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Reading the Signs, by Lori (Part One of Two)

For the wonderful stateless82's birthday (tomorrow), with all affection -- the first part of an AU Season Seven Story. The conclusion will be posted next week....

TITLE: Reading the Signs (1/2)
AUTHOR: Lori
PAIRING: Giles/Anya
RATING: Mature Audiences for language and sex
LENGTH: This part, approximately 7100 words
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Joss Whedon and company, and a parade of initials: T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton, and ZZ Top.
SUMMARY: A Season Seven story, AU from "Selfless" (and following my fics "Left Hand," "Black Veil," and "The Edge of the Blade," although you needn't have read them). Giles and Anya have one last Potential to collect, but today's a holiday -- they think.


READING the SIGNS

"Honey, it’s a sign!"

"No, darling, it’s not. Or, er..."

When Giles trails off, Anya smiles. "See, it is too a sign, and you can’t deny it."

"A restaurant sign, not an omen."

"Could be both, couldn’t it?" Her beam dazzles him more than does the Arizona morning, even if this particular expression of gloating indicates she’s not listening to his attempts to clarify. She pushes her hair out of her eyes – the winter wind here is as piercing as one of those saguaro needles – and says, "But, really, I think we should go investigate. I mean, with a name like Ruperto’s Mexican Fast Food...that has to mean something!"

"Anya, it’s coincidence."

"It’s a sign."

"Let me put this another way. I’m sure we’re too early for such a place to be open, and I’m bloody sure I don’t want to try."

"Okay, Mr Morning Grouch. But it’s your fault if we miss something important." Now she’s laughing at him, but her hand caresses his arm as she does, and as he’s done for the past two months, he can’t help but smile back, touch her in return, draw her closer. She butterfly-kisses him before slipping out of reach. Already grabbing her mobile, she says, "Now I’ll go get the hot drinks, even though this fast-food chain historically has awful coffee, and confirm with Kay Montoya for the keys to the apartment – and you can call Margarita in Nogales and confirm for tomorrow."

"Yes, darling. As you say." He says this with false meekness, which he knows she can interpret –

Right, as expected there’s that wrinkled disdainful nose and that last flash of amusement before she spins away across the car park toward the sun.

He’s still chuckling when he reaches inside his coat pocket for his own mobile.

Before he calls, however, he rests his arm on top of their hired car and looks out at interstate motorway and roadside brown faintly shaded with green. Casa Grande isn’t very far out of Phoenix, but they got a late start – helping Celia Molliard organise the last group of Potentials for their flight to Sunnydale and checking out of the hotel, shepherding the girls into the hotel shuttle. After two months of nightmares and Bringer-attacks, he still couldn’t rest until Celia rang a few minutes ago to say they had boarded the plane to Sunnydale.

But now two days stretch in front of him. This afternoon he and Anya have their swords to collect at the armourer’s in Tucson, tomorrow is the last Potential to gather in, and... well, it’s like a holiday of a strange sort. He can breathe.

He closes his eyes. He inhales exhaust, tar, grease, and desert, he exhales the burden he always carries.

The past months since the loss of the Council and the beginnings of revelation about the First have been difficult. It hasn’t been just the weeks of travel and the complications of dealing with understandably frightened teenage girls and their parents, but also the visitations of the First. Giles has learned more since his research trip to Saint House – the incorporeality of the First, the ability to manifest in the bodies of those who’ve died (even for just a minute), but also Evil’s limitations. It can only appear in two places at once, and even then its attention is primarily on one location, one target.

So, Giles considers the First’s regular visits to him a mixed blessing. Usually it’s appeared when Giles is alone in the bathroom shaving or brushing his teeth or washing, tired or most vulnerable. It wears Jenny’s face, or his mother’s, or worst of all, Ben pale and breathless in the mirror. It taunts him, digs into the mountain of his fears and insecurities and guilt, mines that pain for its own ends. But when it’s tormenting Giles, at least it’s leaving Buffy and the Sunnydale team alone.

Anya is a blessing, full-stop. She’s made a habit of walking into the bathroom unannounced – bloody embarrassing at first; expected and welcome now – and orienting him again with a kiss to his shoulder, her arms around his waist, and a blunt insult to the visitor. The First seems almost frightened of her honesty, or perhaps of her rejection of vengeance and the dark. That’s no doubt why the Bringer-attacks have been aimed at her first, even before the Potentials. He’s tried to protect her, tried to help her to protect herself, but...

Giles flattens his hands against sun-warmed metal and breathes in cold air, cold fear.

