Banner by Aadler

In the Misty Moonlight
by Aadler
Copyright July 2022


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.



In the moonlight, the highway was silver.

It had been several years since Rupert Giles had found driving to be a pleasant experience. He had been practiced and competent in his years in England, even in the snarl of London traffic, but had always seen it as a utilitarian exercise rather than something to be enjoyed. The more recent time in America had brought no change to that basic attitude; he had become accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road, even to the extent of doing it automatically now, but it continued to feel wrong, so that it never truly became comfortable. Too, there was the fact that travel in Sunnydale always required at least some attention toward the possibility of supernatural emergency, such that relaxation was not only difficult but inadvisable.

This, tonight, was entirely a different matter.

The rented vehicle was more roomy than either his long-ago-wrecked Citroën or the self-indulgent sports car he had purchased as a replacement, but not so large as to make him feel he was attempting to maneuver a land barge. The air conditioning was perfectly balanced, and the New Mexico interstate highway was straight and smooth, so that operational vibration and outside and interior noise were muted and controlled to produce a soothing cocoon of surrounding comfort. There was almost no other traffic at this time of the night, so that his transit took place as if in aloof, cushioned solitude. The final touch: though the radio had been unable to reach any suitable stations in their current location, some previous driver had apparently left in the console player a CD of — of all things — “the Essential Dean Martin”. Though far from anything Giles would have counted among his favorites, in this time and place and circumstance it just seemed to suit perfectly.

Well, it’s lonesome in this old town,
everybody puts me down.
I’m a face without a name,
just walkin’ in the rain.
Goin’ back to Houston, Houston, Houston.
Goin’ back to Houston, Houston, Houston …

Best of all, Buffy rode beside him, quiet and at her ease, showing every evidence of having given herself over to the same floating contentment he had so happily welcomed: satisfied to remain silent, and feel, and absorb, and simply BE. Such times seemed increasingly infrequent these days; this was one, and Giles took satisfaction in sharing it. She was twenty-five years old, still so young … but she had been the Slayer for very nearly half her life now, and Giles was repeatedly astonished that, with the harrowing events and crushing responsibilities of her vocation, she could still enjoy ordinary pleasures. To share one such with her, now, was a rare and precious privilege.

The entire experience was of a necessarily transitory nature; it could last for only so long, and Giles had taken care to do nothing that might interrupt it. On the passenger side, Buffy had seemed to be of the same mood, so the evanescent moment had stretched out far beyond any expectation. Now she shifted for the first time in more than an hour, and her voice was low but firm. “I can feel it. We’re getting close.”

Giles smiled rather than sighing; the episode now past had been a blessing to be welcomed, rather than a loss to be mourned when it ended. “The last sign indicated an exit in another mile or so,” he said to her, “and the supplementary signs suggested that there might be facilities for travelers such as ourselves. If that should be close enough, it would probably be preferable to my pulling over to the side of the road.”

She nodded. “Good thinking.” A few seconds later she added, “It was nice, just … riding for a while.” So, yes, she had indeed felt it as well, and he smiled again at having his impression confirmed.

He took the exit when it arrived, followed the looping one-way to the next road, from which he could see that a small truck stop was the only visible lighted establishment; presumably, the other advertised businesses were further along and toward the town for which the exit also served. Without seeking or receiving comment from the Slayer, he went on into the truck stop parking lot, swinging toward the rear corner. On the other side of the raised stops to keep parked vehicles from proceeding further, the desert started up again, as if it was a sea in which this was a random island.

Giles glanced toward Buffy now. Her face was pensive, brow crinkled slightly as she considered, and then she nodded. “Yep,” she said. “This should be close enough, probably as close as you could get without going overland.” She undid her seat belt, opened the passenger door, and got out. From the rear seat she extracted a sizeable backpack, which he knew contained two two-liter canteens and assorted other supplies. She shouldered the pack, then buckled on a belted sword. Finally tucking several carved and sharpened stakes into various positions of ready access, she looked now to her Watcher. “I should be able to feel my way there, and then I’ll wait for as long as it takes the First Slayer to decide to show up. Go ahead and find a place to stay the night, okay? I’ll give you a call as soon as I make it back here, or before then if I hit a good cell reception area.”

