Fic: Watcher’s Keeper
Rupert Giles had faced death too many times to count. He'd battled hordes of demons, witches, werewolves, sea beasts and the occasional insane sorcerer. Been found numerous times to be the focal point of shattered peace accord summits, teetering precariously on the edge of war and yet he never once felt the need to run away... until now. As he paced back and forth within the small space of his dimly lit office, waiting anxiously for his 12 o'clock appointment to arrive, he wished he could be anywhere but there.
"Buffy Harding," he repeated the name softly to himself, strangely bothered by its sound. He hadn't received word of her marrying. But then again, it'd been years since any of the old gang managed a moment to come together and talk. It was something he'd always felt ashamed of, losing touch with the only family he'd known for seven years of his life. Giles figured it was bound to happen, though. With all the travels abroad to collect the activated Slayers, then the specialty assignments gathering up prophecy materials and then the difficult challenge to subdue the Wolfram and Hart menace once and for all. They were all spread much too thin, barely managing their own lives let alone finding time for their old friends amongst the disarray of the new world.
He glanced down at the files littering his desk, the only evidence he had of Xander, Willow, Dawn and Buffy's lives. Naked reports filled with facts and figures, dry statistics of success in missions, degrees earned, awards presented; nothing of any real value or substance. What Giles craved was to know they were safe. That they were happy and celebrating the precious lives they fought so desperately to keep those many years ago.
A faint knocking brought him crashing back to his nervousness and he moved forward to answer the door. He stopped, considering if it would be more presentable to invite the guest in from a seated position at his desk rather than greet them at the door. But that might be perceived as rude so he stepped again toward the door, pausing as another series of faint knocks tied his stomach in knots and pinned him to his spot midway across the room.
"Open the door, Giles. I know you're in there, I can hear your squeaky loafers," the all too familiar voice called from beyond the door, helping diminish his apprehension ever so slightly.
"Just a moment. I'm about done... with ... something..." he took a deep breath, gripped the knob and with a twist and pull, there she was.
Buffy didn't look that much different from when he'd last laid eyes on her. Hair seemed a dash darker, more of a sandy blonde with golden streaks throughout, shoulder length but pulled back into a tight, sporty ponytail. She seemed heavier but it was weight earned by years of disciplined training. Muscled, toned and fit; she looked deadlier than he'd remembered, ready to strike at a moments notice and dressed for the part. Loose fit, acid wash jeans, a comfortable and unbuttoned solid green shirt with a tight grey tank top underneath, heavy soled, ankle-high steal-toed boots, and the most perfectly manicured fingernails he'd ever seen, delicate and lovely. But her face was what sent him grinning like a schoolboy. She as beautiful as ever and he hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her until she stood there, offering her familiar mischievous grin and teasing glance.
Buffy’s eyes went wide for a moment, thrown by the sight of a carefully tended, peppered, short-haired beard now donning her Watcher’s face. He looked so different yet very much the same. It felt good to see him. "Hi."
Giles stood there for a minute before realizing he hadn't invited her in yet. "Sorry, I don't know where my head is. Please, come in."
"If you need some more time to think about it, I can keep myself busy out here with this three year old edition of National Geographic," she teased. "The magazines in your little waiting area are bordering on ancient."
"Most people around here aren't kind enough to wait. Perhaps if you could help me update my reading materials we could encourage the practice. It's nice to see you again, Buffy." His face flushed as he waved her to come inside. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting, I'm just a bit..."
"Nervous?" she finished, a sympathetic smile playing along her lips. "So am I." She stepped through the door and glanced quickly around the small office. It was dimly lit, but with just enough light to make it comfortable. Walls of bookcases surrounded her, shelves brimming with aged books and the occasional antique adding a touch of spice to the library. Beyond his handsome, mahogany desk was a display of rustic, handcrafted weapons; a shiv, a hatchet, and a stake. Overall, it resembled a miniature version of his old apartment in Sunnydale and she found herself immediately reminiscing the old days with such fondness it put a lump in her throat.
Giles closed the door and watched her as she wandered around, showing that spark of curiosity that he remembered so warmly. "How have you been?"
Buffy noticed the manila files on his desk and grinned. "Been good. Busy mostly, but you know that already, don't you?" She motioned toward the papers and glanced back over her shoulder at him. "Doing some research?"
"Always," he chuckled. "I'm afraid I lost track of you shortly after your travels in Siberia. I figured it might make things easier if I educated myself on your recent activities, as well as the others."
