The Forever Series
Part 2 - Beyond Forever

written by Gail Christison


Rating: FRM
Spoilers: None indicated.
Summary: Buffy intends to move in with Giles, and goes to see her mother to talk about the decision. Later Giles is critically injured on patrol with her, by a mysterious new vampire whom Buffy kills unexpectedly easily. What unfolds is the question of Giles' survival and the future, as well as Buffy's, revelations about the mystery vampiress, vengeance, the invocation of a supernatural force against the slayer and general mayhem before the end of the story.
Thanks: Special thanks to Kerry B, for helping to shape the final version of this story with her great beta-ing, feedback and advice, despite her own busy schedule.
Feedback Author: Gail Christison
Author's Website: Once More With Feeling


"You what?"

"I'm moving in with Giles-"

"Buffy if you were tired of living on campus, or if Willow is too busy now with that new friend of hers, why didn't you ask me about moving back in?"

"Mom, I'm going to live with Giles."

Joyce Summers gazed at her daughter blankly for a moment then the colour drained from her face.

"You can't be serious? He's... he's... Buffy I forbid it."

"You can't forbid me. And it's not like you don't know the guy-"

Joyce sat down hard on the nearest chair. "Buffy he's older than me. When did this happen? What did he do to you?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Have a cow, mom. Look, he didn't do anything to me. He hasn't done anything to me for the last three years except protect me, risk his life for me and pretty much get kicked around by me. It's just... I only just realised that I've been in love with him since... well, for a long time."

Joyce's eyes narrowed. "And how long, pray, has he been in love with you?"

Buffy shrugged. "I don't know exactly. Isn't that the point? And I know how much he loved Jenny Calendar." Buffy watched her mother doing rapid calculations and rolled her eyes again. "Mom, don't," she said harshly. "You know Giles. You know he's the most honourable, straight, gentle guy on the face of the planet. Just don't."

Joyce focused and caught one hand with the other. "But, this... it isn't right. It just isn't."

"Why? Since when did love come with rules? Mom, I was contemplating spending the rest of my life with a two hundred and forty year old vampire, for God's sake. At least Giles is alive... and he loves me, as much as I love him, which you have to admit is a big plus. Besides, its actually a bigger decision for him than me." Buffy focused directly on her mother's troubled face. "I'm not supposed to live past 25, remember? He's going to outlive me."

Joyce's fists clenched. "That's not true, and I don't need you to remind me of it," she said through her teeth. "But I can't... I won't... "

Buffy sighed. "I love him, mom. More than I've ever loved anyone, ever. He's... well... he's the other half of me. I think he always has been, but I was so busy with the slayage and feeling sorry for myself, mostly, that I didn't notice, until Willow yelled at me a little while back about forgetting his birthday."

Colour rushed back into Joyce's face. "Then this has been going on for some time... ?"

Buffy rolled her eyes again. "About three weeks. Look mom, if they were going to draft me, because some big new thing, conflict, whatever, was happening, would you stop them?"

Joyce shook her head, puzzled.

"Do you expect me to vote at the next election?"

She nodded slowly.

"And you had no problems with me and Riley being... uh... together?"

Joyce's colour deepened. "I'm a parent. I don't have to like these things, but it's your business, especially now that you're at co... " She trailed off, clamped her mouth shut.

"Exactly," Buffy said softly. "Look, mom, I know it seems weird at first. It did to me too, but I knew. I can't believe it took me so long, but I knew. I would never have survived Angel leaving me otherwise. A part of me has known since Olivia came."

"Olivia?"

"Old girlfriend of Giles'. Came through town a couple of times and stayed with him. You have no idea how majorly wigged I was by that the first time I saw her there. I've been mad at him ever since, and we only just figured out why."

"Be... cause you were in love with him?" Joyce said slowly, trying out the words out loud, and trying not to think about the other woman at all.

Buffy nodded. "Now you're getting it. Trust me, mom, I don't have the time for crushes or messing around. If I weren't a hundred and ten percent positive I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't have even told him."

Joyce rose and came to her daughter. "Buffy this is serious. You've got to know how serious. It's not like Riley, or any of the boys at college. Mister Giles-"

"Mom, his name is Rupert. Even I don't call him Mister."

"Giles," Joyce persisted, "isn't a young man. He's going to be fifty before you're twenty-five. He's coming into the age group where men start having problems, all kinds of problems. It isn't fair to ask you-"

Buffy blew out a frustrated breath. "And has it been fair to ask him to give up everything for me? He has no life, mom, except me. He's not even an official Watcher any more, but he's still here, for me."

"Pity?" Joyce said suddenly, hopefully. "You feel sorry for him? That's not enough-"

"Hardly," Buffy snorted. "I'm your daughter, remember? Buffy Summers, selfish, much," she drawled. "I only just thought of it, but it's true. He never got to have a family of his own, I blew up his job, and he threw in the official lifetime Watcherguy calling for me. He has no real friends here... except I think there's some guy or someone who collects demonology books... and only old ones like Ethan, back in England. I've never felt sorry for Giles... I hurt for him when Jenny Calendar died, but pity... well, you know us, mom, when do we have time for pity?" she added sarcastically, remembering for some reason, the one Christmas that it snowed in Sunnydale.

Joyce stepped back a little. "You think I'm selfish and insensitive?" she asked in a tremulous voice.

Buffy's expression softened. "I think Summers women forget sometimes how to stop and smell the flowers. I think we hurt people way too easily. You should have let Giles come over for Christmas. And I should have remembered his birthdays... among about a million other things... "

Joyce frowned. "That stupid candy didn't help, but things might have been better if you hadn't run away to Los Angeles. I never forgave him for taking you from me, losing you like that. It wasn't right the way he took over your life," she added, memories of that revelation harsh and clear. "I told him... I told him... "

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "You told him what, mom?"

"That I blamed him. I blamed him for you going, for being lost, for taking you away. It wasn't right how much control he had over your life."

"You... you told him that while I was still gone?" Buffy stammered, her face pale. "After everything that happened to him because of me, everything I did, you told him it was all his fault?"

Joyce's expression hardened. "It was. He made you what you were. It was all a lie. The whole Slayer thing was one long lie, all the way from Los Angeles to the moment you walked out of the house. How do you think I liked finding out I only had half a child? That I was nothing more than incidental to your new life?"

Buffy's cheeks blanched even more if that were possible. She'd never considered how deep her mother's pain might have been, how much the older woman might have suffered because of her so-called destiny. And she certainly never contemplated that her mother would hurt Giles like that... or that Giles would keep it to himself all this time. As if he hadn't already suffered enough. She shivered at the still-too-clear memory of Xander's narrative about those weeks she was gone, and what Rupert had gone through while she was away.

Two licks of colour flamed in the now milk-white cheeks. "You didn't have to hurt him like that. Wasn't the torture enough? I didn't leave because of Giles. I left because I was hurting and I had nowhere to go. I sent Angel to hell... and I hurt them... all of them." Her blue eyes looked up slowly and met her mother's. "And I couldn't even come home... "

"That... that's not fair," Joyce reeled. "I was angry. I never meant... I thought you'd come back and have it out with me... not run off like... "

"Like what, mom?" Buffy asked quietly. "Like a scared kid?"

Joyce looked away.

"You know Giles spent the entire summer looking for me? Xander said that when he finally started to heal, he started looking for me. He told me about the nightmares, the pain. He told me how little he ate or slept while he was looking for me and how much of his own money he spent. I'm betting he never asked you for a penny and you never offered."

Joyce's face turned swiftly back to Buffy's. "I didn't ask him to... " but her voice trailed off again.

"No, you didn't," Buffy said softly. "But he did it any way. Even before he was in love with me, he loved me. I never did anything but hurt him and let him down, but he still loved me. And you know what? After everything that happened to him because of me, when I came back from L.A. and everyone was yelling at me and judging me, do you know what his first words were?"

"Where the hell have you been?" Joyce ventured more harshly than she intended.

Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and refocused, ignoring the moisture glistening in them.

"He just got that gentle look on his face and said: 'Welcome home, Buffy... ' And I still didn't get it... I never got it... how good he is... how much I hurt him." Buffy collected herself before clearing her throat. "Does major bitchdom run in our family, or what?" she asked sardonically.

Joyce looked alarmed.

"Forget it. Stupid question."

"No... no," Joyce said dazedly. "You can't say things like that and just leave it there. I tried, Buffy. You have no idea how hard it was trying to deal with you in Los Angeles, and here. I had no way of knowing that you were anything but a troubled, difficult teenager. What was I supposed to do when I found out you were conducting a secret life, lying to me constantly, and under the control of a strange, middle-aged man, no less, and worse, that you were killing... things... on a nightly basis... that you'd been more or less constantly in danger since you were fifteen!"

Buffy swallowed. "Be mad. Be outraged. Be scared, but at least listen," she offered unsteadily. "But you didn't... you... you drank. You saw the vampire explode; you heard what Spike said. You knew Giles was in danger. I told you that I had to save the world... and you decided to ground me."

Joyce closed her eyes. "It was all so insane... I just needed-"

"Yeah, mom," Buffy interrupted abruptly. "And that about sums us up, doesn't it? It doesn't matter what's happening to the people we love, or the rest of the world, as long as we take care of what WE need, first."

Joyce's face flushed with anger and she raised her hand suddenly, but stopped it in its downward arc and burst into tears.

"I'm not you, Buffy...the... the Slayer. I'm just a parent. I made a lot of mistakes, but none of it was meant to cause pain. Not to you, to Mister Giles, to anyone." She stared into her daughter's blue eyes. "You at least had him... and Willow and Xander. Who did I have, Buffy? Tell me who I had to turn to when you turned my world upside-down? Who was I supposed to talk to, to look to for support while you were gone, when I was so lonely I thought I'd die, and so frightened for you I couldn't sleep most of the time?"

Buffy watched the hand fall to her mother's side and closed her eyes again, tears squeezing through her lashes and trickling down her cheeks. "Dad. Dad would have wanted to help, if he'd known," she said softly.

"No," Joyce replied, shaking her head. "Help you, yes. Help me, not on his best day," she said vehemently.

Buffy stared at her mother sadly and let it go. "Are you going to give us a chance... or are you going to hurt him again?"

Joyce blinked. "Your father?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, mom. Giles and me... are you going to be okay with us?"

"No, I'm not going to be okay," she said tremulously, "but I won't stand in your way. I still think it's wrong. You're not much more than a child and he's... he's... "

"He's not old, mom. Paul McCartney... even Jagger is older than he is, for God's sake. And in a way I've been old since The Master drowned me... maybe even since Merrick died," she whispered then frowned. "Is this just about me being too young, or is this really about that whole older man/younger woman thing? I mean you used to do whole, endless soliloquies about dad's bimbo girl-fiends. You know, Louise, then that Missy ditz, not to mention the noxious Pia... ?"

"No it's not," Joyce snapped, not wanting to even think about Hank's youthful dalliances since the split. "But he should have known better. A grown man chasing college girls... and... and an actress."

"Actress-wannabe," Buffy drawled. "The next thing you're supposed to say is: 'Where the hell does that leave me?' The answer is, it doesn't. This has nothing to do with dad... unless you actually have a thing for Giles?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Joyce sniffed. "He's not even my type."

"Buffy repressed a smile. "Even I know that, mom. He's nothing like dad, for a start, even less like Ted. Once you guys stopped talking about art there was nothing else."

"Well, I think that's a little unfair," she began.

"Mom, you like Barry Manilow, waffles, your totally square car, old movies, French Colonial, and your art stuff. Giles is art nouveau, and he has musical taste, well, except for the Bay City Rollers, which having seen his music collection I think he was pulling my leg about, and I still have to get him back for that... where was I? Oh yeah, and he's mushy peas, jelly donuts, moussaka and tea, and he loves really ancient stuff, history, his books, old weapons, the magick and Rugby... plus I think he harbours a secret yen for a motorcycle."

"Rugby?"

"Something called Wiggan."

"Oh." Joyce frowned in thought. "I knew so quickly with your father... and Ted... well that was denial. I wanted so badly to have someone of my own... and he seemed so perfect."

But Buffy could see the longing in her eyes, the part of her that would have loved Ted to be a real person, the way he was before he started showing his psychoses. She still found it eerie the way her mother had connected so completely with a machine, and worse a machine with the soul of a lunatic... but she understood loneliness...

Hadn't she reached out to a two hundred and forty year old vampire, and way worse, to Parker Abrams?

'I know you need someone, mom. We all do. I do. Can't you understand just a little bit how much I need Rupert? I miss him just from being over here. I miss him all day when I'm in classes... and when I'm with him I feel so... " She stopped. "I don't think I can put it into words. I just know I love everything about him; the way he talks, the way he smells, the way his face feels when he needs a shave and the way he laughs... the way he gets so engrossed in his stupid books he doesn't seem to hear a word I say, then five minutes later he looks up and answers everything I said." She smiled to herself. "I even love the way he takes his glasses off every time he wants to make a point, and the way he says my name when he's happy and the stuffy way he says it when he's ticked."

Joyce put a hand to her brow. She knew. She remembered being so in love with Hank... but time and distance made her sharply aware that Hank had never really given her the kind of joy now glowing in Buffy's face. She had never truly been loved like that...

She sighed a long, slow sigh. "If... if he makes you truly happy... if you love him and he loves you... then I have no right to stand in your way," she said slowly. "I'm scared to death, Buffy. A part of me still wants to slap him for even thinking about touching you, but it isn't up to me any more."

"Then... then you still don't really approve?"

Joyce faced her. "Don't ask for more than I can give, Buffy. I can't approve what I don't believe is right. That man has been more of a father to you in the last three years than your own flesh and blood... "

Buffy's face screwed up. "Eieww, mom, gross! In your dreams... " She frowned even harder. "And maybe Willow's stupid spell. The truth is he's been my guide, my teacher, my Watcher and way more than a friend, but he's never ever taken Dad's place in my life... well, except maybe for me wigging that one time with Dad being total loser-guy about my eighteenth birthday and the Ice Show... " she muttered, "but we all know how rational I was during that mess. You have to get off this age kick, mom. You didn't have hives about that guy on Northern Exposure. You thought it was kinda cute. And he WAS old."

"And you thought it was totally gross," Joyce retorted. "I remember eye-rolling, retching noises and head-shaking."

"And your point is? The guy was in his sixties, mom, and extremely aesthetically challenged. Giles is forty-something and still terminally cute. He also still has a great body and he can do things guys half his age can't do. Actually he can do stuff most other guys will never be able to do. He is... well... he's just... perfect. Besides which I happen to love him..." Buffy's face changed again and her eyes danced. "I've got it. You and your big romantic thing with the sighing and the worshipping when we used to watch all those old late night movies together... Bogie and Bacall... The 'romance of the century,' you said they called it. Checkmate, mom. What was he, like forty-five, and she was what?"

Joyce scowled and sighed. "Twenty," she said through her teeth. "All right. I've said all I'm going to say, but you're not going to die, Buffy, and one day you're going to want a family and children and all the things a girl wants from life... and he's going to be old enough to be your baby's grandfather."

Buffy blinked. "Angel was around my age, sorta, but he couldn't even give me children. If it... If I live long enough to marry Giles... if he asks me... he'll make a great father. He'll play Rugby with them, teach them book stuff and watch them graduate from college." Her eyes glittered. "He'll eat ice-cream and probably mushy peas with them." She smiled to herself again. "He'll make time to take them to ice shows, be there for their high-school graduation and he won't be so busy he doesn't even know that his daughter has her own expiration date... "

"Buffy! Your father is a lot of things, and he certainly has a lot to learn about priorities, but it isn't his fault he doesn't know about the Slayer business. Either of us could have told him... but you didn't want that."

"If he was still here, he'd know, for the same reason you know," Buffy pointed out, her voice shaking and the moisture perilously close to overflowing. "But he isn't, and I don't need the grief. You tell him and he's going to do the 'get thee to a nunnery' thing. I can see him flying up here, challenging Giles, getting knocked on his ass, getting even angrier and blaming you, maybe trying to take me back to Los Angeles, or send me away to school. Let him live in his secure little world for now."

"Lucky him," Joyce muttered, but her voice cracked.

At that a small sob escaped Buffy's own throat. She stepped forward and hugged the older woman.

"I love you, mom. I've never stopped, but it's all so much bigger than just us. Don't be mad at me, and don't take it out on Giles... with or without him I would still have been called. He kept me sane... kept me alive. Any other Watcher would have tried to turn me into Kendra... and got me killed."

Joyce hugged Buffy hard to her. It had been a very long time.

"I love you too, honey. It's just... I'm so tired of trying to deal with all of it. Just trying to sleep at night knowing you could be dead when I wake up in the morning is almost unbearable. The other stuff just makes it even more difficult. I didn't think things could get any more bizarre... and then Faith switched your bodies... I can't tell you how horrible that was."

Buffy drew away. "I know, mom. It was horrible for me, too. I'm guessing it wasn't actually that great for Faith either. In fact, if I got anything out of the experience it was that being Faith isn't much fun for Faith either. I don't ever want to be spit on again." She focused. "Anyway, it's over now and I'm me, not her."

"Thank God," Joyce observed dryly then appeared to think of something. "Buffy, I never asked you before, but why haven't you come home more often?"

It was Buffy's turn to look away. "I wanted to... at first. But you didn't need me any more. My room... you took over my room... and then Thanksgiving... I just... I was... "

"Mad at me?" Joyce asked softly.

Buffy nodded. "I'm sorry. It just seemed like everyone was pushing me away. First Angel, then Giles had Olivia and his Hugh Hefner thing going and you didn't want me. Xander had this big thing with Anya and Willow was having this big romance with knowledge and the whole College is my world bit. I guess I developed an almost terminal attack of self-pity. Pathetic, much, huh?"

Joyce finally chuckled. "Much," she agreed, "but you were wrong about me not wanting you. I've missed you very much. That stuff was only in your room for a couple of weeks, you know. And I hadn't seen your Aunt in such a long time. If I'd known how important it was to you I wouldn't have accepted the invitation."

"You don't have to rub it in," Buffy told her, but there was affection in her tone now.

Joyce looked at her for a long moment, observing the changes in her daughter. "Are you really happy, Buffy?" she asked softly.

Buffy smiled, her eyes glowing. "For the first time since I can remember I feel good almost all the time. It's like he's with me, even when he's not. With Angel it was mostly pain, even before well, you know. Then there was Riley... another casualty of Summers sensitivity. Telling him was harder than telling you, but when I realised how I felt about Giles, it was like Riley just wasn't there any more. This is... well, not like anything before. For the first time in my life I actually don't feel alone. Does that make sense? I mean before, even with Giles and the guys being there for me, I always felt so alone... like nobody knew what it was like to be me, what it was like to do the things I had to do, to live with the memories I have... And nobody could die for me when my time came."

"And now?"

"And now he knows all of it. He understands it all better than me." She touched her chest. "He's right here, all the time... and he would... die for me, I mean. Not that I'd ever let him... but he would. It helps."

Joyce's face softened. "I can see how it might," she said gently. "Buffy, you know I don't hate Mister... Rupert. And you know I want you to be happy. Give me some time to get used to the idea, not that I'm going to have any dramatic reversals of opinion about the gap between you, but I can at least find a way to manage my feelings about it a little better... for both your sakes."

Buffy appeared to be working that through, then she half smiled and nodded. "That's about as much as I could have asked for and more than I expected to get. I guess I'd better go. Giles is meeting me to patrol tonight." She looked at her new watch. "In about half an hour. Looks like I'm jogging to Restfield." She started to turn, then turned back.

"And mom... .thanks."

Joyce smiled at her and nodded.

"I promise I'll visit more often from now on," she called as she went out the door.

Joyce watched it close and shook her head, then the smile faded and she sighed heavily.

* * * * *

When Buffy reached Restfield Cemetery it was peaceful and undisturbed. The stars were bright and the tiniest of breezes was ruffling the trees as she made her way to her meeting point with Giles.

He was sitting by the mausoleum reading a book. Buffy grinned and started to circle around, intending to frighten a year's growth out of him for not being on guard in such a dangerous place. She was about to spring out from a tree about five feet from him when she suddenly found herself confronted by over six-feet of stake wielding Watcher.

"Buffy!"

"Nice to see the reflexes haven't slowed down," she grinned, throwing herself into his arms and enjoying the embrace with gusto before kissing him with just as much enthusiasm. "Missed you."

Giles put her down good-naturedly. "You know if you're going to keep missing me this much my back won't be able to take the strain."

Buffy giggled and leaned against him. "I talked to mom."

"Oh, lord," he said softly.

She giggled again. "It's okay. I didn't have to call the coronary care unit and she hasn't disowned me."

"But she was... unhappy?"

"You could say that. Or you could say she went ballistic, freaked out and generally wigged to the max."

Giles cleared his throat. "I get the picture. And the end result was... ? You were gone for some time."

"The end result was that she's still wigged, but we talked about a lot of stuff, some old, some new, and she's promised to try not to act too creeped out by the whole thing if we don't expect her to suddenly start loving the idea."

Giles sighed. "Sounds like a realistic approach, if disappointing. I'm genuinely sorry to hurt your mother in any way, but the bottom line is that it is not her decision."

Buffy kissed his chin. "I know. Consenting adults and all that. She knows too. Doesn't help a lot. It doesn't help either that my dad's been reliving his youth in Los Angeles these past few years. I wish I hadn't told mom about his girlfriends after my visits."

Giles held her away a little. "Is that what you think I'm doing? Reliving my youth?"

Buffy's face softened. "Nah, you did that already," she teased. "Please don't do it again. I like you just the way you are."

"I'm serious," he said.

Her eyes hardened a little. "I am too. Dad still hasn't got a grip. He's still doing the denial thing about his age. And I know he hasn't really been in love since he left mom." She reached up and stroked his cheek. "I know you love me. I feel it inside of me, even when I'm not with you. And it has nothing to do with lost youth."

He relaxed a little then and smiled down at her. "Good," he said. "Because the last thing I want is to relive those days again. Twice was more than enough for a lifetime." He traced her cheek, trailed his fingers down her neck to her throat. "And I do love you so very dearly... "

Buffy pulled back and looked up at him. "God, I love you too. I only realised how much I don't deserve you today when I was talking to mom. I feel like for every time you say something like that a lightning bolt is going to zap down and turn me into a pile of ash."

Giles laughed. "A little guilt is good for the soul," he observed and laughed more when she pushed his chest good-naturedly.

"A little guilt is way depressing, you fiend. You know how totally of the bad I was. Sometimes I feel like there was a greater force at work, making me so horrible. I mean, Summers women aren't exactly in the sensitive, nurturing column at the best of times, but ever since Angel announced the big good-bye last year, part of me seems to have been living on another planet." She rested her brow against his dark shirt. "Just thinking about what I was doing to you hurts."

He kissed the top of her head and drew his arms around her. "Nor was I exactly entirely blameless, love," he told her softly. "You must come to terms with your mistakes in your own time. All that is important now is that you're mine."

She looked up, resting her chin on a button. "How did you get so gorgeous?" she asked and felt his chest shake with laughter.

"Came by it naturally," he chuckled.

She smiled back. "I thought so. Well, I'm not going to forget all those mistakes... all that stuff I did, but I do intend to make sure it doesn't happen again... well," she frowned momentarily, "not too much, anyway. I shouldn't make promises I can't keep."

He turned her gently. "You'll do better, simply because you want to. Now, time to patrol."

"Slave-driver. Whose idea was it to come here anyway? Nothing ever happens here lately."

"It was yours, I believe," he pointed out dryly. "Specifically for that reason."

"Oh yeah," Buffy grinned as they passed several rows of ramshackle, overgrown graves, and ran a hand up his thigh. "I wanted more time to appreciate the view."

Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, well, the view just got rather more interesting."

Buffy looked up. There were three of them. They were large and male and annoyed about being disturbed. They were also not newly-risen.

"What do you suppose they're doing over there?"

"Waiting for someone to rise. Someone important perhaps," Giles said quietly as the trio moved into fighting positions and Buffy drew Mister Pointy from the back of Giles' belt, under his jacket.

"This shouldn't take long," she drawled confidently and launched into the attack.

Giles watched with his heart in his throat. They were large and looked in remarkably good condition for vampires. He moved closer, Holy water in hand, and when Buffy tossed one of them his way, threw the contents of the bottle into its face. A moment later he was able to stake it as Buffy dealt with the other two.

As she staked the last vampire he moved towards her and she looked up grinning. "My hero. Thanks. I told you it wouldn't take-"

"Buffy!"

It all happened in seconds. Giles scooped her up, swinging her around. Buffy heard him grunt and felt the impact of... something. Then he went limp. She caught him and lowered him to the ground before chasing the receding figure.

It was a newly risen female. Apart from the fact that she must have been gorgeous when she was alive, Buffy could see nothing special about her, except for the polished hunk of marble in her hand, possibly broken off her own headstone. Certainly the fight she put up wasn't much and she turned to dust as mundanely as any other vamp...

Buffy turned and ran back to where Giles still lay motionless on the ground, felt frantically for a pulse, but couldn't find one. Terrified, her heart thumping, she turned him over and searched for evidence of whatever had hit him, hampered by the darkness.

"Don't die," she whispered, pulling his shirt out. It wasn't bloody, nor did there seem to be a weapon. There was no bruise, no stab wound. Nothing. She had a thought and moved her fingers to his throat, desperately trying to find a pulse. There was one there. Faint, but there. She licked her fingers and held them under his nostrils. Equally faint breath tickled the damp skin. She sobbed with relief and turned him back onto his back.

His face was pale and his mouth was open slightly, but there was no blood, no bruises. She lifted one lid, then the other. They do that on TV programs. Her brow furrowed. What was it the medicos always said after flashing their pokey little lights in the victim's eyes? Pupils equal and reactive...

She felt in his pocket for the lighter he always carried, and produced a flame on her third attempt. With his head in her lap, she lifted a lid and flashed the small flame just far enough from his eye to be safe. The pupil was kind of normal and it shrank nicely. She lifted the other one and drew a sharp breath. It was way big and it didn't do anything when she put the flame near it.

With great care she turned him on his stomach again and felt around in his hair for a wound... and found one on the back of his head the size of a tennis ball. A view with the aid of the small flame told her that the skin wasn't broken, but there was bad bruising, maybe even bleeding, beneath the scalp.

She knew she had to go for help, but the nearest phone booth was a block away. At least there was a reasonable certainty now that he was safe from vamps. She made a pillow out of her jacket and touched his face with a trembling hand before getting up and taking off without looking back...

* * * * *

Buffy prowled the waiting room at the ER like a caged tiger, drawing scowls from some and annoyed looks from reception. After forty-five minutes without word she finally slumped in a moulded plastic chair, only to rise again a few minutes later when Xander and Willow arrived.

"No Anya?" she asked wearily.

"Nowadays she doesn't like anything to do with sick people," Xander shrugged, his face pale and drawn. "Unless its me. Are you okay?"

She nodded and looked at Willow. "Tara?"

Willow shrugged. "Studying."

The blue eyes grew bitter. "So here we are: the original and the best. Together again. And all it took was my bad... again... to get us together."

"It wasn't your fault, Buffy. You couldn't know she was going to-"

"Of course I should have known," Buffy snapped then her face dropped. "Sorry, Will. I know you're trying to help, but like I said on the phone, it's my fault. Giles said they were probably waiting for someone to rise, but I was distracted and I let him get hurt... again."

For another hour they waited, but no one came. Another three hours passed after that, until, finally, someone dangling a stethoscope approached them, looking rumpled and monumentally weary.

"Buffy Summers?"

"That would be me," she said in a small voice.

"Your name is on the paperwork as Next-of-Kin."

She nodded and looked up at the youngish, hawk-faced intern. "He's my... uh... fiance."

The intern cleared his throat. "Yes, well, Mister Giles has a depressed fracture of the occipital region of his skull, subdural bleeding and a severe concussion. At this stage he's stabilised and in intensive care. We have relieved the pressure and made him comfortable, but he hasn't regained consciousness... er... from the anaesthetic yet."

"How much longer?" Xander demanded, but Willow was looking at the young doctor, all the colour now drained from her small face.

The doctor cleared his throat again. "He should be awake now. He's under observation, but we won't know for some time if... that is, we've done a number of tests, scans and such... We'll inform you of the results as soon as we know... "

"They think he's going to die," Willow said miserably.

"He's not going to die," Buffy said quietly. "I won't let him die. You have to let me see him."

Willow collected herself. "Doctor-" She stopped to look at his name-tag. "Doctor Schmidt, they're very close. If Giles... I mean, Mister Giles, is in a coma, Buffy is the one who should be with him."

"We... we don't know yet. We hoped that relieving the pressure... "

"Which room?" Buffy demanded.

"I don't know if... "

"WHICH ROOM?"

* * * * *

Buffy opened the door of the small intensive care unit slowly. He seemed terribly alone, all hooked up to monitors and drips, even something that went in his mouth, the head of the bed raised slightly, a small nurse sitting quietly in a chair alongside him and the other two beds unoccupied...

The nurse looked up as she slid into the room and closed the door carefully.

Buffy held up her left hand, upon which she'd moved her best dress ring to her ring finger and removed the others.

"You still really shouldn't be in here, uh, Mrs Giles," she said softly, frowned and looked down at the patient, then back up at the girl now standing over him.

"Fiance," Buffy muttered. "How is he?"

"No change."

