Matched Set
written by Koala


Rating: FRT for mature themes, mild violence, language.
Spoilers: Loose Season 5; Riley has left, Joyce is dead. It's Halloween, despite the timing!
Summary: It's approximately a year after the events in "Restless". With Giles' help, Buffy has tried to overcome the darker aspects of her inherent Slayer powers, and as a result they have developed a very close bond. Buffy is ready to take their relationship to the next level, but an ancient prophecy makes Giles think twice. It's a love that is put to the test when evil comes knocking, and Watcher and Slayer are hunted -- quite literally -- for their heads.
Dedication: For everyone who said I could, when I thought I couldn't. For Jac, Tag and EW, my 'official' pepper upper. For Tricia, beta extraordinaire -- thanks for all your enthusiasm!
Feedback Author: Koala
Author's Website: Koala's Place



"There must be some mistake," he said, donning a charming smile to help defuse the volatile situation in which he found himself.

The extraordinarily beautiful woman seated on the throne--for it was the only word he could find to describe her majestic perch--did not even blink. She did not seem to share his belief that a significant error had been made, or his keenness to have it rectified. Instead, she continued to examine her long, painted nails as if he did not even exist.

Anxiously awaiting her judgment, Ethan Rayne cast a wary glance at the various demon and vampire minions over whom she held court; one standing either side of him, two more blocking the exit at his back ... and Chaos only knew how many more lurking on the estate grounds outside. Even if he did somehow manage to escape the confines of her grandiose, log-walled, hunting lodge, he was hundreds of miles from the nearest anywhere, alone and unarmed.

The term 'hunting lodge' snapped his attention back to the more immediate concern, for it was an accurate description of his present surrounds and his predicament. His nervous eyes traveled past his preening captor to the trophies hung proudly on the log walls at her back, surely no different to the dozens more he had been marched passed in the hall, on his way to his audience with her. The mounted heads stared back at him, their blank glass eyes mute testimony of their horrendous and pointless deaths. Even in the dim, flickering light of torches, Ethan had no trouble identifying them not as animal ... but human.

'Human'.

There were so many of them, both there in the banquet room and out in the hall, although something told him that these heads displayed so prestigiously behind her throne represented significant kills. Oddly enough, the victims were paired in male/female groups, representative not only of all colors and races, but of all cultures and professions.

It was the most disgusting, unnerving display he had ever witnessed, enough to make any human sick to their stomach, and Ethan, still possessing some degree of humanity, broke into a cold, nauseous sweat. He knew what was going on here, and why he had been brought before her. But to be hunted to death, for no reason other than the perverse pleasure of the she-devil seated before him, was a terror almost beyond even his comprehension.

He shuddered, then swallowed hard, fighting to maintain his composure. The next few moments were crucial, since he was bargaining quite literally for his head. Retching on his captor would undoubtedly be detrimental to his appeal.

"I'm just a lowly sorcerer," Ethan pleaded, his fearful gaze darting over the trophies once again in search of the already unfortunate sorceress with whom his stuffed head would be forever mated. "A-and not a very good one at that." He took an instinctive step forward, intent on getting into some full-fledged down-on-his-knees groveling, but the firm hand of a vampire underling forced him to stop or suffer a broken shoulder. Plastering another charismatic smile over the grimace of crippling pain, Ethan swallowed his pride and added, "I'm not even that attractive."

That, at least, garnered a reaction from his captor. Quicksilver eyes flashed in his direction, cold and empty like the heart that beat beneath her rather magnificent bosom, a moment before she uncoiled her lusciously long legs and swiveled to face him. She was not a vampire, that much he knew. Ethan's money was on a demon heritage, although even when presented with her dark complexion, silver eyes, and ridged cheekbones, he was at a loss to place the species. She looked almost human, yet to sanction such 'sport' proved her lack of humanity.

'Ripper would know what she was,' he thought fleetingly. 'Good old Rupert ... '

The thought of his former friend brought the beginnings of a desperate plan to mind.

'Yes, of course. If he could just--'

"He's right," the demon huntress said, looking at her nails again. "This is not a face I wish to gaze upon for all eternity."

Ethan felt both insulted and grateful. "A wise choice, madam. Now, if I may--"

She stopped him with a wave of her hand. "This one is weak-willed, a coward," she told the vampire holding him fast. "And not worth my time. Dispose of him."

"Yes, Milady."

"Find me another, Tay, and this time brings me a worthy kill. Or it will be your own head that is forfeit."

"Your will is done, Milady."

"Um," Ethan spoke up as the vampire guard called Tay jerked on his already injured shoulder, intent on marching him outside to a different but no less certain death.

To someone not of a devious nature, it appeared to be a no-win situation ... unless, of course, the prey could prove his worth by offering a substitution that the hired help could not. The demon huntress wanted a worthy quarry, someone who possessed the skill and cunning to stay alive for more than a few hours on the hunt. She wanted a victim with stamina and strength, and Ethan was about to offer both in exchange for his own miserable neck.

"If I may be so bold ... Milady," he said, following Tay's subservient lead, "I'd like to offer a plea bargain."

The vampire squeezed his shoulder again, assuming his mistress had already tired of the haggling. "You're already dead meat, human. For that, I'll kill you slowly."

"Wait." The lady demon's cold gaze settled on Ethan again, causing him to shiver. She smiled sensuously, which under circumstances that did not involve groveling for his life, he would have found utterly irresistible--demon heritage or not. "I've grown tired of your feeble offerings, Tay." Settling back on her throne, awash in the alluring glow of flickering torches, she crossed her shapely legs again. "Let this pitiful excuse for a sorcerer speak."

Sensing his chance, perhaps his only one, Ethan boldly shrugged free of the vampire who held him. He feigned respect for the lady demon by dropping to one knee before her throne. "Milady, forgive my impertinence, but I can't help but notice that your trophy collection lacks the pride of my species. One who will not blindly run from you, awaiting death, but who possesses the strength and courage to fight back ... a-as ineffectual as that may be against your greatness."

That got her attention.

"Not to mention stunningly good looks."

"Go on."

"Ask your minions," Ethan pressed on brazenly. "There is not a vampire in existence who does not know and fear the mere mention of the Slayer."

The word rippled through the attending vampires in a hushed and fearful undertone. Even some of the demons shifted nervously.

"Impressive," she said, noting their reactions. "And you know of this ... Slayer?"

"I do, and I can provide accurate information on how you might obtain her."

"In exchange for ... ?"

"My life. My freedom. And a chance to share in your triumph."

"Of course." She seemed genuinely amused by his self-centered proposal, and held out a delicate-looking hand for to him take.

Ethan stood, aware of the resentment he was generating amidst her underlings, especially the brute named Tay. But if he could just gain some footing with their superior, then none of them would be any trouble that a wooden stake couldn't fix. He took the lady demon's slim, cold hand in his, and allowed her to pull him subserviently to her side. Her flesh was not supple like that of a human, more like stone beneath a velvet layer. He had no doubt that her species was incredibly strong, and that she could as easily crush all the bones in his hand, as she could offer a tender caress.

"This mighty Slayer of whom you speak is a woman?"

"A mere spit of a girl, Milady, but with the strength of two of your subordinates, and as skilled and cunning as Rancurti warrior. She is the Chosen One of my people. Her head would be a substantial prize ... not to mention a stunning centerpiece for your collection." He grinned broadly, sensing victory. But just when he thought he would live to a ripe old age, a frown crossed the lady demon's beautiful face.

"Perhaps, but you say she is just one girl." She regarded her wall of coordinated trophies, all neatly paired in male/female groupings. "Her addition would severely upset my decor. I don't suppose there is a male Slayer as well?"

"Um, not as such."

"Then you are wasting my time." Withdrawing her hand, she signaled to Tay. "Take him."

"Not as such," Ethan hastened to correct as he fought off the vampire's eager hold, "as in he's not called a male Slayer! He's called a Watcher!"

Another hand signal stopped the action. With an annoyed growl, the vampire again reluctantly let him go. Ethan spent a moment rolling his injured shoulder back into its socket, his conscience unburdened by the fact that he was about to rob the human race of the two people who stood between them and the forces of darkness. But survival was survival, his all-important, and destiny undoubtedly would call others to replace them.

"A Watcher? This is the Slayer's mate?"

"Well, I'm not entirely sure she thinks of him that way ... but yes. They are destiny's chosen couple."

"And they are the prime warriors of your species?"

"They are, Milady. Together they fight all manner of evil, vampires and demons alike. They're not even terribly fond of me." The vampires shifted restively around him, causing Ethan to add, "If you let me live, I can bring them to you for the hunt of a lifetime."

The lady demon smiled again, settling back on the throne covered with the clothing taken from her past victims. "Your words please me, sorcerer. Consider your life spared."

"Thank you, Milady."

"But cross me, and I shall let Tay have you as a plaything."

The vampire, now in full game face, growled meaningfully in his ear. Not a path Ethan wished to follow, now or at any time. Straightening his shoulders and smoothing down his ruffled silk shirt, he lifted his chin in triumph. Never let it be said that Ethan Rayne lacked basic survival skills. "I will not disappoint."

"You will do more than that, sorcerer. If you wish to live, you will give me my matched set."

Her words brought a picture to Ethan's mind's eye, and a devilish smile to his lips. He could already imagine the polished wooden plaques bearing the stuffed heads of the Watcher and the Slayer adorning these godforsaken log walls in the flicking glow of the torches, and what a pretty picture it was.

If this demon bitch thought she was getting the better end of the deal, then just wait until the underworld community found out that he was responsible for ridding them of one of the more troublesome Watcher/Slayer combination in many a generation. He would be worshiped like a god. If, on the other hand, the unlikely happened and the hunted somehow managed to kill the hunter, then it would be his own kind who revered him for eliminating the threat of the She-demon's dire little game. Either way, Ethan walked away from this accidental encounter with his life and glorification. How could he possibly lose?

With a plan already forming in his mind, Ethan bowed graciously, as if he were bowing to the royalty of his human kin and country. Overall, it was not a bad comeback for a chap who had almost lost his head. Again taking the hand of the lady demon, he pressed a small kiss to the back of her stone cold palm.

He looked up to catch her eye with a wicked grin. "Your will is done ... Milady."

* * * * *

Books.

Everywhere she looked, there were books. Books stacked on the floor, on the couch, and on both of Giles' desks. Pausing halfway through the front door, Buffy frowned as she did a quick survey of the mess; there were even books on the pass-through counter into the kitchen.

"Giles?" she called out. She continued into her Watcher's home, closing the door behind her to shut out the crisp October night.

"In here," a familiar British voice answered from the inner depths of the small but comfortable Spanish-style apartment. "Make yourself at home. Shan't be a moment."

Realizing he was down the hall in the vicinity of the bathroom, Buffy shrugged. Sidestepping the unsteady towers of ancient texts, several of which looked ready to topple if she dared pass too close, she carefully found her way to the couch. A big bowl of Halloween candy sat on the coffee table, along with a rubber spider in a fake web, and a short stack of centuries-old volumes that looked like they had just been literally unearthed.

Zeroing in on the chocolate, Buffy broke into a grin. The holiday wasn't until tomorrow night, and although his living room looked in need of a serious bookectomy, Giles seemed both ready and anxious to greet his inevitable trick or treaters. He had really loosened up these past couple of years. Of course, it helped matters a lot that the things that went bump in the Sunnydale night considered the idea of Halloween crass, and stayed in their cozy crypts and caves and sewers while the humans played 'monster'. She and Giles both got the night off.

Moving some books, Buffy sat on the couch, tucking one leg beneath her and helping herself to a Hershey's Kiss. At times like this, when there was free chocolaty goodness for the taking, she was glad Giles saw the wisdom in spending extra cash for the 'the good stuff'. No sugary imitation Tootsie Rolls here! The man had taste, not to mention a sweet tooth of his own. His theory was that if one had to eat leftover candy oneself, then it might as well be palatable.

"You wanted to talk to me?" she called, intently peeling back the silver foil of her Kiss.

"Actually, I wanted your opinion," Giles said. His voice was closer than before, suggesting he had joined her in the living room.

Having just unwrapped her teardrop-shaped sweet, Buffy swiveled to look over the back of the couch at him. But her playful smile froze on her face at the same moment her hand with the chocolate stalled at her lips. She was thankful she hadn't actually popped it in her mouth, because she surely would have choked at the outrageous sight before her.

Rupert Giles was sans glasses, wearing a white, sequined, flared-leg jumpsuit opened all the way to his waist, which if nothing else gave her a revealing look at the salt 'n' pepper chest hair she knew was there but had never before scored such a good look at. Through it dangled a gold chain of costume jewelry with a TCB moniker, and when he strummed a chord on his acoustic guitar she noted the chunky 70s-styled rings adorning almost every finger.

Giles grinned broadly, oblivious to her expression of open-mouthed shock. "The Espresso Pump is having an 'Elvis Appreciation Night', and it gave me an idea for a Halloween costume. What do you think?"

Eyes finally reaching his face, Buffy realized he had even donned some really awful mutton-chop sideburns to complete the look. "I'm ... speechless," she admitted truthfully.

"Thank you," Giles said in his best Elvis voice, "thank you very much."

"That wasn't a compliment," Buffy clarified.

"Oh?" A slow frown replaced the goofy grin on his face. Realizing she was completely serious, Giles put down his guitar and moved around to join her on the couch, scooting books onto the coffee table to make room. "Oh," he said again, this time in resignation. Sitting, he began peeling off the adhesive, jet-black sideburns.

"Remember the sombrero?" Buffy asked pointedly, referring to his disastrous Halloween costume from a few years ago. "No one took you seriously in that get-up either."

"At least it was a step-up from Anya's bunny suit."

"That's only a matter of opinion."

"But this is Elvis, an American icon." Giles scrunched the fake sideburns into a sticky faux fur ball, obviously disappointed. "I rather thought you'd be impressed, considering you've actually started to come watch me perform."

"Impressed with the singing, yes," Buffy admitted. What she didn't say was that Willow had been right all along, that hearing him croon a love song to a captive audience turned her insides into a warm gooey mess. She could still kick herself for waiting until just recently to check out his part time musical gigs. Oh, what she must have missed! "You can sing 'Love Me Tender' to me anytime. But if you had to dress like Elvis, why couldn't you do young Elvis? Not middle-aged, declining Elvis."

Giles tossed the fur ball at the rubber spider in exaggerated defeat. "Perhaps because I am middle-aged and declining, as you are so fond of reminding me."

Finally popping the Kiss in her mouth, Buffy licked the melting chocolate off her fingers and leaned back against the couch. She had hurt his feelings, but better she be the one to tell him he looked ridiculous in that outfit than some stranger keeling over with laughter on his doorstep tomorrow night. Besides, he had asked.

"Well, you could do James Bond," she suggested, guiltily wanting to make it up. They had grown very close this past year, their relationship stronger than ever in the aftermath of Watcher/Slayer breakdown and total rebuild. In the months following her mother's death, and Buffy's own subsequent reinventing of herself as adult guardian to her kid sister, her relationship with Giles had been sprouting in all sorts of previously unimaginable directions. Feelings had surfaced within her; feelings that just a few years ago she would have labeled as 'a total wig'. "He's not only super cool spy guy," she added hesitantly, "but almost as drop-dead gorgeous in a tux as you."

She bit her lip, instantly regretting she had revealed too much. Luckily, Giles gave a curt smile, indicating he thought she was teasing. Again. On one hand, it was just as well he had no clue that she really did consider him, when dressed in a tuxedo, as 'to die for' as they came. But on the other, having her compliments persistently shot down in flames was beginning to get a little frustrating. Unfortunately, Buffy didn't have the nerve to set him straight. In truth, there were lots of recently noticed things about Rupert Giles that were now on her 'every woman's fantasy' list, which was where her steady supply of 'old and declining' remarks came in; as self-defense against all the unexpected feelings she was suddenly having. Just a few weeks ago, she had finally figured it why.

She was in love with Giles!

The notion, still so new, almost made her choke on her chocolate. A month ago, Buffy would have considered the idea of waking up and finding herself attracted to Giles completely ludicrous, and yet here they were; magnet and steel. Sparks were flying, even if the man in question had yet to notice them. Until he did, she was in a sort of holding pattern, desperately wanting to make the first move, but too afraid she would scare him off.

After all, their relationship had its roots in some very old-fashioned protocols and traditions. They had started this gig as Watcher and Slayer, two people united by a common destiny not a physical attraction, and a 16-year-old schoolgirl getting down and dirty with a 40-something Englishman just wasn't what the Watchers Council considered a proper liaison between its Chosen.

But things had changed over the years--she and Giles had changed--and the Council was now a long, long way away. More importantly, she wasn't 16 anymore, and somehow what had once been an obvious chasm between them now seemed less of an 'abyss' and more of a 'slight gap'. If only she could get him to see that ...

"Um, what's with all the books?" Buffy asked, waving at the homeless stacks, some of which probably contained those prehistoric Council policies that stood between her and her man.

"What? Oh, yes, there are rather a lot of them, aren't there."

Glancing at Giles as he continued to pick the persistent dabs of adhesive gum from his cheeks, Buffy just barely resisted the urge to reach out and help. To do so would be to cross the line into uncharted territory, and she had no idea if either of them were ready to deal with the consequences of invaded personal space.

Finally giving up on the adhesive, Giles sat back with the candy bowl on his lap, an action that allowed the open front of his Vegas-styled jumpsuit to gape invitingly. "I'm having some bookcases refinished," Giles explained offhandedly, as he unwrapped a piece of chocolate for himself. "Should have them back in a few days."

Buffy tore her gaze from his chest, aware that she shouldn't be thinking what she was presently thinking. "Meantime we play dodge the leaning tower-o-books?" she asked, trying to distract her thoughts from the path they had started to wander. That way only led to restless nights and cold showers.

Giles tossed the chocolate in his mouth. "Something like that."

"And here I thought the public library caught you with another sidewalk sale. You and I both know you can't resist a book bargain."

"Quite. Although none of these volumes," he said indicating the precariously balanced book stacks, "are as innocent as ex-public-library literature."

"Let me guess. Prophecies of gloom-and-doom from your very own personal collection?"

He hesitated for the slightest second, his expression frozen with something akin to real horror. Then he smiled, in a totally boyish way that made her heart do an unexpected flip-flop.

"With a few highly-sought Council volumes and the odd Watcher's journal thrown in, yes," he agreed, sounding unperturbed, if not a little smug, about his covert possession of Council property.

Giles had come a long way from the by the book, tweed-clad, officially assigned Watcher she had first met in high school. Over time, he had mellowed into the role of her best friend and closest confidant. She owed him everything. Giles alone kept her sane; Giles alone completed her.

'He truly is my other half,' Buffy thought. Her gazed traveled the books piled around them, their cracked leather covers testament to their age and their importance. 'Had any other Slayers ever fallen in love with their Watchers?'

Not that Buffy could see a teenage Slayer falling for her 'old and gross' Watcher, but as the girl matured into adulthood, love undoubtedly became a whole new ballgame. True, some Watchers were women, and many of her predecessors never lived to see eighteen, let alone her present ripe old age of twenty, but had any ever taken their relationship to the next level? Had any of the previous Chosen Ones ever been intimate?

"Would you like a Kiss?"

Heart in her throat, Buffy's head snapped up from her contemplation of the books. "What?"

"A Kiss," Giles repeated, innocently offering the candy bowl.

"Oh, right. Thanks." Buffy hastily fished a piece of candy from the bowl, attempting to regain her composure, but her body temperature had shot up ten degrees and her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment.

They ate chocolate in heavy silence, until, aware of the way Giles' gaze took on bigtime curiosity, she deflected the question she knew he was going to ask by swiftly changing the subject.