Giles nodded to her. “I’ll look around at what’s to be found here, but no, I won’t wait up all night while you seek out the spirit of Sineya and learn whatever it is she chooses to reveal to you at this time.” He shook his head. “Though I find it quite difficult to break the habit, you really need no instructions from me. Be alert, of course, but be sure to draw as much value as you can from this opportunity.”

“Gotcha,” she agreed. She turned, shrugged to settle the backpack suitably, and started away. Within moments she was into the desert; Giles probably could have followed her progress for some time in the moon’s bright illumination, but instead he turned and began walking toward the main building of the truck stop.

She would take such time as her present task required, and he would not brood and fret in the meanwhile.

He and Buffy had seen no rain in the hours of driving that brought them here, but there must have been some precipitation before their arrival, for the surface of the parking lot was wet, and as he drew nearer the main building, the slick surface reflected the light from the interior and from the pump canopy overhead. If the truck stop was an island in the desert, the central building might have been a smaller island in the central sea of gleaming blacktop. A fanciful illusion, to be sure, but a pleasant one, and it allowed Giles to retain some of the feeling of luxurious unreality that had gradually enfolded him during the drive itself. He nodded his approval and satisfaction, and on reaching the entry doors he pushed his way inside.

The interior, he found, was something of a surprise. Most of his time in the States had been spent in Sunnydale, with outside forays generally managed by flights to other cities, so that his fuel purchases had been at standard petrol stations rather than at locations catering to the needs of long-haul truck drivers. Not only the size, but the variety of selections was vastly different, subdivided into sections as arcanely staged as in a department store. He saw rows of specialized equipment, some of it mechanical components (he presumed for trucks) that he couldn’t identify, along with other more recognizable items nonetheless designed for the same clientele: CB radios, plug-in coolers or even mini-fridges, microwave and toaster ovens, along with more common and identifiable tools. He saw seat covers constructed of large wooden beads strung together, racks and shelves of blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, billed caps, jackets, gloves, sunglasses, flashlights, neck pillows, insulated cups, safety vests, rain gear, and — unexpectedly — a free-standing display of small stuffed plush toys; there was an array of musical selections and “books on tape” (though those, he saw on closer inspection, seemed to all be CDs), along with sections of paperback books and magazines. The walls were lined with glass-doored cases containing innumerable drink selections — mostly non-alcoholic, though beer and wine were also available — and various packaged foodstuffs, ranging from sandwiches through microwaveable meals and even ice cream selections. Other rows of shelves were covered in ‘souvenir’ and small-gift items. He saw a full row of office supplies, some standard-familiar and others (again) specialized for the driving trade, including road atlases of several different sizes and types. Then there were the non-refrigerated food goods, and snack treats, and ornamental license plate frames … It went on and on, a panoply of offerings to a subculture of which he had been barely aware and of which he knew next to nothing. In its way, it was comparable to stepping into the newly-opened tomb of one of the pharaohs, and seeing all the spread-out accoutrements of an entire glittering civilization.

Giles shook his head in amusement at this whimsical comparison, and proceeded further, so see what more might be available to discovery.

During this drive, and others before it, Giles had seen truck stops and even regular fuel stations with contained or attached restaurants; this one, however, only had a central area where coffee was dispensed, with heated cases for ‘hot’ food and a rack of slowly turning rollers upon which frankfurters and similarly-sized sausages rotated in sullen isolation. Giles would have preferred tea, of course, but wouldn’t have trusted any tea that could be found in such an establishment as this; he got a small cup of coffee, and a tuna sandwich from the cold-foods selection, paid for his choices at the front counter, and went to settle himself at the row of small seat-and-table modules that lined one wall.

A quick sip of the coffee confirmed his expectations: dreadful, but drinkable, and not so strong as to keep him awake once he’d finished his business here. He unwrapped the sandwich and took a few bites, then set it aside for a moment and opened out the slim portfolio and the small computer tablet he had brought in with him. He would, as he had assured Buffy, find a place to stay the night and get some sleep while he awaited notification of her return; this, now, was simply an opportunity for him to relax, reflect, and collect his thoughts before then.

