overlooking the yard. Buffy was awake, and watching him. He realized that he had the usual morning erection, and further that it was pressed against her legs. It felt good, though he felt no need to do anything about it. He would let Buffy cue him. He looked into her eyes. What was she thinking? Did she want him now? What did the look mean?
She broke the moment by reaching up and kissing the end of his nose. "Let me up, would you?" she said.
Giles obediently shifted to give her room to clamber over him. He lay on his back on the sofa, rubbing his belly through the t-shirt. His erection waned, and with it his confidence. He needed to find a way to get through this. Since-- he shied away from the name-- since the demon, he'd needed artificial courage to get near women, and had been unable to be touched by men at all. Even Olivia, after eight years of on-and-off encounters, usually had to get a half bottle of wine into him. He'd wanted it last night to talk. He couldn't hide that way now. Not with his Slayer. She deserved his presence.
She came back and stood next to the sofa. She looked shy. "My turn," he told her.
"Hurry back," she said, and this time her look was conscious.
He paused in the bathroom to wash himself and brush his teeth. Fusty morning sex was an acquired taste. He wanted perfection for her first experience. Buffy's pleasure would be his focus. If he didn't come at all it would be fine. He checked his hair in the mirror, ran his fingers through it. Took a deep breath. Walked slowly back to the bedroom, and to his act of sacrilege.
Buffy was on the bed now, on her side. She had unbuttoned the top buttons of her nightie, perhaps in an attempt to be more seductive. Giles wanted to laugh, but choked it down. There was nothing she could do to make herself seductive to him. Too naive, too straightforward; better for her to simply be herself. But she needed nothing less than his deepest and most complete respect, so he turned his face away from her and bent to his duffle bag. He took out the fistful of condoms and piled them on her nightstand.
Buffy gave him a dry look. "Exactly how much sex were you planning on having, cowboy?"
He sat down on the edge of the bed. "I thought you might like to choose. I had expected to be giving them to you so you could... Well."
She extracted a green one from the pile and handed it to him. She swept the rest into the drawer. Then she lay back on the bed and looked at him, expectant. He looked down at the little plastic packet in his hand. He remembered the first time he'd worn one. Sixth form. When he'd been with his first protege, a nervous fourth-form girl whose virginity the two of them had offered to Apollo. As his had been offered, two years earlier, by an older boy. Giles' voice had cracked during the ritual.
Buffy was older now than he'd been. Old enough to know what sex was, old enough to have tasted it in some form, he suspected. Old enough to know desire. Old enough to have died.
"Buffy, before we start." She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. When he was satisfied he had her solemn attention, he continued. "Would you like me to stop after, after I, uh, after you're, um, no longer a virgin?"
He was blushing furiously, and to his surprise so was she. She stared at his hand, closed around the condom.
"I was kinda hoping... well, that we could, that it would be my first time, for real? I'm ready to, like I said. And you probably know what you're doing. You can teach me how to, how to... you know. Do it right."
"I can," he said. He found it in himself to smile at her. She grinned back, relieved.
He set the condom aside and pulled off his t-shirt and his sweatpants, exposing himself no more than he had last night. He stretched out next to her. She cleared her throat, and reached for the waistband of his boxers. He put his hand over hers.
"Slow down, little Slayer," he said. He moved her hand to his shoulder, then scooted himself closer to her. He put his lips to her ear and whispered. "Let's get to know one another first."
He began with a simple kiss, almost chaste, a brief touch on her lips. Then again, lingering. One kiss, many kisses, many gentle touches, their bodies slowly melting together as they grew used to each other. She knew how to kiss, and met him as an equal, sweet and fierce in turns. She was no passive flower, waiting for him to take something from her. She was giving it to him, because she wanted him to have it. She laid her hands on his chest, and Giles felt her eyes on him, wondering, though not quite asking. Giles offered himself up to her exploration. He would teach her this, and anything else she cared to learn. And she wanted to learn. Her hands wandered everywhere over him, curious and insistent.
She was fascinated by the hair on his belly, by all the places where his body was different from hers. The scars on his right thigh he'd earned fighting a hellhound. The muscles of his legs, lean from jogging. She tugged his earring and made him swear never to be without it again, never pretend he was the tweedy bland man again.
She ran her fingers around the edges of his tattoo. It tingled oddly. She refused to touch it directly. "Bad vibes. You kept trying to hide this last night. What is it? A secret Watcher tattoo?"
Giles shook his head.
"Gonna tell me?"
"Not, not yet. Shouldn't ever affect you. From far in my past."
She looked doubtful, but moved on to his forearms and his hands. To his ring, which he'd been given when he'd been dedicated to her, with her symbol and his engraved on the flat black stone. Up his arms to his chest, down to his stomach again. Finally she coaxed him out of his boxers to look at his sex, straining and eager to be one with her. She had learned quickly, oh so quickly, how to set him on fire.
He sat up and laid her back on the pillows and explored her in turn. He'd touched her a hundred times before in training, correcting her grip on a sword, her stance. He'd been close enough to her to smell the silly scents she wore in her hair. She wore nothing now, but she smelled sweet to him, like honey, like drowsing in heady summer sunlight. He was drunk, dizzy with her.
She had some experience, his suspicion that she had at least touched and been touched before confirmed by her eager willingness to cradle him close, to wrap herself around him. And finally, to lay herself bare for him and accept his most intimate touch.
At last he knelt above her, looking down at her gloriously nude body, shining with life. She was smiling at him. Her eyes were dark with desire, desire for him. He knew he looked the same. He was far gone with need for her. But he paused before he took the final step.
"Know life," he said to her. "I will give you life and teach you all I know. I do this in service of Apollo, and take you under my care. As I am Apollo's beloved, so now are you my beloved."
A moment of resistance, and he was one with her. She clutched at his back with fierce strength, holding him motionless. Then she slowly relaxed, and he slipped into her gently, giving her time to learn the feeling. To learn her own body.
"All right, beloved?"
"Yeah. Oh, yeah. Please... keep going."
He began to move.
Rumors and whispers, old-boy elbow-nudges over brandy and fizz, about those girls and their urges, the things a Potential would get up to, once she'd passed the age and was allowed to be human again. All nonsense, all titillating rumor, all not one tenth of the reality. Though how much was Buffy and how much was Slayer, Giles would never be able to tell. She liked this. She took pleasure from him and gave pleasure to him joyfully. She was the Slayer, and she was master of her own body. Her strength was magnificence.
He had been waiting his whole life for this. The god had made him for this moment, raised him from a boy for this act.
His orgasm was elusive. He didn't mind. It gave him the chance to see her utterly satisfied, wringing cries from her again and again. When she seemed to have had her fill, he made as if to withdraw, but she held him tight, one Slayer-strong hand on his hip clasping his body to hers.
