Sunnydale is a crater. A bomb site. A launch point for the yellow school bus moving across the southwest, going Giles doesn’t know where. He’s driving it, and he doesn’t know. Somebody said something about Cleveland. Cleveland sounds as good a destination as any to Giles. Someone’s ignited a rocket under him, and he obediently arcs up and away, riding the flame of Sunnydale’s destruction into the night.
They’re somewhere in Arizona, puttering east on the ruler-line interstate. Giles has a stack of maps from Triple-A, which Buffy has folded badly, but he doesn’t need them. The road signs are clear, and the intervals at which he must do something other than hold the steering wheel and press the gas are measured in the hundreds of miles. They’re outside of Flagstaff, the signs tell him. It’s nearly eight, and the sun has long since set in his rear view mirror.
Giles is tired and hungry and punch-drunk and secretly euphoric. Sunnydale is a crater. A smoking hole in the ground, filled with dust and concrete and cars and prefab housing and the bricks of what had been his shop and the ivy that grew on the wall outside the flat where he lived for five years. All pulverized and incinerated and illuminated into one flash of vampire-immolating light. Bloody good riddance. Happy to see it go. Deliriously happy.
Best not to think about why, exactly. Drive the bus up and out into the dark and the stars winking in on the eastern horizon.
Flagstaff is upon them, in the form of exit signs. Giles sees a cluster of lights, the logos of petrol stations perched on stalky legs, the neon blazon of a hotel that looks large enough to accommodate the lot of them on no warning. They need seven rooms, assuming everybody doubles up. Eight. Giles will take a room for himself. Glorious solitude.
Giles pulls off the freeway and maneuvers the bus down the exit ramp. He’s got the hang of driving it already. He’s done something like it before. He remembers driving a motorhome out of Sunnydale and across the Mojave, remembers being carried from it spasming in agony. Remembers his Slayer holding his hand while he said something sentimental. Can’t remember what he said, exactly, or what happened afterward. Not going to happen this time. He’s untouched. His Slayer punched the forces of evil in the face but good.
He almost giggles as he parks the bus under a buzzing sign that reads WEL OME SENIORS.
The sign turns out not to mean pensioners. High school seniors. American high-schoolers of an age he was once intimately familiar with. They mill through the lobby in their rented tuxes and bought-to-wear-once dresses. Corsages on wrists and necks. The girls carefully made up by their friends, the boys wearing ties they will undo as soon as they’ve been photographed. Giles remembers Buffy at these occasions. He quietly provided the corsage for her senior prom, handed the box to Joyce and told her not to say anything. Let her think it came from Angel. He wore his tux-- not rented-- for her. Acting in loco. Loco. He feels loco now, like putting on a tux and drinking too much champagne and dancing with each and every one of the girls giggling behind him.
Giles still has the tux. Not here. It’s hanging in a closet in his flat in Bath. Waiting for him. He can’t fit all these Slayers in the flat. Can’t teleport the tux. So no formal wear for him. He grins and smoothes his hand down the front of his battered leather jacket. Leather and jeans and boots. Add in the grime and the smoke and the blood, and he’s the very model of a modern Watcher councilman. Which is to say, a ruin.
Something nearly bubbles out of him, then, but Giles holds it in. He can save it for later. Now he wants to dress up, drink, fling tellies from the fifth-floor windows. We survived! He swaggers past a cluster of kids and stage-whispers to Dawn: “Rock band.” He winks at her, and her mouth opens. Before she can say anything, he’s past and at the lobby desk, Council AmEx in hand. Rank has privilege, and right now he’s king. King of a pile of rubble in Bloomsbury, and a charge card billed to the smoke rising from the pit. So he books eight rooms, and hands out plastic card keys to his entourage as they come up to him in pairs.
The roadie Slayers. Rona and Vi, Shannon and Chao Ahn. Caridad and Rowena. Giles is not, just now, thinking about the Slayers who did not get on the bus. They have survived another apocalypse. Mostly.
Lead guitarist Robin, drained by his injury, with vocalist Faith jigging nervously behind him. Giles feels the fizz in his own blood, the joy of having survived another battle. If he had anyone, he would be rolling with her now. Perhaps he could prowl around the prom, give some single teacher a taste of the wild life. Shower first, or would the smoke be an aid? The corner of Giles’ mouth twitches up, and the giggles push to get out.
