Fallout | Epilogue to Becoming & Anne

Rupert Giles walked slowly across the lawn of the pretty house in its quiet suburban street and slid behind the wheel of his battered Citroen. For a long time he just sat, almost catatonically, not really feeling anything, then his hands tightened around the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

He didn't remember much about the drive back to his apartment. Nor did he remember much about how he ended up sitting on the beach at one o'clock in the morning, sand in his shoes, his face wind-burned and his hair blown woolly by the summer sea breeze.

Somewhere in the blur there was another failed lead; Joyce Summer's damning voice, Buffy's face, a hot, empty apartment and a couple of neat double scotches…

It was a quiet beach, deserted now. He'd never bothered before, but he knew from patrolling and Buffy's chatter that it wasn't one favoured by the local youth, because it was too sheltered for real surf, and because it lacked any real amenities. He decided he liked it.

He closed his eyes. The summer had been too long, and the waiting interminable. It had taken its toll on everyone. He was pleased Xander appeared to have recovered, gaining weight and joining in with the others again, but he was aware that the scars were still there. As they were for young Willow, who, while recovered from her physical injuries, still succumbed to nightmares, and a tendency to brood.

Another hour passed in peaceful solitude, only the sound of the ocean surging and receding in a soothing rhythm interrupting the silence. It was with real reluctance that he finally got himself up off the sand and wandered back to the car.

The apartment seemed warm and stuffy and particularly claustrophobic when he returned. He pondered the thought of tea as he went upstairs to shower and change and dismissed the idea as he stripped off his clothes, for once tossing them blindly on the bed and over the furniture, grains of sand flicking in all directions.

He didn't notice that his pants, or more particularly their belt, had dislodged the receiver from its cradle on his bedside phone.

He ran the shower several degrees hotter than normal, twisting the shower rose so that it pounded the middle of his back between his shoulder blades, and remained there for a long time, his eyes closed, trying not to think at all.

It wasn't working. He rested his brow on the shower wall, water running through his hair, trickling down his reddened face in rivulets.

Was it all his fault…? Was it?

He straightened suddenly and turned the faucets off almost violently, stepped out and snatched a towel before striding back to his room dripping water everywhere.

The navy blue cotton pyjama bottoms were sufficient for the airless summer night. He padded barefoot down the stairs to the kitchen, beads of moisture still on his smooth back, his mood unabated, and forced himself to make tea, and a light supper.

It all tasted like cardboard. He left the tray where it lay on the breakfast bar, poured another drink and took himself wearily back upstairs. As he slid between the sheets he told himself he wasn't angry with Joyce, that he pitied her, but knew it instantly for a lie. A few moments later he sat up again, picked up the glass and unclenched his jaw long enough to down the scotch.

Then he closed his eyes, a line between his brows, and sighed a long, ragged sigh…

Someone was rapping on his front door. He sat up, squinting, his neck stiff from the awkward position he'd slept in. It was broad daylight. He must have fallen asleep sitting up...

It took a few moments to find his robe, to fly into it, and get out onto the stairs. He put a hand to his temple as he descended. His head was throbbing.

The doorknocker rattled again.

"I'm coming!" he yelled, then winced and looked at his watch. It was mid morning. Lord, he'd never overslept that much…

He checked his robe and pulled the door open, screwing up his face against the glare of summer sun, looked down and froze.

Buffy's crucifix was lying on his doorstep. He swiftly scanned up and down the street, but there was no one. He picked it up with a less than steady hand and stared at it for a long moment. Then, suddenly, his long fingers closed convulsively around it, and he swallowed hard before turning back into the apartment.

He set records dressing, running back down the stairs less than ten minutes later in a charcoal grey polo shirt and dark slacks, and the new trainers he'd recently bought. He remembered to snatch his wallet and keys off his desk on the way through, forgot completely about the glasses he'd left upstairs.

Outside he checked every square inch of ground between his front door and the kerb for any footprint, anything that might tell him who'd left the cross. There was nothing.

The elderly car was temperamental, taking long minutes to start, then warm up. He drew the crucifix from his breast pocket while he was waiting. He'd seen it enough times to recognise it anywhere. It was the one Angel had given her, so long ago. He turned it over idly as the Citroen's engine finally found its rhythm.

There was a stain on it. He scratched at it with a fingernail, smelled it and frowned, touching the nail to his tongue. He paled. Blood…

Then he was putting the car in gear and turning it for Crawford street, the only place he could think of to look…

The mansion was deserted. He ran down the stairs, breathing hard, trying not to think about the last time he'd seen those walls, the last time he'd heard his own screams echoing back through those lonely corridors. He shivered and crossed the open area to where Acathla stood.

The statue stared back at him almost defiantly. For the briefest of moments a surge of hate, such as he hadn't felt since his rebelious youth, crashed over him and he almost succumbed to the temptation to spit on it.

Only the urgency of his search carried him away. Once he'd searched all the upstairs rooms and the supposedly locked up areas he ran back down and out through the French doors, out onto the courtyard, found nothing, turned and came back, breathing hard. There had to be a reason why he was there…

And then he remembered…

He stopped. The small side-room was a personal hell he'd thought never to revisit. With a trembling hand he ripped back the velvet curtains, his heart pounding.

"No…!" The word trembled and broke into a thousand pieces.

For an endless second he stared at the bruised, crumpled figure slumped in the chair, his throat seized with grief, his eyes glittering. Then he was on his knees at her side ripping the cord from her wrists, her feet, from around the chair and lifting her, so gently.

