I can look back on a time when, even for me--Study-girl--the last day of school brought this wonderful, bubbly, fizzy, I'm-going-out-into-the-sunshine-and-I'm-gonna-be-free-forever feeling. The minute the last bell rang Xander, Jesse and I would charge out the front doors with our freshly-signed Annuals under our arms and big bags stuffed full of the junk that lived in the backs of our lockers. We'd go to the park and sprawl out on the grass with the tops of our three heads just touching, and between trying to figure out what we were going to do all summer--even if that was nothing, they way it usually was--we'd make funny pictures out of the clouds. Jesse always said the clouds looked like animals, but weird animals, like wombats or naked mole rats or gnus. He cracked me up with the way he said "gnus"--somehow he managed to work in a whole, whole bunch of extra syllables.

It's funny. Sometimes I can hardly remember him. Jesse, I mean. I have to open up one of those Annuals, from our Freshman year or maybe Junior High, or else dig out the shoebox of old Polaroids from underneath my bed. There's me with my long, long hair, dressed in one of those jumpers mom used to buy, that made me look like an eight-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. There's Xander, looking like Xander, his clothes always too big and his sleeves always too long, no matter how much he grew. And there's Jesse, with his beaky nose and his narrow head, all goofy and sweet. I see him, trapped there, and everything comes flooding back. Usually the sadness just seems to sit in a little cold place under my breastbone; it's there, but I can deal.

The life shown in those pictures belongs to another girl. Her name was Willow Rosenberg, too, and she lived at the Boca del Infierno, the same way I do, she just didn't know it. That Willow was so naive that she'd willingly go for ice cream with a vampire that dressed like DeBarge. He didn't get her, but she died anyway. No, maybe died is too strong a word--but grew up isn't strong enough. Let's say that she was transformed, like lead into gold--not that I'd call myself gold, not hardly. But like alchemy, that's what I mean. That other Willow belonged to the Before Buffy era, the world that ended March 10, 1997, and she didn't have to believe in...things. She could still pretend that the monsters under her bed were all imaginary, and the scariest thing in the world really was Cordelia's mouth. Now Cordelia's my--well, almost my friend. Xander's the only bridge left to my other life, and there's Oz, and Buffy, and Giles.

I couldn't have saved Jesse. I know that. Even Buffy couldn't save Jesse, not then. Maybe she could now, if those events played themselves out again. Maybe not. One thing I've learned in the course of my transformation is that you don't let things slide--you don't put off seeing that person. You don't put off helping a friend. There really is such a thing as too late.

I'm digressing. The past isn't what I meant to talk about. This is. It's the last day of my junior year, early dismissal, and the bell's just gone off. I keep waiting for that end-of-school buzz to hit me, but it doesn't kick in, not even a twinge. We're three months into Year Two, Anno Buffy, and my best friend is gone. That's wrong, for so many reasons. It's wrong.

The seniors have already vanished--next year, if I live that long, I'll be one of them. My fellow juniors are acting cool, though the freshmen and sophomores are just going crazy--or as crazy as any one dares to get under Principal Snyder's buzzard eye. I'd say eagle eye, but aside from being a cliche, I actually like eagles, and don't want to compare our pocket Fuhrer to one of them. No, buzzard's just about right: something ugly and greedy that's waiting for you to get weak and fall down so that it can rip the meat off your bones. That's in the figurative sense, not the literal. On the Hellmouth, you have to be clear about these things.

That morning I'd told the others Buff would be back in a little while, but she needed to come back now. Not to Slay stuff--I can understand needing to take a break from that. Just to be here.

See, I'm worried, and I don't know what to do. I don't know who to turn to.

At noon we'd had the usual end-of-school assembly, with Snyder giving one of his "I hate you, you bunch of juvenile delinquents, now get out of here and try not to burn anything down over the summer" speeches. He'd had the faculty lined up behind him on folding chairs, all dressed in their casual clothes and looking like they were at least as ready to take off as the rest of us. Except for Giles. He was there, but not there--he looked like he was really a million miles away, out alone in space on some sad, dark planet.

Cordy said, really loud, "God, look at Giles. What's his trauma?"

I glanced at Xander, but his head was down. Either he'd fallen asleep, the way he always does in class, or he just didn't want to deal with his girlfriend right then. He wouldn't say much about what he'd seen at the mansion, just that Angelus had done some...stuff, and it was bad.

I-don't-want-to-think-about-it bad.

I shook my head at Cordy, and she added, in a big stage whisper. "Oh, I get it. The torture thing." Everyone had to be able to hear her. People started glancing and whispering.

