Spilt Milk | Epilogue to Dead Man's Party

"Where do you want me to put this?"

Buffy looked up at the large garbage bags Xander was holding, over-stuffed with party refuse, bottles and smashed household items.

"Out back, alongside the trash can. Mom and I can take care of them later, as long as it's all out of the house."

She finished wiping down the last of the furniture she'd straightened in the sitting room, turned to go and haul out the vacuum cleaner, and saw Giles coming down stairs with handfuls of broken glass. She watched him go quietly through to the kitchen, bit her bottom lip, then went to get the cleaner out of the hall cupboard.

It was another hour before the house was as clean as it was going to get. Xander and Giles had nailed part of a packing case from the basement over the hole in the smashed front door. Giles had promised to order a new one in the morning, and Joyce had brought out tea, cookies, hot chocolate and coffee for everyone.

Buffy watched as all the people she'd missed so much relaxed for the first time: talking, laughing and devouring the large plate of cookies. Everyone, that was, except Giles. He was contemplating his cup of tea, rather than drinking it, possibly because her mother used generic teabags instead of real tea leaves, but he was way quiet, even for Giles.

"Buffy," Willow said suddenly, "You for mochas tomorrow? We can talk about school and senior stuff…"

She looked up self-consciously, nodded and smiled, not entirely recovered from the verbal battering earlier in the evening. "Sounds great. The mochas, I mean. Senior stuff is sort of out for me until someone assassinates Snyder or there's a law passed that says you can't keep slayers out of school."

Xander raised a hand with a half-eaten cookie in it. "I volunteer for the Snyder part."

"Get in line," Joyce muttered.

Buffy's eyes went like saucers and everyone else laughed, including her mother. It was a good sound. Buffy's glance flicked to all of them, but stopped again at Giles. He was still preoccupied, half-smiling at the merriment around him, but not in his eyes, which were miles and miles away. She frowned.

Oz offered to drive the others home soon after, and they went, all counting bruises from the evening's 'activities.' To Buffy's surprise Giles, too, hastily excused himself. She watched the Citroen follow the van down the street, a flat, hollow feeling in her gut.

"Mom—?"

Joyce turned as they went back into the house and spoke first.

"Buffy, I'm sorry about before—the schnapps, and the…"

She held up a hand. "It's okay, mom, really. I know there are still issues. I should have called—"

Joyce nodded. "And I'm trying to understand, even if I still get mad just thinking about it," she admitted as they sat down again on the couch.

Buffy ran a hand over her face. "You have no idea. I'll tell you some time, but if you think tonight was bad, trust me, what happened before I left was more than anyone should have to deal with."

"I know a little," Joyce said reluctantly. "Xander and Willow visited a few times during the summer, trying to help. They got sick of avoiding my questions eventually and gave me at least an indication of what went on."

"Then you know…about Angel?"

Joyce frowned. "I know he was holding Mister Giles captive…that you went to save him. I know he was a threat to everyone and that you were the only person who could stop him." She paused and looked searchingly at her daughter. "They told me he was a vampire," she added quietly, but accusingly. "Beyond that your friends weren't willing to elaborate. They're good friends, Buffy."

Buffy sighed, but nodded, knowing that she would have to deal with that later. "I know. Mom, is Giles all right? Did he talk to you while I was gone?"

Joyce looked away, started stacking the tea things on the tray. "He…ah…he came a few times after he got out of hospital, to see if I was all right, if I needed anything, and once or twice through the summer to let me know how his search was progressing."

"Search?"

She nodded. "He searched for you almost the whole time you were gone. There were leads, plane trips…he never stopped looking," she said uncomfortably.

Buffy swallowed sudden hurt, then her eyes narrowed. "What is it you're not telling me, mom?"

She dropped her gaze to her lap. "It had been so long, and we hadn't heard a word. He came to tell me there was a new lead. He told me not to blame myself for you leaving. I lost it. I said I blamed him for taking you away from me." Joyce looked up. "I hurt him, Buffy, and there wasn't anything I could do about it, not that I wanted to at the time, I was so angry. Of course I blamed myself for you leaving, but hearing someone say it—"

"I understand," Buffy said softly. Then her eyes grew very bright remembering that last, bright sunny day, watching them all from across the street, Willow looking so fragile in the wheel chair and Giles in so much pain, his fingers in splints, arm in a cast, Xander with his. It was the only thing that enabled her to maintain her resolve: seeing their solidarity, seeing that none of them was alone…

"Was he hurt very bad?"

Joyce looked at her strangely for a moment. "According to Xander, he went through a very bad time, though he didn't elaborate much. He did say that Mister Giles didn't even recognise him when he was being rescued, that he'd never seen hands so badly damaged..."

"Angel tortured him," Buffy said softly. "For hours…for information…for pleasure. There was a curse, and it made Angel good, even though he was a vampire, until I…until we…" Buffy saw that her mother was already there. "Then the curse was broken. No soul…no humanity…just pure evil."

