Comforth And Despair
written by Jennet J


Rating: FRAO
Spoilers: Future setting, post Chosen to be safe.
Summary: 5 years in the future, Willow and Giles meet up again in England.
Feedback Author: Jennet J



Miss McCarthy knocked on his door. "Mr. Giles, you have a visitor."

"Hmm?" Giles looked up from his work. "Who is it?"

Miss McCarthy smiled. "She asked that I not give her name, sir. She wanted it to be a surprise."

Giles frowned. Simply the "she" was mystery enough. There were very few women in his life, at least not those he didn't work with. Come to that, he had very few social acquaintances of any kind, certainly not those who would interrupt him in the middle of a work day.

His curiosity piqued, he slipped a marker between the pages of the book he was translating, closing it carefully. He followed the PA out to the front office, and there he saw her. His heart leapt in his chest, stopping his breath. The auburn hair, the bright, intelligent eyes.... She saw him and smiled, that beautiful smile he remembered so well.

"Willow...," he whispered.

Her smile broadened. "I was beginning to think I'd never track you down."

He moved to her, taking her hands in his own, simply gazing at her, enraptured. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you."

"No, I mean what are you doing in London? In England?"

"Oh, job. I'm working as a computer consultant, and I'm on an assignment. I have to do a software install and revamp for a major client's London offices. So..." she let go of his hands, spreading her arms wide, "here I am."

He couldn't stop his smile. She was like a breath of fresh air in his closed, dusty life. "Here you are," he repeated, marveling that she was standing in front of him, real, not a dream, someone he didn't think he'd ever see again.

They smiled at each other awkwardly for a few moments. Having made their hellos, they were a little lost as to where to go next. Willow had always been the shy one, social graces were never her strong suit. And yet the young woman before him was clearly not the teenager he'd last seen. There was a confidence and polish to her which had only been pale glimmerings five years ago.

Five years ago.... Another lifetime.

He blinked himself out of his reverie. "Oh, um, come on back." He escorted her to his small office. It was a mess-books and papers and notes everywhere. Not to mention the odd trinkets he'd picked up here and there, little objects which brought him momentary pleasure and which he kept around for the memories they evoked.

"Sorry about the mess," he apologized, clearing a chair for her. "I, um, don't often get visitors."

He sat opposite her, another moment of awkwardness between them. Where to begin, what to say? How not to talk about the one thing in the forefront of both of their thoughts.

"It's so good to see you," he finally said. "You look wonderful."

"Thanks," she blushed slightly. "You look almost the same."

She was being kind; he knew he looked older, more worn. His hair was still doing its slow retreat back from his forehead, and quite a bit of the stuff on the sides was now silver.

"So you're working for a computer company now?"

She nodded. "Been with them since before graduation, even," she explained. "But this is my first overseas assignment. I'm really looking forward to it."

"How long will you be here?"

"I don't know yet. It depends on how it goes. Could be a couple of weeks, could be as long as a couple of months."

"That long?" He was surprised. He figured she was in for a brief stopover. Not that he knew much about computers even now, but he assumed it was 'load it and go'.

She nodded. "Their system is in pretty bad shape. I won't know just how much I have to do 'til I get in there. But anyway, I don't officially start 'til Monday, so I figured this was a good time to look you up."

He was touched. They hadn't kept in touch after...after it all fell apart. It had been too painful. They all seemed to want to put it behind them. "How did you find me?"

She gave him a look. "Giles, I am still net-girl."

"Yes, but I'm not on the net."

"No, but colleges, museums and libraries are. I just searched. Faculty, staff, associates."

He frowned. "That must have taken a lot of time."

"Not too bad. You just have to know what to look for. So how long have you been here at the British?"

"Seven or eight months. Something like that. It's a twelve month contract with a possible renewal. I'm part of a special project working with some texts found in a vault in a little church in Wales. Wonderful stuff-mythology and legends, but they're in dreadful shape. There's a lot of maintenance work which has to be done before I can even begin to translate them, but then we want to get a translation taken before they go for full restoration, because once they're restored, we won't want to be handling them again if we can help it." He carefully opened the book on his desk to show her one of the fabulous illuminated plates. "It's really a unique opportunity to deal with some important historical texts."

He stopped himself, certain he was babbling, positive he was boring her silly. Then he looked at her face, intently studying the book, and smiled. He'd forgotten that Willow's love of learning extended beyond electronic media; she was almost as enamoured of books as he was.

She must have felt his gaze because she looked up, flushing a little, and he smiled. "I can't get over seeing you again," he said softly.

"I just couldn't imagine coming over here and not seeing you," she answered. "Even though you kind of dropped off the face of the earth when you left...."

He looked down. "I didn't think you, any of you, would want to see me." A glance in her direction showed her watching him sympathetically. If he was looking condemnation, he wasn't going to get it from her. "I thought it would be for the best to make a..a clean break."

Her expression became a little sadder. "I missed you," she said quietly.

His breath stopped in his throat. "I missed you, too." Then he took a deep breath, forcing the strong emotion away. "And now you're here. Which is wonderful. Where are you staying?"

"The Brompton, near Blackfriars. Right in the middle of everything. They've got little suites with kitchenettes and everything. So I can have my scones and tea in the morning," she grinned, putting on her best English accent, which wasn't very good.

He chuckled. "Well, good. You're off to the right start, then."

"So anyway," she said, "I don't know anyone else in London except the people at the client site and I only met with them for about an hour earlier today. So I was wondering if I could impose on you to show me around London."

He smiled. "I would be delighted." He was especially delighted with her answering smile, pleased that he'd agreed. But how could he possibly refuse? Perhaps anyone else, but not Willow. "Um, let me clean up here, and then we can go." He reached for the special box the book was stored in.

"Oh, I don't want to take you away from your work," she protested.

"Nonsense. It's Friday afternoon, I could do with a little time off." He put the book away, locking it in a secure cabinet. "What do you want to see?"

"Everything!" she grinned.

"There's a lot of everything here in London," he explained, turning off his lamp and folding his magnifier out of the way. "How about what do you want to see first?"

"I already saw that: you."

He felt himself blush. "How about second?"

She shrugged. "I don't care, honestly. You be my native guide and I'll go wherever you want."

He glanced at his watch. "Well, we've got about ninety minutes 'til the museum closes. Not enough time for a full tour, but I can give you the cook's tour, touch on some of the highlights. How does that sound?"

"Great!"

"Good," he smiled. "Just leave your coat here; we'll come back for them later."

He got her a visitor's badge and they spent the next hour and a half wandering from gallery to gallery, looking at some of the finest art and artifacts ever assembled in one place. And when the chimes announced the closing of the museum, he took her back to his office where they picked up their coats and made it out the door with the rest of the crowd.

"Are you hungry?" he asked as they headed down the steps.

"I wouldn't say no," she answered.

He took her to one of his favorite restaurants, albeit a place he frequented seldom. Usually his meals were a little more haphazard. But he came here when he felt like treating himself. It was fairly near the Museum, so they walked over, enjoying a balmy autumn day.

They were seated at a small table in a secluded corner, cozy and candlelit. Willow ordered a glass of wine and after a brief internal debate, Giles did the same, promising himself he'd only have the one. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin their evening.

The wine arrived and they silently toasted. An excellent burgundy, it warmed all the way down. Willow took a sip and Giles shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't get over.... I still think of you as a young girl, not as a woman with whom I'm sharing a bottle of wine."

She blushed. "I'm twenty-four, Giles," she reminded him.

"I know. And everything I see before me says woman, not girl. But in my mind's eye.... If I fall back to treating you like a child, feel free to slap me down for it."

She laughed softly. "You hardly ever treated me like a child even when I was one. You never treated any of us like children. That's what was so great, that you realized we had brains and could think. You trusted us."

He felt a lump in his chest. Fat lot of good it did, he thought, but stopped himself before he spoke that idea aloud. Instead he looked at his wineglass, trying to think of a different line of conversation. The problem was that their only common ground was the one thing he didn't want to discuss.

"So," he tried again, "how are the others? How's Xander?"

"He's good," Willow smiled. "He just got out of the army and-"

"Army!" Giles was surprised. "What brought that about?" He tried and failed to imagine Xander in the military.

"He loved it," she said. "He went in right after...you know." She hesitated, obviously as unwilling to discuss it as he. "I think at first it was just a way to get away, be forced to think about something else. But he found he really liked it. I think he liked the structure. It gave him a feeling of order or something. And it got him away from home, which is what I think he really wanted. Especially after...after everything. Anyway, he was an army medic, and now he's out he's gotten a job as a fire fighter and paramedic. Oh!" Her face lit up. "And he's married and there's a baby on the way. I get to be the godmother."

"Good heavens!" Giles exclaimed. "Xander as a fireman, being a father. The mind fairly boggles."

"He's grown up, Giles," Willow reminded him gently. "We all have."

Not all of you he thought, but tamped down on that thought as well.

"Well, when you speak with him, send him my regards. Uh, that is, if you think he'd like to receive them."

She frowned. "Why do you think none of us want anything to do with you?"

There was that lump again. "Because I'm not sure in your place I wouldn't feel that way."

"Well, we don't," she said. "Or didn't. Not then and definitely not now. In fact, when I told Xander I was coming over here, he asked if I was going to see you, and said I should tell you hi."

Giles was stunned. He'd spent the past five years certain he was universally despised. Their presumed loathing made his own self-loathing much easier to accept.

"Um, well," he finally managed, "do give him my regards-and my congratulations."

She smiled. "I will."

"What about the others? What about Cordelia?"

"Don't know, don't care," Willow said shortly.

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

She sighed. "Cordelia spent most of our lives growing up making my life miserable, being mean to me. Then she starts dating Xander and suddenly we're supposed to be buddies? We tolerated each other, that's about the best you could say. I felt bad about what happened with her and Xander, because I think she really did love him in her way, but...." She shrugged. "We were never friends. After high school we hardly ever saw each other."

"She's not still in Sunnydale, then."

"Nope. No one is. Except Oz."

"How is Oz?" he asked. "Do you still see him?"

"Not really. I saw him maybe six months ago. We were still dating, I think, when you left, but we broke up after that. It just got to be too hard. I was away at school and he-he didn't change. Didn't go to school, didn't work, didn't do anything, just sort of-hung around and played with the band. I think he was afraid, you know, 'cause of the three-days-a-month thing." Willow never referred to Oz's condition by its real name.

"How is he handling that?" Giles asked. Oz had been a fascinating case, and there had been at least one instance where the wolf had actually come in handy. But it was mostly a terrible ordeal for him, both physically and emotionally.

"Okay. He's been seeing a holistic healer who's been giving him some sort of herbal treatment which has, well, not cured him, but made it less-drastic. He kind of gets hairy and sick to his stomach and dizzy and stuff, but he doesn't totally-wolf out."

"Really? That's fascinating." He'd never heard of a treatment for Lycanthropy actually working before.

Willow nodded. "He said his cousin was cured. Maybe because he was so little."

"That's very interesting. I'd like to hear more about his treatment. Do you think he would be willing to...um...." The words died. Here he was forgetting what had happened, assuming Oz would be willing to talk to him.

"I'm sure he would," Willow said, pretending not to notice his lapse. "When I go home I'll have him call you."

"Thank you," he said quietly. "I'd appreciate it."

She smiled. She had a beautiful smile, he'd always thought so. With her business suit and her professional demeanor, she was very much the sophisticated young woman. But then she smiled and the bright-eyed child shone through, the one Giles had found so endearing all those years ago.

"So," she said, "what about you? You haven't been at the museum very long, what did you do before you came there?"

"Shall we order?" he interrupted and she gave him a look, one which said she would only let him get away with the evasion just so long. He supposed it was only fair, after all, she'd told him what she'd done over the past five years. The difference was, her tale had been one of beginnings, of growth. His was a sorry story of a middle-aged man's spiral through despair.

But for now, she seemed willing to concede the point. They spent almost two hours over dinner, talking almost non-stop, Willow about her job, her family, her friends, Giles giving a few scurrilous stories about some of his co-workers and bemoaning the sad state of humanities funding in Britain.

They talked of England, Willow asking myriads of questions, trying to get a feel for what her life would be like during the
coming weeks.

Until finally, dessert was finished, along with the last cups of coffee, and they made their way out of the restaurant.

It was not yet 8:00, still young by London nightlife standards, so they took a stroll through the still-bustling streets, Giles pointing out this or that place of note, finally ending up at a late-night bookstore-come-coffee bar, where they happily spent over an hour browsing the stacks, then shared a pot of tea, discussing the relative merits of this author over that one.

It was delightful, talking to Willow like this. As if that past five years and all their attendant pain had simply never existed, and yet somehow Willow had grown and matured into a woman with whom he could converse like an equal. He'd always put a great deal of store in Willow's companionship, back then. The one person who understood his passion for knowledge. If anything, that had only increased with time. The Willow with him now had honed her intellect to a fine edge, while still managing to maintain some of that ingenuousness which had so endeared her to him back then. The young woman before him was a delightful combination of the bright enthusiasm of youth tempered with the keen intellect of the scholar.

Giles hadn't felt this intellectually stimulated in years.

They finally left the bookshop at eleven, when the shop closed. Giles took Willow's arm as he escorted her from the store.

"Well, it's late," he commented. "I should be getting you home."

She didn't protest, simply leaned against his arm and sighed contentedly. He hailed a taxi and they rode peacefully back to her hotel.

"So how did you find your first day in London?" he asked.

She smiled happily. "Wonderful. I had a great time."

"I'm glad. It was lovely seeing you again. I hope we'll be able to get together again before you leave."

She sat up, looking at him curiously. "Well, I was assuming so. I was kind of hoping you'd still play tour guide for me tomorrow. I mean, if you're not doing anything else."

He was surprised how delighted her request made him. He couldn't think of any way he'd rather spend his day than showing her around London, and said as much, even more delighted when she smiled her pleasure.

They arrived at her hotel and he saw her up to her room.

"Do you want to come in?" she asked. "I think there's tea."

He could tell she was as loath for the evening to end as he was, something which pleased him more than it had any reason to. But he didn't want to misinterpret her pleasure by pushing.

"It's late," he declined regretfully. "And we've got a full day ahead of us tomorrow. If you want, that is."

"Sure. Where are you taking me?"

"Where would you like to go?"

She smiled sweetly. "You decide. I'll go wherever you want. I trust you."

"All right then. I'll pick you up tomorrow-say 10:00?"

"Make it 9:30 and we can do breakfast."

"All right. I'll see you tomorrow, then."

"Okay. Good night." And she reached up, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. He held her in a brief hug, awed by her affection, surprised by the thrill her gentle touch gave him.

He let her go. "Good night, Willow," he said, and with a shy smile, she let herself into her room.

He rode the lift, shaking his head in amazement. What an extraordinary day. To have his past come back in such an unexpected and marvelous, welcomed way. It-almost-banished the guilt and the depression, which had been his constant companions for the past five years.

And they were spending tomorrow together as well.

