DISCLAIMER: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel characters are the property of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon, Lazy Dave, Kuzui, and Fox Studios. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2005 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG-13.

 

A Place to Stand

by Djinn

 

 

Dawn heard the click that meant Buffy had just locked her bedroom door.  She looked at her clock.  Eleven o'clock sharp.   Time for the nightly disappearance.

 

She found her slippers, pulled on her robe, and hurried to the front door, careful to open and shut it again as quietly as she could.  Tiptoeing through the clumpy grass, she positioned herself far enough away from Buffy's window that her sister wouldn't see her as she climbed out.

 

The window opened; Buffy's leg appeared, then the rest of her.  She hit the ground with a grace that made Dawn envious.  Even though she didn't want to fight all the time and probably die young, it was still lonely being ordinary here.  Being a non-slayer.

 

Buffy straightened up, then froze as Dawn said, "There's this thing--a new invention, see.  It's called a door.  You can use it when you leave the house to go sleep over at Giles' like you do--."

 

Buffy turned quickly, mouth already moving.  "Oh, no.  That's so not where I'm going."

 

Dawn gave her a stern look and finished what she'd been saying, "Like you do every night."

 

"This isn't what it seems like, Dawn."

 

"You're not acting like a delinquent teenager sneaking out to see her boyfriend?"

 

"No?"  Buffy was trying to put on the innocent face that had never worked with Dawn, even if their mom had usually been snookered by it.

 

"Buffy, I'm going to graduate soon--even if you won't let me go to a real school, anymore."  School taught in Italian couldn't be any harder than learning under Reichmasters Giles and Rosenburg.  Not to mention Xander's shop class from hell.  And the physical fitness requirement--forget about it.  Thank god they weren't grading on a curve.  "And when I do graduate from the home school on the hill, I'm going to go to college.  In a country where you're not.  And guess what...I'll be on my own.  So, if you want to get me used to that now by leaving me alone at night, that's fine."

 

Buffy crossed her arms.

 

Dawn crossed hers and looked down at her older sister.  It gave her a great big happy that she was taller than Buffy.  "I know you're sleeping with him, Buffy.  So, just stop arguing and start leaving by the front door like the normal person you so aren't."

 

Giles suddenly walked around the corner--rather stealthily for an old guy.  Dawn hadn't heard him coming, didn't think Buffy had either.  He smiled when he saw her sister.  "Buffy, I became worried when you didn't--oh, Dawn.  Hello." Giles tried to hide the blanket and bottle of wine he was holding.

 

"Nice try, Giles.  I'm wise to your sneaky tricks."  Dawn moved closer to her sister, pulling her hand up and holding it.  "I, Buffy, do solemnly swear to use the door..."


Buffy jerked her hand away.  "Go to bed, Dawn."

 

Dawn took a step back.  "You two have fun."


Giles looked deeply embarrassed.  Buffy just look peeved--she hated being caught.  Dawn could still remember what had happened when Ted had caught Buffy sneaking back into the house.  Only, that hadn't been real.  It had happened, but it wasn't a real memory for her because Dawn hadn't been a girl then.  It was so confusing--the memory seemed so vivid.  Ted and his wonderful little skillet pizzas and those really good cookies.

 

"Get into the house," Buffy said.

 

"Fine."  Dawn turned, trying to flounce.  She shot Giles an amused look over her shoulder, then winked at him.  She knew if it had been daylight, she'd have seen his cheeks go pink.  He was so much fun to tease about her sister.  "Good night, you two.  Sleep tight.  Don't let the bed bugs run in fear from your activities.  Or the sand bugs, 'cause I bet you're heading down to the beach."

 

"Good night, Dawn."  Buffy had her commandant voice on.  Which meant Dawn's last zinger had been a good one--score one for the slayer's sister.

 

"Sleep well," Giles said, his voice the same as it ever was, even though he was now her sister's boyfriend.  Which was sort of weird, but mostly just nice.  Giles was comforting.  Buffy didn't worry about things the way she had with Riley.  Or cry the way she had with Angel.  Or pretend it wasn't happening the way she had with Spike.  Or look sort of distant the way she had with the Immortal, even when they'd been at their happiest, which hadn't been for very long. With Giles, Buffy just seemed to be herself.  So Dawn was pretty much a fan of the whole deal.  She wondered if her mother would have been.  Her mother and Giles had--oh, that was too weird to contemplate.  Besides they'd been under the influence of those amazingly good chocolate bars Buffy had been selling. 

 

Chocolate bars that Dawn had never really tasted--it was easier not to think about how none of the memories were real.

 

Dawn walked into the cabin, pulling the door closed and going back into her room to read.  She was just getting to the good part of her romance novel when she heard a knock on her window, and saw Ingrid outside.  The girl held up a plate of cookies, and Dawn got out of bed, hurrying to open the front door for her. 

 

"New recipe?" she asked as she grabbed a still-warm cookie off the plate.

 

Ingrid nodded, her expression a little nervous.

 

Dawn bit into one, and was overwhelmed with the mix of caramel and chocolate and something else she couldn't quite place, but that went really well with the other two.  "Oh, this is so good."  The words didn't come out right since her mouth was full of cookie.

 

Fortunately, Ingrid was a master at deciphering her comments.  "I wasn't sure.  I liked it, but, you know, I'm not American."


Dawn grinned.  "And it's important that Americans like this, huh?"


Ingrid looked down.  "Well, there are quite a few of you here..."

 

Dawn took another cookie and sat down on the stool.  "Xander will love these."   She felt a little twinge.  Her crush on Xander had never totally gone away.  But she really liked Ingrid, and she thought Xander did, too, so she was okay with the other girl wanting to impress him.

 

"Why are you up so late?" Ingrid asked.

 

"Had to catch Buffy sneaking out to be with Giles.  She's a slippery one."

 

Ingrid laughed.  "But you were successful?"

 

"Oh, yeah.  No one can stand against the great detective."  She laughed, remembering Giles' face as he'd come around the corner.  "Caught Giles, too."

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah-huh.  And he was morbidly embarrassed."

 

"You are too much, Dawn."  Ingrid took a cookie.

 

Dawn smiled.  "I know."  She got up to pour them some milk, and studied the other girl.  "Where'd you learn to speak English so well?"

 

"Oh, in Sweden you have to take another language.  And I wanted to open a restaurant in Manhattan and be a famous person."

 

Dawn laughed.  "So first step was learning the lingo?"

 

Ingrid nodded.

 

"You learned Italian awfully fast, too."

 

"I'm very good with languages.  And with food."  She glanced toward the Slayer dorm, where the lights were still on.   "I'm just not good with weapons or fighting.  Some slayer I turned out to be."

 

"Is that why you're not handing these out over at the dorm?" 

 

"I'm not one of them.  Not really."

 

"I know the feeling."  Dawn smiled at the older girl.  "And I have to say, Ingrid.  It's pretty sad for you that I could beat you in a fair fight."

 

"You could beat me in an unfair fight, Dawn."  Ingrid laughed.  "I have a question for you.  I know that you are being taught here at the compound because there is no American school, yes?"

 

"Well, not in Sorrento.  If Buffy would let me go to Naples, there's an International School with actual students and everything.  But she and Giles worked out a deal with them where I take classes here--I think Willow manufactured some bogus teacher certifications--and I get tested at the end of the year in Naples."  She sighed. 

 

"If you need a language class I could teach you Swedish?"

 

"Giles has the language thing covered.  Latin."

 

"We could just practice Italian?"

 

"Since there aren't any actual Italians here?"  Buffy had staffed the whole place with not-so-good slayers.  Gardeners, other kitchen workers to help Ingrid, laundry workers, librarians, researchers, smiths and armorers and stake whittlers--you name it, they were all slayers.

 

"Isabella is Italian.  So is Caterina."

 

"Caterina is from Baltimore."

 

"She's still Italian."  Ingrid laughed, taking another cookie.  "So, you think Xander will like these?"

 

"Oh, yeah."  Dawn finished up her cookie, watching as Ingrid gobbled up hers, too.  She expected the other girl to get up and leave, but she just sat, staring out the window toward those other lit windows.  "You don't want to go back to the dorm, do you?  Are they mean to you?"  She knew if they were, they probably didn't do it on purpose.  Sometimes the cruelest thing of all was to feel like you didn't exist.

 

"It's not that.  It's just that I don't fit in."

 

"Well, you may have noticed my sister's gone.  You can crash here if you want."


"Really?  Oh, but Buffy will not like me in her bed."

 

"Ingrid, she hasn't slept in it in weeks.  She and Giles are pretty much joined at the hip when it comes to bedtime."  She waggled her eyebrows to show Ingrid she didn't really mean that the hip was where they were joined.

 

Ingrid got a silly grin.  "If you're sure it's all right...?"

 

"It's fine.  Now, maybe before you go to bed, you should take some of those cookies to Xander--I see his lights are still on, too."  Dawn could just make his house out past the dorm.  "I'll leave the door unlocked for you."

 

"Thank you."  Ingrid got a plate out of their cupboard and put about half of the cookies on it, then pushed it toward Dawn. 

 

"If you want," Dawn said softly, "since Buffy's never here, maybe I could suggest that you move in here and she move in with Giles?"

 

"Oh, Dawn.  What if they have a fight?  Then Buffy will not have a place to sleep."

 

"They never fight.  Trust me.  And if they did, there's this big thing called a dorm across the way.  She could crash in the watchers' suite."  Buffy still hadn't assigned those to anyone.  Dawn thought she was afraid the watchers would come back.

 

"I would like very much to stay here."  Ingrid's accent added charm to such simple words.

 

"Then it's settled.  Plus, it'll be for a good cause, and Buffy loves getting her own way and spinning it so she's Ms. Humanitarian."  Dawn gently pushed Ingrid off her stool.  "Now, go.  Before Xander goes to bed."

 

"Okay.  Thank you, Dawn."

 

"I'll see you later."

 

Ingrid's step seemed to have more bounce in it as she left, and Dawn smiled.  It would be nice having Ingrid staying here.  She'd never told Buffy, but she was sort of lonely.  Not for her sister--Buffy was making lots of time for her.  But for kids her own age.  Kids who weren't slayers.  Ingrid was the closest thing to that here.  And this arrangement would work out well for Ingrid, too. 

 

Dawn smiled, glad it had all come together.  She might not be related to Buffy in the traditional sense, but she did take after her--she didn't mind getting her own way and spinning it so she looked like Ms. Humanitarian, either. 

 

-----------------------------

 

"Check it out," Buffy said as she and Giles passed Willow and Kennedy on their way up from the beach.  The two young women seemed caught up in each other and the night, and barely nodded at Buffy and Giles as they walked on.

 

"Big copycats," Buffy whispered, making Giles smile.  She moved in closer.  "Did you notice Xander's latest improvement?"

 

"I don't believe so."  Then he started to laugh as they neared the tree that stood at the head of the path through the woods down to the beach.  "Ah, so that's what he meant."

 

The tree had a hook stuck into it.  Just below that, hanging on another hook, were several bandannas.  Buffy reached for one, looking up at Giles.  "Unless you want company while we're down there?" 

 

"That's hardly my preference."

 

She smiled, and looped the bandanna over the hook.  "Not tired of me yet?"

 

"No.  Soon though, I imagine." 

 

She laughed.  It had become the occasional joke between them.   One of them would say some variation of, "I imagine I'll get tired of you at any minute."  Which would usually be followed by vigorous kissing. 

 

She waited until they were hidden in the trees to pull him down and kiss him soundly.

 

"Well, perhaps not that soon."  He pulled her back to him, and she marveled again that she liked kissing him so much. 

 

She liked doing just about everything with him.  It wasn't what she'd expected when they'd embarked on this affair.  She'd expected that being comfortable with him out of bed would be much easier than in bed.  But being with him in either place was easy.

 

He started chuckling and she looked up at him.  "Sorry, just thinking about Dawn."

 

Buffy tried to bite back a smile.  "That was pretty funny when you came around the corner."  She looked at what he was carrying.  "Where are the glasses, by the way?"

 

"I thought you were going to bring them."  He didn't seem particularly concerned.  He could play pass the bottle as well as anyone else she knew.  Then again, the only other person she'd known that did that had been Spike.  So maybe it was a British thing.  Only Spike had done it with whiskey, not wine. 

 

"Do you want me to run back up for them?" she asked, hoping he'd say no.  Their days were full with slayer business; early evenings she liked to share with Dawn as much as she could, but the nights--those belonged to Giles.  Fortunately, he seemed to get by on as little sleep as she did.

 

"No, I want you to stay here with me.  Trust me, Buffy, this wine isn't particularly good; it won't suffer for not breathing."

 

"Not springing for the expensive stuff, eh?"  She smiled as they hit the beach.  This spot wasn't theirs, but she liked to think of it that way. 

 

"I'm afraid you should have stayed with the Immortal if you wanted someone to indulge you that way.  The sanctuary's budget is limited, and us having posh wine isn't a priority."

 

"Especially when we won't drink very much of it because we'll get all distracted." She took the blanket from him, opening it out onto the sand, down near the water so they could see more of the sky.

 

"Precisely."  He put the wine bottle down, twisting as he pushed it into the sand to make a little hole for it.  Then he pulled her into his arms and eased them down to the blanket.

 

They didn't even open the wine for a quite a while.  When he finally reached for it, he stared at it.  "Corkscrew?"

 

"It's in the right front pocket of your jeans, Giles.  It's always in that pocket." 

 

"I know that."  His voice was a mixture of sated and sleepy.  "But where are my jeans?"

 

She found them on her side of the blanket, had been lying on them--it had probably been the corkscrew that had been digging into her hip.  She dug around in his pocket until she found the thing, and handed it to him.   He opened the bottle with minimal fuss--the Immortal had always seemed to make a production over a new bottle of wine, what with the sniffing and the swirling and the tasting.  Then again, that wine had been very expensive and maybe deserving of such attention.  Not that she noticed the difference all that much--she'd never been much of an aficionado.  Booze and slaying didn't go well together.  In fact, she knew Giles wouldn't let either of them drink too much for that very reason. 

 

It was sort of odd, now that she thought of it, that he'd let her goad him into grappa shots back when their relationship had changed in Sorrento.  Had he known what would happen?  Had he wanted it to?

 

"What are you thinking about, Buffy?"

 

"Grappa.  You and me.  Drinking too much of it."

 

"And thank god for that temporary lapse of reason."  He grinned at her.

 

She couldn't resist his grin.   It was a different grin than he gave anyone else.  Very sweet and just the slightest bit devilish.  "You're a bad, bad boy, Giles."

 

"Well, don't tell the girls, or they'll lose all respect for my priggishness.  Sometimes, it's the only thing that keeps them in line."

 

"I doubt that.  You kept me in line all those years.  You would have kept Faith in line, I bet.  If Wesley hadn't come in and messed it all up."

 

"I've often wondered.  How might it have turned out different if I'd been allowed to train you both?"

 

"The road not taken.  I guess we'll never know."  She snuggled up against him.  "And anyway, it turned out okay.  Look at her now.   All in charge on the hellmouth--the way she always wanted to be.  She and Robin even appear to be making it work."

 

"He knows the life.  And his mother was a little bit like Faith in some important ways.  Not as out of control, but very much a rebel.  Very much about attitude and sheer power.  She loved to hunt.  Or did until he was born."

 

"A slayer having a child.  I guess I never even thought of that until I found out she'd had Robin.  I mean not as a real possibility.  For me."

 

"Do you think of it now?"  His voice was very soft.  As if he almost didn't want to ask her that.

 

She turned, leaning on her elbow so she could see his expression.  "Do you?"

 

"That's not an answer."

 

"Giles..."

 

He took a deep breath. "In Sunnydale, I had my duty, our mission.  The watcher-slayer relationship was, in many ways, like being a father."

 

"And Quentin did say ours was too close that way."

 

He nodded.  "And frankly, I didn't have that much experience with children.  Now that I have more experience--and I realize it's with teens, who are a different breed--I feel more disposed to being around young people.  Even very young people."

 

"As in a child."  She waited. 

 

He met her eyes, didn't look away, but didn't say anything more. 

 

"Do you want to have a child with me?" she finally asked.

 

He took a deep breath, but still nothing.

 

"Giles, one of us has to answer the scary question."

 

"Then you answer it, Buffy."

 

"I've thought of it."  Her voice was so soft she wasn't sure he'd heard her, until she saw his expression relax.

 

"I have, too."

 

It hung out there.  A weird thought.  A nice thought.  A baby. Their baby.  She could remember when Dawn had been a baby--only Dawn hadn't really been one. 

 

"Well, that thought's made you rather pensive."  Giles shifted, rolling so he was lying on his side, watching her.

 

"Not pensive. I used to think of it with Angel, actually.  But then he made it clear he couldn't have kids.  Did you think of it with Jenny?"

 

"Yes.  Often.  And sometimes with Olivia."

 

"What happened with her?  She was like around and then poof! she was gone.  She was human, right?"

 

He smiled.  "Yes, she was human."

 

"So, what happened?  Did she wig over 'the life'?"

 

"Yes.  She 'wigged.'"  He sighed.

 

"Were you in love with her?"

 

"I don't know."  He leaned down suddenly, his mouth tender on hers.  When he pulled away, he said, "Certainly not like I'm in love with you."

 

He'd only recently begun to say that to her.  She thought he'd been holding off until he was more sure of where they were going.  It was in his nature to protect himself that way.

