Title: A Watcher's Word
Length of chapter: 3300
Setting: Post Chosen but AU straight away. So no comics and no Angel Season 5.
Buffy ran. She didn’t understand the impulse but as she passed under the trees and felt their oppressive enclosure, she felt sorely in need of the comfort of daylight, and picked up her pace and to drive harder, skirting the narrow dirt path and overtaking the other runners who were surprised at her inexplicable need for speed. The compulsion to go forward kept her from casting back any apologies and she drove on harder still. It was an unfamiliar sensation for her, a feeling of being helplessly trapped and useless, and this from a woman who had clawed her way out of a coffin she reminded herself, but it was as if these weren’t her fears at all. Buffy was not a woman to be afraid of the dark, and she was confident that there was literally nothing that could leap out at her that she couldn’t handle, but she couldn’t shake off the feeling of foreboding that had burst upon her lungs. She couldn’t quell the nagging thought that maybe she was being watched or followed.
She burst free from the wood line and finally slowed as the grey yawning daylight of the morning sky greeted her. The other joggers in the park looked warily at her but she opted for denial and continued back at her normal pace in the familiar well-appointed trackways till she reached the softball fields. She dropped her mouth to the water fountain to take a good look around. It was just the usual Sunday crowd of slim runners in earphones and chunky ballplayers in sweats ribbing each other about their ages and mortgages. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.
She walked casually around the tennis courts and the tall trees that had dominated the skyline in turn became dwarfed by the eclectic mix of multi-storey office buildings thrusting for the clouds and heaven beyond. It was usually so breathtaking to see the glorious symbols of vertical living in the city that never slept but today Buffy was still spooked by her previous paranoia to really enjoy it. She decided to run on to the office to check everything was cool. Dawn was doing a voluntary shift at the Medical Centre for extra credits so there was no need to call her. Buffy crossed out of the park and headed for the river to give her a comparatively uninterrupted trip Midtown. The cabs and sirens maintained their constant whirl of horns and yells she’d grown accustomed to. Those were not the noises that heralded trouble in Buffy’s world.
She took the elevator to their floor and swiped her pass to release the doors. It felt vaguely silly to have such elaborate security in such a prominent city but the Head Office of the New Council of Watchers felt itself safer nestled among other more corporate endeavours. The Old Council had isolated itself in the past and been vulnerable to attack as a consequence, so when Robin had found they had leased the 20th floor of a corporate block in Manhattan, he’d jumped at the opportunity to use it as a small base and training centre for part of the year. The Old Council had installed a security system around the 1950s that could lock out the elevator and restrict access to their whole floor, but, them being the Old Council, they prompted failed to run regular maintenance on it and it often didn’t work as it was designed.
George King, the elderly security guard, rose from his desk in the centre console of the floor and greeted her arrival fondly. “I wasn’t expecting you today, Miss Summers.” Buffy liked George. He was old school Texas and had worked for the Council in one form or other for forty years. He wasn’t terribly effective anymore, but apart from herself, there were always up to a dozen Slayers around should he ever need help.
“Hi George. No, I thought I should check in as I was passing. Is anyone else here?”
“On a Sunday? Quiet as the grave, Miss. Two of the girls are in the library working on an assignment but there’s none of the other staff. Mr Wood has gone to Brooklyn to check up on Miss Ariela.”
“Oh?” Ariela was the comparatively new girl in their little training corps. Her folks had been killed in a car accident before Xander had tracked her down in Israel, and he’d had arranged papers so she could stay with family and train in the States. She wasn’t his usual find, he usually ended up taming the wild ones with his calm authority, but Ariela had been different. She was sixteen going on forty-seven for one thing and had jumped eagerly at the opportunity to travel.
“She left word she was patrolling last night but didn’t check in,” George explained.
“It’s the weekend, teenagers are known to oversleep,” she chided.
“Not that teenager,” he affirmed. “I don’t think that one actually does sleep.” And he had a point. Buffy had tried and mostly failed to understand the kid. She’d tried to take her under her wing, but Ariela was pretty independent from the get go. They’d ridden the subway together, Buffy thinking she needed the big sister act but Ariela was no green kid when it came to the slaying. She was book-smart too with a sense of humour Buffy didn’t get and she was always in the library during free periods and even asked if she could look at the books Buffy kept locked in her own office. She was a bit of a mystery all round though by all accounts the other girls liked her.
“Mr Wood was concerned. He's gone over to her apartment block to check.”
Buffy entered her office at the far end of the corridor. The offices were boxed on the right hand side to face the windows and, when they’d moved in, she’d picked the second largest, furthest away from the elevator with its own restroom and by far the best shower. She pulled some spare clothes from a filing cabinet and took a juice from her refrigerator. Her office had formally belonged to the head librarian of the New York division and she’d left the heavy book stacks as they were, choosing not to redecorate as Robin had. She rather liked the gravitas of the room and the solidity of the tradition. They kept all the more ‘private’ books in there: the ones that needed keeping away from the really curious according to Willow, who was the best judge of such things.