The people in the lobby no doubt wondered why the strange man was grinning like an idiot as he went back out into the night.
 

~~~~~


At 9:30 promptly, Giles knocked on Willow's hotel room door. The sight which greeted him was radiant, her long hair shining in the morning sun, yesterday's "power suit" replaced by dark gray jeans and a burgundy sweater. She smiled, pleased to see him, and before he could decide whether it was appropriate to kiss her cheek in greeting, she solved the problem by reaching up and kissing his.

"Good morning," he said.

"Hi. Give me a sec. to get shoes on. Come on in." She led into the small flat-a little more than a bed-sitter, but not much. The kitchen consisted of a microwave, a mini-fridge, and an electric kettle. The sitting room had a couch with a cocktail table, a desk and chair, and a telly. He couldn't see into the bedroom, but assumed it probably had a bed, a wardrobe, and not much else.

"This is quite livable," he commented, looking around. "It's actually not much smaller than my place." His kitchen boasted a real cooker, but that was about the only difference.

"Come on through," she said, heading into the bedroom, and he reluctantly followed. "You haven't said where you live," she went on, lacing up her short boots.

"I've got a small flat not too far from the museum. I often work a lot of late hours, so I didn't want a long commute on top of it. I'm paying for the convenience, but it's a fair trade."

"You have a car?"

He shook his head. "The last thing you want to do is drive in London. It's insanity. Especially with public transport so plentiful. If I ever need to go out of town, I hire one."

"I don't think I could get used to driving on the wrong side of the road," she said. "I almost got hit crossing the street yesterday."

"It's how I learned. And it's all a matter of what you get used to. I probably only drive a few times a year now."

She nodded, finished with her shoes, ran a brush through her hair one last time and turned to him, smiling. "Ready if you are."

"Absolutely," he answered and helped her on with her coat, escorting her from the flat.

They spent their breakfast plotting out their day, which would include seeing many of the traditional sights in London, capped by an evening of theatre, if they could get tickets for something.

First stop after breakfast was St. Paul's, and Willow was enthralled with the ornate architecture, and with the view of London from the upper-most outer balcony. From there they went to the Barbican and got tickets for "The Tempest", followed by visits to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Willow was the perfect companion; her child-like enthusiasm for the sites made him see them in a new light. And her scholar's intellect could fully appreciate the history and significance of each place. At one point they found themselves sitting in the courtyard of the Tower of London arguing about Richard III and the murder of the princes.

It was after 5:00 when they finally noticed the time and had to hurry back to her place so she could clean up for the theatre. He dropped her off, sped across town to his flat, did his own ablutions, then dashed back to pick her up at 7:00.

When she opened the door, his breath caught in his throat. She was wearing a deep blue dress, one which set off her auburn hair, now twisted into a loose knot. A tiny gold heart rested at her throat, and sapphire gems glittered in her ears.

"You look beautiful," he murmured, quite beside himself. He kissed her cheek, smelling her delicate perfume, shocked again by his reaction to her. Seeing her like this, it was hard to remember the young girl in the Peter-Pan collar and the cardigan sweater he first met in the library all those years ago.

"Wow!" she said, holding him at arm's length and surveying him up and down. "So do you! And it's not tweed!"

He blushed. Even the suits he'd worn his last couple of years in Sunnydale had been far tweedier than the dark navy worsted he now wore. The only other time she'd seen him in a dark suit would have been at.... And he doubted she remembered what he'd been wearing then. "Shall we go?" he asked and she took his arm.

The play was enjoyable, and during their light after-theatre supper, they once again got into an intellectual discussion, this time about magic and the power of words.

"But what Shakespeare is saying is that the power comes from the books," Willow insisted. "The words."

He shook his head. "The books are tools. But the power comes from Prospero himself. That's why losing Miranda makes him lose the power. He still has the books."

"But he hasn't lost the power, he's just decided to stop using it. It's like-it's like the magic I used to do. It wasn't that I was magic, but that the words, the casting, that's where the magic was."

He swallowed. There had been far too many magic spells in his life. And yet the one time he would have wanted one, more than anything, there had been nothing. "I'm not talking about you or me, I'm talking about Prospero, who was a very powerful sorcerer."

She shook her head. "No, I don't think he was. I think he was a wizard, but his power came from the words. He wasn't Oberon. Or Merlin."

He smiled, reaching across the table and squeezing her hand. "Thank you."

She frowned. "What for?"

"Giving me someone to be pedantic with."

She laughed. "Oh, don't tell me those dusty old guys at the museum aren't pedantic."

"Of course they are," he agreed. "But they're so focused. Keithley only talks about twelfth century Anglo Saxon antiquities. Farnham only knows the Etruscans. Finding someone who will talk Shakespeare and books and magic and-and Richard III is truly a delight."

She blushed. "It is for me, too, being with someone who knows what I'm talking about and doesn't think I'm too boring for words."

"Never. In fact, I am continually delighted by you."

She blushed even more. "Me too. I mean me-am-by you. Oh, God...." She buried her face in her hands. "See, some things don't change. I still turn into a spazz."

He chuckled gently. She might end up embarrassing herself, but he thought it was adorable. Mind, he wouldn't tell her that, for fear of making it worse.

"So you don't dabble anymore?" he asked, bringing the conversation back to its previous topic.

She shrugged. "Never say never. It took a lot of time to get any good, and I got busy doing other stuff. After...after I left Sunnydale, there didn't really seem a lot of point."

He nodded. Away from the hellmouth, she would have had little need for the kind of magic she had practiced. Now her only magic came from the realms of cyberspace.

It was after 1:00 a.m. when they finally left the restaurant. They found a taxi to take them back to Willow's hotel. It had been a long, busy day, and Willow leaned against him sleepily in the back of the cab.

"Tired?" he asked.

"Wiped. I'm not used to all this running around. I'm a computer geek-I sit behind a desk all day." She stifled a yawn.

"Oh, thank God," he sighed.

"What?"

"I'm dead on my feet. I assumed you were perking along happily and I was feeling very old."

She giggled. "If you're old, then so am I." She sighed and snuggled against his shoulder, and after the briefest of pauses, he put his arm around her, delighted at how comfortable he felt with her, how comfortable they were together. Old friends, together again after too long apart.

He saw her up to her room, but forestalled any token offer of hospitality by saying, "I'll let you go, then, get some sleep."

She nodded, not even attempting the civilities.

"Um, did you want to do something tomorrow?" he asked.

She nodded. "But something easy."

"Willow, you're under no obligation to do anything, you know. London won't disappear if you decide to spend a day catching up on your sleep. Come to that, you're probably still jet-lagged."

"I just don't want to waste any time," she said. "I want to see everything."

He chuckled. "All right. Let's see. There are a lot of museums, we could pick one and take our time going through it."

"One with lots of benches?"

He laughed. "I think the Tate has a good bench quotient. Pick you up, say 11:00? Give us a chance to sleep in."

"Sounds good," she answered.

"Fine. I'll see you tomorrow, then." He leaned down to kiss her cheek, but at the last moment she turned her head and their lips brushed.

There was one of those interminable awkward moments, when they just stared at each other, too tongue-tied to utter a sound. The atmosphere was too heavily charged. She put her arms around him and hugged him tight, resting her head against his chest for a moment.

"Good night," she whispered and let him go.

"Good night, Willow," he replied, and with a last smile, she went inside.

He was bone-tired by the time he got home, dragging himself up to his flat wearily. And yet his mind was racing as he got ready for bed, filled with thoughts of Willow. Her conversation, her keen intellect, her bright, inquisitive eyes.... Her gentle touch, her soft lips, the incredible feel of her in his arms.... And always, her smile-the sweetest, most wonderful smile he'd ever known, full of affection, whimsey, mischief, tenderness, concern. Willow's smile said more than most people ever spoke. It was the most beautiful feature in a very pretty girl. Why did a woman who was young enough to be his daughter, who he'd watched grow from little girl to young adult, why did he now find himself looking at her with such different eyes? Was he that desperate for companionship that he was now looking at children....

Except she was no child. Twenty-four, she'd said. Perhaps a baby when compared to him, but the world saw her as an adult, a responsible young woman with a career and an independent life. Could he see her that way as well, or would he always see that innocent child she'd been when he first met her?

He knew the answer to that one, knew it by the way he'd reacted when she'd opened the door tonight. She'd quite literally taken his breath away. He appreciated a pretty girl and a nice figure as much as the next man, but it had always been what was inside which mattered most to him. But Willow-all that sharp, clever intellect, in that petite, wonderful package....

He sighed. The situation was impossible. Even if she were so inclined, and he couldn't judge her feelings on the matter at all, it was impossible to imagine anything coming of...of this...this obsession. She was only here for a short time, and then she'd be gone, back out of his life again. And besides....

If she ever found out what he'd really been doing for the past five years, she'd be mortified. And the more he saw of her, the more likely it was that the sordid truth would come out. And then he'd lose her, of that he had no doubt. What use did twenty-four year old, attractive, intelligent young women have with middle-aged, depressed alcoholics who couldn't hold a job?

He rolled over, burying his face against his pillow. Seeing her again had been too precious to risk losing her. Certainly not by pushing for something he could never have. Better to let it go. They'd enjoy their time together, she'd go home again and he'd...survive...just as he always had.

God, you're cheery tonight.

The voice in his head was that of a young girl. Bright, sassy, insolent, sharp as tacks. It had been his constant companion ever since the day when her mortal voice had been stilled. He sighed, pulling the second pillow over his head. He knew it wouldn't take her long to start on him over this. She was better than a conscience. She was certainly more insistent than one.

"Please," he begged, "not tonight."

You've gotta tell her, Giles, she went on. She has the right to know.

"Tell her what? That her dear old friend's gone round the twist? That'll go over really well."

She has the right, she repeated.

"Please...." he whispered again. He was meeting Willow tomorrow at 11:00. He had to get some sleep if he was going to be worth anything. He might be more than twice her age, but he was damned if he was going to admit he couldn't keep up. "Please."

For a long time there was silence, and Giles relaxed.

But then, whisper quiet: She has the right....


~~~~~

A few minutes after 11:00, Giles knocked on Willow's door. He'd finally gotten to sleep some time after 4:00 and wasn't feeling nearly as bad as he'd feared. So when his knock elicited no response, he tried again, more loudly. Perhaps she was in the bedroom or the bathroom and hadn't heard him. When she failed to answer his third knock, he decided to go back downstairs and call from the lobby. But just as he turned away, the door opened.

Willow, wide-eyed and disheveled, looked up at him. She was still in her bathrobe. "I'm sorry," she moaned. "I overslept."

He smiled; he'd almost fallen back asleep himself. "That's quite all right," he reassured. "And understandable."

She stood back to let him enter. "Hold on, I'll be ready in a-"

"It's all right," he interrupted. "Take your time, don't rush."

She looked up at him, worry and embarrassment warring on her delicate features. Sometimes she looked so young....

He put his hands on her shoulders reassuringly. "Don't worry. I'll go downstairs, get a Sunday paper. Why don't you put the kettle on?"

"But-" she started to protest.

"Willow, we're not under any time schedule, there's no point in rushing. Let's take our time this morning and the rest of the day will be less fraught."

She seemed to think about that for a moment. "Okay." She handed him her key. "You can let yourself in...in case I'm in the shower or...something."

"All right. Back in a few." He turned to leave, but at the last minute turned back, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "Good morning," he said softly, smiling at her sleepy-eyed confusion.

He went down to the corner to get the Sunday Times and returned a few minutes later with the paper and a sack of scones. He let himself in to the sound of the kettle whistling, so he turned it off, hunting up a teapot and two mugs. In the other room, he heard the shower shut off.

He smiled, thinking about Willow's sleepy fluster this morning. He'd pulled enough "all-nighters" with her in the past to know that she sometimes didn't wake well. She was always groggy for the first few minutes. Her condition this morning made his concerns from last night both better and worse. Better because she had seemed really quite young this morning, far too young. Worse because, God help him, he found that sleepy vulnerability rather appealing. Willow had always brought out his protective side.

He sighed. This was not going to be easy. No matter what he felt, or what Willow felt, this was a disaster waiting to happen. He heard the bathroom door open and the sound of movement in the bedroom. He moved to the ajar door. "Willow, I've got tea made," he called.

"Be there in a sec," she called back.

"Take your time, I'm fine out here." He checked the tea, tossed the bags and poured himself a mug. Then he arranged the pot, the mugs and the scones on a tray and brought them to the cocktail table. He settled down on the sofa with his tea and the paper, sighing. Personal stresses notwithstanding, this was good. This was the way Sundays were supposed to be.

She came out a few minutes later, hair still wet, dressed in blue jeans and a sweater, feet bare. "I'm sorry," she apologized again, but he held up a hand to forestall her.

"Nothing to apologize for," he said. "Come and drink your tea. Relax, we're not in any hurry."

She gazed at him, bewildered for a moment, then smiled. "Lazy Sunday, huh?"

"Just so," he smiled. "I brought scones, and here's the Times. All the ingredients for a perfect Sunday morning."

She frowned. "If you don't want to go out today..."

"I do," he corrected, "but we don't have to rush. The museum will be there all day. Now relax. Come and sit down."

She hesitated for a moment and he thought she was going to start fussing again. But instead she smiled shyly and came over to the couch, sitting next to him. He smiled and poured her a mug of tea.

"It's just...I didn't want you to think I was a space cadet."

"Willow Rosenberg? The most responsible girl I ever knew? Not hardly."

She sighed, sipping her tea. "I guess I was tireder than I realized."

"Not surprising. Two late nights and a very busy day, coupled with jet-lag, I'd say it's surprising you held up as well as you did."

She nodded, setting her mug down. "I did have a great time yesterday, though."

He smiled. "So did I."

They shared a shy smile, one of those awkward moments when they had far too much to say. Until finally, Willow's grin broadened. "You said something about scones?"

He chuckled. "In the sack there." She went for one, breaking it in half and giving him the other portion. "Which part of the paper do you want?" he asked.

"You mean besides the ad from Harrods?" she grinned. "Um, let me start with Business."

He peeled off the appropriate section and gave it to her, returning to his perusal of the Opinions page.

They lost track of time, each absorbed in the paper. Scones disappeared and the pot of tea emptied. Occasionally, they'd stop and read each other an interesting bit, or discuss in more detail something mentioned in an article. Completely at ease, completely comfortable. Even when Willow leaned against him to read over his shoulder, they were still at ease. His earlier concerns seemed to have evaporated into dust.

It was after 1:00 when they finally decided to venture out. They took a cab to the Tate and spent several hours slowly wandering from gallery to gallery, pausing frequently to simply sit in front of one piece or another and just stare. Willow was especially taken with the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, and spent a long time examining them closely-especially the intricate tapestries of Burne-Jones and Morris.

Finally, around 4:30, she plunked herself down on a bench.

"OK, I give up," she said with a sigh.

Giles smiled. She'd held up much better than he had expected. "Had enough?"

"It gets to the point where...where you don't even see it anymore. Like it all just bounces off."

"You've had a busy weekend," he reminded her, sitting next to her.

"I know. But it's been great; I've loved seeing everything." Her smile was endearing.

"I'm glad," he answered, truly pleased that she'd enjoyed her weekend. "Shall I take you home now?"

She looked at him. "Come back with me."

"You're tired," he offered as a token protest.

"I'm tired of walking around. I'm not sleepy. They have video players at the front desk. We could rent a movie. Spend a quiet evening in."

He froze. The morning, spent sitting together in her tiny sitting room, had been delightful. But would it be different in the evening, by the cathode light of a television? "Are you sure?" he asked.

"Sure I want to watch a movie? Yeah, pretty sure. Sure I want to watch it with you? Yeah, definitely."

"What do you want to see?"

She shrugged. "We'll find a video store and pick something." She gazed at him expectantly.

Finally, he smiled. "All right. If you'd like." He rose and gave her his hand, helping her off the bench. Her hand was small in his, warm and soft. He tucked her hand in his arm and escorted her from the museum.

They took a cab to her hotel, arranging at the front desk for the video player and asking where a video rental shop could be found. Then they headed out again, to pick their movie and find some dinner.

The movie came first, and they spent several minutes wandering the aisles of the small rental shop, trying to decide what to watch. Giles wasn't much of a movie-goer; he couldn't even remember the last picture he'd gone to see. He decided he'd simply let Willow select the film and, as long as it wasn't something too abhorrent, go along with it.

She held up a box. "Have you ever seen this?" she asked. He looked at the title: "The Princess Bride".

"Isn't there a book by that name?" he asked.

"Yeah, and it's great. But so is the movie. It's one of my favorites."

"What's it about-besides a bride who's a princess, that is."

She smiled. "It's a fantasy love story, with sword fights, action, comedy, romance.... Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon. It's great."

"All right, that sounds fine," he said, not knowing any of the people she'd mentioned.

She smiled and they rented the film, then found a fish and chips stand and bought dinner to bring back to the suite. By the time they got back, the hotel staff had hooked the video player up in her sitting room and they were ready to go.

She was right; the movie was immensely enjoyable. But almost more enjoyable than watching the movie was watching Willow watch the movie. It was clearly one of her favorites and Giles felt he could have gotten almost as much out of it simply by watching her face as by watching the screen. Her expressive face conveyed every excitement, every tender moment, every pratfall and every sorrow. And when the final credits rolled, he was almost sorry. Not because the movie was over, but because that marvelous play of expressions was over as well. Willow leaned back, a contented smile on her face, and sighed. His arm was around her shoulders, as it had been for most of the picture, and she turned her head and looked up at him. He smiled in return.

"So? What did you think?"

"Very enjoyable," he agreed. "I can see why it's a favorite."

"I can't even remember how many times I've seen it. I practically wore my first copy out. Mandy Patinkin in tight leather pants. Sigh."

He chuckled. "I'd have thought the blonde would have been more...er, well, he's younger."

"Cary Elwes is okay," she agreed, "and I love his accent. But I really like Inigo Montoya. 'Hallo, My name is Inigo Montoya,'" she mimicked in a terrible accent, "'you keeled my father. Prepare to die.'"

He laughed and so did she.

"You really liked it?"

"I really did," he confirmed.

"Good."

And then her smile...not so much faded as softened into something else entirely, and her gaze became too bright, too intense. He wanted to look away, but couldn't. It was getting harder to breathe. All of his awareness focused into Willow-her touch, her scent, her presence, her warm, sparkling eyes and her sweet, yet alluring smile....

She lifted her chin and he bent his head, almost more by instinct than by conscious volition. She completely overwhelmed his senses. Their lips touched and his heart stopped beating. Her lips tasted exquisite. Her hand slid up his chest to come to rest at his collar, where her fingers trailed over its edge to caress the skin of his neck and jaw. He gasped from the sensation and she opened her mouth in response, her tongue tentatively dancing along the edge of his lips....

Shocking him back to reality. This couldn't be happening. This shouldn't be happening. Not now, not here. Not with Willow....

He pulled back, a hand on her shoulder pushing them apart. "Willow, no," he whispered.

She stared at him for a moment, confusion etched on her lovely face. Then the look changed to shock and horror and she paled. "Oh...God! I'm sorry! I thought...I mean we...you were... Oh my God, I totally misread that, I didn't mean...."

"Willow, shhh," Giles calmed her with a touch to her arm. She pulled away and he reached a finger to her chin, turning her head to look at him. "No, Willow," he said softly. "You didn't misread."

The shock and shame faded, replaced again by confusion. "Then what...?"

"You're a very pretty girl and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find you attractive. But it's impossible."

She frowned. "Why?"

He stared at her. "You even have to ask?"

"Yes." She turned to face him again, her hands clasping one of his. He wanted to pull away but didn't want to reject her. "There's something mutual going on here, Giles," she said. "We both felt it or else what just happened wouldn't have happened. So what's the problem?"

He let his breath out. "The problem is you're twenty-four years old."

"So?"

"I'm fifty."

"So what?"

"Willow, for God's sake, I'm old enough to be your father!"

"But you're not my father," she said, so calmly it cut through his irritation and frustration. Her expression was serene, determined. What Xander used to call her "resolve face." "I'm not looking for a surrogate father, Giles. I'm looking for a friend. And maybe...something more than that."

Now it was his turn to be confused. "Why? Why me?"

"Why not you?"

"Why not someone your own age?"

"Been there, done that," she dismissed.

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, it's the novelty, then," he suggested, deliberately goading.

"No! God!" Now she sounded angry. "Why do you find it so hard to believe that I could be attracted to you?"

"Because it's absurd."

"No, it's not. I always thought you were good looking. I still do."

"What?" He was stunned. "You what?"

She blushed and smiled shyly. "I used to have such a crush on you," she admitted. "Especially when we first met."

He stared at her, open-mouthed. "You...I...you never...." He swallowed. "I never knew."

"Gosh, I hope not," she said. "I'd have died of embarrassment if you'd ever found out. And it wasn't like I was about to do anything about it anyway. I probably would have been too scared to even try. But that was one reason I spent so much time in the library, especially at first. I wanted to be near you."

Her confession disturbed him more than a little. Willow's companionship during those years had been a great comfort to him. To know there was someone else who understood his passion for knowledge, someone with whom he could share the long hours, the arduous research, the frequent disappointments. To learn that her reason for being there had been somewhat less...pure than he'd thought.... That bothered him.

"I..I always thought you did it for..for the work. For.... For Buffy." He spoke her name in a whisper. He'd hardly spoken it at all during the past five years, despite his soul shouting it every moment of every day.

"I did," Willow insisted. "That was the main reason. I would have done it anyway, for Buffy." She said her name easily, as if comfortable with the loss of her friend. And why not? She had no reason not to be. "But feeling the way I did just made all those long hours...nicer." She smiled shyly and Giles found a small smile for her. Then it faded.

"So you wanted to find me now to...what? Try and rekindle that crush?"

Her own smile disappeared and she looked away, but not before he saw a hurt expression cross her face. "No, I wanted to find you because...because I missed you. Because I thought you were my friend. And when you left like that, no way to find you, no way to know where you'd gone, or, or if you were okay.... It hurt."

His throat closed. He'd never thought they'd, any of them, cared that much. Especially not after what had happened. He'd assumed that his leaving would be best for everybody. He thought they'd hardly even notice, much less care. He should have realized.... Willow was different. Willow was special.

"I'm sorry," he managed.

She went on as if he hadn't spoken. "So what I wanted was just to make sure you were all right. I want us to be friends again. When I saw you on Friday and my heart did that little jump thing, I realized I still felt the way about you that I used to. But most important was...is the friendship. And if the friendship becomes something more...." She smiled shyly and blushed. "That's even better."

He couldn't help but smile. He had missed her. He'd missed all of them, but in many ways he'd missed her most of all. Second chances didn't happen often in life, and he was grateful for this one. But what she asked was....

"I missed you, too," he said gently. "And I treasure our friendship, I always did. But I...it's not that simple."

"What's not?" She turned toward him, genuinely curious.

"What you're suggesting. This. Us. I can't...." He hesitated, not knowing how to explain. Not without losing her.

"What are you afraid of?" she asked softly, revealing the keen perception he'd always admired in her. "I'm not a virgin."

He looked up sharply, feeling a thrum in his belly. "I didn't want to know that."

"Yes, you did," she cajoled.

"Yes, I did," he admitted, swallowing against a dry throat. "But it doesn't change anything."

She sighed, turning away exasperatedly. "Never mind, forget it. Pretend I never said anything."

He gazed at her, smiling, and wondered if she even realized she was pouting. He reached over and brushed her jaw with his thumb before settling his hand on her shoulder. "Can you forget it?" he asked gently.

She sighed again. "No. And neither can you. Can you?"

"No," he agreed. He couldn't forget the feeling of her slender body in his arms, her soft fingers on his cheek, her lips on his. "But I can't...." He took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm an old man, Willow."

"You are not!" she protested.

"Middle-aged then, and set in my ways. I...I don't know that I can be what you expect me to be."

She gazed at him, her dark eyes huge, glittering in the soft light of the table lamp. "I expect you to be Giles," she said softly. "Nothing else. I'm not looking for a knight in shining armor. A stuffy librarian would be just fine with me."

He managed a smile for her. "Oh, if only it were that simple."

"It is. Or it can be if you let it." When he didn't answer, she frowned. "I don't understand what the problem is."

"No," he agreed gently, "I don't suppose you do. When I was your age, I don't think-"

"Will you stop with the age thing?" she snapped. "I don't care how old you are, or how old I am. That doesn't matter to me and it shouldn't matter to you."

"That's not what I meant."

"Then what?"