 

She pulled him back down to her.  "I love you, Giles." 

 

Then they forgot all about anything but each other for a long time.

 

-----------------------------

 

Waking slowly, Willow felt an odd stirring at the edge of her consciousness.  She sat up quickly, trying to figure out what was making her so jumpy.

 

"Willow?" Kennedy mumbled, but Willow knew she could come alert very quickly if her slayer senses went off. 

 

"It's early.  Go back to sleep." 

 

Kennedy groaned and pulled the covers over her head.

 

Waiting for her lover's breathing to go back to the slow rhythm of sleep, Willow closed her eyes and used magic to scan the compound, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  She found it on the road--someone new, walking up the hill to them.  She scanned for threats--nothing bad could have gotten though her wards, could it?  But whoever it was didn't feel evil so much as bone tired.

 

She eased out of bed and changed her pajamas for sweats and an old t-shirt.  She checked her hair--bed head, but not extremely so--and pulled on her sneakers, hurrying out of the house and down the road toward the approaching visitor.

 

She met him halfway.  He was walking slowly, watching the ground, not looking up.  Something about him seemed completely alone.  And his skin--what wasn't covered up by a hat pulled down low and a too-large trench coat--was very, very green.

 

"Lorne?"

 

He looked up, and she was shocked at how empty he looked.  Then a big smile lit his face and he pushed back the hat.  "Sweet pea, I was hoping you'd be here."

 

She ran down to him, and he caught her up in a big hug.  "Lorne, you're okay!  We thought you'd died with Angel."

 

She could feel him tense, and let her magic enfold him, trying to shore him up.

 

"Oh, peanut.  You're even stronger than before.  Have you been working out?"

 

She grinned.  "It's all the slayers.  It's like having a spare generator around."  She slipped to his side, urging him up the hill.  As they walked arm in arm, she said, "Tell me what happened."

 

"I didn't fight with them.  I had some other things to do--I mean for Angel.  So I wasn't there when it all went down.  I showed up later.  To try to find them..."

 

"They all died?  Angel and Wesley?  And Spike and Gunn and Fred."

 

"Fred died before that night."

 

"What?"

 

He sighed.  "She was taken over by something else.  Changed.  You'd hardly recognize her."

 

She realized he hadn't used past tense.  "She's still alive?"

 

He nodded.  "Illyria's a tough one to kill."  He took a deep breath. 

 

"She didn't come with you?"

 

"She's not exactly fit company for man nor beast right now.  Went a little off her head when Wesley was killed and hasn't been right since.  I nursed her back to health after the big battle, and she told me what went down in that alley.  But then she took off, and I didn't feel like getting my head ripped off trying to stop her."

 

"I understand."  Willow knew what that kind of rage was like--she'd nearly destroyed the world when Tara had been taken from her.  At least Illyria appeared to be keeping her ire confined to smaller things, or, if not small, at least local. 

 

Willow saw Buffy and Giles coming out of his cabin.  Buffy took one look at Lorne and pulled out a stake. 

 

"No, Buff.   He's a good guy."  Willow let go of Lorne's arm.  "See, that was a friendly arm-in-arm thing.  Not a 'he's got me captured' thing."

 

"Sorry."  Buffy had the grace to look chagrined.  "Kind of running on instinct this early in the morning."

 

"So you're the slayer."  Lorne whistled appreciatively.  Then he asked very softly, "Who's the guy?"

 

"That's Giles," Willow answered just as quietly, still a little surprised to see Buffy and Giles coming out of his cabin so openly.  She'd been even more surprised when Dawn had convinced Buffy to move in with Giles, and let Ingrid move in with her.  Dawn was getting really good at manipulating--although she liked to call it "handling"--her big sister.  "He was her watcher.  He's sort of graduated into--"

 

"They're lovers, doll face.  I'm a pro at reading those vibes even without music."  He gave a little bow.   "Don't let the green fool you, folks.  I'm on the side of the righteous."

 

"Willow?"  Buffy didn't seem inclined to take Lorne at his word, but at least she pushed the stake back into her pants. 

 

"This is Lorne.  Remember I told you about him?  We met when I went to L.A. to help them re-ensoul Angel and pick up Faith?"

 

"We were told everyone who fought with Angel died."  Giles studied him.  "You're Pylean, aren't you?"

 

"Good call, Mister Tall, British, and Handsome."

 

Willow laughed, then bit back the laughter when Giles glared at her. 

 

"And I survived because Angel sent me on a special errand that kept me clear of the battle.  I'm not much of a fighter, you see."  He took a deep breath.

 

"So, you weren't there?"  Buffy moved closer.  "You didn't see Angel die?" 

 

"No, sweetheart.  But someone else did.  He's really dead."


Willow watched Giles as Buffy took in the news.  He reached out, his expression tender and full of pain for her, his hand falling gently on the back of her neck, squeezing slightly.  She turned and let him hold her, crying softly, and Willow realized her friend had never quite given up the hope that Angel was still alive.

 

"I'm sorry," Giles was saying, over and over, as he held her tightly and stroked her hair.

 

Willow pulled Lorne away.  "Let's give them some privacy, okay?  You must be hungry." 

 

"Not hungry.  But I wouldn't say no to a cup of joe."

 

"Coffee, it is, then."  Willow steered Lorne toward the dining hall.   There were several slayers already eating breakfast, getting an early start on the day.  They looked startled at Lorne's appearance, but thankfully nobody screamed--or tried to stake him.  "So, why did you come here?  Just to tell us about Angel?"

 

"I have something from Angel.  That he wanted Buffy to have.  But I'll wait until she's had a chance to process my news." 

 

Willow frowned at the idea that he was just visiting.  Scanning him again, she didn't get a temporary sort of vibe.  "I kinda thought you were looking to settle here."

 

"I might be.  If I was welcome."  He took a deep breath.  "After the fight, once Illyria was fit enough to go off and do whatever it is she's doing, I was sort of lost.  I drifted, Willow.  All over the place.   And you know what?  I'm tired of drifting.  I thought I was done with the good fight.  I thought I could hole up somewhere new.  Open a little club and go back to singing.  And I did that for a while.  But I find..."

 

"That you miss it?"

 

"Or it misses me.  Not sure, but it won't let me rest--this nagging feeling inside me.  So here I am."  He poured himself some coffee.  "You think I can stay?"

 

She nodded.  "I'll talk to Buffy for you, if you want?  I think it would be good to have someone who can read people the way you can."  She touched his face, smiled when he closed his eyes.  "We can take care of you, Lorne.  You seem so sad."

 

"I am sad, peaches.  Sad to the depths of me."  He sipped at his coffee.

 

"I know how that feels.  It can make everything else go dark."

 

He nodded.  "Everything."

 

"Buffy will let you stay.  I'm sure of it."  She touched his hand, wanting to give him some kind of comfort.  "You offer a lot."

 

"And I can sing.  Don't forget that in your sales pitch."

 

"Giles sings, too.  Maybe you two can do duets."  Willow knew her look was probably wistful.  Tara had been a good singer, with her sweet, strong voice.  She'd loved to sing in the shower, and Willow had loved to sit on the counter and listen to her.  She'd leave as soon as the water went off, hadn't wanted to make Tara self-conscious.  She missed the singing.  She missed so much about Tara.


Even if she had some little part of her inside her, reminding her when she was about to go too far.  But was that really Tara?  Or did she just miss Tara so much she'd invented her.  Maybe she'd have Lorne read her someday?  When she was ready to know the truth.  For now, she wanted to think it was her lover, some part of Tara that couldn't stay away.  But what if she should stay away?  Willow wasn't pulling Tara out of Heaven the way she'd done to Buffy, was she?

 

"Now who's sad?"  Lorne patted her hand.  "Too much of that going around, I think."  He drained his cup.  "So where's that crazy Andrew?  I need to say hello to him."

 

"He's on the road again.  But he'll be back soon." 

 

Lorne yawned, an enormous "I've been walking for hours" yawn. 

 

Willow stood.  "Come on.  I'll set you up with a room in the dorm.  It's with the slayers, so you might want to lie low till we've had a chance to give them a heads up that you're, you know..."

 

"A demon?"

 

"I was going to go for green.  But demony, too."  Willow grinned at his expression.  "Come on.  We have soft sheets and a private bathroom calling your name." 

 

"Add in an in-room coffee maker and you're on."

 

She grinned.  "Tea, I think.  It was supposed to be for the watchers."

 

"Beggars can't be choosers.  Lead on."

 

She looped her arm with his, urging him to the dorm.  At least one of the watchers' rooms would be put to good use.

 

-----------------------------

 

Giles guided Buffy away from the main area, heading for the back of the compound, where they were safer from prying eyes.  She held him as they walked, her arms wrapped around him, her head pressed into his side.  Her sobs made him hurt inside--for her, not for himself.   He knew Buffy had, for the most part, given up on being with Angel.  But he also knew that she'd always believed they would be there for the other one--she was crying as much for her failure to help Angel when he needed her, as she was for her loss.

 

"He knew you'd come, Buffy.  He didn't tell you for a reason.  He and Spike both--they knew you would come if you thought they were in trouble." 

 

"I could have helped them."

 

"Or you could have died.  And you were needed here."  She started to pull away, and he gently tugged her chin up so she had to look at him.  "I don't mean by me.  I mean by the other slayers.  They need you."

 

"Andrew told Angel I didn't trust him anymore."  She sobbed.  "I told Andrew to tell him that."

 

"I know.  And you didn't trust him, Buffy."

 

"The Immortal had a hand in that.  Always talking about Angel reverting, that his working for Wolfram and Hart was a sign of that."  She looked up at Giles, her eyes so remarkably sad that he wanted to pull her closer, to keep her safe from such pain.


But he couldn't.  This was old pain--a scar ripped open that throbbed now but would eventually close again.  He'd always known he shared Buffy with Angel.  Dead or alive the vampire owned much of her heart.

 

It was something he could live with. 

 

She took a deep breath, and he saw that she was pushing the pain away, pushing it down, deep into her.  He wished she would push it out, or into him, but that had never been her way.   It was why she had run to L.A. after she'd had to send Angel to Hell.  She couldn't share that pain, could only feel it.   It had probably been all she'd been able to feel.  Until enough time had passed, and she could come home.

 

He could feel a faint echo of the panic he'd felt during that long summer.  Not knowing where she was or if she was alive.  He'd tried to tell himself that she couldn't have died because another slayer hadn't been called.  Back then she hadn't died for a second time, plummeting off Glory's tower and landing with the sickening crunch of breaking bones on the bricks and rubble in front of him.  Back then he hadn't known that if she died again, she wouldn't call a new slayer.

 

He was glad he hadn't known.  He might have given up hope.  There had been nights he'd been tempted to drink himself into a coma--and beyond.  There had been nights he'd wanted to slash his wrists for how he'd failed her. 

 

So he understood something of what Buffy was going through, even if he hadn't been in love with her back then.  He understood what it meant to let someone down.

 

"I'm okay," she whispered, rubbing at her eyes.

 

"I have no doubt of that, Buffy.  But that doesn't mean you can't hurt for a while."  He took a step away.  "Do you want to be alone?"

 

For a moment, he thought she was going to say yes.  Then she shook her head and held her hand out to him.  "Stay with me?"

 

He smiled and hoped that she could read what he meant by that smile.  Forever--he'd stay with her forever if she asked.

 

They walked hand in hand for a while, skirting the compound, keeping to the far reaches where they were unlikely to be bothered. 

 

"Giles, do you think we can trust Lorne?"  His slayer was back, pushing aside the woman who had just found out her greatest love was well and truly dead.

 

"Willow certainly seemed to think so."

 

"That's not what I asked."

 

He shrugged.  "Pyleans are generally warriors.  Lorne seems very different."

 

"Different good?  Or different bad?"

 

"I'm not sure."  He took a deep breath.  "We'll have to get to know him.  Keep an eye on him until we're sure, I guess."

 

"I don't trust anyone, anymore, Giles.  I've grown too jaded."

 

"You're not jaded if you have good reason to distrust people, and I'd say you do.  We all do.  We've seen the worst of people."  He studied her.  "Do you really not trust anyone?"

 

She seemed to realize what she'd said.  "Oh, I trust you.  That goes without saying.  Although from the look on your face, you want me to say it."  She smiled--a half hearted attempt, but still a smile.  "I trust you, Giles.  And that has nothing to do with our relationship now.  I trust you more than anyone."

 

He smiled, but he could remember the times she hadn't been able to trust him.  When he'd tried to kill Spike just before the battle with the First.  Or during the Cruciamentum.  He racked his brain.  Hadn't there been other times?  Other betrayals?  From him to her, and vice versa?  Buffy had lied to him--or lied by omission to him.  But how much of that had been her basic nature and how much due to the fact she'd been a teenager in a trying situation?

 

"Where'd you go, Giles?" 

 

"Back to Sunnydale."  He smiled, putting his arm around her and heading back up to the dining hall.   "But we're not in Sunnydale."

 

"Primarily because there's no Sunnydale to be in."

 

"Quite."  He leaned down, not sure if she'd want a kiss, but she lifted her face to his, met his lips with her own.  Sweetly.  Gently.

 

"My dearest," he said, wanting to tell her how much he loved her but knowing it wasn't the time--and at any rate, she knew that he loved her.  He'd told her.  He'd shown her. 

 

The best thing now was to keep quiet and just be there for her.

 

-----------------------------

 

The hellmouth was acting up again and Faith felt itchy.  Although that could be the new soap that Robin had brought home.  He was always doing that, bringing in smelly stuff with too big a price tag for a bar of soap.  Then again, the new duds she was wearing were also courtesy of him, so she'd deal with the soap.  Unlike her, he was pulling in a paycheck--Cleveland having a high school conveniently close to the hellmouth.  A high school that had gone through its fair share of principals, teachers, and students until Robin took over.  

 

Faith heard something behind her, turned and scanned the street.  She didn't like to go anywhere near home base if there were vamps in the vicinity who might carry their address back to the nest.  So she stood waiting, a few blocks from the house she shared with Robin and the other slayers, holding the bag of food she'd bought at the mini-mart. 

 

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," she muttered, shifting the bag so she could reach for a stake.

 

Four vamps came out from behind the house in front of her.  She heard the sound of more coming from behind her.  Glancing back, she counted three.  Seven to one.  As odds went, these sucked.

 

But they weren't impossible.

 

She set down the bag, heard the sound of something squashing under the large bottle of soda as everything shifted.  Damned undead.  Ruining perfectly good junk food.

 

She scanned the area, turning and backing the way she'd come for the best ground to fight on.  She pulled out another stake.

 

"Slayer."  One of the bigger vamps pressed ahead of the others.  "We're sick of your kind.  This is our town.  You need to be eliminated."

 

"I take it you're not from the Tourist Board, huh?  'Cause if you are, your ad campaign needs work.  It comes across a little stilted.  And a lot unfriendly."

 

"You will die."

 

"See, that's really not the approach you want," Faith said, preparing to get down to business.

 

But then she heard another set of footsteps coming from behind her fast--very, very fast.  She whirled, ready to stake whatever it was, but she was knocked aside, nearly knocked over as a thin woman dressed in formfitting leather ran into the fray, attacking the vamps with her bare hands.  She didn't look strong enough to fight one--let alone four--vamps.  She certainly didn't look strong enough to rip the lead vampire's head off, but that didn't stop her from doing it.

 

"What the...?"  Faith didn't wait to over think it.  Thinking was Buffy's deal.  She felt the need to unleash some violence, so she did it.  Jumping into the fight, both stakes zipping, she took out the three vampires that had come up behind her.

 

Then she turned to help the other woman, but she was just standing, all of her vamps dusted.  She was watching Faith fight, nodding slightly, the streetlight causing her hair to glow strangely--or was it really blue?

 

"You fight well," she said, looking Faith up and down as if Faith was a pit bull she might buy for the ring.

 

"I do my part."  Faith moved closer, got a better look at the woman's face--not only was her hair blue, her skin kind of was, too.  But she looked familiar.  "Do I know you?"

 

"You knew my shell."  Suddenly the blue woman in leather was gone, and a not-blue woman in a t-shirt and skirt stood before her. 


Faith sucked in breath.  It was Fred?  Not that she'd gotten to know Fred all that well, but well enough.  "You killed her?"  She was reaching for the stake she'd just jammed back into her pocket.

 

"In a manner of speaking."  Fred was gone; the blue woman was back.  "I am Illyria."

 

"I don't care who you are, you're so going down."  She wasn't sure why she cared about this.  Maybe she just wanted to make something pay for having taken down Angel, and this woman and what she'd done to Angel's friend was good enough.

 

"I fought with Angel," Illyria said, her voice casual, as if she was not at all afraid of Faith.

 

Faith stopped, waiting. 

 

"That last battle.  In the alley.  I fought with him and Spike and the others.  I survived it.  Barely."

 

"You look okay to me."

 

"I was tended well.  And time has passed.  This body heals faster the longer I'm in it."

 

"Does that mean I can get you out of it and bring Angel's friend back?"

 

"No.  If you hurt me enough, I will die.  But she will not come back."  Illyria moved forward and Faith flinched, then she realized the woman was walking toward her sack of groceries. 

 

"Hey.  Those aren't yours."

 

Illyria pulled out a bag of cheese doodles--wrestling it free from underneath the Coke Faith had bought for herself.  "These are worthy of a god."

