Title: "Recovery"

The final chapter in the "Bad Habits" trilogy.

Part 2 of 2

Written by: Shawn

 

Summary: There are no perfect people in the entire world. No one lives a perfect life or makes all the right choices. And some days just don't seem fair at all. Setbacks, past mistakes and lost loved ones are par for the course. Nonetheless, you must keep moving forward because life does whether you want it to or not.

Rated: NC-17

Category: Angst/Drama/Romance

Ship: BX always and forever!

Timeline/Spoilers: Everything is cannon through the end of both series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series. The only difference is anything said about the Buffy characters whereabouts and activities in the last season of Angel are completely ignored here. After "Chosen" and "Not Fade Away" it's my universe all the way. Reading "Addiction" and "Withdrawal" is a must before reading this one.

My personal archive: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ShawnsLibrary/

Disclaimer: Joss owns it all. I just let them out to play once in a while.

Email: DayShawn1974@hotmail.com

Authors Notes: This story takes place one month after "Recovery" part 1.

Authors Notes 2: I have always felt that an organization as ancient and powerful as the Watcher’s Council was far from poor. I can't imagine them not having millions upon millions hidden away in foreign accounts, real estate, ect. holdings. You can't have been around since the 1600's and have not saved a few pennies. My stories post "Chosen" reflect my views on their financial status.

Dedicated to: Brooke, who I know still wants me to write "Shhhh," but this came out first. Loves ya bunches:)

 

 

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You should always learn, with life comes wisdom and with wisdom comes the courage to live your life selflessly. The more you learn about yourself and the experiences surrounding your life the more opportunities you have to make your life better and more fulfilling.

--Amy Candy

To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world

--Unknown

Adventure isn't hanging on a rope off the side of a mountain. Adventure is an attitude that we must apply to the day to day obstacles of life -- facing new challenges, seizing new opportunities, testing our resources against the unknown and in the process, discovering our own unique potential.

--John Amatt organizer and participant in Canada's first successful expedition to the summit of Mt Everest.

