Common Ground
written by Jeanne DeVore


Rating: FRT
Spoilers: Through Season 3.
Summary: Set during the summer after graduation, Joyce Summers needs Giles' help.
Feedback Author: Jeanne DeVore
Author's Website: Jeanne DeVore's Buffy Fanfic


The books were piled on every conceivable surface, as well as a few fairly inconceivable ones. He’d found several volumes propped in the window just this morning and cringed at what the bright California sun was doing to brittle old pages.

So when the telephone rang, it took several moments to o’erleap the stacks of books and several more to unearth the instrument from beneath the papers piled on the desk.

“Hello?” Silence greeted him. Oh, bloody wonderful. Practically break your neck to get to the phone and it’s a wrong number. “Hello?”

“M..mister...uh...Rupert?” He felt a shock of recognition, despite the hesitant tone.

“Joyce?”

“Uh..yes.” A pause. “Hello.”

“Hello,” he repeated, smiling to himself. When they were both dealing with or talking about Buffy, they were fine. Even managed to be friendly. But on their own...awkward didn’t even begin to cover it. “How are you?” He hadn’t talked to her since the week after graduation. That week, Buffy had been particularly fragile, between losing Angel, injuring Faith and the traumas surrounding graduation and the Mayor’s ascension. Giles had been especially attentive that week, attentions Buffy had craved. Then the following week Joyce took her daughter away for a much-needed vacation, and when they returned a week later, Buffy’s strength and good spirits had returned as well.

He hadn’t spoken to Joyce since, and couldn’t imagine why she was calling now. “Oh, fine,” Joyce finally answered. “Fine. How are you?”

“Well,” he said. “Thank you.”

Another long pause.

“Joyce, is there something I can do for you?” he prompted.

“Well, I...I feel silly asking, but....” She took a breath. “I just received a shipment of objects from Indonesia. For the gallery. Statuary, masks, bowls, gongs, that sort of thing. I’m...I’m afraid I’m not really up on my Indonesian culture...we tend to get more Mexican and South American pieces in the gallery and that’s really where my expertise lies, such as it is, and so, well, given what happened last year with that Nigerian mask, I thought...well, I was hoping you’d have some...I...I know the library at the high school is gone, but Buffy said most of the books were saved, and I know it’s not vampires and demons, in fact, it might not be anything at all, but, well, I’m a little nervous putting them on display without knowing where they...I mean, I know where they came from, of course...or rather, I know where I got them from but I don’t know what a lot of them are...I mean, what their significance is, if they even have any, and I don’t know the history of the actual pieces, some of them, so I...."

Giles laughed to himself. He didn’t think she’d drawn breath since she began. He needn’t wonder any more where Buffy got her prodigious ability to talk.

“Would you like me to take a look at them?” he asked.

“Oh!” Another pause. “Oh, I...I was actually just going to ask if you had any books I could borrow. I don’t want to trouble you, I’m sure you....”

“Nonsense, it would be no trouble,” he assured her. He glanced around the room. “I’m afraid my collection’s rather in disarray. We didn’t have the time to pack it up properly when we moved it from the library. It will take me a bit to find the volumes I need, but then I can meet you at the gallery if you’d like. Say four o’clock this afternoon?”

“Yes, that would be fine,” she said, sounding relieved. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“My pleasure. I’ll see you this afternoon, then.”

“All right. See you.”

They rang off and Giles sat for a moment, musing. Joyce had never asked anything of him, anything not related to Buffy, that is. He wondered why the sudden change of heart. No doubt the incident with the mask last year had frightened her, but Joyce was fiercely independent. Ordinarily, she’d never dream of admitting there was something she couldn’t handle. She didn’t like asking for help. Especially not from Giles.

True, they’d been slightly more comfortable around each other since their terrible secret of last fall had been discovered by Buffy a few weeks ago. She’d given him a few rough days about it, throwing his irresponsible behavior back in his face whenever possible. He didn’t know what she’d said to Joyce, didn’t think he wanted to know. But with the truth of it out in the air, at least they no longer needed to fear Buffy’s reaction.

And actually, she’d handled it better than he’d hoped. Better than they had, come to that, with their six months of determined avoidance. They never talked about it, he and Joyce. Never even mentioned it. Knowing it had been the candy which had stripped them of their inhibitions, made them act on their feelings, didn’t change the fact that those feelings were there in the first place. The candy hadn’t made them feel anything they might not have otherwise been feeling. He found Joyce attractive. Presumably, she felt the same about him. And given who they were, what they were in Buffy’s life, that made for a volatile, awkward situation.

Still, he brought himself back to the present, there was nothing wrong with being friends. In fact, being friends with Joyce might make things a little easier for Buffy, since she wouldn’t have to feel pulled in two different directions.

He glanced around the room at the stacks of books and sighed. Better get to it if he had any hope of locating the books he needed before he was due at the gallery.

* * * * *

A small wind chime tinkled at the opening of the door.

“Hello?” Giles called to the seemingly empty room.

The gallery space was on the small side, little more than a standard store front in width. He couldn’t tell how far back the space went, as there were movable screens and dividers breaking up the interior space. But the space itself was pleasant, with a comfortable flow of movement, warm wood floors, and good light coming in from the front window and a series of skylights overhead.

“Be right there,” Joyce’s voice came from the back of the shop, and he heard her footsteps on the polished wood. “Hi.” She smiled at him, then ducked her head nervously. “Thanks for coming.”

“Not at all,” he answered. “I’m...not especially busy at the moment, so I’m pleased to have something to focus on.”

There was an awkward pause. The “official” word was that the high school had been destroyed by an explosion from a gas leak. Joyce, however, knew the truth, had learned it when she returned home and found her daughter still shell-shocked from the events of those couple of days. Had learned about the Mayor, about Faith, and about Angel. Had been there when Buffy’s veneer finally crumbled and she cried in her mother’s arms, cried from loss, and pain, and the simple act of letting go.

Buffy was doing better now, but the repercussions of that afternoon were still strongly felt.

“Have you decided what you’ll do next year?” Joyce asked. There was talk about holding temporary high school at the community center, or else busing the students to a nearby high school. None of the teachers and staff knew whether they had jobs come fall, but Giles had already tendered his resignation effective the end of the academic year.

“Well, Sunnydale Museum has been after me for some time,” he answered. In fact, since their last curator had been killed by Drusilla. “But we’re still working out the details. There’s a bit of confusion over my visa status, so we’re working to straighten it out.” He said it far more calmly than he felt about it. The truth was he’d come over on a visa authorized by the Watchers Council, and even after they’d stripped him of his duties, they’d left his visa alone. But Buffy’s quitting the council meant that his final tie to them was severed and they duly informed the INS that he was no longer in their employ. INS, in response, dutifully called his visa into question, and now with the loss of his job at the high school, he was having to scramble to find a way to remain in the States. Fortunately, the Board of Directors at the Museum were anxious enough to have his services as curator of Antiquities that they were willing to jump through several bureaucratic hoops in order to retain him, and that was what he was depending on.

“Any problem with that?” Joyce asked with a frown.

“Nothing that won’t be taken care of eventually,” he dismissed. “Just paperwork. Now then....”

She smiled. “Come on back.” She turned and led the way. “I haven’t even unpacked most of it. The first piece I got to looked like a funerary mask and I got nervous.”

“Understandable,” he chuckled. “Well,” he lifted the books under his arm, “hopefully these will help us get it all sorted out.”

“I really appreciate this,” she said again.

“My pleasure.” And he realized he meant it. He was looking forward to spending the afternoon with Joyce poking at old artifacts and learning about them. She must have some interest in foreign cultures, or else why run a gallery which specialized in them. The taste of the average Sunnydale art patron tended to run more toward oils of landscapes and fruit bowls. “Besides, it gives me something to do whilst the museum fights it out with Immigration and Buffy’s in LA with her father.” He set the books down and shed his jacket.

“Yeah, well enjoy it while you can,” she said, handing him the crowbar while she took the hammer. “She called last night. She’ll be home tomorrow.”

“So soon?” he frowned, prying the lid off the first crate. “I thought she was going to be gone for weeks.”

“So did she. But Hank wound up with an emergency out of town meeting and refuses to let her stay there by herself. Conveniently forgetting, of course, that she’s eighteen and can take care of herself, not that what happened last year helped any.” She helped him with the lid and reached into the shredded newspaper to pull out a statue, about fourteen inches tall. “But he doesn’t see her often enough, so as far as he’s concerned, she’s still fifteen.” She dusted the bits of paper off the statue, who appeared to be a young woman holding a bowl of some sort. “So she’ll be home tomorrow, and probably pissed at her trip being cut short. What do you make of this?”

“It’s a statue?” he answered facetiously, but let his smile underline the tease. “Looks to be a servant or some such. Perhaps she was to collect offerings for one of the deities. Let’s see what the books say.” He pulled out one of the texts, sat down on a crate, and rapidly thumbed through the volume. Joyce moved beside him, looking over his shoulder.

“Do you want me to look in one of those other books?” she asked.

“Um, yes, why don’t you check in the Religious Rites of the Pacific Peoples?”

She glanced at the spines, pulled out the correct volume and settled herself cross-legged on the floor as she opened the book.

“Here, would you be more comfortable sitting up here?” he asked, offering her his seat.

“I’m a gallery owner who struggles to make ends meet,” she said, shaking her head. “That means I clean, I decorate, I set up and I tear down, usually by myself. I’m used to sitting on the floor.”

Giles sat back down, but as they returned their attention to the books, he found himself thinking about what she’d said. The gallery space was well kept-up, but that didn’t mean it was prosperous. He’d already thought that it was an odd sort of place for a town such as Sunnydale to have, and wondered if it could possibly be self-supporting. And the Summers home, while comfortable, was hardly fancy. He wondered whether money was much tighter for them than he’d imagined. He knew Buffy always complained about not having the money to buy the things she wanted, but he’d dismissed that as the natural acquisitiveness of youth. Had he known the truth of it, perhaps he wouldn’t have given her such a hard time the few times she’d begged a few dollars from him.

Traditionally, slayers under the care of their watcher were provided with a small stipend to defray living expenses. It was how Faith had survived all those months. But because Buffy still lived at home, the watchers, cheap bastards that they were, had foregone that custom, letting Buffy and her mother manage on their own. He wished, for Buffy’s sake, that he were still on speaking terms with the council. He would have liked to demand her stipend for her.

“Oh, wait, is this it?” Joyce broke the silence and held out her book. There was a sketch of a statue quite similar to theirs, along with a description.

“Yes, looks very like...ah, I was wrong,” Giles mused as he read through the text. “She doesn’t collect offerings, she holds tribute. Originally, she accompanied a gift of tribute to a neighboring ruler, signifying the willingness of gifts to be bestowed.”

“A token of good will,” Joyce commented.

“Precisely.”

She chuckled. “I can just see it now. Some well meaning Sunnydale lady is going to buy her and use her as a candy dish.”

“Actually, that’s not too far off,” he commented, “if you consider candy to be a gift offered freely.”

At the word candy, both of them looked away uncomfortably. Some things were still too awkward to discuss.

“Well,” Joyce finally said, “she seems innocuous enough. Let’s see what else we’ve got.” She got to her feet and Giles couldn’t help noticing her graceful economy of movement. He’d never especially noticed her grace before, not ever having had reason to do so. But watching as she pulled the next artifact out of the crate, he decided that Buffy’s skill might be a gift from the gods, but her grace came from her mother.

The next item was another statue, and they once again found it without too much difficulty. The afternoon passed pleasantly, with moments of activity punctuating longer stretches of research and discussions about how some of the pieces may have been originally used. Joyce took notes about the artifacts’ histories and uses, which she said she’d be using for the exhibit’s catalog.

Eventually, all of the crates were empty, and most of the pieces had been identified. There was one piece which, if they identified it correctly, was a very sacred relic and needed to be displayed carefully, and two more which couldn’t be found in their books.

“Well,” Giles said, dusting off the back of his trousers, which were quite dusty indeed. The back half of the gallery had certainly seen better days as well, with the artifacts all lined up against one wall and the crates stacked against another, bits of newspaper littering the floor. “Let me help you get this lot cleaned up, then if you’re still up to it, we can see if our missing links can be found in one of my other books.”

“Aah, leave it,” Joyce dismissed, waving her hand at the detritus. “I’ll clean it up tomorrow. The show doesn’t open ‘til Saturday, and my back isn’t loving me at the moment.”

Giles smiled knowingly, putting a hand to his own spine in sympathy. “It’s hell getting older, isn’t it?” he said and she laughed. “If you want to wait to see about these two, we can....”

“No, I’d like to get it settled. But I’ll tell you what. Let’s go get some dinner, then afterwards, we can check out your other books.” Then she suddenly ducked her head, her former nervousness reasserting itself. “That is, I mean, unless there was something....”

“No, I had no other plans,” he assured her. “That sounds fine. Is there someplace I can clean up?”

She smiled in relief. “Yes, right back here, first door on the right.”

He excused himself to take care of pressing concerns and to wash up. He smiled to himself, thinking about having dinner with Joyce. The idea pleased him; he was finding her to be engaging company. Her interest in art and artifact was genuine, and he’d learned she had a degree in art history, with special emphasis on Central and South American tribal art. She’d been fascinated when he’d told her of his brief forays into archeology as a young man, a great love of his life for which he had far too little time. Being a watcher was not conducive to a career which took one to the farthest reaches of the globe.

Sunnydale notwithstanding.

He washed his hands and came out. Joyce was just sweeping up some of the paper on the floor.

“Here, let me finish that, you go ahead and get cleaned up,” he said, taking the broom from her. She smiled and ducked past him and he picked up where she’d left off.

Yes, there was a lot to like about Joyce.

Which wasn’t to say that she didn’t drive him to distraction fairly frequently. How such an intelligent woman could be so...so obtuse about so many things.... He sometimes wondered if it weren’t simply willful blindness: if she didn’t see it, it didn’t exist and she could pretend that her daughter was just like everybody else, the place they lived was just like every place else. He supposed it was her way of coping with the impossible.

He realized he couldn’t know how Joyce felt about it all, not really. But he knew how important Buffy was in his own life, how he’d feel if she were to be taken from him. He’d resigned himself, even before he’d met her, to the fact that she would die. It was, unfortunately, part of her job description. But he hadn’t known, back then, how incredibly difficult that realization became, day after day. He knew his own pain; he could only begin to guess at Joyce’s.

She came out of the bathroom just as he was setting the broom against the back wall. “Ready?” she asked, smiling.

“If you are.” He reached a hand out to her, realized what he was doing, and the hand hovered uncertainly in the air for a moment before settling awkwardly in his pocket. “Eh, yes,” he mumbled, feeling himself flush. For God’s sake, he’d just spent the afternoon with the woman and they’d been fine. Why all of a sudden did it seem that they couldn’t go thirty seconds without embarrassing each other to death?

“Where to?” she said as she locked the door behind them.

“Mexican?” he suggested, remembering her affection for the culture.

“Do you eat Mexican, or are you just humoring me?”

“I do,” he insisted. “It’s become something of a new favorite. They don’t have Mexican restaurants in England.”

“Not at all?”

“I’ve never seen any. Spanish, a few. But that’s a very different cuisine.”

“In Mexico, Spanish cuisine is considered very high-class,” she said.

“How often have you been there? To Mexico, I mean.” He escorted her to his car. They decided that he would drive to the restaurant, and after they ate, they’d go to his apartment, find another book to help them with their unidentified artifacts, then he’d drop her back at the gallery.

“I went the first time with a high school group and fell in love with the culture and the people, right off,” she said. He let her into the car, then went around and let himself in. “I majored in art history and minored in Spanish in college, and made trips down nearly every summer. That’s when I first fell in love with the ruins and the Pre-Columbian period. I wanted to go there for our honeymoon, but Hank never saw the appeal, so we went to Las Vegas instead.”

Giles stopped himself before he made a deprecating comment about Las Vegas and the people it attracted. It was unfair of him to cast aspersions on Joyce’s ex-husband. After all, he’d only met the man twice and found him personable, if fairly clueless about his daughter. Giles rather suspected most men were fairly clueless about their teen-aged daughters, come to that. He’d only met Ira Rosenberg once and thought the man had yet to realize his daughter was out of pigtails. He pulled away from the curb and headed toward the nearest thing Sunnydale had as a “main drag”, with its row of restaurants and shops. There was a quite respectable Mexican restaurant there, one he hoped would meet with Joyce’s approval.

She was continuing. “But I did get him to take us down for a family vacation once when Buffy was about six. She fell off a pyramid and broke her arm and that was that for Mexico.” She sighed, then her eyes widened and she turned to him. “I just thought of something.”

“Yes?”

“When Buffy broke her arm, she was in a cast for six weeks.”

“Yes,” he nodded. That sounded about right.

“Yeah, but now when she gets hurt...she dislocated her shoulder earlier this year and was swinging in less than a week.”

He cleared his throat. He thought she understood about Buffy’s special healing abilities, but perhaps not. “One of her slayer’s...gifts, if you will, is a remarkable immune system and the gift of accelerated healing.”

“I know that,” she said. “But when she was six....”

“She wasn’t the slayer yet,” he answered simply.

She looked at him carefully. “I thought you said she was born to it.”

“She is. Was. But the slayer’s gifts are latent until she actually receives the call, until....”

“Until one dies and another one is chosen,” Joyce repeated, as one who has heard the litany too often. “And this would have happened when, exactly?”

“We’re not totally sure. Buffy figured it was when she was around fourteen or so.”

Joyce continued to frown, thinking about it. “When she was fourteen....” Her face cleared and she looked up. “When she was fourteen she got sick. Or something. All of a sudden she started having problems in school. She said she couldn’t concentrate, she kept saying she felt like she was ready to explode, like her skin didn’t fit or something. She almost failed all her classes that year except for PE, something she never much liked, where she suddenly excelled. And she got these terrible stomach cramps, wildly erratic periods, awful mood swings. We thought something was very wrong with her, but the doctors’ tests couldn’t come up with anything. And a few months later, everything settled down again, so the doctors just chalked it up to growing pains. But it wasn’t that, was it?”

Giles shook his head. “It was probably her slayer powers asserting themselves for the first time. One of the clues that young slayers have of danger is cramping. It’s a physical manifestation which they can understand long before they’re tuned in enough to their own spirituality to be able to hone their more...esoteric gifts.”

Joyce just shook her head. “I’d always wondered what the problem was. Now that I know, I’m not sure it wasn’t better thinking something was wrong with her.”

“Joyce,” Giles took a deep breath. Sometimes he felt like she would never understand. “Buffy is a very talented, very skilled girl with some very exceptional gifts. However, at the end of the day, she’s still just a girl, a very human girl. That’s the part the Watcher’s Council has lost sight of over the years. The humanity of what we do. What the slayer does, who she is. If you start thinking of her as this...this super-being, you’ll do her a grave disservice.” His voice dropped. “Faith’s downfall was believing she was above it all, that none of it could touch her.”