Then he makes himself think of other, better things: in a winter twilight, Anya half-dressed on a kingsize motel bed, smiling as she throws back the bedclothes for him; her cool, small hands working out the knots in his shoulders as he reads; Anya practising her swordplay in a hotel room, lunging in a lane between the bed and the television; Anya stealing a forkful of eggs off his plate in a diner, stealing a kiss in the car park afterward; Anya curled up in an overstuffed armchair, her own book put aside and her face and folded hands momentarily tranquil, as she listens to him read aloud. Reading verse, actually.

After Saint House, he began to read poetry again, something he’d not done since university. Eliot to start with, of course, but recently he’s been working through Yeats – yesterday the page of his secondhand book opened at "The Circus Animals’ Desertion." The First Evil dwells in ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,’ Giles believes. He’s lived there too. He doesn’t want to go back.

Remembering Saint House again, he sings softly, "‘Here we go ‘round the prickly pear At five o’clock in the morning.’" The sound is almost lost in the rumble of passing trucks.

When he picks up the mobile again to call the last Potential, however, he sees Buffy’s phone number in his phonelist, and he remembers his and Anya’s Sunnydale visit a fortnight ago.

Buffy had been distant and cool to him, even beyond the understandable unhappiness with forty-five (at that moment) Potential Slayers and yet another looming apocalypse crowding her. He’d been busy himself, settling the new girls and conferring with the research team of Dawn and Willow and poor Robson, whose new war wound meant he couldn’t travel easily and thus was the logical choice for Watcher-admin in Sunnydale. But on the second evening Giles had asked Buffy to walk with him – not a patrol, but more a...saunter up and down Revello Drive. Just a walk.

The First’s depredations were beginning to be felt: a few more empty houses, a streetlight out here and there. They’d walked in near-silence, disconnected, until Giles had the happy notion of telling her about the poetry he’d rediscovered. Buffy had glowed into ease at the topic, and they’d spent a few minutes discussing Eliot. This had carried them back to the Summers house, at which point she said abruptly, "God, I’ve... I’ve really missed thinking about anything other than worlds-endy stuff. I loved my poetry class in college, did I tell you that back then?"

"No," he said, and he smiled through the memory-pain of those years. Long time gone, rags and bones crumbled away – "You know, you’ve always had the gift of surprising me."

Buffy stopped short, just outside a pool of light so that he couldn’t quite read her expression. "Huh. Is that Watcher-speak for something bad?"

"No," he said. "It’s Watcher-speak for something exceedingly good." When she made an odd, small choking sound, he remembered the Saint House prophecies and the lessons he’d learnt so painfully. Love, give, forgive

But before he could move, Buffy had propelled herself into his arms. She’d been shaking, her words broken too. "Giles, I’m sorry, I just...I feel so alone sometimes. I mean, that Whistler guy – from the Powers, years ago? – he told me I’d always be alone, but...it kinda hurts."

"I’m sorry for that," he said quietly. "But think about it, Buffy. Are you alone, truly? Dawn, Xander, and Willow are always here for you if you need them." He didn’t speak about last year, because both of them knew how hard Willow was trying to reclaim herself. "And then there’s that bloody, er–" editing his overly frank epithets on the fly-- "I mean, Spike. And Angel, of course, Los Angeles apocalypses permitting."

She choked once more. It had been a laugh, he thinks now, although he’d not been sure then. "But you’re not around to tell me how stupid I am, and to tell me I’m dropping my elbow, and–"

"Well, if that’s all you require, I’ll leave you a list of stock encouragements and insults. You can refer to it as needed."

She huffed in amusement. "Not really the same. Except yes, the same, because now you want me to read lists and things. Totally evil Watcher residue."

He hadn’t known how to reach the pain underlying the joke. "Buffy... I’m still here for you too, even when I’m, er, not here." But at that moment Anya had begun speaking to Dawn and a Potential in the Summers house, and without precisely intending to, he’d turned his head toward her voice, watched her pass a window in the light.

When he looked back at Buffy, she wore a crooked smile. "I can read that too, insanely weird as it is. Guess I’ll get used to sharing your attention."

"But with the other Potential Slayers and my current jobs, it’s quite different--"

"I wasn’t talking about the Potentials, Giles. Duh." She squeezed him too hard, then stepped back. But her smile widened into laughter, and she hadn’t seemed hurt after all.

A shrill bird-cry overhead brings him back to Arizona and the mobile in his hand. He looks back over his shoulder – Anya’s visible in the window, standing at the counter and gesturing cheerfully at the waitstaff. Looks as if the coffees are ready. Hurriedly he thumbs in the correct phone number. Anya’s comments can be rather acidic when he doesn’t complete his appointed tasks.

