The Freshman: Replay




“Giles?”

Buffy closed the door of the flat and made her way inside. “Giles?”

At that time of day, with the car parked out the front, she would have expected to find Giles either at his desk or working on his personal library, maybe cross referencing some new volume, or catching up his journal.

She was considering checking upstairs when a door opened and closed down the hall and Giles emerged, still drying his hair briskly, dressed in nothing but pajama bottoms hanging loosely from his hips.

Buffy swallowed, staring, dumbstruck at the unexpected sight. Technically she hadn't even seen Angel like this…not…so relaxed…and….damp…and…chest hair. She swallowed again and contemplated fleeing, but Giles lowered the towel.

“Buffy!”

“Hi, Giles.”

“Ah…this is…ah…unexpected,” he stammered, glancing surreptitiously up to the loft more than once.

“There's, um, trouble…a-at the campus. Big trouble: the kind of trouble that needs…y'know, research. I should, um…I have to go to the bathroom,” she finished in a rush.

Giles blinked and watched her scuttle down the hall.

He'd never exactly planned to have a conversation with Buffy whilst half dressed and with moisture running down his neck from his wet, probably Brillo pad looking hair. Worse, he hadn't planned on having a conversation with her with Olivia asleep upstairs and likely to wake at any time.

Buffy closed the door to the bathroom and gathered her wits. Her bizarro day had just got about as insane as it could get. That was Giles under the towel. First, she'd known that immediately, without even being able to see his head and face, and second, her first response had been to compare the view with Angel… She rolled her eyes and made an aggravated sound.

*Smooth, Buffy*, she told herself. *Very mature…hi-tailing it to the bathroom just because you saw some chest hair…well…lots of…no just the right amount of…* She scowled and made another noise. That was *so* not what she was thinking, really… The issue was a half-naked Watcher…*a Watcher sans tweed or suit or stuffiness…*

Her mind disobediently flashed back to the blue silk pajama pants hanging off those lean hips, the cute curve of his not so rock-hard abs, and the surprisingly strong shoulders above the chest hair.

*…A Watcher with manly bits.*

Bits she'd conveniently omitted to imagine him with. Watchers were like Ken dolls…they weren't supposed to…there wasn't supposed to *be* shock value, like damp, unmentionable things outlined in silk…or wet pectoral muscles that she'd obviously spent entirely too much time staring at.

*That's it*, she decided. *I'm totally scarred for life and it's all his fault. He was supposed to be old. Watcher old…. *Librarian* old, not George Clooney…Harrison Ford…Pierce Brosnan-y old…der.* She stamped her foot on the hard tiles. Her mind was definitely taking an evil turn. That body kept flashing back and intermixing with every memory of each of the other hunk…*older men*, she corrected…without their shirts. How dare her own brain play so dirty…!

In the end she let it do what it wanted, went to the can, washed her face, rolled her eyes at her reflection in the mirror and turned to face the inquisition. There was still the problem on the campus to deal with no matter how much hormonal mutiny was going on in her head.

“Better now?” Giles asked when she returned.

Buffy could have sworn she heard amusement in his voice but his expression was one of innocent inquiry.

“Yes,” she said, close to a pout. “New robe?”

“Hm? No. You've just never seen me in it before. Would you like some juice?”

Buffy shook her head. “There's a problem…on the campus. People are disappearing, Giles. We need to research…or at least to find out what's disappearing them. My spidey sense says badness…our kind of badness…but I have nothing yet, other than bodies…missing…bodies. Okay, you know what I mean…”

“Actually,” Giles began carefully. “Now that I'm no longer your Watcher and not in a position to be there for you twenty-four hours a day while you're attending college…you're probably going to have start learning to do some of this investigative work, yourself…”

“But…”

“Buffy, it's not like I'm going home to England. I'll be right here…I'll always be there for you. But you're not sixteen anymore. Few other slayers have ever reached this position…none have gone to college…and few have even lived to be your age. We have to start preparing you for the rest of your life…”

Buffy's face grew bleak and a little angry. “Whatever luck I've had up to now we both know I don't have a 'rest of my life' and you wouldn't still be here if you didn't know somewhere inside you that it would be wrong for a Watcher to desert his Slayer…that a-an eighteen year old girl is still an eighteen year old girl…I told you once…I can't do this alone. What's changed?”