"Everyone's good, Giles. They miss you but they know you're busy. We all are, I guess." She shrugged and he saw the faintest flicker of remorse in her eyes as she took a seat across from his desk. After a brief moment, she leaned forward and lifted the receiver of the phone to her ear, listened for a second and returned it to the cradle. Her attention fell to his laptop sitting open on his desk and with a quick bat at the mouse, she saw the screen flicker awake, displaying the familiar Council intranet flash page. Giles watched curiously as she lifted his favorite ballpoint pen and scribbled on a scratchpad he had positioned near the edge of the desk.
"Did you need something?" Giles asked, puzzled.
"Huh. See, now I'm confused. All this time and nothing. I figured it was because your phone didn't work or you didn't have internet access or maybe your pen ran out of ink or maybe there was a paper shortage or postage crisis."
"I know it's been a while."
"A while? A while is a week, Giles. A while is even a month or two. Two years, Giles, ever since Dawn's high school graduation. You couldn't call? Couldn't write? Email? Why didn't you do anything that even remotely resembled a form of communication?"
"It's not that I didn't try. Thing's have been much too frantic around here with..."
"Pager, Instant Message, tickertape..." She continued on, talking over him.
"I intended to call but the time never arose when..."
"Pony express, telegraph, carrier pigeon..."
"Why didn't you?" He asked in a surprisingly demanding tone, verging on accusatory.
Buffy didn't answer, only stared at him with disappointment. Without thinking, she'd steered them headlong into the same old routine and she hated herself for it. She took a deep breath, wetted her lips as if preparing to speak, and then decided against it, choosing instead to shift to the edge of the seat, seriously contemplating leaving.
Giles let out a frustrated sigh, already regretting how quickly they'd managed to deteriorate back into trivial quarrelling. He instinctively reached for his glasses only to be reminded that he hadn't worn them for over a year, finally trading them in for contacts. He rolled his eyes at his persistent nervous habit and ran his idle fingers through his ruffled hair.
"I tried calling. I tried emailing and writing but I was too scared to follow through with it," she started quietly, unable to look at him "...and embarrassed. Seems like I was always too busy, forever on the move or trying to get Dawn settled into college, or working odd jobs for the government. I kept telling myself I didn't have the time and that I could do it later. I can be very persuasive, you know. After a while, it had been so long that I'd put it off and put it off again until I'd put it off so long that I figured it would be easier not calling so I could avoid having to answer those really hard questions like why didn't I call in the first place." She finally regained enough courage to look up, offering an apologetic smirk. "So I figured I'd drop the whole communications thing altogether, jump on a plane and show up on your doorstep. Great plan, eh?"
"Bloody brilliant." Giles smiled sympathetically and heaved a sigh. "I don't have any valid excuse for my silence either. I was struggling much as you were, and feeling guiltier with every passing day that I couldn't bring myself to contact you. I was foolish to let this go on for so long."
"Tell you what, let's start over?" Buffy jumped up and rushed over to the door. "Rewind..."
"There's no need to go that far, Buffy."
"Move it!" She ordered and gave him a solid push to remove him from the path to the door. She stepped outside and closed the door behind her. After a moment, there was a knock. He just stood there, amused by her misspent determination.
"Aren't you gonna open the door?" Buffy asked through the barrier.
"I figured I'd put it off until later," he said teasingly. After another moment, Buffy slowly let the door swing open, her face stern, not the least bit amused as Giles greeted her with a playful smile.
"Buffy, how very lovely to see you again. Won't you come in?" He graciously waved her in. "Have a seat."
She kept a straight face as she passed him. "You're not making this any less difficult, you know."
"It's not my intention to make this difficult. I'm glad you're here, though somewhat surprised you'd take on this assignment when you know I'm perfectly capable of handling myself."
Buffy returned to her previous seat in the guest chair. "You're right. You certainly can handle yourself. But I can handle you better." Her face stiffened with embarrassment over her choice in words. "You know what I mean. I'm good at this, Giles."
"So I've heard."
He made his way across the office and Buffy did a double take as she noticed for the first time he was walking with the aid of a cane. He was limping, not severely but enough to warrant support and she felt a tinge of grief at the sight of it. But he moved confidently, ably and she determined it had to be an injury rather than frailty for he looked strong enough and quite fit. His solid black pullover shirt hung nicely over his chest, revealing a hint of the strength fashioned there by his recent change of fitness, upper body working to help take the burden off his leg. He wore jeans, slightly faded and loose fit, allowing for comfortable movement. Though sporting the new look of the strangely fascinating, shapely beard, he was just as handsome as she'd remembered. His hair was somewhat greyer, but thick and a bit longer than he'd used to keep it, making him look the slightest bit tousled and relaxed. Perhaps another thing he couldn't find the time to do. His sharp green eyes seemed to smile with a subtle hint more definition in his gentle lines. And when he smiled, his strong jaw and high-cut cheeks made for the stunning face she'd missed over the years. She quickly looked away as he took a seat and glanced up at her.
