Interlude

"You're telling me it didn't work?"

"Apparently not," she said. "Whatever the Senior Partners were trying to accomplish, they failed."

"'Failed' is a pretty strong word where the Senior Partners are concerned."

"Angel never used the amulet. On top of that, it doesn't look like it worked the way they intended it." She unbuttoned her jacket and draped it over the back of a chair. "I'd say 'failed' is exactly the right word to use, in this case."

It was almost a smile, the way his lips quirked. "Arrogant. If they'd done their homework –"

"Don't give me that," she said with a chuckle. "It's not like you knew anything about another vampire with a soul, either."

"No, but I'm not in a position to know. They could've found out." He knuckled at the stubble under his chin, his eyes faraway for a moment before catching her gaze again. "So what do you think? Does this work in our favor?"

"Hmm…" She sat and bent over to pull off one shoe. "It definitely throws a monkey wrench into the Senior Partners' plans for Angel, but I don't know how much of a stumbling block it will actually turn out to be. They still have another hold over him that they could exploit."

He sighed. "We could just leave things alone, see how they develop."

"You don't sound like you think that's a good idea," she said. Flexed her toes and rolled her ankle, reached for the other shoe.

"I don't want to give them any time to recover their momentum," he replied. "You said they could still get to Angel. And this other vampire is a wild card. He could become another tool for them to use, or he might end up helping us."

"Assuming he recovers," she said.

"Assuming," he agreed. "Seems pretty clear to me that there are other factors at work there."

"The Shanshu?" She pulled off her earrings and dropped them into the jacket pocket.

"No way to tell for sure, just yet," he shrugged. "But if they're off-balance now, I think we should keep them that way."

"Angel and his merry band, or the Senior Partners?" She stood again and began to unbutton her blouse.

"Both," he said. He looked her up and down, pleased, as the blouse slipped from her shoulders.

"But from here, how do you think you'll be able to do that?"

He held out a hand and she stepped forward to meet him. Delicately, she lifted one stockinged foot to rest by his hip where he sat.

"Won't be a problem," he said. Slid his hands up her calf, behind her knee and under her skirt to reach the top of her stocking and begin to slide it down.

Her mouth fell open in a sigh of pleasure. "Ohh, that's nice," she said. "But you haven't answered my question."

"I wasn't looking for 'nice', baby," he grinned at her. He leaned forward, planting little kisses along the inside of her thigh as her eyes fell shut and she began to squirm.

"Still doesn't – ahh – answer the question," she said. She reached out for balance and threaded her fingers through his hair. She tightened her grip and pulled his mouth away from her leg. "How do you plan to get to them?"

"Easy," he said. He hooked his arm behind her knee and tugged her until she fell into bed with him. "I've got you, for starters." Dragged his hands up her sides to slip his fingers under the edges of her bra. "I think I'll have you arrange a meeting in a couple days."

She moved to straddle him, leaning forward to nip at his bottom lip. "A meeting? Are you sure that's wise?"

"Hell no," he replied, "and I'll wait till we have more information before I have you set it up. We'll need to play this carefully." He pulled back to look up at her; there was a wicked edge to his smile this time. "But it'll definitely mess with their heads."


It was two days before Willow and Giles were able to leave for Rome; days that couldn't pass quickly enough, in Giles' opinion. Dawn's call describing Buffy's condition had been worrisome enough without adding delay and ridiculous, bureaucratic obstacles to his efforts to go to her. Hearing from Willow shortly thereafter had done nothing to ease his concerns. Giles sighed inwardly, standing in front of the luggage carousel and waiting for his bags to come round.

It was an odd thing, he thought, flying when the bulk of one's journey was north to south; one expected to end up in a different time zone and deal with jet lag, expected to be exhausted, of course; and then one found that the time on all the clocks was off by no more than an hour. But he was still exhausted, he thought. Perhaps it was just the travel, but he doubted that very much.