Thereafter Buffy ignored her, pulling the visitor's hard, plastic chair close to the bedside and sliding her hand into his. For a long while she just looked at him, then drew his hand against her breast.

"Missed you," she said softly, a tear sliding unheeded down a pale cheek. "All those bonks on the head and now you have to go and do this to me. God, Giles, could your timing be any worse? We finally get things figured out... and I let you get whacked by a newbie vamp... um... vandal. Those darn vandals," she added lamely, trying not to check the nurse's face to see if her slip had been noticed.

His hand was limp and not as warm as she'd have liked. Her other one slipped almost of its own volition to his rumpled hair. His head was turned to one side and there were obvious signs of shaving at the back, and a dressing. She stroked the smooth brow, pushing back the sweat-limp locks as she spoke.

"Giles, please... please don't go away. You said you'd never leave me. You didn't go when they fired you and you didn't go even when I turned into bitch-monster of the century... no wait, that was Professor Walsh," she teased. "I need you, Rupert. And that's a big, for me. I've never needed anyone before, except for you. I wanted Angel so bad, but I never needed him. But you... once I needed you to be my Watcher. Now I need you just to want to go on living and breathing." Her voice wavered. "I-I'm not sure I can do that without you, Bookguy... the living or the breathing."

But Giles didn't move. He was as still as a corpse. Even the normally reassuring rise and fall of his chest was shallow and barely perceptible. For a long moment Buffy stared at the pale face, missing the soft green eyes, the crinkles at their corners when he was amused and the little dent that appeared above the bridge of his nose when she confused him or he was annoyed about something. All there was now was the gentle face that had so often reassured her in the past, looking fragile and unreachable as the machines beeped and pleeped into the silence of the room.

She shuddered and closed her fingers more tightly around his hand, then slid weakly to the seat.

"Giles, if you die I promise you I'll let Xander and Anya do your eulogy and I'll tell everyone about you and mom and the police car," she warned in a dire voice, trying to hold back the hurt. "Did I tell you I... " She shot a half look at the nurse, who was reading quietly. "... I dusted that problem you had earlier?"

A small sob escaped her throat in the ensuing silence. She was so used to his small quips, his chuckles at her silliness, and the soothing tone of his voice when he was explaining things or even just reading something to her, that the silence was agonising.

She lifted the hand to her lips and caressed the limp fingers with them. "I'm not letting you get away with this. You know that, don't you? You can't die. God, even I came back... well, Xander dragged me back... and you really wouldn't want my mom to have the last word, would you? Okay, that was lame. I wish you'd open your eyes and tell me how lame," she almost whimpered, and held the palm of his hand against her cheek.

"Buffy... " a voice whispered behind her. The nurse looked up from the other side of the bed and frowned.

Buffy turned, still holding the big hand between both of hers.

"Mom?" she half-whispered.

Joyce gestured for her to come out into the hall.

Reluctantly she tucked the hand back into his side, brushed the curls she'd stroked earlier back off his brow and kissed it.

"Gotta go for a few minutes, Beautiful. Don't go anywhere... and remember what I said about Xander and Anya doing your eulogy."

She pulled herself away from the bedside and followed her mother out, allowed her to draw her into her arms.

"I'm so sorry."

"Thanks for coming, mom. Who told you?"

"Willow."

"Figures."

They separated slowly.

"Was... was it a vampire... is he?"

"Yeah, it was a vamp... a new one. It was my fault. And no, he's not." Buffy's lip trembled and the tears began in earnest. "I was goofing off... he saved my life, mom, and they don't even know if he's going to l-live. A-And he's got so many wires and tubes... "

Joyce's face dropped. "Oh God," she said softly. "I know you want to go back to him, but I just wanted you to know I'll be out here with the kids until whatever happens, happens. I won't leave you... either of you."

A ghost of a smile flitted through the misery on Buffy's face. "Thanks. Just... thanks, but I know you have to take care of the gallery. We'll be fine, really. I-If anything changes I'll make sure someone lets you guys know right away... and mom, tell Will and Xander he's holding his own... at the moment. E-Everything's still beeping and stuff." She held her mother's gaze a moment longer, her face bleak, but managed a brief smile again, before disappearing back into the room.

Willow looked up from the very old magazine she was pretending to read as Mrs. Summers approached them. Her eyes widened and she jumped up when she saw the redness and the moisture on the usually immaculate face.

"Is he... ?"

Joyce shook her head. "Buffy is staying with him. There's no change. She said he's holding his own."

"How's Buffy doing?" she asked quietly as Xander joined her.

"Not too good, but holding her own too, I think. I know one thing. They aren't going to move her away from him unless she wants to go," she told them wryly.

Both of them half-smiled but Joyce could see their hearts weren't in it. What was it about Rupert Giles that made them all love him so very much?

"Both of you should think about going home and getting some sleep. You know I'll be here and that I'll call you immediately if anything changes," she said gently, and was unsurprised to see both their expressions harden and their mouths disappear into flat, stubborn lines.

Willow spoke first. "I can't leave," she said tremulously. "Not while he's in danger. Xander can go if he wants, but I'm staying."

"No way," Xander said harshly. "I'm staying. He's my... He's my friend... I can't go until I know he's safe. I just can't."

Joyce nodded. "I didn't think you would, but I'm a parent. I had to try. There's a cafeteria not too far away. I saw it when I came in. Can I get something for you?"

Xander brightened just a little. "I'll come with you," he offered. "Anything's better than just sitting around, waiting. I was getting a numb butt."

Joyce almost chuckled, except the image of her daughter kept getting in the way, amplified by the fear in the dark eyes now looking back at her.

"Willow?"

Willow shook her head then stopped. "A drink, maybe, for later. Juice... something... " she suggested absently. "I'll wait here."

* * * * *

Buffy had only resumed her place at Giles' side minutes before, when a relieving nurse came to take over from the younger one. The new one was much older, and seemed to be a more senior nurse than the other.

Buffy tightened her grasp of Giles' hand and faced her new companion off until the latter finally spoke.

"Visiting hours are over, dear," she said gently. "You can come back and visit with your father tomorrow. We'll take good care of him."

Buffy scowled, well-meaning mid-western accent and matronly face or no. "Fiance," she growled and held up the ring finger again. "And I'm not going anywhere," she growled in a voice that shouldn't have brooked any argument.

Unfortunately the nurse seemed oblivious to Buffy's intimidation tactics.

"This isn't really the place for you... uh... Miss?"

"You can call me Ms Summers," Buffy muttered. "And it's the only place for me. I won't leave him. I'm staying, and if you try and have me removed it's going to be bad for everyone, so just... chill. The man I love may be dying and you want to quibble about visiting hours," she snapped, gradually losing it. "I've failed him so many times nothing on this earth, let alone a... a... whatever you are... is going to get in the way of me being here for him this time."

The round face smiled in a kindly way, though her colour was now high. "Please don't distress yourself, dear. I'm just doing my job. I won't force you to go, but I had to ask. Understand though, that when it's time for me to do my job, I expect you to stand clear and let me do it... for his sake."

Buffy stared at her for a long moment. God, she must come from Iowa or somewhere. She nodded slowly. "I'm Buffy... Buffy Summers. Please don't let him die."

The smiled returned. "Mine name is Evvie and I can't make any promises, but with both of us here, he's in good hands, wouldn't you say?"

Buffy exhaled, long and heavily. "Good hands," she whispered, looked down at the still face and trailed her fingers from his temple to his cheek.

"Hear that, Big Guy? You're in good hands. You hear me? So don't take too much longer to come back, or I'll get Evvie to give you a bed bath."

There was a small choking noise from the other side of the bed, then a throat being cleared.

"Got it?" Buffy went on, caressing the beloved face. "Bed bath from Evvie, Xander and Anya writing the eulogy, you and mom and the police car and oh... how about I ask mom to bring in some of my calisthenics music in the morning if you're still not cooperating?"

A tear splashed on a wan, stubbly cheek, and then another, then Buffy dropped back into the chair and buried her face in the hand she was holding.

Evelyn McBride watched sadly, sighed and did a full scan of all the equipment in the room, checked the drip, and prepared to take observations.

* * * * *

When Buffy stirred again it was because there was a rattling noise making its way along the hallway, past the room. She raised her head and blinked.

"It's five o'clock," Evvie said softly. "Breakfast is starting."

But Buffy wasn't listening. She was on her feet and leaning over Giles, checking every square millimetre of his face for any hopeful sign, biting down hard to hold back the disappointment both of waking up to find that the nightmare was true, and that there was no apparent change. She slowly lowered her brow to his chest and sobbed softly, before breathing deeply and collecting herself. She straightened.

"H-How is he? You let me sleep," she added accusingly.

"You needed it," Evvie said gently. "And you were right here. You weren't going to miss anything, honey. He's stronger but there's no change otherwise. Best to wait and see what the doctors have to say about their tests now."

Buffy's face became marginally less stormy and she looked down again at Giles, her fingers curling around his again for a few moments. "I'm going to go see the guys," she told him softly. "But I'll be back real soon. Be good for Evvie."

Joyce was drinking black coffee and looking remarkably unruffled when Buffy padded into the waiting room. Xander was asleep in a chair, his head back and his mouth open, and Willow was curled up next to him, seemingly dozing on his shoulder.

"Anything?" Joyce asked softly, rising and meeting her half way, handing her the almost full cup.

Buffy shook her head and sipped at the strong, fragrant beverage. Apart from being rumpled and creased she was little the worse for wear.

"No change."

What unsettled Joyce most were her eyes. The bleak, fragile despair in them was something she had never seen there before. No matter how bad things had been in the past, Buffy had always gotten angry, even hard, rather than succumb to pain, or fear... or despair.

"You all need a hot shower and a change of clothes," she told her. "They wouldn't go, but if you could convince them to take turns, they might."

Buffy blinked again, and focused, as though thinking was almost too difficult. She crushed the now empty paper cup. "Why?" she rasped.

"Because you don't have any idea how long you're going to have to do this. As long as one of you is here, he's not alone, and if you don't eat or sleep or look after yourselves you're going to be no good to him or anyone else."

Joyce watched her turn and look at the others, still dozing, and showing obvious signs of a long night.

"I have to get back to him. Tell them I said to take turns. Tell them if they do, I will. One of them can sit with him while I'm gone. You should do the same thing. And you have the gallery to worry about."

Before she could reply Buffy had turned and was disappearing through the big swing doors with their 'no unauthorized entry' signs.

* * * * *

Evvie, due to go off duty, watched the young woman settle in the chair alongside Mister Giles and wondered.

Young Buffy claimed to be his fiance and this one wasn't much older. She had also glimpsed an older woman, obviously Buffy's mother, the night before, and a gangly boy trying to peek in this morning, while Buffy introduced this Willow child, begged her indulgence for an hour or so and left with the greatest reluctance to go home, shower and get a change of clothes.

The Willow girl had taken Mister Giles' hand in both of hers and was staring at him as though she could will him to waken. Evvie watched the tears roll down the creamy cheeks and knew that this man was loved. She swallowed and picked up her magazine. She'd read it twice through, but she was well practised at withdrawing from other people's private moments.

Willow knew her time was brief, and that there was even a chance this might be the last time she ever saw him. It hurt to see him so helpless after so many narrow escapes, so much past tragedy...

She tightened her hold on his hand. "Giles," she whispered, "please don't go away. We need you... " She paused. "God, did I say that? We don't want to lose you, Giles. We-I couldn't bear it if you were gone."

Only the sounds of the machines answered her. Her huge green eyes grew even larger and she sighed jaggedly.

"Damn it, we do need you. I know that sounds selfish but... well, tough. You can't leave us," she finished almost angrily, colour flashing in her wan cheeks. The tears that coursed over them, however, belied her tone.

For the next hour or so she continued to talk to him, rambling about things Evvie couldn't guess at and at times didn't want to. A lot of it was about him being hurt on other occasions. It seemed that he was prone to head injuries. She wondered at his line of work and what a Glove of Minagon might be...

Then the door flew open and Buffy Summers was back, dressed in black stretch pants and a man's grey sweater, far, far too big for her and rather stretched to boot.

Willow stood up. "Buffy. You were fast."

Buffy shrugged. "Mom dropped me on her way back to the gallery. How is he?"

She shook her head and looked toward Evvie.

"No change," she said softly, then as though she couldn't bear the disappointment in their eyes: "but his pulse is stronger and his blood pressure is almost normal, both good signs."

They nodded almost in unison. "I'll go tell Xander," Willow said quietly, and ran her fingers down Buffy's sleeve, half smiled, before her lip started to tremble.

"His favourite," she managed, then caught the other girl's eyes for a moment and was lost, sobbing as she fled the room.

Buffy watched her go, a stubborn frown on her face even as her mouth tried to crumble. She took Giles' hand again.

"Is he going to die, Evvie?"

The nurse looked at the striking figure behind the wires, sensors, tubes and cannula, and then at the equally striking girl holding his hand almost defiantly.

"I'm not a doctor, Buffy," she finally answered. "But he's not going anywhere right now."

Buffy exhaled, as though she'd been holding her breath, and sat down on the chair. "So when do I see the doctor?"

* * * * *

When the time came, Buffy was surprised to see that it wasn't Doctor Schmidt. Rather, it was a much older individual, not nearly as tired and rumpled, in fact pretty spiffy in his very expensive suit. His name was Jorgensen and he was a Professor, and apparently, the surgeon who had operated on Giles.

She didn't much like the way the pale blue eyes sized her up beneath their bushy white eyebrows after he checked the chart and spoke quietly with the nurse.

"You are his fiance, Miss... ?"

"I am the woman he loves," Buffy returned. "And the name is Summers. Ms Summers."

"Well, Ms Summers, in the absence of any next-of-kin, I must tell you that Mister Giles is severely injured. The depressed skull fracture is in a particularly sensitive area. Coma is particularly unpredictable and we won't know until the bruising and swelling subsides what, if any, permanent damage has been done. There are a number of sensitive, even critical areas in close proximity to the site of the injury. I would advise you to be prepared for all eventualities."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Are you saying you don't think he's going to die now, but he still might be brain damaged, or worse?"

"His survival, at this point, depends on him. He appears, for the time being, to be stable, however that could change. There will be ongoing tests. As to the rest, we just don't know. I simply believe it is far better to be prepared for these things, rather than be taken unawares when the time comes."

The colour had once again drained from Buffy's face, and her eyes glistened, but she nodded and stared back at him.

"Your bedside manner owes a lot to Attila the Hun," she said dryly, "but I appreciate the honesty."

At that Jorgensen actually grinned and looked down at Giles. "I think perhaps he's a lucky man," he said quietly then turned and headed out the door.

"Well that's a first," Evvie mused.

"A-A first?"

The nurse grinned and cocked her head toward the door. "He's usually so full of his own self importance you wouldn't know there was a human being under there. You made him grin. A first."

Buffy, back sitting alongside Giles and quietly stroking his brow, half-smiled. "I'm not easily intimidated," she said simply.

Tell me something I don't know, Evvie thought to herself, wondering at the same time if her Relief would arrive on time so that she could go home and take her shoes off...

* * * * *

The days began to blur. Xander and Buffy convinced Willow to keep up her classes, to take notes for Buffy, staying in touch by phone to make being away bearable. Xander relieved Buffy in the afternoon long enough for her to get a few hours sleep, not that her mind or body would let her rest any more, anyway. Willow gave Xander a break each day from dinnertime until midnight, when she returned to the dorm to try and sleep, so that her classes would make some semblance of sense the next morning. Joyce Summers came and went, bringing supplies, motherly advice and silent support for her daughter.

It was on the fourth day that Buffy was being driven back to the hospital by her mother after a break to shower and change for the first time in two days. She'd even managed to catch four hours sleep, the best she'd done at a stretch in the past week.

The sun was shining brilliantly and the roads were clear. Buffy's golden head was tilted back against the seat, her eyes closed in the reflected warmth; had been for most of the journey. Joyce could see the weariness, the effects of not eating or sleeping, in every line, every crease in her daughter's face.

Just when the peace was beginning to lull the older woman into something resembling relaxation, Buffy sat bolt upright.

"Mom, the hospital! Hurry!"

"Buffy, what?" she demanded, putting her foot down steadily.

"I feel... I don't know. I just... Something's wrong. I don't know what, or how. I just know I have to be there, now!"

In dire peril of being pulled over for speeding, Joyce finally brought the big vehicle to a halt in front of the hospital, Buffy not willing to wait for her to find a parking space.

The Slayer's headlong flight through the hospital brought her to Giles' room panting and panicked, the overwhelming sense of impending... something... almost making her ill as she put her hand on the doorknob.

Terror seized her... a morbid certainty that she was too late, that she'd failed him again. She was shaking like a leaf and unable to make herself open the door. She couldn't, however, stifle a despairing sob.

A moment later, Evvie opened it.

"I thought I heard someone... " She trailed off. "Buffy? Are you ill? What's wrong?"

"Giles... " Buffy whispered. "R-Rupert, is he?"

Evvie helped her into the room, not exactly sure what was going on, but alarmed at the girl's pallor.

Buffy drew a sharp breath. Willow, who was giving an exhausted Xander a chance to get a full night's sleep, was asleep herself, her head resting on the side of the bed. And Giles...

... Giles was staring out the window, endotracheal tube removed, looking... almost human again.

She slipped past Willow to the head of the bed and took his hand, making him jump.

"Willow?" he whispered and turned his head.

"Giles... " Buffy whispered, never so relieved to see anything, as she was to look into those soft green eyes again.

There was a swift intake of breath. "Buffy... ?"

It was a fragile, desperate sound. Something was wrong. She swallowed another sob. "I'm here now. I'm sorry I wasn't here... but I'm here now," she babbled, stroking his brow.

"Buffy, love... " His hand closed convulsively around the one holding it and he closed his eyes again. "You're here... " he sighed. "You're here."

Buffy looked around, bewildered, to the nurse as Willow stirred and stretched sleepily.

"He's been awake for a little while now. The doctor has seen him and Doctor Jorgensen, himself, is going to talk to you later this afternoon." She smiled kindly. "This will be my last day with you."

Buffy clutched Giles' hand closer and turned to Willow. "Will... why didn't you call?"

Willow blinked. "Call?"

"About Giles being awake?"

The green eyes grew as large as saucers. "He's awake?" She forgot everything except Giles, her hand unconsciously resting on his chest as she leaned in to look at his face.

"Giles?"

He half smiled, but didn't open his eyes. "Willow," he said weakly, in a dry, raspy voice. "Knew you were there somewhere... sandalwood... "

Willow looked at the nurse accusingly. "You didn't tell me."

"You didn't ask," she retorted pointedly.

"Will," Buffy said desperately. "What's going on?"

Willow looked miserable. "I was away from the room for maybe an hour... Tara needed to see me... I-I'm sorry, Buffy. The nurse said it would be okay... I was only in the waiting room." She looked back at Giles. "You were asleep when I got back." She scowled. "She didn't tell me."

"It's all right, Willow," Giles said slowly. "Not procedure... "

Evvie nodded at Buffy. "Your friend isn't Next-of-Kin. It's stupid, but it could mean my job, not to follow certain rules. Privacy issues are a little different than bending the rules about visiting hours."

"I don't care about any of that," Willow told them impatiently. "Giles is back; nothing else matters. A-Are you okay?"

He smiled and patted the hand on his chest, his eyes opening again, almost reluctantly. "I'm going to be fine. Even the doctor was pleased... "

Buffy felt his other hand tightening around hers and frowned. Something was very wrong.

"Will," she said quietly. "Why don't you go and tell mom the news?"

Willow looked from one friend to the other, sensing trouble but not sure what it could be. She nodded then smiled at Giles again, opened her mouth to say goodbye...

But Giles wasn't smiling back. He wasn't even looking at her. He wasn't looking at anything.

Willow's frightened eyes flicked swiftly to the grey-blue ones and saw the realisation dawning on her friend's face at the same moment. She bit her bottom lip before leaning forward and touching his cheek gently.

"Welcome back, Giles. We... I love you," she whispered.

His other hand sought and squeezed the fingers touching his face. "And I you," he said softly.

Willow choked down a surge of emotion, withdrew and left swiftly. Giles' hand extended momentarily after her.

"Buffy... ?"

"She's okay," Buffy said softly, and scowled at the nurse. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Evvie stared back patiently. "When have I had the chance? Besides, everything will be explained this afternoon." She shook her head. "It's just not my place."

Buffy snorted and turned back to the man she loved, stroking his brow tenderly. "Hiya, Beautiful," she crooned then almost choked trying to smother a sob when she saw his amused grin.

"That's the second time you've called me that," he told her in a slow, deliberate voice. "I heard you, you know. I don't think anyone has ever called me that before."

"Well they should have," she admonished. "Because you are. I didn't think you were ever going to come back. I missed you so much."

"I missed you too, love, wherever the hell I was." A look of anguish passed over his haggard features. "I wish I could see your face... "

Tears trickled down her cheeks. "I wish you could too," she said softly, her hand aching now from his grip on it. She lifted it and held it against her breast.

He closed his eyes again. "Funny," he said softly, "it doesn't seem to matter whether they're open or closed."

Buffy swallowed. "Is it like... back when Willow's spell... ?"

He didn't speak for a long moment. Finally he nodded, silently. "After you all left," he whispered, "I thought I would go mad... "

"I'm sorry," she whispered, remembering, with shame, the way she'd behaved under the spell. "But I'm here now and I won't leave you again, I promise. They can't make me."

"Of that I'm certain," he managed hoarsely as her fingers traced his jaw, and chuckled in a raspy, crackled sort of way, stopping only when her mouth covered his. For long moments nothing existed except the two of them. For those moments Giles forgot the pain, the discomfort, forgot that he might never see again, that he might never drink his fill of that beautiful face, or see those grey-blue eyes looking into his again.

It was Buffy who finally ended it, resting her head on his shoulder. Giles shuddered when he opened his eyes to yet more darkness, and reality crushed down on him again. It was bad enough when Willow blinded him, but at least then he was able to cling to the knowledge that a spell-any spell-could be reversed, eventually... but this...

He kissed the herbal scented head, aware that his monitors were beginning to make the wrong kind of noises, but helpless to stop the despair that was consuming him, or its effects on his severely weakened body.

"Buffy," Evvie said after another moment of erratic pleeping and beeping. Buffy raised her head. "Time for me to do my job."

The younger woman frowned at the noises that filled the room and looked up.

"Giles... ?" she asked fearfully, searching his face.

"He's fine," Evvie said quickly. "It's just a little bit soon for you to be getting him all excited. Why don't you go tell your mom and the others how he's doing and come back in a little while?"

Buffy didn't want to go, and she knew by the grip Giles still had on her hand that a part of him didn't want her to go either.

"The nurse is right, love," he said softly. "I'll be fine." He managed a smile. "See what you do to me?"

"Good thing you don't have these things on you at home then, huh? Or we might have blown the place up by now," Buffy teased, both of them chuckling at first. Then their faces almost simultaneously froze at the mutual realisation that 'home' might never be quite the same again.

Very slowly Buffy lifted his hand and kissed his fingers. "I won't be gone long, I promise," she whispered. "If you need me, Evvie will call me. Won't you, Evvie?" The blue eyes dared the nurse to say otherwise.

Evvie nodded. "Right away," she agreed, watched the fiery young woman leave, and the flicker of despair that crossed the handsome face as her footsteps receded, amazed yet again at the intensity of the connection between the charismatic pair.

* * * * *

Buffy, Willow and Joyce were all deep in conversation, Buffy and Willow still looking the worse for wear, when Xander arrived. Willow had missed him earlier, when she tried to call his home with the news.

He stopped dead in the doorway of the room. They hadn't seen him, and he wasn't sure he wanted to go any further. The implications of them all being together didn't bear thinking about. His heart raced and his palms had already started to sweat. He couldn't lose Giles... he couldn't. Without even saying a word, the older man had made him feel more wanted, more... cared for, than his parents had in the whole of his short lifetime. Even when the girls had been too busy, or to preoccupied with their own seemingly endless problems, Giles had always been there, always listened... not always sympathetically, but with forbearance, with the tolerance of a real...

Xander took a deep breath and halted his thoughts.

All three women looked up as he approached, and were instantly on their feet.

"Xander, what's wrong?" Willow demanded, moving to his side and taking an arm.

He shrugged, but his hands weren't steady. "Giles... is he... ?" he managed hoarsely.

"Oh, Xander," Joyce said softly.

Buffy went to him then. "It's okay, Xand. He's awake," she said gently.

"A-Awake?" he said disbelievingly. "He's okay?"

Buffy nodded. "He's going to be just fine."

Xander looked from one to the other. It wasn't unadulterated joy he saw in their eyes. "But something's still wrong?"

"He... " Willow looked at Buffy, who nodded. "He can't see. We don't know if it's permanent or not, yet."

Xander let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Well, hey, he's been blind before. It's not like he doesn't know the deal... and we can help," he said nervously.

"If he wants our help," Willow said darkly. "You know Giles."

"I'm sure it's only temporary," Joyce said soothingly, but her eyes betrayed her concern. It was one thing for Buffy to contemplate a long term relationship with a man Rupert Giles' age when he was fit and able to support her, another altogether for her to be tied to him with no form of support, no real future. She hadn't forced herself to go and see Angel, only to see Buffy committed to a union just as hopeless in spite of her best efforts...

"Mom, this is a head injury. Even I know you can't predict anything about head injuries," Buffy said bitterly. "Right, Will?"

Willow nodded slowly. "He might get his sight back slowly over the next few days, or all at once... or never. A-And there might be other things... h-head trauma is-"

"This is Giles," Xander interjected suddenly. "Mister granite head, remember? He always gets better and I don't remember any bad... "

Willow's eyes grew larger and glistened with moisture.

"Willow?" Buffy demanded, unnerved. "What do you know?"

"He-He's had problems before."

"What kind of problems?" Buffy demanded tensely, knowing she had no right to be angry; that it was just as much her fault that she'd never noticed, never bothered to check on him even though she... and her destiny... had been to blame at least in part, for nearly all of his injuries...

"After the Anointed One... y'know, kidnapped us, he had at least two dizzy spells in the library that I know of," Willow said carefully. "A-And after the... after Angelus... he had a lot of pills in the bathroom... " She frowned. "There were bad nightmares... and he had trouble remembering things ... and headaches... lots of headaches."

"And... when he nearly died," Xander said slowly, "after Mrs Post tried to cave his head in-I remember now... "

"Giles nearly died?"

Both of them turned to Buffy.

"God, Buff, didn't you ever listen?" Xander said harshly. "They had to revive him at least once on the way to the hospital. He had more wires and tubes in him than a Borg on a bad day."

"He nearly died twice," Willow told her quietly. "And afterward he took a long time... with more nightmares, and insomnia... and more headaches." She frowned again. "I think even his right hand went kinda funny for a while. I know he swore about it a lot... "

Buffy stared. "Why don't I know any of this?"

"Yeah," Xander muttered. "Why don't you?"

She closed her eyes. "What do you want?" she whispered. "I wasn't there for him. I was never there."

"Well that's a start," Xander muttered. "Must have had something to do with your morbid fascination with dead things," he added bitterly.

Buffy looked him squarely in the eye. "How about it has to do with being sixteen and finding out that dead things are your life?" she shot back. "I didn't ask to be the Slayer and I never wanted the deal. I can't change the past. I can't undo what I've done to him... all I can do now is love him. And if that isn't enough... "

Xander put a big finger to her lips. "It's enough. I've seen how he looks at you... how you look at him. I just wish you had... "

The lip trembled beneath his finger. "I know. So do I," she whispered and took the big hand in her own. "You know where his room is?" Xander nodded. "I made him all excited," she said ruefully. "But I think he'd like it if you visited... I... I can wait," she added, when he opened his mouth to speak.

He stared at her for a long moment, saw that she meant it, and nodded, his eyes bright.

Buffy smiled slowly and then more widely when he finally smiled back. "Go," she said, and watched him almost run to the doors.

* * * * *

Xander slipped down the corridor trying to look nonchalant. He was as aware as they all were that Giles really wasn't meant to have visitors, especially ones that weren't family. He snorted. They were family. In all but name...

The room was kind of tranquil, half-lit, silent but for the rhythmic noises of the monitors, and deserted but for the one nurse and the one occupied bed. He slipped inside and went to sit on the window side of the bed, opposite the nurse, who met his gaze momentarily, warnings dire and otherwise clear in her large grey eyes, then went back to her novel.

He watched the older man's face for a long while, wondering if he was in a heavy sleep or just unaware that he had company, until he saw the long fingers curl into a fist. A look at Giles' clenched jaw told him the older man was either in pain, or having a nightmare.

Then the green eyes opened and, for a moment, Xander thought they were looking straight into his, but when he moved forward and the eyes didn't follow, his heart dropped.

"Hi Giles," he said softly.

"Xander?"

"So that head isn't as hard as we all thought... who knew?" He joked in a strained voice.

"Where's Buffy?" Giles asked uncertainly.

A look of great sadness passed over the boy's face. "Sorry... she's in the waiting room. Do you want-?"

A large hand snaked out and felt for his. He took it and felt the big fingers tighten around his.

"H-How is Anya?"

For a moment Xander stared at his friend, too moved to speak, then covered the hand with his other one wordlessly.

"She's fine. You know Anya. Not into the illness thing unless she's dishing it out, or nursing me," he replied, half smiling.

Giles moved his head almost imperceptibly in a nod. "The... slaying?"