"Y'know, you really should consider getting Willow to scan all these into a computer." She waved extravagantly at the books around them, and he obediently turned his interest to the unsteady towers occupying his desks, the coffee table, and most of the vacant floor space. "And then burn them."

Her ploy worked, because Giles immediately forgot about her and instead looked thoroughly affronted. "I'll have you know that burning books of any kind borders on blasphemy! Not to mention that most of these are irreplaceable, original volumes with no duplicate copies--"

"I meant 'burn the information onto CDs'," Buffy interrupted, more calm now the tables had been successfully turned. "Not burn the books. Willow says we could look up stuff real quick, so we'd be able to get the big scoop on the big bad even faster."

"We do not need to 'look up stuff real quick'," Giles said testily. "Watchers and Slayer have been making do for centuries, and I see no reason for a change now. Especially since virtually all species of demon known to mankind make a habit out of clinging to old ways and traditions, which is why ancient weapons, like crossbows and wooden stakes, are quite sufficient to defeat them."

She grinned affectionately. "Whoa, retro-Giles alert! Next you'll be breaking the tweed out of mothballs."

"However," he continued, ignoring her in favor of sarcasm, "should we run across an adversary with its own web domain and email address, then I shall be sure to take your idea under advisement."

Buffy laughed, not put off by his dry British wit. She had not only come to expect it, but enjoy it. Getting a rise out of Giles remained one of her evil little thrills. And besides, she had successfully diverted the focus from herself. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, but this isn't the dark ages anymore. It's the 21st century. It's ... The Jetsons vs. The Flintstones!"

"Ha bloody ha. And I suppose that makes me 'Fred'."

"There's a word for people like you, Giles," she teased. "Technophobic."

"I am not--" he began defensively, but then decided not to rise to her obvious bait. "I've dabbled with computers, as you well know. And while I can appreciate the merits of what you're suggesting, I simply don't see the need to make myself a slave to technology because of the present century. Books have served me well enough this long, as I'm certain they will continue to serve my successors for generations to come."

"Okay, enough already! Bring him back!"

Giles turned a puzzled frown on her. "Bring who back?"

"My Giles. My 'I-actually-own-a-tee-shirt-and-jeans' Giles. I want him back." With a fond smile, Buffy half-raised her hand to comb her fingers through his gorgeously unruly hair, only to belatedly snatch it back. "I like the new and improved Giles a whole lot better," she added, covering, "and for a moment there, you started to sound like the old 20th Century fuddy-duddy librarian Giles."

His frown transformed into another smile, this time crinkling the corners of his eyes with undisguised affection. "I rather like being ... 'your Giles'."

Buffy gave him a warm grin. "Me too."

He offered the candy bowl again, and for the following few moments they shared chocolate in companionable silence. Things were good between them. Platonic, yes, but good all the same.

Things were uncomplicated like this.

Nice.

Buffy glanced at Giles, watching his profile as he unwrapped another Hershey's Kiss and ate it in silence.

Okay, frustrating as hell.

She bit down on a groan, again turning to chocolate as a substitute to what she really craved--him. Unfortunately, the only time she ever got close to having him was when they trained. Hand to hand sparring with Giles had become a physical need in her daily routine, for it was the only time when the Council-drawn line between them was sufficiently blurred and contact was allowed. She knew the solid feel of his muscles under her hands, and the powerful way his body folded around hers from behind. She knew his masculine scent as a rich spice to her senses, but still she wanted more. Protocol be damned; she wanted it to be real.

"Do you have plans for tomorrow night?" Giles asked conversationally.

Buffy shrugged, reigning in her hormones lest they embarrass her again. "Willow and Tara have invited Xander and Anya to some Halloween bash over at Porter Dorm. They asked me to go too, but ... I don't know. I haven't really been up for partying in a long time."

"Perhaps you should. I'm sure Dawn wouldn't mind. In fact, I dare say she would welcome the opportunity to 'do her own thing'."

"Dawn's already 'doing her own thing'. She asked if she could go to a sleepover party across town."

"What did you say?"

"I told her she could, provided she left phone numbers of all attending partiers and their next of kin, and a detailed printout of the evening's exact itinerary."

Giles chuckled at her over-protective mother-hen act. "Then perhaps you should take the opportunity to have an evening out, too."

"Can't. It's a couples thing and I don't have a date. Unless ... " Buffy balked, her heart skipping into double time as she summoned up the nerve to ask the question her heart longed to ask.

"Surely, there must be someone," he cut in, referring to her lack of a significant other.

"Actually, no. There isn't." She had been flying solo for a good while now. Giles knew that. She shouldn't have needed to reiterate there had been no one since Riley Finn left, but the doubt in his voice called for a little reaffirming. Realistically, she couldn't blame him for thinking maybe she had a secret honey on the side, since she had never even mentioned Riley until Giles met him at her 19th birthday party. And true, she did have her sights set on this one gorgeous fella in the hope of spending the rest of her life with him, but he was presently sitting on the couch beside her, completely oblivious. "Besides, I'm really not interested in going to some silly party. I don't even have a costume." After a hesitant pause, Buffy added, "See, I was actually kinda hoping I could ... come over here and hang out with you."

Giles remained silent, still staring at the candy bowl on his lap.

"I could bring a scary movie?" she suggested hopefully, but his silence made her heart begin to sink. "And more chocolate. You can even do Elvis for me, if you want."

"Oh no, this," he said, plucking at the lapel of his gaudy white jumpsuit, "goes back for a refund in the morning."

"Then it's a date?"

Giles kept his gaze diverted. "Buffy, for the past twelve months, you and I have done nothing but 'hang out' together every spare waking moment. Training, studying, more training." He paused, and chanced a look at her. It was almost apologetic. "I do wish you'd reconsider. A little socializing with your friends might actually prove ... fun."

"I don't wanna have fun, I wanna be with you." Off his expression, she sheepishly added, "That really didn't come out right."

"Yes, well, I'm flattered ... I think ... but you're young and attractive, and--" He stopped suddenly, as if he felt he had already said way too much.

Forlorn hope swelled in Buffy's chest. Suddenly, she found herself standing on some very iffy ground. Giles had paid her a compliment. A personal one. An intimate one. He had noticed the sparks between them. Maybe what she wanted wasn't so far fetched after all. Maybe he wanted it too. Maybe here, tonight, all her fantasies were going to come true at last.

"You think I'm ... attractive?" Her mouth went dry. She watched Giles swallow, his gaze again fixed on the chocolate bowl before him. She waited, holding her breath. He had only to give her some indication that he shared her feelings, and she would surrender to him, gladly and completely.

When Giles did finally look at her again, he continued his sentence without confirming or denying his comment. "And spending all your free time with an old chap like me, instead of your peers, will hardly allow you the opportunity to--" He looked away again. "--to meet that nice young man."

Then it hit, the full blinding force of bitter disappointment, and Buffy lost her footing on all her dreams and unspoken desires. "But I don't want to meet a nice young man." It just came out, spoken from the heart, without a thought to the fallout it might cause. "I wanna be with you."

Giles remained stubbornly mute, showing no emotional reaction at all save for a tiny muscle that rippled, almost imperceptibly, in his jaw. He sat forward to park the candy bowl of teardrop-shaped chocolates on the coffee table, which only served to increase the physical distance between them. "I'm afraid I have plans."

His words were such a slap in the face that Buffy backed off, stunned. God, she'd just put her heart out there and he hadn't even acknowledged it. "I wasn't just talking about tomorrow night. Giles, there's something I've been wanting to tell you--"

"After the trick or treaters, that is," Giles continued, completely ignoring her. He still refused to meet her gaze. "I have a late night gig at the coffee house. Elvis Appreciation Night and all."

Broken, Buffy folded in on herself and tried to keep it together. In less than a minute, Giles had made it perfectly clear that he shared none of the feelings she had for him. He didn't love her, at least not in the way she wanted him to, and there was nothing she could do to make him. Worse still, his casual disregard for her confession made her feel juvenile and dumb, like some silly schoolgirl caught out over some silly crush.

Unshed tears suddenly stung her eyes.

"I have to go." The force of trying to keep her distraught emotions bottled up when they wanted to explode drove Buffy to her feet. She spun rashly, desperate to escape total humiliation in front of him, and inadvertently brushed against a tower of his precious books. It was enough to cause the entire stack to tumble. "I'm sorry."

Giles moved to rescue a couple of fallen texts. "No harm done."

But in Buffy's eyes, there was a lot more to it than just toppled books. Those old tomes were them, the paper and ink representations of all the Watchers and all the Slayers, the archaic protocols and traditions, and the forces of darkness that bound them together. Seeing them collapse was a stark reminder of their chosen destinies, and that their relationship--like their very lives--were forfeit to a higher cause. With those books, everything she thought she had built with Giles, and everything she ever dreamed she might one day share with him, had just come crashing down.

Giles straightened with a book in each hand, still avoiding her eyes. In fact, he seemed to be doing his best to avoid noticing how very close she was to tears. He looked ridiculous, standing there like a poor man's imitation of The King toting ancient prophecy. She just wanted to throw her arms around him, and stay with him forever.

"I'm sorry," Buffy murmured again, then rushed for the door before her heart completely broke.

* * * * *

Torn, Giles looked up as Buffy fled out his front door, a lump the size of a baseball stuck in his throat. She disappeared into the October night without looking back, the door gently swinging closed on its hinges behind her.

'Well, that went swimmingly,' he thought sarcastically, kneeling to collect up the last of his scattered books and rebuild the stack. His heart screamed at him to go after her and say the words she so desperately longed to hear, but his head quickly stopped him. 'Tough love' was the only form of love he could ever hope to give her.

He had to be strong for them both, even if it meant she would think him an insensitive bastard. Giles bit back his self-loathing for ever letting it come to this. Buffy didn't take rejection well. She was too ruled by emotion, too passionate a young woman to not react on instinct. It was both her strength and her weakness. It was why she had survived as a Slayer.

God help him. A Watcher in love with his Slayer. Not the first time in Council history it had happened, but no one need point out to him that such a relationship had always ended in tragedy.

God help them both.

The pitted leather cover of the ancient tome in his hand caught his eye. It was the Pergamum Codex, the book reputed to contain the most complete prophecies of the Slayer, once thought lost in the 15th Century but given to Giles during his first year tenure at Sunnydale High by the vampire, Angel. Among its many accurate foresights was a recount of Buffy dying at the hands of the Master. Although she had subsequently been revived, the actual prophecy had been fulfilled, which was why the new quatrain Giles had translated compelled him to distance himself from Buffy, before it was too late.

Reverently, Giles laid the precious volume on the stack, and then continued to place other less valuable books on top of it. Buffy's cheeky remark about his own 'personal collection of gloom-and-doom' prophecy had been like a knife in his chest. She could not possibly have known how right she was.

He had read the Codex's latest divination so many times he could recite it in his sleep. 'She who walks in darkness, in the shadow of the first' was without doubt a reference to Buffy. But it was the last part, which included him, that troubled him enough to ignore the wail in his heart and the protest in his soul: 'She will draw life from the one who watches and protects, and he will be her undoing.'

Given their present closeness, its interpretation was clear. It would be terribly easy to let their relationship expand to the next level, but the Codex foretold that if he allowed them become intimate, it would mean her downfall, or even her demise. He wasn't completely sure of what dire outcome would befall her, only that 'undoing' did not sound particularly good. That was the problem with ancient prophecies; they were always a bit vague on specifics.

Fear and helplessness rose within him, the feeling identical to the night when his 16-year-old Slayer had bravely faced the Master and her fate. 'This is the Codex,' he reminded himself emphatically, as he placed the last book on the tower to complete his task. His own words of that night came back to haunt him, filling in the rest of the thought. 'There is nothing in it that does not come to pass.'

Miserable now, Giles took himself back to the couch, where he sat, wretchedly, staring at the bowl of chocolate. What a bloody mess. Buffy was almost 21, an adult, and allowing himself to love her was no longer a question of morals or ethics, but one of life or death. It was a bloody cruel twist of fate, that now he could, he never would.

Letting go a sigh, Giles ran both hands through his hair, his clenched fists each finding a handful and ending the movement with a frustrated tug. He should never have let things go this far. For months, he had been getting some very clear signals from Buffy, and to say he had misinterpreted them would be an insult to the entire male population. He dreamed about her, damn it, until his body ached for the release that she alone could give. Whenever they were together, it took every ounce of his willpower not take her in his arms and worship her with wild abandon until they both succumbed to blissful exhaustion.

His arms fell limply to his sides, his hair mussed from the futile exercise. "Face it, you randy old bastard," Giles said to the quietness of his living room, "you should never have let yourself fall in love with her."

Hearing the truth aloud did nothing to ease the pain, or the regret. He should have kept his distance, the way he had been trained to do. He should have simply loved her from afar, chaste and unrequited. Hell, he should have left Sunnydale when the bloody Council fired him. But Buffy needed him and so he stayed. Now he had to face the consequences. He had to push her away, and watch her find happiness in the arms of another man.

Despondent over the thought, Giles reached for another piece of candy, and sat staring morosely at the silver teardrop in the palm of his hand.

A man who could give her more than just chocolate kisses ...

* * * * *

Buffy ran through the moonlit cemetery at full tilt, high on adrenaline of a dark and primal nature. A few yards ahead, the guy she was chasing threw a glance over his shoulder, his human eyes wide with undisguised fear. The expression didn't faze her. He was a vampire, after all, and she was a vampire slayer. He had just reverted to his human face after watching her dust his three buddies in quick succession. Scared witless, he had taken off running for his un-dead life, Buffy close on his heels and badly wanting to introduce him to Mr. Pointy.

In truth, she could have staked the vamp a block or two ago, but something inside her had warmed to the chase. She was in love with a man who wasn't in love with her. Rather than spend the night crying into her pillow, she decided that slaying as many vampires as she could track down was an alternative way to work off emotions. As such, she had let go everything she had learned from Giles about controlling the killer instinct of her inner Slayer, and was now simply enjoying the exhilaration of the hunt; something that felt so right, so ingrained in her very being, yet suppressed for way too long.

Giles didn't love her.

Using a headstone as a springboard, Buffy launched herself toward her quarry. Her head-high tackle took him down, grinding his face in the moist earth of a newly turned grave, before both of them rolled to their feet. The vamp spat out dirt as the Slayer settled into a fighting stance. Although she held her stake raised and ready, she hoped he would put a little effort into self-preservation. She really wanted to hit something, and her blood roared through her veins like a battle cry. With that in mind, she lowered her weapon and instead encouraged him to fight her.

"Wanna play, Fang-face?" she goaded the frightened vampire. In a move that went completely against everything she had ever learned about the art of Slaying, she tossed her stake to one side. It clattered harmlessly onto the cement covering a nearby plot. Raising both empty fists, she announced, "Buffy wants to play."

Now that she was weaponless, the balance shifted. The vampire snarled dangerously, his human face contorting into his true demon visage upon realizing his survival odds had just greatly improved. He rushed recklessly at her, but Buffy easily deflected his attack by grabbing his arms, dropping to the ground with her foot in his stomach, and tossing him backwards over her head. It was a move she'd practiced hundreds of times with Giles, and the look on his face as she triumphantly sat on his hips was always priceless.

But Giles had pushed her away. He'd told her to go find someone else to love.

Buffy scrambled to her feet, her unshed tears fueling her heart's despair. She and the vampire squared off again, circling each other like warring predators. The vamp lashed out with a few well-thrown punches that she blocked--all but the last in the series, which caught her in the side and cracked a rib. The pain fazed her for a moment, allowing the vamp the chance to fling her over a headstone. She stumbled and landed in a heap, drawing in a deep breath that made her grimace. Buffy's hand instinctively went to her injured rib, just as the vampire latched onto her throat and hauled her to her feet. Feeding on the pain rather than letting it be her downfall, she retaliated with several solid punches to her quarry's mid-section. When he let her go and doubled over, she grabbed his forearm and neatly flipped him to the ground again.

"C'mon, you can do better than that," she taunted, her foot on his chest. She gave the forearm she still held a little twist, satisfied at the protesting grate of bones. "I mean, you're fighting for your life here."

She should have staked him there and then, but with her weapon out of reach, it wasn't a viable option. Instead, Buffy released her adversary and backed off, waiting until he had regained his feet and reset his dislocated shoulder. The vamp howled at her in blind rage, but when he lunged, Buffy smiled.

The fight to the death was on, and her blood sang its ancient praises.

* * * * *

"She's magnificent," Ethan Rayne whispered breathlessly. He winced slightly, watching Buffy belt the helpless vampire with yet another powerful, bone-snapping punch. "I told you she was magnificent."

His companion was less impressed with watching one of his kindred being pummeled into mush. "She's dangerous," he corrected. "A killer."

"Well, that does tend to be what a Slayer does best," Ethan said, his eyes never leaving the fight scene some twenty yards in front of their hiding spot at the corner of a mausoleum.

Watching the Slayer in action was like watching an exquisite ballet ... if ballet was a violent and bloody fight to the death. Buffy's precision roundhouse kick caught the vamp in the side of the head with enough force to crack any human opponent's skull. Instead, it sent her undead adversary sprawling to the ground for the umpteenth time. She waited for him to get up, which the poor devil did, unaware that the courtesy was only so she could have the pleasure of knocking him down again. She was being particularly ruthless tonight, toying with her kills, playing a deadly game.

Despite himself, Ethan felt for the hapless vampire, as he continued to watch Buffy mercilessly pound the stuffing out of him. "I dare say your mistress will be pleased," he whispered over his shoulder to his companion. "As promised, it truly will be the 'hunt of a lifetime'."

When his unlikely ally failed to answer, Ethan finally looked around, the sounds of Buffy beating the vampire to a bloody pulp loud in the silence of the deserted cemetery behind him.

Tay, his reluctant vampire ally, glared at him furiously. "Yes, but for who?"

Ethan smiled. The vampire minion had a point. Buffy and the demon huntress seemed well matched. "That, my friend, remains to be seen."

The fight sounds grew suddenly, deathly silent, and Ethan looked back in time to see the remains of the unfortunate vampire shower down in the moonlight, rather as if someone had just thrown a vase of crematorium ash into the cold night air. It settled around the triumphant Slayer, presently down on one knee, as she brought her stake up in what appeared, to Ethan, to be a regretful gesture.

Remorse? For a vampire? No, more likely she regretted that the fight was over so soon, her bloodlust unquenched. But he was not one to pass judgment, and instead continued to observe, impartial and silent, as Buffy raised her bruised and dirty hand to brush the hair out of her bruised and dirty face. When she climbed to her feet, she did it with one hand pressed against that fractured rib, which if didn't heal sufficiently within a day or so, might give the demon huntress an unfair advantage.

But no matter, may the best bitch win.

Ethan watched, almost mesmerized, until Buffy did something he had never before believed her capable, or ever thought he would be privy to witness. She dropped her stake, and just stood there in the middle of the cemetery, in the moonlight, and let the tears come.

Taken aback by the unexpected show of raw emotion, Ethan frowned in genuine concern. What the devil was going on? She couldn't have some sort of sodding Slayer breakdown now. His life depended on it!

"Let me take her," Tay said, making a move forward.

"No." Ethan stopped him with nothing more than a firm hand on his chest, well aware that the vampire could rip his arm off like the drumstick of a Thanksgiving turkey. But Milady's minion had been assigned to aid him in the live capture of the Watcher and Slayer as quarry for her hunt. As long as the vampire remembered who was in charge, they would get along famously. "Not yet."

Before his companion could notice the Slayer's bizarre behavior and kill him on the spot for false claims of her warrior title, Ethan grabbed his arm and turned him away from the scene.

"Why not? She's alone, and has expended energy in a fight to the death," Tay argued. "Now is the perfect time. It won't be easy to take her once she's rested and at full strength."

"Which is why we're not going to try."

"You have a plan?"