"You, too," she said. "You deserve it too. I want to hear you. Want to see you." Her words in his ear led him to it at last; her coaxing opened the door for him. At the moment of inevitability he allowed himself to give voice to the joy he felt. A moment of pure pleasure and union, and gratitude. He shook with deep, whole-body tremors that left him draped over her, drained.
Afterward Giles leaned back against the headboard. Buffy lay between his legs, her back against his chest. He held a water bottle for her, then drank what she'd left. He traced his fingers up and down her arm. Muscle and smooth soft skin. She smelled like clean sweat now, and musk over the honey. Like sex. Giles knew he'd never be able to forget this, that every time he saw her from now on he'd remember what she looked like beneath him, face flushed with arousal. Even if they never did this again. Especially if they never did this again.
"Nice," Buffy said. "That was nice. Does it always feel like that?"
Giles laughed, quietly. "Yes, beloved. If things go well."
"You must be good at it." She sighed. "'Cause Pike said he'd done it before, but when he touched me it wasn't... well, it wasn't like that."
Giles laughed softly, and felt her laugh as well, against his chest. "Practice. That's all it is."
"What was that stuff you said to me?"
Giles shook his head, above her where she couldn't see it, and tightened his arms around her. Of all the things she'd learned about him in the last day, this one might be the most alien. "A statement of intent. To the gods. To say why I made love to you. That I wasn't doing it because you're beautiful or because I wanted you selfishly, but because I was taking you under my care. There's... there's a thing we do, we Watchers, with each other. An older one takes a younger one as a sort of protege. The act is a, a symbol, of the gift of knowledge, from me to you."
She made a thoughtful sound. "You've done that? Merrick did?"
"Yes. All of us have."
It was a statement of intent to him, more than to the gods, but he suspected she would not understand. It also meant that she belonged to the Watchers now, bound to them by sex and ritual, as he was bound to them, and they to each other through the centuries. Not that the Watchers would stop to care.
And who knew if the gods would care about his oath? Apollo might listen, and understand, or he might not. Artemis would be angered regardless. If any of them decided to care. That was the trouble with gods; their concerns were unpredictable to mere humans. But Giles had stepped far beyond where he ought, and he knew there would be consequences, eventually. Either glory for his great daring, or painful death for his hubris. There was no telling. But Buffy did not need to know any of this yet.
He tightened his arms around her for a moment, then continued stroking her arm.
"That's why you keep calling me 'beloved'. Special name for me. What do I call you?"
"Lover. Or mentor. Or just Giles. It doesn't matter."
She poked his leg. "What else do I get with my enrollment in the Watcher sex club?"
Giles laughed. "You have certain rights over me. I owe you my attention and time, and my love. My body. And a gift of arms when you decide to release me from my obligation. Because you need more weapons, of course. The four swords over there in the corner just aren't enough."
Buffy giggled. "And does it mean I get to ask you to make love again?"
Giles flushed. "Yes, it does."
Giles sobered. "Buffy, I-- I don't know that we should. What we're doing... to say it would be misunderstood by outsiders is an understatement. Not even your friends would understand. And if the Council discovers this, I... the consequences to me would be severe. Even if this saves your life."
She sighed. "I know. I know." She leaned her head back against his shoulder, then spoke again. "Until the Solstice. I might still die. If I'm gonna, I want more of this before the end."
"Until the Solstice, then. I'm yours. But you will live, Buffy. I swear it."
She made no answer at first. "Would you want me? I mean, if you didn't have to?" Uncertainty in her voice, self-doubt.
"Oh, Buffy. Yes, you are beautiful, and I do want you. Fiercely." Two hours ago it would have been a lie, but now-- Giles held her tight against his chest. There was magic in the oath, but a stronger and older magic in what they had done together. It was why the oath was sealed that way.
Later, they lay together, quietly talking, touching again, then sleeping.
Buffy woke him with a hand on his shoulder. Giles sat up and rubbed his face.
"What's the time?"
Buffy shoved her alarm clock around to read the face. "Oh, jeez! Past noon. No wonder I'm dying here. Let's go get lunch. I know a great burger place near the beach. We can catch some rays."
They spent their days on the beach, in the sunshine. Giles allowed her to rub coconut-scented sun lotions into his back and chest, but would not touch her that way in public. She laughed at him, and made a show of anointing herself. Coconut would forever after be intensely erotic to Giles, the least whiff of it sufficient to arouse him.
She coaxed him into renting a surfboard and a summer wetsuit for her from one of the shops. He watched her learn to ride the Redondo breakwater. She learned quickly, that being the gift of the Slayers. She had an audience of young men who clustered around her, vying to teach her secrets, show her the best places on other beaches, take her out for tacos. She smiled, and paddled out with them, and let them show her when to catch the wave.
Giles lay sprawled on the sand and watched her behind his sunglasses, without worries. She was the Slayer, and the sun shone on her. Evil could not walk near her.
They spent their nights together, hunting vampires in hotspots in the city, along Sunset Strip, Venice Beach, and other places. Anywhere civilization had been worn away and poverty and homelessness left humanity easy prey for jackals of all species. One week was not enough time to drive them away, but it was enough time for the fear of the Slayer to spread.
And after the nightly hunt, they went to bed.
Buffy's dreams had stopped, which relieved Giles beyond words. It had worked. She was not the Slayer of the prophecy. Some other poor devil of a Watcher would sleep with a demon and unwittingly doom his or her Slayer to die a sacrifice, and perhaps die with her. Some other Watcher would live in the end times. Not he.
Buffy slept in peace, nestled against his shoulder. And in her place, Giles dreamed.
He dreamed of graceful youths, naked and glistening with oil and paint, performing gymnastics for the gods. Leaping onto the back of a live bull, riding it, swinging from its horns, laughing. Buffy was one of them. But the bull grew restive and angry. One by one it tossed its young riders into the air and gored them, or trampled them underfoot.
Last of all, the bull tossed Buffy, and Giles, without thinking, stepped forward and caught her. She was light in his arms. She clambered to his shoulders and launched herself at the bull from that vantage. She seized its horns and wrenched its head back. He watched her ride it, and waited to catch her again.
The second time the dream visited him, he woke and stared at the ceiling. "Yes, thanks, I do think I've received the message."
But he dreamed it every night anyway.
By Thursday, he was growing brown from the sun, and Buffy had grown skilled enough to complain that the waves weren't large enough, or reliable enough. She wanted him to drive them north to Santa Cruz. Giles laughed, and told her that his car wouldn't survive the drive. She demanded he buy a new one, and pushed him down onto the sand playfully. He laughed, and remained where he was while she carried her rented surfboard down to the water, and the friends she'd made over the week. Giles watched her swim out to take her place in line, then searched out his mystery novel from their bag. Water, sandwiches in baggies, sunblock, towels, Buffy's shed clothing. He flushed at the sight of lace, and dug past it quickly to find P. D. James at the bottom. He was nearly done with it. He'd got in more reading time than he'd expected to this week. It hadn't been a busman's holiday after all.