He had never been as computer-helpless as he had frequently feigned to the others in the days when research was largely a library-based activity, it was more that the most informative materials were seldom digitized, and he hadn’t the patience for learning the intricacies of systems that seemed to “upgrade” (with the same result as of the earth shifting unpredictably beneath his feet) on a twice-monthly basis. Willow had approached the issue with her usual crushing intellect and determination, designing a basic, stable tablet interface strictly according to his preferences, and he used it regularly now to review reports and keep abreast of events in the field, an area in which the versatility of regularly updated information actually conferred an advantage.

He used the slender stylus to navigate through the sub-folders and pages of Willow’s system, and on a separate pad of legal paper made occasional notes with a biro; those notes he would later scan and add to files with a customized optical character recognition program that was another of Willow’s efforts to propel him, willingly or not, into the 21st century. He skimmed quickly over the various event, project, and extrapolative reports; the several levels of management (most appointed by him or Willow, or by some of those same appointees) seemed to have things decently under control. That had been increasingly so of late, with the result that Giles devoted the majority of his attention to matters regarding the people involved.

More of this than made Giles fully comfortable pertained to Willow in some way. The slow but seemingly inevitable dissolution of her pairing with Kennedy had fortunately reached its conclusion well before other … events, would have turned the situation volatile (if not explosive), and relations between the two since then had been occasionally awkward but never actually hostile. Willow had held herself aloof from personal involvements in the aftermath (though how long that might continue had yet to be established), focusing instead on peerings into and analysis of higher realms, along with operating as the overall coordinator of the new Council’s organization and application of mystical practices. Kennedy, after a brief period as a freelance troubleshooter, had inexplicably fallen into an active partnership with Andrew, of all people. Given her expressed (and Andrew’s apparent) preferences, this was almost certainly a working relationship only; still, Giles (all of them, for that matter) had learned to never take anything for granted, and the bizarre duo had proceeded to briskly rack up an utterly preposterous record of operational success. It was a matter of continuing consternation among the rest of the Council: with Andrew so seemingly detached from practical reality, and Kennedy so hard-edged driven, most prognosticators would have had her snapping his neck from sheer exasperation in the first week. Instead, they were well on their way to becoming legendary, if stunningly baffling.

Xander, upon his return from an unexpectedly lengthy tour of duty in Africa, had taken up an informal instructional arrangement in the Council, giving breezy, off-the-cuff lessons to Watchers and Slayers alike. Those lessons had occasioned many, many arguments from and among both his students and those who got pulled into discussions with those selfsame students, and the arguments threatened to either revolutionize the Council’s traditions or overthrow the Council entirely, if not both. Xander had also, for the first time in his life (except, of course, for the 1998 Valentine’s Day love spell) found himself the recipient of widespread, sustained female attention. Young Slayers, and many of the younger new female Watchers, had heard lurid stories of his solo exploits across the Dark Continent, and were quite curious about investigating the reality once he became accessible. He had amiably responded by welcoming attention from all of them, all the while keeping every interaction determinedly, impenetrably casual. Some had taken this friendly detachment as a challenge, but only Vi and Dawn had seemed to make any headway into breaking through his relaxed, smiling, polished defenses …

That, and quite a few other things, were turned topsy-turvy with the simultaneous return from the dead of Lindsey McDonald and Tara, by means never explained. Every possible avenue of investigation and analysis had confirmed that the two of them were, in fact, who they appeared to be — and, additionally, unpossessed and uncontaminated by external forces — but neither of them had been able to offer an explanation for the shared resurrection. Tara, however, had been insistent that her prior relationship with Willow could NOT be resumed (again, without explanation, but she was adamant nonetheless), and Xander had instantly appointed himself as her new sponsor and partner.