“Faith might not have felt that way if even one person in this world ever showed her they cared,” Joyce said sadly.

“Yes. We’re all to blame for what happened to Faith, I’m afraid. We, all of us, made some little effort, but she was a difficult child to love. And we got so caught up in our daily affairs we...I ended up giving Faith short shrift. The only person who ever gave her the affection she deserved was Mayor Wilkins, and who’s to say that had things gone differently, he wouldn’t have simply discarded her when he no longer needed her, just as everyone else had done. Buffy did her best in regard to Faith, but by that time, it was too late.”

They continued in silence to the restaurant. Giles knew the deep regret Faith was in Buffy’s life. That night, the night after graduation, when Buffy had suddenly appeared at his door, edgy and brittle despite her fatigue, it had been the thought of Faith which had finally broken her fragile veneer, and she’d sobbed quietly, cried for the friend, the sister-in-arms, and also for her own brush with a Faith-like dispassion. It had scared her, perhaps more than any ascended demon could, to see that side of herself. For days afterwards, until her mother took her away on vacation, she would visit the hospital, sitting by Faith’s side as if believing that her presence would bring the other slayer out of her coma.

Faith had since been taken back to England by the Watchers, accompanied by Wesley Wyndham-Price, moving slowly with the aid of a walker, his neck braced and a certain amount of his smugness washed away never to return. He had failed in his Council assignment and was now bringing a comatose slayer home with him, disgrace on all sides.

What Giles knew, but would never tell Buffy, was that Faith was not the first slayer to become permanently incapacitated. The Council would put on a good show of taking care of their own, and to be fair, would engage the best and the brightest to see to their slayer. However, if it were ascertained that Faith would never fully recover from her state, even if she were to eventually wake, then the Council would see to it that Faith would die peacefully in her sleep.

After all, the Council must have its slayer.

* * * * *

Giles pulled the car into the parking lot. “I hope this is all right, I’m afraid I don’t get out much. But Buffy and her friends recommend this one.”

Joyce smiled. “It’s fine. Sunnydale’s a little too “white-bread” to have a really good Mexican restaurant, but this is as good as any other. Actually, Rositas, over on Leavitt, has better food, but their ambience is a little lacking. Besides,” she gave him a cheeky grin, “Rosita’s doesn’t have a liquor license and I’m in the mood for a Margarita.”

“Margarita...that’s not one of those dreadful things with the fruit and the little parasols, is it?” Giles asked, escorting her from the car and into the cool, dark interior of the restaurant.

Joyce laughed. “You’ve been how long in California and you’ve still never had a Margarita?”

“I told you I don’t get out much,” he mumbled. “Two please,” he told the hostess, who led them to a quiet booth.

“Well, you should try one–but preferably when you’re not the one driving. The way this place makes them, they’re the size of soup bowls and pack a punch.”

So she ordered a Margarita and shared it with him. It was a little sweet, but he liked it quite a bit. They spent more than two hours over dinner, the conversation covering a wide range of topics: Mexico, Mexican food and Mexican culture–she spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about the Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico. Education, their own and their aspirations for Buffy–Joyce seemed surprised, but pleased, that Giles had given consideration to Buffy’s life beyond her duties as a slayer.

And they talked about life and loved ones–Joyce confessed that it hadn’t been any one thing which had come between she and Hank, but lots of little things altogether, and that she’d been at least as much to blame as he had. Which didn’t make his walking out on them any easier to bear. Add into the mix the problems Buffy was having at the time, which, although they hadn’t in any caused the breakup certainly hadn’t helped any either, and it wasn’t a pleasant time in her life. She seemed vaguely uncomfortable discussing her ex-husband at all.

Giles admitted there hadn’t been a great many relationships in his past. His calling seemed to preclude getting too involved. It was difficult for most people to understand that there was someone else in his life whose needs would always come first.

“Just like being a parent,” Joyce said simply.

He looked up sharply, surprised.

“Doesn’t matter how big they get or how far they go,” she elaborated. “All it takes is a ‘Mom I need you’ and you drop everything and go to them. You can’t help it. It’s a part of you.”

Giles stared at her, amazed. He’d never thought of it like that. He’d always assumed that the bond between a watcher and a slayer was something unique in all the world, that no other relationship could compare. Of course, he hadn’t been looking at it through a parent’s eyes, either. And while he was the first to insist that his relationship with Buffy was far more complex than simply father and daughter, he could see, for perhaps the first time, that that sense of responsibility, of obligation, made up a large part of it.

Perhaps Joyce understood more than he gave her credit for.

She smiled fondly and sipped her drink. “It’s weird. She’s almost all grown up now, she’s graduated from high school, she’s going to college in the fall. And I know that’s good, that’s the way it should be. But part of me’s terrified that I’m losing her. I may not have known what she was doing, all those months with the slaying, but at least I knew where she’d come at the end of the day. Now I won’t even have that.”

“She won’t be so far away,” Giles tried to assure her.

“Easy for you to say, you’ll still see her every day.”

He felt his gut clench. He knew she still resented him, resented his part in her daughter’s life as the symbol of that which could take her away from her. It would always be between them, he didn’t know why he’d assumed that today would be different.

“I’m sure she’ll come home frequently,” he said instead. “Like you said, that part of her that will always need her mother. I can’t do that for her, Joyce. Only you can.”

She looked down. “I’m sorry, Rupert. I don’t mean to resent you, or your place in her life.”

“It’s all right...”

“No, really. And I know you have her best interests at heart. I know this. But...but it’s hard sometimes. You know where she is, how she is, you’re a part of her life in a way I can never be.”

“It’s all right, I understand,” he said, and stopped her before she could protest. “And I can’t say that I might not feel much the same way if our positions were reversed.”

“It’s just that you’re with her–so much. So much more than I am. You have this whole other world together. Sometimes I look at her and I feel...I feel I don’t really know who she is anymore.”

He smiled gently. “When you were eighteen, did you feel like your mother understood you?”

She chuckled and ducked her head. “When I was eighteen my mother didn’t have a clue. Actually,” she considered, “most of the time my mother still doesn’t have a clue. How about you?”

Now it was his turn to look away. “My mother was gone by the time I was eighteen,” he said softly. “And unfortunately, she always knew me better than I knew myself.” He reached across the table and covered her hand with his own. The intimacy of the gesture surprised both of them and they locked gazes, too many unspoken words traveling between them. “I may see Buffy often–hours, sometimes days at a time. I still don’t know what goes on in her head most of the time. I get glimmerings every now and again, but that’s all they are. My being Buffy’s watcher hasn’t given me any great insight into her. I make it up as I go along. Sometimes I get lucky, other times I’m disastrously wrong. But everything I do, I do for her. Not just because she’s the slayer, but because she’s Buffy.”

Joyce gazed at him intently for a moment, then squeezed his hand. “You know, with a declaration like that, you’d better be glad I know your intentions are honorable.”

He pulled back, stung. “Joyce, I...”

“Rupert,” she interrupted, the whimsy going out of her voice, “if I didn’t trust you, there’s no way I’d let you anywhere near my daughter. Slayer or no.”

He believed her. And her trust in him touched him in a way nothing else she’d ever said to him had. One of his greatest fears, both before Joyce learned about Buffy’s calling, and afterwards, was that she would attempt to keep Buffy from her sacred duty. As a minor living in her mother’s house, Buffy would be forced to do what her mother said, and if Joyce had decided to pull Buffy out of Sunnydale and take her far, far away, there was nothing he or the watchers could do to stop it. Joyce’s declaration of trust, not only in Giles himself, but in what he was in her daughter’s life, meant more to him than he could possibly express. It was the kind of affirmation he’d only dreamed of.

“Thank you,” he said softly.

She reached for his hand again. “You’re welcome.”

For a moment, they just gazed at each other, saying nothing. At least nothing that could be expressed by words. But Giles felt that a milestone had been reached tonight, an understanding greater than he’d ever hoped to achieve with Joyce. There would still be conflicts, of course. Given the situation, how could there not be. But at least he now felt he had the ability to talk to Joyce, to help her see how things were. Perhaps even to understand.

He squeezed her hand and let go. “Are you ready?”

She nodded and he signaled the waitress for their check. When it arrived, they both reached for it.

“Please, Rupert, let me. To pay you back for your help this afternoon.”

“You don’t need to pay me. I told you, I was glad to help.”

“All right, but I want to. I’m just so glad to know I don’t have something there that’s going to try and kill the neighbors.”

He chuckled. Funny how such things became commonplace in Sunnydale. “Just tell me what I owe you,” he still insisted.

Her eyes flashed with something he almost missed, and she drew her bottom lip between her teeth to smother a smile. “If you insist, then you owe me a coffee back at your place while we look for that other book.” If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought she was flirting with him.

Come to that, maybe she was. The earlier awkwardness was gone, replaced by a tentative bond of sorts.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said, deciding two could play the game, “I’ve been told my coffee is dreadful. I don’t drink it much, so I only keep instant in the house, for company. Which usually consists of the children, and they put so much milk and sugar in it, I’m sure they’d never notice if I were serving up paint thinner.”

Joyce laughed. “Tea, then?”

“Tea I have,” he agreed.

“All right,” she said, pocketing the credit card receipt, “let’s go.”

He stood and offered her his arm. She got to her feet and swayed a bit. “Whoa, this is the other thing with Margaritas. You usually don’t notice them ‘til you get up.”

His hand tightened on her arm. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Just wasn’t expecting that. Don’t worry, I’m not about to keel over.”

“I’m pleased to hear it,” he answered, but he kept a steadying hand on her arm all the way to the car.

“You’ll have to forgive the state of the flat,” he said, turning the car toward home, “the books from the library are stacked up every which way. There’s just about enough room to sit down, but that’s it.”

She laughed. “Has it occurred to you you need a bigger place?”

“Well, eventually, I’m hoping that a large majority of the books can be moved to my new workplace. And, there’s always the possibility that the watchers will want some of the titles back, though they ought to have other copies. I know it’s small, but I rather like my flat. It’s quaint, comfortable, and besides, moving would be such a nuisance, and I’d rather not go through that if I can help it.”

“I can relate,” she replied. “There are still boxes in the basement we haven’t unpacked since LA. I figure if they’re still there packed up in three years, I get to throw them out without ever opening them. I mean if I haven’t used the stuff in five years, I’m unlikely to ever miss it.”

They were still laughing about the hazards of moving when he pulled up in front of his apartment.

“I think I have an idea where the book I want is. I saw it earlier when I was looking for these.” He picked the other volumes off the back seat.

“That’s all right, we’re not in any hurry,” she said, climbing out of the car. He’d discovered that while she was perfectly willing to let him help her into the car, or hold doors for her, she wasn’t about to sit there while he came around to help her out of the car. She might enjoy some of the pleasantries of chivalry, but Joyce Summers was definitely a modern woman.

“Enjoying your last evening of freedom before Buffy gets home?” he joked.

She chuckled. “It says something about my life that I don’t do anything different when she’s gone as when she’s here. It’s pretty much the same no matter what–laundry, cooking, watching tv, reading. The only difference is I tend to get a little more cavalier about meals, with only myself to cook for.”

Two shadowy figures disengaged from the bushes and blocked their path. “Evening, folks,” the taller one said. “Nice night for a stroll, innit?” He smiled and his face morphed into its vampiric visage.

“Damn,” Giles muttered. He had a cross with him–he never traveled without it–but he had no other weapon, and they were still a distance from his door. His locked door. He put his hand in his pocket, fingering his key ring. “Joyce, make for the apartment, you’ll be safe there,” he said, pressing the keys into her hand.

“Rupert–“

”Go.” He threw his books at the vampires and pulled the cross out of his pocket. “Back off!” he commanded, thrusting the cross at them. They were obviously young, and quite stupid; older vampires were less cowed by the cross. But these two cringed and ducked, and he was able to push past them. Joyce was running ahead of him, keys clutched in her hand.

“After them, stupid!” one of the vampires shouted and both outpaced their quarry, one grabbing Giles from behind and taking him down. He heard Joyce shout his name and looked up in time to see her go down, too, not taken down by a vampire, but falling nonetheless. He heard her cry out. He kicked his attacker in the face and scrambled to his feet.

Joyce had gone down the steps and out of sight, the other vampire after her. He heard sounds of a scuffle and a scream and he dashed toward the steps only to be met by the vampire, bolting up them and screaming, his hands covering his smoking face. He ran past Giles without stopping.

At the bottom of the steps, Joyce knelt, keys in her hand, wide-eyed panic on her face.

“Joyce!” he called, running toward her, “get inside!”

“I can’t–my ankle–“ she breathed.

The second vampire had recovered from Giles’ boot in the face and was coming after them. Giles reacted purely on instinct, lifting Joyce to her feet and, half-carrying her, helped her to the door. Precious seconds were wasted as he fumbled with the lock. Joyce screamed, then lunged for the iron planter next to the door, half throwing half shoving it at their attacker, toppling him.

Then the door opened and they both tumbled through it, the vampire stopping short at the portal, snarling and hissing. Giles slammed the door in his face.

For a moment, they just sat there, stunned. Then Joyce tried to move and gasped in pain.

“Are you all right?” he asked, getting to his feet.

“No,” she said, her voice pinched.

“What happened?”

“Turned my ankle on the steps. Stupid.” She laughed shakily. “Like the ditzy blonde in all those awful teen slasher flicks, right before she gets killed horribly.”

He smiled and helped her to her feet, supporting her weight as they moved to the sofa. “The difference here is that usually the girl doesn’t send the vampire screaming into the night. What did you do?”

She pointed to her keys lying on the floor and he picked them up. She held up the small spray canister.

“Pepper spray?”

She shook her head. “Holy water. It was Willow’s idea.”

He laughed. “That’s brilliant! Someone should market that around here. They’d make a fortune.”

“Uh-uh,” Joyce shook her head. “That would mean admitting something was wrong in this god-forsaken town, and Sunnydale thrives on ignorance.” She gasped again as she moved her foot.

“Here, let me.” He knelt next to her and gingerly examined her right ankle. It was already swelling and starting to purple. “Well, you’ve done yourself quite a mischief here. May I take your shoe off?”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to take the shoe off because of the swelling.”

“We won’t be putting it back on, at least not immediately. Here.” He slipped the shoe off and laid his palm against the ball of her foot. “Can you put any pressure on the foot?”

She pressed her foot against his hand. “It hurts, but not as much as trying to do this–“ She tried to move her foot from side to side and gasped again. “That I can barely do at all.” They shared a glance and she chuckled. “I know. So don’t do that.”

He laughed softly. “Try and wiggle your toes.”

She did. “What does that mean?”

“Very little, I’m afraid,” he shrugged. “Except that your toes aren’t broken.”

“Yeah, I’d kind of figured that out myself, seeing as how I felt the ankle go crunch, not the toes.”

He made a face. “Well, it could be a break, or just a very bad sprain. The sprain is in some ways worse than the break, as you’ll have all the ligaments involved.” He looked up at her, setting her foot down. “Do you want to go to hospital?”

“Yeah. It really hurts.” She sighed. “Damn. I didn’t need this right now. I’ve got too much to do!”

He smiled sympathetically. “There’s never a good time to be incapacitated. I’ve had any number of lectures from the hospital staff about taking it easy after an injury. Easy to say, but not so easy to do when people are relying on you.”

Joyce nodded, and sighed again. “They just came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting them.”

“Neither was I,” Giles admitted. “In fact, they’re the first I’ve seen since the ascension. I suppose this means the holiday is over.”

“Holiday?” Joyce frowned.

“After a major supernatural upheaval–the mayor’s ascension, for example–the vampire activity slows to a trickle. The Mayor was their leader, and with him gone, there’s uncertainty in the community. Most vampires aren’t especially clever, it usually takes awhile for a new leader to surface. If the vampires are active again, it means the time of uncertainty could be over.”

“Oh, great.” She shook her head. “This place.... You know, I couldn’t figure out when we moved here why a town that seemed as nice as Sunnydale had such low real estate prices. And now I’m here, I can’t figure out why everybody stays.”

“You said it yourself; Sunnydale thrives on ignorance.”

“If it weren’t for Buffy, I’d leave.”

“No one would blame you if you did,” he said softly. “With Buffy starting college, nothing is holding you here.”

She was silent for a moment, then shook her head sadly. “I can’t. It would be like running away. I can’t leave her behind. And besides,” she laughed softly, but the sound had very little humor in it, “it’s my home. It’s the first place that’s ever really been mine. I decorated it, I’m paying for it. I’ve made a home here, for me and Buffy. I’ve got friends here, I’ve built my business here. It’s home. I know that sounds crazy, but–“

”But it explains why so many people have stayed,” he said. “Home is whatever you make of it. Wherever you make it.” He thought she was fortunate, to have a place she considered home like that. He hadn’t felt at home that way since he was a boy, hadn’t considered himself as part of a family since his mother died. Even his flat, while filled with things he liked, was just a stopping point on a greater journey.

“I suppose. I guess you just do little things–like carry holy water on your key ring.”

He smiled, getting to his feet. “Let me make sure the coast is clear, then we can get you to hospital.”

“I’m really sorry about this,” she began.

“It’s all right. Accidents happen.” He chuckled. “I’ve been to the emergency room so many times over the past two years, the staff and I are on first name basis.” He grabbed his cross and cautiously opened the door. It was quiet.

“Be careful, Rupert,” Joyce called after him. He had no intention of being anything else. As it was, Buffy would give him a hard time for allowing her mother to be injured while under his watch. He crept up the steps, his senses open to any presence, any movement. A shadow shifted near the bushes and he quickly headed back inside, closing the door behind him. He couldn’t be sure that what he felt was a vampire, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.

“They’re still out there,” he said. “Or at least, something is.”

“Lying in wait for us?” she asked. “Why?”

“They know you’re hurt, they assume we’ll go for help. Easy pickings. Most vampires are essentially lazy. Why go for prey which can fight back? Better to prey on the injured or weak.”

She scowled. “Vampires are creeps.” Giles laughed. “What?”

“Buffy once said exactly the same thing.”

“Of course. She’s my daughter.” Joyce gave a pained smile. “So now what?”

“It would be too dangerous for us to try and get to the car, especially with you hurt. So we wait. Vampires aren’t the most patient creatures. They’ll get bored eventually, go to where the feeding is more plentiful. In the meantime, let’s ice that ankle, get it elevated.”

She closed her eyes, sighing. “I’m sorry.”

“Now, that’s enough,” he scolded gently. “It will be all right. Why don’t you just sit back, relax,” he eased her back on the couch, “and we’ll prop your foot up,” he put a pillow on the end of the coffee table and set her foot on it, “and I’ll be right back with an ice pack.” He gently squeezed her shoulder, and she smiled up at him gratefully. Interesting. This afternoon he couldn’t even bring himself to put a hand on her arm. Now he touched her without so much as a second thought.

