This Time Around
Chapter Eleven - Boldly Going Where No Buffy Has Gone Before

written by Rainne





She caught him as he fell, supporting him with her strength easily. He shook his head, trying to clear it. "Buffy? Buffy, what's going on?"

"Just relax, Giles," she encouraged. She started to move him into the nearby chair and decided against it. The scent of cooking meat was thick in the air. She guided him out of the room instead, down the hall and toward the stairs. "C'mon, Giles, walk with me. I can't carry you; you're too tall."

By leaning on her and going slowly, he managed to stay upright all the way down the stairs. Buffy helped him over to the couch, admonished him to stay there, and went into the kitchen. She put the kettle on and got a tea tray, setting up the tea things quickly and efficiently. The kettle began to whistle and she took it off the heat, pouring the water into the teapot. Then she brought the whole setup into the living room. She poured him a cup of tea, wrapping both of his hands around it, then gently touched his forehead. "You okay?"

He nodded, sipping at the tea. "I am. Or I will be."

Buffy nodded as well. "I'll be right back." She squared her shoulders and went back upstairs.

The stench of burning flesh hung heavy in the room, but where there had been a corpse there was now a large pile of ash. The coverlet was not even singed. Buffy pulled the window open, letting in a rush of cool fresh air, then took the coverlet to the window. She shook it thoroughly, making sure all the ash and dust was gone before bringing it back into the room and laying it across the bed again. She straightened the covers, resetting the pillows, making sure that nothing in the room seemed amiss. Once the room looked uninhabited, except for the few things of Dawn's which lay on the table, she stepped back and nodded. Then she grabbed the axe from where it had fallen on the floor and headed back downstairs to check on Giles.

He was still sipping at his tea on the sofa. He looked better than he had; there was color on his face and his complexion no longer resembled curdled milk. His hands had mostly stopped shaking, and he seemed fairly calm. As she came down the stairs, his eyes tracked immediately to the axe she carried and his eyebrows went up in shock. "How on Earth did you get that?"

"I went to the Council building and took it," she replied, "after I read your book." She pulled the journal out of her cargo pocket and offered it to him. "Do you remember doing that?"

He looked at the book as though he'd never seen it before for a long time, then slowly reached for it. He opened it and flipped to the page that was still marked by his slip of paper, scanning the words written in his own distinctive handwriting. "As if it were something I'd done in a dream," he said finally. "It's very indistinct. Almost unreal."

She nodded, sitting down in a chair and leaning the axe against the coffee table. "Well, I went down to the Council. It was all dark, but the doors opened for me which, just by the way, creepy! Anyway, so I talked to Charles, and he's the one who gave me the powder stuff to burn the body because he said otherwise the First thing would be able to take it back over again and then we'd be right back at square one. And I got the axe off the wall, came back, went upstairs, and. you know the rest."

"Charles?" Giles cocked his head curiously.

"Yeah." Buffy made a face. "And then he told me a whole bunch of weird stuff about telling people things I hadn't told them yet in order to break spells." She shuddered delicately. "I really didn't like him."

Giles smiled at the sudden memory brought by her unconscious echo of herself and then questioned her curiously. "What did he look like, Buffy?"

"Old," the Slayer replied immediately. When her Watcher sighed impatiently, she hastened to defend herself. "No, I mean it. Really old. Not just older. He was like ninety years old or something. All wrinkled and crazy white hair, looking like Doc Brown or something. Really dark eyes, too, like maybe he was part Mexican or something."

Giles's eyebrows raised. "Buffy. we haven't -" he was cut off by the telephone ringing. Buffy stood and went to get the portable receiver, which she brought to him. He pressed the button and raised it to his ear. "Yes, hello?"

"Giles?" It was Willow.

"Yes, Willow," he replied, raising an eyebrow at Buffy. Buffy shrugged and sat down in the chair, nibbling on a cookie.

"Is everything okay over there? Because I just had. what might have been a really bad dream brought on by too much spicy curry."

"What happened, Willow?" he inquired.

"Well, I was asleep, and so hence the maybe-it-was-a-dream," she began, "but all of a sudden I woke up feeling like I was on fire. Literally like I was burning inside my skin. I might have yelled - I'm not sure. And I was trying to walk across the room, but I couldn't. I fell down, and when I did, this black smoke stuff came out of me and hovered over me like it was trying to get back inside. And then it screamed and it flew off out the window."

"You say the smoke. screamed?" he repeated.

"I know it sounds completely whacked-out," Willow replied, slightly defensively, "but it's true."

"I believe you," Giles responded immediately in a soothing tone. "We had something of a battle here tonight, you see, and I was simply confirming that what you experienced was similar to what I experienced."

"You did, too?" Willow was genuinely shocked.

"I did," Giles replied. "As far as I can tell, I believe that you and I, and probably Xander, and perhaps even our version of Buffy, were possessed by the First Evil. Buffy has defeated it once again."

"The First Evil?" Willow repeated. "But. Sunnydale. the Hellmouth. I thought it was gone!"

Giles shook his head, even though Willow couldn't see it. "No, Willow," he explained gently. "As long as there is evil in the world, we shall know that we have not banished the First. It will always be there. We can prevent some of its machinations, but we cannot kill an eternal entity. And we wouldn't want to."

At that, Buffy's own eyebrows went up. "We wouldn't?" she asked, at precisely the same moment that Willow did the same.