"Riley's guys are doing double patrols. And Adam's been pretty quiet. I think something may be brewing but there's not much happening on the streets."

"Good," Giles sighed and closed his eyes again.

Xander watched him knowingly. "She's doing fine," he said softly. "She's hardly left your side since it happened."

The big fingers squeezed his again, but Giles didn't speak. After a time Xander felt the grip loosen and knew that he had dozed off again

With great gentleness he extricated himself and headed back to the waiting room.

A drawn-looking Buffy got up quickly and came to him.

"He's fine. Asleep now." He smiled gently at her. "He was looking for you."

She managed a small smile back, nodded and slipped away.

He watched her go, amazed once again at the changes in her since she and Giles had finally found each other. Once he got over the weirdness factor it didn't take him long to concede that it had been inevitable. It was, in fact, about as right as things ever got... which did not, however, make the changes in Buffy any less spectacular.

He'd watched her bloom overnight into womanhood... the self absorbed, oblivious teen long gone. Gods knew she was going to need every bit of that new maturity and strength of character to get through this. The man in that room was going to need her, badly...

* * * * *

Buffy opened the door to Giles' new room and slipped inside.

The last two days had passed much faster than the previous four. She'd come straight from her first trip back to the campus since the accident to find her mother already there, with Xander, who was wolfing down sandwiches from the hospital canteen before catching a lift to town, with Joyce.

He looked so pale and lonely lying there, still elevated slightly, asleep against the white pillows.

She moved silently to his side and looked at him, unable to stop herself from reaching out and touching his face very gently. His eyes flickered open and she felt him start then relax when he remembered why everything was still dark.

"Hey, Beautiful," she said softly.

"Hey, yourself," he said, barely above a whisper, a shadow of a smile touching his lips then vanishing again.

"How do you feel?" She winced. "I know, dumb question, but I did wait three days to ask."

Giles half smiled again. "I feel like going home, but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to convince anyone else."

Her fingers traced his jaw and trailed down his neck to his chest. "I'll see what I can do about getting them to see reason," she said lightly. "I mean, hey, look how soon they let you escape last time your head nearly got knocked off."

He smirked and the unfocused eyes danced for a moment. "And which time would that be, pray? There have been rather a lot of them."

Buffy's face sobered. "The one Xander told me you almost died from," she whispered hauntedly. "Why didn't you tell me?"

His amusement turned to a frown. "Bad timing," he said quietly. "I was angry, and hurt." He paused then. "... Lord, I'm beginning to sound rather a wimp, even to myself," he mused wryly.

Her fingers stilled for a moment then shifted to take his hand. "Wimp nothing. You never have talked about any of it," she said softly. "We, all of us, should have been there for you, even just a little. Me most of all, and I was the worst. At least Willow and Xander tried."

He squeezed her fingers. "Willow and Xander weren't busy trying to keep the world from being consumed by evil."

"Softy," she said lovingly, leaning over and resting her head on his shoulder. "We both know the truth. I'll never be able to make it up to you, but I want to spend the rest of our lives trying."

Giles sighed and kissed the soft-scented head, but his expression was one of profound sadness. They remained liked like that for some time, his arm around her, his face turned into the softness of her hair. They were disturbed only when the door opened unexpectedly.

Doctor Jorgensen let himself into the room and picked up Giles' notes without paying any particular attention to the scene before him.

"How are we feeling today, Mister Giles?" He asked without lifting his head.

"About how you'd expect us to be feeling," Giles drawled as Buffy straightened and scowled at the surgeon.

Jorgensen looked up, ignored Buffy and focused on his patient. "Your tests indicate that you're a very lucky man. The latest results would appear to indicate that you've managed to avoid permanent damage to a number of areas we had significant concerns about."

"But?" Buffy demanded. "Giles... Rupert... is still blind. Are you saying that's the one area with permanent damage?"

Jorgensen's pale eyes widened and his bushy brows rose. "Not at all," he snorted. "It's possible, of course, but there's a significant likelihood that he will regain some or all of his sight eventually."

She scowled again and closed her fingers more tightly around his, felt the responding squeeze. "How eventually is 'eventually?'"

"Well, now, that is the question. It varies with the injury, the individual, and a number of other factors, but the truth is there is no accurate predictor for this type of injury."

"How long before we know if it's permanent... or at least that recovery is extremely unlikely?" Giles asked quietly.

"We won't, for certain," the surgeon replied. "But the longer it takes for you to notice any change, the less likelihood there is for a full recovery."

"But... but he could still get it all back at once, even if it takes a while?" Buffy ventured.

Jorgensen sighed again, this time impatiently. "Anything is possible, but it is unlikely."

"When can I go home?" Giles asked suddenly.

"You will be moved out of intensive care this afternoon. If you remain stable and tomorrow morning's tests are favourable there is no reason why you can't go home towards the end of the week. By then we should have a much clearer picture of the extent of the damage and any further surprises that might still be in store for us."

Buffy watched the door close behind the pompous physician before turning back to her lover. "Well, the good news is you're coming home... "

"And that I could have my eyesight back tomorrow," Giles added dryly.

"And the bad news is he's not letting you out before Friday... "

"Or of course I could remain a blind, useless old fart for the rest of my life," he added, bitterness creeping into his voice.

Startled, Buffy's eyes flew to his. "Don't talk like that. You learned what... five, six languages, plus a few dead ones? You can deal. Braille should be a piece of cake for a brain like you," she admonished, unnerved by the fear she saw in the soft green depths.

"Of course I can," he said roughly. "And I can get a cane and a seeing-eye dog and we can take strolls in the park together. We'll train the dog to alert you whenever there's a demon hovering close by."

His tone was harsh and unpleasant. Buffy let go of his hand and straightened. "Don't," she whispered.

"Don't what?" he asked roughly. "If you can't deal with the realities involved, I suggest you go home."

Buffy stared. "Giles, why are you doing this? We can handle it together, like we've alw-" She stopped miserably. "I love you," she whispered.

Giles closed his eyes. "I'm tired," he said quietly. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep? I'm fine." He swallowed hard at the small, involuntary sound of distress she made, but kept his eyes closed until he heard the door open and close.

A moment later his face crumpled and the golden brown lashes crushed into his pale cheekbones.

"I'm sorry... " he whispered.

* * * * *

"What time are you going back to the hospital?"

Buffy looked up at Willow, who was almost ready for classes. "I don't know if I'm going at all, today. It's not like he's going to be lonely, between you and mom and Xander. He barely talks to me, except to be civil, and he keeps telling me I've missed too many classes. He's not eating properly either. God, I hope they let him come home tomorrow. Maybe that'll snap him out of whatever's eating him."

Willow frowned. "Maybe he's just scared, Buffy?"

Buffy turned startled eyes to her friend. "I know it's scary, but we've faced worse before. You know Giles... how brave he is. Besides, he's not alone now. He's being a big baby and a poop-head and I don't know why."

"This isn't the same kind of scared as 'closing the Hellmouth' scared," Willow said carefully.

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Has he told you something?"

The emerald gaze flashed up at her. "Only that there's been no improvement, not even shadows. He's really scared, Buffy, except he tries not to show it."

"Then how do you know?"

Willow shrugged. "You can see it in his face when he jokes about it... and his fists clench when he talks about his progress, about going home, about the future."

"He doesn't act like he's scared. He acts like he doesn't want me around," Buffy said unhappily.

"Don't think that. He needs you now more than ever, Buff."

Buffy met her friend's gaze. "I know. It's just... he's so cold, so not Giles. I miss him... my him, Will."

Willow didn't know what to say. "He'll be okay, Buffy. Maybe when he comes home he'll feel more like himself. Hospitals are pretty ick at the best of times. Maybe he just hates being cooped up."

Buffy finally smiled just a little. "Thanks. You know I can take the Mister Grumpy, it's the not being able to help that's killing me."

Willow smiled back. Buffy had changed so much in so short a time it didn't seem fair for her to be punished like this now. "Don't give up on him, Buffy. He needs you."

"Don't worry, I won't," she said softly. "I love him so much it hurts... "

Willow's eyes dilated alarmingly.

"Oh... in a good way," Buffy added. "It's like I don't care what happens to me, as long as he's okay. I hurt because he hurts. All I want is to make it go away. Have you ever noticed how gorgeous he looks when he really smiles?" She frowned, focusing again. "Anyway, with Angel... with Angel I hurt because... because he could hurt me so much and did. This is nothing like that... "

The other girl relaxed. "I'm glad. You don't want to go there again."

Buffy shook her head. "It'll never be like that with Giles... not ever... "

* * * * *

"You've missed far too many classes already."

"I don't care. I'm going to be here to take you home and you can't stop me. Willow can help me with notes and stuff later."

"No."

"What do you mean, no?" Buffy demanded, eyes flashing.

"I mean no," Giles told her, feeling for and picking up another piece of cold hospital toast. "I've given this a great deal of thought over the last few days and I've come to the conclusion that you are neither old enough nor emotionally equipped to deal with all the problems that go with my... er... condition. I think it would be far easier for both of us if you concentrated on your education and the Slaying... "

Buffy stared at him in disbelief. "You... you're breaking up with me? Giles, we're not high school kids going steady! This is you and me... Watcher... Slayer... remember? Destiny... us... together?"

He shook his head and bit with deliberation into the last of his slice of buttered toast.

"I'm sorry, Buffy, but I really don't see how it can work. You must finish college and your Slaying duties must not be impinged upon. I will find someone who can manage the basics for me... and as you pointed out, I can learn the rest. Of course, there's always hope, but since I can't even see a shadow of a bloody shadow at the moment, that Nazi surgeon of mine has now all but declared the permanency of my condition before I even leave the hospital.

"Giles," Buffy said unsteadily. "Don't do this. I love you so much... I can't do this again... I want to be with you... I... I can't lose you too. Please, R-Rupert... "

Giles very carefully found the second piece of toast, a knife, and, after knocking a fork off the tray, located the tiny stainless steel bowl of marmalade, with his fingertips. He started spreading it with slow deliberation.

"I'm not going anywhere, Buffy," he said evenly. "I'll always be there with any information, any support you might require. It's... " His knife went off the end of the bread and spread marmalade onto the side of the plate. "It's not the end of the world. You are a beautiful young woman who c-can have anyone she wants." He put the knife down and turned his sightless eyes to her. "You must continue as the Slayer and you must finish your education... you must be free to do both, Buffy."

"You bastard," she rasped, through tears, unable to stop herself from shaking like a leaf. "I don't know why you're doing this, but I hate you for doing it. I thought you loved me. I thought you wanted me as much as I want you. I trusted you, Giles."

There was a moment's silence then he jolted as the door slammed hard. As the silence stretched his face twisted into lines of pure rage. A moment later his plate was crashing into the wall and the left over egg and toast was sliding down the pastel blue paintwork. Before he could do anything else, however, the door opened again. He opened his mouth to try to appease duty nurse.

"You did the right thing."

His scowl deepened. "You again," he growled. "I thought you had a gallery to run. I did as you asked." He closed his eyes. "I hurt her... "

Joyce Summers' expression grew bleak as she took in the mess slowly dripping down the wall, the shards of broken plate on the floor.

"I saw her go. It's going to be hard on her for a little while, but she got over that vampire, didn't she? As bad as it was, she moved on. She even found a young man she could have made a life with, but... "

"But she didn't love him," he finished, struggling to stay calm. "What do you want? I did as you requested. I did it for her, not for you, but for some reason I feel as though I've just desecrated something incredibly precious and fragile. I feel rather a bastard, actually... " His fists wound themselves in his sheets. "So I'd appreciate it if you didn't stay terribly long."

Joyce stared at him, trembling at the enormity of what she done, what they'd both done. Nothing, however, was more important to her than the future of her only child, and a part of her was relieved that it was over. More than that, a part of her was glad. He'd already taken the part of Buffy that was the Slayer, long ago. To surrender the rest... the small, vital part that was still hers, to him as well...

"You... you did the right thing," she repeated helplessly.

He snorted and turned away from the sound of her voice. "It wasn't right," he growled. "Whether it had to be done or not." His voice broke. "Now, please... "

Joyce nodded, forgetting that he couldn't see her, turned and left swiftly.

For a moment Giles sat rigidly, his sightless eyes seemingly staring out the window. Then, very slowly, his eyes filled and his hands began to shake.

* * * * *

Outside, in the waiting room, Willow stood frowning. Buffy had run past her only minutes before, looking so shattered she wouldn't have been surprised to see Angelus come chasing after her. Not long after that, while she was still collecting her wits, Joyce Summers had walked by looking strained, but satisfied, and had gone through to where Giles's room was. Moments later she'd come back looking distressed, but even more determined than when she went in.

Something weird was going on. A shiver went down her spine. Buffy had tried to tell her...

Willow reached Giles' room only to find the door still half open. She peeked in, half expecting him to be asleep, drew a sharp breath and then a jagged one, her soft heart breaking. She should have known...

Apprehensive, but driven by the strength of compassion, she crept up to the bedside, wrenched by the sight of a man she had only ever known for his strength so caught in the throes of hell that his body shook with his silent sobs. Without hesitation she lifted herself onto the bed and put her arms around his half-turned shoulders, and held him until he quieted.

When he did she rested her cheek against the head bowed on her shoulder.

"Sandalwood again," he whispered. "Willow, what are you doing here? You should be... "

"Right now I should be with you," she admonished gently, feeling the still fading jerks of his body from the intensity of his earlier misery. "I saw them... Buffy, and Mrs Summers," she told him quietly.

He drew away from her and allowed her to lay him back against the pillows on the raised bed head. He looked pale and drawn and there was a fragility about him she hadn't seen since Jenny died. She took one of his hands in hers.

"You... you sent her away, didn't you?" she guessed.

He looked away and closed his eyes. "It's not your concern, Willow," he said quietly.

"It's wrong, Giles. You belong together. You always have."

The big fingers tightened around hers. "No," he whispered. "She has to be free... "

"Why?" she demanded. "Who says she's free now?"

Giles turned, frowning, his unfocused eyes tortured.

Willow swallowed. "Trust me, there's no freedom in having a part of your soul ripped away... of missing someone so much you don't know if you can face another day without them... She needs you as much as you need her."

"I love her so much," he whispered brokenly.

Willow bit back tears and squeezed his hand, determined not to make things any worse.

"I know," she said gently.

* * * * *

The door opened and Giles stood, oblivious of his surroundings, yet comforted by the familiar smell, familiar feel.

Xander looked over his shoulder. Willow had obviously been in. Every small trace of Buffy had been removed, from the favourite ornaments she'd placed, to the pile of textbooks Giles hadn't been able to convince her to move from his desk and the sweater Willow told him had been draped over the couch for two days while Giles waited for Buffy to move it. Giles had apparently been well aware that Buffy knew he was waiting, and that she therefore had, accordingly, made no effort to put it away.

He closed the front door and brought Giles' small bag of accumulated belongings from the hospital into the room before guiding him unobtrusively to his favourite armchair.

"Welcome home, G-Man," he grinned. "Willow cleaned and I did the market thing. Your refrigerator is stuffed with goodies. The only thing I couldn't get was beer."

"Thank you," Giles said wearily, barely attempting to smile back at the relentlessly cheerful voice. "I think I can survive without it. I am, however, glad to be h... back."

"Can I get you something?"

Giles almost smiled. "Tea... ?"

He smiled nervously. "Sure. Coming right up."

"Xander... ?"

He turned in the hallway near the archway to the kitchen.

"Yo?"

"How... how is Buffy?"

Xander's head dropped. "She's not talking. Willow says she's almost caught up with her studies and she's been patrolling every night until dawn, since... well, you know. But she won't talk, even to Will. At least, not about anything that matters... "

In the living room Giles closed his eyes.

Xander watched him sadly for a moment before turning back to the kitchen.

When he returned Giles had rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and lowered his brow into his palm.

"Tea," he announced with deliberate cheerfulness and slid the tray onto the coffee table.

Giles lifted his head slowly. "Splendid," he said without real enthusiasm.

After an uncomfortable moment Xander suddenly realised that he would have to pour and jumped forward.

Giles listened to the liquid being poured into the teacup and the tinkle of the teaspoon against his good china. He almost smiled. Xander was fussing...

The younger man put the milk down and rose with the cup, carefully taking Giles' left hand and bringing his fingers to the edge of the saucer. He took it with relative ease and Xander stepped away, relieved.

"Have you... Have you got someone to come in, yet?"

Giles looked up, frustrated once again that the instinctive move was as fruitless as it had been since he first woke to the nightmare that was now his life.

"Don't worry. I'll be fine. I managed last time and I'll manage again."

"Last time? Oh yeah... Willow's spell."

Giles nodded. "You all very kindly left me to experience the joys of profound sightlessness alone for quite a number of hours. It was a... unique... experience."

Xander cleared his throat. "There's been a lot of not thinking this past year, by all of us. I'm sorry... about... y'know. It's not going to happen this time. I'm not letting you do this alone, Giles."

The other man's expression softened. "Your concern is appreciated," he said softly. "But the one who most needs your support now is Buffy. I... "

Xander looked up when he stopped. "Why?" he asked simply. "Why did you do it?"

Giles froze for a moment then very deliberately began sipping at his tea again. "In my current state I am nothing but a liability and a distraction. I can't offer her any kind of future or security... or even any real support, while I'm in this condition."

Xander's brow knitted, though he didn't immediately speak. For one thing it sounded less like Giles, than Giles quoting someone else. Not that he wouldn't always put Buffy first, no matter what... but...

"Bullshit," he said finally.

Giles' head jerked up. "What?"

"You heard me. She loves you so much she actually grew up for you... Willow says she's not eating, hardly sleeping and barely functional outside of slaying and studying. She needs you... as much as you need her. Giles, think about it. It doesn't make any sense. She's in pain... you're in pain. You need her... she needs you... are we starting to see a pattern here?"

"What I may or may not need is irrelevant," Giles replied roughly. "All that is important is her future. All that matters to me is her happiness."

"Yeah, she's so happy... that's why she cries herself to sleep; why she's in such great shape she's in danger of staking herself every time she looks in the mirror. That's why Willow says she calls out your name in her nightmares, every night."

"No... she... it'll pass. She put Angel behind her and he... "

"He wasn't you," Xander finished. "Big passion, big obsession... big flame... bigger burnout. Even I... even I can see the difference. You and Buffy... you're two parts of a whole... a constant. Once I stopped wigging even I could see that you two are forever." He smiled self-consciously. "Not as dumb as I look, huh?"

Giles roused from the vision of Buffy in his mind's eye. "You're not 'dumb', Xander, you never were," he said softly. "In fact right now it would appear you're a hell of a lot smarter than I." He sighed. "Of course it changes nothing. Buffy must have a future, and at this point I cannot give it to her."

Xander scowled then sighed. "Is there anything else I can get you?"

The older man shook his head. "I expect Anya is waiting for you. Why don't you go? I shall probably spend some time familiarizing myself with my own bloody home, after which I'll almost certainly need to rest. I'll be fine."

"No you won't," Xander said quietly, "but if you want me to go... "

"What I want... " Giles muttered. "Do whatever you want, Xander. What I want became irrelevant a long time ago."

Xander didn't pretend to know exactly what that meant, but he was as aware as any of them that life hadn't been easy for the ex-Watcher for a very long time. Then, finally, Giles had found happiness, the first real happiness, in Xander's experience, since his arrival as the new librarian at Sunnydale High. He sighed. He'd been through so much... and now this.

"It doesn't look good on you," he said quietly, a part of him seriously wanting to run as he and Willow had run from Giles' hurt, back on Buffy's birthday, after the older man had discovered just how 'irrelevant' he'd become. A lot, however, had happened since then...

"What doesn't?" Giles asked irritably.

"Self pity," the boy ventured. "I never saw you like this before, even after... well... after Miss Calendar... Angelus... Buffy being missing... but now... "

"You don't understand," Giles whispered. "Regardless of how bad things were... she was here. We were together... "

"Forgetting Buffy's little vacation in L.A. aren't we?"

Giles shook his head again. "It kept me from going mad... from the other... searching for her. It was all there was... until she returned."

Xander stared at him. "You've been in love with Buffy for that long?"

The wide shoulders squared. "I have always loved her."

The younger man's eyes widened. "You're kidding, Giles... " His face screwed up. "And... gross."

Giles' face darkened. "If that's all you have to offer, I suggest you leave."

"It's not right... "

"It wasn't like that," Giles hissed through his teeth. "You judgmental young fool. Not every mans life is dictated solely by their hormones. I said I loved her. I've loved her more than I've ever loved anything, since... since before she died. I just... I didn't know I was in love with her until after I lost Jenny... until that summer... when I thought I'd lost Buffy too."

Xander watched the lonely figure rocking almost imperceptibly as he spoke. "Giles... I-I'm sorry... "

The ex-Watcher put down the empty teacup he was still holding with a shaky hand.

"Now you know. Now get out."

"Giles-"

"Leave, Xander."

Colour flooded into the boyish face, and the dark eyes grew very bright. "Giles-"

But there was no answer.

Giles heard the door close moments later and leaned forward to feel for the teapot. A teaspoon dislodged and fell on the floor as his fingers skimmed across the tray. He swore and when he located the pot and lifted it, used his other hand to locate the rim of his cup, still sitting on the table.

A moment later the room rang with the worst kind of language as the Watcher let go of his half-filled cup, slammed down the teapot and sucked his scalded finger.

* * * * *

Buffy slid down the crypt wall breathing hard and trying not to think about the bruises she was going to have until Slayer healing kicked in. The demon had frightened her with both its power and its relentlessness. All the known forces of darkness were into the idea of killing the Slayer, but this creature had been on almost, like a crusade or something. She didn't understand the language it used either, or why it felt the need to chant at her before it tried to slice her open from throat to navel.

The chanting had been as unnerving and scary as the surprise attack itself. Its very alien-ness had frightened her, even repelled her, as it breathed its strange breath, spat its strange words at her and used its better than superhuman strength to almost kill her.

She'd let herself get distracted. All she could think about was Giles, alone, at home... about why he'd pushed her away and how she was going to live without him. The huge olive and grey creature had surprised her, knocking her to the ground before she had a chance to focus and almost gutting her with razor sharp talons, in the midst of its yowling chant.

Only quick thinking and a handful of soil from the rose garden the creature had knocked her into, had saved her. She was going to have nightmares about those gleaming ivory talons with their razor sharp edges and black tips...

While it was still blinded she'd finished it, driving Mister Pointy through its heart to make certain. To her surprise it vanished on point of death, a good in so far as not having to call Xander to bring shovels, but a definite bad in terms of breaking with expected demon behaviour.

Demons didn't normally de-materialize at the point of death. In fact demons were usually annoyingly inconvenient, their corpses stubbornly remaining and requiring clean up detail, usually provided these days by the Initiative, or by herself and Xander, though in the past it had often been Giles and Xander, or all three of them, working to dispose of the evidence before daybreak, protecting the rest of the world from the horrors of the night.

Buffy shifted, her whole body aching from the beating the creature had given her. Creepy thing it had been... definite nightmare material... a cross between momma Alien and some kind of muscle-bound monster action toy, its flesh like damp slithery leather and a mouth full of terrifyingly long, needle-like teeth.

She shivered. Language was the last thing she would have expected but its lisping, hissing chant still rang in her ears. It unnerved her. Normally she'd have gone straight to Giles and asked him to identify it. She closed her eyes. Yeah, identify it, and make it all right; he always made it all right, no matter how bad things were... but not any more...

Buffy put her head back, her eyes squeezed shut, unable to control the surge of grief that seized her, crushing her whole body like a vice, or the sobs that followed. For days, since Giles had sent her away, she'd been functioning on automatic, trying not to think, not to feel, anything. And now she couldn't stop...

It was some time before she was able to draw a steady breath and form cohesive thoughts. Her first one was about the demon. About telling Giles about the demon...

Her fists clenched and she pushed herself up the wall until she was standing. She had to know what it was, and why it was so intent on killing her... and whether it had any friends...

* * * * *

"I'm sorry, Buffy. I don't have that many books, and my database isn't very big yet. It's hard work, with classes and study and everything, transcribing from Giles's books. It's not like I can just scan all the text into my laptop. Do you know how much space that would take up? The book has to be read and all the important details typed into the database."

Buffy didn't speak for a moment. "Okay... what do I do? Try the public library? Call Los Angeles?"

"Well, there's still Giles," Willow said quietly. "I guess I could go over there and research. I'm sure he'd understand... "

The Slayer closed her eyes, an almost undiscernible tremor going through her. "Good idea," she said bleakly. "I've got to know what's going on, Will, but I can't... "

"I know," Willow said softly.

The apartment was locked and there was no answer when she knocked. Willow went around the back and retrieved the spare key from its hiding place.

There were no lights on. Willow wondered if Giles was asleep. She certainly wished she was, but Buffy needed the information and Giles was a known night owl. His bed was, predictably, unslept in. The kettle was cold and nothing else was out of place in the kitchen either. That left the bathroom. There was no light under the door.

She tapped on it.

"What the hell... ?" a muffled voice growled back.

Willow frowned. He sounded...weird.

"Giles, it's me. Are you okay?"

"What in God's name are you doing here at this time of night?"

"Research," she shot back, hoping it might amuse him enough to take the edge out of his voice. "Giles, is everything okay?"

For a long moment there was only silence. "N-not exactly," he said finally.

Willow forgot any concerns she had about what exactly she might have interrupted and opened the door. It was just as dark inside. She turned on the light.

Giles was wearing only his navy blue silk pyjama bottoms, sitting on the toilet, with its cover down, holding a bottle of pills.

She crossed to him swiftly, her hand automatically going to his shoulder. He covered it with his free one.

"My head," he explained softly, his face drawn and his mouth pinched with pain. "But I can't read the bloody labels and I have so many bottles... "

"They didn't give you any new stuff?"

He sighed. "I was supposed to get a script filled. I... forgot."

Willow's hand tightened. "Oh, Giles," she said and took the bottle. "Good thing you didn't take these." Her eyes continued to scan the label. "Wow, these are heavy. I don't remember you having to take sleeping pills before... ?"

He didn't answer.

"Sorry," she said softly. "I-I didn't mean to pry."

Giles sighed heavily and stood up. "It was a long time ago. I should have thrown them away. As you can see I barely touched them anyway. I... I had too much to do to spend that summer in a drug induced stupor."

Willow frowned. It took a moment, then a look of terrible sadness passed across the urchin features. She knew exactly which summer. He should have taken the pills... She went to the medicine cabinet and replaced the sleeping pills before choosing another bottle.

"Would some tea help?" she asked, taking his elbow.

A flicker of a smile lit his face for a fraction of a second. "It couldn't hurt," he replied, real fondness in his voice.

They shared the tray in silence, Willow impressed with Giles's unsighted dexterity and quiet determination to keep things as normal as possible. She filled him in on the details of Buffy's demon and answered all his questions about how she was, and whether or not she was coping.

"This is crazy," she said abruptly, in the middle of a sentence. "She's miserable without you. You're miserable without her. It's so wrong, Giles."

His expression hardened. "It's none of your concern, Willow. Nothing has changed and I don't wish to talk about it anymore."

Willow blew out an annoyed breath, but resisted the urge to argue back. He was already hurting enough and it was obvious that his head really was bad. "I need to know what books to look in, or I could be here all night," she muttered, hoping the pills wouldn't take too long to kick in.

Giles frowned for a moment then his annoyance melted away and he sagged.

"Hoffrichter's Diary; my new Guttenberg; the Black Chronicles, of course, and Lethbridge's Revised Index. The... um... fifth edition... it has more entries."

He heard Willow get up and the sound of her footsteps as she went to find the volumes in question.

"Willow," he called after her. "Where is Buffy now?"

"She went back out to make sure there weren't any more of them," she said over her shoulder, pulling a large dusty volume down from a high shelf. "Riley's guys are out celebrating a twenty-first birthday. I mean, it's been pretty quiet, but until we know what we're dealing with... "

"Somebody has to monitor the situation," Giles finished.

"Exactly," Willow said darkly, stacking two more books on her pile and jumping as he barked a particularly vivid obscenity.

"I haven't heard you use that one before," she pointed out dryly.

He was silent for a moment. "Sorry," he said finally. "It's just... "

"Worry, frustration... fear?" she offered, heading for the bookcase on the landing.

"Something like that."

A couple of minutes later she was back. He heard the thump of the pile of volumes on the coffee table and the corresponding rattle of the cups and spoons on their tea tray.

"Found everything?"

"All of them," she confirmed and pulled a face. "Now for the fun part."

It took over two hours for her to find something.

"Which book?" Giles asked immediately, emerging from the kitchen with another mug of tea, his head considerably clearer since the pills had kicked in.

"The Index," she said absently. "It looks like these things are like the hit men of the demon world. They're called Fara-Raptors."

"Fara-Raptors," Giles repeated, picking his way gingerly back to her with his drink. "They're relentless, and vicious, but without subtlety. Their intelligence is limited. They were bred to hunt down and kill targets... without remorse, without faltering."

"The claws Buffy mentioned... is that the raptor part?"

He nodded, allowing Willow to guide him to his chair. "And Fara... frighten, in Old High German."

"They did sound kind of scary."

"Indeed. And now someone is apparently sending them after Buffy."

"Adam?"

Giles frowned. "Possible... but unlikely. We know he's using vampires. Why the sudden urgency?"

"Spike, then?"

