Spoilers: Up to midway through The Gift S5 Disclaimer: Not mine although I wish they were. All I own is an overactive imagination. The ingenious invention of the Buffy-Verse belongs to Joss, Fox, ME and co.
Feedback: It's like oxygen.
Notes: Emphasis Thoughts/Memories
Thanks: So very much to Shelley with all your tremendous help and encouragement kick-starting this baby - especially with the letter. Thanks also to Koala for the beta and, of course, to you both for your friendship )
Dedication: To all of you who have encouraged me in my writing - if there's one thing I've learnt in my time writing fanfic, it's that feedback - whether positive or constructively critical - not only feeds the bunnies, it also builds confidence which in turn helps to make a better writer. So thank you for helping me to improve!
Balancing precariously on unstable scaffolding, two sisters clutched each other tightly, their wide eyes staring at the shimmering drop of light hovering in the air beneath them. Each was horrifyingly enthralled by the gradual transformation of the glowing bead as it morphed into a pool of unearthly light, growing in size and intensity. Distant sounds of the battle still being fought below drifted up to their ears and yet, it wasn't until a bolt of lightning rent the sky in two that they reacted to the rest of their surroundings, jumping a foot backward along the narrow platform. They held each other in shocked silence for long moments before either of them dared to speak.
It was Dawn who spoke up softly, tears pooling in her big blue eyes as she acknowledged her part in this war. "I'm sorry."
"It doesn't matter." Buffy hastened to reassure her, but the words sounded flat and empty even as she spoke them. A single thought flitted through her mind as she silently accepted the coming Apocalypse. Nothing matters any more. A gentle shove snapped her out of her turmoil and she instinctively grabbed for Dawn's arms, effectively stopping her sister from breaking away as she had intended.
"What are you doing?"
"I... I have to jump. The energy..." The words almost choked her, but Dawn forced them past the lump in her throat, barely hearing the reply that followed.
"It'll kill you."
The tears threatened to spill over as the teenager bravely accepted the Slayer's words. "I know." She paused, gathering as much courage as possible, while her sister could only stare at her with growing horror. "Buffy, I know about the ritual. I have to stop it."
Just one firm word left the Slayer's lips in response. "No." As far as she was concerned, there was only one option available. Either no-one die, or they all would die. She refused to sacrifice her baby sister even to save humanity. No. If Dawn was going to die, then they would die together. They stumbled suddenly as the tower trembled beneath them and Dawn let out an anguished cry of insistence.
"I have to. Look at what's happening."
They were the words of a warrior, and under different circumstances, Buffy would have been proud. Now, however, they just sent a tremor of frightful anticipation rushing down her spine. Something in the teen's tone forced Buffy to look up. Amidst the blindingly bright bolts of lightning and the ever-expanding portal, the Slayer's worried eyes noticed a peculiar silhouette appear. Oh god... Fear began to wrap itself around her heart as she realised that it was the outline of a dragon. Giles was right. The walls between the dimensions really are breaking down. She was pulled from her thoughts once more as Dawn's distressed voice caught her attention.
"Buffy, you have to let me go. Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop."
At her sister's plea, Buffy felt the world drop out from underneath her and, lost for words, she could only plead with her eyes. The look brought forth the tears that Dawn had been trying to hold in and her voice ended up sounding scratchy as she attempted to persuade her sister to let her do this one thing for her... for their friends... for the world.
"You know you have to let me. It has to have the blood."
The words triggered something within her and, in a heartbeat, Buffy's expression changed from fear to wonder as memories suddenly flooded through her mind. "It's always got to be blood..." "It's Summers blood. It's just like mine." "She's me. The monks made her out of me." "Death is your gift." She frowned, turning to face the skyline where new portals were beginning to open. I know what I have to do. A curious sense of peace seemed to descend on her spirit as she slowly turned back to face her sister.
The expression tore a sob from Dawn's throat and it was her turn to stare, panic-stricken as realisation of her sister's intentions dawned upon her.