He put ice cubes into a plastic bag, wrapping them in a handtowel, and brought the bundle out to her. She was staring at her elevated foot, scowling.

“When did my feet get so ugly?” she said and he blinked.

“Pardon?”

“When I was Buffy’s age I used to have such pretty feet. But as I’m getting older they’re getting knobby and ugly.”

He briefly wondered if the pain had made her delirious.

“Your feet are just fine,” he said, feeling the need to say something, however ridiculous.

“You’re a terrible liar,” she said.

“Yes, well this one’s not especially pretty at the moment,” he went on, carefully setting the ice pack on it and tucking the ends of the towel around her foot, “seeing as how it’s all purple and puffy.” She laughed. “How does it feel?”

“Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.”

“I’m sure,” he agreed sympathetically. “Here, would you like something for the pain?”

She looked at him curiously. “What have you got?”

“A rather extensive pharmacopoeia, I’m afraid. Every time I wind up in hospital I get sent home with another prescription for some pain medication or other.”

“Such as?”

“Well...codeine?”

“Perfect.”

“All right then. Acetaminophen with codeine coming up.”

He went to the bathroom where his impressive assortment of pill bottles resided, then stopped in the kitchen to put the kettle on. “I’ve started tea,” he said, bringing her the pill and a glass of water. “After all, I still owe you a cup of tea, and I might as well find that other book.”

“Might as well,” she said, swallowing the pill. “Thanks.”

“Do you need anything else?”

She shook her head. “I’ll feel better once the codeine kicks in.”

“I’m sure. Excuse me.” He rifled through the stacks of books around his desk, seeming to remember the book in question being found here earlier. He found it in the third pile he checked. The kettle whistled, so he fixed a tray with the tea and a plate of biscuits, and brought it in to her.

“Here we are,” he handed her a cup and settled next to her on the couch with the book. For several minutes they sat in silence, sipping their tea and looking through the volume, Joyce looking over his shoulder.

“Ah, here we go. This is it, I think.”

“No, not quite,” she said. “The forehead was a little different. More like this.” She traced with her finger to demonstrate.

“You sure?”

She nodded. “Art historians have to notice details.”

That struck him as ironic, since she so often seemed oblivious to what went on around here. Of course, she’d been manipulated on several occasions, but more often it was simply Joyce wilfully not seeing what was in front of her. He didn’t suppose he blamed her, not really. Pretense was as good a defense as any.

“Had you always wanted to run a gallery?” he asked.

She smiled, shaking her head. “At first I wanted to teach. But we got married my junior year, and getting the teaching certificate would have meant going another semester, plus living away from home. Not a good way to start a marriage. Then after Buffy was born, Hank didn’t want me working full time, so I got a part-time job at a gallery, eventually becoming manager. After the divorce, I decided it was time to open my own space.” She looked back at the illustration. “I’m wondering if maybe it’s not just a different depiction of the same thing. Like the different renderings of the Aztec or Chinese gods.”

“In that case,” he said, quickly skimming the text, “we’re in luck. It’s a guardian. In fact, a guardian of sacred spaces.”

“Oh! So I could put him to watch over the altar box.”

“Precisely.” They shared a smile.

“Now I’ve gotten a good look at all the pieces, the exhibit is really starting to take shape in my mind. The altar box will be the centerpiece. And I can separate the display by sacred, political, entertainment and every day, moving from the common to the sacred.”

He smiled as he listened to her speak so enthusiastically about the exhibit, saw the shine in her eyes. Joyce loved her work. It was undoubtedly difficult at times, as she had all the responsibilities of being a business owner. But the passion with which she spoke told him more about her feelings toward the gallery and, in fact, her life here. Small hints, things between the lines, had indicated that Hank had been somewhat controlling of his wife. Now she was on her own, making her own way. It was frightening, of course, but exciting as well. He admired her for it.

“Have you ever considered working in a museum?” he asked.

“I don’t have the education for that,” she dismissed. They’re usually looking for Masters or Ph.Ds. A lone little BA won’t get me very far in the door.”

“Don’t be too sure. Oh, at first it might not be much, but you’ve got the knowledge and the experience. I know several art museums that would be pleased to have someone of your caliber.”

“Thanks,” she smiled, blushing. “But I’ve kind of gotten used to being my own boss. I think I’d have a hard time giving that up and punching a time clock again.”

“Yes, well, there is always that,” he conceded.

“Not that I’d mind giving up the headaches, it’s just that–“ She stopped suddenly, her hand going to her head.

“Joyce–?”

“Ooh,” she whispered. “All of a sudden–I’m so woozy.” She covered her eyes and sat perfectly still.

“Do you feel sick?” he asked. Her face was suddenly pale and her skin, when he touched her cheek, was clammy.

“No,” she murmured, “just–like I don’t want to move for awhile. Maybe not even turn my head.”

He slid his hand up to her forehead. She was cool, no fever. “A reaction to the codeine, perhaps?”

“I’ve taken codeine before, lots of times, and I’ve never had a reaction to it. I don’t know why this time I would... Oh.”

“What?”

“The Margarita I had with dinner. The codeine on top of that....”

He felt a moment of deep panic. Dear God, he’d just poisoned Joyce!

“I should have thought...I’m sorry, I–“ "It never even occurred to me,” she interrupted, obviously not blaming him. “All I was thinking was taking down the pain.”

He let his fingers trail through her hair soothingly. “Did it?”

“What?”

“Take down the pain.”

She frowned as if thinking about it. “Maybe a little.” He saw her swallow. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere for awhile, Rupert.”

“That’s all right, there’s no hurry. Our friends are probably still outside as it is. Just relax. Can I get you anything? Water, perhaps?”

She nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Water would be good.”

He hurried to the kitchen, not wanting to leave her even for a moment, and returned with her glass. She sipped carefully and finished about half the glass before letting him take it away again.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyes were closed, forehead wrinkled in...pain, fear, worry, he wasn’t sure. She rubbed her forehead and he sat next to her again, stroking her hair, hoping to soothe her.

“Is there anything else I can do?”

“No, I just...” Her eyes opened. “I’m sorry, Rupert.”

“Shh, it’s all right. Things happen. Just relax, everything will be all right.”

She smiled wanly. “Promise?”

A chill went through him. He remembered making the same promise to Jenny, a promise he hadn’t kept. He’d sworn to Joyce, back when Buffy disappeared, that he wouldn’t lie to her anymore. That was one promise he couldn’t afford to break. He couldn’t be positive everything would be all right. And he wouldn’t lie to her. So he soothed her with gentle words and sounds and hoped she wouldn’t notice the omission. “Would you feel better lying down?”

Her forehead wrinkled again. “Yeah, I think maybe I would.”

“All right, here, let me help you.” He carefully eased Joyce down onto the sofa, gingerly moving her foot as well. He settled a pillow beneath her head. “Is that all right?”

“It’s fine,” she sighed. “I’m sorr–“

”That’s enough,” he stopped her. “Just relax.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Well, at least dinner was nice.”

He chuckled. “That it was. And we found most of your artifacts. Now you just rest and I’ll look for this last one.”

She closed her eyes again. “Thanks.”

He left her side and picked up the book again, thumbing through it in search of the still unidentified artifact.

“Rupert?”

Joyce was watching him. She extended a hand and he perched on the edge of the coffee table, taking it in his.

Her voice was soft. “I know I don’t say it, but I’m grateful for everything you do for Buffy. I hate the things she has to do, but I sleep a little better at night knowing you’re there, looking out for her.”

Breath stopped. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d wanted to, so stunned was he by her declaration. He’d hoped to some day have Joyce’s acceptance. But to have her gratitude.... He swallowed on emotion he couldn’t even begin to define and raised her fingers to his lips. “How could I do any less?” he whispered, his voice roughened, “for Buffy–and for her mother.”

Joyce smiled and closed her eyes, breathing out a sound almost contented. He could feel her start to relax. The book was forgotten as he sat at her side and watched her, watched her gentle but strong face, watched the even swell of her chest as she breathed in and out. Took in her long lashes guarding large, liquid eyes, straight, regal nose, wide, generous mouth, heart-shaped face. There were two pink spots on her cheeks, the only color in her still unusually pale complexion. He stroked a cheek with the back of one hand, pleased to feel some warmth there. Not fever, just the beginnings of normal color. Joyce sighed at his touch, so he kept it up, a gentle stroking of her cheek and hair.

He sat with her long after she finally slid to sleep. Sat and watched her, sat and thought. Because after all, that was what a watcher did.

* * * * *

A clunking sound woke Giles from his light sleep and he saw a light downstairs. He heard another sound, like a cupboard opening, and got up to investigate, tying his robe around him as he went.

The sofa was empty, its counterpane crumpled on the floor. He found Joyce instead in the kitchen, pulling wads of paper towels off the roll.

“Joyce?”

She jumped. “Sorry, I–“

”I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”

They spoke together, then smiled sheepishly at each other.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She sighed. “I sprang a leak.”

“Pardon?”

“The ice pack. It melted and the bag opened up and now there’s water all over the couch, the blanket, me....” She sounded upset.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

“I’m sorry, I–“

”It’s all right. Accidents happen.”

“I seem to be a walking accident tonight–except I’m not walking!”

He smiled. “Here, why don’t you sit down and ....” He put his hands on her shoulders. She was trembling. “Joyce?”

Her eyes pinched shut and a hand covered her face. “I’m sorry....” she whispered.

He did the only think he could think of; he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her securely. “Shh-shh, it’s all right.”

“‘m sorry,” she murmured again, her voice muffled against his chest.

"Just relax, it’s all right.” He stroked her hair gently. “You’ve had quite a night of it, it’s natural you’d be upset.”

“I’m not usually like this,” she insisted, dragging a shaking hand across her eyes.

He knew from experience that Joyce wept easily, but usually out of anger and frustration more than sorrow. She’d had a very frustrating evening, all told. The tears weren’t surprising.

“Shh,” he murmured, pulling her close and kissing her temple. “Just relax.” He kept up the soothing assurances, his hand stroking her back, her hair, until she sighed and straightened, raising her head.

Her eyes shone in the dim light. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He kissed her forehead, briefly wondering whether he weren’t being too forward, but she seemed to welcome his attentions, so he gave her hair one final stroke before letting her go. “Now, why don’t you–“

She shook her head. “I need to see if I can dry myself off.” She pointed down and he noticed for the first time that her trouser leg was wet almost to the knee. She smiled shyly before limping off to the bathroom.

With a sigh, he took the paper towels to the sofa. She was right about everything being wet–the bottom edge of the blanket, most of the end cushion of the couch. One wouldn’t have thought an ice pack could hold so much liquid in it, but everything was thoroughly soaked. He blotted up what he could, but it had seeped into the cushion. There was no way she could sleep on it anymore tonight.

Joyce came out of the bathroom. “I can’t figure out how one little ice pack could hold so much water.”

He chuckled. “I was just wondering the same thing.”

“Did I ruin it?” she asked, looking worriedly at the sofa.

“Not at all,” he dismissed. “Nothing that won’t dry. Eventually.”

She sighed. “Yeah, same for my leg.”

“How are you feeling otherwise?” he asked, wadding up the wet paper towels. “Dizziness gone?”

“Yes, thank God. I have a headache, but it’s nothing like before.”

He paused. “I hesitate to give you anything else....” After all, he’d practically poisoned her before.

She just smiled. “I think I can probably handle an aspirin.”

“That I can manage,” he agreed. “Eh–how’s your trouser leg?”

“Still pretty wet,” she grimaced. “And getting clammy.”

“Let me see if I can’t find you something to change into. It will be too large, I’m afraid, but–“

”Better big than damp.” She sighed again. “Rupert, I’m so sorry to be putting you out like this.”

“Hey, now, that’s enough,” he chided gently. He put a hand on her shoulder in comfort and was surprised when she leaned her cheek against his hand. He wondered if she even realized she did it. He slid his other arm around her, giving her another hug, feeling her neediness and wanting to offer what comfort he could.

He stroked a hand over her hair. “If I help you, can you manage the stairs?”

She looked up at him questioningly. “Why–?”

“The sofa is too wet for you to sleep on.”

She stared at him for a moment, mouth open. “Rupert, I’m not about to take your bed.”

“It’s all right, I’ll be perfectly fine on–“

”No, now just give me a pillow and a blanket and I’ll–“

”Absolutely not! You’re injured and I won’t–“

”I won’t put you out of your bed!”

“Joyce–“

”Rupert–“

They both stopped. For a long moment they stared at each other. Here they were, in each other’s arms, and arguing about where they would sleep. He searched her face. Her large eyes looked huge in the dim light, speaking volumes to him. He didn’t have any idea what his were saying in return and hoped she wouldn’t get the wrong impression.

Or perhaps hoping she would.

They were adults; they should be able to handle this.

“Come on,” he finally said, his voice pitched low, “let’s get you upstairs.”

She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher and leaned against him as he helped her up the stairs.

In his loft bedroom, he let her go and moved to his wardrobe, scrounging for another pair of pajamas. “They’re...not exactly glamourous,” he said with a sheepish smile.

“At least they won’t be clammy and sticking to me,” she answered.

“Do you want another ice pack?”

Her eyes widened. “You’d really trust me with another ice pack?”

"I...er, that is...”

She laughed. “I don’t think it’s doing much good at this point, but thanks anyway.”

He nodded. Another awkward pause. “Well, I’ll...I’ll just–go downstairs, finish cleaning up...let you get changed.”

She smiled and he left her, taking the time to throw out the paper towels, shut off the lights, and, foolishly, he felt, stop by the bathroom to rinse his mouth out. Not that he...but after all...well...it couldn’t hurt.

He stared at himself in the mirror. They were playing with fire. He knew it and he was pretty sure she knew it, too. But the yearning in her eyes, the softness of her touch.... She was vulnerable right now and he wanted to comfort her, keep her safe. But by light of day, this might look very different.

He shook his head. He hoped this night wouldn’t end up as yet another unspoken regret between them. If he were being honest with himself, his primary regret about that night last fall was the irresponsible way he’d acted. They’d been bloody lucky she hadn’t ended up pregnant. That and the obvious discomfort he caused her. But he couldn’t bring himself to fully regret what had happened between them. The fading of the candy hadn’t faded his memories and he had only to remember her touch, the smoothness of her thighs, the texture of her breasts.... He swallowed again. Oh, bloody wonderful. This wasn’t helping at all.

Just as he was leaving the bathroom he remembered the promised aspirin and brought them and a glass upstairs with him. She was sitting on the bed, her injured foot extended in front of her, her bare legs looking impossibly long beneath his pajama shirt.

She looked up at him and smiled before ducking her head. “I tried the pants, but I couldn’t get them to stay up.”

He pushed that particular image out of his head roughly. Had his life always been full of double entendres, or was it just this night in particular? “Do you want me to–“

”I’ll be fine,” she shook her head. “But thanks.”

He handed her the aspirin and she took it gratefully.

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“No, I’m fine.” She swung her legs into bed, sliding her feet under the covers, hissing as her injured foot moved the wrong way.

“Do you want a pillow for that?”

“No, it’s fine.” She laid down, pulling the covers up to her shoulders. He twitched the corner of the blanket and smoothed it over her.

“Do you need–“

”The only thing I need is for you to stop fussing and come to bed.”

Her simple request stopped him cold. Until this moment, he wasn’t fully convinced he would actually crawl into bed next to her. A part of him kept assuming that once he had her tucked up, he’d settle down on the floor. But she quashed that with three words: come to bed.

He swallowed and turned off the light, shedding his robe. He climbed in and laid down, carefully pulling the covers up, trying not to take her share of the covers. At the very least this was awkward; he was unused to sharing his bed. But beyond that....

“This all right?” he whispered.

“Mmm-hmm,” she answered.

Another pause. “Good night, Joyce.”

“‘Night.”

They lay still. Side by side, unmoving. He on is back, she on hers. He turned his head. Her eyes were closed, head turned slightly toward him. Then she opened her eyes and he wished he could see her better in the dark. They stared at each other for a long time. Giles didn’t think he breathed, was sure he didn’t even blink. He couldn’t decipher her expression, couldn’t tell what she wanted.

But he knew what he wanted.

He slid his hand over, touching her fingers, and as one, they rolled on their sides, meeting in the center. His one hand intertwined with hers, while the other drew her close. Their lips met and her hand came up, cupping the back of his head, fingers stroking through his hair. He drew her lower lip into his mouth, and she opened her lips to him, offering him invitation. She tasted...like Joyce. Nothing artificial or overly sweet, but not musky or earthy, either. It was a taste he couldn’t describe, but knew the minute he tasted it, that it was simply the flavor of Joyce.

She broke the kiss, sighing, and he let his lips trail down her jaw to her neck, kissing and licking until he nibbled her ear, making her gasp. His free hand rubbed up and down her shoulder and arm before sliding up to her hair, tangling his fingers there as he reclaimed her mouth. Her kisses were keen but not overly enthusiastic–deep but gentle.

Until he realized that they were becoming gentler and smaller, eventually turning into little more than a caress of his lips and jaw with her own. And her breathing was slowing, evening.

He pressed a kiss to her forehead with a smile. Poor Joyce. She must really be knackered, to fall asleep in the middle of lovemaking....

His heart skipped a beat. Lovemaking. Dear god. Lovemaking. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. He was nowhere near ready to think about that with Joyce, and he didn’t think she was, either. This wasn’t two randy teenagers on a crazy spree. This was two adults. Two responsible adults who....

He stroked her hair as she relaxed in his arms. Who what? Who found each other attractive? Who enjoyed each others’ company? Where was the problem there?

He knew the answer, though. Knew every five-foot-two-inch bit of it. Buffy would not handle this well, the idea of Giles romancing her mother. There would be too many problems, too many....

Joyce sighed as she snuggled next to him and he couldn’t help smiling. Yes, there would be problems. In their lives, when were there ever not problems? But if they thought this was worth it, and he had to be honest, he had no idea how Joyce would feel by light of day, then they’d find a way to cope.

Coping. It was what they did best.

* * * * *

When Giles opened his eyes, Joyce was looking at him. The light coming through the skylight had that translucent gray quality which told him that while dawn had arrived, it wasn’t very far advanced.

“Morning,” he whispered.

“Hi.” Her voice was small and her face pinched.

“How are you feeling?”

In response, her eyes slid closed and she took a deep breath, as if it was too much effort to even answer.

“Do you want to go to hospital?”

She opened her eyes. “Yeah. I think I’d better.”

“All right,” he sat up, “I’ll...let you get dressed, then we’ll go. Do you want anything to eat? Some tea, perhaps?”

She sat up, grimacing at the movement. “No, I...but thank you.”

He fished out clothes for himself, then took them downstairs to get cleaned up, leaving her in privacy. As he dragged the razor over his chin he sighed. By the light of day, the awkwardness between them had returned. The night would go down as yet another unspoken incident to drive a wedge between them, another breach which would go unmended.