Buffy took a shower and thought of her friends. Willow was currently giving it another go with Kennedy who was proving very hard to shake. Willow had broken up with her at least twice to Buffy's knowledge but somehow there was always the next trip planned. She was so unlike Oz and Tara it was hard to understand the deal except that Kennedy was unflinching in her devotion and it's hard to resist someone who so very much wants to be in love with you. Buffy understood that all too well. Kennedy was no soft touch, but in her own way she wanted Willow to be Willow and not even Xander could object to that. Other people's relationships were always the hardest to fathom. Xander himself would date different women but she knew that none of them meant anything to him. He had enough confidence for the night but no stomach for a long term relationship. Nothing was quite right after Anya for him.
Alas, there was nobody offering any devotion in Buffy's direction. She would go out with the team, dance, have a little fun even, but she wasn't really interested when any of the guys started conversation. Buffy liked being on her own. It had been nearly ten months since she'd even half dated a guy, and as he turned out to be a long dead ghost looking to sacrifice her as his long dead wife, the relationship never really gotten out of that early, awkward phase.
She could joke about it but she liked her independence too. She was ‘just waiting’ she’d say when teased about some cute guy or other. Waiting for what? For the cute guys to grow up maybe, waiting to find someone who wouldn’t judge or smother her, someone that wasn't all ego and challenge. ‘Just waiting’, she'd shrug.
She finished up, dressed, tied her hair back and settled behind her desk, performing the ritual of cleaning her reading glasses which she did once, (and only once), at the start of each day, then took the plastic lid off her juice and sat to read the overnight reports. There was nothing substantial above the norm: a possible nest on the subway and police reports of some suspicious assaults but just another quiet night in demon terms. A voice said ‘too quiet?’ but she dismissed it. She had been such an apocalypse junkie that she'd used to seek out trouble and had always feared the worst. Working in the office daily, working to help the new Slayers adjust had been far more satisfying than she could have hoped for when she's signed up to be Robin's number two in the Council. She'd been incredibly responsible and had leased an apartment for her and her sister. Dawn had certainly thrived on the stability of the last 10 months, finally admitting to a desire to study Medicine when she graduated. She always was the brainy one and Buffy was relieved she wanted something so normal. Their mom would have been so proud.
Willow, Xander, Dawn and ….Giles. She tried not to think of Giles too much but he always crept into her thoughts at unguarded times. Typical of the man and their turned about relationship these days: Giles came and went as he pleased around the world whilst she sat still with the desk job and the books.
In killing Ben and hence Glory, Giles had brought upon himself a vengeance curse from Glory's hell god brothers. He would fall to their domain and retribution when he died and in the meantime he would not know peace with himself or those closest to him. Willow had been researching but even she was drawing a blank in getting the thing lifted. Giles likened it to the Sword of Damocles and said he was fine about it, but all knew that understanding what was making him act crazy, didn't make the crazies go away. She had tried to protect him, to help him, keep him away from other people but it had taken Buffy a week to realise that she was the person that made him the most crazy of all. They hadn't worked out. They'd grated, they'd rubbed and she knew she’d have to let him go. Giles knew too on some level but he didn't understand why. He had a hard time with trust since he'd been cursed.
But anyway, in a bizarre turnaround of situation, Giles was globetrotting, supposedly staying out of trouble, she smiled, ‘cos that was always going to work, and checking in occasionally when Robin queried his expense claims. She knew he kept in touch with Willow and Xander too because they said he was fine and doing really well, but she resented not knowing first hand though.
George put his head around the door without knocking. "There's an incident in the library, Miss Summers. Can you come please?"
She sighed. He’d said there were a couple of the girls studying in there. There was probably some sort of squabble over a book. Arbitration had become something a key skill for her. She filed that as one of life’s little ironies and rose.
The library was their biggest space and filled the whole left hand side of their floor. There were two double door entrances at either end as befitted its dominance. There was no natural light and the stacks went high to the ceiling meaning purpose built ladders had to be used to get to the really topmost shelves. The books were a mixture of what they’d found in situ and what they had accumulated from their own research. A lot of them actually belonged to Giles, but he wasn’t particular about possessions. The main protruding stacks clung to the edges, leaving a big old space in the middle for occasional training and team meetings. The light fittings where ornate and possibly pre-dated the 1950’s refit, harking back to the twenties when the building was constructed. It was, above all, a library with a great deal of charm.
Buffy entered at the base double doors to see what the problem that was so important it was keeping her from her orange juice, and was immediately assailed by a smell that was enough to put her off food for life. It was a mixture of alcohol and rough living - so not a fragrance to bottle for the Christmas market - and it emanated from a tall man with his back to her. George was there and looking worried at the intruder, but Julia and Fallon, the two Slayers, were clearly amused that a street person had bypassed all their elaborate security protocols and shuffled in somehow for warmth. There were however, two reasons it wasn’t amusing for Buffy. Firstly, the drunken vagrant was waving some sort of cutlass deal, a curved sword with razor sharp edge and it wasn’t a toy waved by a fairground pirate but the real thing. And secondly, the vagrant was Giles.
