Prompt: A continuation of Reconnection
Title: Reconnection 2/?
Notes: Post-"Flooded", going a little AU. Thanks to secondalto for fixing my slang!
Word count: a very un-drabbly 8260
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership and am making no money.
About the game: Rules and previous ficlets
Next up: First responder to this post gets to pick the Giles-related prompt for the next. This time there is one restriction: no asking for a continuation of this! I'll be continuing it no matter what. :) Give me a different Gilesy prompt, for a much shorter drabble/ficlet response.
There were rocks underneath Buffy's sleeping bag. Definitely rocks. But there was also a warm body next to her, with his arm draped over her middle and his face nuzzled into her shoulder. Giles, um, Rupert, maybe, now, was grizzling. Not a full-fledged snore, just a sort of light grumble thing. It was adorable.
Buffy didn't want to get up, but she had to pee. Maybe she could climb back in next to Rupert when she got back. But when she did, he was awake, and smiling at her. He pulled her down for a kiss. "Morning breath," she told him. "And mega-stubble." And sweat, and a soot-smudge across his forehead from the campfire. She kissed him anyway. There was gray mixed in his stubble, and gray at his temples.
Buffy's feet were sore this morning, despite whatever it was Rupert had cast on her boots. A lot of walking, she guessed. Despite that, the hike back down the trail went a lot faster than the uphill trip. Buffy almost didn't want it to. She held Rupert's hand, and asked a lot of questions about the park, the animals, why they hadn't seen marmots yet, and where else Rupert had been in the area. By silent agreement, they stayed away from the big topics. Like what their shared vision had meant, how they were going to handle things at home, and what they were going to do about Rupert's fight with Willow.
They got to the trailhead in the mid-afternoon. Buffy wasn't quite ready to head home yet, and said as much to Rupert.
"Neither am I," he said, making that grim face for a moment. "I have a plan. If you'll allow me. I thought we might spend the night somewhere nice."
"You are forgiven," Buffy said, magisterially, "for making plans without me, when they are plans of such goodness. And shower-having-ness."
The car engine was loud and unnatural after a couple of days of only forest sounds. It also smelled plasticky inside. Though pretty soon it also smelled like unwashed people and pine needles. Buffy wanted that shower.
Giles drove them down to the ranger station. This time Buffy got out of the car, mostly to use a real bathroom, with running water. And soap. She checked out the maps, and the posters about wildlife, and the informative pamphlets on how to not feed the bears. Then she had a burbly conversation with the park service guy about exactly where she should go next time if she wanted to see marmots. Giles, looking scrubbed and damp around the ears himself, was using the payphone to set something up. He smiled at her when he was done, with a secret look that gave Buffy a thrill in her chest.
They drove back the way they'd came. Giles was heavier with the foot this time, over the speed limit. This time Buffy paid attention. So this was the San Joaquin Valley, where all the food came from. Flat. Way flat. All the roads were straight lines. It got curvy again in the hills. Up and over. On the other side was the fog that Buffy was used to. Redwoods and fog.
At the highway, Giles turned north. "Going to Cambria," he said. "I got us a room at a bed and breakfast for tonight." He gave her a shy smile, and took her hand for a moment.
"Oooh!" That meant a night in a real bed with Gi-- Rupert, away from the gang. Buffy let herself speculate about what that was going to be like. She turned away from the scenery and watched him drive for a while. The thought of the night to come gave her that thrill again.
Rupert got them off the highway in a cute little town, and muttered to himself as he navigated little streets. He stopped them at a Safeway.
"Wait here," he said. "I need a razor a-a-and some shaving cream." He flicked at his stubble by way of explanation. He ran in before Buffy could demand he bring back chocolate. He came back with a plastic bag of stuff and a guilty expression. He tucked the bag into the back seat and started the car. Buffy dove for the bag, of course, and inventoried it. A can of shaving cream, a pack of three disposable razors, and--
"Condoms? Somebody's hoping to get lucky, I see."
"I, I thought it best to be prepared, in case... last night I thought perhaps... I know we haven't talked about it."
"I'm not saying you didn't think right, you boy scout."
Rupert made a sound in his throat.
"But hey! Aren't we supposed to get with the kid-having?" They'd have to talk about that vision some time.
"Not necessarily immediately."
"Don't you want to?"
"Of course! I just..." He was as stuttery as Buffy had ever heard him. "I had been thinking, well, that I should prefer it if, if, when we... It would be best for the child if its parents were... We should get married straight away, and then start with the..."
"Okay," said Buffy. "Let's get married and then have a kid, in that order." Rupert grabbed her hand and clutched hard. "This is really romantic!"
Rupert took his eyes off the road long enough to glare at her. "This was not how I had intended proposing to you," he said. "While driving on a busy street in the middle of..."
Buffy giggled at him.
"Bloody hell," he said. He let go of her hand suddenly. Buffy was about to complain, but he did some fancy braking and u-turning and stuck them decisively into a parking lot across the street, next to a big house with a sign announcing it was the Cambrian Inn. With a picture of a fossil. He hopped out of the car before Buffy could so much as eep, and had her door open. Buffy let him hand her out.
