Empty | Epilogue to Into the Woods

Buffy forced herself to stand up. It was as though she was lost, disconnected. Xander had given her a way to make things right, and, as with her mother's illness, she had discovered that she had not one wit of control over the unfolding events, anyway.

He was gone.

Forever.

And she didn't even know for sure how she felt about that. All she knew was someone she'd come to consider almost an extension of herself had suddenly been ripped away… was gone…and there was a gaping void. She knew she'd done something wrong, but again she wasn't certain what. Everything Xander had said made sense…except that the hole was empty. There was no separation of self, no weeping wound as there had been for Willow after Oz…no shattered heart, as there had been after Angel.

…There was only 'empty.'

…An empty, lonely place where Riley had been…and that was the scariest thing of all…the realization that nothing had changed…except that Riley no longer filled the emptiness.

She had to get out. Sitting on the stairs in her home, just as she had while waiting for Angelus to return the day she and Willow had revoked Angel's invitation to enter, was the last thing she wanted to do. She didn't want to think about what had just happened, what was wrong with the whole situation…and she knew it had been very wrong, in any number of ways...not just his strange behaviour.

All that mattered was that it had ended…as it always did…with someone walking away.

She closed her eyes. What did life…fate…God…the Powers That Be…whatever it was…what did it want from her? Why did it always have to end the same way? Was she really only destined to fight and die without ever knowing what it was like to be truly loved and cherished…?

No, check that. She opened her eyes again. …Without ever knowing what it was like to love and cherish someone as much as they loved and cherished you…?

She swallowed. She had never cherished Riley. Relied on him, leaned on him, needed him to keep the empty away, but cherish…no.

Hell, she couldn't even say the words when he was practically begging her for them with his eyes…she couldn't, because it wouldn't have been the truth…

“Poor Riley,” she whispered. “I'm so sorry.”

The Magic Shop was closed, but the lights still burned inside. She let herself in and picked her way towards the workout room. There was no sign of Anya, or even Willow and Tara. In passing she wondered about the lights when there was no sight or sound of Giles either.

“Giles?” she called experimentally.

At first there was only silence, then the sound of dull thuds coming from the workout room.

She ran, bursting through the door only to stop dead when she realised Giles was working out, not getting beaten up. The dull thuds were his fists pummelling the punching bag. She could tell he'd been running, too. He was wearing his new running shoes, his hair was matted with sweat and it was trickling off his brow.

“Pretty impressive,” she said quietly, when he stopped for a moment, breathing hard.

His eyes flew up and his hands dropped to his side. “Hello, Buffy. Wasn't expecting you tonight. Something wrong?”

She shook her head. “Only the sight of you in running shorts, looking like the Solo man.”

He looked confused, which only made her smile. “Never mind,” she told him. “Do you have enough energy left for some training?”

He heaved a large sigh. “Of course,” he managed, looking at least half way enthused, then frowned. “Something is wrong,” he added unexpectedly.

Buffy stared at him. “How…I mean what makes you think that?”

Giles walked away from the punching bag and picked up a towel from the pommel horse, wiped his brow, his face with it, as he came towards her. He halted only about eighteen inches from her.

“How long have we known each other?”

It was her turn to frown. “You know,” she replied.

“Yes,” he said dryly. “Long enough to know you…and to know when something's wrong. Do you want to talk about it?”

It unnerved her. None of the men who'd claimed to love her, ever really knew what was going on in her head, never really *knew* her, despite the passion of some of those liaisons.

Riley's face floated again in her thoughts. Even passion wasn't the right word for their relationship…passion was a word once reserved for Angel…passion, pain, heartache…on the other hand, Riley…Riley had been like this big, cuddly comforter…an emotional teddy bear for her to cling to without having to make any kind of real emotional commitment of her own.

“Buffy?”

She refocused on Giles, looking directly into his gentle green eyes. He still hadn't put his glasses back on, and his longer hair was mussed, giving him the look of someone much younger and very much more male than her formerly tweedy, tidy, ex-demon-pecked Watcher.