Some time later, he looked up and spotted Buffy not far away, talking to somebody new. Two men, one in a wetsuit with a longboard, one in t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. The one who wasn't surfing had a camera hung around his neck. They were a little older than the usual boys Buffy attracted. The surfer, a blond youth with a goatee and a red shortsuit, was good-looking. He laid his board on the sand and stood on it, demonstrating something to Buffy. Buffy seemed interested, more so than with most of the boys. They talked for a few minutes, and Buffy gestured to the water. She and the blond boy carried their surfboards out. They paddled out into the surf and joined the line of surfers waiting for the next wave.
The other man stood and watched as well, then circled around to sit somewhere behind Giles. Giles extracted a bottle of water from the bag and surreptitiously inspected him. He'd spread a towel, and was busy rubbing sunblock into his legs. They seemed harmless enough. And, as ever, Buffy was more capable of defending herself than he was. Giles drank some water and returned to his murder mystery.
Buffy spent most of the day surfing with the blond boy in the red wetsuit. Late in the afternoon, when the beach was starting to empty and Giles had begun to worry, she at last returned to him, exhausted and dripping wet and grinning hugely. She dropped the board and flopped on the towel, spraying salt water everywhere. Giles closed his book and handed her a bottle of water. She drank half of it.
"Willow would be so jealous of me."
She unzipped her wetsuit and began wriggling out of it. "I just spent all day surfing with a guy in the Thera Collective."
"Is that a rock band?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "No! It's a performance art group that Willow is into. She wants to see one of their shows, but her mom won't let her."
"Yeah. They do these big industrial installation things, with dangerous machinery. Lots of fire. People get hurt sometimes. They burned a stack of pianos once, and when they exploded somebody got a shard of wood in the leg. There's a flamethrower that walks around on remote control. And a big hydraulic plunger thing that smacks the ground really hard. Makes a huge noise and the ground shakes like it's an earthquake."
She dropped the wetsuit onto the sand. She'd track sand all over the inside of his car when they drove back. Giles sighed. As if she hadn't already filled his car with sand. No sense worrying about it. "Simulated earthquakes, really?"
"That's what Alex said, anyway."
"The guy. He was kinda cute. Willow would like him."
"Nah. He asked me out for Friday night, but I turned him down. I have Angel. And you." She looked up at him shyly, then pulled a t-shirt on over her bathing suit.
Giles wrapped his arms around his knees. "Ah. Don't hesitate on my account, Buffy. And, ah--"
"I know what you're thinking. You always get this look on your face when I talk about Angel."
He hadn't realized he'd been so transparent. He cleared his throat.
"Is it really such a bad idea to, to be with a demon?"
Giles could not lie. "Yes."
"Demons aren't meant for us, Buffy. They are our enemies. Enemies of all humans, because they are the children of Echidna. But especially ours, because we are sent by the gods to slay them." He'd slipped into lecture mode, he knew. But the alternative would be to let her hear his own, more personal, fear.
"Angel has a soul."
"Angel has a soul, and I know he's in love with you. If you love him in return and wish to be with him, I shan't stop you. But I would be a poor Watcher if I didn't warn you that it... likely will not last." For that and other reasons, but Giles was weary of it. If she could snatch some pleasure with Angel, however short-lived, he would close his eyes. Uneasily.
"Now you're just being diplomatic," Buffy said. She sprawled on her face on the towel next to him.
Giles touched her arm. "You should go out with this Alex. If you like him."
"Don't push it, Giles. Besides, my dad's coming home Friday night. I'd rather do something with him. Hey. Have you ever had sushi? I know a place."
The blond boy was there the next day as well, this time with a second friend, another man in a wetsuit. They both had windsurfing rigs that they showed off to Buffy. Buffy had been making noises about trying that instead, if he was going to insist on not driving her to a better beach. The men seemed to think it would be better further north, away from the breakwater. Giles folded up the towels, ready to relocate if Buffy wished to.
"Just watching, then?" said the one with the camera.
"I'm here to provide the transportation," said Giles. His attention was caught by the man's t-shirt, which had a logo on it of stylized bull horns, with flames rising behind. Ah, the performance art group. Fire a speciality.
The man smiled in return. "I've driven my son all over the coast this summer, it seems."
Giles made a polite noise.
"Your daughter's a really strong swimmer," Alex said to Giles. "Much faster than I am at catching the waves."
"He's not my father. He's a friend," Buffy said. She seemed annoyed.
Alex was thrown off for a moment, then gamely continued, "Well, hey, come on, want to try this?"
"Not gonna surf any more, Alex, sorry. I need to return the gear. We're going to Universal today. Giles is a big fan of virtual coasters."
Giles glared at her, but said nothing to contradict. She was obviously letting the young man down gently. She'd decided to stay with Angel, he guessed.
Alex shrugged. "Here's a flyer to our show tomorrow night. Love to see you. And we have a big thing planned for the Solstice. A volcano, sort of. With real lava."
"Dangerous enough for you, I think," said his father.
"Yeah, maybe. Does sound cool. Hey, it was great surfing with you yesterday."
They were gone, and Buffy lifted the surfboard over her head and carried it to the shop.
"Were you serious about this other plan?"
She grinned. "You would hate every single second of it, from the parking lot on. Nah. You're taking me to the Getty, where you can explain all the Doris Day columns and stuff."
Giles lit up. She took his hand and led him back to the car while he fizzed over with anticipation, and explained to her how many antiquities were in the collection, including some in his area of speciality. Buffy was surprised to hear he had a specialty, and he was subject to a long catechism about exactly what he'd done for a living before he'd come to Sunnydale. The questions lasted most of the way through the museum tour, and he found himself telling her far more than he'd expected to about his life. Afterward he took her somewhere nice for dinner, a place he'd read about in the paper. Her manners were perfect, her pleasure in the experience obvious. Giles drank wine and watched her glow. Not even Buffy's side-trip to stake the parking lot attendant dampened the evening, and it ended as all their evenings that week had ended: in bed, in each other's arms.
And then it was Friday. Buffy's father would return in the evening; the next day was the Solstice, and the crisis point of the prophecy. Neither one felt like going anywhere. They paced about the house. Buffy worked out using the weight machine near its highest settings. Giles re-read the Codex and double-checked his translations. He took out his whetstones and brought all of the swords in the house to the finest edge he could.
They made love one last time in the afternoon. Giles took his time about it, committing every last detail of her body to memory, every gasp he wrested from her, every caress she gave him. Afterwards he reminded her that it was their last time, that the Solstice was upon them, and things would change. "Maybe," she said, and she refused to look him in the eye.