Dammit! You’d think by now he’d know better. He’d lived most of his adult life fairly circumspectly, not leaping into relationships. For God’s sake, he’d dated Jenny for months, barring the odd difficulty, and they’d never slept together. Why was it with Joyce he seemed to constantly be jumping into bed with her? Last night was especially unforgivable; she was hurt, vulnerable, and he’d taken advantage of her.

With a snort of disgust, he finished dressing and went upstairs. Joyce was sitting on the bed, staring down at her swollen, purpled foot. Her clothes were rumpled and when she raised her head, her expression was bleak.

“I must look a fright,” she said, running a hand through her tangled hair.

He smiled gently. “You look like a woman who’s had rather a rough time of it.” He extended his hands and helped her off the bed. “Let’s get you seen to.” He started to lead her to the stairs when she stopped, put her arms around him and held on tight. His own encircled her and his heart gave a little thump. Perhaps he hadn’t offended her after all. Perhaps her quiet sorrow was simply because she was in pain. But, she was still vulnerable, he had to be wary not to take advantage of her like this. She was apt to reach out for any available comfort. And that was hardly the basis on which to build a lasting relationship.

When she pulled back she managed to give him a little smile in answer to his own, and he helped her downstairs and out the door.

* * * * *

Giles pulled into the Summers’ driveway and parked. He went around to Joyce’s side, noticing that this time she was more than willing to wait for him. He reached in back for her crutches as she maneuvered her black-booted foot out of the car, then helped her as she stood, making sure she was balanced steadily on the crutches. He stayed close to her side as she slowly made her way to the door.

It had taken more than three hours at hospital, most of which had been spent waiting. Waiting to see someone, waiting for X-Rays, waiting for someone to read the films and to point out to them what was patently obvious even for the layperson–that Joyce had broken a bone in her ankle and torn most of the ligaments in the vicinity as well. Waiting for someone to fit her with the large removable boot which she was commanded to wear constantly for the next three weeks. For part of the time Giles had waited with her, making small-talk or simply sitting silently, holding her hand. For the rest, he’d been relegated to the waiting room where he tried unsuccessfully to doze. It hadn’t been the best of night’s sleep for either of them, and he was tired.

Not as tired as Joyce, however. She still wore that pinched look around her eyes and mouth, and while the foot was more comfortable now it was stabilized, she was still in some pain. The emergency room had given her a small quantity of pain pills, plus a prescription for more, and he promised he’d go out later and fill it for her. He would have stopped on the way home, but though Joyce hadn’t said anything, he got the impression she just wanted to get home.

He took her keys and unlocked the front door and she limped inside. She was having a little trouble negotiating with the crutches, but the doctor insisted she keep all weight off the foot, despite the fact that the boot could be walked on. He closed the door behind her and she dropped to the sofa with a sigh.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” she said, “now I’ll never want to get up.”

He smiled. “Then don’t. Can I get you anything?”

“I’d kill for a cup of coffee.”

“Ah, yes, you missed out on the dubious pleasure of hospital coffee.”

She just shook her head. “I’ve made that mistake before.”

“Sometimes you take what you can get. You have a coffee machine?”

She nodded. “On the counter. The filters are in the little box on top of the coffee, which is in the canister next to the coffee maker. One scoop per cup, and use the filtered water in the fridge.”

“I think I can manage this,” he grinned, pleased to see her smile in return.

Coffee started, he went back to the living room, propping her foot on a pillow set on the coffee table. She gazed at him, a soft expression he couldn’t quite decipher on her face.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. How are you feeling otherwise?”

She sighed. “Tired.”

“Why don’t you lie down?”

“Buffy–“

”I’ll wait for Buffy, it’s all right.”

“Oh, Rupert, you don’t need–“

”When are you expecting her?”

“I don’t know. Early afternoon, maybe?”

“You can nap until then.”

She stared at him, another undefinable look on her face. More than anything he wanted to offer to nap with her–rub her shoulders and temples, take that pinched look away.

But he didn’t dare.

“How do you take your coffee?” he asked instead, taking refuge in the mundane.

“Just a little milk, no sugar.”

He returned to the kitchen and fixed her cup, thought about fixing one for himself, but decided that he’d had so much hospital coffee, he couldn’t bear another cup without exploding. He brought out her cup and she sipped from it gratefully.

Then she set the cup aside. “Rupert, we need to talk.”

His stomach flip-flopped as the blood rushed to his toes. “I rather think we’ve needed to talk since last autumn,” he said with a nod and sat next to her. She flushed and stared at her hands for a long moment.

“Are you feeling right now like I’m feeling?”

“And how is that?” he asked quietly.

Her eyes closed and she swallowed. “Like I want to crawl into your arms and stay there, safe and protected.”

There was nothing he could say to that, even if he could speak around the lump in his throat. So he simply slid closer and pulled her into his arms. Her own arms came around him and their mouths met, the kiss going from gentle to desperate and back again practically within heartbeats. She tasted of coffee and cream and her own sweet essence, and he let his lips caress her temples, eyelids, forehead, cheeks, jaw and throat before returning to savor her mouth again. She held him close, her fingers tangling in his hair as her mouth ravaged his.

Until with a cry, she pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “Oh, God, what you must think of me....”

“Shh-shh.” He pulled her back into his arms and held her loosely yet securely, more a cuddle than a hug. “I think you’re a beautiful, desirable woman, and the attraction is most definitely mutual. However–“ he pressed a kiss to her forehead, “I think we need to slow down.”

She laughed, a small, bitter sound. “Well, that’ll be novel for us, won’t it?”

He chuckled. She had a point. Then the smile faded and he cupped her face with his hands. “This is too important to get wrong, Joyce,” he said. “We’re both a part of each others’ lives, because of Buffy. We can’t afford to be enemies. Nor can we afford the awkward estrangement of these past few months. For Buffy’s sake if nothing else, it’s important that the lines of communication remain open between us.”

“For Buffy’s sake,” she sighed.

He closed his eyes briefly. Why was he so disappointed at her reaction? He’d expected no less. “Joyce, I–“

”I know, she’s the slayer and you’re her watcher.”

“Well, actually, I–“

”Or whatever you’re calling yourself these days. The job’s still the same, whether your stupid council says so or not,” she countered. “You could no more stop doing what you do than she could stop doing what she does. I know this. It’s just....”

She sat up, out of his embrace. “I’ve been a mom for eighteen years. For eighteen years, that’s how I defined myself. Hank’s wife, Buffy’s mom. But she’s growing up now, breaking out on her own. I guess... I guess just this once, I wanted something for me.”

A lump settled in Giles’ stomach. “I’m sorry. I wish it could be different. And I know how unfair it is for me to ask you to accept that there will always be someone else who must come first with me. That attentions I should offer to a lover or...or whatever...get spent with the slayer. I suppose it’s one of the reasons many watchers never marry. Or at least, tend to marry within the organization.”

“Which could explain a lot about your watchers,” Joyce snorted uncharitably.

He chuckled. “Yes, I suppose it does.” He turned toward her again, taking her hands in his. “I do...care about you, and I’m very attracted to you. But...this is probably not a very good idea. The potential for conflict is immense.”

She didn’t say anything, just stared at their joined hands, letting her thumb trace his fingers. “Yeah, probably,” she finally said softly. “On the other hand, Buffy is the most important person in my life.” She raised her head. “And it’s some small comfort to know that you love her almost as much as I do.” She looked at him, her large eyes guileless. “I know Buffy’s the slayer. I’ve accepted that. But I meant what I said last night, Rupert, that wasn’t just the drugs talking. It helps to know you’re out there with her, keeping her alive.”

The knot in his gut was joined by the fist clenched around his heart. “Joyce, I–“

”You would die for her, wouldn’t you?” she asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question, but he knew he couldn’t speak, so he managed a nod. “So would I. But I’d rather have all of us alive for a long time. And we stand a better chance together than alone. Besides,” her fingers stroked over his, “it’s all too scary to face alone.”

The fist around his heart loosened slightly, replaced by a melting and the feeling that he was about to turn into a puddle of goo. He cupped her face with his hand, a thumb brushing gently over her cheek. “When did you become so accepting of all this?” he asked, not too surprised by the roughness in his voice.

“When I learned that knowing was better than not knowing and fearing the worst,” she said simply. “When I spent the worst thirty-six hours of my life, during graduation. Oh, I know why she did it,” she continued, forestalling his protests, “I mean that I could understand her motives. But I realized, sitting in that hotel room, that not knowing whether the people I cared about were alive or dead, that I couldn’t do anything to help them.... I learned that I can’t do that again. I’d rather know, as terrible as it might be, than imagine things that are even worse. I know she wanted to keep me safe, but what about me? I wanted to help and she pushed me out the door.”

“Joyce, you’re her mother. All normal rules fly out the window where you’re concerned. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do to–“

”I know that, but it works both ways,” she said and he heard the touch of anger in her voice. “She said she couldn’t do her job if she was worrying about me, but sending me away won’t keep me safe. I want to support her, help her, and she won’t let me.”

“People died that day,” he said quietly.

“And more of them lived. Some of the parents fought alongside their children. That’s where I should have been. Or if not.... I know fighting vampires and demons is her job, and yours. They scare the hell out of me so I’m just as happy to leave it to the experts, but.... But afterwards, after it was all over, she needed me and I wasn’t there.”

He remembered Buffy that night, after it was all over. Remembered her brittle fragility. How she’d wept silently and he’d felt so helpless, so inadequate to comfort her. He’d done his best, of course, but....

Eventually, she’d drifted to sleep, only to wake when his phone rang. It was Joyce, looking for her daughter. Buffy grabbed the phone, her entire face brightening, and begged her mother to come home, right away. Then she sat quietly for the two hours it took Joyce to get there, and when she arrived, Buffy went straight into her arms and stayed there for the rest of the night. She’d been strong, brave, clever, everything he’d expected a slayer to be and more. But at the end of the day, she was a young woman, little more than a girl, who still needed her mother.

“I know I can’t do everything, Rupert,” Joyce was continuing. “So let me do the things I can.”

He tightened his clasp of her hands. “That’s Buffy’s decision, not mine,” he said. “I can certainly understand your feelings, but Buffy wants to keep you safe at all costs. I’m...not a particularly safe person to be with, much of the time. I’m with the slayer, which means I’m near danger. If anything were to happen to you while you were with me, Buffy would never forgive me. I’ve a feeling she’s going to be upset enough over last night’s misadventures.”

Joyce frowned. “Last night wasn’t your fault.”

“You were with me–under my care, so to speak.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she scoffed.

“Nonetheless–“

”Has anyone ever told you you’ve got an overinflated sense of responsibility?” she asked, but the half-smile and the glint in her eye told him she was teasing.

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, they have. But–“

”No one made me go with you last night, Rupert.”

“You were hurt because you were with me.”

“I was hurt because I tripped over my own feet! It could have happened in the parking lot of the grocery store! Besides–“ she gazed at him intently. “I don’t regret a single thing about last night.” Then she blushed and smiled. “Well, except for the part where I fell asleep.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “Doesn’t say much for my amourous charms, does it?”

“Your charms were wonderful, but I just got so relaxed next thing I knew–“ she made a flat line with her hand.

“I was grateful you felt at ease enough to be able to sleep.”

He gazed at her; her liquid eyes were full of promise and desire.

“We seem to have talked ourselves into a circle,” she said. He nodded. “So where does this leave us?”

“Back where we stared, I suppose.” He raised her hands to his lips. “I would like to...to see you. Socially.”

“So would I.”

“But there are...difficulties.”

“When are there ever not?”

For a long time, they simply stared at each other. “Do you want this, Rupert?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Yes.”

“Then we’ll deal with the problems. God knows we ought to be expert problem solvers by now. But I think you’re right, we should go slowly. I...as much as I’m...as much as I want...well, I...I don’t want to lose you as a friend, no matter what. That’s what I’ve missed, these last few months. Someone to talk to. Another adult who understands.”

“I’ve missed that, too,” he said, squeezing her hands. “Without you to talk to, I was forced to talk to Wesley.”

She laughed. “I only met him the one time. Was he really that bad or was it just Buffy predisposed against him because he wasn’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He was self-righteous, supercilious, unbending, and green as they come. But he is intelligent, and actually knows his demonology better than I do. I kept hoping.... He never did understand Buffy, she being so far outside what he’d been taught to expect from the slayer. But he was beginning to learn how to think outside the box.”

She smiled, sighing, and he pulled her into another hug, kissing her hair before she settled with her head on his shoulder. They sat silently for a time, enjoying the relative peace and being together. Buffy would be home soon and then God knew what would happen. She ran her hand up his chest, rubbing, letting her fingers snake between buttons to stroke his chest hair, before it trailed up, gentle fingers caressing his throat and jaw, moving to that sensitive spot behind his ears that always made him gasp. He bent his head, kissing her again, a kiss whose passion grew almost immediately. Her hands were cupping the back of his head, holding him close, while one of his hands slipped beneath her blouse, rubbing over her stomach and up until it encountered the soft nylon and lace of her bra, massaging her breast through the cloth, pleased as she gasped against his mouth.

Then slowly, reluctantly, he withdrew.

“I think perhaps I’d best be heading home,” he said, his voice husky with passion.

“Why?”

“Because in about another thirty seconds, I’m going to take you upstairs and take you to bed.”

She smiled, pulling away slightly. “Tell you what.”

“What?”

“Help me upstairs, and then I’ll make you come back down.”

“Oh? And how will you do that?”

She grinned coyly. “Well, probably by falling asleep on you again. I hate to say it, but right now what I want is a shower and a nap. I’m not much romantic company at the moment. Besides,” she straightened from the hug, “we promised ourselves slowly.”

He sighed. “We seem to be having a bit of a problem with that.”

“Yeah I noticed.” She put her booted foot down on the floor. “Come on, Ripper, help me upstairs.”

He was getting to his feet when he stopped. “Joyce,” he said, offering her his hands, helping her up, “I’m not Ripper. He..he’s a part of me, I suppose, but–“

”Good,” she said simply, which somehow surprised him. “Ripper was exciting, but also kind of scary. And besides, Ripper would never have been the perfect gentleman you are, both last night, and now.”

He smiled, heartened by her compliment, and leaned down to kiss her mouth, tenderly and chastely.

Without any more words between them, he helped her up the stairs and into her bedroom.

“I should be okay from here,” she said, limping to her closet, “thanks for everything. And you really don’t have to wait for Buffy. I’m sure I’ll hear her come in.”

“I think I’d rather be here to defend myself,” he said and she just laughed. “Do you need anything else?”

They looked at each other for a moment, before she turned away, shaking her head. “You sure know how to ask loaded questions, don’t you?”

“I–I–“

”That’s okay, I know what you meant. Actually, I left my purse downstairs with the pills the doctor gave me....”

“Oh! Oh, yes. I’ll bring them right up.” He made his escape, away from the heavily charged atmosphere, and went down to find her handbag. They seemed to be having rather a problem with the idea of ‘slowly’. More than anything, he wanted to take her to bed, ease her pain, soothe her sore muscles, love her....

He swallowed. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps he should leave after all. He’d talk to Buffy after she got home, he needn’t be here when she arrived.

Back upstairs, Joyce was standing in front of her closet, holding her robe in preparation to head into the bathroom.

“I, uh, just brought the whole bag,” he said, holding up her purse.

“That’s fine, just leave it on the bed for me,” she smiled.

“Would you like me to get that scrip filled for you?” he asked.

“Oh, would you? I’d really appreciate it.”

“Not a problem. I’ll go now and likely be back before Buffy gets home.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you need anything else?”

She shook her head. “That should do it.”

They smiled awkwardly at each other. How they could go from passionate to embarrassed in a heartbeat was a wonder. Neither of them were teenagers, and yet they sometimes behaved like they were. Well, he supposed new love did that to a person....

New love? Good God, he was far gone. Infatuation, certainly. Lust, definitely. And, of course, the newness of it all. But love? A bit soon to be thinking that way.

He managed to tear his gaze away. “You’ll be all right?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine. Go.”

“Be back soon,” he said, smiling at her again, nervously.

* * * * *

He was gone and back before Buffy arrived, and he smiled to himself, pleased to have run his errand so promptly. He let himself in, chuckling. Dear Sunnydale–dozens of murders every year, but almost no burglaries. Joyce had simply told him to set the door, as unworried as he about the consequences.

Consequences. Bad word to use in conjunction with Joyce. God knew what the consequences of this newfound...whatever it was would be. How would Buffy react? He assumed she’d be upset, but he realized he really wasn’t positive. She’d been upset about their misadventure last fall, but it was the irresponsibility of the act which seemed to most appall her. If he courted Joyce properly.... Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem after all.

Oh, yes, and perhaps pigs would fly.

He went upstairs to tell Joyce he was back and found her curled up in her bed, asleep. A towel was crumpled at the end of the bed, and Joyce’s damp hair splayed out across the pillow. The bottle of pills and a water glass sat on the night stand. Poor Joyce, she was exhausted. Sleep would be the best thing for her.

He stood for a moment and gazed at her. Hair in disarray, complexion still a little gray, lines of fatigue and pain etched lightly in her forehead, around her mouth...and she was still beautiful, with that clear, translucent skin, those strong yet delicate features, that fine figure.... He swallowed. This wasn’t helping.

He picked up the damp towel, carrying it into the bathroom where he dumped it in the hamper. Back in the bedroom, he smoothed the covers over her; she never even stirred. He was tempted to stroke her hair, her shoulder, kiss her temple, but he resisted. He didn’t want to wake her up. He was also tempted to crawl into the bed with her as the exhaustion was fast catching up with him as well, but knew that would be just about the worst thing he could do.

Slowly. He had a feeling that would become his mantra in the coming weeks. Assuming Buffy didn’t put paid to the whole thing immediately.

Back downstairs, he looked around the living room and sighed. There were no bookshelves. How could intelligent people not keep books in the house? In the kitchen he found a shelf of cookbooks, and there was a small shelf of picture type “coffee table” books next to some knick knacks in the dining room. He pulled out one, “A Day In Los Angeles”, and carried it into the living room. At least he’d have something to look at while he waited.

But sitting down proved to be a bad idea, and he felt his eyes closing. He let the book slide from his lap onto the sofa next to him, and closed his eyes, deciding that a little rest wouldn’t hurt....

* * * * *

He woke abruptly to the sound of a car door slam, and voices on the front porch, and just managed to get himself upright when Buffy opened the front door.

“...car is?” she was saying to someone behind her. She came into the front foyer as Giles stepped forward. “Giles! What are you doing here? Where’s my mom?”

Behind her was Hank Summers, carrying Buffy’s suitcase.

“Mr. Summers,” Giles nodded.

“Mr. Giles,” Hank nodded back.

“Where’s Mom?” Buffy asked again.

“Upstairs, resting. She–“

”Where’s her car?”

“At the gallery. She–“

”Why? Is something wrong?”

“No, no, she’ll be all right, she–“

”All right! Giles, what happened?”