He shook his head. "Spike has reserved that privilege for himself, should he ever free himself of his chip. Damn it, Willow, I can't just sit here... "

"Sure you can," she said softly. "You-we all... have had a lot of practice."

He snorted. "How does it say we kill them?"

Willow was silent for a moment, probably reading.

"They have poison," her gentle voice said with a tremor. "That's why the claws have black tips. And you can only kill them if you recite an incantation before you cut off their heads."

Giles' face screwed up in frustration. "Does it say why?" Silence again... and then pages rustling.

"Oh... um, it looks like they're kind of protected. Some big demon guy a long time ago put some kind of protection spell on them to make it almost impossible to stop them from carrying out their, um... assignments... but... "

"But what?" Giles demanded, frustrated at not being able to see her face.

"But Buffy already killed one."

"Obviously the Slayer doesn't need incantations... only we mere mortals-"

"And maybe other mere demons and stuff," Willow added dryly.

"Indeed," Giles agreed. "Keep checking any references to Fara-Raptors. I want to know exactly why Buffy was able to kill that creature without the incantation."

"There's nothing," Willow announced an hour and a half later. "As far as all the texts are concerned these demons can't be killed unless the spell is lifted, Slayer or no Slayer. Funny thing is, I can't find a reference to them disappearing when they're killed, either."

"What did you say?"

"Buffy said it went poof when she staked it," Willow explained.

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" he demanded irritably.

"I didn't think it was important at the time... a-at least not until we found out what it was."

"Demons don't go 'poof,'" Giles muttered. "Buffy shouldn't be out there alone until we find out exactly what the devil is going on." He stood up and grimaced, making a strangled growling noise in his throat that spoke of frustration and impatience. "Bugger it!' he snapped.

"What? The demon?" Willow asked automatically then turned bright red. "Or... not. Maybe it's not really a Fara-Raptor demon... just something that's been made to look like one?" she offered sheepishly.

Giles half-turned, as though he wanted to look at her then wiped a harried hand over his face. "A possibility, though I think from the description that it is most certainly a Fara-Raptor, but equally as certainly not a standard issue one." After a beat he sighed and sat down again. "Tell me again exactly what happened in the fight right up to the point at which the bloody thing went 'poof.'"

Willow recounted every detail Buffy had given her.

"... So it was blinded before she killed it?"

"Temporarily anyway. And staking isn't exactly decapitation," Willow pointed out.

He grunted. "A lot of demons can be killed by piercing the heart. The issue at hand is how Buffy was able to kill it without breaking the protection spell first, and I rather think that throwing dirt in its face isn't quite enough to do the trick, either."

Willow shrugged. "Maybe this Fara-raptor didn't get um... cursed? Whatever... "

Giles' head came up. "It's possible. Just because a centuries old book records a spell being cast over its antecedents doesn't mean this particular demon was one of them."

Willow brightened. "You're right. The book only says that the demon lord Ru'altha had his best mage cast a protection spell on the Fara-Raptors he sent to kill his enemies. It might not have meant all Fara-Raptors... O-or it might not apply to any descendants of the sixteenth century versions... "

"Doesn't tell us why it went p... vanished, though."

"Well, no. That part is totally weird," she agreed. "The only things we know that go 'poof' when they're staked are vampires, and it definitely wasn't a vamp. And Buffy said its voice... oh."

"Oh, what?" Giles demanded when she didn't continue.

"Oh... I forgot something else," she said reluctantly. "Sorry, Giles."

He sighed. "Well, let's have it."

"Buffy said it chanted... like an incantation or something, before it tried to rip her guts out."

Giles grimaced. "Glorious visual imagery," he drawled. "But a not-so-bright demon possibly performing some kind of spell or ritual before a kill... stranger and stranger. It could be the key to this whole mystery."

* * * * *

"How is he?"

Willow removed the toothbrush from her mouth for the third time. "He's coping. He's getting good at moving around the house without running into things, and he can make tea... "

"Will... !"

"Okay. Not too good. He misses you Buffy... and he's getting headaches. He's going to need someone soon, though. I mean, we made sure everything was stocked up, and he can have most anything he wants delivered... but like, last night, he can't read his pill bottles ... he can't read at all... or even watch TV, now."

Buffy looked into the mirror, her thinning face and the dark circles under her eyes making her look almost plain for the first time since Willow could remember.

"He's gonna hate it, Will. That brain of his will go nuts with nothing to do but drink tea or listen to old records... "

"Buffy, why don't you-?"

"No," Buffy said swiftly. "I... I can't. And I know him. He's so noble even if I did go and see him he wouldn't back down. He thinks he's doing the right thing and there's nothing worse than a righteous Watcher."

"He loves you so much," Willow sighed.

Buffy closed her eyes. "Maybe even as much as I love him," she whispered. "Is there something wrong with me, Will? Or maybe even Giles? Are the two of us allergic to the major happies or what? Every time either of us finds any real... joy... in our lives, bam! Badness happens."

Willow looked away uncomfortably. "Did you see anything when you went back out last night?"

Buffy exhaled and opened her eyes again. "Nothing. Our very unattractive friend seems to have been working alone. Not that I think that'll last long when whoever sent it finds out that it's dust."

"Giles thinks the chant might be the key. Do you remember any words... anything?"

Buffy frowned. "Some. I'm not good with that stuff, but Giles can usually translate me anyway. It repeated the same three or four lines so many times in that weird voice that I can still remember part of it. I think maybe it was whatever that was... you know... like when Giles was yelling at that demon that time my mom tried to burn us at the stake."

"German," Willow supplied. "I didn't take German at all, and I've kinda been concentrating on more interesting and romantic languages in my spare time... y'know, for the Wicca stuff and all. You may have to at least talk to Giles on the phone so he can translate whatever you can remember."

Hurt creased Buffy's face. "I can't. I can't hear his voice and not be able to touch him, see him... "

"Then we go and see him right after Psych. There's no other choice, Buffy," Willow announced, seizing on the tiny opportunity, and praying that some good would come of it.

Buffy rolled her eyes at her friend, exhaled heavily, jammed her own toothbrush back into her mouth again and began scrubbing with excessive vigour.

* * * * *

It was a brilliant afternoon, beautiful sunshine, light breeze, perfect for their walk to the apartment from the bus stop in town.

This time the door wasn't locked. Willow pushed it open and stepped inside. Giles was singing, sitting in his favourite chair, his fingers wandering through a meandering, but romantic tune on the old guitar. Behind her, Buffy's already wan face lost more colour.

"Hi Giles," the redhead called, to announce her arrival when he came to the end of it.

"Hello Willow," he replied without missing a beat, looked up and frowned. "Don't forget to close the door. "Any news?"

"What was that you were playing?"

"Just doodling, really," he said self-consciously. "Not a lot to do at the moment... or at least not a lot one can do." His tone was light but Willow could feel the tension in him.

"Giles, we need your help."

"We? Xander is here?"

"Um, no. I-I talked to Buffy about what we found out about the demon. It looks like the spell was in German."

"German? Well, yes that would make sense... except that the chances of Buffy remembering anything intelligible of its... "

"Uh... Giles," Willow interrupted. "She's here."

Giles came to his feet in one movement almost dropping his guitar in the process. "Why didn't you... Buffy?"

Buffy pushed the door wide open, flooding the darkened room with light, then closed it behind her.

"Here," she said quietly. "I'm sorry to bother you, but Will thought it was important."

"In... indeed," he managed. "You do remember some of the incantation?"

Buffy nodded without realising what she was doing.

Giles seemed to know, and nodded in return. "Just do your best and I'll try and extrapolate anything you might er... mispronounce."

Of the three sentences Buffy managed to repeat, irreparably massacring the German language in the process, Giles found about sixty percent intelligible enough to translate. While she was speaking he'd seated himself again, as though he didn't have the energy or the will to continue standing.

"It must have wanted you to kill it, Buffy," Willow exclaimed when Giles had finished his translation.

"I believe so," he agreed tightly. "The incantation was almost certainly to remove the protection spell."

Buffy looked from one to the other. "I don't understand," she said quietly, watching the handsome face, noting every line of sleeplessness, of strain, every etched groove of pain, trying not think about how angry she was with him, or much she wanted to be in those arms, how much she wanted to just feel him... to just love him again...

"It was going to gut me. No question. It was going to kill me. It was not a happy demon and it was not trying to be my friend."

"Oh, I don't doubt it," Giles said thoughtfully, "but for whatever reason our Fara-Raptor renounced its allegiance to whomever commissioned it to kill you by essentially sacrificing itself."

"And I just killed it. How totally Faith of me," Buffy said bitterly.

Giles' head came up. "Don't ever say that. There was no possible way you could know, love. It made its own choice. Let it go."

But Buffy only heard one word. Willow looked from one to the other before silently withdrawing to the door and going out to the terrace as Buffy took a few unconscious steps towards the man she loved.

"How's the head?" she asked as casually as she could manage.

"Troublesome," he said ruefully, though his clenched fists betrayed the piano-wire tension in his entire body. "As head injuries are wont to be."

"You haven't got anyone in to help, yet?"

He shook the handsome head. "Can't bear the thought of anyone... strangers... " He stopped.

Buffy bit her lip. "There's Will... or Xander. Even Olivia... "

For a beat he just stared into the darkness, then closed his eyes, well aware what it would have cost her to say that.

Buffy, however, interpreted the body language in a different way. "Okay, not Olivia," she went on, trying to be upbeat. "What about my mom? You guys were sort of friends... she could call after work, help-"

"No!" he said vehemently then forced himself to relax, his hands feeling for, and finding, his guitar again. "Thank you, but I can cope for the most part on my own. There are avenues I have yet to even explore... let it go."

"I can't," Buffy managed, struggling to control the emotion rising from the depths of her being. "I love you so much... I want to be with you so much... " Her voice trembled. "Why won't you let me be with you? Why does it always have to be like this? Can't anyone just love me... ? What did I do that was so terrible that I have to keep being punished-?"

Giles rose again, leaving the guitar on the seat. "Buffy, don't. It has nothing to do with anything you've done. You're not being punished. I... I can't offer you a future... I can't even offer you... "

"I don't want to hear it," she cut him off. "I've heard the whole damned speech before. First Angel. Now you. I don't care about the future. I don't care about any of it. The only future I want is with you. So just... don't," she sobbed, not noticing that Giles had paled by several degrees or the horrified look of revelation on his face. "We both know I don't have a real future, no matter how much we play that game... you've always known... so why? Are you afraid of what I am? Is five years so much to ask?" Tears streaked the too-thin face. "I mean, you never know how many bonus ones we might get... God, I might even set records and make it to the big three-o!"

When only silence answered her, Buffy stopped yelling and focused on Giles. His eyes were closed again, his head bowed.

"Don't you have anything to say?" she demanded.

"I... I'm sorry," he said finally, without moving.

Buffy stared in disbelief that he could be dismissing her again. "Then I should go," she told him, achingly disappointed, and started to turn.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, the tremor in his voice almost more than she could bear.

She froze, but didn't turn back. "Sorry doesn't help much," she said. A moment later, she heard a long, jagged sigh and her shoulders dropped. Then she started to move again.

As the front door creaked open something deep inside Giles began to tear itself apart.

"Buffy... !" he called, unable to stop himself.

She turned, barely able to see him for the moisture in her eyes, but grasping at one last excuse to do so. He was standing still, but every part of him screamed his need to stride across the room.

"Didn't you... ?" He cleared his throat, forced himself to at least try and get the words out. "Didn't you miss me, love? Even... even just a little?"

A tormented sound was torn from her then she was across the room in seconds, off the ground, her arms flung around his neck, his clamping her to him convulsively.

"My love," he moaned, his arms shaking with the strength of his feelings.

Buffy couldn't answer for the moment, too overwhelmed to do anything but press her face into his neck, and to hold on as though she might be ripped away at any moment. Then she was drawing her head back and finding his lips, their kiss as desperate as their embrace.

Giles could barely think, his heart was beating so fast, his stomach so tight with fear and hope, dread and joy. He was being selfish. He knew it, but he didn't care. To hold her, to breathe her, to love her, even for just a few moments, was a temptation against which he'd been lost before he started.

Their mouths lingered, lips reluctant to surrender their prize, as though afraid to be parted again, until a pain lanced through Giles' head and he allowed Buffy to slide back down to her feet.

The blue eyes searched his face, alarmed. "What is it? Tell me!"

He felt for, and found her cheek. "It's all right... just my head. I've been having headaches. This one is just a little bit sudden, that's all."

"Oh," Buffy said, not sure if he was really all right or not. "You don't look so great." She frowned, unsettled but just realising something. "Where'd Will go?

"Outside," Giles said instinctively and heard Buffy's receding footsteps, then the door opening. A few moments later it closed and she came back.

"She's gone back to the campus. She left a note on the table," she announced then her eyes suddenly went very wide. "Giles, how did you know where she went?"

"I heard... " He stopped, the soft green pools widening as Buffy's had. "No I saw... My God, I saw the light change in the room... " He frowned in thought. "Yes... and it was confirmed a few moments later by that billow of perfume from Mrs Beckwith's bloody jasmine that accompanies every opening and closing of that door at this time of year."

Buffy's face lit up. "Giles, you saw?"

He put out a hand as though searching for her. She stepped into it, letting it draw her against him again. "Just a change in light, love... " he said unsteadily, trying not to let himself hope. "Not exactly cause for champagne."

"Wait," she exclaimed, and scurried away. Giles heard the excitement in her voice and worried. A moment later she was back.

"Stare straight ahead," she ordered and hefted his big spelunking flashlight. "What do you see?" she demanded, aiming the powerful beam straight at his face.

He stared for a moment, turned away, then back.

"Light," he answered, his face a picture of awe, delight and surprise. "Rather like looking at daylight through a heavy veil... hard to explain, but most definitely not the unrelenting darkness I was getting used to... "

His voice trailed off and Buffy looked up at him sharply.

"Do you... do you think... ?"

"I'm not going to think about that until I've been examined," he managed, withdrawn again.

"What?" Buffy demanded.

"Pardon?"

She put her hands on her hips. "You've gone all Watcher on me again. What's wrong?"

"N-Nothing," he said, and navigated his way to the couch.

"Give, Rupert... "

He half smiled. "I like it when you call me that but it seems... "

"Weird?"

He laughed softly. "Weird," he agreed. "Giles has somehow become more than my surname, especially... "

"... With us," she finished. "I know. It's who you are. You're Giles. I like calling you Rupert too, but it's not who you are... at least not to me. To Ethan, and to Olivia, maybe... "

Giles shrugged. "A different lifetime; a very different me. That person wasn't 'Giles' just as I'm not really 'Rupert' any more. I think perhaps Olivia sensed that too."

"So it wasn't just fear?"

He shook his head. "She's a very astute woman. She knew more than I did, in fact."

Buffy frowned. "Back up, Mister. You're trying to distract me."

"It worked," Giles smirked, though his heart was heavy.

"What's wrong?" she repeated.

He sighed. "I ... you have to go."

Her eyes widened. "Leave? Now? But... "

He nodded. "Buffy, this is just a hiccup. It changes nothing. If this is the best it gets, and you heard that Jorgensen fellow say that the longer it takes the less likely the results will be worthwhile, I can't offer you any more than before."

"But... " she began miserably. "Couldn't I just... let me stay tonight... Giles, please, couldn't we just worry about the 'now' for once?"

His eyes closed. "No... " he whispered. "Because if you stay, I'm too weak to ever let you go again."

Buffy came to him, knelt between his open knees, put her arms around his neck. "Then I have to stay, because I never want to leave you again."

He made a noise in his throat and pulled her into his arms. "You can't," he said. "Whatever else I know, whatever, however I feel right now, I do know that I cannot... "

Buffy's mouth covered his and ended the speech. After a few moments his mouth softened and moulded to hers, at first tenderly, and then desperately, their kiss igniting like a forest fire, until Giles lifted her away.

"I can't, love," he whispered. "Please... "

She sagged, and he drew her against him again, this time gently, lovingly and closed his eyes as she clung to him.

"I swear to you, if there's any way to make this right, any way for us to be together, I'll find it," he promised, his face buried in her hair. "I swear... "

* * * * *

"Let me go in with you."

"I'm perfectly capable of listening to a doctor prattle on all by myself," Giles muttered ill temperedly.

"But... won't there be more tests?"

Giles sighed. "Probably. I don't know. I don't have a medical degree. The x-rays and scans they did yesterday may be enough."

Xander smiled a little, despite his concern for the older man. "I kinda thought you had a degree for everything, especially when I was younger."

In spite of the tension Giles chuckled. "Could have fooled me."

Xander turned his uncle's car after their seventh go-round and slid it into the slot that had just become vacant.

"Yeah, well," he said self-consciously as he slid out of his seat. "Hero worship's pretty uncool as a high school activity."

Before Giles could react he was around the other side of the vehicle, holding the door but letting the older man get out on his own volition, before extending an elbow.

"Elbow, nine o'clock."

Giles found it easily and squeezed it meaningfully for a moment, before taking it and walking alongside the younger man to the hospital foyer.

It was over an hour before he emerged from the Specialist's office and Xander jumped up to cross and offer him an arm. He took it with fingers that held on a little too tightly and an expression that was shuttered and way too calm.

Not until they reached the car did Xander dare ask.

"They don't know," Giles replied tightly.

"The x-rays and stuff?" Xander asked softly.

"Inconclusive. Apparently I must simply wait to see what, if any, improvement there will be."

"But they like what they see so far, right? Like the light you can see means something... ?"

"It means I can see some light," Giles said irritably. "Start the car, Xander."

They drove home in silence and Giles allowed Xander to guide him to the door.

When it opened the older man hesitated.

"I'll be fine from here... thank you... Xander."

"Don't I even get a cookie?" The younger man teased.

The watcher exhaled a long, harried breath, then stepped into his apartment without answering, turned and counted the paces to the bottom of the stairs, put out his left hand and found them, turned again and made his way up them almost as easily as when he had his sight.

A moment later Xander shook his head, stepped into the room, and closed the still open front door behind him. Instead of following his friend, however, he went to the kitchen and filled a kettle, put it on to boil, got out the familiar tray and mugs.

He was sitting on the sofa in the living room when Giles came back down stairs, his suit exchanged for jeans and a sweater.

"In here," Xander said quietly.

Giles stopped short for a moment, turned slightly and silently counted the paces to the table behind the sofa, found it and edged around to the front of the couch and sat down.

"You're getting pretty good."

"I promised Buffy I'd try to find a way... " the older man said unexpectedly, trailing off as though regretting vocalizing the thought.

Xander brought Giles' fingers to the handle of the tea mug he was holding and he took it gratefully.

"You will," he said firmly. "You don't need eyes to love someone."

"If I could just find a way to continue my research... to help her find out what this creature is... "

"Oh, yeah. It's a major shame the Watcher's council never made any talking books," Xander cracked, then coloured fiercely when he realized what he'd said. "Sorry," he added contritely.

"It's all right. I'm not that thin skinned," Giles chuckled. "Though, actually-"

"Why didn't I think of that before?" the younger man exclaimed, cutting him off, his face alight with his new epiphany. "Giles, we've been researching together for years, right? Why can't we keep doing that? You tell me what you want... which book, which section, which critter... whatever... and I read the text aloud."

Giles had automatically started shaking his head. "No... " Then he stopped and his brow furrowed. "Actually it could work... "

"Sure it could," Xander beamed. "I may not be College guy but I am Ace Research guy, you'll see."

Several hours later they'd found a rhythm and flow in their efforts and Giles had forgotten any misgivings he had about the boy's attention span, articulation or enthusiasm. Xander read aloud without hesitation or stammering, in clear, calm fashion. His reading voice, unlike his social banter, was soothing and pleasant to the ear.

Between the stacks of books and the empty mugs and cookie plates on the coffee table were a growing pile of scratched out notes. It was the one area Xander knew he was going to need Willow for. He did his best to make notes of what Giles wanted written down but they were all going to have to be cleaned up, preferably by Willow and her trusty laptop.

"Xander, the Codex," Giles said suddenly, halting him in the middle of a sentence.

"What's the matter? You don't like this one? I thought we were just getting to the good bit... you know where they tear the guy's liver out and toast it on sticks like marshmallows... ?"

"Oh har, bloody har," Giles muttered, obviously deep in thought. "Just get the Codex. You just might have found something with that reference to calling up the Deceivers."

Xander pulled a dusty book from the bottom of one of the piles and watched with dismay as the other seven tumbled onto the floor.

"I did? That was two books ago... I mean... of course I did."

"Pick them up later," Giles growled.

Xander, bent, with his hand extended to start scooping them up, froze. "How did you do that?"

"I heard them fall. You bent over as you were speaking. Your voice changed as your diaphragm was squashed."

"Smart Alec," Xander retorted fondly. "Where am I going in the Codex, O oracle of knowledge?"

"Index. Let me think... I know... find a reference to the Déciperi."

For a moment there was silence.

"Oh, here. They're on page... okay... this is the Fourth Prophecy. For those who actually care, its origin was a monastery in southern Europe. And the Déciperi... what is that anyway?"

"A colloquial corruption of the Latin origin of the word deceive," Giles grunted.

Xander shook his head. "I had to ask. Okay, the Déciperi... or Deceivers, themselves, are supposed to be on... page... here we are... " His face grew grim as he skimmed silently. "Oh, man. Do you want the whole thing or just the salient points?"

"Read," Giles commanded, "the whole prophecy."

Xander finished the glass of water he'd been nursing since he'd started reading, and cleared his throat. It took forty minutes without rushing to read through the entire Prophecy. When they were done they both sat back.

"Twelfth century witches and warlocks who were turned into vampires?" Why am I not liking the new direction this mystery is taking?"

Giles ignored him, looking up sightlessly, to speak. "The prophecy states that they will rise again in answer to a call from the dark forces to help them defeat the Slayer," he quoted.

Xander brightened. "Yeah, sure, but since the prophecy about the Master isn't until chapter eight I kinda thought that made all these other prophecies about whacking the Slayer pretty much redundant... "

Giles snorted. "That's not how it works. These Déciperi also have the power of dark magicks to help them. They convinced an entire village they were being visited by visions from heaven for several months... until over half the people had been killed, eaten or turned."

"Yeah, well, anyone would start getting suspicious if... " Xander began facetiously only to be silenced by a scowl. "O-kay, shutting up now."

"They have the ability to alter people's perceptions. The villagers actually saw Bordeaux demons as heavenly visions, and their loved ones ascending to heaven, thanks to the power the Déciperi possess to make them see what they were supposed to see."

"And Buffy was supposed to see that raptor thing, right?"

Giles nodded.

"Are you saying it was something else entirely? Then why did it sacrifice itself?"

"That was only a surmise on my part, because of its history and what it appeared to be chanting, but Buffy's instincts told her it was definitely trying to kill her. What if it was told to recite that chant in order to entice her into making a mistake? Remember, our Miss Summers is not your average Slayer."

"Amen to that," Xander agreed fervently.

"And unlike her predecessors she hasn't the faintest idea what's in most of these volumes. A Slayer is supposed to be trained and versed in Slayer lore, including... " he waved a large hand in the vague direction of the books, "all of this."

"So they were trying to get her to believe she was fighting a suicidal Fara-raptor, so she'd get sloppy and then... bam!"

"Essentially, yes."

"But the Buffster doesn't get sloppy," Xander summed up smugly.

"Not normally, no," Giles replied quietly.

Xander didn't notice how quietly. "So this demon was probably really a vampire in disguise? Mystery solved, right?"

"Well, that part, perhaps. But there is still the question of who called the Déciperi and where we might find them before they send Buffy any more calling cards."

"Spike?" Xander offered immediately. "How can we forget the Order of Taraka... and of course, the ever lovin' bug man... ?"

"If he wasn't neutered, perhaps," Giles mused, ignoring the sarcasm. "He isn't exactly a force in the dark world these days. He's probably laying about in a crypt somewhere crumbling Weetabix into his pig's blood."

"Did not need to hear that," Xander objected, his face scrunching up. "And need I say: eiwww!"

"No but I almost did the first time he did it here," Giles growled. "I think we can probably rule out Spike working alone while he's still chipped. He's far too cynical. If he eliminates us now who is he going to come whining back to next time he's in trouble or out of Weetabix?"

"Okay, so not Fangboy. There's always the biggie... "

"Adam? I hardly think so. He was created by the military and you know the Initiative's record when it comes to real research and things mystical, in general."

Xander shrugged. "So they're just not book people, what can I say?" he mugged, and was gratified to hear a grudging snort from the Watcher before he continued. "So where does that leave us? According to Spike his ex-ho is a continent away making out with a drool demon or something, and last I heard dead b-Angel was still more or less of the good. And that leaves who exactly in the 'we hate Buffy' club, besides Faith?"

Giles shook his head. Almost every enemy Buffy had encountered she had dealt with terminally... leaving few lingering enemies... Spike and Drusilla, of course, Faith, and now Adam...

"Giles... " Xander said suddenly, his voice suddenly strikingly sober. "Buff doesn't know any of this yet... and she's out patrolling tonight, right?"

The older man stiffened.

"Oh Lord... "

* * * * *

Buffy kicked the can again. It should never have been left on the ground, much less in a graveyard, but since it had, she'd kicked it all the way through the grounds of Restfield cemetery, the dents in it testament to her annoyance at Riley's childishness. She hadn't wanted to patrol alone, but he was still smarting from their break up and in typical male fashion had come up with seven different reasons why neither he nor any of the commandos could possibly patrol with her that night.

She sighed. Men... Well, boys, anyway...

And then that ache was back. The one that sat in the bottom of her stomach and made it hard to eat most of the time, harder to concentrate and almost impossible to sleep. It resolved itself in her mind's eye into the face she loved... the green eyes, the soft, tawny hair with the merest hint of grey, his wide, gorgeous laugh when she'd teased him about it...

Buffy shuddered jaggedly again. She loved the sound of his laughter. It was precious and new. They'd known each other for so long and she'd never once heard him laugh before that ... giggle self-consciously a couple of times... but not truly laugh... mostly because of her. She wanted to hear him laugh again...

"This patrol sucks," she told an owl, flushed from between the ramshackle tombstones in the pioneer section she was passing, a rat in its powerful claws. "Not that you care. Not that anyone cares any more," she informed the night in general as it flapped away.

"I do."

She wheeled. "Who... what are you?" she demanded, startled.

"Vengeance," whispered the figure before her, "here to be visited upon you, Slayer."

Buffy crouched and drew out her stake. She'd never seen a demon like it. It was sort of silvery and dark all at the same time, sort of translucent; half there, half not and it made her skin crawl.

"And what exactly is it that I'm supposed to have done to hack you off, Darkman?" she growled, irritated, not allowing even a hint of her very real fear to show.

"You exist," it replied.

"Oh, great. A philosopher. And you probably don't even look anything like Liam Neeson. Okay, let's do it."

"As you wissshh," it hissed and turned in the moonlight.

Buffy's eyes bugged out. It was gone. And then it moved, and she saw the merest shimmer of silver before it vanished again.

"You could get real annoying, real fast," she cracked, shifting quickly to guard her flanks and rear as much as possible, her heart rate soaring. Those horrible feelings all day about badness coming, weren't just indigestion after all...

A soft chuckle put the creature at seven o'clock. She turned.

"You're going to die, Slayer, and it's going to be slow and agonising... "

Buffy turned a hundred and eighty degrees. "You're big with the talk and small with the action, no-nuts. Since when do real demons have to hide from Slayers?"

It laughed again.

Irritated, Buffy turned again, this time less than a quarter turn. "Aren't you getting dizzy?" she snapped. "Enough with the games already."

"Why? I was just beginning to enjoy myself. Why should slaying the Slayer be a grim task? You have no sense of fun."

"Oh, you are so dead," Buffy snorted and lunged in the direction of the voice.

When she contacted nothing but thin air, her momentum caused her to stumble, the creature's laughter ringing in her ears as she sprawled on the pathway. She scrambled up quickly, crouching, turning, and ignoring the sting of the cuts and grazes on her knees and legs.

"I hate hide-and-seek," she snarled. "I hated it when I was a kid and I hate it even more now."

A cold, moist touch slid across the back of her neck, her reaction almost simultaneous with the shiver of dread and revulsion that went down her back. The spin kick contacted something: something, hard, powerful. She lunged again, but there was only empty space.

"Not laughing now?" she panted raggedly, listening, turning, stretching out her Slayer senses the way Giles used to hassle her to do.

"Bitch!" It hissed, pain still in its voice.

"So you are a guy," she smirked. "It's not like anyone can tell from your outfit or that 'I'm so scary' stage whisper of yours."

It hissed again.

"Know anything about a really handsome dude with a death wish? About yay tall," Buffy indicated in the direction of the hiss, "with a face like momma Alien, in really bad need of a manicure... and maybe a year's worth of flossing? You wouldn't be the one who sent it after me?

It didn't answer and she couldn't find any trace, any hint of movement to indicate its whereabouts. She started to turn again, concentrating.

"What's the matter? No more Mister wise-demon?"

Silence.

A shudder of inexplicable fear went up her spine and her heart, which had only just settled into her normal, heightened battle rhythm, exploded into an adrenaline-induced tattoo. She drew a deep breath as she continued to turn, trying not to think about the wetness of her palms, the pricking of her fingertips as she strained to hear, to see anything.

"Where are you?" she whispered.