 

Faith took them back; they were Robin's favorite.  "Look, blue girl.  Not that I don't appreciate the assist, but what are you doing here?"

 

"I have no purpose.  I wander, committing random acts of violence, but it does not quiet the voices inside me."

 

"Uh huh."  Faith thought it sounded a bit like herself before she let the cops put her in jail.

 

"The hellmouth drew me here.  You and the other slayers drew me here--I could feel your power from miles away."

 

"We'll have to work on that."  Were they broadcasting to every unnatural thing?

 

"I want to know why I fight.  I want to..."

 

"Make a difference?"  Faith crossed her arms. 

 

"Altruism has some ability to still the pain of uselessness."

 

Faith decided that was a yes.  "And you think joining us is the answer?"

 

"I do not know."

 

"And I'm supposed to trust you?"

 

"I would not if I were you."  Striking like a snake, Illyria grabbed the bag of cheese doodles and tore it open, pulling a large puff out and eating it with an almost blissful expression on her face.  "I will steal your food.  I will not take orders.  I may disappear when you least expect it.  I fight on my own terms for my own reasons."

 

Damn.  She did sound like Faith back in the day.  No wonder everyone had always been so pissed at her.  Illyria was wicked annoying.

 

Faith moved past her, grabbing up the groceries and walking toward the house.  She could hear Illyria behind her, crunch-crunching on the cheese doodles.  Following faithfully like Old Yeller, only blue.

 

When she got to the house, Robin looked up from his research in the kitchen.  He smiled at her, then the smile died as Illyria came around the corner.  "Hello?" he said, and Faith could see him transforming into "the principal," confronting this strange new student with the weird blue hair.

 

"Her name's Illyria.  We can't trust her, but she can pull the heads off vamps without hardly trying, so I'm sort of in favor of keeping her around."

 

"Keeping her?"

 

Illyria looked up at him.  "I have nowhere else to go.  I choose to fight on the side of good.  I will be useful to you."  She walked out of the kitchen, still munching on cheese doodles.

 

"Okay, but we're going to have to have some ground rules about the doodles," Robin said, glaring at Faith.  "Why'd you let her take them?"

 

"I didn't let her.  She just did."  She reached into the grocery sack, pulled out another bag of cheese doodles.  "Here.  They were buy one, get the other half off."

 

"Ah, Faith, I love you."

 

She laughed.  But it felt good, sort of made her warm all over, to hear him say that to her.  He said it so casually.  As if it didn't have to be anything big and dire.  As if, with him, love wasn't going to mean things that hurt and made her want to run away.

 

She thought the Mayor would have approved of him.  Well, except for Robin's tendency to fight on the side of good, but then Faith had gone off the tracks as far as that was concerned, too.  She missed the mayor.  Knew that she couldn't explain it to anyone who'd thought he was evil incarnate, but he'd been the first person to love her with no strings.  And it had felt really good.

 

"Uh, Faith.  Where did she go?"

 

"Back to Sunny D.  Guess I should go check on our houseguest, huh?"

 

"That'd be my recommendation.  You need some help?"  He was digging into the doodles, not looking anywhere near ready to assist.

 

"As if."  She hurried out, saw that Illyria was standing in the living room, staring at a picture that had been in the house when they rented it.  It was a dark scene, a landscape but sort of creepy.  Dark shadows over the hillside, the moon rising a sickly yellowish green. 

 

"This looks like my domain.  Where I was king."

 

"King, huh?"  Illyria looked like a chick to her.  A kind of sexy chick.

 

"And a god.  I ruled with an iron fist.  If I squeezed my hand, the blood of those who displeased me ran through the streets of my kingdom."

 

"Good times, huh?"  Faith resisted the urge to back away slow and find the nearest weapon.

 

"Yes.  I miss it."

 

"Yeah, well, I miss Boston sometimes, too.  But you know what they say.  You can't go home again."

 

Illyria nodded, and the movement came off as sad.  "I tried; I failed."

 

"I didn't try.  Easier not to."  Faith tried to turn Illyria away from the picture.  It was like trying to move a mountain.  "Jeez."

 

"Why are you touching me?"

 

"To show you the basement.  You can sleep there."  She could see Illyria was about to protest, so she said, "It's where kings sleep in my world.  Really."

 

"It is not.  I have been here long enough to know that.  But it will do."  Illyria turned, clutching the cheese doodles to her as if she needed comfort.  There was a crunch-cracking sound as she did it, like someone had just popped a whole sheet of bubble wrap.

 

"So much for that bag," Faith said, hoping Illyria wasn't going to go after Robin's.

 

Not that Robin stood a chance against her if she did.

 

"Listen, Illyria, there are other girls living here.  They're going to be a little freaked 'cause you're blue."

 

Illyria morphed into Fred.  "I don't have to be."

 

"Stop doing that.  It's wicked creepy."

 

Illyria changed back.  "I did not mean to offend."  She frowned.  "Not that I need to apologize for that.  I offend or not, as I will.  It is not for you to say how I will appear or what I will do."

 

"Okay, I sense a speech coming on, and I'm dog tired.  Howzabout you practice it down here?"  She opened the basement door and turned on the light.   "And we can all enjoy it in the morning?"

 

"We will kill more things then?"

 

"Probably not till dark.  But you never know, we might find some daytime monsters."

 

Illyria looked as if she would make sure they did.

 

Faith watched her walk down the stairs.  "You want this shut?"

 

Illyria turned.  For a god-king or whatever the hell she was, she looked a lot like a little kid, sleeping alone for the first time.

 

"I'll leave it open," Faith said.  "There are blankets on the shelves."

 

Illyria nodded, disappearing into the basement.  Faith waited until she heard her getting settled on the couch before she went back to the kitchen.

 

"So, uh, what is she?"  Robin was still chowing down, so Faith helped herself to the cheese doodles, too.

 

"Some kind of demon, I guess.  And she thinks she's a guy."

 

"She sure didn't look like a guy."

 

"I know.  She, uh, sort of killed this friend of Angel's and took her body."

 

"And we've invited her into our house, why?"  He started to get up.

 

She pushed him back down.  "No.  It's okay.  I mean, it's not okay what she did.  But, I don't get the feeling she had much control over that."

 

"Faith, there are times you're just a little too forgiving of the evil set."

 

"Don't lecture me about the Mayor."  It was a surefire way to get into an argument.  Then again, the making up part was always fun.  She pushed the bag of doodles out of the way, settled in on his lap.  "She may have saved my life tonight.  Seven vamps followed me, and she came out of nowhere and took four of them down wicked fast.  On the balance sheet, I'd call it a wash."

 

"I guess I would, too."  He pulled her down, kissed her.  For a long time, not moving on to anything more right away, just happy to kiss her.  That had been hard for Faith when they'd first gotten involved.  She was a pro at sex but wasn't used to this kind of closeness.  Kissing had never been high on her list of things to do with a guy.  And when she had kissed them, it has usually been in an angry, rough way.  This tender, sexy sharing of lips and tongues was new to her.  New, and really nice.

 

Faith heard footsteps coming down the hall, then they stopped.  She slowly pulled away from Robin.  Illyria stood, a blanket around her shoulders, cheese doodle dust on her lips and fingers, and a very sad look on her face.

 

"Couldn't sleep?" Robin asked.

 

The god-king shook her head.  It was a truly pathetic site.

 

"Want me to tell you a bedtime story?" Faith asked, mostly to be flip.

 

But Illyria nodded, her look wistful.  "In my court, those who wished to solicit favors would entertain me with song and saga."   

 

"If Faith tells it, it'll be a bloody saga," Robin said.

 

"With many deaths and betrayals?  I would like a story about entrails."

 

"Entrails, huh?"  Faith thought about that.  "Well, there was this time I strangled a Vicashu Demon with his own intestines."

 

"Yes, that would be pleasant."

 

"Oh, yeah." Robin said under his breath as Faith climbed off him.  "This is going to be big fun having her live here."

 

She grinned at him.  "Actually it is.  None of you ever want to hear those stories."   She handed him the cheese doodles to keep him company while she was gone.  "Come on, Illyria.  One tale of blood and gore coming up."

 

Illyria smiled.  A very creepy, almost-serial-killer, smile.  But still an improvement over the mopey 'tude from before.

 

Faith told her the intestine story and managed to come up with a few more before Illyria finally fell asleep on the couch.   Faith stood over her for a moment, then she settled another blanket around her and went back to Robin.


But for the rest of the evening, she found herself listening for the sound of lonely footsteps coming up the stairs.

 

-----------------------------

 

Xander sprawled on the grass next to the swing he was building for Will and Kennedy.  He found it sort of fitting that Buffy, by moving in with Giles, had given his first creation over to Ingrid and Dawn.  He didn't plan on making her a new one until everyone else had theirs first.  And maybe some folks in town had some, too.  Or possibly all of Italy.

 

Sure, it was petty.  But it made seeing Buffy and Giles together tolerable.  Almost.

 

"Xander?"  Ingrid's accent made his name sound exotic.  And her voice was so sweet. 

 

He sat up, took in her bright blue eyes and lightly tanned skin.  She had a basket in her hand.

 

"Ooh, food?"  He patted his waistline.  "You're spoiling me.  And turning my once studly bod into something a bit more rotund."  Not that she'd done that all by herself.  Settling down with Anya had added the poundage.  Post-jilting blues had added even more.  He sure wouldn't want to get into a speedo now.

 

She smiled.  "You can train with me.  Work it off."  She sat down next to him.  "Besides, in Sweden, we like our men big."

 

"Right.  That explains all the gorgeous Swedish hunks."

 

"Well, I like my men with some meat on their bones."  She opened the basket, dug out some sandwiches with ham and some kind of cheese that maybe was Swiss.  Ingrid didn't go in for the really out there cheeses Anya had loved, and he was grateful.  He hated seeing green and blue bits in his cheese.  That's why God had made American cheese, after all.  No surprises--also probably no actual cheese, but there were always tradeoffs.

 

Taking one of the sandwiches, he asked, "What else you got in that basket, little girl?"  He was hoping for cookies. She made the best damn cookies in the world.  Well, actually Ted's had been better, but then he'd drugged his so he had to be disqualified for doping.  As far as Xander knew, Ingrid was cooking clean.

 

"Maybe a treat for you.  If you're a very good boy."  She bit into her sandwich, staring across the compound to where some of the slayers were training with Buffy and Kennedy.

 

"You glad you're not over there?"

 

She nodded.  "But I'm a failure."

 

"Uh, my taste buds vigorously disagree."  Other parts of him chimed in, too.  He didn't think most cooks looked quite that wholesomely sexy in an apron over a white t-shirt and jeans.

 

"I'm a slayer, Xander.  I'm supposed to want to do that."

 

"Au contraire, Ingrid.  Buffy never wanted to do it."

 

"She didn't?"

 

"Nope.  Buffy wanted to be normal.  But the slayer thing called and she had to do it.  They played that 'One girl in all the world' tape over and over until she bellied up to the bar of destiny and said, 'Sign me up for some violence.'  But she did not want to."  He thought of another slayer: the girl--was Faith ever really a "girl"?--he'd lost his virginity to.  "On the other hand, there are some who take to it like a fish to water."

 

Ingrid was still watching Buffy.  "She's so confident, though.  Like being a slayer is the most natural thing in the world to her.  If she didn't want to, then how did she get that way?"

 

"She's just strong.  Buffy's probably the strongest person I know.  She's been through crap that would break a normal person."

 

Ingrid looked at him.  Then, very slowly, she leaned over and touched where the elastic from his eye patch ran over his eyebrow.  "So, I think, have you." 

 

She didn't pull away, and he didn't ask her to, even though he didn't like anyone to touch his face anymore.  He had too many nightmares of Caleb poking out his eye, the calm way he'd done it, then the overwhelming pain as Xander had realized how badly he'd been hurt.  And how badly he could be hurt again.

 

Ingrid pulled her hand away.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to bring back bad memories."

 

"Can't really get away from it."  He touched the patch.  "Always with me."

 

She didn't look away, her expression one of sympathy, but not pity.  Then she looked down at his sandwich.  "Eat."

 

He decided to obey her.

 

"Dawn has told me of your life.  Of all your lives.  I know that you lost someone you loved in your final battle with the First."

 

He'd hated leaving Anya in the school, hadn't seen her among the fallen.  There'd been no time to look for the dead.  And Andrew had seen her go down.  But what if Andrew had been wrong and she hadn't died instantly?  Xander hated thinking of his crazy Anya lying there dying slowly, wondering why he'd deserted her again.

 

Ingrid sighed.  "And once more I have raised old ghosts."

 

He nodded.  "I'm sorry."

 

"No, I am sorry.  I should learn to keep the conversation light."  She looked down.  "I have never known loss, Xander.  My parents are alive and healthy.  My grandparents, too.  I can't understand what that must have been like for you."

 

"Well, that's the thing about life.  It ends.  So sooner or later, you're going to understand." 

 

Ingrid looked down.  "If Buffy hadn't pulled me out of training, I would have probably died on my first assignment.  And then my parents would have had to grieve for me."

 

"Well, you're not going to have to fight.  So they won't have to."

 

"Buffy is kind.  To look out for me and the others she's pulled out of the ranks."

 

"Buffy isn't kind.  She just knows what's right.  And sending someone to die, just because that's how it's always been done, is not her style."

 

"You don't think she's kind?"

 

Xander looked away.  He could still hear her voice that morning he'd caught her and Giles on the beach together.   Neither of them had been kind that day--so cold in their certainty that he had no right to judge them.  That they weren't doing anything wrong.

 

He was getting used to them.  He accepted that he'd lost out again, and Buffy wasn't going to love him.  But he didn't like it.  And he never would.

 

"Now, you have a different look.  Now, you are angry."

 

He shrugged.

 

"Dawn told me you had strong feelings for Buffy once."

 

"Dawn has a big mouth sometimes."

 

"Xander?  Are you still in love with Buffy?"

 

He shrugged again.  Cordy had hated how important Buffy had been to him.  Anya had, too. 

 

"I think you are.   That must be so hard for you, Xander.   She's here and she's with Giles.  And they seem quite happy."

 

"They are quite happy.  No seeming about it."  His voice was tight--the "hurt Xander" voice he knew he shouldn't fall back on, but did anyway.

 

He could see Ingrid shutting down, her bright smile dimming.  "Well, I better get back to the kitchen." 

 

She started to get up, and he reached out. 

 

"Don't go."

 

"I'm not Buffy.  I never will be.  Perhaps you should wait for her?"

 

"Nyah.  I'll be waiting forever.   I'm one of her best friends.  But I'm not her type."  He moved his hand down Ingrid's arm, taking her hand.  "Wasn't there anyone you had a crush on?  Someone you could never have?"

 

She nodded.  "Mister Agardian.  He was our next door neighbor.  Tall, dark, and exotic.  I was in love.  But he found another."  She smiled ruefully.  "I was twelve years old.  He didn't even know I was alive."

 

"Well, I'm not twelve."

 

"I know.  That is my concern."  She let go of his hand, dug in the basket and pulled out a cookie.  "I don't know that I should give this to you, now that I know your heart is taken."

 

It was heart shaped, with the inside pressed down so some kind of pink filling could be pressed into it.  He took a bite and the taste of raspberry and something else, something wonderful, filled his mouth.


She was watching him, a sad look in her eyes.  Then she pushed herself up and grabbed the basket, hurrying away.

 

Xander watched her go, chewing thoughtfully on the scrumptious cookie.  He saw her pass Willow, ignoring her when Will said something.  Willow watched her go into the dining hall, then she turned and looked straight at him.  Even from far away, he could tell she was glaring at him.

 

She made short work of the distance, standing over him, her hands on her hips.  "If you upset her enough that she can't cook, you're going to have a lot of angry slayers on your hands.  Not to mention me."

 

"I didn't mean to upset her."

 

Willow sighed.  "I guess Buffy finally came up, huh?"

 

He looked down.  "What if I can't love anyone but her?"

 

Willow sat down next to him.  "Xander, has it occurred to you--like ever--that mostly you just want what you can't have?  You snuck around with Cordelia, enjoying bucking the in crowd until that was acceptable, and then you cheated on her.  And who with?  Me.  Who you never wanted until suddenly you were taken and so was I."

 

"I wasn't exactly stalking you, Will.  Your lips were pretty eager."

 

"Oh, I know.  But I'm just saying.  You didn't exactly pursue me after Cordelia broke up with her and I was temporarily single.  You tried to get her back."

 

"Well, you were trying to get Oz back."

 

"And that would have stopped you if you'd really, truly wanted me and only me?  I don't think so.  And now you want Buffy because you can't have her.  She's the last frontier."

 

"That's crap, Will.  I've wanted her since the first day she walked onto campus."

 

Willow sighed.  "And you wanted Faith because she was all cool, bad girl.  Forbidden fruit again."

 

"And how do you explain Anya?"

 

"Well, other than picking a demon"--she saw his look--"ex-demon, she was actually a good choice on your part.  She was your most normal relationship.  She was different--not forbidden.  I think that's why she got so far with you.  She wasn't like the others."

 

"There's a point to all this, I suppose?"

 

"I'm getting there."

 

"Good, 'cause I'm rethinking giving you this lovely swing."

 

She gave him her stern look.

 

"Oh, fine.  You can have it.  What's your point, Will?"

 

"That Ingrid really likes you, and I think you really like her.  And now you're trying to ruin this before it even starts."