Willow and Kennedy. He flails for instruments for both of them, fails, gives up the game. Giles admires Kennedy’s face, sullen and stunning. Willow has always had exquisite taste in her partners. This one is feistier than he would have expected. Willow also has a taste for gentle souls, for loving, compassionate hearts, the steel cores wrapped in velvet. But not this one; in this one the steel is on the outside. Willow looks as euphoric as he feels, more, as if she has glimpsed the mind of God and seen the whole of creation. Giles wonders if she and Kennedy feel the fizz, if they will soon be rolling.
Then Xander comes up, looking drained and ragged. Giles hands him a plastic card key. Pity stabs at his heart, and his euphoria staggers. He touches Xander on the shoulder, attempts to catch him. Xander turns and trudges away, giving no sign that he noticed. Willow intercepts him, and Giles feels better. Willow knows how to take care of Xander, just as Xander knows how to love Willow. Willow can catch him.
Finally, Buffy and Dawn. Not the Slayer. Not his Slayer. Her own Slayer. His something. Daughter, friend, both, neither. He doesn’t have a word for Buffy any more. He kisses her on the forehead as he hands her two plastic keys. She lets him. Doesn’t punch him in the jaw, as she did before, twice, to show she cared. He remembers the impact of tiny Slayer fist, the sensation of going over backwards, the world spinning.
They filter away to their rooms. Giles watches the circulating teenagers, the harried chaperones. Formal wear, ill-fitting and uncomfortable on all but a few of them. He realizes his shoulders are sore, his feet hurt, his back aches. And some of the dust of Sunnydale on his boots is caked there by Bringer-blood. The world is spinning around him. He’s punch drunk.
Giles turns his back on the prom and waits for an elevator. When he tumbles into bed at last, he falls asleep instantly. If he dreams of falling into smoking craters, he doesn’t recall.
The smoke-scent in his jeans is not nearly as charming in the morning, when Giles has scrubbed the dust of Sunnydale from his feet. He is acutely aware of it as he rides down in the elevator with a pair of blushing high school students in rumpled formal-wear. The manager at the desk calls him over, and Giles for a moment worries about that credit card. But it’s about his address, about the terrible things she saw on the morning news, that entire city gone, and the survivors losing everything, and would they care to eat breakfast on the house?
She hands him a slip of paper with an address written on it, and a street-grid diagram giving directions. A thrift shop. Second-hand clothes. To get them started. Giles flushes and takes it and says something, he doesn’t know what. The kindness puts him off balance.
Two hours later, with Robin in a hospital and the rest of them on the bus, he’s still staggering. When he’s shepherded the lot of them into the thrift shop, and the shop clerk there, the manager, there tells him she was expecting him, and you poor things, and you all get an outfit free of charge, Giles flushes again and nearly chokes up. He takes refuge where he has always done when his feelings are too much for him, in polishing his glasses. Only his handkerchief is sadly filthy, and it makes his glasses worse, so he yanks the tabs of his shirt free from his jeans and polishes again.
He finally puts the glasses back on. He remembers Buffy at that age. He thinks about his bank account, that smoking hole, and tells them all to buy two more outfits each. They sweep past him giggling and he shrugs helplessly at the manager.
He and Xander and Andrew stand side-by-side in the men’s section, shuffling, before shrugging and digging deep into over-packed racks. Giles finds another pair of jeans in a size that ought to fit him, two inches smaller in the waist than the trousers he was wearing this time last year. Two gray henleys. A pair of trainers, miraculously, in his size. Socks. Blessed boxers. The mundane and rooted.
Xander is whispering with Willow over by a rack of suitcoats. Xander flees to the shoe racks, leaving Willow holding shirts on hangers. Giles recognizes the body language of stifled grief. He stumbled through life in that posture for three months, until tortured out of it.
He giggles. Looks around. No one heard.
Giles turns back to the rack of suits. There’s a tweed jacket hanging askew. He has some of those still, in mothballed bags in that flat in Bath. The flat he would love to see again. Some day. If only to lie in his own bed, between his own sheets, wearing his own pajamas, instead of curling nude in hotel blankets while his briefs drip-dry in the shower. Or instead of bunking on the sofa in his clothes, awakened every half hour by someone neglecting to whisper in the kitchen.