Safely out of Buffy's earshot, Ethan strode quickly across the dew damp cemetery lawn, pushing the limits of his newly gained authority. Two more appointed lackeys waited at the rented BMW parked just outside Restfield's wrought iron gates. The were not vampires, but big, brute-ugly demons with rows of needle-like quills running down their backs and arms that could be raised defensively, much like dogs raised their hackles. They spoke no language Ethan could understand, but obeyed his orders nonetheless through some sort of mental telepathy. He only had to think it, and they would comply. Certainly handy chaps to have under one's command, even if they were hell on designer label shirts.

"You'd better have a plan, sorcerer," Tay growled menacingly. "It's both our heads on the line, remember?"

"Relax," Ethan said confidently. He smirked, the expression made more sinister by the eerie shadows and the moonlight glinting off the granite headstones. "Tomorrow night, I promise, the Slayer will come to us."

* * * * *

On Halloween eve, Giles sat in his living room surrounded by his teetering stacks of books, squinting at the television in between answering the door to some of Sunnydale's littlest, cutest monsters. Beside him, a pile of discarded candy wrappers bore testament to the fact that he had eaten more chocolate than he had given out, but better to lose oneself in an abundance of sweets and a horrid Hollywood vampire movie--even if he couldn't see it very well without his glasses--than to dwell on Buffy and the seemingly irreparable damage he had done to their relationship.

He sighed miserably, wondering how he could have been so cruel. It had been out of necessity, of course, for he firmly believed that by ignoring Buffy's feelings he had given her a way out, an escape clause from any long-term humiliation, and most importantly, a way to save face the next time they met. Better that, than to reject her outright. This way, she could offer any excuse for her hurried, teary-eyed departure, and he would accept it without question, the truth remaining safely buried just below the surface. Buffy, however, had undoubtedly not seen herself as a recipient of his good intentions, rather the victim of them. In his heart of hearts, Giles secretly hoped she would simply knock on his door, despite his cold-shoulder.

He had even donned a tuxedo for her, optimistic believing it would be like waving a white flag ... not that the damn rented monkey suit was the most comfortable attire in which to lounge. At least it was a proper shirt and trousers--it didn't pull and gape like the jumpsuit, which he vowed never to don again, Elvis Appreciation Night or not--although he would have to change before his late night gig at The Espresso Pump lest he take on the appearance of a right proper lounge lizard. Buffy would have a fine time making fun of that.

The thought of Buffy's teasing made him smile fondly, then frown regretfully. There had been no word from her all day, the phone uncharacteristically quiet and the machine bleakly devoid of messages. The silent treatment simply wasn't like her--she usually spoke her mind--so it was a clear indication of just how deeply he cut her.

Lord, he had really done it this time ...

There came a knock on the door and hope briefly welled within him, as it had all evening whenever the trick or treating neighborhood children called. With his living room in darkness save for the flickering light cast from the old black and white movie, Giles stood with his candy bowl and went to answer it. Years of living on the mouth of Hell had taught him some pretty standard precautions, in this case looking out the door's peephole before he actually opened it. Not that a vampire could enter one's domain without specific invitation from the rightful owner, but there were many other demons and hell beasts, drawn to Sunnydale's mystical energy like moths to a flame, that could.

Even though, by tradition, the night-dwelling denizens of Sunnydale did not usually venture out on Halloween, he still looked first, spying not Buffy as his heart hoped, but four local youngsters standing in the light of his porch. They were in full costume--a pirate, a superman, a prisoner, and a hockey-masked-killer--all carrying plastic pumpkin pails for their candy booty as they impatiently chorused, "Trick or treat?" in their high-pitched, pre-adolescent voices.

One hand straightening his black bowtie while the other balanced the candy bowl against his hip, Giles endeavored to put on a cheerful face. Despite his personal melancholia, he would not spoil the holiday for others. In a town marred by too many 'unexplainable' deaths, festive occasions tended to be far too few. These children deserved more.

Unlocking the door, he flung it open with a flamboyant, "Happy Hallowee--!"

But he stopped short upon finding himself confronted not by costumed children as seen through the peephole, but by a vampire in full game face, two unidentified demon heavies, and ...

"Ethan Rayne," Giles muttered. Although not particularly surprised, he was a little curious about the spell his former friend had cast to create the illusion of children. If nothing else, he had to applaud the man's ingenuity.

"Trick or treat, Watcher?" growled the vampire in a grim parody of a candy-seeking child. He smiled in amusement, showing his fangs, although he had no choice but to remained, uninvited, on the other side of the threshold.

Not so Giles' old chum-turned-nemesis, who stepped through the open door with a deceptively friendly smile on his face. Deceptive, because the last thing Giles expected was the first thing Ethan did. Without any preamble of the false camaraderie they usually exchanged, Ethan drew back his fist and punched him. Hard. Caught off guard, Giles took the punch full in the face. He went down backwards, spilling chocolate from his bowl all over his chest and tasting blood from a split lip. He looked up with contempt in his eyes as Ethan triumphantly stood over him.

"Trick, I believe," the sorcerer answered with a smirk.

Before Giles could react, the two unidentified demons stomped inside, their flat, elephantine feet squashing patties of chocolate into the rug and knocking his precious towers of books in all directions. They grabbed him by the arms and hauled him to his feet, holding him immobile between them. Giles attempted to break free, but they were far too strong, and he could not possibly escape their hold without dislocating one or both of his arms in the process. Still, the demons considered his struggles a threat, for both instinctively raised the quills running down their leathery backs and arms.

Calmly walking up to him, Ethan began straightening Giles' lopsided bowtie. "My, my, don't you look smashing. Although for the life of me, I can't decide who you're supposed to be. A pitiful groom without his lovely bride, perhaps? Where is your charming Slayer tonight, then?"

"What the devil do you want, Ethan?" Giles grated out. He twisted in an instinctive effort to evade capture, and came perilously close to brushing against one demon's extended quills.

"Um, I wouldn't, if I were you," the sorcerer suggested knowingly. "Their quills are tipped with a rather nasty poison. It won't kill you, but it will make you terribly ill." He stepped closer to gloat in the face of his enemy held so helplessly between his two dense-but-faithful minions. "And believe me, Rupert, I do like my merchandise to be in usable condition when I deliver it."

Without further word, the quill demons again picked Giles up, carried him backwards a few paces, and slammed him into the wall. The force of the impact knocked the air from his lungs and brought down a shower of plaster dust from the crown molding above. A leathery forearm thrust across his throat, the quill demon leaning on it to apply pressure. Giles gasped as his windpipe compressed.

Ethan looked to his vampire colleague, shifting impatiently from foot-to-foot outside the door. On cue, the vampire produced a small wooden box with an ancient symbol adorning the lid. From it, he took a syringe and a vial of bright green liquid. Ethan put his hand across the threshold to receive them, then turned to Giles with an expression that made the Watcher's blood run cold.

The quill demon with the forearm across his neck lifted the offending limb, and instead grabbed his jaw in its huge leathery paw to force his head to one side. Struggling was instinctive, but just as futile as before. Realizing the demon held his throat exposed for the injection, Giles couldn't stop anxiety rising in his stomach. He watched awkwardly, from the corners of his eyes, as Ethan calmly loaded the syringe.

"Don't worry, old man," his former friend said, nonchalantly tapping the side of the needle. He held it up in the flickering light of the television and squirted a small stream of florescent green into the air. Meeting Giles' gaze with a cold smile, he said, "This won't hurt ... much ... "

* * * * *

Buffy chose her usual table; the cozy booth she always sat at whenever she came to The Espresso Pump to see Giles perform. Tonight, however, the warm gooey sensation that filled her loins whenever she listened to him sing a love song--which of late she fantasized he was singing only to her--was a long way removed. Tonight, she felt absolutely miserable. There would be no waiting for him to finish his set and join her, all sweaty and flushed and adorable; no pre-ordering a pot of his favorite tea to have waiting to soothe his parched throat; no quiet time for the two of them as they transformed into something closely resembling an ordinary couple. There would be none of these wonderful things, because Giles had failed even to show up.

Putting down her mug, her third major caffeine intake since arriving, Buffy blew a lock of hair out of her eyes and cast another disappointed glance at her watch. It was coming up on midnight, and although his statement of The Pump's 'Elvis Night' had been true enough, her inner voice doubted the validity of his so-called scheduled appearance, either in his awful white jumpsuit or not. Presently, there was some other guy filling in, murdering a version of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' ... and just the thought of Giles singing that to her brought her misery full circle.

She felt rejected and betrayed by the knowledge that he had lied to her about having 'other plans' for the holiday eve, presumably to get out of having to spend it with her. She had been sitting there for hours and there was still no sign of him. Damn him. She should have just gone to the campus party with her friends and forgotten about ever having any stupid feelings for him.

If only it were that simple. If only love was like a light switch--something she could turn on and off whenever it suited ...

Buffy sighed, wanting to be angry with Giles, but the emotion fell flat. She blew out a long, frustrated breath, then winced, her hand automatically going to the cracked rib in her side. It still smarted, despite her superior healing abilities. Giles would have a cow upon learning of her stupidity; the way she taunted the vampire who injured her and took him on without a weapon. He would tell her she was 'bloody insane.' And maybe he would be right.

"Love makes you do the wacky," Buffy murmured dejectedly, as a forty-ish brunette waitress passed by the table on an errand collecting empty coffee mugs. "Excuse me ... "

"Yes, hon?"

"Can I get another low-fat mochaccino, please?"

The waitress, whose nametag proclaimed her as SALLY, gave her an apologetic look. "Sorry, hon, but we're getting ready to close."

"Oh." Feeling completely ditched now, Buffy sat back with a sigh. If Giles didn't feel that way about her, well okay, there was nothing she could do to change it. But if by her outburst at his apartment last night she had somehow destroyed even their very platonic friendship so that now he lied so he didn't have to spend time with her, then she knew she would just crawl under a rock and die. "Oh ... "

"Friend or fan?" Sally asked astutely, tearing Buffy's check from her pad and sliding it onto the tabletop.

Buffy glanced up with a frown. "Excuse me?"

The waitress offered a knowing smile and slid herself into the other end of the booth. Putting down her tray of empties, she said, "Hon, I've seen that look enough times tonight to realize Rupert's no-show disappointed half our regular customers."

Enlightened by the news that Giles actually did have a scheduled gig and hence she wasn't as betrayed as she first thought, Buffy sat up a little straighter. "Giles--Rupert," she said, stumbling over the unfamiliar use of his given name. "He really was supposed to sing tonight?"

"Isn't that why you came?" Sally smiled saucily, giving Buffy the impression that she wasn't the only female in Sunnydale enamored with the errant Mr. Giles. "Half the women here only came to listen to him sing." She winked, punctuating the idea, then leaned close to whisper, "I suspect one or two of the men, too."

"So he didn't blow me off," Buffy murmured, her heart rising out of its gutter of self-despair. Given her previous feeling of betrayal and hopelessness, it was a ridiculously uplifting and giddy realization to know that Giles had not lied to her. He was supposed to sing tonight! He really did have 'other plans'!

So ... where the heck was he?

'Ohmygod, something's happened to him!'

And being Sunnydale, she had no doubt it was something of the bad. The thought burst her happy bubble like a pin in a balloon. Giles was never late for a gig, nor was he a no-show to an appointment without an explanatory phone call. In a rushed movement that only aggravated her injured rib, Buffy grabbed her coat and slid out from behind the table. She clutched up her check, excused herself from the puzzled waitress, and rushed to the cashier to pay it.

If something nasty had happened to Giles while she had been throwing her little self-pity party, then she would never, ever forgive herself.

* * * * *

"Giles?" Buffy called, poking her head around his front door. It had been unlocked, but that was nothing out of the ordinary; a locked door would have rattled her more. Still, caution prevailed until she gave the place the thorough check. As she crept into the dark apartment, she guiltily wondered if she were rescuing her Watcher from an unknown fate, or just breaking and entering his home while he slept upstairs.

A high-pitched woman's scream made her jump a mile. Instinctively diving into action, Buffy rushed into the living room with her stake held ready, only to discover the source of the scream had been the television, where one of the local channels was broadcasting an all-night horror film fest for Halloween.

Relaxing only marginally, she moved forward in the flickering light, eyes alert and weapon raised, ready to take on whatever nasty jumped out at her. Probably not a vampire nasty, unless Giles had suddenly taken to inviting bloodsuckers in for high tea, but a nasty nonetheless. Sunnydale had lots of different kinds.

Something soft and gooey squashed underfoot. Shrugging off a silent 'eww', Buffy dropped to one knee to examine it. From the sweet cocoa smell, she identified the squishy mess on the rug as a patty of chocolate. More precisely, given the embedded silver tinfoil, a squashed Hershey's Kiss--the same Hershey's Kisses she had shared with Giles last night. She examined the rest of the surrounding area in the near darkness, finding lots of squashed patties and page-strewn books. Whatever had jumped him, had done so while he was eating Halloween candy ...

'Or--' The thought stopped her cold. 'Or giving it out.'

Straightening, Buffy glanced at the television, and then back at the unlocked door, slowly putting the pieces together. Some big-ugly-nasty had jumped her Watcher under the pretense of getting him to open his door for trick or treat candy.

It sounded logical, given the spilled chocolate and the toppled towers of his beloved books, but as Buffy made a quick circuit of the downstairs rooms just to make sure Giles wasn't lying injured and unconscious in one of them, a nagging hole ate into her theory. As a rule, demons and vampires didn't venture out on Halloween--which wasn't to say they couldn't, just that they usually didn't--much less execute the kidnapping of her Watcher for no accountable reason. As she scooted up the stairs to check the bedroom loft, she wondered what the real deal was, because there was certainly something underhanded going on, and somebody was going to be sorry when she found out what.

With relief at not discovering a body, she returned to the living room to stand amidst the squashed chocolate and book mess. Giles' bedroom, like the rest of his house, was in pristine condition. The struggle had happened here, in the--

A white business envelope on the coffee table suddenly caught her eye. It had her name on it, the large block handwriting neat and precise, but unfamiliar. Diving for it, carelessly knocking aside one of the last upright stacks of books, Buffy ripped open one end. A single sheet of folded notepaper fell out, along with something that made a tight knot of fear clench her stomach. Choking back a sob, she unfolded the note to read it:

'Be at the maintenance hangar at the Sunnydale Airport by dawn, or I start sending him back in pieces.'

It was unsigned, but whoever wrote the demand obviously meant business, if the other item in the envelope was any indication. Staring at the small metal object in her hand, Buffy almost broke into tears. It was Giles' pinky ring, and thankfully--this time--his finger wasn't still in it ...

* * * * *

It was a trap, of course. The whole thing reeked of a classic setup; hold the Watcher hostage and the Slayer will soon come charging to the rescue.

Buffy dropped into a crouch beside the brick pillar sign welcoming visitors to the Sunnydale Regional Airport, and scanned for signs of life--or unlife, as the case may be. Her sharp eyes skimmed across the deserted parking lot to the passenger terminal, which only saw moderate activity on a really good day. At 1:10am, it was totally deserted. The lone taxi rank was empty; the bus stop also devoid of any stragglers caught without a ride. Sunnydale didn't see big commercial jets fly in since the single runway wasn't long enough to accommodate them, rather just a few local private planes, and the odd commuter jet chartered by businessmen smart enough to skirt the mass confusion and costly delays of a stopover at LAX.

Luckily, there were no floodlights throwing annoying pools of light all over the place, just a few regular watt lamp poles dotted around at irregular intervals. In the dimness, she could just make out the middle section of the runway stretching horizontally past the front of the passenger terminal, its ends still concealed in the darkness to her left and right. The airport wasn't large enough or busy enough to warrant a proper control tower, so a limp windsock, standing bullseye in a large yellow circle out in midfield, was the sole sentry for pilot navigation.

To her left, probably a good quarter mile away, the distinct silhouetted hump of a large building rose out of the airfield grounds. This, she assumed from its remote position, must be her objective--the maintenance hangar. Three smaller hangars squatted around the larger one, these more than likely housing sleeping aircraft. A myriad of concrete roads crisscrossed the grass between the hangars and the terminal, like stone arteries of a silent heart; the taxiways and aprons needed to ferry planes and support vehicles from one point to another.

The entire airport was enclosed in an eight-foot high chain link fence, which might pose a problem to anyone lacking super Slayer agility. The only problem she could foresee was the possibility of a security van or a night watchman making rounds, and the airfield grounds, by design, didn't have any conveniently placed clumps of trees where she could hide or take cover. Foliage didn't go over real big with planes trying to land and take off. So she decided against trying to cross the open area inside the fence, but rather to skirt the perimeter on the civilian side, then vault the chain link somewhere closer to--or even behind--the maintenance hangar.

The target area now scoped and the semblance of an attack plan now formed, Buffy took final stock of her inventory. A wooden stake rested up each of her sleeves, and the vials of Holy water she had in the pockets of her jacket could be lobbed like grenades, if needed. Completing her arsenal was a loaded crossbow, her weapon of choice for this rescue mission since it was effective against vampires and demons alike. With its spare bolts cradled beneath the stock for fast reloading, the weapon was as efficient as it was deadly in her well-experienced hands.

Pausing, she pulled out the chain around her neck. On it, a new item joined her customary silver cross. Giles' ring. Absently holding it to her lips, Buffy knew it was time to 'go commando.' She frowned at the phrase: not that she was going to forego her underwear. It was just time to do this and do it right. It was time to rescue the man she loved.

Tucking away the chain and letting Giles' ring rest against her heart, Buffy silently pulled back from the brick WELCOME sign. She crossed the road running parallel outside the airfield, and cautiously started following the fence line while keeping to the safety and concealment of the brushes and shadows. Caution was the name of the game, even though her instinctive reaction after discovering Giles' abduction had been to go rushing to find him and to hell with whoever or whatever got in her way.

Her first impulse had been to fight, to kick some major vampire and/or demon ass. But the year she and Giles had spent exploring her inner Slayer had taught her how to harness the power of both her body and her mind. Following her emotions--fighting without thinking first--would only serve to get her killed, and in this case probably Giles, too. Stupidly taunting that vampire in the cemetery had shown her the wisdom of that, and she still had the busted rib to remind her.

As such, Buffy had first taken time to return home to gather her weapons and decide her course of action. Like an injured athlete preparing for a prize meet, she had taped her ribs to the best of her ability. At least now she could fight with a little less pain. She had also taken time to change her clothes, although this chiefly because the low cut, figure-hugging dress she had worn to The Espresso Pump was designed for winning a war of a different nature. Black was her chosen commando color; black leather pants, black turtleneck sweater, and black knee-length duster. With her blonde hair tucked securely into a matching black wool cap, she blended perfectly with the night, successfully making herself a hard target should the creeps holding Giles have the foresight, or the smarts, to post a lookout. They knew she was coming before sunrise, yes, but they didn't know exactly when, and she intended to use this small element of surprise as best she could.

The people--things--who had taken her Giles from her were so gonna pay!

Buffy stopped upon reaching her objective, squatting in the undergrowth across the road from the airport's perimeter fence. From this vantage, she scrutinized the back and nearside of maintenance hangar, set approximately two hundred yards inside the chain link. The building itself looked to be about three stories of camo-green sheet metal siding, with no windows and no discernable doors either. A shaded electric bulb hung at the apex of its roof in back, spilling an unwanted puddle of light onto the ground below, while the side of the hangar--the one she could see from her current angle--remained silhouetted in darkness. Presumably, the main door was around the front, with another light affixed at the roof's apex, if the diffuse glow peeking around the front corner was anything by which to judge.

There were no signs of movement of any kind or any indication that she was expected, let alone that this was even the right place. That suited her just fine; no witnesses limited civilian casualties. But how was she going to get in? Waltzing right through the front door was hardly her idea of a surprise attack.

