The morning sun woke him up. They hadn't pulled the drapes in the living room, and the sun on his face felt curiously normal after yesterday's chaos and despair – as if it thought it could warm him up. Giles sat up on the couch, ran his hand through the unwashed grey on his head and got to his feet. Stairs, one by one, creaking under his feet. With one hand on her doorknob, he hesitated; turning it was the last thing he wanted to do. He tensed up as if expecting it to shock him.
Finally he snapped out of it and opened the door. Duty called.
The man who stepped in front of the class was in his mid-60s, green cardigan under his tweed jacket, grey hair going on white and sideburns that would have made him looked like a kindly old grandfather if it were not for his disfigured face. Scars criss-crossed it like a spider's web, bringing out the hardness in his eyes.
"Good morning. My name is Major Forsythe. And before you ask, yes, I got these scars in combat, and no, it was not vampire-related. My Lancaster was shot down over Hamburg. These, however..." He pulled up his cardigan, causing the class to gasp as he revealed a torso just as battered as his face, "...are vampire-related." He didn't acknowledge their reaction, just took his time to tuck the shirt and cardigan back in place before continuing. "I am here today because I am the most experienced Watcher alive. I've had three Slayers under my care. I have taken part in more battles than I care to count. I personally know some of your parents would not be alive today if it were not for me; I also know some of your parents would be alive if they had listened to me. So trust me when I say that I know what I am talking about."
He paused, looking out over the classroom. Dead silence, rapt attention.
"I am here to speak to you about the most important and difficult task you'll ever face as a Watcher."
California was never perfectly silent. Today was the quietest day this house had seen in five years, at least now that Dawn was finally asleep; there was no talking, no radio or TV blaring, it seemed even the birds were quiet. Most of the neighbourhood had gone off to work or to school. But in her room, there was the unsteady hum of the air conditioning, set to Max; nobody wanted to say it out loud, but it was summer and they all knew what happened to bodies in warm temperatures. At least this way they could spare a few hours to prepare her. It was freezing in here, but when he sat down at her bedside and put his hand out to touch her she felt colder still. He supposed that was a good thing.
He let his hand linger on her arm, tracing the weird angle it took just above the elbow. He wanted to set it, to make sure it healed right; it was something he'd helped her with before. Train her, send her into battle, fix her up when she gets back, repeat. It's what a Watcher does. Until she can't be fixed.
"Death. Is. Inevitable. You know this in your minds, but you still need to learn it. The oldest Slayer on record reached the ripe old age of 37 and spent the last three years on the run from the Council; the youngest was 13 and had been active less than half an hour. These are extreme examples, but..."
Major Forsythe turned to the blackboard, writing down numbers. 18 years, 24 days. 1 year, 143 days. He tapped the chalk against the numbers.
"This, as I'm sure you've been told, is the average life expectancy of a Slayer. A little over 18 years of age, with less than 18 months active duty. Some will survive for several years longer than that, others will perish within a week, but they WILL die. As Watchers, you cannot hope to keep this from her: she may be just a girl, but do not assume that she is stupid. If you can get her to want to fight for her life, for a few more precious weeks of it, she will be a good soldier – but she will always be a soldier and as cold as it may sound, her ultimate fate will always be one and the same. And you need to be there every step of the way to prepare her for it."
The old man put the chalk down.
"That's the easy part. The hard part concerns yourselves."
He looked at her face and tried not to think of all the different expressions he'd seen on it. All the laughter, the sadness, the fury, the silliness was gone, replaced by a look of peace so profound it almost made him forget how broken the rest of her was. He wanted to find consolation in that, not have to think about whether a skilled undertaker could have made her look good enough to put in an open coffin. It was a moot point anyway; there would be no undertaker, no parading mourners, no ceremonies... nor any consolation, he supposed.
He stood up and stretched, feeling numb. Funny, he had expected his back to hurt more. The gash in his side where the knight's spear had pierced him hurt like hell, he'd torn a couple of stitches carrying her the four miles back to the house; but his back, which had been troubling him for a few weeks even before all of this, hadn't acted up for a second. It struck him now that it was the first time he had had to do that; no matter how badly hurt she'd been, she had always made it back by herself before. She was always so strong, how could she have been so small that it felt like carrying a child? Somehow it felt impossible; at his age, he shouldn't have been that strong. He shouldn't have been able to do it.