"Right here," it hissed, right next to her right ear, only this time before she could spin it had clamped two powerful arms around her, one of its hands closing around her throat, its reptile-like skin cold against the heat of her neck.

Buffy struggled, but they were evenly matched in strength and she was trapped, the fingers closing more and more tightly around her larynx until she couldn't even cry out, couldn't even gasp in enough air to keep thrashing and struggling.

Giles... !

* * * * *

"My God, Giles!"

Giles' head came up listening for the direction Xander was running in. He followed, cursing as he went.

"Xander!" he called when he'd gone an interminable distance without making contact with anyone.

"Here!" Came a strangled cry.

Giles made a half turn, trusting that wherever they were, it was still on the path, and broke into an impatiently cautious trot.

"Xander?"

"S-seven o'c-clock... demon... Buf... "

"Xander!!"

But this time there was no answer, only the sound of struggling and blows, very, very close by; possibly just a few feet away.

Giles stopped and listened. He frowned worriedly. Xander was locked in battle with something.

He took several steps toward it and reached out in the direction of the distressed sounds the boy was making at intervals. He contacted warm clothing ... Xander's... and reptile-like flesh... definitely not Xander's.

Terrified, but determined, he grasped what turned out to be an alien feeling shoulder, with both hands, and dragged it backwards. Whatever it was that had hold of the boy overbalanced, letting go of Xander as both of them fell. The younger man, whose gasping for air Giles could hear with relief in the still night air, rolled away.

The creature made an enraged sound and leaped at Giles, who threw his arms out wildly, grappling and heaving as they struggled. The Watcher knew the creature was too strong for him, knew it was impossible, but he continued to fight, hoping Xander would rally, that Buffy...

Dear God... Buffy...

A vice-like hand with three clawed fingers closed agonisingly around one of his biceps, while Giles gripped its... well he wasn't sure what, but probably a forearm...

All he knew was it felt like he had hold of the biggest lizard in creation, and no matter how he shifted his weight he didn't seem to be able to throw it off balance, only prevent it from setting itself and doing something worse to him.

Creation...

Something clicked in Giles' mind.

One of the creature's hands shifted, letting go of his shoulder and trying to clamp onto his throat. He immediately swung the free arm, fist closed, and made contact with something at about eye level.

The creature staggered, dragging him with it, its sheer strength pushing Giles' defiant chin out of the way so that its hand finally closed around his gullet. He thrashed violently as it tightened and they both fell backward.

Xander opened his eyes in time to see Buffy moving fast.

"Giles!" she cried.

Giles' heart leaped at the sound, but he couldn't answer. His head felt like it was going to explode and nothing he tried had been able to dislodge the weight on his body. It didn't even seem to care that his left hand was free, punching, dragging and clawing at the slippery flesh as his lungs began to scream.

Then suddenly Buffy was there, dragging at the creature, shifting its weight, giving him a chance to reach his pocket as the darkness that was his vision suddenly flooded with red. As she grunted and struggled to pull the weight off him, its grip tightened.

With his last, conscious effort, Giles plunged the stake into the torso now just inches above him.

A moment later his throat was released, and a moment after that a body fell against him, hard, as he was showered with dust. It sobbed. He wrapped his arms around it, crushing it to him.

"Buffy!"

"I thought it was going to kill you," she snivelled.

"I thought you were dead," he said roughly, hoarsely.

"I nearly was," croaked a voice above them.

Buffy lifted her head. "Oh God, Xander... Giles... you guys saved my life."

"He... saved your life," Xander said pointedly, indicating the extremely dishevelled ex-Watcher. "I just got my neck wrung like a turkey... not to mention the feasting that almost occurred...

But Buffy was focused only on one thing. "Giles, you can see?" she exclaimed.

"Nope," Xander interjected before Giles could open his mouth, his throat still smarting from almost being strangled to death. "Just pure guts."

She slid off him so they could both sit up, then brushed the dust from his cheek, pushed back the rumpled hair with trembling fingers.

"H-How did you guys know? What are you doing here?"

"Xander and I were we researching," Giles rasped then cleared his throat, his hand going to it as he swallowed several times. "And when we called, Willow said you were only patrolling two cemeteries tonight."

Buffy's fingers traced the outline of the bruising on his neck, barely visible in the moonlight, but already noticeable enough for her to see.

She nodded. "This one and Shady Hill, then...then I was coming to see you. You found something?" she asked, clearing her own painful throat and wondering how they were all staying so damned calm.

Giles nodded. "They're not demons. Not the Fara-raptor, and not this one... "

"They're vampires," Xander couldn't help blurting. "We found out there's another prophecy-"

"Thank you, Xander," Giles said gently and went on. "The Codex mentions an old order of vampires who were originally witches and warlocks before they were turned. They can make people see whatever they want them to see... "

"Like Drusilla? You mean it was all an illusion? Darkman was really just a smart-assed vamp?"

Giles half smiled, then grew serious as Buffy slid her hands into his and gripped them tightly. "Essentially, yes."

Xander spoke again, his enthusiasm overcoming the discomfort of his bruised throat.

"But what we can't figure out is who called them up... who wants you dead this time... ?"

Giles' head came up again.

"Uh...right... thank you, Xander," the boy muttered before the Watcher could speak. "When you guys are ready, I'll have the car waiting at the front gate."

"Xander-"

"Out of range," Buffy told him. "But you guys were so great."

"Yes, well, remember to tell Xander that when we get to the car. I'm sorry I hurt his feelings. He's been splendid."

Buffy loosed her hands from his and put her arms around his neck.

"I mean it. You were magnificent."

He chuckled. "Thank you, fair damsel. Pity we both sound like Sydney Greenstreet after all that throttling. I suppose that we should be thankful that none of us were actually bitten... "

"Sydney who?" Buffy croaked.

Giles laughed again then grew serious when the frustration of his dark world surged back.

"Are you really all right, love?" he asked, that despondent note back in his voice again.

They both grew still.

"There's only one way to find out," she said softly, took his fingers and brought them to her temples, closing her eyes as his eager fingertips found her hair, traced her face, her nose, her cheeks, her chin, trailed down her throat, before stroking it oh, so gently. "It doesn't hurt that much," she confided when she felt their trembling, and opened her eyes slowly as his hands returned to cup her face. "Not nearly as much as being away from you... "

Giles swallowed, the pain of not being able to see her now, of all times, almost a physical ache.

"For a few terrible moments I thought I'd lost you," he whispered. "Then, when I heard your voice... Oh, love... "

His mouth found hers and her arms slid back around his neck.

"I'm here now," she whispered when they parted, and hugged him tight, her cheek against his hair, his face buried in hers. "Take me home, Giles," she begged as his arms tightened convulsively around her. "Please take me home... "

* * * * *

"You can't be serious?"

"I think it bears investigation."

"Here we are. The home of Giles."

"But she wasn't... they weren't... "

Xander turned off the engine. "When you guys are done arguing, some of us would like to actually get some sleep tonight."

Giles turned his head towards the boy's voice. "This is a serious matter, Xander."

"Fine. Can't it be serious inside your apartment... you know, where the warm is? And the supper, hopefully..."

The ex-watcher snorted. "Yes, yes, all right, but I want you both to go back to Restfield tomorrow and search the area where I uh... "

"Got your brains bashed in?" Xander supplied and was smacked in the back of the head by a Slayer's open palm.

"Indeed," Giles confirmed tersely. "You will go back and look for any evidence of what those vampires were up to, of what the significance was of that particular rising. We need to know if there was any connection to these attacks on Buffy."

Giles slid his hand down until he found the keyhole and put his key in the door while Xander and Buffy compared throttle marks in the porch-light. Before he could turn it, however, the door opened.

"What the... ?"

"Willow... ?" The other two chorused.

"Hi guys. Tara and I finished early and I was worried about ... " She took in their grubby, dishevelled states and the interesting array of bruises, cuts and scrapes all three were sporting. "Oh God, what happened? Something bad, I'm guessing?" she asked as they all moved inside.

"Demon almost killed me. The cavalry here came and saved me, but not until after we all got these decorations... uh, actually... it wasn't really a demon. It was a stupid vampire in a disappearing demon disguise." Buffy looked up at Giles who was listening with a half amused look on his face. "I'm guessing he wasn't carrying weapons because they would have kinda ruined the invisibility thing, right?"

Giles turned his head as they stopped near the breakfast bar. The amused quirk widened into a smile. "Very likely. And he proved that in a one-on-one situation, which was obviously his original intent, the invisibility was quite enough of an advantage, even against a Slayer."

Buffy stepped close and slid her arms around his waist. "You don't have to rub it in," she pouted. "You'll just have to find a way for us to train against invisibility."

"What I have to do is find out who called forth the Déciperi so that they could send these assassins after you," he retorted gently, worry back in his voice, and kissed the top of the head now resting against his chest.

Willow looked from one to the other and then up to Xander, who nodded and smiled. She sighed and smiled back. "Xander can help me make supper. The kettle's already on," she announced.

Xander rubbed his hands together. "My kinda work," he grinned and followed Willow to the kitchen.

"Are they back together?" she asked as soon as the other pair moved away from the breakfast counter.

Xander shrugged. "Looking that way. I guess it meant a lot to the G-man to find out he's not as helpless as he thought he was."

Willow scowled as she set out cups and saucers. "They should never have been separated in the first place. I saw him after he sent her away in the hospital. I know how much it hurt him."

Xander frowned. "In the hospital? But why... I mean, that's when they would have needed each other the most. You know what Buffy was like while he was still in the coma... "

She paused, tea canister in one hand, measuring spoon in the other. "I know. I also know Mrs Summers was involved somehow. I can't believe she'd do anything to hurt Buffy though."

"She would if she thought it was for her own good. Let us not forget how thrilled Buffy was to be grounded while Angel was trying to suck the world into hell and redefining the word for Giles... not to mention the driving... "

"Xander," Willow growled. "But, yeah. I think she must have said something to Giles. You know how noble he is when it comes to doing the right thing, especially if it's about Buffy. And he was so vulnerable... "

A large hand slid onto her shoulder. "They're going to be fine now, Will. Don't worry about him. He's big enough and ugly enough to take care of himself, even against something as terrifyingly heinous as Buffy's mom in meddle mode."

Willow giggled and poured scalding water on the tea she'd measured into the pot and into Buffy and Xander's coffee mugs.

"This is serious," she managed. "If Buffy finds out her mom might be the one who caused all this there's going to be hell to pay... oh God... "

"What?" Xander demanded, alarmed, when Willow froze.

"If Mrs Summers was willing to hurt Buffy like this because she thought she was protecting her from a less than secure future with Giles, it might help explain something else that's been bugging me forever."

Xander frowned as he opened the cookie jar, shrugged and put the whole thing on the tray.

"Something else like this? But the only other time someone broke up... " His eyes widened. "Oh God... "

Willow nodded. "They were just getting so happy again after... all that stuff... you know... that happened. Then, right before the prom... bam... Angel is suddenly noble, self-sacrificing guy and Buffy's so hurt... sound familiar?"

"If Buffy finds out... " Xander said darkly as he picked up the tray and turned.

"Buffy... " Willow swallowed, then gulped.

Buffy was standing at the door holding a bottle of Giles' pills.

"B-been to the bathroom?" Xander asked redundantly.

The Slayer stared at them, all colour drained from her face, her blue eyes even more blue against the pallor, looking at both of them with a mixture of rage and hurt.

"My mom did this?" she finally hissed.

"We don't know that for certain," Willow yelped.

"But you saw her... ?"

Willow looked down at her shoes. "I saw her go to Giles' room after you ran out of it and I saw her leave again. And I saw him afterward. He was hurting so bad, Buffy... "

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because it wasn't my place... I mean, Giles didn't say anything and all I knew for sure was that she went to see him. We still don't know anything for sure... I mean, I never would have believed she'd... "

Buffy about faced without another word and strode back to the living room.

Giles was sitting on the sofa with his eyes closed.

"Is it true?" she demanded when she stopped in front of him and put the pills in his hand.

He swallowed them then opened his eyes and raised his head. "Is what true?"

"I know you heard," she said quietly. "This place is like a morgue without the TV or music going and there's nothing wrong with your ears."

"I thought I was doing what was best... I thought I was giving you back your future," he whispered.

"Then she did... ?"

"Don't be too hard on her, Buffy," he said slowly, resignedly. "She wants so much for you to have a real, normal life. It's her way of coping with the knowledge that your destiny is most likely to rob you of any future at all."

Tears rolled down her face. Why did he have to be so damned good? Why couldn't he be angry... outraged... unreasonable, stubborn... even maddening. Something at least, that she could strike out at!

Instead of which all she wanted to do was hold him...

"Don't you care that she hurt us for nothing? Don't you understand that even if you were in an iron lung I still wouldn't leave you? Can't you ever understand how much I love you?" she demanded angrily.

The green eyes shimmered in the soft light. "I'm beginning to," he whispered unsteadily.

"Good," she growled in a watery voice, her body still trembling a little from the surge of rage at her mother combined with the unfulfilled need to lash out and the overwhelming desire to take him upstairs there and then and never come down again.

A throat was cleared behind her. Xander was holding the supper tray and Willow was behind him with a platter of sandwiches.

"Does that mean we can eat now? Wouldn't want to reheat everything, yet again."

Buffy sniffed and smiled at the younger man. "Yeah, hero guy, we can eat now," she told him. "And don't worry, my mother will probably survive this, but there's going to be a long talk and some ground rules set when it comes to my life."

Willow smiled as Xander set his tray down and took the platter from her hands. "Gee, Buffy, I never thought you'd take it this well. I mean, I know if my mom did something like that, or... or scared Oz off before the Prom, I'd probably be so mad I'd turn her into a rat... or something."

When silence suddenly fell, Giles stopped smiling.

"Angel? She talked to Angel?" Buffy's agitated voice finally broke it.

"Oh God, you didn't hear that part? I thought for sure you heard that part," Willow babbled.

"Yeah, you were there, Buff," Xander mumbled around a mouthful of sandwich and took an almighty swallow that almost choked him. "We don't know that for sure. It just... it fit, you know? Same MO... "

She closed her eyes. "Exactly the same," she whispered, new tears sliding down the tracks that had dried in the dust on her face. "I... I can't believe she would do that to me... "

"Buffy," Giles said quietly, recognising the extreme brittleness creeping into her voice, "what's done is done. You said yourself that what happened with Angel was ultimately for the best... "

"She had no right," Buffy whispered, then louder: "She had no right!"

Giles heard the sound of her flight and for a split second his heart caught in his mouth, then he realised she was running up the stairs, not out the door. Relief flooded over him. He was up on his feet a moment later, working his way around the sofa then striding across the room.

Both his judgement and the length of his stride were a little off and he ran into the staircase with a thud, about two feet in from the end, swore and worked his way back around to where he could climb it swiftly.

"Should we go?" Willow asked in a small voice.

"I'm thinking we've done enough for one night," Xander drawled. "So my answer of choice would be a big yes." He grabbed a handful of cookies and stuffed them in his pocket, and then swiped a stack of sandwiches from the platter. "Come on, I'll give you a ride back to Tara's and tell you all about how Giles and me saved the day against the evil invisible demon guy. Maybe you can come up with some ideas about who or what is after the Buffster this time."

Giles halted on the landing as the front door slammed. "For a moment there I thought matricide was a distinct possibility," he said softly.

"It still is," Buffy retorted.

He might not have been able to see her, but he could hear the misery in her voice, the hurt.

"Let it go, love, if not for your own sake, then for me. After all, if you can't forgive her, how can you forgive me for listening to her?" he added, forcing lightness into his voice.

"Don't try to make me laugh," she warned, her own voice wobbly. "You won't like the consequences. Why do the men in my life have to be so damned noble?" Her voice broke again. "Why didn't you ever tell me what she said to you while I was in Los Angeles that summer?"

His head bowed. "Pain does terrible things to people, Buffy. She had so little real understanding of what she was saying I couldn't hold it against her... " His lip quirked a little but he didn't look up. "Well, not for too long, anyway... "

"But it hurt you," she persisted. "I know you. I know what Xander told me about that summer. It wasn't true, you know. It was never, ever your fault. You know you could never have stopped me from seeing Angel. None of what happened was your fault. I made my own choices... some bad ones... but all mine. She had no right to say that to you. She knew about Miss Calendar and Xander told me she knew about you being in the hospital... after Angelus, and why. Why couldn't she understand? I told her... I told her I had to save the world... she saw... she saw the vamp get dusted. She heard Spike... she knew you were in danger... "

"Sometimes people don't think with their heads, Buffy," he said softly. "Sometimes they simply react with their hearts. I don't think your mother was any more rational during that period than I was during... "

Buffy frowned and sat up. "Than you were, when... ?"

"Than I was during your last birthday."

She slid off the bed and came to him. "That was different. That was all my fault... "

His head came up when he realised how close she was. He shook it. "You... I thought you were being taken away from me... bloody Riley and the Initiative... even Maggie fu... um," he coloured and corrected himself ruefully "Professor Walsh-"

Buffy smiled for the first time. "Bad Rupert," she teased. "You really, really did hate her, didn't you?"

He nodded. "She guessed, you see... how I really felt about you, I mean. I suppose she was a gifted psychologist, but she absolutely knew, and furthermore, she knew all the right buttons to push. By the time she was done I walked out of there feeling old, useless and rather pitiful... under the homicidal rage, that is."

Buffy giggled, despite the churning of her emotions, her stomach and her thoughts. "She was probably jealous," she said lovingly. "Look at you. How many guys your age are this gorgeous, sexy... and smart?"

He gave an unexpected crack of laughter at the very idea. "You're impossibly biased," he retorted. "I suck in my stomach like most men my age and I have legs like a seagull, as you very well know."

Buffy looked down at her own legs, even thinner with the weight she'd lost during their weeks apart. "I don't think legs are an issue right now, and you have the sexiest thighs anyway, " she told him dryly and slid her hands under his sweater to caress his stomach. "And this is just perfect the way it is. I notice you didn't mention your great shoulders, tight butt, gorgeous chest or your killer good looks."

He chuckled. "Yes, well, those go without saying, don't they?" he quipped and squirmed when her tender caress turned into serious tickling, to which she knew he was particularly sensitive around the belly area.

"Pax!" he gasped when he realised she wasn't going to let him get away, and closed his arms tightly around her as their giggles subsided. "All right, I'm bloody gorgeous. Happy now?"

Buffy burrowed her face into his chest. "Blissed," she sighed as his hands slid down her back and over her seat, then frowned as they slid back up her sides, over the points of her shoulders to her throat, but made no effort to caress her.

He lifted her away. "You're nothing but skin and bones. Are you ill? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm fine," she said emphatically. "I just... missed you. A few weeks, a few mochas and some post-slayage ice cream feasts and I'll be the old me again in no time."

"Buffy, I... " he began fiercely.

She stood on tiptoes and pulled his head down into a kiss. "We said no matricide, remember?" she reminded him when he lifted his head. "That kind of includes matricide-in-law."

He took her face in his hands and rested his brow on hers, well aware that beneath the banter she was still as stressed as he. "We've wasted so much time... I've missed you so damned much."

Her hands slid down his chest and over his jeans. "Not that much," she said, amused, but with an edge of surprise.

Giles kissed her nose. "All that means is there have been more important things to think about... not to mention that I'm tired, dirty and every bone in my body aches... and I'm not seventeen any more... "

He stopped and closed his eyes as her fingers played and stroked and teased.

"You're way better than seventeen," she purred as the denim became well and truly strained. "But you're right. We should get cleaned up and I should take a look at some of those cuts first."

"Minx," he growled. "But a bath would be bloody marvellous... "

It was. It was big tub, and Buffy was tiny, so that even with the water full to overflowing, they both fitted in, she between his legs, her slender body leaning back against his, her head in the crook of his shoulder as they soaked in the steaming hot water.

"How're those old bones now?" she asked after perhaps twenty to twenty five minutes of peaceful silence.

"Simmering nicely, thank you," he murmured contentedly and slid his hands up to cup her soft breasts. "You have, presumably, almost healed by now?"

Buffy arched a little into his hands and smiled. "Yup. Gotta love that Slayer healing. She traced a long graze down his left arm. "I wish I could share."

He kissed her temple. "Doesn't matter. They're only scratches and bruises. I've had far worse... " Buffy's hand closed almost too tightly around his forearm. Giles could have kicked himself. "I only meant that in a couple of days I should be right as rain. Stop worrying," he chided.

After a beat, Buffy turned in his arms and straddled his lap, her knees either side of his legs, before kissing him hard. "I can't stop worrying. It comes with the territory," she told him. "You didn't hurt your head? Jorgensen would probably have a fit if he knew what you've been doing."

He found and mouthed a soft breast, smiling around it when she moaned. "No, I don't believe I did," he said when he finally released it. "The medication didn't get rid of this bloody headache, but I think it's just from the exertion, overtiredness and perhaps the stress."

"I'm sorry." She trailed kisses across his brow to his hair, from his temple down to his chin, then caught his lips again and melted into an endless kiss. For the longest time only their mouths and hands spoke, and they in the most eloquent and erotic terms...

Then, by mutual assent, they parted and Buffy slid down into the water again and tucked her face into his neck. "When we get out I'll get you some more pills."

"I don't think I need pills, love... just sleep," he murmured, eyes half closed as he rubbed her rump lazily beneath the water, the warmth of the bath and the relentless insomnia of recent nights all catching up with him at once. Buffy growled with pleasure and snuggled closer.

Some considerable time later she started to move, raising her tail one last time. "Hold that thought, gorgeous one," she told him lovingly as his hand automatically slid over it. "Time to go to bed, before we both fall asleep in here."

He chuckled. "If only we didn't actually have to move."

Buffy snorted and reluctantly lifted herself from his embrace before climbing out of the big tub.

"You shouldn't have any trouble if you take it slow," she observed as he started to rise, and picked up the second of the big bath sheets they'd brought down with them.

He managed quite deftly.

"I knew you could do it," she teased, grinning, and handed him the towel.

It was Giles' turn to snort. "All I did was climb out of the bath, Buffy. Anyone would think I just won the marathon."

She deflated a little. "Sorry," she said quietly.

Giles reached for her and she stepped into his slightly misdirected embrace. "No, I'm sorry," he replied hoarsely, closing his arms tightly around her. "I didn't mean to snap."

"I know," she said softly. "It's just... I love you so much and I don't know how to help... and I want to... "

Giles kissed the top of her head. "I know you do... and you are, more than you can ever know, just by being here." His voice had grown thick with emotion.

Buffy didn't have to lift her head to know that his eyes would be very bright.

"The best thing you can do is to let me muddle along as I am for now. If there are no further changes in the next few weeks I'll make enquiries about learning Braille and we'll begin to restructure things around my disability, so that we can put it behind us and get on with our lives."

She tightened the circle of her arms. "I like the sound of 'getting on with our lives,' but there's one thing I've gotta tell you."

"Oh?"

"You're still soaking wet, lover, and it's getting very cold down here... "

Giles' bed was heavenly after the night chill on their damp skin. It had taken several more minutes in the bathroom and some very interesting expressions on Giles' face, for Buffy to disinfect all of his grazes and cuts.

She wriggled down under the heavy quilt, snuggled into the chest she loved so dearly and sighed as his arm curled possessively around her.

"I should be molesting you severely right now," she murmured sleepily and heard the rumbling chuckle beneath her ear.

"And it would be terribly appreciated," he told her and nuzzled her rumpled hair. "If I had the energy to demonstrate that appreciation."

She giggled and kissed the warm skin beneath her cheek. "When was the last time you actually slept?"

"For any length of time?"

"Mm."

"While I was in the coma," he answered dryly. "When was the last time you actually ate anything?"

"More than just what Will forced me to eat?"

"Mm."

"That lunch we had... you know, in that little café run by those ex-pat Brits."

Giles frowned without opening his eyes. "I don't remember," he said softly.

A furrow appeared in Buffy's brow, but she didn't lift her head. "It was the day I went to see mom. We had lunch first. You knew the place, remember? They knew you... "

"Chadwicks," he said suddenly. "We went to Chadwicks?"

"Yeah. I don't know why you can't remember. Must be something to do with you, you know, getting whacked."

"Undoubtedly," Giles agreed. "What did you have? You tend to be rather insulting about traditional British fare."

"You had Guinness pie... with the Guinness in it," she told him, wrinkling her nose, "and mushy peas. You said I was a wimp because I had fish and chips."

"Wimp," Giles repeated. "You could have at least sampled their steak and kidney pie. It's magnificent, as is their star-gazy pie. Not many outside of Cornwall can make a good star-gazy pie."

Buffy's nose wrinkled even more. "Only you English would make a delicacy out of something that gross."

Giles snorted. "Good solid fare. Nothing gross about it."

"Yeah, well I'm not eating any pie that has fish looking at me in it."

Giles suddenly rolled so that he was holding her in his arms.

"Giles!" she squeaked.

"Yes love?"

"I thought you were feeling all exhausted and bruised and ancient or something?" she teased, smiling up at him.

"All of the above," he agreed, smiling back at the sound of amusement in her voice. "But I don't want to talk about food anymore."

"You started it," she objected.

He laughed. "So I did. I'll make you a proposition: I will sleep if you'll eat properly."

"Done," she agreed. "You're making breakfast in bed in the morning... unless of course we're talking midnight snacks, here?"

"You're hungry?"

Buffy smiled tenderly at him, a part of her hurting at the way his unfocused eyes were looking right past her.

"Only for you," she whispered and touched his face.

He found hers with his fingertips and bent his head to capture her lips for a few moments before slipping back down alongside her, drawing her contentedly into his arms and brushing her temple with his lips.

She curled up tight against him and nestled her head until it rested comfortably in the crook of his arm, sighing as she felt the weight of it close possessively around her again.

For the first time since the accident she felt truly safe, truly content...

"I love you," she whispered, her eyes closing and her words slurring as she spoke.

There was no answer, only the relaxed timbre of low snoring, joined very soon by a tiny, resonant feminine version, filling the room with the sounds of real peace and contentment.

* * * * *

"And this is a great idea because... ?"

Willow scowled. "Quit bitching, Xander. All you do is sleep all day Saturday anyway. It's not like you had somewhere to be."

"And it's not like I got any sleep last night, either," he retorted. "Whose idea was it to go for ice cream in the middle of the night... ?"

"You went for ice cream without me?"

Xander swiftly put an arm around his girlfriend. "Yeah, we did, but it was only to talk about Buffy and Giles and who might be trying to kill her, okay? Nothing at all to worry your pretty head about. Tara's cool with it, right Tara?"

Tara nodded and smiled tentatively.

"Are you going to take me for ice cream, today?"

"Sure," he agreed nervously. "Later, when we've finished here, okay?"

Anya's brow furrowed. "What were we looking for again?"

Willow snorted. "Anything that might help us to identify who or whatever is trying to kill Buffy. Anything that might have been left by the vamps she and Giles dusted, would be a start. Xander, why don't you and Anya go check out that whole area over there where most of the fight actually happened. Tara and I will try and find the grave the female vamp that attacked Giles rose from. Buffy was never real clear about that. They didn't exactly see it rise."

Willow and Tara worked their way outwards from the scene of the fight in expanding circles, looking for recently disturbed earth, or a gravestone with a very recent burial date on it. When they met, eventually, some distance from where Xander and Anya were searching, Tara shrugged.

"There isn't even a damaged headstone or memorial."

"I know," Willow muttered. "It's weird. Let's go back and see if Xander found that chunk of marble."

Anya was holding the item in question when they arrived and Xander produced a heavy silver ring.

"It was in the rose bushes," he offered. "I really wasn't expecting to find anything good after all this time. People come through here all the time, but this was caught in that bush over here, kinda like someone threw their arm out as they were... maybe... turning to dust or something, and it flipped in there. On the other hand, somebody walking past could have lost it just as easily... "

Willow frowned. "I don't think so," she said, studying it. "The inscription on the back isn't in any modern language."

"Ooh, one for the Xandman."

The redhead looked up. "Maybe, but what about the marbly rock? There aren't any broken headstones or monuments around here."

He shrugged. "Then I guess we check the rest of the cemetery. The vamp chick might have come from further away than they thought."

"Or she could have come from over there," Anya said casually.

They all looked to where she was pointing, beyond the rose garden, beyond the big rose-covered archway down the path.

"That's new," Willow yelped. "That wasn't there last time I patrolled here with Buffy."

"And when exactly was that?" Xander asked as they moved off.

She shrugged. "Way long ago, before she got all GI-Buffy and all."

"So someone important died in the last some several months. Not too many people get brand new crypts these days. I wonder if Spike knows it's here. It's probably like, you know, the vamp equivalent of a condo or something... "

"A condo with a locked door," Willow pouted, turning after trying to open the ornate entrance to the low building.

"Well I'm all out of skeleton keys," Xander cracked, but no one laughed, quickly wiping the silly grin from his face. "So how about you girls work some mojo on it, because there's no way you're gettin' me to break my shoulder on that baby... "

"I'm not a walking spell book, Xander," Willow retorted, looking to her friend half-questioningly, her eyes widening when Tara nodded back self-consciously. A couple of minutes and some whispered instructions later, the two girls joined hands and closed their eyes.

Xander waited for the door to be torn off its hinges and deflated visibly when it eventually creaked slowly open.

"You're kidding? You guys picked the lock?"

"So? Did you want us to vandalize someone's memorial?" Willow snorted as they all filed slowly into the chilled room.

"Too late," Xander observed.

