Act One


Buffy hummed happily as she rolled the bright yellow paint onto the wall. She'd finished four of the walls and was beginning the bay window seat that overlooked the street and was very pleased with her handiwork. She stepped back and looked at her new room.

She had no idea how she'd ended up with the master bedroom. All she'd done was mention that she really liked the room with the window seat and the next thing she knew, it was hers. She wasn't going to argue, though. After spending months in close quarters with lots of other people, first with the potential Slayers and then with the coven, she was looking forward to having her own room again.

"It looks lovely," Giles said from the doorway. Buffy turned and found him leaning against the doorjamb, sodas in his hands. She smiled widely at her Watcher.

"Like it?" she asked brightly.

He returned her smile as he moved into the room. He held out one of the soda cans, and she took it gratefully.

"Very sunny," he said approvingly, noticing that Buffy looked more relaxed than he ever remembered seeing her.

Dressed in an old t-shirt, probably given to her by one of the coven members and a pair of ripped jean shorts, Buffy had pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail to paint. Her skin had developed a golden tan color from long hours of work outside in the coven gardens. Giles' eyes softened as he studied his Slayer.

"It's good to see you happy again," he said softly as she took a long swallow of soda. Buffy looked at him over the soda can for a moment before setting it aside.

"It's good to be happy again," she said seriously then looked him in the eye. "I can't thank you enough for helping us through all this," she said earnestly. "I know that Percy is anxious to have you back in England. You know, with you being the only Watcher left with actual 'watching' experience." She giggled and Giles grinned at her description, but they both grew sober again. "But it meant a lot that you stuck around," she said. "I don't know what we would've done without you," she admitted.

Giles shook his head.

"You would've been fine without me," he said smiling softly. A shadow crossed his face. "Just as you'll be fine once I go back to England."

Buffy nodded, looking everywhere but at her Watcher.

"It'll be soon, won't it?" she asked softly, staring at her sneakers. The thought of him leaving again bothered her in ways that she couldn't explain. They'd grown so close over the past few months, mending their friendship. Deep down, she knew he needed to return to England to help the Council rebuild and train the new Slayers. She didn't need a Watcher anymore. She was retired. Yet, still, she wished he could stay. She wished she could find the courage to ask him.

Giles watched Buffy as she looked down at the floor and wished he knew what she was thinking. Reaching out, he grasped her shoulder.

"Not until you're settled," he murmured softly. "As the executor of Anya's will, I need to be in the States for a bit longer anyway. At least until I can figure out which Bank of America her safety deposit box is in." He shook his head in disgust. "Who knew there were that many bloody bank branches in Los Angeles?"

Buffy looked up and smiled, her eyes suspiciously bright.

"I guess we should've known that she'd invest her money so wisely and sneakily," she said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

"I daresay that even I was surprised by her amassed wealth." Giles smiled warmly as he remembered the literal ex-demon. "Not to mention how generous she was in her bequests."

Buffy nodded thoughtfully as she looked around her room.

"Generous enough that we could buy this house," she whispered. She remembered Andrew telling them how bravely Anya had fought against the ubervamps, imagining them as bunnies. The four months that had passed since that final battle in Sunnydale had done nothing to ease her regret at Anya's death. Wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, she picked up the paint roller and resumed slathering paint onto the walls. Silently, Giles watched her paint.

While Willow's spell activating all the potential Slayers had lifted the weight of being the Chosen One from Buffy's shoulders, Giles knew that she still carried the burden of the lives lost during the final battle with the First Evil. Anya was one of those lives, probably one that had more impact on Buffy than some of the others. She didn't talk about it often, but he knew how heavily the loss weighed on her.

He picked up an extra roller and began painting the wall beside her. As they painted in a companionable silence, he couldn't help but remember that first night after they'd defeated the First.

They had talked that night, the first real talk they'd had in almost two years. A talk which had gone a long way towards mending the chasm that had grown between them. It had been easier for them to talk after that night, but even so, there were still things that were difficult for them to discuss.

"Buffy..." Giles started, breaking the silence.

"So, have you heard from Faith lately?" she interrupted, concentrating unnecessarily hard on the wall. He sighed, knowing that she wouldn't talk about what was bothering her.

"Yes. She and Robin are doing well in Cleveland. Her official parole came through last week, and it's made her life immeasurably easier," he told her. "Kennedy sends Willow her regards."

Buffy ignored the mention of Willow's ex-girlfriend.

"It was good of the Council to pull strings about the whole jail thing," she said absently, the roller making a rasping sound as it moved over the wall.

"Well, she did help save the world," Giles pointed out dryly. "It was the very least they could do."

Buffy laughed at his words as he dipped his roller in the paint pan.

