They all slowly got back onto the bus to pull away from the crater that used to be Sunnydale. Giles drove since Wood didn't seem to be able and the former principal lay leaning heavily against the brunette Slayer. She even managed to look softer somehow, caring for him. In moments when she thought no one was looking you could tell her guard was down and she was openly concerned. Buffy approved of this new softness. It seemed to be one of the few decent changes that she'd known to happen to Faith.
The blond lay back herself and the events of their final stand replayed in her head. How had Spike known? Her heart ached to lose him because he'd been a good fighter and a confidante but it wasn't broken. She knew she owed him the words, one small token of peace when he was sacrificing himself to help her cause. He saved them...saved them all. How had he known her words weren't 100% true? She sighed to herself. She might never know.
They drove for hours. Sunnydale was in a lower patch of Southern California and there were a few towns close by but with all the recent Hellmouthy activity, most citizens fled the area. The girl couldn't blame them for that. She'd have done the same and tried to make Dawn do the same thing, too. A smiled cracked her lips. Her sister was more like her than she thought. It made her proud to see what she was becoming.
They stopped at a small motel in the middle of a desert town. The town simply looked abandoned. The fountain in front of the tiny mall was still running and lights were on but certainly no one was home. Xander came up to the front of the bus as it rumbled to a stop. He looked just as tired as the rest of them and Anya's death weighed heavy on his heart. All of them were broken in some way, everyone on the bus. Buffy stood herself, taking him into her arms. He gave in for a moment and then gently pushed her away.
"Priorities first, Buff. I'm not dying. Others are. I assume we're making camp?"
She nodded. "Here seems as good a place as any. Plenty of room inside. It's a little exposed but it's convenient. Grocery store across the way."
"And, hey, free HBO." Xander tried to joke feebly, and failed.
Faith tried to stand up, to go with them but Wood stopped her. "Stay with me." he asked softly. She looked down, as if she was torn on what to do before sinking back into her seat. She wrapped an arm around him and eased him closer to her body. She leaned forward and her chestnut hair shaded her face from view. She looked like she might cry.
"I'm not fallin in love with you, buddy. This act of yours ain't workin. You better make it through this to get me to try. You promised to surprise me."
A tear slipped down her cheek and Buffy paused to see it. Crying...something she never expected her one time arch enemy to be able to do. It made her feel more vulnerable seeing it. Xander was in the back recruiting girls to go into the motel to help him set it up. They could all have their own rooms, of course, but some girls preferred to be together. All of the original Scoobies got their own rooms on the top floor. Andrew smiled when that included him. Giles stood for the first time in hours and stretched. He winced and realized for the first time he'd cracked a rib or two. There hadn't been time before for assessment.
They stepped off the bus, one after the other, and crossed the street. They reached the main office and Buffy broke the glass, ducking beneath the bar to get inside. Giles tried pulling. The door opened for him, sweeping the broken plexiglass in an arch. She gave him a look that he returned with a cheeky grin. She rolled her eyes and ceded his unspoken point. They proceeded inside.
"I'm thinking the whole motel is ours." she said softly. "Who knows when we'll have a better plan? This is all we have for now."
"Medical supplies. We need them." Giles said softly to remind her. She nodded her agreement.
"I'll send someone to find a hospital. We have yellow pages. In fact, you wanna take the bus?"
He didn't like the idea but he nodded anyway. Recruiting Andrew, much to his chagrin, they drove off in search of the hospital. They separated with carts and met back at the entrance of the motel some time later. Giles went to go put the pilfered goods away in his room leaving Buffy to try and work with organizing the girls downstairs with Willow. She was directing the Slayers to help move the injured to their room and was suddenly swept over by an intense dizziness. Blinking, she didn't realize she'd fallen until she saw a panic stricken redhead hovering over her. She winced.
"I'm alright." she managed, trying to move. People began to gather and she saw Giles kneel by her side.
"You most certainly are not, Buffy." he commented, touching the new blood seeping through her shirt. She'd forgotten where she'd been stabbed. "I need to tend to you." her Watcher told her. "Lay back."
She did as she was told, feeling ridiculous. "It'll take more than this to put me down." responded. "I died twice and it didn't work."
"Third time's the charm. I'm not taking the chance."