Realising with some mortification that she'd been on the edge of tears, she pushed them back down and cleared her throat.

“Yes…what…oh…no, not really.” Then, part of her rebelled. “Well, sort of. Riley's kind of… gone.”

“Gone?”

She nodded silently. “To South America,” she said softly, not seeing the expression that momentarily clouded his features. “I-I don't think he's coming back.”

He came to her side and turned her towards the door. “I think perhaps I should change and we should continue this conversation somewhere quiet…would you like to go to Nero's?”

Buffy liked the small Italian café with its great coffee and even better ambience. “Okay,” she said quietly.

Nero's was almost empty. The shoppers were home having dinner, and the current sessions at the cinema hadn't come out yet.

Giles, hastily dressed in slightly worn, rather tight blue jeans and a dark blue shirt he hadn't bothered to tuck in, ushered her to a booth at the back of the café, half-lit only by small wall lights.

Buffy immediately relaxed. Surrounded by dark wood panelling, the aroma of roasted coffee beans and the faint scent of the cologne Giles had worn ever since the first time they'd ever met, she felt safe, relaxed and comfortingly removed from the world at large.

They sat together in silence until the coffee Giles ordered, arrived, and with it two large slices of cake.

Buffy looked at the cake almost bemusedly.

“Black Forest Cake,” Giles said matter-of-factly, pushing his fork through the thin end of his wedge. “I have it on good authority that sweet things are very good for emotional upheaval.”

The colour rushed to her face. “He was the one doing the upheaving and I didn't…I didn't know. I don't even know h-how I feel now. Giles, what's wrong with me?”

Giles finally looked up from his cake, his fork hand coming to rest on the table as she continued.

“I don't…I'm no good at relationships…look at me. These guys, they say they love me, or they like me a lot…but they all leave…and it's my fault.”

“No—”

“Yes,” Buffy cut him off. “You don't have to say something to make me feel better. This time I know. I know I drove Riley away. I know—”

“Buffy, your mother could have died. You couldn't know that prioritising was going to affect your relationship so severely. If Finn had been more of a man he would have supported you until it was over, until you were sure your mother was safe and Dawn was cared for, regardless of how involved he was or was not allowed to be, in the process…”

She was watching him talk, listening to his beautiful voice speaking softly, but with conviction, when things slowly started to come into focus.

“You did,” she said, almost unaware that she'd spoken.

“I what?” he asked, puzzled.

Buffy's eyes grew very bright. “Supported me…no matter what. Even when we drifted apart…or at least, when I tried to be commando girl last year…you never left me.”

He looked down at his cake, toyed with it with the fork. “Y-yes, well, that's not quite the same thing…”

“No,” she said. “No, it isn't.”

His head came up and his eyes found hers, questioning, penetrating.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“For what?” he asked, holding her gaze.

“Being you. Being here.”

His eyes gleamed with affection. “You're very welcome,” he said quietly. “Are you going to be all right?”

She shrugged. “What's 'all right'? I don't know any more.”

A divot formed in his brow. “Buffy, regardless of how it feels right now, you are not alone…”

She smiled slowly, and with great affection. “I forget that a lot, don't I?”

He half smiled. “I realise I'm not exactly a treat, but I am here,” he said softly.

“A treat?” Buffy repeated. She thought about that for a moment, then looked into his eyes. After a beat she tried to say the words.

“You…” she began, stopped, and scowled. “God, Giles. I didn't know it would be so hard to put into words. How can I tell you…?” She looked down, in thought, for a moment. “When I thought I'd lost you… when I thought the Fyarl demon had killed you…I didn't know what I was going to do…I didn't know how I was going to make it without you.”

His concerned look softened into one of surprise and affection, his eyes more lighted than they'd been in a very long time.

“You would have had your mother…and Riley,” he pointed out.

Buffy shook her head slowly. “Mom can't share my life…my real life…and Riley, God, there was never really any Riley.” Moisture flicked in her lashes, and one drop flipped onto a pale cheek. “I can't believe he's gone, and yet a part of me…knows,” she said, touching her heart, “that he was never in here.”