 

"Buffy and Giles--"

 

"Buffy and Giles are in for the long haul, Xan.  I'm sorry, but that's how I see it.  And even if they weren't, she..."

 

"She wouldn't pick me?"

 

Willow nodded, not meeting his eye.

 

"Wow.  This sure is a feel-good conversation.  You should sign up for motivational speaking gigs, Will.  I see a great future for you in it."

 

She sighed but didn't move.  "Go talk to her."

 

He thought she meant Ingrid, but she was looking over at where Buffy was stretching, taking a break while the girls ran laps. 

 

"Go talk to her about what?"

 

"About the two of you.  If she's ever even considered it?  If she would?  I think you need to know.  If you're ever going to move on.  Go on.  Do it."

 

He pushed himself up, not sure what Will expected him to do.  He imagined what he might say as he walked across the compound.  "Hey, Buffy.  What're the odds on our future happiness if, say, old Giles should have a heart attack while you're screwing his brains out?"  Yeah that would go over big.

 

He settled for, "Hey, Buffy."

 

"Hey, Xander."  Buffy was doing pushups, the real way not the half-assed way they let girls do it in P.E.  He was pretty sure she could do the clapping thing if she wanted to, but she didn't tend to show off for no reason anymore.

 

"Can we talk?" he asked.

 

"Sure."  She pushed back, turning the push-up into a crouch, then was on her feet with a grace that still thrilled him.  She was so amazing.  The way she moved.  The way she looked when she moved.

 

He could only imagine what she was like in bed.

 

"Can we walk while we talk?"  He wanted to get her away from anywhere Giles might come out.

 

"Okay."  She sounded wary.  As if she was expecting an attack, and that made him feel bad.  She moved to his side--his bad side--and he wondered if that was deliberate. 

 

As soon as they were clear of the houses, he turned her toward the bottom of the hill, managing to get on the other side of her.  Then he realized they were heading toward the path to the beach--not good.  He turned them again, so they were skirting the property line.  "I need to know something."

 

She stopped walking, turning to look at him.

 

"If you and Giles weren't together--or if you, for whatever reason, broke up--would I even stand a chance with you?"

 

She studied him.  "Xander, I thought this crush you had on me back when we were first in high school was over."

 

"So did I.  But then you broke up with the Immortal, and I guess I started to hope."  He shut up.  Needed to make her talk.  Or maybe neither of them would talk, and it would be the most uncomfortable non-conversation in history.

 

"Xander, you've been there for me.  You've fought at my side.  You've sacrificed so much for me.  You are one of my very best friends.  And I love you with all my heart.  But I'm not interested in you that way.  I'm sorry."

 

He felt just like he had when he'd asked her to the dance back in sophomore year.  Like she'd pulled out her steel-toed slayer boots and kicked him as hard as she could in the gut.  She turned to go, and he stopped her.

 

"What if I were the last man on Earth, Buff?  What then?"

 

"You're not."  She looked back at him, her face full of sadness and some kind of mix of resignation and quiet anger. 

 

He could feel hypothetical slayer boots again jamming into his gut.  Only he imagined her words were designed to hit lower, to kill that part of him that wanted her so badly.

 

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I probably shouldn't have asked."

 

"No, you probably shouldn't have."  She took a deep breath, and when she exhaled, he saw her face harden.  "You know, Andrew's been on the road awhile now...?"

 

"You think I should make myself scarce and relieve him?"  He saw her mouth tighten at his tone.  "How long am I exiled?"

 

"You don't have to go, Xander.  But maybe it would be better?  If this is hard for you...?"

 

"I'll deal.  This conversation was probably good.  Like cold water to the face, or a knife to the gut."  He turned to go, and this time she stopped him.

 

"Do you hate me?" she asked, and there was misery in her voice.  "Am I losing my friend over this?"

 

He wondered if she would call it off with Giles if he said yes.  Then he turned and saw that the tired look she'd worn so often during the fight with Glory, and later during the long battle of wits with the First, was back. 

 

He was hurting her.

 

"I'm sorry."  He didn't want to be the cause of her going to those dark places again--places where she felt alone. 

 

"I'm sorry, too.  I wish I could make you happy and me happy at the same time.  I wish I could be the girl you want.  But I'm not."

 

"No.  You're the woman Giles wants."  He touched her hair.  "Maybe I will go away for a little while.  Andrew deserves a break.  But I'll be back.  I'm not deserting you."

 

"Okay."   She gave him a quick hug, then turned and walked away.

 

He walked back to the dining hall, slipped around to the back, to the kitchen door.  Ingrid was fixing chicken for the evening meal, tearing the birds apart into the familiar wings and thighs and breast with a lot of force.  Slayer strength was killer in the kitchen.   Plus, she looked like she had some hurt or maybe anger to work out.  Emotion he'd caused.

 

He walked in.  "Hey."

 

"I'm a little busy, Xander."

 

"I know.  Listen, Ingrid.  I'm going to go away for a while."

 

She didn't look up, but she did sniff a little, and he realized she'd been crying, was trying to not let him see that.  "That's probably a good idea."

 

"I don't know when I'll get back."

 

She shrugged.  But still she wasn't looking at him.

 

He moved closer.  "I need to get my head back on straight.  I need to close some things out."

 

She kept ripping chicken. 

 

"But when I get back, if you're happy to see me and you want to start over from that moment before our lunch went south, then give me one of those cookies you made.  The heart ones."

 

She looked up at him, and her eyes were red.  "And what if I'm not happy to see you?  What if I don't want that?" 

 

"Then give me something old and moldy."

 

She smiled, and he could tell she didn't want to.  "Okay."

 

"I'll see you in a bit, all right?"

 

She nodded, and he turned to go.  He'd taken a few steps toward the door when he felt something hard hit his head. 

 

"Ow."  He turned back to look at her.

 

She had a look of delighted disbelief on her face.  "I actually hit you with that."

 

"Anger is good for your aim."  He picked up the projectile--a chicken neck.  Trust her to not waste any of the good parts.  "You want another go at me?"

 

"Yes."  She stalked over to him, looking more like a slayer than she ever had as she reached out with chickeny hands.  But she didn't take the chicken piece.  Instead, she pulled him close and kissed him.  Thoroughly.  Passionately. 

 

Then she drew away.  "Something to remind you why you might want to come back.  If you get over your infatuation with the unattainable."

 

He pulled her back to him.  "One for the road?"

 

"Just one.  Then go away and solve your problems.  I don't want anyone who thinks he's settling when he gets me."

 

He nodded.  Not caring that she was probably getting chicken bits in his hair as their lips locked again.  For a very long time.

 

Man, those Swedish girls knew how to kiss.

 

-----------------------------

 

Buffy watched as Giles sat at one of the far tables in the dining hall.  He had papers spread out, was working a big calculator and writing out checks.  Every so often he'd take his glasses off, rub his eyes, start putting the bills in some kind of new order, then write another check out.

 

Lorne sat down across from her, turning to see what she was watching.  "Now that looks like a cranky watcher."

 

Buffy felt the need to defend Giles, and turned to Lorne, ready to slay him with words.  But then she saw the gentle look in his eyes and realized he meant no harm, was, in fact, just picking up on what most people at the sanctuary didn't get--that they were dangerously low on funds. 

 

"Having a tough time making ends meet?"  His look was full of sympathy. 

 

She nodded.  "It wasn't easy before, but the Watchers' Council would throw enough our way to tide us over."

 

"And before that, you had the Immortal's wealth at your beck and call."

 

"Yes, we did."  She glanced over at Giles, saw him rub his forehead the way he did when they faced a particularly hard-to-define evil.  "Now, it's just us.  And this place is so big, and none of us are bringing in a salary.  Although, we may need to change that."

 

"Hold that thought, sweetheart."  Lorne dug into his pocket, bringing out a laminated card with a series of handwritten numbers on it.

 

"What's this?"

 

"I'm not here just because I need a place to crash, Buffy.  I have one more thing to do for Angelcakes before I can rest.  And this is it."

 

She picked up the card, turning it over.  "This is?  Okay.  What is this?"

 

Lorne watched her; he seemed to be assessing her.  "You know there was bad blood between Angel and the Immortal, right?"

 

"I didn't when I met the Immortal.  But yeah, I'm aware now."

 

"Angel wanted you to have this once you were free and clear of the Immortal.  Given your relationship with the grumpy bill-paying man over there, I'd say you're free and clear."

 

"I'd say so, too."  She put the card down.  "And this is...?"

 

"It's the number and access codes for a Swiss bank account that contains a nice little nest egg of Wolfram and Hart money.  Scrubbed clean, you might say."

 

She could feel her mouth drop open.  "Angel embezzled this."

 

"Well, actually, Fred did.  She had the biggest budget, felt she could siphon some off and nobody would notice.  Had a lot of  'price overruns' in her department.  Eve loved to lecture her on that."

 

"Eve?"

 

"Liaison to the senior partners.  Not a nice girl."  Lorne looked very far away.  "Anyway, Fred thought we'd need the money in the future, when we finally left Wolfram and Hart."  Lorne looked down, his voce growing shaky.  "She thought she had a future, poor little thing."

 

"I never met her.  I'm sorry that I didn't."

 

Lorne nodded.  "You'd have liked her.  Everyone did."  He took a deep breath, as if pushing the memory of Fred away.  "Well, anyway, this is for you.  Once Angel knew that we wouldn't be using it, he wanted you to have it.   If you aren't extravagant, this should fund your operation for a nice long time."

 

She met his eyes and realized how utterly gentle his were.   He reminded her a little of Clem.   "Thank you, Lorne."

 

"You were the love of Angel's life, Buffy.  I read him enough times to know that.  No matter what else happened to him, you always came first."  He leaned in, touched her hand.  "And I think it was that way for you, too."

 

She nodded.

 

"But you've found a nice man--although I guess 'found' isn't the word.  You two have been partners for a long time."


Buffy looked over at Giles.  He was staring out the window, his lips pursed tightly.  "A very long time.  And I think I need to go tell my partner to quit worrying about our serious lack of moolah."

 

"Probably a good idea."

 

She pushed her chair back and rose.  Looking down at him, she said, "What are your plans?"

 

"I am a man with no plan."  He shook his head, as if embarrassed at the rhyme.

 

"Stay with us.  You'll be safe here.  And Willow said you can read people.  That might help us with some of the newer slayers.  Some of them come in pretty--"

 

"Warped?"  He nodded.  "I remember Dana.  What happened to her?"

 

She looked down.  Dana had been their biggest failure.

 

"Buffy?"

 

She forced herself to look him in the eyes.  "We thought we were reaching her.  But we weren't.  She got out one night, killed several of the Immortal's servants before he caught up with her.  He wasn't known for his patience."

 

"He killed her?"

 

"He wounded her.  She jumped out a window to get away from him.  A very high window.  She didn't land well."  Buffy touched her neck.

 

"I wish I could say I'm sorry, but that girl was beyond help."

 

"No one's beyond help, Lorne.  I have to believe we could have saved her."

 

"Why?  Because if you couldn't, you had no business taking her away from Angel?"

 

She could feel a flush crossing her face.  "We did what we had to do."

 

"You broke his heart that day.  I think you should know that."

 

She felt as if his words were knives, stabbing into her heart.  "We weren't clear on his priorities.  It looked..."

 

The fire in Lorne's eyes died down.  "I know, pumpkin.  I'm sorry.  I just get defensive.  They were my family, and I loved them."

 

She nodded, looking down at the card he'd given her.  "Stay as long as you want, Lorne.  Maybe this can be your family, too?"  Then she left him alone and walked over to Giles' table.  "Trouble with the books?"

 

"It's not a laughing matter, Buffy."  He had his extreme grown-up face on.

 

She put the card down on top of his papers.  "It actually might be."

 

He picked it up slowly, studying the numbers.  "Is this what I think it is?"

 

"It is if you think it's a Swiss bank account."  She saw his frustration turn to relief.  "And how do you know what their account numbers look like?"

 

"The Council uses them."  He looked up at her.  "Where did you get this?"

 

"Angel sent it.  Via his big green messenger guy."

 

"Angel?"  Giles looked so happy she thought he was going to cradle the little card to his chest.  "This could solve all our problems."

 

She sat down, smiling at his enthusiasm.  "This could solve all our _financial_ problems."

 

"Well, yes, if you want to be very particular."  He grinned at her.  "At any rate, it's very good news.  I wasn't sure how we were going to buy food this month."

 

She put her hand over his.  "No worries now."

 

His grin was so immediate that she realized that the situation had probably been even worse than he was saying. 

 

"Yes," he said, going back to his bills with a much lighter expression than before.  Then he looked up at her, the bill payer gone.  The man who loved her in his place.  The man who could probably see some lingering pain in her eyes over Dana and what she'd done to Angel to get the girl to Italy.   "Are you all right, Buffy?"

 

"Lorne just...he said some hard truths."

 

"About?"

 

"Angel.  Dana.  You know, bad calls."

 

"They weren't bad calls.  You made the best decision you could on the evidence we had at the time."


"But, Giles.  The Immortal didn't like Angel.  What if I listened to him too much?"

 

He shook his head, his eyes very calm.  "You were also listening to me.  Do you think I'd have let you do something just to spite Angel?  Especially if it was going to benefit 'him'?"  He gave her a stern look.

 

"I forgot that you're the founder of the 'I Hate the Immortal' club."


"Not the founder, but the current chairman."  He winked at her.  "And hate might be too strong.  Very intense dislike, I think."

 

She laughed.  Then she remembered what they'd been talking about.  "I still was pretty harsh with Angel."

 

"Buffy, I'd be willing to bet all the money in this lovely bank account that his last thoughts were of you.  Harsh or no, he never stopped loving you.  I'm sure of it."    He touched her hand, his skin warm on hers.

 

"Thanks, Giles."

 

"That's what a watcher's for."

 

"That's not what that was."  She leaned across the table, pulling him up to meet her and making his neatly arranged bills go all over the table.  "I love you."

 

"I love you, too, Buffy.  But this isn't very discreet of us."

 

"It sure isn't, is it?"  She kissed him again, then let him go.

 

He went back to his bills.  "Don't you have a swordsmanship class to teach?"

 

"Oh, yeah."  She watched him for a moment, then she got up and walked to the door, smiling at Lorne as she passed him. 

 

His answering grin was very sweet, as if he heartily approved of her and Giles.  She liked that.  He wasn't afraid to share hard truths or to acknowledge the good things.  Seemed very equal opportunity of him.

 

Kennedy was standing by the weapons shed, waiting for her. 

 

"Something on your mind?" Buffy asked.

 

"I saw Giles in there.  Being bill guy."

 

"Yep."

 

"He seemed sort of concerned."

 

"He was.  He's not now."  She pulled out some of the wooden practice swords. 

 

"So you don't need me to talk to my dad?"

 

Buffy turned and looked at her.  "Would you have?"

 

"Yeah.  For us--I mean all of us--I would have."

 

"That means a lot.  Now, don't you have a crossbow class to go teach?"  She sounded just like Giles chiding her a few moments before.

 

"Yes, mein commandant!"  Kennedy gave her a very stiff salute, but ruined it by laughing as Buffy rolled her eyes.

 

Buffy watched her go, then took a deep breath and went off to train some slayers.

 

-----------------------------

 

Giles took a break from bills that were no longer so daunting now that they had funds to pay them with.  He looked over where Lorne was standing.  The demon was staring out the window, watching the slayers train, wearing an expression that on a human would be tortured--Giles wasn't certain what it signified for a Pylean. 

 

He turned back to the waiting expenses, singing "Blackbird" softly under his breath.  He heard a quick intake of breath, and looked up to see Lorne watching him intently.  Remembering what Willow had said about Lorne's ability to read anyone who sang for him, he bit the song off but could tell it was too late.

 

He rose slowly, walking over to where Lorne stood.  The slayers were going all out, wooden swords clanking as Buffy put them through their paces. 

 

"How much do you see when you read us?" he asked softly.

 

"A lot."  Lorne turned to look at him.  "You've got a nice voice, by the way.  Willow said you did."

 

"Flattery isn't going to distract me.  And thank you."

 

Lorne smiled, and some kind of tension seemed to go out of him.  "You remind me of Wesley."

 

At first Giles felt insulted, had to consciously work to think of the man Wesley had grown into, not the great ninny he'd been saddled with.  "You were friends?"

 

"I like to think we were family."  He looked down.  "You've done some dark things, Rupert."

 

It sounded odd to have someone calling him that.  Odd, but nice. 

 

"Or do you prefer Giles?"

 

"You brought us that little card with the magical Swiss numbers on it, so I think you can call me anything you like."

 

Lorne laughed.  "Now who's distracting?"  Lorne nodded toward Buffy.  "You killed for her.  And you don't know what she would do if she ever finds out.  But you don't regret that you did it."  He sighed, a deeply resonant sound for such a mundane act.  "I wish you could read me."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I killed for Angel.  And I hate myself."  He turned to Giles.  "How do you live with it so easily?"

 

"Because I know why I did it.  I know the world is a safer place because I did it.  And I have an absolute certainty that the god trapped inside the young man I murdered would have come after my slayer.  And I couldn't have that.  I wouldn't."

 

Lorne nodded.

 

"She died anyway.  Despite my action.  She died, and it might never have mattered."

 

"She's not dead now."

 

"No. Not now."  Giles sighed.  "And Glory was the kind of evil that never stops.  She would have found a way to hurt Buffy, even if it was years later.  I knew I couldn't kill the god, but I could snuff out the boy's life.  And without a vessel, she was nothing."

