"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
"Buffy, on your left!"
The Slayer spun on her toes at Willow's shout and instantly spotted her prey. "Got it!"
In a quick move that Giles would probably cite as an abuse of her Slayer agility, Buffy ducked around a soccer mom, jumped over a kneeling pre-teen and dove towards the bathing suit rack. She reached out with her fingertips and neatly snagged the teal two-piece she'd been after all morning right from under the nose of a surprised thirty-something woman who never would have fit into it anyway. Buffy turned away with her prize and smiled brightly at Willow, waving the swimsuit over her head.
Her friend clapped enthusiastically. They'd learned to take their girly shopping moments when they could get them, and this swimsuit was cute enough for serious celebration. Buffy dropped the suit into their nearly-full shopping cart and pushed her way through the throng around the summer wear.
Willow fingered a light sun dress as she pulled it out from the depths of the cart and refolded it. "I can't believe you got Giles' credit card! This is like—this is like getting the keys to the national treasury!"
Buffy gave her friend an indulgent smile; Willow's enthusiasm was catching, even after the hundredth time hearing it. "I don't think he gets paid that much, Will. Kinda unemployed for a year, remember?"
Willow waved her off in favor of pulling a well-folded piece of notebook paper from her pocket. Buffy let her off the hook and refolded a pair of jeans. "What else is on the list?"
Willow whipped out a small purple pen. "New sweatshirt and pants for the plane ride?"
Buffy rummaged around until she found the items in question near the bottom of the cart. "Right here."
Her best friend neatly crossed the items off her list and continued. "Jeans?"
"Adorable teal top to go with the jeans for your Wednesday outfit?"
"Brown skirt and white top for impressing the stuffy Watchers on Thursday?"
"Double check," Buffy confirmed after extracting the skirt, refolding it and placing it on top of the pile.
Willow gave a satisfied nod. "And we got Friday morning and your two spare outfits covered…oh! Cute Giles-appropriate dress for the big dinner on Friday night?"
"Check," Buffy confirmed. It had a back on it and everything—it was totally stodgy enough for a Watcher party.
"Good," Willow bubbled. "So all we need now are those sunglasses with the sequins and--"
"Wait!" Buffy cried. "Shoes! I have absolutely no good shoes to go with the dress!"
Her friend's brow furrowed. "What about those ones you wore to--"
"Willow, those are black!"
The witch smacked herself on the forehead. "Right! OK, don't panic." She looked across the crowded store, thinking hard. Buffy wondered, not for the first time, if Willow would end up as a military strategist if they all survived the Hellmouth long enough to get real jobs. The redhead nodded in a determined way. "OK. You get the shoes, and I'll go get the sunglasses. I'll take the cart and get in line, and you can meet me there."
Buffy raised an amused eyebrow. "Who made you commando-Will?"
Willow pointed a stern finger at her friend. "Hey, you're the one who decided to go off to England with the stuffy Watcher! You have to take responsibility for your choices and accept the repercussions of vacationing. Especially since you're not bringing your bestest friend in the whole wide world," and here she gave a definite pout, "even when she volunteered to curl up in your suitcase."
Buffy gave in; she owed Will a whole ton of nice before she left. "I'll get the shoes," she conceded. "But I am so telling Giles that you called him stuffy!" She headed off through the crowded store.
It took the Slayer nearly fifteen minutes to find an appropriate pair of shoes in her size, finally deciding on some nice wood-bottomed sandals that were cheap enough that they assuaged her guilt a little over how much of Giles' money she'd spent today. She was so distracted with double-checking the price tag on the left shoe that she didn't notice there was someone standing behind her until it was too late. Buffy ran right into the solid form. A second later, she realized who it was and closed her eyes with a wince. "Riley."
The Slayer took a deep breath and turned around, dread settling in her stomach even as she tried to fake a smile. His expression was just as sincere and happy to see her as it always was.
Because everything she'd told Giles about her and Riley being over was true.
She just hadn't told Riley that yet.