 

~~~~~~

 

 

******

 

******

 

Xander's apartment

St. James's Street, St James's, SW1

Sunday, January 9, 2006 8:00 AM

London

 

 

London's charismatic atmosphere effortlessly laid before her in all its historical glory.

Gazing out over the top-floor balcony of Xander's apartment, Buffy pursued a deep inhale of fresh chilly morning air, sighing as the world around her slowly awoke to a new day. Morning had the tendency to conjure up thoughts of beautiful sunrises, untouched beginnings, and if life hadn't turned you bitter yet, hope. Despite the cool temperatures, as expected this time of year, the brilliant sunlight was especially vibrant during the half-hour or so after sunrise, when the colors could range from a yellowish to rosy orange. Add in the lovely London skyline and it made for a magical sight the likes of which had no equal.

Awe-inspiring and humbling.

The luxurious softness of her white Shawl Collar Velour terry cloth robe felt magnificently soft against her skin, especially after the hot shower she took. She's standing on the balcony wearing only the robe and a pair of flip-flops. She's not wearing any makeup, and hasn't even run a brush through her hair yet. No cover girl magazine vibe this morning for Buffy Anne Summers. She's just taking in the elegance of an early morning sunrise, looking out over a legendarily beautiful city, and looking forward rather than behind her.

Xander's unit on the right side of the huge apartment complex provided views of Big Ben and the London Eye. It never ceased to amuse her that one of London's best-known landmarks was just a big clock to her, while the London Eye catered to the universal appeal to see the Earth and cities from great lengths and the natural fascination with scale, daring, structure and beauty.

She simply wanted to ride the damn thing. And she still hadn't after all this time. Three plus years in England and she's not had near the time to enjoy it, or her life for that matter.

For all the city's wonder and legacy, she desperately needed a 7-11 store. Just one. Was that too much to ask for? A place to get a Slurpee, some tabloids, toilet paper, Midol, and batteries for her DVD players remote control. There were not nearly enough all-in-one stores in London for her liking. Nonetheless, complaints and all from the California grown girl, she still loved London.

Wearing a satisfied smile of contentment after a solid eight hours of snuggly sleep, Buffy allowed the serenity of the clear skies to soothe her, paying no mind to the cool brisk of air that brushed her face.

Thankfully, snow wasn't anywhere to be found, even with the low temperatures. Standing alone on the balcony wasn't because she was alone. She might never be alone again if she truly considered the little hints Xander's been giving her in recent days ever since New Years. Those were subject’s best thought over at a later date. Beloved thoughts at that.

Gazing out over the majestic city, Buffy felt a sense of freedom that's been missing in her life for quite some time now. Perhaps that feeling came with a greater sense of purpose, seeing as she now had a clearer picture of the type of life she wanted, and how she wanted to live it... and with whom.

The 'whom' part of her inner thoughts came with a quiet recollection of last night’s events. When the handwritten note mysteriously arrived under the door of her private office at the Watchers Council Headquarters, she recognized the handwriting immediately. He asked to meet for drinks to chat over old times. She couldn't describe the initial feelings at the thought of seeing him again as excitement, but there was some need to see him, if for no other reason than to achieve a measure of closure they never had.

As expected, Spike looked no different, clad in that dreadful black trench coat. He still had the ladies staring, though Buffy paid it no mind. Seated in the back of a seedy, smoky bar, she found him following her every step with that devil of a smile he owned. Over hot wings for old times sake, they caught up on fights with dragons in rain soaked alleys, haunting Angel's office as a ghost, and the last few years of traveling the world to find himself. Sadly, his journey led him back to her... always to her... and his utter heartbreak that not only was she not interested in anything with him at all, but that she was truly in love and deeply committed to someone else.

Making peace with the past rarely came with curse words or anger or ignoring it altogether. Buffy dealt with Spike using the only tool that ever worked. The truth. She wished him the best in life, despite it all for herself as well as him. There were no tears or longing or any residual feelings save an appreciative thanks for his efforts. But that was all he received.

At the end of the evening Spike could only say after a particularly long, reflective, somber moment that he was at least glad it wasn't Angel. He still told her she could do far better than... she wouldn't let him finish, silencing him with a none too polite kick under the table. And with the laughter they shared, along with a couple of drinks, Buffy closed the Spike-chapter in her life. One second he was there, and the next when she turned around he was gone... more than likely forever.

Spike certainly left a lasting impression on Buffy... but a past one.

She meant to drive home, but found herself pulling into Xander's parking garage unconsciously. She used her key, letting herself in his apartment. She changed into the sleepwear she kept in his drawer and crawled into bed with him, into his waiting arms. When the clock turned midnight she wasn't chasing yet another homicidal demon into an abandoned warehouse where they would fight to the death, and yet again she would have a heck of a time explaining to the cleaners what those colorful stains were.

In Xander's warm, comfortable bedroom Buffy laid in her lovers arms while eating Pizza Rolls and watching Finding Nemo just because. And for the girl who's powers and destiny were reported to be driven by the same darkness she fought against, Buffy simply enjoyed being with the man she loved. They fell asleep in the crumbs, woke up not long ago and showered separately. Xander ordered some room service while she strolled out here for some fresh air.

Had she ever considered before how nice a neighborhood Xander lived in? There were a wealth of exclusive shops, restaurants, tailors and clubs moments away in Piccadilly, Jermyn Street and Regents Street while all the entertainment of the West End and the beautiful surrounding of St. James's Park were a short distance away. Of course they haven't had much free time to enjoy nightlife and sightseeing. Working for the Watchers Council was a seven-day a week, twenty-four hour a day job from hell. But was it a job either of them wanted anymore?

"Oh amazing Slayer," Xander called out when he stepped onto the balcony caring a high tray with a silver top. Buffy's eyes danced with mirth as she leaned back against the railing, watching him. He sat the tray down between the patio furniture, and then walked over to his lover. Without hesitation he embraced her. "I have come bearing gifts of the pastry kind that will delight your tongue, rot your teeth, and add inches to your hips."

"In spite of your lack of caring for my dental hygiene and appearance, you're so good to me." He smelled delicious and Buffy snuggled against him. The chilly bite of wind at this height didn't seem to bother either of them. When you're in love very little bothered you at all. She pulled back and looked at him in the sunlight. The same as her, dressed in his white terry cloth robe and flip-flops. Not only had he taken the time to bring them something to eat, he shaved as well. Such a handsome man she's fallen in love with. "I was out here enjoying he scenery."

"Yeah, that big clock over there beats the heck out of old man Jackson’s broken down mini-van that was parked next door to my parents house. But lets not bring up the basement years."

Buffy laughed into his chest, and felt his lips press a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Ah, the basement years."

"Fond, they were not." With his arm wrapped around her waist, Xander shifted so that Buffy was nestled against his side, with both casting their gazes out over the magnificent city. They settled into a peaceful, quiet moment, even as the air was cold enough for them to see their breaths lifting about. "What's on your mind this morning?" She shook her head in amusement. "Come on, you have to tell me."

"And why is that?"

"Becasue you love me."

"Is that supposed to win you all our arguments?"

"Until you disagree, I suppose."

"Okay, now you're confusing me."

"You're easily confused."

"Don't make me kick your butt. And you know I can."

"Fine. Okay. No kicking of the butt please." He pressed kisses her cheek that made her giggle, then took her right hand with his free one. He didn't know everything there was to know in the world. He was never going to be the richest man who ever lived. And no one was probably going to write a book about his life someday. But he does with all his heart love this amazingly woman. "So what gives?"

"I think we should take Andrew up on his proposal." Buffy waited a few precious seconds while Xander's eyes widened like saucers until he realized she was joking.

"Funny, Buff. Real Funny."

"Hey, he offered me twenty grand to sleep with you for one night. That's one heck of a indecent proposal."

"While I am pleased to be worth twenty thousand for a one night, something tells me you wouldn't be so gung-ho and smiley-faced if Angelina Jolie were offering."

"For twenty grand I'd do Angelina Jolie."

"I'd pay fifty grand to watch that." Joking over trivial things was their way. Recent months had been hard and moments like this one, few and far between. Genuine moments when the balance of good and evil, nor the rigors of leadership couldn't touch them. Here was their safe place in a dangerous world. It's shiny and new, with all those lovely bells and whistles. "Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, a little," Buffy said.

Twirling a little spin away from her all elegant like, Xander tugged her by the hand over to the set of Shoreham Chaise chairs. With elegant lines modeled after traditional interior furniture, the teak and marine-grade Shoreham chaise offered the most pleasurable comfort. Their contoured seats and backrests adjusted to ensure personalized

relaxation.

Buffy sat down on one of the chairs next to the small table while Xander lifted the trays top, revealing a colorful assortment of donuts and pastries the likes of which would surely send a group of kids into a sugar-induced

frenzy. Two champagne flutes were filled with milk, and in that moment Buffy saw so much more of that other silly, sweet Xander that had gone missing in recent years. It was a welcome sight indeed. "The apple fritters are

mine." She reached for one, pulled it to her mouth and took a deep bite. "Oh God, these are better than sex."

"Says the girl whose lover is barely a foot away."

Buffy looked on as he bit a huge chunk out of a chocolate cream filled donut. "I never said it was better than sex with you. There, are you happy?" she laughed.

"Your sarcasm reeked of sincerity."

"You can't even spell sincerity."

"I so can."

"Do it!"

"S... e..."

"Wrong already."

"I can spell 'Stop Sign'," he taunted her, his tongue chasing some of the donuts cream. She looked like she enjoyed watching that. "I can see 'Stop Signs' too, unlike some height-challenged people I know." He glanced off in an attempt to mock her.

"The 'Stop Sign's over here are to small to read and once I'm close enough to see them it's to late to stop," she argued in her defense. "And I'm still getting used to driving on the other side of the car."

"After three years?"

"Oh just eat your donut," she playfully ordered him. He leaned over next to her and stole a lingering kiss, tasting a hint of sweetness on her tongue. When he pulled back she had already forgiven his digs. As a show of truce they toasted their flutes of milk, then dug back in. They had cinnamon rolls, bear claws, apple fritters, chocolate sprinkle cakes, chocolate nut cakes, vanilla coconut cakes, maple nut cakes, glazed donuts, chocolate glazed donuts,

sugar glazed donuts, and glazed twists. A platter of decadent sweets for all time sat before them.

"I've been thinking."

"That's never a good sign."

Xander glared at her. Buffy's only response was to stick her tongue out at him and smile. "Such a funny girl."

"Oh go on. What have you been thinking about?"

He wiped his mouth with a paper towel, carelessly balling it up. "I've been thinking about going to college."

"Yeah?" she replied in a surprised way. "Wow."

"Yes, wow indeed. I never, ever wanted to go to college. It just never felt like me, you know?"

"And now?"

"Now," he began with a serious tone, "I want to be smarter," he finished in a way that seemed to say that was a shock even to him. "I didn't go to college for three reasons. Number one, I couldn't afford it, and no one was going to give me a free taxi ride much less a scholarship to go. Number 2, I hated school and was dying to never be put in that situation again. Number three, and I hate to admit this. I just didn't think I could hack it. Outside of Cordy's breasts, the only other double D's I saw were on my report cards."

