Summary: Giles receives an unexpected visit from a member of Buffy's family. Fifth story in the "Unicorn and The Slayer" universe.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.
Rating: PG-13, for themes.
Time Frame: Alternate timeline, about eight months after Buffy's graduation from high school, and not long after the events in my prior story "Diplomatic Measures."
Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.
Dedication: To Jen, on the occasion of her birthday, with apologies for the delay.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
I leaned back in my chair and consciously tried to relax. Faith's encounter with Spike had been inconclusive, though she had a few close moments by her own admission before our old foe departed in haste. Angel's sources indicated that Spike was searching for something, though no one seemed to know precisely what. I shook my head, resolving to search the archives for more clues as to what he could be seeking: as Angel once observed, Spike is very dangerous, largely due to his tenaciousness. Faith was quite piqued at her inability to Slay him, and I resolved to use the opportunity to teach her some techniques that she had previously been disinclined to spend time working on.
There was a knock at the door, and I turned to look at it with mild surprise: most of my visitors-desired or not-didn't bother with such niceties. I got up and walked over to the door, pulling it open and revealing a tall, gaunt man in an earth-toned business suit. He met my curious gaze with his quiet hazel eyes and spoke quietly: "Mr. Giles, I was hoping that I could have a few moments of your time. My name is Benedict, and I am-"
"Master of Arms of the House of Amber, commanding general of its armed forces, and the eldest surviving child of Oberon, the late King of Amber." I concealed an amused smile as Benedict absorbed his thumbnail biography with only a flicker of reaction, after which I added, "I would never have consented to having anyone else take over Buffy's training without knowing about his or her qualifications, and Bleys was quite willing to be forthcoming; also, your Trump is an excellent likeness." I stepped away from the doorway and gestured for him to come in, certain that he was aware of the unique risks that made a verbal invitation to enter a very bad idea, even after the closing of the Hellmouth.
Benedict inclined his head and entered, then settled into the chair that I offered to him. I sat across from him, and a few moments of silence followed before I asked quietly, "To what do I owe the honor of this visit, Prince Benedict?"
Benedict frowned slightly, then replied, "Just Benedict will do, Mr. Giles. . .being called 'Prince' tends to remind me of the more difficult times within the family. . .the men under my command address me as 'General', but I'm not here on a recruiting mission." His mouth curled a bit at the corners, and I chuckled at his remark before he continued, "I was hoping to discuss Buffy's training with you, if you wouldn't mind."
My eyes widened in surprise, and I responded, "Certainly. . .I had assumed that you wouldn't need such assistance, since you would be training her in techniques that I am unfamiliar with, and Buffy is certainly capable of communicating the specifics of the areas that we covered before her departure." I paused, then added, "And my name is Rupert, Benedict."
I saw Benedict smile slightly, acknowledging the return courtesy, and he was silent for a long moment before meeting my gaze and beginning, "Buffy has been a remarkable pupil, Rupert. She has already surpassed the martial skills that I was able to pass on to her aunts, save only Deirdre, and in the area of defensive fighting I would dare say Buffy has surpassed Deirdre as well. She lacks the physical strength of most of her uncles, but in the areas of agility and level-headedness in a difficult fight she compares favorably with the progress of Bleys, Eric, and Corwin at the same age. Random recently sent her on a mission for the Crown, and she performed admirably, disabling her opponent without killing her and thereby preventing a diplomatic incident that would have proved troublesome." Benedict looked over at me and smiled ruefully as he added, "I didn't teach her the move she used to finish her opponent, either: you did."
I blinked in surprise, and searched my memories of training Buffy for a moment before realizing what Benedict was referring to. I raised an eyebrow, then commented, "I spent perhaps five minutes teaching her that move. . .well over two years ago, and never referred to it again, and I'm fairly certain that she never had to use it in the course of her duties here. . .remarkable."
"The mark of a gifted student. . .and a skilled instructor." Benedict's voice was quiet and matter-of-fact, and I took a moment to keep from blushing: it's one thing to believe that one has done his best for a student, but it's quite another to be told by someone who is by definition the best in that particular field that one has done his best. Benedict nodded his head respectfully, then continued, "She is making good progress in other areas, as well. Bleys has taught her the art of Trump drawing, and Fiona has told me that she has mastered rudimentary sorcerous skills as well." Benedict shook his head, then concluded, "In other words, she has a broad base of talents. . .much like her father."
I frowned momentarily, and Benedict raised an eyebrow, remarking, "You seem less than pleased with that comparison, Rupert."
Annoyed at myself, I shook my head and replied, "It's an old reaction, from before we ever met Bleys. . .I suppose I still resent Hank Summers on Buffy's behalf, even if she has chosen to forgive him for neglecting her over the years. Bleys is a remarkable individual, quite broad-based in his talents, I gather. Of course, I had no way of knowing just how broad Buffy's talents were until Bleys arrived here."