Joyce made a distressed noise. "Buffy, I didn't know." She stopped then, her eyes widened and all colour drained from her face. Her eyes sought and found Buffy's. "You killed him, didn't you?"

Buffy stared at her mother for a long moment, then nodded. Sometimes people…even parents…really did surprise you.

"World…No world. His blood was the key. End of story."

Joyce closed her eyes. "So you really were going to save the world?"

"Yup. Mom, there's something I have to do. Would it wig you too much if I went out for an hour or so?"

"Slaying?"

Buffy shook her head. "Giles."

*******

It was a while before the door was finally answered. Giles was in shirtsleeves, his shirt pulled out of his trousers, and he looked beyond weary.

"Hi."

"Buffy, what are you doing here at this hour? Is something wrong?"

"It's okay. Mom knows where I am. Can I come in?"

He searched her face for a moment, stepped back and let her pass.

"It smells like liniment in here."

He touched his side and winced. "Yes…I had a small altercation with some zombies on the way to your house. I'm afraid I'm getting too old to be thrown around like a cat toy."

Buffy turned to face him. "You're not old."

He smiled a little then. "Thank you, but right now I feel about a hundred."

"It's been a long couple of days. A lot has happened. Undead cats, partying, zombies, missing people not missing any more… " She looked up at him slowly.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

Giles stood very still, his gentle eyes very bright. "I know," he whispered, then suddenly went and started to clean up an untidy pile of papers and books on his desk.

Buffy waited, a little scared, a little lost, until he finished.

When he had, he cleared his throat. "Buffy, I—I'm…" he began, but his voice caught and he stopped. He dropped his head, put his hands on the desk and leaned on his arms.

Her eyes glistened and her lip trembled. Of all of them, including her mother, he was the only one who'd placed no pressure on her, laid no blame. And yet he was the one with the most reason to be angry, even to hate her. She went to the desk.

He straightened, cleared his throat again, half turned away and she saw that his hands weren't quite steady. She stared at them, at the long fingers, trying to imagine what it must have been like for him.

"Why didn't you call?" he whispered, without looking at her.

Buffy winced at the absolute lack of condemnation in his voice. "I wanted to. God I wanted to, but I couldn't. Facing you guys, even hearing your voices, would have meant facing…everything."

Giles looked up at the ceiling. "We didn't even know if you were alive…I couldn't find you."

She looked up at him then, at the strain in his voice. "It wasn't your fault. It's me. If I'd killed him when I had the chance none of it would have happened."

Giles turned to face her then. "Nobody, least of all me, is blaming you for what Angel did, Buffy. You friends, your mother, have all been angry and unreasonable for one reason only. They were hurt. Yes, they did know how hard it was for you, but they're human, Buffy. They…they love you." He swallowed. "And they were…terrified."

"And I love them," she said softly, moisture spilling over her lashes. "But I'm not smart enough to translate the why, or the pain, into words." She thought for a moment, then looked up at him again. "It was like nothing short of amputation would do it."

He closed his eyes. "But it didn't work?"

She shook her head, choked down a small sob. "It hurt so much…being away, not knowing…missing you…all of you," she amended hastily, the tears coming in earnest now. "Then I tried to make it better and I only made it worse for everyone… except …you didn't even get mad."

He made a strangled noise and looked down at her with over-bright eyes. "I've spent three of the worst months of my life imagining you either dead or in the most horrible scenarios my extremely questionable mindset could conjure, and then I open my door one day and there you are, whole, healthy and here…What would you have had me do? Get my crossbow?" he demanded, his voice trembling with the strength of his feelings.

Buffy swallowed, overwhelmed more by his relentless control than if he had yelled. "I don't know…I don't know what I wanted," she said miserably. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come." She wheeled to leave.

"Buffy—!"

She was halted by a hand on her shoulder. The warm, gentle contact after all the pain and loneliness of the summer and the lacerating conflict of the last couple of days, was the last straw. Suddenly she was both turning and being turned into his arms, being held as she wept, layer upon layer of grief, pain and hurt unravelling into his shirt front.

Giles put his head back, his eyes closed against a tumult of emotions, the most overwhelming of which was relief. Relief that she was not dead or worse, and that he'd finally found a way to ease her pain, at least a little. That, at last, she was home where she belonged…would always belong, for as long as he was alive to watch over her…

Eventually the storm played itself out and Buffy lifted her head, saw the large damp patch and looked up guiltily, her face blotched and puffy.

"Sorry about the shirt."

But Giles was looking down at her tenderly. "Blast the shirt," he said lightly. His green eyes found hers, held them, smiled just a little at the answering warmth in them.

"Never again…" he said softly.

Buffy nodded slowly, without taking her eyes from his.

"Never again," she promised.


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