Giles looked away. In truth, nothing had changed. But it terrified him that she wouldn't be able to cope alone, and he couldn't be there all the time anymore…

For the first time since the beginning, there was no one there for her. He'd been cast adrift from her day to day life, Xander's had taken an entirely separate turn, Willow's time was now filled with the joy of unbridled access to knowledge and study, freedom from the oppression of high school peers…and the happy distraction of a musician boyfriend. Even Angel no longer skulked in the shadows, no longer the brooding reserve, ever willing to join the battle when needs must…

There were no more aces up Buffy's sleeve, no real backups any more. There was just…herself. She was both entering entirely new territory and revisiting the world of every Slayer before her…the loneliest, harshest reality of being the Chosen One: that in the end, there was no one, nothing…except her own judgement and the gifts, or perhaps the curse, she'd been given.

“A-are you sending me away?”

Giles looked back swiftly. “No…heavens, no. It's just…you simply must be able to handle this kind of situation without relying on others—”

“Without relying on *you*, you mean?” she accused, hurt in her voice. “Giles, I didn't fire you, remember? I fired Wesley.”

Giles' eyes narrowed. “What is it, Buffy? This is about more than just me researching some missing students, isn't it?”

It was Buffy's turn to look away. “Right now all that's important is that kids are going missing, and I don't know why. I just know there's badness involved. The kind that goes bump in the night…and I have to do something about it…with or without your help.”

“Rupert…?”

Buffy's eyes widened at the sound of the melodious female voice floating down from the loft, every nerve in her body set against every British syllable. She gave a mental huff of exasperation at her reaction. What did she care if there was a woman in Giles' apartment…in Giles' bedroom…which she'd never been in…possibly in Giles' bed…?

Oh, so not going there…think broody vampire…smooth pecs…needs me…wants to hide inside me…eiwww…
The comforting image of Angel imploded.

That did it. She looked up at Giles and cocked an eyebrow after he'd answered his guest. “Do I want to know?”

“Do you?” he asked seriously, taking the wind from her sails.

She nodded uncertainly.

“Her name is Olivia and she is a…friend…a very old friend. She now has a frenetic international modeling career and I'm…I'm still a Watcher. We've remained friends…and on occasion, when the opportunity arises, we…well, we get together. We enjoy each other's company, and, in a way we provide a small oasis of sanity for each other in our equally insane lives.”

“So…you're dating?” Buffy squeaked, aware that she was being childish in the extreme.

Giles tilted his head and gave her the look.

“Not dating,” she amended. “Just friends…but 'grown up' friends?”

He nodded, amused. “Aren't you a little old to be talking about 'grown ups' like a six year old? In my country you'd have been past the age of consent two years ago and eligible to drink, vote and die for your country at this point.”

That brought Buffy up short. All the guff about her having to learn to do things by herself had made her feel helpless, like a fledgling bird being shoved unceremoniously out of the nest before it was ready, or like a recalcitrant school child getting a lecture from the headmaster…or the librarian. Now all of a sudden Giles was conceding that she was no child and hadn't been for a long time. This was new…but then so was the robe…and the now drying, slightly fluffy, mussed hair and the no-glasses, and her doing most of the stammering instead of him.

“I'm pretty sure it's okay to vote and die here too,” she said dryly. “So you want me to leave…*as one adult to another?*” she added, looking pointedly at the loft. “I don't want to cramp your style, especially if it's about 'gettin' while the gettin's good'.”

Giles gave her an exasperated look and changed the subject. “Wasn't there something about people going missing?”

“Oh yeah, them. I got the feeling they were my problem,” she replied, sarcasm not entirely veiled.

“Rupert? You didn't answer. Oh…”

Buffy looked up. Olivia, apparently, dressed only in a shirt she recognized as normally covering her Watcher's goodies…and maybe more surprised even than she was at seeing Giles earlier.

“Hi,” she said perkily. “Nice to meet you. I'm Buffy. He's mi-my Watcher. That is, he, ah…I was just checking with him on some important business,” Buffy amended, realizing she'd just majorly screwed up.

“She knows,” Giles said quietly, watching his Slayer's facial contortions. “Olivia, this is my Slayer. Buffy Summers: Olivia Hargreaves, one of my dearest friends. Though these days her career name is simply 'Olivia' he said with suggestive emphasis, and the older woman gave him a filthy look, rather spoiled by a giggle.

She was gorgeous, Buffy conceded, and way too young for him. She wondered how they knew each other and what Jenny Calendar would have said about Giles entertaining…*now there was a word*…half naked supermodels in his flat when he couldn't even put enough syllables together to ask her for a date. She frowned and made a mental note to ask him about that later.

“I'll just, um, go and get dressed, shall I?” Olivia said easily, looking mischievously at Giles, who smiled back.