Tweed. Buffy wrinkling her nose. Jenny fingering his sleeve. The grave with her name on it, her body, has been destroyed. Gone gone gone. He tries the jacket on. It’s too small in the shoulders and sleeves. Giles likes to be able to turtle his hands up inside, to hunch his shoulders and shrink. He can’t in this. But it smells right. Rough wool under his fingers. A weight on his shoulders. A tether.
Giles takes the tweed jacket. And the corduroys in his size. And an Oxford shirt and a tie. Ontogeny recapitulated. Backwards. He’ll be wearing his school uniform next, to comfort himself. He buys a duffle bag, bundles the lot into it. Stands at the register and pays. The shop owner cheats when ringing up, in their favor. Giles flushes again. The racks of girls’ clothing will be some time recovering from the Slayers’ assault. They’re ecstatic, every one of them. Except Kennedy, who looks more sullen and mutinous than before. No rolling, Giles guesses.
Willow, Xander in orbit around her, is still luminous. She holds up a shirt to Xander’s shoulders and gleams at him. He waits for the pair to pile their finds on the counter, last out of the shop. Xander looks embarrassed, Willow pleased. He stutters his thanks to the shop owner and follows Willow out to the bus.
Clothes. A uniform. Something to wear to bed tonight. Giles feels the urge to giggle once again. Giggle along with each and every one of the Slayers burbling at his back. Giggle until Buffy punches him. Knocks him back to earth.
The bus wallows toward its berth for the night in Oklahoma City. Rona demands to be set ashore at the airport. She has a credit card in her father’s name, a phone card, and a set jaw. Buffy catches Giles’ eye and shrugs expressively; he knows what she means. Giles makes sure Rona has enough cash, and lets her go. Opens his hand, and releases a Slayer into the wild. He hopes she knows how to hunt. He hopes she’ll survive. He can’t hold onto anything any more.
Giles ponders this on his back in the cool dark of his hotel room. He’s wearing thrift-shop sweatpants and a thrift-shop t-shirt, plain black. He’s on the bed, on top of the covers, staring at the ceiling. He’s tense, tangled, throat closed up. He realizes he’s braced for the First to come to him again, in the form of Jenny or Ethan or Joyce or Randall or Ben. Or Buffy. It came to him as Buffy most often. Incorporeal. No punches from that version of Buffy, who would never have wanted to punch him. The real Buffy punches him when she loves him. When Giles loves her, he leaves her and deceives her. They do it because it’s needed. By one or the other of them.
He’s alone in the hotel room. No more ethereal visitors. The First is defeated. All the death is done with, for now, and the bodies are a thousand miles away. He feels caught in suspension, held miles up in terrible vacuum, the curve of the earth and the stars visible before him.
He sees himself buying a little house outside Bath, with a room for Buffy and a room for Dawn and shelves for his books. Drinking tea, drinking whisky, drinking water, drinking the sight of his two girls at peace. Watching them earning degrees. Dating young men he’ll glower at then reluctantly approve. He sighs. Shifts on the bed, drowsing, dreams a little deeper.
He sees himself buying a big group house in Cleveland, where he’ll feed and teach ten Slayers. Dawn will share a room with Buffy, who will fight and fight and fight. He sees himself burying them, one at a time. Periodically the coven will send him to Ghana, or Australia, or Boise, to extract a new girl to coach and coax and cozen. Until he’s too old to lift a broadsword over his head. Too old to carry the coffins. Better hope he’s trained a replacement by then. Someone else to write “regret to inform you” over and over, as he did earlier this evening. He twists on the bed, feet tangled in the blankets, dreams on.
He sees himself in a morgue, identifying bodies. Charred. Fragmented. Imperfectly preserved. They’ve given him a mask, but it’s not enough. He identifies his uncle, his nephew, and flees. Runs outside and runs until he’s at the smoking hole in the ground. A metal tower rises over the rubble.
