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i.

She comes back on a day so ordinary that later he’ll have to think to recall the date ; gathering the tea things in the kitchen his hands are shaking and he has to lean against the counter, close his eyes. Just breathing, because she’s safe and she’s back and he can, now. Out in the living room, he watches her – another thing he hasn’t been able to do in too long, and hasn’t it been a job keeping that from the Council, a summer of fictional reports and lies about her spending the holidays with her father – taking in the weight she’s lost, the new maturity he thinks he sees in the few seconds when her eyes meet his.

Willow and Xander talk too quickly and too loudly about things that nobody cares about, the new school year, their patrols, some band at the Bronze. Voices overlapping, repeating things the other has already said, trading anxious looks they seem to think no-one else can see, and he lets them fade to background noise.

Giles doesn’t speak. Sitting alone in the armchair, feet curled beneath her body and not quite looking at her friends, neither does she.

ii.

They talk about Angel once, Buffy saying very little he didn’t already know about the final battle. From the set of her shoulders, the resignation in her voice and eyes, he knows they’ll never talk about him again. He rubs his thumb across his fingers, picturing spiderweb fractures like patterns of frost on a window, and can’t quite find the words to say I know, I lost Jenny. It’s the same and it isn’t and he doesn’t know how to make it sound like anything but an accusation.

And then they’re back into the old routine of training and patrolling and he’s watching for the milestones that don’t make it into the Watcher records, what he once hears Willow refer to as the baby steps; the first time he hears her laugh, the first time someone mentions last year and she doesn’t look haunted. The first new boyfriend, some blandly pretty seventeen-year-old from her Politics class who blinks around the library as if wondering why anyone would keep books in a school, of all places. Giles is relieved when the relationship fizzles out after a fortnight.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, he finds himself with a second Slayer to contend with. Faith looks him over with a smirk that reminds him of Ethan and says, “If I’d known they came that young and cute I woulda requested a transfer.”

“Raise your hand if ew?” Buffy says, her own hand climbing into the air.

It’s a relief to hear her make a joke – even at his expense, especially at his expense.

Later, researching Kakistos, he has the microscope-slide feeling of being watched, but when he looks up, Buffy is unusually engrossed in her own book.

iii.

It’s November and she’s wearing a sundress, something that still seems wrong after three years in California. She leans back in his chair, ankles crossed and propped on his desk; he’s resigned himself to this assault on his furniture. Any attempt to shoo her off will, he thinks, lead to embarrassing reminders of things he might have said and done while under the influence of Ethan’s enchanted chocolate. Buffy and Xander have both proclaimed themselves scarred for life from the incident, something that doesn’t prevent them from bringing it up as often as possible.

“The school should give you a bigger office,” she remarks, gently swivelling the chair back and forth. The gold charms on her anklet jangle. “What with the seventy thousand tons of paper in here. Probably a fire hazard.”

He moves as many papers as he can salvage before leaning against the desk. “Normally I have the whole library to myself. But yes, it would be nice to have more room for times like this.”

The library is currently the replacement teachers’ lounge, the original having become a deep-freeze. Snyder claims a problem with the air conditioning. Giles mentally goes through the list of demons that can cause rapid temperature drops.

“We should rule out haunting,” he says. “Tonight we’ll look around…” It dawns on him that something’s missing, that it’s unusually quiet. “It’s just you today?”

She shrugs. “Guess everyone else had plans. Will and Xander have been kind of weird since Homecoming.”

Furtive glances when they think no-one’s watching them, disappearing into the stacks together; it can’t be long before Oz and Cordelia notice and he can see where this is going to end even if they can’t, for all Willow’s brains, for all Xander’s insight.

“Well,” he says, “I’m sure we can survive with just us.”

She smiles like the sun.

iv.

Christmas is quiet on the supernatural front and noisy in almost every other way, until he gets fed up enough to unplug the TV and retreat to his flat for the duration of the holidays.

“Expecting snow?” Buffy asks on Christmas Eve, joining him in the courtyard. He looks up from his wine, surprised and touched at her presence.

“I think a white Christmas in California’s unlikely, even on the Hellmouth.” He stands to pull out her chair, receiving an amused smile for the gesture.

“Does it snow in England at Christmas?”

It’s such a child’s question, such an American question, that he almost laughs. He hides his smile behind the glass. “Sometimes. Parts of England.”

She frowns, as if puzzled at the notion that England should be large enough to have places with different weather. He’s never told her that there was talk, before they knew Sunnydale was a Hellmouth, of taking her back to London. Easier for the Council to keep her under their thumb there – he’s glad things worked out differently. It’s difficult to imagine her bundled up against freezing sleet. He thinks that she couldn’t have come from anywhere but here, brought up under sunshine and endless blue skies.

She leaves him a gift that he puts under the tree, and when he walks her to the door she suddenly turns, stands on her toes to press an awkward kiss to his cheek.

“Thank you,” he says, for lack of anything else. “Merry Christmas.”

At five in the morning he’s given up on sleep and moved to the sofa, turning her wrapped present over in his hands. It doesn’t require great analysis to reveal why he keeps dreaming of Buffy with a scar on her face, Buffy dying at the Master’s hands; in three weeks she turns eighteen.

v.

It’s too soon to feel anything but relief that she survived. Later she’ll tell him how she won and he’ll be so proud that for a moment it will almost eclipse his shame in himself, but now he stares down at his hands, thinking of last summer, every sighting, every false lead.

She almost died, he thinks. Nothing new, but he’s not usually the direct cause.

Travers says, “You have a father’s love for the child” in a tone that says that this is nothing the Council didn’t expect, that they’ve been ready for this all along, that his replacement is probably already at Heathrow.

And after that, it’s just them.

In some way, it’s always been just them.

He kneels by her chair, reaching up to clean the cut on her cheek, and it strikes him that for the very first time he is looking at her as someone who is not her Watcher. He wonders if she should look different. She is trembling and exhausted and looks to be barely holding in one piece; she is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.

“Do you?” she asks quietly. He should ask what she means, even though he knows. He should give them a chance to deny anything is happening.

“No,” he says. No, not a father’s love.

Almost imperceptible smile as her hand slips into his, and he holds onto her and tries to remember to breathe.
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