"Buffy ... no!"
In an oddly calm voice that she didn't recognise as her own, Buffy heard herself react to her sister's grief. "Dawnie, I have to..."
Again, a heart-wrenching cry of denial spilled from the teenager's lips. Buffy felt like crying herself and barely held it together as she grabbed her sister's arms and stared into her eyes. "Listen to me." The young girl sobbed and shook her head and Buffy found herself gripping Dawn's arms more tightly in her efforts to grab the other girl's attention. "Please, there's not a lot of time..."
Her words died in her throat as a movement caught her eye. Before she could react, a figure rushed at them, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. The person was clad entirely in black, and one could only just tell that beneath the clothing was a man. A cape hung slightly off his shoulders, its hood hiding its owner's face. Buffy could only assume this was the enemy, for there was nothing about the stranger that indicated otherwise. Gathering her sister more securely into her arms, the Slayer sidestepped the attacker and watched with wide eyes as the man continued running instead of turning back. Why isn't he trying to push us over the edge...? The thought died in her mind as the man carried on to the edge of the platform. For a second, Buffy imagined she'd entered an alternate universe, as he turned abruptly to face the sisters and in a bizarre twist, lifted a hand to his head before flinging it in their direction. Less than a heartbeat later, the man turned back and before either sister could blink, he leapt ungracefully off the edge and into the portal.
In the same second, a resounding crackle echoed around the vicinity, almost as if electricity had come alive. At the sound, the glow grew brighter and shouts of fear could be heard rising from below. A jagged streak of white light joined the pyrotechnics, filling the heavens for a brief moment... and then, just as suddenly, everything fell silent and still.
As the darkness began to dissipate, the Summers sisters turned to face each other in surprise. This time, it was Buffy who spoke first, clearly shocked. "What the hell just happened?"
A gentle breeze had picked up and the sun was alighting the shadows by the time Buffy and Dawn reached the foot of the tower. A gasp of surprise filled the air and before they knew what was happening, Giles' strong, masculine arms were engulfing them both and he was fighting back sobs of relief.
"Oh god... you're alive... thank god, you're alive..."
"Buffy... Dawn... what happened?" A feminine pair of arms joined the embrace as their owner's tearful voice asked the question playing on everyone's mind.
For a lingering minute the four just held each other until Dawn complained that she was suffocating. With a slight, forced laugh each drew back, just silently taking in each other's battle wounds as Tara and Xander - carrying Anya - joined them.
"Buffy? What happened up there?" Giles repeated Willow's question and the Slayer looked up at him with tired eyes.
"I... I don't know, Giles. Some... guy... rushed us..." she shook her head, "No, that's not right... he... he..."
"He jumped." Dawn supplied in a disbelieving voice.
Giles' eyes widened, his eyebrows shooting almost into his hairline. "He...? Pardon? Say that again?"
"He jumped off the tower and... into the portal. He... he closed it."
"But... who would do that? And... why? More to the point, how is this possible?"
Despite everything, Buffy could feel a genuine smile begin to form on her lips as her Watcher slipped into 'Research Mode'.
"I think I can answer that, Pet."
Buffy jumped as Spike's voice sounded behind her. As one, the small group of survivors turned with eyes full of questions toward the vampire hiding in the remainder of the shadows. After nodding silently, he pointed toward a pile of rubble, indicating the black cloak lying atop it.
"Well, okay... maybe I can't..." he shrugged, painfully, "But it looks like he left a message."
The gazes of each person present were drawn to where the gentle breeze stirred ripples in the material, revealing an envelope buried beneath the cloak. Tentatively, Buffy moved forward to the heap of bricks, only part aware that the group followed her movements, although several paces behind. It was as she was reaching forward, that the group of friends noticed birdsong had begun to fill the air again. Silently, they smiled at one another - no matter how painful it was - in response to nature's reassurance that life was returning to normal. It was only when the Slayer let loose an obviously painful, heartfelt sob and began falling to her knees, that they realised she had read the contents of the envelope.