When she'd disappeared back into the loft, Buffy muttered: “Kinda young for an old friend.” It was half question, half criticism.

Giles raised an eyebrow. “Is this an 'eiww' moment?”

“Jury's still out,” Buffy conceded. “There's the 'very, very old and kinda gross' school of thought…and then there was you…um….well, there's the notion that maybe kids think all adults are y'know monks…monk-like…not having the—”

“Yes, yes, I've got it,” Giles forestalled her, showing his irritation.

Buffy continued: “…and that maybe that might not be entirely…adult…of said kids.”

Giles looked amused again. “Does this mean I'm *not* very, very old, and this is not entirely gross?”

“Well, I didn't exactly say *that*,” she shot back, her tone as facetious as the dancing of her eyes. “But it is possible that I was, um, mistaken, about certain things.”

“For instance?” Giles wasn't going to let the opportunity go any time soon.

“Don't push it, Giles. You just got promoted from old guy to date-worthy. Go with it.”

He laughed and raised his voice toward the loft. “Shall I start some fresh tea?”

“Coffee. Black. *Strong* black,” came a voice from on high.

He chuckled again. Olivia had a love hate relationship with his single malt. She loved it and it hated her. He decided to get the Tylenol while he was at it.

“Buffy, coffee or tea?”

“Maybe I should go…really.”

Giles shook his head. “You haven't filled me in on the crisis at the campus yet.”

“Oh, hey, you *were* listening after all.”

He shot her 'the look' once again. “Of course I was listening. You think it's vampires but you have no evidence yet, except that people are disappearing. Presumably a new incident drew the situation to your attention? I haven't seen a great deal in the newspapers about students disappearing from the Sunnydale Campus…”

“That's the thing…it's not being treated like: hey, there might be a serial killer, or an alien invasion or…vampires hunting,” she added sarcastically. It's being all hushed up, like the faculty is frightened it'll lose money if the campus finds out and people start transferring out or going home…whatever.”

“Very astute of you. In this day and age that's probably exactly what's going on. They don't want a panic, not so much for the good of the campus or the students, but to protect their assets. We'll have to make some enquiries.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder which is the real evil…”

“Wow…philosophy this early in the morning. Doesn't it make your brain hurt?” Buffy grinned at him.

Giles grinned back and shook his head good-naturedly. “So, tea or coffee?”

“No, really, I'm gonna go now, since it sounds like we're going to get together on this thing, maybe even later today…if…uh…Olivia…has some shopping to do…or nails or a photo shoot or something. Anyway, I'll call…later…okay?”

He nodded.

“Buffy,” Giles called after her as she headed for the door. “Don't forget…this is your project now…find out as much as you can and use the campus computers to pull up as much data as you can from newspapers, school records, morgue records, police…”

“Hey,” Buffy interrupted, “do I *look* like 'Willow, the super-hacker', here?” Half those places are password protected at the very least. Willow considers at least two of them to be among her greatest triumphs.”

“Oh…yes…quite right,” Giles subsided. “Then perhaps you could ask her to help…part of that process I was talking about. Consider your options and make your own choices about how you gather the information, and, ultimately, how you act upon it.”

“You're really into this do-it-yourself Slaying thing, aren't you?” she teased. “Anybody think you wanted to spend more time with your honey or something…”

But Giles wasn't laughing. “This is not a frivolous exercise…this is your future…and Olivia is a dear friend. You would do well to remember that.”

Buffy drew a sharp breath at the power in his very quiet voice. Giles was the only person she knew who was scarier when he was very, very quiet than other people were when they were screaming at you.

“Chill, Giles. This isn't much fun for me either, you know. You're min—” she swallowed and tried again, “You're *my* Watcher…and I was never much good at sharing. Also, not really sure I *want* to do this job without you. I never asked to be the Slayer…never asked to have my whole life hijacked and turned upside down either. I guess they never got the memo…” she added sarcastically. “The one thing the Council did that went any way toward making any of this bearable…was sending you to me. How did you think I was going to feel about not having you there? I remember all the speeches about sacred duty…*our* sacred duty, not just mine.”

The resolve had left him. Giles sighed. He'd been so convinced that it was time to let go. Sure that he'd done everything else to ensure her survival in battle and her chance at a future. That all that was left was to make certain that no matter how alone she was from now on, she would have a chance to succeed, to go on and reach for that normal life she wanted so badly.