Giles wondered if he'd have trouble with her, if he'd made an error when he'd agreed to anything more than their first time. He'd have trouble enough managing himself. He dared not reveal to her just how much he wanted to continue it. As much as she did, perhaps. But it was up to him to give her what she needed, no matter how hard on them both it was. So he showered and dressed by himself while she pretended to be cheerful in the kitchen, and packed his duffle. He gave her a last kiss at the door, and left her alone in the dead house. He drove his car away down the hills in the stifling heat, out of the maze of the homes of the wealthy and down onto the flats. He told himself he had no choice.
That evening he called her cellphone from his cold motel room and left his number on her messages. She called him hours later, after she'd climbed through her window for her patrol. They talked quietly, briefly. Her father had come home, loaded with more jewelry and a pair of cowboy boots. He'd taken her out to dinner and was full of talk about the partnership he might get out of his Taos business. He'd invited Buffy to go with him on the next trip, which would involve golf. Buffy was doubtful, but Giles encouraged her to go. It would keep her mind off him, distract her.
They were to meet in the morning, early, at a nearby cafe, so they would be together when the exact hour of the Solstice came. Giles reminded her of the address and the time, and bid her goodnight.
He hung up the phone and turned onto his back. He was a long mile away from her, lying between stiff sheets that reeked of cheap detergent, listening to endless traffic growling past the motel. Giles stared at the ceiling and cataloged his sins, weighed his depravity in a balance. Sex with his Slayer should not have been such joy. Was he a monster? He had repeatedly violated what he had been told was one of his primary responsibilities toward the Slayer, and it had been sweet. She had been sweet to touch, to taste, to hear.
No monster, no sinner. A Watcher who'd done his duty by his Slayer, and seen her well-pleased. His only error was leaving her to come to this motel, leaving her alone on the night before the Solstice. Now he understood why Slayers were taken from their families. He belonged with her. He was her shadow.
Giles fancied he could sense her, that long mile away, between him and the ocean. She would be as restless as he, longing for the hunt, but knowing she had to sleep, to be ready. Seven hours until the Solstice proper, and the resumption of the mantle of anxious Watcher. Giles turned onto his side and curled around a pillow.
Something woke him. Giles blinked in the morning glare. Sunlight, slanting in through blinds he hadn't quite closed in the night. The alarm hadn't gone yet. What had woken him? A truck driving past? It still troubled him, but he brushed it away. He rolled out of his mean little bed and into the shower. He dressed in black jeans and a loose white cotton shirt, sleeves turned up to expose skin that had begun to brown. Combat boots on, laced carefully. It was possible they'd be fighting. It was possible they'd be sitting bored at the cafe where they were supposed to meet, drinking au lait and doing the crossword. That would be something of an anticlimax.
Though that thought was unfair: Buffy would be safe, so he would be content. Or as content as a man could be, when he could not have the woman he wanted, when his body hungered. Giles took a firm grip on his emotions and set aside his desire. He would live as if he believed what he'd told her yesterday.
He put on his sunglasses and carried his duffle bag of weapons out to his car. In the cafe, he sat with a coffee and the morning paper by the window. He ordered breakfast for them both and waited for her to appear.
But she didn't.
When she was fifteen minutes late, Giles asked the waitress for change, and rang her mobile number from the payphone by the door. No answer, and after four rings he heard her cheerful voice asking her caller to leave a message describing the nature of the apocalypse. He smiled despite his worry, and reminded her where the restaurant was.
When she was half an hour late, he rang her again, and hung up the phone before he could be taunted by her recorded voice.
When she was forty-five minutes late, Giles used the phone a third time, this time daring to ring her home. He'd hang up if her father answered. But no one answered, not even the answering machine. The phone rang on and on.
Giles threw a twenty-dollar bill at his table and ran for his car. He drove up the winding roads, through the suburban maze, as fast as the Citroen would go, running stop signs recklessly. He pulled the Citroen to a stop at the curb in front of the house, still dithering about whether he dared introduce himself to her father. He'd taken only two steps up the walk when he saw that the front door was ajar. He covered the last few yards at a dead run. He burst through the door, calling her name, and tripped over a body. He caught himself against the wall.
Hank Summers, unconscious on the entryway floor. Breathing. In pajamas.
Giles stepped over him and ran down the hall. He shouted for her again, foolishly. No one in the room, but the blankets puddled on the floor, the lamp smashed. Signs of struggle everywhere, in broken furniture and dents in the walls. Buffy had put up a fight, but they'd taken her in the night. Someone had. Something.
Out, moving fast, to check on her father. Perhaps he'd seen it.
No signs of injury, or of burning around the mouth and nose. A magical attack, then. Giles laid a hand on Hank Summer's forehead, and explored the spell signature. He'd be out for a few more hours, and awaken with partial amnesia. A simple spell, but nothing Giles could do other than let the man come out of it.
Giles swore. Was this how it was to end? Buffy carried away and slaughtered while her Watcher waited helplessly, miles away? All his fussing about oaths and fate and tradition, his act of defiance, all his love for her, meaningless.
He raised his voice and shouted. "Apollo! A duty is owed to your servant, who has sacrificed all in the service of your Slayer! Where is she? Tell me where she is! If this is to mean anything, I must know!"
Nothing. No sign. No presence. No help.
He punched the wall. The god had abandoned him, and Giles cursed him luridly. He stood again, in a near panic. Think, fool. Think. He had no information, nothing to go on, no idea where she was. He felt a whine build in the back of his throat. Giles forced himself to calm down. He'd be useless to Buffy if he stayed in a panic.
He did have something to go on. The men who'd talked with Buffy on the beach, who'd given her a flier. They'd twice tried to lure her away from him. They'd had a thrice-damned bull-horn symbol on their shirts. It had been staring him in the face. Blind. He'd been blind. What had been the name?
Giles flung himself into the kitchen. He yanked open drawers until he found what he sought. The yellow pages, ripped through at speed. Thera Collective. An address north of him. Thomas's Guide, also in the drawer where the phone book had been. It was near the airport, near LAX. Giles took the maps with him and drove, through weekend traffic, to the dead streets of an industrial area south of the airport. Air shimmering in the heat from bleak stretches of tarmac, warehouses with sun-bleached paint.
The address was just another factory building, of brick and corrugated iron. A cluster of cars and a windowless van in front. Painted on the side of the building, directly on the brick, was the name "Thera" and a stylized volcano. The paint was worn. Much newer and neater was a metal sign with stylized bull horns.
He pulled around to a side door and parked. He got out of the car and opened the boot. He armed himself for a serious fight: stake in the left boot, combat knife in his right boot. He hung his father's xiphos at his hip. And finally, his crossbow, loaded, slung over his shoulder. He slammed the boot down. The sound echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings. More than ten million people in the city, and none of them nearby. All of them deaf and blind and numb to the coming apocalypse.