“Honey, he could tell you if you didn’t keep interrupting him,” Hank Summers suggested with a wry smile. Giles was surprised. Obviously, being an absentee father hadn’t lost Hank his basic fathering skills; he handled his daughter much better than Giles had expected.

“She had a small accident last night and broke her ankle,” he said, figuring getting it all out in a rush would be the best tactic. “She’s been to hospital, she’s all right. She just needs to take it easy.”

“Oh, my God, Mom!” Buffy went wide-eyed and bolted up the stairs.

“Buffy–“ Giles tried to stop her.

“Forget it, Mr. Giles,” Hank said, “you’re not gonna stop her. Nothing gets between Buffy and her mother. Excuse me.” He headed up the stairs after his daughter.

Giles sighed. Somehow, he hadn’t expected Hank Summers to be with his daughter. Which was pretty daft, after all, how else would she get home from Los Angeles? And it was just natural that he would come in with her rather than simply dropping her in the driveway.

But recent events made seeing Hank more awkward than usual. Hello, Mr. Summers, by the way, I’m romancing your ex-wife. He didn’t know why Hank’s finding out bothered him. It wasn’t as if he still had any claim on Joyce. If anything, his own position in their lives was stronger than Hank’s. After all, he was here, helping them through crisis and trial, while Hank was not. Still, it wasn’t something he was anxious to reveal. Certainly not without speaking to Buffy privately first.

Buffy’s suitcase was still sitting in the foyer, so Giles picked it up. It was as good an excuse as any to find out what was going on upstairs.

As he approached the top of the stairs, he heard Buffy’s voice and Joyce’s softer one. He set the bag in Buffy’s room then continued down the hall to Joyce’s room.

Buffy was sitting on her mother’s bed, examining Joyce’s black boot. “It looks like a Darth Vader boot,” she was saying.

They all looked up at Giles’s approach.

He cleared his throat. “Buffy, your suitcase is in your room.”

“Oh, thanks.”

He took in the scene: Buffy and her mother sitting together, so very different yet so much alike. Hank standing to one side, arms crossed, a look of concerned affection on his face. Seeing them together made that fist close around his heart again. The family unit might be broken, but it was still a family and he felt terribly out of place here. He’d been deceiving himself about his place in their lives.

“I’d, um, best be off,” he said.

Joyce looked up at him, surprised and concerned.

“Don’t go yet,” Buffy said, completely oblivious to the undercurrents in the room.

“I have some things at home which need attending to,” he answered.

“Yeah, I’d better be going, too,” Hank said. “I’ve got to catch a red-eye tonight to Chicago.”

Buffy got up. “When will you be back?” she asked her father.

“Next week. I’ll give you a call.”

“Okay. Don’t forget. I mean, you owe me.”

Hank laughed. “I know, and you always make me pay up, don’t you, pumpkin?” He gave his daughter a hug. Giles smiled at the warmth between them, though he couldn’t imagine ever calling Buffy “pumpkin”.

“Take care of yourself, Joyce,” Hank said, his arm still around Buffy.

“I will,” she said.

“If you need anything–“

”We’ll be fine,” she interrupted. Though what Hank expected to be able to do a hundred miles away was beyond Giles. “The worst thing,” Joyce was continuing, “will be not being able to drive.”

“I can drive,” Buffy said.

“No!” Both her parents chorused. Giles had to bite his tongue to keep from adding his own voice to it.

“I can–“ Buffy protested.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Joyce cut her off with a tone that brooked no argument. “Why don’t you see your father out.”

Buffy sighed, the sound only a teen-aged girl could make. “Come on, Daddy, I’ll say goodbye downstairs.” Buffy led the way.

“Bye, Joyce.”

“Bye. Drive safe.”

“Mr. Giles.” Hank offered his hand.

“Mr. Summers.” The shake was returned.

Hank followed his daughter out and Giles turned back to the bed. Joyce was watching him intently.

“You don’t really have to go, do you?”

“Well, I didn’t want to–“

”You don’t need to feel awkward in front of him, you know. Ex really means ex.”

“You and Buffy, and Hank...you looked like a family, and I....”

“Appearances can be deceiving. We haven’t been that in a good long while. I haven’t loved him since....” She took a deep breath. “Since I found out he was cheating on me. I never knew someone could fall out of love that completely.”

“He’s still her father.”

“And you’re her watcher. She’s devoted to him, of course, just because he’s her father. But he’s disappointed her so many times. Honestly, he talks to her like he’s setting up another business meeting.”

They heard the door slam and the sound of Buffy’s quick step as she trotted up the stairs.

“Okay, spill,” she said as she swung into the bedroom again.

“Pardon?” Giles kept hoping that eventually he’d understand everything that came out of her mouth, but the slang kept changing.

“How’d you really break your ankle?” she asked her mother, bouncing to a seat on the bed again.

Joyce laughed, a little nervously, he thought. “I told you, I tripped down some steps.”

“Where?”

“A–at Mr. Giles’.”

Buffy’s face wrinkled. “Wow, if you fell down the stairs at Giles’ you’re lucky you only got a broken ankle, those stairs are... Wait a minute. What were you doing on Giles’ stairs?” Her tone was accusatory. This was not going to go easily.

“Not the stairs inside, the steps outside leading to the apartment,” he corrected. “You know how poorly they’re lit, and–“

”And my mom was there because...?”

“We were going to get a book,” Joyce continued. “Rupert was helping me identify the pieces of the new exhibit at the gallery. We were looking for one last reference and...” She paused.

“And...?” Buffy looked from one to the other and back again. “Okay, what are you guys not saying?”

“What?” Joyce looked at her daughter guilelessly. But Giles knew there was no point in pretending.

“Your mother fell because we were being chased by vampires.”

“What?!” Buffy exploded. “Giles, what–?”

“It’s all right, no one was hurt...well, except for your mother’s ankle. I–in fact, she took care of one of them quite handily with that spray thing of Willow’s.”

“Yeah, but still–“

”Buffy, we outran them, they didn’t get us. Yeah, I broke my ankle, but I could have done that falling off the curb at the mall. And once we could finally get to the hospital this morning, I–“

”Why this morning?” Buffy demanded. “Why not last night?”

Joyce and Giles exchanged a look. Hers clearly said you get to handle this one and he sighed.

“Er, they knew Joyce was injured; they were waiting for us,” he explained. “We spent the night holed up in the apartment until it was light enough for us to leave.”

Buffy looked away disgustedly. “Geez, I leave you guys for a week and look what happens.”

“Oh, come on, honey, it’s not like we asked them to attack us,” Joyce insisted.

Buffy looked at Giles. “These the first?” He nodded. “Shoot.”

“Possibly,” he agreed. “Or it could have been a couple who were especially enthusiastic. They seemed rather young.”

“Well,” she sighed. “Back to patrolling. It was nice while it lasted.”

“Indeed.”

“Wanna sweep with me tonight?”

“I think it would be wise. Meet you at nine at Fairfield Cemetery?”

She frowned. “Why Fairfield?”

“It’s the closest one to my place,” he reasoned.

“Oh.” She sat and thought for a minute, her face crossed with a frown. “When did all this happen?”

“Last night,” he answered. He thought he’d made that clear.

“What time?”

He and Joyce exchanged a look. “Perhaps ten?”

Buffy looked from one to the other. “You guys were researching ‘til ten?”

“No, we took a dinner break, then we were going to find one last book when–“ Joyce explained.

“You guys are getting chummy all of a sudden.” She stared at them suspiciously. “You aren’t gonna do anything humiliating again, are you?”

Giles coughed to cover his reaction. “Is there a problem with your mother and I being friends?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

“Not as long as that’s all that’s going on,” Buffy said. “But I don’t want to see a repeat of last year. That was waay too freaky.”

“Buffy, that was the candy’s influence,” Joyce said. “I already told you–“

”Yeah, but when you two get buddy-buddy, you always try to double-team me and I get nervous. Unfair odds.”

“Not the way I look at it,” Joyce said, making Buffy start. Giles stared at her, just as surprised. “The way I see it, you’re the slayer. That gives you the advantage. Rupert and I are just trying to even things up a bit.”

Buffy stared at her mother for a moment. “You sure those pain thingies haven’t made you delusional?”

“Buffy,” Giles scolded.

“Look,” Buffy amended, “if you guys want to talk and stuff, that’s okay, just don’t try to pull that super-parent thing on me again. I’m eighteen, I don’t need that much parenting.”

“I’m your watcher, Buffy,” Giles said, then quickly amended, “or at the very least, your...your mentor. I’m not your father. It’s not my intent to parent you, merely to offer you guidance.”

She gazed at him guilelessly. “Can I throw that back at you the next time you scold me?”

He’d have been offended by her comment if he hadn’t seen the glint in her eye which told him she was teasing him. After all this time, he’d finally learned what was tease and what was real. “That totally depends on what I’m scolding you about,” he answered, giving back as good as he got.

There was a pause, then she grinned. “It’s good to be home, Giles,” she said, “back to the people who abuse me best.”

He chuckled. “It’s good to have you home. So,” he cleared his throat, “I’ll let you settle in, let your mother rest. I’ll see you tonight.” He looked over at Joyce. “And if you need anything, you’ve only to call.” It wasn't exactly the way he'd hoped to part from her, in full view of Buffy. But perhaps it was for the best. They had no choice but to go slowly when Buffy was around, she'd just made that abundantly clear.

“We should be fine,” she said, smiling. “Thanks for everything.”

“Yeah, thanks for taking such good care of my mom,” Buffy said, getting to her feet. “Even if you did let her get hurt last night.”

“Buffy–“ Joyce scolded.

Giles simply smiled. “You see?” he said to Joyce, “I should have put money on it.”

“What?” Buffy frowned.

“He said you’d blame him for my getting hurt,” Joyce explained.

“Well, of course,” Buffy said reasonably. “You’re my mother. He’s supposed to look out for stuff when I’m gone.”

“Buffy–“

”But he didn’t let you get eaten, so that’s a good thing,” she said with a smile.

Giles simply shook his head. Buffy could be affectionate and prickly in turns, and sometimes she switched from one to the other so quickly he was left stung by her barbs while still awed by her affection. “And on that charming note, I’ll leave you. I’ll see myself out,” he held up his hand to forestall Buffy’s seeing him to the door.

“See you later, Giles,” she said.

“Oh, Rupert?” Joyce called.

“Yes?” he turned back.

“Do you think later, maybe tomorrow, you could drive us to the gallery to pick up my car?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Do I get to drive?” Buffy asked eagerly.

“Only when I’m in the car with you,” Joyce said firmly.

“But Mom–“

”Those are the rules, Buffy, while you have your learner’s permit. You can’t drive unless a licensed driver is with you.”

“Yeah, but how will I get to be a licensed driver if you....”

Giles left them to what appeared to be an old argument, and saw himself out.

* * * * *

Buffy was already at the cemetery when he arrived, a fact which surprised him. Though he knew she took her duties very seriously, perhaps even more so lately, as if what had happened with Faith, and before that with the Council, made her feel she had something to prove. As far as he was concerned, she had proved it, proved she could not only survive against overwhelming odds, she could thrive. And that she didn’t need the Council, or anyone else, for that matter. Sometimes he felt Buffy allowed him to remain on sufferance, taking his advice only to humour him, rather than because she really needed his assistance. But every so often she’d look at him and the gratitude in her eyes, her implicit faith in him, absolutely took his breath away.

He smiled as he approached. “Anything yet?”

She shook her head. “Was waiting for you. Thought we’d sweep together. You know, slayer watcher bonding thing.”

He chuckled and they set out, walking the perimeter.

“How’s your mother?”

“Well, you know, it’s the funniest thing, she’s got this big ol’ boot on her foot, and she said she broke her ankle falling down some stairs.” At his scowl, she giggled. “Exactly the same as when you left her five hours ago. She’s fine. Resting.”

“Yes, we’ll that’s not surprising, she had rather a rough night of it last night, I’m afraid.”

Buffy made a face. “I don’t think I want to know how you know that.”

Rather than answering, he said, “Do make sure she knows that if I can do anything, anything at all, for either of you, while she’s laid up....”

“Giles, despite what I said earlier, I really don’t blame you. It was an accident. Accidents happen.”

“Nonetheless, if there’s anything I can do....”

“Yeah, guilt-guy,” Buffy smiled, “I’ll let her know.” Then the smile faded. “How come you guys are chummy all of a sudden. I mean, when I left, you still couldn’t stand to be in the same room together.”

“Your mother said. She received the artifacts for her new exhibit and in light of what happened last year with that Nigerian mask, wanted to carefully identify all the pieces this time. So she asked my help.” He glanced at her. “Do you have a problem with your mother and I socializing?”

“Socializing?” Buffy blinked.

“Or...or whatever.”

“Or whatever?” Her eyes grew wider and he sighed in frustration. It seemed that every other word he spoke today came out as a double entendre. “Do you mind your mother and I...being friends.”

Buffy thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know. I mean, you’re my slay life. She’s my home life. And whenever the twain meet, freaky things happen.”

“Perhaps if you included your mother in your slaying life a little more, it wouldn’t seem so, er, freaky,” he suggested.

She gave him a sideways glance. “She’s been talking to you, hasn’t she?”

“It’s...difficult for her, when you shut her out of such an important part of your life.”

“Giles, when my mother tries to get involved in my slaying life, it goes badly. She tries to have slayer bonding by bringing me snacks while I’m on patrol, putting herself, and me, in danger.”

“That’s because you’ve never intentionally brought her patrolling, so she doesn’t know what’s involved.”

“Well, duh, that’s ‘cause it’s dangerous.”

“And yet it’s all right for Willow or Xander to be placed in danger?”

Buffy stopped. “It’s different.”

“No doubt,” he agreed. “But the danger is just as real.”

“The guys have learned how to handle themselves,” she said, starting to walk again.

“Your mother handled herself last night very admirably indeed,” Giles told her. “In fact, by the time I got to her, she’d already taken care of one of them quite handily.”

“So what...? You’re saying I should bring my mom patrolling with me?”

“Not necessarily,” he conceded. “But your insistence on cutting her out of this part of your life does her a disservice. I’m not advocating making her your partner, but leaving her in the dark isn’t fair to her–not knowing what’s going on, letting her imagination run away with her...sometimes not knowing is far worse than knowing.”

Buffy looked up at him. “You have been talking to her,” she affirmed.

“I just want you to consider what I’m saying,” he went on. “It’s a very difficult thing we’ve asked of her.”

“We haven’t asked anything of her,” Buffy insisted.

“Ah, but we have,” Giles countered. “We’ve asked her to accept that all of the creatures from her worst nightmares are real. That her own daughter is the one thing that stands between this world and the forces of darkness, and that there’s nothing she can do about it. And then we’ve told her that she must keep silent about it. She can’t discuss it with anyone, can’t tell anyone her fears. She has to hold it in, pretend that everything is normal. You know what it is, to have a secret like that.”

Buffy looked away uncomfortably. “Yeah, but it can’t be helped,” she mumbled.

“True,” he agreed. “But when you feel the pressure of your calling, when it gets to you, you have your friends to talk to. Willow. Xander. And you know you can always talk to me. Who does your mother have?”

Buffy was silent for a moment. “Me?”

“You have enough on your plate without the added burden of your mother’s fears.”

Another silence, longer this time. “You?”

Giles let out a breath. “Sometimes that’s what one needs–simply another person who understands. She loves you dearly, Buffy, don’t ever doubt it. But there are times when what she needs is another adult to talk to. Someone without the inherent baggage between parents and children.” Buffy didn’t say anything more and Giles continued. “I’d like to think that talking with me helps your mother, perhaps eases her mind a little. Reminds her she’s not alone.”

Buffy looked up at him and grinned. “Which is the really long way of saying I shouldn’t get all freaky if you guys talk.”

“I should think it might be easier for you if the lines of communication were open between us.”

“Giles, you don’t understand,” Buffy said, stopping again. “There are things I don’t want my mother to know.”

Giles stopped alongside. “You don’t think she deserves–“

”I’m not talking slayer things or end of the world things.” Her voice dropped, took on that little girl quality he found endearing and irritating in turns. “I’m talking Buffy things.”

He paused, realizing what she meant. Because of their unique relationship, he was privy to details about her life which she wouldn’t want shared with a parent–the sorts of things your friends knew about you that your parents didn’t. “Buffy, you have my word that anything you say to me in confidence will remain in confidence,” he said quietly. He wouldn’t betray her trust; it was too hard won to risk.

She thought about that, her lips pursed in consideration. Then she nodded and started walking again. “Okay. But if she suddenly starts knowing stuff I know I didn’t tell her, you’re in the deep, mister.”

Giles stayed where he was. “Buffy.” She turned back to him. “I won’t lie to her. I gave her my word, last summer, there’d be no more lies.”

“You don’t have to lie, just...don’t tell her stuff. Private stuff.”

“I won’t.”

Another pause. Then Buffy smiled. “Then we’re cool.”

They started off again.

It was quiet at the cemetery, so they moved on to the next one.

And a third.

“Well,” Giles said as they completed their rounds, “it looks like our unwelcomed visitors last night were a momentary aberration.”

“Yeah, no sight.” Then she froze. “Unless your apparitions were two guys, one big one little, both ugly.”

He followed her gaze and saw them just emerging from the shadows. Clearly the same two, in fact, the smaller one’s face was marred with disfiguring burns.

“Hey, Pops,” the older one called, “you really get around. A different chick each night.”

Buffy flashed Giles a warning look before saying, “Yeah, well you know us chicks–we just can’t resist his manly good looks and charm.”

“You take the girl this time, Kit,” the smaller one said to his companion, “I don’t wanna tangle with any more chicks.”

“Gee, too bad,” Buffy said. “I’m really in the mood for tangling.”

Both vampires snarled and attacked as one. Buffy immediately set about battling the larger of the two, leaving the smaller vampire for Giles.

But though his foe was a fair bit smaller than he, he was strong, like all vampires. However, he also seemed a trifle timid, as if his encounter with Joyce last night had left him a bit shell-shocked. He flinched from Giles’ blows, only half-attacking. Giles had no such compunction; he punched him twice in the stomach, incapacitating him, just as he heard Buffy cry out. He whirled around to see the larger vampire have her by the throat, attempting to throttle her.

Giles launched for him, his stake driving unerringly through the vampire’s back, where it found its mark. The vampire grunted, then exploded to dust.

In front of him, Buffy was coughing, rubbing at her throat.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded, then her eyes widened. “Look–“

That was all she managed, or at least all he heard before he was grabbed from behind, pulled off balance, and thrown headlong into the nearest slab of granite.

Oh, bloody hell, not again, he thought briefly, and then....

* * * * *

"Giles. Giles!”

Buffy’s voice called to him from a great distance.

“Giles, oh, God, Giles, wake up!”

He was awake, what was she carrying on about? He was merely lying here....

Memory and full consciousness returned in a flash, along with an overwhelming desire to be sick. He groaned. “Buffy?”