All the other folding chairs were lined up evenly, the regulation three inches between each, but the teachers on either side of Giles had scooted farther off, like a foot or more to each side, and it made me think of a nature program I'd seen, about herd animals shunning one of their own that's wounded and getting ready to die. It was eighty-five degrees outside, and the air conditioning in the gym only works when it wants to--today, it was undecided. Everyone except Snyder had stripped down to the least amount of clothing still decent--and even Snyder was wearing a summer-weight suit--but Giles was in black, the way he'd been that morning, when at least the temperature had only been in the seventies: wool trousers, a sweater vest, the heaviest, darkest tweed jacket he owns. His glasses were off, and the bruises had started to come out as indigo on his forehead and around his eyes. His eyes themselves looked--I don't know, I can't think how to say this, but like eyes in a painting, or glass, or something not exactly human, like there wasn't anything behind them.

Looking at him, my mouth got dry, and my heart started beating too fast. Oz put his arm tighter around me, and whispered, was I okay? "I'm all right," I whispered back, and Snyder pinned us with a glare that lasted for the whole rest of his speech. I didn't hear a thing.

When it was finally over and we'd been dismissed, the teachers took off like the citizens of Tokyo fleeing Godzilla. Snyder couldn't yell at them, but he yelled at us, the students, to be orderly, and made us file out row by row, which took forever. Giles didn't move. Looking back over my shoulder as Oz and I got pushed along on the tide of other kids, I saw Snyder stalk up to him, and from the tiny man's body language, whatever he had to say wasn't too nice. Destruction and dead bodies in the library again--what else was new? Poor Giles.

I looked around for Xander, but he and Cordelia had already gone--probably trying to squeeze in one last round of Utility Closet smoochies before Cordy got dragged off to Mexico by her mom and dad.

Oz stuck with me, but I didn't know how to tell him what I needed to say, so I just asked if he'd wait. Being Oz, he nodded, and said, "Sure." He'd wait until the Fourth of July--and beyond--if I asked him. He's that loyal. Quite a contrast to certain other guys. The only other thing he said was, "Don't you want me to push you?"

"Nah, I can manage," I answered. "I'm okay."

He pulled back a step or two, giving me space.

So here I am now, I'm sitting outside the library, still worried, still scared, still wishing Buffy would saunter up behind me and say, "Hey, Will, what's the sitch? Whatcha doing out here?" and then go bombing in through the double doors, making some joke as they swing shut behind her. Just by doing that, she'd make everything...well, maybe not perfect, but okay.

In my heart, I know whatever I do now, whatever I say or feel, it won't be quite enough.

I drag in a deep breath and roll forward in the wheelchair I don't exactly need. Only sometimes I do. Sometimes my knees just get wobbly and I have to sit down right then so I guess it's a good thing to have, but my knees are okay at the moment. I push open the double doors and ditch the chair inside, out of the way against one wall. The place is a mess: most of the yellow crime scene ribbon's down, except for a couple little flags of it still pinned to the plaster. Half the tape that marked out the place where Kendra died is still stuck to the linoleum--the outline of her head, one arm and shoulder, one leg. There's a pinkish-brownish stain on the tile that makes me shiver, and an actual puddle of dried blood, maybe Giles's, over between the table and the low semi-circle of shelves where the reference books live. I wonder if there's some of my blood, too, in the carpet, upstairs where the bookshelf fell on me. Probably. I touch the big bandage on my temple. It's tender underneath, but the weird thing is, it's not my head that hurts so much, it's my teeth. They're really, really sore on that side, just the way they used to get when I was eleven or twelve and Dr. Sumatsu tightened the wires for my braces.

I flip on the lights, but the room doesn't really brighten. Even with the skylight, which Giles hates, because it's bad for the books, the library's always been one of the darker places in Sunnydale High. I can't remember it being that way during my freshman year, or halfway through my sophomore year, either. When Mr. Abernathy was in charge, it just seemed normal. Hardly anyone but me ever checked out any books, but it was normal. Light. I used to help Mr. Abernathy out, while he'd go bumbling around the library, kind of talking and humming to himself. I think he was about eighty, and he couldn't really see much anymore, but when you could get him to focus he'd tell some pretty incredible stories. His mom had been a Parisienne, and when he was a little boy he'd met Hemingway and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and all those people, and he'd served as an officer on a submarine during World War II. He never said what brought him here to Sunnydale.

Looking back, I don't think Mr. Abernathy really died of acute anemia. Or, he did, but not exactly. Not the way you'd think, unless you lived in this town.