Willow shook her head. "Back to work, people!" she shouted. The group began to dissapate.
His green eyes met hers and she stared back. She'd memorized how they looked a long time ago. It was hard to imagine anything more expressive than his eyes. She knew they look when they were annoyed, sad, happy, and, right now, afraid. She let him work, blotting the wound with antiseptic that stung when he applied it. She held still, wriggling only when the alcohol burned. He sat her up and wound gauze and bandages around her and pinned them in place. She was about to thank him when he wrapped her up in a hug. He was breaking now and she wasn't ready for it.
"I can't lose you." he admitted against her shoulder. "We've come this far. I can't lose you."
"You won't." she assured him. "I promise."
She felt uncomfortable, angry. She hadn't had time to deal with everything that happened. "Giles...I can't do this. I want to. I want to help you and be there through whatever it is you're feeling but I can't. I don't know how to right now. My first priority has to be the girls and getting safe. Everyone has to be taken care of. I don't get time yet."
He stopped. She'd spoken. He had to respect that. If she could suck up her own feelings, and he was sure she had them, then so could he. They both got to their feet and surveyed their surroundings. There was a grocery store across the street. A mall off to their left. A pet store to the right. Dawn came to her side and looked up at her. The blond looked down at her little sister. "Everything ok?"
"Yeah. Lots of girls are getting settled in, showering and such. Hygiene, definite check." she commented, "No one likes a stinky Slayer." She saw the pet store "Awww! I wonder if they left any poor animals in the store!" She looked expectantly up at the Slayer.
"Dawnie! We can't adopt a whole store of pets!" the other cried, exasperated.
"But...what if they're all trapped and scared?"
"Dawnie?" she said warningly but by then the word pet was somehow loosed into the air and there were several girls wanting to go check it out. "This isn't out permanent home!" she called after them.
Her sister paused. "Yeah, but pets travel and we have everything we need to care for them across the street and free!"
Buffy sighed in defeat. Cuteness trumped responsibility any day. She should have remembered that from her own high school days with Giles in the library.
Soon enough they were back in the motel. As kittens mewed in laps Buffy rolled her eyes. She knew what her Watcher would say when he saw it and the cluck cluck sound he'd make with his tongue. Actually, it would kind of be worth it to see that. Buffy felt suddenly better about life as a kitten strayed over her lap. One of the British Slayers, Ruby, plucked the kitten from her lap. "Careful of Roland!"
"You named you cat Roland?" came an incredulous voice.
"I suppose you'd prefer Fluffy, then, or Patches?"
"Hey, the TV's working!" That was Xander.
They got their first radio broadcast after several TV channels worth of surfing. It was staticy but easy to make out. "And in other news, the area known as Los Angeles and it's other unified areas vanished today in smoke and fire. Last witnesses reported seeing monsters and several even reported seeing a dragon flying over the city before it vanished. Local residents of the outlying Orange County and the remaining Los Angeles county have fled."
"Angel." she whispered. Willow blanched off to her right. Someone shut off the TV. Another layer of pain was added to her already growing guilt. Angel gone in smoke. Wolfram and Hart was behind it, she was sure and between the two craters in the ground where towns used to be Buffy supposed there wouldn't be a person in sight until they hit San Francisco...unless everyone came to their senses and California was a ghost town like it ought to be.
She got up and left the room to travel upstairs to her own. She was next to Giles and connected to Willow and Kennedy. She flopped on her bed and lay in the darkening room in silence, only hearing muffled noises coming from the room below. Someone mentioned food. Xander was organizing a trip to the store. This really was their own private Slayer City. She shuddered, not much liking that idea. There were more out there that didn't know their new gift...or curse...or both. As she stewed she heard a knock on the door.
It was Giles. Sometime while she was thinking it'd grown dark and she saw the streetlights shining on the deserted road. She sighed and allowed him inside. When he came in she stayed peering out the door for a while, feeling the cool California breeze blowing. Palm trees lining the road swayed gently, taller than the motel's two stories.
"There's such a thing as being too strong." Giles said, from behind her, echoing her own thoughts as if he read her mind. She looked up. "Come talk with me." he said, reaching his hand out to her. She took it and followed. He closed the curtains and drew her deeper into the room. He sat with her on her king sized bed and didn't speak for a while, just studying her eyes.
