Second, on to the fic....
TITLE: Hugh Grant Explains It All For You, Part Two
PREVIOUS PARTS: In Memories here.
LENGTH, THIS PART: approximately 4750 words.
RATING: Edging into Mature territory for language.
FEEDBACK: Gratefully received.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Mr Joss Whedon and Mr Richard Curtis, where it all began and where it will end, amen.
SUMMARY: Season Six, AU after "Flooded," rom-com with an edge. The first part took us through "Life Serial" -- this one, a Sunday interlude outside canon.
Anya spins the coffee cup in her hands, kicks her heels against her chair, and smiles. It’s a beautiful California Sunday afternoon, and her seat here on the patio of the Espresso Pump catches both autumn wind and sunlight.
This being alone stuff isn’t so bad, considering.
The past week has been a little...strange. There was the Buffy meltdown on Tuesday, which meant that after Giles went to the bank they stayed late that evening, fixing what could be repaired and throwing away what couldn’t. His mouth was tight the whole time, as if he couldn’t trust himself not to shout any more obscenities or let out the personal problems she suspects he’s storing just as high to the ceiling as the jars of mandrake root in their shop. Luckily for his blood pressure the pre-Halloween rush has kept him busy. Kept them both busy, in fact, so she didn’t have to worry about herself either.
But no, there’s still Xander, her own problem stored in a jar, tapping its arms and screaming to get out. She only slept over at his apartment once this week, on Friday date night, and then it was bad Chinese food, awkward silences, and more awkward if adequate sex. He’s trying, she knows he is, but he still doesn’t want to tell anyone about the engagement.
It’s probably a good idea, though. She doesn’t think there will be an engagement much longer, or a relationship. The big red numbers on the time bomb are pretty clear.
She takes a sip of coffee, lets it linger on her tongue. She accustoms herself to the taste, just as she’s accustoming herself to the idea of a Xander-less future.
"Hey, Anya!" comes from down the sidewalk.
Dawn and Tara are heading her way, bags and long hair swinging. She touches her own hair reflexively – is it time for a change? Colour, cut, something? – then calls back, "Hello! What are you two doing?"
"We’re off for ice cream, but I wanted a coffee first," Dawn says. She dumps her bag on the table, then drags her wallet out and pokes a finger at its contents. "Gosh, I’m so poor. And Buffy’s all tightwaddy these days."
Since Anya compiled Buffy’s list of big debts and little income, she feels qualified to say, "I bet she’s giving you as much as she can. You guys really are cash-poor." Which makes her think of charity and axioms she’s heard like ‘Giving starts at home, or the local coffee shop,’ and so she digs around in her own purse. "Here, one grande coffee on me. But you’ll have to get your own ice cream."
The money’s out of her hand almost before she finishes speaking, and Dawn says, "Thanks, Anya – and hey Tara, do you want anything?"
"No, I’ll just wait for the ice cream. You go on." Tara smiles in that warm witch manner, and Dawn dances inside. After a second of hesitation, which makes Anya worry that her new solitude is somehow a repellent, a sort of soon-to-be-spurned-former-demon stink, Tara sits down.
She looks tired these days, Anya thinks before she says, "Hi, Tara. Willow’s off with Xander again?"
"Um, yes, they went to the mall – but don’t you know that?"
"No," Anya says as airily as she can. "Xander and I are cherishing our alone time. I’ve read that it’s very healthy for couples to develop separate interests."
She actually did read that, although she thought it was kind of ridiculous. Still, this week she has found pleasure in sitting by herself in her little apartment with a glass of wine, surrounded by flowers and magazines (Self, Forbes, Bazaar, and the Society of Magic Shops quarterly publication) and her new copy of Intermediate Spellcasting. She’s decided she needs to get her power back but not through vengeance, and she smiles at Tara, who she thinks already knows that.
Tara smiles back. "So, is, is coffee your new interest?"
"No, just a beverage," Anya says. "I’m really going to the two-dollar movie theatre, you know, the renovated ‘cinema’ two blocks over? They’re showing Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill, it starts in half an hour." It then occurs to her – "Oh, would you and Dawn like to come too? It’s the cheap show, after all, and Hugh Grant will be handsome and stammering, a sure crowd-pleaser."