That, at least, had been understandable, given the very real affection Xander had felt for Tara (though, honestly, all of them had cared for the girl, except possibly Anya). For Faith to do the same with Lindsey … it had required a deep dive into looted files, plus some rather arcane scrying, to determine that the two of them had ever met at all, and even then their only contact appeared to have been brief, largely noncommittal, and of a nature hardly likely to predispose her in his favor. Yet she had insisted on taking him on, brushing aside all protests and objections, and the two of them were still carving a path through vampire nests, demon enclaves, and renegade covens all over the world. While not acting in opposition to the new Council, they operated almost totally independent of it, and — as with Andrew and Kennedy, as with Tara and Xander — the partnership seemed to contain no faintest component of physical intimacy. They simply worked well together, meshed in tastes and temperament and overall impulses, and moved together as seamlessly as if they had been expressly designated for the purpose …

A laugh from the other corner of the truck stop interior drew Giles’s attention, and he found that he had finished the coffee and sandwich without noticing. Glancing over, he saw a couple of customers engaged in lighthearted interaction of their own. The smaller one — female, darkish-blonde hair held in place with a number of ‘scrunchies’ — wore a denim vest and multi-patched jeans, and smiled with open amusement at the other: male, a full head taller, wearing a jacket designed to look like leather but failing to fully convince. She looked to be about fourteen, where he was clearly older, skinny enough to be well short of full maturity but moving with the easy assurance of effortless adolescent muscle. Giles could remember being that young, could remember being that type, and he sighed and shook his head as he saw that the boy’s obvious insincere blandishments gave every sign of making inroads through the girl’s reflexive, amused skepticism.

He shook his head again, looking away from them. Was this what his life had come to, what he had come to? He had once been one of a pair (well, it had actually become a team of four before finishing the process of becoming a team at all) tasked with preserving humankind against malign forces. Now he was, increasingly, an irrelevant observer of the most extravagantly convoluted ‘soap opera’ interrelationships, such that he seemed unable to escape such things even outside his work.

In other times, the thought might have made him morose. Tonight, still holding onto the remnants of the silent companionship he and Buffy had shared on their journey here, he set himself to consider the matter more objectively.

Things had changed, undeniably. Change was a constant, always had been, and his ascension to head of the Council — necessitated by the First Evil’s successful assassination of almost all the senior leadership — had consequently moved him more into an administrative function and away from active field work. He had heard retired army officers say that their fondest memories had been of their time as captains: enough rank and authority to merit respect, but still working closely with the men under them, engaging in direct actions, leading instead of passing along orders. It had made sense to him then, and now he had a more immediate understanding of the principle, for he found himself missing those more active days …

… but the truth was that their ending had always been certain. Even before his unsought escalation into unsought directorship, he had already been skirting the edges of diminished physical capacity, more suited to guiding his Slayer than to fighting alongside her. For that matter, historical precedent would have predicted that she — or he, or both of them — should have died in action long before reaching this point. The present situation was the result of success on their part, and if the headiest days were behind them, that was itself a form of triumph.

Giles had sought, not to settle his thoughts (for they hadn’t been troubled), but simply to sort them out, to grant himself an interval for review and introspection before proceeding onward. He rose now, closing the portfolio and putting away the tablet, and made his way toward the doors at the front, still idly noting the displays and merchandise about him. There was a sign indicating the presence of showers, and down a short hallway he could see a bank of washers and dryers for laundry … again, doubtless, for the ‘trucker’ trade. Small, intricately carved wooden boxes (presumably fashioned by some automated process, probably laser guided) were set out for purchase, and further on was a selection of belt buckles. He amused himself for a moment by the thought of purchasing one of those outlandish buckles for himself, just for the pleasure of Buffy’s helpless laughter the first time she saw it —

He paused, feeling vague puzzlement coalesce into an actual slight interest as he took in the items displayed on the next shelf, and he picked one up to study it further. The artifact he held seemed at first absurd, then comical … but as he considered his present circumstances, he decided that a “handheld misting fan” might have some genuine limited utility. The night hadn’t been hot, particularly after the rain just past, but he might have to do some waiting about tomorrow, and might not be able to do all of that in air-conditioned comfort. If nothing else, the price was low enough that it was worth the cost just to see if the implement would function as advertised.