Before they could blink, Giles was there, catching the now weeping Buffy in his arms and crushing her to his chest.
"Buffy...?" Dawn's whisper was almost lost on the breeze, but her sister heard her and turned large, tearful eyes upon her. In that instant, the teen saw the depths of Buffy's pain and let out a hiccupy sob of her own.
"No... please... no..." The words were drawn out on a ragged breath and, sinking to be level with the Slayer and Watcher, she threw her arms around them, openly crying.
"What's going on? What did I miss?"
"Shush, Xander. I don't know..." Willow turned worried eyes on her friend, before turning her concerned gaze upon the threesome huddled on the ground before her. "I really don't know. But I'm guessing that letter doesn't say, 'wish you were here.'"
A single, sobbed word, slipping from Dawn's lips, caught the ears of all who listened and caused their hearts to seize in sympathy for the girls barely being held upright.
After a brief moment of indecision, Willow reached forward, retrieving the discarded letter. In silence, she read the words set out before her in Hank Summers' neat script.
My Precious Buffy,
If you are reading this, then it means that I am finally at peace - or wherever it is that I deserve to be. More importantly, it means that I have fulfilled my so-called destiny and that I have kept you safe.
I realise that both you and Dawnie must be utterly confused by the words you see before you and I don't know if I can even explain, but I must try, for I know there is little time left.
I can't believe I just wrote that. In fact I can't fathom that I am actually writing this at all - for that suggests I believe what that man told me - which is utterly preposterous. After all, we are all going to die eventually, but still, to suggest that he could foretell your future - your death in particular - and my so-called effect on those just seems ridiculous.
What am I saying? If I thought that to be true, then I would not be writing this at all.
I'm sorry if I'm confusing you, sweetheart. It's just that I'm still so confused myself.
You see, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself having one of the worst days of my life since your mother and I separated. I almost lost my job; a truck backed into my car and to top it all off, Heather left me. I'm sure you remember her from when you last visited the office. Anyway, I ended up drowning my sorrows and got a little drunk. I know you don't want to hear that - it's just further proof of what a bad person I am - but it's an essential part of the tale. I drank far too much that night and ended up crawling the pubs and clubs of the city before ending up in the strangest bar I've ever come across. The bartender and many of the customers seemed to be in fancy dress - not that I could tell what, or who they were meant to be... especially not in my state. Honey, I'm truly ashamed to admit how drunk I was, but unfortunately, that is the whole point of this. For, I was so inebriated that I took to the small stage in that bar and sang karaoke - you can imagine how bad I was. I'm told that I sang Old Blue Eyes' "My Way"... not that it matters. It is what came next that has haunted me ever since.
The bartender came over to me - strange demon-looking costume he wore - and told me that he saw death in me. He informed me that he had read my aura as I sang - and that my time was soon coming. I think I tried to leave but he forced me to hear him out. He seemed genuinely concerned - and said something about how my decision would change not only the lives of my family, but also the heart of an angel and a witch and lastly, the future of the world. Honey, he said some bizarre things: things that, even now, I'm not sure whether to believe. But it's better to be safe than sorry - especially where my babies are concerned. Because that's what he was "reading" in my aura. That one of my children would die - possibly both - but that if I made the right decision, you would both be spared. He said that if I do not act, the consequences would affect the world as we know it and that there would be a descent into darkness like never before. I don't understand what he meant and I do not know what is meant to happen, but I know this: I will watch over you the way I should have done years ago until I discover what this purpose is.
Good grief, I sound like a looney believing in all this psychic rubbish. Then again, I cannot be certain that it is rubbish. I know that some people do see the future - and if he is one of those, then I suppose that it essential that I listen and act. If he is not... well, I don't know what I think about that... my head is too busy concentrating on protecting you.