The actual crypt was made of the same marble material as the piece Willow now held in her hand. What used to be its lid now lay on the floor, shattered at one corner, the obvious point of impact when it had fallen from the crypt.

He cleared his throat. "Okay, do we draw straws for who's actually going to go look in there?"

Anya rolled her eyes and stepped up to the ornate monument to look inside. "They used really nice red satin," she offered.

Everyone else immediately crowded around. All that was left inside was an impressive red satin lining and the dead remnants of some white flowers.

"Well at least we know where the lady vamp came from now. There's gotta be a name here somewhere," Willow proposed, already bending to study the lid of the tomb.

"Over here," Tara said a few moments later, drawing Xander and Anya from their scrutiny of the sides of the tomb and Willow from fitting her piece of marble experimentally into the jagged pit in the corner of the lid.

A new, bronze looking plaque had been mounted on the wall by the door.

"Pretty crappy, considering how much this baby must have cost," Xander observed, looking around the small mausoleum.

"Not so crappy," Willow corrected, only inches from the shiny metal now. "This is gold plated... heavy gold plate. Anyone here ever heard of the Vaughn-Adamses? This is supposed to be Charlotte Vaughn-Adams' tomb. It says she died sixty years ago."

Xander shifted nervously. "That's one slow baking vamp... and what's with the new tomb if she died back in the dark ages?"

Anya looked at Willow. "You think she was one of those Déciperi?"

Tara shook her head first. "Willow says Buffy killed it easily. The Déciperi are far too powerful to die so easily in battle."

Xander frowned. "But we are talking about Buffy here... "

"Tara's right, Xander. It can't have been Déciperi, but it... Charlotte... was important to someone. What if someone was really mad because Buffy killed her... again?"

"You mean Spike and Drusilla obsessive, weirdo love kind of mad?"

It was Willow's turn to roll her eyes. "I don't know. It just seems to be the most logical explanation of how this all fits together," she told him, looking at her chunk of marble. "And I think maybe if we could find out more about Charlotte, and about this guy," she added pointing to the rest of the inscription on the plaque, "we might have a chance of finding some answers."

"Tarquin Peveril. Wow, what a name," Tara whispered, impressed. "He seems to have loved her very much."

The others came to the end of the poetic dedication and looked up, almost together.

"Uh, bad thought guys," Xander said suddenly. "Remember what I said about Spike and Dru? How about if it were a li-i-ttle more literal than I originally meant? Like, what if old Tarquin here is already a vamp and he wanted his lady love here to join him in eternal vampdom?"

"But... if she died sixty years ago?" Willow objected. "That's just not doable. The whole thing is just too weird." She went back to the crypt and leaned into it. "Tara... "

Tara joined her, taking one of her hands and adding her other to the satin lining.

"I can feel it," she said solemnly. "I-It's dark."

"Okay... someone want to bring Anya and me into this conversation because I'm starting to get seriously wigged and I have no idea why... "

Willow blinked, then drew her hand out of the crypt and turned to Xander. "We can feel powerful magic... or a kind of imprint of it, anyway. Bad stuff, we think. Someone could have put a spell on the body to keep it from rising or... or at least to keep it from decomposing. But if you're right and Tarquin is a vamp, why wait all this time to raise his lady love?"

"Maybe he was busy," Anya drawled disinterestedly.

They all looked at her.

"What?" she demanded.

Xander grinned. "You might have actually had a thought, my love. Be proud."

Anya grinned back. "I did?"

He nodded. "So in your experience what keeps a vamp that busy for sixty years?"

She drew her shoulders back self-importantly. "Being sworn to a Master is a good one, or a healthy obsession with vengeance, or maybe even a little empire building. Male vampires who actually move past the drone phase and become independent entities... and possibly even eventually Masters in their own right... can be incredibly egocentric."

"Tell me about it," Willow muttered. "I think we should tell Giles what we found... but... not right now. They need some down time. We can go back to my place and use the laptop to do a records search for this Tarquin guy, and maybe even Charlotte herself."

"Where?" Xander asked, bemused. "With a name like Tarquin, I'm thinking probably not a local boy... and Charlotte of the hyphenated name... how many hyphenated Charlottes do you see in California?"

"We have options," she insisted as they filed out of the mausoleum. "If there's nothing in the register of births, deaths and marriages, then there's the police, the IRS and Immigration. I've hacked... " She stopped suddenly, but the others didn't even really seem interested in her less than legal activities, let alone surprised. "Um, never mind... just leave it to me," she muttered.

* * * * *

As Giles rose from the depths of sleep toward consciousness, a great many things flashed through his mind, not least of which was the painful realisation that many of the delightful things racing through his thoughts were probably little more than stardust and dreams. And for one exquisitely painful moment he didn't want to wake up, or to find himself alone again.

Then he was awake, whether he wanted to be or not. He could feel the warmth of the morning sun through the window, could hear birds singing nearby and the chill on one of his arms, which had obviously been outside the bedcovers for most of the night. After another tentative moment he opened his eyes and drew a sharp breath.

He could see slightly more light and, for the first time since his injury, a blurred, vague outline of something, but no matter how hard he tried it didn't focus. He knew it was the doorway, but only because he was facing that way. He sighed and closed them again before turning over and feeling the other side of the bed.

For a few brief seconds his heart constricted to a tight lump of misery, then he found the other pillow, pulled it to his face and drew a deep breath. It was redolent of Buffy's perfume and shampoo. The relief was so overwhelming that he found himself struggling with a real sob, which he barely managed to turn into a manly cough, just in case.

"Buffy?" he called a moment later, when he had his emotions under control.

"Kitchen!" came a faint response, then the sound of footsteps and finally the soft footfalls of bare feet on the stairs.

"Giles?"

He turned in the direction of the voice and his heart leaped when he detected a dark, moving shape that could only be her.

"Buffy? I just... I'm... " But he didn't really know what to say, how to explain his moment of panic.

For a moment there was silence, then he felt soft fingers in his hair, tender lips against his brow.

"Nothing will ever take me away from you again," she whispered and crawled under the covers with him.

He laughed as she slid over his thighs and deliberately rested her soft warmth, which was still exposed beneath the sweater she'd borrowed to go downstairs, against his morning erection.

"Wow," she said, wriggling.

"Very wow," he agreed huskily, rapidly becoming really aroused in spite of the pressure she was putting on a suddenly extremely beleaguered bladder. "Except that I simply have go to the bathroom and I'm not going to make it if you keep being quite so... wow..."

Buffy scowled, unseen by her lover. "Yeah, but if you go to the bathroom now, there won't be any wow left by the time you get back. Even I know that."

"Then you also know I absolutely have to go," Giles pointed out, amused. Despite her misgivings he knew he would be just as ready when he returned. With her scent, her touch, and a few wriggles of her beautiful body she'd already aroused him more than any lover he'd ever known.

"This loft should have a bathroom," she muttered and heard him laugh as he slid out of bed and reached, not quite accurately, for his robe, finding it after a couple of experimental sweeps of his hand.

When he hadn't returned quite a few minutes later, Buffy went down to the first landing and looked out into the living area.

He was at the front door, talking to someone about the weather, of all things. With a silent prayer that his robe was suitably rearranged, she half-turned to go and put on some clothes. Then she recognized the visitor's voice asking if he knew where she was, and Giles' answering stammer.

"I'm here, mom," she said, arriving at his side not more than a moment later and touching him reassuringly between the shoulder blades as she squinted out into the sunshine. "Is there a problem?"

"Well, no, not exactly," the other woman admitted, obviously flustered and trying not to notice their attire, or lack thereof. "I just... I wanted to know where-how you were, if you were eating, and Willow was being evasive."

"Willow sucks at subterfuge nearly as much as me," Buffy muttered.

"She's an honest girl," her mother pointed, her colour ebbing and flowing alarmingly.

"Indeed," Giles agreed dryly, finally finding his voice. "Why don't you come in while I make us some tea?"

Wondering what he was up to, Buffy led her bemused mother to the sitting room, aware that Joyce was watching Rupert pick his way back to the kitchen without running into a single thing, and barely having to touch anything to find his way.

"Buffy, shouldn't you... ?"

"Why?"

"Because, well, he... "

"Giles and Xander saved my life yesterday, mom. Giles killed a vampire."

"Is that why you're... ?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "That's how. Not why. The real 'why' here is: why did you do it? Angel, Giles... why, mom?"

The colour drained from Joyce's flawless complexion. "Did he tell you... ?"

Buffy shook her head almost sadly. "Willow saw you... leaving Giles' room at the hospital, I mean. She and Xander worked it out eventually. I happened to overhear. Why do you always have to assume the worst about Rupert? I should tell you he's the one who convinced me that violence wasn't an option in this situation," she added dryly, slipping her hands under her thighs to hide their trembling.

Joyce looked away. "You were that angry with me?"

Buffy's voice became harsh and flat, leaving no room for ambiguity.

"Worse."

"You're so thin... " Joyce said weakly.

"Tea's up," Giles called, sliding the tray carefully onto the breakfast counter.

Joyce watched her daughter move across to pick it up, realising for the first time just exactly how thin she'd grown since the last time they'd spoken. She watched them come back, Buffy just in front with the tray, Giles a couple of steps behind with a plate of sliced fruitcake.

Buffy slid the tray onto the table and took the plate from him before they both sat down again.

Joyce swallowed. Despite whatever sleep they must have had the night before, she could see now that he looked as though he hadn't slept more than a couple of hours since he left the hospital, deep lines still carved into the corners of his eyes, his mouth, and dark circles etched beneath the soft brown lashes.

Buffy poured and brought a cup of tea to his fingertips, allowing him to take the saucer confidently before she turned and poured for her mother, apparently still unconcerned about his ability to cope with the hot beverage.

"So, mom, you were looking for me. Something big?"

Joyce blinked. "No... no, like I said, I just wanted to know if you were okay. I won't... I won't keep you too long," she added, accepting the cup from Buffy and watching Giles casually run his fingers over the table to locate the plate with the cake, securing the first piece he touched, as easily as if he could see it.

Buffy saw. "You haven't had any breakfast," she objected.

"Hungry," he mumbled around the cake, now in his mouth.

She made a disapproving noise. "Just one, then, or our deal's off."

Giles swallowed. "Just one," he agreed blandly, took another sip of his tea and pushed the rest of his cake into his mouth.

"Deal?" Joyce asked helplessly.

Buffy looked at her lover tenderly. "I start eating, he starts sleeping, and like that. We have a lot of catching up to do and that's what we were planning on doing, among other things, today."

Giles turned a guffaw into a choke and was lucky not spray crumbs everywhere.

"We just need some time, and as usual there's a bad guy out there somewhere that I'm probably going to have to kill, stuff to deal with and not enough hours in the day," Buffy sighed, ignoring him.

Joyce watched a large hand move to gently squeeze her daughter's shoulder for a moment before slipping unobtrusively back to his side, and struggled against a sudden desire to burst into tears.

"H-has there been um... any more news?"

Buffy turned to look into her mother's eyes, knowing exactly what she meant. "There's been some improvement," she confirmed quietly, but not enough to give the specialist a happy."

Giles snorted. "Spanish fly wouldn't give that pillock a happy," he muttered under his breath.

"I'm sorry... ?" Joyce asked, the muffled muttering too low for her to hear, and wondered what Buffy was giggling about.

"What? Oh, I just said the doctor isn't very happy," he said, his sightless eyes wide with innocence, making Buffy almost choke trying not to giggle any more. "Would you like some more tea?"

"Oh... well, I'm so glad that you've at least had some improvement," Joyce said carefully. "There's always room for hope."

Buffy stopped giggling, her face suddenly becoming deadly serious.

"You still haven't explained why you did it, mom," she said softly.

Joyce closed her eyes. "I love you, Buffy, very much."

"I kinda pretty much have that part down," her daughter observed humourlessly.

"Angel could never give-"

"No," Buffy interrupted, "he couldn't... and I might even have worked that out on my own, if... " She looked up again at the handsome profile of the man next to her. "Actually, I definitely would have, eventually, but I was never given the chance to make that choice. You made it for me, for him, the same as you tried to make it for us."

Again, Joyce noted the subtle movement of Giles' arm, sliding around Buffy's shoulders supportively as she spoke, her hand moving automatically to squeeze his thigh reassuringly in reply.

The older woman looked down at her own hands. "I saved you from one terrible mistake. I didn't... I didn't want to see you make another. I didn't... " She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. "I had no idea... "

"But we talked... " Buffy objected.

Joyce finally looked up. "Just words, Buffy. It wasn't just about age differences, no matter how much you wanted to believe it was."

"Love... " Giles said quietly. "You didn't believe it was possible... that Buffy could love me as I love her."

"No... " she said slowly, perhaps admitting it to herself for the first time. "No, I didn't."

"Which is why you were so sure we had no future together if I remained blind?"

Buffy's eyes were growing wider and wider. "Bulletin: Buffy is still in the room," she said irritably and looked up at him, her fingers moving from his thigh to slip into his hand. "There may have been room for doubt in mom's mind, justifiable... room," she added carefully, "based on my less than spectacular performance since I started college ... but there isn't any doubt in my heart now and there never will be again. Nothing is going to take me away from you, ever."

The silence that followed was filled with the thoughts of all three, each unaware that they were thinking the same thing.

Unless...

Giles' hand tightened around hers to the point where, had she not been the Slayer, it might have been painful. Buffy returned the pressure and faced her mother again.

"I won't leave either of you," she said quietly. "I've been dead and I didn't like it very much. Besides, I'm the first Slayer in history to have a team. That's gotta count for something."

The older woman turned, through force of habit, to look into the unfocused green eyes. "Does it?" she asked.

Giles' brow furrowed. "I believe it does," he said slowly. "Buffy has survived too many situations in which even other Slayers would, and in some cases, have, perished. In a significant number of those instances her survival depended on the talents of her friends, Willow, Xander-"

Buffy rested her head against the point of his shoulder. "And even if I've never said it enough... " She frowned for a moment. "Even if I've never said it," she corrected unhappily, "I survived most of all because of Giles; because of what he knows, what he can do, and the fact that he's always given me everything... all of it. I've always just taken it for granted that he'd be there for me; that he'd know the answer, that he'd catch me when I fell. I guess it was a major selfishness to just assume a thing like that, but somehow, I knew. And the terrible thing was I never told him."

Giles cleared his throat. "Bulletin: 'he' is still in the room," he reminded her good- naturedly, his face softening. "I had a duty, love. I didn't want to be anywhere else. I still don't."

Buffy sat up a looked at him again. "I know," she said softly. "I just wish there hadn't been so much-"

"Spilt milk," he admonished. "What's over is done with. Of course, it is true you were a horrible child... ow!"

Joyce swallowed as she watched her daughter punch his arm good-humouredly.

"A horrible child who was busting her butt killing demons and vampires and saving the world on a regular basis, not to mention getting killed a time or two for you and your ex-cronies. Don't forget that," Buffy retorted.

Above her head, and seeming for all the world to be looking straight at Joyce, Giles stopped smiling and closed his eyes.

"I never have," he said very softly, then opened them again. "Shall I freshen up the tea? Does anyone want something hot to eat?"

Buffy snapped out of her reverie over the past and looked to her mother. "No, I think maybe we're all done here," she speculated pointedly. "Mom... ?"

Joyce focused. "Oh, yes, I think so. Now that I know you're going to be fine and that... that someone is taking care of you. Just... please... be careful out there, Buffy."

Buffy didn't tease or laugh. She held her mother's gaze and nodded. "Always," she said quietly. "Always. I'll walk you out, Mom, so Giles can sneak another piece of cake while I'm gone."

Giles snorted as the two women rose. "How do you know I'll stop at two?"

"Because I'm the Slayer, remember?" Buffy drawled, a smile in her eyes, before catching her mother's and realising that Joyce wanted a moment. Buffy moved away as Giles picked up another slice of the fruitcake and deliberately pushed the whole piece into his mouth. "I saw that," she called, moving further away as Joyce stepped closer, and chuckled at the two-fingered salute she was given in lieu of a crumb-filled reply.

"Mist... Rupert, I wanted... I just wanted to tell you, there's no way I can make this up to either of you, but I wanted you to know how sorry I am."

Cake demolished, the handsome head tilted back, as though looking at her. "Joyce, you don't have to-"

"Oh, yes I do," she said softly. "I was so angry about this... about the two of you. And I was so wrong. I owe it to you to tell you that... after all I've always let you know all too bluntly when I thought you were at fault. It's still going to be a nightmare. Even you must know that, but I was wrong to think I had a right to try and interfere... not in what the two of you have."

Giles smiled gently. "Thank you," he said equally as gently.

"But I won't regret what happened with Angel. I can't. Their relationship was always doomed. He was only ever going to bring her pain... "

Giles nodded. "I don't think even Buffy would disagree with those sentiments, but I think she needs to know you regret the method by which you precipitated those events. The Prom, for God's sake, Joyce; even a preparatory school clod like me could see what it meant to all of them, and you've been there. Did it even occur to you what the results might be if you were successful?"

"I never meant... " Joyce whispered.

"I know," Giles sighed. "But you took not only her lover, and her dreams, worst of all you took her self-esteem. Every male in her life to date, to my knowledge, has eventually let her down... made her a victim one way or another. You probably know all their names better than I. In fact, you probably number me among them. As do I," he added sadly, memories of Buffy's eighteenth birthday still poignant and painful. "You, however, took away any chance she might have had of choosing her own destiny... instead of having it slap her in the face, yet again."

"You don't pull any punches, do you?" she asked tremulously.

He shook his head slowly. "Should I?"

In turn, she shook hers. "Of course not," she replied, her voice breaking. "But I'm just a parent. I don't have a manual. I just wanted to protect her, the only way I knew how. Don't judge me too harshly, Rupert, for loving her too much."

Giles opened his mouth to reply, but he could hear her receding footsteps, and closed it again, regretfully.

Moments later Buffy was back, her hand sliding around the back of his neck and her lips pressing to his brow.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I don't know why," he muttered. "I was far too hard on your mother."

Buffy made a small noise that told him much. "She'll be okay. I asked her if you made her cry. She said no, she did that all by herself. I think she understood what you were saying and she wasn't mad."

Giles turned his head toward her and tilted it to one side.

"Slayer hearing," she explained sheepishly, surreptitiously brushing moisture from her cheeks. "I heard everything. Did I mention how much I love you?"

His hands came out and dragged her onto his lap, pulled her close. "Not nearly enough," he chided.

"Then y'think maybe I should start practising?" she asked mischievously and slid her hand inside his robe.

"Mm," he agreed, his voice changing to a growl as her fingers continued downwards. "I would definitely suggest practising... " He groaned when they found their target. "... very ... hard."

"Not here."

Amused, Giles allowed her to draw him to the stairs and back up to the loft, where she swiftly removed the robe and the mercifully long, baggy grey sweater.

"Aren't you cold?" he teased when the sweater fell at his feet.

"Not for long," Buffy growled as her hands slid up his chest and his arms moved around her, to caress her in firm sensual strokes, from her shoulders to her soft buttocks.

A few moments later Giles allowed her to draw his head down into a passionate kiss, reciprocating her enthusiasm for some time before cupping her rear with his wide palms and lifting her to him.

She groaned, her arms winding around his neck, legs around his hips as he fitted her against his own desire and kissed her again.

When he finally lifted his head it was to growl one word:

"Bed... ?"

"Right behind us."

Giles stepped forward just a little and turned so that he could lower her onto the pillow, located her thighs with his fingers and carefully placed a knee on the bed, between them, as he joined her.

Suddenly the stress, heartache and misery of the last weeks combined with his courage and the day's events so far, were just too much.

Buffy sat up and threw her arms around his neck, her soft lips trailing kisses from his brow to his jaw.

"Ay, what's brought this on, then?" he asked gently, pausing, surprise in his voice.

She kissed his mouth hard for a moment then drew back far enough to speak.

"Everything," she whispered, lovingly tracing the strong jaw. "Every moment since you got hurt. Since then nothing has been right... nothing. I love you so much. It hurt... so much, not being with you... even more seeing you hurt so bad." She touched his eyes. "I don't care about this, but I know it tears you up inside and I want so much for you to be truly happy again. It isn't fair," she whimpered brokenly.

He lifted her back against the pillows and found her face with his fingertips. "I am happy, love. You don't know how happy. Of course I want to see you again, to watch you when you giggle and to see you scowl at me the way you do when you can't get your own way... " he teased. One of his hands trailed down to her tender breasts, each point straining to him. "And I want to be able to see the beauty of you again when I love you," he added softly as he traced each one, "but all that matters to me right now is that you're here and we're together."

"Together," she echoed, arching as his lips joined his fingers in exploring the sweet softness of those curves, caressing each one until she groaned before moving on to trail over her silky body, exploring every contour, every warm centimetre of her until he reached her thighs.

He smiled as he drew caressing fingers along the sensitive inner flesh of each one, listening to her soft moans and feeling her arch even further off the bed as they stopped close to their mark, but without quite touching the soft warmth.

"Rupert, please... !" she begged after he'd repeated the exercise several times with his fingertips. Finally, he traced the same paths with his lips and mouth, and finished by sliding the tip of his tongue along the tender flesh where leg met groin, first on one side, then the other.

Buffy gasped, then groaned, partly with pleasure, partly in frustration. "Giles!"

A moment later she bucked again as he caressed her now throbbing heat with just one finger, drawn tormentingly over its soft folds, and chased by her hungry hips.

"Giles... !" she groaned again.

Finally, as the sweet muskiness of her reached him, Giles bent his head and savoured her, smiling as her cries of pleasure reverberated around the apartment.

For several long moments Buffy gasped and shuddered and moaned as he pleasured her expertly, before pulling herself away, still groaning.

Giles lifted his head, concerned. "Love... ?"

Her reply was firm hands pushing him over onto his back, and a soft mouth against his, once again.

He tried again to speak when she finally released his lips and trailed her own down his jaw and his throat, before playing across his wide chest from one side to the other, but by then he couldn't remember why...

Instead he closed his sightless eyes and moaned as she moved down the length of his long torso, her hands caressing his body as she kissed her way past his navel to the soft flesh below it.

When Buffy's warm hand closed around him, Giles suddenly had to reach for control, the waves of pleasure and exaltation crashing through him, far out of proportion to the caress.

The small, intimate contact, this time, symbolized so much more than just a lover's touch.

Slowly, wantonly, she began to pleasure him, revelling as much in his sighs and groans as he had in hers, until, eventually he growled low in his throat and touched her hair so that she looked up.

"I can't last much longer if you keep doing that, love," he said between short breaths and felt her move to straddle him. However, instead of taking him immediately, she bent to kiss him tenderly again.

Giles found her hair with both his hands and returned the kiss with enthusiasm.

"I love you," she whispered, and drew him with her to roll unexpectedly, so that he was above her. "Make love to me."

Suddenly he understood. He found and touched her cheek for a moment before letting his fingers slide down to find her soft breasts again, brushing and caressing each one, then leaning down to kiss her lingeringly.

As their mouths merged once more, one of his hands slid down to find her centre, and he drew himself to it. As his tip caressed her, Buffy's legs curled upward and closed around his hips. The kiss deepened and grew even more intense as he began to move into her, very slowly.

The silence of the room almost sang around them as they were reunited, the moment far less sexual, far more the rejoining of two souls who should never have been divided.

When they were finally and completely one, they broke the kiss together, Buffy gazing up at him adoringly, Giles staring down at her dark outline against the blur of the bed, wanting so badly to see her and sighing with frustration when he couldn't.

"It's all right," she whispered and touched his face. "My beautiful Rupert."

At that he snorted and finally smiled. "I'm the one who's supposed to be blind, love," he chuckled.

Buffy's eyes grew very bright. "Maybe, but I'm the one who couldn't see these last few years."

She moved beneath him to draw him even further into herself. "I'm glad I'm cured now, though," she growled, and groaned when he responded by starting to move slowly.

"As am I," he whispered in her ear.

She slid her hands down to his hips and groaned again. "Oh God... it's been so long... I want you so much... "

Giles shifted his knees as her legs curled upward and her pelvis ground into his, and enjoyed the feel of her hands trying to pull him even deeper as their pace steadily increased.

For all that he couldn't see her, the scent, the taste, the feel of her, the sounds of her pleasure still drove him to distraction. He could hear the urgency in her groans, feel her desire surging beneath him and rose to meet her, until their passion became a wild thing, each holding nothing back, giving everything to the other, their cries reverberating through the apartment until Giles, riding an incredible edge for some time, felt Buffy shudder and convulse beneath him.

"Oh... oh, God, Giles... Giles!" she screamed, writhing frantically.

The sound of her voice, the avalanche of sensations, carried him with her, so that both rose, arched, and twisted in a frenetic, endless explosion of ecstasy, waves and waves of it carrying both of them far beyond any level of passion either had ever known before.

When it finally began to fade and they came to rest in each other's arms, neither spoke for some time, instead simply holding each other tightly as their breathing returned to normal.

"Giles?" Buffy whispered when he finally lifted his head.

"I... I don't know love. I swear there was no magic, nothing-"

He was silenced by the touch of her fingertips against his lips.

"I never thought there was," she told him softly. "It was just... My God... I've never... "

Giles kissed the silky fingers and leaned down to brush his lips across her brow, missing slightly and brushing her lashes, her nose instead, so that she chuckled.

"It was very special," he told her, "but it wasn't magical, or even extraordinary. It was simply... us."

"Us... together... ?"

"Us... together... focused as never before on simply wanting... needing... loving each other."

Buffy reached up and kissed his mouth. "Is it okay if I need you like that... a lot... from now on?" she smiled, when she pulled back.

He kissed her back, very accurately this time, and nodded. "I'm making it mandatory," he grinned. "Absolutely mandatory... "

* * * * *

"Maybe they're asleep?"

"At seven o'clock in the evening?"

Xander shrugged. "Well maybe they're... " His face screwed up. "Oh, really, really, bad visual place... "

Willow rolled her eyes. "Hit the knocker again before I hit you," she growled.

Xander was so surprised he rattled the knocker extra hard and jumped back a moment later when the door was actually answered.

"Giles, man... hi," he stammered, surprised to see the big ex-Watcher standing there, almost looking at him.

"Xander? Who else is with you?"

"Hi, Giles."

"Hello Mister Giles."

"Yeah... "

"Ah," he said. Willow, Tara and Anya. I should have known. Something catastrophic occurring somewhere?"

Xander looked him up and down. "Only the way you put that shirt on," he drawled. "Are... are you going to let us in, because we've got a lot to tell you. Willow's found something."

Giles' fingers immediately went to the buttons on the dark blue collared shirt, found the problem and began realigning button-holes, while making a mental note to put all his polo shirts where he could get to them in a hurry in the future.

"Yes, yes, come in, all of you. Buffy is just upstairs. Make yourselves comfortable."

While Tara and Anya picked their way into the living room Xander and Willow watched Giles confidently find the stairs, undoing his fly and pulling out the shirt to finish the buttons as he trotted up to the loft.

"He really is going to make it," Xander said softly.

"Yeah," Willow smiled. "He really is... "

A half an hour later Willow had given them an outline of what she'd found.

"And you really believe that I was almost killed by a woman who waited sixty years to be raised?"

Willow nodded. "She died in Somerset in nineteen-forty, right in the middle of the war. This Tarquin guy was the love of her life. They were supposed to be married. It made the society pages because she was kind of you know, aristocratic, and he was like, rich, but all his family money came from smuggling and stuff. A-And he even looked kind of like a pirate... all eyebrows and black hair and blue eyes and even a scar-"

Giles cleared his throat. "Willow... "

She stopped guiltily. "Sorry... its just really interesting after some of the research you guys have had me doing... I mean sewers, corpses, power gri... oh." She stopped again, aware that the green eyes were glinting with unspoken exasperation. "Anyway, the records show that he was a Captain in the British Army and he also died in nineteen forty, but earlier, on leave in a small, Cornish seaside town not far from the family estate. Cause of death was listed as inconclusive, except for him being hypovolemic and having an unidentified animal bite on his neck."

"Vampire, all right," Buffy muttered, leaning against Giles' arm. She was wearing his sweater again, this time with a pair of his silk boxers underneath, her legs curled up on the sofa next to him, and still looking sleepy. "So some vamp turns Tarquin in 1940; he rises and he wants his sweetie to join him, but something happens to stop him?"

"Cause of death for Charlotte is listed as Consumption."

"Consumption of what?" Xander asked.

"Tuberculosis," Giles clarified darkly. "Therefore she was very ill for some time before Tarquin was turned."

Willow nodded. "It could be one of those sad things like Buffy's friend Ford, who wanted to be a vampire so he could live forever."

Buffy's brow creased. "You mean he might have deliberately gotten himself turned so he could turn her? He should have researched better first. Takes an awfully long time for a vampire to be ready to sire another vampire, not to mention the demon part... "

Willow nodded. "The records from the sanatorium she was in when she died, don't mention anything about bite marks or hypovolemia. They just say she died of consumption."

"So how did she get to be here, in Sunnydale?"

"That was the easy part. All modern records, all readily accessible," Willow told them. "Plus, the Cemetery's records show that the crypt was paid for by a man named William T. Blood... "

"Bloody hell," Giles muttered.

Buffy scowled.

"It, oh, and Customs records... they also show that the corpse was shipped here legally by sea from Britain by a Tarquin Peveril, a wealthy Cornish businessman who deals in rare antiquities. I checked the shipping company's records. He travelled with the body."