He made his purchase at the same counter where he had bought the coffee and sandwich. Two aisles over, the leather-jacket boy was still sweet-talking the denim-vest girl, and her body language hinted that she was either being won over or was allowing it to show now. Giles was familiar enough with the process that he could follow it without paying conscious attention, and even by that absent means it appeared that conquest — or, more probably, mutual agreement — would be secured in short order. She was far too young, of course, but Giles wasn’t her father and even in the Council he was nobody’s moral arbiter. He was actually less disturbed by the prospect of teen carnal activity than mildly annoyed by the impressions he had intuited from the boy’s stance, tone, demeanor: arrogance, confidence, a sense of presumptuous possessiveness, even a hint of predatory satisfaction. Despite having briefly been of that type himself, he had never liked them, and less and less as the years bore on. Shaking away the niggling irritation, he went out the main doors and crossed the still-wet parking lot to where he had left the rental car.

He could have followed the highway signs to the small town listed there as being a couple of miles away, but he opened Willow’s tablet instead and did a quick search. While he would never be a technological adept, he had learned enough over the last several weeks that it was no great labor to locate a decent chain motel, confirm a vacancy, and reserve a room. Still feeling no need for urgency, he could nonetheless be checked in and settled for the evening within the next twenty minutes, and decide whether to do further review and/or study, or simply make a somewhat early bedtime.

Noise and motion caught his attention, not alarm but habitual maintenance of basic situational awareness, and he looked up to see one of the large trucks making its way across the parking lot. The headlights fell upon the main windows at an angle that turned the latter opaque, and the rain-wet blacktop was transformed into a glistening sea. Just emerging from the doors, the two youngsters left the outer sidewalk and passed the lit island of petrol and diesel pumps, bodies orienting toward one another in angles and attitudes that …

… suddenly seemed very, very familiar.

They weren’t moving quicky, still laughing and posturing in a languid stroll that all but proclaimed the approaching consummation. Their lack of hurry allowed Giles time for a few quick preparations before he was out of the car, pushing the door to but not shutting it fully, and then striding to overtake them. They were heading for a darker portion of the parking lot (of course), and seemed focused solely on each other. The echoes of the truck’s engine continued to reverberate as it maneuvered around toward the diesel pumps, and the wet surface of the blacktop further muffled Giles’s steps while he exercised hasty care to avoid any splash that would warn of his presence. The pair ahead were harder to see as they had left all areas of illumination, easier to see as he drew closer. The two bodies merged, locked in embrace … then one of them stiffened, jerked, and began an abortive attempt at hopeless struggle while a thin, despairing cry tried to rise about the grumbling sound of the truck’s engine. Giles drove forward the last few feet, bracing himself for the coming strike —

He had used his surroundings to best effect (and the background sounds had masked his approach far better than he could have counted on), but there had never been any real likelihood that he could come up on a vampire without being heard at all. The creature whipped around to face him, started for him in instant automatic attack … then screeched and jerked back as she encountered the outer edges of fine vapor from the ‘misting fan’ Giles had triggered as he closed the final few feet, and in that fractional moment of distraction he drove the stake home with the sureness of long experience and endless hours of practice.

That which had borne the form of a young girl was now dust becoming gritty mud on the rain-covered asphalt, and Giles looked past where she had been to the leather-jacket boy who stood swaying, white-faced, one hand clasped to where blood still oozed from his lacerated throat. His eyes bulged, darting about for any sight of his now-vanished ‘conquest’, and then settled on Giles. “Wh–… what —?” he began in stuttering, stunned bewilderment.

“Naff off, you pillock,” Giles said to him, brutally dismissive and already turning away. Yes, he was thoroughly familiar with the type, this young lout had chosen his target and worked her with consummate assurance, never considering the distant possibility that the girl he had chosen as a plaything might in fact have cut him from the herd as her own prey. “Best see a doctor about that bite,” he called over his shoulder (the boy did, after all, qualify — technically — as human), and made his way back to the rental car.

He must have been picking up subtle hints all the while, Giles mused as he took his place behind the steering wheel, but the passing truck had triggered the alarm his subconscious had been gradually preparing. The sweeping headlights had briefly mirrored the outer windows; and the gleaming parking lot, too, had shown the reflection of only one body. After that, it had taken only moments to add the contents of a bottle of holy water to the reservoir of the misting fan, necessary backup when he knew he wouldn’t be able to take a feeding vampire completely off guard …

Giles smiled to himself. He had been dwelling, almost with melancholy, on his situational banishment from active service, only to have it practically thrust upon him. Really, he needed to be careful about such maunderings; it was a bit too much like making a wish, and everyone knew where that led.