"Let's do this properly. Since we likely won't do anything else properly." He pulled her off the asphalt onto the grassy lawn, and went down on his knees. He took a deep breath. "Buffy, will you marry me?"
His voice when he said this was like his voice had been last night, when he swore the oath to her, serious and choked. It deserved an equally serious response, and Buffy pulled herself together and gave it to him. She met his eyes and said, "Yes, Rupert, I will marry you."
He closed his eyes for a moment. He took his signet ring off and slipped it onto her finger. It rattled around. "I'll get you something..." he said.
Buffy transferred the ring to her thumb, where it fit pretty well. She couldn't say anything, because she was crying again. Rupert leaned his cheek against her middle and held on silently for a few minutes.
Buffy was still sniffling when they went inside the inn to check in. The woman at the desk, who had a sweatshirt with a dinosaur on it stretched over her comfy cleavage, took one look at Buffy and handed her a box of tissues. "You okay, sweetie?" she said.
"He just asked me to marry him!" said Buffy, wiping her nose. "See?" She held up the hand with the ring.
That got them the extra-fussing treatment, which made Rupert's ears turn red, but also got them a room with a view down over the town and its own bathroom. Buffy zapped into the shower instantly. Water. Hot water. Huge amounts of hot water. Plus soap. Lack of planning bit her when she was done, though: she had to step back into the room with just a towel clutched tight around her. Rupert was stretched out on the bed with a paperback. He looked up, saw her, and blushed.
"I'll just... um, right." He vanished into the bathroom, with clothes and the shaving cream can in hand.
Buffy regretted having allowed Rupert to pack her clothes. She had nothing but practical hiking gear, all khaki and earth colors. Though that sage green shirt wasn't so bad, if she layered it over this brown tank top. And of course she had her makeup kit. No Summers woman would go anywhere without that. And it had a few emergency earrings in it, which would be much nicer than these ultra-practical studs she'd been wearing.
There were moments when Buffy felt the black thoughts trying to creep back in. Like right now, now that she was finished with the makeup and didn't have anything to do. She looked at Rupert's paperback. Some mystery thing, battered, obviously not a book maintained by Rupert Giles super-librarian. Aha. There was a shelf of mysteries and romances, next to the bed. Fallback plan. Instead Buffy tapped on the door of the bathroom, and opened it. Rupert was out of the shower and half-dressed. His face was all foamed up.
"Hullo," he said, with a little smile under the soap.
Buffy sat on the closed toilet and watched her man shave. It was a new experience. Buffy was into new experiences right now. Angel hadn't shaved; he'd waxed himself a century ago, then just declined to command the follicles to make more hair. Buffy had turned green and told him never to explain stuff like that ever again. Riley had used an electric razor. He'd used it on his chest, too. Buffy had caught him once. Probably that should have been a big hint.
Rupert methodically, slowly, carefully, shaved himself with the little blue disposable razor. He leaned close to the mirror, sometimes bracing himself with a hand on the sink. A stroke on his face, a swish in the hot water in the basin. He looked over at her every so often, but didn't say anything.
She'd never really had a sense of him as male, before. Obviously he was, hence Ms Calendar and Olivia and other people she wasn't going to think about with him, ever. But Buffy hadn't thought about him that way. He was advice and tea, training and comfort, conscience and confidant. But now, something else. Buffy considered Rupert.
He had on baggy jeans. Buffy could see the white band of his underwear, inside the too-loose waistline. He was thinner than he'd been, before. Bad summer, she supposed. He wasn't wearing a shirt. He had a little tawny hair, up on on his chest and around his nipples, and some on his stomach. He had muscle in his back and shoulders, and in his arms. Rupert hid it all under those suits and baggy shirts most of the time. He was so self-effacing, normally, that she hadn't really clued into what a tall guy he was. And he was most definitely a guy. It had been exciting to feel him pressed up against her last night, obviously interested, even if all they had done was kiss a little and then conk out.
He had a few scars. One of the worst ones, on his right forearm, Buffy had given him herself. Accident in sword practice, back in junior year. She'd baked cookies every day for a month to make up for that one. And then there was the place on his front where the spear had gone in. That was still pink-ish.
Handsome. He was handsome. He had a distinctive face, all angles and cheekbones and chin under the shaving cream. His hair was a little longer than she was used to seeing him with, curling over his ears and his collar. It had been soft under her fingers.
Gradually his face emerged from the foam. He washed it off, then inspected himself in the mirror.
"Big production," she told him.
"Didn't want to nick myself. Not tonight." He pulled on a blue t-shirt and tucked it in, then a black flannel shirt, leaving the tails out. "Have you given any thought to dinner?"
"Dinner! Whoops!" Buffy was back in horse-slaughter mood, now that she thought about it. She poinged out to the bedroom and grabbed the folder with the local places info. Giles followed, holding a pair of socks. He sat on the bed with her to look.
"We're gonna eat here," Buffy said, pointing. "Thai. Within walking distance."