The phone picks up after three rings, and a young female voice answers, "Garcia residence, Margarita speaking."

He thinks in passing that her parents should be shot for spelling her name the way they’d done – might as sodding well name the poor child Gin-and-Tonic – but says only, "Margarita, this is Rupert Giles. I’m checking in as arranged." Then he waits for the proper signal.

"Hi, Mr Giles... No. No, I’ve got it. Hello, Mr Giles. Thank you for reaching me, I’m touched."

This awkward locution is Anya’s idea – "Who knows when we might find ourselves talking to the First, spilling war secrets?" she says, "I think we need a code" – and so everyone on ‘Team Slayers-Watchers’ has been primed with the key word "touch" for all communications. Giles considers this a nice nod to the prophecies.

Clever Margarita’s a sixteen-year-old cheerleader in Nogales, Arizona, an older daughter of a newly divorced mother. The parallels to Buffy as he first knew her don’t escape him. Which means he’s still smiling when he says, "Margarita, are you not supposed to be in school?"

"Oh, well, um...like, since I’m leaving tomorrow anyway, it seemed kinda moot..."

"Does your mother know about this?"

"Si, si." A giggle, over a voice in the background. "She’s playing hooky too, right, Mama?"

"Yes, Mr Giles," comes Ms Garcia’s voice, clearer now. He can hear her reservations about it all, too – but this exchange is part of the new (if sadly ragtag) Watchers’ Council policy, making parents aware of what their children are doing and enlisting their support. Although Joyce is gone, his mistakes with her have taught him better than tradition. Ms Garcia adds, "And we’ll be here tomorrow morning to meet you. Thank you... just, yes, thank you."

Ms Garcia has asked for an extra day so that her ex-husband could drive in for a family dinner before Margarita left. This practice has worked well with several of the other Potentials, easing their transition into the Sunnydale hell, so Giles is willing to accept it this last time. Last Potential, and then...

He shivers. Fresh cold wind, fresh cold fear.

As he reconfirms the next morning’s appointment and says goodbye, he can hear quick, light footsteps behind him. He turns and smiles at Anya, who’s burdened with her mobile and the two coffees. "Here, darling, let me get that."

"Okay, this is yours. One sugar only, one cream only." She hands him the larger of the cups. As her fingers trail across his, letting go, she says, "Did you talk to them?"

"Yes. Everything’s on course." The first sip of coffee is almost too hot, and he breathes through the rush before he says, "And you?"

"Yep!" She leans back against the car, her face turned to the light, and sips her own drink. Then, "You know, it’s really nice out here in the sun when the wind’s not blowing. Anyway, anyway, we’ve got a five o’clock meeting with Kay – plenty of time to meet Raul first and pick up the blades, don’t worry – at El Coyote. That’s a Tex-Mex place in South Tucson. I’ve written down the address."

"See there. You’ll no doubt get your Mexican food after all."

"But not from Ruperto!" she says, grinning in the most adorably irritating fashion.

With all due care for their hot coffees, he catches her up in one arm. In his best voice of assumed authority: "Don’t call me ‘Ruperto,’ if you please."

"Yes, Ruperto," she says, and then squeaks when he pinches her delectable arse. "Okay, okay, I’ll stop teasing you and making you crazy."

"No, Anya, don’t," he says, and although he hasn’t intended them to be, the words are as serious as anything, serious as the hell underneath their feet, and the laughter they’ve both been riding fades away.

"Honey, don’t worry so much," she says. "We’re on holiday, remember? Even if our day off’s only twenty-two hours now, and you’ve completely ignored an important omen."

"Ha. And, right. Right, darling."

He wraps her up more tightly, closes his eyes on light, breathes in warmth. It is nice here in the sun.

........................................

"One-way, one-way! The sign is very clear," she says, and rattles the atlas for emphasis.

Muttering curses, Rupert glances over his shoulder and then moves them out of the totally wrong lane he’s gotten them into. It’s probably a good thing his Eric Clapton CD is playing loud enough to cover the multiple ‘fucking buggering hells’, she thinks.

Then she returns her attention to the atlas’s map of downtown Tucson. It appears to be out-of-date, which she’s found to be the case in every city or town they’ve visited – one-way streets and dead-ends are never marked in advance. She doesn’t find this helpful. Like today, they’ve been winding around construction and roadblocks, and –

"Turn here, honey. I hope."

When he does make the turn, this one-way street is almost empty. He glances at the street sign, then says, "Right, finally. Raul’s should be close."

She feels a sudden chill. They have to get the swords, she knows, but... she leans her head against the sun-warmed window and doesn’t let herself think of massacres, blood, death. Doesn’t let herself think of the past at all.