The truth was she *was* his sacred duty…unto her death, but he'd been willing to violate even that for the chance to give her what no Slayer before her had ever had: a life, a future…something beyond the death and the darkness…

“You're certain you don't wish to strike out on your own? I thought independence was something of an obsession with you…has been for years. Isn't me leaving you alone to 'do your own thing' as it were, what you've wanted all along? No Council, no orders…?”

“ 'Doing your own thing's not what it's cracked up to be,” she said diffidently, but Giles saw it in her eyes.

“We're a little closer to the real problem now, aren't we? Talk to me, Buffy.”

She sighed. Now that it came down to putting it into words it seemed petty and juvenile.

“You'll laugh,” she said petulantly, without really meaning it.

“I think not,” he said gently.

“College…I thought it was going to be huge, you know? The best thing ever. Y'know, freedom and all, but I don't fit in there…meantime Willow's in heaven, and the library…”

“There's a problem with the library?”

She looked up and met his gaze. “Yeah…wrong librarian.”

After a beat a slow smile lit his face.

For a brief moment Buffy smiled back, then dropped back into her confession.

“Anyway, college is, like, full of brainy people and strangeness and I didn't even get to room with Willow…who, by the way, so belongs there…it's like someone stole her from there when she was a baby and she's come home, or something. Plus Xander's gone and now you want me to go away, but you're going to be here…but not in the sense of *being here* for me, just in the sense of not having left yet…”

“Buffy.”

“And mom cleared out my room…well, filled it up, anyway, already! I miss *everything*.”

“BUFFY?”

She stopped babbling. “You don't have to yell, Giles.”

“I wasn't yelling. I just projected enough for you to hear me over your…explanation.”

“What?”

“What…'what'?”

“So what were you 'projecting' for?”

“I'm sorry.”

“You are?”        

“Yes. I thought you would be on top of the world, having started your new life. It didn't occur to me that you might have come here because…well, because you needed to.”

“I told you that already,” she pointed out, a puzzled divot in her brow.

“I didn't mean because of the disappearances,” he said gently, and their eyes held again.

“Growing up kinda sucks,” she finally admitted.

“Granted,” he conceded. “And I suppose about now I really should be imparting to you the wisdom of my experience on the subject, considering how much I've had…experience, that is…”

“Impart away,” Buffy agreed, not entirely sure about the almost whimsical tone in his voice, very much like the day she'd asked him to lie to her after dispatching the vampire version her old school friend, Ford.

He got that same look in his eye. “First of all, running away never solves anything; second, nothing can describe sleeping in an alley for the first time in London in the spring…especially if you've spent your life being tucked up in your nice warm bed every night. Third, you meet the worst types…”

Buffy giggled, Ethan prominent in her mind's eye. “The worst,” she agreed.

“Fourth…rules: never let anyone take you to a demon raising party, or tell you that your drink is just plain ale…”

“Gotcha.”

“And most of all never let anyone tell you that leaving what you know and love isn't lonely and painful and hard…harder than anything you've ever done up to that point…”

“Un…less you're the Slayer and you died when you were sixteen, killed your homicidal boyfriend who killed your computer teacher, tortured the crap out of your…your best friend, and almost killed the rest. Not to mention the whole destroying the world motif…a fun seventeen, with the running away and hell, and all. And let's not forget blowing up your entire high school Graduation…plus school…in a year when said best friend decided it was time you lost all your powers and really should fight a psychotic nine foot tall vampire to the death, with nothing but puns and good looks… Oh…and I nearly forgot the fun slayer pod person taking over my life, framing me for murder and trying to kill my boyfriend…right before the world almost ended again,” she pointed out dryly.

Giles straightened, his expression bleak. “Yes, well, points to you,” he conceded, rolling his eyes whimsically.

“So are we okay?” she asked, her tone light, but her eyes uncertain, intense.

It sobered him. He moved close to her and touched her cheek. “Always,” he confirmed softly, then cleared his throat. “Call me with whatever information you find and if Willow is not otherwise engaged, bring her…and her computer…with you tonight.”

Buffy grinned, her eyes slowly catching up. “Will you be wearing the Hugh Hefner robe? Willow's so gonna wanna see.”

He grimaced good-naturedly and turned an adorable shade of pink as they headed for the front door. “Probably not…but I shall endeavor to find a suitable substitute.”

“Those damp silk pajama bottoms would do…at least she'd be convinced about the sexy part right away,” she teased mischievously as she slid out the door.

It closed with a click, Giles still staring at it with his mouth slightly open and his face mulberry to the hairline. It was some time before he shook his head and chuckled to himself.

“Is she gone?”