"You're feeling yourself again," he grumbled. "Bossy." But the crinkling around his eyes told her how happy he was.
They walked to dinner. The downtown was a bit like Sunnydale's: weekend-resort-ish, with lots of traps for LA people. Galleries, shops with expensive kitschy junk, restaurants. No vampire vibe at *all*. Buffy liked it.
The restaurant was medium-busy. Buffy ordered her favorite noodle thing, with peanuts and prawns. Giles got green curry. Buffy toed off her shoes and ran her feet up the ankles of his jeans as far as she could get them. Rupert gave her patented Giles-glare #3, the one that meant "I am supposed to disapprove, but secretly I am loving it". And shifted his legs so she could reach better.
He didn't eat much. Mostly he spent the meal looking at Buffy and smiling to himself. Buffy chattered.
"We have a lot of stuff to figure out," Buffy said, slowing down a bit. "Should probably talk about what we're going to do next."
"If you wish."
He looked strained and weary for a second before covering it up. Buffy became head-using girl. He'd zapped over from England then had to go immediately into take care of everything mode. He was probably thwacked. Buffy rubbed her toe over his calf and then said, "No, not tonight. Tonight is still vacation. Tomorrow we'll worry about visions and missions from God and all that stuff."
"Missions from God?"
"Oh, right. I had a chat with that little demon guy, Whistler. Before we had the shared thing. He said the Big Guy wanted it. I said I'd do it. So I'm on board."
"My goodness. I... Really?"
"Yeah." The other choice he'd given her, Buffy would never ever mention to anybody.
"There'll be prophecies, no doubt. We'll need to research..." Rupert trailed off in that absent reviewing-the-contents-of-his-shelves way. Buffy tickled him with a toe and he refocused on her with a start. "Pardon."
"No research tonight. Just engagement celebration."
Rupert's face lit in that rare full-on grin. He caught the waiter's eye and made a quick writing-on-his-hand gesture.
Back in the room, standing the bathroom with a toothbrush, Buffy found herself getting nervous. She had no nice things to wear! Nothing frilly. No pajamas at all, never mind sexy ones. All she had was one last clean t-shirt. Would he mind? What did he like? She had no idea. Silk? Lace? Leather? Leopard print? Tweed?
She was still unsure what to do when Rupert emerged from his turn in the bathroom, presumably all minty-toothed, wearing just his jeans. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, still in her hiking pants and the tank top.
Rupert knelt by the bed and took her hands. "Buffy. What are you thinking?"
"Just about how sudden this is. Until last night, I hadn't ever thought about you this way at all. You know? You were Giles, my Watcher. And now we're gonna go to bed. You ever think about me this way before?"
"Honestly, no. I was aware you were attractive, but you were my Slayer, and that was... all I wanted." He shrugged a little.
He gave her a fleeting, shy smile. "The vision was quite, uh, intensely persuasive. And eye-opening."
"Yeah." Buffy knew what he meant. Not just technicolor, but sensurround. He'd probably gone through the same reconfiguration moment she had. That is who you were to each other; this is who you shall be to each other from now on.
"Buffy," he said, "We don't have to. If it's too fast."
"Silly man. Come be with me. It's looped, I know, but it's us."
"Bloody strange, is what it is," he said. He got up and turned out the lamp, then, and came to her.
Buffy had that future-memory, of Rupert moving with her, to say that it would be staggeringly good one day. Not that it wasn't good right now, because it was, just a little fumbly. It was sweet, slow, tentative, tender. Rupert treated her as if she might break. Given how she'd been until last night, Buffy understood. She'd been breakable. Now, though, she was alive. He touched her everywhere, and where he touched her, her blood raced and life flowered. She relaxed into him, for the first time ever just letting herself be herself.
Afterward he held her and touched her more, thoughtful and curious finger-strokes along her arm, her shoulder, her face. Buffy had no idea what he was thinking. He finally sighed, and settled himself against her shoulder. "I have always loved you, Buffy," he said, and was asleep.
First they'd gotten engaged, then they'd made love, then Rupert had told her he loved her. Totally backwards from the way she'd thought it would go. Though given the whole Powers-getting-involved thing, she should be grateful that it hadn't gone kid, then engagement, then making love. It allegedly had gone that way in the past, once, hadn't it?
It was different in the morning, in the sunlight. Much sillier, and with a lot more talking. They'd broken the ice and got through the worst, and Buffy knew it was going to be okay. Especially with somebody who'd get in the shower with her and scrub her back.
They had brunch at a place that made Buffy feel at home, all organic vegetables and local produce and healthy sprouts in everything, with a hand-drawn menu. The waiter appeared, and rattled off a bunch of specials.
"I was thinking maybe just the fruit plate," Buffy said. When Rupert made a noise, she said, "What?"
"You're too thin. You need to eat more vitamins, if you're going to, er..." He trailed off in front of the waiter.
"You're not going to turn into one of those, are you?" Buffy said, cryptically. "You're too thin yourself. If I'm eating, you're eating." She let Rupert order breakfast for the two of them: omelets with a lot of organic veggies, and orange juice, and scones. Blood will out. She giggled at him, and ordered coffee for herself.