Sometimes I think the library's like one of those rooms in Dr. Who's TARDIS, or one of those places Door could open up to in Neil Gaiman's book Neverwhere, someplace you walk into, and you're really somewhere else, not where you started out at all. It's been a big part of my alchemy. Of course, part of the library's somewhere else is the Hellmouth, right below my feet, but the other part, the good, safe, Gilesean part, I think is in England. Maybe not even the real England, which being a real place has its own real problems, but the ideal. I'm not explaining this right. Maybe I don't mean the ideal, exactly, but the England that lives inside books, that created people like Shakespeare or Dickens or John Keats, where you can discover that you're really a loyal, brave and strong person, when you thought all along you were just weak and timid and useless. So that's why it's dark, because outside, in the library's dimension, the sky is really a soft, silvery gray, and it's raining, and the air smells wet and sweet.

Since the lights were off before, and I can't hear anyone moving around, I think maybe I'm alone, but I have to make sure. I don't exactly tiptoe toward Giles's office, but I don't make any sound. You can always hear Buffy coming, she's so full of life and energy, it just always seems to rush before her like a wave, and Xander--well, there are train wrecks that make less noise. Cordelia's mouth never stops running, and even Oz, though he doesn't talk much, makes little snaps and crackles, you can tell if he's in a room. But Giles and I, if we aren't speaking, are completely silent people. You'll hear the whisper of pages turning, or the click of computer keys, but you won't hear us, so I have to look.

I poke my head into Giles's office. The desk light's on, but he's not there, only signs of him: his glasses unfolded on the desktop, an open book, an ice-cold, untouched cup of tea with that nasty, scummy film on top. The phone's off the hook, and that tinny little robot voice is coming from the receiver, "Please hang up the phone. Please hang up the phone," so I hang it up, just to make the voice stop.

I'm naturally drawn toward books. I can't stop myself from looking down, and there's Giles's handwriting, dark brown ink on a smooth, tan page. It strikes me for what may be the millionth time, that Giles has such beautiful handwriting, like calligraphy--which a lot of guys don't: if a woman wrote like Xander or Oz, you'd think she was mentally challenged, or insane, or both--and yet all he gets to write about is such horrible stuff, monsters and demons and fighting. I wonder how it can still be so nice--you'd think a lefty writing with a fountain pen while wearing fingersplints would be pretty much a guarantee of smudgies.

My knees do the wobbly thing suddenly, and I drop down into Giles's slidy, uncomfortable desk chair. I'm reading what he's written without even meaning to, about returning to the mansion and finding Acathala dormant, with the sword through his chest--Giles describes him as a "glowering, toad-like creature" and there's even a nicely done little drawing, which makes me go "ugh.", and another page of speculation, well thought-out and logical, about events as they might have occurred, and what's probably happened to Angelus. It makes me sorry for the good Angel, who was our friend--and it makes me really, really hope my soul restoration spell didn't work, because whichever way I come at it, I can't really wrap my brain around the words, "unending torment." Torment, I can understand, but unending...without end...without hope. It's always been one of the reasons I'm glad to be Jewish--there's evil, I know that, and the Hellmouth, and the Demon Dimension where all the bad critters come from and where, if Giles is right, Angel's probably suffering now--I just don't think I could believe in a place like that, where God sent people, regular people like me, on purpose.

I turn the page--now, I guess, actively snooping. For a minute I can't quite comprehend what I'm seeing. The page has words, but they're not lined up like little soldiers. All the lines slant downward, the loops getting bigger and bigger, then going into cross-outs and even misspellings. There's a medicine bottle on the desktop, full of big pink pills, and for about ten seconds I wonder if they're to blame, but I know that's not what's happened. The bottle's never been opened, probably couldn't be opened--why would they put a child-proof cap on a bottle of pain pills for someone with broken fingers? There's something in the tangled words about Ms. Calendar--Jenny--but most of the mess, what I can make out of it, all adds up to one thing: Buffy's gone. Buffy's left us, maybe for good.

"Oh," I say, but my voice doesn't make any sound. "Oh." I watch my shaky fingers lift the telephone receiver and punch in a number I know as well as my own. Ms. Summer's picks up on

the first ring, and all she says is, "Buffy?" in a voice that's so full of hope and terror it almost makes me wish I'll never have kids, because I don't know if I could ever stand to feel that way.

"No," I answer. "It's only me. Willow."

"Oh." Buffy's mom says, and I can hear the disappointment breaking her heart, but she can't stand not to be nice, she's that kind of lady. "Buffy's not here right now, Willow. Is there something I can do for you?"

"I...uh...found out from Giles. About the letter."

There's silence, then a sigh. "I suppose you want to hear."