He took a deep breath, torn, trying to figure out how to tell her...what to tell her. "There are...difficulties," he began, endeavoring to explain, at least a little. He dared a glance at her and she returned the gaze steadily. "I'm...I'm not the man you knew in Sunnydale." He looked away, unable to bear her compassionate expression. "You asked what I've been doing these past years and the answer isn't pretty. Struggling to survive, mostly. But it hasn't been easy. And I don't...."

He turned to her again, taking her hand, holding onto it like an anchor. "I cannot even begin to express how delighted I am that you took the trouble to look for me, how grateful I am for this chance to see you again."

"I hear a but coming," she said softly.

He smiled sadly. "But it...things are different. I'm different. And this...this has all been so sudden. Forty-eight hours ago, I could never have imagined having you back in my life. Now.... I don't.... I don't want to lose you. But I don't want you to be disappointed. In me." It was the best he could do.

Her expression was caring, concerned. "What do you want?"

"Your friendship," he answered simply.

"You've already got that."

He swallowed. "Your patience, then."

There was a beat. "You've got that, too."

It was a start. Perhaps it might even be enough. He smiled, grateful again for her insight and her understanding. He raised her hand to his lips. "Thank you."

She returned his smile, but it was touched with a bit of wariness. "Can I...I mean...will I see you again?"

He was surprised. He'd never intended to give her the impression he didn't want to see her anymore. "Oh, yes, I dearly hope so. There's still a lot of London left to see." He teased gently.

She grinned and he felt some of the tension ease. "Oh, good."

They spent a long moment simply staring at each other, far too many things to say, and Giles felt the awkwardness set in again. "Well, I'd best be off, let you get ready for tomorrow."

He got to his feet and she rose with him. "Yeah, I guess so. Well, thanks for everything. I had a great time." She walked with him to the door.

"So did I."

They stood in front of the door. Willow looked up at him apprehensively, the expression on her face so very like her look of old, when she was nervous about something. When Willow felt awkward, all of her "little girl" mannerisms came to the fore. He smiled and put his arms around her, holding her in a gentle hug. "Good night, Willow." He bent his head and kissed her lips. Tender, caring, chaste.... When he straightened, she was gazing at him, enthralled.

"G'night," she whispered.

With a final stroke of her cheek, he let her go.

As he headed out into the night and hailed a taxi, Giles sighed. Well, that had gone totally wrong. He'd meant to discourage her, to let her down gently if he must. Instead.... God knew what this would do to him. God knew what Buffy would say about it. And he was certain she wouldn't remain silent. She seldom did. How could he possibly keep her at bay while Willow was here? What would she think if she knew?

Giles shook his head. "Bloody wonderful, Giles. What's your next brilliant move?"

* * * * *

"Mr. Giles, there's a call for you on line three," Miss McCarthy announced, then her voice dropped conspiratorially. "It's your young lady."

Giles felt himself flush. This was just marvelous. His secretary now thought he was having an affair with a woman half his age.

Well, aren't you? "Thank you, Miss McCarthy," he dismissed and reached for the phone. No, I'm trying to figure out how not to have an affair. He picked up the receiver. "Giles."

"Hi." Her voice was soft, uncertain. "It's Willow."

As if he hadn't recognized her voice, felt the tingle just from hearing it.

"Hello. How is your first day at your new job?"

"Okay...Giles, I'm so sorry about last night. I was way out of line and I apologize."

He smiled, just imagining Willow as she said this: her forehead wrinkled in a frown, teeth worrying her bottom lip, fingers twisting a piece of paper into a coil, or else knotting the telephone cord, or twisting in a lock of hair....

"You have nothing to apologize for, I told you that last night. Your behavior was perfectly acceptable and I was certainly not offended. I only wish...." What could he tell her? That he wished he were twenty-five years younger, without a past which insisted on torturing him day after day? That she was older, ignorant about his former life, his former calling? That he could consider her simply a "good fun girl" and let himself enjoy a purely physical relationship for once?

Wishing wouldn't make it so, and in fact, especially about the latter, he didn't even want that. Willow being Willow was far more important to him than the fact that she was pretty and female.

"I'm sorry I couldn't give you the answer you were looking for last night," he finally said.

"No, that's okay, really. I shouldn't have pushed."

"You didn't."

There was a long, awkward silence, both of them wishing the other would speak, but dreading what might be said.

"So...how's your day going?" he asked again. Best to hide out in neutral territory.

"Oh, pretty good," she answered, retreating with him. "Keeping busy."

"Would you like to tell me all about it over dinner tonight?" he asked after only the slightest of hesitations. He didn't want to lose her, and knew they had to reestablish their rapport before it slid any further into awkwardness and discomfort. A dinner and some neutral conversation might be just the ticket.

"Oh! Oh, yeah.... Are you sure?"

He smiled in spite of himself. She really was so young sometimes. Just now she sounded exactly like she had at sixteen, when he'd asked a favor of her. "Willow, I told you last night I don't want to lose touch with you. I meant it. I'd very much like to see you tonight, have you tell me all about your new job. That is, if you don't think you'll be too tired."

There was only a moment's hesitation. "No, I'm not too tired. I'd...that would be good, yeah. I'd like that. Do you want to go to that place by the museum we went to before?"

"That's a bit of a hike from where you are," he commented.

"I know, but I don't know anywhere around here...unless, I could ask someone and call you back, do you want me to do that?"

Shy enthusiasm, two words which described Willow best. "I know of a place we can go that's not too far from you."

"Where is it?"

"It's called Cantrip's. It's in Carter Lane behind St. Paul's. Do you know where that is?"

"No, but I can find it."

"I can pick you up if you'd like."

"No, that's okay, I'll meet you there. I've got my A to Z...I've gotta start finding my way around."

He chuckled, wondering if now was the time to tell her that many Londoners who'd lived here their whole lives still didn't know their way around some parts of the city. It was simply too vast. "All right. See you at six?"

"I'll be there."

"I look forward to it."

There was a pause. "So do I," she said softly.

~~~~~

Giles was already seated at the bar at Cantrip's nursing a soda water, when Willow arrived a few minutes after six. She saw him and made her way through the crowd, all bright smile and sparkling eyes. Willow's emotions were absolutely transparent on her expressive face. She was almost pathologically unable to lie, and he loved her for that. His life had been full of too many lies and deceptions as it was.

"Hi!" She smiled and, after only the slightest of hesitations, leaned to give him a kiss on the cheek.

He put his arm around her in a gentle hug. "Hello. How was your day?"

"Great! The place is a mess; I've really got my work cut out for me."

"And that's good?"

"That's very good," she confirmed with a grin. The expression, like her enthusiasm, was infectious. Her energy made him feel, in turn, energized himself, and very old and tired.

"Here," he stood up, picking up his drink, "let's go in and you can tell me all about it." His other hand went behind her back, gently guiding her into the dining room.

"So tell me what exactly you'll be doing," he began once they were seated with their menus.

Willow grinned, warming to her topic. "A complete systems overhaul. They're really a mess, this should have been done years ago. The only way they survived Y2K was by quitting using half their systems, or else just faking the dates. But they've gotten in new hardware as well as new software, so I get to implement the upgrade system wide. I mean, not totally by myself, they've got their own techs and everything, but it's my baby, I get to supervise the whole thing."

Giles smiled and nodded, not wanting to admit to her that he only understood about half of what she'd said. "How long will it take, do you think?"

"Awhile. A couple of months, maybe."

"That's splendid!" he said, delighted that she'd be around longer.

Delighted and terrified. There was no way he could keep the pain, keep her, as he'd taken to referring to the spirit which haunted him day and night, at bay for two months. She'd been particularly vociferous last night.

Willow? You want to boink Willow? God, Giles, can you possibly be more ewsome? You're, like, old enough to be her father! She trusts you, and you pay it back by taking advantage of her!

He'd tried to explain, to tell her his interest in Willow wasn't based on sexual desire, but she didn't listen.

She never did.

And, if he was being honest with himself, he had to admit that sexual desire did at least play a role in it. Willow wasn't sixteen anymore; she'd grown up. And she'd grown up...lovely. Her girlish figure had matured with new curves, and while she'd never be voluptuous, she had filled out that blue dress the other night very nicely indeed.

He watched her talking about her job, the sparkle and animation in her eyes, her voice, her whole physicality making her absolutely radiant. Willow Rosenberg was a very pretty young woman. But it was her spirit that made her beautiful.

The waiter came by to take their drinks order. Willow ordered wine and Giles said that he was fine with his drink.

"What are you drinking?" she asked once they were alone again.

"Um..." he hesitated uncomfortably. "It's...soda water."

"Soda water?" she frowned. "Why are you.... Oh." Her face went from confusion to understanding. Acceptance.

He was awed. He kept forgetting her keen analytical mind. She'd been presented with facts, drawn a logical conclusion, and accepted it without question. If he chose, he could let the topic drop here and it would never be mentioned again.

"It's...something I need to be careful about," he said quietly. He owed her that much.

"You don't have to explain. It's all right." She reached for his hand, covering it with her own smaller one. "I'm sorry I made you have that wine the other night. You should have said something."

"You didn't make me do anything," he shook his head. "I chose to have that wine. The occasional glass won't do me any harm."

Her look was skeptical, but she accepted his declaration. Her wine arrived and they placed their orders.

"You don't seem surprised to learn about my...difficulties," he commented as they toasted silently.

She took a sip of her wine. "I remember sometimes back in Sunnydale when you'd...especially if something was...I mean not all the time, but sometimes...." She took a deep breath. "And then, in order to find you, I had to do some searching. I found a lot of places where you weren't anymore. And I wondered why you changed jobs so much." She shrugged, presenting him with her evidence, letting him see the conclusion she'd drawn.

He stared into his glass. It was part of it, but not the whole story. He could imagine Buffy saying, So? You gonna tell her? Or you gonna chicken out?

Chicken out. Instead, he turned his hand over beneath Willow's, squeezing it gently. "Thank you for your understanding. I appreciate it."

She smiled, that wonderful, healing smile he adored so much. "You know you don't have to be embarrassed or ashamed with me, don't you?"

He raised her hand to his lips. "I do. Thank you."

I know it. I just wish I weren't so afraid of telling you the truth. Afraid that I'll lose you forever.

Like I lost Buffy.

He forced a smile and set her hand down with a pat. "So, you were telling me about your job. Only use layman's terms so I don't get totally lost."

"Giles," she laughed, "when are you gonna join the twentieth century?"

"I hate to break it to you, my dear, but this is the twenty-first century."

"I know. That's how far behind you are. Have you even used a computer since you left the library?"

"Only rarely," he admitted, "and only under duress."

"Will you at least let me teach you the basics?"

"Why? I have no intention of getting one of the infernal things."

"Because I don't want to lose touch with you once I go home," she said simply, "and e-mail's the easiest way to keep in touch."

A shock more painful than he'd expected lanced through him. When she went home. He didn't even want to think about when she went home.

"We'll see," he said vaguely. If it were the only way to ensure that Willow was not lost to him, he'd learn to use any number of bloody machines.

She grinned, seeing the equivocation as victory, and the next several minutes were taken up by Willow's describing her work situation and how she could expect to spend the next several weeks.

"So anyway, even though I've got some pretty long days ahead of me, I can pretty much set my own hours. So if we want to do something, I'll probably be able to clear time."

"That's wonderful." That pleased him more than it should have. "Um...do you want to work out a schedule, or...."

"You know, Giles, there's this really radical idea called improvisation, where not every moment is pre-planned." Her eyes, her voice, danced with gentle teasing, but Giles felt a chill down his spine. She sounded exactly like Buffy.

"I'm sorry, I...."

Now it was her turn to reach for his hand. "Hey, it's okay," she soothed, her voice gentle. He looked up to see compassion in her eyes. "I'll probably be busy during the week, but I'd love to give you my weekends. Like you said, there's still a lot of London I haven't seen yet. I mean, if you're still willing to be my tour guide."

He linked his fingers with hers. "I can't imagine any way I'd rather spend my weekends," he said, making her blush.

With the perfect timing endemic to good waitstaffs everywhere, their meal arrived, bringing the discussion to a close.

~~~~~

Over the next weeks Giles and Willow saw each other whenever possible. Most week nights she worked late, but they had managed to squeeze in dinner a couple of times, and they spoke on the phone nearly every day.

The weekends were devoted to being together, and Willow was an accommodating visitor, willing to see whatever Giles wanted to show her. They'd visited museums, seen monuments and sights, gone to plays. He even took her shopping one afternoon, delighted by her enthusiasm over Harrods and her awe at the bookshops in Charing Cross.

Most delightful, however, was that they seemed to be able to be completely at ease with each other, without the previous sexual tension which threatened to mar their relationship. Willow was affectionate, giving him hugs and kisses, resting her head against his arm as they sat together in a taxi. But she never pushed her advantage. And in turn, Giles felt comfortable holding her hand, touching her back or her hair, even teasing her when he inadvertently discovered she was ticklish.

The weekends together passed in a blur of wonder and delight, and for the first time in over five years, Giles began to feel really alive.

Not that it had been all good. Buffy was in one of her active phases and Giles dreaded going to bed at night, knowing his personal sprite would be keeping him up all night, talking to him, cajoling him, accusing him with her sharp words and her sad little voice. She'd never gone away on her own before, and he had the sinking feeling she wouldn't go away this time, either. Not unless he beat her into oblivion....

But that meant disappearing into oblivion himself, and with Willow here, he simply couldn't risk it.

So he resorted to the prescription sleeping pills the doctor had given him last year, when he'd been recovering from his most recent bout with Buffy and the bottle. The pills made him feel worse than any scotch ever had, but he had no choice.

He was contemplating taking the nightly pills and beginning the battle for sleep when the phone rang. He wasn't surprised; Willow often called when she got home from work.

"Hello?"

"Hi." He could hear the fatigue in her voice.

"You sound knackered."

"I am." She stifled a yawn. "I haven't been home before ten all week."

"Poor love," he sympathized. "If you want to take a pass on this weekend, I'll understand."

"Getting bored with me?" she teased.

"Not at all. But sightseeing can be exhausting, especially if we take the day-trip we were planning." They'd made plans to head out of London for some sightseeing. Willow wanted to see Stonehenge. "I'd understand if you just wanted to stay in and sleep."

"No, I'll be fine. Especially knowing I'm going to be seeing something cool like Stonehenge. It's work that's tiring, not playing."

He chuckled. "All right. Pick you up at 9:00?"

"Okay. How far is it?"

"A couple of hours, perhaps. I've actually never been there from London. The last time I was there was from Oxford."

"Can we do that as a day-trip?"

"Should do. Unless we want to see anything else in the area."

"What else is in the area?"

"Not a lot, actually. It's about an hour and a half from Glastonbury, if you're into things Arthurian."

"What's in Glastonbury? Was that Camelot?"

"No, Camelot was probably in Wales. Glastonbury may have been the Isle of Avalon."

"Sure, sounds neat."

"And then a little further on is Bath, which is a lovely town."

"With baths?"

He chuckled. "Yes, ancient Roman baths. Do you remember the Canterbury Tales?"

"Yeah...oh! That Bath! That would be cool."

"Well, if we do Bath as well, that would be a bit much for a day-trip. Not that it can't be done, but we don't want to rush it. Here, you're always telling me to improvise. Why don't you pack a bag, just in case and we'll...play it by ear."

She giggled. "Okay. Sounds like a plan. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Good night, Willow. Sleep well."

He rang off and frowned. It made sense, not wanting to rush things, to take their time and see what they wanted to see. But could they stay together without things becoming "awkward"?

Oh, nice euphemism, Buffy taunted. Man, you are just looking for any chance you can get to jump her bones, aren't you?

"It's not like that," he muttered. She always saw the worst in things. Always expected the worst in him. "It's simply...practical."

Yeah, a way to practically get her in bed.

"Hush."

But she wouldn't. He knew from her tone he was in for a long one. He went into the bathroom and reached for the vial of sleeping pills, swallowing the usual dose, and then one more for good measure. Anything to silence her.

Not that it had ever worked in the past, but he had to try.

~~~~~

It was almost 11:00 when Giles finally arrived at Willow's suite. He'd overslept, thanks to the pills, and woke with a crashing headache. It took him twice as long to get ready and his coordination seemed to have fled, as evidenced by the nicks on his jaw and cheek. He threw things in an overnight bag and dashed for the car hire place, praying they hadn't given his car away, then had to wait while they straightened out some paperwork snafu. Traffic was dreadful, as always, so by the time he arrived at Willow's he was irritable and his head was throbbing.

"I was getting worried," she said, opening the door for him. "What happened?"

"What didn't happen?" he grumbled, coming in. "I overslept, woke with a bugger of a headache, and you name it, it's conspired against me this morning. You ready?"

She frowned, studying him. "That headache didn't have a bottle attached to it last night, did it?" she asked softly.

Whatever he was expecting her to say, it wasn't that, and he turned away with an epithet. "For Chrissake, Willow! If I wanted a mother, I'd ask for one."

"I'm sorry, but..." she moved around in front of him, "but you don't look very good, and I want to know what's wrong."

Her solicitude was irritating, but he knew she meant well by it. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his pounding forehead. "I've been having a bit of trouble sleeping, I took a sleeping pill last night. They always make me.... I don't like taking them." He owed her an explanation.

"I'm sorry," she said again softly. "We don't have to go today if you don't...."

"If I didn't want to go I wouldn't have just gotten the bloody car! Now come on, we're late enough as it is."

She stared at him for a minute, then she did something he never expected. She laughed.

"Guys! You're all the same. Your face is all squinched up in pain, you're snapping like a bear with a sore paw, but you're just gonna tough it out and be miserable because that's what guys do." She snorted. "Sit."

"Willow-"

"We're going, but in a minute. Now sit." She pulled out the desk chair. "Here." She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed.

He sat.

"I'll be right back." She headed for the bedroom.

"I've already taken some paracetemol," he called after her. A Panadol, or four, would work wonders, eventually.

"That's a start," she answered, then came back into the room holding a small vial. "But this should make it better right away." She unstoppered the vial. "Smell this." She held it under his nose.

He sniffed. Peppermint, eucalyptus and some other things he couldn't identify.

"No, take a deep sniff."

He inhaled. "What is it?"

"Aromatherapy. Good for headaches. And so's this." She upended the vial and poured some of the oil on her fingers. "Just close your eyes and relax."

She stood behind him, gently rubbing his temples with oil coated fingers, massaging the scented liquid into his skin, its aroma filling his nostrils. He forced himself to relax, felt the knot between his eyes begin to ease as she stroked across his forehead gently.

"Where else does it hurt?" she whispered.

"Back of the neck," he murmured, and one hand kept stroking his forehead while the other moved to the base of his skull, carefully easing the tension she found there.

She finished by rubbing his temples again, then pressed a soft kiss to the top of his head. "How does that feel?"

He opened his eyes slowly. There was still the residual of the headache; he'd have been surprised if she'd managed to make it completely disappear. But he was able to move his head without wincing now, and he was much more relaxed.

"Much better." He took her hand and brought it to his lips. It smelled of the oil. "Thank you."

She smiled. "You're welcome." They gazed at each other for a long moment of tenderness and gratitude, then she withdrew her hand. "You ready to go?"

"Yes." He stood. "Are you?"

"Uh-huh." She dropped the aromatherapy vial in her bag and zipped it shut. "I hope we won't be going anyplace fancy, because all I'm bringing is casual stuff."

"No, no place fancy," he confirmed, taking her bag. "But I do hope you've got good walking shoes. Glastonbury Tor is...a bit of a challenge."

She grinned. "Yeah, I looked it up in my Guide. You sure you up to it, Old Man?" she teased, using the expression as an endearment, one he returned in kind.

"Just you wait and see if I'm up to it, Little Girl." Smiling, he gave her a brief hug and they were on their way.