"No." Tara’s smile goes away. "I probably wouldn’t spend so much time on Hugh Grant, and I don’t really want to watch Julia Roberts either. I just... don’t."
"Right. Lesbian in love with a power-mad redhead. I forgot." Anya sips her coffee. Then, because Tara looks so sad, so woman-in-need-of-a-wish, "Are you okay?"
Tara looks down so her hair covers her face, but says, sideways and shy, "Not really. It’s hard with Willow right now... Are you okay, Anya?"
"Better than you, I think. But yes, it’s hard."
They sit in quiet bad-relationship solidarity until Dawn comes back with her coffee.
When Dawn gives her the change, however, Anya thinks of Magic Box business. "Okay, after the demon-derived disaster with Buffy, I had a talk with Giles – we’re going to need competent help in the shop, since he’s not really working there any more although I’m happy he comes in every day while he’s still here. I know you guys are signed up for Halloween duty, but... do you want real part-time jobs?"
Dawn says suspiciously, "What kind of job?"
"Well, you’re only old enough to work a couple of hours a day after school, but that’s often when I need reshelving done. Say, ten hours a week of menial but rewarding stock work at minimum wage, enough to keep you in coffee, ice cream, and the occasional sale item of clothing from Hot Topic? You wouldn’t have to ask your sister for money that way." Anya spins her cup in her hands, thinking. "Tara, I don’t know your schedule."
The hair’s out of Tara’s face, which is a good sign. "I don’t have classes on Tuesday and Thursday this semester. I could, I mean, once you trained me, I could–"
"You could give me time to work with the books, fill internet orders, or even get out and do my own shopping! And maybe a half-day on Saturday, which is usually busy?" Anya beams at her. "Twenty hours a week enough for you, amount above minimum wage to be negotiated after the first week? We start Tuesday?"
Dawn and Tara squeal and murmur happy acceptance respectively, and Anya feels a glow altogether separate from the joy of a successful manager expanding her staff. It’s like... it’s like she’ll have her own group of humans, not be dependent on Xander any more.
She takes another sip of coffee and feels another piece of that ill-fitting costume slip off her shoulders.
After Dawn and Tara leave, she makes a bathroom stop, brushes her hair and refreshes her lip gloss, then comes back and stands for a moment, enjoying the falling sun. It’s shining everywhere in Sunnydale–
And across the street there’s a gleam of familiar brown hair with just a hint of silver. It’s Giles, wearing his off-duty uniform of jeans and untucked button-down shirt, strolling with his hands in his pockets, oblivious to the world around him. He’s alone. And, Anya thinks, it looks like he’s heading toward the movies too.
Smiling, she follows.
He walks faster than she’d expect, however – she watches him slide through the late-afternoon crowd, moving more confidently than he does in the shop or with the Scoobies, and he slips out of sight before she’s ready to let him go. Maybe he’s taken off his own ill-fitting costume, she thinks, as she bumps past a poorly disguised Vaclow demon in gimme cap, bomber jacket, and sneakers.
She hopes it’s not that time of the century for the Vaclow; at least she doesn’t see any scales.
The red-velvet-swagged auditorium is only half full when she walks in. Giles is easy to spot – he’s the long-legged one hanging out on the aisle, close to the front. The gleam of brown and silver hair in the downlights makes her happy for some reason.
When she stops beside him, he stops throwing popcorn into his mouth. "Oh. Anya, hello," he says indistinctly, swallows fast, and then shows signs of going to his gentleman default. She recognises the shift in his chair as a preparation for standing, although it’s been a while since she’s actually experienced any man standing up for her, even him in the shop. "Are you... is, er, Xander...."
"You can stay there." With her hand on his shoulder she pushes him back down. "It’s just me on my own, Giles. Is that seat taken? Obviously it’s not, but I have to give you the chance to say no."
He looks at the empty row stretching out next to him, the emptiness all around, then gives her a quirked smile. "Please, Anya, join me."