There will be a war. I know that much. There will be a war and the heavens will be filled with light and energy - and there will be some sort of tall structure. He said that when I see you I will know what to do - that I will realise my destiny. He told me that he didn't see what I will do - just that I will have a choice and that he trusts me to make the right decision.
Part of me regrets drowning my sorrows that night, but part of me is oddly relieved. Listen to me! Anyone would think that I'm convinced that what the guy said was truth. Well, we'll see. For now, though, I am signing off, with the intention to keep this note on me at all times so that, if the time should ever come you will know why I did whatever it is that I will do. I have the feeling that I will not be alive when that time comes. But do not grieve - if that is to be the case, then know that I did it because I love you so very much. Working on that assumption, I suppose this is my final goodbye to my beautiful babies
I love you, Buffy, I love you, too, Dawn. Never, ever forget that, either of you.
Love each other and look after one another.
Lots of love,
"Oh, God," Xander whispered as he tried to tear his eyes away from the letter shaking slightly in Wilow's trembling grip. "But... how?"
Willow shook her head and leaned back against Tara for support, her knees feeling suddenly weak. "I don't know... it must have... maybe..." she shook her head again. "I don't know." She repeated with a helpless shrug.
Xander shifted Anya in his arms, wordlessly sharing a confused look with the others.
"Maybe -" Tara broke the awkward silence, but changing her mind, let her sentence fall short even before it could take form and she lowered her eyes.
The blonde looked up at the inquiring murmur and re-attempted to convey her theory. "I just..." She almost changed her mind again, but at her girlfriend's gentle nudge, finished, "I wondered if maybe... you know... it might be, uh, something to do with..."
"Blood." The Slayer supplied.
Tara nodded slightly and the three friends looked down as one at Buffy who was still nestled - together with her sister - in Giles' arms, clearly making no effort to move. She returned their gazes with wide, glistening eyes and when she spoke, her voice was as gentle as a lullaby.
"It was all about the blood." She switched her gaze to the man holding her. "I only realised it just before he -" her breath hitched as she corrected herself, "dad - did... or you know, maybe not before he got it... but before he..." she swallowed hard, and forced the word out: "Jumped."
"What did you realise?" Giles enquired softly.
"Dawn... the monks made her out of me." Buffy explained simply, feeling too weary to express herself fully. At Giles' questioning expression, she reluctantly attempted to explain. "When we were up there, Dawn said something about how 'it had to have the blood' and I just... remembered." She looked back up at the group, expecting them to understand. At their blank faces, she added, "Death is meant to be my gift, right? I didn't get that, first of all. I mean, I thought it meant that everyone I loved died... so I thought I'd have to stand by and let Dawn die. But... when I was... up there... I realised that what it really meant is that my death is my gift... to Dawn... to all of you."
"But -" Xander hesitated, aware of just how fragile the Slayer looked in that moment. A small nod encouraged him to ask his question. "I don't get it. How would your sacrifice - or your dad's - have satisfied the portal?" His forehead creased in confusion. "I thought it needed Dawn's blood."
Buffy nodded and reiterated her earlier statement. "Dawn's made out of me." At the blank looks she received, she turned back to Giles and was relieved to see comprehension dawning in the depths of his eyes. "Me... my blood... Dad's blood... Summers' blood." She returned her gaze to her friends, realising for the first time that they were almost as exhausted as she was.
"Look, can we talk about this later? I just... it's too much to take in right now. And besides, Xand, you should get Anya to the hospital... you should go too, Tara... just to be safe." She reluctantly withdrew from the comfort of Giles' embrace and got to her feet. "Will? Think you could help us with Dawn?"
The redhead nodded and made her way to where Giles was lifting Dawn to her feet.
Buffy watched in reflective silence as the group began to disband, then turned on the spot, slowly lifting her head to look at the tower behind her.
"Giles?" Her soft voice carried across the forecourt causing Giles to still in his movements. He did not turn, but she knew he was awaiting her next words.