Giles touched her fingers after several long moments of silence and she smiled at him again.

“When thought I lost you, I couldn't think about anything. Nothing mattered, not even Riley. But now that I've lost Riley…there's just empty. I feel…it's like he was there, but I didn't even open the door.”

Giles seemed to understand. “He cared a great deal for you. Perhaps you should have told him much sooner, but if you didn't realise…”

Buffy nodded. “I was so shut down…I-I am so shutdown, all I can feel is…empty. I haven't been a daughter, or a friend, a sister, or a…” she looked into his eyes and fell silent. “I haven't been anything to anyone since I killed Angel and almost lost my soul to Faith.”

The green eyes closed just for a moment, only too painfully aware of the price Buffy had almost paid.

“Buffy, you were asked to be the Slayer, to do the job. Nobody said that meant you would be perfect. You were called without warning in the midst of your childhood. No one expected it to be easy, or that you wouldn't make mistakes, know doubts, or choose unwisely at times. All I could have ever asked of you is that you be true to what and who you are…and in that you have never disappointed me.”

She opened her mouth to object, knowing how many times she *had* disappointed him.

He shook his head. “Even when you faltered…when you ran away…you came back. You came back, Buffy. Despite everything that had happened, all of it, you ultimately chose to return, to face your destiny with the same courage and goodness of heart that I have always…that I…”

Buffy watched him cough a little, drink some of his coffee and attack his cake, but said nothing, waiting for him to finish his sentence.

Finally, he made himself look up again. “I have never judged you for your mistakes, because…for all your flaws…your…your…humanity, you are the Slayer, and you have always, despite fear, doubts, and not a little rebellion, remained true to that calling. No matter how much you kicked against it, you're still here. You didn't choose Faith's path, though God knows you've had more than enough reason to…nor did you chose mine. Despite all of it…you prevailed.” For a long moment they stared at each other, then his eyes gentled. “I'm so proud of you…”

She looked away. She couldn't help it. The combination of being moved beyond words and shamed to her core and the sudden, unreasonable and unslayer-like threat by her carefully built walls of resistance, against the continual onslaught of misery of the last couple of years, to disintegrate into an emotional display the like of which would scar a stoic like Giles for life, making her hold everything back.

She couldn't speak, only swallow and blink very fast.

“B…bathroom,” she eventually managed and fled.

Giles watched her go for a moment, then, equally uncharacteristically, took off after her. The café restrooms were single room, single cubicle affairs, allowing entry to the wash area and the door to the cubicle. Giles looked over his shoulder to ensure the coast was clear as the door closed behind Buffy, and slipped into the room after her.

He wasn't sure why he'd done it, only that it had been instinctive, that he knew it was necessary, and that…well…he needed to be there for her this time. When Angel had left her, his single abiding contribution had been the offer of ice cream. He didn't intend to stand back helplessly, when there was anything he could do, ever again. He'd had enough of just standing back, period.

Retching noises were coming from the cubicle.

“Buffy?” he said gently.

There were a few more noises, the rattle of paper being drawn and the rustle of it as she cleaned her face.

“Giles…wh…? You do know this is a ladies' rest room?” she croaked.

“In inimitable words of Xander: not caring right now,” he quoted, trying to make her laugh. It half-worked.

The soggy muffled guffaw was followed by a choking noise. “I can't do this any more,” she managed.

“Perhaps not,” he said gently, “but can you at least come out of there so I don't have to address the um…colourful…artwork and…er…poetry…on this door any more?”

A moment later she emerged, turning and looking at the amateur 'biology' lessons and even more amateurish limericks written in felt pen on it, before turning a pale face back to his.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered and went to the basin to wash up.

It was the last thing he expected her to say. “What in God's name for?”

She turned and dropped the paper towel in the wastebasket. “Everything,” she whispered, her eyes sliding away again.

He reached out and touched her arm, confused.