The satchel was sitting, apparently abandoned, right next to Harold Johnson's regular booth at the pub. The postman looked at it for a second before craning his neck around to see if it belonged to anyone. No one had taken his table once in the fifteen years he'd frequented this place. But there were no mugs on the table; not even coaster rings. He raised his voice above the neighborhood chatter and called over to the barkeep, "Bert! This ol' sack come in with someone?"
The old barkeep hobbled over. "Some bloke left if for yeh. Got a note on it. I'll get yeh your pint."
Harold scratched his head under his blue cap and sat in his seat, putting the satchel on the table before him. It was a pretty thing, and to someone that had never seen anything older than his grandmother, it had the feeling of richness to it. He let his fingertips trace over the weird pictures in the soft leather. He didn't once think of opening it. He'd learned a long time ago that a good postman kept his job by keepin' himself from being curious.
Something attached to the front clasp caught his eye. Sure enough, there was a little card, made out of the same stiff paper that the fancy notes in the store were. His name was written on it, all neat-like, in the loopy hand that they'd always tried to teach him back in school. Underneath his name was just the one sentence. "Please deliver to Arianna Ryans, 14, Winslow Lane, Bath." Inside the little folded note was a tenner. He whistled softly as he took it out.
Harold scratched his head again. He knew the place, alright. It was on his normal route.
Bert the barkeep came over himself with Harold's pint, plunking it down on the old wood table. "What's it say?"
Harold tilted it for the other man to read. Bert squinted at it for a second as he read, and then gave a dry chortle. "Well, some idjit didn't want to spend a quid on the post, so he gave it straight to the postman, eh? Who's this Ryans?"
The postman took a gulp of his beer. "Ah, she's a nice lady. Real classy, lives by herself with a honkin' big dog. She's always sendin' away for big books, and those real smart magazines. Guess she likes antique whats-its, too. "
Bert gave an arthritic shrug. "Well, best deliver it, eh? Seems like a decent gent would make it worth your while?"
Harold waved the tenner at him with a grin, but he looked at the satchel again with unease. "Still, seems off the rocker a touch, don't it? Why not just send it 'imself, if he's already here? What'd the bloke look like, who dropped it?"
Bert paused a second, his eyes clouding over. "Yeh know, I don't rightly remember. He looked rich, I remember that much. And I think he said somethin' about him needin' a service, or something 'long those lines...and he must've said to give it to yeh, because I put it right at your seat...but I can't recall what words he used, 'xactly." He shook his head, as if ridding himself of a pesky fly. "Ah well. Me old brain ain't as sharp as it used to be!"
He started back towards the bar and gave another dry laugh. "Eh, don't go worryin' yourself. There's a whole class o' smart folk out there who think they don't need nothin' but a couple quid to make the world spin any way they choose. The likes of us do best to just take the dough and let em worry about their own troubles. We got troubles enough on our own."
Harold nodded thoughtfully and looked at the strange satchel again, once again noticing the richness and glossiness of the leather. Then he thought of his wife at home,six months pregnant, and the new cradle he needed to buy, and the diapers they'd be needin' before too much longer.
He pocketed the tenner. Bert was right; best to deliver the thing and deal with his own troubles. He drank the rest of his beer in peace, his mind moved on to other, more important matters. He took the satchel with him as he left, surprised at how heavy it was.
In the shadows by the door, a man watched him leave. "Amazing what a tenner will buy," he muttered to himself.
No one heard him, mostly because no one could tell he was there.
Buffy was pretty sure her face was going to freeze from the smile she was forcing into the long, awkward silence she and Riley found themselves in on the way to the checkout line. Their fight from the other night hovered between them, like the big black storm clouds in the cartoons. He was holding a dress shirt over one arm, which was apparently all he needed to buy.
Buffy was desperately trying to think of a way to get rid of him before he saw the huge cart-full of clothes she was about to buy. With Giles' credit card.
He broke the silence first by clearing his throat nervously. "So, new shoes?"
She blew out a breath. "Um...yeah. And a bunch of other stuff." She realized that she could only stall so long. "Look, Riley...I'm gonna be gone for a couple days next month."
He blinked at her uncomprehendingly. "Gone? Where?"
She winced internally. "...England?"
