Family | Part Two | Epilogue to Doomed

Giles smiled, put down the drink he'd just poured, and made his way painfully to the door.

Buffy—

“Hi Giles,” Willow said cheerfully then stopped smiling. The momentary surprise, then hurt, on Giles' face had vanished and he was looking at her enquiringly, but she had seen.

“She didn't come?”

“Hello, Willow. No she didn't,” he said lightly as he closed the door. “Prior engagement, I expect.”

“She's not at the dorm. I'm really sorry I didn't come to the hospital with Xander, but I promised someone…and I really try not to break promises…” Her face reddened suddenly. “Except maybe for that truth spell that time,” she added uncomfortably.

He smiled with real affection. “I know,” he said softly. “Besides, you wouldn't have enjoyed it. I'm really beginning to think my car is allergic to Xander's driving…or vice-versa.”

Willow giggled, but it faded when he picked up his drink again.

“Giles,” she said very softly. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Drink alone?”

He looked up at her wearily over the rim of the glass. “I'm not alone, now.”

Willow frowned, then seemed to realise something. “Oh,” she said, her face growing sad. “You don't have…”

“No,” he agreed quietly. “I don't.”

“Are we friends…you and me?” she asked suddenly, frightened but resolved.

Giles dropped the glass to his side. “Of course we're friends. What—?”

“Then I can…A-ask you why, I mean. I want to know, Giles. I…we…we care about you. Xander told me a little…about earlier…at the hospital. He's scared, and so am I.”

He turned away. “He shouldn't have worried you. It was nothing. Reaction to the concussion, most likely.”

“No,” Willow said firmly, her insides shaking. “Not after what happened at your apartment. That wasn't the concussion talking. That was you.”

“You don—” He turned back too quickly, staggered a little and clutched his temple.

She moved swiftly to support him to the sofa.

“Why did they release you if you're still so hurt?”

He chuckled mirthlessly. “They put professional rugby players back on the field with far worse concussion than mine.”

“And how many times have you been concussed?” she retorted pointedly. “Not counting the skull fracture and blood clot that lady watcher gave you…”

Giles winced again and rolled his eyes. “She was no lady. And I'm afraid these days rugby players fair little better than I. Stop worrying, Willow. I'm fine.

“No you're not,” she said softly, a tremor in her voice, her insides jello again, and glanced at the door, “and she should have come.”

Giles froze, but he didn't look up, or speak for several moments. “Would you like some tea?” he asked when he finally did. “I have some of that Scottish shortbread you used to like.”

Willow's eyes glistened far too brightly when they met his, but she just nodded. “I'll make it,” she said softly.

When she came back he'd refilled his glass, the bottle sitting on the coffee table.

“That doesn't go very well with tea,” she chided.

“It does today,” he said wearily.

Willow poured without further comment and he abandoned the drink long enough to share the tea with her.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked when they sat back after finishing the pot and the last of the shortbread.

He contemplated the glass he'd just picked up again. “Not really,” he whispered. “It's been rather a sod of a day.”

She half smiled. “Sure has. Spike can really be a pig when he wants. And the Hell-mouth still creeps me out… ”

“Spike…?”

“Yeah. He can hurt demons, you know, without the…thingy…kicking in…except he likes it a little too much. Did Xander tell you…about him trying to kill himself?”

What?

“Oh…oh, he's better now. He just couldn't deal…you know…no Grrr, no self esteem—” Her face froze and after a beat she looked up slowly, her huge green eyes searching his face, like two forest pools troubled by spring rain.

He looked back at her for several long moments then emptied the contents of the glass and reached for the bottle again.

“What happened…it wasn't your fault,” she said unsteadily. “You said it yourself. You bought that thing a long time ago…you couldn't have known…”

The green eyes grew very distant. “We almost lost her the first time the Hell-mouth opened. This time she was frightened …about the earthquake…and I didn't take her seriously. I didn't even give it serious thought,” he said softly. “I did the same with the Gentlemen. She dreamed about them…and I made jokes…”

“It didn't matter,” Willow told him. “You had the answers and Buffy beat them. Same as she did today.”

“It could have got her killed…I could have got her killed,” he retorted harshly, surprising her. “I let her down…”

Willow scowled. “Oh yeah, like she's never let you down,” she shot back then drew a sharp breath when his eyes snapped up to hers.

“This discussion is ended,” he said roughly and poured another drink. “Don't you have homework, or something?”

When she didn't answer for long seconds he eventually put the bottle down and looked up, his face crumpling a little when he looked into the hurt green eyes, their banks finally breeched.

“Please don't,” he whispered helplessly. “I'm sorry, love. I…”

Willow giggled a little between sniffs then rose, dragging the moisture from her face with the back of her hand, and moved to sit alongside him. “ 'Love?'” she asked softly. “That's new. I like it.”

His face relaxed and he chuckled as her red head leaned against the point of his shoulder. “I'm not terribly fond of endearments as a rule, especially here. Nobody seems to mean them any more.”

Willow smiled into the fabric of his sleeve. “I'm sorry…about what I said…it's just…”

Giles frowned. “You don't have anything for which to apologise,” he whispered in a hurt-filled voice. “But I'm no bloody good to her…to any of you…like this. Twenty years I've been doing this, and suddenly I can't seem to put one foot in front of the other…”

Willow straightened and looked at the familiar profile, turned now so that the horrible scratches might just as well have not been there. “You don't think that might have something to do with being cut off from all the resources you used to have…kinda being cut off from Buffy as well…and having to worry about getting a job…the future…all that unimportant stuff…?” she asked dryly.