"I didn't always think I could cut it either."

"The Xander who put no effort into looking into college or trying was eighteen years old, trying to work any kind of job he could get his hands on to get as far away from his parents as he could isn't here anymore." He finished off a bear claw and the last of his milk. Buffy's focused on this conversation, staring at him intently. "I arrived here with all of you guys feeling like a ninth wheel, much less a fifth. But on that long plane ride I make a promise to myself. I was going to outwork all of you. I was going to soak up anything and everything anyone would teach me so that I would never feel like a liability again. Sometimes you guys made me feel that way, but what was worse was I felt that way about myself. That had to change."

"It certainly did," Buffy complimented with pride. "You are invaluable to the Watchers Council. I've never doubted that. Giles told me that a few weeks ago as well. Robin has the utmost respect for you too. You've led so many successful missions and saved all our butts a lot of times."

He could tell she still lives with some of the guilt for things she's said and the way she treated him back in Sunnydale. And he allowed her to feel that way because she deserved it, even though he was past it. "I'm just one piece of the whole puzzle, and that's cool."

Contrary to most men she knew, Buffy adored how Xander had virtually no ego when he had every right to have one these days.

"I worked my tail off hard for three straight years and learned how to do everything I needed to do for this job. I know I'm good at it. I know that the work we all do makes a difference. But I also know this isn't the life I envision for myself in the next ten years. This isn't a life I want. It's a accomplishment, and nothing more."

"What do you envision?" The temperature rose a bit, though it was still cold enough to see puffs of air when they talked. Buffy waited patiently, giving him his space to collect his thoughts.

"Come here." The expression born on his face spoke of a timeless devotion. Be it friendship, teammate, or love in whatever form, that's what he felt for her. Xander extended his hand as he leaned back on the

long chair. Buffy came to him and was pulled into his lap, wrapped in his arms, and the world around them disappeared into nothing at all. "I envision us being together," he whispered into her ear, then kissed her neck through the golden strands of her hair. He squeezed her against him affectionately, and she melted with a happy sigh. "I'm not one hundred percent sure what I envision, career wise. I just know that it's not carrying a gun twenty-four hours a day, or hunting and killing demons every night. I know that I was scared of college and the commitment it takes to finish it. I hated school becasue I felt like a dumb person while I was there. I never liked feeling dumb. I was lucky to land the construction job I did, and have bosses who liked me so much that I was able to progress fast. But all that’s gone now and I have to start over from scratch. I've saved my money and I can afford college now. I don't want to work any old job anymore. I want something better for myself. I deserve that. So I'm ready to reexamine college and get myself a degree in something that won't just put a roof over my head, but help me actually get ahead. I know that if I apply myself and work hard I can do anything. The Xander of six years ago didn't."

His maturity... she was as proud and inspired as she was so thoroughly love with him. Somewhere along the way he had passed everyone he knew on the growth as an adult scale. And he was all hers, she smiled. "That sounds wonderful, honey. I can totally understand that. I feel the same in a lot of ways. I never hated college once I got used to it as much as everything seemed to hit me all at once and I couldn't deal with school and everything else at the same time."

"But now we could go to school and only have to focus on that. And I truly think I want to."

"I say go for it."

"And you don't think I'm crazy?"

"Of course not." He seemed most pleased. "I know you're crazy," she teased him. "But not for wanting to go back to school. In real life money matters, and you either have it or you don't. Everyone doesn't have family members to help them out financially. I bet many, many people would go back to college if they had the money to do that and live and pay all their bills at the same time."

"I'm not sure what I would want to major in."

"Me either."

"Maybe we'll decide when we're in Ontario," Xander snuggled her against him and kissed her shoulder lovingly. They planned just before the New Year a five-day trip to Canada in late February. Their plan was to get away, think, and come to a final conclusion together about what to do with the rest of their lives.

Settled with her sitting sideways on his lap, she's playing with the loops tied around his waist, enjoying the warmth and safety of his arms. The brisk weather was relaxing; as was the silence they’ve fallen into. It's times like these she wondered where the Slayer was? Where was the darkness that was supposed to call out to her, and she was supposed to have no willpower to resist? Where was the need to run through the night and hunt? Where was the thrill of the demonic kill and the chase of it all? So many questions and only one honest answer. The Slayer was just one facet of Buffy, and not the biggest part after all. "You haven't asked about last night yet."

"I figured since you crawled into bed with me last night I didn't have anything to worry about,"

Titling her head, she fixed him with a promise. "You never had anything to worry about."

"I know." He bent his head and kissed her softly, cradling her in his arms. "How is Blondie Bear doing?"

"He's been traveling ever all over the world, basically getting drunk, causing trouble, and sleeping with women."

"Typical."

"I told him about us, and how happy I am."

"How did he take it?"

"He didn't like it, but he said at least I didn't pick Angel."

"Probably the only thing we have in common."

"He asked me how I could ever fall in love with someone like you."

"Did you show him the naked picture of me you have on your cell phone?"

"How could you ask me such a thing?"

"Well, you showed Andrew."

"He paid me fifty bucks."

Xander kissed her temple, and then rested his face against hers. "Buffy, don't take this the wrong way, but even I've wondered sometimes how you fell in love with me."

"If I raise my hand that'll make three of us."

"So what was your answer?”

"That you have a very big cock." Xander's husky laughter warmed the shell of her ear and made her feel so good inside. "No one can explain their love for anyone. No one can predict who will fall in or out of love. It's just something you feel when you feel it. I fell in love with you... and that was that," she grinned, looking up at him. "I don't have a better explanation. Sorry."

"That was more that a little bit super cool."

Her teeth gleamed between her parted lips and she shifted in his lap, her fingers playfully combing through his dark hair. "Oh, you think I'm super cool?"

"And wicked rad." She kissed him once, and then pecked his lips again. "You're one ice cold chick."

"I've never been called that before. And ice cold is better than luke warm... I think. Is it better?"

"It means the good stuff." His hand softly caressed her face with his fingers trailing over her luscious lips. "You're the love of my life."

Buffy closed her eyes, feeling the weight of responsibility his words implied. "And you're mine," she offered with a smile. It sounded proprietary, she knew, but didn't care. That was how she felt. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Before either of them knew it their lips were locked, initially in an emotional kiss that caring lovers shared. Then lips opened and their tongues began to dance, swaying passionately. The tips of their tongues swirled over each other, circling, tasting until Buffy sucked his deep into her mouth as their desire increased. They paused momentarily in their embrace, gazing into each other's eyes. She reached up to cup his face in her palms. "I want you to take me to your bedroom right now and make love to me all morning long."

Her word commanded his heart into action. His reply came in the way he swept his arms under her, rose to his feet and carried her all the way back inside to his bedroom, where he laid her down upon his bed as if she were the most precious woman he had ever known, becasue she was. "I love you, Buffy," he declared the truth within his soul. His hands slipped the loose knot from around her waist, revealing the loveliness of her nudity as the front of her robe slipped ever so open. He stared at the sensuous curve of her neck, marveling again at her delicate beauty. Xander smiled as his eyes traveled lower, his heart aching at the vision of her slender feminine figure. Her small brown nipples they egged for his attention. Her toned flat stomach... the lush bare flesh of her womanhood, glistening already for him alone. She belongs to him, affectionately thought, and the motivation he now felt was to possess. He wanted her close to him always.

 

 

******

Five Days Later

******

 

Faith's apartment

Cannon House

Rutland Road

Friday, January 14, 2006 9:30 PM

Sheffield, England

 

 

Amidst a whispery cloud of smoke slowly drifting from her lips, Faith offered one name. "Andrew."

Clearly floored, Willow managed to shake her head in mute disbelief while taking her hit from the bong. Dawn, as per usual on their 'Ladies Night,' giggled endlessly while opening yet another bag of Doritos. Buffy stared at her Slayer sister as if she grew a second head. Then again, she's so blowed it almost looks as if...

"You mean to tell me you find Andrew sexually attractive?" Buffy asked out loud after asking in her head a moment earlier. Faith shrugged, knocking back another drink. "That's almost... unholy."

"Look, you asked for the name of someone with a unorthodox sexual appeal. Well it don't get no more unorthodox than Andrew," Faith remarked in a haze of sorts. Her living room served as this months 'Ladies Night' location. Her almond colored sectional couch comfortably sat all four women, with an oak table housing the typical 'Ladies Night' essentials. "Of course my first impression after meeting him was to strangle him, but he's grown on me. I dig his hair and he's got kind of a compact hottie body." She looked each of the girls in the eyes. "Have you seen his abs? I was shocked."

After finishing off another bag of Doritos, Dawn took her hit from the beautiful color changing, hand made glass bong... took it to the dome and giggled some more. "He sleeps in some kind of metal vest he designed that stimulates his stomach muscles while he sleeps. He told me it's like doing one thousand sit-ups a night."

"It seems to be working," Buffy offered before taking her hit. She sat back slowly, shutting her eyes to

the high... "What was I talking about?"

Dawn just kept right on giggling.

Enjoying the politically incorrectness of recreational drug use wasn't something they did often, although Faith was known to have a solo night from time to time. It seemed that after a underworld encounter a year ago that turned out to be nothing more than a shipment of drugs, five bricks of marijuana turned up missing from what was catalogued at the site. Days later Faith summoned everyone to her apartment late one Saturday night. Andrew, Xander, Buffy, Willow, and Dawn were dared to take a little trip on the wild side for once, and it became a thing of sorts. It took the edge off the hard, cold nights they all shared, and outside of Faith, none of them had tried anything like that before. Only enjoyed after hours when work wasn't an issue and in the company of friends. For the small group who regularly halted apocalypses, a little weed just wasn't a big deal at all.

To be perfectly honest, it broke the monotony of their otherwise boring social lives.

Having been exposed to as vast an amount of magic as any living being on the planet, whenever Willow got stoned her high often accompanied a few extra notes of interest. She took pride in exhaling the smoke magically, sometimes making smoke planes fly out of her mouth and around the room. She even did a marching band once that Xander later claimed was the freakiest thing he ever saw. The once-upon-a-time wallflower computer nerd had an edge to her and wasn't afraid to test her own boundaries and live a little. "I think that flute girl from the American Pie movies is a hottie." She smiled so wide it wasn't even funny, but then again, it was. She found herself the focus of stares. "What?"

"She looks a lot like you, Wills. How could you find her hot?" Buffy questioned out loud while wearing a most silly

expression on her face. She just couldn't quite touch her nose with her tongue, but she's trying. "That's like... like... it's like liking yourself. That can't be right... can it?” She suddenly burst out laughing.

Dawn was giggling again. And pointing at people. And reaching for more food.