 

"So you did it.  End of story."  Lorne pointed out to where Buffy stood.  "What makes her worth it?"

 

Giles sensed it was a very serious question.  "She's good.  She's strong.  And she fights evil."  He shrugged.  "She had already saved many more lives than the one I took.  A life she wouldn't have taken, not even to protect herself.  That's why I could do it. She could show mercy, so she had to be preserved--no matter what the cost.  Maybe that's why you did it for Angel?"

 

Lorne laughed bitterly.  "No, I did it for Angel because Angel asked me to do it for him.  There was very little that was merciful about him at the end."

 

"Don't tell Buffy that."  Giles felt a pang, remembering the conflicted young man Angel had always seemed--when he wasn't evil and torturing people for fun.   "Let her remember him as he was.  She already feels guilty enough for not trusting him at the end."

 

"Was that your doing?"

 

"She didn't need me to tell her to think twice when it came to Angel."  He saw Lorne was about to protest and beat him to it.  "Try looking at what Angel and the rest of you were doing from our perspective, and you'll understand why we didn't trust you."

 

Lorne closed his eyes, as if the words hurt him.  "We thought we'd be able to do some good."

 

"From the belly of the beast?"

 

Lorne didn't have an answer to that.

 

"What did you kill?" Giles finally asked into a silence that was becoming uncomfortable.

 

"Not what.  Who."  Lorne met his eyes, as if he wanted to see every reaction Giles was having.  "A man.   I shot a man who was helping us, but who would probably have betrayed us again.  And I believed in it at the time.   But now I wonder..."

 

Giles just waited.

 

"It upset Lindsey so much that I was the one who did him in.  Angel knew that it would hurt him, too.  Angel was too smart not to know.  I feel, I don't know, I feel..."

 

"Used?"

 

Lorne nodded.  "Angel was my friend.  But he did that to get back at Lindsey.  He made me kill..."

 

"Held your hand to the trigger, did he?"

 

Lorne shot him a hurt look.

 

"I mean it.  What kept you in the game?  Why didn't you walk away?"

 

"I couldn't.  I had to do it."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because it was the right thing to do."  Lorne sighed.  "But it's killing me."

 

"Did you come here to do penance?"

 

"Maybe.  I don't know."  He looked around the dining hall, as if desperate for a diversion.  "Hey, who's for a sea breeze?"

 

Giles settled a hand on Lorne's shoulder.  "It'll get easier.  Or at least further away."  He knew that from experience.  All the darkness with Eyghon had given him nightmares for years, nightmares that had come back when Eyghon had manifested in Sunnydale in the bodies of his friends and the woman he loved.  But the nightmares had subsided again.

 

To be replaced by other nightmares.  Death and torture and more death.  Being alone, having to leave Sunnydale, having to leave Buffy in the ground.  Praying she'd found peace.  Dreaming that she hadn't.  That she'd fallen through the portal and somehow her soul had been caught up in the hell dimension Glory had been trying to bring over to their world.  That Buffy had been suffering unimaginable torment by friends of the god he'd killed.

 

There had never been a lack of fodder for nightmares.

 

"Hey, come back from the wacky dark place."  Lorne tried to smile, but his lips barely curved up.  "I used to be the comic relief.  Really."

 

Giles smiled tightly.  He'd used to think of Xander as that.  Until Xander had proven that he was never going to quit, despite having no real power against evil.  Of all of them, Xander was probably the bravest.   Even if he'd fled the compound again.  Buffy had told Giles about their discussion, and he'd felt bad for the other man--even as he'd felt irritation that Xander would put Buffy on the spot like that.  Maybe some time away was for the best?

 

He forced his mind off Xander.   "Go get some of the sea air, Lorne.  Watch the slayers.  You'll feel better--or at least a good deal safer."

 

Lorne nodded and headed for the door.  Just before he got there, he turned around and said with a smile, "She's a lucky woman."

 

"Feel free to tell her that."  Giles grinned, knowing that Buffy didn't need to be told.

 

Neither of them did. 

 

-----------------------------

 

The half-moon shone through the trees, giving little light as Faith followed Robin down the path that led out of the cemetery.   Freakin' vamp had risen way too early.  The sun had barely set, and he must have been clawing his way out of the ground.

 

"So, there is no monster to fight?"  Illyria sounded seriously cranky.

 

Faith knew she wasn't the poster child for upbeat herself.  "Not yet, blue velvet.  But we'll find him." 

 

"You two together sure make for a fun evening."  Robin stopped as the path gave way to city sidewalk, nearly causing Faith to crash into him.  He shook his head.  "And what am I doing?  I can't tell which way the vamp went."

 

Illyria pushed past them both.  "I can."  She set off toward the part of town that was heavy with the clubs, and Faith followed.  Figured this was where he'd go--vamps being such party types.

 

"And how can you tell?"  Robin was following, too, even if he was skeptical guy.

 

"I can smell them."

 

"Them?" Faith asked, while Robin frowned and asked, "Vampires have a certain smell?" 

 

"There were others with him.  And yes, a certain smell.  All things do."


Faith decided not to ask what humans smelled like to Illyria.  Most questions like that involved deep reminiscing about Illyria's realm, and words Faith would have to ask Robin about later like offal and crepuscule.  Illyria was expanding her vocabulary in a big way, but it wasn't with words that Faith was likely to use around her buds.


Then again, Faith wasn't overloaded with buds, these days.  She spent more time with Illyria than she did with anyone her own age.  The other slayers--they weren't buds; they were responsibilities.  Lives she had to preserve, talents she had to hone, spirits she had to try not to break.  It pretty much sucked a lot of the time.


But she'd never felt more needed--more useful--in her entire life.

 

And there was Robin.   Who hung back now as they followed Illyria past the first two clubs.  He winked at Faith, his hand finding hers for a quick squeeze.  Then he nodded back at one of the clubs they'd passed.  "That band sounded good.  We should go back sometime."

 

She smiled.  "Sure." 

 

"Cool."  He smiled, and then it faded, and he was back on the case. 

 

She loved that about him.  How he could leap out of the moment and make it not about slaying and all about them.  And then leap right back.  She supposed he might have given a more normal girl whiplash, but she respected it.  Plus, it lowered the pressure on her.   She'd never done well in a relationship, never lasted much longer than three nights with any guy, and that had been early on.  Her latest conquests had been just that.  A notch to add to a belt, a body to satisfy a post-slayage itch.  Nothing serious.  Nothing deep.  Not until Robin.

 

And she knew that she owed it to Angel that she could even relate to Robin.  Angel and the Mayor.  Two men who'd loved her in their own ways.  And who hadn't taken advantage of her the way she'd been used to.   They'd wanted her mind and her heart and her spirit, not her body.  Robin wanted all of that and body, too, and she was finally ready to see if she could work the complete package concept.

 

"What are you thinking about?" he asked.

 

"Slayer stuff."

 

"Ah."  He rolled his eyes.   He knew an evasion when he heard one.  She thought it was from being a principal.  And from being a slayer's son.  In his world, slayers spun the truth.  They might do it for your own good, but they lied. 

 

"The vampires are here."  Illyria stood in front of a Goth club.

 

"Oh yeah, we'll blend," Robin said. 

 

Of all of them, Faith was the closest to fitting in with black jeans and a black leather jacket over a dark red t-shirt.  Illyria didn't seem eager to ever trade in her leather catsuit for more normal clothes.  And Robin looked way too GQ with his jeans, steel-toed Italian leather boots, and white shirt.

 

The very tall bouncer took one look at them and said, "Go stand behind the rope."


There was no rope.  It wasn't the kind of club that had a rope.

 

Illyria didn't even look for the rope.  She grabbed the man by the throat and threw him into the street.  Fortunately, there were no cars coming.

 

"Go right in," he said, his voice raspy.

 

"Hey, thanks," Faith said, amazed that for once she got to be the good girl.  "Okay, listen, god-thing.  Chill with the tossing of people into streets."

 

"Why, because he might have been hurt?"

 

That was mostly the reason, but Faith knew it would hold no weight with Illyria.  "No, because I would have had to save him, and that would waste time, and then the vamps you want to kill would be gone." 

 

Illyria considered that.  "I will aim for a parked car next time."

 

"Super," Robin whispered.

 

Faith just grinned at him and shrugged.  Illyria was bad ass. What could she say?

 

The club wasn't very full, but it was a week night.  Faith pulled Illyria back, whispering, "You can't just go crazy in here.  We don't leave witnesses."  Not that Faith had ever cared that much about witnesses back in the day, but in a way, Illyria was just another one of her charges who needed to be taught.  "And we don't hurt normal people.  I know it's a suck rule, but deal with it."

 

"There are too many rules here that I have not written."

 

"Welcome to my world," Faith said as she spotted the vamps.  She didn't need Illyria's sense of smell to find them; the newest one was still in his burial wear and had dirt all over him.  The chick he was trying to hit on didn't look thrilled with his hygiene.

 

The other two vamps--a guy and a girl who were standing a bit away from him and watching with proud expressions as if he was their little baby taking his first steps--were dressed in something more modern.  And Goth.  Were they natives that had been turned by some new vamp?  Or were they just blending the way Faith and her crew weren't?

 

"Can I kill them?" Illyria asked.  She definitely sounded perky at the thought.

 

"Not in here," Robin said, using the principal voice.


Amazingly, Illyria always seemed to respond to it.  "Where, then?"

 

"What is the first rule of vamp hunting?"  Faith gave Illyria a stern look--the god-thing was even worse at paying attention than Faith had been back in the day. 

 

"Alleys, back rooms, cellars."

 

"Very good."  Faith was trying to make it easy on her.  The A-B-Cs of slaying.  Eventually they'd work up to D.

 

The newbie vamp was striking out big time.  Faith saw the other male work his way to the woman who'd turned down his fledgling.  He apparently made a lot more progress, because a few minutes later, the young woman turned and walked away with him.

 

Another young woman jumped in between them and the door to the alley, smiling and acting as if she wanted in on whatever fun they were headed for. 

 

Faith caught a glimpse of wood sticking out from the pocket of her jacket.  "What the...?"

 

"There is a problem?" Illyria said, looking ready to move. 

 

"Rogue talent."  She scanned the room, saw a man wearing way too much tweed sitting in a back booth.  "Or competition."

 

Illyria followed her gaze.  Her whole expression changed, becoming softer.  "Wesley?"

 

Faith realized he did look like Wesley.  But like the macho Wesley her ex-watcher had become, not the girly jerk who had tried to take her back to England.  Then the man turned, and he didn't look like Wesley, anymore.  But he did look very British.

 

He saw Faith and the others and started to get up.

 

"Go.  Alley.  Now."  Faith said, and Illyria was already on the move.

 

The watcher reached the door just as Illyria did.  She looked up at him, said very softly, "No."

 

When he kept going, she jabbed him in the neck, just above the collarbone.  He went down like a stone.

 

"What were you telling her about normal people?" Robin asked.

 

"Hey.  Points for not killing.  And he's not normal.  She has Fred's memories. She knows all about the Council."

 

"Right.  Forgot."

 

They rushed through the door, saw that the woman who'd joined the group was fighting the newbie vamp.  She staked him quickly, the Goth girl screaming and running for the street as her attacker turned to dust.

 

The two older vampires moved on the slayer, and Illyria was about to jump in, but Faith held her back.  She knew Illyria was letting her do it; no way she could have stopped her if Illyria had been really intent on getting into the fray.

 

"Wait."

 

"Why?" Illyria asked.

 

"I want to see what we're up against.  If she gets in trouble, you can go crazy on their asses."

 

"Then I hope she gets in trouble."  Illyria's tone was sour, but she held. 

 

Faith realized that the god-thing actually accepted her as the leader.  Her life just kept getting weirder.

 

The slayer looked over at them once, then leapt into the fight, taking the offensive to the vamps.  It was a mistake.  The female went flying back, but the male grabbed the slayer, throwing her back against the fence.

 

"Now?" Illyria asked.

 

"No."

 

Illyria let out a short, impatient puff of air.

 

"It's sort of like having a Doberman," Robin said quietly.  "Or an armed surface-to-air missile."

 

Faith laughed.

 

The slayer fought hard, managing to knock the male back with a combination of moves.  It was easy to see her training at work--it was also easy to see that the trainer had limited experience, because her guard was down and her defenses all wrong when the female vamp came flying in, knocking her into the male.

 

"Now?" Illyria asked.

 

"Now."  As Illyria unleashed a god-thing-sized can of whup ass on the vamps, Faith leaned against Robin and said, "She really is a thing of beauty to behold when she fights." 

 

Illyria was a thing of beauty other times, too.  She had the sexy thing going on, although Faith didn't think Robin felt it as much as she did.  She didn't plan on enlightening him that she felt some eensy attraction.  Besides, she always felt some when it was a pretty girl.  Didn't mean she tended to play that way if she had a choice. 

 

Illyria hit the female vamp hard, back against the side of the building, then ripped her head off. 

 

Faith turned to look at Robin.  He was standing with his mouth open.  This was his first time seeing her do that.  "I know you said she could do it, but it's something you really have to see for yourself."

 

"You wanna sit down or something?"

 

"Oh, no. I'm good."  He thought about it.  "I suddenly feel a whole lot safer--and a whole lot not."

 

"Believe me.  I understand."

 

The male vamp threw the slayer away from him and he ran like hell, Illyria in hot pursuit.  Faith heard him yell something, then there was only silence.

 

Robin helped the slayer.  "Up you go."  Then he frowned.  "Callie?"

 

She looked up at him, a little shaky on her feet.  "Principal Wood?  Uh.  Right.  I can--I can explain this."

 

"You don't have to.  Those are vampires; you're a slayer."  Robin steadied her as she seemed to wobble again.  "First hunt?"

 

She nodded, and he took a deep breath, and Faith wondered if he was about to go into lecture mode.

 

"Unhand her," a very pissed off British voice said from behind them.

 

"Guess your watcher woke up," Faith said, grinning at the girl.  "Callie, huh?"  She stuck her hand out.  "I'm Faith.  Head slayer these parts."


The girl looked at the watcher.  "Mister Rowsom, you said I was the only one--"

 

Faith glared at him.  "You still feeding them that line?  Get with the twenty-first century."  She turned back to Callie.  "Whatever he said, he probably lied.  Watchers do that."  Faith glanced at the watcher.  "Didn't know you guys were back in business."

 

"I imagine there are many things you don't know."  He moved out of the doorway, walking over to Robin and jerking the girl loose.  "Come along, my dear."

 

"You are sure I can't kill him?"  Illyria was smiling dangerously as she stalked back toward them.

 

"The vamp's down?"  As if Faith needed to ask.

 

"Too quickly." 

 

"Bummer."  Faith turned back to the Callie, ignoring Rowsom.  "Look.  Mister Stick-Up-His-Ass here is obviously doing the best he can training you.  But your moves lack a certain, shall we say, skill?"  She could tell Callie didn't like that and held up her hand.  "Not that you don't have talent, kid.  Just that talent alone isn't going to cut it.  I've got a much better training camp than this schmuck does.  And, if you haven't noticed, this game is played for keeps.  So if you want to stay alive, you might think about changing teams. And I think you know where to find us." 

 

Faith glanced at Robin, not eager to let the watcher know that he was Callie's principal if the man hadn't already caught on to that fact.  She noticed Callie didn't seem eager, either, since she just nodded very slightly.  Faith imagined the girl's watcher would be grilling her once they were on the road.

 

"Callie, we're leaving.  At once."  Rowsom looked at his watch, as if they were making him late for Benny Hill or something.

 

"Yeah, he's a gem," Faith said.

 

Illyria walked up to Rowsom, moving so she could look at him in profile.  "I should kill you for looking like Wesley."

 

"Wyndam-Pryce, you mean?"  Rowsom laughed.  "I heard he died and I have to say--"

 

A hoarse growl sounded, and Faith realized it had come from Illyria.  Something changed in her expression--she looked very old and very much a god.

 

"I'm thinking you want to shut up right about now," Robin said.  "You really don't want to piss her off."

 

Rowsom turned slowly, saw something in Illyria's eyes that made him gulp.  "And I have to say that it was a tragedy."   He looked like a man who knew he was standing on the cliff's edge.  "A great tragedy."

 

Illyria's expression didn't alter.  She lifted a hand, and the man actually whimpered.  "Have a care," she whispered, touching his throat.  "I was merciful the first time."

 

"Very, very careful.  Yes.  Quite so." 

 

Illyria backed away, her nose wrinkling.  "You have wet yourself.   It is disgusting."  Then she smiled.  It was the single creepiest thing Faith had ever seen.

 

"You want me to work with her?" Callie whispered to Faith.

 

"She's actually pretty cool.  If you don't rank on her boyfriend."  If that's what Wesley had been to her?  Faith wasn't exactly clear on that.

 

"Oh.  I get that." 

 

"Let's go, Callie."  Rowsom didn't wait for her, hurrying out of the alley to the street, probably hoping no one else would notice the dark stain on his pants.

 

Callie looked at Robin.  "I'll stop by tomorrow?  I have second period free."

 

"Sounds good."

 

"Score one for team slayer," Faith said, watching the girl leave.  "I wonder if B knows the Council is recruiting on its own?"

 

"They will once you tell them," Illyria said, taking a deep breath.  "Are there are no other things to kill?"