“Oh, thank God,” she breathed. “I couldn’t wake you up.”

He opened his eyes. She was leaning over him, fear and worry etched in her pretty face. “Wake me up?” He sat up and immediately regretted it as the world tipped crazily and his stomach lurched. He moaned again.

“Easy, take it easy,” she soothed, a hand on his shoulder in support.

“I have no intention of doing anything else,” he muttered. “Where are our vampire friends?”

“You took care of big ugly. Do you remember?”

He tried to nod, but changed his mind as his brain sloshed in his head.

“And I got little ugly after he threw you into the gravestone. So....” She smiled. “We both saved each other.”

He managed a smile in return, and they sat for a long moment, waiting for Giles’ equilibrium to return enough to allow him to get to his feet.

Buffy slid to her feet first, extending her hand, and he used her strength to stand, staggering against her.

“Whoa, Giles, you’re pretty loopy here,” she commented. “We should get you to the hospital.”

“I don’t need hospital,” he protested. “I just need to...put my head down.” Rest sounded so appealing right now....

“You probably have a concussion.”

“I don’t,” he countered. “This is merely a good cosh. I’ll be fine once I can get some rest.”

“You were unconscious for about five minutes,” she insisted, “that means you’re concussed.” He looked at her through slitted eyes. “What? Last time you got a concussion I looked it up. So I know the symptoms.”

“So do I,” he admitted wearily. “Even so, I have no intention on going to hospital. I just want to go home.” He knew he sounded petulant; he didn’t care. She didn’t say anything more, simply held onto him as they slowly made their way out of the cemetery.

“Has it occurred to you that maybe you should start to wear a crash helmet?” she asked and he managed to give her a feeble smile.

“Cordelia thinks that one day I shall wake up in a coma,” he mumbled.

“Yeah, well if you’re not careful, Cordelia will be right,” Buffy replied.

He thought about that for a minute. “Buffy, one cannot wake up in a....”

“I’ll drive,” Buffy interrupted when they got to his car.

That made him pull up short. “Absolutely not.”

“Come on, Giles, you can barely see straight. No way you can drive.”

“Nor can you.”

“I can so. I’ve got my learner’s permit and you’re a licensed driver.”

“It’s not that, it’s...have you ever driven a gear car?”

“A what?”

Giles was dumbfounded for a moment as he tried to remember the American term for it. “A...a gear shift car.”

“Stick shift?” Buffy supplied.

“Yes.”

“No, but how hard can it be?”

“Buffy–“

”Hey, I’m the slayer, I’m the one who’s good at skilly things. No problemo.”

“Buffy–“

”It’s either that or we walk, ‘cause no way am I letting you drive.”

He took a deep breath. The shock was fading, leaving a crashing headache in its place. “It might be safer to walk,” he muttered.

“It is not,” she said, opening the car door and managing to fold him inside. She went around and slid into the driver’s side. “Now just give me a quick lesson and we’ll be on our way.”

“Well, in addition to shifting, you need to operate the clutch.”

“The third pedal, right?”

“Yes.”

“So tell me when to clutch. Not a problem.”

He sighed. His ancient Citroen was a bit touchy at the best of times. “All right, when you shift, you need to clutch first. So when you brake, you first brake, then clutch, then downshift. Same for cornering.”

“Brake, clutch, shift,” Buffy repeated. “Got it.”

However, it took her three tries to even get the old car started, and another three stalls to get it moving.

“Brake, clutch, shift,” Buffy mumbled like a mantra. “Got it.”

Giles rested his throbbing head against the window and closed his eyes. He didn’t think he wanted to watch.

His eyes shot open to the sound of grinding gears as Buffy took a curve too quickly, forgetting to clutch as she downshifted, and Giles ground his teeth. His poor car might never be the same again. Then he blinked, taking in his surroundings.

“Buffy, where are we? This isn’t the way to my place.”

“Nope,” she agreed. “It’s the way to mine.”

“Buffy–“

”Look, you’re hurt. You were out for, like, ever, Giles. I can’t just drop you off at home and leave you, you might pass out or worse. And I can’t stay with you at your place, Mom would never understand. So we’ll go to my house, I can make sure you’re okay, and my mom won’t have fits.”

“But I–“

”No protests, Giles. You know you shouldn’t be by yourself.”

“I’m perfectly capable of–“

”If anything happened to you....” She stopped abruptly. “Besides, we’re closer to my house. And you don’t want me driving all the way across town, do you?” She grinned at him.

He sighed. How on earth could he rest in a strange house, not in his own bed, feeling as wretched as he did. He didn’t want hovering, and Buffy and Joyce would both....

Oh, God. Joyce. She worried about Buffy going out on patrol. But instead, he was the one who got hurt. Did this mean now she’d have two people to worry about? How bloody unfair.

Somehow, Buffy managed to get them to the Summers home, the car stalling again just as she pulled into the driveway. So she simply shut it off, pulled the parking brake to keep it from rolling back out of the drive, and came around to help him out of the car.

There was still a light on in the living room, even though the rest of the house was in darkness.

“This is one good thing about Mom knowing about the slaying,” she said as she let them in. “No need to sneak in through the window anymore.”

Giles grunted; it was the nearest he could manage to making a comment. His head was throbbing and the nausea was back.

“Come on. The first-aid kit’s in the upstairs bathroom.” She took him by the hand, leading him to the stairs. “Only be quiet, Mom’s probably asleep.”

He followed her up the stairs silently. He didn’t want to be here, he wanted to go home.

She led him to the bathroom and flipped on the light, and he squinted at the brightness. It sent stabbing pains through his eyes and he ducked from the light.

“And you really thought you could be on your own tonight?” she clucked, pushing him to a seat on the closed toilet lid.

“Buffy, I’ve been injured any number of times, and you never....” He knew better than to continue that sentence. Her cavalier attitude toward him and his well-being often infuriated him. She’d care about him, all right, just so long as it didn’t interfere with her own life. But he wasn’t about to say so, despite the fact that head injuries had the unfortunate side-effect of loosening his tongue. He had to moderate his speech tonight. When hurting and not thinking, he knew himself capable of saying cruel things, and she didn’t deserve that.

She understood the gist anyway. “Yeah, well maybe I learned some things over the past year,” she said softly. “I worry about you.”

He looked down again, away from the light, away from her dear, concerned face. She was trying her best; he owed it to her to try as well. He might not want her solicitude, but her caring was genuine.

“Now let me look at your head.” She gently turned his head toward her, dabbing carefully with a dampened flannel. It stung, but as always, it felt good to get the dried blood off his face and out of his hair.

She discarded the bloodstained rag in the sink and rummaged through the medicine cabinet. “This’ll sting,” she said, coming up with a bottle of bacitracin. He just shrugged. But he couldn’t help his gasped curse as the antiseptic touched his broken scalp. “Sorry.”

“Can’t be helped,” he rasped.

“I’m gonna do it again. Do you want something to hold onto? Like me?”

He laughed softly and shook his head. “I’ll be all right.” But he gripped the edge of the sink bowl anyway.

“Well, it probably doesn’t need stitches, but it’s kinda hard to tell, with your hair in the way.”

“Yes, well you’re not getting rid of my hair, if that’s what you were thinking.”

She giggled. “Gee, Giles, vain much?”

He just scowled at her.

Just then there was a sound, and a shaft of light appeared in the darkened hallway.

“Buffy?” Joyce’s voice called.

Giles and Buffy exchanged guilty glances; they hadn’t wanted to wake her.

“In here,” Buffy called and they heard unsteady footsteps as Joyce came down the hall.

She took one look at the scene and her mouth opened in surprise. “Oh my God!”

Giles glanced at her, dressed in her robe, hair mussed, black boot on her foot, crutches nowhere to be seen. “Where are your crutches?” he asked.

“Never mind my crutches, what happened to you?” she countered.

“Close encounter of the tombstone kind,” Buffy answered for him.

“Our two friends of last night,” Giles elaborated. “But they’re dealt with.”

“Yeah, it was way cool,” Buffy said. “This one, he was trying to strangle me, so Giles–“

”Buffy!” Both Giles and Joyce interrupted her.

“What?” she asked innocently.

“Not just now,” Joyce requested. “How bad is it?” she asked Giles.

“He’s got a concussion,” Buffy answered for him again.

“I do not,” Giles protested.

“He does so,” she argued, “he just doesn’t want to admit it. But he was unconscious for, like, ten minutes–“

”It wasn’t nearly that long,” he insisted. “Scarcely a minute.”

“Longer than that,” she countered, and when he made to correct her, said, “Hey, who’s the one who was around for the whole thing and who’s the one who was out like a light? It was long. I got scared I couldn’t wake him up.”

Joyce’s face crossed with a worried frown. Oh wonderful. It was bad enough she had to worry about Buffy, now she was worrying about him, too. He didn’t want this. He most definitely didn’t want this.

“All right, let me see.” She limped into the bathroom and Buffy moved out of the way. She examined the wound, then gently ran her hands over his head. “Anywhere else it hurts?” she asked.

“Other than a cracker of a headache, no.”

“He was real dizzy when he woke up,” Buffy went on. “I thought he was gonna toss his cookies.”

“Still feel dizzy?” she asked.

“Not so much anymore,” he answered. And the nausea had faded slightly, as well. Though neither had disappeared altogether.

“Look at me,” she commanded. With hands on either side of his head, she tipped his head from side to side. “How many fingers am I holding up?” She held up three fingers.

He sighed. “Three.”

“And now?”

“Four.”

“How many am I holding up?” Buffy asked from behind him.

“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, Buffy,” he said, exasperated.

“No, that’s my trick,” Joyce said without missing a beat. “Buffy, would you please go pull out the hideabed in the spare room?”

“Now see here,” Giles began, pulling himself out of her grasp. “I am perfectly fine. All I need is to get some rest. At home,” he added emphatically.

She folded her arms across her chest. “You really think I’m going to send you home in that condition?” she said sternly. “Rupert, whether you want to admit it or not, you are concussed. You lost consciousness. Now I want you here where I can keep an eye on you for the next several hours. There’s no way I’m about to let you go home, alone.”

“Joyce, I–“

”No,” she said flatly. “Now you can bitch and moan all you want, but you are staying here tonight and that’s final.”

“Buffy–“

”Don’t look at me,” Buffy grinned, “she’s the grand champion when it comes to stubborn. Besides,” she put her hand in her pocket and pulled out a set of keys, “I’ve still got your car keys, so you’re kind of stuck here.” She smiled at him sweetly.

Giles sighed, defeated. There was no way he could win this one. “And you complain about your mother and I double-teaming you,” he grumbled.

“Yeah, well you’re learning, you don’t mess with the Summers women,” Buffy told him and mother and daughter shared a smile. They really were a great deal alike. Married life and trying to do the “expected” thing had smothered some of Joyce’s “fire”, but it was there, banked, showing off the occasional spark.

“Go get that bed made up, honey,” Joyce told her daughter, and with a smile, Buffy moved past them and out of the bathroom.

“Joyce–“ Giles began.

“What, you think you’ll do better with me now that Buffy’s out of the room?” Joyce asked, an eyebrow raised. “You’re hurt, Rupert. More severely hurt than you want to admit. Now come on. If I had to put up with your mothering last night, then you get to put up with mine tonight.” But she smiled, a sweet expression which took some of the sting out of her words.

“You’re hurt,” he protested feebly. “I don’t want to put you out.”

“It’s the middle of the night and you’re bleeding in my bathroom. It’s a little late to be worrying about inconveniencing.” She stroked a hand down his cheek, softening. “Besides, I’ll sleep better knowing you’re safe. Knowing you’re all right.”

He sighed, catching her hand in his and kissing her fingertips. “I hadn’t meant to make you worry,” he said sadly. “That shouldn’t be part of the deal.”

“You have a dangerous job, I understand that,” she said. “But...did your being there tonight, did it help Buffy?”

“Yes,” he said definitely. She might have been able to get away from the vampire who was throttling her, but they couldn’t know that for sure. But he knew for sure that he’d saved her from him.

“Then I guess I can put up with the extra worry. If I know there’s something good coming out of it.” She smiled at him, a small expression meant for him alone. “Though I’d be pretty upset if you went and got yourself killed, so be careful, okay?”

He smiled up at her, grateful for her affection and a pragmatism which surprised him. “I’ll do my best.”

They shared a quiet moment and Giles realized that what he most wanted to do was crawl into her arms, bury himself in her warmth, let her hold him, comfort him, rub his head and soothe his brow. But now was not the time, and definitely not the place. So he settled for a gentle hug, his arms going around her, his fact pressed against her stomach, breathing in her sweet scent.

And then the hug broke and she extended her hands to him, helping him to his feet, and they leaned on each other as they made their way out of the bathroom.

In the spare room, Buffy was just finishing tucking the sheets in on the sofabed.

“I’m sorry I don’t have something for you to change into,” Joyce said regretfully.

“I’ve got a t-shirt of Xander’s,” Buffy offered.

“That’s all right, but thank you anyway,” Giles said.

“What are you doing with one of Xander’s t-shirts?” Joyce asked her daughter, frowning.

“Remember last year when we were chasing those twin demons, the ones that spit that yellow goo?” Buffy began.

Giles’ stomach lurched at the memory of the stench of those two–two of the less pleasant creatures they’d come across. “Yes, well, it doesn’t matter,” he said, hoping to forestall the conversation. “I’ll be fine. But thank you.”

“Is there anything else you need?” Joyce asked.

“Something for the headache wouldn’t come amiss.”

“Should you?” Buffy asked. “I mean, what if pain pills mask the real symptoms.”

“All pain pills will do is take the headache down a notch or two,” Giles replied. “I shouldn’t worry about them masking anything.”

“Will aspirin do?” she asked.

“I can give you one of the ones I just got for my foot,” Joyce suggested before he could answer.

“What are they?” he asked. Something stronger than aspirin would be welcomed.

“Codeine.” They shared a smile. “But only if you haven’t been drinking.”

“No drinking,” he assured her.

“Huh?” Buffy looked confusedly from one to the other.

“Never mind,” Giles said. “Codeine would be very nice. Thank you.”

“Buffy, can you get two of the pills from the bottle next to my bed?”

“Two? Isn’t that a lot?” Buffy asked.

“One’s for later,” her mother told her.

Buffy just shrugged and went down the hall.

Giles and Joyce stood awkwardly for a moment, trying not to look at each other, trying to act nonchalant. It wasn’t working very well.

“You really shouldn’t be about without your crutches,” he finally said, feeling the need to say something.

“They’re too clumsy here in the house,” she dismissed. “I use them on the stairs, or if I’m going any distance. But beyond that....”

“You should at least use one of them,” he said. “One’s much easier to maneuver, and you’re still keeping most of the weight off that foot.”

“All right,” she smiled, “I’ll give it a try.”

“Good.”

Conversation faded again as they stood there the discomfort returning.

They were saved by the return of Buffy, who handed him the two pills and a glass of water.

“Need anything else?” she asked.

“Yes, for you two to clear off and stop hovering,” he said simply. “I’ll be fine.” He swallowed one of the pills. “I just want to put my head down.”

Joyce’s mouth opened but no sound came out. “Oh,” she finally managed, “Yes, of course. We’ll let you get ready for bed. If you need anything....”

“I’ll be fine. Good night, Joyce. Buffy.”

“Night, Giles,” Buffy said with a smile. “Sleep well.” She left the room, and they stood still for a moment until they heard her bedroom door close.

“Well...I’ll let you get some rest,” Joyce said.

He nodded. “Good night.”

“Good night.” She leaned in and he gave her a gentle kiss on the lips. He was beginning to understand her sentiment earlier today–about wanting to crawl into someone’s arms and love the fear and the hurt away. But they’d promised themselves they’d take this slowly; they owed it to themselves, and Buffy, to try.

The kiss broke and he reluctantly pulled away.

For a long moment, they simply gazed at each other, wanting.

Then she turned and limped out of the bedroom, and with a sigh, he closed the door behind her. He unbuttoned his shirt with fingers suddenly gone clumsy, and tossed it casually across a chair. He bent down to untie his shoes and dizziness swamped him, so he sat down on the bed, taking a moment to regain his equilibrium.

He vehemently hated sofabeds. They were seldom comfortable, usually cutting him in the worst places. But as he sat there, trying to muster the energy to remove his shoes and socks, he realized that as little as he liked the things, tonight it would feel simply wonderful. He quickly divested himself of socks, shoes and trousers, and slid between cool sheets, pulling the blanket up over himself. And as he felt himself slowly unwinding, the drug putting a fine distance between himself and the rest of the world, he decided that sleep wouldn’t be that hard in coming after all.

* * * * *

But when he woke, awakened by a sound he couldn’t even swear he’d heard, he felt a presence he felt in the room with him. He turned his head, not sure if he was dreaming, one of those odd sensations of being awake before he was aware. The shadow next to the bed was blurred, but he felt no malice from it.

“You don’t need to check on me every hour,” he said, “I’m all right.”

The shadow resolved itself into Joyce Summers, and she was silent for a moment.

“I just wanted to be sure.” She reached down, stroking a hand over his forehead and he closed his eyes, grateful for the touch. The drugs, he knew, were giving everything that unreal quality–making everything seem slightly removed and yet sharply in focus. Joyce’s fingers were gentle, but where she touched him he tingled.

She leaned to smooth his hair away from his forehead and somehow lost her balance. Next thing he knew, she was sitting next to him.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

“You shouldn’t be on that foot anyway,” he replied.

“You’re not going to start nagging again, are you?”

“Not unless you do,” he answered. “Then I can give as good as I get.”

“I don’t doubt that.” They shared a smile.

She took a breath. “Buffy was really worried,” she began, her hand taking his, their fingers entwining. “She said when she couldn’t wake you up, she got so scared....”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to worry her.” He gazed up at her; her eyes sparkled in the dimness. “Or you.”

“It’s okay.”

"You shouldn’t have to....”

“Hey,” she soothed, “it’s my choice, got it? I’d much rather know what’s going on and worry than not know what’s going on and worry even more.”

“About Buffy, yes, but–“

”About anyone I...care about.” She tried to cover up the pause but he caught it anyway and wondered what she was going to say.

“That’s bloody unfair for you,” he said, “having to fret like that.”

She shrugged. “If life was fair, my daughter wouldn’t be the only thing standing between the world and its destruction. She’d be a normal girl and I’d never know, or even care about vampires or demons or hellmouths or slayers. But she’s not. And we have to live with it whether we like it or not. At least if I’m worried it means you’re both still alive.”

His breath caught in his throat. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again, his voice choked.

“Shh.” She squeezed his hand and stroked her other hand down his cheek. He caught her hand and kissed the palm and for a long moment they simply gazed at each other, unable to put their feelings into words.

“How are you feeling?” she finally asked, “Really.”

He closed his eyes briefly, assessing. “I’ve a fairly impressive headache, but nothing I can’t handle,” he answered.

“Can I get you anything?”