Giles jumped. He'd genuinely forgotten there was anyone else in the flat.

Olivia came downstairs in her day clothes.

“Going somewhere?” he teased.

“I think so,” she said a little more seriously, and then met his gaze with her beautiful eyes. “Am I?”

The mulberry, which had just faded back to a pale pink flush, crept straight back up again. “It's who I am,” he said softly. “I'm sorry.”

Olivia smiled. “Don't be sorry, Ripper. Should I be sorry when I'm in Milan with Andre or Nice with Thierry?”

Giles chuckled. “I thought Thierry was a photographer?”

“Among other things,” she teased archly. “Seriously, Rupert…it's all right. Who'd have thought all that rubbish about the 'One Girl' and how important your job was, was all true? It is, isn't it?”

“Far too true.” He grew serious. “Will I see you again?”

Olivia looked toward the door. “I have a shoot in Palm Beach around Christmas. I'll call you. Ask me again, then. ”


*******

Buffy made it back to her dorm bathroom, cleaned herself up so she wouldn't have to answer too many questions from Kathy, and then locked herself in a stall to think and to try to shake off the sick feeling in her stomach every time she thought about the moment she caught up to Eddie and he vamped out.

She should have done the research. She should have listened to Giles. Then again, it would have been nice if it had been like the old days, where a problem brought to the library was a problem researched, discussed and prepared for…for to possibly have its ass kicked by Team Scooby, instead of it kicking her into next week.

Buffy sighed and winced, shifting her damaged arm. It was going to be a long, lonely night waiting for Slayer healing to kick in and the sickening pain, currently throbbing in the worst way, to stop.

The next time she allowed herself to think, she was outside Giles' apartment trying to decide whether Olivia was still there or not. Holding her arm, she made her way around to the small window to the living room.

Giles was just wandering into the room from the kitchen with his favorite tea mug and the cookie jar. He was wearing 'going out' clothes, which he appeared not to have taken off after returning from… wherever. There was no sign of Olivia. A few moments later he'd dipped into his cookie jar and was munching on one of the English 'biscuits' he liked so much. Buffy watched him sit on the couch and put down his supper before sitting back and rubbing a hand over his face.

The expression on that face made her frown. Far from the stray thoughts of possible Giles cuteness she'd experienced when she'd walked in on him earlier, her heart twisted at the look of…well…she swallowed and bit her lip…profound loneliness. There was a lost-ness…a sort of deep weariness of spirit…in his face when his hand dropped away.

Moments later, he turned his head at the sound of the door opening.

“Hey.” Buffy could see he was more than surprised to see her.

“Hello. Anything wrong?”

She emerged from the shadows of the stairs.

With a muffled exclamation, Giles moved swiftly to where she was standing.

”What happened?”

Her voice was flat. “My Spidey senses were right again. Go me.”

He looked at her sharply. It wasn't like Buffy to be so unenthused about an 'I told you so.'

“Demons? A strong one by the look of it.”

“Nah…gang of vamps. Eddie…the guy who was missing…I dusted him,” she added, her eyes dark, then let it go. “Mostly they were the usual dopey minions…”

“But…?” He prompted, eyeing the dangling arm and the Technicolor bruises.

“Their leader…she calls herself 'Sunday'…she…she kicked my ass. She's strong. Also, gotta admit my focus was pretty much non-existent. If you were still training me you'd have kicked my butt too…for doing everything you taught me wrong.”

“You'd better let me take a look at your arm.”

Buffy nodded, warmth flooding through her at his instinctive reaction and the familiarity of his concern, his gentle touch and his fussing as he discovered the real extent of her injuries. She half-smiled. It was good to be home, even just for a little while. The smile faded, replaced by surprise.

It was true: Giles was home. Wherever he was, was home.

“Sit down and, um, take off your blouse,” he ordered, heading to the kitchen for his first-aid kit. As she had many times before, Buffy did as she was bid, holding her shirt in front of her as he worked on the arm, then put it back on gingerly after Giles was done splinting the break. Then he added a new sling from an old one of his own that he'd obviously saved.

“Better?” He asked when he was done.

She nodded, a little pale still from his…strenuous…efforts to make certain the bones were straight, and would knit as perfectly as possible…or as perfectly as possible without X-rays and ER doctors asking awkward questions about her over-the-top
Slayer healing.

“It's nice to have the weight off. I'm sure the excruciating pain will fade soon.”

He looked startled, and horrified, for a split second, until he looked up and met her gaze.

They chuckled together.

“Thanks, Giles.”

“I should have been there,” he growled, and sat beside her.