Now that they’re almost to the armourer’s, Rupert’s frown has disappeared. He’s singing under his breath – he does that all the time these days; she loves to hear his warm voice, with or without accompaniment – doing a kind of echo-thing to the Clapton. "‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, Cocaine...’"

Seeking distraction, she says, "So have you ever done any? Cocaine, I mean."

The frown comes back, then goes away. "Er, no, actually. I was always more interested in... transcendence." He fake-coughs – she knows he hates to confess things like this, he’s been burrowed in for so long. But he tries. "Acid once or twice, the occasional ritual mushroom...."

"Only occasional?" She reaches over and rubs his shoulder when he fake-coughs a little more. "Well, if you want, we can probably source some peyote while we’re in Nogales."

"Thank you, darling, but no." Now comes that attractive half-smile of his. "I no longer feel the need for that sort of transcendence."

She doesn’t exactly know what he means by that, although she personally has seen some major damage and blood-letting done by those seeking the wrong kind of transcendence, but she rubs his shoulder one more time before letting go.

The armourer’s shop is tucked into an adobe row of high-dollar galleries and restaurants just outside the shade thrown by the large downtown office buildings. The store almost disappears into its protective art-district cover, but in the depths of the display window, blades gleam.

Raul Cameron, the window says in unornamented black script, and then the hours of business. She knew them already, of course, because she exchanged money and merchandise with Raul when she managed the Magic Box. As always she longs briefly for her lost shop – the stability, the routine, the joys of the retail fight – and averts her eyes from those sharp edges behind glass.

The engine dies, but Clapton and Rupert keep singing for a moment. Then his hand curves around her nape, and she looks over to see him smiling at her. "Will you be all right, Anya?"

"Yes. No. Okay, I’ll signal you if I start to have a breakdown."

Although his thumb begins to tease gently over her skin, he stops smiling, he narrows his eyes. Another inspection, she thinks, as she makes herself meet his gaze. But she’s wrong, because all the sympathy in the world is in those hazel eyes. He leans over to kiss her, gentle as the movement of his hand on her neck, then says, "Right then."

"Right then!" It comes out too loud, like so much of what she says, but it’s the best she can do. "Let’s go get the merchandise!"

It’s a weird sensation when she gets out – cold wind, hot pavement. Rupert comes around the car and takes her hand, and together they push open the glass door. The bell chimes, and then a door slams somewhere in the hidden depths –

A dark, wizened man in cowboy boots comes out, saying over his shoulder, "Ay, boy, careful! Damn, for such a quiet one he makes noise when he comes or goes." Then he turns to them, blinks, and says, "Hello, I’m Raul Cameron, and I think I know who you folks are. Rupert Giles and Anya Jenkins?"

Rupert takes over then, with a handshake and some casual talk about the shop and their history of trading with him, and Raul ushers them out of the gleaming display space into the back.

Anya sees the tidy workspace and the open area to the back where the metal-working goes on. She tries to focus on that rather than the twenty swords waiting for them on the nearest table. But then she looks again. Twenty-one swords. "Raul, did you make a counting error? We only ordered twenty swords. I have the invoice right here."

Before she can pull the paper out of her handbag, he says, "Let me check. My apprentice D is a competent boy, however, and he put the order together. Don’t think he’d get it wrong, especially for y’all."

"You don’t need to check the paperwork," Rupert says quietly. "I asked for the extra one, with additional specifications."

She thinks of Rupert wielding a brand-new sword, and her sick sloshy feeling eases. Smiling at him: "I forgot you were getting one, honey."

"No. It’s for you." He smiles back, takes hold of her arm. "When I told you last night I was giving you my sword, I was teasing. You were right about the weight and length of mine – I want you to have something that fits."

"Oh." Sick again. She feels everything fade, feels the world grow cold. Sword to the heart–

But he’s there, his hand sliding to cup hers, and he says, "The new one should be just right for your grasp, darling. You’ll be able to handle it more comfortably."

Rupert’s a crazy person if he thinks she’s ever going to be comfortable with a sword again. But she doesn’t see the point in repeating this.

Raul steps closer – more inspection. She makes herself smile at them both, and Raul says, "Yes, the specs were clear. And I think I’ve learned your taste, Anya, with all those orders from the Magic Box...."

"But those were for customers!" she says.

"I can tell nevertheless," Raul says. "I have my ways." His voice goes deep, and there’s a weird thrum in the air – of course. He’s got his own magic, she knew that.