“I-I know I've been shutdown…like forever…she said slowly. I-I can't feel anything. Nothing is…it's like a part of me doesn't want to be here…like…I've had enough.”

“Buffy, no…” he breathed.

“But I've been that way for so long…I've hurt the others…hurt Riley…” Her eyes moved slowly back and rolled up to meet his. “Most of all I've hurt you.” She hesitated, cleared her throat before continuing less than steadily. “I-I think it was b-because I knew you…you were the only one who would take it…who w-would still be there when-if…” Her voice trailed off vaguely.

Giles closed his eyes. For so long that had been so very true, but in the end even he had been going to desert her, like everyone else. How could he tell her he'd intended to do the same thing as all the others? How could he not…?

“You see,” he said softly. “You're wrong there. You think you're so terrible, and yet I was the one who was giving up…leaving.”

She looked up, startled. “Giles…?”

“You deserve to know. Last Fall…well, the end of the summer, really, I was going to leave…to-to try and make some sense of my life. You didn't need me any more.” He half smiled. “Nobody did…and I understood that. I-It was time for me to move on.”

Dumbfounded blue-grey eyes stared into his. “You were leaving me?”

He smiled. “Y-yes, I believe that's what I just said.”

“Why?” She shook her head, frustrated. “No, I mean, you already said…sorta. I mean…did I do something bad?”

“Of course not,” he said swiftly. “You just…didn't need me any more,” he finished sadly.

“Do you still want to go?” she ventured, still dazed.

He couldn't help looking away. “Buffy, I've spent all my adult life working to one end, and one end only.”

“Me.”

“Y-yes. But I realised last year that not only had the Council relieved me of my official duties…you…you more or less did the same…I-I know you were exploring adulthood and its freedoms, responsibilities…pleasures. I know you found your own feet and I understand that you're not a schoolgirl any more. But I couldn't just…I'm a person…a man, if you will, Buffy. I need a purpose, and a place, like anyone else.”

“But you have…”

He shook his head. “Perhaps now, for a while. But not for a long, long time before you were frightened by the First Slayer.”

“You think I only asked you because I was scared?” she whispered.

He shook his head. “I'm only telling you because I thought you deserved to know that I'm no paragon of…” he paused, half smiled in a self-deprecating way, “…well, of any kind of virtue, really. This was meant to be about you…about the fact that you didn't drive Riley away, any more than you were driving me away. Riley didn't have the maturity or the strength of character to deal with who and what you are, or with the depth of the burden you have to bear, every single day…quite apart from what was happening with Joyce. There can be no excuse for the added pressure that was put on you during that time.”

Buffy shook her head impatiently, as though he was only clouding the real issue. “I asked you because there is no one I trust more than you,” she said fiercely. “No one. You are the only one who could make…make…” She faltered, swallowed.

He touched her shoulder tentatively, hesitantly.

The fragile eyes slipped again from a blaze to a shadow. “You're the only one who could make things okay again,” she finally managed and looked around uncomfortably. “We should get out of here.”

The flat was familiar and comforting. It had been weeks since she'd been near it and she found that she had missed it far more than she realised.

“I-if you left, what would happen to this place?” she asked, following as he crossed the floor quietly.

He stopped, turned. “I suppose I'd let it out.” When Buffy looked confused he clarified matter-of-factly. “I do actually own the place. I had quite a tidy nest-egg after I left the museum.”

“I can't imagine this place without you in it.”

He shrugged. “It wouldn't be the same place. All of my personal effects would be gone.”

She looked around, moved to touch the lamps, the funny magnifying glass on his table, to sit in his office chair. “It's all part of you, isn't it? All this stuff…?”

“I suppose so.”

“Have you ever noticed how hard it is for you and me to have a real conversation? One with no slayage, no training, not even a hint of weapons or research or spells in?”

He took off his glasses and looked at her. “Yes, I've noticed,” he admitted quietly.

“So which one of us is so hard to talk to?”

