She returns to the place in the morning, before school. It's all over now, with nothing left to fear, but the damage has been done and she doesn't want the loss of her best birthday present added to it.
It takes some poking around to find the book on the ground, amid the rubble, and when she does, her sigh of relief is followed closely by an angry cluck. It's open and facedown, leaving some of the pages dirty and bent beyond repair. She's especially careful when she picks it up and brushes it off, but there aren't any rips and the text still seems to be legible throughout.
Before stashing it in her bag she opens to the title page and reads the inscription once more: Always. It's calming—a single word working as a reminder that not everyone is afraid of forever—but it tears at her heart, too. How old is this book? How long had he owned it before choosing to turn it over to her, with all its implicit meaning? And she couldn't even walk home, that very night, without having it taken away from her. She sniffles as she closes it again. Stupid Kralik. Stupid Cruciamentum. Stupid Watcher's Council.
She's better now, though. At least she can go to school without wondering what happened to her book.
It's getting late when she finally has the chance to visit him at his house, but he greets her at the door with the same subdued smile as always, the one that says that this is the highlight of his day, and she stops caring about when she's going to get home tonight. She returns the smile, but she's so tired. The weakness is like a disease. He notices.
"Powers still gone?"
She nods, letting him lead her further inside. He's already got a fire blazing, one of those nice things about being here, in this old dark mansion she used to hate.
"I haven't found out anything yet," he says, "but I still have a few resources I can check."
It takes a moment for his words to click. "No, it's okay. We know what it is, I'll be better soon. You can stop looking."
Surprise registers on his face even as he's settling onto the loveseat beside her, but he doesn't ask for clarification, like her friends would. They would have told her that was great, everything's better now, wait, why aren't you excited? What's wrong? But him, he knew from the moment he saw her that something was wrong, and he'll hear it when she's ready. "Good," he says simply, then gestures at the book she's still holding in her lap. "You're meant to keep that, you know."
"I know." She clears her throat, as if she's speaking lines. "It's just, I tried reading some, and I couldn't get them to sound right. Even when I said them out loud, I just didn't have the voice for it. So I thought, maybe…you could read a few for me? You must have a favorite one, right?"
He studies her face carefully as she speaks, as if her words are appearing to him visually, and then he nods and accepts the book from her. Her throat clenches as he sees the bent pages, but he flips past them without a comment. Did his frown get deeper? She can't tell.
It's obvious he knows exactly which page he's seeking, making her wonder once again how long he's been viewing and handling this copy. When he speaks, his cadence is skilled and low and everything she wanted it to be.
"I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals old or young:
And, as I mused it is his antique tongue,
I saw in gradual vision through my tears
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years -
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,
'Guess now who holds thee?' –'Death,' I said. But there
The silver answer rang –'Not Death, but Love.'"
She makes herself wait for the poem to come to its end before she lets her emotions go, but when those last lines fall from the lips of the man who spent an untold number of years in Hell and emerged from it still in love with her, she can't take it anymore. She buries her face in his sleeve and begins sobbing, tears falling freely without requiring any time to get them worked up.
Gently he closes the book and sets it aside, liberating his arms to encircle her and stroke her hair. His shirt has to be getting destroyed by this. She feels disgusting. She still can't stop crying. How is it possible he's been brought back to her? Was the ring she placed on his floor truly the silver answer that called him out of death?
Eventually she bends away to pull a packet of tissues from her bag. It's lucky she brought them—no use asking for Kleenex from someone who probably can't even recall how a runny nose feels. She sniffs out a laugh at the thought as she finishes with the tissues and returns her head to his shoulder, dampened as it is. He doesn't think she's disgusting, she knows, and that's enough to keep her there.
Indeed, his arm winds back around her, and he finally makes the request. "Tell me."
And so it all comes out, choppy but easier than she expected, the full story from the moment she left his house on her birthday to the terrible revelations in the trial's conclusion. It's too late to wonder how things could have been different, but too early to figure out exactly how she feels about the way it did happen. The first time Giles comes up, she nearly chokes on his name. At the end, though, there's far more than a name behind her grief.
"They fired him," she repeats, the absurdity of it putting the crack of hysteria into her voice. It still doesn't seem real. She had never imagined that her Watcher could be fired, any more than her mother or her best friend or her dead lover. "Because he cared about me too much. He failed his test."
She waits for a reaction, and when she doesn't hear one she tilts her head up to see his expression. He's still holding her, kneading gently at her tired flesh, but he's absorbed the tale with gravity and he doesn't meet her eyes. "I failed mine too," he says.
"What were you being tested for?" she objects, but she already thinks she knows what this is about.
"I shouldn't have let you walk home alone," comes the answer.
Ding, she thinks. Thanks, Alec. I'll take 'Overprotective Boyfriends' for $200. "Wasn't your choice," she says. "I told you I didn't need an escort, and you know damn well I would have bitten your head off if you tried to insist."