He puts a hand on his swords protectively. "Before I release these, I need to know. There are bad omens everywhere these days -- I’ve seen the white owl three times just this week, man, it’s calling death. What do you intend to do with my blades?"

Rupert stands straighter. He begins in a chilly voice, "I don’t see–"

"No, honey, you should tell him," she says. "Secrets aren’t going to do anybody any good now."

He thinks about this for a second, looks at Raul searchingly, then says, "You’re right to be worried. The signs aren’t good. We’re, er, preparing for..."

But Rupert sticks there. She knows he doesn’t like to voice the truth even to the Potentials, but for them he’s got a sales pitch – he hates when she calls it that, but it is – about history and calling and blah de blah. Even though most of that old Watcher baggage is gone, he’s still Council-trained in years of stonewalling and half-truths.

So she says for him, "Well, Raul, you’ve already guessed. Big evil’s here, and we’ve gathered a solid, if primarily adolescent and female, army to fight it. Your weapons will help, and we are paying you a fair market price. Is that enough to seal the deal?"

"Evil’s here? Now?" Raul says.

Rupert’s lips twitch, like he’s struggling to repress a completely inappropriate smile. "Er, well, yes. The primary battleground is in Sunnydale, but the, um, ‘Big Evil’ travels."

"Do you know Kay Montoya? We’ve traded with her in the past, and we’re meeting her later this afternoon for an exchange of keys and merchandise. I bet she could tell you more, I could give you her number," Anya finishes.

At that Raul gives a surprisingly gold-toothed grin. "Ay, Kay-girl’s my neighbourhood bruja! Her word’s enough for me." Then, more seriously, a kind of prayer: "May my steel serve good."

After that the transaction goes smoothly – even though Raul seems a little cranky that his apprentice hasn’t returned from his unspecified errand. She and Rupert check off all items received, pay the man, and pack the sheathed swords in a special box provided for transportation. The hum of routine soothes her enough to keep going.

But when Rupert puts the box of twenty swords in the trunk of the rental car, he keeps back the one he ordered for her. The blade gleams in the winter sunlight, cold and hot.

"Here," he says quietly, and puts the hilt in her hand.

It is a nice weight, actually, and a better fit for her palm. She makes a few experimental passes with it, sends the light skipping down the blade.

"I can’t tell, darling. Is that a signal for breakdown?" He puts his hand in the small of her back, balancing and warming her.

"No, it’s okay. I probably won’t start screaming any time soon."

But from somewhere nearby, behind Raul’s shop, comes the strangest howl – not a dog, but deeper, wilder, enough to raise prickles on her skin. Coyote, maybe, like the restaurant they’ll be going to next?

The howl rises, then cuts off abruptly. Stupid omen.

...............................................................................

"Which way do I go?" Anya says, scanning the restaurant.

"That way," Giles says, and waves a finger toward the large sign on the opposite wall: Caballeros and Damas, with a fluorescent arrow pointing to a darkened corridor.

She gets to her feet, grabs her oversized handbag, then says, "Now don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone. And if Kay gets here before I’m back–"

"Obviously I’ll plunge into the Damas to fetch you," he says in his driest manner. Then, "I can read your mind, darling. Do not crumble those tortilla chips over my head in a petty act of vengeance."

"You’d darn well deserve it. But okay." She smiles. "Ruperto."

Before he can punish her for that, she’s off. Smiling, he watches her walk, then leans back in his chair, takes a long drink of his Negra Modelo, and breathes again. There’s 70s ZZ Top (a secret and exceedingly guilty pleasure) playing on the El Coyote sound system, he’s been promised enchiladas, Anya’s got a proper weapon at last, he has no immediate responsibilities, and his beer is just dark enough.

If this is not contentment, it’s as close as he’ll get in time of apocalypse. Sod the bad omens and coyote-cries.

He closes his eyes – red-lit black velvet paintings of bullfighters and the Virgin of Guadalupe not necessarily his favourite art – and listens to the sizzle of fajitas at the next table, the heated argument (in Spanish) between two hardworn types at the bar, and a particularly stonking Billy Gibbons riff from Tres Hombres--

"You must be Rupert Giles!" a cigarette-and-whisky female voice with just the faintest of accents says, and he hears coyote-cry and the rattle of bones, rattle of a snake, far too close.

His eyes open. In front of him on the scarred table is now a charm of some kind – rag-and-bone, rag-and-bone shop, he thinks with sudden, passing nausea. Then comes the dull jingle of a set of keys.

"Glad to meet you at last," the cigarette-and-whisky voice says.

He looks up to see a veritable Amazon – looming, even without the three-inch heels; cascading black hair; incongruously, a well-cut business suit. It takes him a second to process, but then he’s on his feet. "Er, sorry. Kay Montoya?"