Buffy was shocked and pulled up in horror at his appearance. He’d grown a fairly tidy beard but let his hair grow a little longer than suited him. He wore brown corduroy pants and dark boots that looked worn but decent, his check shirt looked OK too, but for the collars that curled up at the frayed edges, but the jacket he wore was something else. It was the most appalling thing she’d ever seen. It had once been a substantial fawn winter coat but it now looked stained and torn, and worse, smelt of alcohol, vomit and urine. He was burbling on about how he could never find a single Slayer and now they all turn up like buses and the two girls were laughing at him as he swayed about. Buffy thought her throat would choke her.
She’d had a couple of neutral emails, and various reports of where he was. Robin always told her what banks Giles’ cheque allowance had been drawn against so she at least knew some of the places he’d been. Following the paper trail his journey since he’d left at New Year was erratic though comforting. But she’d had no first-hand accounts of how he was. How he was adapting to the knowledge that he was living with a curse that would mean death would bring damnation in a hell dimension and not sweet rest. She bit back some anger at how everyone had told her he was fine. On the evidence in front of her, he most certainly wasn’t.
“Who is this guy, Buffy?” Fallon asked. “It sounds like he used to be a Watcher.”
“Did we have any hobo Watchers? How equal opportunities of the Council,” declared Julia with a flippancy Buffy had gotten used to. Her folks had been killed by Bringers, and she called everything as she saw it in case she ran out of time.
“Buffy? Heya Buffy.” Giles turned and waved at her with his right hand and smiled goofily. Buffy’s toes curled in her shoes. “Know any good jokes? These girls don’t seem terribly bright and it’s a pity if the cannon fodder don’t get some entertainment before they die.”
Something was very wrong in how he spoke. He was apparently very drunk but there was a callousness there she wasn’t used to. Giles had always been about the Slayers. He never took out his personal problems on them. She’d seen him when Eyghon had messed up his life, found him reaching for the bottle instead of confiding in her and it took him a long time to figure out that he should challenge the Council over the Cruciamentum business and not just let them roll over him. He would have gotten drunk that night he was fired if her mom hadn’t made him sleep on the couch at their house too. When Giles screwed up he was remarkably immature about dealing with it. Had he screwed up now somehow?
His comment about cannon fodder had evidently pissed Fallon off. She was an impetuous girl in battle and always seemed keen to prove something to Buffy.
“I’ve had enough listening to this jerk.” Buffy watched in dismay as the young girl launched an attack on Giles. She went for his wrist to knock the weapon from his hand, but surprisingly Giles anticipated her move and was too quick. He deftly parried her away and she crashed past him and into the reading desk behind.
“Oh. Don’t you do any training?” mocked Giles.” I’m shocked Buffy. Don’t tell me you actually just read the books in here?”
“Are you going to teach us something, old man?” Fallon was back for more and this time the gloves were off. She made to knock him but again, Giles produced some fly moves and bested her. Julia started to look worried. Despite her quick wits she was still a little gun shy after the Bringers and Buffy had been trying to rebuild her confidence the past few months. Julia charged at him in panic but Giles swayed and laughed and yes, to be honest smelt like some homeless guy on a three week bender but still managed to repel both Slayers assaults. And puzzlingly for Buffy, he did it all rather casually - he never cut them with the cutlass he was holding. The blade looked sharp and serious. She had a sense that if he’d wanted to harm them, they’d be dead on the floor already. He was rather shockingly inviting their attacks but when they did, he toyed with them, only using the pommel to hit them if they got too close to his defenses. His appearance and his ability didn’t quite stack up to Buffy. She watched his eyes more closely in fascination. They were bright not glassy. He was alert to every nuance in the room despite his swaying and appearance.
He was grinning too. “Well girls, time for the advanced training session. Break out the good weapons. Do you want to know what’s really an offensive weapon? American tea! Never tasted anything decent in this bloody country. Can’t believe we fought a war over it.”
Fallon stopped her assaults and pulled Julia back too. She regarded him with cold clinical eyes as she got her breath back.
Giles beamed. “Going to have to do better than that. Rollup, rollup, who wants to try their luck next eh?”
“Oh I surely do.” Robin’s voice behind Buffy made her jump. He stood in his dark overcoat and scarf, face flushed with the change from the cold outside to the warmth of the office and in his hands he held a serious looking automatic pistol. He pointed it professionally and was angrier than Buffy had ever seen him. She didn’t know Robin even had a gun. Since when did they have that kind of an armoury?
Buffy instinctively put herself between Giles and the muzzle of Robin’s handgun. He was pointing it very assuredly; there was no shaking in his arms. The tip of the barrel didn’t move.
“Step away from him, Buffy.” She remained rooted to the spot. With his height advantage, Robin addressed Giles over the top of her head. “What’s the matter, Rupert? Do you only pick fights with girls?” Robin released the safety and re-pointed the weapon. “You’ve got two seconds to put the cutlass down.”
Giles grinned in pure provocation. “Or what?”