As anticipated, finding the motel and checking in proceeded routinely and without complication. Giles went straight to bed, and slept without dreaming.

*               *               *

He kept himself occupied the next day with further record review and preliminary research, went out for a modest meal and drove about to get a sense of the surrounding small city, did some light reading and the beginnings of some routine correspondence. There was no cause for worry in Buffy’s meeting with the Slayer spirit, and Giles kept himself determinedly not-worried. This whole business could easily go on for another day (though he certainly hoped not), and he would do his Slayer no good whatsoever by unproductive fretting.

If he felt relief when at last her call came in, that would surely be because he wouldn’t have to keep himself occupied for any longer, not because there had been the least need for genuine concern.

He reached the truck stop within ten minutes; it was another seventeen before Buffy emerged from the desert, moving just ahead of the growing dusk. He handed her a bottle of cold water, purchased from inside to greet her arrival. She drank half of that before pausing to speak. “Thanks,” she said. “I had enough in the canteens that I didn’t get dehydrated, but water at body temperature stops being fun real fast.”

They went inside so she could sit for a bit in the cooler air. This time, Giles got himself a fruit drink, while Buffy concocted for herself what was essentially a coffee-flavored milkshake, and also selected the largest of the pre-heated cheeseburgers from the hot-foods cabinet. They took seats in the same area Giles had occupied the previous night — they might very well be in the exact same module — and he waited while she consumed the cheeseburger and ordered her thoughts.

Buffy stared out the main windows, though in the settling darkness there really wasn’t anything to be seen except the lit pumping stations. He waited without prompting her; she seemed, not reluctant to speak, but focused on choosing the right words. At last she looked to him and said, “Okay. The Spirit of the First Slayer.”

Giles nodded acknowledgment, but didn’t speak. She blew between her lips, a vexed sound, and said, “So, a whole lot of communing. Mellowing out, letting yourself sink into the vibe, getting open and in-tune. You met her that one time, you know straight-line communication isn’t exactly her deal.”

“Yes,” Giles said. He wasn’t being deliberately terse, it was more that his input wasn’t really relevant just now. Buffy accepted that, apparently without rancor, and went on.

“Well, basically, we spent a few hours getting onto the same wavelength. Then the actual talk started. There was a lot of this and that, and we’ll go over it all later because there were some parts that may have been actual prophecy …” She looked directly at Giles. “The main message, though: she says I need to step up.”

That brought a raised eyebrow. “Really?” Giles replied. “I certainly never had any impression that you were … slacking.”

Buffy brushed that away with an impatient gesture. “No, I mean step up. Do less regular slaying and more managing the other Slayers.”

“I see,” Giles said. “Yes, you took command after the Slayer awakening, and the others recognized and accepted your primacy; but you were essentially a combat leader, where now the intention is that you be more of a … field marshal?”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “I remember I took a shot before at being General Buffy. And I remember I really sucked at it.”

Giles smiled at that. “Ah, but you were much younger then.”

That brought a brief laugh (he had hoped for such), and Buffy continued. “I thought about this all the way back here. I’ve been the Slayer since I was fourteen. I got good at it, seriously good.” Her eyes found his. “I don’t know if I can do anything else.”

Giles considered the matter. “We know from experience that the First Slayer is … not exactly attuned to our perceptions and sensibilities. Her perspective differs substantially from our own, and we can’t be completely certain that we fully understand her. All the same, I see no reason to doubt that you can … can fulfill the role she has presented for you.”

Buffy shook her head. “The whole thing is crazy. Seriously, can you really see me as the inspiration for a couple thousand baby Slayers?”

“You already are,” Giles said to her. “You always have been. In fact, you have been an inspiration to everyone who knew the full truth of what you are, for as long as I’ve known you.”

She snorted at that. “Flatterer.”

“If I thought the suggested course of action was inadvisable, I would counsel against it. As it is, I would say the matter merits serious consideration.”