She’s glad and a little surprised it’s not awkward, once she crawls over him (more heat and nice solid muscle) and falls into the velvet chair beside him. He shifts around so he’s not hanging over their shared armrest too much – he’s too big to be able to retreat completely, of course – and offers her his popcorn. She shares her Diet Coke, which makes him sniffy but which he drinks anyway. He applauds her news about Dawn and Tara joining the Magic Box team, gets a funny note in his voice when he says he wouldn’t have thought of it. They dance around the topic of loneliness on a Sunday afternoon: Hugh Grant is worth getting out of the house, she says, while he murmurs something about Richard Curtis’ writing contributions to Blackadder. They argue in a friendly way about the relative value of movie-theatre butter, which he deems the work of the devil but nevertheless has soaking his corn, and they both kick back in their seats when the lights dim.
Anya knows that when the screen goes intense white and everywhere else is dark, human sensations can be intensified – it’s private even in public, it’s a world of shadows. She suddenly feels a wave of terrible solitude, a thousand years’ worth, but then Giles moves his arm against hers, offering her the popcorn again, and the music swells, and the world is all warmth and strength and bay rum cologne and buttered popcorn and Giles.
"Is that Elvis Costello singing pop? Christ, how the mighty have fallen," he whispers, and although she’s not sure what he means, the tickle of warm breath on her ear travels throughout her body.
She takes some popcorn to calm herself down. It doesn’t really work.
The movie is amusing enough, however, that her sexual awareness becomes nothing more than a happy hum in the background. She laughs when Hugh Grant’s character first encounters his scruffy blond flatmate Spike, and Giles mock-shudders. "Are you having a flashback?" she whispers.
His eyes shine, and he mock-shudders again. "Dear God, yes, horrible. If there’s a Weetabix and blood incident in the film, I’m drowning myself in what’s left of the butter."
She laughs harder, she yearns more, but she also takes the tub of popcorn from him after subduing his token struggle and sets it on the floor. No use in borrowing trouble, and regardless of his jokes, she knows he’s still on edge.
When Hugh Grant runs into Julia Roberts and spills juice on her chest, both Anya and Giles go still. She can hear him breathing now. In her mind she can feel him again in the shop, feel him touching her, her breasts tightening under cold liquid and warm big hand –
She sinks deeper into her chair, tilts her head against the back of the seat so that the rounded metal top can cool her nape. That doesn’t really work either.
It takes her longer this time to calm herself and make sense of the shapes on the screen. But she does, and she’s enjoying herself until Hugh Grant tries to climb an iron fence hiding a private garden. Something about it teases her memory – and then Hugh Grant falls and says "Whoopsadaisy," and she remembers an evening of patrolling this summer, when Giles fell after staking a vamp in Restview Cemetery. He’d caught himself on the edge of the mausoleum he was climbing, jolted himself badly, and he’d muttered something silly and British like that before giving a really impressive series of curses.
The difference is that Giles looked so unhappy and empty this summer, not like a romantic-comedy hero committing a misdemeanor, and the sadness lingers still. More like a thousand years of solitude, she thinks, which is stupid because he’s only in his late forties.
Wanting to help, she puts her hand on his arm and rubs in comfort. Her touch makes him tense, but then he sighs, stretches out, relaxes.
They stay that way for the rest of the movie, which is just as enjoyable as advertised.
When the lights come back up, they sit while the credits roll. She’s had such a good time, she thinks, he’s nice to be with, even taking the forbidden sexual attraction into account. She licks her index and middle fingers clean of the last of the butter, and ponders. She’s hungry despite the popcorn.
He glances at her, then away. "Well, I suppose–"
"I suppose," she says, speaking faster and louder, "I’m going to grab some dinner. Want to join me?"
The last two stuffed mushroom caps stare at Giles accusingly, and he leans back in his chair. "I couldn’t possibly," he groans.
"I can!" Anya grins at him, and dives for the plate with a hunger he wouldn’t have believed of so slim a woman.