Robin handed Faith a scrap of paper.  "Demon gang.  Down by the airport."  He grinned at Illyria.  "Figured you might need to work off some steam."

 

"You figure well."  Illyria gestured in what was unmistakably the sign for him to lead on to the car. 

 

"Guess I'm driving you two there?"

 

"Her on mass transport?" Faith asked, picturing Illyria taking on the turnstile--and winning.  "I'm thinking not."

 

"Good point."   He handed her his cell phone.  "It's breakfast time in Sorrento."

 

She smiled and dialed the number.  Buffy was not going to be thrilled to hear that the Watcher's Council had jumped into their game.

 

-----------------------------

 

As Xander's driver Manuel maneuvered around another pothole big enough to swallow their jeep, Xander watched the people of this neighborhood of San Salvador as they shopped and talked and ducked into bars and restaurants on their way home from work.  The women were dressed like European women--not a sneaker in sight--and he enjoyed the sight of so many curvy hips and shapely legs.

 

"Your first time in the city?" Manuel asked, his English perfect.  The great thing about having Wolfram and Hart money meant Xander could hire interpreters and drivers to facilitate collection of a slayer.  Not that they hadn't done that before, but they'd had to hire anyone desperate enough to want to work for what they could afford.  Now they could get people who actually understood what was going on.  Vetted by Giles or one of his in-the-know friends.

 

"Yep.  But I just came from Quito and Brasilia." 

 

"Slayers there, too?" 

 

It still felt weird to talk about it to virtual strangers.  "Yep.  More slayers.  This one is pretty young.  Maribel Gutierrez."

 

Manuel nodded.  "My uncle was a watcher.  He trained Maribel's mother."

 

Xander frowned.  "It can be passed along family lines?"

 

"Apparently so.  Haven't you seen it before?"  Then Manuel shook his head.  "Of course not.  Most of the diaries from those watchers whose slayers were never called were kept at Council Headquarters.  And it went the way of our power stations during the war.  Ka-boom."  He added sound effects--really good ones.

 

Xander smiled in appreciation at that kind of skill.  "Just exactly." 

 

Manuel turned down a smaller street, then down another, barely big enough for their jeep and the big black van that went barreling past them.   He stopped in front of a building where a black Mercedes sat parked.

 

"Oh, no way," Xander said, already getting out of the car.

 

A woman stood leaning against the car, watching him. 

 

He walked over to her.  "Well, if it isn't the watcher woman?"

 

Clara Davies moved closer to him, her perfume rich and deep, her thin blouse plastered to her under all that wool.  It was way too humid for traditional watcher wear.  "Why, Xander.  What a surprise.  Are you looking for Miss Gutierrez?"

 

"Gosh, how did you work that one out?"

 

She smiled, and it was a sexy smile.  "I'm smart that way."  

 

As he was about to go into the building, she said, "The early bird gets the worm, my dear."

 

He stopped.  "Slayers aren't worms."

 

"And I'm not a bird.  But that doesn't mean the saying isn't fitting."  She looked very complacent, as if she didn't care what he did or said, and he realized Maribel must have been in the van that had sped by them. 

 

She seemed to be following his thought processes.  "Tell Rupert that he can't win them all, anymore.  The Council is back on the case."

 

"The case?  You're talking about a girl's life."

 

"I'm talking about a slayer's life.  It's entirely different."  She moved even closer.   "We should be on the same side."

 

"We should?  I don't even speak Watcher."

 

She laughed.  "You're young and strong.  How did you put it when we met?  The 'token normal' man?"

 

"Yeah, that's how I put it."  But he'd forgotten, until he went on this trip, that he was pretty supernatural when it came to convincing families to part with their daughters.  His eye patch positively screamed "white slave trader," and yet they let their girls go with him.  Possibly because their girls had begun acting strangely, maybe breaking things or getting into fights?  But it could also be because he was proving to be as skilled at bullshitting as he was at construction.  Was there a magical term for a BSer?

 

He looked at Clara.  If there was a magical term, he imagined it applied to her, too.  She smiled at him and then, in what sounded like perfect Spanish, said something to the man behind the wheel of her sleek, dark car.  The driver leaned down, popping open the trunk.  She walked over, opening a cooler and asking him, "What's your poison?"

 

"I'm laying off poison these days.  Trying to watch my figure."

 

She pulled out two cans of Coke, and carried them over to him, handing him one as she opened the other for herself.  Drinking deeply, her head back, he couldn't help but notice how creamy white the skin of her neck and chest were.  She seemed to be arching a bit so that her chest was easy to spot. 

 

She sighed, as if the Coke were the sweetest nectar, and asked softly, "Are you sure you wouldn't like to work for the Council?  With me?"  Her eyes were soft and inviting.  "I don't have to leave for Quito until morning.  Perhaps we could spend some time together?"

 

He could feel himself responding to her suddenly very overt sexuality.  But then a vision interrupted his naughty thoughts.  A slayer.  Blonde.  Sweet.  Not Buffy--Ingrid.  His Ingrid.  A girl that loved him, or thought she did, anyway.  Not someone who just wanted to use him to get back at Giles.  And probably at Buffy.

 

"With you?  Or against Giles and Buffy?"

 

She shrugged, her eyes half-lidded, as if she wanted him very much.  "You defended them last time.  That was admirable.  But they're not here.  They're back at their little love nest, aren't they?"

 

"We just call it the compound."  He looked at her.  Really looked at her and knew that pretty as she was--tempting as she was--she was what he could become if he didn't let go of his anger toward Buffy and Giles.  It might always hurt him a little that she didn't want him, but he didn't have to become like this woman.   Bitter.  And alone.  And coming on to near-strangers in faraway lands just to make himself feel better.

 

"You know what?  I've got friends waiting for me back at the ranch."

 

"You're not going to Quito?"

 

He realized she thought he didn't know about Elena Hernandez.  "Hadn't planned on it."

 

Her look was smug.

 

"Or Brasilia either."  He smiled.  Elena and Sonia had both already arrived safely at the slayer sanctuary, and he was glad he'd decided to start the trip in the south and work north.

 

Clara's face fell.  "Brasilia, too?"

 

"'Fraid so.  Now who's the early bird, hmmm?"  With that he handed her back the Coke he'd never opened, stalked back to the jeep, and in Spanish said,  "Let's get the hell out of here."

 

Manuel looked confused.

 

"Did I just order a tractor or something?"

 

"Actually, you propositioned me and my sister's goat--only my sister does not have a goat."

 

"Oh.  Damn.  I mean about the getting it wrong thing, not the lack of goat.  What I was trying to say was let's get while the getting's good."

 

"No slayer?"

 

"No slayer.  The Council beat us to it."

 

Manuel frowned as he turned the jeep around in the narrow street.  "My uncle doesn't trust the Council.  Not since Maribel's mother Lucia wasn't called.  They wanted him to put her through this test, but he refused." 

 

"Oh, that test.  Yeah, they did that to Buffy."  Actually, Giles had done that to Buffy.  And she'd forgiven him.

 

Manuel took a deep breath.  "He would kill me if he knew I'd told you this, but the Council fired him for his disobedience.  Lucia they left alone, and she got married a few months later.  And then Maribel was born.  We never had an inkling she even had the potential and then one day she suddenly seemed different."

 

"Presto, change-o.  Nothing like a nice Wiccan spell to upset the balance of a life, eh?"

 

"A witch did that?"

 

"A very powerful one.  And she had help if I understand what happened.  Mystical, godlike help."

 

"Interesting."  Manuel suddenly turned the car.

 

"Isn't the airport back the other way?"

 

"Yes, but your flight is not for some hours, is it?"

 

"About six."

 

"Then we have time for you to meet my uncle.  He may have information that would be valuable to you.  And, if nothing else, it will raise his spirits to know that the Council has competition."

 

"Well, I don't mind being the bearer of 'neener neener" type news."  That was the kind of statement that Giles would have been all over, but Manuel let it go.  Xander realized he sort of missed the G-man and his snipes, even if he was really mad at him for reasons that started with Buffy and ended with Summers.

 

-----------------------------

 

Willow looked over at Xander's cabin, wishing he was in there and not back in the Western Hemisphere.  She missed him.  And it was hard not to be a little mad at both him and Buffy.  Maybe she should do a teensy spell to make them all get along?

 

"Willow..."  Tara's voice was welcome and loving, and Willow closed her eyes and tried to let Tara fill her.

 

"It's just they should be able to work this out without all the drama," she muttered. 

 

"The way you worked my death out?"

 

"Fine.  Be right, why don't you?"


"Who you talking to, Will?"  Buffy gave her a funny look as Willow whirled guiltily.  She hadn't known Buffy was behind her or she'd have cooled the talking to dead people bit.

 

"No one.  Except me.  And, uh, my goddesses." 

 

"Oh.  Okay." 

 

"You want to go down to the beach?" Willow asked, suddenly needing to have some private time with Buffy.

 

"Sure."  They walked slowly, enjoying the nice day.

 

"You usually go down here with Giles," Willow said as they passed the bandanna tree.  She shot Buffy a knowing look.

 

"I'm allowed down there in other capacities, too."  Buffy grinned.  Then she frowned.  "Am I starting to talk like him?"

 

"A little."

 

"That's so not good."

 

"That sentence was a hundred percent Buffy."

 

Buffy laughed.  She kicked off her slides and waded into the water.  "You know it's awesome to swim down here."  She sort of blushed.  "I mean in a clothing-optional sort of way."

 

"I know.  Kennedy and I do that, too."   Willow sat down in the sun, watching her friend play in the mild surf.  "You can see the lights from town if you swim out far enough."

 

"I know."  Buffy waded back in, plunking down in the sand next to Willow.  "You really love Kennedy, don't you?"

 

"I really do."

 

Buffy looked over at her.

 

"What?"

 

"I don't know.  You just didn't sound completely committed."

 

"No.  I am.  I'm crazy about her."  Willow frowned.  "I know you don't exactly like her, Buffy, but I do and--"

 

"Okay, Will.  I didn't mean to--"  She sighed.  "It's just you sounded as if maybe you weren't sure?"

 

Willow studied her friend.  "Well, if I asked you about Giles...?"  She saw Buffy turn away.  "Buff?"

 

Buffy didn't answer for a long time.  Then, in a very small voice, she said, "I can't stop thinking about Angel."


"Well, yeah.  'Cause he's really dead and you have to deal with that."

 

"I thought I had."

 

Willow touched Buffy's hand.  "I don't think you ever gave up hope that he got out of that alley.  I mean he got out of Hell, right?  What's an alley in L.A.?"

 

"Right."   Buffy's voice was very small, as if she was trying not to cry.  "I do love Giles."

 

"I know." Willow took a deep breath.  "Earlier.  When you asked me who I was talking to?  It was Tara."

 

"You talk to her?  How?"  Buffy looked like she thought maybe Willow could put her in touch with Angel.

 

"It's not a spell, Buffy.  Or even anything I do consciously.  She's just there sometimes.  Usually when I'm thinking of doing something a little iffy magically.  I can hear her.  She talks to me.  Not for very long or anything.  But...enough."  Willow pushed her hair back, nodding and smiling, as if to try to show Buffy she was not a crazy person.  "And I can feel her, when I do deep magics.  I learned with her, after all.  I got strong doing spells with her.  It started after I did the spell to call all the slayers."

 

"You didn't say anything."

 

"It started really gradually.  At first I thought I was just imagining it.  But it was real."

 

"Does Kennedy know?"  Funny how Buffy could always cut to the heart of a matter.

 

"No.  And I don't want her to.  She's a little threatened by Tara."

 

"Right."  Buffy turned her hand, so that she was holding Willow's.  "If Tara came back, which of them would you pick?"

 

"Tara's not coming back."

 

"So Kennedy wins by default."

 

Willow pulled her hand away.  "That's a really negative way to look at it.  For Kennedy--or for Giles." 

 

"Sorry, but it seems like a truthful way to look at it."  Buffy sounded more thoughtful than mad. 

 

"Buffy, I once thought that Xander was the only guy I'd ever want.  And then Oz came along.  And when I almost lost him and felt so bad, I knew he was the guy I had to be with.  And I knew nothing would ever replace how I felt for him.  I thought I was going to die when he left me.  But then I met Tara.  And once I had a choice, I chose her over Oz.  Because that's what we do.  We move on.  We grow in different ways."

 

Buffy turned to her, eyes like gray-green daggers.  "So if Tara came back today?  Truth, Will."

 

"I'd choose her."  Willow could barely get the words out.  Could feel them going out into the ether, as if they were a betrayal of Kennedy.  "But don't you see, if she were alive, Kennedy and I would never have even started.  And it's the same way for you and Giles.  Because I know you, Buffy, and I know he's what you're obsessing over."  She moved her hand over Buffy's, let her friend choose to take it.  "Not that you'd ever obsess."

 

"Will, I love Giles so much, but am I being fair to him?"

 

"Maybe you shouldn't be asking me?  Maybe you should be asking him?"  She squeezed Buffy's hand, then pulled free.  "Saying you loved Angel more than Giles, or that I loved Tara more than Kennedy, well, that might not be saying much.  I mean are we saying the Master wasn't much worse than Glory?  Or are we saying that Ted wasn't much worse than the First?"

 

"Ted was maximum evil."

 

"Okay, I guess invoking his name was a bad call on my part."  Willow laughed.  "But it's a matter of degree, and I know you get that."  She held her hands out, leaving a great distance between them.  "Angel and Giles?"  She moved her hands closer, until only an inch or so separated them.  "Or Angel and Giles?"

 

"Where are Tara and Kennedy?"

 

"That's for me to know.  You have to figure out where yours are."  She rose, brushing sand off her pants.  "I'll leave you to that."

 

"Will."

 

She turned, smiling at her friend. 

 

Buffy was twisted around, smiling at her.  "Thanks."

 

"I'm glad we're together, Buffy.  There are things I tell you, I can't tell anyone else."

 

"I know.  Same here."  Then Buffy turned back to look at the water. 


Willow left her, and when she got to the bandanna tree, she hung a blue one up so that nobody would disturb Buffy.  As she got to the top of the hill, she saw Kennedy putting away the practice swords.  "Good training session?"

 

"Really good."  Kennedy grinned at her.  "Wanna go into town?  I promised I'd take the three left standing to Carlo's."

 

"I'd love to." 

 

Kennedy smiled and started to turn away, but Willow pulled her back, kissing her.

 

"Mmm, Red.  What's gotten into you?"

 

"You."  She put her hand over her heart.  "Right here.  And it feels good."

 

Kennedy looked like she might cry, and she hardly ever cried.  "Right back at you."  Then she pulled Willow to her and kissed her hard.

 

"When do we have to leave for town?" Willow asked.

 

"We have time."  Kennedy pulled Willow after her, going fast, nearly at a run.  "If we hurry."

 

They could have more time if Willow did a little spell to pull them out of time...

 

"Willow..."  Tara's voice was gently amused.

 

With a grin, Willow hurried.

 

-----------------------------

 

Buffy pulled at a weed, trying to work it out of the ground.  She'd left the beach--taking down the bandanna Willow had so thoughtfully hung for her--and moved to the grass outside her cabin, but she was still thinking over what Willow had said.

 

"Weeding?  I thought you'd turned some of our slayers into gardeners?"  Giles sounded hoarse; he got that way after training the obstacle course.  So many slayers and just one Giles. 

 

She turned, staring up at him, then smiled as she saw what he was carrying.  "Where did you get ice cream?"

 

"Our ill-gotten gains from Wolfram and Hart funded this indulgence." 

 

"Gotta love evil law firm funds.  Especially when they buy vanilla chocolate swirl.  You did get that kind, right?"

 

"Of course."  He walked over, handing her the ice cream cone.  "I was afraid it would all be gone by the time you came in."

 

She noticed he didn't sit down next to her.  "You have an elsewhere to be?"

 

His smile was very gentle; it was the smile she loved best.  "No.  You just seemed lost in thought.  I thought you might want some time.  Alone."  He held up his cone.  "And I have ice cream." 

 

Strawberry, she thought, from the look of it.  "That's not an approved Buffy substitute.  Sit."

 

He sat down next to her.  They ate their cones in silence, and she reached over, resting her hand on his thigh. 

 

"Are you all right?" he asked.

 

"Just thinking.  Remembering."  She turned to look at him.  "Do you still think of her?"

 

He didn't ask who she meant.  "Sometimes."

 

"Did you love her more than me?" 

 

"I loved her differently."  He put his hand on top of hers, a solid warm presence--as he'd always been in her life.  "Buffy, are you worried you don't love me enough?"

 

"What if I don't?"


He took a deep breath, not answering.  That was one of the reasons she loved him.  At times like these, he didn't get mad, didn't react.  He was thinking.  Considering.  Her Giles.  Wanting what was best for her.

 

"Do you love me, Buffy?" he finally asked.

 

"Yes."  She leaned her head against his shoulder.  "In the old way.  In the new way."

 

"Well, then I don't see a problem."  He took a deep breath.  "For a while now, you'll probably think of Angel.  I know that.  I know you loved him first.  He was, perhaps, your soul mate?"

 

"Maybe."  She sighed.  "It just hurts, Giles.  So much."

 

"I know."  He kissed her slowly, gently and tenderly.  Very little passion in the mix.  "What is it you really need to know?"

 

"I couldn't be there for Riley.  Or for Spike.  Even for the Immortal.  What if I'm not there for you?"