The coffee was great. Real cream always tasted good. Buffy guzzled, and then, energized, started thinking about what came next. Home. Life changes. Living with Rupert, she assumed. Taking care of Dawn. What she was going to do with herself, other than Slaying. Maybe back to school? Until the baby. Great jumpin' kangaroo rats, a baby.
Buffy hadn't ever let herself wish for that. It had always been in the category of things that Slaying had cost her that hurt too much to even think about. Now, wow, she was guaranteed it. By the best authority ever. Though Buffy knew better than to think that meant it would be easy. They'd get there, to that moment on the bed. But how they got there, and what happened afterward: that could get nasty.
"Penny," said Rupert, over his mug of tea.
"Huh? Oh. Just thinking about what happens next."
"We head home, I suppose."
"Back to the real world," Buffy said. Rupert grunted and drank more tea. "At least we're not dealing with yet another apocalypse." At Rupert's expression, "Oh, no, don't tell me we are. What's been going on?"
"Nothing much, really," he said. "Not on the demon front. There was some, er, Slayage, over the summer, but nothing unusual. It's just..."
"Willow," said Buffy, mind already clicking. She ate a half-slice of toast while she reviewed what she knew. "Okay, spill. I heard you yelling at her in the kitchen the other night. And you told me a little our first night camping. But I need details."
Rupert went into detail, in the sort of methodical review Buffy had come to rely on. The resurrection spell Willow had used was dark, to say the least. If he remembered correctly, the ingredients were not the sort of thing you could obtain through white means. And it required that Willow make a bargain with the god she'd called on. Exactly what the terms of the bargain were, Rupert couldn't say. They varied; usually the caster found to his chagrin that it was difficult to make fair bargains with gods. But they would all have one thing in common: The books had to balance. Buffy's return had cost somebody else's soul. Rupert didn't know whose. Didn't know when it would be collected.
Buffy felt the black thoughts coming back in. She pushed them aside with an act of will. She and Rupert, together on a bed, holding a baby. Purpose.
Rupert held her hand across the table. Buffy gave him a squeeze, then freed herself so she could slather more blackberry preserve on her scone. And oh boy, she had a lot of 'pologizing to do about scone jokes. This thing was good.
"Okay," Buffy said. "So far I'm getting that Willow is in *way* over her head, and might have a bargain with a god to get out of. We need, like, Daniel Webster. Don't look at me like that. I read stuff in my three semesters of college. What I'm not seeing here is the apocalypsy badness."
"Willow's level of power... Buffy, she wasn't exaggerating that night when she told me she was very powerful, and I should be careful. She has more raw power than any sorcerer I've met in my life. I am able to work around her because she is inexperienced and careless. But those very traits make her more dangerous. She has consistently shown poor judgement in when and how she uses her power. Just now, I... Buffy, I almost suspect her of resurrecting you just to prove she could do it."
Buffy huhed, and finished her orange juice. Yeah, she could see that. Willow was all, "thank me now, Buffy, for graciously having rescued you", and not so much with the "where were you anyway".
"We wait and see, with Willow herself. I may be overreacting. And there are steps I can take to perhaps determine whose soul is at risk. There are some rules about which souls Willow would have had the right to bargain with." Rupert looked grim at that. Buffy understood. If she'd laid her own soul on the line, it was bad news for Willow. And any bargaining with somebody else's soul was way past acceptable behavior. If Willow had done that, she was in Fair to Slay territory, she was so far black.
Buffy tucked that thought aside to come back to only if necessary.
"How about everybody else? I kinda... I didn't pay much attention to anything before you got here."
"We're all well," Rupert said. "Let's pay the bill and take a little walk, hmm? I can catch you up."
The shops of Cambria were open, and Buffy was in the mood for some window shopping. Not actual shopping, since there was a definite money problem what with the plumbing issues. She wouldn't have gone inside that goldsmith's shop herself, content with drooling at the hand-made stuff in the window cases, but Rupert made her.
There was a lot of cool stuff inside, made by allegedly local craftspeople. Buffy's eye was caught by a Celtic knotwork ring that had deep red garnets worked into the pattern. The stones were set flat. She had learned the hard way that rings with standard settings took a real beating in the Slaying. Sure, she could take them off before patrol, but sometimes the fist-smacking just kinda happened without planning. And then, boom, missing expensive rocks. This ring would be okay; nothing stuck out. She tried it on, and it was nearly a perfect fit. A little loose, maybe. Not exactly an engagement ring, though, and she wasn't going to make Rupert buy her lots of jewelry. Then she saw the wedding rings right in the same case. Knotwork and spirals. Two colors of metal formed the pattern. She gave the ring back to the clerk and drooled. Then she dragged Rupert over to look.
"You'll wear a wedding ring, right?" she said.
"Of course. You like this design? Hmm. It's familiar. There's a famous tomb where this spiral pattern is used." Rupert made a bunch of uncertain noises, and examined the one she liked best carefully. Buffy wondered what he was looking for. Then he looked up at her and nodded. Rupert arranged for the goldsmith to make wedding rings for them, sized to fit. He sent her to the other side of the shop while he settled the bill, and didn't let her look at the receipt. It was going to take a while to get the rings, though.