“I’ve always been a fighter,” she said, sighing again. “Now I’m supposed to be a symbol?”

“More than that,” Giles said. “Far more. You will need to bring all your instincts and experience and judgment to the task, as you have always done. But the symbolic aspect is, is not insignificant.” He smiled at her. “You must remember that I grew up under a monarchy; I am familiar and comfortable with the concept of a single person standing as the embodiment of something much greater than themselves.” His voice went stern. “This is not to say I believe you measure up to Her Majesty the Queen —” She laughed again, which had again been his intent. “— but nor can I state with absolute confidence that … that she measures up to you.”

Buffy sat, thinking about it, letting it sink in. He had meant what he said; it was merely a matter of giving her space to come to grips with this daunting new challenge.

After several silent minutes — struggle, assessment, acceptance, resolution — she abruptly looked up at him. “I love you,” she said to him. “You know that, right?”

“Yes,” he said. “You communicated that to me by, by actions and demeanor rather than in words, but you did communicate it.”

“Okay,” she said. Her eyes had gone distant again. “Good.”

Giles let it set for a moment, then began, “In case there was ever any doubt in your mind —”

“I know,” Buffy said. “I’ve known for years, ever since I had to knock you out to keep you from going to meet the Master in my place.” She stopped, frowned. “No, longer than that. When Amy’s mom’s spell had me so wasted I couldn’t stand up, you carried me to the science classroom to work the reversal spell. And it was like … like when I was four years old and my dad would carry me upstairs to bed. That was how I felt then. Protected. Safe. Loved.”

“Yes,” Giles said.

Her eyes were still on his. “But you pushed that away. I knew you cared for me, I always knew, but you put … walls between us. To keep me from getting too close.”

Giles cleared his throat. “My duty,” he said to her, “my very vocation, was to keep you always prepared for and focused on the combat that would someday kill you.” He looked away. “In that circumstance, I was … not entitled to a relationship I was constantly in the process of betraying.”

Buffy nodded, still taking it in. “All right. Got it. And it even makes sense.” Though her eyes were grave, she was smiling. “And now, guess what? I’m supposed to move from field Slayer to upper management. So maybe I’ll wind up getting a normal life —” She checked. “Well, no, that’s never happening. But maybe I can have a normal life expectancy after all.”

Giles kept his eyes down while he considered it. This new role — so similar to the one he been all but mourning in his own life! — would indeed serve to shift her away from the day-to-day fray. He had ceased to expect her death, but the reality of a Slayer’s life, and the dread inescapability of its end, had never faded from his mind.

“That …” He had to take a moment before he could continue. “That would be … very nice. I think I should like that very much.”

All else settled, they went out to the car. The surface of the parking lot had dried since the previous night, but otherwise the tableau was the same, the moon brushed by a hazy halo of clouds. Giles took his place behind the wheel; Buffy started to settle into the passenger seat, paused, and held up the misting fan Giles had left there. “What’s this?”

“Impulse purchase.” He smiled at the memory. “It’s supposed to, to aerosolize water droplets into the fan stream. A portable cool breeze.”

She studied the implement in question. “Does it work?”

“I, er, tested it briefly last night,” Giles said. “It did seem to function properly.”

Buffy turned on the fan, found the trigger for the mister, and played the airflow over her own face. “Not bad,” she said. Then she turned it off, maneuvered herself into the seat, and belted in.

They were back on the Interstate within minutes. Giles had left the A/C settings unchanged from last night, so they were quickly enveloped in the comfortable cocoon that had been so soothing on the journey here. As if it had been awaiting its cue (or following some programming Giles couldn’t track), the CD player came to life, and Dean Martin’s voice floated again from the speakers.

If you find your new love isn’t what you thought it would be,
if your nights are lonely now, and you need more sympathy,
Baby, come a-running back to me,
come a-running back to me,
back to the arms that long to hold you, forever and ever …

Bound as always in shared purpose, once again enfolded in a luxurious blanket of sound and comfort, the senior Watcher and the senior Slayer set themselves for the drive ahead, and together slid down the silver highway in the misty moonlight.

 
end


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