Benedict nodded, then continued, "I've come to you because you've obviously managed to establish a smoothly working training relationship with Buffy, in a way that I have as of yet been unable to do. I perceive that she is holding back somewhat, for no reason that I have been able to discern. She is clearly very intelligent, but she never challenges what she is being taught, which is very different from my experience in training my siblings." He frowned, then concluded, "I'm concerned that my perspective on things is simply too different from hers to be able to reach her on the levels I need to if she is to have the best chance for thriving in her new situation. I was hoping you might have the missing piece of the puzzle."
I nodded, and thought for a moment before replying, "I'm sure you've considered the most obvious consideration: Buffy's situation has rather abruptly changed from that of having a life expectancy likely to be measured in weeks or months to that of someone who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal barring accident or violence, and the latter being rather less likely than before. Obviously, neither of us can really fully identify with that-for completely different reasons-but it has to have had a profound impact on her."
Benedict nodded again, and I moved on: "That is a foundation for what I believe is the more substantial factor, Benedict. Buffy is no longer the Slayer: she no longer has to fear that a moment's lapse on her part might doom all she cares about to death, or worse. She still wishes to make their lives better, of course, but she can do what she can to help without feeling that she has to succeed, right then and every time." Benedict frowned, and I continued, "At the same time, she realizes that she has entered into an entirely new state of existence, where things that she does can have a far wider impact than she ever could have imagined, even when she was saving her world on an alarmingly regular basis. Where she was once the center of her universe, she finds herself surrounded by a new family with centuries of experience and talents that match or exceed her own. Buffy is a remarkable young woman, but that is all a great deal to adjust to, even for her." I blinked, and looked at Benedict quietly for a moment before concluding, "She challenged me because she was confident that she was right, and quite often she was correct. With you, she lacks that confidence, and without it she will not challenge you, even where she may be right."
Benedict studied me for a moment before nodding and replying, "You have confirmed that my concerns are not baseless, Rupert. If you were in my place, what would you do?"
I paused for a moment before answering: that question, coming from this individual, was not to be taken lightly, and that would have been the case even if Buffy's well-being was not the subject at hand. Benedict waited patiently, and I coughed a bit self-consciously before responding, "Giving her important responsibilities has been a good start, I would say. While not being responsible for the preservation of all existence has unquestionably been a relief to her, she needs to believe that what she does matters, even if it is on a less perilous scale, at least for now. I would not presume to advise you or the King on what to entrust her with, but if you continue to give her important matters to deal with that are appropriate to her gifts, I predict that you will be pleased with the results with regard to both the tasks and to her level of confidence."
Benedict's mouth curled slightly with a smile, and I took that as a cue to continue: "As for independent thinking. . .I suspect that will take care of itself, particularly if you keep challenging her limits. I've spoken to her enough recently to know the great respect she has for you, but I noticed that her wording occasionally drifted into areas that I recognized from past times when she was expressing her annoyance with certain of my training methods and personality traits."
Benedict raised an eyebrow and asked, "Really? Such as what?"
I smiled mysteriously and replied, "I wouldn't dream of sparing you the pleasure of finding out for yourself, General."
Benedict glared at me for a moment, and I shivered inwardly until the Amberite blinked, then nodded again and commented, "You have a point there. . .and my methods will ultimately have to differ some from yours in this area, I would deem." He stood and looked at me silently for a moment before adding, "Thank you for your counsel, Rupert. There was one other matter that I wished to address with you, if you have the time to spare this evening."
I felt a tingle of curiosity, and I'm sure it was quite visible on my face as I replied, "Certainly. . .what is it?"
Benedict looked appraisingly at me, then responded, "Buffy was good enough to loan me one of her Trumps in order to get here, which saved me a great deal of time, and presents an opportunity. Would you consent to fence with me back at my training center at Castle Amber? Once we are finished, you could use the Trump to come back here, in time to get a good night's sleep."
I stared at Benedict for several seconds before regaining the ability to speak: whatever I had expected him to request, that certainly wasn't it. At length, I nodded and replied, "Of course, Benedict, but you have to know that I'm not remotely close to your caliber with a blade, or any other weapon for that matter."
Benedict nodded, not insulting me or himself with condescension, and stated simply: "There is something that I wish to learn for which that is not a relevant consideration." He looked at me and concluded, "You will probably wish to change into more appropriate clothing. I will await you here." Benedict walked over to one of my bookcases and extracted a volume about the fighting techniques of a long-extinct breed of warrior demons, then settled into a chair to await my return. With no small amount of trepidation, I retired upstairs to change and gather myself for what was to come.
* * * * *
Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes, and I shook my head to remove it, only to have more follow. I risked using my free hand to do the job more thoroughly, and was hard-pressed to defend myself against the series of attacks that Benedict directed at me. Unsurprisingly, he showed no signs of physical exertion whatsoever, though his attention was clearly completely focused on his opponent.