~~~~~

By the time he'd gotten to the last fifteen metres of Glastonbury Tor, Giles was beginning to wish he'd never taken Willow up on her challenge. His lungs were burning and it felt like he couldn't get enough air. Willow was already at the top, calling her encouragement to the "Old Man". The final few steps were done with Willow coming to meet him, guiding him to the plateau.

"See? I knew you could do it!" Willow smiled, hugging him.

"...Bloody...hell...!" he gasped. He knew he'd let himself go a bit over the past years, but hadn't realized just how unfit he'd become until now.

Willow kept an arm around him, giving him support, not letting him sit down or collapse, but instead walking him around the small summit slowly, letting him get his breath back. She was a good hiker and had a bottle of water with her, one he borrowed and drank from greedily.

Fortunately, it didn't take him long to catch his breath and, once convinced he wasn't about to expire on the spot, Willow turned her attention to the view.

"Wow!" she whispered, awed. "Oh, my God. Oh wow!"

The countryside spread out below them, looking like a perfect picture postcard. The sheep on the tor grazed placidly, along with their compatriots down below. The late afternoon sun reflected off the fields, the hills, the houses and the spires of Glastonbury Abbey, and Willow gazed at it, enraptured.

She'd been somewhat disappointed in Stonehenge, especially the fact that tourists were not allowed within the stone circle. Giles had warned her ahead of time, but it was still a bit of a let-down. The standing stones held mythic importance to occultists, and while Willow did very little dabbling anymore, she still considered the trip to Stonehenge as something akin to a journey to Mecca. So he was pleased at her delight in Glastonbury. At least the trip hadn't been a total waste.

Able to breathe, to speak again, Giles stepped up behind Willow and put his arms around her in a loose hug, gazing at the scenery with her.

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" he murmured softly in her ear, not wanting to disturb the peace. They'd somehow managed to be the only travelers on the summit.

Willow leaned against his chest, her arms resting on his, their fingers entwined. "It's just perfect. Like a fairy tale."

They were silent, gazing at the town spread out below them. Then, without a word, they walked slowly around the crest, seeing the valley from all sides: the farms, the roads, the river. They went inside the tower of the Chapel of St. Michael, the only thing which remained of the medieval church, and read the plaques inside.

There were benches there and Giles let Willow go and lowered himself to one of them. "I need to sit a bit before we head back down," he said. "Take your time."

"Are you okay?" she asked, frowning.

"Yes, I'm fine," he reassured her. "Just old and unfit." He sipped the last of the water from her bottle.

"No you're not, you're just...you just need to get out more, that's all."

He smiled. "And you're going to take it upon yourself to see that I do."

"Of course," she grinned. "If you won't do it by yourself, then I have to do it for you." She dropped a kiss to the top of his head and wandered back over to the open doorway, leaning against the stones and gazing out at the view.

The sun was low in the sky; it was already below the level of the Tor, casting it in shadow while igniting the valley below. Willow was a silhouette against the copper colored sky. It haloed her auburn hair, making her look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Taking his breath away.

She came back over and sat next to him. "Thanks for bringing me here," she said softly.

"You're very welcome. Thank you for accompanying me."

She smiled and reached over, gently rubbing his back. "It's so peaceful here. London seems light years away."

"Mmm," he agreed, closing his eyes, letting himself drift on the cool breeze and the warmth of Willow's hand on his back.

Her fingers slid up to his hair and she gently massaged the base of his skull. "How's your headache?"

"Better," he murmured. This morning was little more than an unpleasant memory.

Then her fingers glided to the side of his head, stroking the flesh behind his ear, a sensitive spot that made him shiver. He opened his eyes and she gazed at him steadily. He brought his hand up to smooth her hair, tucking it gently behind her ear. And when she lifted her chin, leaning in, he bent his head and kissed her. As natural as the breeze that blew through the old chapel, as comfortable as the English countryside beneath them.

Willow was a good kisser. Any shyness she still possessed disappeared in her deliberate assault on his mouth. She parted her lips for him and he accepted without hesitation, his arms coming up to encircle her, her own hands rubbing up and down his back. She tasted exquisite, and her determined lips, tongue and teeth were demanding on knowing every inch of him. They left his mouth and explored his jaw, his neck, his ear, nipping, licking, sucking. He returned her kisses hungrily, tasting her mouth, her cheeks, her eyelids. His hands wound in her hair as he was carried away by her sensual onslaught.

The sound of laughter penetrated his passion and he pulled back as if burned. What the hell was he doing?

Buffy was right. Again. All you want is an excuse to get her into bed. To take her 'til you're both legless.

Willow was staring at him, confused. She looked absolutely delicious-her face slightly flushed, her eyes smoky in the shadowed light, her lips wet and swollen. He forced himself to turn away and moved to the doorway, watching a couple of hikers scrabble up the steep slope.

"Giles...?" Willow was behind him, her voice soft, pleading.

"It's late," he said, forestalling anything else she might have said. "We'd better go." He didn't dare look at her, didn't want to see the hurt or accusation in her eyes. "Come on."

Without looking back, he started down the slope.

~~~~~

It was after dark by the time they got back down the tor and to their car. Giles drove a short distance, then stopped in front of a small inn-a little more than a B&B, but not much.

"We can stay here tonight, then tomorrow we can get a fresh start to Bath."

"Oh!" She sounded surprised. "Oh. I thought maybe we were...going back home tonight."

"Do you want to go home?" He wouldn't blame her if she did.

"No," she replied quickly. "No, I just thought...." She sighed. "Good. I'm glad. I want to see Bath."

He managed a small smile, and they lapsed again into silence as they went inside.

"Are we going to get food at any time?" she asked. "I'm starving."

He smiled. "Let's get checked in first." Actually, he felt a bit queasy, his stomach roiling in imitation of his mental turmoil. But he'd accompany her, try and eat something. It might help.

The girl at the front desk didn't look any older than Willow. "Yes, sir, how may I help you?"

"Good evening. Would you have two rooms available for tonight?"

Willow looked at him sharply. "Two? We don't need-" He held up his hand to silence her.

"We don't have any connecting rooms, sir," the clerk told him.

"They don't need to be connecting, as long as they're near each other."

"Giles," Willow said, "we can share a room."

"It's not open for discussion," he answered shortly.

"We have a single and a twin which are next to each other, if that would do," the clerk said.

"That would be fine."

"For how many nights?"

"Just tonight."

"All right. If you'll just sign here-" He took care of the paperwork, all the while feeling Willow's eyes speaking daggers to him.

He thanked the clerk, palmed the keys, and led the way to their rooms on the second floor.

"You're being silly about the rooms thing," Willow murmured.

"And you're being irritating about them," he muttered back.

"I'm being irritating? I'm not the one who's freaking out at the idea of-"

"Here. You take this one." He handed her one of the keys.

She glared at him for a moment, then sighed and took the key, opening her door. She flipped on the light. "Look," she said, pointing at the room with its twin beds. "Two beds. Two people. We can both stay in one room without any-"

"Drop it, Willow," he snapped, unlocking his door. His room contained a double bed, plus a wardrobe, a desk and a sink. The bath was down the hall.

"But it's-"

"I said drop it!"

She stared at him, shocked into silence. He closed his eyes, sighing. Wonderful. The day was going from bad to worse. He opened his eyes. She was still staring.

"Why don't you get cleaned up and then we'll go for dinner. Say ten minutes?"

There was a pause, as if she wasn't sure if he meant it. Then she nodded and silently went into her room, closing the door behind her.

He did the same, then leaned against the closed door and groaned. What a bloody mess. How could he possibly hold it together all weekend? Obviously, he couldn't, he'd just made that abundantly clear. It was all falling apart. He was falling apart. Why had he allowed....

Allowed? Get a grip, Rupert. You positively encouraged her. He remembered her warmth, her taste, the softness of her lips, and groaned again. Up on the tor, holding Willow in his arms had felt so right it was almost magical.

But he knew enchantment had less to do with it than good old fashioned lust.

He crossed to the sink and splashed water on his face. His headache was back and he wanted nothing more than to hide out in a bottle, to seek oblivion in the bottom of a glass.

Christ, what a cock-up this was.

He dried his hands, changed into a clean shirt, and ran his fingers through his hair, tidying it. Just because he was a mess on the inside didn't mean he had to look like it on the outside. He might be a crazy old drunkard, but at least he was a presentable one.

Exactly ten minutes later, he knocked on Willow's door. She opened it, big eyes looking up at him. "You ready?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light. She nodded and closed the door behind her.

They walked silently out of the hotel, heading toward the center of town. They carefully kept distance between them, a cushion of discomfort which kept them apart.

"I'm sorry," Willow finally whispered.

Giles closed his eyes. Dear Willow. What could he say to her? "So am I."

"I don't like fighting with you."

"Neither do I."

"It's just.... It's just I don't understand. I mean, what happened up there...you and me...it was good. So why...?"

"I.... Just don't push, Willow."

She frowned. "What? I'm not."

"I asked you to be patient."

"And I have been. I've been very patient. But I don't understand. I mean, if you weren't interested, or didn't feel anything, that would be one thing. But I wasn't kissing myself back there. And you sure didn't seem repulsed by me. So I'm just-"

"Leave it." He knew that was inadequate, but there was nothing else he could tell her.

"No, not until you tell me what the deal is."

Giles stopped, exasperated. Willow could talk a subject into the ground if he let her. "You just don't get it, do you?"

"How can I? You won't tell me anything!"

"I can't tell you everything."

"But you tell me nothing! It's always no, Willow, I can't, Willow, I won't, Willow. But never why. Why, Giles? Just tell me why."

He shook his head, chuckling, but there was very little humor in it. "Be careful what you ask for, little girl." His tone was harsh.

"I'm asking for answers," she said. "I'm asking for honesty."

"You don't want honesty, you want pretty lies," he spat. "You're looking for some fairy-story romance, complete with swelling violins and waves crashing on the shore. Grow up, Willow. This isn't the Princess Bride, it's life. With all its sordid, ugly realities. You'd better learn to live with it."

"I do live with it," she retorted. "I'm not looking for fantasy. Don't put words in my mouth, and don't assume you know how I feel."

"I know that you're acting like a foolish little girl."

"Oh, yeah, and you're acting like such a grownup, running so fast you don't even know what you're running from." Damn, but she was perceptive. "What are you so scared of? That you'll actually stop suffering for a minute and mistakenly enjoy something?"

"You don't know the first thing about my life!" he snapped. He was shouting now, causing a public scene. He was past caring.

"Because you won't tell me! You'd rather push me away than take the chance of being happy!"

"You're living a fantasy, Willow! You're asking the impossible! You don't have what it takes to make me happy!"

"You don't know that!"

"What do you want from me?"

"The truth."

Giles laughed bitterly. "You don't want the truth. You couldn't cope with my reality. The truth is base, and foul, and pathetic. I'm pathetic." He struck himself in the chest. "You want the truth? All right, then, how about this? Your hero, the man you've built so far up in your mind is nothing more than a drunkard, and a failure, and a coward, and a...and a murderer."

Willow stared at him, mouth agape.

"Are you satisfied now? Is that what you wanted to hear?" He shook his head. Perhaps she'd leave him alone now. He couldn't handle both of them, and he knew after this that Buffy would be all over him. No matter what he did, it was never enough.

"You, you...." Willow stammered.

"I'm all those things, and more," he said. "I'm sorry if that reality is too harsh for you, but it's my reality. And there's no place in it for your fluffy little girl's fantasies. I should have been honest with you from the start, but I'm too much of a coward for that, and I...." He couldn't tell her how much her friendship had meant to him, how much it hurt him to hurt her like this. But it was the only way.

"Here." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a twenty pound note. He pressed it into her hand. "This is for dinner. I don't have much of an appetite. I'll see you later." Then he turned and walked away.

"Giles-wait!" she called after him.

He kept walking.

* * * * *

He expected her to follow him, so he wasn't surprised when she did. His only surprise was that she'd let him get such a head start. She tracked him down in the lounge of the little inn, and the three empty glasses at his elbow were more a credit to the speed with which he was putting them away than the delay in her pursuit. Her hand on his arm stopped the latest glass from reaching his lips and he scowled at her. She stared right back, free of intimidation.

"Boy, when you decide to be guilt guy, you really do it," she said snidely.

"Go away, Willow," he muttered.

"In case you forgot, I'm here with you."

"Then take the car and go." He fumbled in his pocket for the keys.

"I can't drive a stick shift," she said bluntly. "Besides, I'm not going anywhere."

"Then go to your room. Just leave me alone." He pulled away and slugged back his drink. He'd had enough now that he barely felt the burn as it went down.

"Look," she began, "I know you think you're this awful, terrible person. But I hate to tell you, none of that's news. I've known about the drinking for a long time. And the failure? Well, that's obvious by how you pulled away from everybody. Coward, too. You're too afraid that if I learn about the real person I won't like you anymore.

"And murder? Well, if you mean your friends with that whole Eyghon mess, that's all old stuff."

She paused, looking directly at him. "And if you mean Buffy, then you're dead wrong."

His head snapped up, staring at her. Her direct gaze was unsettling and he looked away again. "You weren't there."

"I didn't have to be. You weren't responsible for Buffy's death, Giles."

"I couldn't stop it."

"You weren't supposed to. That's not the way it works. Which is a crappy deal, but that's the way it goes, you know that. The slayer fights, the slayer dies. You can't stop that no matter how much you want to, no matter what you do. No one can. The best anyone can do is postpone it a little. And you did that."

"It wasn't enough."

"Giles, she was nineteen, almost twenty. She'd survived for more than three years as a slayer, in one of the most demonically active spots on earth. Her success rate was almost unprecedented. I read the histories, I know what you and she did was remarkable."

"Nineteen," he repeated softly. "Just a child."

"Uh-uh." Willow shook her head definitely. "She was the slayer. She stopped being a child the minute Merrick called her." She covered his hand with her own. "She got to graduate from high school. She got to go to college. She got to do lots of stuff. Yeah, she died, but she got to live, too, and that was thanks to you. You never forgot that she was more than just the slayer. She was Buffy."

"Fat lot of good it did her in the end," he muttered bitterly. "She still died." He felt his throat close and ached for more scotch to ease the pain. "I would have given my life for her if it meant she could have one more moment on this earth." His voice caught.

"I know that," Willow said gently. "So did she."

He closed his eyes. "Then why won't she leave me alone?"

There was silence. "Wh..what?"

"She's with me," he whispered. "Haunting me. Taunting me. All night, every night, constantly, robbing my sleep, disturbing my days, until the only way I can find some peace is through oblivion." He pushed at his glass, knocking it against the others. "Your high-flung epitaphs for Buffy seem to conveniently forget that she excelled at holding a grudge. She never really forgave me the Council's test. And now that she's gone, she's not about to let me forget how I failed her, yet again." His voice shook and his hands trembled. He swallowed against the bile in his throat. "You see, the one thing I forgot to mention earlier in my list of transgressions, is that slowly but most assuredly, I am going mad. Buffy is making sure of that. And she won't be happy until she succeeds."

He stood up, wobbled with dizziness and with the fear of what was to come, and dropped another twenty on the table. "That ought to take care of my tab. I'm going to bed." He couldn't deal with Willow anymore. He couldn't hope to handle her and Buffy at the same time. Not and keep what remained of his sanity.

He wove across the room, aware of the stares of the other patrons. He scowled at them, uncaring if he was making a scene or not. It was hard enough to keep moving without worrying about the opinion of some pillock in a pub.

Somehow, he found his way out of the lounge and to the stairs, making his way unsteadily up them. She caught up to him and grabbed his arm. He spun on her and had to grab the wall to keep from keeling over.

"For chrissake, Willow, take a hint! Leave. Me. Alone."

"No, Giles, I-"

"Sod off!" He pushed at her, trying to get away, saw her lose her balance.

"Willow!" His vision blurred, the blood roared in his ears. "No!"

He'd just pushed Willow down the stairs. Dear God, he'd just killed Willow, just as he had killed Buffy!

His gorge rose and he knew he was going to be sick. He bolted up the stairs, not knowing how he managed to find his room, nor how he got the door open. He lurched inside, slammed the door, and somehow made it to the sink before he threw up, good scotch whiskey which might not have burned going down redoubling its efforts on the way up, tearing at his gut, his throat. He leaned over the sink and heaved, long after the alcohol had been purged.

What are you doing? Her voice was accusatory. What just happened? How could you let your temper get away from you like that? You're a killer, Giles! You kill innocent people! Killer! Murderer!!

"No, please," he coughed. "Don't...."

You hurt her and then you couldn't even be bothered to see what you did! Coward!

"Don't. Please, stop. Oh, God, stop!" He held his head in his hands, practically doubled over from the agony of her cruel invective.

You don't deserve her. She cared about you and this is how you treat her. How you kill everyone who ever loved you. Willow, Jenny, me....

"Stop! Just stop!" He turned away and stumbled, cracking his head against the standing wardrobe. He staggered back, the sudden pain blotting out everything else. "Oh, God, please, no more." He moved forward again, purposely hitting his head this time, using the pain to drive her voice out of his head. "No more." Bang. "No more." Bang. If he couldn't find oblivion in a bottle, he'd get it elsewhere.

"Giles!"

It wasn't working. She was still taunting him. "Please, God, no more." Bang. There stickiness on his face. He wiped at his eyes and his hand came away red.

"Giles, open this door!"

"Please, Buffy, just...."

"I'll stand out here and make a scene if I have to. Go call the manager if I have to. Now open this door!"

She wouldn't go away....

Then something penetrated his haze and his pain.

The dead had no need of doors.

"Giles!"

"Willow...." He raised his head. Not dead. Willow, standing outside his door. He staggered across the room. He'd barely got the door open when she pushed into the room, forcing him backwards.

"How dare you blame Buffy for your problems!" she shouted. "If you want to turn into a drunken lout that's your choice, but don't go blaming her!"

"Wha'...." He staggered back, hitting the edge of the bed with his knees and falling onto it.

"Yeah, maybe you've had a rough time of it. Well it hasn't been a picnic for any of us, but the rest of us aren't turning into pathetic puddles of goo. Besides which, even if we were, we aren't blaming Buffy for our own failings. She would never.... Oh, my God, Giles...." Her words died as she stared at him. "What did you do?"

"Sh-she wouldn't stop," he whispered. "H-had to make her stop...."

"Oh, Giles," she sighed. "Don't move." She moved to the sink and he lay back, feeling his head spin. "Oh, yuck, Giles." He heard the tap run, then she came back, kneeling on the bed. "Just hold still." She dabbed his head with a damp cloth. It stung, but he didn't have the strength to complain. He flinched and she soothed.

"Shh, it's all right." She dabbed again, wiping the blood out of his eyes. "You split the skin, but it's bleeding probably worse than it is." She touched his head gingerly. "You're gonna have a pretty good lump there."

"Willow," he whispered hoarsely, struggling to sit up.

"Shh, it's all right," she soothed.

"I...I pushed you...down the stairs...." He frowned at her, confused. He'd killed her. Why was she here now?

"You pushed at me, but your coordination's way off when you're drunk," she corrected. "Sorry to disappoint you." Her words were tinged with anger and a touch of bitterness.

"I..I'm so..sorry, Willow." His throat closed on him. He couldn't even take a breath. "I never meant...."

"I know," she sighed. "You're just all messed up, aren't you?" She smoothed his hair gently. "Living with all that guilt, and the loss and the pain and everything. You've really done a number on yourself."

"B..buffy-" he began.

"Isn't haunting you, Giles."

"Yes, she-"

"No. Listen to me." She held his head in her hands, forced him to look at her. "Buffy would never do the things you said she does. Not ever. She loved you." He heard the catch in Willow's voice, saw the tear in her eye. "She would sometimes talk about it. What would happen. She knew the score. She knew it was all borrowed time. And sometimes we'd talk. She said it wasn't the dying that scared her, but what her dying would do to those around her. Her friends. Her mom. You. She knew that you'd blame yourself and she didn't want that. She wanted me to make sure you knew that no matter what, no matter how it happened, it wasn't your fault. But you left too soon, before I could tell you.

"And I don't think you would have listened anyway."

She sniffed, blinking as a tear fell. "She would never torment you like this; she loved you too much. I know it's hard to accept, hard to imagine that you could be doing this to yourself, but...but you've been carrying this burden around way too long. Yeah, you're supposed to grieve, you're supposed to feel sorrow. But then you're supposed to let it go. You're supposed to get on with your life.

"Let her go, Giles. Let her go."

He closed his eyes, swaying with fatigue, pain, and the remnants of the scotch. "I can't," he whispered.

"Yes, you can," she murmured, her soft voice gentle, her arms warm and strong as she gathered him close, drawing him into her embrace. He turned his head against her shoulder, reaching for her, reaching for anything that could give him comfort.

He didn't know when his shuddering breaths turned into sobs, or when she guided him to lay back on the bed. But Willow's gentle strength comforted him as he slid into an uneasy sleep.