“Hey…been quite a while since we were a twosome with the Slaying,” she pointed out. “Though it would have been nice not to have been there without any backup whatsoever…not that I probably wouldn't have gotten my butt kicked anyway…but it would have been nice. She sobered again. “I'm not sure I can do this, Giles.”

“Buffy?”

“Everything,” she said unhelpfully.

Giles, however, was watching her face, and guessed a great deal.

“College is a different world,” he said softly, fishing.

Buffy took the bait. “It so is…it's all brains in orgasmic heaven because they've reached knowledge Nirvana, irritating roommates and coloured flyers, and big words, and being humiliated and thrown out of class by professors who really need the Metamucil…or possibly a big ol' enema, and getting lost and libraries that aren't like—I mean, well, Westminster Abbey's probably cozier, and…” She halted, aware that she was hemorrhaging self-pity and far too much information, period.

Giles, reading between the lines and staring at the bruises and cuts on her face, was juggling empathy and anger that her first days, of what should have been a grand new adventure, had apparently gone so appallingly badly.

“It's all right to feel a little lost, Buffy. It's perfectly normal for such major transitions in one's life,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed, as subdued as he was. “But Eddie died. If I'd been less distracted by…stuff…I would have walked him to his dorm…I should have felt the vamps if they were on the campus. I really don't know if I can do this, Giles…not the way you want me to.” She looked down at her arm. “People die when I'm distracted. Not to mention, it gets kinda painful.”

“You *can* do it, Buffy. You wanted this. Giving up now would be giving up on everything you've ever fought for…everything you've ever challenged the Council…and convention…for.”

She looked at him unhappily. “Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I just need to recognize that I have limitations…that I can't do it all…not the way it needs to be done, anyway.”

“No, you just need to know that you *have* done it before and that everyone has bad days,” a voice said behind them, making both of them jump.

Xander shrugged. “Sorry, the door wasn't locked.”

Buffy flew across to hug him with her good arm.

“You're back!”

Xander returned the one-armed embrace gingerly, but with feeling. “Looks like,” he agreed.

“So how was America?”

“Well there was some 'purple mountains majesty' I have to say, and hey, I saw Grand Canyon.”

“The Grand Canyon?” Buffy enthused, happy to have the subject well and truly changed.

Xander looked at Giles and then grew more than a little sheepish. “The movie 'Grand Canyon'. I only got as far as Oxnard before the engine fell out of my car…literally. And then I washed dishes at a women's nightclub…about which you really don't want to know…to put together enough money to get home, where I'm now officially unemployed and live in my parent's basement,” he added uncomfortably.

“Oh. Well, I for one am really glad you're back. I missed you, Xander.”

Giles raised his hand in agreement, smiling wryly, then asked: “may one ask why you're visiting me at this hour?”

Xander shrugged again. “I just wanted to see everyone…and I knew you'd be awake…” His eyes slid to the injured Slayer. “You always are.”

“So who else knows you're back?” Buffy asked conversationally.

“Well...ah…you weren't at the campus, and Will's not in her dorm room…and I couldn't find out where Oz is staying. Guessing there's twosome-ness involved there somewhere…”

Buffy's eyes darkened a little. It hadn't occurred to her until that moment that she wasn't the only one lost or alone…facing big empties on the romance front…and lonely nights, not to mention a frightening and uncertain future in a world they didn't entirely understand.

“I'm really glad you're here, Xand,” she said softly.

He smiled back, aware of undercurrents but not sure what was going on, or what he should do about it.

“So what's the what? Anything interesting happen while I was away?”

Giles and Buffy looked at each other before Buffy took up the reply.

“Well, it's kinda been a Slay-heavy summer. Will's lovin' the college life and Giles is still 'a gentleman of leisure'. And me…I'm doing what I always do…not fitting in and dealing with the mystery of the week.”

“Let me guess…dead people?”

“Vampire gang working the campus,” Buffy confirmed.

“Okay, when do we start?”

“Start?” Giles asked, bemused.

“The research…the pizza…jelly donuts.”

Buffy smiled. “Yeah, Giles. When do we start, and who's getting the donuts?”

“That would be me…I'm donuts guy…and with sufficient financial incentive I can be pizza guy too,” Xander pointed out hopefully.

Giles handed over the cash, aware that Buffy was no longer looking forlorn and lost. “The usual,” he reminded Xander. “No dots, squares or cheese-filled crusts. Just the same order we've always had. The same with the donuts.”

Xander grinned lopsidedly. “With pleasure. Have fun with the book-hitting while I'm gone.”