"Three weeks?" Buffy pouted. "Won't we be married already?"
"It'll take a little to sort out my visa," he said. "I'll put my lawyer on it when we get back to town. The rings will likely be ready for us when the paperwork is. We'll need to come back to pick them up, of course." He quirked up the side of his mouth. Buffy liked the way he thought. Maybe they'd tour this Rosebud guy's castle thing.
They headed back to the inn, to pack and check out. "So what had you so cautious back there? Are you sure you like the ones I picked?"
"Oh, it was just that some knotwork is magical. I wanted to be sure that the spiral pattern you liked was either not magical, or was safe."
"Yes. Oh," he said. "Um." He pulled a box from his pocket.
It was the knot ring with the garnets she'd first noticed. He put it on her finger, and she gave his signet ring back, and they had a little moment that ended with a lot of frantic kissing on the bed.
And that was Cambria, for Buffy and Rupert. One really scenic but boring drive down the coast highway, and they were back in Sunnydale and parking in the reserved spot in the back of the Magic Box.
Anya had jewelry radar that had only been improved by her demon years. She spotted the ring almost instantly, appraised it, and shifted her opinion of Rupert's taste. She looked almost grumpy, in fact, looking at the ring. Then she smiled, and said, "Congratulations!"
Buffy was relieved that Anya was the first to find out. She was the one they could count on to not care about the past, or about convention, or about anything other than how the change in Rupert's marital status would affect her. Sometimes Buffy liked Anya's approach better than the usual ones. If Anya were going to go evil, she'd let you know right up front. "Hello, I'm evil now. Get in my way and I'll kill you. Have a nice day!" Much easier to deal with than this muddled-motive Willow thing.
And in fact Anya performed a logical evaluation of the situation, its implications, and her own desires, and said, "Giles, you are a silent partner now. You can't just change your mind and become the boss again. Even if having a regular sexual partner has obviously already relaxed you."
Rupert opened his mouth, closed it again, swallowed, then spoke. "Yes, yes, I know, Anya. I had some ideas, actually, for expanding the business, that we might discuss. No rush, though. Lot of details to sort out first."
"Good!" said Anya. "Is Buffy not suicidally depressed any more? She appears to be emotionally stable now."
"Yeah," said Buffy. "Think I'm back out of the padded cell. But we have bigger problems than business right now."
"Why? Isn't everything going to be good now that the Slayer is back on the job?"
"Anya, would you mind if I, uh..." Rupert held up the soul stone. Anya shrugged.
Rupert looked through the stone at Anya and repeated a phrase. The stone glowed in rich dark browns and reds. Rupert examined it closely, then smiled at Anya affectionately. He ended the spell.
"You're untouched," he told her.
"Untouched by what?"
"What's going on?" Anya looked at Buffy.
Buffy pointed at Rupert. Let him do the talking.
"Well, uh, obviously, there's the issue of what Willow did to bring Buffy back. And the issue of what you were about, Anya, helping her do something so dark. I thought you had better judgment than that. You put your soul in danger." He yanked out the handkerchief for a round of glasses-polishing.
"Dark? What are you talking about?"
Rupert sighed. "Anya, how much do you know about the Pact of Horus?"
"Pact of Horus? Willow performed a Portal to the Realm of Osiris to rescue a trapped soul. The Pact is for when the soul has truly been lost and sent to its final reward. And that wasn't the case with Buffy."
Buffy was starting to get pissed off. None of her friends had even bothered to *ask* where she'd gone. Except for Rupert, who was looking pretty annoyed.
"Oh? Fawn's blood, the urn of Osiris, snakes-- what else would it be?"
"Willow said a full resurrection wouldn't be... uh oh."
"You're right, Giles," said Anya. "This is not good. The Pact is not a spell with a good reputation. Xander will also need to be checked."
"And Tara was the fourth? Of course. Where did she get the other things she'd have needed? Did she buy them from you?"
"No. We all know that Willow has no income and couldn't afford anything. She has in fact been taking reagents regularly without paying. It is most annoying."
"That ends now. And I think we need to do inventory," Rupert said. Lurking message: what else has Willow been up to? Great.
Anya nodded. "If she's been stealing valuable merchandise, she'll need to pay us back. First we need to take her off the exceptions list."
"The anti-theft wards," Rupert said. "They won't stop Willow, if she's determined, but they will make an unholy ruckus if she attempts to walk out of here with unpurchased goods."
They went over to the shop door together, and pointed at the runes up over the lintel, and started spewing magic jargon at each other. Buffy was feeling out of her depth. Normally she'd just go Slay whatever it was that was causing problems. But you couldn't just go Slay your best girlfriend. And Slaying witches was difficult even when they weren't mega-powerful like the Willster. This needed finesse. So, not a Slayer job, yet.