Twirling her finger about, Willow spun some of the smoke around them into a flute that floated off into

the kitchen. "Flute Girl has a sassy, shameless attitude. I like her. And I like me. And... well... Okay, I am so freaking high right now," she chuckled loudly, mouth wide open for the full effect. "And you, Ms. Winters."

Buffy rolled her slightly red eyes. "Summers."

"Whatever," Willow teased. "Xander loves that girl in that terrible movie 'The Harvard Man.' We all know who she looks like, don't we?"

Faith peered up, grinning. "Ain’t that the movie with the chick reverse cowgirl riding that dorky looking guy in the woods?"

"Yup."

Buffy took another hit of the bong, then added, "That girl might favor me a little bit, but I don't find her hot." Dawn giggled yet again and pointed at something on the wall. Nothing was there at all. She kept pointing. Buffy looked from her sister to the wall and back again. "No more hits for you, sis. You're starting to weird me out."

"I," Dawn pointed at Buffy yet again, cheesing the whole while. "Find the bald guy who plays Lex on Smallville hot. Not kissy or touchy hot, mind you. I don't even want to have sex with him. I just want to rub his shiny baldhead. I may have a fetish for shiny baldheads. I just might. Yep... maybe... Faith, pass me those chips."

Food was a necessary requirement when partaking of the weed. BBQ'ed pork ribs soaked in spicy Cajun sauce with corn on the cob and a couple of huge baked potatoes with chili and cheese were the feast of choice

tonight. Yesterday was the kind of day that needed to be forgotten, and so a 'Ladies Night' was called in and here they were. For the rest of the evening there will be drinking and smoking and eating and laughing and joking and no talk of death, blood, rage, demons, or anything evil. Work had its place and so did play. Fun was their only destiny tonight.

"Okay, I just gotta say, and I know this isn't unorthodox at all, but I love the Rock." Buffy nodded while thinking of the pro wrestler turned actor. Faith toasted her. Dawn giggled. Willow was somehow drawing the smoke with her finger like a painting and made four stick girls, then shook her head all cute like. The stick girls started dancing. "I love my Xander to no end and he knows that. But if I had to choose between my Xander and the Rock..." Everyone looked her way when she ducked her head. "Of course I would take my Xander-honey. But as we walk away I would be staring back at the Rock. And when we got in the car to drive off I would be staring back at the Rock. And when we finally drove off I'd still be staring." She looked somewhat guilty about that. Then she forgot what she had said. "What day is it?"

Twenty minutes later the last of Faith's stash went the way of the dinosaurs, but they didn't care. Her apartment was filled with raucous laughter and some of the worst and dirtiest jokes ever told by women in a close setting. 'Ladies Nights' always culminated with a sleepover, so everyone was dressed in their most comfortable, and yes, ugly attire. Relaxing with each other to enjoy being with friends and being alive. Last night saw a huge vampire nest eradication that was as brutal and violent as any they'd seen since arriving in England. It was the kind of experience that left a lasting impression on your soul and made it hard for you to sleep at night.

Far to many of those had already taken place.

But the good thing about life was that each new day began a rebirth of sorts. Sometimes all you could do was enjoy your friends and loved ones and be glad you were still alive. Everything else could fade, fall away, and blow in the wind. But the love of friends and family was to be celebrated.

Out of the blue Buffy found herself telling the story of how several of her students accidentally caught her and Xander having sex in her office two months ago, and the subsequent 'behind the back' teasing that went on for days. Two of those girls died last night and she just remembered that after she told her story. It was suddenly bittersweet.

After a moment of silence Faith admitted that she used some of the Watchers Council investigators to locate someone she hadn't seen or had any contact with in well over ten years. Her mother. The investigators found her five months ago. Bethany Lahane was currently living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She never remarried and had no more children. Faith admitted she had picked up the phone many times, but could never bring herself to make the call. Give her any Hell-demon, Demi-God, or creature from wherever and she'd face it, stomp it out and whatever the fuck. But her own mother...

Not to be outdone, Willow shocked her friends by divulging a secret weekend she spent with Oz when he came to visit all of them late last year just before the holidays. A weekend that included sex in every possible way, shape and form. She explained how nice it was, not because he was a guy, but because he was Oz and she had felt lonely for a very long time. She felt like she needed someone to simply touch her. She hadn't been touched in forever.

Dawn was asleep during most of that.

"What the..." Faith turned her head towards the front door when she heard someone knocking. "B, I thought your boy was gonna be busy all night?"

"That's what he told me," Buffy replied from her seat on the couch, blinking her eyes to focus. Her gaze followed Faith to the door.

"Look what the cat dragged in," Faith said upon finding a very quiet Xander standing in her doorway. She stepped aside and made a gesture with her hand for him to walk in, but he never did. One loud thunder rattled the windows as the storm outside worsened. For the fifth day in succession, cold driving rain swept through town.

Something ugly and fowl clenched in Buffy throat when she saw the weary face of the man she loved. Slwoly rising from the couch, she saw that he looked every bit as foreboding and somber as the weather. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. "Honey?"

Steps that days later he would not remember having the strength to take, took him inside Faith's apartment. He heard Faith say his name again, but couldn't reply. He watched Willow's face soften upon noticing him, then withdrew in painfully because she could always read his face... a whirlwind of grief ebbed from him and she felt it all. She woke Dawn up.

Buffy walked slowly towards him, now worried. Only upon closer inspection did she realize that wasn't rain dampness on his face, but tear tracks. Suddenly, she felt sick, and didn't know why. "Xander," she spoke his name in a whisper. "What..."

"Giles died," he somehow managed to say, only to wonder who in fact said it because those words were disgusting and could not possibly be true. But they were. "He's dead. I was... I was with him... he's gone?"

No one could say a word.

 

 

 

******

Five Days Later

******

 

The Church of St Michael, Paternoster Royal

College Hill

EC4R 2RL

Tuesday, January 18, 2006 10:00 AM

London

 

 

Ten degrees.

The coldest temperature of the New Year brought with it the saddest as well.

Family, friends, and allies filled St. Michaels to capacity as they paid their last respects. The mourning process had begun days ago when word spread of Giles death due to a sudden, massive heart attack. The living embodiment of the new Watchers Council, who had battled demons, both personal and otherwise fell victim to something fairly common. It seemed so unfair, and yet, life often was. And so they gathered. Assembled to bid farewell to the greatest Watcher ever... to a father... to a pioneer... and a dear friend.

Today, they will all say a final goodbye to Rupert Giles.

News of his death rocked the Scooby Gang like nothing ever had before. They were simply crushed in disbelief. There was no preparation for the inevitable in life. No long-term illness or dire prognosis. He was there one day, and gone the next.

It was that horribly simple.

Xander, Robin, and Dawn quietly made the funeral arrangements. Though not a classically spiritual man, they knew Giles would want something subtle. Something tasteful and brief. A moment for those who loved him to say a few words and then get on with their lives.

And so it was.

The service itself was scheduled to last no more than an hour. The dark maroon casket and the large portrait sat just to the right of the podium. The front row featured the family. Buffy, Xander, Willow, Dawn, Faith, and Andrew. Robin, Angel, and a newly arrived Oz sat in the next row. The governing body of the Watchers Council, along with nearly a hundred agents and Slayers, as well as a full contingent from the Witches Coven filled the rest of the old medium-sized church. Hidden in the shadows near the door, Spike looked on with a heavier heart than even he thought he was capable of feeling.

Two songs were sung beautifully, followed by a reading of the obituary, and a moment of silence.

The whole day felt surreal, as if a sad dream they could all wake from at any moment. Only this was no dream. It was reality. Giles was gone. With the tick-tock passing of each precious second the world grew colder and less friendly. Change had come at last.

The entire day, and previous four days were a blur for Willow as she stood to the side of the podium, flanked by Xander and Buffy, all dressed in black. All mourning together and within their own personal thoughts. They each will deliver a eulogy for the man they loved so dearly. The original Scooby Gang consisted of only four people. Four lives intertwined into one. Now a piece was missing... forever. And those remaining have no idea how to move on from this. But they can say goodbye.

After a short introduction, Willow stood at the podium first, adjusting the microphone to her diminutive height. She peered out over the crowd, and past them, and into a far distant and lonely future. She had no tears left to shed. No prepared statement. Nothing, really. So she spoke from the heart.

"I've dreaded this day more than any of you could possibly imagine. I cried myself to sleep last night. I don't want to cry anymore. I don't want to yearn to hug Giles one last time, or hear the eloquence of his voice, or watch him rub his glasses whenever one of us tried his patience. I don't want to miss him because I don't like to miss things. This is the fourth funeral I have attended in the last seven years. I hate funerals. I wish that they never existed. But they are necessary. To have a chance to share our memories of this wonderful man with you all who love and admired him, that is a privilege."

Willow paused a moment to collect her thoughts. She smiled softly before speaking her next words. "I never thought he was stuffy or old fashioned. Honestly, he was brilliant and so open minded to me. He was an inspiration, and I will always cherish his memory. When I was just this skinny little computer nerd who didn’t know much more than how to use Windows on a computer, he opened up and allowed me to venture into a world I could have never fathomed. One that shaped my life and changed me profoundly. He made me feel special and a part of something meaningful. He encouraged me at every turn, and challenged me at others. He was the finest mentor I could have ever asked for, and a dear friend."

"As I grew older and discovered new things about myself, he accepted me with a kind smile. He was the most compassionate man I've ever known. And the most couragious. He helped save the world... and I suppose that's a great feat for anyone. But to his family and friends, he was the center of us. He held us together. He gave us focus. Room to grow and make mistakes and recover from them. I love him so much and I just can't believe that he's gone," she finished with a long sigh at the end, wiping away her tears. "All of us here are suffering the loss of my dear friend, but the world will also suffer from the loss of a great man who had so much more to do on this earth. If I could see him one more time, I would tell him that I love him, that I am so proud of the life he led, and that he touched my life in a profoundly good way. Thank you."

Willow stepped from the podium and into Xander's waiting arms. The best friends hugged for a time while Buffy looked on, and then it was his turn to address the audience. Buffy reached for Willow's hand as they held onto each other.

"Forgive me in advance," Xander began as he took a deep, soothing breath. "I'm not very good at public speaking or anything. I won't hold you long. I just wanted to say a few words about a man I admired a great deal. He gave a poor kid with nothing to do something to do that gave him a sense of self-worth he didn't have. Giles was tough on me at times and I needed that more than I could say. See, I come from a bad home and discipline wasn't something I learned from where I should have. Giles was patient beyond words with me, and I wish I had told him more often how much I appreciated him. I hate that I have to do it here like this, but maybe you all can take something from this and apply it to the people you care about. Say the things you want to say to the living. Don't put them off. Life isn't promised to any of us."