Xander's eyes widened suddenly. "William T. Blood... doesn't that sound awfully familiar to everyone?" he asked, pleased with himself.

All five sets of eyes slid toward him. Tara and Anya giggled.

His eyes immediately narrowed. "Okay, you all got it already. So I was still back with the consuming thing," he muttered. "Sue me."

"Consumption," Giles corrected.

"Whatever," Xander said defensively. "But I want to know why Spike is suddenly helping English vampires emigrate with corpses of their dead girlfriends... " He paused thoughtfully for a second. "Oh, wait, that brings us back to the obsessive, unnatural, un-dead love thing again, right?"

"Yes, I'm sure he's doing it purely out of the evilness of his heart," Giles drawled.

"Well, what else?" Xander demanded, put out.

"Money, obligation, bribery, blood, cigarettes... " Giles listed dryly.

"Guys," Willow interrupted, waving her hand at them. "I'm not finished. I've got an address for Tarquin. There's also one listed for Spike, but I don't think it's worth bothering with."

Giles' head turned in her direction. "Oh?"

She nodded. "It's the address of the Crawford Street mansion."

"Oh," Giles repeated flatly. "And Tarquin-?"

"Living in a penthouse apartment in Los Angeles, according to the records."

"What say we give the mansion a try anyway?" Giles said thoughtfully.

Buffy straightened. "Might be worth a look. Spike likes it there, and those vamps at the cemetery to collect Charlotte must have been local goons he recruited for her boyfriend. He'd have had to set up headquarters somewhere. If Lover boy wants me this badly, he's going to be around here somewhere, if only to co-ordinate. He's got the Déciperi stashed somewhere too, if Giles' books are right. If Spike is really his lieutenant, the odds are they're together somewhere." She turned to Willow, "That reminds me. Any progress on how Charlotte managed to stay so well preserved all these years?"

"Magic is definitely involved," Willow told them, looking at Tara. "We could check Giles' books... "

Giles straightened. "Xander, Waltham's chronicles and Volume four of Lowenstein's Collected Works... "

"Got it," the younger man replied, already on his way.

Nobody said anything when Xander returned with the books and seated himself next to the ex-Watcher, who was deep in thought.

"Lowenstein's first. Find the chapter on the correlation between fairy tales and black magicks."

Xander turned the pages then looked up, nonplussed. "Enchantments and curses in Folklore and Fairy Tales?"

"Read," Giles commanded.

Xander began to read.

When he was done the girls looked at each other and Buffy snorted. "Snow White?"

Giles shook his head. "Out of twenty two odd examples from works from just about every part of the world, you choose that one?"

She smiled. "I wanted to be her in my third grade school play." The smiled vanished. "I was a bunny," she growled, "complete with little fluffy tail."

"An adorable bunny, no doubt," Giles replied, amused, "but if we could focus on the issue at hand? Willow... ?"

"Well, yeah, I think she would have made a very cute... oh." Willow stopped when she realised he was frowning. "I mean, yeah, maybe one of those spells... "

"Oh, hey," Xander said suddenly and dived a hand into his pocket, pulling something out and handing it to Buffy. "We found that at the cemetery."

She turned the ring in the light. "Ring, Rupert. Heavy, silver, old... a man's ring, maybe," she said and placed it in his hand.

Willow recited some words in a language none of them recognised and a letter: C.

Giles' head came up as he fingered it idly. "My love... my life... my heart... " He translated. "C... Charlotte? A gift, perhaps?"

"He must have given it back to her... after the spell maybe," Buffy mused, watching the expression still playing across Giles' face from when he'd recited the words of the inscription. "I mean... the sanatorium wouldn't have left it on... after."

Giles focused again. "Quite right," he agreed. "But there would be no point to the spell, if she was allowed to die without being turned. It's a fine line, but she has to drink the vampire's blood before she dies."

"So she had to have been turned," Willow allowed, "but the medical records, the death certificate... they don't help and there was a war on... there's no way to find out."

"Yes there is," Giles said grimly. "We can ask Spike."

* * * * *

Buffy watched everyone file out after they had demolished a huge supper, replete with multiple hot chocolates, mochas, cake, cookies and stacks of sandwiches assembled by Xander, using pretty much all the food left in the refrigerator.

She closed the door and turned. "The guys did good," she said, frowning when she saw Giles sitting quietly in his armchair, lost in thought.

He roused when he felt her arms slide around him. Buffy rested her face silently against his hair, and he reached up and stroked her cheek.

"They've done a wonderful job," he finally agreed.

"But... ?"

He closed his eyes. "I can't help worrying," he said quietly. "Vengeance is far more complicated when it involves any kind of passion."

Buffy shifted to sit on the arm of the chair, drawing his head over to rest against her breast and letting her arms rest around his shoulders. "I like it when you worry about me, but you don't need to, you know. He's just another vamp."

"No, he's not," he declared in a tone that brooked no argument. "At least, not if our surmise is correct. If he has indeed been waiting all these years for his true love, demon or otherwise, he is going to be far more dangerous even than those Déciperi he raised to visit his vengeance upon you."

"I'm the Slayer. He's a vampire. Do the math, Rupert," she admonished. "The Déciperi, I'm not even going to try to second guess. Vamps or not, anyone who can make you see things that aren't there... " She stopped when he tensed, swore silently to herself for her insensitivity. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and tightened her embrace.

"Don't be," he whispered, closing his eyes, sliding an arm around her waist and drawing her even closer. "It's important. If you are to confront them in the morning, you must remember not to accept anything you see on face value. Nothing."

"I can do this, Rupert. Nothing is going to happen. I won't let it. You-you don't have to go back there if you don't want to... " she added tremulously. "I-I know now that asking you to go back there last year was... "

He suddenly pulled her, unresisting, off the arm of the chair and into his lap, crushing her close, and resting his chin against her hair.

"Of course I'm going with you. And I don't care about the past, any more," he said hoarsely. "Leave it be. I did far worse than anything you've done, love, when I was your age... before... after, with far less justification, by and large. I can never have those years back, any more than you can, and there's no point trying."

Buffy nodded against his chest. "I just wanted you to know... "

He dropped a kiss on her hair. "I already do. Be careful tomorrow... "

She sat up and looked at him. "I will, if you will," she proposed.

"Buffy... "

"I'm serious. If we're going to do this together, we're going to get through it together. I'm not going to lose you again... not because of some stupid vamp's long lost love, and not because I can't protect you."

Giles exhaled for a long moment. "Xander and I will back you up. We will take no unnecessary chances but we will be close by at all times. And that is my final word on the subject."

For a long moment Buffy stared into the soft green eyes, just loving them, loving him, then she slid off his lap and took his hand, pulled him out of the chair.

Her expression grew tender when his head tilted to one side curiously. "If we're going into battle in the morning, then it's time we went to bed," she told him.

"Exactly. Need your beauty sleep. First sensible thing you've said," he replied gruffly.

Buffy grinned as his arm slid around her shoulders and they headed for the stairs.

"Who said anything about sleep... ?"

* * * * *

Crawford Street had changed very little since their last visit during the nightmarish events of Graduation, despite the bright morning sunshine.

By necessity, Buffy lead the way, backed up by Xander, with Giles at his elbow, followed by the three women.

"I'm going through the front door. Giles, you guys check the perimeter and come in through the courtyard," she ordered and disappeared inside.

Giles opened his mouth to object, then closed it again, aware that he had little control over the situation, despite the lights and shadows and various shapes that swam across his vision now. Instead, he instinctively pulled in the direction of the courtyard.

"Well, come on," he demanded impatiently, Xander scuttling to keep up.

Willow turned to the other two girls. "We should follow Buffy. Anya, watch our backs. Tara and I will at least try and cover Buffy's. C'mon."

Inside, Buffy reached the spot where Acathla had stood so long ago, and a chill went down her spine. So much had changed since then, but the pain and the memory of all those events, and the consequences of them, were still stark and cruel in her mind. She made herself scan the area, looking for signs of habitation.

Angel's couch was still there. Her eyes narrowed. There was a dirty cereal bowl and spoon lying on it. Her nose screwed up: Weetabix and blood. Yuck! And on the side table next to it: a bloodied mug, an open bag of herbs, some half burned candles. Her eyes flicked toward the side room Angel had held Giles in. The curtains were drawn.

Of course it didn't necessarily mean anyone was home...

There were only cold embers in the fireplace, the dirty dishes looked as though they'd been sitting there for some time and the place was as silent as a tomb... until the sound of soft steps told her that the others had arrived.

Buffy looked over her shoulder to confirm it and smiled back when Willow gave her one of her little trademark waves before the two Wiccas, armed with large stakes and holy water, split up, each moving to cover her flanks.

As she reached the small room, she spied the guys crossing the courtyard in which she'd fought first Angel, and later, Faith, so long ago. It was obviously deserted. After a shiver she finally smiled a little to herself. Giles was practically dragging Xander. They came through the glass doors just as she drew the curtains back.

There was nothing there but a chair and some cord, both on it and on the floor in front of it, and a pair of smashed, twisted spectacles on the floor. Another shiver went down her spine. She frowned and turned to speak to Willow then stopped and turned back to stoop and pick up the glasses to show her, only to be jolted by the sight of an empty room.

Games. Somebody wanted to play games...

She blew out an unnerved, irritated breath, motioned to the others and headed for the next room, where she found Spike fast asleep on what was left of Angel's old bed.

... At least he was, until the morning sun hit him and he leaped up like a startled gazelle, cursing and using epithets Buffy had never heard before.

"Stings a little, huh?" she asked, amused, when he stopped jigging amid his own smoke, and all three girls got a look at the vampire, dressed in nothing more than tiny red boxer shorts.

"Trollop!" he scowled. "What are you doing, sneakin' about, disturbin' a man's rest?"

"One, you're not a man; two it's ten in the morning... rise and shine, sleepy head," she smirked, "and three, you made your bed, lie in it. Where are they?"

"Where are who, for God's sake?" he squinted from the shadowed corner to which he'd retreated.

"The Déciperi."

"Don't know nothin' about no bloody foreigners."

Buffy hauled the window curtains back even further, so that his feet started to smoke.

"All right, all right, they're down stairs in the cellar. Cow."

"Big with the names today, aren't we? Want to try for another one?" she asked, watching him jig as the light began to really burn.

"Sorry... all right?" he yelled, obviously in pain. "Sorry... ! Just drop the bloody curtain before I fry or you're not going to find out anything bloody else, are you?"

Buffy let it down just enough to keep him locked in his corner. "So if they're down there, why are you up here?"

Spike made a face. "Bloody obvious, isn't it? Somebody had to stand guard... and guess which wanker was elected to do that... ? Bleedin' creepy lot. Turn a bloke into a gnat or what all in the blink of an eye, they would."

"So you're scared of them," Buffy summarized.

"Sod off," he retorted. "And how about one of you tart... er... ladies," he corrected, "handing me my bloody pants? A man's naked here, and all you lot can do is ogle."

Buffy burst out laughing and looked over her shoulder at the approaching Giles and Xander. "Spike, you wouldn't know a real man if he smacked you in the head with his library book. Willow. Keep Brad Pitt, here, in his corner. I'm going down stairs."

"W-What about that T-Tarquin guy?" Tara ventured.

Buffy stopped mid-turn and mid-thought and spun back to the vampire. "Yeah, what about him... Tarquin Peveril... your boss?"

Spike grew sullen. "Never heard of him," he muttered.

She dragged the curtains completely down with a flourish and waited as Spike slowly began to smoulder all over.

"Bitch! Bloody bitch!" he shouted. "'Es not here, all right? I don't know where 'e lives, except it's not bloody Sunny-friggin'-Dale. He sends word then he comes and goes at night in his fancy BMW, the ponce," he spat, his face creased in pain. " 'Ay... !" he growled and held up a now flaming hand. "You want me to barbeque?"

Buffy scooped up one of the curtains. "That would be my first choice," she drawled as his shirt caught on fire, and threw the heavy velvet fabric over him. "But not right now."

"Trollop!" A muffled voice shouted from somewhere in its writhing folds.

But she was already on her way over to Giles. "I'd better do this alone. We don't know how strong these Déciperi are going to be or what they could throw at us... and if big bad Bill the Bloody over there is frightened of them... "

Giles reached out a hand, the sword on his back rattling in its scabbard, and found her arm. "I know," he said quietly, "but Xander and I will go with you anyway."

Buffy turned to Willow. "You guys stay here and keep an eye on our little spot fire over there. Find out what else he knows about Tarquin... I don't care how."

"We could seduce him," Anya offered.

"Hey!" Xander objected.

"Works for me," a muffled voice offered from beneath the curtains.

Buffy rolled her eyes and looked to Willow, who, along with Tara, was still armed with a wicked looking stake.

"I'd stick with peek-a-boo if I were you," she said dryly.

Willow grinned. "Good idea. I'd rather seduce a Fyarl demon," she said in a deliberately loud voice.

The cloth stopped moving and a white head popped out, only to immediately start smoking again.

"Now that hurts, Red," he told her sulkily, noticed the smoke from his hair and ducked back under the curtain, with another mouthful of muffled invective.

"Prat," Giles muttered, feeling ominous signs of the onset of another headache as he turned with Xander to follow Buffy's receding footsteps.

* * * * *

Giles knew from the moment Buffy opened the cellar door that they were definitely in a place of magick. He could smell it, almost taste it in the air.

'Buffy... ?" he whispered and waited for a moment until she turned, climbed back up a couple of steps and touched his arm to let him know she was close. All of them had excelled themselves in their consideration of his condition; so much so he hadn't the heart to point out that he was well aware of their presence long before they ever touched him.

"Be careful," he told her worriedly. "Sorcery. Darkness. I can feel it. It's everywhere."

"Bad?" she asked, already knowing the answer.

He nodded. "Be careful, love."

Fingertips brushed his cheek and then her scent and her warmth were gone. He listened intently to the sound of her receding footfalls on the stone steps with a sense of terrible foreboding.

Buffy paused at the bottom of the long flight of steps, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkened room, Mister Pointy at the ready.

When they did, it wasn't to find a circle of old crones huddled around a pot, or vividly imagined super-vamps, or ghosts waiting. The blood ran out of her face and her heart began to race.

Across the room, a figure sat slumped in a chair, hair plastered against his brow with sweat and blood, and his striped business shirt half unbuttoned, hands tied behind him.

Buffy looked back swiftly. Xander and Giles were almost on the last steps. She looked forward again. The figure in the chair hadn't moved. She went to it, stepping around the broken spectacles on the floor, and touched it with Mister Pointy.

He sat upright and blinked, his soft green eyes red-rimmed and blurred with pain.

"Jenny... ?" he whispered.

Buffy blanched and wheeled around again. Giles and Xander were still on the steps. She turned back to the chair. "Giles?" she asked, her voice coming out in a croak.

"You're not real... they make me see things I want. You're not... her."

Tears pricked her eyes, despite the logic that told her this wasn't real. After a beat, she moved behind the chair to undo his hands, heart breaking at the sight of the grotesquely bent and snapped fingers, before swiftly breaking his bonds.

When she came back around to face him again he lifted his head, cradled his left hand painfully and looked into her eyes. "You're not real. She's not coming. She hasn't got time... has to save the bloody world... again."

Buffy took the tortured face in her hands, and choked as the heat of it warmed her palms, the sweat made her fingers damp.

"I am real," she told him, 'but you're not."

He blinked again. "He tortured me for hours... for pleasure... " A look of intense hurt came into his eyes. "You never came... "

She caught a sob in her throat and almost choked keeping it from escaping.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, then forced herself to step back.

He continued to look at her, the hurt burning into her soul.

"You're not real," she repeated, as though trying to convince herself, as well. For a long moment she hesitated, torn between instinct and emotion.

And then, without warning, she lunged wildly at him.

"You're not real!" she shouted, plunging the stake into his heart before she could waver again, her sobs even louder than his agonised cry of 'Buffy!' the echo of his voice still reverberating around the cellar as both he and the chair turned to dust and she crashed to floor.

Moments later Xander and Giles were at her side, lifting her to her feet. Giles was trembling, and she knew why. A part of her wanted to bury herself in his arms, but she couldn't afford the lapse. Instead she touched his cheek.

"I'm okay," she said softly, still trembling, herself.

"I'm not," he said harshly but didn't try and touch her.

Buffy blinked, but said nothing. She had to stay focused.

"Where are they?" Xander asked, looking around the seemingly empty cellar.

"You tell me," she muttered, trying to gather her wits while continually scanning the room for trouble. There was very little in the expansive basement aside from rows of wine racks at the other end, candles and herbs, rune stones, spell markings on the walls and floor, and traces of blood here and there.

There were no signs of trap doors, or secret compartments in the walls. Buffy was about to turn and say so a few minutes later when she stopped searching and frowned deeply instead, as something almost tangible finally penetrated the haze of distress that still lingered.

A tentative exploration with the fullest extent of her Slayer senses, as Giles had taught her to do so long ago, immediately detected trouble. She opened herself fully, reaching out with everything she had, and felt every nerve ending in her body suddenly electrify.

She shuddered and looked up.

The cellar door was closed.

"So what do we do now?" Xander asked, as the two men came back from checking between the wine racks, Giles at his elbow.

"We find them," she replied hoarsely, fingering Mister Pointy with shaking hands, her eyes filling with tears as she walked ahead of them.

They were almost at the steps when she heard the sound of steel scraping and wheeled just as Xander lunged at her, plunging the stake into his heart, before whirling and stopping the downward thrust of Giles' sword by blocking his arm with one of hers, and spinning to kick the weapon away.

"How could you know?" he cried in a painfully Giles-like tone of bewilderment, as he staggered.

"I'm the Slayer," she shot back, landing a punch to his face before he could react and causing him to expose his chest. "It's my job to know."

She sobbed and drove the stake into him with such force that she stumbled and fell when he turned to dust, hitting her head and jarring her knees on the stone floor.

A moment later the cellar door flew open, its hinges smashed, and Giles and Xander flew down the stairs, Giles with his sword drawn, right hand on the younger man's shoulder, and Xander with a poker from the fireplace.

"Buff!"

"Xander?" Giles demanded desperately when the younger man moved away from him.

"Xander, what is it? Where is she?"

"Buffy... ?"

When Xander touched her arm, she finally rolled over in slow motion and sat up painfully, wiping dust and grime from her palms, her face chalk white, her eyes frantically seeking the sightless green ones over the boy's shoulder.

"I'm okay... sort of... " she said tremulously, searching Giles' face intently. "It's over. They're dead."

"Are you certain?"

Rupert looked awful. Buffy realised then that he must have heard everything. Her eyes narrowed. And he had a headache...

"Certain, how?" she asked, straining with her Slayer senses to confirm the evidence of her eyes as she got to unsteady feet and went to him, only to stop mere inches away, suddenly unable to bring herself to move any closer.

"Certain that they weren't just more illusions?" he qualified. That the real Déciperi aren't elsewhere?

More tears trickled slowly down her face as she looked up at his. "I don't think so," she managed. "C-Can you still feel any magick happening down here?"

Giles tilted his head, ignoring the growing throb at the back of his head. "You're right. It's gone."

Xander, watching the tense interplay, and not missing Giles' trembling hands or Buffy's pale, strained face, finally decided to speak.

"Wow, Giles, I didn't know you were in touch with your inner mojo like that," he teased, though the admiration in his voice was unmistakable.

Giles suddenly looked self-conscious. "I don't talk about it much," he admitted reluctantly.

"But you're good at it-?"

Giles closed his eyes. "Very good. Once, long ago, I was far too good at it and people got hurt... people died," he forced himself to say. "Which is precisely why I have endeavoured to avoid direct participation in it wherever possible, ever since."

"Eyghon," Xander said sombrely, remembering, and wishing he hadn't decided to try and help after all.

Giles nodded.

Buffy finally touched his arm, her fingers sliding around it, almost defiantly, once the contact was made. "That's why you know so much... and why you lied about it when you saved me from Amy Madison's mother?"

He nodded again, reluctantly, and covered her hand. "I never wanted you to know the truth," he confessed.

Xander watched their fingers finally wind together and hold on to each other tightly, and swallowed hard. "We shouldn't stay here," he said softly, a few moments later.

Giles' head tilted in his direction, then nodded. "We need to interrogate Spike. He should be able to at least tell us how to find that Peveril bastard before he can try anything else," he proposed as they started to move.

Xander brightened. "Will there be hitting? I volunteer for any and all Spike hitting... "

* * * * *

"I told you, I don't know."

Buffy pushed his arm further up his back.

"A little higher, pet. It isn't quite there yet," the vampire drawled.

Buffy obliged, finally eliciting an expression of discomfort from the pale face.

"All right, that'll do it," he grunted. "But I still don't know where the wanker lives. What do I look like? A bloody telephone book?"

With an exasperated noise, Buffy added an extra twist to his wrist, satisfied when he gave a true gasp of pain.

"It stops if you tell us what the deal is with Charlotte and Tarquin and what your part in all this is. If not, we see how much more it takes to break it."

Spike grunted again as his wrist came close to snapping. "All right," he gasped again. "What do I care anyway? He's not going to pay me now that I've lost his bloody pets."

Buffy let go grudgingly and watched him rub his arm, and then the wrist.

"I knew him from London. We had some times back in the late fifties. Then Dru decided she wanted to go back to Europe again and Tar didn't want to go. Couldn't leave his Charlotte for five bloody minutes."

"So... why? Why not turn Charlotte right away? Why put a spell on her and leave her all these years?" Willow demanded as Tara and Anya looked on avidly. The three girls were riveted.

Spike's face screwed up. "Oh please... we're not talkin' harlequin bloody romance novels here, people. Tar's Sire cast the spell the moment he turned her. Y'see old Tarquin was made by a goddess named Siobhan. Any of us would have been happy to take a turn with Siobhan, but not that one, and of course that made her want him all the more. Don't get me wrong, whatever he was when he was alive, he was still a demon and a bad bastard, but flawed, you know, lettin' too many of his old qualitites get in the way. Obsessed with bloody Charlotte 'e was and he spent years trying to find a way to undo the spell."

"So why didn't he just kiss her?" Xander muttered.

Spike scoffed. "Because that's the bloody fairy tale part of the story, Einstein. Besides, he had his hands full with Siobhan. All he could do was wait his chance to find a way to wake Charlotte and take her away. When he found out there was not only a Hellmouth open here, but a Slayer, he knew this was where he'd find his answers."

"And I did," said a deep, rich voice from the doorway.

Everyone turned. The tall, broad figure was swathed in a heavy black cloak, the hood of which he pushed back the moment he stepped out of direct sunlight.

"I found them all... "

He was stunning. All of the women stared, his vivid blue eyes magnetic beneath the black brows, in the strong face, with its prominent, straight nose and stronger jaw. His hair was short and dark, in crisp waves. Anything less like a vampire they had yet to see.

"Wow, and I thought Angel... " Willow whispered.

"I wonder if he likes orgasms," Anya mused, only to have Xander's hand immediately cover her mouth.

Giles frowned at the momentary silence. "Spike mentioned someone called Siobhan," he asked. "There was a particularly vicious Master named Siobhan, made in County Kilkenny in the early sixteen hundreds, but so powerful she swiftly established domain over most of Eire, and later the whole of what is now called the United Kingdom... "

"That's 'er," Spike piped up. "Right bitch... but not any more. Tar fixed 'er good and proper in 'er sleep with a bloody great whitewood carving of a unicorn's head. From 'er own collection of dross, no less. Bloody priceless, it was."

Tarquin stared at the older man, ignoring Spike completely. "She was magnificent," he said, "but ultimately just another obstacle to be overcome."

Buffy, who'd moved close to Giles, scowled and spoke for the first time to the being that had tried so hard to kill her, and whose obsession had almost cost Giles his life.

"Sounds like true love to me," she drawled.

The blue eyes regarded her with amused contempt. "The Council and its obsession with scrawny little girls," he drawled. "Don't try to provoke me, Slayer. It won't work. I know who you are, what you've done and what you're capable of and I'm not going to play by your rules."

Anya and Tara sighed, transfixed by his lilting accent and his charismatic presence.

Willow scowled.

Buffy's expression hardened. "Funny that. Your assassins are dust and so is your girlfriend," she pointed out harshly, "... and, oh, look... I'm still here."

"Sarky cow," Spike muttered.

Her eyes narrowed. "You going to tell him how well you guarded his toys, Spike?"

Spike shot a look of pure hatred at her. "Tattle-tale," he sneered, then turned a hangdog expression towards his former employer. "It's the bloody Slayer, man... and all her little helpers. It wasn't my fault. I-I was outnumbered and overrun on me own."

Tarquin turned to Giles as though Spike wasn't even in the room. "You are the Watcher?"

Giles straightened and drew his shoulders back.

"I am," he confirmed, not bothering to qualify the statement. A gleam came into the soft green pools. "Why? Do you want my Slayer to slay something for you?" he drawled, turning his head pointedly in the direction of Spike's voice.

Tarquin laughed softly. "Courage and magic are not enough without your eyes, old man."

Giles jerked, almost lunging forward reflexively, touched on the raw and barely able to stop himself from reacting. Buffy, however, caught his arm, and he steadied, lifting his head and thrusting his chin out.

"You've lost it all," he growled. "You have no business here, now."

"Oh, but I do," the vampire said silkily, a steel thread of hatred in his tone, the shadow of pain in his eyes. "Sixty years I waited... and your little harlot ended it all in a few seconds."

"Oh yeah?" Buffy shot back as Giles' had slid over her shoulder, silently refuting the insult. "Whose ho woke up on the wrong side of bed, trying to kill everyone in sight? If this love of yours was so damned eternal, why weren't you there for her, Romeo?" She smirked deliberately. "What? No Prince for Snow White? Too busy polishing the BMW?"

"Witch!" he spat.

Buffy's eyes flashed and she flicked a glance at Willow. "Nope, that would be her." They moved to Tara. "And her. Guess again, asshole."

Anya giggled.

"You will die," he said in low voice so full of rage it was more violent than any scream or shout.

"Yeah, Slayer," Spike sneered, moving up behind the cloaked figure, curtain still wrapped around him.

Xander laughed aloud. "What are you gonna do, Spike? Flash her to death?"

The blond vampire's nostrils flared and he pushed out his chest, the curtain falling to the floor, forgotten. "That's it! Kill 'em!" he told his companion. "Kill 'em all."

Anya, Tara and Willow moved close together, Anya finding a cross from somewhere in her coat as the others raised their stakes.

Xander automatically stepped in front of them.

"What are you going to do, Peveril?" Giles asked quietly. "Kill every single one of us by yourself? Your lapdog there has been neutered."

"'Ay!" Spike objected.

"You're alone," Giles continued. "Against the Slayer."

"Ah, but perceptions can be deceptive," the charismatic vampire murmured and abruptly vanished, leaving the half-naked Spike boggling.

The temperature of the room dropped about ten degrees in a matter of seconds, the air suddenly pervaded by the smell of burned herbs and sulphur.

Willow and Tara lost all colour. "Buffy... !" Willow gasped.

Giles' fingers tightened harshly around her hand. "Sorcery," he hissed. "Trouble... bad trouble."

Buffy's mouth went dry. "Oh God, I should have known. In the cellar... that... it wasn't the Déciperi," she guessed unsteadily. "The bastard planted a diversion. Giles, get everyone out, now!"

"No," he said immediately. "Do what must be done, but trust in us to do what we must, as well."

She squeezed the hand back, pulled his head down and kissed him hard before turning to Xander, who immediately came to Giles' side.

The younger man watched Buffy move toward Spike as the girls joined them.

"What are we going to do?"

"Keep her alive... " Giles whispered. "Willow, Tara, with me. Xander, Anya, watch Buffy's back... and everyone, be careful!"

When they got close, Giles said something to Tara, who darted back into the living room and returned with the herbs and the candles moments later. At that point they seemed to go into conference and Xander roused himself, shepherding Anya across to join Buffy.

"What do you know about it?" Buffy was demanding as they arrived.

"Sweet Fanny Adams," Spike snorted, pulling up and fastening the jeans he'd grabbed while everyone was preoccupied. "Bastard's left me hanging out to dry, if you haven't noticed."

"My heart's breaking," Buffy snarled. "Where are the Déciperi?"

"How the hell should I know? I thought they were in the basement. Turns out I had the bejeezus scared out of me by some hack bloody vampires having a right old time at my expense." He sighed. "Wish I had a fag."

Three sets of eyes suddenly grew very wide.

Spike rolled his at them. "A bloody smoke," he translated irritably. "I need one. Now."

The room was getting colder.

"Make a decision, Spike," Buffy growled. "Either you leave and don't come back, or you help... or my personal choice: vampire flambé. Choose."

Spike snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. If I leave and he wins he'll have those bloody sorcerers of his turn me into a parsnip or something. And if I help him, and you win, I'm dust anyway." He frowned. "And if I help you and he wins... bloody hell, what's the use. My arse is toast. What do you want?"

"Just... stay out of it," Buffy told him. "Watch for trouble and don't make me have to take time out to stake you."

"Deal," he said. "What else am I going to do, anyway? I can't even throw anything at people, except bloody insults."

But Buffy was already turning away, trying to stretch out her senses, beyond the murmur of demon energy that was Spike, and the cold dread that was the sorcery pervading the air.

Xander watched her go towards the living area. "Anya, stay here and keep Spike company. I'd like to know you're safe. If he gives you any trouble, kick him where it hurts."