"Yep. You call me Kay, sugar." She shakes his hand, then shakes back that long hair. "Sorry to be a little late, I was showing a house out east, and Speedway was traffic hell. So where’s your partner?"

"Er–"

"Hi, hi! Here I am," Anya says, appearing from nowhere. She shakes hands, air-kisses the woman (which he’s never seen her do before), then sinks into her chair.

This recalls him to his sense of courtesy, and he holds another chair for Kay. She smiles her thanks, calls "Cerveza, sweet Mike!" over her shoulder, sits.

As he takes his own seat, Anya begins to poke at the rag-and-bone charm on the table. "One of your specials, Kay? Protection, right? They were always big sellers back at our shop."

"Protection, yes. A gift," Kay says. All amusement has gone. "Talked to Raul an hour ago – before the showing? He said y’all are fighting the good fight. We’ve been seeing the same omens, and don’t even ask me about the real-estate market... anyway, I thought you might like some help."

"We can use all good help, yes," he says. "But, um, omens?"

"White owls for death. And my abuela, gone these ten years–" Kay bows her head, her lips moving silently, then looks back up – "she came to me last night. Said some shit, it was crazy crazed, not even... I mean, it was evil."

He carefully sets his beer down on the table. The First, here... He puts aside his memories of Saint House, of dead faces in the mirror, and focusses. "That tactic, using the face of the dead, has been a feature of our current enemy. Can you remember exactly what was said?"

Kay nods. "She – it – wasn’t there very long. I know bad magic when I see it, got out a charm to send the thing away." When she touches the object in front of her, Giles hears another snake-rattle, another howl in the distance. The sounds are louder than the music or restaurant bustle – they hang in the air as the server shows up with Kay’s beer. She waits until he’s gone to say, "But the vision-thing said to beware of strangers. To keep the strangers out in the cold, to let them die."

Anya says, "But, but I’m not strange! I mean, you know us! I’ve talked to you on e-mail and the phone for months. I even bought several cases of slug candles from you – although I have to say, they didn’t move well even with major discounts...."

"Yeah, sugar. The evil vision wasn’t so smart." Kay’s smile pulls at tight muscles. "And you just didn’t market the slugs right."

Giles starts to comment, but Anya says quickly, "Oh, speaking of your magics – I almost forgot! Your needle," and all but dives into her handbag.

While on their travels she’s been continuing her eBay trade in magic goods – Dawn, with appropriate compensation and title, has been mailing out most of the goods Anya’s found on the road – and in a junk shop somewhere in Nebraska she’d found a blessed needle, suitable for charm-building. "I bet Kay Montoya would like this," she’d said, there in the dust and the dark, and when they’d realised Margarita Garcia would need to be collected, Anya negotiated one night’s accommodation in a Ventana Canyon resort Kay represents in exchange for the needle.

And Kay pushes the keys toward Giles as she reaches out with the other hand for the magic tool Anya’s holding out for her, and for a moment he sees everything connect, those words on a stolen page in a cursed house telling them Touch each other, see truth, fight until journeys end and the new world begins, hands linked in the visible and invisible worlds, true transcendence –

But the moment passes, and he’s sitting in a South Tucson restaurant again, with an ordinary set of keys in his hand.

"This, chica, this is the real deal," Kay says quietly. The needle, which is almost as long as her palm, glows silver, and its turquoise eye seems to wink.

"Perfect for sewing together your charms, right? It should take a heavy thread," Anya says.

"Yes." Kay bows her head again, then without flinching pulls out a strand of her own hair. Murmuring a word Giles doesn’t catch, she deftly takes the black length, threads the needle, knots the strand. The needle dims – its magic isn’t gone, but contained. "Takes all kind of threads, I’m guessing."

"Good deal," Anya says.

Giles leans forward. He’d not expected to propose this to Kay, but – "Er, you clearly have more magic than the manufacture of slug candles would suggest." When she laughs, low and husky, he adds, "Would you be interested in helping us fight the evil we oppose?"

"Honey, I’m pretty sure she’s not a Slayer," Anya whispers.

Kay glances at both of them, then down at her needle. "I think he just means the magic, sugar."

"Yes, I do. If you agree, I’ll have our friend Willow Rosenberg call you – perhaps confer about ritual, any suggestions for further wards or charms? We’ve been working on several, but we could always use more." Giles lays his hands on the table, palms up, trying to convey... actually, he doesn’t know what else he might mean. It is suddenly very important that this connection be made.

