Rupert Giles taps his fingers on the kitchen table of an apartment he doubts will ever be home. According to his watch, it has now been twenty-three minutes since he set out to read the book in front of him - a history book, focusing on decidedly non-supernatural aspects of the pyramids. He needs that, he tells himself. A break.
For twenty-three minutes he has stared at the first page.
On the counter next to the bread lies a photograph from last summer. Joyce and Willow sit beside him on a picnic blanket, Willow's arms around both their shoulders. His smile is surprised, but real. Tara sits just behind, leaning her chin on Willow's head and looking relaxed - one of the few times he'd seen her relaxed, back then, when she'd barely known Willow's friends.
The teal lake in the background jags in the wind. Xander's eyes follow a blowaway slice of bread away from the camera, and Anya pokes his shoulder to get his attention, turning her own face away in the process.
Still, it was the best photo they'd taken that day, and afterwards Willow had printed and distributed copies.
The obvious absence from the photograph only reinforces that she was there. The one who took the photo was the same one who brought them together, but she's missing in this photo, unless a smudge in the corner is her fingerprint. He hopes it is. He wants some sign of her, though he's packed the other photos away. He can't bring himself to look at her directly. But sometimes he thinks he sees her, in the corner of his vision, in a half-viewed face of a young woman. Or hears her voice when he passes students by the university, or the high school, or the bus stop.
He had to get out of Sunnydale. An ocean away, he's reached a distance that doesn't make him any happier, but may eventually hurt slightly less. Like a phantom limb, he doubts he will ever get used to the absence. He isn't sure he wants to.
The photograph is unframed, but unhidden. He suspects it is a masochistic impulse that insists he keep it on display, but also that he would be equally masochistic not to. Sometimes discomfort is the only option.
The phone is ringing. He moves to answer, unsure how long this has been going on. He clears the thickness from his throat, glad the caller can't see the tired shadows around his eyes. "Rupert speaking."
"Giles. It's - it's Willow."
He would have known her voice anywhere, but the frantic quality catches him off guard - and snaps him into a more professional mood. Even if he'd not been able to accept the council's ways, his training as a watcher did provide him with a useful manner for times of crisis.
"Yes?" he says.
"Giles, we brought Buffy back."
"We brought her back, Giles."
"Dear Lord." He takes off his glasses and sets them on the table. He presses the heel of his free hand against his eyelids, wiping away sleep and applying pressure to still the swarming fragments in his head. "Tell me, very slowly, what you did."
He cleans his lenses on a cloth as she talks, the repetitive action restraining the bursting jumble in his mind.
Though Willow doesn't specify, her omission only confirms what he knows - any spell of that magnitude has to be on the very dark side of the magical spectrum.
But even so…
No. Some laws must not be violated.
But that doesn't change the fact that she's back.
Or at least, Willow thinks she is. There are countless things that could have gone wrong - they could have created a demon that looks like her, talks like her -
No. Her friends would have realized.
"How is she?" he says.
"Good," says Willow, a bit too quickly.
"That's rather vague."
"Well, she's - she was kind of freaked at first, but with coming back with hell, and the invading demon gang -"
"There was a demon gang?"
"Yeah, but we - she fought them off, and anyway, the point is, she's fine now."
"And she said she was in hell?"
"Yes." Willow's voice breaks, and for all the dark forces she may have gotten mixed up in, all he can feel is sympathy.
"It's good you helped her, then."
It's the wrong thing to say, but he's exhausted with emptiness and hope, and it feels true. "I'll be home as soon as I can."
He hangs up the phone and sets out to gather bags he never unpacked.