"What happened to Glory?"
He could have lied. He could have told her a thousand untruths; needing to protect her from any further emotional damage - needing to protect himself and their relationship. Instead, he handed the teenager over to the wicca and deliberately swiveled to face the Slayer. Their eyes locked for a long moment and she saw the truth in his even before he answered her.
"I did what needed to be done."
With those simple, yet heavy, words, he turned back, reclaimed his burden and moved steadily back to Buffy's home while she trailed thoughtfully behind.
"With any luck, they'll be sleeping for some time."
The Englishman's voice was little more than a whisper as he spoke to the redhead beside him. She could only murmur an agreement, her heart breaking again for the sisters who had conked out the moment they hit the soft, inviting fabric of the couch, worn out from their earlier meltdown.
After surveying the two still holding one another for several long, sorrowful moments, Willow turned away, unable to watch any longer.
"Giles?" Eyes brimming with tears for her friends, she spoke in a trembling voice. "What are they gonna do?"
In silence, he wrapped an arm lightly around her shoulders and guided her into the kitchen so they could talk more freely. The second they were in there, she turned around and threw herself against him, barely containing her own sobs.
"I... I mean... I've rarely seen Buffy so, so... what's the word? She's a wreck. A-and what about Dawn? I mean... did you see her? She fell to pieces. It's not fair. First Joyce, now... this. I just don't get why he never told them. It's so unfair... you know? They don't have anyone, now. Why, Giles? Why? Why did he do it?"
"Shh, shh." Uncertain of what consolation he could offer and feeling utterly helpless, Giles could only hesitantly hold the Wiccan close to his chest and rest his chin on her crown.
"He couldn't let her jump."
His words were murmured into her hair, but Willow heard them and drew back, lifting wide, wet eyes up to his pained green ones.
"But... but surely... there... there could've been another way..."
"What else could he have done"
"I-I don't know.. but I'm sure he could have found another solution"
The Watcher's voice was sombre as he replied. "He couldn't have done anything, Willow. You know that. He couldn't have cast a spell, or stopped time, or used superpowers to stop Glory. He couldn't turn back time to stop Buffy from being called; likewise he couldn't make Dawn's skin impenetrable. He was just a man"
Giles barely heard Willow's soft concord, lost in painful memories.
"...Just a man who chose to die because he wanted to give the children he loved a chance to live. After all, he had no way of stopping what was going to happen; he possessed no unearthly power that could have protected either of them, so he did what he had to because it was the only way to save them. It doesn't matter what his life was like when he was alive. When all's been said and done, all that matters is love and how you show it. And he showed it... he proved it... he proved his love through his actions. Regardless of how much hurt Buffy may suffer right now, one day she'll realise that he was only doing what anyone else who loved her would do... he was just trying to do the right thing." As he noticed Willow's look of surprise shift into that of dawning understanding, he hastily corrected himself. "Buffy and Dawn, I mean. One day they'll realise that their father did what he thought was best"
"But couldn't he have told them what he was going to do? You know, give them just a little bit of warning"
He shook his head in reply. "You saw the letter, Willow. Even he wasn't exactly sure what was going to happen. Plus, I'm fairly certain that his jaw may have objected to that course of action"
"You know... you should be careful saying stuff like that. Anyone would think that I'm an aggressive person"
Giles turned to the doorway at the sound of Buffy's tired-but-semi-amused voice.
"Buffy... are you sure you should be up"
"Way sure." She gave him the tiniest of smiles before fixing her gaze on her best friend.
"Think could have Giles all to myself for a little while?"
"'Kay." Willow's agreement was gentle, as was the smile that accompanied it. She gave her friend a strong hug before exiting the room, leaving Watcher and Slayer silently surveying one another.
"Did you mean it? What you said just then?"
Giles lowered his gaze as Buffy's question pierced the silence. When he looked up again, his expression was guarded.
"I said a lot of things, Buffy."