A ghost of a grin passes over his face: he does know. But he's not giving in that easily. "Even if you had. I still could have done something. I could have…" He trails off, realizing, no doubt, that he's about to talk himself into a corner.
"Stalked me?" she supplies helpfully.
He's defensive. "Trailed you."
"You mean, followed me closely without letting yourself be seen? Just to clue you in, we're actually calling that stalking these days. And just because I didn't press charges last time doesn't mean you've got a pass."
She's kidding. He does have a pass. It's only been a day since she learned about the first time he saw her, but she knows there's more to the story and she knows that the year following that moment had to include some stalking. Even now, she's consciously thinking of it as 'stalking,' and the only truly bizarre thing that occurs to her is that she's perfectly comfortable with that word. Her mind is filling up gaps with images of him: watching her learn to slay, checking up on her periodically, moving along with her from one town to another. It's comforting, not creepy, and that doesn't even change when she acknowledges that he might still be doing it from time to time.
Of course, she can't just say so. It's hard enough to keep tabs on him as it is.
"Still," he persists. Stubborn man. "I should have been there for you. Especially when I knew you were weakened."
"I passed the test," she says softly. There's silence as she lets the words penetrate. She passed the test—without needing him. He knows and she knows that's a good thing, but he's spent the last few years of his life trying to support her and it's not going to be easy for him to know she can manage without him.
He nods slowly, then smiles and kisses her forehead. "You always will. I just wish you would call me when there's trouble. You told me I can do real good. I'd like to have a chance to prove it."
"You will. I don't have to be the one in trouble for you to be doing good. There are a lot of people out there who need backup more than I do."
The words felt only natural as she spoke them, but he looks at her quizzically, almost taken aback. Could it be he hasn't thought of it this way before? Miraculously reborn, and he's still thinking of her as his sole raison d'etre? It's hard to know what to make of that, but she's encouraged by his attentive eyes and does her best to continue. "I love having you fighting at my side. You're the best ally I've ever had. But you're not the only one. And even if I were alone, I still have my strength—well, most days—and I'd get by. But that's not true for everyone. Some of them, they don't have the strength, and they don't have the allies…they've got nothing." She folds her hands around his. "I don't think you were brought back for me. I think you were brought back for them."
He looks at her in contemplative admiration. "The Watcher's Council doesn't deserve you."
"In fact, the Watcher's Council sucks." She sighs, having been suddenly transported back to thoughts of her own problems instead of her lover's metaphysical dilemmas. "And now I don't even have to make the exception for Giles, since he's not part of it anymore. God, I hope librarian wages are enough to live on. I don't even know what librarians are supposed to get paid but I bet Sunnydale High pays less."
"I don't think money is his big concern right now."
"Yeah. I've just got my rambles on. I'm sorry for doing the freakout thing on you about this, I mean, it's not like the end of the world, and you don't even like Giles…"
"Hey," he chides her gently. "Why would you think I don't like Giles?"
She bites her lip. She's not quite sure she meant to say that out loud. "Because…he doesn't like you?"
That elicits a light chuckle from him, and she follows suit. It's not the first time that she's noticed they share a strange sense of humor, but she's grateful for it. "I think I have a talent for liking people who won't like me back," he says, and she remembers knocking him down in an alley one night, and agrees.
"I like that about you."
"Might come in handy, now that I've been handpicked as a guardian of mankind."
She pokes his arm and tries to look severe. "I meant that. Are you making fun of me?"
Never. She believes him, and notices, as she molds herself a little closer to his body, that some of the pressure is gone. Her tears, his silence, and a well-chosen poem were apparently the remedy to the heartache of the Cruciamentum. But she had expected no less when she showed up at his door, had she? Always. She swings her legs over his lap, closes her eyes, and wonders if she really could manage without this.
It's not battle prowess she needs from him, never has been, but tonight he's the strong one and she's the weak one, and tonight, that's okay. She knows now that she'll be back up to full power before long, and there aren't any more tests to pass, and she can relax. Nobody would ever have to know that she had longed for this, these few minutes in the arms of her lover, knowing it's acceptable for her to be the one who is held close and shielded from harm. If his thoughts are on the same path, if he's cherishing this night as his one chance to be her knight, nobody has to know that either.
She must have dozed off. The fire is down to embers, and he's rubbing her arms and saying her name softly in her ear. She blinks and reaches for her watch. "Ohhh. It's going to be the window entrance tonight."
He helps her up, and she stretches and looks up into his eyes, as deep and beguiling as ever they were. "Walk me home?"
"Expecting trouble?" he says with a grin.
There are a thousand sassy remarks she could make with that as a springboard, most of them lighthearted boasts about her self-reliance. Instead, she shrugs carelessly and returns his smile. "Not with you around."