"And appointing Robin as her official Watcher..." she asked knowingly. "Was that the least they could do, too?"

Giles shrugged.

"Faith was very forthcoming that the only other Watcher she'd have was me," he said simply, remembering how Faith had asked him if he'd come to the Hellmouth in Cleveland with her. He had known that even if he hadn't been asked to return to England that it wouldn't have been possible. He was Buffy's Watcher, and always would be. "She trusts and respects Robin."

"She's sleeping with Robin," Buffy countered, sliding her gaze to Giles. He blushed, his face turning a deep red.

"Yes, well, be that as it may," he stuttered. "Very unorthodox indeed, but the Council can't afford to stand on tradition these days," he said, his gaze determinedly on the wall. "Besides, Robin was raised by a Watcher. He knows the traditions."

"Hey guys!" Xander said, poking his head into the room. "Is the paint in Willow's room dry? I want to dump her stuff in there." He shifted the boxes under his arm as he looked around the room at Buffy's handiwork. She and Giles turned to face the carpenter in the doorway. Buffy grinned at him.

"Nice eye patch," she teased. "Lessa make that for you?" Xander grinned and touched the crocheted smiley face pace with his free hand. The free-spirited witch had been taken with all the Scoobies, but possibly Xander most of all. Lessa had a sense of humor that complimented his. The two had often been overheard laughing hysterically over their own jokes.

"Yeah. You like it?" he asked self-consciously. "She said that she'd make me one with a parrot on it. You know, to go for the whole pirate theme."

Giles shook his head in mock dismay.

"That girl has too much time on her hands," he joked, causing Buffy to laugh.

"Willow's room should be ready," she told Xander. He nodded as he started to leave, but then remembered something and stepped back into the room.

"Oh, Jo stopped by," he said casually, causing Giles to look up with interest. Buffy slid her gaze over to Giles' face, wondering at the look the mention of the Wiccan woman's name put there. "She said the lawyer called."

Buffy turned to Xander.

"Any word on the insurance?" she asked sympathetically. Xander shook his head, his face carefully devoid of any emotion.

"No. The insurance company is still claiming 'Act of God' and won't pay off on my parents' policies," he said, shaking his head. "Thank God for Anya." Xander was silent for a moment lost in his thoughts. Suddenly snapping back to the present, he looked over at Giles. "Anyway, you're supposed to call the lawyer back."

Giles nodded and watched in concern as Xander left the room.

"I'm worried." Buffy placed her hand on Giles' arm, drawing his attention from the empty doorway. He looked down at her anxious face, brow knit in concern. "He's lost too many people."

Giles nodded absently, his gaze returning to the doorway as his hand covered hers and squeezed it gently.

"I know, Buffy," he murmured thoughtfully. "I know."

Xander thumped down the hallway, his arms filled with Willow's belongings. There wasn't much to carry, and he was able to bring them all up in one trip. None of them had really started to collect things again until they'd made the decision to stay in Whispering Pines.

He couldn't help but smile as he thought back to the day they'd arrived at the coven outside of the town. They'd been such a ragtag group, with only the clothes on their backs and some things they'd picked up at Kmart. Until they'd come to Whispering Pines, they'd been staying at a hotel near the hospital where the wounded had been taken. It had been almost as if they'd been afraid to start rebuilding their lives. But when Giles had returned from a trip to the coven, with an invitation to stay there until they figured out what they wanted to do, the gang jumped at the opportunity. Anything to be away from Sunnydale, California and the painful memories it held.

The coven had welcomed the gang with open arms, soothing ragged nerves and emotions with their warm loving attitude. For probably for the first time in years, everyone had stopped looking over their shoulders, waiting for the next disaster to strike.

Xander pushed open the door to Willow's freshly painted room with his elbow, nodding with approval at the pale mint green that covered the walls. The windows were open so that the fresh crisp fall air could dissipate the smell of fresh paint.

While Giles had been signing the papers for the house, the rest of them had rushed over to the nearest home improvement center. Xander had lingered longingly over power tools, while the girls had argued over paint colors. By the time he'd arrived in the paint section, they'd decided to paint Xander's room something frighteningly called "Cornflower Blue." Buffy had laughed when he'd pointed out that any color named after a flower was not a manly color, and he wanted something manly. She had scoffed and bought the paint anyway, insisting that given his taste in clothing, Xander had no room to complain about paint colors. He gave a small smile at the memory. He'd die before admitting that he really liked the color.

Setting Willow's belongings down in the center of the room, next to the air mattress the coven had lent them until their furniture arrived, he walked over to one of the open windows. He poked his head outside and looked at the forest and trees that surrounded the house, reveling in the solitude. If he craned his head far enough, he could see Lessa's borrowed VW Bug in the driveway, ready for the miscellaneous errands he needed to take care of.