Wearily, Giles went through the usual motions of travel, familiar but tiring no matter how many times he did them. Stand elbow-to-elbow around the baggage claim carousel with strangers and hope he wasn't the one who smelled so pungent after hours on the plane. Reach forward and pull a battered suitcase off the conveyor, check the tag; find a way to politely shove through a crowd of people in a foreign country, all as tired and travel-worn as he was. Follow the signs, ignore the worst of the racket, and try not to step on anyone or be stepped on. Locate Customs, stand in line, passport please, was this visit personal or business – a good question, that, he thought – and finally, welcome to Italy.

Enjoy your stay, they told him; as to whether or not he would, well, that was something else Giles doubted very much.

Finally out of the worst of the crowd, he rubbed at his forehead and glanced around the terminal to find somewhere to wait for Willow. The two of them had managed to coordinate their flight schedules so that they could arrive within an hour or so of one another, with the hope that doing so would make things easier on Buffy and Dawn. No need for three of them to wait hours for the fourth to arrive, straining everyone's nerves and patience before they could all get down to business. Assuming both flights arrived on time, he and Willow should be able to meet up in no time at all.

And in fact, Giles was just getting comfortable, at a pub called "The Duck and Dog's" of all things, when his new cell phone vibrated in his pocket, startling him so that he nearly spilled his pint. The message – at least, Giles presumed it was intended to be a message – read, off n min r so.

"Honestly," he muttered to himself. Computers and the like were bewildering enough without putting deliberate effort into making them even more incomprehensible. "Trust Willow to approach modern technology as if it were yet another arcane language." Meanwhile Giles was certain he would never grow accustomed to repeatedly punching a number key on his telephone in order to produce a single letter of the alphabet. Never mind the Number of the Beast, apparently "666" was now also an invocation to the letter "o".

Duck & Dog Pub, he managed to respond, hunting about for each letter, and really, this was ridiculous, the entire exercise was preposterously slow, Terminal C. Hopefully he wasn't located too far from G-8, or wherever she claimed to be.

So he nursed his pint and waited, and only a half-hour later, there she was at the pub entrance looking round for him.

"Hi, Giles," she smiled once he'd beckoned her over. "Got your message… but I guess you figured that out, since, hey, here I am." She gave him a hug and quick peck on the cheek. "I'm glad you got mine, anyway. Cell phones don't always do what they're supposed to once you land in a foreign country."

"Yes, well," he replied, "I'm not entirely certain yours did. What on earth is this gibberish? The 'at' symbol I understood, but G-8? I checked, you know, and this airport doesn't even have a G Terminal."

Willow started laughing. Giles suppressed another sigh; of course she'd laugh at the old man who mistrusted anything more modern than the card catalog.

"Here, let me see," she said, still beaming. "I just used lots of abbreviations – it's not 'G-8', it's 'gate'. Get it? The whole thing just says, 'at gate, get off in minute or so'. As in, off the plane?"

"Ah," he said, "of course. Very clever. Nearly impossible to decipher, but clever nonetheless."

Willow laughed again as he finished the last of his beer and dropped a few bills on the table. "You know, it's only been a couple weeks and I've still missed you like crazy?" She dragged her carryon around to bump her knee. "How have you been? You look pretty tired – I mean, no offense or anything. I just figured you've probably been crazy busy, what with all the Council stuff."

"You have no idea," he said. Their conversation was interrupted while they negotiated the crowds and found their way to the car that would take them into Rome proper. It wasn't until they were comfortable in the back seat and on their way that he could continue.

"You're right," he said, "I am tired. The work is urgent, it's impossible to prioritize because all of it is of the utmost importance, and we've none of us had even a moment simply to catch our breath from the – well. From the destruction of Sunnydale." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "At least one of us is in good spirits," he added, his face softening. "In fact you seem abominably cheerful. Aren't you suffering even slightly from jet lag?"

"Oh sure," said Willow, "it's just that I'm four hours earlier, so it's only mid-afternoon for me. Plus, you know, Brazil. They've got a whole lot of that Mother Earth energy to go around. I'm feelin' pretty peppy even now." She wriggled in her seat, twisting until she could lean against the back seat. Looked at him for a moment. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked quietly.