He’s not sure why he said yes to her offer to share dinner, but he’s glad he did. They found a table at his favourite cafe, ordered a range of appetizers and a half-bottle of wine to split. It’s... friendly, he decides, and he takes another sip of wine. He’s missed adult companionship – the taste of it during his short time in England, the lunches and dinners with his new colleagues and friends, reminded him how much. He can’t go back to his old Sunnydale life as the token grown-up so easily.
But Anya’s not the same as the Scoobies. He’s always known that intellectually, her tendency to blurt out vengeance details from three bloody centuries ago makes it hard to forget, but it’s taken the past week or so for him to register her as a person, one who’s lived a long time.
When she leans over the table to spear the last mushroom, her blouse falls open over those breasts he now knows by touch, and he remembers the last meal he shared with a woman – Lise, the folk-singer and activist he met in Northern California, with whom he’d enjoyed one stolen weekend a year ago. He rather wishes he didn’t register Anya so strongly as a woman, all curves and shine and strength, but he can’t go back to his old perception there so easily, either.
He takes another, longer drink of wine.
Still bent over, she stares at him. "You look sad and yet happy. What are you thinking about?"
He edits his thoughts as usual. "Er, well, I was thinking about England and my new work-team. We had some excellent tapas the day before I came back."
She licks her fingers – dear God, she does that all the time, it’s so distracting– and then sits back in her chair. "You said something about your new work before, and we’ve sure been barraged by faxes. What is it? Do you... You don’t have a new Slayer, do you?"
"No. Dear Lord, no. I, er, don’t officially have any Slayer any more." He looks down at his wine, frowning. He hadn’t planned to tell anyone that– he doesn’t know why she’s so capable of catching him off balance.
"I’m confused." She hesitates. "So what’s your job?"
"Mm. Lead cataloguer and manager for a private collection of artefacts and books from the past five hundred years and a variety of dimensions – a renegade Watcher died and left us her things as a sort of, well, apology for apostasy. Or something. Anyway, it’s the kind of work I did before coming to Sunnydale." He spins his wineglass around, watches the red slosh against the sides. Almost to himself, he adds, "I’ll have to get back to work soon, or they’ll stop my salary again."
Anya says sharply, "Giles, this is all wrong. What happened? Because I thought you were set with the Council, what with Buffy’s Big Stand last year and telling Quentin Travers to give you back your job and retroactive pay and everything. I clearly remember the victory party. I made punch."
The anger he’s been living with surges to the surface -- it’s cold ocean water, it’s salt, it’s bitterness. "Right, I was proud of her for telling that git to sod off, I didn’t want to spoil it, but even then I knew the money wouldn’t flow that way. Bloody hell, Anya, if it were that easy, don’t you think I’d have told her to insist that the Council give her a living wage? Suggested she go on strike until the old men agreed to pay the real worker?"
"You know, everybody told me I was stupid when I suggested that," she says quietly.
Her interruption gives him enough time to push the anger back down. More evenly he says, "You weren’t stupid. It’d have been a great thing if the Council... But no use worrying about that impossible dream. As it was, I was reinstated, and also demoted. It was only with a sodding lot of talking that I convinced them that this particular Slayer didn’t need a Watcher. Of course–" Now it’s remembered grief, not anger, that washes over him, and it’s new worry for Buffy, who keeps asking him to fix it even as she walks away– "At that point I thought she was dead and gone. Nobody was there to watch." He makes himself smile. "Only the descendant of a toaster oven, isn’t that what you said?"
She doesn’t smile in return, but leans forward and puts her hand on his. "I’m really sorry. For the toaster oven comment, even though it’s true, but also... I’m just sorry, Giles."
"For what? Other than your part in Willow’s spell–"
"Yes, that too." Her answer is absent, her gaze intent. "I feel like I’m asking everyone this today, but are you all right?"
He wants her to take her hand away because he so badly wants her to leave it there. He can’t, they can’t –
Pulling free, he says, "Fine. Just fine. Er, it’s getting late. Shall we go?"