He sees himself at the foot of the tower, stumbling forward, watching Buffy overhead caught suspended, wreathed in lightning and smoke. In a moment she will fall and he will not be able to catch her. She’ll fall and fall and fall and when she lands–
Giles starts awake. He’s the one falling now.
He’s driving again the next morning. Nobody else seems to want to, or to ask if he wants to be spelled, or to notice him in any way. That’s fine. Giles doesn’t want to talk to them. He wants to be left alone. To turtle up in his tweed jacket, pull in hands and head and curl around the hole in his stomach until he comes to rest somewhere. Only this time he’s too far up. He’s going to land hard.
Giles drives the bus into the afternoon. He pulls off every hundred miles for a bathroom break for the girls, to refill the gas tank with the smoking credit card and stretch his legs in the thrift-shop corduroys. They’re on Interstate 44 now, angling across Missouri toward St Louis. Giles has never visited the American south. Or the midwest. So far, all that he has seen are green hills surrounding a band of tarmac. America has a yellow striped line down its middle.
The group is fractious today, even the maddeningly-upbeat Andrew. The jokes effortlessly volleyed up and down the aisle yesterday are dying when they reach Kennedy. Punched down into the floor. No rolling, no fizz. Voices are raised, Andrew’s and Kennedy’s, and equally suddenly silenced. He senses the echoes of strong magic. Then Willow’s voice, shaking, and the magic dissipates.
Giles looks over his shoulder. Steals a second look. There’s tension in the bodies he can see. He wants to know what just happened, but he can’t take his eyes off the road. This can’t be allowed to continue, and no one else will put a stop to it.
He speaks loud enough to be heard the length of the bus. “I, I, we’ll be stopping at the next motel. I think we all need an early night. Yes?” The murmur behind him is subdued.
This time it’s a wedding. More formal wear in the lobby, suits and ties and party dresses, but not too frothy. Limousines pulling up with sections of the wedding party, pulling away. Giles feels simply grubby this time, even with the tweed jacket on. No swagger. No pretense. No little game. Just a trudge over to the desk clerk and slumped shoulders while he waits.
Willow and Kennedy are in a corner. He knows that body language: they’re arguing, quietly, intensely, finally. He wagers he’ll be taking one fewer room tomorrow night. If not tonight.
He hands out the keys. Pairs exactly as before, until he gets to Willow. She whispers urgently to him. As expected, they’ve fractured. He doesn’t know what to do with the second key. He holds it up, stammering. Xander takes it from him, abruptly. He pockets his own key.
Kennedy catches him on the arm and pulls him to the side. He leans down to that striking face, knowing what he’s about to hear. She’s got money, a family, other things to do, and without Willow tethering her to the group she’s flying away. She surprises him by being gracious, if not to Willow, then at least to him. Giles clasps her hand in his then opens his fingers, releases her.
The bride and groom are revolving slowly through the lobby on their way to the banquet facilities. Giles, walking on the heels of Xander and Willow, stops with them to gawk. All women are beautiful on their wedding days. Transfigured. This young woman radiates at everyone around her. Giles admires her, then turns for the elevators. Time to be dragged upward again, so he can fall into restless dreams he doesn’t want.
The bride has taken Xander’s arm, and is talking to him. Xander fumbles. Giles steps closer. She repeats whatever it was she just said to Xander. She’s inviting them all to her reception. Giles stammers, stumbles, and thinks that they cannot possibly accept.
“We couldn’t intrude,” he says, hands already reaching into his pockets for the thrift-shop handkerchief.
“You wouldn’t be,” says the young man in the tux.
“We don’t have anything nice enough to wear,” Xander says.
“Strictly a come-as-you-are party,” the bride says, and she glows at them.
There are only eleven of them now, but still too many, it’s impossible-- but Giles can sense an inevitability when the girls behind him have created one. He accepts, bows over the bride’s hand, and stammers out the most charming thanks and congratulations he can manage. Apparently he’s successful, because she giggles at him before allowing her groom to lead her away. His entourage sweeps past him. The prospect of food and cake and dancing has already wiped away the afternoon’s tension.
Xander and Buffy are hand-in-hand. Buffy says something to him and rubs his arm. The pair of them collect Willow, and the three turn to follow the Slayers. Giles watches them. He’ll see them safely into the reception before finding his room to turtle and brace for the dreams and the moment of impact when he will fracture.