 

"I haven't been complaining."

 

"I know."  She took a deep breath.  "What if I'm like Xander?  What if I can't commit to anyone because of how I feel about Angel?"

 

"For what it's worth, I think Xander will move on." 

 

"Here's hoping."

 

He held her, not answering for a while.  Then he said, "I have an idea.  Do you trust me?"

 

She smiled.  That was the easy part.

 

"Wait here."

 

"Does this involve more ice cream?"

 

"No."  He kissed her again, a more possessive kiss this time.  As if he wasn't worried.  Or as if he was trying to show her he wasn't.  Then he got up and walked back toward the dining hall. 

 

She watched him go, then turned around and went back to worrying at the weed's roots until she heard footsteps coming.  Letting go of the weed, she waited.

 

"So, sugarfoot, you need some Uncle Lorne therapy?"

 

"Huh?"  She turned around.  "This is Giles' big plan?"

 

Lorne sat down next to her.  He wasn't eating ice cream.  But he was drinking something that smelled pretty alcoholic.

 

"Sea breeze, mamacita.  You choose your poison; I'll choose mine."

 

She studied him.  "So now what?"

 

"You sing."

 

"Sorry.  I don't sing."

 

"Everybody sings.  Most people don't do it very well, but that's not an impediment to my ability to read you."

 

She looked down.  "I'm not sure."

 

"You need to understand how you feel, Buffy.  And so does the nice man with the sad face."

 

"Giles is sad?"

 

"No, he's doing cartwheels that I'm better company for you right now than he is."  Lorne sipped at his drink.  "Pick a song.  Any song.  Except 'The Greatest Love.'  For the love of all things holy and not-so, please don't sing that."

 

She smiled.  "Cordy sang that at the talent-less show."

 

"Cordy sang it another time, too.  Just don't choose it."  His eyes were shuttered, and Buffy wondered just what he'd seen when he'd read her old schoolmate.

 

"Okay.  But don't laugh."

 

He held his hand up--even demons knew "Scout's honor."

 

"Macho, macho man," she sang.  "I want to be a macho man."  She watched as his face changed, went slack a little, then he started to smile.

 

"Wow.  That's some torch you carried for my Angelcakes."

 

"I loved him so much."

 

"He loved you too, sunshine."  Lorne leaned closer.  "And now you think you're betraying him.  You're finally with someone you can really trust and lean on.  Maybe you're even letting Angel go a little bit?"

 

She looked down.

 

"You love Giles.  Very much.  And you've loved him for a long time.  In different ways, but he's been the one you ran to when you weren't running to Angel."

 

"He's been so important to me.  In so many ways."

 

Lorne patted her leg.  "Moving on's not a crime."

 

"Why do I feel like it is?"

 

"Because you need some closure.  You never had that.  Even once Angel wasn't part of your life, he always managed to show up when you needed him.  You were never out of his mind, not for a second.  And you knew that."

 

She nodded.  "I wasn't there for him, though.  Not at the end."

 

"He didn't want you in that alley.  He wanted you to live.  That's what we want for those we love."

 

She was about to say something, but he kept going.  "It was why he sent Nina away."

 

"Nina?"

 

"Pretty woman.  Sweet.  Werewolf, but hey, nobody's perfect, right?"

 

"He was with someone else?  A werewolfy, Nina someone else?"

 

"Yes.  With."  He held his fingers up, putting quotes around the "with" part.

 

"He made love to her?  He told you that?"

 

"He didn't have to.  Had a bad habit of humming around me.  He really liked this girl.  Maybe even would have grown to love her.  He did love Cordy.  Did you know that?"


She shook her head.  She'd been giving Angel that stupid cookie dough speech and he'd had the hots for women who weren't her?

 

"Sing me another song, Buffy."

 

"You want to do a temperature check?"

 

"Something like that.  Humor me.  Pick something...sad."

 

"Will it change the reading?"

 

He grinned.  "No. I just don't want to hear 'Macho Man' again."

 

She thought a moment.  Tried to remember the song she'd sung when Giles had sent her out to face the dancing demon alone.   "I touch the fire, and it freezes me.  I look into it, and it's black."

 

Lorne had his head cocked to one side, looking like a green, horned version of the RCA dog. 

 

"And your verdict?"  Buffy gave him her impatient slayer face, but it didn't faze him.  "Lorne?"

 

He smiled slowly.  "You have an enormous capacity to love."

 

"Meaning...?"

 

"Let this thing with Giles happen as it will, cupcake."

 

What was it with this guy and the nicknames?  "Did I change?  I'm all over Angel, now?"

 

"Hell, you aren't even close to being over him.  But Giles knows that.  Now you know it, too, and you can quit worrying."

 

"Because I'm going to get over him.  Right?"

 

He shook his head, his look very sad.  "Buffy, don't you know by now we never get over some people?  We just find a way to deal and move on."  He took a deep breath.  "I lost all the friends I had in the world.  One by one, they fell.  Some of them in that alley that night, some before.  I'll never get over that loss.  But I'll make new friends, and my heart will fill back up, and maybe I won't feel so empty and alone."

 

"I'm sorry."  She took his hand, and he looked at her in surprise.  "I can be sweet.  Just because I could rip your head off, doesn't mean I'm not sweet."

 

He laughed.  "I'll remember that."  He started to get up, but she stopped him.

 

"Did you read anyone today?  I mean the new slayers?"

 

"A few.  They're fine.  That is what you wanted me to do?"  His voice was all business, the comfort part done.

 

"Yeah.  I don't want another Dana.  Or Faith."

 

"I met Faith.  I liked her."

 

"You met the new and improved Faith.  You wouldn't have liked the old one."

 

"Maybe not.  Would I have liked the old Buffy?"  His smile dared her to make a smart comeback.

 

"You must have seen her when you read me.  You tell me?"

 

He smiled softly.  "I'd have liked her.  I'd have wanted to borrow her clothes, too."

 

Buffy laughed.

 

"Can I go now and let the watcher man come back?"

 

She nodded.

 

He got up without spilling a drop of his drink and took a step, then stopped and turned to look at her.  "And for the record.  You do make a difference.  And this place.  It's good, Buffy.  It's a good thing."

 

"Thank you."

 

He nodded and walked away fast, as if he was afraid he'd get sucked into things that made him sad.   She waited until she heard familiar footsteps coming and pushed herself up.

 

"Don't leave on my account."  Giles was smiling at her, the gentle look back.

 

"I'm not leaving.  Just thought we could walk."  She held out her hand.  "So--green guy: pretty effective.

 

"Yes?"

 

"Oh, yeah.  Did you know Angel was seeing a werewolf?"

 

"He was?"

 

"Yep."  She felt him pull her closer, dropping her hand so he could put his arm around her.  "Making love with abandon."

 

"And how do you feel about that?" 

 

"Pretty damn pissed."  As if her tone couldn't have told him that?  Although it did give her some satisfaction that this Nina woman couldn't give Angel a moment of perfect happiness.  Buffy stopped, turned into Giles and pulled his face down to hers.  When she finally let him go, she whispered, "And I'm feeling a whole lot less conflicted over us."

 

"Good."

 

"How about you?  How are you doing?"

 

"I'll survive."  His eyes, though, were dark and possessive.  "Let's go to bed?" he asked, his voice very tender, but his hands were hard on her as he pulled her back for another kiss. 

 

She let herself enjoy it--the hard and the soft parts of how they related to each other.  It was what made them work together; they both shared that. 

 

"Yes, let's go to bed," she said.

 

They were here and living and they loved each other.  It was what it was.  And it felt really good.

 

-----------------------------

 

Dawn looked for Buffy, finally found her sitting on the grass, watching some of the newer girls as they tried out Giles and Willow's new and improved obstacle course.  Occasionally, Buffy yelled something at one of the participants, but mostly she just sat back and let Giles do the work, although she yelled at him every now and then, too. 

 

"Check out the video game come to life," Dawn said as she plopped down next to her sister.  Willow had added the live element.  Or the "moving as if alive" elements.  The things popping out at the slayers were actually magical constructs that looked like vampires and demons and other creepy things.   "How strong is Willow getting that she can make stuff that goes bump in the night out of thin air?"

 

"Only this goes bump in the day."  Buffy was grinning, didn't look worried at all about Willow and the magic.  "And not out of thin air.  It's force of will and all the slayer power, too.  The mystical inside us, she uses it for energy.  You, too, probably."

 

"Sounds a little too much like what she did to Rack."  Dawn had never forgotten how terrified she'd been of Willow during those awful days when she'd turned down the path to pure evil.

 

"It's not."  Buffy glanced at her.  "Trust me.  She's not draining us or anything.  She's not even taking that much.  A little from everyone, but mostly from the gestalt of all of us being together.  And yes, I do know what that word means."

 

"You've been hanging around Giles too long."  Dawn laughed at her sister's expression.  "You really like him, don't you?" 

 

"I really do."

 

"Not that you didn't like him an awful lot before you two upgraded to doing the nasty."

 

"I'm not discussing sex with my baby sister."

 

"I'm seventeen.  If we actually had any boys around here, I might be getting horizontal, too." 

 

Buffy turned a look on her that was pure Joyce Summers.

 

"Or not."

 

"Not.  Extremely not."  Buffy shook her head.  "How's it working having Ingrid for a housemate?"

 

"Good.  Although she's kind of quiet now, what with Xander going away."  Dawn watched Buffy's face carefully, saw her grimace slightly.  "He left because of you, didn't he?"

 

"He left because of him, Dawn."

 

"Okay.  But because of you, too...?"

 

Buffy sighed.  "Yes, because of me, too."

 

"I miss him."

 

"So do I."

 

Dawn heard someone running up behind them.  Running kind of spastically.  She turned around, saw Andrew trip over a clump of grass and almost fall before catching himself.  He slowed down.  "Hey, Summers girls."

 

Buffy actually gave him a real smile.  "Welcome home, Andrew."

 

He beamed.  "Thanks.  The road's a harsh mistress."

 

If Andrew even had mistresses.  Just when Dawn decided she'd figured out which way he played the dating game, he'd surprise her again.  Like he'd seemed awfully interested in Lorne, when he'd been reunited with the demon in the dining hall, but then he'd also been giving Julia, one of the older slayers, the eye.

 

"Hey, Dawnster."  He'd taken up Xander's nickname for her, which made her miss Xander all the more. 

 

"Hey, Andrew."

 

He sat down, then dug into his pocket, pulling out a small package.  "I saw this and had to get it for you."

 

She opened it.  Spelled out in little dark blue stones set in gold was her name in pretty cursive letters. She hooked it around her neck.

 

Buffy looked over at it.  "Nice.  It looks good on you."

 

"They didn't have Buffy.  I looked.  And I wasn't sticking around Bangkok long enough for them to make one for me."

 

"It's okay, Andrew.  I don't need gifts." 

 

"Or if you do, I guess our Mister Giles will be giving them to you, no?"

 

Andrew hadn't spent much time on the compound with them since Buffy and Giles had "come out." 

 

Using a big hug and loudly voiced "Thank you.  I love my necklace," as a smoke screen, Dawn whispered in his ear, "She's kind of touchy about the whole Giles thing.  Xander's been giving her the hard way to go."

 

"Gotcha," he said, much too loudly.

 

Buffy turned to look at them.  "I can hear you, you know?  Both of you."  She took a deep breath, turning back to the obstacle course, where Frannie was taking her turn.  "And I'm not touchy."

 

"Very, very touchy," Dawn mouthed to Andrew, and he spoiled it by giggling.

 

"Do I need to separate you two?"  Buffy suddenly pushed herself to her feet.  "Frannie, watch your left.  They don't always come from the right."  Striding over, she proceeded to shadow the girl on her run.

 

"She's taking to this instructor thing really well."  Andrew was watching Buffy with undisguised worship.  But also affection.  Somehow--Dawn wasn't sure when or why or who had started it--Andrew and her sister had begun to feel some kind of genuine fondness for each other.

 

"She is.  She's really good at it, in fact."

 

He watched Buffy and Frannie for a second, then asked, "And on the non-slayer education front?  How's the home schooling going?"

 

"It's going."  She should say more.  For all his silliness, Andrew seemed to be able to read her really well.  She sighed.  "I'm learning lots."

 

"But you're missing school?"

 

She nodded.  "Actually, no.  School I have, and then some.  I miss people.  I miss friends my own age who aren't lethal killers."

 

"I hated school.  Couldn't wait to get out.  Of course my stupid brother and his stupid prom-hating hell hounds didn't help my chances of a carefree time at high school."

 

"Yeah, but your class had to be bussed to a bunch of different schools where they didn't know you."  Dawn was trying to find the bright side.  "Think how hard it would have been if Sunnydale High hadn't blown up."

 

"If it hadn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation because the mayor would have eaten us all."

 

"True."   She sighed.  "Now there's no Sunnydale, at all."

 

"Kind of glad to see it go."

 

"I wasn't.  Mom was buried there.  Now we can never go back to see her."  Or get coffee at the Espresso Pump.  Or go to the Bronze and dance with older boys.  Or nearly get eaten by some monster or other.  "Sorrento is way boring."

 

"Don't say that, Dawn.  You'll jinx us."  He shook his head.  "I was in a little village on a very old hellmouth in Senegal when I found Masuba.  I'd forgotten the constant feeling of someone watching you."

 

"Then again it could have been that you were in a little village in Senegal and were the only one with blonde hair.  And trying to take away one of their daughters."  Plus the weirdness factor that Andrew brought to just about any occasion. 

 

"True, young one."  Andrew's attention was caught by something, and she followed his gaze.  He was looking at Buffy and Giles, who were standing very close. 

 

Giles put his hand on Buffy's back, leaning in to say something quietly, probably so the girls clustered a few feet back couldn't hear them.  He and Buffy talked intently for few minutes, then she said something that made him throw his head back and laugh.  She touched his arm, the move both sweet and very intimate.

 

Andrew smiled.  "They make a nice couple.  I wouldn't have thought of them getting along romantically, but they seem really comfy."

 

"Yeah, they do."  Dawn thought of all the times Giles and Buffy had worked together, how seamlessly they could interact when they planned and executed a mission.  She smiled at how she was thinking of their work.  In Rileyspeak terms.  "They're happy."

 

And God knew her sister hadn't known much of that over the years.  If she was happy with her older guy in this boring place, then more power to her.  Dawn pushed herself up, tired of watching the slayers.  "How are you at chemistry, Andrew?"

 

"Well, pretty good.   You want some help with your schoolwork?  Or do you want to make a potion of some kind?"  His eyes gleamed at the idea of being even a little bit naughty, and she laughed.

 

"I have a quiz in a few days, and I could use a new perspective."

 

"Consider me in, sister of the slayer." 


"Thanks, brother of the homicidal maniac."

 

"Okay, I know better than to call you that.  I just like to go for dramatic effect."  He got up, his movements a little clumsy.  "Speaking of dramatic effect.  What do you think of Lorne?"  He took her arm, prompting her for every little thing the big green guy had been up to.

 

She laughed, realizing she'd missed Andrew's goofiness.  He brought a lightness, even if it was a straight-up weird one, that had been missing from Slayer Central lately.  A lightness that Xander usually brought.  She hoped he'd get over his Buffy fixation and come home soon.

She knew Ingrid did, too.

 

-----------------------------

 

Xander stood in the shade at the Sorrento train station and wondered who would pick him up.  Maribel the Slayer should have been with him, but she was on her way to England, if not there already.  Xander had called between flights to tell Buffy about the encounter with Clara, but she'd already heard about the Council's wacky new recruiting campaign from Faith. 

 

"Just get back here," Buffy had told him.  "We need to regroup."

 

And he'd been only too happy to get on the next plane.  He was homesick for the compound, for his old friends, and for one lovely Swedish cook.

 

He was surprised to see Andrew at the wheel of Giles' car.   Andrew pulled to a stop in front of him--a little jerkily after narrowly missing two planters full of blooms--and bounded out of the car, nearly getting run over by the car behind him who'd decided to go around.  There was much yelling in Italian--bad Italian on Andrew's part--and clenching of upraised fists. 

 

"Keys," Xander said as he threw his luggage in the back seat.

 

"How will I learn, Obi Wan, if I do not try?"

 

"Do or do not, there is no try," Xander said.  "And for you, there's barely any do.  Now key me."

 

Andrew grudgingly tossed them over and climbed into the passenger seat.  "That was Yoda's line, not Obi Wan's."

 

"I know that."  Xander sometimes hated that he got what Andrew was saying.  Buffy and Giles and the rest would just nod and smile with an expression that said, "I have no idea what you're talking about, but since you get the job done, I'm not going to worry about it."  But Xander got it.  More times than he actually admitted to anyone, especially Andrew.

 

"So," Andrew asked as Xander started the car.  "Are you over Buffy?"

 

"That's not why I left."

 

"Sure it is.  Rumor mill is rife with speculation.  I feel bad for Ingrid, mostly."

 

Xander glanced at him.  "Ingrid's not okay?"

 

"Oh, she's fine.  But for some unearthly reason a babe like that wants you.  And you left, and she's seemed sad.  Stooooo-pid of you, if you ask me, to leave someone like that behind."

 

"I didn't ask you."

 

"Well, maybe you should have.  I have insight, you know?"

 

"Yeah, you're a regular Doctor Ruth."