Moving forward along the street, Buffy checked out the far side of the hangar. It too, was unlit and in darkness, but its sheet metal sides bore one distinct exception. A window, its wood-framed, frosted-glass pane hinged at the top, and propped open at the bottom by a metal support. It was set too high in the wall for a normal human to reach, much less use to gain access into the hangar, and Buffy was banking heavily on the fact that the creeps holding Giles had dismissed it as a plausible way in. If she could use it, then she could probably catch them off guard.

She frowned, not liking all the 'ifs' and 'probablys' in her battle plan, but the alternative at this point was to receive little pieces of Giles in the mail for years to come ... and that was definitely not what she had in mind as a lasting relationship with him. Slinging the crossbow across her back, she approached the chain link fence. One silent jump, flip, and crouch landing later, she was in ...

* * * * *

*SLAP!*

"Come on, old man. Wakie, wakie." Getting no response, Ethan sat back on his haunches and pouted. His prisoner, despite having his wrists bound behind the office chair on which he sat with a lovely pair of titanium handcuffs, was definitely spoiling the fun by remaining unconscious.

'Well, trial and error,' the sorcerer decided. 'One has to learn by one's mistake', which in this case had been to follow Tay's suggested dosage of the knockout drug in the capture of Watcher and Slayer. Vampire prat. Rupert's constitution was nowhere near as resilient as Buffy's. Half the dose would have felled a bloody horse; it would be a miracle if Rupert recovered by next week!

Grabbing Giles by the lapels of his black tuxedo, Ethan tried shaking him back to consciousness. He would never admit this mistake to his uneasy, undead ally. The bargain was for Watcher and Slayer, the undefeated, evil-fighting, super duo. The truth of the matter was that only half of the lady demon's intended hunting fodder possessed super-human powers, and the longer the ruse held the better Ethan's overall chances of coming out of this agreement alive.

Annoyed now, he raised his hand to deliver another sharp slap across the face. If Giles failed to wake up by tomorrow morning ...

He was about to swing again when his captive roused groggily and dragged his head back to center. "Hit me again," Giles warned, his voice thick and his eyes unevenly open, "and I'll spit in your eye."

Ethan felt awash with genuine relief. "Welcome back." Giles' head lolled again as he fought to hold on to his elusive grip on reality, prompting Ethan to take his former friend's face in his hands in an attempt to tether him to the here-and-now. "Stay with me, Rupert, you don't want to miss all the fun."

Defiant, Giles rattled the handcuffs against the metal frame of the office chair. "I'm quite certain I don't like your idea of fun."

"Buffy's on her way," Ethan said with an amused smile, confident that the envelope he left had been discovered and duly acted upon. Leaving Rupert's ring with the demand had been an impulsive, yet ingenious, stroke--even if he did say so himself.

Enjoying the anxious look on captive's face, Ethan pushed to his feet. In an idle show of dominance, he turned his back on his prisoner, and looked out the window fronting one whole side of the maintenance hangar's tiny back office. Through it, he watched Tay and the two quill demons restlessly pace the oil-stained concrete between the stacked crates, tool carts, and other repair machinery as they awaited the Slayer's imminent arrival.

'Amateurs,' he thought disdainfully. Not one brain between all three. Not that he was overly concerned. If one, or all, happened to be dispatched during the impending battle, then it would save him a whole lot of trouble.

Ethan's gaze flicked less confidently to the small private jet parked near the massive rolling doors at the front of the hangar. It had been refueled and stood waiting to fly them back to the hunting lodge out in--well, he wasn't entirely sure of its location, since he, much like his own prisoners, had been taken there while drugged and in handcuffs. The nighttime flight back into Sunnydale had yielded few landmarks useful to plot a course, just lots of blackness broken by unhelpful clumps of lights as they flew over small towns. Given the flight time to southern California, his best guess was somewhere out in eastern Wyoming or west Washington State. Wherever the hunting lodge was really didn't matter, because it was undeniably out in the proverbial middle of the nowhere.

It was not a place to where Ethan was eager to return, but the choice was out of his hands. Any indication that he was not loyal to Milady's cause, and the vampire would gleefully have him for lunch. Unlike the usual lot of basically stupid demons and vampires he had encountered in his time, the lady huntress and her minions were remarkable advanced in the technology department. He had glimpsed some rather impressive hardware at the hunting lodge, and even now, Tay kept in close contact with his mistress via cellphone. Not to mention the private jet.

Ethan's reluctant gaze traveled over the sleek, white fuselage again. The pilot--another human reluctantly doing Milady's bidding in exchange for his life--was already on board, unwilling to engage in physical combat, but rather insisting he was just there to fulfill his end of the bargain as soon as the other half of the cargo arrived ... which, if Ethan knew Buffy Summers and her unfailing devotion to her Watcher, would not be too much longer. Perhaps, if Buffy disposed of the other three, the pilot could be bought, for a price ...

"Is that what this is all about?" Despite his lethargic condition, Giles roused himself to give a good show of snorting in disbelief. "Buffy will know it's a trap."

"Of course, she'll know," Ethan agreed testily. With his luck, Buffy would surrender rather than see Giles hurt, and he would have to go through with this entire little charade just to keep breathing. His own escape plans on hold, he returned to stand in front of his drowsy prisoner. "But that won't stop her from coming."

"You overestimate her. She won't risk--"

"No, Ripper, you underestimate her. She'll come, regardless of the risk, because you are the single most important person in her world."

That comment made Giles lift his head. The truth flashed across his face--a telling mix of love, fear, concern, and surprise--only to be quickly hidden behind the Council trained façade of a defiant-to-the-end Watcher.

Ethan raised a thoughtful eyebrow. The realization was unexpected, but beneficial. The affection between Watcher and Slayer was not only real, but mutual. Judging from Giles' expression, it was a great deal more than just a working relationship or a close friendship. For some reason, that amused him. "Good Lord, Rupert, does Buffy know you're in love with her?"

"Sod off."

"Well, well ... looks as if this little exercise is going to include an entertainment factor, after all," Ethan said almost gleefully. This news changed everything. He might actually even find himself enjoying what was to come. Grabbing the armrests of the office chair, he swiveled his bound prisoner around 180 degrees, so that Giles now faced the room's only window. "You understand, old man, it's nothing personal. It's just that I value my life above yours and Buffy's--wait, I suppose that rather does make it personal, doesn't it?"

"Go to hell, Ethan," Giles managed, his eyes drooping to half-lids and his chin hitting his chest as unconsciousness called.

He chuckled. "Not for a very long time to come, I hope."

On the other side of the office window, a crossbow bolt zinged down from above and nailed one of the quill demons in the head. The beast toppled forward soundlessly, falling stiffly and rather dead at the feet of its very stunned looking cohorts. Ethan smirked; the Slayer had just arrived. After a few stunned seconds of immobility, the remaining demon and the vampire scurried to take cover, Tay yelling for Ethan to get his butt out there as the demon surprised everyone by shooting the quills from its back and arms like a rain of poison-tipped darts.

The ensuing noise, like machine gun fire as the bony quills hit the metal walls of the hangar, made Giles stir. He attempted to lift his chin from his chest, but the drug in his bloodstream was winning fast. As such, he only succeeded in lolling his head from one side to the other, and never quite opened his eyes.

None to eager to join the fray despite the vampire calling threats of what would happen if he didn't, Ethan grabbed Giles' hair and yanked his head back, forcing him to watch the action being played out in the hangar. Buffy gracefully descended into view via the stack of wooden crates, kicking and punching in a tornado of Slayer-dealt-death even before her feet hit the ground. She had obviously found the window, just as he expected she would. His obedient-but-supremely-stupid lackeys deserved to be staked, dolts that they were.

Bending over his prisoner, Ethan spoke softly in Giles' ear. "Don't worry, Ripper, in light of your news, I promise to give you and your lady love a sporting chance."

There was no response, and it was with some annoyance that Ethan realized his gloating was falling on deaf ears; Giles had slipped back into a drug-induced stupor.

Throwing the man's head forward, Ethan turned, allowing Buffy to pummel the others while he calmly retrieved a weapon from the blotter on the office desk. Picking up the sleek handgun, his index finger curling naturally around the trigger, he briefly wondered which course of action was truly in his best interest; fighting the Slayer or joining forces with her. In truth, he might have seriously considered changing sides, if not for the fact that the gun, as Tay made a point to tell him, had only one bullet in it. He couldn't take all of them with that. Best to stick with the winning team ... at least while they were winning.

Face grim, Ethan returned to his unconscious prisoner. Stranding behind Giles' chair, he raised the gun, and used his one and only bullet to shoot out the glass-paned office window. The reverberating sound of it shattering, the glass raining on the concrete floor, stopped the fighting in the hangar cold. This unexpected timeout left the second quill demon down for the count beside its deceased chum, and the vampire dazed and cowering from a severe beating by a supremely pissed off Slayer demanding to see her Watcher.

Now that he had their undivided attention, and knowing his only chance was to bluff this out, Ethan thrust the barrel of this gun against Giles' temple and donned one of his most charming smiles. "Buffy, how lovely of you to join us ... "

* * * * *

Buffy's heart sat in her throat like a cold, hard lump. She stood facing the paint-peeled hangar wall, with her hands flat against the cold metal and feet spread apart. Defenseless as this posture was, concern rose not for herself, but for Giles. Her worried eyes kept darting to his unconscious, slumped form, dressed in a tuxedo and handcuffed to the office chair on her right. In the wake of all that had happen that night, she had forgotten she was supposed to be angry with him for rejecting her. There would be time to hash that out later, when they got out of this ... if they got out of this.

"I swear," she warned for the third time since surrendering to Ethan and his pet monsters, "if you've hurt him--"

"No need for threats," Ethan said. He began frisking her for concealed weapons. Buffy hated that smug tone, almost as much as she hated the feel of his hands slowly sliding over her body. What she wouldn't give to knock that smirk right down his throat. "I assure you, Rupert is perfectly fine ... with the possible exception of being unconscious."

He easily found both wooden stakes hidden up her sleeves and neatly divested her of them. Likewise, he took the vials of Holy water she had in stashed her coat pockets. But his search pushed the boundaries of what even she would tolerate when it moved to the inside of her coat. Only the thin knit of her turtleneck sweater kept Ethan's hands from her bare skin, and just the thought was enough to make Buffy squirm uncomfortably.

"Relax, love," he crooned in her ear. "Just pretend I'm Rupert."

"You wish."

"No, dear Buffy," he said in a wickedly amused tone, "you wish."

She bit down on her lip. Feeling violated but nonetheless helpless, Buffy looked at Giles' slumped form again. It would not do either of them any good for her to lose her temper now, but boy, Ethan would so pay for this humiliating treatment later.

Ethan patted the same area twice, obviously feeling the tape strapping her injured ribs. For reasons of his own, he chose not to reveal this weakness to the others, and instead continued his search. When his unwanted touch moved determinedly upwards, her skin started to crawl. Defiant despite her subservient position, Buffy batted his hands away as they deliberately cupped her breasts.

She turned to glare at him, having had enough. "Playtime's over."

"Uh-uh ... temper."

"You're a pig, Ethan."

"Perhaps, but I'm the pig with the weapon currently pointed at your old man's head," he said meaningfully, nodding over to where his vampire crony held her loaded crossbow at Giles' temple.

Trepidation rattled through her again. It worried her that Giles hadn't stirred. He hardly even looked to be breathing.

"As you'd do well to remember," Ethan continued, as she grudgingly resumed her position facing the wall.

Buffy drew in a breath and held it, her body stiffening as he recommenced his intimate exploration. She was about to whack one of his wandering hands again, or grab it and flip him and really teach him a lesson, when she felt him surreptitiously slip something into the inner breast pocket of her duster. Something that felt a lot like one of her vials of Holy water. Clearly, he'd palmed it during his examination, but why was he sneaking it back to her? Why would Ethan give her a potential weapon like that? Maybe for the same reason he hadn't revealed her injured rib to his cronies? It wasn't much, but any Slayer worth her salt could easily blind the nearby vampire with a well-aimed throw of Holy water. All she needed was the right moment, when the vamp inadvertently moved the aim of the crossbow away from its present target.

Ethan withdrew his hands without speaking another word, and, sensing the full body inspection was finally over, Buffy turned to face him at close quarters. Their eyes met in a brief yet meaningful moment that told her he didn't like this anymore than she did. Well, maybe he liked it a little bit more than she did, on account that he'd just groped her, but his expression was clear; he wanted out, and he wanted her to help him.

She almost laughed. She couldn't believe his nerve, treating her in such a demeaning way and then expecting her to help save his butt from ... whatever he'd gotten himself into this time. Her gaze wandered to the impatient-looking vampire and his prickly, overgrown hedgehog buddy. Correction: whatever Ethan had gotten them all into this time.

Taking a step back, the sorcerer turned to his waiting minions to announce, "She's clean."

"Okay," Buffy said, wondering if she could really trust a slimeball like Ethan Rayne to back her up if and when she made her move, "now that we're reacquainted, mind telling me what this is all about?"

"It's about survival," Ethan said, then smiled conceitedly. "Mine, chiefly. You see I'm in a bit of a bind, one which I can't escape without the help of Rupert and yourself."

"Let me take a moment to pretend I care, then ask, to do what? When are you going to tell me what's really going on here?"

Giles stirred with an almost incoherent mumble that sounded like the word "trap", drawing Buffy's immediate attention.

"Giles!" She rushed over to him, completely indifferent to the vampire brandishing the crossbow, or what Ethan Rayne would make of her obvious concern.

Buffy roughly pushed the vampire guard out of her way and crouched by the office chair in which Giles sat slumped. Despite the insanity of such a decision, it was clear Ethan was in charge of this mastermind plan, and that whatever dastardly deed he had in store, it required her and Giles to be taken alive. As such, she gambled the vampire wouldn't shoot, even if provoked.

She was right. "Watch it, blondie," was the only retort. The spiky demon didn't move either, so she dismissed them both as no immediate threat and concentrated on trying to rouse the man handcuffed to the chair before her.

"Giles, are you okay? Can you hear me?" Her back to present company, Buffy gently took Giles' face in her hands, holding his head up so that all he had to do was open his eyes. But he didn't open his eyes, and that scared her more than anything else. "Giles!"

"I told you, he's fine," came Ethan's nonchalant tone from behind her.

"What did you do to him?" Reluctant to leave Giles' side, Buffy spun around on the balls of her feet ... just in time to see Ethan swing a hypodermic needle at her. It all happened so fast; one moment she was the one doing the defiant glaring, the next she was reeling, off balance without a chance of blocking his attack, going down under the impact of being hit in the neck with a loaded syringe.

Despite her turtleneck, Ethan's aim found its mark. He pushed home the plunger and withdrew the needle in a single, elegant motion, his face set in a cold, calculating glare. Buffy exchanged a kiss with the gritty, oil-stained concrete, before pulling herself back to a sitting position. Hand instinctively covering the pinprick on her neck, she shot Ethan a look that was part surprise and part 'now I'm gonna kill you'. Calling on her Slayer strength, she flipped her legs out and sprang to her feet, satisfied by the blink of total surprise that crossed his face. Without missing a beat, she punched him in the jaw.

This time, it was Ethan's turn to go spinning off balance, right into the stack of wooden crates she had used as steps to gain access down into the hangar. Wincing slightly at the pain the movement caused her injured rib, Buffy focused on Ethan, aware that his lackeys seemed reluctant to join in the game this time. Happy about that, she planted her feet and brought up her fists, letting him stand before she grabbed him by the front of his spiffy tailored shirt, and hoisted him back around for another thrashing.

"Is this what you did to Giles, too?" she asked angrily, pulling the empty syringe from Ethan's now limp fingers. She dropped it to the concrete and crushed it under her boot, before grabbing his shirtfront again.

"Now now, Buffy ... no need for violence. Especially when it's done to me."

"You should have thought of that before you jabbed me in the jugular." Using both hands, Buffy shook him, pleased by his grimace and unmanly whimper of pain. She not only had hold of his shirt, but a little of the chest hair underneath. She was just about to kick his ass again, when quite unexpectedly, her vision blurred and her knees buckled. She wobbled as the world took a teeter to the right, but quickly shook it off, ready to pound Ethan Rayne into next week. Whatever he had just injected into her bloodstream had started to take effect, and instinct told her that she didn't have much time. "What was in the needle, Ethan? Tell me!"

"I say, are you all right?" he asked, stalling, although Buffy knew his concern was not for her well-being. The snake was just weighing his survival odds with her waning condition.

Another wave of blackness washed over her, stronger this time, swift and absolute. It hit with the force of a wipeout, and then proceeded to drag little bits of her away into a waiting sea of unconsciousness. With it, Buffy found her grip on Ethan's shirt turning from menacing, to necessary. More annoyingly, the more she faltered, the more his fear began to recede and his confidence returned. Anxious, she looked up into his dark eyes.

"Talk ... or I start with the fisticuffs," she said, sounding a lot meeker than just a moment ago. Her strength had started to evaporate at an alarming rate.

Ethan noticed too. Holding her gaze, his hands moved to take hold of her arms. It was with angry frustration that Buffy found herself hanging onto him now for the sole purpose of staying upright. Just as abruptly, the muscles in her neck failed to support the weight of her head. It lolled backwards, prompting Ethan to pull off her black wool cap. Her blonde hair tumbled free, alive with static, down over her shoulders. She cringed when he entwined his fingers in the silkiness of it, under the pretense of a lover's caress.

"It's a fast-acting sedative," he finally told her, lifting her head to maintain eye contact with him. "Derived, I'm told, from ancient organic compounds. Dreadfully effective in high doses, but nonetheless quite harmless. The trick, dear Buffy, is that harder your body works at whipping my arse, the faster your heart pumps it through your system."

Ethan smiled, pleased. As her legs completely gave out from under her, he slid an arm around her waist, his other hand still gently holding her head. Buffy tried to glare, but at this point, it was all she could do to simply keep her eyes open. Her body had rapidly declined to a jelly-like state, and it was now by Ethan's strength alone that she remained--more or less--on her feet. Even her grip on his shirt had gone lax, her arms falling uselessly to her sides in quick succession. Within a minute, the balance between them had shifted, the dominant becoming the dominated, the aggressor becoming the subservient.

"Don't fight it," he said, knowing she was close to losing consciousness. "Let it come."

"Bite me," Buffy retorted in a thick, slurred voice.

Ethan kissed her forehead. "Love to," he leered, still supporting her in his arms. "Some other time."

The power of speech and a snappy comeback eluded her, whisked off to that dreamlike place where her strength had already gone. Then she was limp in his arms, entirely at his mercy, struggling to fight the growing fuzziness in her mind as the blackness doggedly pressed in. She had to remain conscious. Even if she couldn't physically fight him. She had to.

"Not to worry," he whispered, his lips close to hers. Buffy's last sensations were of Ethan lifting her off her feet, and the hard little buttons on his shirt pressing into her cheek. "It will wear off by morning. I think."

Ethan moved with her, carrying her ... somewhere. She had no idea where he was headed, only that his change in direction allowed her one last bleary glimpse of Giles, still unconscious and bound to his office chair.

'God, he looks good in a tux,' was the last thought Buffy's fogged brain formed, before the waiting dark nothingness took her.

* * * * *

Giles floated in a peaceful, warm place, halfway between conscious reality and his wildest dreams. Content, he let his fingers play with the pliable ball of flesh resting in his palm. Its weight was comfortably familiar to him, despite his never having touched it before, for it was the very substance of his most erotic fantasies.

Usually such fantasies were a lot less ... tangible. Usually they were nothing more than reckless desires born in the darkness of a lonely bed, nothing he could actually feel, or reach out to touch. As such, his fingers devoured the globe of pleasure presently within his grasp, delicately tracing around its soft knit covering until he found the hardened nub at its peak.