"He liked soap opera's," Xander managed to smile, and illicit some soft laughter from the memory. "He could play the guitar and sing pretty well too. I'm convinced if he hadn't decided to help rebuild the Watcher’s Council, he'd be on tour somewhere with a band. He loved music and he loved his family. He defied the Watcher's Council many times because he put us first. We were a priority in his life. That's saying a lot due to the fact that none of us were his blood family. We were teenagers and he taught us and... I liked him more than I can say. He was the example of a strong, honorable man when I didn't have one. When it came to commitment, responsibility, and duty, I learned all I know from him." Xander eyed Willow and Buffy with their arms around each other’s waists, and Dawn sobbing on Faith's shoulder. He cried himself, right there at the podium and felt no shame in doing so. "I was a nobody who he saw something worthwhile in, because he was the kind of man who could see the best in people. He wasn't a perfect man, but he was a damn good one. I don't know how any of us are going to live without him, but I know that the qualities, maturity, and love he instilled in us will help. It has too."

"I was with him when he died." Silence all around him as he cleared his throat, choking back a fresh onrush of emotion. "His last words were 'I'm so proud of you all.' I begged him not to die, but he did anyway. He had to go, I guess. It was his time. Even in death he taught me a lesson. There are some things in life you just have to live with. Death is one of them. I love you, Giles. And wherever you are, and I know if there's any justice in the world it's not hot there." A few more laughs. "I hope you watching Passions with your TV sitting on a fluffy cloud and you're looking down on us while rubbing your glasses, smiling at our triumphs and shaking your head at our mistakes. We're still learning, you know. Thanks."

As if a weight lifted and he suddenly felt a little better, Xander exited the podium, and found Buffy's comforting embrace immediately. They whispered quick vows of love, and then it was her turn to address the church. Xander stood by Willow, holding her hand as they leaned on each other to make it through this trying day.

Exhaling a deep breath, Buffy tucked a few errant strands of her blonde hair behind her ear. She found her sister's beautiful face to focus on, as well as Angel's compassionate expression, and even Spike's understanding. She's grateful and so much more. "A couple of years ago when my mother died suddenly I didn't have the strength to speak at her funeral. I couldn't bring myself to say a word. I didn't know what to do or where to even start. I cried all day long. It was Giles who spoke on behalf of my family that day, and everything he said was beautiful and perfect. He knew what my mother meant to my sister and I, and all of her friends. He understood my heart without me having to tell him anything at all. He knew me and loved me and I am just heartbroken over his death. See, I'm a orphan today," she declared sadly, looking out over the church. "Giles was my father in every way a father could be categorized that mattered. And with his death, now both of my parents are gone. It's a crushing feeling." She continued, "Underneath it all, I can still feel his love and devotion. I can hear his voice as clear as day, teaching me, scolding me, and molding me into the woman I am. He was an amazing father. Not a father figure, but a true father. I loved him so much."

"In the history of Watcher/Slayer partnerships, I'm sure ours achieved a legendary status. Mishaps, misunderstandings, and all around insanity were the norm." Smiles and grins from those who knew the tales. "I know I tried his patience and I'm probably accountable for any and all of the gray hairs he had. He actually told me so a month ago," she paused as the grief threatened to overwhelm her. "Years ago he came to America to train the new Slayer. When he found me I thought I knew everything, and then I didn't want any part of any of this lifestyle. I ran away like a child. I abandoned my duties. I made so many mistakes. Huge mistakes. And like any great parent he never sugarcoated how he felt about the things I'd done, or let me forget them or off the hook. But he did forgive me. He taught me how to forgive myself, and instilled in me the proper understanding of duty and responsibility. He didn't take me fishing. He taught me how to fish," she said, remembering a life metaphor. "He was a teacher, a friend, a mentor, and a father all wrapped up into one. He was honorable and strong and so caring. I would not have accomplished anything that I have without his guidance and caring. And his love. I will miss him for the rest of my life and days after that."

"Giles was a wise, intelligent, quirky, plaid-wearing man who loved rock music, soap operas, and Scotch," she remembered fondly. "This past summer I told him that I had taken every bit of advice he had ever given me, it had just taken seven or so years to implement it. He and I both laughed. The point is that he allowed me to fumble the ball, to make mistakes and to screw up. He would make his opinions known, but he let me go my own way and make my own mistakes and I knew his love for me even if I didn't follow what he wanted for me. To me that is loving wisdom. That is the essence of Rupert Giles."

"We all now have a greater responsibility to uphold. He knows that you, his friends, and associates, will carry on his work. He trusts that we, his family, will take care of each other. He trusts that we will find new life in his physical absence." She felt a sense of finality fall over her. A choice at last made. Her gaze turned to Xander momentarily, and she smiled. The true love of her life. "We will always love and miss you, Giles. We cherish your precious memory and example. We can't wait to see you again in whatever awaits us after this life. Until then, I know that Joyce, Tara, Wesley, Gunn, Cordelia, Fred, and Anya will keep you company. We love you. Goodbye, dad."

Minutes later Xander, Buffy, and Willow hugged each other tight, soon joined by Dawn. Angel, Robin, Oz, and Giles good friend Reginald served as the pallbearers. The minister gave a prayer, and then everyone stood as the casket was lifted and carried down the aisle, with his family walking slowly behind it.

A new day had truly come. Sad, somber, and perhaps less bright. But hopeful as well.

 

 

******

Five Days Later

******

 

The home of Rupert Giles

Wilfred Street

Sunday, January 23, 2006 4:40 PM

Westminster, SW1

 

 

They gathered at the home on Wilfred Street, as they had well over a hundred times before in recent

years. Over dinners shared and meetings held. A surprise party or two. Sometimes even a mini-hangout/concert, with music courtesy of 'The Ripper' himself. The family came to this warm home so often just to hang out together. Only this time, was more than likely the last time.

Memories lived inside. Memories to be divided amongst the former owner's loved ones.

The separation process had begun.

As if by divine intervention, the day was especially sunny and bright, with not a cloud in the sky. This time of year brought with it colder temperatures, but for the most part it was a beautiful day. Beautifully sad.

Three cars, parked side by side, were driven here directly from the lawyer’s office. Giles's lawyer. On this Sunday afternoon, his will was read. Concerning the Watchers Council, his instructions, warnings, and hopes were delivered to Angel and Robin, who also attended the reading of the will. His possessions freely given to those he loved and admired. Specific charities he believed in would receive large anonymous donations from the Watchers Council.

Both of his beloved, vintage motorcycles, the 1952 Harley-Davidson FL and the 1958 Vincent Black Knight, were left to Faith, who rode them nearly every time she visited his home. Sometimes they took the empty back roads and rode together. He'd taken a sincere liking to the moody Slayer, who had overcome so much in life to become the respectable, responsible woman she was today. She wasn't perfect, and then again he knew he had never been either. But with Faith, he saw her put forth the supreme effort to change, and she had.

His personal archive of books, some of them ancient and mystical, numbering well over eight hundred, were left to Willow. There wasn't one visit to his home that didn't include her thumbing through his extensive library. Ever the unpredictable type, only Giles could have a book detailing one hundred and one recipes for cooking chicken right alongside a book on Satanic rituals and the demons they could possible conjure. He was a man of many interests and tastes. Willow certainly had that in common with him.

His three-bedroom villa in South West France, because she loved the country so dearly during the five months she spent there on assignment, was left to Dawn. The younger Summers had chatted his ears off for hours upon her return to London, telling him and anyone else who would listen all about her adventures, and the food, and France's nightlife. Her enthusiasm was as charming as anything he had ever seen, and so the villa, forever a home for her, was left to the one person who would appreciate it the most.

Having shared stories with Xander the last couple years over road trips he took in his younger days, and the one the younger man enjoyed a couple of years ago, the Watcher's Council agent related to him how he'd driven through a good part of the States and flown over most of the world. The one thing he never had the chance to do involved boating. He jokingly said that he felt in recent years the ocean's been calling him via London's never-ending rainfall. He wanted to travel by boat for the experience alone. Earlier, as the lawyer read the Giles's will, it clearly stated that a special bank account was being held in trust by the lawyer, and to be used only to purchase a boat. One very nice, big boat. A lasting gift to a dear friend. Something he never had before.

Giles was all about moving forward, and not being stuck in the past.

To Buffy, as he did with Dawn, the will referred to her as his beloved daughter. The home they all stood in front of was now hers. The six-bedroom estate that Buffy helped him pick out not long after they arrived in England was the centerpiece for Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. In his own way, Giles passed on the center position he held in their group of friends to her. She was being asked to hold the family together now. His home wasn't the centerpiece as much as what it represented. She understood that, sadly, and accepted it. His personal journals were left to her as well, but she wasn't sure when, if ever, she'd muster up the courage to read them.

Thoughts for another time.

"I guess we better go in," Buffy said finally, producing the key to Gi... to her new home. She unlocked the door, flanked by Xander, and walked inside. The others followed.

A home away from home for all of them. It wasn't elegant, as it was nice. It wasn't uppity, as it was young-person friendly. The size gave it a regal quality, and yet the furnishings spoke of a free spirit. The maturity and class with which Giles lived his life could be found in the eloquent oil paintings that adorned the wall, as well as the beautiful maroon rugs on the floor. But everything else, from the huge 65'inch flat-screen TV, to the three freezers in the kitchen, the Slurpee machine built into the island, and the huge and unbelievably comfortable sectional surrounding the living room spoke of his family's influences on his life. They could be found all over his home.

Silently, quietly, as if all of them needed a moment alone, they parted ways throughout the home. Willow wandered off to the personal library, while Dawn left for upstairs. She wanted pictures, no doubt. Buffy and Xander moved to the back of the house, out of sight. Faith stood alone in the living room, feeling very uncomfortable.

This just wasn't her forte.

Sure, she loved the guy. When she was barely six months out of prison, he could have booted her back into Angel's lap, but instead offered her a damn good paying job and a real way to repay society. She grabbed on with both hands, ever mindful and appreciative of the opportunity not everyone felt she deserved. Years later she'd gotten to know Giles pretty well, and found him to be one of the few sincere men she ever had the grace to meet. He was who he said he was and lived his word. That was good enough for her. Better even. Gave her some hope for the Y chromosome.

But this was a time for grieving and that wasn't something she had ever done before. People came and went throughout her life. She'd gotten used to people and gotten used to them not being around. It was what it was. She dealt with her emotions privately. She's never been comfortable with crying by herself, much less in front of anyone. Death was inevitable in her eyes, but she knew she would miss Giles presence deeply. She respected him. That alone was something she gave to very few people. When she questioned what she could possibly offer any of the S.I.T's in the way of a positive role model he reminded her... confessed to her, his Ripper days. Dark, mean spirited days of his less than stellar past. He gave her the wisdom of time removed from past crimes plus placing the proper effort in doing better.