Giles chuckled. “I rather think we come as a matched set.”
Buffy finally smiled. “Yeah, I guess.” She thought for a moment. “And you know, I kind of like it…a lot…the matched set thing, not the no talking thing…” she finished awkwardly.

Giles' eyes were warm with amusement and affection. “Yes, I got it. I rather like it too. Are you all right?”

Her face dropped and she stood up. “The truth? Not really. I'm tired of being alone, you know? That was what Riley was. Poor Riley. I should have said no. Right from the beginning I had to talk myself into him. A part of me knew he wasn't the one, but I wanted it…you know? The whole nine yards…college, boyfriend…love,” she finished in a whisper.

Giles' eyes grew bright. “I'm sorry,” he said softly as they settled on the couch.

Buffy looked up at him, her eyes filled with affection. “I know.” She frowned. “But they're all going to be mad at me again. They always are, you know. It doesn't matter why I'm bad or what's happening in my life…it's always evil Buffy the bitch …”

Giles shook his head. “And they'd be wrong. No one should choose to stay with someone simply because it's expected. Riley wasn't for you.”

“I know that now, but I still don't want to be alone. How do you deal? You're alone so much,” she said suddenly. “Do you like being alone?”

The question surprised him. “Actually I detest it, but I've learned to live with my own company.”

“Then why don't you find someone…like Olivia?”

“Perhaps I don't want ano…perhaps I prefer not to involve innocents in our rather hectic lifestyle,” he proposed, glossing over his earlier slip.

“And maybe I'm just in the way,” she guessed. “Had to have been hard, Olivia not only being scared, but watching you take care of me first.”

Giles smiled. “I don't take care of you, Buffy. I haven't for a very long time.”

She smiled back. “I sorta like to think you do. Somebody has to or I really would be alone.”

“You have Willow and Xander and your mother and Dawn,” he pointed out.

“Will' and Xand' have lives now. Un-Buffy type lives. And mom…mom doesn't get most of it, and besides, she's too busy babying Dawn to worry about me…”

“I think that's a little unfair,” Giles said quietly.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “Giles?” she said, her voice serious and vibrant with emotion.

“Buffy?”

“Take care of me? I mean, I know you want me to be all independent Slayer-girl and all, but just, for now…take care of me, just a little?”

He looked at her for a moment, then smiled and removed his glasses, setting them on the coffee table without looking, and sat back to slide an arm around her and draw her against his chest.

“Is this going to be a little like 'lie to me'?” he asked whimsically as she snuggled against him.

“Kinda,” she said, amused that he remembered. “You were good at that. Wanna try again?”

He looked up, a smile playing at his mouth. “Let me see: Glory is really just a figment of our imagination, Spike doesn't really mix crushed weetabix into his blood…”

“Eiww!” she objected, but he could feel her giggling

“There really aren't any bananas in pyjamas and your white knight is likely going to come charging over the hill any time soon when you least expect…”

Buffy thought about that, and knew it was the biggest fib of all, but somehow, it didn't quite hurt so much anymore.

“Nah,” she said easily, “but that's okay.” She turned a little and curled an arm around his torso. “I've got my knight already. He might not be all shiny and white, but he looks really good in black.”

Above her head, Giles smiled, the gentleness of it belying the emotion in his face, and closed his arm around her shoulders.

“Always,” he agreed, still smiling. “And I also look good in deep blue or green and cut a dashing figure in a tuxedo…”

“Mm, tuxedo…” her muffled voice agreed from somewhere in his shirt, appreciating the memory of him at the school Prom.

Then she realised something amazing. The empty had gone away. Maybe not for good, but for now…

“Sir Giles,” she murmured sleepily. “Black Knight in a tux…with a sword and a crossbow and…”

Giles chuckled, even as he realised that her breathing had become rhythmic and even, that she'd drifted off to sleep…but his face soon grew sombre again.

Knights were supposed to slay the dragons and win the damsels. All he could do was love the damsel and try to keep her safe while she was doing the damned slaying. He drew her close and kissed the top of the fair head before sighing heavily. Love her and protect her…

…And that was all he ever wanted to do…


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