She sighed and wandered over to the tarot table. There were some magazines there, and a paperback she'd seen Dawn reading for school. She picked up the paperback and plunged in where Dawn's bookmark was. The story started off with a guy in a bathtub, smoking a cigarette and getting ashes all over the letter he was reading and ashes in the bathwater. Which was gross, but Buffy kept on, and was sucked into reading about all these kids in this family. When Dawn appeared and shrieked hello, Buffy was almost annoyed. Then she was hugging Dawn, who was the most important person in the world to her, even more important than Rupert, and telling her about waking up in the middle of the night to hear bears.
Dawn took a little longer to notice the ring. Buffy had to lay her left hand out casually on the table for a while. Her eyes got huge, and she looked at Buffy, then at Rupert, and got this "no kidding, *him*?" look on her face.
"Yeah," said Buffy. "Rupert and me."
"Are you, like, better now?" Dawn asked this cautiously, as if she were scared Buffy would be mad at the suggestion she'd been less than good.
"Yeah," said Buffy. "Not so depressed any more."
"Because of Giles?"
"He helped. The ritual we did helped a lot. But it was some other stuff that happened. I don't know if I can explain it. But it was good. It's gonna be all right."
"I like Giles," said Dawn. "He's always been here for us. Kinda old, I guess."
Buffy shrugged. "Don't care about that."
"If you say so. Do I get to be a bridesmaid?"
"Are you going to make me wear something stupid?"
"No way. Now get your homework done. If it's done before dinner, maybe we can go to the Bronze or something."
Dawn made a face, but opened her history textbook anyway.
At closing time, Rupert drove them to get some groceries, then home. Buffy was content to let him cook for the moment. He was way better than she was. She could be laundry gal. Buffy dragged the packs straight down to the basement, with its new copper piping, and dumped all the washable stuff straight into the machine. Suds it up, spin the dial, go. She hung the packs on the wall, with all the other gear still in them. She paused a moment to look at them fondly. Maybe they'd go again some time soon. Get a second tent for Dawn, and head up to the valley where the guy said there were marmots. It would have to be soon, though, because it was fall up there, and it'd start snowing in another month. Oh well.
Upstairs, she sat on one of the kitchen stools and watched Rupert cook. Deja-vu, except this time she was smiling at him, and he at her. She helped, even, slicing up salad makings at his request.
Tara showed up first, from her job at the university bookstore. Buffy had learned from Dawn that Tara and Giles had kept them all afloat over the summer, until Hank Summers had been prevailed upon to cough up cash for the mortgage. Buffy was okay with Tara.
While she and Tara were setting the table, Buffy caught Rupert leaning casually in the doorway to the kitchen, sticking the soul stone back in his pocket. He nodded to her, briefly. Tara was okay. So either Willow had bargained away Xander's soul, or her own. Buffy was not betting on Xander. It would be like Will, to risk only herself, and to think she was smart enough to wriggle out of the clause somehow.
Buffy had to remind herself that un-magic-tainted Willow was a good person, when they were all sitting at the dinner table, talking about the hiking trip. Willow wanted *all* the details. And from the grumpy looks she kept casting at Rupert, Buffy guessed that Willow had tried to look in, and been rebuffed.
Buffy decided to give her the terse version. "I had a vision-thing. I saw that Whistler guy again. He had some messages from the Power."
"Anything cool? About how great it is that you're back?"
"No, actually," said Buffy. She gave Rupert one tiny glance to warn him that she was about to spill. "He said you'd really done a number on me. I was supposed to you know, stay in heaven for my reward. It's unfair that I was yanked out, but here I am, so they have a mission for me. For us. For me and Rupert. We're, uh, getting married." Buffy held up her left hand.
The old Willow would have burst into tears, and said something incoherent over and over about how sorry she was and how happy, and then Buffy would have hugged her. And then they'd have done each other's nails, and some other silly bonding stuff, and Will would apologize and Buffy would ask her to be her bridesmaid. But the new Willow, not about to cry. Not about to go any place but anger, apparently. But covered up with a layer of sweet that was almost like who Willow had been.
"Oh, Buffy, that's so wonderful!" said covered-up Willow. "And so special! And so convenient for Giles, to get something he's always wanted so much and thought was so, you know, wrong to want. But now it's okay! You'll have to tell us what the mission is, so we can help."
Rupert's lips were compressed. He met Buffy's glance for a moment, and once again a message was passed. Stay calm.
"Naw," said Buffy. "Not the kind of thing we need help with."
Tara's face was white and her eyes bright. All the guilt that Willow should have had was right there. "I'm really happy for both of you," she said, stammering. Buffy reached over and squeezed Tara's hand. Willow watched, but she said nothing.
Dawn made a face, either because she'd picked up on the strain or because she'd utterly missed it, Buffy didn't know which. The rest of the dinner conversation was all about Kevin the cute guy in her English class.
Rupert kissed Buffy at the door when she left for patrol, and told her to be careful. Buffy was almost happy to be heading out for patrol. It was a routine she'd had for years now. The comfortable, familiar, plain vamp-slaying business. No angst, no drama, no passive-aggressive comments, just the quips and then the staking. It was amazing how a hopeless confrontation with a hellgod could change your point of view.