Her eyes are so huge, so dark, but perhaps it’s the lighting in the cafe. Perhaps it’s just Anya. But after a charged, too long moment, she shrugs. "If you’re not going to talk, you’re not. If you need to, though, I’m here." She smiles at him, and he remembers again how very old she is. "I’m your partner, you know?"
The phrase lingers with him as they pay the bill – she insists on splitting it – and she shakes back her hair and re-applies lip gloss. He looks out at the Sunnydale night, visible through the half-open shutters in the café window.
When they get outside, however, he remembers something. "Er, Anya, if you don’t mind, I’ll walk you to Xander’s flat."
"I’m not staying there tonight, I’m at my place," she says rather shortly. "Anyway, I appreciate the gesture, but why are you offering?"
"Well. Before the movie I saw what appeared to be a Vaclow demon–"
"Giles, I did too!" She grabs his arm so enthusiastically that he’s almost afraid she’ll toss him back through the café window. "But did you see scales? Because I didn’t."
He urges her forward in the general direction of her flat. The street is almost empty, the streetlights dimmer here than they should be. As they walk toward the old Sunnydale National Bank, now a renovated condominium-block, he says, "No, I didn’t either, which meant that even if it’s a danger-time the tail hasn’t descended and the change begun...."
"But just because you don’t see the scales doesn’t always mean they’re not there," she says, waving her handbag for emphasis. "I mean, any minute–"
A Vaclow tail, several feet long, flexible, thickly muscular, and yes, very much scaled, whips out of the alley in front of them. It arcs around, spiked end coming their way, seeking to catch any living creature it can. The rubbish container it snags isn’t what it’s looking for, however, and will only irritate it.
"–it could just appear from a random alley, oh my God!" Anya finishes in a much higher, if quieter, voice.
Growling comes from the depths of the alley. Yes, it’s a hungry Vaclow on an ordinary Sunday evening, and Giles knows he’s back in Sunnydale.
He pulls her into the negligible safety of a recessed storefront. "All right, all right. A Vaclow, shed of human guise and now a seven–"
"Or, possibly, eight-foot upright lizard-creature with a tail as long as its body, a fairly small brain, and fairly carnivorous appetites. Right. Good."
Anya’s already digging through her purse. "Okay, what weapons have you got?"
"A stake, useless. A knife. But it’s retractable titanium, it won’t work on the Vaclow hide, also useless." When she stops digging in favour of staring at him, he adds irritably, "What?"
"Where the hell do you keep these weapons?"
"Waist-belt, of course, behind my back. Why the bloody hell do you think I wear my shirts untucked?"
"Um, too much buttered popcorn and scones and things. But I was obviously misinformed." She shoves her hair behind her ears and resumes digging.
The Vaclow’s claws scrape across the concrete before Giles can snap at her, and the tail comes back around the corner, closer to them. The creature’s backing up – it will have some motor difficulties directly after the change, which sadly won’t make it less dangerous– and will be on the street any second.
Giles runs over the properties of a lizard-Vaclow in his mind, trying to think of a plan. "Do you have any–"
"Pepper spray!" she says triumphantly, holding it up. "A couple of good squirts in the eyes, and he’ll shrink!"
"Bloody brilliant." He means it. "Of course we’ll still have the problem of reaching his eyes without him hitting us. I could try a freeze-spell first, perhaps."
"Give me the word, and I’ll cast it with you." When he looks at her, she says, "I’ve been practising magic. Not in a resurrecting-Slayers way, though, just to practise."
The tail whips around one more time. The end smashes through the storefront window, glass going everywhere – Giles shelters Anya as best he can – and a small table is flung into the street. No time left. "Right. Stun, spray, climb. Fire escape."
"Exactly." She grabs his dominant hand with her own, and pulls him out onto the sidewalk.
The Vaclow (yes, eight feet tall) whirls around and hisses, then leaps forward, its short dinosaur-legs scrabbling at the air. The tail’s the worrying thing. It sweeps around, heading for their feet.
"Jump!" they both say, even as they leap. Sodding literal, both of them, he thinks irrelevantly.
But no time for that. Together they point their joined hands at the demon. He says, "Change be tossed, motion lost," Anya echoes him, they repeat it together.