His tender assault drew a wanton moan from the woman he loved, so soft yet so bloody audible that he could have sworn she was actually lying there with him. He nuzzled her hair, believing he could really smell its fresh scent as it lay fanned on his pillow, really feel the heat of her glorious body as she slept spooned against his chest. Even in the realm of half-sleep, he was acutely aware of the position of her derriere and his own eager response. To lay with her like this, even in fantasy, made his body react in ways that would put a hormonally charged schoolboy to shame. The entire fantasy was so delightfully real that Giles decided if he never woke up it would be too soon.

She shifted, restless as she surfaced toward the waking world, prompting him to cuddle her closer.

"Relax, love. Just pretend," he murmured, reluctant to let her leave the dream. Leave him.

She moved in his arms again, and although unwilling to let reality into this marvelous delusion, it came regardless ... in the form of her fist in his face.

With a startled yelp, Buffy leapt from his arms and off the bed. She took up an immediate stance of self-defense, her eyes darting in confusion from such an abrupt awakening.

Giles sat up, holding his nose and grumpily letting go of his fantasy. "Ow," he said, raising an eyebrow at her.

"Giles!" Buffy said in recognition. She faltered slightly, and in an instinctive yet telling gesture, threw an arm across her chest. If nothing else, her body language confirmed exactly what his enthusiastic fingers had found to fondle.

Giles was instantly mortified. It hadn't been a dream! It had actually happened! He really had played with her ... "Oh dear Lord," he murmured around his hand. "Buffy, I--"

"I am so sorry about that," she said, beating him to an apology. She nodded at the hand he still had pressed to his injured nose. "About punching you. I just ... I thought you were Ethan. Again."

"Ethan?" Giles asked with a frown. He dropped his hand. Surely, she didn't mean ... ? "Ethan touched your--?" The blood drained from his face at the very thought, his male ego choosing jealousy over the more humiliating fact that he had just groped his Slayer in her sleep. He threw his legs off the bed in preparation of standing. "I'll bloody kill him!"

"No!" Buffy stayed him in a sitting position with nothing more than a hand on his shoulder. She grimaced at the pain this rash movement caused, and pressed her other hand to her side in order to combat it. "It's okay. He didn't--it was nothing."

Turning slowly, she lowered herself to sit on the bed at his side, the hand on his shoulder sliding down his arm before coming to rest on the top of his leg.

"Buffy?" Giles asked, concern immediately dousing his anger.

"I'm okay. Just got a little dented on patrol the other night," she admitted. "No big." Her eyes found his at close quarters, making him feel vulnerable without his glasses to hide behind. "How about you? Last time I saw you, you were doing a pretty good imitation of an unconscious man handcuffed to a chair in an airplane hangar."

"Better," he said, realizing that whatever knockout drug Ethan had used on him had, thankfully, started to work its way out of his system. His muscles still felt a little sluggish, but that could have simply been the stiffness that came from sleeping in one position for an undetermined length of time. Mentally, he felt reasonably alert. "Almost back to full steam, in fact."

"Good. You had me really worried for a while."

Giles held her caring gaze for a long moment before glancing away. "It was a trap, Buffy," he said, trying to sound stern, if only to quell the undercurrent of desire still rippling between them. "You should have known that. You shouldn't have come."

"I did know. And I came to rescue you." Buffy paused, sheepishly looking at the closed doors and the four walls surrounding them. "Although ... I guess the last part didn't exactly work out how I'd planned."

Giles finally took in the unfamiliar bedroom in which they found themselves, squinting a little without his glasses. It was small but cozy, complete with a crackling fire in the fireplace at the foot of the double bed, and expensive-looking antiques adorning the polished log walls. The single window had been shuttered up from the outside, allowing neither external light nor the possibility of escape, and the electric bulb overhead was either turned off or non-functioning.

Gaze coming full circle, Giles found himself captivated by Buffy's profile in the amber glow of firelight. He was momentarily awestruck by her ethereal beauty, so much like his most ardent fantasies made real, before he shook off those dangerous emotions and concentrated on the problem at hand.

"Do you have any idea where we are? Did you see where they brought us?" he asked, returning his hand to his injured nose. It was by miracle alone that it wasn't bleeding all over his rented tux, considering Buffy had walloped him good with her Slayer strength--not that he hadn't thoroughly deserved it. Without an icepack to apply, swelling and bruising were still distinct possibilities for later.

Buffy shook her head in answer, setting her golden hair in a quick flurry of motion. "Nope. Ethan nailed me with his knockout drug, too. Didn't see or know a thing, until I woke up here to find you with your hands on my ... " Her voice trailed off, embarrassment making it impossible for her to mention his accidental intimacy. "Whatever he had in that syringe, though, I think it's worn off," she continued quickly, changing the subject to spare them both the awkwardness. "I feel like a fully functional Slayer."

"As my pummeled sinuses will no doubt attest."

Buffy grimaced in sympathy. "Sorry."

Giles raked a hand though his hair. The sagging mattress on which they sat effectively shoved his left thigh flush against her right. With her hand still resting nonchalantly on his leg, and in the wake of his unintentional caress, it was becoming harder and harder to ignore the sensations she was stirring in him. The position was a prime example of the sort of casual familiarity they had grown to accept, but also the reason behind her tearful departure from his home the night before Halloween. Suddenly mindful of the fact that Buffy wanted him to touch her in a manner similar to the way he had just subconsciously done, Giles shifted to introduce a noticeable gap on the mattress between them. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to act on his feelings, but with the prophecies of the Pergamum Codex hanging over their lives like a gray cloud of doom, it was pointless to even consider it.

Unwilling to let him move too far away, Buffy grabbed his hand, the action effectively staying him and drawing his gaze back to hers. "Giles?" she began timidly. "It's okay ... that you, um, touched me. Just now. On the bed."

Stumped for a way to express his true feelings in a manner that wouldn't make the situation even more difficult, Giles went with flippancy instead. "I rather think your fist and my nose think otherwise." Off her shy grin, he continued to dissuade her interest, for her own good. "I'm afraid I was dreaming of ... of a woman I used to know ... um, rather well, in fact," he lied, fabricating as he went. "In England. I-in my Ripper days."

"Oh. See, I kinda hoped that maybe--"

"I truly do apologize for my behavior, Buffy," he cut in, before she got her hopes up and he was again forced to shoot them down. "It must have been a side effect of Ethan's drug. It shan't happen again. I promise."

Buffy tried but failed to hide her disappointment behind the cheerfulness of their normal banter. "And you're a man who always keeps his promises, aren't you."

"Always," Giles agreed with a smile, hating himself. There was so much he wanted to say to her, so much he couldn't. Instead, he squeezed her fingers; the gesture intended to convey his devotion and love, but not his desire.

"Lucky me," Buffy said, looking down at their joined hands.

Giles glanced down too. He needed to focus his thoughts elsewhere, before her disillusionment made him do something they would both later regret. It was then, while looking down at the hand he still held, that he noticed a shiny silver band peeking out from under the left cuff of his tuxedo sleeve. "Hello ... "

Frowning, but nonetheless grateful for the distraction, he pulled back his cuff to find a smooth, polished bracelet, about two inches wide and as thick as a coin, encircling his left wrist. It did not appear to have a clasp to open, even though its snug fit would have made it impossible to slip on over his hand without one. It bore no markings or moveable parts that he could see, just a solid band that looked metallic, but was as light as plastic and felt as soft as cashmere. Giles would have said it had been precision welded in place while he slept, if not for the fact that it did not appear to have a join of any kind--welded, hinged, locked, latched, or otherwise.

With a curious look, Buffy held up her arm. She pushed back the sleeve of her coat to reveal an identical-looking bracelet fitted snugly around her right wrist. "Gee," she said in a sarcastic tone, "matching manacles. Couldn't they have just got us 'his and hers' bath towels?"

Giles continued to study the silvery band around his wrist, searching for a hidden release mechanism or trigger to pop it open. "Doesn't appear to have a catch," he announced after a futile moment. He gave the thing an experimental tug, but there was no chance of it coming off over his hand in one solid piece. "How odd."

"Guess they put these on us while we were sleeping, huh," Buffy said, also trying to dislodge the unwanted bracelet, but to no avail. Hers too, had been form-fitted to her wrist by an unknown means. She gave up with a groan of frustration, and astutely asked, "Magic?"

"I don't know," Giles admitted. "Although with Ethan involved, I'd say that's a likely assumption."

"What do you suppose they're for?" Buffy asked, now studying her bracelet at arm's length, as if it were a new and fashionable piece of jewelry. "It's actually kinda ... nice."

"I very much doubt their purpose is purely decorative," Giles warned. He shrugged, clueless, having never seen or read about the likes of such before. "Perhaps they're some sort of ... identification? Marking us as 'chosen' for an indeterminate ritual?"

Buffy dropped her wrist and shot him a long-suffering look. "If by that you mean we're some sort of sacrifice, I don't want to hear it."

"No no, I expect if Ethan truly intended to do us harm, we'd already be dead." Pausing thoughtfully, Giles tugged at his black bowtie, letting the ends fall, undone, onto his chest. He undid the top few buttons of his white dress shirt as he considered their predicament. If he were to be a prisoner, then he may as well be a comfortable prisoner. "Which begs the question, how long have we been here? Wherever that may be."

"Well," Buffy said, studying his face at close range, "judging from your so outdated Miami Vice look, I'd say pretty long. Which also explains why I gotta pee so bad."

Giles' hand went to his jaw, feeling the healthy growth of beard. She was right. It felt as if he hadn't shaved in days.

"And I'm hungry," Buffy complained. "I could eat a horse--no, an elephant--no, a whale! Figuratively speaking, that is."

"I'm not certain my calling 'room service' would do any good," Giles quipped, his own stomach growling at the notion of food. He motioned at the bedroom's two closed doors that stood side by side only a few yards apart. "But I dare say one of those leads to some sort of rudimentary ablution facility."

"Which in English translates to ... ?"

Despite the situation, Giles smiled with genuine affection. Buffy could always make him smile, just by being herself. Sometimes, if he were to be honest, he only used big words in order to garner just such a reaction. "A bathroom."

"Oh good!" Buffy hopped to her feet, paying for her enthusiasm with another painful twinge in her side. She pulled up short, and without turning to see if he had noticed, doggedly clamped her hand on her ribs before crossing to the nearest of the two solid wood doors.

Giles watched her try the door handle of the first, absently scratching at the bracelet on his wrist. It had started to irritate him a little, his skin underneath prickling slightly.

"Locked," Buffy announced. "I guess that's the door to freedom."

"Try the other."

She did, pleased when it opened easily under her touch. Darkness hovered at the threshold, until she reached in, felt around, and snapped on a light switch. "Hey! You were right with your rudimentary blue thing, even though it's actually decorated in earthy greens and browns."

He grinned, amused, watching her disappear inside the tiny water closet and shut the door.

Within mere seconds of her departure, the itch beneath his bracelet escalated to a point where it could no longer be ignored. Realizing he had been scratching the same spot ever since Buffy had moved off the bed, Giles re-examined the wristband with renewed curiosity. Even as he spun the thing around on his arm, looking for clues, the prickling sensation grew from being simply annoying, to a tad more painful, to then culminate in a mind-numbing, teeth-rattling jolt akin to sticking his fingers in an electrical socket.

He cried out in agony, at the precise moment a scream of blood-curdling proportions erupted from behind the bathroom door. Too late Giles realized that both bracelets were giving off the exact same sensations.

"Buffy!" He rose with effort, teeth clenched as he battled the almost unbearable stabbing pain, and lurched for the closed door. He grabbed the handle, supremely grateful to find Buffy had forgone modesty and left it unlocked. Without a thought to her privacy, he pushed it open with such force that it bounced against the inside wall. He stopped the rebound with his foot, his eyes quickly traveling down to where she huddled, fully clothed, beneath the tiny porcelain sink. He reached to gather her up into his arms, but found his strength finally sapped by the throbbing ache, and instead ended up sitting entwined with her on the cold tile.

Quite unexpectedly, the torture stopped.

"What," Buffy asked, shaken, "was that? I feel as if I've just been struck by lightning."

"I know. Me too."

Buffy pulled out of his protective embrace, and stared at her now-hated bracelet. "It was this," she said accusingly. "Except that ... when you came in, it stopped."

Giles nodded, not liking any of the conclusions he had started to draw. It was true that the annoyance had started the moment they had parted company. It grew in severity as the space between them increased, and then stopped--abruptly--the instant they were reunited. "I have a sneaking suspicion that your initial reaction to these bloody things was extremely accurate."

Buffy pushed her hair back over her ear, backtracking their conversation in her mind. Finally, she got it, coming to the same assumption as him. "They are manacles!"

"I'm afraid so," Giles agreed. They climbed to their feet, both studying the unassuming silvery bands on their respective wrists, horrified they might activate again, regardless of the other's proximity. The excruciating pain was something neither was keen to have repeated. "And while there is no physical chain between the cuffs, we nonetheless appear to be tethered to one another as if there were."

"So the further the distance between us, the greater the pain and punishment?"

"It would appear so, yes."

"Great." She put her hands on her hips in a defiant gesture he had come to know well. "Then stay there, but turn around, because I still gotta pee."

"What? Oh, right. Quite." Obligingly, he turned his back, giving her a modicum of privacy.

Trying not to listen, Giles again turned his attention to the bracelet on his left wrist. If he ever got his hands around Ethan Rayne's throat, God help the man for pulling a prank like this. His ex-friend's timing, as usual, was bloody impeccable, right when Buffy was pining for him to give in to her needs and wants, and when the prophecies of the Codex made it impossible for him to comply. No, for Buffy sake, he would have to try much harder to maintain a respectable distance. Especially difficult after that incident on the bed, which he believed he'd nipped fairly well in the bud, and now this. Now they couldn't leave each other's side for any reason whatsoever.

Giles glared at his bracelet, dreading the thing would be his ultimate undoing. The coming hours, perhaps days, were going to prove a true test of his strength of will, because Ethan and his bloody magic shackles had just made temptation a hell of a lot more difficult to resist.

* * * * *

"Ethan!" Giles yelled. He had been yelling on and off for hours, making Buffy wonder why he wasn't hoarse. "Come on, you pillock, even a condemned man gets bread and water!" He followed this with several hard thumps on the wood of the bedroom door. "Give us some bloody food!"

Sitting by his legs with her back against said door, Buffy rested her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, trying to maintain a distance between their bracelets that would not trigger another painful electrical shock. At first, shouting demands to their captors seemed like the logical thing to do, but now, after so long of being totally ignored, every time Giles pounded on the door the futility of it went through her like a hot knife though butter.

"Ethan!" *THUMP-THUMP-THUMP*

Finally, she could take no more. "Giles, for God's sake! Stop!" She lifted her head to look up at him the same moment he stopped shouting and thumping and looked down at her, startled. "There's no one coming. You're wasting your breath." She paused, then grumbled, "And you're making my ribs hurt."

Giving in with a sigh, Giles turned and slid down the door to join her on the floor. He brought his knees up as pillars for his forearms, and raked a frustrated hand through his hair before he spoke.

"It's not like Ethan to leave his prisoners locked up without contact," he said worriedly. "He's usually the first one in to gloat."

"Well, maybe we aren't his prisoners. Maybe he's not the head honcho around here," Buffy said. "Although, anyone who would put Ethan Rayne in charge is just asking for trouble." Her brows knitted in a thoughtful frown.

"What?" Giles asked softly, noting her look.

"You know, back at the plane hangar, he seemed as if ... "

"As if what?"

"As if he wanted me to help him."

Giles snorted in derision. "I'll 'help' him, all right."

"Whatever this is all about, I think Ethan's just following orders. I might even go so far as to say 'reluctantly'."

"Probably to save his own neck, the pillock."

"So if he is working for someone else, the question is who, and why? Well, technically that's two questions, I guess."

"Whoever they are, they apparently wants us starve to death," Giles complained, his stomach punctuating his grievance with a loud growl. His gaze went to the bracelet on his wrist, the fingers of his other hand impatiently spinning it around his flesh, as if its very presence were a constant aggravation.

In truth, the manacle cuffs were so soft and comfortable that it was easy to forget they wore them, except for the punishment that came whenever they moved too far apart. Through trial and error, they had determined they had a tolerable separation radius of about four feet, after which the prickling sensations escalated sharply from annoying to unbearable. An extremely agonizing death presumably followed, but was not something either of them was eager to put to the test. The only time they were completely pain free was when they confined themselves to a division of twelve inches or less, which made even simple tasks difficult and taxing.

"We are not going to starve to death in a day," Buffy chided in response to his decidedly immature tone. "We'd die of thirst first, and we've got plenty of fresh running water in the bathroom."

"Easy for you to say. You've already eaten the only food we had." His stomach growled again.

"You said I could!"

They found them when they shed their coats, hours ago, to pool their individual resources from their pockets. Although the majority of their possessions had been confiscated, their collective secret booty included the small vial of Holy water Ethan had let her keep, a clean men's handkerchief, a plastic squirt gun befitting Giles' 007 guise, and three warm and gooey Hershey's Kisses, which Giles explained must have been ensnared in his suit when he spilt the candy bowl on himself after Ethan punched him. Despite their squishy condition, Buffy had eagerly licked the tinfoil wrappers clean of all traces of chocolate, her empty stomach appreciating the sugar rush.

"I was being polite," Giles said testily. "You could have at least saved one piece for me."

Feeling guilty, Buffy bit her lip and held back her retort. It was true that she shared his frustration at being locked in a room and completely ignored, but she, at least, was trying to maintain a level head. Letting their tempers flare and childishly fighting each other out of boredom would only prove detrimental.

And, yeah--hello!--it was three pieces of chocolate, not a four-course meal. She was hungry too!

Buffy watched Giles study the shine of his black, patent leather shoes. Desperate to distract herself from her own hunger pangs, she pondered his present attire, wondering if he had any idea how adorable he looked in his black tuxedo trousers and white dress shirt, with the ends of his bowtie hanging down on his chest. His glasses were nowhere in sight, and she could only guess that he hadn't been wearing them when Ethan had gotten the jump on him. Spectacles were not part of the sexy 'James Bond' persona, although if there were ever a time she wished her Watcher owned a pair of contact lenses, then it was now. Still, that small obstacle aside, it was so darn cute to know he had taken her suggestion for a Halloween costume to heart--thank The Powers, or else she could have been sitting there with him dressed in that awful Elvis jumpsuit.

She sighed. There wasn't much left to do but wait until their real captors finally decided to show their faces ... except try not to get on each other's nerves too much. Unfortunately, she didn't have the option of going to sit on the other side of the room; being tethered to Giles when he was Mr. Grumpy Bear definitely had a downside.

For his part, Giles had already played detective and made an educated guess as to their whereabouts, although he had only come up with some pretty obvious conclusions. She suspected the exercise had been more a way to relieve the tedium of captivity than anything else. The log walls and crackling fire, he had deduced, suggested a likely alpine location for the room in which they found themselves, although why he couldn't have just said, 'log cabin equals mountains, fireplace equals cold,' she didn't know. Then, while sitting together on the side of the sagging mattress, they had divulged what they had remembered from the plane hangar, filling in each other's blanks until a clear picture of the waiting jet appeared. It only confirmed that wherever they were, Sunnydale was a very long way off.

Buffy sighed heavily again; she and Giles still sitting on the floor of their bedroom cell with their backs against the locked door he had just given a pounding. She took a deep breath, only to grimace when the action hurt her ribs. Silently, she cursed the vampire who had injured her in the cemetery the other night, and her own stupidity for goading him on.

"I think I want to lie down for a while," she announced, suddenly fatigued. It was the waiting around that drained her more than the injury itself; she was much more at home with kicking butt, not sitting on it. Her comment drew Giles' gaze to hers. Seeing concern color his green eyes this time, she elaborated, "My side hurts, and I want to recoup before whatever's about to go down, does."