The lump was back in his throat. Did she even know what she asked? But he shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”

Another long pause, filled with looks and thoughts too impossible to put into words.

“Well, I should let you get some sleep,” she said almost reluctantly, and he nodded.

But when she moved to stand up, he tightened his hand around her wrist. “Stay,” he whispered. Suddenly the idea of her leaving was too much to bear.

“I...” she hesitated and he knew what she was thinking. Buffy was asleep just down the hall.

“I know,” he agreed. “Just for a bit. Please.”

She glanced away, the smallest of frowns crossing her brow. Then she raised her head, gazing at him again, and wordlessly lifted her feet, easing into the bed with him.

She slid into his arms and their lips met. Giles closed his eyes in bliss. This is what he needed, no wanted. But a want so tangible as to feel like a need. Her slim body pressed against his, her arms encircling him, his fingers tangling in her hair, her lips and his joined in tenderness and passion. It felt wonderful.

The kiss broke and she followed it with tiny kisses to his cheek, jaw, temple. He buried his face against the curve of her throat, nuzzling the soft skin there. Her fingers raked through his hair, accidentally grazing the lump on his head, and his breath caught. Her hand stopped.

“Sorry.”

“It’s all right. I’ll need to be careful not to kick your boot.”

She laughed softly and he chuckled.

“God, we’re a pair, aren’t we?” she said.

“And both of us a bit potty on the drugs, too,” he agreed. “I’m afraid codeine tends to make me sleepy, I’m likely to fall asleep on you this time.”

“Shh, it’s okay.” Her tone gentled, as did her touch, “just relax.”

He kissed her mouth, gently, tenderly, then let himself relax into her soothing caresses. Noble sentiments about taking it slowly notwithstanding, this felt good. He closed his eyes with a sigh and let himself drift....

...Aware again when he felt the bed shift. Joyce was sitting up, getting out of bed. He tried to protest, to ask her not to go, but he was too groggy to do much more than reach a hand toward her. It stroked down her back before she moved away from him and got to her feet.

“I’m going back to my own bed,” she whispered. “In case Buffy wakes up.”

“Mmm,” he agreed. He didn’t know how much time had passed since they’d snuggled up together, but he could tell it was later than it had been, perhaps by a considerable margin.

She leaned back down again and kissed his mouth gently. “Good night, Rupert.”

“Night,” he murmured and watched blurrily as she limped out of the bedroom, carefully closing the door behind her.

As soon as she was gone, he felt bereft and rolled over to where her warmth lingered on the bed. He pulled the pillow to him, breathing in the faint trace of her scent. Rather pathetic, lying here snuggling with her pillow, but it made him feel better, so he curled himself around it and fell back asleep.

* * * * *

It was light whenGiles next woke. He felt surprisingly rested, nagging headache notwithstanding. He’d been this road often enough to know the pattern: the headache would for the most part fade by this afternoon, returning again tonight. It would fade again overnight and repeat the cycle for several days, each day getting progressively less until, a week or so hence, he would suddenly realize he’d been headache-free all day.

But for now, the headache was manageable, and a shower and a shave would go a long way toward making him feel human again. Unfortunately, unless he wanted to pull on grubby clothes afterwards, the shower would have to wait ‘til he got home. Likewise the shave–he couldn’t imagine borrowing a razor from Joyce, not at this stage in their relationship.

He sat up, a bit surprised at the slight touch of vertigo which remained, and took his time climbing into his clothes. He opened the guest room door and headed toward the bathroom, practically running into Buffy, who was just coming out of her room. She stopped dead when she saw him, her eyes going wide.

“Good morning, Buffy,” he smiled at her.

She didn’t answer, but he saw a muscle in her jaw tighten before she turned away and bolted down the stairs.

He frowned. What was that in aid of? Had she forgotten he was here? With a shrug, he continued to the bath, smiling with relief at the sight which greeted him. A disposable razor and a small toothbrush lay nestled atop a clean face flannel and a hand towel. Bless Joyce for thinking of these niceties.

He cleaned up and was pleased at how much better a shaven chin and fresh breath made him feel. He left the bathroom, hearing voices downstairs. Joyce must be up as well.

As he headed down the steps, he realized the voices were louder than normal. Buffy and her mother were arguing about something. He didn’t want to intrude, but sneaking back upstairs was the coward’s way. He’d simply say his good mornings then be off, back home to clean up properly, perhaps get some more rest. He was feeling somewhat more fragile than he’d first realized.

But as he approached the kitchen, his plan fizzled abruptly. He could hear what they were fighting about and a sick lump settled in his stomach.

“I don’t believe you,” Buffy was saying angrily. “If I’d done something like this you’d have grounded me ‘til I was forty!”

“It’s not what you–“ Joyce tried to explain.

“Oh yeah, it was an accident, right?” Buffy scoffed. “Last time it was the candy; what was it this time? You tripped?”

“Well, actually–“

”Geez, Mom, can’t you guys manage to be in the same room together without falling into bed?”

“We–“

”Did you guys have sex the night before, too? What are you doing, trying to decide whose bed is best?”

“Buffy–“

”God, how slutty can you get?”

“Buffy!” Giles stepped into the room, angry. She might not approve, but she had no right saying those things to Joyce. “I’ll not have you speak to your mother like that.”

She turned to him, fury marring her pretty face. “Yeah, well maybe you should have thought of that before you started screwing her,” Buffy spat. “Besides, you’re not my father, you can’t tell me what to say.”

“I can tell you when you’re behaving badly,” he countered.

“Behaving badly! I’m not the one who spent the night up there humping!”

“Buffy!”

“God! If you want to have an affair, the least you could do is not do it right in front of me. I mean, that’s disgusting!”

“No more disgusting than your bedding a vampire,” Giles shot back, and as soon as the words left his mouth, he knew they’d been a mistake. By tacit agreement, they never mentioned Angel and what had happened.

Buffy stared at him in shock, then swallowed and her eyes flashed fire. “The difference is,” she went on, her voice quiet and intense, “I loved Angel.”

Giles’ breath caught in his throat. There was nothing to say to that. He couldn’t pretend he loved Joyce. Not yet. “You don’t know the circumstances,” he said quietly.

“I know you slept together,” Buffy answered angrily. “What is it, you guys get off on sick people? Giles isn’t nearly so interesting when he’s in his right mind?”

“Buffy!” Giles scolded again and had to clench his fist. He’d never been so close to striking her. “Your mother deserves more respect than that, and so do I.”

“Yeah, well if you want my respect, try acting like you deserve it.” She turned and stalked out of the kitchen. “I’m going out!” They heard the front door open, then slam.

“Buffy–!” Joyce called after her. “Rupert–“

Giles shook his head. “Leave her. There’s no use talking to her when she’s like this.” He sighed heavily. “She saw us last night I take it.”

Joyce nodded. “Said she got up to check on you and...surprise surprise, look who was already there.” She took a deep breath. “So naturally, she assumed the worst. I mean, I really can’t blame her for that, the way it looked there really wasn’t much chance of convincing her it was as innocent as it was. All she saw was her mother and her watcher acting like sex-crazed kids again.” She shook her head. “It might not be so bad if we’d actually done what she accused us of.”

Giles laughed in spite of himself. Then the smile faded. “Well, it’s not like this was totally unexpected,” he said. “Her reaction, I mean.”

“I kept thinking that if we went slowly, gave her a chance to get used to the idea....”

“But we didn’t. Or at least, she thinks we didn’t. And to be honest, Joyce, if either of us had been up to it....”

She nodded sadly, then made a whimpered sound of frustration and he almost laughed. It was exactly the same sound Buffy made when she was feeling frustrated.

“This is so unfair,” she whined. “I don’t want to have to give you up.”

Giles was at a loss. He thought she understood, thought he’d made it clear....

“No, it’s not fair. But I can’t....” He sighed. “I can’t do anything else. She is the slayer.”

“I know,” Joyce said. “God, how I know.” Her tone was bitter. He didn’t blame her.

“I’m sorry, Joyce. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. The slayer by the very nature of her calling, needs to be a bit self-focused. And I’ve given my pledge to always be there for her. If she sincerely and strenuously objects to this.... There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry.”

“What did she do when you were dating that teacher?” Joyce asked abruptly.

The question startled him. He knew she’d known about Jenny, the children must have mentioned her. “There were...difficulties,” Giles admitted, but didn’t want to go into any details. At the moment, thinking about Jenny hurt more than it had in a good long while. “I did what I had to.”

“Meaning you left her.”

“It was complicated,” he answered, prevaricating.

“I just don’t understand her,” Joyce blurted. “Why does she hate this so much? She likes you.”

“I don’t know. I can only assume she feels threatened somehow. Once she calms down, perhaps I can talk to her. But in the meantime....” He hesitated.

She nodded. “I know.” Then she looked up at him. “How are you feeling, by the way?”

He smiled. “Achy. Headachy.” In fact, the headache was considerably worse since coming downstairs and facing this disaster. “Nothing a little rest won’t cure,” he told her.

“Then I’d better let you go.” She nodded and so did he, but he made no move to leave.

She looked up at him, their eyes carrying on extensive conversations, silently. Then she extended a hand and he came to her, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her passionately. They held onto each other for a long moment, knowing it would be their last. Then slowly, reluctantly, they separated.

“I-if you need me t-to talk to, I’ll always be here for you,” he said.

She nodded and he was thunderstruck to see her eyes glittering. “Thanks,” she whispered, “I’m okay for now, but the next time something terrible comes to town....”

“You just call me,” he confirmed.

Another long pause, too many unspoken words.

“I’d better go.” He took a step toward the door. “Call me later, tomorrow or whenever you want me to drive you to get your car.”

“Under the circumstances,” she said, her voice small and choked, “it’ll probably be better if I call a cab.”

For some reason that devastated him. She was cutting him out. He knew it was probably for the best, but her turning away from him hurt more than it had any right to.

“Take care of yourself, Joyce.”

“You, too.”

And then because he knew if he stayed another second he’d lose all of his resolve and take her in his arms again, he turned and left the house.

* * * * *

Work had always been Giles’ refuge. When everything else in his life was falling apart, at least he had his work to fall back on.

This time, however, he found himself without such relief. Once he was home, showered and rested, he found himself wandering around his apartment restlessly, searching desperately for something to occupy his thoughts and energies. Something other than Joyce and Buffy, that is. He finally settled on sorting out some of the mess in his flat and was organizing his books when there was a knock at his door.

He didn’t even bother to look. He knew who it would be. At least, he hoped he knew. He pulled open the door.

Buffy stood on the doorstep looking sad and a bit wistful. She gazed at him and he returned the look steadily until she looked away, ducking her chin.

“Whenever my mom and I have a fight, when I go to make up with her, I like to bring her ice cream. But I didn’t know what to bring you.”

“An explanation would be sufficient,” he said, standing aside to let her in.

“I’m not sure I have one,” she said, moving past him and into his cluttered living room.

"Buffy, I’m prepared to do a great many things for you,” he said, closing the door, “including stop seeing Joyce. The least you could do is tell me why.” His tone was brittle, but his voice remained calm.

Buffy looked at him, surprised. “You’d do that?”

“I just said.”

“Why?”

“Because I gave my pledge to you as your watcher. You will always come first with me. Now, perhaps I’ve been presuming. If you don’t want–“

”No, I do,” she stopped him. “I do. But maybe that’s part of the problem. I mean, you’re my watcher, always there for me, which is great.” She sat on the sofa and he sat next to him. “But that’s so unfair to my mom.”

“Your mother understands the situation, in fact, probably understands it better than a stranger would. And she accepts it.”

“She says she accepts it,” Buffy countered.

“Granted, there’s a great deal about the present situation she doesn’t like, but my pledge to you isn’t one of them. In fact, she said in some ways it was a comfort, knowing I’m looking out for you.”

“It’s just–I don’t want her hurt,” Buffy blurted.

“Neither do I. Why do you think I’d hurt her?”

“Not you. The situation.”

“Buffy, being involved with someone always presents the possibility of being hurt. It’s one of the risks you take, but also one of the challenges. Trying your best to make it work. We’re not approaching this lightly, she and I.”

“Yeah but Mom–her track record’s not the best, you know? I mean, no offense but her taste in guys... My dad...I love my dad, but sometimes he’s really the most clueless guy. And Ted the psycho-robot?”

“I’m not a robot, Buffy,” Giles said, trying to hide a smile. “And if I’m not your father, at least you can be assured that I won’t ever....” He paused. He’d assumed Buffy knew about Hank’s infidelity, but realized he couldn’t be sure, and he didn’t want to be the one to tell her if her mother had not. So he started again. “I can’t promise I’ll never hurt your mother, but I can promise that I’ll never do it intentionally.” But even as he said it, he knew it was a lie. He’d already hurt her, simply by denying their happiness for Buffy’s needs.

Buffy sat still, her small face scrunched in a frown. “Willow told me I was being silly about this. I mean, I know you’re not Ted. Which is a good thing. And I know my mom and dad won’t ever get back together, I know that. Especially after I met Kelly, Dad’s new trophy. And...and you know how I feel about you....”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

She looked up.

“You’ve never said, and sometimes you can be very difficult to read. I’m never sure if I’m simply tolerated or if you–“

”I love you.”

Her words stopped him cold. They were everything he’d hoped and more, and yet they frightened him like nothing else could. He looked up and she was gazing at him guilelessly. “I thought you knew that,” she said softly.

“I–“

”I depend on you for so much. If you weren’t here, I don’t know what I’d do. And I don’t ever want to find out.”

He couldn’t answer. Her simple declaration had positively unseated him. He couldn’t bear her earnest expression any longer and looked down, staring at his hands. “If I have anything to say about it, you never will.”

“But, see, that’s part of the problem,” she went on. “If we can love each other and still manage to hurt each other the way we do, then how can–“

”Buffy, relationships involve risk. That’s they way of it. But your mother and I are fully cognizant of the potential dangers here. We realize this is far too important to make a hash of it. We intend to go slowly, make sure it’s right.”

“Uh, excuse me, missing something here. Hopping into bed is going slowly?”

He sighed. “You really think we had sex last night? With my head and her foot? You give us far more credit for stamina than we deserve.” He smiled self-deprecatingly. “Whatever you saw last night, or thought you saw....” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever simply wanted to hold someone? Not for sex, not for anything except the warm contact of another human being? A reminder that you’re not so alone?” He glanced away. “I asked her to stay last night. I was feeling poorly enough that I didn’t want.... That’s what last night was, Buffy. Not sex. Holding.”

There was a long pause as Buffy considered this. “So last night you didn’t...?” He shook his head. “And the night before?” He shook it again. “So except for the night with the candy...?” Another shake. He could almost see her thought processes. “Oh, way to go, Buffy, open mouth straight up to the hip! I’m so sorry, Giles.”

He smiled gently. “I don’t know, it’s flattering, really, that you could think me capable of performing in that condition.”

“Okay, waay too much information here,” she held up her hands. “I just...I saw...I thought.... I don’t know. I’m still not totally cool with this. I mean, there are too many things that can go wrong. Like, dating someone means being with them. Spending a lot of time with them.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

“But if you.... Oh....” She stared at the ceiling, as if it would give her the words she sought. “I don’t know how to say this so that it won’t come out sounding all jealous, which isn’t it at all, but if you’re with her...where am I?”

“Where you have always been,” he answered gently, “next to my heart, a part of my soul. I won’t neglect you, Buffy, not for anything. Joyce knows that there may be times when our plans will have to be changed because you need me. I’m sure there will be disappointments, but she understands that. And perhaps she and I spending time together will mean you don’t have to feel so torn between the two of us. At the very least, we can’t argue about where you are.”

“Okay, but that’s another thing,” Buffy added. Giles was beginning to wonder how many “things” she could come up with. “You guys...I mean even now, or before now, you guys fight.”

“Not fight, exactly,” he countered. “We have had our disagreements, true.”

“That’s not gonna stop just ‘cause you’re playing kissy-face. And I...Oh God. I know you both love me, that’s not even in question. But my mom and dad both loved me, too. And they still fought. All the time. I don’t think I could go through that again, listening to them fight...knowing it was my fault they–“

”No! Buffy, no. Not your fault. Not ever, don’t ever think it. I don’t know the details about why your parents split up, but from what I can surmise from things your mother said, it sounds to me simply like they grew apart. It happens. They were very young when they married. We’re considerably older now, and hopefully, somewhat wiser. I imagine we’ll be approaching the whole situation a little more cautiously. But no matter what, don’t ever think that it’s your fault when two people quarrel.”

“But if you’re fighting about me–that’s what you fight about, isn’t it?”

“Usually,” he admitted. “Usually we fight about why it’s necessary that you be the slayer. But to be fair, we haven’t argued about that in several months. You mother may not like the situation, and I don’t know that that will ever change. But I do believe she has finally accepted it. I can’t say that we won’t ever argue, because that would be unrealistic. But I do hope that our arguments will be about...little things.”

“Like who’s stealing the covers.” Buffy grinned and Giles laughed.

“Exactly.”

They were silent, a comfortable silence, the type they were familiar with. There was still some earlier tension, but it was fading.

“Giles?” Buffy was looking at him earnestly.

“Yes?”

“Do you love her?”

His heart flipped over. “I care about her, a great deal,” he answered, knowing he owed her honestly. “I’d like to love her, very much. But it’s a bit soon yet. Two days ago, we’d barely spoken a word to each other in six months.”

“Does she love you?”

“I don’t know. You’d have to ask her that.”

“But you get all happy when you’re with her.”

He couldn’t help the smile, nor the blush. “Yes. All happy.”

She grinned. “Well, except for the ‘parents having sex’ thing which is still way creepy, that’s...really sweet.”

He looked down, blushing furiously. It was true, though, what Buffy’d said. Simply thinking about Joyce made him “all happy”.

He looked at her again. “So are you all right with this?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. I keep seeing all sorts of things why it’s a mucho bad idea. But...” Another shrug. “Willow reminded me that she’s in love with a werewolf. So I reminded her that I loved a vampire and look what happened there. So then she said that you and mom didn’t have one of those awful curse thingies and really, you were almost like normal people.” She gazed at him thoughtfully. “I just... If this doesn’t work between you guys, that’s gonna make everything even worse, isn’t it?”

“It could,” he agreed. “But we know the dangers going in.”

“So did me and Angel,” Buffy said morosely.

“No you didn’t,” he reminded her. “You didn’t know what would happen if he achieved happiness. If you had, would you have acted the way you did?”

Buffy bit her lower lip. “Maybe,” she said softly. “When I think of that time, all I see is him, all I wanted was him. It was so hard....”

“Yes, I know it was,” he said gently. “And I’m not going to pretend that the...the physical attraction between your mother and I is insignificant. But assuming we’re not influenced by outside forces, like drugged candy, I think we’re both capable of handling this maturely. We both understand the terrible importance of this, Buffy. We’re both going to be giving it our best shot to insure that it works. But if it doesn’t, which is, of course, a very real possibility, we both also feel that we’ll be able to handle that eventuality maturely also.