He was grateful for all the support the coven had given them since their arrival. They all were. But all that time of enforced sharing, both at the coven, and before with all the potential Slayers, had begun to wear on everyone. It had been time to strike out on their own. Xander knew that he was not the only one looking forward to sleeping alone in his own room. Even if it was on a borrowed air mattress.

A sudden thump from above him caused him to pull his head in from the window. Looking up at the ceiling, he frowned in confusion. Kylie, the real estate agent had explained that the attic would provide them with a large storage space. Since she'd provided them with proof that the roof had just been redone, they hadn't gotten around to going up there yet. They'd all agreed that they needed to get the living space in order before worrying about the attic. Besides, it wasn't like they had anything to store.

There was another thump from above him, louder this time. He wondered if Buffy had gone exploring. Walking across the room, he poked his head out the doorway.

"Buffy?" he called cautiously.

Willow laughed as she approached the large SUV Giles had purchased before they'd come to Whispering Pines. The elderly woman by her side was teasing her about how eager the gang was to be away from her and the coven.

"Elspeth, you know that's not true," she laughed. "It's just that we're all ready for our own space."

Elspeth Stewart looked at Willow knowingly, her silver hair shining in the sun.

"Be that as it may," she said, the former coven leader's soft voice still holding the English accent of her homeland. "You can not tell me that Buffy wasn't ready to slay Lessa last week when she woke her up by singing to the moon at 2 am."

Willow laughed at the memory.

"Elspeth, I was ready to slay Lessa for that last week," she said with a giggle as she unlocked the Suburban's door. Willow tossed her purchases into the passenger seat of the car and turned back to the elderly witch. "Thank you for helping me pick out the right ingredients for the house blessing spell."

Elspeth waved away Willow's thanks.

"It was nothing, my dear." She gestured vaguely over her shoulder at The Other World, the shop run by the coven which sold jams and incense to the people of Whispering Pines. "What's the point in having a shop if I can't help out friends?" Elspeth gazed at Willow, her gift of sight enabling her to see bright clean aura that surrounded the young redhead. "I'm just so pleased that you and the others have found happiness once again," she said softly.

Impulsively, Willow hugged the older woman.

"We are happy, Elspeth," she said, holding the other woman close. "Probably more than we have been in ages." Pulling away, Willow moved toward the car. "Blessed be," she said, climbing into the Suburban.

Elspeth stepped out of the way, and lifted a hand in farewell.

"Blessed be, Willow," she said, waving as the car pulled away. Driving north, Willow headed back to town to pick up Dawn from school. Whispering Pines was quite a change from Sunnydale, and Willow had welcomed it. As did the others. Giles had said it reminded him of England, rain and all.

Willow gave a sad sigh, as she navigated through town. The past few months had been wonderful, their little family whole again. She wished Giles didn't have to leave, and she knew the others felt the same. But no one was willing to ask him to give up his life again to stay with them.

She pulled the Suburban up outside Northern Senior High School, putting the car in park to wait for Dawn. Students poured from the building, free after a tedious day of education.

Dawn burst from the building, laughing as she and her new best friend, Liz scrambled down the sidewalk. Of all of them, Willow thought that it was Dawn who'd adjusted the best to the loss of Sunnydale and their new home. She knew that Dawn still had nightmares about what had happened in Sunnydale. But then again, they all did.

In an attempt to return some normalcy to her sister's life, Buffy had insisted on enrolling Dawn in the local high school, despite the fact that they hadn't decided to stay in Whispering Pines yet. She said that there was no reason for Dawn's education to suffer while the group decided what they wanted to do.

Dawn had protested this idea. Strenuously. She'd said it was pointless to start school if they were just going to end up moving on. Not even Giles had dared get involved in the argument that had followed, Buffy insisting Dawn go back to school, Dawn arguing that she could learn more on the coven commune than at a public school. In the end, Buffy had won with her own version of Willow's resolve face, Dawn stomping off to pout at her defeat.

Dawn's pout had only been for show. Unlike Buffy, she had always enjoyed school, doing well in her classes. Despite her protests, she had been thrilled to be heading back to school. Her enthusiasm had waned a bit when she, Buffy and Giles had gone to the high school to enroll Dawn, only to find out that her school records had disappeared into the sinkhole with the rest of Sunnydale. Thankfully, Giles had thought quickly and had asked if Dawn could take placement tests to assure that she was put into the correct grade. Since the fate of Sunnydale was known worldwide, the principal, Mrs. McGee agreed readily to Giles' idea.