~~~~~

When he woke, it was with a throbbing in his head, and a taste in his mouth which would have stopped a demon. But it was the pressure in his bladder which had awakened him, and only once he had achieved consciousness did the other two make themselves known.

There was a gentle weight behind him, and a small hand rested on his waist. He couldn't hear her, but was sure Willow must be sleeping. He hated to disturb her, but the trip down the hall to the toilet was becoming imperative. If he'd been on his own, he'd have just pissed in the sink, but he wasn't so far gone that he'd lost all his self-esteem. He gingerly sat up, pausing while his brain sloshed around in his skull, waiting for it to settle down again.

A hand touched his back. "You okay?" she whispered.

He couldn't find enough voice to answer her, so he settled on a soft grunt, hoping it would be sufficient, and managed to push himself upright. He waited again for his equilibrium to return, the headache pounding against his temples, and lurched for the door. The light in the hallway was blinding and he staggered out, squinting at the brightness, feeling his way down the hall.

By the time his business was concluded and his bladder was empty, he felt awake enough that he took the time to wash his face and rinse his mouth out, scrubbing at fuzzy teeth with his finger. It wasn't perfect, but it was a damn sight better than it had been. Now if only he could get rid of this blasted headache, he might actually be able to get some sleep. He squinted at his image in the bathroom mirror. He looked like absolute bloody hell, with the lump on his head purpling and the gash scabbed over.

Look like this and you don't have to worry about being attractive to her, he thought wryly. Perhaps he should have tried self-flagellation weeks ago.

He made his way back to the room, plunging himself once again in the stygian darkness, and felt for his bag. He kicked a chair on the way and swore under his breath, limping on bruised stocking feet. He wondered where his shoes went, but figured Willow must have taken them off when she put him to bed.

Put him to bed. He'd be mortified about that once he was feeling better, but at the moment, he was more grateful for her tender care. Especially since he'd been so undeserving of it.

He found his bag and rummaged through it, looking for the bottle of Panadols. A rattling noise told him he'd found it and he pulled it out, fumbling with its child-proof cap in the dark. It was pure luck which got the cap off, and he was so surprised, he managed to spill half the bottle. "Shit," he muttered.

"Here, let me," a voice behind him said. It was soft, but he nearly jumped a foot. He hadn't heard her get up. She took the bottle out of his hands. "How many?"

"Four," he whispered. She shook the appropriate number of pills into his hand.

"Hang on a second." She went to the sink, filled a glass, and gave it to him, taking it again when it was empty.

Then she touched his arm gently. "Headache?" He nodded. "If I go next door for the aromatherapy stuff, do you promise to let me back in?" He couldn't see her eyes in the dark, but knew her gaze was steady. He nodded again and she patted his arm, letting her fingers trail down it as she moved away. "I'll be right back."

She went out the door and he moved to the bed, sitting on its edge, waiting. Trying not to think of anything at all. She was back in a minute, her bag over her shoulder, the vial of scented oil in her hand. As she closed the door behind her, he noticed that sometime during the night, she must have removed her jeans, in order to be more comfortable. Her sweater barely came down over her hips. He wondered if she realized she'd gone next door without any pants on, but figured that at dark-o'clock in the morning, it really didn't matter.

She knelt next to him on the bed and began massaging his temples again with the scented oil. It felt good, but unfortunately, didn't even touch the headache.

"Any better?" she whispered.

He shook his head, immediately regretting the movement. "But thanks anyway."

"Lie down and close your eyes," she coaxed. "You'll feel better." Her hands gently guided him down to the mattress. "Just relax." She lay at his side and resumed her soothing caress, her warm fingers rubbing his temples, his forehead, then trailing down the sides of his face to ease the tension in his jaw, his neck, his shoulders. It felt wonderful. But as his tension subsided, so did the barriers he'd so carefully erected and he felt his eyes tear up.

"Willow, I am so sorry," he began, a tremor in his voice.

"Shh," she soothed. She was so calm, and here he was, disintegrating in front of her.

"I didn't want you to see any of this."

"Yeah, I figured. You thought that if I knew, I'd get scared off?" She stroked a hand across his forehead. "You forgot I grew up on the hellmouth. Takes a lot to scare me." She sighed, her fingers combing gently through his hair. "I won't say I like it, but having seen the worst...I can handle it." Her gentle ministration paused. "Um...this was the worst, wasn't it?"

He couldn't help but laugh, the sound very nearly a sob. "Just about, but I won't make any promises."

"Then that's okay."

Her acceptance was his undoing. He reached for her and she gathered him in her arms. There she held him, cradling his head against her breast. Mother, lover, companion, saviour. Everything he needed her to be. He buried his face in her neck and held on fast.

~~~~~

He must have slept, because when he opened his eyes again, small fingers of light were creeping beneath the curtains. Willow was still in his arms, sound asleep. Some time during the night he'd slid his hand beneath her sweater to touch the smooth warmth of her stomach, an intimate gesture and one to which he wasn't entitled.

He gingerly removed his hand, grateful when she simply rolled over with a sigh. He carefully extracted himself from the bed and made his way, somewhat unsteadily, to the sink. Poor Willow. She worked like the very devil all week and relied upon her weekends to relieve her of the stress. Instead, she had to spend it watching him self-destruct, and picking up the pieces afterwards. She deserved better than a foolish old drunkard whose guilt and self-loathing had driven everything else out of his life.

He sighed and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. If anything, he looked even more dissolute than before. His headache had retreated somewhat, but he still felt...fragile.

He found his toothbrush, discovering that a clean mouth went a long way toward making him feel human again. Then he stripped off his shirt, washing his sweaty chest, face, neck and arms. As he was turning around to get a towel, he saw Willow was awake, head pillowed on her arm, watching him.

She saw his gaze and smiled. "Just admiring the view."

He should have been embarrassed. But for some reason, he wasn't. He supposed that any woman who'd seen you through a drunken stupor without flinching could hardly be put off by a naked chest.

"I'd like to say the same," he answered, drying off, "but I haven't a clue where my glasses went, so you're a bit fuzzy around the edges."

She extended a hand. "Then come over here where you can see better."

Her seductive tone curled a knot in his stomach and he turned away. She was far too tempting like that. "I'm putting the kettle on. Do you want tea?" He filled the electric kettle and plugged it in.

"Maybe later."

Then he turned back. She was sitting up, gazing at him. She reached a hand to him again and this time he moved across the room, taking her hand and kissing it, sitting next to her on the bed. Dangerous or not, he realized that with her was the only place he wanted to be.

She was beautiful by the pale morning light and he brought his hand up, smoothing her hair. Her hand slid up his arm to his bare shoulder. The touch was delicate and affectionate.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Fairly wretched, actually," he admitted. "But somewhat better than last night."

Her hand slid to his neck and head. "Then come and lie down. We're not in any hurry." She drew him down and he slid into bed next to her. Her arms wrapped around him and she leaned in, kissing him.

"Mmm, toothpaste," she murmured.

He chuckled. "You wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere near this mouth otherwise."

She kissed him again, sucking his bottom lip between her teeth, then stroking it with her tongue as she let go. "I always want your mouth. But toothpaste makes it nicer."

They spent several moments sharing gentle, intimate kisses which felt far better than anything had in a very long time. Willow's affection was pervasive, and yet non-threatening. He had the feeling that he could pull back at any time and it would be all right. Just now, however, pulling back was the last thing on his mind. Interesting how the one thing he'd been avoiding so desperately was the one thing he wanted so much.

Their heads rested on the same pillow and for a time, they simply gazed at each other. "So I guess you changed your mind about me, huh?" she whispered.

"Changed my mind?" he frowned.

"How getting, you know...closer...would be a bad thing."

"It would be. But for you, not for me. And you're a big girl, you can make your own choices."

She grinned. "So you gonna stop running away?"

"Not much point, really. You already know the worst of it." He sighed, a hand brushing the hair at her temple. "Though in some ways, that makes it harder."

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean it doesn't matter how I feel about you, not really. Or how you feel about me. Nothing's changed. I love you, but nothing's changed. I'm still the same...pathetic old man I was last night. The only difference is that now you know about it."

"You're not pathetic," she corrected. "And you're not old. You've just...had a kind of hard time. But that's over now."

"But it isn't." He shook his head. "I could almost handle the fact that I was being haunted. Oh, not that I dealt terribly well with it, but in a way, I understood it. But if you're right.... If Buffy is only in my head.... It means I've done all this to myself. What does that say about me? I thought she was driving me mad; I didn't think I'd already got there on my own."

"You aren't crazy. Okay, you should have come to terms with this a long time ago, but it's not too late. Maybe you are, I don't know, disturbed. But if you know that, well, then we can deal with it. Just don't...don't crawl away because you're afraid of the truth. I'll be here. We can face this together. If you'll let me."

He gazed at her, at her beautiful, open face which was so full of compassion. "I don't deserve you," he whispered.

"Maybe not, but you've got me," she answered.

He was awestruck, by her sensitivity, her practicality, her seemingly endless supply of compassion. He pulled her into his arms....

And the kettle started whistling.

"Damn"

She giggled. "I'll get it." She slipped out of bed and unplugged the pot. "You still want tea."

Actually, he desperately wanted tea. But he wanted to hold Willow even more. "Maybe later."

She laughed and came back to the bed, sliding under the covers and into his arms again. She snuggled close, kissing him. "Mmm, this is nice."

Nice, he thought, didn't even begin to cover it. "Yes, it is."

"See? You should have listened to me about the two rooms."

"Ah, but if I'd done that, we'd be in a room with two narrow beds, and that wouldn't have worked nearly as well." He tapped the end of her nose playfully.

She gently nipped the tip of his finger, then kissed it better. "True."

They kissed some more. Giles had forgotten the pure bliss of simply lying in someone's arms and sharing affection. The sensation of lip upon lip, the mingling of breath, the soft smoothness of tongues together.... Her small, soft body pressed against his, her hands stroking up and down his naked back, her bare leg wriggling between his to rub against his thigh. He could happily spend the rest of his life holding Willow like this, kissing her.

However, basic physiology always managed to remind one of reality, and right in the middle of a particularly delicious kiss, his stomach let out with a ridiculously noisy growl-less a growl than a gurgling whine, actually, and Willow, not surprisingly, burst out laughing.

"Yeah, well you have missed a few meals here," she snickered.

"I'm sorry. I don't even feel hungry." He'd have been more embarrassed if he hadn't been laughing about the absurdity of it.

He sighed and let her go, rolling onto his back. She followed, propping herself against his chest, and gazed down at him. "You up to going downstairs for breakfast?"

His head still throbbed a bit and, stomach noises notwithstanding, he still felt a bit queasy. "I don't know how late they serve," he said. "But give me a bit, and then we can try."

She sat up, frowning, a hand stroking over his forehead. "Why don't I go downstairs and see if they'll make up a tray for us?"

"Oh, Willow, I don't know. This isn't a fancy hotel with room service...."

"I know. But I can tell them you're under the weather and-"

"And any of them who saw my stellar performance last night can well believe it," he scowled, embarrassed by his appalling lack of decorum last night.

"It can't hurt to try."

"I really should try and get up. I'm sure check-out time is early. And we've still got to get to Bath."

She shook her head. "Bath can wait."

"Willow, I-"

"Bath can wait 'til we're both feeling up to it."

He gave her a smile. "This from the girl who wanted to see all of England yesterday."

She shrugged. "I learned that some things are more important than sightseeing."

He felt a warm softness in his heart, what he'd always thought of as that "turn into a gooey idiot" feeling. He reached for her again, but she moved out of range.

"No, now you just lie back and relax. I'm gonna go downstairs and see about breakfast. Back soon." She climbed off the bed.

"Willow."

"Yes?"

"You might want to put trousers on first."

She flushed red, quickly pulled on her jeans, and headed out. And Giles flopped back into the bed with a groan. Why was it that nothing in his life ever turned out the way he thought it would?

How could you possibly expect it to turn out? he asked himself. Inviting her to spend the weekend was dodgy at best.

But just when he was positive she'd be so horrified at the miserable mess he'd become she'd turn tail and flee.... There she was. Tender concern and compassion. Not fleeing. Facing it. Better than he did, come to that.

He lurched upright. "Tea," he declared. The world would go a long way toward righting itself if he had a cup of tea in him. Fortunately, the pot was still hot, so he set his cup to steep, then pulled on a fresh shirt. No need to look as dissolute as he felt.

He found his glasses on the floor next to the sink, grateful they appeared none the worse for wear. Washed, brushed and able to see again, he felt marginally more human. His tea was done and he sipped gratefully, feeling the liquid caffeine hit his system. Elixir of life was good, strong tea.

There was a knock at the door and he opened it for Willow, who was bearing a tray.

"Breakfast, M'Lord," she said in her best English accent, which despite having improved slightly over the past few weeks, was still not very good.

"Any problem?" he asked, taking the tray from her and setting it on the bed.

She shook her head. "I just told them my friend was sick. 'It's most irregular, miss'," she imitated the hostess, "'but I suppose we can make an exception this once.'" She laughed. "I got the feeling they make exceptions a lot. But anyway, we've got toast, juice, tea, fruit, and a poached egg."

"Sounds wonderful." Despite the lingering nausea, he discovered he was hungry. "What did this cost you?"

"It wasn't bad," she shrugged. "Do you want...oh, you've already got tea. You want a warm-up?"

"Yes, but tell me what I owe you and-"

"What is it with you and throwing money at me?" she asked, perhaps more sharply than she'd intended. "Last night and again this morning, like I can't take care of myself."

He was taken aback by her outburst. "It's not that, it's just-"

"I'll have you know I can take care of myself just fine," she went on.

"I know you can, but you're my guest and-"

"I make a bloody good salary," she continued, on a roll now. "In fact, I'll bet I make more than you do."

"No doubt," he agreed. His salary at the British was not lavish by any means.

"Not only that, but I'm getting a per diem as well, so I can afford almost anything I want." She crossed her arms in a huff.

He blinked. "They're paying your wage and they're paying your way here?"

"Yep."

He tilted his head, considering. Even if she was paying for her flat, she wasn't living elaborately by any means. She had to be positively making out royally. "All right, this time you can pay."

"I'd be delighted." And she leaned over to kiss him.

They settled down to eat their breakfast, Willow sharing the tray with him. He claimed the egg; Willow was happy with toast and fruit. They didn't talk. There was no need. Nothing had been settled, there was much to discuss. But for right now, none of it especially mattered. Right now, it felt good to sit in companionable silence, more comfortable with each other than they had any right to be.

Willow finished her toast, put down her cup and moved behind him, rubbing his neck and shoulders. It felt wonderful and he sighed, leaning into her gentle touch.

"You like?" she asked softly.

"I like. Very much."

"Good." She sounded very pleased with herself.

He sighed and sat up, pulling away from her. This was wrong. Good as it felt, it was wrong. "I'm sorry."

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Everything."

There was a heavy silence. "You wanna be more specific?"

He turned around to face her. "You are wonderful. To me, about this entire sordid mess. You've been far more understanding than I could possibly have hoped for. But...but this is very artificial, here. Tucked up in our little country inn, playing at lovers. Convincing the staff that I'm a little under the weather. It makes for a lovely fairy story. But it's not real."

Her expression slowly went from confusion to worry as a frown crossed her face. "What's not real? How you feel? Because if you're doubting how I feel, I-"

"No, it's not that. I have to believe you feel something for me. You wouldn't have...have done what you've done for me else. And God knows I love you. But we're insulated here. We can lie back and pretend that everything's all right. But it isn't. And I can't promise that once we get home again, once we return to our usual routine, that things are going to be any different.

"My ghosts are still with me, Willow. And as much as I wish it weren't so, loving you doesn't make them go away."

She stared at him for so long he began to wonder whether she'd ever say anything. And when she finally spoke, her voice was soft, tinged with sadness.

"I know. And I don't know what I can do to convince you that it'll be okay. That ghosts, or horrors, or drunken stupors.... It doesn't matter. You don't have to go through it alone. I wish I could take it all away. But I can't. I can only be there for you. If you want me. And I know, as sure as I know anything, that somehow...somehow it'll all work out. I promise."

Don't make promises you can't keep. But he couldn't tell her that. He didn't even want to. He wanted, more than anything to believe her. To believe in her. He closed his eyes and swallowed past the lump in his throat as he reached for her, held her tight, hung on as if his life depended on it.

Because in a way, it did.

In a few minutes, the hug eased, not far, just enough, and he gazed into her beautiful heart-shaped face, her eyes glittering with tears which matched his own. He cupped her face in his hands and touched her lips with his own, a kiss of reverence and love. She sniffed and returned the kiss, her clever fingers removing his glasses and setting them aside. They slid down to lie on the bed again as their kisses and caresses gained in passion and intimacy. Lying with Willow, loving Willow.... Nothing on the earth was sweeter.

His hands traveled languid strokes from her hair, down her arm, to her stomach, and back up again. One hand slid again beneath her sweater and this time traveled up, where it encountered the elastic and lace of her bra. He let his fingers dance across the silky surface, feeling the nipple beneath his touch start to harden, then he slipped his fingers under the elastic and pushed the bra out of the way, caressing bare skin.

Touching Willow was like heaven. Everywhere he touched felt like silk. Her nipple was sensitive and responsive, and his teasing obviously evoked the right response, because she wriggled and sighed, a breathy little moan which bespoke her pleasure more than any words. He wanted to pull the sweater off her, lavish his affection on both her breasts, suckle them with his lips, caress them with his tongue, take her and....

...and somehow manage to bestir his haggard middle-aged body into responding as it should. And just now, that seemed to be a bit of an impossibility. As delightful as Willow was, and despite the warm curl in his belly, his state of arousal was distinctly lacking.

He sighed again and withdrew his fingers, gently smoothing her clothing back over her.

"Why'd you stop?" she pouted.

He smiled ruefully. "Because I didn't want to start something I couldn't finish, and just now I...." He sighed again. "So it's better if I don't even try."

She frowned, stroking fingers through his hair at the temples. "Is that because you're still feeling icky, or...or is this another problem?"

He chuckled. "I have to assume it's because I'm hung-over, exhausted, and have a headache. It's never been a problem in the past. On the other hand, I've been celibate a frightfully long time, so honestly, I don't know. We'll have to wait and see." He shrugged. "I know that's not what you wanted to hear."

Her shrug mirrored his own. "It's okay. Waiting and seeing is fine. It's probably just...you know, tired, cranky, that sort of thing. But if it is...something else.... Well, then we'll deal with that, too."

He smiled, stroking a knuckle down the side of her face gently. "You know, your accepting nature could get you into trouble some day." He leaned in and kissed her tenderly. "Thank you."

She kissed him back, then sat up, pushing him back against the mattress gently. "You go on and rest some more. I'm gonna take a shower." She got up, picking up her bag. "Oh, and I talked to them and we can check out late. 'Cause you're sick and everything."

He raised an eyebrow. What else would she think of? "How late?"

"One o'clock."

He squinted at the bedside clock. It read ten-thirty. Perfect. By one, he ought to be feeling marginally more human. "Good. Are we having to pay extra for...." He noticed her glare. "Never mind."

She laughed. "No, I think they feel sorry for you, getting sick on holiday."

He snorted. "You're the one they ought to feel sorry for, lumbered with a wreck like me."

"Yeah, but you're my wreck," she said emphatically. "That's what matters." She leaned in and kissed the top of his head. "Back in a few."

He watched her go, shaking his head. Perhaps this would be the pattern of his relationship with Willow from now on: Willow breezing into his life, setting everything he thought he understood on its ear, filling him with awe and delight, and then flitting back out again, leaving him completely flummoxed in her wake. He'd never been so off-balance.

Nor so delighted by the experience.

He sighed, his bemused mood fading. All her sweet talk and assurances notwithstanding, there were still grave problems ahead. Impediments which might well be insurmountable. Not the least of which, of course, was Buffy. Since his close encounter with the wardrobe, she'd been blessedly silent. But he knew that once he was home again, once he was alone in his flat, she'd start in at him. Nagging, cajoling, needling, shaming.

Unless, of course, she was all in his head.

Which might be even worse,

What little energy he had fled and he rolled onto his side, groaning. He didn't want to face reality. He didn't want to go back to work, to go back home, to face the day to day mundanities. He wanted to lose himself in Willow, in her sweet, impossible assurances and her warm, accepting love.

When she returned a few minutes later, he was still curled on his side, staring into space miserably. She sat at his side, a vision in soft silk, her hair turbaned in a towel, the scent of lavender clinging lightly to her. She didn't say anything, just stroked his hair gently, her tender touch saying more than any words.

"You should take a shower," she whispered. "You'll feel better."

He sighed and rolled onto his back, an arm flung over his face. "I was just wondering whether there are any monastic orders which take dissolute old agnostics."

"Why do you want to become a monk?" she asked, laughing.

"I don't, not really," he admitted, looking at her. "But a life of solitude has a lot to recommend it."

She arched an eyebrow. "You really want to be by yourself? All by yourself?"

"No." She got him again. "I just.... I could get used to this doing nothing. I can't even remember the last time I had a lie-in like this. At least not while I was conscious."

"Come on, lazybones," she laughed, tugging him into a sitting position. "Go take a shower. It'll help. Besides," she leaned across his body, bringing her face to within inches of his own, "getting all clean and shaved will make you especially nice to be with." Her eyes sparkled with unspoken promises.

He chuckled and kissed the tip of her nose. "Assuming that my lack of enthusiasm is just a temporary thing, I can see I'm going to have a hard time keeping up with you."

She grinned. "Keep you young," she said and let him go, pulling him to his feet. "Go on."

He picked up his bag and headed down the hall.

She was right. The shower felt wonderful and went a long way toward reviving him. Between the shower, the food, and of course, Willow herself, he almost felt like his old self again. Not quite, but almost.

He went back to the room and found Willow curled up on the bed. She was still in her robe, and though her damp hair had been brushed, it looked like that was about as far as she'd gotten.

"Not getting dressed?" he asked.

"Mmm," she sighed and stretched. "You left and I suddenly realized how tired I was."

He frowned. She couldn't have slept well last night. "Not surprising."

"Anyway, we don't have to leave just yet. There's time for a little nap."

She didn't even extend a hand to him. She didn't need to. It was as clear an invitation as he'd ever heard. He slid into bed behind her, drawing her back to rest spooned against him. She wriggled closer, fitting perfectly against the curve of his body. He wrapped his arm around her waist, holding her securely, and her hand traveled down his arm, where it linked with his fingers and slid his hand, unerringly, between the folds of her robe. She guided it to her breast, and there she left it, letting him make the next move.

He smiled at her display of confidence in him. He brushed his thumb over her nipple, feeling it respond to his touch, then cupped the breast in his palm, resting his hand over it protectively. He leaned in, kissing the back of her neck. And then he settled back with a sigh, holding her securely, and closed his eyes.