She wasn't a virgin. Sacrificing her wouldn't stop an earthquake, wouldn't propitiate the god. They had to be stopped, before they killed a girl needlessly in their fear. If he could avoid violence, he would. Though they would likely fight him; true believers rarely listened to reason.
Giles pushed at the door handle; unlocked. He slipped inside, into cool air and darkness. He shut the door behind himself and let his eyes adjust. He could hear men's voices chanting, in a large space nearby. He was in a storage area, behind crates and a mess of scrap metal. Drums of jet fuel. Machinery, chains, motors. The burnt hulk of something that had once run on treads. The air stank of machine oil and hot metal, of diesel fumes and chemicals. He moved cautiously, crossbow down at his side, out and into the main space.
There were men in the center of a large factory space. Between him and them was a metal sculpture. Giles moved quickly, and sheltered behind it. He took another glance around. Near him, a pit stacked high with wood for reasons he could not guess. To the side, a forge, door open, glowing red, with heated crucibles of something inside. This was the source of most of the stench. Beyond the fire pit, his quarry.
Giles took a closer look at what he hid behind. The statues were of skeletal humans in twisted and strained poses, assembled from glass and bronze and other metals. If the figures had not looked so tortured, he might almost have called them pretty. The glass was lovely, shimmering with iridescence. Giles looked within the shifting rippled surface of the glass and saw bone. Human bones. He looked again, more carefully. The skeletal figures all had bones, full skeletons inside, as far as he could see. Human bones, from short slight girls.
There were names and dates in the metal bases.
Edna Rammage, 1906. That was a Slayer's name. She'd vanished, mysteriously, leaving her Watcher Creighton Faust insane with grief. How had her remains ended here?
Dolores Estrellita. 1971. He didn't know the name.
Jennifer Foster, 1989. Giles knew that name, had known the girl's Watcher. She'd been a Slayer less than a year, and yes, she'd been based in San Francisco.
Sarah Powers, 1994. He didn't know the name, but he knew enough now to guess why that year. The Northridge quake. Hundreds dead. There'd been a period of a few months in 1994 when no Slayer had been called. They'd thought. Giles now guessed that a Slayer had been called, and she'd died. Been slaughtered, alone and terrified.
These were dead Slayers. Even the ones he did not know.
Eternity, hung on a wall.
Did these men believe they were preventing earthquakes? It didn't matter. The horned ones tricked men into doing evil. Deluded, foolish, short-sighted men, who took drugs and summoned the sleepwalker for a night of sex. Or deluded, foolish, arrogant men, who slaughtered girls and summoned demons to avert earthquakes. Death always followed. Death had followed, fire and destruction and blood, and these fools still had not understood. They would call the emissary of their god here, feed Giles' Slayer to him, and then the city would die.
His hands shook. He fought it down. Buffy. Stay focused on Buffy. Giles sheltered behind the assemblage made from the bones of dead Slayers and spied out his enemies.
Eight humans in robes and bull masks, arranged around something that Giles recognized as a summoning circle. A man in a while robe stood in its center. Chalk describing an eight-pointed star; candles and bloody heaps of something at the points. Dead animals. Birds, a small dog, a snake. Other things. They were far advanced into the summoning, judging by the frantic pitch of the chants and the flickering darkness at the center of the star.
Buffy was there. Alive, though how he was so certain of this he didn't know. She was chained naked to a saltire cross suspended in the center of the circle, about five feet off the ground. Inverted. The concrete was stained red underneath the cross. If they had hurt her in any way he would chain them in her place one by one and flay them alive. He held the fury in check long enough to perform a tactical evaluation. Much as he longed to scream and leap at them directly, he knew he'd manage to kill two or three at the most before the others overwhelmed him. He needed Buffy to win this fight. But first he needed a vantage point. Someplace to snipe from with the crossbow.
He moved again, confident that they were completely distracted by the strain of the summoning. Stairs up to a balcony, then a ladder up to the catwalk. He mounted as quietly as he could.
The summoning reached a climax, and Giles heard the sound of ripping dimensions that meant an opened circle. The chanting fell silent. He paused in his progress along the catwalk to look down at the summoning circle.
Within it moved a bull-headed demon that might as well be called a Minotaur. Huge. With the horns, it was ten feet tall. A powerful human chest and shoulders, human hips transforming into animal legs ending in hoofed feet. It was nude, and its genitalia were huge. Giles shut off that thought. He had to find a way to rescue Buffy from that fate. Now.
He moved to the corner of the catwalk, to a spot that gave him a clear shot down at the circle. Buffy was motionless on the cross, the demon directly beside her, its hands on her.
He unslung the crossbow from his shoulder. He whispered a brief invocation to the god of archers. Apollo Aphetoros would likely take his side in this battle: he was no friend to the blood-drunk bull-god of Knossos. He watched the demon moving in the sights for a few seconds. Giles let out his breath, waited two heartbeats, and fired. He spoke a word of power as it flew: πυρου. It caught fire.
The minotaur had moved. The bolt landed in the firepit, and the magic did its work. The wood caught.
He will bring fire to the sacrifice.
Giles had no time to curse himself for a fool, for the bull-demon bellowed, and the men swarmed into frantic motion around it. There were words in the cry, though Giles did not know the language. It stamped, and the earth shook. The catwalk vibrated under Giles.
The bull was bellowing again, and stamping. The catwalk shook, harder than before, and Giles fell to his knees. He recovered his feet. He had to move, now, or die. He ran headlong toward the platform at the end, fixed solidly to a support pillar.
A lighting strut fell, and shot sparks across the catwalk where he'd been. He was safe for the moment, and the circle was nearly directly below him, and the assembly the cross hung from was within reach just over his head. The chain ran through a pulley block, controlled by a motor. Giles couldn't see the control box, but he could unhook the chain. He seized it, unhooked and pulled. The beam swung slowly toward him. Giles grunted, and leaned his back into it. Hand over hand, pulling her up to him. The chain rattled in the pulley block.
The earth shook again, the narrow span under him flexed and rippled. The crossbow fell over the edge. Giles cursed, but did not stop pulling. A segment of catwalk fell: they would need to bridge the gap to reach him. And he was cut off from the ladder.
The man in the white robes had reached the gap in the catwalk. He raised his hands and chanted something. Giles ignored him and pulled. The chain was heating in his hands. Hotter second by second. It began to sting his palms, then hurt. The priest screamed again, and the chain glowed red in Giles' hand. One more pull, and the cross rested on the platform beside him. The flesh of his left palm had blistered. He curled his hand against his chest in agony. One moan escaped him, then he mastered himself. Checked his Slayer. Uninjured, at least seriously.