But Xander turns back to him, catches him, says, “What are you waiting for, Giles?”
Xander has caught him. Just a touch on the arm, a tug, and Xander has already turned away to lead them into the banquet room. But it is enough. The pieces of his life are still falling around him, he’s still falling, but he’s not alone. Doesn’t need to be, doesn’t want to be. Something in Giles’ chest releases, and he lets go.
He follows his friends into the reception. The four of them sit at a little table in the corner, where Giles can keep a distant eye on the teenagers and check the worst excesses. They eat wedding food: the vegetarian pasta for Giles and Willow, the salmon for Buffy, the chicken cordon bleu for Xander. Giles can’t remember the last meal he ate in peace, sitting at a table with a knife and fork. So he eats slowly, drinks mineral water, sits back in his chair and watches his three companions in arms, his friends, his family. They’re quietly happy as well. Not euphoric, and there’s grief underneath, but for here and now, this evening in this place, they’re at rest with each other.
Giles dances with Dawn, just one dance to break the ice and give her confidence in her box step. Dawn is graceful in his arms, tall, so much taller than she was the first time he shepherded her around a dance floor. They giggle at the sight of Xander solemnly moving past with a little girl in a pink dress, her feet on his, her tiny hands resting in his in the approved posture. At the end of the dance, Giles bends to Dawn, brushes his lips against her forehead, and releases her to the gawky teenager who has gathered enough nerve to approach.
Giles retreats back to the corner table. Dawn is launched. So are the six Slayers, cheerfully gyrating with each other and with an assortment of guests. Giles watches Buffy dance. He’s done this before, many times. In the high school gym, in the Bronze, at odd moments on patrol when the music in her head insisted. She’s dancing with one of the wedding party, some clean-cut young man with a strong jaw and a little paunch under his cummerbund. She looks happy, as she always does when in motion, and so Giles rests his chin on his hand and watches and is content.
Buffy spots him eventually and spins over to him. She pulls out a chair across from him and leans on the table.
“I think Xan and Willow have just hooked up,” she says, looking across at the doors. “They were kinda making out on the dance floor, and now they’ve gone back to their room.”
Giles considers this. He decides it makes him happy. He saw them once, years ago now, in the library stacks, stealing kisses. The expression on Xander’s face was something he’d never seen before or since on the boy. Solemn and soft. Now he’s grieving, and Willow has seen the secrets of the universe, and they know each other better than anyone else does.
“Good,” he says. He rubs the left edge of his jaw and gazes at her.
She’s watching him, and not looking away. Looking curious. “What you thinking?” she says.
“This is where you hit me. Both times. Here.”
She gives him a glazed look for an instant, then her face clears. “Oh. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Probably.”
“A wonder you didn’t break it. You’ve got a mean right.”
“Taught by the best.” She quirks her mouth in an uncertain twitch that he knows well, has seen a thousand times. Loves. Never wishes to leave, not now. He reaches out and grasps her hand.
“Buffy. Come live with me in England. You and Dawn. I can putter with my books and you can go to university. You and Dawn both.”
“And the Slaying?”
Giles jerks his battered chin in the direction of the dance floor. “Let that lot deal with it. Robin, once he gets out of hospital. I’ll train them if they visit, translate for them, but otherwise… I’m done. Come with me. I want… I want to give you a life.”
“Xan and Willow?”
“Welcome if they wish. They’ll likely–” He breaks off and makes a gesture that means he doesn’t know what. They’ll also want a life.
“Yeah.” Buffy’s brows come together, and her mouth twitches again. Giles leans toward her over the table, anxious.
Her hand moves under his, turns and clasps it tight. Buffy smiles at him, then. He hasn’t seen that smile since… but she’s tugging at him, pulling him to his feet. “C’mon, Giles. They’re playing our song.”
“They are?” Giles cocks his head and listens as she drags him out into the open floor. It’s something slow, with a twelve-string and a heavy snare on the backbeat, and a mournful lyric about falling.
Buffy listens for a moment, then giggles. She’s got his hand held tight, and shows no signs she wants to let go. “Well, it’s our song now. So, Giles. Tell me where we’re going.”