He carried her out into the light, folded close, brought her to the centre of the room and lay her on the floor. He felt for a pulse, couldn't find one, dropped her wrist and touched fingers to her throat.

"You! You did it!"

He swung around, his eyes widening in disbelief.

An enraged Joyce Summers loomed over him. "You killed her…You took her away from me…It's your fault."

"No…" he said brokenly and turned back to the pale figure on the ground, trying to find a pulse, breath, anything. "No…!" he cried, lifted her and started CPR.

"No!" Joyce shrieked behind him, ripping at his clothes, trying to stop him from touching her. With just one arm he knocked her sprawling across the room, where she slammed to a halt against a wall and went limp, then turned back to Buffy who was almost blue.

"Oh God…" he sobbed, and started the CPR again.

Her colour was almost normal, pink suffusing her pale cheeks, when bruising hands clamped on his arms, dragged him, struggling and cursing, from her side and threw him at Acathla's feet.

Angelus.

Angelus standing astride Buffy's unconscious body, laughing, taunting…

Rage surged through him, red and pulsing and violent, reviving all the worst impulses and instincts of those troubled early years. He scrambled to his feet, half sobbing, half growling and charged, knocking the vampire away from her, then throwing himself on him, in a frenzy of kicking and gouging and every dirty street trick his memory was able to dredge up. Had Angelus been human he would not have stood again.

Instead, the first time Giles hesitated, trying to catch a glimpse of Buffy's crumpled figure, terrified she might still slip away, the vampire heaved the librarian off and scrambled to his feet in hunting mode.

"That's it. No more playing nice. This time I get to use the chainsaw," he hissed, strode toward the human and grabbed him by the throat. "If you last that long…"

Giles clutched at his forearm, déjà vu sending renewed waves of rage and frustration through him as he struggled. He clawed and scratched, kicked out with his legs, but nothing would dislodge the death grip.

Soon oxygen-less, his lungs had begun to jerk in spasms, his head to pound and he could feel consciousness receding quickly.

'I'm sorry, Buffy…'

It was his last formed thought.

And then, inconceivably, Angelus screamed…and ash showered Giles' clothes, his face, and the floor.

He collapsed to his knees dragging in great tearing breaths, his throat an agony, his head still throbbing. When the blood-red haze had cleared from his vision he looked up again.

"Buffy…?"

She was standing, barely, a broken chair leg still poised in her hand, her cut head still bleeding, her hair matted with dried blood.

Then her frightened, tortured eyes met his and she was sliding helplessly to her knees. "Giles…" she whimpered, half falling against him, half reaching.

He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, overwhelmed by shock and relief and the warm, living reality of her, there, safe, in his arms, where he could protect her, guard her, cherish her…

"Giles…?"

"GILES!"

"Buffy…?" He sat up, his haggard face damp with moisture, his hands trembling, and blinked the sleep from his eyes. "Buffy?"

But when he focussed the faces looking back at him with concern were Willow and Xander's. The weight of realisation almost choked him.

"Giles, man, you're late for school. You didn't call in, and your phone's out of order," Xander said uncomfortably as the older man stared blankly at them. "We sneaked out. We thought…"

Willow sat next to him on the bed. "We were worried," she said softly, her gentle eyes filling as she took in his still trembling hands and reddened eyes.

"I…I'm sorry," he whispered tremulously, his head lowering even as he spoke. "I…I had a bad night, forgot to set…" But the overwhelming tide of despair was too much, after the months of control, of relentless searching and hoping…after finally…After having her safe in his arms

Xander turned away as the older man's head dropped, shoulders shaking with the intensity of his silent pain, and numbly started picking up the scattered clothes.

Willow's face crumpled. She drew herself instinctively onto her knees on the bed and silently put her arms around her friend and sometime mentor, her tender heart breaking for him. Breaking not only for his suffering, but for their intrusion into his private pain; he who had never once allowed himself to falter in their presence, not even after Jenny Calendar's death…

Xander looked up to see Willow, weeping softly, rest her brow on Giles' crown. He clamped his lips into a straight line, and momentarily closed his eyes before slipping quietly from the room to tell Oz they'd found him.

In a little while Willow appeared, sat on the landing at the top of the stairs. Several minutes later the door to Giles' room opened again. He was dressed for school. He paused to wait for Willow to stand, and they came down the stairs together.

Xander and Oz rose from the stools at the breakfast bar as they approached. Giles was very slow to lift his eyes to theirs, but his pale, haggard face was now closed and calm.

"We're going to pick up donuts and coffee on the way," Willow said quietly.

"Good move," Xander agreed, meeting the older man's gaze, holding it. "But I recommend orange juice for that extra sugar rush," he added softly, his eyes bright with the depth of his feelings.

A hint of answering warmth kindled in Giles' green ones and his mouth softened just a little. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

Willow finally smiled and Oz exhaled slowly.

Then, suddenly, the Librarian was clapping his hands together and picking up his keys. "All right, everyone. Let's get you back to school before our beloved fuhrer puts us all out on the street," he said briskly and led the way out.

They all looked at each other.

"He's back," Oz said quietly.

"In true Giles form," Xander agreed, his tone forced and his eyes clouded.

Willow, watching Giles open the front door, shook her head.

"No," she said softly. "He's not. But he's going to need us to think so for a while…"



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