“Your mother and your father have split up, but they’re still able to speak civilly to each other, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes,” Buffy mumbled. “When they’re not smiling at each other while getting in little digs. I think they’re both happier knowing he’s in LA and she’s here and they don’t have to see each other very much.”

Giles gave a quiet smile. Selfishly, that was good to hear. “Your mother and I have just spent the past six months barely speaking to each other. If necessary, we could just go back there. But I’d rather, we’d both rather that no matter what else happens, we remain...friends. Remember the things we talked about last night?” Buffy nodded. “Beyond anything else, that’s still of paramount import–that your mother has someone she can come to when she needs to. She put it very well the other night: it’s simply too scary to go through alone.”

There was a pause and Buffy looked up at him with large, concerned eyes. “Are you lonely?” she asked softly.

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Most of the time I don’t notice. I’m busy, I have you and the others for companionship. But sometimes.... This summer has been especially difficult. I suppose we’re all in transition. But at night....”

“I can spend more time with you,” she said, and he couldn’t help his fond smile.

“You have your own friends, your own activities,” he said. “And forgive me if I say yours is not the kind of companionship I crave.”

That made her blush and she ducked her head.

“I meant what I said, Buffy,” he went on. “If you strongly object to my seeing Joyce, then I won’t. It’s that simple.”

She looked up at him, eyes misting. “No, I.... I don’t want that, just....” She swallowed. “Just promise me you won’t hurt her.”

“I give you my word that I will try to never intentionally hurt your mother. Or you. That’s the best I can do.”

She nodded slowly. “I guess...okay,” she said softly.

He closed his eyes briefly in relief. It wasn’t exactly the open-armed acceptance he’d hoped for, but it wasn’t full dismissal, either. “Thank you.” He put his hand on her shoulder in gratitude.

For a moment, they just sat there, smiling cautiously at each other. Then she reached out and he took her in his arms, hugging her tight. They were rare, these open expressions of affection between them. It simply wasn’t their way. But their relationship was changing yet again, and the hug was affirmation that no matter what else, they’d always be there for each other.

Buffy’s arms were as strong as they were tiny, and he had to end the hug before he squeezed the breath out of him. “Easy,” he murmured and she let go.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“That’s all right. I’m still a bit bruised from last night, that’s all.”

Her look showed that she’d completely forgotten about his injuries. “How are you feeling?”

“On the mend,” he answered. “I slept for several hours once I got home.” He glanced at her. “I take it you haven’t been home yet?”

She shook her head. “I walked around awhile, then I went to Willow’s. She yelled at me for awhile, and then I came here.” She tilted her head and looked at him. “And you didn’t yell.”

“Would it have done any good if I had?”

“Probably not.”

“Well then, why waste the energy?” He patted her shoulder. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

“Can we stop someplace on the way home?” she asked, climbing to her feet.

“Where?”

“Store. I need ice cream.” She grinned at him.

* * * * *

Giles stopped in front of the house and Buffy turned to him. “Come in with me?”

“You don’t think you should talk to your mother alone?”

She shook her head. “If you’re there, she’ll know I didn’t kill you.”

He would have laughed if the look on her face hadn’t told him she was serious. She was afraid to face her mother on her own.

“Please?”

He simply nodded and turned off the car. “Come on then.”

Ice cream clutched in hand, she led the way inside.

Joyce was sitting at the counter in the kitchen, paperwork spread out in front of her, back to the door. Buffy glanced at Giles, then took a deep breath and stepped into the kitchen. “Mom?”

Joyce turned to look at Buffy, saw Giles standing behind her, then returned her attention to her daughter.

“Cherry Garcia?” Buffy said, holding the carrier bag out like an offering.

Joyce sighed. “Honestly, Buffy, sometimes I don’t know what goes on in that head of yours.”

“Yeah, well join the club,” Buffy mumbled. “I just–I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it, all those things I said.”

“Just tell me why. Why does this upset you so much?”

“I don’t know. I just–I saw you and I–it shocked me. I freaked.”

“If this is how you act when you get shocked, it’s no wonder you’re so effective against vampires,” Joyce commented wryly and Giles had to stifle his chuckle. “You’ve definitely got your father’s temper,” Joyce went on.

“Oh, yeah, like you never get mad,” Buffy countered.

“I don’t usually get so–“ Joyce stopped herself. “Just tell me why.”

Buffy shrugged. “I saw you two together and I suddenly saw all these awful things happening.”

“Awful things?” Joyce frowned. “Like what?”

“Like he got hurt last night because he was with me. And if you’re with him....”

“I’m in danger anyway, Buffy, you know that. That creepy man with the mother complex on your birthday, the vampires that attacked the school that night.... Your pushing me away to keep me safe isn’t going to do it, the danger is still there. And what you don’t understand is that I’m far more worried about you than I am about myself.”

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t be–I can take care of myself.”

“I’m a mother–it’s in the job description.”

Joyce stared at her daughter. “All of which is getting away from the point. We live on a hellmouth, where terrible, horrible things come pouring out of the ground to get us. How is my being with Rupert going to make it worse?”

“Because he’s with me–right there in front of those terrible horrible things.”

“And he’s helping to keep you alive. That’s worth an awful lot in my book.”

“But you–“

”Buffy, listen.” Joyce slid her hand down to capture her daughter’s hand in both of hers, holding it there securely. “You are the most important thing in my life. More important than my life, and I know that sounds melodramatic to you but when you have children, you’ll understand. I’m not gonna pretend that I love the danger, or that I love him being in danger any more than I love you being in danger. I don’t. It scares me. But honey, how I feel won’t make the danger go away. And knowing that Rupert’s with you, doing his part to help keep you alive....”

“But you shouldn’t have to worry about him, too.”

Joyce just smiled sadly. “It’s too late for that. You can’t just stop caring about someone.”

There was a brief pause. “You stopped caring about Daddy.”

“No, I didn’t,” Joyce shook her head. “I never did. I don’t love him anymore the way I did, and there are lots of reasons for that. But if I heard he was in trouble, or in danger, I’d still be worried. Remember when he was on the east coast last fall, during that big hurricane? I worried about him then. I’m going to worry about Rupert, and about you, whether he and I are...are seeing each other or not.”

Buffy frowned. “I just don’t want you hurt,” she said in a small, little-girl voice.

“I don’t want me hurt, either,” Joyce agreed. “But believe it or not, I can handle it if I am.”

“Yeah, but I saw how you were after Ted...”

“Ted tried to kill me, it’s a little different.” She took a deep breath. “So that’s it? That’s why you went all “daughter dearest” on me? Because you don’t want me hurt?”

Buffy ducked her head. “Mostly.” She looked at her mother. “And...and I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“It going wrong. You guys winding up enemies–or worse–just like what happened with you and Daddy. I don’t think I could go through that again.”

Joyce put a hand on Buffy’s arm. “Honey, we can’t promise it’ll work out. But we won’t know unless we try. But no matter what happens, you have to know that I’ll always love you.”

“That’s not much comfort,” Buffy mumbled. “You and Daddy loved me, too.”

Joyce sighed. “I know you want your father and I to get back together, but–“

”But that’s not gonna happen, I know. And...and really, I guess I really don’t want that so much anymore. I mean, he’s got his own life now and everything. And so do you. So it’s not that, it’s just.... I’m scared. I don’t see why things can’t stay the same as they are.”

Joyce just gazed at her daughter. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

Buffy swallowed and looked down. “I guess not.” Then she looked up again. “Are you lonely?”

Her mother simply nodded. “Sometimes so much that it’s like it’s a physical ache.” Giles’ stomach clenched at her words; he knew that ache, felt it himself. “I do all right, most of the time, and a lot of the time I’m grateful for the freedom. But.... It’s hard. For sixteen years I shared everything with someone. I miss it. I miss knowing there’s someone who’s thinking about me the same way I’m thinking about him. I miss crawling into bed at night after a hard day and having someone rub my back and warm my feet. I miss the little things. And some of the big things, too.” She looked at her daughter. “It’s not just about sex. Buffy. Sex is easy. Relationships are hard.”

Giles had expected that Joyce’s mention of sex would make her daughter shy away as it usually did. But instead she simply gazed back at her mother. “Do you love him?”

Joyce’s gaze flicked toward Giles, then she looked down, flushing, and shook her head. “There hasn’t been time for that yet. But I’d love to. I think he’d be easy to love.”

“Do you think he’s sexy?” Buffy asked. Giles felt his own cheeks pink as Joyce’s did the same and she nodded.

“Do you promise to be careful?”

Joyce looked up at her daughter. “I promise.”

“And to try not to get hurt?” Joyce nodded. “And to not do stuff I don’t wanna know about in front of me?”

Joyce laughed. “We’ll do our best.”

“Then....” Buffy paused. “No one should have to be lonely.”

Giles closed his eyes in relief. Knowing what she’d said to him made no difference when it came to what she might say to her mother. And if it wasn’t the wholehearted approval he’d hoped for, it was far better than what they’d had a few hours ago.

Joyce was smiling at her daughter, and then they were hugging, fiercely. And then Buffy raised her head, looked at him, and extended a hand to him, inviting him to join them. He was awed; it was a special, intimate moment between Buffy and her mother, and yet he was being invited in. Included. Part of the family.

With a smile, he came into the kitchen, put one arm around Buffy, pulling her close, and the other around Joyce, who slipped an arm free of her daughter to encircle him. He bent his head, kissing the top of her head, and held Buffy to him. It felt wonderful.

Eventually, the hug broke and both Buffy and her mother wiped away the tears of emotion. Giles kept a hand on Joyce’s shoulder in support and connection. It felt important to him, after all this, that he physically demonstrate his commitment to this new relationship.

“Hadn’t you better do something with that ice cream?” he said.

“Oh, gosh!” Buffy pulled away and immediately set to finding dishes. “Want some?”

“Thank you,” he nodded. He wasn’t an enormous fan of ice cream, but it was apparently a Summers ritual, so he felt he ought to participate.

He looked down at Joyce, who was smiling up at him. He smiled back and bent his head to kiss her mouth.

“Ahem,” Buffy interrupted before he could actually kiss Joyce. “Do you mind?”

Yes, actually, he did mind, but it wouldn’t do to say so. “If you don’t want to see it, don’t watch.” But he settled for kissing Joyce’s hand instead.

“And that’s another thing,” Buffy went on and Giles sighed inwardly. Yet another of Buffy’s “things”. “If you’re gonna, um, you know, spend the night, make sure you leave...well, something so I know you’re here. I don’t want to freak running into you in the bathroom in the morning.”

“You needn’t worry about that for awhile,” Giles said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Joyce countered, surprising him. “After all, you’ll be going away to school soon, honey; you won’t be here to be bothered by this.” She smiled sweetly and Giles had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at Buffy’s look of appalled indignation.

“Mom!!" Then she thought about it and her expression cleared. “Okay, now you’re just yanking my chain.” She looked at Giles who merely raised an inquiring eyebrow, then back at her mother, who grinned and nodded.

Buffy sighed exasperatedly. “Here, eat your ice cream.” She set two bowls in front of them.

Giles took a mouthful, then set his spoon down. “Contrary to our past history, Buffy, we really do intend to take this slowly. I intend to court your mother properly.” He took Joyce’s hand again and they smiled at each other.

“Court?” Buffy asked. “Like flowers and candy and real dates?”

“If she’d like.”

“She’d like,” Joyce said softly, her bright eyes sparkling.

“Aww, that’s...sweet,” Buffy said grinning.

“Avert your eyes, Buffy,” Giles murmured and bent his head again.

“Guys–“ Buffy protested, but he ignored her; the kiss was tender and sweet.

Until the phone rang.

“Saved by the bell!” Buffy exclaimed and ran for it while they reluctantly broke the kiss. “Hello? Oh, hey, Will. Yeah, hold on while I go upstairs.” She turned toward Giles. “Hang this up when I say so?” He nodded and she took off for the stairs. “And behave yourselves!”

Giles chuckled, shaking his head, and they waited quietly until Buffy’s hollered “Okay!” came floating down the stairs, then he hung up the phone.

He turned back toward Joyce. She was looking at him expectantly.

“It isn’t exactly acceptance,” he cautioned, “merely she’s agreed to give it a chance.”

“It’s better than we had four hours ago,” Joyce said. There was a momentary pause, then she extended her hands and he came to her, taking her into his arms and kissing her deeply, all the banked passion of their earlier embrace spilling over to make this one full of heat and promise.

“I thought I’d never get to do this again,” Joyce whispered against his chest.

“All things considered, it was a fairly short breakup.”

Joyce laughed softly, then raised her head, gazing at him. “Did you really mean what you said about courting me?”

“Yes, if you’d like.”

“It sounds lovely. I’ve never been courted before.”

“What about Hank?”

She laughed. “We met my freshman year in college. I don’t think we even knew what courting was.”

“Yes, well I meant every word I said. I intend to do this right.” He took her hands. “We already know the...physical side will be good.” He felt himself reddening a bit as he said it, rewarded by Joyce’s accompanying blush. “But I want to be sure there’s more to this than that. I want to wine you and dine you, and spend long hours talking with you. Get to know you, let you get to know me. And I’m willing to do without a bit of the other for awhile. Just to make sure.”

Joyce didn’t answer, just reached up and drew him back down for another searching kiss. He could tell that abstinence was going to be a real challenge.

The kiss broke and they stayed for a moment, wrapped in each other’s arms, before finally separating. Buffy was giving it her best; it behooved them to cooperate with her.

“Is she likely to be up there long?” he asked. “She’s talking to Willow,” Joyce answered. “She could be there for hours.”

“Then I should probably take her her ice cream before it all melts.”

Joyce nodded and he picked up Buffy’s dish. “Oh, see if she and Willow would be willing to help out at the gallery tomorrow,” she asked.

“All right,” he nodded. “And I can lend a hand as well.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she protested. “You’ve done so much for me already....”

“It’s no trouble. In fact, it would be a pleasure. Besides–how will you get there otherwise?”

Joyce smiled, ducking her head. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Back in a minute.”

Heading upstairs with Buffy’s dish, Giles smiled to himself at the amazing turn the past two days had taken. From virtual strangers to romantic lovers, from Buffy’s outright disgust and disappointment to her grudging tolerance. It was really a bit much to take in in one go. And no doubt there would be difficulties in the future, massive ones as future events conspired to make their lives ever more trying.

But he had a feeling, deep down, that whatever happened, it would be worth it.

* * * * *

By night the gallery glowed. Strategically aimed spot lighting accented the artifacts on the pedestals and tables, or in their frames. Scattered throughout, candled burned bright, casting their flickering shadows on the walls. Soft Eastern music played on the sound system, lending its exotic air. And the hors d’oeuvres were Thai.

Buffy and Willow, playing perfect hostesses, were bearing trays of said hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine, mingling amongst the guests. Both girls were dressed in apparel which smacked faintly of the orient, and both looked quite elegant, with their hair piled atop their heads. Giles smiled as he watched them, realizing how much they’d grown up since he’d met them. And Buffy’s mother....

Joyce looked radiant in her gold silk shantung tunic and long black skirt which concealed her big black boot, but didn’t hinder her movement. She perched on a stool brought from home, and conducted her business from there, without having to put undue strain on her foot, and without having to straining to talk to standing guests. Her slightly embarrassed explanation of tripping down some stairs elicited much sympathy, and no further questions. Everyone thought it was amazing how well she’d coped, pulling the exhibition together despite her injury.

The show’s opening was well-attended, and if the unobtrusive little sold signs attached to several of the pieces were any indication, successful as well. The hard work had paid off.

And they had worked hard. Thanks to Joyce’s foot, his own head, and the attendant traumas of the following day, she’s lost two days’ setup and they’d spent the subsequent four days painting, hauling, cleaning, arranging, considering, then arranging again. He’d known, of course, the hard work which went into installing a museum exhibit, but had never realized how much went into a simple gallery showing. The experience gave him a greater respect for what Joyce did, and a greater admiration of her as well.

The past four days had been filled with a kind of surreal wonder. Hours of hard, hard work, punctuated with quiet, intimate moments. Rubbing Joyce’s shoulders and neck at the end of a long day, a quiet conversation over coffee while Buffy went on patrol, a lingering kiss goodnight after Buffy went to bed.

And laughter. Laughter and jokes and teasing, with Joyce and also with Buffy, who was honestly giving it her best. In fact, Giles couldn’t even remember a time when he’d felt so at ease.

He stood along the wall, watching Sunnydale’s art elite, such as they were, mingle and discuss the exhibition, occasionally nodding at one or another of them, or even more occasionally being drawn into their conversations about a specific artifact. He’d been introduced as a friend of Joyce’s, which was sufficiently ambiguous. But some of the patrons recognized him as the former high school librarian, and a learned man, and thus he’d somehow become the de facto expert on the exhibit and its artifacts. In a way, it reminded him of his old curator’s days in England and he felt just a tinge of nostalgia.

Buffy sidled up to him, bearing a tray with two glasses of wine. “Wine, sir?” she smiled.

He smiled back. “No, thank you.”

“Oh, come on, please? These are the last two. If you don’t take one, Willow and me’ll have to drink them.”

He duly took a glass. “See if your mother would like the last one.” He looked across the room to where Joyce was holding court, talking animatedly with a couple of the guests. Giles sipped his wine thoughtfully and watched her. Watching Joyce had become one of his great pleasures.

“You know,” Buffy began, breaking his reverie.

“Hmm?”

“I haven’t been that thrilled with this you and my mom thing.”

“Yes, you made that clear,” he answered.

“But...look at her.”

“I have been,” he murmured. In her golden tunic, her hair shimmering in the dim light, Joyce shone brighter than any candle flame.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this happy,” Buffy continued.

“It’s been a successful opening.”

“It’s not just the opening. It’s...it’s everything else. It’s you.” He was surprised and looked at her. “Whenever you’re near her, she gets all glowy. And I can’t remember ever seeing you this happy, either.”

Giles smiled. He certainly felt happier than he had in a very long time.

“So...I still think you guys should be careful. And there are things I just don’t wanna know about. But.... But I’ve decided I approve. Nothing that makes her that happy can be all bad.”

Giles would have laughed at the backhanded compliment if he hadn’t been so awed by its import. Buffy’s approval was a far greater gift than he’d ever imagined receiving.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “Your acceptance means a great deal to me. To us.”

Buffy just smiled sweetly, and then she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

“But I’ll still kill you if you hurt her,” she whispered.

He chuckled. “I would expect no less.” He let her go and looked across to Joyce. She glanced in his direction, spotted him and gave him a shy smile, one he returned, knowing he was flushing as well.

He turned back to Buffy. “Shall we see if your mother needs anything?”

“Yes, let us,” she grinned, her voice a teasing parody of his own precise tones. He smiled and took her arm, and she picked up the remaining wine glass. Together they crossed the gallery floor, going to Joyce.

END