As he opened the closet, he almost regretted that he hadn't let Willow do this. Reliable, unbreakable Willow; she had been frantic for something to do until Tara had come up with the idea of sending her to LA. He supposed she was still in shock and he wasn't sure she should really be driving, but she needed something she could do, something she could fix. And besides, by all rights this was his job.
There were so many shoes and dresses, most of them still in the boxes they had wound up in when she gave up the student life and moved back home to take care of Joyce. There were even some with price tags still on them, bought for back-to-school money and never used.
For a while, he toyed with the idea of pink. Somehow he had always thought of her as pink; he wasn't quite sure if she wore it more often than any other colour, it just... seemed that way. (He should have paid better attention, taken his eyes off his bloody books...) Eventually, though, he succumbed to tradition and settled for the somber, black dress she had bought for Joyce's funeral but then dismissed as too impractical. He smoothed it out and hung it on the closet door.
"You are responsible for your Slayer's life, and thus for her death. When she dies, it is likely to be... should be because of a decision you make. Perhaps you will have made a mistake, but even if you do everything right – in fact, especially if you do everything right – you will sooner or later find yourself in a position when her death becomes unavoidable."
Major Forsythe looked intently at the class of Watchers-to-be, somehow managing to make it seem like he was meeting the gaze of everyone in the room at the same time.
"Make no mistake. Your duty is not to keep her alive; it is to fight a war. If your Slayer survives you, you have failed. If your Slayer retires, you have failed. If your Slayer ends up paralyzed from the neck down and living out her life in a hospital bed, you have failed. Only when one Slayer dies is the next one chosen."
He started undressing her, carefully; he didn't want to bend her arms or legs the wrong way. But it was impossible. The blood had dried and stuck to her skin, making the white shirt too stiff to work around the broken bones. He had to cut her loose.
Only when he put the scissors down and stripped the shreds of clothing from her body did it hit him that she was now naked. Obviously, it's a natural consequence of undressing someone, but somehow he hadn't thought that far. Her nakedness had never been something he had thought about, except for the occasional moments spent "wigging out" about just how close she and Angel, or she and Riley, were getting. Seeing it now almost broke him; the grief, the unfairness, the sheer fucking impossibility of it hit him like a shot to the gut and he had to struggle not to... cry? Scream? Laugh? Vomit? He wasn't sure what would happen, just clenched his teeth so he wouldn't find out. It wasn't just the hard physical evidence of how young she had still been, or how thin she had become over the last few horrible months since her mother's death; no, what horrified him was how wrong he had been just a few minutes ago. Yes, there were broken bones. Yes, there was blood. But not nearly as much as he had thought, considering. She was still almost... beautiful. Broken, but not shattered, as if the Slayer's strength remained even in death. As if it had always been there and now it was the only thing left, as if everything he had done as her Watcher, all his preparations, all his theories, everything he had put her through, all the sacrifices he'd had her make... pointless.
He quickly pulled a blanket over her and stumbled across the hall to the bathroom, splashing cold water in his face to stop the bile from rising. For several minutes he sat on the toilet seat, waiting for his hands to stop shaking. When they did, he filled a bucket with warm water and liquid soap, grabbed a sponge from the bathtub and returned to her room.
The major sat down on the desk, grimacing briefly as his hip settled against the hard wood. "Those old fogies in the Council elite will have told you never to get emotionally attached to your Slayer, correct?" He clearly didn't expect an answer, and no one dared even break a smile at the fact that most of their teachers were a good 10-15 years younger than the old bomber pilot. "They will have told you that it makes you incapable of rational decisions, that it puts you and the Council at risk, that it's simply not The Proper Thing To Do. Those are all good reasons. They are reasons that have been preached by the leaders of the Council for centuries. But I have earned the right to say whatever the hell I please, and I am here to tell you that this is complete and utter bollocks."
There were surprised murmurs among the students. The old man continued.