She folded her arms across her chest and leant against the wall, bright eyes conveying the sincerity of her curiosity.
"Is that why you did it?" Her question was met with silence, and unexpectedly, her eyes brimmed once more with tears. With a trembling voice, she pleaded, "Tell me, please?"
"Yes." The word felt like it had been wrenched from him and he cleared his throat awkwardly, before clarifying, "It is."
"You... you... did it because... you love me?"
He swallowed hard as he recalled another moment not so long ago when he'd been force to face his feelings for this young woman.
She'd come to him, full of fears and desperate to know how to avoid an early grave after badly losing a fight. Her voice was full a note of panic at the lack of information they'd been able to find. "If there were just a few good descriptions of what took out the other Slayers, maybe it would help me to understand my mistake, to keep it from happening again."
"Yes, well..." He'd attempted to stall, all the while avoiding meeting her gaze until he finally managed to construct a sentence that wasn't too painful to get out. "The problem is that after a final battle, that, er, it's difficult to get any, er... well, the... the Slayer's not...she's rather, um..." Well, it hadn't meant to be painful, but no matter how he tried, that sentence was always going to rip through him.
She'd looked at him, full of sympathy but for all the wrong reasons; and when she spoke her voice was soft and understanding. "It's okay to use the 'D' word, Giles."
He'd wondered about changing the subject - anything to avoid having to have this excruciatingly painful conversation - but he knew he couldn't. They needed to discuss this for her sake... and for his. It was time he faced facts, instead of burying them deep beneath his feelings. "Dead. And..." he'd swallowed again - not knowing how else to react to the feeling of having his heart ripped out of his chest at the admission he was making - before adding wryly, "...hence not very forthcoming."
Full of frustration, Buffy had returned to her task of flipping through the books before her, her movements full of agitation. "Why didn't the Watchers keep fuller accounts of it? The journals just... stop."
Giles had looked away, almost unable to cope with the anguish stirring within him at the thought of the confession he was about to make. "Well, I suppose if they're anything like me, they just found the whole subject too..."
"Unseemly?" She'd waited a beat almost as if hoping he'd correct her before in response to his silence, adding, "Damn. 'Love you, but you Watchers can be such prigs sometimes."
Too late, he spoke up, completing his confession in a pained voice: "Painful, I was going to say."
She'd fallen silent then, not knowing how to handle the truth he was expressing, before deciding to deal with it in her usual fashion - ignorance. Dealing with emotional encounters never had been one of Buffy's strong points.
He snapped out of his trance, and looked down at the still hurting young woman before him, realising that he hadn't answered her question. As he took in the desperate look in her eye, he wondered if he could trust his heart to her, or if it would be trampled on again. Compassion swelling within his heart despite his cautiousness, he finally gave in to the truth and stepped toward her, clasping her shoulders gently. His voice was soft and full of tenderness as he gently enquired: "Why else would I have done it, Buffy?"
The tears broke free as she let his words wash over her, a pinprick of hope alighting her heart as she half-smiled up at him. "Really?"
He nodded gently, encouraged by the look on her face. "Really." He absently caressed her shoulders while his honest gaze pierced hers. He drew a deep breath, and bravely - or stupidly, depending on how one looked at it - added, "Don't you realise that everything I've ever done is because of you? That I've done it all without question - without hesitation - because you mean so much to me?"
For the second time that day, Buffy felt the odd sensation of the bones in her legs disintegrating and she leant into Giles' touch, hiccupping loudly as her tears threatened to consume her. His arms slid around her and she fell easily into his embrace. After a long moment of feeling surprisingly contented in Giles' arms, she pulled back and gazed up at him, her drying eyes searching his for something that even she wasn't sure of.
"I'm sorry," she eventually whispered, looking away. "I-I didn't mean to...um, cry on you... again. It's just that," she paused for a second, trying to make sense of the thoughts tumbling wildly in her head, before selecting the one that stood out the most and voicing it. "I just... I never thought it was that simple."