He nodded wearily, equally sapped by inactivity. They clambered to their feet, mindful of their proximity to one other but without each other's help. They made it to the bed without any nasty jolts from their bracelets, before Giles suddenly stopped cold with a look of panic on his face.

"Buffy, I don't think it would be proper for me to ... "

Gingerly, Buffy lowered herself onto the mattress and stretched out, finding a moderately comfortable position on her good side. "Don't worry," she quipped playfully, "I'll still respect you in the morning."

" ... to risk taking advantage of you again," Giles finished in abject embarrassment.

Buffy looked up, noting he was still rooted to the spot. He was serious. While his sense of chivalry was charming, it was also totally impractical given their present predicament. The skin of her wrist had already started to prickle under her bracelet, and he was only standing a few feet away.

Annoyed, she frowned. "Giles, I'm not asking for a long term commitment, just a few hours sleep. So would you please quit being all British and noble, and come lay beside me so I can rest?" She waved her bracelet at him, as if he needed reminding. "Without fear of electrocution?"

He muttered something incomprehensible under his breath, then grudgingly did as she asked. To her disappointment, he sat rather than lay with her, with his broad shoulders resting against the antique wood headboard. Buffy kept her back to him, shuffling forward slightly as his weight tipped the sagging mattress in his direction. His nearness sent a flush of heat through every part of her. She longed to turn over and cuddle against him, finding real comfort and respite, but didn't dare risk it. Despite his accidental caress while asleep earlier, while awake Giles strived to maintain an obvious distance between them, in both the physical and emotional departments. If he were not interested in her as a potential lover, then she would just have to be content to take whatever form of affection he was willing to give. To have him close in a limited capacity was far better than not having him at all.

Silence stretched between them, the soft spit and crackle of the dying fire lulling her ever closer toward a false sense of security. Buffy closed her eyes, and lost herself in the fantasy of being with the man she loved. She wasn't sure when she dozed off, or how long she slept, only that she awoke in the exact same position--curled on her side facing away from Giles--but with his warm, rhythmic breathing tickling the back of her neck.

His doggedly defensive posture had again slipped during slumber, and it was with a pang of delight and jolt of panic that she once more found herself lying in his arms. His free arm had again wandered around her waist, his hand resting on the mattress close to her breast, while his body folded protectively around hers, as if sleeping together in this spooned fashion was the most natural thing in the world for them. Despite knowing she should wake him, Buffy selfishly couldn't bring herself to do it. Instead, she rested her hand on the arm tucked so lovingly around her, stealing a few more moments of his tender touch, while trying not to acknowledge what he had told her earlier; she was not the woman he was dreaming about.

As she lay there, lonely despite the feel of him so close, Buffy realized the room had grown darker. Her gaze fell to the bedroom's only window. Earlier inspection had revealed the heavy wooden storm shutter securely battened down from the outside, allowing no clues to the hour. Neither of them had a wristwatch, there was no clock in the room, and the burnt logs in the fireplace only gave an indication of how long they had been prisoners.

For an ordinary person, estimating the time of day relative to the rest of the world was by best guess alone. For Buffy, it was Slayer intuition. Her internal clock suggested the sun had set, and her inherent ability to sense nightfall despite a lack of visual confirmation was usually never wrong. Night ... when the vampires and demons came out to play. She wondered if that was when their true captors would show their deformed faces, and when the real nightmare of their abduction would begin.

Buffy shifted restlessly, instinct rousing her hereditary need for action. "Giles?"

She patted his arm then released her tentative hold, re-implementing a modest space between them before he suffered the uber-embarrassment of waking up in another clinch. Despite Giles' earlier self-evaluation of feeling fine, Ethan's drug clearly still had a hold on his system. Hers too, considering how quickly they had both fallen asleep in what she now knew had been the middle of the afternoon.

Buffy sat up, turning slightly to look down at Giles. He rolled over onto his back, his green eyes meeting hers in the glow of embers from the fireplace as he tried to rub the sleep from his face. When he shared a sleepy smile, her heart melted despite the bad timing of it all. How wonderful it would be to wake up with him like this every time ...

Embarrassed by a fresh surge of emotions, Buffy glanced away. She was hopelessly in love with a man who didn't love her back.

"Buffy?"

Her gaze obediently went back to his, forlorn hope welling in her chest at the gentleness in his tone and his expression. He lifted his hand toward her, and for a brief moment, she swore he was about to tenderly touch her cheek ... when the sound of an electronic beep outside the bedroom door drew their combined attention.

"Hold that thought," she said, reluctantly getting to her feet. But she stopped, startled, as the door Giles had earlier given a vigorous pounding was flung open with unanticipated force.

Before either she or Giles could react, four large, spiky demons and a vampire spilled into their bedroom cell ...

* * * * *

Giles climbed off the bed to stand behind Buffy, as the four demons positioned themselves to block the bedroom doorway. Doggedly trying to shake off the lingering effects of his drug-induced slumber, he eyed the intruders, dashing any half-baked ideas he had of escaping the log-walled room that had been their prison for innumerable hours. The four demons were kin to the ones that had jumped him at his apartment; large, stupid, but obedient oafs. They would think nothing of crushing his and Buffy's skulls should their vampire handler request it, and from experience he knew they had the unstoppable strength to do it.

Their abrupt intrusion was both welcomed and unwanted, given that he had almost let his guard down and touched Buffy in a manner that he would surely regret later. That in mind, Giles put an unassuming hand on his Slayer's shoulder to stay her without words, knowing that despite her injured ribs, she was already contemplating taking on all four at once.

Buffy grudgingly stayed put, facing the intruders with a look of pure defiance.

"About time for room service," Giles said, trying for flippancy. "We're starving."

The vampire in charge stepped forward to address them. They recognized him as the same vamp lackey that had been in the airplane hangar working with Ethan, although he was now in his human visage and armed with some very modern-looking hardware.

"Milady requires your presence in the banquet hall," Tay announced.

"Milady?" Giles wondered aloud. Buffy's assumption appeared to have been correct; Ethan was working for someone else.

"Why does that sound as if we're on the menu?" Buffy asked, hands going to her hips in a familiar gesture.

Giles raised an inquisitive eyebrow--not at Tay or his invitation, but at his choice of a weapon. The vampire held a dual-pronged, electro-shock, energy taser at the ready; not something he ever expected to see in the hands of his unsophisticated, undead captors. Vampires did not generally take to arming themselves beyond their inherent face full of fangs, but when they did, it tended to be with swords, bows, or other archaic weaponry. This was something new.

In a move that clarified who was in charge, Tay pointed his taser--a blue charge rippling meaningfully between its prongs--at their discarded coats on the foot of the bed. "You'd be wise to dress. You won't be coming back."

"Is that a threat or a promise?" Giles asked, joining Buffy's defiance camp.

Although Giles doubted the taser was set to kill, given all the trouble someone had taken to bring them here alive, he very much wanted to avoid being stunned. He would be no use to Buffy unconscious, should the unlikely opportunity for escape arise. For now, there was no choice but to comply. Mindful of the need to maintain a tolerable distance between their bracelets, he retrieved their coats. He handed the black, knee-length duster to Buffy, then donned his own tuxedo jacket, pleased when she followed suit. Better to wear them than to burden their hands and hamper any chance of fighting for freedom.

Tay and his spiky cronies stepped aside, lining themselves on either side of the bedroom doorway. "Move," the vampire ordered, again motioning with the taser. "And no funny business, got it?"

Two of the demons obediently turned and went before them, then Buffy and Giles, with Tay and the two remaining heavies bringing up the rear. This methodical order, when coupled with the narrow, log-walled hall outside, effectively sandwiched the prisoners between their ranks and left little possibility of escape.

Compliantly walking beside his begrudgingly-compliant Slayer, Giles only got a quick glimpse at the electronic locking device mounted to the outside of their cell door. It was a key card affair, requiring the swipe of a programmed plastic card to unlock the door. Again, the technology was unexpected, but rather than waste time pondering it, he turned his attention to a more immediate problem--finding a weakness amongst their captors before they reached at wherever they were going. There were only five of them now, but when they arrived at their destination, and no doubt their waiting compatriots, he feared the survival odds would fall significantly, especially if they were all as well armed as Tay.

Such was the intensity of his focus that he failed to notice the other rooms they began to pass along the torch-lit hall, until Buffy slipped her hand into his and wordlessly drew his attention. Giles glanced down at her, first in surprise and then in acknowledgement of what she silently conveyed in a look. Following her discrete nod, he glanced through the open doorway of the next room they were marched past like inmates headed for the gallows.

Despite his lack of glasses, it was hard to miss the room so jamb packed with computers and electronics that it looked more like a secret bunker at NORAD than a spare room in a log cabin somewhere in the wilderness. It appeared to be some sort of tactical operations room, although just what its assorted demon and vampire workers could possibly be overseeing remained a complete mystery.

The sight shocked Giles back to his initial observations of advanced technology coexisting with the rustic log walls lit by primitive torches. He tried to make sense of what he'd seen; the vampire's taser weapon, the key card door locks, the computers and the large screen electronic map dominating an entire wall of the room he had just passed. By default, demons and vampires did not mess with technology, nor did they possess the skills or expertise needed to operate and maintain it. It simply wasn't done, and there had never been a recorded account of such an odd marriage in all the history of the Watchers Council. He had the books, presently scattered in a disorderly fashion across his living room, to prove it.

What the devil was going on out here in the middle of nowhere?

The long hallway eventually opened up into a semi-circled balcony area, complete with an archaic, metal-forged candle chandelier hanging from a rafter chain at the ceiling's center. A staircase with a roughly hewn banister curved down and away, disappearing into the gloomy of some sort of foyer area below, which itself was lit--at intervals--by the same flickering torches they had seen in the hall.

With little choice, the prisoners slowly descended until, at the bottom, Buffy suddenly stopped. Just as horror-struck by the unexpected visage that greeted them, Giles glanced around the gloomily lit foyer. Dozens, perhaps even scores, of stuffed heads looked back at him in somber silence, all mounted on shield-shaped wood plaques and each bearing brass nameplates proclaiming--oddly enough--their vocations in life.

Trophies.

Human trophies.

"Oh God ... " Buffy murmured, dropping his hand.

Appalled yet transfixed, Giles turned to examine trophies closest to him in greater detail, vaguely aware that Buffy had swiveled the other way to gape at the gruesome collection nearest her. The need to stay within the acceptable circle of their bracelets was momentarily forgotten, but since they ended up back-to-back, the point became moot.

Even from brief examination, it was obvious that these trophies were more than just random kills. These were specifically matched sets, male and female pairings that were not merely representative of the human race's many colors and creeds, but occupations. There appeared no other apparent connection between the victims, save for the fate they now shared within these God forsaken log walls.

Suddenly, the tactical room and the modern weaponry gave birth to an extremely chilling scenario.

Giles sought his vampire guard for confirmation of these morbid fears, but it was Buffy, not Tay, who substantiated them.

"Giles?" He felt her fingers claw on his back, before taking hold of his arm in an iron Slayer grip. She tugged in a manner that demanded either his immediate attention or dislocation. "GILES!"

Her inflection should have been enough to warn him, but turning to her, he asked the question regardless. "What?"

Buffy pointed, robbed of speech.

He followed her gesture to the pair of nearby wooden plaques, polished and shield-shaped like the others, but empty for now, as they awaited the addition of their taxidermied heads. It wasn't until he squinted to read their accompanying nameplates that he fully understood exactly what had instilled a note of terror in her normally confident tone.

One read, 'WATCHER' and the other, 'SLAYER'.

"Oh dear God ... " His arm instinctively slipped around Buffy as she clung to him; an automatic gesture of protection. Giles turned them to face their vampire guard, who took in their reactions with a smirk of evil glee. Tay's as-yet-unseen employer clearly had an affinity for hunting humans, and it was with a wrench to his gut that Giles realized finally the truth of his and Buffy's role in this kidnapping. "I demand to see whoever is in charge."

"You're about to, Watcher." Grinning, Tay nodded a silent command to his telepathic lackeys, stirring their suspended bulks into simultaneous movement. Two quill demons again went ahead of them, leaving the others to close ranks behind and muster them forward, as helpless as sheep. "You're about to."

Giles gently disentangled Buffy from his arms, donning a confident little 'it will be all right' smile when she appeared to want to stay attached to him. It wasn't like her to be so disconcerted by the idea of death--even her own--and it certainly wasn't like her to show weakness in the face of the enemy. The shock had been like stumbling across one's own gravestone, and although great, it was not something that would have normally rattled a seasoned Slayer like Buffy. In truth, seeing those empty plaques in such manner had rattled him too. Their long hours of confinement, hunger, and discomfort had combined with the ever-present threat from an unseen enemy, giving their captor a distinct psychological advantage.

Reaching down, Giles took hold of Buffy's hand again, if nothing else than to remind her that she was not alone. She drew comfort and strength from the simple gesture, squeezing his fingers as they were shepherded across the dim foyer toward a pair of massive log doors.

And their fate.

The entranceway loomed ominously between the flicker of two sentry-like torches, and even from a distance, they could see that the handles had been fashioned from bleached human thighbones. Each step tightened the cold knot that had formed in Giles' stomach since glimpsing the empty name plaques, until his dread of what awaited him and Buffy on the other side of those closed doors threatened to undermine his external calm. If they were going to attempt an escape, then it must be now ...

The quill demons swiftly rearranged their ranks, as if reacting, telepathically, to his very thought. Despite their large bulks, they moved gracefully to form a box around their prisoners, the ease with which they executed the maneuver suggesting they had performed this death march a hundred times before. Glancing at the innumerable sets of heads on the wall, Giles apprehensively figured they had.

The glass-eyed stares of the dead unexpectedly made him shiver. Their eyes seemed somehow animated in the glint of torchlight, as if the tiny, dancing fire-flecks were imprisoned souls seeking release. And respite. Giles swallowed, fighting his growing trepidation. If they were about to face death, then he would endeavor to face it as he had lived.

Bravely, at his Slayer's side.

* * * * *

"No ... thank you," Ethan said, politely declining the scrambled brains offered to him in a chipped clay bowl. They looked like squiggly gray noodles in an equally disgusting gray broth, but smelt a hundred times worse than anything he could have possibly imagined. He smiled pleasantly at the scaly, red-eyed demon offering the food, who merely shrugged and added a second repulsive helping to his own already heaped platter.

Night had fallen, and since all of the vampires and many of the demons had just arisen, the first order of the 'day' called for a hearty breakfast. This feast--consisting of flesh and blood and everything in between--was presently in full swing, a feeding frenzy far, far removed from the simple tea and toast he normally consumed for the meal.

Swallowing hard to keep his nausea under rigid control, Ethan cast a nervous glance to his demon mistress, seated on his other side at the head of the main table. Her high throne accentuated her prominence amidst her devoted rabble and, thankfully, kept chitchat to a blessed minimum. It was with genuine relief that he found her focus on them, rather than on him, as they gorged themselves with all the fervor of rabid hellbeasts. Disturbing as their table manners were, Ethan's real concern was how much longer he could survive being the focal point of her arduous attention.

The very thought made him shudder. He hurt all over, and he felt humiliated and used. The innumerable hours spent in Milady's bedchamber had been long on torture and short on bliss, the end result leaving him feeling as if he'd been worked over by a slab of granite in a velvet wrapper. Copulation wasn't part of the deal. Their bargain had been for him to deliver the Watcher and Slayer into her midst, which he had done, in the process gaining her pardon, which she had so far neglected to grant. Until she did, he was as much a prisoner as, well, her prisoners.

Ethan sighed. At least, he justified to himself, at least he was still alive. There were worse things in life than being forced to fornicate with a beautiful, exotic demon with a fondness for collecting stuffed heads.

One of those 'worse things', surely, was to actually eat the revolting contents of the platters and bowls on the banquet table before him. The disemboweling and dismemberment that had produced the disgusting morsels had obviously been a hack job, and as such, he was hard pressed to determine if they were eating animal or human parts. Sickened by the idea of cannibalism, Ethan fasted despite the rumble in his empty belly. So far, Milady seemed indifferent to him, yet to refuse her, to disobey in any way, shape, or form, was to rub shoulders with his imminent demise.

He wondered how long he could maintain the charade.

It was then, during his grimace of self-pity that his mistress chose to skewer him with her striking quicksilver gaze. His empty plate drew an annoyed frown to her brow, which he duly countered with a humble smile, and reached for the platter of steaming entrails.

For strictly appearances sake, Ethan scooped out several loops of blanched intestines, desperately trying not to gag. The pungent odor was even more repulsive up close, and in hindsight, he realized that he wasn't going to successfully pull this one off. If he left the plate under his nose for more than another five seconds, he was definitely going to make a spectacle of himself by adding to the breakfast table in a totally unacceptable manner. Hesitantly, he chanced a look at his demon lover, only to find her still watching him, now with noticeable interest. Again, he returned her smile, now far less confident in his ability not to puke.

Casually scooting his platter of entrails to one side, he reached for clean plate, a move that surreptitiously removed the offensive odor from direct nostril range. If nothing else, it bought him scant seconds, and Ethan was all for extending his threatened lifespan for all the seconds he could grasp. Ignoring the growl from his scaly, red-eyed dining associate, he dragged over another serving bowl and began to dish himself a generous helping. If he didn't eat something and eat it now, Milady would have his head--quite literally, on one of her polished wooden plaques.

His chosen bowl held what appeared to be hard-boiled eggs, and smelled ... surprisingly tolerable. Ethan spooned a few onto his plate, and it wasn't until he had neatly cut them all in half and marveled at their multi-colored centers, that he belatedly realized they were boiled human eyeballs.

"Oh crap ... "

"Something wrong, sorcerer?" the lady demon asked, her amusement twinkling like starlight in her quicksilver eyes. She obviously enjoyed watching him suffer.

Ethan smiled amiably, turning on the charm. "Not a thing, Milady. What do you ask?"

"My late husband was human," she remarked. "Several hours of vigorous copulation usually gave him a ravenous appetite."

"Poor bugger," Ethan muttered under his breath, sympathetic to both the activity and the reward. "Late husband?" he added, seizing on the opportunity to change the subject. Opportunistic, that was Ethan Rayne. "My condolences, Milady. I'm sure you miss him dearly."

She waved a casual hand at the trophies behind her throne. "Not at all, he's over there with the rest of my most prized possessions." Her look hardened. "Eat. Lest you want to join him."

Ethan gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing like a yo-yo caught on its string. Scooping half an eyeball onto his spoon, he shut his eyes and slowly raised it to his mouth. He needed a distraction and, by Chaos, he bloody well needed it now ...

The massive doors to the banquet hall slammed open, drawing immediate silence and wide-eyed astonishment from all creatures present. Buffy and Giles, engaged in a free-for-all brawl with four demons and a vampire, tumbled into the room. Ethan's prayer to his chosen deity had clearly been answered, because Milady pushed to her feet, annoyed at the disturbance, and in the process forgot all about him. Gratefully lobbing his uneaten eyeball in the opposite direction, Ethan stood loyally at his lady demon's side and, like her, frowned disapprovingly at the brawlers. It was far healthier for him to follow her lead than to oppose it.

Rupert and his Slayer gave good accounts of themselves, beating two of their brawny quill demon foes into spiky piles before Tay got in a clear shot with his taser. Ethan winced, honestly feeling for his old chum as the blue ripple of an electrical charge drew a sharp cry of agony from the man in the tuxedo. Burnt ozone added to the already spicy aroma of blood and guts, and Giles collapsed to his hands and knees in a rather ungracious heap. Buffy betrayed her heart by immediately giving up the fight and turning to aid her fallen Watcher, her concerned shout of his name an obvious declaration of love.