I don't say anything, but Ms. Summers starts to read, it's another thing she can't stand not to do. I know she was probably holding that letter all scrunched up in her hand, and had been all day. Sitting all hunched up over the phone, hardly even daring to go to the bathroom in case it might ring. The letter's all about being sorry, and about how things will be better for everyone once she's gone--the kind of letter you write when you're seventeen and you feel like your heart's been torn out, and like your life will never be okay again. I'm seventeen too, or almost, so I understand--though even at my lowest, I don't think I've ever felt as bad as that letter sounds.

There's stuff about her mom, and stuff about Angel--even some about Xander and me, how sorry Buffy is, and how much she'll miss us, how she never meant for us to get hurt. There's nothing about Giles. Not one word, unless you count the ending.

"I never wanted this life," Buffy wrote. "They made me take it. Like if I didn't take it, everything would fall apart, and everyone I loved would die. So I took it, but things never stop, do they? All I ever wanted was just to be a regular person. I have to go where I can be a regular person again, and I can't do that in Sunnydale."

When she finishes, Ms. Summers tells me she doesn't want to tie up the phone, in case. Just in case. I tell her I understand, that I'm sorry, but before I'm finished she's already gone, and the dial tone buzzes in my ear. I hang up carefully, close Giles's journal carefully. Somehow it seems important to do everything with care, as if stuff won't blow up if I treat each little thing as if it's precious. My mom would probably say that's bordering on obsessive/compulsive behavior, but I don't care. She and dad didn't come back after all. When they found out I woke up and was going to be okay, they stayed in Arizona. Mrs. Harris, actually almost sober, brought me breakfast this morning in a covered dish, and I hadn't even thought she knew what a stove was for. She didn't have to do it, but it was sweet of her. She's really a nice lady, in her way. She's just sick, and I don't think she wants to get better. Mr. Harris doesn't help her at all.

When I turn around, Giles is standing behind me, leaning up against the side of the door. Of course I hadn't heard him approach, and I'm not sure if he knows I'm there. His tie isn't tied right, and the cuffs of his shirt aren't buttoned. The lids slip down over his eyes, and for a minute, just for a minute, it's like I can see all the bones of his skull. It's horrible, and weird--I mean, Giles has a lot of bone-structure to his face anyway, but this is different, it's like a vision, or a prophecy, and it makes me shiver. He doesn't smell like Giles, which is the smell of leather, starch, clean wool and some very subtle men's cologne, but faintly like copper, and sickness, and a strange, tangy electrical odor--like the aftermath of a violent lightning storm.

"Giles," I say quietly, and when he doesn't respond, "Giles."

His eyes open, the green part of them still like glass, the part that's supposed to be white all fiery red, and the bruises in the tender skin underneath nearly black, like someone really strong dug in his fingers and pressed and pressed until the vessels burst. Which may be exactly what happened. Giles's lips move, but no sound comes out. He doesn't budge when I get up and walk toward him, but he's sagging harder and harder into the doorjamb, so I know it's only a matter of time before he can't stand at all.

"We're gonna drive you home," I say. Giles's eyes close again. I put the bottle of pills in my pocket, and his glasses, then squeeze by him to go out into the hall.

"We need to take Giles home," I tell Oz.

My boyfriend only nods, accepting what I tell him, not needing to ask questions. "Sure, baby."

I love Oz, so much that it sometimes surprises me. I'll wake up, the way I woke up from my coma, and I'll just think, Oz! marveling that the two of us are in the world together. He's balanced in his universe: a fixed point, like the Northern Star, that's quiet while other things twist and turn, tangling themselves into knots. Right now I could so easily spin out of control, without him there. I'm not that steady. I don't always know what I want, or what I need--what I have to do, or when I'd be better off backing away.

"Buffy's gone," I say. "She wrote her mom a letter."

He nods again. "I thought she might be." We return to the library, and Oz says, "Giles, time to go."

I'm almost surprised that Giles moves at all, that he walks out between the two of us, a little slumped, with a bit of a limp, but in motion. Neither of us touch him. I want to, but I don't. Hundreds of times I've wanted to put my arms around him, breathing in his scent, pressing my face into the scratchy wool of what Giles would call his waistcoat. Hundreds more times I've wanted to have Giles put his arms around me, holding me close so that I could feel secure in that strong circle. I don't know what that means. It's not sexual, or at least I don't think so--it's not like what I feel for Oz, or what I felt for Xander. But it's not like being a little girl, either, wanting daddy to protect me. Maybe it will come to me later, and I'll be able to explain.

We make it to the van. I'm still shaky enough that Oz has to boost me in, and I stretch out a hand to Giles but he doesn't take it. I'm not sure how he manages the big step up. Force of will is my only explanation. Oz tries to drive carefully, but Giles's hand is braced tight against the windowframe, like he can't stand to be jostled. Going around one corner I slide into him just a little, barely brushing his chest with my shoulder, and he can't help but let out a gasp.