"No, we wouldn't," he explained patiently. "Nature abhors a vacuum, does it not? The death of one eternal being would create just such an imbalance. If the First Evil died then, in all likelihood, so would whatever its 'good' counterpart."

"Oh," Buffy and Willow said together again, and Buffy continued. "That would be. bad."

"Indeed," Giles replied dryly, cocking an eyebrow at her. "But, Willow, you'll be fine. Drink some tea and go back to bed. You'll probably feel just fine tomorrow."

"Okay," Willow replied. "Will do. Say goodnight to Buffy for me? And tell her I said good job?"

"I will, Willow. Good night."

"Bye." Willow rang off, and Giles turned to Buffy.

"Willow sends her compliments on a job well done," he began. "Now, I was going to ask you about this Charles fellow. We don't have -" But he was cut off again by the phone's shrill ring. With a sigh, he picked it up and pressed the button. "Hello?"

"Mr. Giles?" It was Nicole, Xander's fiancÚ. "Mr. Giles, it's Xander, there's. oh, it was horrible!"

"Was it black smoke that screamed?" Giles hazarded.

"Why, yes, how did you know?" she asked.

He chuckled slightly. "Welcome to our world, Nicole. Is Xander able to speak?"

"Yes, I'll put him on. Won't be a mo." There was a bit of rustling, and then Xander came on the line.

"Hey, Giles," Xander said, slightly weak. "What the frilly heck is going on now?"

"The First Evil," Giles replied succinctly. "Buffy took care of it again."

Willow's surprise was repeated, and Giles explained again about nature and imbalances. When he was done, Xander asked something that Willow had not. "Giles. what about Dawn? Is she okay?"

Giles was silent for a long moment. "Dawn." his voice cracked and he had to pause to clear his throat. "Dawn has been the host for the First, Xander. As far as I can tell, since Sunnydale was destroyed. She appeared to have taken a sword or knife to the stomach, and was being reanimated by the spirit of the First."

Xander choked back a sob. "She. she's dead?"

"She's been dead, Xander," Giles said softly. "We were simply deceived."

"I. I can't. I gotta go," Xander said softly and rang off immediately.

Giles sighed deeply. "I'll have to go by and check on him later," he said softly. Then he turned to Buffy. "There isn't anyone at the Council who matches your description," he said quickly, hoping not to be interrupted again. The Watcher on duty tonight should have been Margaret Harding." He cocked his head at her curiously. "What exactly did he say to you?"

Buffy looked uncomfortable. "Just some kind of crap about telling somebody something to make the spell end," she hedged.

"To tell who what?" Giles pressed. He was studying her reactions intently. If some being had taken a hand in what happened and was giving her directions on how to end the spell and bring his proper Buffy back to him, well. he had some reparations to make.

But Buffy wasn't cooperating. "Tea!" she exclaimed, grabbing the nearly scalding pot and hurrying toward the kitchen. "Tea's getting cold. I'll get some hot water."

Giles stared after her, astonished. She was behaving quite strangely. He listened to her clattering around the kitchen and knew what she was doing; he did it often enough himself. It was a defense mechanism - hiding until one could control one's emotions and facial expressions.

When Buffy came back into the room with a new pot of tea, the smile she'd pasted on looked almost like a grimace of pain. "So, Giles," she asked him in a seemingly abrupt change of subject, "Where's Olivia been hiding this whole time we've been here?"

Giles nearly dropped his cup. "Olivia?" he asked as though not sure he'd heard her properly.

"Yeah, Olivia. Your supermodel girlfriend?"

He swallowed hard, getting a sudden inkling of just what might be going on. Surely not. but then why else would she bring up Olivia? "Buffy, Olivia married an architect and settled down in Liverpool about a year after her last visit to Sunnydale. She's three children now and a successful investments firm."

A shudder passed through Buffy. "So who are you dating now?" she asked lightly.

"Buffy, why does that -" He stopped suddenly, studying her. She was hunched over her teacup like a woman who expects some painful blow. Her hands were shaking and she wouldn't look at him. He set his cup down on the table. "Buffy, what is it that you need to tell me?"

She shook her head, and he could see the gleam of tears on her cheeks. He stood, testing the strength of his knees for a moment before moving around to her side. "Buffy, please," he said softly, touching her shoulder. "Talk to me."

She was silent for a long time, and then finally whispered, "I can't. You don't want me."

He started. "What?"

"Well, you don't!" Suddenly she was angry. She slapped her cup down on the table and stood, moving away from him. "You think I'm stupid, and you think I'm just a kid and I don't know what I want. But you're wrong. I do know."

"Tell me, Buffy," he encouraged her softly.

She shook her head, fighting back tears. "Riley doesn't like you. He's jealous of you."

"Of me?" Giles repeated, confused by the sudden change of subject. "What for?"

"Because he knows!" she yelled, exasperated. "He knows how I feel and it makes him furious that it's not him, okay? He wants me to love him and I can't, and he knows that it's because I already love you!"

He stared at her, astonished, and watched as her face flushed. She looked for a long moment as though she had swallowed her tongue. Then she bolted for the door. "Buffy, don't leave!" he shouted as she snatched the door open and darted out onto the stoop.

She paused in her headlong flight and turned back toward him, opening her mouth to say something. Then her feet somehow tangled together and she fell, arms pinwheeling. She fell over both the steps onto the sidewalk, her head striking the cement pathway with a sickening crunch.

Read the next chapter: Mirror, Mirror