 

"And you're like Doctor Bashir on Deep Space Nine.  You can't see what's right in front of your face.  All it is for you is Jadzia, Jadzia, Jadzia.  Till one say you wake up and realize, 'Hey, there's this cool chick named Ezri.'"

 

"They were the same person.  And one of them had to die."

 

"And Buffy died.  The Buffy you knew is gone.  And now the Buffy she's become...oh.  Never mind.  It doesn't really work as an analogy."

 

"No duh, Andrew."

 

They drove in merciful silence until Andrew started playing with the automatic window opener, driving Xander crazy with the sudden gusts of wind and noise.  

 

"Do you mind?"

 

"Well, you didn't seem to want to talk about Buffy."

 

"I don't."

 

"'Cause you're over her?"

 

"Yes, dammit, I'm over her.  All right?"

 

"That's all you had to say."

 

It wasn't precisely true that he was over her.  But he'd spent enough time on the road to make the latest conversation between them not hurt so badly.  And it had probably helped that he'd run into the pretty lady watcher who reminded him that it was one thing to hurt, but it was another to turn that pain--and the need to get back at those who you thought had caused it--into your life's work and pleasure.

 

Xander drove the rest of the way a little faster than was probably safe, but Andrew didn't complain.  In fact, he went "Wheee" couple of times when Xander took a dip too fast and left their stomachs in the air.

 

As he pulled into the compound, Xander saw Buffy and Giles coming out of the main classroom building.  They both smiled when they saw him, their expressions genuine, if a little wary.

 

Giles waited for Xander to get out of the car, then asked, "Any trouble?"

 

"Yes.  Xander wouldn't let me play with the window opener," Andrew complained, then saw their faces.  "Oh.  Okay, fine.  Never mind." 

 

He saw Lorne coming out of the dining hall and ran after him, calling his name.  Xander couldn't tell if green guy was glad to see him or not, but he waited for Andrew to catch up.

 

Turning back to Buffy and Giles, Xander said, "Nope, no trouble.  Other than having the Council as our new opponent on the 'Find the Slayer' game show." 

 

"I can't believe you couldn't make a better case than the Council," Buffy said, and she gave him the kind of smile she usually gave Willow after a great spell. 

 

Xander realized she thought he was good at recruiting--so she hadn't sent him away just to send him away.  This was something he could do better than anyone--except, scarily, Andrew, but Xander didn't want to think about that.  Buffy didn't tend to put people in roles that didn't suit them.  He felt much better about himself--and her--suddenly.

 

"Sorry, Buff, but I couldn't even get near Maribel.  Clara had her in a van and out of there before I could talk to her.  I think we missed her by a few minutes only."  He grabbed his bag from the back seat.  "It was a good thing I started in the south and headed north.  I got Sonia and Elena out of Brasilia and Quito before she got there." 

 

Giles pursed his lips, his eyes dark.  "I should have expected this."

 

"Yeah, you really should have.  Work on that, will you?"  Xander ignored the twin glares he was getting.  "Oh, and I've got a new ex-watcher in San Salvador who's dying to become a free agent.  Now, if you two don't mind, there's a young lady I need to see."

 

Buffy's glare turned into a small smile.  "She's missed you."

 

"We all have," Giles said, his voice the gentle one that Xander had always found soothing back in high school.  Now he just imagined how Giles must use it on Buffy in bed.  But thoughts like that were bad.  Thoughts like that led to Clara-dom.  And he didn't want to live in her warped world.

 

He walked quickly to his cabin, dropping his bag near the bed and hurrying to see how bad he looked after a gazillion hours traveling.  He looked more or less Xanderish, so he splashed water on his face, made sure he didn't have dust or airplane-seat lint on his eye patch, and brushed his teeth.  Then he headed to the dining hall.

 

He didn't go around back this time.  He walked through the front door, wanting everyone to see where he was headed.  As he passed, he heard the buzz of slayer talk stop.

 

"I'm back, girls."

 

There was a chorus of "hellos" and "we missed yous" and then the buzz stared up again, but he thought some of it was probably about him heading into the kitchen.

 

Ingrid was sitting at the small table by the pantry, her back to him, headphones on, singing along to something new and modern as she leafed through a cookbook. 

 

He snuck up behind her, putting both hands over her eyes.  "Guess who?"

 

He was suddenly airborne, her hands on his pulling him over her and onto the table; his back hit the wood hard.   He couldn't help but notice the table didn't even wobble much--nothing like good Harris craftsmanship--even if his spine screamed in protest.

 

"Xander?"  She was pulling her earphones out, pushing her chair away, checking him for fatal damage, which felt amazingly good the way she was doing it.

 

"Hi, Ingrid.  I'm back." 

 

"I can see that.  And I'm so sorry."

 

"There was probably some deep karma in all of this."  He thought his grin was more like a wince as he slowly sat up. "And Ingrid, you may be a failed slayer, but I pity the mugger who takes you on."

 

"Sneaking up on me was a very stupid thing to do."

 

"You'll get no argument from me."   He moved gingerly, trying to make sure nothing was broken.  "But see, there's this girl I had to see.  Just couldn't wait.  And I got all excited and wasn't thinking that my plan was very lame--and potentially life threatening."

 

Her smile was very big.  "And this girl, is she glad to see you, too?"

 

"I'm not sure."  He brushed her hair back, noting that she was tanner than when he'd left.  Her blue eyes sparkled even more against golden skin.  "You're so beautiful."

 

Her smile was slow, but very happy.  He'd never told her that?  How stupid was he?

 

"So, is this girl happy to see me, Ingrid?"

 

"I thought you wanted me to tell you that with a cookie."

 

"Well, I did.  But cookie-ese would mean you'd have to make some actual cookies, and that would involve waiting.  And I'm not up for that."

 

Pulling him with her, she walked to the big freezer in the pantry and grabbed something tucked into the side.  He took it from her, saw it was one of the heart cookies, wrapped in plastic. 

 

"She's very happy to see you, Xander."

 

He looked at the cookie.  It was just like the one she'd given to him earlier, only she'd added an "X" and an "I" in white frosting.  It either was the way they said "Xander plus Ingrid" in Sweden, or it meant "eleven," which only made sense if she was a huge Spinal Tap fan.  He decided she probably wasn't, though for all he knew, she had the lyrics to "Big Bottom" and "Sex Farm" down by heart--in Swedish.  The nice thing was that now he could get to know stuff like that.  Now he was ready to get to know everything.

 

She touched his face, tracing around the eye patch.  He smiled, liking her touch there.  He always had, even when he'd let no one else touch him there, and he should have been smart enough to realize that meant a hell of a lot.

 

She looked down at the cookie.   "I froze this when you left.  I didn't want to wait, either, if you came back.  As long as you came back with a new appreciation of me, of course."

 

He laughed.  "I don't deserve you."

 

"Probably not.  I'm a very nice person." 

 

"I know you are."  He kissed her softly.  "I'm sorry I had to go to another continent to realize just what I was walking away from."

 

"Me, too."  She studied him.  "But you know that now?  You're ready to move on?"

 

He nodded.

 

She kicked the pantry door shut and pulled him to her.  "Then let me show you just how nice I am."

 

"Oh, yes, please," he said, as he lost himself in the utter niceness that was Ingrid.  It wasn't just kissing that Swedish girls excelled at.

 

Dinner was very late that night.  But absolutely no one complained.

 

-----------------------------

 

Giles sat out on his porch steps drinking coffee, enjoying the morning--the only time it was this quiet on the compound.  Normally there were the shouts and grunts of slayers training to become lethal killers.  Now he could hear birds, and the occasional sound of cars on the road, and the shower inside his cabin as Buffy got ready for another day.  He'd become accustomed to having her here like this.  Loved living with her.  Loved having her so close, having walls that could shield them when they wanted to play.  God help him if she ever got tired of him, because he was falling very deeply in love with her.

 

The shower cut off and, a few minutes later, she came out in a long white bathrobe, a cup of coffee in one hand as she combed her wet hair with the other.  She had minimal makeup on, and her hazel eyes seemed to sparkle in the early morning light. 

 

Sitting down next to him, she said, "I love it here."

 

"I do too."  He smiled.  "And we're all here for once.  No lost chicks." 

 

Well, except for Faith and Robin and their brood, fighting the good fight on the hellmouth.  None of the slayers they'd sent to Faith had been lost, a testament to the training they'd gotten from Buffy and him, but also to the leadership abilities Faith was finding in herself.  Plus the help of a very powerful former god-thing, if Giles fully understood what Lorne had described Illyria to be.  Having that much strength on your side couldn't hurt--so long as it stayed on their side.

 

"You have worried face," Buffy said softly.

 

"I was thinking about Illyria."

 

"Faith said she likes her."  She shook her head.  "Then again, Faith doesn't always have the best taste.  Do you think they party together?"

 

He laughed, as he so often did around her.  She made him smile, she made him laugh, she made life just a little brighter.


Good God, he was turning into a complete sap.  Thank goodness for Ripper's inherent bad influence, or he'd probably bore Buffy to death in seconds. 

 

"Where'd you go?"  She was watching him with a smile on his face.  "It was good place, and then it wasn't."

 

"You can tell all that from my expression?"

 

She nodded. 

 

"Then I'll have to watch my expression."

 

"Don't," she said, putting her coffee and the comb down, and pulling him toward her.  She tasted like coffee and toothpaste and heaven.

 

When they pulled away, he forced himself back to topics that were not about kissing her.  "The only other god we've known was Glory.  She would not have made much of an ally."

 

"Well, from all accounts, Illyria's not crazy.  Or not that crazy."  Buffy shrugged.  "I talked to Robin, too.  He's okay with her staying there.  Says she's sort of bizarre but a lot of help--her being big with the violence."

 

"Well, for all we know, Glory didn't start out crazy."  He thought about it.  "Glory's host didn't die during the process as Fred did.  Maybe that's the difference?"

 

"Fred may have been the lucky one.  Ben had that thing inside him the whole time he was trying to do good.  Can you imagine living like that?  Knowing that you can stop the crazy god thing, but only if you kill yourself?"

 

"No.  I can't imagine that."  He looked down.  "Buffy, I--"  He took a sip of his coffee.

 

"You what?"

 

"I don't have many secrets from you, anymore.  You do know that?"  Long, post-sex conversations had taken care of most of the things he'd never shared with her about his early life, back when she'd been his charge, not his lover, and even before that to his Ripper years and his childhood.  He wanted her to know him, to understand who he was and where he'd come from.

 

"I know."  She looked up at him, moving the comb once more through her hair--hair that was dark now, but would shine like gold in the sun once it dried. 

 

"I do have a secret, though," he said.  "And I need to share it.  Before another day passes."

 

"Okay."  She put the comb in her lap, sipping at her coffee as she looked at him with patience and trust.

 

"You chose not to kill Glory."

 

"I hurt her badly, though."

 

"Yes, you did."

 

"But not enough to kill her."  He couldn't tell if it was a question.  Decided it wasn't.  Unlike Faith, Buffy had always had a sense for when to stop when it came to lethal force.

 

"No, not enough to kill her."  He took a deep breath.  "And, as you just said, to kill her, you would have had to kill the host."

 

"Ben."

 

"Ben."  He took a deep breath.  "Ben is dead."

 

"I know."  At his look, she smiled, but it was an unhappy smile.  "After Willow brought me back, I had a lot of nightmares.  Fighting Glory was part of that.  What she did to Tara, what she tried to do to Dawn...she haunted me."

 

"You never said."

 

"I never said a lot of things back then. I was half dead inside, Giles.  No warmth, no love, no hope.  Just the loss and the fear.  And feeling totally out of place."  She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I went to find Ben, Giles.  I'm not sure what I planned to do.  I didn't take any weapons, but we both know I wouldn't have needed one if I'd wanted to kill Glory by killing him.  But he wasn't at the hospital.  And when I asked about him, the nurse told me he was dead."  She put her coffee down.  "Did you kill him?"

 

"I did.  That night.  When you'd gone to help Dawn, I killed him."

 

"I thought it was probably you."  She didn't look at him.  "How?"

 

"I suffocated him.  It wasn't particularly quick."

 

"You did it for me, didn't you?"

 

"Yes.  I was going to tell you.  I didn't want you to think you'd done it during the fight with Glory.  But then you died and it didn't seem to matter."  He took a breath, and this time it was he who shuddered.  "And when you came back, you weren't--"

 

"Just say it--I wasn't quite right."  She shook her head.  "And there were larger concerns.  Bills.  Dawn.  Living."

 

"Yes.  Quite."  He reached for her hand slowly, ready to stop if she pulled back or flinched, but she didn't.  "Are you angry at me?"

 

"The time to be angry at you was back then, when I found out he'd died.  I should have asked you, but I didn't care.  As soon as I knew he was dead, that Glory couldn't get me, the nightmares stopped.  Well, those nightmares stopped, others took a lot longer to go away.  I needed you, Giles.  I couldn't afford to be angry when you were the only thing propping me up."

 

"And then I left you."

 

"And then you left.  And I didn't care about Ben, I just wanted you to come back.  To take care of me."  She looked up at him, her eyes so full of pain that he had to hug her close. 

 

"Buffy, I had to go."

 

"I know that now.  But back then, all I could feel was hurt."  She wrapped her arms around him.  "One or both of us may pay someday for what we did to him."  She was making it their act, not his.  "But it's over.  It's in the past.  And I know why you did it, and so do you.  It doesn't give me nightmares, even if it should."  She pulled away.  "Do you have nightmares?"

 

"Not about that."  He closed his eyes.  "A body crashing onto rubble makes a horrible sound.  And in my dreams, you screamed my name on the way down."  He decided not to tell her that he still had that dream, only not always of her falling from that the tower.  Losing Buffy had been his greatest fear both as her watcher and now as her lover. 

 

"I called your name in my dreams, too."  She pulled back, looking up at him, her smile very small.  "You've always been so important to me, Giles.  Our world is crazy, but I think I know what's right and what's not.  Ben wasn't an innocent.  He had the chance to do something, or to get help, or even just to tell us what was going on.  Every time Glory gave him back his body, he made a choice not to do anything.  Maybe I should feel angry at what you did, but I can't."

 

"Then we won't discuss it again."

 

"Good."  She smiled at him, but her eyes were sad.  "Sometimes I hate our world, Giles."

 

"Sometimes, I do, too."

 

She cuddled up against him, drinking her coffee in silence until the door opened to Xander's cabin, and Xander and Ingrid hurried out, making their way to the dining hall. 

 

"Breakfast will be a little late again."  Giles found himself very tolerant of the tardiness.  But then he had his own kitchen if he got hungry enough to use it.  The slayers might not view the wait with such acceptance.

 

"Ingrid and Xander seem happy together," Buffy said softly.

 

"They do." 

 

"You were right.  But then you usually are."  Buffy turned to him.  "And if you're right that breakfast is going to be delayed...?"

 

He grinned, pulling her up.  She'd tied her robe in a slip knot, and he waited until they got inside to pull it.  They didn't have much time, but they made great use of what they had. 

 

As they were getting dressed, she looked back at him in the mirror.  "Why are quickies so much fun?" 

 

He walked up behind her, hugging her and kissing her neck.  "I don't know.  But they are, aren't they?" 

 

"I mean we've got all night to make long, luxurious love.  But I'll be thinking about this all day."

 

"As will I."  Which would lead to more long, luxurious love.  He kissed her again before letting go of her.  "I believe it's the unexpectedness of it.  The spontaneity.   And it's one thing to make love when there's plenty of time, it's quite another to be wanted so much that even a quick fix will do."

 

"You're so smart."  She smiled at his reflection as he nuzzled her neck.  "And we're going to be late for class."

 

"We can't have that."  He let go of her, following her out of their cabin to the dining hall.  "I am deeply concerned about the Council, Buffy."

 

"I know.  We'll figure out a plan, and then we'll implement the hell out of it."  She took his hand.  "We won't let them win."

 

He smiled, but could feel it was half hearted.  "I can't help but feel responsible.  Clara's involvement may not be spurred by simply being dedicated to the Council's cause.  She may, in fact, be urging Ernest on in most of this."

 

"I know.  She's out for revenge and not getting over you any time soon, I guess.  Damn you, Giles, for being such a babe."  She grinned at him, and he knew she was trying to lighten his mood.

 

"Yes.  A babe."

 

She let go of his hand after a quick squeeze.  "I'm less concerned about your attractiveness than about the slayers who end up with the Council.  We may need to start some kind of underground railway to liberate them."

 

"Yes, we may."

 

She shook her head, and the look on her face wasn't just one of past irritation toward the Council, but real worry.  "This is where the slayers should be.  With other slayers.  Not with the Council and their stupid tests."  She touched his hand.  "Do we have anyone on the inside we can use?"

 

"Perhaps.  I'll have to put out feelers."

 

"You do that.  In the meantime, I'm going to ask Will and Andrew to figure out a way to find the slayers faster.  We can't let the Council have them."

 

"We won't, Buffy."  He saw her throw off her worried look as they got ready to walk into the dining hall.  She was the leader again as she opened the door, and he knew he was his normal controlled self.  The girls wouldn't suspect how worried they were about this.  Not until they had to know, and they might never have to.

 

But Buffy was right.  Something had to be done.  It wasn't just about winning; he didn't want the Council getting its hands on any more slayers.

 

Not if he could help it.  Buffy looked back at him for a moment, a small smile on her face, as if she could tell what he was thinking.

 

He knew this wasn't a battle he'd have to wage alone.

 

 

 

FIN