The first vampire was, she realized, her dental hygienist. Why would anyone turn her? Spending eternity with the chick who rototills your gums and keeps telling you to floss your fangs, ew. Though hey, maybe the vamps had, like, issues with fang cavities. Buffy was grumpy, thinking that she'd have to find a new dentist.
"*Don't* comment on my brushing technique," said Buffy to the once-perky Angie. Left uppercut, then a low spinning kick to knock Angie over.
"What? Not gonna loom over me with rubber gloves and pointy things? You're no fun any more." Buffy brought the stake down, and that was that.
Buffy stomped off to the next cemetery. She better not find her hairdresser popping out of the grave. As she booked down the sidewalk, her Slayer senses fired, but in a muted way. She turned: yeah, there was Spike, hopping over the wall.
"Nice retreat with the Watcher?"
"You tell him?"
"Turns out he already knew."
"Always knew he was smart."
They turned in through the Restview gate.
"You seem better," Spike said. "If a mite terse."
"I feel better," Buffy said, perching herself on a headstone.
Spike took her hand, cold vamp-fingers on hers, and Buffy was all set to smack him. But he was bending to look at the ring. He looked at it, looked at her, then dropped her hand. He lit a cigarette, and put his hand on his belt to do a little swaggering.
A vamp came at them, just then, from a nearby crypt. Buffy got right down to business.
"So, Slayer, you're engaged?"
"Yup." She did a really showy and unnecessary roundhouse kick that sent the vamp flying to Spike's feet.
"Rupes?" said Spike, hauling the newbie back up and throwing it at Buffy.
"Yup." Buffy kicked, spun, and staked.
Spike just stood there watching the dust fall. He swore. "Rupes," he said, again, with a dejected finality that made Buffy feel a combination relieved and icked out. Even without the old nudge from the Powers, she wouldn't have gone for sex with another dead body. She hoped.
Buffy didn't know why, but she felt like talking to Spike. He'd been the only one she could tell about heaven. Probably he'd be a good listener on this stuff. "The Powers gave us a vision," she told him. "We're gonna have a baby. Hence the getting married."
"You're not joking."
"You coulda done worse, Slayer. It coulda been that Harris lad."
Buffy decided to ignore the insult to her bestest non-Rupert guy friend. "Lots worse. Oh yeah. Willow's soul is probably going to be eaten by Osiris to pay for resurrecting me. Which isn't making me happy. So if you get any good ideas about that one, I'm all ears."
Spike had nothing useful to say to that, just another oath. He stared at her and took a long drag on his foul cigarette. She took off for the next cemetery, not waiting to see if he'd follow. He did, of course. She had her own pet vampire.
When she got back, the house was mostly shut up for the night. Dawn was in bed, which was good: school night. Rupert was on her bed, in stripey flannel pajama bottoms, with a fountain pen and a sheaf of paper. He looked too big for the bed all by himself. They were definitely going to have to kick Willow and Tara out. Buffy wasn't looking forward to that.
Rupert capped his pen. "How'd it go?"
"Five," she said. "Newbies, mostly. Piece of cake. What'cha writing?"
"Report to the Council on the results of our trip." And at Buffy's face, "They did pay for it, after all. And perhaps I forgot to mention... Quentin Travers lost his post after, after the Glory incident. When they debriefed me. New management. A bit more, ah, sympathetic? to the needs of Slayers."
"That wouldn't be hard," Buffy said. "Telling them about the vision?"
"I must," he said. "We'll need help researching it. There are likely prophecies associated with, uh, the coming child."
She took a really fast shower, just enough to get the dust out, then hurried back to him.
Her bed squeaked. And that pretty white-painted scrolly metal headboard banged the wall. Rupert actually stopped and got up to move the bed so they wouldn't make so much noise. Buffy giggled at him helplessly. He growled, and pulled her down onto the floor, blankets and all, and they finished there, much more quietly. Except for the giggling.
They dropped off Dawn at school, early, before Willow had gotten out of bed. Rupert mailed his report. Then it was Magic Box, before opening, for the inventory. Anya was there, grateful to inhale the mocha Buffy brought for her, and so was Xander.
He pulled Buffy back into the training room. "Really?" he said.
"Really," Buffy told him. "And it's good. Way good. This one's a keeper."
"I just, wow. Didn't see this coming in any way, shape, or form."
"Neither did we, Xan."
"You sure it's not just, 'cause, um." Xander came to a nervous halt. Buffy laughed at him a little.
"No, Xan, it's not just 'cause I was a depressed wreck and Giles rescued me. There's some other stuff that happened on the trip. Really good stuff. It's gonna be okay. Love ya for worrying about me." She kissed Xander's forehead, and gave him a big hug, which he returned with interest.
Back in the shop, Xander pulled Rupert aside and talked to him for a few minutes, then went off to work. Buffy asked what Xander had said..
"He, er, told me he would kick my arse if I hurt you." Rupert looked a bit dazed, then annoyed. "I forgot to test him."
"Don't panic. We'll get another chance."