Buffy felt alone for the first time in a while. With Giles with her it was the same. He was as comfortable to her being as her own skin: they knew each other that well. He reached out his arms and she accepted his offer of comfort. She collapsed against him, sobbing her unexpressed anger and fear and frustration until she forgot what it was she was crying for and continued to cry for all the times she hadn't been allowed. He let her without judgment and even indulged in the need for himself. They were alive and together.
It was enough. It would always be enough.
She pulled away from him at last, able to see him clearly in the darkness surrounding them. The moon was almost full overhead. He took her measure in the hazy moonlight and cleared his throat.
"What are you feeling, Buffy?" he asked her.
"Like I'm as big of a monster as Caleb." The elder blinked. That wasn't what he was expecting but the blond continued before he could ask for clarification. "I mean, who made me God?" she asked. "I lead those girl to die. Some of them died because I asked them to, because I had no other way. Who am I to say who's special? I'm not even the current Slayer. I never asked for this."
"My darling, one never asks for this sort of responsibility. It's thrust upon them and how they shoulder it is the test of their leadership."
"All that blood..." she responded, heartbroken.
"Shhh." he said, stepping close. "You came through it beautifully. No one could ask for more. I certainly couldn't. I never have, in fact."
She looked up at him and appreciated his quiet strength. "I can't lose you." she told him, echoing his earlier statement when she was hurt. It's the same thing she'd told him many times in their history together. It's the same thing he'd responded back to her just as often and faced more than she'd have liked.
"It's alright, Buffy, you're just a girl and shouldn't have this on your shoulders. I never should have left you when I did."
"I'm not a child, Giles, not anymore."
"That's hard for me to admit." he admitted, choking the words out.
"Why?" she asked him softly, genuinely confused.
"Because, Buffy, if I think of you as a woman with her own ideas then three lines of thought will inevitably start in my mind. The first is that someday very soon you won't need me."
"I'll always need you, Giles. I always have." He raised his hand for silence.
"The second is that someday you will have to live without me whether either of us want that or not."
She gulped and nodded but remained quiet. "But the most dangerous of all these lines of thought is that you are a woman. A woman I have been in love with for a long time. I've tried to deny it, push it off and tell myself that you're only a child. Don't make me think of you as a woman, Buffy, though I know damn well that's what you are. An extraordinary woman."
"Giles..." she looked away, unable to voice her thoughts. She thought to that day she leaned against his door and wished desperately that the right words had come instead of staying silent. She remembered the ache inside her heart when she walked away from his door.
"Do you ever think about it, Buffy?" he asked her, obviously thinking of that night as well and what she asked him.
"More often than I should." she answered honestly. She slipped into tears again without realizing it. "I think about it all the time. No matter what's happened in my life. No matter where I go or what I do I have to admit it to myself. It's you, Giles. It's always been you. Ever since that night I tried to run away from how I felt and I tried to love anyone else but it always comes back to you."
"Buffy." but he couldn't continue. He was out of words. She didn't seem to have any of her own to provide. Instead their lips met for the first time in more than five years. It was different now, neither hesitant or nervous. It was a purely expressed need to be together as two souls denied union for far too long. She whimpered against him and gave all of herself over to him. He needed it and took from her just as much as she gave. He reciprocated her generosity, giving himself wholly over to her as well and for a while the desert night ceased to exist around them.
"It's always been you, Buffy." he responded at last. "How could it be anyone else?"
She smiled up at him in a sad way. "I love you, Giles, but I can't give myself over yet. There's too much to do. We've changed the world and I need to deal with that. I need to deal with the death and the stress and the trauma."
"I want to help." he admitted, not wanting to let her go.
"You will. I want you to be there but I can't give into my own desires and ignore my responsibilities. You didn't teach me to be that way."
He nodded and let her go. It was the largest sacrifice he'd ever made, giving her up for God knew how long now that he'd finally found the courage to say how he felt out loud. It almost killed him.
"I'm here when you need me." he told her. "when you're ready."
She nodded and held him one last time before pulling away. "I don't deserve you." she murmured.
"You deserve so much more." he responded. He took his leave of her, exiting through her room's door. When it closed behind him he leaned on it and sighed. His hand moved over his heart. He wasn't sure why but his heart was breaking.