"You think distance-magic gonna work, Rupert Giles?" Kay’s voice is deeper yet. He can hear the power of light in it.

"Yes, I do," he says again, but his free hand goes across the table to Anya. Some magic he needs to touch.

Kay is a good woman. She doesn’t take much convincing, and after she gives him her card, he excuses himself to go outside to ring Willow. It’s cool twilight, which hides the rather insalubrious surroundings – auto repair shop across the way, salvaged goods next door. He walks through the dusty car park, then leans against the side of the hire car and calls her mobile.

Willow answers on the second ring. "Giles, hi, I had a feeling you’d be calling! Um, I’m touched!" Before he can begin, she starts to chatter in her inimitable fashion: Celia’s arrived with the Potentials from Phoenix; Xander and Robson have organised a couple of houses for them all "with wards and good barriers from me!"; the First has been absent for the past few days except for a few random Bringers at the mall, "Buffy thinks it’s because of the sales at Sporting Goods and Destructo-weapons R Us"--

"Willow!" he finally manages to interject. He can hear the hollowness at the heart of her cheer. "This is all, er, helpful, but I was calling to give you a contact number for another witch, a woman here in Tucson. I thought you might like the...well, the company."

At the other end of the connection there’s a shuddered breath. "Giles, how did you know I was feeling so, um, lonely?"

How many years did he spend in Sunnydale, isolated even in the midst of an affectionate, cohesive group – "I just knew."

After they exchange numbers and affirmations, he rings off. The sky here is indigo around the edges, the air colder now. Full moon tonight, just rising over the mountains. Tucson lies in a basin, mountains on three sides to trap bad air, bad dreams. Not a good place to be truly alone, he thinks.

He’ll need to check the maps again for the one way to Nogales, but later. Much later.

When he goes back inside El Coyote, Kay’s at the bar flirting with Mike the bartender, and Anya’s at the table by herself. As the ZZ Top kicks into overdrive, she takes the lime from the top of her fresh beer and wraps her pretty mouth around it, sucks it in. She enjoys life so, even in darkness, she’s so much more than he ever imagined....

He swallows hard. He’s not been able to tell her everything he feels for her, he doesn’t have the words. Not even Yeats has helped.

But he goes to her, puts his hands on her shoulders. She tips her head back against his stomach and smiles at him, and he reaches down to kiss her, to share the lime, share what he’s feeling. He takes his time, despite the awkward angle.

Then, his thumbs circling against her, he whispers in her ear, "When our food comes, darling, eat quickly. I want to be alone with you."

.................................................................

"I could get lost in here," she crows, spinning in the huge expanse of master bedroom, protecting the rag-and-bone-and-feather charm in her hand.

Kay Montoya’s provided an amazing place for tonight: nestled in the eastern foothills with saguaros all around, a townhouse more than an apartment, with its own front and back tiled patios, a moon-washed master suite bigger than the studio flat Anya’s still got in Sunnydale, and....

Anya stands in the doorway of the master bath, and sighs. A huge spa bath, a shower, and in one open closet – "Laundry!"

"What?" says Rupert, muffled, from the other room. He’s been carrying in their luggage. She’s not quite clear why he’s not brought anything into the bedroom yet, but anyway, good news must be shared. Life on the road does change priorities.

"Honey, we’ve got a washer-dryer, and detergent, and everything. We can be almost entirely clean before we go back to California and the apocalypse!"

She’s already stripping off her sweater and T-shirt, pulling it over her head, and as she reaches the doorway, she drops the clothing and the charm on the floor. Her skin begins to bloom with goose-bumps – desert night’s chilly, she needs to adjust the thermostat. But then she sees Rupert looking at her, and the goose-bumps go away.

All evening, in El Coyote and in the car, he’s been staring as if he wants to memorise her, catalogue her, write on her with his tongue. Even as the car twisted and turned on River Road – funny name, since the river they followed had no water – and climbed into the dark hills, she’s caught his gaze. When he looks at her like that, she can’t feel cold at all.

And now he’s standing there, long coat, long man, all smiles gone, and if she doesn’t touch him this second she’ll go crazy. "Rupert–"

He moves just as fast as she does, and they meet in the middle.

"At last, at last," he whispers, his hands going to her breasts, cupping, then sliding down her belly. Pleasure-shiver this time: he knows just where to touch.

Closing her eyes, opening her mouth for his kiss, sending her own hands underneath his sweater to find warm man, she lets him drive.

He gets them into the bedroom somehow, gets her on the bed, gets her naked in just a few strokes and unsnaps. The duvet is slick enough that she’d be sliding around if he wasn’t anchoring her, and then he wraps his belt around the bedpost and says, "Hold on to the ends, darling," and she realises he really is in that mood. She loves that mood.