"You're friend said you didn't want me here." She could see the remark was taken wrong. “I meant in a professional sense.”
"Roman can't be trusted when it comes to matters of procedure or of a personal nature."
"I like him."
"As do I. But then again, we're incredibly stupid."
"You'll get no argument from me."
"That'll be the first."
"Don't push your luck, Watcher."
"I'm afraid I no longer carry that designation." Giles snapped his laptop closed and leaned back in his chair, trying to get comfortable and hoping it would prompt her to do the same. "And as for luck, don't much believe in it anymore."
"What? Watcherless in Watcherville. Say it ain't so."
"You don't seem particularly surprised."
"I've been doing my research as well. Your pal Roman sent me complete files on your recent activities, including your resignation from the Council. So why do you still get the office? Squatter's rights?"
"He didn't offer up that information?"
"Guess he figured it was your story to tell."
"Perhaps some other time, I'd prefer to discuss your recent occupation. Security specialist?" Giles asked, cocking a disapproving brow.
"What, you think I'm not qualified?"
"Quite the opposite, I assure you. It's beneath you."
"This pedestal is a bit too high. Mind if I step down and join the commoners?"
"Buffy, your expertise in defense are exemplary but you've also gained first hand knowledge of demonology and many mystical defenses as well. These talents are wasted with such pedestrian work."
"One could say the same about you, playing politician for a bunch of murderous beasts."
A look of discontent crossed his face. "I hear Roman in your words. What did he tell you?"
"Only that he suspects your attacker is one of the creatures you're helping."
"Perhaps this isn't such a good idea..." Giles leaned forward, steadying himself on his desk in a motion to stand up and Buffy reached out to prevent him, grasping at his wrist.
"I can play nice, Giles. I couldn't care less about the who's or what's. I just want to know you're safe."
Though she sounded sincere, Giles found it difficult to believe her. He slipped his hand over hers and gave her a tender pat.
"Hope I'm not interrupting anything?" Roman marched unannounced into the office and Buffy and Giles jerked inelegantly apart.
"What did I tell you?" Giles gestured towards the intruder. "Incapable of waiting, or knocking, I might add."
"Ever considered locking your door?" Buffy smiled as Roman came up along side her. "Oh, wait, look who I'm talking to."
"Nice to see you two jumping back into roles so easily. Not such a challenge after all, is it Rupert?" Roman winked knowingly, receiving a warning glare in response. "Are we still on pleasantries or have we moved on to discussing strategies yet?"
"We were discussing your faulty conspiracy theories on where this threat stems from," Giles corrected. "These attacks are not coming from the N'Gravic or the Sharifan. I would appreciate it if you would keep your misguided opinions to yourself."
"Was he always this difficult?" Roman asked Buffy.
"How did you ever manage?"
"Slaying is very therapeutic." Buffy suggested straight-faced. "And plenty of ice cream."
"Would you two like to be alone?" Giles chided, crossing his arms frustration.
"I'm sure you noticed the evidence that Rupert came rather close to get himself killed last night."
"You mean the head wound? I hadn't, actually. Giles wears head wounds like they're a fashion accessory. I'm more likely to notice if he didn't have one."
"I'll be dead by the end of the week," Giles sighed.
"Not on my watch!" Buffy assured him and got to her feet. "So, meeting tonight. I'll need a list of all possible civilians, attendees or not, the floor plan to the building, map of the commute route as well as all emergency facilities within a twenty mile radius, and I'll need to inspect the vehicle."
"Perhaps you'd like to get settled in at your hotel first? You must have had a long flight?" Giles suggested, rising to his feet to show her out.
"You didn't tell him?" Buffy shot an inquiring glance to Roman.
"Slipped my mind, I'm afraid." He smiled calculatingly.
"Tell me what?"
"Due to the level of immediate threat, the Council determined Mrs. Harding's assignment will be in-house."
"Meaning?" Giles eyes narrowed as he waited for clarification.
"Meaning you have yourself a new flat mate, Rupert. Been a while but I'm sure you'll get into the swing of things. Be just like it was in college, old man. But the company will be far more enjoyable, I'm sure."
"So, where's our home sweet home?" Buffy asked enthusiastically. Giles' face paled a ghostly white as an exasperated smile curled the edges of his lips.