Giles bit back his first response, which was to say "not really" and finish the ride in peace. "If you insist," he said instead. "Although, really, my troubles are nothing so dire as all that. No more than anyone else is dealing with, just now."

"But that's just it," said Willow. "We're all just barely out of Sunnydale – out of a war, you know, against the biggest bad we've ever faced, and we haven't had a chance to, to decompress. To even figure out how to cope, much less start coping. We're all dealing with a lot." Willow reached down, drew a fingertip aimlessly through the plush of the seat's upholstery. "And I think, from what I've learned about Buffy's condition right now, all of us being open and honest – with her, with each other, with ourselves – it's going to not just be important. It'll be part of her cure."

"Group therapy, Sunnydale style," he said with a tired smile.

"Or just a really cheesy New Age church service," said Willow with another laugh. "Talk out your problems and save a soul." She looked down at her hands, smile fading. "Although, since we mean it literally, I guess it isn't really all that funny, is it."

They were both silent for a long moment, just watching the lights go by out their respective windows.

"I suppose it would be best to cut right to the heart of it, then," said Giles finally. "I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work to be done; homesick for the town that has been my home for the past several years, Hellmouth and all; nearly paralyzed with worry and regret for my Slayer; and – if I truly must be completely honest – not at all certain I'm even up to the tasks set before me."

"That bad, huh?" said Willow.

"I miss the Magic Box," he replied. "Come to that, I miss my days as school librarian under that odious principal, Snyder; at least in those days my responsibilities were clear-cut – and they were the sort of work I'd trained years for. I could rest assured that I knew what I was doing, in the library if nowhere else." Giles took off his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

"Now I find myself occupied with attempting to rebuild the world headquarters of the Watcher's Council from the ground up," he went on. "To, to reconstruct records, and finances, and an entire library of occult texts… Never mind the task of locating and re-establishing communication with Watchers and Council offices elsewhere in the world. Each and every one of them needs some sort of proof of my credentials, which is only reasonable given what happened in London, but good God I have gotten heartily sick of bending over backwards and, and jumping through hoops, simply to prove to them that I'm not some sort of terrorist or agent of evil."

"Sounds pretty stressful," said Willow. "Frustrating, having to convince people over and over again."

"Yes, quite," said Giles. "Things were quite challenging enough to satisfy me when I was simply a Watcher – although, to be precise, with Buffy as my charge, I suppose those days never were simple, were they? But now –" Giles caught himself with a shake of his head and a long sigh. "Now I find myself suddenly flung into the role of Council Director, and it seems as though every waking moment has taken on a degree of complexity whole orders of magnitude greater than anything I've ever had to manage before. These past few days I've hated the work, because every minute of it was one more that I couldn't simply drop everything and come to Buffy's assistance! And if I were to be completely honest with you, and myself, I would be forced to admit that I have very little confidence in my own abilities to manage it all. Not the directorship, and not Buffy's troubles. Assuming she'll even have me, after all that's gone between us." He closed his eyes and touched his fingers to one eyebrow. Subconsciously hiding his face from Willow, he suspected.

"That's not the worst of it, though, is it?" she asked quietly.

"No," he forced himself to say. Forced himself to drop his hand from his face, to look at her as he spoke. "No, it isn't. From an administrative standpoint – and I realize how incredibly shallow, or, or cold, this makes me sound – from a purely administrative standpoint, all the work before us now would have been challenging enough if there were still only One Girl in All the World to guide and train. Now, however, suddenly every Potential in the world has found herself Called, all of them, whether they were prepared or not. Whether they'd even been identified or not. And from a more humane perspective…" He looked away, blinking rapidly. Cleared his throat against the tightness he felt building there.

"I fear we've done a terrible thing, Willow, awakening all those girls like that. They way that it was done… I understand it was necessary, and I'm not in the least condemning your actions – but I think of Buffy, and everything that she's suffered over the years. Everything she's been forced to endure for the sake of duty. How many girls have we condemned to that same fate? Hundreds? Thousands?" He cleared his throat again. "A terrible thing. I fear that the consequences of what we've done will be felt for years to come… and I'm petrified that the responsibility for every last one of those girls' lives now falls to me."