"I'm all right," he insisted meekly as she helped him to stand. Evidently he wasn't, for he teetered precariously. No doubt he would have landed on his face, had Buffy not positioned herself under his arm to act as a prop. The taser charge, although set to stun, had momentarily turned his leg muscles to something with the support quality of overcooked spaghetti. Definitely something the wily sorcerer wanted to avoid.

Buffy's free hand went flat against her Watcher's chest, steadying him, and he responded by slipping his arm around her, grateful for her support. She met his gaze, concern coloring her eyes, until he managed a faint little smile that fooled everyone but the person to whom it was intended. Frowning, Ethan watched the pair convey more with that single glance than most couples spoke in an entire conversation.

Then he smiled, thoroughly amused. How odd--and utterly appropriate--to think of them in such 'couple-ish' terms. Of course, he'd suspected there was more to their relationship than the innocent Watcher/Slayer gig not long after he'd first had the pleasure ogle the blonde schoolgirl bombshell ... but that was a whole other story. Right now, their fighting skills and obvious affection only reinforced what he had been saying all along. The Watcher and the Slayer were, by all accounts, the perfect pair for Milady's hunt--capable warriors, yet caring lovers.

Wondering if the latter were indeed true, Ethan glanced at the demon huntress to see if she was as pleased by their display as him, but the smirk on his face quickly vanished at her expression of persistent fury. As the quill demons recovered and regrouped--their raised poison-tipped spines giving them the appearance of overgrown, behooved hedgehogs--she let fly with the question on everyone's mind.

"Tay, what is the meaning of this? I asked you to bring our guests down to breakfast, not play with them."

Ignoring his mistress, the pissed off vamp hoisted his taser up for another try at subduing his rebellious prisoners, adjusting the setting on the side of the unit. The charge between the prongs crackled and hummed as the power was increased, the color of electrical energy intensifying from blue to purple. Buffy and Giles, still locked in a supportive clinch, failed to notice his advance until it was too late.

Ethan grimaced again, as Tay stabbed the dual prongs into the back of Buffy's shoulder, the charge probably enough to melt the cerebral cortex of any ordinary human. As it was, it tore the Slayer from her lover's embrace and flung her across the room.

"Tay! Cease this at once!"

"Buffy!" Giles called helplessly, almost falling on his face without her support.

The Slayer landed dazed, but thankfully--for Ethan and the temporarily insane vampire-she was still alive. Buffy fairly jumped right back to sitting, breathing hard, as if stuck by an invisible pin. With one hand clamped against her injured rib, she scrambled back in Giles' direction. Ethan didn't understand, until the expression of controlled agony on his old chum's face made it perfectly clear. Giles' gritted teeth proclaimed his haste to rejoin his Slayer, thus returning a tolerable distance between the bracelets on their wrists. He lumbered unsteadily and painfully toward her, until they met in the middle of the banquet room floor and fell into an entangled, but grateful, heap.

"Tay, I swear I'll have your head," the demon huntress proclaimed in a voice so cold it sent ice down Ethan's spine.

"Forgive me, Milady." Tay backed off, still infuriated but knowing better than to cross his mistress in this mood. "But look what she did to me!" He turned his head, and for the first time Ethan noted the right side of the vampire's face had been horribly disfigured. It was red raw, with wisps of acrid smoke rising from the open wounds, as if he had been badly burnt. He looked back around, drilling Ethan with a look so violent that it actually caused the sorcerer to take a step back. "You did this to me, sorcerer," he growled accusingly. "You frisked her, you said she was clean. You let her keep a bottle of Holy water!"

"I-I-I--" Ethan stammered, the large and heavy dining chair at his back hampering his retreat. He shot a timid glance at Milady, fearing his life had just been forfeited.

The demon huntress' quicksilver eyes studied him with a long, questing look, before dismissing her loyal minion's serious accusation of betrayal as though it meant nothing. "We'll speak of this later."

"But that human scum--!"

"We'll speak of this later, Tay." Her tone brooked no further argument, at least not without dire consequences. She regarded the Watcher and Slayer with a congenial smile, as if none of the preceding had taken place; as if she were hosting an elaborate dinner party rather than reigning over a hideous blood feast. "Right now, we have guests."

"Yes ... Milady." The vampire snarled, but wisely withdrew with his four thorny chums in tow. The quill demons took up unassuming but noteworthy positions just inside the massive banquet hall doors, obediently waiting to pound some skulls, should they be asked. Tay sulked in a corner, nursing his wound with a goblet of freshly spilled blood.

As Milady returned to her seat, the matter closed, Ethan obediently sat at her side. Every one of the room's otherworldly occupants followed her example to return to normal, even if 'normal' did constitute resuming their noisy feasting with the same disgusting fervor as before. It was as if the interruption had never happened, save for the fact that Rupert and his Slayer were now surrounded by the enemy, in hostile territory, injured yet so obviously on their own.

Watching them pick themselves up, Ethan slipped into another bout of self-pity. At least their fates were inevitable. His was so damnable uncertain ...

"Come," Milady said to her beleaguered guests, who, now that they had recouped from the agony of their bracelets' separation, were regarding the ravenous horde in fascination and repulsion. She indicated two place settings at the main table, left vacant--and reasonable clean of torn and flung carcass tidbits--especially for them. "Join us."

"I'd rather kiss a troll," Buffy said bluntly, sounding more like the stubbornly defiant Slayer Ethan remembered.

He bit his lip, not daring a look to see how his mistress received such an insult to her hospitality. He could only hope, for their sakes, that death would be delivered with mercifully swiftness. The She-demon's strangely exotic laugh, then, came as a complete surprise.

"You were right, sorcerer, the girl has spirit. I admire that." A curt nod brought two of the sentry quill demons forward, giving the reluctant prisoners no choice but to move forward to the banquet table where Ethan and the huntress held court over the voracious rabble. "I insist. Dine with us."

"Look, lady--"

"Buffy," Rupert cut in, his confidential tone intended only for his Slayer's ears. He had to physically restrain her, not that Ethan believed Buffy would get within striking distance of his mistress without any dozen of her cronies butting in. They all looked busy eating, but in truth, they were loyal and vigilant. "I'll handle this," Giles warned softly, "she's a Xazax."

Within earshot, Ethan perked up at the positive ID of his demon lover's species. He committed it to memory, intrigued enough by this whole experience to want to look up the reference at some time in the future ... if indeed he still had a future. Good old Rupert, the man did not disappoint. But surely with such knowledge also came the means and/or methods of defeating her? If anyone could rival the demon bitch and get him out of this bloody mess--alive and preferably with all his parts intact--then that pair were standing right in front of him now.

Knowing the next few moments were crucial, Ethan bit his tongue. He only prayed young Buffy had learned some civility while in Rupert's charge, and managed to be gracious about Milady's demon heritage. Best not to provoke that hair-trigger wrath--

"What the hell," Buffy began loudly, not sharing her Watcher's prudence for politely hushed tones, "is a Xazax?"

Ethan winced, certain the world had just ended ...

* * * * *

Buffy gave the weird demon lady a serious once-over. Her flawless dark skin, enticingly ridged cheekbones, and voluptuous curves may have cast the spell of underworld supermodel over the males in the group, but the ever-changing silver eyes--that seemed to do far more than simply look at her--gave the only other female present a case of major wiggins. She shivered, and amended her question. "Apart from being just plain freaky."

"Extremely strong, quick tempered, prone to insults," Giles cautioned quietly. "We're sorely outnumbered here. A little diplomacy is in order."

"Wait, you're gonna be diplomatic? With her?" Indignant at the idea, Buffy pulled out of his supportive embrace to stare at him, agog.

While it was true that the current diners in the banquet hall seemed far more interested in stuffing their faces than fighting, Giles was right. There were too many for just the two of them take on, especially if they wanted to win. And especially with her stupid cracked ribs. Still, it was the principle of the thing. Being polite to the person who had kidnapped them, locked them in a room for endless hours without any food, and put those damn electric shock bracelets on their wrists, just wasn't something done in Buffy Summers' book.

"Have you forgotten what she did to us? Or what we just saw in the foyer? Giles, the Xazzy bitch queen brought us here to kill us."

"Buffy," Giles growled in a low warning. To his captor, he said, "Milady, please forgive my--"

"And then she's gonna put our heads on her wall, with the heads of all those other poor schlobs she's kidnapped and killed! And you want to try being 'diplomatic'?"

"Um," Ethan began, as if fearing his mistress would blame him for Buffy's discourtesy, "if I may interject--"

"Shut up, Ethan!" Buffy and Giles told him in unison.

"I'll deal with you later," Giles promised, a Ripperish gleam in his eye.

"Actually, I don't intend to kill you," the Xazax huntress clarified, amusement in her tone as she watched the humans.

"You don't?" Buffy asked, momentarily confused.

"Of course not. Where would be the fun in that? I intend to hunt you."

Buffy balked, mouth falling open, eyes widening. "As in ... we run, you track us down?"

"Precisely."

"And then you kill us," Buffy added flatly.

"I assure you," Milady said, "as the chosen warriors of your species, your heads will be the pride of my collection."

A flash of her strange silver eyes made Buffy instinctively press closer to Giles. He put his arm around her, the gesture automatic but no less appreciated. The empty plaques suddenly filled Buffy's mind's eye, the shiny new nametags spelling out the huntress' plan in chilling detail. This demon wanted their heads because of their calling--their profession--just like all the other victims that had been hunted, mounted and paired by their vocations. And all for this freaky demon's pleasure.

God, how sick was that?

Milady skewered one of Ethan's cut eyeballs on the end of her fork, and toyed with it like a delectable lollipop. Leaning back, she crossed her legs, the split in her gown revealing more than a little tantalizing glimpse of thigh. Shameless, she eyed Giles up and down, devouring him in a glance as he hugged Buffy. "Pity you are already mated, Watcher. I'm sure you could please me far more than this worthless excuse for a sorcerer."

Buffy's wide-eyed gaze traveled to Ethan. He slept with the Xazzy bitch? Sheesh, how desperate could the guy be? She watched him squirm a bit under her visual accusation, remaining dutifully silent despite the affront to his sexual prowess.

And then Buffy tweaked on what their mutual foe had just said about Giles. "Mated? Oh no, you see, Giles and I ... we're just good friends. 'Fated' maybe, but not 'mated'. He's never even touched me."

She paused, aware of the incredulous look Giles shot her, considering they were presently clinging to each other for physical and emotional support. They both simultaneously released each other and straightened to stand side-by-side, looking the part but fooling no one.

"Okay, so maybe he's touched me, but not 'like that'." Then, remembering the way she had woken to find him fondling her breast, she self-consciously crossed her arms, and amended, "Okay, so maybe 'like that', but he didn't mean it ... Giles, help me out here."

"I, um, that is to say ... " He cleared his throat. "My ... Slayer ... is correct," Giles said, finding that diplomatic Watcher tone after an unconvincing start. "My feelings for her are purely platonic. I assure you, Milady, our relationship is strictly professional."

Buffy couldn't stop herself from looking at him with big wide eyes, a lance of pain zinging through her heart. Hearing his clinical denial of what they meant to each other cut her in two, the effect far more devastating to her self-confidence than the thought of her head on a plaque for the rest of eternity. Despite the fact that she had just asked him to denounce all affection for her, did he have to sound so damn sincere about it?

"I hear your lips utter words of denial, my friends," the Xazax observed shrewdly, "but I have seen, for myself, your actions speaking a language all their own. You see, my late husband was human, and his body language always spoke the truth, despite what lies came out of his mouth."

"How intuitive of you," Giles said quietly.

Buffy shot him another sidelong glance. He diverted his gaze, making her wonder if maybe the Xazax was far more insightful to human emotions than anyone gave her credit. Buffy couldn't speak for Giles, but she knew that the female demon had just read her body language like the proverbial open book. She was hopelessly in love with the man so calmly facing his fate at her side, and no matter what words she used to deny it, the depth of her passion was pretty darn obvious. So ... if the huntress was right about her, did that mean Giles really did have feelings for her, too?

"It was he who introduced me to the sport of big game hunting," the lady demon continued in an almost wistful tone. She finally popped the skewered eyeball into her mouth, and then reached to stab another off Ethan's plate. She was warming to the casual repartee with her prisoners, as if idle, dinner chitchat was the one thing missing from her lodge-bound, demon-ruling, head-hunting existence. "He was quite the marksman in his day, I have to confess. Although he never had the stomach for killing his own kind."

"What happened to him?" Buffy asked, not really caring one way or the other. The expression on Giles' face had changed. She knew that frown; he was thinking, presumably about how to get them out of this mess. The more time she bought by asking stupid questions, the more time he had to better formulate his plan.

Either that, or he was just as incredibly grossed out as her, watching the demon chew those human eyeballs.

"Over your left shoulder," Ethan mumbled, loosening his collar in a meaningful gesture. "Second set on the right."

Despite themselves, Buffy and Giles both looked. The grotesquely stuffed heads of a man and a woman peered back at them in the flickering light of the banquet hall's many torches; their somewhat gruesome expressions of surprise revealing their horrific, and swift, demise. Under the plaques, their nameplates proclaimed them; 'ADULTERER' and 'ADULTERESS.'

"I take it you've never watched 'Divorce Court'," Buffy said, only half-joking.

"Now to business," the huntress said, thankfully finishing off the last of Ethan's halved, multi-colored eyeballs. "Despite what you think of me, I am not a cold-blooded killer. You will, of course, be given a sporting chance."

"Very gracious of you," Giles said, dripping sarcasm. He didn't sound diplomatic now, just pissed off.

"I hope by that you mean an AK-47," Buffy added, remembering the tactical room upstairs. "But hey, at this point, let's not quibble. I'll even settle for a nice, old-fashioned crossbow."

"I mean a two hour head start. Unfortunately, your time started when you entered this room."

"Hey, wait, that's not fair!" Buffy complained. "I mean, you could have mentioned that before you subjected us to tales of your interracial marital woes!" In emphasis of her point, she took a defiant step toward where their captor sat on her fur and clothing covered throne, not far enough from Giles' bracelet to trigger an excessively adverse reaction, but still a meaningful enough in terms of a power play to get a reaction from the room.

Although maybe not the reaction she was hoping for.

The perfectly synchronized movement of the occupants in the banquet hall stopped her cold. A moment ago, Buffy could have sworn they were all so busy stuffing their faces with whatever really gross stuff was in those chipped clay serving bowls that not one of them was paying even the slightest attention. Now, as they reacted to her alleged threat on their mistress as a single, honed, rapid-response team worthy of SWAT, she actually had to commend their vigilance.

"Whoa ... " Buffy murmured, immediately backing off with her empty hands held up near her shoulders. In the split second it took for her to surrender any hostile intent, every demon and vampire present was on his--or its--feet, aiming a handgun at her with unnerving, unwavering accuracy. Not exactly what she was used to dealing with when fighting the likes of these guys, or what a Slayer was built for and trained to combat.

Buffy felt Giles grasp her arms and pull her to him. She ended up with her back flush against his front, where he held her, immobile, lest she again think of doing something undeniably stupid. Alone together, they stood in middle of the logged-wall banquet hall surrounded by their enemy, their bodies peppered with the red, pinpoint dots of several dozen laser-sighted weapons.

Unperturbed, the Xazax huntress uncoiled her long legs and leaned forward to retrieve a goblet from the tabletop, showing an impressive glimpse of cleavage as she did. Sitting back, she took a long, unhurried swallow, satisfied that her stalwart minions had the situation perfectly under control.

"Now," she finally said, "we can do this my way ... or I can have you both shot right here. The latter would definitely not be as much fun, but I assure you--as you yourself pointed out--the end result will be the same. The choice is yours ... although I do so hope you will take into consideration how difficult it is to get human blood out of these flagstones."

Following her nod, Buffy looked down at her feet, and was instantly sickened by the ugly dark stain underfoot.

"Bitch," she growled looking up, barely suppressing her rising hatred of this she-devil and her unspeakable little game. Buffy's keen eyes darted left and right, as she weighed her chances of taking down the Xazax before her flesh and blood human body was riddled with high-powered slugs of hot lead. All she needed was to get her hands around that sleek, chocolate throat for a minute or two, and squeeze with her Slayer strength ...

"Forgive me, Milady, but if I may speak?" Ethan asked, obediently looking to his demon lover for permission. She nodded graciously, so he directed his words toward the hapless prisoners. "Rupert, old friend," he began in all seriousness, but he was unable to stop the malevolent grin from spreading across his face. "I suggest you run."

"You," Giles returned, his low, perfectly controlled voice sending a cold shiver down Buffy's spine, "are a dead man."

Ethan actually had the gall to look amused. "Look who's talking."

"One hour and forty-six minutes," Tay counted off, rejoining his mistress on the right side of her throne. Back in his full, but disfigured, vampire face, he snarled, enjoying the hopelessness and inevitability of a situation he had undoubtedly witnessed many times before. In a show of power, he put his energy taser on the banquet table and forcibly pulled the handgun from the scaly, red-eyed demon next to Ethan. Bringing it up, he aimed the laser sight at Buffy, producing a steady red dot in the center of her forehead. "Make your choice, Slayer."

"Mind the head, Tay," the Xazax said offhandedly. "I don't want it damaged."

Buffy's chin lifted defiantly as the vampire smirked and slowly readjusted his aim. The tiny red pinpoint slithered down her cheek and throat before coming to rest directly over her heart.

"Come on." Giles' quiet voice was the only sanity amidst the turmoil inside her. He tugged her backwards with firm hands, toward the massive banquet hall doors and the opportunity to run for their lives.

But Buffy remained stubbornly rooted to the spot, her inner Slayer at war with her sense of survival, even in the face of such overwhelming odds. The demon huntress' cocky overconfidence was really beginning to tick her off, and she desperately wanted to hit something.

"Buffy, we stand no chance here," Giles urged rationally. "To believe we do is suicide. At least outside--"

Furious at the notion of retreat despite the common sense of it, Buffy shrugged from her Watcher's grasp and whirled to march toward the banquet hall exit. Part of her was livid with him, too, since he not only sanctioned the idea of running way, but had suggested it. She stopped impatiently, waiting for the silent quill demons standing sentry to do their thing and open the heavy wooden doors, using the pause to throw a vehement look over her shoulder. Giles was only a step behind, but her resentful gaze zeroed in on the Xazax still reigning on high at the head of the table.

"This isn't over," she stated, then defiantly turned her back.

"No, Slayer, you're right," the demon huntress called, the utter glee in her tone only adding to Buffy's rage. "This is not over ... thankfully not by a long shot!"

* * * * *

Giles slipped and stumbled in the darkness, again cursing the unsuitability of black patent leather shoes for hiking through the wilderness at night. In the three seconds it took him to right his step, the bracelet on his left wrist sent a jolt of pain down his arm, so intense it drew a string of rather loud obscenities from his lips.

"Huh," Buffy mused sourly from the night shadows several feet behind him, "never thought I'd live to hear you say that."

"Just try keeping up," Giles shot back, his mood equally testy. He ducked under a low tree limb devoid of foliage, automatically holding it back for Buffy.

"I can manage," she insisted, siding up to him on the rocky trail they were blazing up the hillside.

"Fine," he said unpleasantly, letting go the branch and moving ahead, finding childish satisfaction at the way she had to duck. He really had no good reason to be angry with Buffy, aside from the fact that she was clearly still angry with him.

'Stubborn girl.'

Roughly forty-five minutes ago, they had been escorted off the hunting lodge grounds, through a set of tall, iron gates, and on past a private airstrip. The sight of the waiting jet, sitting unguarded and ready under the floodlights of the tarmac, had prompted Buffy to ask, albeit only half-heartedly, whether his childhood fantasy of becoming a fighter pilot had actually led to any flying lessons, which Giles negated with an irritated grunt and a shake of his head.