He turned and regarded her ruefully. “Perhaps a little,” he agreed.

“But…?” Willow asked, and when he looked puzzled: “I could hear the 'but.'”

He shrugged.

“You aren't going to stop, are you?” she filled in quietly.

“Stop?”

She slid gentle fingers over a slumped shoulder. “Feeling the way you do?”

He covered the hand and patted it. “I don't know,” he said honestly. “Everything has changed. After the summer vacation I was so sure I knew how everything was going to be…and none of it has come to pass…except perhaps the expectation that Buffy would learn to cope without me,” he finished flatly, in a voice beginning to fray a little.

Willow blinked. “She can't cope without you, Giles,” she said softly.

He flicked startled, slightly blurred, green eyes to hers.

“She doesn't show it, but it's true. You hurt her when you told her she didn't need you any more. She hardly said a word to me, but what she did say was enough. I thought something really bad had happened for a while there but when I asked her why she was so mean to you…you know, when you came with the weapons after the fight with Sunday…she told me what you said. No yelling, no comment, just what you said.”

Giles looked at her as though she'd just come out in green and yellow spots. “I don't understand…” he said weakly.

“You're the only one,” Willow explained gently. “Everyone else leaves, or gets mad. Her dad left…Scott…Angel…it got too hard and they left. You were the only one who didn't. And then suddenly you kinda did…or…tried to. She's been acting weird one way or another ever since.”

He closed his eyes. “Stupid,” he muttered.

Willow's eyes widened. “Who, me?”

Giles looked up quickly, if not quite steadily. “No…no, love. Not you, me. Deserting her was the last thing on my mind. There isn't anything I want less, but I just wasn't going to be at hand constantly any more. I was afraid that if she didn't learn to think for herself, that one day I'd be too late…not that I seem to be much use even when I am consulted these days.”

He leaned back against the sofa and let his head fall back, wincing as he closed his eyes.

Willow watched him for several long moments, wondering how they could have missed so much, how long he must have been unhappy without any of them noticing.

The worst part was she didn't have a clue what to do about it. He was their friend, her friend…but he was also a grown, and very private man. She knew that by tomorrow he'd be sober and withdrawn and…Giles again. And she'd be just Willow again…

When his breathing became steady and rhythmic she eased the glass from his hand and put it on the table, feeling out of her depth and unaccountably intrusive. Again she watched him as she stood over him, and again she wondered how they could have missed it…and knew that it was because they all took him for granted. He was just always there…always Giles.

She frowned and reached out a hand instinctively to smooth his mussed hair, stopped mid-air, then withdrew it again, scowled and turned to take the tea tray back to the kitchen instead. By the time she'd finished washing up and putting things away she was even angrier. She was still feeling like a kid, like she didn't have the right...and yet a part of her claimed that right, as his friend, as someone who loved him…as family.

When she emerged from the kitchen he was awake again, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, glass cupped in both hands. There wasn't all that much left in the bottle. She hoped there hadn't been too much to start with. It had been less than half full when she arrived and he certainly hadn't smelled of alcohol when he answered the door.

She sighed jaggedly. Much as she wanted to, until she found some more courage, there wasn't any more she could do…except…

“I'm going to go now,” she said softly when she reached the sofa.

He stirred and squinted up at her. “I thought you'd already gone.” He put the glass down. “I'll get the door for you.”

She marvelled at how normal he was able to sound, if tired; how smoothly he got up and crossed to the front door. A man who was used to holding his liquor, she supposed.

He was watching her. “It's all right, Willow,” he said gently. “I've had less than you think.”

Her worried face relaxed a little and she half smiled. “I'm glad,” she said. “Just…” she began, then changed her mind again. “I'll go now.”

He opened the door and smiled back at her. “Thank you for coming…for the tea…” he said simply.

He looked awful, his scratches standing out lividly, his gentle eyes bloodshot and shadowed. His body was hunched slightly and tensed against the pain of his ribs and he was now swaying almost imperceptibly from the effects of the concussion, the alcohol and the tiredness.

Willow nodded and started across the terrace, her own eyes beginning to blur again. She scuffed at them and stopped, wheeled just as he was turning to go inside…alone.

Giles…”

He turned back just in time to find himself embraced, albeit gently, by a small flying body, weeping softly now into the bottom of his breastbone. He closed his eyes and drew his arms around her.

“Shh…” he admonished, his accent slipping slightly. “What's all this, then?”

Willow pulled back and looked up at him self-consciously. “N-nothing. Just me getting a-all mushy,” she stammered. “I—I'm sorry…”

He chuckled, his eyes growing very bright. “You make me sound like a curmudgeonly old fart,” he complained. “Am I really that bad?”

She relaxed a little and smiled, eyes glowing with affection. “Worse,” she teased, unable to still the stray tears that spilled over despite her grin.

He shook his head, still smiling, and drew her back into his arms, returning her endearingly careful hug with a bear hug of his own. A few moments later he kissed the top of her head and released her.

“You see,” he twinkled. “Not even a growl.”

She giggled, then found and held the soft green eyes, framed now by their familiar laughter lines.

“Are you going to be okay?”

They filled with affection, the corners crinkling even more, and he nodded, just a little.

Willow smiled. It was enough…more reassuring than any long-winded speech or affectation of normality.

Giles watched until she was out of sight then turned, still half-smiling, and walked stiffly back into the apartment and over to the sofa, where he picked up the bottle and glass and continued on his way.

For long minutes silence hung almost oppressively over the small apartment.

And then in the midst of the emptiness…a kettle started to whistle...



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