~~~~~

The Lady Chapel in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey was a place of serenity. Destroyed along with most of the rest of the Abbey in the 15th century, the chapel was ostensibly underground, yet was still exposed to the air. But the front of the small chapel bore an altar, and there were benches for a small congregation. It was to one of these that Giles lowered himself.

It had been Willow's idea to return to the Abbey this afternoon before they headed home. They'd rather rushed through it yesterday, in their effort to get to the Tor before it got too late, and she wanted to spend a little more time here. She'd been especially fascinated by the artifacts which had been unearthed over the centuries-the small bits of statuary and stained glass, the relics which gave so many clues of what life was like here all those centuries ago. So he left her to her perusal and took himself here, to the Lady Chapel. He might not follow the religion it represented, but he knew positive energy when he felt it. The entire place exuded peace.

He closed his eyes, letting the gentle breeze waft over him, taking with it his tension and the last vestige of his headache, filling him with serenity.

God grant me the serenity.... He smiled to himself that he should be reminded of that prayer just now. Well, if the prayer fit....

And the wisdom to know the difference. That would be the real challenge; his wisdom seemed to have left him, especially where matters of his personal life were concerned. It certainly couldn't be wise, allowing himself to get involved with Willow. Then why was it that it felt like the smartest thing he'd done in a very long time?

The wisdom to know the difference.

A gentle presence settled next to him, and a soft, small hand touched his own. He opened his eyes and looked at Willow, linking their fingers.

"Penny for your thoughts?" she asked.

"Not worth that much," he said, squeezing her hand. "Just trying to figure out how to say goodbye."

She stiffened and he realized how that must have sounded. So he quickly amended his statement. "To Buffy."

Her tension eased. "Oh." She didn't say anything else, just stroked the edge of his thumb with her own.

"Whether she's real or just a figment of my imagination, I can't go on like this." He glanced at her. "I don't want to. But I don't know what to do next. If I somehow...exorcise her, won't I be punishing her?"

"Or you could be freeing her," Willow suggested. "Maybe she's here because you haven't been able to let her go."

"Or maybe not." He sighed. "I wish I knew."

"I've been thinking about it," she said, tracing his knuckles with her fingers. "Trying to work it out. Does she...come to you...any time, or is it only at night?"

"It's...." He stopped. "Well, uh...." he began again, frowning. "You know, I was positive she came at any time, but just now I can't think of a single instance when it wasn't at night. Or at least in the evening."

Willow nodded. "And does she come to you just when you're at home, or does she come anywhere?"

"Anywhere," he said definitely.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, of course. Look at last night." He touched the scab on his forehead, evidence of her torture last night.

"Yeah, but was that really Buffy, or was it you imagining Buffy because you'd had too much to drink?"

She stopped him again. He'd been positive it had been Buffy. But at one point, Buffy had turned into Willow, and now he wasn't sure of anything. "I honestly don't know," he admitted.

"So mostly she comes at night, when you're home."

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Alone?"

He gave her a look. "Until you came along, I spent most of my time alone."

Willow took a deep breath. "Okay, so maybe it isn't you that's haunted, maybe it's your apartment."

"Can't be," he shook his head. "I've had four different flats and each one's been the same."

"So maybe you bring the bad juju with you. I don't know, I'm just guessing here. But it almost fits."

He frowned, considering her theory. "So are you suggesting that it isn't just in my head?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe it was once, but maybe your grief, your holding on, maybe that's made it real. I wish I knew more."

"And either way, it's still the same dilemma: what do I do about it? About her?"

Willow squeezed his hand sadly. "I wish I knew that, too."

* * * * *

It had been a somewhat peculiar drive home. They spoke barely at all, but somehow, it didn't feel as uncomfortable as that kind of extended silence should have been. Once clear of traffic and on the M1, Giles reached for Willow's hand and held it all the way back into town, until he had to return two hands to the wheel and the gear shift.

They dropped the car off first, so as not to have to double back, then caught a taxi to take them to Willow's hotel. Giles felt an odd curl of anticipation in his belly. Logically, he should simply see her to her room and be on his way; they both had work in the morning. But what he was feeling had nothing to do with logic. He didn't want to let her go, not even for an instant. As if to let her go was to become lost again.

And, he admitted, he didn't want to go home. If she was right and the...spirit...which haunted him, be it Buffy or some other sprite, dwelt in his flat, then he especially didn't want to go there, spend the night being tormented by thoughts of might-have-beens.

Was he using Willow to escape his miserable reality? Probably. And that should have bothered him more than it did. But right now all he knew was that what he wanted was sitting at his side, waiting for him as he paid the taxi driver, standing next to him in the lift, walking ahead of him as she unlocked her door and turned on the lights.

She dropped her bag on the sofa and flipped through yesterday's mail, standing next to the desk. Giles closed the door and locked it. Then he stepped up behind her, put an arm around her waist, and with the other hand, brushed her long hair away from her neck so he could nuzzle there.

She giggled, leaning back into his embrace. "What brought this on?"

"I've been wanting to do this since we left Glastonbury," he murmured, kissing his way up her neck to her ear where he nibbled it and made her shiver.

"Oh, yeah?" She turned in his arms, reaching to put her arms around his neck. "So have I." She drew his head down, kissing him deeply, a kiss he took hungrily and returned enthusiastically. His hands massaged her shoulders and back.

She pulled away just far enough to be able to look him in the face. Her eyes were bright with passion. "If you start this, will you be able to finish it?" she asked.

Giles smiled. He knew the warm tingle in his groin, the pressure which was beginning in his balls. This morning's...aberration was apparently just that. A momentary lapse. "Oh, yes," he answered, not surprised at the low huskiness his voice took on. He wanted her. Somewhat desperately.

Her expression changed from seductive tease to serious desire. "Please tell me you'll stay," she whispered.

He cupped her face in his hands and brushed her lips gently with his own, more a caress than a kiss. "I'll stay. If you want me to."

She didn't answer, simply tightened her arms around his neck, holding his head and ravaging his mouth with a kiss. It spoke of promise, offered desire, made him dizzy in its intensity. She wrapped a leg around his, trying to climb his body, and he tightened his grip, raising her up.

It was too difficult to sustain this position unsupported, however, and he slowly let her down again, releasing the kiss. "I imagine we'll be more comfortable...."

"...In the bedroom," she completed, smiling shyly. She took his hand, leading him to her bedroom.

"Oh." She stopped in the doorway. "The door-"

"Is locked," he confirmed.

She grinned. "Confident."

"Cautious," he shrugged. "If...you hadn't wanted me to stay, I'd have simply unlocked it again."

She laughed softly and went into the bedroom, turning on the light next to the bed.

And there they stood, gazing at each other awkwardly. The bed seemed huge in the tiny room, full of unspoken promises, unspoken fears.

Giles tore his gaze away from it and back to Willow, who looked almost as apprehensive as he felt. "Willow," he murmured, "we don't have to-"

"I want to," she shook her head. "So much. It's just...."

"I don't want to push you into anything you're not-"

"Wait a minute, who's been chasing who here?" she laughed and he chuckled.

"All right. I just wanted to be sure."

"I am sure. I'm very sure." She looked up at him. "Are you?"

In truth, he wasn't sure at all. Why was it that he kept thinking it was wrong when it obviously felt so right? But the one thing he was sure about was that he didn't want to leave her side. So he took her in his arms again, kissing her deeply. "Oh, yes," he answered. And he almost believed it.

The kiss broke and Willow slid her hands down his arms, taking his hands. Her eyes were smoky with desire. "I'm gonna...get cleaned up. I'll just be a minute."

He nodded and she headed to the bathroom, but stopped at the door. "Do you want something to eat?"

You, he thought, but didn't figure that's what she meant. He shook his head.

"Tea?"

"No, I'm fine. Just hurry back." She smiled at that and ducked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

His own smile faded. What he really wanted was a scotch-Dutch courage. But he knew better than to even suggest it, and actually, didn't want anything to dull this evening's sensations. He wanted to be totally here for this. And that meant a clear head.

He looked around the room, feeling a bit lost. This was always the worst part of taking someone to bed for the first time. Much easier was an unexpected fumbling which led to the abandoning of clothes as they went, falling into bed before they could take a moment to think. This was...awkward. No other word for it. It didn't diminish his desire for Willow, but he wished these damned preliminaries were over and they were both under the covers and in each other's arms.

He took off his jacket, draping it over the back of a chair, fished a box of prophylactics, hastily purchased this afternoon, out of his pocket and set it on the night table, and turned back the bed. He wiped his hands on his trousers, trying to remember the last time he'd had sweaty palms.

The bathroom door opened and Willow came out, clad in the silk robe she'd worn this morning. She looked luscious. She smiled shyly and walked over to him, stopping before she reached him. She reached for the sash of her robe, fumbling with the knot. "Do you want to...."

He reached for her hands, holding them, bringing them to his lips. "I want you to hold that thought," he said. "I won't be a moment."

She nodded, smiling, relieved in a way. She was as nervous as he was. This was too important to mess up.

He went into the bathroom, washing up in record time, grateful that he had his kit with him so he didn't have to beg a toothbrush. He felt his chin and wondered if the stubble there would irritate her, but decided he didn't want to delay this any longer by taking the time to shave. He tugged on his robe, tying it around him, and looked down at himself. His erection was tenting the front of the robe. He sighed. That looked even sillier than going out there starkers. Besides, she'd already seen his naked chest and hadn't been repulsed. She was going to see the rest of it eventually, anyway. He took off his robe again, hanging it on the back of the door, then, running a final hand through his hair, and with more than a little trepidation, opened the bathroom door.

Willow was sitting on the edge of the bed and when she saw him, her eyes widened. She stared at his erection and her mouth opened in a gasp-surprise, delight, he couldn't tell. Then her gaze traveled up his body to his face. And she smiled.

She didn't say anything, just stood up and walked toward him, her fingers loosening the sash of her robe. She stood before him and let the robe fall open, and it was his turn to stare. He took in the gentle valley of her cleavage, the taut smoothness of her belly, the dark triangle between her legs. The robe obscured too much and he put his hands on her shoulders, sliding the robe off, letting it puddle on the floor at her feet.

He cupped her face in his hands and leaned down, kissing her mouth deeply, then let his lips and tongue trace a line down her jaw and neck, to the hollow between her breasts. He dropped to his knees and kissed his way across her stomach, dipping into her navel, caressing her abdomen with his lips, his hands traveling from waist to hips, cupping her smooth buttocks. He kissed the soft, wiry pubic hair and licked gently at the insides of her thighs and Willow, whose fingers were winding in his hair, moaned.

"I'm gonna fall over," she whispered, backing away, taking his hands and raising him up. "Come to bed." She didn't wait for his assent, simply crawled into the bed, pulling him in beside her.

She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close. "Now then, where were we?"

He chuckled, nipping gently at her nose. "I believe I was a little farther down."

"You can get back there in a minute. We've got all night."

That simple statement struck him with the force of a blow. Not a quick fumble. Not a desperate clamor for release. All night. All night spent in touch, in scent, in taste...in getting to know her every nuance, and her getting to know his. All night spent in loving with Willow. His jaw tightened and his eyes closed against the emotions which threatened to overwhelm him. He pulled her tightly against him, burying his face against her neck, holding on for dear life.

She let out a tiny squawk. "Easy, shh, take it easy , Giles. Gently, it's okay. We've got time. Gently." Her voice was a soft caress, and her hands were caring as they stroked his hair, his back. He took a deep breath and eased the embrace.

"Sorry."

"Shh, it's okay," she soothed. "It kinda gets to me like that, too." He opened his eyes and she was gazing at him, her fingers tracing the side of his face. "That you're here and we're finally together. That this is real. Sometimes I think I must be dreaming."

He kissed her, gently sucking on her lower lip. "If you are, then I am, too."

"Nah, this is real," she corrected, fingers stroking that sensitive spot behind his ear, the one which always turned him into jelly. It hadn't taken her long to find that spot out. "Feels too good to be a dream."

He smiled. "Oh, yes," he agreed, "it does at that."

They kissed again, their hands rubbing over backs and sides, sliding up and down arms, legs rubbing against each other in an effort to expose more of themselves to each other. He eased Willow onto her back, his questing hands sliding from shoulders to chest, where he gently massaged her breast, feeling its nipple harden at his touch. He propped himself on an elbow so he could look at his handiwork.

"Ah, there you are," he murmured.

"Huh?"

"My friend, your right breast," he explained. "We'd become acquainted earlier this morning. I just wanted to see who my new friend was."

She giggled. "Like it?"

He rubbed his thumb over the taut nipple, then lowered his mouth to it, suckling gently, making her gasp. "Very much," he answered. Willow's breasts were small but sensitive, the nipples dark against her pale skin. He shifted his attention to her left breast, laving it tenderly. Her left breast was slightly slower to respond than the right had been, so he paid it special attention, bestowing kisses and caresses on it until it was as taut as its companion. He sucked at it, nipping gently with teeth and she gasped.

"Sorry," he murmured.

"No, that was...good." Her chest heaved. "I like it." She wriggled, as if to expose more of her breasts to his touch and he smiled, bending to his task again, licking the nipple with tongue and sucking with lips, while his hand continued teasing the right breast, keeping it at the ready.

When they were good and hard, he left them alone and resumed his previous explorations, kissing his way down her torso to her pubic mound. She moaned when he pressed his lips there and spread her legs, allowing him access. He used his fingers to spread her lips, caressing her folds. She was wet and slick as her legs opened further, her muscles pulsing her desire. He stroked his fingers over her clitoris, teasing but never focusing his attention there, dipping a finger into her wet vagina and back out again, around her labia and back in, a rhythm which had her murmuring her approval. A second finger joined the first, and he pumped them in and out while his thumb stroked her. Willow squirmed and gasped her pleasure.

"Oh, God, that's good," she hissed. "But I want you." She reached for him and he slid back up, kissing her deeply, ravaging her mouth while his fingers ravaged her sex. Her hand snaked down, encircling his erection and he gasped. He hadn't expected that. Nor how good her simple touch could feel. She began stroking the length of his cock, delicate fingers matching the rhythm of his fingers in her vagina and he groaned, unable to breathe, the power of her touch making him dizzy.

"Willow, no," he pulled away just enough, stilling his own strokes.

She frowned. "You don't like?"

"I like. Too much. You keep that up it'll be all over before you know it." He chuckled ruefully. "It's been a hell of a long time since I've.... And I'm not a young man."

She smiled and let her hand trail gently up his chest where she rubbed at his nipples before resting her hand behind his neck. "That won't do. We've got all night."

"Yes, so let's not be hasty, you just lie back and let me...let me do this for you."

She rolled again onto her back, stretching, and draped an arm over her head wantonly. She looked like a goddess, lying there, and the breath stopped in his throat. "I'm all yours," she said and his heart skipped a beat.

She was. Things would be different by the light of day, but for right now, she was his, to fondle, to kiss, to worship. To try and bring to ecstasy. He lowered his head and kissed her mouth, deep and intense. And when they both needed to breathe again, he left her mouth and latched onto a breast and, while suckling it and its mate in turn, returned his fingers to her vagina.

They found their rhythm again, his fingers pumping, caressing, Willow's hips writhing and thrusting in response to his ministrations. One hand tangled in his hair while the other stroked his shoulder and back.