"Sorry," I whisper.

Giles leans his head against the glass, shutting his eyes again. He's shivering, trying to hide it, which is weird, because it must be nearly a hundred degrees inside the van. I'd really like to rip off all my clothes and go running through the sprinkler, the way Xander and I did when we were little kids. I can still remember our moms charging out into the yard to make us put on our swimsuits. My one-piece was pink and matched my Barbie doll's suit. Xander had trunks with little cartoon sharks all over them. I wonder if, ever in his life, Giles got to do anything that free, and that innocent, or if it was always books, and study, and the great big looming destiny. I remember him making a joke, once, about it being considered bad taste in England to have fun. Did that apply to kids too?

I realize that we've reached Giles's place, and stopped. Oz and I glance at each other: all those stairs up to his apartment.

"We're here," Oz says, parking and getting down to open the passenger door. I half expect Giles to just fall out into the street, but he climbs down slowly and carefully and starts up the steps, not even leaning on the rail. Maybe to lean would hurt more. Oz helps me out tenderly, and puts his arm around me. I don't really need the support, I'm doing okay, but the contact is nice.

We follow Giles up until we stand outside his door, where that one poor plant eternally dying in his plantstand sheds its leaves across the mat.

"Keys, Giles," Oz reminds him, but Giles doesn't move. At last I delve into his coat pocket until I find the ring, and after a couple of experiments with different keys, the door opens.

Giles stops between the doorway and the foot of the stairs, as if he isn't quite sure how to find his way around. "Thank you, Oz, Willow." His voice, that's usually quiet, but so resonant that the way he talks is almost like singing, is all flattened out. There's nothing left to keep him going, no more little reserve of energy he can draw on.

"I think maybe--" I start, giving Oz a look.

He glances at Giles, then back at me. "Yeah, I think so." We kiss on the threshold. "You're gonna be okay with this?"

I nod. "Buffy's really gone. I need to help."

Oz gives me another kiss, on my forehead. I feel all warm, and not just with the weather. "Call if you need anything, or when you want a ride home."

"I will." We squeeze hands, then Oz goes away, shutting the door quietly behind him.

I blink, trying to get used to the dimness of Giles's apartment, where only a little sunlight ever spills in around the edges of his curtains. I've always liked this place, ever since I first came here, the tile and the dark wood, the good, old furniture, the way that if you really look, the shadows are filled with interesting things. I'd wondered who the medals framed behind glass belonged to, and if Giles ever played darts with his dartboard. This afternoon the silence stretches out around us, but that's okay, that's not a problem. Both of us can ramble on at length when we want to, but between ourselves we don't really need to talk, not the way Buffy, Xander and Cordelia do. Quiet doesn't make us uncomfortable.

I walk up behind Giles and reach to slip the jacket down from his shoulders, half surprised that he doesn't try to stop me. The air conditioning inside the apartment has been turned off, and if it gets any hotter, we'll get visits from cloven-hoofed men with horns and pitchforks, thinking they've come home. Again, Giles makes that gasping sound. He's shaking, worse then before.

"Why don't you sit down?" I say, trying to sound mature, rational, comforting. "Can I make you some tea?"

"No," he answers softly, in that same flat voice. "Thank you."

"I can open up your pills." I glance at the label. "But it says you have to take them with food."

"Never mind, then."

"You might feel better."

"I'm quite all right, Willow. You needn't fuss." But he's still shaking, and gray, with a light, clammy sweat starting to show on his skin. There's dried blood clearly visible on the back of his shirt, around the armholes of his vest, and the vest itself looks kind of crusty.

"I'm going to get you a blanket and a clean shirt," I tell him. "Please, Giles, just sit down, okay?" I head upstairs, trying not to think of Ms. Calendar. I'd really loved her, even when the truth came out about who she really was, and what she'd hidden. I've always been one of those people who sees too many sides, too many points of view to every situation, and I can never stop loving people once I start. I sit on the end of Giles's bed, where you could've bounced a quarter off the spread--not, I thought, because he'd made it up so nicely this morning, but because he never slept in it last night, he hadn't slept in it since before he'd been...I didn't want to think the word, it was big and horrible. Painful.

Tortured, I think at last. Since before he was tortured. By Angelus. There on the end of the bed, I have a quick, quiet little cry, for Jenny, and for Angel too--but mostly for Giles. Then I wash my face, find a plastic bag in the bathroom full of first aid stuff sent home from the hospital, and take a clean shirt from the closet, trying to pick one that's soft and a little worn. After a minute's thought, I go back for a thick, warm blanket, and came down the stairs with my arms full, pausing just a minute to nudge on the air conditioning. The heat's really killing me.