Anya scowled "Don't I get a stake, like the others?"

"You're not going to give her a weapon," Spike objected, horrified at the idea.

Xander grinned and pulled his spare from his belt, under his sweater. "Don't kill him unless he gives you a good reason. Buffy might want to interrogate him again later."

Anya took the piece of wood and grinned happily while Spike scowled. "I have a stake now. Okay, Xander, you can go. Giles said to watch Buffy's back. We'll be fine."

Xander laughed again at the look on the vampire's face then turned, shivering as the temperature of the room continued to plunge.

* * * * *

"Giles, I don't know if this will work," Willow said nervously as she arranged runes, herbs, and candles around a firepot they'd found in the cellar and moved back to complete the circle.

"Are we missing anything?"

She shook her head, then realised that there was something. "Uh... no. There was a lot of stuff down here. I found most everything we need. It's just... "

"We can do it without the books, Willow," Giles said gently. "Between the three of us we should be able to remember it all."

Tara looked from one to the other. "I can't," she said uncomfortably.

"You are familiar with-?"

"I-I am... a little, but I can't do it. L-last time Willow and I tried... it didn't work," she answered evasively. "You do it... you're both... strong."

Giles smiled reassuringly. "It's all right," he told her gently. "I'm sure Willow and I can handle it. Now... the opening lines... "

He began a practise recitation in Latin, with Willow filling in or correcting as they went, until they came to a passage where both fell silent. Willow looked to Tara, whose eyes widened when she realised what she wanted.

Then the young Wicca seemed to find some kind of centre in herself and closed her eyes before reciting several stanzas very clearly, Giles picking up the spell and chanting with her after the first one, Willow after the second. The three of them completed the run through together.

"Excellent," Giles told them, his voice deepened by his concern for the three upstairs. "Thank you, Tara. Are you sure you won't help us?"

"I can't," she repeated.

He nodded. "When we do it, we'll do it together, Willow, just like that... that way there'll be no mistakes. Light the pot."

When it was done, Willow moved back to her position in the circle as Tara moved out of it, closed her eyes and joined hands with Giles, trying to ignore the freezing cold and the increasing smell of sulphur and herbs, undiminished by the scent of those she had broken up and thrown into the fire pot.

* * * * *

"Buff?"

Xander scanned the whole area. It was deserted. "Buffy where are you... ?" he yelled.

There was no answer, except for a smell that got steadily worse... like something had died and had been left in the sun for several days. He tried to keep looking, until he started to retch, and was forced to withdraw swiftly to the terrace, only to have the doors slam closed behind him as he heaved. Nothing he could do had the slightest impact on opening them again. Even the glass refused to break.

He swore, punched the wall, and swore again, then took off to find another way in.

* * * * *

Buffy stared.

"You're not him," she whispered. "You're not... he isn't here."

Angelus smirked and walked towards her. "You'd like to think that, wouldn't you, little girl? You'd like it all to be that easy... "

A man's low-pitched gasp of pain made her whirl and her heart jump to her throat.

"You didn't think I'd spent all those long hours just playing with Rupert's fingers, did you?" he drawled behind her. "It would have gotten awfully darn boring, I can tell you... "

Buffy closed her eyes against tears. "You're not real. You're not even them. You're just another stupid vampire, playing games."

"And him... ? Poor Rupert?" Angelus asked in the obsequiously solicitous voice she remembered so vividly, and hated so much.

"I won't look," she said through her teeth. "He's not real. You're not real."

Another scream, this time of unadulterated agony, forced her eyes open. Giles was sprawled on the floor, his shirt pulled back to his wrists, and Drusilla was standing over him with a burning iron.

"This is fun," she grinned, eyes flashing, her voice completely insane.

"Stop it!" Buffy sobbed, able to smell the singed flesh, to hear Giles' choked whimpers of agony as the wound on his back still hissed. She turned.

Angelus spread his hands, his smirk widening. "Why? We're not real, remember?"

The anger boiled up, laced with hurt and rage. Buffy lunged at him with her stake, but found herself stumbling through thin air. She stopped, straightened, turned. It was all gone.

A tweed-clad figure walked towards her from the fireplace.

"You didn't really think it was going to be that easy, did you?" It asked.

Buffy looked up into the beloved face, different, younger... almost exactly as he had been the first time she ever saw him.

"What do you want?" she whispered.

"The Slayer, of course," he said matter-of-factly, taking off the old, large-framed glasses and polishing the lenses with his handkerchief. The soft green eyes flicked up and locked onto hers.

Buffy's fists clenched. It had been so long since those eyes had looked at her like that... and they weren't even real...

"You are so dead," she whispered, shaking with rage.

"How perceptive of you," he drawled. "However, if you are referring to an impending condition, I believe that would be you, my dear."

"No," she retorted. "Not me."

"But you should know by now how fallible you are, little girl," he whispered, the sound of dripping water behind her suddenly.

She swung around to see herself face down in a pool of water, in the dress her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday...

"She isn't me," she said, swinging back, then blinked. They were in Giles' apartment, and his clothes had changed. There were roses, candles, and champagne chilling in a bucket on his desk. He was looking at it and smiling to himself.

It took a moment, then she realised what it was.

"No!" she cried as he headed for the stairs, a look of such expectation, such joy shining in his face. "No... " she whispered... and closed her eyes when the silence was shattered by the sound of the bottle crashing to the floor.

"You've had such a busy time," a voice said behind her. She turned. "You've managed so many spectacular screw ups in such a short life... "

She blinked. "Why you... ?"

"Only fitting, don't you think, little girl... the dead impersonating the dead? You killed me just as certainly as if you broke my neck yourself... You took everything and you gave him nothing... "

Something suddenly niggled at Buffy's subconscious, even as her eyes blazed with passion. "I gave him everything I had to give!" she shouted back. "I was a child... I gave him... gave the Council... my childhood, my freedom, my future... My life!"

Jenny's laughter mingled cruelly with the sounds of utter grief.

The sounds were coming from behind Buffy. She wheeled and saw Giles, smudged and bruised, sliding down the living room wall, his coat thrown on the floor, hair singed, hands burned, Angelus' sketch of Jenny crumpled in them. The sound of his grief was almost unbearable. The knowledge that he'd suffered it alone, even more so...

Buffy closed her eyes and whirled back. "It won't work," she declared, her voice shaking almost as much as her hands, but there was no one there.

"Why don't you fight... why all these games?"

"Fight a scrawny little kid?"

She whirled again, that niggle igniting into a flame as she came face to face with Angelus once again.

"You!" she hissed. "It was you all along... what did you do with him? Is he dead?" she demanded.

Angelus morphed into a dashing figure in a British military uniform. "Tarquin?" The broad shoulders shrugged. "He became an unnecessary inconvenience... but his obsession was useful to us."

"If it wasn't him, who the hell called you?" she demanded.

The figure morphed back into Giles.

"You do understand that your time is over?" he asked, in that heartbreakingly familiar tone he used to use when he was trying to teach her something and she was distracted.

Buffy gazed at the handsome face, the wide, patient eyes, the ear with the piercing she'd hadn't once managed to notice before he'd started singing and wearing his earring again.

"My time has only just begun," she whispered, drawing out a stake and uncorking a bottle of Holy water. "It's yours that's over... "

She moved swiftly, the Holy water finding its mark before the Visthi had time to react. It screeched as it burned, morphing through every face it had shown her, as well as her those of her mother, father, Xander, Willow, Oz, Ethan, Riley... all interleaved by a dozen different kinds of Giles, including the Fyarl demon, the boy musician, the Watcher who'd betrayed her, and the one who'd loved her too much to let her to fight the Master alone...

"Must have been a long time since you felt pain," Buffy observed harshly as she closed on its staggering form. She plunged the stake into its heart... just as it morphed into her Giles... looking exactly as he looked before he went down to the cellar.

She sobbed as the sightless green eyes widened and his mouth tried to form words, only to have everything around it crumble to dust, leaving a dirty orange brown skeleton for a few moments, before it, too, disintegrated into dust.

"That's one," she muttered, shaking, and drew a sleeve across her eyes before suddenly finding herself back in the mansion again. "How many more... ?"

"Buffy!"

She whirled, stake raised, as Xander almost fell down the last of the outside steps and burst into the living room through the main entrance. He raised his hands.

"It's okay, it's me. Really. You vanished and then something did an imitation of really, really dead, and I got locked out... but you're back now-"

Buffy hadn't lowered the stake.

"Buff?"

He didn't like the way her hand was trembling, or the almost greenish cast to her tearstained face.

"It's me. Really."

"How do I know it's you?"

"I guess you don't," he said, suddenly calm. "I guess you won't know unless you stake me... I can tell you all the most personal stuff I know; how much and how long I was in love with you, how hard it was to say no when you tried to seduce me under that stupid spell... "

"Don't trust him, Buffy!" a breathless, panting voice said behind her.

She half turned. "Giles?"

"It's not Xander," he said. "It's one of them."

"They know so much... H-how do I know?"

"Because I'm telling you... because Willow and I cast a locator spell to find out what you were up against... how many... and one, possibly two of them are in this room right now."

"H-how did you get up here on your own?" she demanded.

"He didn't," Willow stepped out from behind him. "I helped."

Buffy's eyes went back to Xander, looking both calm and terrified at the same time, his dark eyes searching her face, looking so...

She raised the stake higher. "How do I know? How do I know you both aren't Déciperi?"

"I can't help you, Buff," Xander said helplessly. "Short of letting you kill me, I don't know how to prove it to you. You're the Slayer... "

"He's playing you," Giles pleaded. "Listen to me, Buffy. It's an illusion... it's not Xander. If you don't kill him, he's going to kill you."

Xander spread his hands as Buffy took a step towards him.

"Giles, I have to know for certain," she said over her shoulder. "I can't do this again without knowing for sure. I can feel one of them in this room... I know there's one of them in this room... how do I know who it is?"

"I can't help you with that. I can tell you what we've been through together, how much I love you... how much I need you... but I can't make that choice for you," he said softly. "Use your Slayer senses. You have to choose... and you have to take responsibility for that choice. This indecisiveness is exactly what they want."

"Oh, God, Buffy... " Xander whispered. "Don't... "

He seemed so real, so alive, so terrified...

She half turned back to Giles and Willow, took a shuffling step in their direction.

Giles' eyes were looking over her right shoulder and his hands were clenched into tense fists of frustration. "I can't do this for you," he said desperately and heard her take another step toward him, heard her sob softly. "I'm sorry I don't have the answers, love. I'm sorry you must choose alone. You can do it. I know you can," he told her as calmly as he could. "You can do this. You're not a child any more... "

He cocked his head at the sudden rustle of movement and then lunged forward at the sound of Xander screaming, intermingled with the unexpected sound of racking sobs.

"Buffy... !"

A shocked Willow wordlessly grabbed his elbow and took him straight to the crumpled heap on the floor before backing away, pale and stunned.

"Buffy?" he called, and clutched her tight when she launched herself into his arms. "I'm here," he whispered hoarsely, tightening his embrace to try and still her trembling. "I'm here." He was still holding her when Xander came stumbling through the terrace doors.

"What happened?" he demanded. "I couldn't get in. I yelled, I screamed, I banged on doors. Nobody heard me... ? Nobody even saw?"

Buffy drew herself reluctantly from Giles' embrace. "Xander?" she whispered. It was a question and a plea.

"I believe so," Giles confirmed softly.

She scrambled to her feet and launched herself at him, hugging him hard.

Xander instinctively hugged back, then his eyes widened.

"Oh God, you killed me again, didn't you?" he asked, ridiculously... so ridiculously that she couldn't help laughing and crying into his shirt at the same time.

At that point the others began to arrive. Tara, staring in stunned surprise, and slipping her hand automatically into Willow's as Giles spoke softly to the redhead, and Anya who was still menacing Spike with her stake, until she saw Buffy and Xander.

"Hey... nobody said anything about her touching Xander! No touching Xander!"

Buffy and Xander looked at each other and started to giggle again as they separated.

"I love you, Xand," Buffy whispered damply.

"I know," he whispered back, touching her fingers before turning to placate his girlfriend, who was still looking daggers at the Slayer.

Buffy smiled at him fondly then shook her head. "He's all yours," she assured the insecure ex-demon, with genuine feeling. There was only one person she wanted right now... one person she would ever want...

As though he knew, Giles moved up behind her, guided by the sound of her voice, reached out, found her shoulders and squeezed them gently.

"Did... did I really get them all?" she asked softly.

"According to the spell there were two, and Spike, and something not quite... something Willow couldn't identify, in the same room as us... and the Déciperi. You were alone, you and... ?"

Buffy nodded. "There was me... and there was the leader. H-He was Tarquin too, and Angelus, you being tortured... " she whispered, her voice shaking with pain, "a lot of people, plus there was one other... H-He must have been Xander too... and Drusilla... the other one... "

Giles cleared his throat and tightened his grip. His head was splitting. "Then Willow was right. The other indication was probably just residual energy... the whole place was charged with it. They needed a great deal of power to maintain their illusions."

Nobody saw the relieved expression on Tara's face before her eyes dropped to her shoelaces.

"So... it's over?" Xander asked hopefully. "Is it me, or is it actually getting warmer in here?"

"I-I think it's over," Buffy offered tentatively.

Willow and Tara looked at each other. "We can't feel anything... Giles?"

"Nothing," he confirmed, his fingers tightening on the slender shoulders. "I think perhaps it's time to go home... "

Buffy shivered. "Can't we do another spell, or something to be sure? I really need this to be over."

"Of course it's bloody over," Spike muttered irritably. "You think I wouldn't know if one of them was still here?"

"You didn't bloody know they weren't here in the first place," Giles retorted.

"I knew there was something in the cellar," Spike said sulkily. "And big mojo on the place... enough to make my skin crawl. I'm telling you it's over. There isn't even a sniff of a spell left on the place, leave out any more bloody vampires."

"You could be one of them... you all could," Buffy suggested a little wildly.

Xander spread his hands. "Yeah, but Buff, staking all of us... not an option... unless, of course, you want to start with Spike... "

Buffy didn't answer. "Giles, I'm scared," she said softly. "I can't tell what's real and what isn't anymore. How... how did you?"

"Not the same," he said softly. "Back then, Drusilla and the others weren't trying to conceal anything from me... after they got what they wanted... "

"Giles," Willow interrupted gently, "the casting downstairs... it's still... it should show if there are any more of them."

When they had all spread around the perimeter of the spell circle, Willow exhaled with relief.

"Spike was right," she said. "They're gone. See... there's Spike... and here's that thing... see, you can only just see it... so it's not a vamp... That's funny, it's down here now."

She looked around at all of them. "It's like it's something, but not... like maybe something in transition."

Giles tilted his head in thought. "Your theory about residual energy could still be the answer," he said thoughtfully, unaware of the tension in his face, or the tightening of the hand still resting on Buffy's left shoulder. "With all of us together it could easily be concentrated down here. "What... what if the spell is just picking up Buffy's extraordinary Slayer energy, for example?"

Willow frowned. "I never thought of that. Buffy's powers aren't exactly regular stuff. Maybe... yeah, it could be... It would explain the first indication, you know, when Buffy was upstairs, before, and then we came... "

Tara flashed her a startled look then swiftly looked down again before anyone saw.

"I think I want to go home now," Buffy whispered grimly, trying to block out a sudden vivid memory from long ago, when Xander brought her back, after the Master killed her.

She closed her eyes. It didn't bear thinking about.

"Good idea," Xander seconded, just as grimly, and Willow nodded.

Spike looked from one tense face to the other and wondered what the hell was going on. "Care to fill me in, team? I seem to be missing something."

"Shut up, Spike," Willow growled as they began to file up the stairs.

Tara, bringing up the rear, watched them go with a mixture of concern and relief before half smiling at the bickering that had begun despite, or because of the tension.

"You're really starting to annoy me, Red."

"Like I care."

"That's bloody nice, that is-"

"Watch your mouth, fang boy... "

"Yeah, Spike... "

"If you don't mind, my head is about to implode. Will you all please shut up?"

"Yes, Giles."

"Shutting up, now."

"Sorry, Giles."

"My heart bleeds, Watcher... "

* * * * *

Giles and Buffy stumbled wearily into their apartment, both grateful to have been delivered to the door by Xander, despite the tight squeeze, and both still half amused by Buffy's description of the look on everyone's faces when she had automatically volunteered to sit on Giles' lap to make more room in the convertible.

The amusement, however, was tempered by the events of the day, and the moment the door closed, the facades fell away.

"You're head's worse," Buffy said softly, touching his brow when she turned and saw the knotted divot in it, then frowning when she realised his hands were trembling, and not from relief or distress this time. She ushered him to the stairs and leaned into him as they climbed slowly.

"I'm fine, love," he said in a strained voice.

"Yeah, and I'm the Queen of France," she muttered.

"France has a President, and not a pretty one," Giles retorted, in a frail imitation of his usual repartee.

"So? My point still stands. You're not fine, either. Pills?"

"No, and don't fuss," he growled almost nastily, surprising Buffy as they reached the landing, just before he used a particularly blue expletive and began sliding bonelessly to the floor.

She caught and held him, shifted his weight with the ease of Slayer strength, and half-carried, half dragged him the last few steps to the loft. It took some wriggling and some heaving, but she managed to shift his weight over her shoulder enough to turn and flip him onto the bed, in a laden wheat-bag sort of way.

Terrified, she found a pulse, and checked his eyes, before removing his shoes, pants, jacket and shirt. His pulse was strong and his pupils were fine, but his colour was awful.

Could anything else go wrong... ?

She shook her head as she rummaged through his side drawer for the smelling salts she knew he'd had almost since he'd arrived in Sunnydale. It was over. Tarquin was dead. The Déciperi were dead. She had to stop being paranoid... but the knowledge that whoever raised them was still out there, left her with an unshakeable sense of dread.

The smelling salts weren't there. She turned back to Giles, whose colour was improving already, and rested her fingers against his throat for a moment before slipping downstairs to the bathroom.

Moments later she was back and leaning over him again.

"G... Good lord... "

Buffy watched him move his head from side to side as he coughed and spluttered after she'd waved the bottle under his nose.

"Remind me to throw those bloody things out," he muttered then grabbed his head, gasping.

"Giles!" Buffy cried, panicked.

"Pain," he choked. "And I can't... can't see anything. Black. All black."

"Tell me what to do!"

He gasped and rubbed his temples shakily for several moments longer before his breathing began to slow and he lay back on the pillow again.

"M-my God," he said hoarsely. "That... that... I hope that's not going to happen again. I thought I was going to be violently ill, in the midst of a stroke and about to arrest all at the same time."

Unwilling to crowd him on the bed, Buffy slipped her fingers gently into his open palm. "I'm sorry," she said fearfully, and held up the bottle with the other hand. "Maybe it was the smelling salts... ?"

His fingers closed around them. "No. It's definitely radiating from the back of my head, even if the whole damned thing felt like it was going to explode there for a moment. Besides, after all these years I should already know if I'm sensitive to bloody smelling salts."

"Giles, are you sure we shouldn't go to the hospital? Skull fractures aren't like broken arms... it-it still scares me."

Giles pulled her down alongside him, and she obligingly curled into his side, her head on his shoulder.

"No hospital," he said softly. "If you hadn't been able to wake me, then yes, by all means have me shipped me off to the ER, but I should expect these sort of reactions if I'm to go on being silly."

"You mean like doing too much... like today?"

"Oh, yes... exactly like today," he agreed, pain still in his voice. " I rather think old Jorgensen would have had a lot to say about today." His arm tightened around her and drew her closer. "They were trying to entice you to kill someone you love, because they knew it would destroy you. I was terrified they were going to succeed."

Buffy shuddered. "I never thought of it that way. It would have worked... There's no way I could survive killing anyone... especially not any of you guys. I'd have let them kill me... "

"I know, love. Why do you think I was so frightened?"

"You? Scared?" she said doubtfully.

He laughed, but his voice dropped almost to a whisper. "Terrified. And not for the first time... I don't think there's been a single moment when I've sent you out to patrol, or to fight evil somehow, that I haven't been scared to death... "

Her arm slid over his chest and tightened around it. "I was scared to death today. I haven't been that freaked in a long time, and I didn't like it. I almost lost it, when I had to choose between you and Will, and Xander... "

"I know," he said sombrely. "They knew, as Spike discovered, that the only real way to fight you was through your head and your heart. But it's over now. Do you want to tell me how you knew it was Xander?"

Buffy closed her eyes. "It was something you said. You said I wasn't a little girl any more. The Déciperi... all of them... kept insisting over and over that I was-a scrawny little girl, I mean."

Giles exhaled a long breath. "Well done, love."

"You thought it was something else?"

He hesitated for a moment. "I was... unjustifiably, obviously... concerned that you might have chosen to spare me simply because of... us, though, admittedly, a part of me was hoping it would help sway you in that instance."

Buffy's eyes filled. "I wanted to, so much, but I couldn't. They were using us... you... to hurt me most of all. That's why I had to know for sure... because for a while I was sure it was you... and I didn't know if I could kill you again... "

Giles turned then and gathered her fully into his arms, disturbed by the sudden overwhelming fragility emanating from her. It was rare for Buffy to be other than in control, even hard, in order to survive the kaleidoscopic tumult of, and the relentless number of additional disasters that had beset, the Slayer's short life to date. All of them, himself included, had, perhaps unfairly, come to automatically expect unwavering strength from her, simply because... well, because she was Buffy.

"It's over," he said gently as their bodies automatically entwined and she buried herself in the safe haven of his arms. "Time to think of other things."

"Your head... " she remembered suddenly as she lifted her face to kiss his chin.

"...Is a pain in the bloody arse," he muttered, "but unimportant right now."

"No, I mean, before... you said it was all black again. You couldn't see anything, not even your funny shadows-"

Giles' puzzled frown cleared. "Well I couldn't, for one truly horrible moment. I'm sorry I didn't mention it, but it did pass. I can see my little shadow theatre perfectly well now, thank you, pounding head not withstanding."

Buffy kissed him very gently. "You should sleep... give your head a break. I know neither of us will sleep tonight if we take a nap now, but a little post slayage snooze is probably the best thing for both of us at this point."

He kissed her back, and pulled her closer. "You'll get no argument from me."

"Now there's a change," she teased, giggling into his chest hair when a large hand slapped her rump affectionately.

* * * * *

Buffy blinked sleep from her eyes and looked at Giles' clock. For a moment the time didn't quite register. It didn't make sense. And then she realised the phone was ringing.

"Hello?"

"Buffy, it's Willow. Cordelia called. Angel and Wesley finally went to that address in L.A. You know, the one I found for Tarquin Peveril... ?" There was a small pause. "I forgot to tell you. I called them about it before we all came to see you," she admitted sheepishly.

"Good idea," Buffy said groggily, turning to see that Giles had rolled over, despite being disturbed by the phone, and was almost asleep again. "So what did they find?"

"That's the good part... I think. Tarquin is definitely the one who called the Déciperi to wreak vengeance on you... you, know, for killing Charlotte right when he was going to get her back. Cordelia says should see his place, Buffy. There are old pictures of her everywhere, and an oil painting in the living room. She was really beautiful, like, movie star gorgeous, even with one of those really old hairdos, like, from when my grandmother was our age."

Buffy sat up straight, wide awake now. "How does Angel know for certain?"

Willow's sigh was audible. "The stuff, it's all still set up exactly the way its described in both the Codex and the Black Chronicles. Oh... Wesley says to tell Giles he's got the book with the spell Tarquin used to wake Charlotte. He says it's one the Watcher's Council has never seen. It's really, really old. I can't wait to see it... oh... where was I? Oh, yeah, the apartment. There's a big bunch of dust on the floor near the offerings. We're guessing the Deciperi appeared when he called them and pretty much zapped him right off. Wesley says it was probably to establish dominion over the dark forces here, right from the start. Angel thinks that if they had killed the Slayer, it would have marked the beginning of the end."

"Again?" Buffy muttered cynically.

"Kinda," Willow confirmed. "But Wesley says it was definitely Tarquin who awakened them, so at least we know now that it's over."

Colour flooded back into Buffy's face. "It is, isn't it?" she asked, relief shining in her eyes. "Will... ?"

"Yeah, Buff?"

"Thanks... "

"Anytime," Willow said softly, the smile almost audible in her voice. "How's Giles?"

Buffy frowned and looked down at him again. "Sleeping now, but his head was bad when we got back. He won't go to the hospital, though."

There was another pause and then a 'resolved face' tone of voice. "If it gets bad again, Xander and I will come over and help you carry him, if necessary, to the ER."

Buffy grinned again. "I'll hold you to that. I think he's going to be okay, Will. It... it just scares me when he's in so much pain."

"I know. It's like that when you love someone."

"Yeah, but before it was always me that was in pain. This is different."

"Of course it is," Willow said warmly, "because it's real."

Buffy grinned. "Did anyone ever tell you you're an incurable romantic?"

There was a snort at the end of the phone. "Go be with him," Willow chuckled, and hung up.

Buffy watched her lover sleep for some time before sliding silently out of bed. She paused for a moment when she remembered that she'd shed everything, to sleep in nothing but the hi-cut white lacy undies she had on. It was, however, surprisingly mild in the apartment, for the time of year, and she had to get to the bathroom, and soon...

She got as far as the kitchen on her return journey before it occurred to her that they hadn't eaten since breakfast and that it was now mid-evening... not to mention that her stomach was growling pretty spectacularly.

And low blood sugar would not have been helping Giles' headache any...

Twenty minutes later, still sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired, she climbed the stairs with a tray laden with tea, fruit, rolls, pate, brie, diced cheese, ham and pickles, and a packet of potato chips she'd found by accident. It wasn't the Ritz, but it made a nice picnic.

"Giles... ?"

The figure on the bed didn't stir.

"Hey! Yo, gorgeous... !" she prompted, raising her voice.

His eyes flickered and his shoulders rolled back.

"I brought dinner."

He pushed himself up on one elbow and squinted, before his face wreathed in amused smiles.

"Bloody hell, who are you feeding? The Russian Army?" he teased.

Buffy almost dropped the laden tray, but settled for her jaw instead.

"Giles... ?"

He blinked... and then he stared fixedly for a long time; long enough to scare her, his mouth open slightly, as though in shock.

She was about speak when he closed his eyes again and dropped his head. A shiver went down her spine and she hastened to slide the tray onto the bedside cupboard. Before she could step towards him, however, Giles looked up again.

"Don't move," he whispered, his soft green eyes looking into hers. "Just... just let me look at you."

Buffy's breath caught in her throat and her heart almost jumped out of it with renewed excitement as he drank in the sight of her.

He half smiled, his eyes glowing despite the amassing moisture that he was studiously ignoring.

"You are so beautiful... and I've missed you so much... "

His joy and his tears were infectious. Buffy blinked moisture away and stepped towards him, barely able to believe that his eyes were following her every movement, not simply staring, unfocused, in her general direction.

"How... ?"

He shook his head and opened his arms, crushing her when she flew into them.

"I don't know. I'm sure that attack earlier had something to do with it. Just as I'm certain Jorgensen will explain it to me in long and involved detail, when we can arrange to see him," he said into her hair, his voice trembling with emotion, "but, right now, I don't give a rat's arse as long as it's permanent."

Buffy pulled back then. "And I don't give a rat's arse if it is or it isn't. You're stuck with me until you're old and decrepit, no matter what he says."

He laughed, his eyes roaming hungrily over every square inch of her face. "I thought I already was... old and decrepit?"

Buffy smacked his arm without force. "Don't make me grovel again about that. I figure you've got at least another thirty good years left in you yet," she added mischievously and squeaked when his hands closed around her waist and swung her onto the bed, rolling so that his body was arched over hers.

"Is that right?" he drawled, settling between her unresisting thighs. "In that case I think I should start putting them to good use."

She looked up at him, flushed and glowing, and smiled even more widely when the green eyes found hers.

"I can't believe it," she whispered, touching his face and losing herself in their depths.

"Neither can I," he said softly, his large hand caressing the hair away from her brow before he bent and captured her lips, kissing her with an unbridled passion, unmatched since the first time they made love.

Buffy slid her arms around his neck, losing herself in their need for each other until he finally lifted his head again.

"What?" she prompted, when he didn't say anything.

"Nothing," he said quietly. "I just wanted... needed to look at you again."

Touched, she kissed him again and shifted to try and move her body even closer to him, her warmth brushing against his boxers.

"Must be a good view," she teased, feeling the strength of his response to her, and the intensity of her own, to his nearness.

"Oh yes," Giles said softly, the colour of joy suffusing his cheeks, making his eyes sparkle with life when he recognized the passion blazing in hers. "At this moment I can see all my dreams... my whole future, and everything I shall ever want, right here, in front of me... "

The blue-grey eyes grew very wide with emotion.

"Everything... ?" she whispered, trailing her fingers down a stubbly, flushed cheek.

For a moment he simply drank in the depth of the passion in those smoky depths.

Then there was a momentary movement or two, something being thrown, and a little giggle, followed by a chuckle, just before a pair of frilly white knickers flew through the air and joined the black satin boxers on the bedside lamp.

A few moments more and the laughter transmuted to swiftly to passion... and, finally, to two groans of ecstasy, reverberating through the loft as two became one.

"Everything," he confirmed as they rose to each other and Buffy cried out his name as though nobody else in the universe existed...

"... Everything."

END