Tiny shivers coursed through her as she murmured vague unintelligible syllables. He picked up the intensity of his strokes, becoming impossibly aroused at the sounds of her pleasure. And then her body tensed and spasmed as she gasped out a cry. She bucked and trembled and bucked again as he drew out her orgasm for as long as she could stand it. And when her legs slid partway closed and she moved away instead of toward his fingers, he knew she'd had enough for now, and gently petted and caressed her down from her climax, leaning down and kissing the wetness between her legs before moving back up to gather her in his arms and kiss her mouth tenderly.

She was still panting, tiny gasps escaping her lips as she curled in his arms, her head buried against his shoulder and waited for her world to right itself.

Finally, she raised her head, settled back against the pillow, and gazed at him.

"Oh, wow," she whispered.

As an expression of approval, it lacked a certain elegance, but no less eloquence for its brevity. He'd done this for her. He'd given her that misty, faraway look in her eyes, that flush in her cheek, that incredibly sexy swell to her mouth. In short, he'd given her that sated expression, the look of a woman who'd just been thoroughly loved.

Nothing could have delighted him more.

He leaned in and kissed her forehead, stroking a thumb down the side of her face. He kept thinking he ought to say something, but quite honestly, there wasn't a damned thing he wanted to say that wouldn't come out sounding dreadfully trite or silly. So he was happy with the silence. With the peaceful silence between two lovers.

Willow's hand came up to caress his cheek. "You okay?"

He smiled. "Yes. Shouldn't I be?"

"Well, I mean, you didn't...you know. Did you?"

He couldn't help smiling. Dear Willow. She'd had no qualms offering her most intimate self to him, showing him what pleased her. But she couldn't bring herself to actually say the words. "No. But I'm all right."

She reached between their bodies to where his erect cock rested against her thigh. Her fingers caressed it gently, but even that soft touch was enough for his super-sensitized nerve-endings. His breath caught.

"Does it hurt?" she asked.

"It's a bit uncomfortable," he admitted. "But not especially painful. Just...sensitive."

She gently stroked its length and he shivered. "Want me to do something for it?" she smiled.

"That depends."

"On what?"

He caught her hand and stilled it, gazing at her directly. "On whether you're ready to go again." He had no intention of spilling his seed in her hand like a randy schoolboy. When he let go, he wanted his release to be within Willow.

"Oh, I think I can manage that," she said, and the seductress was back, the titian-haired goddess who took his pleasure, redoubled it and gave it back to him.

She rolled him over onto his back and lay partly across his body, her thigh rubbing against his balls as she held the sides of his head and ravished his mouth. Her breasts pressed against his chest as she undulated her body, letting it caress his entire length. He gasped and held onto her upper arms, returning her fierce kisses.

She left his mouth and journeyed downward, licking and nipping at his nipples, teasing them erect, her fingers stroking through his chest hair, scratching lightly there. Down to his stomach where she found his ticklish spot and grinned up at him, obviously filing the information away for future reference. She licked his hipbones and nuzzled his navel.

And then she kissed the tip of his cock.

He gasped, his cock jerking in response. It always astonished him, how the simplest of touches could invoke the strongest of reactions. He held his breath. If she went down on him he was done for.

But she didn't. Instead, she stroked her finger across the seeping slit, using the pre-ejaculate as lubrication, gliding it down his shaft, stroking slowly, gently. She cupped his testicles, rolling them in her hand, drawing her nail along the sac gently, tickling the underside and making him squirm in pleasure.

"Oh, god," he murmured.

"Nope, just me," she said and he could hear the smile in her voice. She stroked his cock again, pausing to dip her fingers into her vagina, using her own juices as lubrication this time, her caresses becoming a little more definite, a little more insistent.

While one hand was busily engaged in pleasuring him, her other slipped between her legs again to pleasure herself. She arched her back and thrust her hips in a rhythm she knew well, since she knew her own most sensitive spots.

The wanton display was almost more than Giles could bear. He took hold of her wrist, removing her teasing fingers and brought them to his mouth, tasting her juices on them. "Let me," he murmured and slid his fingers between her legs, picking up where she left off, delighted all over again at her writhing at his touch, getting almost as much pleasure out of that as from her persistent pumping hand.

He was close...so close. He withdrew his fingers and stilled her stroking hand.

"Ready?" she asked. He nodded, unable to find speech. She shifted, straddling his thighs, his painfully erect cock bobbing in front of her. She raised herself up, ready to take him.

"Wait," he gasped. "Wait, Willow, wait." An arm flailed out, reaching for the condoms on the bedside table.

"What-?" She frowned. Then she saw what he was doing. "Where did those come from?"

"Remember when I went into the chemist's to get something for my headache?"

She laughed. "And you got those, too. That's so sweet."

He picked up a packet and handed it to her. "Would you?"

"Well, if you really want it. But we don't need them."

He frowned. "What?"

"I'm on birth control pills."

"You are? Why? I mean.... Why?" Had she been planning this all along?

"I take them to regulate my periods. But we might as well enjoy the side-effects." She fingered the packet in her hand. "Like that we don't need this."

"Are you sure?" As delightful as this news was, it was a bit of a surprise. He wanted to make sure that the hormones she took really were contraceptives.

"Yes, I'm sure," she laughed. "You wanna check the package?"

"No, I'm just.... It's just surprising, that's all. But as long as you trust them...."

"Yep. I've been on them a couple of years. They do everything they're supposed to and they don't even make me crazy."

He chuckled. "Well, that's a relief. One crazy around here is about all we can stand."

She laughed. "So unless you've got some disease...."

"I've been celibate so long that any disease by now would either have worked itself out or killed me," he answered. He took the packet out of her fingers and tossed it in the direction of the night table. It skittered off he far side and fell on the floor.

"We'll worry about it later," she said. "Now then, where were we?"

"You were right about here," he said, lifting her hips.

"You still ready?" she asked. And to make sure, she reached down and stroked his cock again. It twitched in anticipation.

"Yes," he murmured. He wanted this, so badly. He wanted her. "Now."

"Okay." She held onto his cock and positioned herself over him, guiding it into her. Its tip nudged at her opening. And then she lowered herself all the way down, with a soft, sighing cry as he filled her. It was sheer heaven, taking Willow like this. Skin to skin without that damnable latex barrier. She was wet and warm and tight, and he almost came simply from the delight of unfettered lovemaking. But he held onto her hips, keeping her still until they were both ready. She leaned forward and braced her hands on his shoulders, looked down into his face, and smiled. She rocked her hips experimentally, then raised up again, pulling practically off him, then settled back down, if possible, even deeper than before. He groaned. The muscles of her vaginal walls seemed impossibly tight. She was no virgin, but neither was she "well-used". She was a young woman with the firm strength of youth, and the energy to match it. One more time pulling almost off, then back down again, the slow teasing friction almost maddening. He held her hips tightly before she could do it again. It was exquisite torture, but he needed something more.

She seemed to understand. "Move with me," she whispered, and began to work her hips, thrusting against him. He matched her rhythm, rising and falling with her thrusts. She was doing most of the work, but he held on, guiding her, steadying her, easing her way.

One hand left her hip to slide between their thrusting bodies, a finger stroking her clitoris in time with their thrusts. Her guttural moans told him it was having the desired effect. Her breasts dangled above him and he raised up, capturing a nipple in his mouth, hearing her cry as she bent toward him to allow him better purchase on her breast. It changed the angle of their thrusts, caused greater friction, and Giles felt that familiar spark behind his eyes, the one which told him that it wouldn't be long now.

Willow's strong thighs tightened around his hips as her movements increased in speed and intensity, and he had to let go of her breast, no longer able to focus on anything but the feeling in his groin. He no longer moved his finger, simply held it steady and let her thrusts rub against it as she rocked her hips. The sparking behind his eyes increased and he moved his hips faster, gasping for breath, struggling to reach the height.

Bright white exploded behind his eyes and he hissed out a cry, clutching at Willow's hip as he felt his cock spasm its coming, felt the hot sticky wetness fill her, felt every muscle in his body tense and then relax, tension flooding out along with his semen.

Willow continued to move her hips, though her thrusting had slowed. She still rocked against his finger, seeking her own release, so he rubbed harder, focusing on her most sensitive spots, and it didn't take but a moment more before she was coming again, too, with a whimpered cry of ecstasy.

She collapsed on top of him, exhausted, panting. He was the same, eyes closed, holding Willow in a loose embrace as he waited to catch his breath, waited for his world to stop spinning. She moved to slide off him, but he held her fast.

"Don't," he whispered.

"Am I too heavy?" she asked softly.

"Mmm, I like the weight." Eventually, she would feel too heavy, but for now, it felt wonderful.

They were still coupled, Giles' cock still inside Willow, softening now, but still keeping them joined. It felt wonderful, too, that sense of two bodies being one entity. Her pelvis pressed against his, the softness of her breaths.... The warm stickiness which was seeping out between her legs. The only disadvantage to lovemaking without latex was that it did tend to be a bit muckier. One of them would probably wind up sleeping in the wet spot tonight. He didn't really care. It had definitely been worth it.

Willow sighed and shifted slightly, and Giles' cock slipped out.

As if by unspoken words, they rolled onto their sides and into each other's arms, nuzzling and cuddling close. Nothing more ambitious than sharing a pillow and a few tender kisses. Their legs entwined and hands lazily rubbed backs. Relaxed. At peace.

Some time later, Giles sighed and rolled onto his back. Just once in his life he'd like to manage to make it through the aftermath of lovemaking without having to get up to take a piss. But it was not to be. At least not this time. He sat up.

"Where you going?" Willow asked sleepily.

He inclined his head toward the loo. "Be right back," he answered and swung out of bed, padding to the bathroom.

His most urgent need taken care of, he took a moment to clean himself off, then soaked a flannel in warm water and brought it back to the bed. Willow was lying there, eyes closed, covers only pulled up as far as her waist, her small breasts dark-nippled in the dim light. She looked for all the world like a wood-nymph, a sky-clad faerie who tempted travelers through the forest. She opened her eyes when he slid into bed again, and smiled when he pushed the covers down and gently cleaned her thighs and genitals with the warm cloth.

"That feels nice," she whispered. He smiled in return and leaned in, kissing the tip of her nose. Then he dropped the damp cloth over the side of the bed.

"We're rather making a wreck of your room."

"That's okay. We can clean it up later." She lay on her back and he settled next to her, a hand stroking her hair, her neck, idly toying with his favorite breast. He rested his head in the crook of his arm, gazing at her, simply awed that she was here and with him. The enormity of what they had done was just sinking in. He'd just made love. With Willow. With the little girl who'd been such an innocent when he first met her. She'd most likely never even been kissed back then.

He'd watched her grow up. Watched her grow in confidence and strength. And then he'd left her. And when she found him again, the Willow who found him was no longer that little girl. She was a beautiful, desirable, determined young lady, one who knew what she wanted.

And what she wanted...was me. Giles shook his head, marveling. Which is a good thing, since what I want...is her. How strange that they should end up together. How unlikely. How thoroughly perfect.

Willow's finger traced a path up his arm, snapping him from his reverie. "Hmmm?" She was gazing at him, a look of concern on her face.

"You okay?"

He smiled and kissed her forehead. "Yes, I'm fine. More than fine, actually, I'm...pretty bloody wonderful." She giggled. "No, I was just thinking."

"Are you one of those people who making love makes you think deep thoughts?"

"No, generally, making love makes me want to fall asleep," he admitted.

"You can do that, you know."

"I know. Not right now." He stroked the side of her face. "It's all a bit unreal, isn't it?"

"What is?"

"All of this. We're isolated. Insulated. It's wonderful, but it isn't real. Our ugly realities have no place here and they're not welcome. But they haven't gone away."

"Which ugly realities are these?" she asked. "The age thing? We've already dealt with that. The one about your horrible past? That one, too. Or your not-so-great present? Ditto. So is there another ugly reality I'm missing here?"

He couldn't help but chuckle. She did have a way of reducing everything down to its base elements.

"Buffy," he said simply. "Or...whatever it is that won't let me go."

Willow sighed and rolled onto her side, bearing him onto his back. "I've been thinking some more about that," she said, her fingers tracing delicate patterns on his chest.

"Oh? Any specific thoughts?"

"Lots of them. Like, remember, when something especially...icky...would happen in the library and we'd all get kind of wiggy about going in there afterwards?"

"Yes," he nodded.

"Remember what we did?"

"No."

"You don't remember the smudging?"

He frowned, then the memory clicked into place. "Oh, yes. With pots of herbs and incense."

"Yeah. And afterwards, we weren't wiggy anymore."

"So what are you suggesting? That that would work at my flat?"

She shrugged. "It might. It's at least worth a try."

"Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt."

"Only you have to really want it. You remember, the smudging is a purification ritual, but mostly what it does is clarify the mind, and the intentions. You have to do it with clear intent."

He smiled. Willow always found great comfort in rituals, in the belief that the natural order of things would win out in the end. She'd never subscribed to the chaos theory. And it seemed to Giles that sometimes he'd never subscribed to anything else.

"All right. We can give it a try."

"Good. I'll do some checking into it tomorrow, make sure I remember what it involves. See where I can get smudge sticks."

He smiled at her, pulling her into his arms and kissing her soundly. Physiology was an interesting thing. Here he was, having just made love to the point of exhaustion, and yet he couldn't leave Willow alone. It wasn't just that he wanted to touch her, wanted to caress and stroke and kiss her, but that he needed to. Like he somehow wasn't complete unless he was touching her. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched. Holding Willow in his arms scratched that itch. And nothing felt better.

They settled down, curled against each other. Giles let his eyes drift closed.

"You want the light off?" she asked.

"What?" He opened his eyes again. "Oh, I'll get it." He reached behind him and shut off the light. Then he snuggled close to Willow again.

"We haven't really talked about that," she said softly.

"About what?"

"Sleeping. Like, how some people can't sleep curled up together."

He smiled. She seemed to have forgotten that they'd slept entwined last night. Of course, those could have been considered exceptional circumstances. "I can."

"So can I," she whispered.

"Well then, that's settled," he said with a smile and squeezed her tight.

"You wanna go to sleep?" she asked after another silence.

"Mmm," he murmured. "I know we said we had all night, but we do have to get up and go to work tomorrow. Not to mention the fact that I'm knackered. You've worn this old man out." He pressed a tiny kiss to her forehead.

She giggled. "Yeah, well the old man's worn the little girl out, too, so don't feel so bad."

"Ah, well that's all right, then," he teased, "I can live with that."

She smiled, sighing, and melted against him, relaxing. "Love you," she whispered.

A lump formed in his throat. Things weren't supposed to be this good. There had to be a catch. But right now he was willing to accept the here and now, and not worry about tomorrow. Now was what mattered. Now. With Willow. Now. "I love you, too."

* * * * *

Giles had hoped to wake up early enough to be able to make languid, early-morning love to Willow, one of his favorite times for it. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending, his sleep had been deep and restful, and the next he knew was when the alarm buzzed and Willow crawled over him to shut it off. She hit the button and then stayed where she was, her body draped across his chest. She sighed.

"Good morning," he smiled, an arm coming up to rub her back.

"Well, morning, anyway," she mumbled.

"It isn't good?"

She lifted her head to look at him and her face broke into a sleepy smile. "Yeah. It's good." She kissed him. "It's just too early."

"What time is it?"

"Six-thirty."

Now it was his turn to groan. He had to be out of here, back home to clean up and change, then to work by 8:00.

He suspected he was going to be late.

Willow sighed and rolled off him, and he followed, gathering her into his arms, where they shared gentle morning kisses.

"Don't suppose we could play truant today," he murmured against her neck.

"Mmm, wouldn't that be nice? But I can't."

"And I shouldn't." He sighed.

"It's hell being responsible, isn't it?" she smiled and she chuckled. They kissed a little longer, then Willow sighed and sat up. "We'd better move." She scooted off the bed, going in search of her robe, finding it on the floor where they'd discarded it last night. She bent to pick it up, presenting him with the most splendid view of her arse. He swallowed. For an "old man", he was showing an alarming tendency toward teen-aged randiness.

Willow slipped into her robe and padded out of the room. "You want tea?" she called back.

"Yes, please."

She came back a minute later, munching on a biscuit. "I'm kind of out of food. Want a digestive?"

He shook his head. "I don't want to get crumbs in the bed."

"You could always get up," she suggested archly.

"What, and ruin the indolent pleasure of lying here watching you potter around the flat?"

She laughed. "Yeah, well you've gotta get up eventually, Giles."

He sighed and sat up. "Willow," he began quietly.

"Hmm?"

"My dear, sweet, wonderful Willow."

"What?" she giggled.

"What did we do last night?"

The smile remained but her forehead wrinkled. "What?"

"What did we do last night?" he repeated.

She blushed. "You know," she whispered, looking away. Even now, she was shy about it.

"Yes, but I want you to say it."

Her blush deepened and she looked up at him. "We made love," she murmured softly.

"Yes," he agreed, putting his hands on her shoulders. "We made love. So why this morning are you still calling me 'Giles'?"

She flushed red and ducked her head, then brought her chin up to gaze at him directly. "Rupert." She whispered his name reverently, like a prayer. "Rupert," she repeated, a little louder. "I like saying that."

"I like to hear you say it," he said, and pulled her close for a languid kiss.

They lay back on the bed again, holding each other, kissing and caressing. This was the sort of early-morning loving he had wanted: gentle, tender, erotic for all that. He felt the stirring in his loins and smiled. He slid his hands beneath her robe, loosening it, massaging her breasts, stroking her belly.

Willow's mouth left his and she tucked her head beneath his chin, sighing. "This is perfect."

He smiled. "Perfect" would have meant getting to stay in bed all day with Willow, with no more to worry about than where to order in food, and who got to be on top. But as an interlude to reality, it was pretty bloody close.

"Not that everything's always going to be so wonderful," she went on. "I know that."

"No," he agreed, stroking her hair. "No, it won't. None of my problems have gone away, we've merely postponed them for a time."

"You mean none of our problems," she corrected, raising her head. "I'm a part of your life now, Rupert. That means no more hiding things from me. If we have problems, then we'll deal with them. Together."

She was so earnest, he couldn't help but smile. Not in ridicule, but in affection. Willow understood there were grays in the world, but she still preferred to look at things as black and white. "Yes, all right," he agreed.

"And anyway, who said you've got the monopoly on problems?"

He frowned, stroking her hair. "Is something wrong?"

"No, but.... But you keep thinking this has all been easy for me. It hasn't. There are all sorts of reasons why this shouldn't work. And not very many reasons why it should. I know there are things that are going to have to be dealt with."

She sighed heavily. "Like telling my folks about this. My father will probably go ballistic."

His hands stilled. "Is it necessary to tell them?"

She pulled back and looked at him. "Not if this is a one night stand. But if it isn't...."

He gazed at her, stunned by her simple declaration. He didn't want this to be a one night stand. In fact, he couldn't imagine his life any longer without Willow in it. And, it seemed she felt the same way.

"Well," he began quietly, "at least they've met me before."

"Yeah, as the high school librarian. Not someone their daughter's in love with. That's totally different."

"Yes, I can understand that."

"I mean, I don't even think it'll be so much the age thing he'll have a problem with. Well, he probably won't be thrilled, but he's a few years older than my mom, so he'd deal with it. But it's all the rest."

"The rest," he repeated wearily. "Like the fact that I'm an alcoholic. And that I live thousands of miles away, in a foreign country. And that I can't seem to hold a steady job."

"No, like you're not Jewish."

"Ah. Yes. That, too."

"Not only are you not Jewish, you're not even circumcised."

Giles paled and his erection vanished as his testicles attempted to crawl up into his body. "Willow," he croaked, "I love you. But there are limits."

She giggled. "I wouldn't even suggest it." He let out a breath, feeling his balls relax. "I like it just the way it is." She fingered the length of his softened cock, paying special attention to the tip, sliding his foreskin down and back with a touch which was just this side of maddening. His vanished erection returned again.

"I'm glad," he whispered, thoroughly enthralled by her touch.