She loved him. And Faith had loved so few people.

Walking to their cars in the law firm’s parking lot, Faith called dibs on Giles antique sword collection. She wasn't much into pictures or books, but his collection of swords; she would take very good care of them.

Suddenly, she looked up and there they were. Mounted onto a beautiful, hand-carved oak wall shelf, six antique swords awaited her. His most prized collection. The Black Agincourt sword, Carlos V sword, White Shadow Arming sword, Wakizashi Japanese sword, Confederate Foot Officer's sword, and the Napoleonic Imperial Guard sword.

Some dated as far back as the 15th century. A sense of history, if you will. Faith appreciated that. They reminded her of Giles, even now as her fingers graced over the swords hilt. She was going to miss him. Sometime later tonight she'll toast a drink to a good man that lived a good life, who treated her far better than decent.

He believed in her.

For Faith, that meant the world and then some.

 

 

******

Twenty Minutes Later

******

 

Savoring the cold, refreshing glass of lemonade she just poured herself, Dawn looked up the moment she saw Willow approaching. The Wiccan appeared every bit as somber as she felt, all the while trying her best to hide it, just the way she was. Sitting at the kitchen table, she asked. "You want a glass?"

As Willow walked over, she shook her head. "I'm not in a real lemonady mood today."

"You know, I made this a week ago," Dawn considered, her eyes locked on the shifting light reflected through the ice cubes in her glass. "Giles loved my lemonade." Finishing her drink, she sat it back down on the table. Her mood shifted yet again, and she felt old. Did the others feel old? She was sure they did.

Dawn's purse sat in a chair alongside her, filled to overflowing with picture frames. As badly as she wanted to peruse her friend’s selections for old times sake, she didn't. She just didn't. "He loved you so much, Dawn."

Willow didn't just try; she had a need to lift the spirits of those she loved. Such an appreciative quality to have in a good friend. "He loved all of us."

"And we gave him so much grief," Willow remembered fondly, as well as sadly. "He put up with the one thing he knew nothing about. American teenagers. And he excelled, despite us."

"As many mistakes as the Watchers Council made over the years, they got it so right when they chose him to train Buffy. We all lucked out big time. If we never had him..."

"I know." With all that had happened within the first two years of Buffy's arrival in Sunnydale, Willow knew it was quite possible they wouldn't even be alive today if anyone other than Rupert Giles had been sent to the

States. Discussing their dearly departed mentor in the past sense was simply heartbreaking. "I still can't believe he's gone." Willow heard herself say the foul words, and found utterly them unfathomable. Perhaps it was true that the young felt invincible. Maybe even that they alone had all the time in the world.

Then real life had a way of creeping in and sweeping away all those silly notions.

"I was," Dawn began slowly, "I intended to talk to Giles about taking some time off."

"Are you alright?"

"No," she replied honestly, despite Willow's worried expression. "I feel lost, in a lot of ways. I haven't felt the ground beneath my feet for well over a year now, and my recent breakup hasn't helped things. Then there's work, and that's only gotten more intense in the last year. I feel like I'm just part of a machine. I'm not living, or learning, or experiencing anything new or profound. I'm just running in place like the hamster in the wheel."

"I've feel like I've been just going through the motions too," Willow related to her. "I've lost twenty students in the last year and a half. Twenty," she repeated in a voice that fell almost to a whisper. "I can remember the very first day each of them walked into one of my classes, and the day they were committed to the Coven Hall of Remembrance when they died. I can recall all of their faces like it was yesterday."

"It's the faces haunt you," Dawn added with a heavy heart, finding little comfort in the quiet surrounding them. "I'll never forget that family in Wales that were slaughtered by that Bereft demon last spring." The things she saw that night crept into her dreams for weeks. "Turning that crime scene into one the authorities could pass off as a serial killer's rampage instead of something the public could never understand was one of the worst experiences of my entire life. Out of the four dead children my team and I found, one of them was so mutilated we couldn't tell right away if it was a boy or a girl. I have never gotten over that case. And I don't think I ever will."

As brutally vicious as many of the battles were, Willow had never truly given consideration to the men and women who worked under Dawn in the teams that did the Councils 'clean-up work'. If a train was filled with twenty half-eaten corpses, the authorities couldn't very well explain that to the public. News crews and reporters wanted answers, and those answers weren't anything every-day society was ready to handle. It would change things forever, and so the crime scenes were 'cleaned' with individuals well versed in magic, science, and medicine, working as one unit to create a quick, plausible, and acceptable explanation for some of the underworld horrors around the world. Dawn was sent to France to help train a new 'clean-up crew' stationed there.

It wasn't the advertised for 'adventure of a lifetime', this dedicated life to the Watchers Council. It was necessary work one needed to be fully committed too. It wasn't a duty that had to be done. It required individuals who wanted to do it for a living. Who needed to do it to fulfill something within them. To provide for those that didn't even know they needed it.

So what happened when one didn't 'feel' it anymore?

"I miss the States," Willow admitted out of the blue, her eyes downcast. "I miss every darn thing I complained about in America."

"Even the traffic?" Dawn managed a small smile.

Willow gave a nod. "Even that."

"I miss it too. I love the traveling I've done, especially to France. But I miss IHOP," she frowned. "How can we be overseas and yet not have a International House of Pancakes? I want my IHOP back."

"And the Three's Company marathons on late night cable. I just don't like Benny Hill, and that's all we get over here."

"And driving on the right side of the road. My sister would cut her traffic accidents in half if we were back home."

"In America, people shun soccer the way it's supposed to be shunned."

"Amen," Dawn declared, smiling. They'd cried enough, and so no more tears were shed. Not at this table, where so many wonderful dinners were served, silly arguments took placed, and graces said over each and every mission when they all came home safe and sound. Suddenly, Dawn wanted the table. A solid reminder of this period in her life. "So, what are you going to do with your seventy-five thousand?"

Willow had almost forgotten about the checks handed out to each of them. Giles final gift. A little financial cushion for whatever interests they might choose pursue in the future. A financial 'thank you' for the Sunnydale years. "I don't have a clue."

"Me either."

"Any plans for the future?"

"A lemonade stand," Dawn joked, lifting her glass. "I could call it Summerade. Corny, but it could work."

"Giles would be proud."

"What about you?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'll go into business with you and bake brownies. They go well with lemonade, you know. Maybe I could call them Witch Cakes."

"Sounds like a plan." Dawn heard footsteps approaching from the living room. Faith strolled in twirling a sword. She laid it down at the kitchen table, and then straddled a seat backwards.

"I really miss the G-man. Him dying on us is really fucked up. What the hell are we supposed to do now? He's the one that brought us over here." Looking from one to the other, Faith saw no answers coming forth. And she was really hoping they'd have one by now. "The Watcher's Council is up and running. So now what?"

All Dawn and Willow could do was look at one another.

 

 

******

 

Death...

Until the actual loss of a loved one took place, the fear of that person’s death took on something of a faraway nightmare. A day unimaginable, similar to a child’s fear of the proverbial boogieman in the closet. You tried not to think about it because it was the worse thing you could think of. A someday pain shoved deep into the back of your mind, locked inside a box labeled 'do not open ever.' It was only after the fact, when death had done its inevitable purpose, that the true sense of loss could be understood.

Someone that meant the world to you was gone... forever.

You couldn't fear it anymore because there was simply nothing left to fear. The worse had happened. The ultimate bad day that made all your crappy days at work, arguments with your significant others, distant relationships with family members, financial woes, loneliness, regret, mistakes made, self-esteem issues, unfair things done against you, and everything else pale in comparison.

That's when the numbness set in. The 'now what' period of your life had begun. Swim or drown, it was an adult’s truest test in life.

Wielding the strength to bend steel with her bare hands offered little in the way of comfort, compared to the large hand that held hers securely as they strolled through the beautiful garden behind Giles home. Buffy hadn't said anything else since they arrived. She felt a need to feel closer to her father, and so she came here. This garden, as he once told her, was an expression of life amidst the death that surrounded them daily. All around them, life... natural and pure. She smiled to herself with the knowledge that Giles knew absolutely nothing about gardening, but still paid his private gardener a hefty sum to keep the place up. Time permitting, he read here in the evening and at night. Would relax and play his guitar after a long day. Backyard get-togethers and private talks took place in this little world away from their own.

The Slayer sincerely felt closer to her Watcher here. The daughter to her father as well.

Allowing Buffy the personal space she required was but one of many things Xander understood about his complicated other half. He loved her beyond measure, and as bad as the days past have been, the days to come wouldn't be any easier for the forcible future. Nonetheless, he understood his role as the rock of the family. In life, there were some people who seemed to have a deeper inner ability to manage, process, and lead in times of severe crisis or grief. He wasn't gifted with any special mystical abilities, or a destiny foretold before his birth. Nothing as clichéd as those were, and he had wished for them once upon a time. In the present, what he was good at, what he was able to do, his family needed someone to lean on. Someone to guide them. Someone who would accept the responsibility until they could again.

It was Xander's specialty to be there for people. And for Buffy, he would always be there.

The immensely vibrant garden had a very calm and relaxing feeling to it. A sense of control and symmetry, consisting of a spectacular color array of landscape plants, and garden foliage for both sun and shade. A spell Willow placed over the area protected the gardens beauty from the weather. It maintained perfectly throughout the winter. Complimented by twin ceramic Dove Bird Bath's and a set of Tile Motif Stone Table Benches towards the back were the stylistic additions necessary to complete the serenity of this place.

Walking slowly, Buffy and Xander toured the garden as if this was their very first time.

"What do you want for dinner tonight?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw Xander's careful observation of her every move and expression. He's hovered closely since day one of Giles death. In the present, she found it slightly annoying, as she had her own way of dealing with grief. But some time later in the future she would understand how truly endearing his caring was. However did he manage to love her so dearly, and have time to properly grieve himself? It was no wonder why she loved him. "I don't have an appetite for anything." She politely squeezed his hand, thanking

him. "I feel numb," she said blankly. "Very numb."

"That makes two of us," Xander replied barely loud enough for her to hear. "It seems like every ten minutes I tell myself I can't believe Giles is really gone. It still feels like a bad dream."

Pain swept through her, fresh, bright, and deeply unbearable. "It's tragically funny when you think about it," she

began. "We've foiled so many End-of the-World plots, and we've attended more funerals and buried more loved ones than we deserve." She felt her throat close in pain. Looking to her boyfriend, could tell how tired he was as well. She longed to take him home and care for him. Later, she will. "My mother, Tara, Mrs. Calendar, Anya, Cordelia, and now Giles," her voice came as an anguished whisper at the end. "We've lost too much. I just don't understand how unfair life is. You wake up one morning thinking you know everything there is to know in the world. Like you've finally figured things out and you're standing on sure footing. And then someone you love dies, and you doubt you know anything at all."