Giles has finally taken a seat on the edge of the couch, and is hunched there, with his head down, his arms wrapped around his chest. I drop the blanket on that zig-zag patterned chair he has, and set the rest of the stuff on the coffee table.

"You ready?" I ask.

"Willow, leave it alone," he answers wearily.

"I could, I guess, but doesn't it feel icky?"

"It does." The faintest ghost of a smile. "Feel icky." He tries to pull the sweater vest over his head, but he's shaking too hard and his arms don't seem to want to bend the right way. In the end, I do it for him, and I untie his tie and help him off with his shirt too. He's blushing, mortified that anyone--but maybe me, of all people--should have to help him. He's biting his lower lip to keep from crying out, and somehow that bothers me worse than anything.

"You don't--" I look away from him, lining up the bandages and stuff in a neat little row. I mean to say he doesn't need to feel self-conscious, but of course he does--he's Giles, that's his nature. It's better for me to just shut up, do this, and not make a big deal of it, even if it is a big deal.

Giles's ribs are taped up tight, I'm not going to touch that, but above the tape there's another spread of bandage that they put on at the hospital. It's all soaked through, too wet to even stick well any more. Black clothes are for mourning, but they also hide blood. I peel off the whole mess, and see the scope of what Angelus has done. All across Giles's back, all the way down to his wrists, there isn't an inch of skin left unbruised, a whole landscape of those deep, purple-black bruises that take weeks or months to go away, and on top of them, burns and welts and gouges. I wash and disinfect the cuts carefully, spray them with Bactine and cover each wound with gauze as best as I can.

Despite all my good intentions, by the time I help Giles slip into his clean shirt, I'm shaking more than he is, and crying too.

"It's all right, Willow," he tells me, in that kind, tired voice. "I shouldn't have let you see. Tisn't as bad as it looks."

"Liar, liar," I say, wiping my eyes. Something passes between us, but I'm not exactly sure what it is. As gently as possible, I drape the blanket around his shoulders. "Is that all right? Not too heavy?"

"Warm." Giles pulls the folds tight around himself. "Thank you," he says, and then, a little later. "Buffy's gone."

"I know," I answer. "I talked to her mom."

"There was a letter. Left behind there. For her mother."

"Umn...I know. Ms. Summers read it to me." I want to touch him somewhere, to offer comfort, but I can't think of anyplace that won't either hurt or embarrass him. "Buffy didn't leave because of you, Giles."

He shoots me a glance. Normally, Giles has the most amazing eyes, but this afternoon they're red, and look sore. All the color's washed out of green part, so that each iris resembles a tiny mirror, reflecting nothing. "Ah. Yes. But she didn't stay because of me, either."

There, it's out. One of the things we don't say, that I doubt I'll ever hear Giles state so clearly again. Another hurt to go with all the others he won't admit to. We're sitting very close to each other, maybe as close, physically, as we've ever been, barring the time I nearly got sucked into that muddy hell-place at the top of the school stairs, and he pulled me free.

I want to tell him something, but I can't, not ever. He'll never know.

Lightly as a feather, I run the backs of my knuckles across his cheek, and for just a heartbeat Giles turns his face into the caress, then away. "I will find her. I will." He closes his eyes. "I truly am sorry, Willow, to put you through this."

"Don't think about me," I answer, and my voice sounds mad, though I don't mean it to. I'm not mad, certainly not at Giles anyway, but I am lost in dangerous country, not sure where to turn.

Just when I hope Giles is drifting off to sleep, he murmurs, "I am to blame. I gave away the secret."

"Who's gonna blame you? You were tortured." It's hitting me, like aftershocks: Giles, our Giles--my Giles--could have been gone forever. He could have been killed, or turned into one of them. I can't stand to think those thoughts.

Giles rests just the tips of his fingers on the back of my hand; electricity shoots up my arm. "My poor Willow," he says.

"Anyone." My voice still sounds mad. "Anyone--who'd had that done to him--would have told anything."

Giles gives another of those slight smiles. "But I didn't, Willow. Not then. There are tricks, you know. Part of my training. One can learn--perhaps not to withstand pain, but to withstand the uses it's put to. We're taught to overcome not the pain itself, but the urge for self-protection or

self-preservation that makes one want to confess. Angelus tortured me; I told him to perform the ritual in a tu-tu, and I called him a pillock."

"Then what happened?"

"I think my Council Handler forgot to teach me an important lesson, or perhaps I wasn't paying attention that day." He's trying to make his voice light, trying to lull me into a sense of ease. But he's not really managing. Not this time.

"What lesson, Giles?"

"How not to love. I think, perhaps, that's a lesson I shall never be able to master." His face gets really still, but underneath it's like everything's falling apart. "They showed me Jenny."