Dawn had breezed through the tests, and had swiftly been enrolled in her junior year, with several advanced placement classes on her roster. Buffy had been speechless with pride when they'd gotten Dawn's schedule in the mail. She'd simply pulled Dawn in to a hug, the letter clutched in her hand. Giles had stood off to the side, polishing his glasses. Willow had snatched the letter from Buffy's hand, squealing with excitement when she saw the scores. Xander had peered over Willow's shoulder, his eye wide with astonishment.

On the first day of school, the entire gang had ridden to school with Dawn, no one willing to miss this big event. There had been much hugging and tears as they'd waved her into the building.

Dawn's status as a Sunnydale survivor had made her an instant success at school. When Giles and Buffy had arrived to pick her up at the end of the day, she had been full of stories about her new classes, teachers and friends. Liz had been one of those people. An outgoing pixie of a girl, Liz had bonded instantly to Dawn in their homeroom and the two had been inseparable ever since.

Spotting Willow in the car, Dawn made her good-byes to Liz and bounded over to the vehicle. She wrenched the door open and tossed her backpack into the back seat.

"You are never gonna guess what Liz said when I told her about the house," Dawn said without preamble as she climbed into the passenger seat. Willow grinned at the teenager's enthusiasm.

"What did she say?" she asked, pulling the car away from the curb. Dawn snapped her seatbelt closed and turned to face the redhead.

"Well, I was telling her about the house and how cool it was and all the colors that we picked out. Although she thought my choice of light purple was kinda lame," she said breathlessly. Willow smiled as she weaved through the high school traffic.

"It's lilac, not light purple," she pointed out. Dawn waved her comment away.

"Same diff," she said dismissively. "Anyway, I told her that we bought Scobie Manor and Liz says 'Did you see the ghost yet?'"

The noises above Xander increased in volume as he moved down the hallway. He couldn't imagine what would be making that noise. If it was a squirrel, it must be one hell of a big squirrel. He stopped in surprise as he stared down the hallway. Ahead of him, he saw that someone had pulled down the stairs to the attic. Wondering if someone had decided to carry things up to the attic, he approached the stairs cautiously. At the bottom step, he peered up at the dark opening in the ceiling.

"Buffy?" he called softly. There was no answer. He put a foot on a dusty wooden step as another loud crash echoed through the attic down to him. "Giles? Are you ok up there?" There was still no response. He crept cautiously up the stairs, his head just above the entranceway. Enough that he could look quickly around the abandoned room. Seeing nothing but some dusty trunks and boxes, he shrugged his shoulders and climbed back down the stairs. "That's just weird," he muttered to himself as he headed back down the hall.

Xander froze in his tracks as the ceiling above him shook with what sounded like something very heavy falling. A high-pitched feminine scream echoed from above, causing his heart to skip a beat. Whirling around, he ran back toward the stairs.

"Buffy!" he yelled in alarm, as he rushed up the steps.

Buffy and Giles worked in a companionable silence as they continued to paint the room. They'd made short work on the remaining walls and together they were finishing the last unpainted wall.

"Whose room is next?" he asked curiously as he replenished the paint on his roller. Buffy cocked her head in thought.

"I'm thinking Xander's room, and then your room," she said seriously. "I mean, the guest room, the one you're staying in," she hastily clarified. "You should have somewhere nice to stay while you're here," she said softly, sounding sad. Giles paused to stare at his Slayer. He wished she would talk to him about whatever was bothering her, but he knew better than anyone that Buffy wouldn't talk until she was ready.

"Buffy, I..." Giles began.

"Buffy!" They both whirled as Xander shouted her name from the hallway.

"What the hell?" Buffy wondered aloud as she rushed to the doorway, Giles close behind her, paint rollers forgotten in their hands. Much to their amazement, they saw Xander go rushing up the steps to the attic. Buffy didn't have time to wonder why he would even think she was in the attic when the steps began shaking violently. Without thinking, she shoved her paint roller in Giles' hand and rushed toward the steps.

"Xander!" she called out. Just as Buffy reached the bottom of the steps, she heard a loud crashing noise and without warning, Xander tumbled backwards down the stairs. She gave a gasp of horror as his head connected with the wooden steps with a cracking sound as he fell. Landing at her feet, Xander lay motionless on the floor. She jumped in surprise as the attic stairs lurched upward, as if being pulled up by unseen hands.

"Xander!" Buffy knelt down next to him and rolled him over onto his back. His head lolled limply, blood seeping from a cut on his forehead. "Oh, God. He's unconscious." She looked down the hall desperately even as her fingers felt for a pulse at his neck. "Giles, help me!"


Credits   Act Two

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