Benedict had been a most gracious host, patiently taking the time to show me some of the more interesting sights in Castle Amber before leading me up to the training center. Though the facilities were a bit more primitive than one would find back home-due to local technological restrictions-the selection of masterwork weapons displayed on the walls would have any antiquities expert he had ever met salivating with envy. Benedict had offered me choice of weapons, and I had chosen the saber, which I had won top honors with at Oxford two years running some time ago * Might as well make the best showing I can *
The experience had been remarkable. Benedict had let me start the attack, then slowly but inexorably stepped up the pressure. I knew from my conversations with Bleys that Benedict was stronger than Buffy, and faster, but he did not use the strength advantage, and I did not catch him using superhuman reflexes, either. He simply parried all my attacks with a skill that a dozen lifetimes would seem inadequate to perfect, and responded with remarkably precise attacks that stopped millimeters short of my skin on the all-too frequent occasions that I failed to anticipate them. The simple workout outfit that Benedict had provided was rent in several places where the dancing blade had evaded a parry; still, I took no small amount of pride in having blocked the attacks that I had.
The attacks continued to escalate, and I gave up trying to watch anything but the cool hazel eyes. I couldn't contend with his speed and experience, but I could least try to anticipate him, though he had to be as accomplished in concealing his intent as with the rest of his repertoire. If this too proved futile, I had resolved to stop.
To my surprise, this technique proved rather effective, and I was succeeding in more parries even as Benedict stepped up his attack. This went on for what seemed like hours, and I abruptly realized that I was doing better than I ever had with a blade in my life, even as I felt that my lungs would burst into flame and my heart would explode in my chest. The room swam before me, and I was about to choke out a request to cease when I realized that Benedict had withdrawn, and was watching me with concern. I stopped as well, and began breathing heavily, my hands resting on my knees. Benedict walked over and led me to a nearby bench, asking quietly, "Are you going to be all right, Rupert?"
I gasped, then managed to nod, waiting a few more seconds before managing to reply, "It's been too long since I've had a real workout like this. . .I've had Faith training with Angel, to give her a relatively equal opponent, and I've limited my involvement to demonstrating a few moves unfamiliar to her." I paused a few more seconds to let the oxygen back into my system, then turned to Benedict and added, "Thank you. . .that was quite remarkable. You sensed the prior limits of my abilities, and managed to coax me past them: I never fenced that well even when I was twenty, much less recently." I frowned, then asked, "Did you find out what you were seeking to learn?"
Benedict smiled, and replied laconically, "Yes." He stood and offered his hand, and I stood and shook it firmly as he commented, "I would recommend that you train with Faith more, Rupert. . .there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to train back to this level consistently, as long as you don't exert yourself overly. If you wish to return at some future time for another session, I'm sure it can be arranged. . .perhaps Gérard can be coaxed to give you some instruction in some unarmed techniques that he has mastered that I have not."
I was overwhelmed, and managed to reply, "Thank you. . .I'd be honored," though from what Buffy had told me about her training sessions with Gérard caused me to shiver inwardly.
Benedict inclined his head, then commented, "At the risk of being a bad host, I must take my leave of you now, Rupert. . .I have other matters to attend to." He reached out and handed me a Trump that depicted the front porch of the Summers house, which I accepted and slipped into a front pocket, then extended his hand, which I shook firmly. He smiled slightly and concluded, "Thank you for your assistance."
I nodded and replied, "And to you for yours." Benedict nodded, then quietly left the room. I changed back into my street clothes, and was preparing to use the Trump when a very familiar voice drifted over from behind me, "So, this is how you've been spending your time lately."
I turned and saw Buffy, dressed in a red and gold gown much like the one depicted on her Trump. She walked over and raised an eyebrow, commenting, "I'm not hugging you. . .you're all sweaty. Did Benedict nick you up at all?"
I shook my head, commenting, "I was as safe as I would be in bed as far as that went. . .his precision is remarkable. Still, it was a rather tiring experience." I raised an eyebrow, then asked, "You didn't have anything to do with this invitation, did you?"
Buffy shrugged, then replied, "Only as far as he wouldn't know who you are if I wasn't here; otherwise, it was all his idea. What did you talk about, anyway?"
I smiled mysteriously and responded, "Oh, just about the finer points of training with a gifted-if rather difficult-student." Buffy scowled at me, then grinned as she saw the glint of humor in my eyes. I sighed, then added, "I am rather fatigued, Buffy. . .perhaps we should continue this conversation at a later time, after I have gotten a good night's sleep."
Buffy studied me for a moment, then replied, "Let's take a detour to the kitchen first. . .they've got a lot of the good stuff there, and you look like you could use a nice meal after that workout." She beckoned to me and headed for the door, concluding, "Come on. . .can't be sending my Watcher back on an empty stomach."
I raised an eyebrow and replied, "I suppose I can't refuse a royal command, can I?" Buffy snorted, but her eyes smiled as she led me out, and I took one last look at the remarkable collection of weapons before following her out.
Closing Comment: For some additional context to this particular story, it might be helpful to review Chapter Two of "The Unicorn and The Slayer":
As before, comments are welcome and desired.