Intrigued, Giles raised an eyebrow and wordlessly waited for her to continue.
"I-I mean... you know... it's..." She cautiously peeped up at him again amidst her stutters and shifted slightly in his loose grip, before once again struggling to explain her odd statement. "For... um, for so long, I had sleepless nights... and... well, they were... they were all because of you. I don't mean that in a... weird way... I just, I mean, I wasn't able to sleep 'cause my brain couldn't switch off. It was always still processing our..." she hesitated, mentally fishing for other words to describe what they shared, before reluctantly giving in and speaking the one that unsettled her the most. "Relationship. I never got why you did the things you did. I guess, I should have, but... I think, after Dad left, my confidence in reading people's... um, feelings... kinda got knocked sideways."
"That's understandable, Buffy."
Giles' soft understanding was acknowledged with the slightest of nods as she continued, knowing that if she stopped, she wouldn't be brave enough to start again. "Yeah, but still... I should've known that you were different. I mean, all those times I tried to figure it - you - out, I ended up confused because I kept focusing on the fact that you were my Watcher and I was your Slayer. If I'd just remembered that we're friends, too, my brain wouldn't have felt like exploding nearly as much. 'Cause, you know, friends love and protect each other, don't they? And... when I think of it that way... the way you see it... everything becomes clearer. It all makes sense and... fits together, you know? It's just..." She returned to her original statement with the slightest of smiles, "So simple."
He smiled affectionately back at her, and when he spoke his voice was full of warmth. "We've all been there, Buffy; struggling for answers and failing to see what's right in front ot us. I understand completely."
"Yeah, but..." Buffy hesitated, swallowing hard against the sudden threat of hot tears, "Look at what Dad did. I know now more than ever just how much he loves me... and Dawn. No-one sacrifices their own life for someone else if there's no love there." The still-raw pain branded on her heart raged, and she fought to keep her voice even. "When you tried to fight the Master; when you told me about Kralick... even when you warned Spike to stay away from me... how did I not see it? I-I mean that's friendship; that's love. I should have realised what it was instead of complicating things by trying to... justify it."
"Buffy..." Giles sighed her name as she drew a ragged breath, still fighting off tears. Lifting his right hand to gently wipe away the few that had broken free, he smiled tenderly. "It's okay... really, it's fine."
"No, it's not." Her voice trembled under the strain of holding back her emotions, so she added an emphatic shake of her head to impress her point upon him.
"Yes," Giles gently insisted, "it is." He lifted his other hand to cup the left side of her face so that he could train her gaze on him. "It's important to me that you know that everything I've ever done for you was in your best interests. Not mine and certainly not the Council's. Whenever I risked my life - or my job - for you, it wasn't because you were the Slayer, or because it was what I had been taught to do... it was always, always because I cared so very much for you - and when you care about someone, you put them - their feelings, their lives - before your own. Okay?"
Meekly, Buffy nodded, oddly aware of the mix of soft and rough tones in Giles' palms. Her mind drifted for a second, and she realised that in five years of working together... of friendship, he'd never held her like this. In fact, he'd never once touched her except when teaching her a new move... and she'd never reacted to any such touch this way before. Clearing away the confusing thoughts, she attempted to return her mind to what Giles was saying.
"Buffy... whatever you imagined, whatever it was that you thought drove me to do the things I did... it doesn't matter. What matters is that we're here now; finally being honest with each other. We've moved on, Buffy, we've all grown up... yes," he added at the teasing lift of her eyebrows, "Even me. Three or four years ago... even just last year, we would never have been at a stage where we could have had this discussion. But now... the time just seems right. I feel I can talk to you about this, and I think it's because you're open to hearing it. If I'd told you all of this before, you would have..."
"Freaked out?" Buffy offered.