The inventory-taking went on all day, and it made Anya grumpy.
The missing items were in three categories. There were a few non-magical items of jewelry missing. Tourist items, the sort of thing you'd buy if you wanted to look witchy. Second were ritual objects, items used as focuses in spells. As Giles and Anya itemized those, they both started looking grim.
Third, spell reagents. The stock in the basement was seriously depleted. Though as Buffy pointed out, given the tunnel access and the collection of flattened Marlboro butts just beyond, Spike was likely to blame for some of that. He probably pilfered the petrified hamsters to sell them for blood and smoke money. But the ritual objects, which were kept under lock and key, those had to have been taken by somebody who could get past the wards.
Buffy fetched lunch for the three of them from the sandwich place next to the florist. They slumped at the tarot table, munched, and reviewed the list.
"Giles," said Anya. "I would like to invest in a computerized inventory system."
"I'm not going to argue with you," said Giles. "Let's budget for it." He sighed. "Most of this was taken over the summer, I think. Willow's had a problem for a while, I believe. Damn. I... I wasn't paying attention to her. I ought to have noticed."
Buffy squeezed his hand. "What's been happening with her?"
"It's complex. Magic is seductive. Especially to someone as powerful as Willow. As, as fascinated by knowledge. It's easy to begin choosing to use it to smooth life out. To take what isn't yours. Make someone love you who doesn't. And, and, when you're as powerful as Willow, to wrest back what death has taken away."
Buffy could grasp that. Slayers had a similar issue, and Faith had fallen victim to it. Because she could fight, and hit things with great skill, it was tempting to use that to solve all problems in front of her. Don't like it? Slay it! Somebody annoying you? Smack them! But even Buffy, who'd never thought of herself as philosophy girl, could see the ethical problems with that. How come Willow couldn't? Willow, who'd always seemed so much sweeter and more good than Buffy felt?
She'd ask Rupert, but she could see he was working up to one of his guilt fits about Willow. No sense contributing. Instead she asked Rupert which books she should start looking in for prophesies they might care about. They switched modes to book-reading, and Rupert seemed less tense.
Willow and Tara appeared in mid-afternoon, shortly after Dawn arrived from school. It was almost like old times, everybody gathered around the tarot table with their own stuff to work on. Except for the strain. Anya was glaring at Willow. Tara was hunched in on herself, unable to meet anyone's eye. She couldn't seem to look at Buffy. Willow was aggressively normal, and cheerful, and cutting.
"I'm going to look up soundproofing spells," she said, burbling. "It was a little hard to get to sleep last night."
Rupert flushed and buried his face in the Pergamum Codex. Buffy was a little pissed. She'd certainly heard Willow and Tara in action, and even Willow and Oz back in the day. Willow climbed up to the private library and started rummaging ostentatiously.
Giles pulled the soul stone from his jacket pocket just enough to show it to Buffy. Buffy nodded. "I only need a few moments," he said.
Willow was heading down from the shelves with a modern book with a paper cover. She bent to tuck it away in her bag.
"What's going on?" said Willow. She looked annoyed.
Anya came belting over from behind the counter.
"You're not allowed to steal things any more," she said. "We have a list of things we think you stole that you're going to pay for."
Buffy stepped back to Rupert and raised a finger to alert him. Window of opportunity coming up.
Anya was arguing with Willow, and it was getting loud. Anya presented the list of missing items, and a detailed bill. She was trying to get Willow to take it. Willow folded her arms.
Rupert held up the stone, looked through it at Willow, and said his Sumerian words three times, softly, rapidly. He brought it down to his lap. It glowed red, shining through the fingers of Rupert's right hand. He looked down, smiled a moment, then sucked in his breath. Buffy looked. Willow, essence of Willow. Patchouli incense burning. Chrysanthemums. Crystals. Herbs in bunches. Tarot cards. A Powerbook, with lines running out from it to the world, humming with energy. Books, paperbacks with bright covers, in great stacks in the Sunnydale High library. Mathematical equations on a chalkboard. The spiral helix of DNA, twisting. But... Emptiness. Envy. Hunger. A little knot of black there, at the very heart of the stone. A void. Not a lot of black, yet, not all consuming. But there was a missing space where Willowness should have been. And in its place, something alien.
"I felt that! What are you doing?" Willow turned her back on Anya and stalked up to Rupert. Buffy went on alert and stepped back. Started edging around to get behind Willow.
Rupert stood and reached out to her. "Willow," he said. "We know what you did to bring back Buffy. We know the trouble you're in."
Willow let him hold her hand. Buffy let out her breath. It was going to be okay, just the usual mess with a spell that Willow got in. A lecture from Rupert, a clean-up, then Willow would bake guilt-cookies for a couple of months. Willow sniffled, a little.
Rupert held out the stone for her to see, cautiously, still holding her hand in his. "It's only just begun. We have time, yet."
Willow looked at the stone, then at Rupert. Her face changed.
"No, you don't, Giles," she said. "Bad librarian." She gestured.
The soul stone exploded in Rupert's hand.
TO BE CONTINUED