She loves him, even though she hasn’t said it out loud yet. She doesn’t think he wants to hear it. She’s lost anyway.

But even within the limits of love and secrets, she allows herself to wrap her hands with the belt, push down on his jeans with her feet, suck on his ear, murmur how much she likes what he’s doing as he strips himself naked too and pulls the duvet over them both. His fingers dip inside her to tease, he’s muttering spells or poems against her breast, her thighs go loose and she’s saying his name, she’s begging him to come inside, she’s pulling on the belt so she doesn’t float away on pleasure.

The smells, leather and Rupert and clean linen, are in her nose when she comes the first time.

"Let me," she says then, and lets go of the belt, keeps hold of her love, pushes him over so she can write her own poems on him with hands and tongue and hair. He keeps his hands on her too, doesn’t let her slip down when she wants to. Still, she finds a way.

"Dear God, Anya," he says when her mouth closes over him, her tongue pushing at foreskin, "Dear God," but he only lets her play for a moment before he makes her pull off, before he pushes her down and makes her thighs liquid again and then slides in just where she always wants him.

This time when she comes, he’s with her, reading her cries with one last kiss.

Entwined, they lie there in the breathing silence. She watches the moonlight deepen, making the world white, and she silently tells him she loves him. She always does this after sex with him. Someday he’s going to figure it out.

But after too short a while, she does mention that she’s in the wet spot, and he laughs and pulls out then pulls her out of the bed-cocoon. "Shower?" he says.

"Mmm. And then laundry."

When in the shower he washes her back with that concentrated attention of his, she closes her eyes on the steam and thinks about transcendence – the good homely kind, not with ‘shrooms or rituals that end a world.

Once they’re dry, he brings the luggage – all except the swords – into the bedroom and slips into his last pair of clean jeans, so that she can start a load of laundry. She’d go naked for preference, but it’s chilly, and she compromises with a terrycloth robe she finds in the otherwise empty walk-in closet.

She puts Kay’s rag-and-bone-and-feather charm on the nightstand while Rupert starts fussing with the contents of his briefcase. "Darling," he says, "where is the Nogales map?"

She thinks for a moment. "In the car, maybe? I put it with the atlas and individual maps."

"Right. Well, I might go out and get it, just in case...."

She follows him into the living room. "‘Just in case’ what? Do you anticipate a cartographic emergency? I mean, we’ve still got approximately twelve hours of holiday–"

"I’ll just feel better if it’s in here for reference," he says, pulls open the front door, takes a step outside, and then, over the weirdest, chilling rattle, colder than wind off the mountains – "Fucking hell."

"‘Fucking hell’ what?" She peeks around him, just before he slams the door shut. "Oh my God, there’s a snake out there on the front step! Was that a rattlesnake?"

"Um. Yes." He clears his throat. He isn’t a reptile fan, which she found out when they watched Raiders of the Lost Ark together in a motel room in Houston; this, of course, just one more way he is like Indiana Jones, which she’d mention again just to see his expression, except–

"Rupert, isn’t it too cold for a rattlesnake to be snaking around?"

"Yes."

"So this is yet another bad omen."

"Possibly."

The fact that he actually acknowledges this omen doesn’t comfort her. In fact, he’s gone pale like when the First torments him, and then he whispers, "‘Here we go round the prickly pear....’"

"Honey?" she says, putting her arms around him to keep him here. He puts his hand on her forearm, holding on–

Outside, very near, there’s the same wild, deep howl she heard this afternoon. Rattle of rocks, rattle of snake, a feral growl, hiss of sand louder than the washing machine in the next room.

Then, doorbell.

"Don’t answer it," she whispers urgently. "You don’t have to ask evil in, you know?"

But he’s already moving, because that’s Rupert, charging into fire and danger – although he has the good sense to look through the peephole first. Whatever’s standing there startles him. "What the bloody hell?" he says, before yanking open the door.

There a vaguely familiar small man, all blue-tipped hair and quiet smile, nods. When he shifts his weight, the moon gleams off his backpack and his alarmingly long canine teeth. "Hey, Giles, Anya. Sorry I missed you this afternoon – Raul told me you’re building an army in Sunnydale. Thought I’d volunteer."

"Hello, Oz." Rupert’s hand goes out to grip the visitor’s shoulder – and at least the guy’s corporeal, because then Rupert smiles. "Er, come in."

Anya has no idea whether this is a good sign or not.

.......................................................


The conclusion to the fic is here.

Tags: blade and signs: ljs, fic: season seven au, ljs fic
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