"Finally," Buffy said. Her face was red, but she looked more angry than uncomfortable. "Get these chains off me. Can't break 'em."
Giles struggled with them one-handed. They seemed to have no endpoints, no place where they were fastened. "Magic," he said. "Who chained you?"
"That bastard in white."
"High priest," Giles murmured. "He's mine. I want his blood. Buffy. These men have been killing Slayers."
"I know. Just get me off this thing."
There were angry red marks on her arms, slices that looked like knife cuts. Giles ran his fingers over them. Already healing, but-- "They hurt you!"
"They wanted blood for something."
He removed his shirt and tied it around her hips, to give her some semblance of modesty.
"They'll get across the gap in a minute," he said. He leaned against her side for a moment, comforting her in her bonds. "I'll free you, my Slayer."
Then he stood. The priest had grabbed the lighting strut and laid it across the gap in the catwalk. Time to fight. He drew his sword right-handed and silently blessed the Council swordmasters.
They met in the center. The priest had a double-headed axe, a labrys. Ceremonial, and probably made from trash metal, but its reach was greater than Giles'. He dodged back from a slow swing, then riposted with a thrust that sent the priest two steps backward. Not his equal, then, and this fight would already be over if Giles' stronger hand were usable. He'd use the terrain: back the man to the edge, then send him over.
The priest spoke. Giles realized it was the man who'd had the camera on the beach, two days ago.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"This is difficult for you. To offer up your Slayer. But please know, she dies for the greater good."
"No! You don't understand. She's not a virgin. The sacrifice will do no good--"
"They're never virgins when they are offered to the god. Artemis's gift is surrendered first. Lay down your arms. We won't harm you."
Giles thrust. The priest danced out of the way, but could not get the axe in motion quickly enough to respond. Giles watched and waited for his opening.
"You cannot prevent this," the priest said. "We have already given the god a taste of her blood. He has sent his emissary to take her."
"It's barbaric to sacrifice humans. Evil. It can never be done in the service of life. You'll unleash more evil--"
The priest laughed and the axe drifted down. "Slayers are not human. You know this."
"No," said Giles. "Not human. Divine. And I have been charged by my god to protect her."
"You'll kill her yourself in two years, Watcher. Her life now buys the lives of many."
Giles lunged and struck into the priest's belly before he could even lift his weapon. He screamed. The labrys dropped from his hands, bounced from the catwalk, and fell. He went to his knees, arms wrapped around his gut.
"She will not die while I live. Release her."
Giles spared a glance behind himself. Buffy had gone still on the cross and was watching intently. The high priest raised his head.
Giles noted that he took no action to release Buffy. No matter; Giles knew how to release her. His face tightened in grim resignation. He advanced a step closer and pressed the sword point against the man's throat.
"It's too late, Watcher. He is here. The earth will swallow your sun-god, Watcher. The tower falls today." The priest was sweating and shaking from his wound. It was likely mortal. Buffy was still captive. Behind him the cultists dropped a plank across the gap.
"How many Slayers have you killed?"
The man's face twisted in pain. "As many as we needed. As many as the god asked for."
"I'm sorry," said Giles, and drove the blade into his throat. The blood-splash was hot across his chest and belly. The priest collapsed forward onto his face, twitching out the last of his life. At that moment, the binding spell on Buffy's chains unknitted, and she fell from the cross.
Giles threw himself flat. His left palm scraped on metal as he went down, and he hissed. He heard a rattle and a deep metallic thud which mean Buffy had bludgeoned something with the chains. Then a scream, from a man falling. She was in front of him, feet planted. Chains dangled from her wrists. He got to his feet again.
Hand out. Giles gave her the sword. She shifted it to her left hand, and climbed onto the catwalk railing. Before he could gasp out a warning, she flung herself into space. Giles' stomach lurched, but she seized another chain on her way past and swung gracefully to a lower catwalk. Giles tore his gaze from her and set his attention on the pair of humans advancing toward him cautiously, one at a time on the narrow catwalk. They had knives, ceremonial athames with ornate swept-forward hilts. Giles grinned. This was going to be easy, even with his off hand. He drew his combat knife from his right boot and moved.
The first took his blade in the gut and was thrown over the catwalk rail. The second turned to flee, and Giles hamstrung him before he kicked him screaming out into space.
Shouts and noise from below meant Buffy was fighting. Giles ran across the plank and bolted for the ladder. Four humans, one minotaur. And the demon alone would be more than a match for a Slayer. He thrust his bloodied knife back into his boot and descended the ladder one-handed, as fast as he could.
The scene on the warehouse floor was chaos. Blood spattered from the men who'd fallen from above. Fire raging in the pit. A circle of men, moving around Buffy. Just three; she'd taken one out already, using the chains on her wrists to bludgeon. Clever Slayer. She was fighting in a holding pattern, concentrating on picking off the humans while the minotaur raged and stomped. Every stamp of its hoofs made the earth shake. Little quakes, 3.0, 4.0. The city must be-- Giles stopped thinking about that. They must kill this thing.
Giles ran behind a blond man who had unwarily focused on Buffy and ignored her Watcher. Alex, the surfer boy who'd attempted to lure Buffy away. He grabbed a handful of shaggy blond hair with his left hand, ignoring the pain from the burns, and pulled his head back. He cut Alex's throat and let his body fall forward. Two left.
He was beyond fury. He at last had his wish: brutal violence, battle, a chance to break the bones of the men who would harm his Slayer. Who had kidnapped Slayers before her, had handed them over to demons to suffer and die. There was no mercy in him for men who would summon demons and sacrifice humans to them. Sacrifice girls. Slayers. Buffy.
Any Watcher alive would have done the same.
Buffy was more aggressive now, with only two humans to worry about. One of the men peeled away from her and circled Giles. This was the other surfer from the beach. A fit man. And he knew what to do with himself and the knife in his hand. Giles gave him no chance to demonstrate it: he closed the distance between them with utter reckless disregard for his own safety. He kicked the knife out of the man's hand and then kneed him in the groin. When he doubled over in agony, Giles stuck his knife between his ribs and jerked sideways. The man screamed and attempted to curl up around the knife. Giles yanked it out and let him drop. He spasmed on the floor, choking on his own blood.
Giles stepped over him and moved to help Buffy. The humans were all gone; just the demon left now. He waited in a knife-fighter's crouch, calmer now, and watched the fight progress in front of him.
Buffy had some minor injuries, bloody scratches on her arms, a red hoofprint on her ribs, but was moving freely. The minotaur was unharmed. They had each other's measure, though, and the clashes were growing serious. On their next pass at each other, Buffy scored a touch on its arm and drew blood. She was unable to follow up and had to dance back out of the way to avoid its counterblow.