Giles turned to Buffy after the door closed. “It will be rather late by the time we eat. If you want to give me all the information you have, now, and go back to the dorm to sleep whilst Xander and I…”

Buffy shook her head. “My first class isn't until eleven. We'll research, then I'll do the couch thing, and in the morning you can do the gentlemanly thing and take me back to the dorm nice and early. It's all good.”

“In that case would you like a cup of tea?”

“Juice, please,” she said brightly, then frowned as he headed for the kitchen with the remnants of his supper. “Giles, can I ask you something?”

“Mm? Yes, of course.”

Buffy listened to the rattle of the cups and the kettle hitting the stovetop before continuing. “I…um…was wondering where Olivia went…?”

There was a short silence from the kitchen, then the sound of the cookie jar being burgled again.

“She…she, um, decided to stop over and see some old friends in New York before flying back to England for her next shoot.”

Buffy quietly walked over to the kitchen archway. “Are you okay?”

Giles was so surprised first, by her proximity, and second, by the question, that he jumped. He turned slowly. For a long moment their eyes held, then the kettle started to whistle, making both of them jump. He swung back to take it off the heat and pour enough hot water in his teapot to warm it briefly before emptying it again and adding the leaves.

“Yes…yes, I suppose I am. She's a lovely girl, Olivia…and a dear friend.” His eyes seemed to go to a very distant place. “She stood by me through some extraordinarily bad times when we were younger, and never once judged me…”

“Get a lot of that, huh?”

Giles turned and raised an eyebrow.

“Being judged,” Buffy supplied.

He gave her a 'what do you think?' look and she reddened.

“My arm's a lot better already,” she said awkwardly, removing the sling to avoid his gaze. She flexed the arm. “Gotta love that Slayer healing. And what Sunday doesn't know, hopefully will hurt her big time,” she added darkly, her eyes flashing as she planned how she might use the healing break to her advantage.

Giles recognized the diversion but allowed it, simply handing her a cup of tea and leading the way back out into the living room.

“I'm not exactly sure how to research your problem,” he said as they sat down. “This time it seems to be a more localized incident…one not necessarily going to be assisted by my books. These…vampires, were there any significant features? Anything particularly noticeable about them?”

Buffy shrugged. “Stupidity,” she offered, but Giles was unimpressed. “Okay, Sunday was pretty strong, and it seemed like…especially with people starting to notice that kids are going missing…they've been there for a while. Sunday…she's…she's not stupid. I'm not sure what she is…but she's their leader.”

“So there's no sign that they've been sent by anyone, or that they might represent some ancient order or other…?”

“No-o-t unless there's an ancient order of sarcasm…or really bad taste in clothes.”

Giles rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, very funny. If they're contemporary in dress and behavior it's likely that most, if not all of them are former students. School and newspaper records are going to be more important than ancient texts.”

“Meaning that when Xander gets back we'd better go borrow Willow's computer. Either that or break into the office back on campus…”

Giles gave her 'the look.' “I think Willow's computer will do nicely. I'll take you now because it'll be useless without a cable for the modem and I'm sure you have no idea what that is. We'll leave a note for Xander.”

Buffy looked at him with her eyebrows raised and an amused expression.

He stared back. “What? I can't have learned anything about computers?”

She shrugged. “I thought they were evil…modern contraptions…anti-Giles stuff?”

“Yes, well, times change.” His expression grew sheepish. “And last time Willow was here with the infernal thing she forgot her cable. She was most annoyed.”


*******

Buffy stood in the doorway of her dorm room and stared. Giles, Willow's Notebook in hand, was looking over her shoulder at the half-empty room with equal perplexity.

He watched her move across to her stripped bed and pick up a piece of paper, then moved swiftly to her side when her expression changed to one of stunned shock and hurt. He made a noise under his breath as he read it over her shoulder.

“How very opportunistic…and materialistic, of them. Times have changed. Vampires used to be hunters…not scavengers.”

“We've gotta find them and get my stuff back,” she said quietly. “And of course kill them all really, really dead…”


*******

“Kids disappearing every year…not too many…just enough so everyone thinks they up and left,” Buffy read off the computer screen. “They have to be hiding out somewhere…on campus or at least nearby.”

“Yeah, well…I can't believe they took your stuff. Murder, I expect…but petty larceny just seems so…petty,” Xander observed.

Giles cleared his throat. “Yes, well…is there anything else in the school records that might indicate who they are…or were? Something that might lead us to where they're staying?”