"Jenny? Uh, Ms. Calendar?"

"My Jenny, so beautiful, like silk and shadows." It all tumbles out, all the words, like a waterfall. There should be tears, but there aren't. Not from him, only from me. "In my heart, I knew it could not be she, but there was her voice, her touch, her lips against mine, and I was so terribly lonely for her. So terribly lonely. All I could think was that we must keep Angel from Acathala, and then the world would not end, and we could be together. The pain did not matter, but Jenny did, and so I told her what we must do. She'd helped me so many times, I knew that this time would be no different." He's panting, big ragged breaths that must hurt like fire, and his hand goes up to the taped part of his chest, just over his heart, as if that touch might somehow deaden the pain.

I put my hand lightly over his, afraid to say anything. Afraid to do anything more.

"She kissed me," Giles says at last. "My Jenny. So sweet. My lovely Jenny." The tears come, then, I think without him realizing--he's not sobbing, it's just the water streaming down from his bruised, reddened eyes. His hand goes down again, into his lap, taking mine with it, and Giles doesn't seem aware of that either--but to some extent he must be, because although he holds onto me tightly, it's not tight enough to bruise. It could have been, if he wasn't thinking--even injured, Giles is a strong man. We forget that, because of the vampires, and because Buffy, with her powers, is so much stronger, but against a regular person, Giles would be formidable.

"It was only that daft cow, Drusilla," he concludes.

"She hypnotized Kendra too," I say.

"I've had more training than Kendra. I ought to have resisted.. Ought to have been able to resist, were I not the worst kind of fool. Lovestruck idiot."

"After twenty-four hours of torture? In shock, dehydrated, sleep-deprived? You were probably hallucinating anyway, but you think you were supposed to be able to resist?"

He looks down on me, and finally there's something showing behind his eyes--though that something is even sadder than the blankness had been. "Yes," he says. "I do."

"I'm glad the rest of us don't have to live up to those standards you set for yourself."

"I don't set them for myself." Giles looks surprised. "I'm a Watcher."

"Giles, you're also a man."

"I'm a Watcher," he repeats, and slides down a little into the cushions of the couch. "A Watcher who betrayed his Slayer. Tomorrow, I'll begin to look, and I shan't rest until I find her."

For some people, that "shan't rest" might be figurative. I'm pretty sure Giles means it literally. "Maybe--" I look down on our joined hands. "Maybe Buffy's not ready to do the Slaying thing right now. From her letter...maybe she needs to take a break from that. A Slayer vacation."

"I don't mean to find her for that. Good Lord, Willow, what do you take me for?" He frees his hand from mine and rubs at his eyes, staring at the wetness on his fingers as if he didn't know how it got there. "To recover, she ought to be with her family, and her friends, not trying to eke out a miserable living God only knows where."

"And what about you?"

"Me?" Again, that astonished look.

"How are you going to recover?"


I touch, lightly, the circle of bandage around his wrist. "This wasn't a skiing accident, Giles. It wasn't even a car crash. What are you going to do to make yourself okay?"

"I am, as you say, 'okay.' I merely need to locate Buffy, and ascertain--"

"My mom's pretty scary, but she knows some...umn...people. Counselors. You might be able to talk to one of them."

"And say what?" The smile I get that time is nearly genuine, almost amused. I'm just not sure it's a good kind of amused. "There's nothing I can divulge: a falsehood would be useless; the truth would get me shut away."

"Then doesn't the Watcher's Council have...you know. People?"

"This sort of dereliction of duty could get me relieved, sent home in disgrace. They can't know. They must never know. Even physical weaknesses, disabilities can get one sacked." He lays a hand again, carefully, against his broken ribs. "One's expected to pull up one's socks, and move on."

"Can you do that?"

"Yes." His jaw tightens. "Yes, I can. I'm just a little tired, now."

I gaze up at him, watching Giles force things back together that shouldn't be forced, at least not yet. Already, he's drawn a little apart from me. Maybe he'll rest a few hours tonight, but tomorrow he'll be up at the crack of dawn, back at work, calling, tracking down leads, searching down every faint trail. He won't give up. He's not a quitter, and sometimes that makes me sad. We should all have the right to quit every once in a while, even the Rupert Gileses of the world.

"You should try to get some rest, then. Can you make it upstairs?"

He glances at the steps, and I know everything hurts so badly he doesn't even want to try, but he'll do it, because he won't admit that weakness to me. He won't want to make me worry. If I weren't here, he'd probably slug down half a bottle of Scotch and hope for the best, wake up on the couch hungover and so stiff he could hardly move, but he'd make himself move anyway, because that's what he said he would do.