"Besides, I think it's cute."

He snorted on a laugh. "Cute?"

"Hey, if you can become buddies with my right breast, I can call your penis cute, okay?"

"As long as you don't start giving it names," he said, bending his head to the breast in question, licking it with his tongue.

In the other room, the kettle whistled.

"Damn," he muttered and she laughed.

"We've either gotta stop making tea, or else we've gotta stop getting distracted after we put the water on," she said, disentangling herself from him. "Anyway, we don't really have time, much as I'd love to keep going."

He sighed and sat up again. "You're right, of course. Damn it."

"You know where the tea stuff is. I'm gonna take a shower."

"All right." He got to his feet, heading for the front room and the teakettle.

"Unless, of course, you wanna help me wash my back." Her seductive tone stopped him in his tracks.

He looked toward the tea, then back at Willow. "I'm never going to manage to get a cup of tea with you around," he sighed dramatically.

"You can have your tea, or you can shower with me," she shrugged. "Your choice."

It wasn't any sort of choice and she knew it. He really wanted his tea. But he wanted Willow more. He shut off the teakettle and followed her into the bathroom.

He'd honestly expected that they would simply shower together, wash each other. Tender, loving, but not especially sexual. But warm bodies, warm water, slippery, soapy skin.... Willow was facing the wall as he lathered her back, working the flannel down, rubbing her buttocks gently, watching her squirm from his touch. He worked down each leg, cleaning them tenderly, then he drew the cloth between her legs, smiling as she moaned and shivered. He turned her around and repeated the stroke from the front, watching as Willow's eyes slid closed and her hips thrust toward him. He kissed her mouth and slid his hands down the length of her body, combing his fingers through her wet pubic hair, seeking out her slit and rubbing her folds. She was slick and wet, and not just with the water.

He left her mouth and dropped to his knees, backing her against the wall of the shower, and held her hips as he pressed his face to her groin, his tongue licking at her clitoris, teasing her erect. She moaned and clasped her hands onto his head, holding him in place, hips tilting and bucking to give him greater access. One hand slid behind her and pressed up between her legs, while his lips, tongue and teeth made her frenzied with desire. She whimpered and thrust.

It went quickly; she was more than ready. Within moments, she was crying his name as she trembled and her hips bucked over and over again. And then she was sliding down the wall and into his arms, and he kissed her deeply. Her tongue licked his lips, no doubt tasting herself on him, and she buried her head against his shoulder and held on, struggling to regain her equilibrium.

She raised her head. He hoped the wetness on her face was from the shower. Her eyes sparkled, though, so if she had shed any tears, they obviously hadn't been tears of pain or sorrow. "My turn," she murmured huskily and let go of him, reaching for his erect cock. "Stand up," she ordered, coaxing him to his feet.

They switched places, Giles leaning against the wall for support, Willow on her knees before him, his cock in her hands, delicately. She kissed the tip, lapping at the pre-ejaculate. And then she opened her mouth and took him in.

The warmth of her mouth almost undid him right there. But she pulled back, licking and sucking, her hands kneading his balls. Again she covered him with her mouth and pulled back, her teeth gently scraping along his skin, causing him to shiver.

Then she began sucking in earnest, licking, kissing, taking him about halfway into her mouth, using the circle of her fist on the base. The flat of her tongue against the great vein, the tip against his slit, her lips gently tugging at his foreskin....

It happened before he knew it. Suddenly, he was coming, gouts of semen spurting out of him. It caught Willow by surprise and she choked, pulling back and coughing, the last of his sperm hitting her in the face. She turned away, gagging and coughing, and Giles stood there helplessly.

He dropped to his knees, holding her as she knelt on hands and knees and coughed. "Oh, Willow, I'm sorry!" he murmured. "My love, I'm so sorry."

She just shook her head, rubbing a hand over her face, coughed again, and squirmed out of his arms, bolting from the shower and out of the bathroom.

"Fuck!" He slammed off the taps and took off after her. "Willow...!"

He found her huddled on the end of the bed, sniffling and still coughing.

"Willow...." He paused. What could he say to her? How would she react to him now? She must be so repulsed by what had happened. For God's sake, he'd very nearly strangled her with his lack of control. "Are you all right?" he finally continued. She didn't respond and he went nearer. "Willow?"

He tentatively touched her shoulder and she raised her head, eyes streaming.

"I'm sorry."

They spoke the phrase together, then stared at each other, startled.

"What are you sorry for?" he asked.

"I couldn't...I wanted... I didn't...." she sobbed. "I just...I wasn't ready. It caught me by surprise. I'm sorry."

"Oh, Willow." He sat next to her, a hand on her back gently. "I'm the one who's sorry. I lost control. It happened too quickly. I should have warned you." He rubbed her back soothingly. "You didn't need to do that."

"But I wanted to," she insisted, wiping roughly at her tears. "I've done it before. I wanted it to be good for you but...I don't know. I tried to take too much or something and I guess I just...couldn't."

"Are you all right?" he asked, a hand still stroking her back.

"Yeah, I'm okay," she nodded.

"That's what's important." He slid his hand across her back, gathering her into an embrace and she clung to him, shivering, head tucked underneath his chin.

"Here, you're freezing," he said, easing her from his arms. "Hang on." He went back to the bathroom, grabbed a towel and quickly wiped himself down, then brought another one out for her, gently drying her off, toweling her hair carefully. And then he gathered her close again, holding her protectively. "I'm sorry that happened," he said softly. "I would never ask you to do something you find...distasteful."

"But I don't," she answered, looking up at him with big eyes. "Not at all. I wanted to do that for you. I liked it. But I...I haven't done it very much. I guess I'm not very good at it," she said miserably, ducking her head again.

He smiled and stroked her cheek. "You did just fine. It felt wonderful, that's why what happened...happened."

Her head came up. "It..it was...okay?"

He closed his eyes. He really disliked post-coital critiques. Sex, he believed, was not supposed to be analyzed. Making love was a gift. And one should not critique a gift. But she needed reassurance. He opened his eyes and tipped her face up to his. "Yes, it was okay. It was very okay. You seem to have this strange effect on me. When I'm with you, I seem to have less control than a schoolboy. I can't even remember the last time I was that quick off the trigger."

She smiled then, a tiny, pleased smile, understanding perhaps for the first time just how much he wanted her. "Me, too," she said. "I mean, when I'm with you all I want to do is...be with you. I want you to touch me...everywhere. Again and again and again."

He chuckled softly. "And I'd be more than pleased to oblige, my love. But we're already going to be late for work."

She glanced at the clock. It read 7:45. "Shit!" She pulled out of his arms and he felt bereft. "You want me to put the kettle on again?"

"I don't think we have time. I'll get my tea at work."

They quickly dressed, careful not to touch each other for fear of "one thing leading to another". Giles was entranced, watching Willow transform from the delicious nymph of the bedroom to a sophisticated businesswoman, hair upswept and makeup carefully applied, business suit making her look professional without concealing her femininity. She scooped up her briefcase, he his overnight bag, and he escorted her from the suite.

They were silent in the lift on the way down. Willow touched his wrist and they held hands chastely. But even that touch gave him a thrill.

"I'll give you a call," she finally spoke, "let you know about the ceremony."

"Ceremony?"

"For your apartment. The smudging?" He nodded and she continued. "I don't know if I'll even have time to look into it today, but I'll try."

"You don't have to rush, Willow," he said. "I've gone on this way for a long time. A little longer won't hurt me." Not that he was looking forward to facing Buffy again-especially after last night. He knew she'd have things to say about old men bedding young girls, rutting like animals in heat. It wasn't like that; what he felt for Willow went well beyond physical desire, though he wasn't about to deny that part of it. But he didn't know that he could explain it to Buffy.

"I want to...get it dealt with." She turned to him. "Your past needs to be in the past, Gi...I mean, Rupert." She flushed.

He smiled and squeezed her hand. "Perhaps a reason I couldn't let go of my past was that I didn't have a future."

She smiled up at him, her eyes full of compassion and love. He leaned down and kissed her tenderly, a kiss that broke as the lift doors opened.

Out on the curb, he hailed a taxi. "You have a good day and I'll talk to you later," he said, kissing her cheek. He didn't want to say goodbye.

"I'll call you," she repeated.

"All right." They shared another kiss, brief, chaste, but full of promise. Then he got into the cab and it pulled into traffic.

~~~~~

He was almost an hour late for work and Miss McCarthy smiled at him knowingly when he finally arrived. He scowled. Bloody busy-body. Not much slipped past her. He could just imagine what she thought about the lump on his forehead. Or the rest of his appearance, for that matter. For while his outward appearance hadn't changed appreciably-white shirt, tweed jacket, subdued tie, glasses, graying hair-he was certain he had the look of a man who'd just spent the night getting thoroughly "fucked".

He settled down to work but found it difficult to concentrate. His mind kept drifting back to Willow. The past weekend had been both incredible and horrible. And while the horrible parts had been quite terrible indeed, he found himself struggling to remember them. When he thought back, all he could remember was Willow's sweet smile, all he could recall was her gentle touch, her open affection.

He was giddy; he recognized the signs. His heart, his mind and his body all conspired to turn him into a quivering mess of emotions.

"Get a grip, Rupert," he muttered and returned his attention to his translation.

Eventually, he managed to get involved in his work, and when the phone rang mid-afternoon, he was angry at its interruption.

"Giles," he snapped.

"Hi." Her voice was soft but cheery, and he brightened immediately.

"Hello. How are you?"

"Missing you."

"Same here," he confessed. "Terribly. I spent most of the morning sitting here mooning. I've wasted so much time I'm going to have to stay a little late tonight."

"Oh, good."

"Why is that good?"

"Because I wanted to come over tonight to do the ceremony, but I have to work late, too."

"Did you find the information you were seeking?"

"Yeah. I still had it in some of my notes." She laughed softly. "I think I got my note taking habits from you."

He chuckled. She and Buffy used to tease him about his copious journals and notes, but they'd come in handy on more than one occasion.

"Anyway," she went on. "I'll come over when I get off if it's not too late."

"You're welcome any time, you know that," he answered. "But it doesn't have to be tonight. If you're too tired, we can do it another night."

"We'll see how it goes," she said. "I'm hoping to be done here by around seven. I'll come over then?"

"That would be fine. Shall I hold dinner for you?"

"No, go ahead and eat without me. I'll either eat here or scrounge something later."

"How about if I fix a plate for you when you get there?"

"Sure, whatever. See you later."

"All right. Love you."

There was the slightest of pauses. "I'm always blown away when I hear you say that," she said quietly. "When I realize that it's not just me feeling this way. That you feel this way, too. Everything kind of...freezes up. I can't breathe, I can't speak. I love you, too. And I've never been so excited or so scared, all at the same time."

Giles knew exactly what she meant; knew it by how hard it was to take a breath, by how long it took him to find his voice again. "I know. So am I."

"See you tonight."

"'Bye, love."

They rang off and Giles hung up the phone with a sigh.

Wonderful. His concentration was shot again. He got up, poured himself another cup of tea, and settled down with his book, forcing himself to pay attention.

~~~~~

When his doorbell rang after eleven o'clock at night, Giles was well past worried and on to flat panic. She hadn't called, she hadn't shown up, he'd called her at home and there was no answer, and the switchboard at her work shut down after six, so he couldn't reach her there. He opened his door to find Willow standing on his doorstep and swept her into the flat with a grateful hug.

"You're so late...I was worried," he said.

"I'm sorry. I just now got off," she explained. He pulled back and looked at her. She looked exhausted. Poor lamb, she hadn't gotten a great deal of sleep over the weekend.

"Oh, love, you look beat. You didn't need to come over. It would have been much easier for you to just go home."

"I want to get this done," she said, setting down a carrier bag. "Besides," she gazed up at him, "I don't want to sleep by myself anymore. Not if I don't have to."

His heart melted and he cupped her face in his hands. "I don't, either. I'm glad you're here. But you must be knackered."

"I'm okay," she reassured him. "Why don't you put the kettle on and I'll get set up."

"All right." He did as he was told, returning in a few minutes with two cups of tea, to find Willow had turned off all the lights in the parlour and had lit several candles. She'd put soft, ambient music on the stereo, and was preparing a bundle of herbs.

She took a grateful sip of her tea, then set the cup down. "Are you ready for this?" she asked seriously.

He knew what she meant. He'd taken a moment this afternoon to reacquaint himself with the ritual and remembered that the smoke from the herbs only served as a focal point. If this was to have any chance of working, he had to approach the process with a clear mind and a willing heart.

He admitted to confusion in his mind and hoped that the ceremony would give him back the clarity he sought. But his heart could not have been more willing. For the first time since that terrible day when he'd lost Buffy and his reason for living, he felt himself ready to put his past behind him and go on. Buffy was still gone, he'd never get her back. But his reason for living now stood in his front parlour, preparing to ignite a bundle of herbs.

"Yes," he answered. "I'm ready."

She nodded and sat cross-legged in the center of the floor, indicating for him to sit opposite her. She lit the bundle, letting it burn for several moments before blowing it out. The sweet smelling smoke curled from the bundle and she watched it for a moment, concentrated on the tendrils which escaped.

"To the east, to the south, to the west, to the north. To Mother Earth below, to Father Sky above, and to the Great Spirit, bless us that our hearts and our spirits will be clear," she chanted. "Let the smoke from these sacred herbs wash away the impurities and reveal the true spirit." She cupped the smoke in her hands, bringing it toward her face. "That my eyes may see clearly." She repeated the movement, bringing the smoke toward her head. "That my thoughts may be clear." She repeated it with her arms, her legs, her torso, and finally her heart. Then she passed the stick on to him and he repeated the ritual, saying the incantations according to her coaxing.

He closed his eyes as he let the smoke wash over him, let it pull away his pain and his confusion. He remembered the books saying that the practitioner would be able to tell when the procedure was done correctly, and as he breathed in the sweet scent, he felt a sort of tranquility sweep over him. A peace borne on the tendrils of the smoke.

He opened his eyes again and returned the herb bundle to her.

She set the bundle in a bowl and got to her feet, bringing him with her. Then she picked up the bowl, handed him a feather, and moved to the corner of the room. "From the east which is birth, I pray. Wash away the unpleasantness which dwells here." She directed him and he fanned the smoky bowl with the feather, letting the smoke seep into every crevice of the room. Corner by corner they repeated the ritual, anointing the entire room. Then she took the bowl into the bedroom, where they repeated the procedure. Giles had no idea how much time had passed before she murmured a final prayer and extinguished the bundle in the dish of sand. She sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed, closed her eyes silently in benediction, then opened them again.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

It was extraordinary. He felt peaceful. Like nothing could harm him, nothing could worry him. He knew, intellectually, that nothing had changed. And yet it was all...different.

"At peace," he answered simply.

She smiled. "I'm glad." It was a tired smile. Exhausted.

"I don't know for certain whether it's actually done any good or not," he went on. "But I do know how I feel, simply about being here. I don't feel quite so...oppressed anymore."

"That's the idea."

Now he was talking about it, he couldn't seem to stop. "I...I haven't liked being alone in my flat since...since Buffy died." Saying that wasn't quite as hard as it usually was. "I used to follow some of the tenets of Feng Shui...ancient Chinese geomancy. But since I came back to England, I've got out of the habit. I guess it's time to get back into it."

She nodded. "There was a lot of very negative energy here," she said. "I felt it as soon as I came in." She stood up, setting the bowl on the dresser. The scent of sage and sweetgrass still hung in the air. "That's why you never invited me here before, isn't it? Because it wasn't a comfortable place. It was a place of sadness."

"And failure, and disappointment," he agreed. "But now...."

"Now we've dispelled some of that negative energy. I can tell just by the feeling of the energy here. I can't promise any miracles, but I know that what we were trying to do as far as the energy goes, worked. But it's up to you to see it stays gone."

He nodded. "I know."

She yawned, rubbing the back of her neck. "Wow, I haven't done a lot of ritual the last couple of years. I forgot how much they wear you out."

"And you were tired to begin with," he reminded her.

She nodded. "You mind if I crash?"

He chuckled and put his arms around her. "Of course not, love. That's why you're here."

She shrugged. "I just didn't know if you wanted to...you know."

He smiled and stroked down the side of her face with his thumb. "Willow, why do you find it so hard to say the words?"

She blinked up at him. "I just...I don't know. I guess I just am still finding it hard to believe it's real. That I'm really with you and we're together. Making love." She said it this time with perfect confidence. "Making love. Not just sex. Not only bodies doing body things. But hearts and spirits and souls together."

He hugged her close. "Making love," he repeated, the words like a prayer on his lips. "I do want that, very much. I want to make love with you not just now, but always. But for right now, I want you to put your head down and get some sleep."

She nodded. "'kay." She slipped from his arms. "I'm gonna get cleaned up." She headed into the bathroom, tugging on her shirt as she went.

He smiled, watching her go. Yes, he could definitely feel the pull of Willow's siren song. He remembered their activities of the previous night and this morning, and he shivered with anticipation. But for now she needed her sleep. He turned down the covers and went into the parlour, snuffing out the candles there.

When he heard the bathroom door open he went back to the bedroom and smiled when he saw her. She was stark naked, leaning sleepily against the bedroom door, gazing at him. "Would you be more comfortable sleeping in something?" he asked. "I can give you a shirt."

She shook her head. "I'm okay. I want to hold you, skin to skin."

The very idea made his heart skip a beat. "All right." He took her hand and led her to the bed. "Come on, in with you." He pulled the covers up over her and leaned down, kissing her forehead. "Just rest."

"You coming to bed?" she murmured, already relaxing into the pillows.

"In a minute." Another kiss, then he left her side, going to get cleaned up himself. Sometimes she seemed so young, he couldn't believe he was actually...involved...with someone her age. But then he remembered the wanton nymph who'd driven him to distraction just this morning, the professional woman who'd kissed him goodbye in front of her hotel, the High Priestess who'd banished the negative spirits from his home and his life. Her youth was a chronological fact. But her soul was ancient.

He moved through the flat to lock the door, feeling instead of the usual crushing darkness, an enveloping calm. Perhaps it was a result of the smudging. Or perhaps it was simply bringing Willow's incandescence into this dark place. Into his life.

He got undressed and joined her in bed, spooning against her protectively, his knee nudging her legs apart, his arm encircling her body, his head resting on her pillow, his lips brushing the back of her neck tenderly. He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, preparing for sleep.

I didn't want you to be lonely.

His eyes snapped open and he stared into the darkness. What?

I didn't want you to be lonely, she repeated. Her voice was soft in his head. Concerned. I was worried about you.

You have a funny way of showing it.

I didn't mean to upset you.

He couldn't help smiling. Buffy logic. She used to drive him to distraction but she never did it intentionally. They'd both been capable of hurting each other terribly. But that was because they cared so much.

I think she's good for you, she said.

Not terrible and disgusting? he asked, recalling her earlier chiding.

Nah. I think it's sweet. I can see how much she loves you, and I think you love her, too, don't you?

Yes.

Good. There was a smile in her voice. Take care of each other.

We will. His arm tightened around Willow.

Bye, Giles. Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. Fading away as he listened.

He felt a lump in his throat. There was still a terrible ache in his heart when he thought of Buffy, remembered who she'd been, remembered how she'd died. But for the first time in five years, that pain was beginning to fade. For the first time he could think of Buffy and remember the joy she brought him, the pleasure of her sweet smile.

He blinked back tears. "Goodbye," he whispered. "God rest."

"Mmm?" Willow murmured at his side.

"Shh," he soothed. "Go back to sleep."

Willow sighed and settled down again. He kissed her hair and closed his eyes. There were still challenges facing him. Facing them. Things which would not be overcome by some smoke and prayers. But with Willow at his side, in his life, he was beginning to know peace.

END