Giles had an idea. He pulled a chunk of wood from the fire and threw it at the beast. It hit, and the demon bellowed in pain. Buffy took advantage of its distraction and rushed in, sword up. She swung, but she'd telegraphed the blow. It was elsewhere, and then it was on her, punching with a huge fist. Buffy's head snapped back, and she flew backwards.
Buffy tumbled and came to her feet gracefully. She'd lost the sword.
Giles had moved behind it and in. He slashed at its legs right-handed. Thick skin, a cow's skin, not a man's. No damage. He risked a second attempt, but was rewarded only with a backward kick. He caught a hoof in his chest. He found himself on his back, wheezing in an agonized breath. A second breath. Ignore the pain. Up on his feet, find the knife where he'd dropped it, move back in range.
He was not going to be able to harm it. It was up to Buffy. The minotaur knew this as well, and ignored him.
Buffy danced around next to him. "Distract it. I gotta get behind it. Gimme ten seconds." Then she was gone, moving fast. The minotaur followed her, closer and closer to the fire. Giles thought he understood her plan.
He made as if he'd stumbled and fell. He bent over his ankle and held himself still, a tempting target. The minotaur saw him and rushed. At the last moment, Buffy sprang onto its back. Giles rolled backwards, desperate to avoid the horns. It kicked him, a glancing blow on the thigh. He pushed himself to his feet with his left fist, and scrambled.
She was on its shoulders now, riding it, a hand on the horns to pull its head back. It bucked and spun. She held fast, but for how long? Giles found his sword, discarded nearby, and tossed it to her. Buffy caught it neatly and drove the blade deep into the minotaur's neck. A horrible sound-- a wheezing cry that was more human than animal, and black blood fountained out. It went to its knees, and then pitched forward.
Buffy was flung to the concrete. She lay there a moment, and Giles ran to her. But she was whole. She sat up. Another aftershock, hard. Buffy waited until it was over to stand.
"Five-oh, at least. Wasn't killing this earthshaker jerk supposed to stop the quakes?"
A crash from above. Giles looked up to the sound: more lighting struts falling.
"We killed only his emissary. The god is going to take the city anyway."
"We gotta get out of here or this place is gonna fall on us--"
"No! Buffy, sacrifice it. On the fire. Heart and head."
Buffy gave him a doubtful look, but obeyed. She hacked the blade at the thick neck as if it were a machete. Blood and flesh sprayed. She took the head by a horn and held it to the sky, dripping blood. She heaved it into the fire. It caught and burned. The stench was terrible, burned meat and scorched hair and blood.
Buffy took his knife from him and dug into the human chest of the demon, undaunted by the gore. "Your heart, not mine, you bastard," she said. She flung it onto the fire.
"Apollo Phoebus! We have slain your enemy." Giles shouted. "We offer him to your honor!"
The quaking stopped. Something shifted in the air beside them, and tore open. Bright golden light shone through, and then the god himself was present. Giles shaded his eyes.
"And so you have."
The god stepped forward. He was in the form of Apollo Phoebus Chrysaor, in golden armor, bearing spear and shield and sword. Perfect, unbearably desirable, shining in the darkness of the smoky factory. He spoke again, in the clear tenor voice Giles had known once. "Well met again, my brave one. Greetings to you, little Slayer."
Buffy was staring straight at him. "Who the hell are you?"
Giles flinched, but the god merely laughed. "The one who made you."
"Not the only one, brother." The gate between the world was still open, and another figure stepped through, silver-bright, modestly dressed. Bow and horn, hound at her heel. Artemis. Giles swallowed and gathered his courage in both hands.
"What the hell. It's a glowing people party. Can one of you tell me how to get these chains off my wrists? They're not accessorizing."
"You," said the goddess. "You have forfeited my blessing and protection. The night is no longer safe for you."
"Big deal," said Buffy. Giles could see from her face that she had no comprehension of who the goddess was, or what she meant. Or perhaps she did, and was taking a stand. "It's not like the night's been a barrel of laughs to begin with."
"I can claim my due now, mortal--"
Giles stepped between them. "It's not the time," he said.
Artemis turned her regard upon him. Giles returned it steadily, boldly. Bite deep. She took a step toward him, but her brother interposed himself.
"He is mine, sister," Apollo said.
"Your oath will be bitter in your mouth, Watcher, when you deliver her to me at last, and you see what your lust has brought upon her. When her time comes, they will not find enough of her to bury."
"My oath will be my shield," said Giles. "I will honor it." His voice was steady. He saw no reason to tell his enemy what he meant.
"See you do," said the goddess. She smiled, a terrible sight on that lovely, perfect face, and was gone.
Apollo remained. He took a step closer to Giles, and Giles went to a knee. "See that you hold to your oath, beloved. Your true oath."
"Yes, kyrios. I understand."
"I believe you do. And little Slayer! You please me greatly. You slew the earthshaker's son."
Buffy regarded Apollo with grudging respect. "I didn't like him."
Apollo laughed. "I didn't, either. I grant you a reward."
The fire of the god descended on them, the heat of a million suns. Giles closed his eyes tight and covered them with a forearm. When the heat had faded, he opened them and saw dancing afterimages. He blinked. Buffy was standing, looking up. She held his sword in one hand, but the chains were gone from her arms. Little else remained to mark their battle. The cultists' bodies had vanished, along with the glass-covered bones of their victims. The firepit was empty as well: not even ash left to mark the place where the minotaur had burned.
Buffy dropped the sword. It clanged on the concrete. Giles winced for the sake of the blade. But she was next to him, kissing him. He cradled her with his good arm and kissed her back.
"Did you watch that? Wild. He seemed pissed at those guys. A couple of them were still alive, and he dismantled them. Bad-ass. You've met him before?"
Giles laughed, with some difficulty. His ribs were bruised. "Yes. That was the god Apollo."
"Good for him. I don't see any reward."
"There. At the center of the circle."
Two objects, glittering. A sword and a knife. A gift of arms from the god to the Slayer. Buffy took the sword. A short sword, a xiphos by the shape, in a sheath. The hilt was leather-wrapped horn. The sheath was inlaid with gold and ivory, in designs that showed a girl and a bull. She was shown leaping it, slaughtering it, and consigning it to flame. And also leaping into the arms of a muscular man. A tribute to the fight they had just won, then. Buffy drew it and held it up so they could both see. On the blade was a stylized sun, with rays running its length. It was lovely and deadly. Buffy's weapon. A Slayer's weapon, destined to be handed down from one to the next. An heirloom of sorts.
"Hey, I think this is yours."