"Woah." He shook his head once. "Does Giles know about this?" Then he shook his head again. "It's England, of course Giles knows."
"Yeah," Buffy said in what she thought was a pretty good casual voice. "Actually, he's coming too."
Riley stopped in the middle of the aisle; the woman behind him had to swerve her cart to avoid hitting him. For once, he didn't seem inclined to apologize. "Giles is going? Wow." He started walking again. "Seems like kind of a long way to go just for some training, doesn't it?"
Buffy thought about telling him that they were actually just going for Giles' class reunion, but then thought better of it. If Riley thought England was too far for training... "Uh...yeah! But you know Giles, with all that new determination to make me the bestest Slayer I can be and everything." She bit her bottom lip and looked up at him as they rounded one last corner and reached the front of the store. She had to talk a little louder to be heard over the chaos around them. "But maybe this is a good thing! It'll give us some time to--"
"What?" Riley shouted back. He obviously couldn't hear everything she was saying over the crowd around them. "Are you sure training is good for you right now? You've been focusing on it a lot lately!"
Buffy's Slayer hearing ensured that she could understand him. She felt a little pang of anger; this was their fight from the other night all over again. She heaved a sigh. "It's only for a couple days! Maybe we can think about some things while I'm gone! About us!" She spotted Willow in line five, only two people away from the counter. She caught the redhead's eye and waved, starting to make her way over.
"I won't make a fuss! But I don't think you leaving is a good idea!" Riley replied, following at her heels. It took Buffy a second to realize that he hadn't heard the whole sentence again. "But thanks for asking my opinion!"
It was like she was speaking Latin or something. They reached Willow, and Buffy decided to exercise the better part of valor; she chickened out and stopped talking.
Riley smiled at Willow in greeting before looking back down at Buffy. He spoke softer this time, and Buffy realized they should have just done that before, because it was much easier to hear him as he said, "Look, I'm sorry about the other night, OK? And if this training thing is what you need to do, then I'm behind you all the way. I just want what's best for you. I'll hang around here and try to survive without you for a couple days while you go do the better Slayer thing."
He was so sincere, looking at her with his honest eyes and gentle expression, that for a moment Buffy just wanted to kiss him and let everything be better again.
But something inside her said that it would only be a patch, a quick fix until this just came up again. And as much as she didn't want to admit it to herself, in her heart, Buffy knew that it was true.
She just couldn't tell him that. Not yet. Not here.
Buffy made a silent deal with herself. I'll tell him when we get back. I promise. And maybe it'll all seem OK by then.
She knew, even as she tried to convince herself, that she was just putting off the inevitable.
For now, she was alright with that. With a look at Willow, who was watching them oddly, she stepped forward and started loading items onto the conveyor belt.
If Riley noticed that she never answered him, he didn't bring it up.
Buffy took a deep breath and pushed the thoughts of her mind. She was going to need all her brain power as it was to explain to Giles why his credit bill tripled this month. Despite the uneasy presence of Riley beside her, she couldn't help but smile. She was going to England!
Buffy had never needed a vacation more in her life. She needed to get away: from Dawn's annoying attention stunts, from the routine patrols, from Riley, from the mess that was her life in Sunnydale.
Willow saw the expression on her friend's face as they loaded the bags of freshly-bought items back into their cart. "Buffy? What is it?"
"Nothing," the Slayer said with a shake of her head. She spoke low enough so Riley couldn't hear her. "I just can't wait to be a normal person for a couple of days."
"Four whole days with no undead badness!" Willow agreed excitedly. "You so deserve a vacation!"
They exited into the bright summer air of the parking lot as the Wiccan grinned. "So, can I be there when you show all this to Giles?"
Two thousand miles away, Harold Johnson delivered an old satchel to 14, Winslow Lane, Bath. Unbeknownst to her, Buffy's vacation had just become anything but normal.
Author's Note: I know that it's taken me half of forever to update this story. Hopefully, I'll be doing so more consistantly now! I do love it, and it's so much fun to write that I hope to spend a bit more time on it in the coming weeks. In the mean time, drop a line and tell me how I did. Buffy and Riley almost-but-not-quite breaking up was hard to write. Tell me what you thought!