Dip sponge in bucket, squeeze water out of sponge, apply sponge to her naked skin, rub gently until it was clean, repeat. Don't think about what you could have done, don't think about what you didn't do, don't think about what you did do, repeat. The blood and dirt ran off her and stained the bedspread; he moved a stuffed pig out of the way of the spreading grime (toys, she still slept with TOYS) and kept washing her. It was bad enough that she was going to sleep IN dirt from now on; he'd be damned if he would let any of it touch her. The muck stuck to his hands, got under his fingernails (dip sponge, squeeze sponge) but when he was finished she was clean. Pale, white as snow apart from the few wounds. Not pink. White.
Her limbs had stiffened and he could barely move them to get the dress on. He took a deep breath and forced them to bend, ignoring the sickening noise as her dead muscles stretched and bones ground against each other.
She had always been so much stronger than she should have had to be.
He could put her through one more beating. She could take it.
"Trust me, lads: I am the only one in your entire training who will tell you this, because there are too many people here who owe me their life to shut me up – as much as they wish that they could. The hard part isn't to disconnect yourself from humanity, but to do the job without doing so. Your duty is to take care of her, to support her, to fight for her, even love her... and send her to her death."
The major picked up a folder and pulled out a black and white photograph of a blonde in her late teens which he held up to the class. "This is Jennifer. She had been under my guidance for a year when she took on a nest of vampires. She staked four before the remaining two killed her." Another picture. "This is Katinka. I smuggled her out of the Soviet Union to be trained. She died in cruciamentum." A third, and his hand shook visibly as he held it up. "This is Charlotte. She was 15 when she was called. We worked together for three and a half years before she was captured and turned by a vampire in Liverpool four years ago. I staked her myself – you've seen the scars. It was my last action as an active Watcher."
He looked at the picture himself, and for well over a minute the room was silent as the old man seemed to forget they were all there.
As he brushed her hair, willing his hands steady, Giles thought about what Tara told him before they left the Magic Box.
"You're a killer."
He hadn't spoken to Tara since... since. He didn't know if she remembered it, and he didn't think he wanted to know. After all, the Council had given him his job back, just before telling him about the person he would end up killing. Reinstating him as a Watcher just in time to have his Slayer killed in battle.
And yet he'd worked with... for... because of her for years after they fired him. Because he couldn't bear not to. He had built his entire life around her, to the point where he found himself thinking he was doing her job for her. (Ben gasping against the palm of his hand, twitching, dying...) That should have been it. But meanwhile she was up there, so high above, doing what she had to do. What even all his training, all his preparations, all his efforts couldn't help her with. In the end, she did it on her own.
"There's..." The major seemed to shake out of his reverie. "There's hardly a day goes by when I don't wish I could have done more for them. Helped them. Saved them. But our duty is not to save individuals; it is to save the world. I flew 23 missions over German cities, and it's quite likely that I've killed more women and children than most vampires ever will – but there are some things we must do, simply because the alternative is worse. This is the way women and men have behaved since the beginning, it's ugly and nothing we can do will change it. All we can do, all we must do, is see to it that we remain men, not ..." He glanced at the picture again as he put it back in the folder, his voice shaking slightly. "...Not stuffy, heartless ol' toffs. If we become machines killing without remorse, we become monsters ourselves, and then it's all pointless. If you do not think you can take this, you do not belong in this room. I am quite sure the Council can find some use for you; they always seem to need paper-pushers or cold-blooded killers. But I hope at least some of you have it in you. Class dismissed."
The old man left without asking if anyone had any questions.
In the third row, Ripper stifled a yawn. Sentimental old stuck-in-the-mud geezer.
And then it was over. He put the brush down and looked at her, making himself remember what she looked like before even her body was gone forever, blinking only when his vision blurred.
Outside the window, he heard laughter, children returning from school. At first he didn't understand how that could be; surely it couldn't be this late in the day already? But his watch said that it was. The world was moving on.
The world didn't end because she died.
Because she died, the world didn't end.
But in her room, it was still cold. Giles knew he should get up, that there was nothing more he could do. But his legs refused to move. He couldn't do this. He couldn't put a Slayer in the ground.
He sat there for a long time, looking at her, tracing the lines on her face, the curve of her lip (the way she would laugh), the little kink in her nose (the way she would frown), the shape of her eyes (the look she'd give him when he got too watcher-y) until he couldn't see the Slayer behind them.
Until he wasn't a Watcher anymore.
Until he was just Giles and she was just Buffy.
Happy 10th anniversary, BtVS!