Buffy handed him the knife. Giles took it in his right hand and held it up. It was modern in shape, not a makhaira, but instead like the knife he had just used on the cultists. A sharp point and a single cutting edge, curved. Wickedly sharp, of course. The blade had the same stylized sun as Buffy's. It also had the same leather and horn hilt, and similar designs, simplified, on the sheath. It was obviously a mate to hers, and just as obviously his. It felt good in his hand. An heirloom for the Watchers, then, an artifact. Giles felt a pang to think of it waiting out the centuries in that shrine, next to the sword. This was meant to be used, meant to drink sweat and blood.
"Lovely," was all he said. He tucked it into his right boot. He would use it, and to hell with the shrine and solemn dust.
"What's wrong with your hand? You're hurt!"
Buffy knelt next to him and took his left hand. She uncurled his fingers. He hissed. The battle fury had faded from him, and the pain had begun to replace it. His palm was a blistered mess. She examined it with no trace of disgust, though his own stomach turned. She eased off his Watcher's ring, the one with his name and hers intertwined, and slid it onto his right hand. The finger had been burned underneath where the metal had been. This would leave scars.
"First aid, now. No arguments. Those are second degree. Where's the car?"
"You need clothes, Buffy."
Buffy looked down at herself, almost surprised. The godfire had cleansed her of demon blood, but not her own. She was almost as bruised as he was. Her injuries would be gone by this time tomorrow, but he was not so blessed. He touched his good hand to the center of his chest, where the minotaur had kicked him.
First she found his shirt where it had fallen to the floor and helped him put it on. Then she rummaged to the side, and found her own clothing. The shirt was torn, but wearable. Giles felt anger rise inside him again, considering how it must have been torn, while they stripped an unconscious girl.
They were dead. Dead, and their bodies burned away by the god. Their souls would wander homeless. Giles smiled through his pain.
He led Buffy out of the warehouse and back to the Citroen. She opened the boot and extracted his emergency kit, which held a complete change of clothes for him, energy bars, and a first aid kit. She coated his hand with antibiotic gel while he gritted his teeth, then wound a quick bandage around it.
"Emergency room," she told him.
Giles was now in too much pain to drive. Buffy gave him no choice, but took the keys from him. She claimed to have a permit, though he was in no frame of mind to verify it.
It took them some time to pick their way out of the industrial zone and south to a hospital. The city was in chaos, fire trucks in motion, ambulances, traffic lights out. Citizens stood in intersections directing traffic. Buffy turned on the radio, and they heard the details: a series of quakes ranging from five to just over seven on the Richter scale, though estimates varied. Freeway overpasses fallen. Minor fires. A death toll in the hundreds. Giles wondered how bad it would have been if they had succeeded in offering Buffy to the god. Flame and ash, the entire city consumed?
Prophecy fulfilled. As always. And as always, it had carried the seeds of its own fulfillment. Its words had driven him to go to her, to know her, and to lead her to sacrifice head and heart to the god. His god, at last propitiated. The end times were theirs. Giles laughed through his pain, and Buffy gave him an odd look before returning to the task of driving.
In the casualty ward, he joined a line of earthquake victims with injuries like his. Broken limbs, minor burns, some more serious. It took hours, even with being sorted near the top of the list, and by the end he was worn out by the pain, and giddy from the drugs they'd given him to ease it while he waited. They asked him no questions about how it had happened, simply treated him, gave him scripts for drugs, and released him so they could move on to the next.
Buffy drove them to her father's home. Giles waited in the car, cradling his hand against his chest. She ran in to fetch her bag. Her father, she said, was awake again, confused. He was content to explain away the mess in the house as earthquake damage. She'd told him she was off to assist emergency services.
They found the refuge of his motel room. They showered together, to wash off the stench of the incense and the smoke, still thick in Giles' nose. Giles was exhausted. He buzzed from the painkillers. Buffy had put on pajamas, so he did the same, one-handed and awkward. They curled together on the bed, warm and clean and smelling of Giles' sandalwood soap. He pulled a blanket over their shoulders. His hand was wrapped tight in layers of gauze, and it throbbed with his heartbeat. He rested it against his shoulder, careful not to jar it.
Buffy had not made any overtures. Giles was content to hold her, to comfort her and take comfort from her. She hadn't yet talked about what had happened while she was captive. He thought about what it had been like for him, and decided to probe.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine. Slayer healing already did its thing. You got it much worse." She touched his left hand, where it rested against the opposite shoulder.
"I meant... emotionally. It must have been difficult to have been, to have, ah..."
"Been chained naked upside down to a cross? Yeah. Difficult is one word."
Her voice shook a little under the bravado. He kissed her forehead. "I understand."
"No. You can't. They touched me. They checked to see if I was a virgin. And when they found out I wasn't they, they-- And then that thing touched me. It was horrible, Giles. A demon had its hands on me."
"Buffy, I do understand. Truly. It was a demon for me, as well."
"You? It happened to you? You said it ended badly, but--"
"Horribly. No one rescued me. I had to do it myself. Eventually. So I understand. It helped that I killed the demon myself, with my own hands, as you did the minotaur. It's dead, Buffy. You killed it. It can't harm you again."
"Yeah," she said. "I know."
She was crying. He understood that, too. Bravery and self-command until it was all over, and she was safe. Then she could let go. He held her close and let her weep into his chest. He didn't tell her to hush, or that it was all right. It wasn't, and only time would make it easier to think about.
Buffy got out of bed and went into the motel room's little bathroom. He heard her blowing her nose, then the sound of running water. She came back to him and turned out the light before she joined him under the blankets. Giles could still see her sword where she'd left it, glittering in the street lights that leaked around the curtains. It was a lovely thing. It meant something, though he wasn't sure what. Something more than just a means of ensuring Buffy's absurd name would be forever remembered by the Watchers. The god had plans. This was never a good thing for the mortals caught up in them.
Buffy moved close to him and rested her head on his chest. "Giles? When I feel better, when your hand is better, can we make love again?"
"Oh, my sweet Buffy. I can't. I'm bound to you, sworn to you. I will never leave you. But I can't be your lover."
"Your age, my position, everything makes it impossible for now, Buffy. You must see this."
"Giles. What about your obligation?"
"I must beg you to wait."
He nuzzled into her hair. "Hush. I will go back to Sunnydale, and you will call me every night until the summer is over. And when you return, we'll train and fight together. And we will be the best and closest sort of friends, friends who were once lovers. And you will date handsome boys, and take the lucky ones to your bed, and live as sweet and as perfect a life as I can arrange for you."
"And when I turn eighteen..."
"When you turn eighteen, and when you graduate, I will be yours again. If you feel the same way."
"I will," she said.
She stole a kiss from him, and Giles returned it. But his stomach was lead. When she turned eighteen. When the goddess demanded her life back. When his oath to her demanded that he stand in open defiance of the goddess and the Watchers and three thousand years of tradition. Giles gathered Buffy tight against him, and wondered what he would tell her. When the time came for them both to die.