"Sometimes I think God has no compassion. And then right after that I hope I'm wrong," he concluded, "I need to be wrong. The other side of the coin just ain't pretty at all."

"Thank you for handling the funeral arrangements," Buffy said to him. "I just... I wanted too, but..."

"It's okay, honey." He drew her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss on top of her knuckles, never releasing

his hold. "Everyone has a job. That one was mine."

"Why do you think you're able to deal when the chips are down like this?"

"How are you calm and focused when the worlds about to end and it looks like we're on the short end of

the stick?" He turned a wistful gaze her way. "We all excel at something, Buff. I don't think the point is trying to understand it. I think you just have to be a part of a family. That way a group of people who excel at different things come together for a greater purpose."

"You better watch it, honey. As you get older your wisdom is showing," she teased, needing the levity as badly as he did.

"Oh, don't worry about that," he whispered in her ear, as if they had a private secret only to share with

each other. "I'm wearing my Spiderman boxers."

She almost laughed. "The Doc Ocks or the Spider-Web print?"

"The Spider-Web print."

"Oh so sexy." Xander smiled wide for the both of them, and that was enough. As they took the long, winding tour of the garden, Buffy didn't necessarily feel better as she was sure that she wouldn't be alone in dealing with the days, weeks, months, and years to come. She didn't just have a good man by her side. She had the love of her life. That status wasn't earned via a crush, or a tragically romantic cliché, or due to anything sexual. He'd earned that title for days like today, when she truly needed him to not only be strong for her, but with her.

His steps came to a halt when his girlfriend slipped her hand from his, and then pivoted in front of him, smiling mistily.

"Promise me you won't ever die."

Gazing into her gorgeous hazel eyes, he sighed. She never ceased to amaze him in one way or another. "I wish I could."

Her eyes shut momentarily, sadly. "Then lie to me."

"You could never lie to yourself."

"I know," she conceded in a way she didn't want too. "I know it's a very unfair thing to ask. Especially since I died on you twice." His face fell suddenly; lips parted on a somber exhale. Color drained from his cheeks, immediately making her regret her poor choice of words. She knew sometimes her timing royally sucked. "Honey, I'm sorry." Her hand rose to caress his cheek, and to force his gaze her way.

"It's okay," he promised her, turned into her hand to kiss her palm. "I just couldn't bear to lose you again."

His vulnerable side, well hidden to the rest of the world, was her own personal playground. That's the faith in her she knew he had. And she cherished it more than words could say. "Maybe we'll die together."

Her sense of humor tended to quirk darkly on occasion. "How about we try to avoid that whole dying part altogether?"

"Sounds like a plan to me." Xander led her over to one of the stone benches closest to the small pond at the rear of the garden. It wasn't big enough for fish or ducks, so Xander and Dawn went out one Sunday afternoon and bout twenty rubber duckies. The little yellow ducks were a nice, albeit silly touch. Giles honestly laughed so hard when he saw them. Another memory Buffy sincerely cherished. "I want to ask you something."

Taking a seat next to her, Xander shifted, now sitting face to face. "Shoot."

Taking a deep breath, Buffy hoped he wouldn't feel offended by what she was about to ask. But this question had been lingering in her mind ever since Giles death. "Honey, I love and trust you more than anyone else in the world. I know you would never hurt any of us. But I also know how fiercely loyal you are. So what I'm asking is, no jokes or teasing... did you know if Giles was dying, or was very sick? Did he confide something in you that he made you promise not to tell the rest of us?"

"No, I didn't know anything." Xander replied calmly, and without fail. "It's true, if he had been sick for a while and confided in me and asked me to keep my mouth shut, I would have," he stated firmly. She nodded. "But outside of a cold he caught every now and then, which I thought came from London's weather more than anything else, I just thought he was stressed out, overworked, and tired like the rest of us. His death was as huge a surprise to me as it was to you. I swear I didn't know anymore than you did."

Framing his handsome face with her hands, she pulled him close enough for their lips to touch in a short, sweet kiss. "Of course I believe you. I just had to ask."

"It's okay." He leaned in for another kiss. And then another. And then he tried to kiss and make out with

her nose. At long last she laughed hard, giggling as she pushed him away.

"You're insane."

"Yeah, but you love me anyway."

"Yes, I do." Another quick peck.

"So, what are you going to do with this place?"

Taking a good long look around her at the estate, Buffy said, "Even with the fond memories and how much Giles loved this place, it's too painful for me to hold on too." She paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. "I'm going to sell it."

"I don't blame you," Xander exhaled on a breath. "I don't think I could come here on a regular basis

anyway." She's so beautiful, sitting with him, peering out over the flowers. "Things are definitely changing."

"They never stop... unless you're dead." Again, she thought of her mentor/father and all that he had meant, and would always mean to her. The love she held in her heart for her mother didn't fade because she left what was left of Sunnydale. That thought clicked something in the back of her mind. Something new was on the horizon. "How are you holding up?"

A shrug was his initial reply. "Like everyone else. Still shell-shocked, but now having to face reality. G-man is gone. And we're still here."

In more ways than one, Buffy considered. "Maybe that's the problem."

"What do you mean?"

"That we're still 'here,'" she remarked, casting her gaze about. "Here we are, years removed from Sunnydale, and we're still fighting demony bad-guys. We're still risking our necks and bleeding and watching poeple die." She turned to him wearing a most serious expression. "In Sunnydale, we were all the world pretty much had. We kept watch over the Hellmouth and fought everything that jumped, crawled, or slithered out of it. We had too. The Watchers Council back then only wanted to control things, and there was only one Slayer most of the time."

It didn't take a rocket scientist to gauge where she was going with this. "We did what we had to do."

"But not what we wanted to do." Hearing herself say the words felt therapeutic, somehow. "The work we do for the Watcher's Council is necessary work. It saves lives and protects people. But it does not fulfill me on a personal level. Doing this for a living does not inspire me. The constant fighting and all the deaths of my students and now my family... it's just not right for me anymore. I know that now. And I absolutely..." as her unshed tears threatened to fall, "I absolutely hate that this great sign I had been looking to push me to finally make that big move and change my life was the death of my father."

Xander stared straight ahead. "So you think this was a sign?"

"Don't you?" she asked, turning to him.

He hated to admit it. He truly did. "I need to change my life, I know that much. And the time for talk is over. Unlike most people, we have options that aren't financially based."

"That's a blessing."

He agreed with a nod. "I think we need to have a family talk right now." He stood to his feet, extending his hand. Buffy took it, walking with him back towards the house. "You know we're going to be alright, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do. It's just going to take me a while to accept it."

 

 

******

 

******

 

"The Watchful Eye"

Watcher's Council Headquarters

The office of Elder Robin Wood

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 9:30 PM

London, England

 

 

 

The report contained better news than he'd expected.

The early weeks following the death of Rupert Giles had seen Robin Wood nominated, and then elected the new High Elder of the Watchers Council. A position he'd admit, late at night over a glass of Brandy, he did covet in a someday future. But nowhere near the present. Such was life and all of its unpredictability.

Nonetheless, the report he read at his desk came as very good news. The only remaining Hellmouth on earth, discovered and documented in recent years resided in Cleveland, Ohio. A recent recon-team returned from a two-week assignment to London yesterday, and their report was on his desk when he walked into his office this morning.

Simply put, the all-clear sign was given. The Hellmouth had not been opened or tampered with in any way, nor had the local, county, or state authorities reported any strange, unusual, or bizarre happenings in recent years. Of course there were the murders and things of an sickly human nature, but nothing that spoke of the mystical dark underworld that made up the Watchers Council's duties. Two powerful spells, courtesy of a Prime Coven Witch that accompanied the recon-team, were placed over the Hellmouth for security purposes. In addition, four full-time undercover operatives infiltrated the ranks of the Cleveland Police Force, Forensics Lab, and Special Crimes Division. They will keep watch over the Hellmouth, insuring the best early warning system available.

So far, so good.

Closing the report, Robin flipped through his date book, calculating at the last minute his meetings and department checks for the day. "Giles, how did you ever keep this schedule?" he thought wistfully, but with a smile. Having gotten to know the man most responsible for this newly reformed Watcher's Council, they had built a mutual respect and after while, a sincere friendship. Robin came to see them as night and day in terms of methods over time, but never lost an ounce of respect between them. Meetings were necessary hassles he'd have to endure, when in the past he could attend half and be briefed on the rest. Not so anymore.

Par for the course.

Although he's one of several elders, including the newly appointed Angel, he was now the High Elder. He knew he could do the job. Never doubted his abilities in that regard. It was only the timing that was all wrong. Then again, fate didn't really care what you wanted. It had it's own uniquely designed plan and that was that.

The Watchers Council now boasted a full compliment of well-trained agents numbering six thousand, worldwide. A truly magnificent feat in the years following Sunnydale. For not the first time, Robin had to marvel at the plan Giles came up with, the people he went after to build the necessary training facilities, and the contacts made to ensure all of this could be down quietly, and with the utmost discretion.

Having been here since day one of the reformation, he worked closely with Willow in securing a lasting alliance with the Coven of Witches. What was once a tentative friendship at best had developed in recent years into a well-oiled machine, working together for the protection of mankind.

Three hundred and fifty fully trained Slayers are now out in the field, doing what they were born to

do. Seventy-eight had been given the opportunity to work for the Watcher's Council, and declined for a host of, but more importantly, their own reasons. Nonetheless, for the fight ahead, the Council was as ready as ever.

And Robin Wood swore he would see to it that things would remain that way and improve even more under his command. A lasting testament to the great man who preceded him.

A knock at his office door drew his attention. "Come in." Ms. Velisia, his personal secretary, strolled in carrying a folder with what looked to be the drawing of a dog on the front. Curious indeed.

"This just arrived for you, sir." She handed him the folder, and then stepped back. "It came in care of 'The Scooby Gang'," she said with something of a chuckle in her voice.

Robin's eyes studied the folder as his mood sank on a slow descent. With a heavy heart, he'd feared and expected this, if his assumption proved correct. "Thank you, Carolyn. That'll be all."

"Yes, sir." With a polite nod, she exited the office.

The Scooby Doo caricature on the front of the folder brought back memories of his youth. His mother and a smile. Opening the folder, he found a one-page letter with multiple signatures at the bottom. He assumed right, reading...

____________

 

'Dear Watchers Council:

Ever since March of 1997, Rupert Giles, Buffy Anne Summers, Willow Rosenberg, and Alexander Harris have been working for the Watchers Council in one form or another. Only Rupert Giles chose that life. The rest of us were destined for it, or just found a calling and couldn't walk away. That's almost ten years of our lives. We all learned on the job the hard way, and suffered for it as many times as we triumphed. Throughout the years we lost a lot of good friends and family, most recently Giles himself. For the job that the Watchers Council requires... the defense of the world against the forces of darkness, we did the very best we could with minimal to no help from the governing body of the Council that expected us to give our all. Even our lives.

Well, things have changed. We have personally had our hands, thoughts, and ideas all over the reformation of the new Watchers Council. We never wanted anyone going through the things we went through. We never wanted a young girl being forced into a life she didn't want. And if she did want it, being given no back-up save one Watcher, no financial, social, or psychological training for horrors she would face for years to come wasn't the way to go about getting her to her twenty-second birthday. Fast-forward to the present, I think we all feel that the proper training, support, and guidance is in place.

We feel that mission has been accomplished. The Watcher's Council is, in our opinion, ready for the trials

ahead. The known and the unknown.

As for us, consider this letter of resignation a fond goodbye. We've busted our asses since arriving in England for the last few years, and done all that was asked of us and more. As for our personal lives, we are unhappy, dying inside, abusing bad habits, dealing with depression, anger issues, and simply living unfulfilling lives. For us, the best decision is to walk away. Yes, we know this sounds like the clichéd 80's movie plot of the young people going off to find themselves. In a way that's exactly what this is. For nearly ten years we have given our all, and now we need to take something for ourselves. We need our lives back. We need to find out what want to do, and then do it, for ourselves.

Our dear Giles passing away was the end of this journey for us. We're all excited about the new journey we're about to take. One that isn't predestined or plotted out in advance. But a journey we have no clue what the outcome will be. That's what we need in our lives right now. So that's what we're going to do. The family has decided.

Robin, we all feel the Watcher's Council is in good hands with you. You're cool. Should anything crazy happen and the worlds about to go up in flames blah blah blah, call us. If not, well, we'll check in from time to time.

Stay safe and strong. We believe in you. And we're all unemployed, so if anyone calls for a recommendation or to ask about our prior work history, just say all the good stuff. Take care of yourself. *smiles*

 

Sincerely,

Buffy Anne Summers

Alexander Harris

Willow Rosenberg

Dawn Summers

Faith Lahane

____________

 

Settling back in his black leather high-back chair, Robin grazed his goatee as he stared at the letter. For the longest moment he simply stared, as if absorbing the loss of the security blanket the world had never known about. And then slowly, he began to smile. They had their freedom, which was what they wanted. Which was what Rupert Giles always wanted for them. Less than a year ago Giles had shared that he felt his oldest charges might someday walk out of the life they’ve led for so long. He saw the signs written all over their faces. Preparations were made in secret. Recommendations for replacements and provisions for keeping a watchful eye over Giles family for the rest of their lives, just in case an enemy from the past ever tried to come after them.

This was sad in a lot of ways, but far from unexpected.

Lifting the hand cradle from his desk phone, Robin dialed Angel's personal line. Five rings later...

"Hello?"

"We're on our own now."

 

 

******

 

******

"The Sarris"

Xander's 'Marquises 56 KOM TIKI' boat

Saturday, March 12, 2006 1:35 PM

Northern Ontario, Canada

 

 

 

Laughter soothes the soul.

Standing at the steering control, from behind his shades, Xander enjoyed the lovely sight of four of the most beautiful women in the world, all clad in bikini tops, shorts, and fisherman’s hats. Buffy, Dawn, Willow, and Faith held their rods over the deck, waiting patiently for the first catch of the day, and bragging rights thereafter.

Surrounded by the glorious fresh air and natural surroundings, as well as his friends and the love of his life, Xander knew he had never known peace such as this before.

Named after the lovers who also served as captains, 'The Sarris' was a boat that was all about luxury. Long and sleek, the white with platinum stripes boat measured 17,50 meters long by 8,15 wide, that guaranteed you a cruise in total comfort and splendor. This boat was equipped with four private cabins and two separate bathrooms. The spacious deck was roomy enough for six and the cabins inside were more than comfortable for an overnight

stay. The price tag on the boat was entirely too high for Xander to honestly consider at first, and yet the moment Buffy saw his awe-struck reaction to it, she threw all caution to the wind.

In Sunnydale, they'd earned something as nice as this. They had the scars and lost loved ones to prove it.

Two hours later the papers were signed, the boat was named, and Xander applied for his Canadian Boat

License. Lessons taken the last three weeks in Australia, the Scooby Gangs first destination upon resigning from the Watcher's Council, prepared him well. He passed the test with flying colors and here they were, sailing the open waters on a fishing expedition.

Listening to Faith and Buffy banter back and forth on the proper staking technique soon evolved into one of the silliest arguments Xander had ever heard before. Halfway through his Heineken, he could only shake his head at the two Slayers, both wearing fisherman’s hats, holding their rods with one hand while demonstrating how to perfectly thrust a stake in a very animated way with their free hand. Beside them, Willow's simply glowing, and he again marveled at her smile, so reminiscent of the ones she wore as a child. Innocent and excited again. Then there was Dawn, who needled Buffy at every turn, all the while trying to secretly get Willow to do a quick and sneaky spell so the fish would come to their hooks first.

For Xander, it was more than enough to observe his family... his sweetheart; her luminous blonde locks pulled back into a ponytail, and relax at long last.

Bordering on three oceans, home to thousands of freshwater lakes and rivers, Canada offered the most spectacular sport fishing in the world. Miles of twisting shoreline, picturesque islands and hidden back bays called out to the Scooby Gang in the brochures Xander ordered. Areas of shallows with extensive weed-beds and many rock shoals contrasted with areas of clear, deep channels.

The views were simply spectacular.

Sailing 'The Sarris' along a lake that offered many miles of scenic shoreline, including rocky cliffs that anchored towering white pine trees. Just down stream, the glaciers have carved the granite rocks, creating clearings of smooth rocks on the water's edge. Dawn's digital camera was getting one hell of a workout so far.

"Hey, Xand. What kind of fish are we looking for out here?" Faith asked, somewhat annoyed that nothings biting just yet. She kept digging into her bag of Salt & Sour potato chips.

Grabbing his fishing rod, Xander walked over and sat down next to Buffy, then cast his line into the

water. "Professor Xander shall educate you all on the sea life we are hunting today."

Leaning into his ear, Buffy whispered. "Professor Xander sounds kinda sexy." She winked just to make him laugh and he stole a kiss for his reward.

"You two put the corn in corny," Dawn teased, knocking back another drink from her Heineken.

"Or the horn in horny," Faith leered their way.

"Okay, the bad puns stop here," Willow put her foot down, literally. "Name the fish. Then I shall catch them."

With a polite nod his best friends way, Xander continued. "The Small mouth bass are very aggressive and tough. I was told they bite on almost anything."

"Like Buffy?" Dawn pondered with a grin. Her sister glared at her.

"Leave my honey alone, Dawn." Proudly sticking out his chest as another boat with male onlookers passed by, no doubt wishing they were half as lucky as he was to be sailing with four beautiful women, he felt like a king. The feeling was a long time coming. "From what I hear, when you catch a Small mouth bass on a light tackle, you're gonna have one heck of a fight on your hands."

"Not us Slayers," Faith taunted, hi-fiving Buffy. "Soon as we get a pull, that suckers flying out the water. Then we'll skin'em and cook'em for dinner."

Dawn shuddered. "I want no part of the skinning of the fish. I just want to eat them. Usually they come in sandwich form from McDonalds, so this will be a new experience for me."

"Well, I read," Willow added, "That the Northern Pike are in this area. They're not too big, like around two or three pounds. But the Trophy Pike can be upwards of twenty-five to thirty pounds. It is my goal to hunt, capture, take a picture with, and then scale, season for taste, and fry the Trophy Pike."

"Wills, you have my utmost support." Looking up, Xander made a muscle when Dawn sat her rod down for a moment and grabbed her camera. As it always turned out, one photo opt was never enough. Everyone got into the act of mugging for the camera, making silly faces, hugging each other, posing all tough like, and even a few philosophical looks. It was stupid and fun as hell. Just what this group needed after years of death and fighting and running out into the night at all hours. Now was a quiet time for personal reflection and looking towards the future.

For the next two hours they ate sandwiches, fished, drank, told stories about Giles, and confessed some things they never had before.

Faith admitted how out of place all of this was to her, but that she had never felt like she was a part of a family before as she did with them. She'd gotten used to the idea that life was just fucked up all day, everyday. And it wasn't that she all of a suddenly developed a rosy glow outlook, only that she now believed that whatever she wanted to go after in life, she could achieve. She finally felt dreaming wasn't a dumb thing to do when combined with effort and belief in ones self. Then she burped very loudly and shouted at some guys on a boat that passed by how badly she needed to get laid. The guys all but jumped off the boat and swam to her.

Faith also spoke about going off to Louisiana to look for her mother. She felt she was finally, emotionally strong enough to go through with that.

Dawn informed them that in a month’s time she wanted to return to France alone for a while. She wasn't sure how long; though she was pretty sure she wasn't going to settle down there. Just as she needed this time with her family, for once in her life she needed some time on her own. Ready to shock them, she showed them a drawing of the tattoo she wanted to get on her lower back. Her first, well thought out rebellious move.

New York's calling Willow. NYU, to be precise. They're accepting new applications for the spring and she's already signed up and been accepted into the university. Sure, she had to 'bend the rules using a little bit of hocus pocus,' but she's in. Education and college and that whole challenge and lifestyle had always been her goal. She's ready to go back to it and see what's going to happen. In addition, she admitted to feeling ready to date again, and maybe not just girls. Of course that came as a surprise to everyone. Nonetheless, she only offered that she's going to explore all her options. The only label she wanted applied to her was her name. Nothing more.

Surprisingly enough, Tokyo, Japan was up next for Buffy and Xander at the end of this Canadian trip. The couple spoke about having always wanted to travel to the Far East just for the experience, and that while they vacation there, they'll think about where to settle down... together, of course. Something was clear to Willow that kind of flew under Faith and Dawn's radar. It had to do with body language and facial expressions. Tones of voice she could decipher hidden meanings in. Something profoundly good had happened recently between her two best friends, and she would bet her beloved mom's pearl ear rings that Xander proposed and Buffy accepted. They hadn't said anything as of yet, but Willow just had a feeling. She just had a feeling...

Eventually, Dawn won the day, catching the first of six fish, followed by Buffy who caught five. The others all got bored after while and either ate sandwiches, drank more, or suntanned. The day was absolutely perfect because the whole family was healthy, together, and strong. Life, love, loss, and heartache hadn't broken their spirits in the least.

It only strengthened their resolve.

Addictions could be conquered. Withdrawals were a part of moving on. But recovery... that had everything to do with the will to change, the character to see it through, and the love of family and self to keep pushing forward.

Somewhere in the ethereal of whatever was, is, and always will be... Giles smiled down at them all. His beloved family.

 

 

******

The End