He can feel magic blossoming in the link of their hands. Won’t last long, but they’ve got a chance.
The Vaclow stumbles. Its central muscles freeze, like locks slamming shut, but the sodding tail is unaffected. Without warning it cracks at their faces.
He feels the bite of the spiked end against the corner of his mouth, he feels Anya flinch when it hits her, but she fights it, she runs forward. "Help me!" she snaps, and he gets his hands around her waist and lifts her so she can aim the spray directly.
The canister hisses, then the demon hisses. Its scales ripple, head to claw, and the tail begins to thrash, beating against the ground–
"Come on." He grabs her hand again, and they leap over the whipping tail and into the alley.
The Vaclow will be vicious for another few minutes while the pepper works through its body, but it shouldn’t be able to climb. The old bank’s wrought-iron fire escape is still attached. Giles gets there first and jumps up to catch hold of the ladder, and then they start up the small stairs, their footsteps ringing into the night.
Hissing, hissing, and the stairs shake from below. He looks down to see the Vaclow’s tail smacking the ladder. "All the way up," he pants.
"Secret garden on the roof?" she says.
"Exactly." He manages a chuckle. They keep climbing.
They’re both breathing hard by the time they reach the top – it’s inadvisable to fight demons and climb stairs right after a good meal, he thinks – but he hoists her over the half-wall and then follows. The Vaclow’s hissing has dissolved into more familiar night-sounds, traffic and wind and distant voices.
When he steps down, he finds himself in a quiet, moonlit expanse of green, seasonal flowers and herbs, spices and sweetness. One of the Herbals lives in the building, and this is her private space. The Magic Box has provided several of the plantings, as well as the blessed stone at its heart.
Anya’s already gracefully sinking onto the tiny lawn. "Come here. You’re bleeding."
"Am I?" He thumbs at the sore spot, sees the liquid gleam. "Well, damn it." As he approaches, however, he says, "Oh, Anya, so are you. Here, let me get that."
His handkerchief is already out – he sits down a little awkwardly next to her, and then dabs at the corner of her mouth. It’s just a scratch, just a little blood.
When she lifts her face trustingly for him, however, he feels a warmth unrelated to any meal or exertion. Christ, she’s so beautiful – he says hurriedly, "Er, right. I think I got it."
"Okay. Now you." She takes the handkerchief from him, puts one finger under his chin to steady him, and then presses it to his hurt.
He closes his eyes for a moment so he can’t see. It doesn’t help. He can still feel.
When she’s satisfied he’s not bleeding any more, she gives back the handkerchief. "We’ve got another few minutes," she says, pulling her legs up to her chest, resting her head on her knees. "But it’s a nice place to hide."
"It is indeed," he says, and they sit in silence, with the moon and the wind stirring the green to keep them company. He doesn’t allow himself to think about this moment and its intermingled ease and pain. He thinks about it without ceasing.
When they must go, however, he stops her at the half-wall. Sunnydale is spread out all around them, irregular light, roads going nowhere, boundaries flowing into dark. Somewhere out there, Buffy is likely patrolling – "Anya, might I ask you a favour? Er, can you keep a secret?"
"You’d be surprised," she says, with that dry, sarcastic twist. "Yes, what?"
"Er, I was hoping...could you keep what we’ve talked about tonight just between us? About, well, Buffy not officially being my Slayer, and, er... everything."
She gazes at him, eyes so huge, so dark. "I believe secrets are the stupidest things humans ever invented, and I believe you’re making a mistake," she says, crisp and precise. Then her voice softens. "But it’s not my choice to make. All right, Giles. I won’t tell anyone."
He walks her home, sees her safely inside, and then makes his own way to his hotel. Once there, bolted inside his room, he all but falls into the overstuffed chair. Then he pulls out his handkerchief. It’s stained now – his blood, her blood, and a streak of her lip gloss, which smells like strawberries. He can almost taste the shine.
He puts the handkerchief to his face and closes his eyes. "Whoops-a-bloody-daisy," he whispers.
Part Three here.