With a soft chuckle, Giles nodded his agreement. "Indeed. Since the day we first met people have tried to label our relationship and I believe that we've adopted so many of these labels to an extent that we've struggled to put our affection for each other in the right context... I know I have."
Buffy nodded, shuddering slightly at the friction her movement caused between her skin and his. "Me too. If Travers had never said you had fatherly feelings for me... I don't think I ever would have thought of you in a fatherly way. But then the way you reacted to some of the stuff going on in my life... like all that stuff with Riley... that wasn't they way a dad would react. At least not the way I see it. And then there was the other extreme with Snyder making all sorts of sick implications, just looking for an excuse to kick me out... not that he was the only one. I mean, several people wondered why you and I hung out so much and... well, it was too complicated to tell them the truth, so I just let them think what they liked."
Shock flashed across Giles' face, replaced quickly by something nearing understanding. "So, that's why..."
"Anyway," Buffy continued, despite the urge to laugh at his expression. "Even though I knew that we didn't and would never have that sort of a relationship, the implications were enough to make me wonder why you got jealous about Angel and why I got so insanely jealous about Olivia."
"I completely understand that confusion," Giles murmured. "Snyder hinted what he thought at every available opportunity and, although I knew his imaginings had no substance, it certainly made me ponder why I felt so strongly about your relationships and why it hurt so much that you didn't see me as a 'man'."
"Giles, I never meant..."
"It's okay." He rubbed a thumb pad reassuringly along her cheekbone. "It's in the past. It's gone: forgotten and forgiven."
She shivered again under his touch, confused at her behaviour. "Thank you." She whispered, looking away for a brief second, before fixing her gaze on his once more. "You know, all this... I can't explain it, but... I guess, I kind of feel like I can move on and close this chapter of my life. You know? It's like I've been trying to solve these mysteries for so long and it's been holding me back from so much and now... well, like I said: I can move on now. I wish it had happened some other way... that dad didn't have to d-... you know..." Her voice trailed off and she swallowed against the sensation of impending tears as she carefully avoided the pain-filled word. "Um... j-jump... but, I'm glad we had this talk. It was... um... way overdue."
He gazed tenderly back at her, his thumb reaching upward to catch an escaping tear despite himself. It took a moment to structure a sentence as he silently wondered at his behaviour and the odd reactions it was creating within him. "I agree. You know, some - uh -" He cleared his throat awkwardly, "Sometimes these things are necessary in order to shake us into being honest with ourselves. Often, when we are faced with our own mortality, we react by promising to live better lives; settling old feuds and telling those we love how we feel. I'm not attempting to trivialise the pain you're going through right now," he hurriedly amended, "I just... well... I agree. what I mean to say is: I'm glad we had this talk, too. Not that I'd ever intended on it, but... it's good that we did."
Buffy grinned up at him. "Ramble much, Giles?" She tilted her head back and bit back a giggle at the confused expression on his face. "Relax, I'm teasing."
His features eased into an affectionate smile and for a long moment they stayed that way, their smiles gradually relaxing as they watched each other; each aware of the change in their friendship, yet neither confident enough to cement it. Finally, Buffy drew a breath, and spoke into the stillness.
"Giles, I... well... thank you." Hesitantly, she moved his hand from her face and lowered it so that she could lean in toward him again. "This has been... um... one of the worst days of my life, but... you... in a weird way, you made it one of the best, too. Thank you for being the best friend I could ever ask for." She bit her lip for the briefest of seconds in indecision and, before her courage could fail her, she raised herself on her tiptoes and planted a gentle kiss on his cheek.
"Y-you're.. uh... you're... welcome." He stuttered out in surprise. As she lowered herself to stand properly before him again, he watched her with interest; believing for the first time, that through whatever stood ahead of them and despite everything that lay behind, their friendship would go from strength to strength.
Putting thought into action, Giles tentatively wrapped his arms around her small waist, drawing her into an embrace - not of comfort, but of friendship. When she was close enough, he leaned down and whispered into her ear: "You're my best friend, too."