Giles gets up without making a sound, and slips by me. I pretend to be busy cleaning up the mess of bandages and stuff, so that he won't think I'm watching him climb the stairs, but out of the corner of my eye I can see what it costs him to do it.

I'll give him some time to get settled, and then go up to check that he's okay. Since my parents are gone, I don't have to be anywhere. I'll stay, and watch over him a little, this night at least.

I throw away the trash, and sit waiting, quietly, for half an hour. Here's what I wanted to say to Giles, that I'll never say, because even if it's true, I guess it wouldn't be fair: the thing is, if I'd been the Slayer, the world would have had to go straight to Hell, because I wouldn't have been able to do anything until I knew for sure he was all right. I would have hugged him, and thanked him for going through all that for me--and told him never, never to do it again. I wouldn't have been able to let him out of my sight. I can't now, really.

And this is the difficult thought I tried to put into words, back in the library. Giles is my friend, and a person I love, but he's something else, too. This is going to sound weird, because it's not like Giles is a building, or a geographical location, but he's like home to me. Between him and Buffy, I got turned into myself, the person I was meant to be, not weak little mousy Willow, Cordelia's favorite torture-toy, but Willow Rosenberg, who can stand tall--or as tall as you can when you're five-foot-two--and show you her Resolve Face. The thought of losing Giles, or of going away from him, they way Buffy's done, is like the thought of being exiled forever from the place you really, really belong. It's like the way people feel when they say they're homesick. Does that make sense? Maybe not, but it's how I feel.

I climb the stairs. Being myself, I don't make enough sound to wake even the lightest sleeper, certainly not someone who's as sacked out as Giles. It looks like he managed to kick off his shoes--they're there beside the bed, still tied, one turned over on its side--and then just fell down on top of the covers, asleep on his stomach, which probably hurts less, his head buried so deep in the pillows it's a wonder he can breathe.

It's a big bed, and I'm tired too--my head's starting to ache a little. I stretch out beside him, over toward the edge where he isn't. It feels weird, to be here, and I can't help think of Ms. Calender, though I'm pretty sure Giles got a new bed, since then. I think he wanted to get a new apartment, but couldn't come up with the time to move--or maybe the money, either.

Giles sleeps quietly at first, too tired even to dream, but later the nightmares come for him, and I move closer, trying to soothe him with a touch. He doesn't wake, isn't the least bit aware that I'm there, I guess, but he stills at the sound of my voice, the brush of my hand. He calls out Buffy's name, and I know she's the only one who could bring him real peace. Even if she'd been there--in Sunnydale--I'm not sure that she'd do it. I'm not sure she'd notice. I wonder what it's like to be someone's Pole Star, and not to care. Maybe I should ask Xander.

I used to think I'd like to be a Watcher, that I could use all my smartness fighting the good fight, guiding someone in the war against evil. Now I don't want that anymore. It isn't the evil that bothers me, it's the other. It's being a good person and still having someone write to me the kind of words Buffy wrote at the end of her letter. It's the thought of not ever being able to give in and let someone else carry the burden for awhile. It's having no choice.

Time passes slowly, even though I sleep quite a lot, in bits and pieces, oddly comfortable on that unfamiliar bed. It's still a long, long night. The longest night in the world. When there's a pink glow of sunrise around the curtains, I kiss Giles goodbye. Again, he doesn't wake, doesn't know.

It's time for me to go, while he still sleeps. If he'd woken up to me, Giles would have been embarrassed and--I don't know--maybe I would have been too. Maybe I would've let slip some of those things that shouldn't be said.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, I get everything ready for making tea, and I set the pill bottle, with its cap off, next to the cup. I hope Giles will use them, and not try to tough it out. He needs all the help he can get, poor man, and I hope he'll accept at least a little from me.

I leave a note propped up against the teapot: It's never wrong to love, Giles. If you need anything, even just to talk, there's always me. I sign it, after a minute's thought, not letting myself pull back to the safe distance, "Love, Willow."

I shut and lock the door behind me without making a sound. Outside the air smells like wet grass and bougainvillea. It smells like Summer. Everything's so clear it's like a holy vision. I feel as if I can remember everything, every detail of every moment in my whole life, and for just that little space of time it all makes sense.

It's not the same feeling of wonder I had when I was a kid, and I know it won't last. Maybe that's part of growing up: you don't necessarily expect things to last anymore. You just try to do your best, and to hope. You try to love the people you love as well as you possibly can, and to take care of the ones who love you. If Buffy would come back right now, I could tell her that, and maybe it would make sense to her too.

I walk home, safe with the dawn, through streets that for those brief moments belong only to me, and in the sky overhead, all the clouds look like strange and wonderful animals, like wombats and mole rats and gnus.