Buffy shook her head. “If Willow hadn't already hacked into the faculty computer network just to see if she could, I wouldn't have even got this far…no…wait…school newspaper…edition files. What am I looking for, guys?”

“Allow me?” Giles offered. Buffy cleared the seat and Giles sat down.

They watched him try several different search parameters. “Aha,” he muttered some considerable time later, and sat back.

Xander made a 'well…?' gesture with his hands. “So..?”

“Oh…um…the earliest suspicious disappearance on campus is recorded on the same front page as this…” He touched the screen with a finger tip.

Xander squinted at it. “The former Psi Theta fraternity house lies dormant while zoning issues drag on before the city council. Okay...so…oh, I get it.”

Buffy peered at the grainy picture. “You do?”

Xander looked to Giles. “Abandoned building sans visitors…vampire condo, right?”

“Oh,” she said, trying hard not to look as stupid as she felt. “And probably lots of warehouse space too…”

“Probably,” Giles confirmed. “Are you all right, Buffy? You seem rather… distracted.”

She dragged a hand through her hair. “It's been a long couple of days. Before…when college wackiness was kicking my butt, and I didn't save Eddie…a-and Sunday beat me and I didn't know how to stop her,” Buffy looked down, “I really wasn't sure I could do this anymore. I still don't…” she trailed off.

Xander spread his hands to encompass Giles as well. “And yet…here we are. Avengers assemble!  Let's get it going!”

Buffy half smiled at him. “Yeah, you guys…there aren't words. It's just…Willow and Oz…they're just starting classes…and they don't need this, and you guys…Giles said it himself…I should be able to take care of it by myself, now…”

Giles opened his mouth to speak, but was beaten by Xander. “Ok, Buff, what's the 'what' here?”

“It's just, like I said to Giles: what if I can't cut it?”

Xander frowned. “Can't cut what? Slaying?”

She turned to look up at Giles. “Slaying, college, everything…”

Xander turned her back to face him. “Buffy, this is all about fear.  It's understandable, but you can't let it control you.  'Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to anger.'  No wait, hold on.  'Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.'  Hold on, no, umm, 'First you get the women, then you get the money, then you...' okay, can we forget that?”

Giles rolled his eyes.

Buffy grinned a little. “Thanks for the Dadaist pep talk, I feel much more abstract now.”

“ The point is, you're Buffy,” Xander pointed out gently.

“Yeah, maybe in high school I was Buffy.”

“And now, in college you're Betty Louise?

“Yeah, I'm Betty Louise Plotnick of East Cupcake, Illinois. Or I might as well be.”

Giles snorted.

Xander persisted. “Buffy, I've gone through some fairly dark times in my life, faced some scary things, among them the kitchen at 'The Fabulous Ladies Night Club.'  Let me tell you something, when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?'  You're my hero.  Ok, sometimes when it's dark and I'm all alone I think, 'What is Buffy wearing?'

Buffy's eyes widened and then looked at him with affection. “Can that be one of those things you never, ever, tell me about?”

Giles shook his head, resisting a smile of his own, but allowed Xander to hold the floor.

“It's a deal,” Xander agreed and looked from Buffy to Giles. “Let's put this bitch in the ground!  Whadaya say?”

Buffy similarly looked from one to the other, faces both filled with concern, familiar, dear…

She smiled slowly. “I think I say…thank you…both.”

Xander grinned widely, but his cheeks were pink. “And nothing says thank you like dollars in the waistband. Ok, what do we do first?”

Giles light-heartedly cuffed the back of his head, illiciting a fake 'ow', then dropped a hand on his shoulder. “I believe we're going to repossess some belongings.”

They were in the process of gathering arms and supplies from Giles' trunks when the door was flung open.

“Hey guys! Going somewhere?”

Buffy's mouth fell open. “Willow…and…Oz. Hey guys…what brings you here just when we thought you were all with the, y'know, coupl-y fun?”

“Got your note about the computer; thought we might be missing something,” Oz summarized.

“What he said,” Willow added brightly, happily assimilating all the familiar faces. “Hey look…it's us…we're us again. This is so cool.”

Buffy looked from one familiar face to another and then finally at the man who would always be her Watcher, no matter where they were or what happened to them. Their gazes held for what seemed an age, before they both slowly grinned at each other.

A moment later she faced everyone again. “It's more than cool,” she agreed.

Her smiling eyes lingered for a long moment on all of their faces, then grew serious. “Thank you,” she told them softly…then turned and shouldered her crossbow.

“Time to go kick some serious vamp-ho butt…”


* * *