Beyond the lodge, which itself sat secure as a fortress behind a formidable wall of electrified fencing, spread an open plain, with the dark silhouettes of a mountain range rising into the night sky several miles in the distance. With no immediately foreseeable cover in which to take refuge, it was clear that when the hunt began, they would be sitting ducks. So while Buffy stubbornly argued his decision to run away, Giles made another decision to run even further.

With their pursuers packing some very advanced weaponry, their best chance lay in getting to the mountains, or at least the foothills, and then outmaneuvering the hunting party once their lead-time was up. Giles' plan necessitated finding a safe haven where he and Buffy could regroup, mentally and physically, and arm themselves for the coming clash. Not that spears and rocks were much match for the sort of technology available to those chasing them, but far better than remaining in the banquet hall where they had been so horrendously out-gunned. Strategy played a key role in the art of winning any war, and to Giles, the present situation held little difference to any dozen other times when they had been out-numbered and out-matched, yet fought the denizens of the underworld and won. Now was not a time to let the overwhelming odds undermine confidence in their abilities. Now was a time for keeping their heads ... by which he hoped they might end up actually 'keeping their heads'.

Buffy, however, appeared to be taking it all very personally, as if her inner Slayer had been morally offended by his suggestion of a tactical retreat.

'Stubborn, over-sensitive girl ... '

Somewhere between the idea and the execution of the idea, the heart of the matter suffered a grave breakdown. The foothills were a tougher slog than Giles expected, the level ground giving way to rocky crags and steep slopes. Most of the trees, save for the evergreen pines, and all of the underbrush lacked summer foliage, stripped bare weeks before by the crisp fall air. Any cover he had hoped to find was lost to the season. There was also the hazard of uneven footing. The twisted jumble of fallen limbs, and mossy rocks obscured by the decaying leaf litter and pine needles, quickly became a real concern, especially in his present footwear. He would not have wanted to climb this terrain in daylight, let alone at night with only the cloud-filtered moonlight by which to see. Giles could well imagine one of them making a misstep on the slippery, irregular ground and ending up in a gully with a broken leg. Or worse.

'That's all we bloody well need!'

A jolt from his bracelet made him bite back another derogatory remark. Moments later, a second intensified shock prompted Giles to wheel on Buffy with a look of undisguised irritation. "You could at least make an effort to match my pace!"

"Well, maybe I could if you didn't walk so fast!"

"Buffy, this isn't a stroll in the woods. We're working on a deadline here."

"And I'm telling you, your legs are just way longer than mine!"

"Fine. Give me you hand."

"Fine," she echoed angrily. She thrust her right hand out for him to take, which he did, pulling her up the slope to him with more vigor than was actually needed. Off balanced, she ended up against him.

The moment gave them both pause, the contact making them both take a mental step backwards to realize how foolish they were acting. They were in this together, completely out of their normal element, running for their lives. All they had was each other, and filleting one another with their tempers was both pointless and costly.

"I'm sorry," Giles began. He still had hold of her hand, her fingers so wonderfully warm in his, so small and vulnerable that he couldn't help but instinctively feel protective toward her, even though he knew she needed no protection.

"I know. Me too." When she gazed up at him in the moonlight, eyes equally apologetic and sweet lips parted, she looked so incredibly sensuous that his heart threatened to burst out of his chest. The animosity drained from him, replaced by a sudden, intense yearning to unleash all his hidden passion.

"Your hands are cold," she observed quietly.

"Probably because I'm freezing my arse off out here," Giles said, attempting to sound casual; attempting to crush the hot-blooded fervor rising within him. Despite the exertion of the climb, the thin material of tuxedo offered little protection against the alpine elements. "Aren't you?"

She shook her head, flecks of moonlight catching her golden hair. "Not really. Slayer constitution and all. Plus my coat is pretty warm. But ... if you're cold ... " She pressed closer and slid her arms around his waist, laying her head against his heart. "Let me warm you."

For a moment he just stood there in emotional turmoil, allowing Buffy to hug him but too afraid of betraying his feelings to hug her back. When she whispered that it was all going to be okay, her compassion tipped him over the edge. He responded to her the way he had always longed to do, encircling her in his arms and returning her embrace with all the love he possessed.

What a mess they were in. What an absolute sodding great mess. If they managed to get out of this alive, he swore he was going to tell her how he really felt; ancient bloody prophecy be buggered. Somehow, they would skirt fate and make it work. Somehow, he would find a way for them to be together ...

For several long minutes, they just held each other in the moonlight, the tendrils of love warming every part of him.

"Giles?" Buffy finally said, lifting her cheek from his chest.

"What?" he asked unsteadily, hiding the tremor of emotion in his voice by nuzzling the top of her head. If she told him now, if she whispered, 'I love you', then he would respond in kind, no matter the prophetic consequences.

"What the hell is that?" she asked flatly.

He huffed out a breath, part disillusioned and part amused at her timing. But her question was his cue to release her, so he stepped out of her arms and turned to examine the area she was pointing at behind him.

It was a hole, dug into the hillside, with a crude crisscross frame of branches and a scattering of leaves from the surrounding woods deliberately masked its top. It was an intentionally built trap, and since the top had been broken through near one corner, its purpose to ensnare some unsuspecting animal had presumably worked.

"It's called a 'dead fall'," he said, carefully kneeling at the edge. He flung aside the remains of debris-covered top, his efforts revealing a deep, straight-walled pit lined with a bed of deadly, point-up stakes. Impaled in its center was a pair of human skeletons--a pair of headless human skeletons--their bony fingers still loosely entwined, and familiar looking metal bracelets still adorning their wrists.

"And now I see why. That could have been us," Buffy said, putting voice to the reality of just how close he had come to stepping on the fragile pit cover. "That could have been you."

"I think we should keep moving," Giles said quietly, not wishing to admit that she was right, that two more steps of his foolish, angry, trailblazing gait, and it would have been all be over.

As he straightened, she protectively slipped her hand in his. "And I think we should stick together."

He nodded, giving her fingers an encouraging little squeeze, before they resumed climbing up the ridge, hand in hand.

* * * * *

"Milady, I beg you," Ethan pleaded, as his demon lover drew him reluctantly along an upstairs hall toward her bedchamber. She had hold of his hand in a bone-crushing grip, probably believing it was a tender caress.

Her over-exuberant mood cast no doubt to the activity she had in mind, but in this state, his chance of actually surviving the encounter was extremely questionable. The sheer defiance of Buffy and Giles in the banquet hall had whetted her appetite for the coming hunt, so much that the adrenaline reverberated off her in waves. Realizing the truth of the matter, how aroused their insolent behavior made her, Ethan started to sweat. If he didn't please her, he was a dead man. And if he did please her, he would undoubtedly wish he were a dead man.

He tried to reason with her. "S-surely there is no time for--? What of your hunt? Shouldn't you be making preparations?"

"Tay is making preparations." The Xazax stopped and rounded on him, lust changing her quicksilver eyes to the color of dark, dangerous gunmetal. "Meantime, there is only one thing I want to do."

"Yes, but ... " he tried desperately, realizing they had well over an hour remaining of the head start she had promised. Holy Chaos, she was going to kill him! Or at the very least, maim him for the rest of his life.

She stopped his coming protest with a domineering kiss. Her lips were cold, hard as marble, and about as exciting as kissing bathroom tile. Ethan had never felt so helpless, so completely at the mercy of another.

"Your chosen warriors are going to be my best hunt yet! But I gave my word. I promised them two hours." She leaned against his chest with the flat of her stone-cold palms. "I am Xazax. Our word is law." Then she spun from him, more like a virgin schoolgirl on her first date than the noble demon she proclaimed herself. "Can you think of a better way to pass the time?"

Ethan gulped. "Canasta?" he suggested feebly.

She laughed, believing he was joking, her high-pitched shrill harsh on his human eardrums. When she tugged on his hand to get his stubborn feet in motion, only one thought went through his mind: 'Oh crap ... '

Twelve and a half minutes later, the demon huntress let out a wild cry of pleasure. As she rolled off him, Ethan moaned in misery, his body bruised and abused. She settled contentedly--at least for the moment--allowing him to escape to his side of her enormous bed. From previous experience, he knew his reprieve was only temporary; her true satisfaction was a multi-orgasmic event.

This was a bad idea. This whole thing was a very bad idea, indeed.

Attempting to sit up without revealing too much of his agony, Ethan made the ultimate decision of self-preservation; glorification or not, he would rather take his chances being hunted to death, than he would trying to survive another round of her ... enthusiasm. He would rather take his chances in the woods with Buffy and Giles.

"Where are you going?" his demon lover asked, as he slowly pushed to his feet and gathered his clothes.

"Um, just popping out for a cigarette," he lied, forcing himself to stand up straight. "Human males ... sometimes we need--"

"I am well aware of the needs of human males," she stated, rolling onto her elbow. A devilish smile played on her ridged features as her alluring silver eyes dropped to a part of him that was normally better clothed. "Don't stray too far."

"No, Milady," he intoned obediently, trying not to shrink under her hungry gaze. Forcing himself to play the part, Ethan ignored the protest of his battered body and bent down to kiss her under the pretense of unabated passion. "When I return," he promised huskily, drawing his hand along her velvety, but rock-hard cheek, "I shall teach you something you don't know about the needs of human males."

"I'm intrigued already." She reached for him, but he back-stepped to avoid her clutches.

He waggled a playful finger at her. "Patience."

"Ah, another human quality, this patience. I don't think I like it."

"Waiting makes the reward so much sweeter."

"Is that true, sorcerer?"

"Absolutely."

"Then take your time." She smiled and stretched her slim, nude body amidst her luxurious bed coverings. "But not too long."

Ethan smiled to himself. "Your will is done, Milady."

He slipped out of her silk and satin torture chamber without another word, quietly closing the door behind him. Its electronic lock beeped, and he briefly wondered if he needed a key card to get back in. Not that he was going back in ...

Further down the hall, he found an empty, unlocked room in which to dress. Time was not his ally. It would be no more than ten minutes--fifteen tops--before she grew impatient, or became suspicious of his absence, and raised the alarm. Just one problem; he had no idea how to get out of the lodge and off the grounds, let alone find Rupert and his Slayer. From what he had seen, he would rate getting in to the lodge comparable to laying siege to a medieval castle. Why should getting out be any easier? His only chance was to carry the bluff all the way, and walk out through the front door.

"Time to play it Bogart ... " he murmured to himself.

Zipping up, he peeked out the door to see if the coast was clear. Pulling a cigarette from the half-crushed pack in his pocket for appearances sake, he forced himself to walk with confidence as he made his way along the deserted hallway toward the lodge's central staircase. But as Ethan passed the open doors of the tactical room, something on the electronic wall map caught his eye; two red blips moving slowing over the huge topographical display.

'How curious ... '

Getting into places he where had no right to be was something Ethan as very good at, and in a quick change of tact, he allowed his true mischief-maker persona full reign. He might even gain useful information, or be able to steal something to aid him in getting outside the compound.

Mustering his sapped muscles to the charade one last time, he stood tall as he waltzed into the tac room, as if he belonged there. Tay was present, conversing with the vampire operating the GPS system, while a pair of quill demons stood silent and obedient against the unoccupied wall to the left. Idly, Ethan wondered if their kind ever rested. They always seemed to be standing about guarding something, or waiting to be called to some bone-crushing action.

Remembering they were also telepaths, he quickly schooled his thoughts.

Tay noted him immediately, and straightened from where he had been leaning over his kindred's shoulder. He snarled hatefully, glaring out of his remaining good eye. Ethan tried not to grimace at the sight of the vampire's horrible disfigurement. Tay would clearly rather eat him than talk to him after the Holy water episode, but Ethan was pretty certain that while the minions knew he was the one sleeping in the master bedchamber, then none of them, despite their personal irks, would dare touch a hair on his head. It was common knowledge that the Xazax had a short fuse, and a considerable wrath. Why else would they stay in her lackluster employ? Well, there was the unrestrained mayhem and killing ...

"Sorcerer. I thought you were ... busy."

"What's this?" Ethan asked, waving his hand with the unlit cigarette at the giant electronic wall map. He hoped that by intentionally ignoring the question, he displayed the necessary authority. After all, he had been in charge of the team sent to Sunnydale to kidnap Buffy and Giles, with the vampire under his command. Nothing had changed; Ethan still ate at Milady's table and slept in her bed. He just needed to reassert that authority.

The vampire drilled him with a resentful glare, but remained silent.

Ethan glared back. "Would you prefer if I woke your mistress and asked her?"

"Milady is sleeping?"

"Milady has succumbed to complete physical exhaustion," Ethan announced loftily.

"Congratulations." Tay snorted. "That was quick."

"Just tell me about the map."

"Why?

"Because I'm ordering you to."

Tay's voice dropped to a spiteful level. "One day, sorcerer, it will be just you and me."

Ethan's voice lowered too. "And until then, you will do as I say."

There was a brief hostile standoff, until the vampire, clearly knowing his place, backed down. He was, after all, just a minion. "It represents approximately two hundred miles of the terrain surrounding the lodge," he told Ethan. "All of which Milady legally inherited when her human husband ... died."

"Impressive," Ethan observed truthfully, moving closer to the map to study it in better detail, absorbing what landmarks he could for future use. He turned to the vampire again. "And the red dots?"

"The location of the prize. With this setup, we can pinpoint the Slayer and her mate, anywhere they go, down to the nearest rock."

"What? You mean she's cheating?" He chortled. So much for the myth of the noble Xazax huntress! No wonder Milady had so many trophies in her foyer. He had really underestimated her ruthlessness. "So the bracelets have a far more practical purpose than to just keep them together?"

"They give off a homing signal that we can track ... with those." Tay pointed to the equipment that had been prepared for the hunt, waiting on the table by the tac room door. Amidst the various assault weapons, ammunition, and radio headsets were half a dozen handheld Global Positioning System units. "They've been modified to suit our purposes, of course."

"I see."

"And now that you do," the vampire growled impatiently, "I have work to complete. Unless you want explain to Milady why her hunt is delayed?"

"By all means, carry on." Ethan motioned at his cigarette. "I have things to do, too."

"I hope that doesn't kill you," Tay said, referring to his smoking, "because I want to do that personally." With a meaningful snap of his jaws, the vampire turned back to his undead colleague. They began speaking computerese as they poured over the incoming satellite data, leaving Ethan to find his own way out.

No one noticed the equipment table was short one modified GPS unit, until several hours later.

* * * * *

The higher they climbed into the mountains, the more the topography changed to a true alpine setting, with tall evergreen pines reaching high into the sky, distant, rugged peaks capped with snow, and the occasional freshwater lake. It all looked tranquil and inviting, if it weren't for the fact that they had a bunch of crazed, Rambo-demons hunting them.

Sitting with her back against the rough surface of a boulder, Buffy watched with heavily lidded eyes, as the moon sank lower toward the lightening horizon. Soon, the sun would be up. That meant they had been on the move all night. Their two-hour lead had long ago expired, and right now, somewhere in the lowlands behind them, the Xazax huntress and her posse of underworld goons were gunning for their heads.

Despite her exhaustion from hours of arduous climbing, the Slayer in her wondered who or what the hunting party would consist of, since the vampires in the lady demon's employ obviously couldn't go out in the daylight without a fatal case of sunburn. She knew nothing about the big porcupine grunts that were always standing about doing nothing, nor the Xazax herself. Maybe none of them could go out in the sun. Maybe she and Giles could rest in safety right up until nightfall.

Rest. Buffy so much wanted to close her eyes and sleep for a bit. She and Giles had mutually agreed to take a respite only after they reached the top of the ridge and safety, only to have their hopes dashed as they mounted the summit and found another peak in its place. Now, as they sat together in the craggy niche they had discovered just over the crest, with a new, more difficult challenge still ahead, the feeling of futility threatened to sap what remained of her strength and gusto. With each passing minute, she was finding it harder and harder simply to stay awake.

Just as her head began to loll towards sleep, a loud snore from Giles' direction instantly snapped her back to full awareness. Buffy gently nudged him awake. "Hey, big guy, you told me no sleeping on the job, remember?"

"What? Oh, yes. Quite." He reached to the ground beside him, and lifted a dirty bundle made from what used to be his clean white handkerchief. Holding it above his head and tipping his chin up, he squeezed a few drops of dirty water from the bulbous end into his open mouth.

Buffy grimaced, watching him swallow. After scraping a little scorched bark off a tree, Giles had wrapped the charcoal chips in his handkerchief and dipped it in a stream they passed. The idea, he explained, was that as the water filtered through the charcoal any impurities were removed, thus making it safe to drink. Buffy wasn't sure where this particular survival skill had come from, only that his method left a lot to be desired. It made what used to be fresh clear spring water look and taste like an old campfire.

She shook her head as he offered her the blackened handkerchief. She'd rather take her chances with water-born bacteria than drink another mouthful of that.

Putting his dubious water filter aside, Giles hugged the lapels of his tuxedo jacket closed around him, seeking whatever meager warmth he could find. "You know, I'm beginning to suspect the injection Ethan gave us had a particularly nasty side-effect. Lingering fatigue. I'm tired, yes, but I'm also reasonably fit for my age, so I shouldn't be feeling like this."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm ninety and I've just run a marathon." He shivered, then added, "I suspect this night air isn't helping. I'm still bloody cold."

"Well, I'll see your 'cold' and raise you a 'hungry'." Buffy stared up at the night sky, tapping the back of her head against the boulder out of sheer boredom. "God, I could eat a couple of All-You-Can-Eat places out of business right now."

"I dare say it's been a couple of days since either of us had a decent meal," Giles agreed, shifting position. He parked a shoulder against the boulder so that he could look at her, eye to eye. "Chocolate Kisses notwithstanding."

His attempt at levity made her face him. The rock beneath her cheek felt almost as rough as the healthy growth of beard looked on Giles' chin. He was right. It had been days, and she suddenly suffered a pang of doubt about their actual chances of survival. "Giles? How are we gonna get out of this?"

His eyes grew compassionate. "We will. I promise."

Unfortunately, hollow reassurances weren't what her inner Slayer wanted to hear. She was not used to sitting on her butt waiting for trouble to come find her. She needed a plan. She needed to take the fight back down the mountain to the enemy.

Her frustration at doing nothing exploded in response. "But we've got a bunch of gun-toting gung-hoes tracking us even as we sit here! We're both running on empty, and we have no weapons beyond half a stupid bottle of Holy water. We don't even know where the hell we are, let alone where we're headed, or what we're gonna find when we get there."

Giles' eyes told her he didn't have any answers to make the bleak situation any brighter. Feeling only marginally better for the outburst, Buffy huffed out an exasperated sigh and turned her back on his apologetic gaze. The sharp movement sent a stab to her side, eliciting a whimper of pain and making her put an instinctive hand on her injured ribs. Despite her superior healing abilities, they still hurt like hell. And her scuffle in the banquet hall hadn't exactly helped aid her recovery.

"Buffy?"

"I'm all right," she insisted grumpily, without looking at him. In truth, she knew she wasn't up to fighting a squirrel right now. And Giles ... he was past 'running on empty'. He was almost completely burned out. He didn't have her Slayer constitution to fall back on; he needed proper rest in a warm place, and real food in his stomach, soon, or he would be too weak to be any good to her when their moment came.

And it would come. Of that she had no doubt.

The snap of a twig tweaked her Slayer hearing.

"What?" Giles asked in a whisper, noting her focus had shifted to the rocky outcrop they had just climbed.

"I heard something."

"An animal, perhaps?"

There, again. A quiet intrusion in the normal forest sounds. She couldn't tell if it was animal or demon, only that something or someone was coming up the ridge!

"I don't think we should wait around to find out," Buffy concluded. She scrambled to her feet alongside Giles, as fast as her injured ribs would allow, the adrenaline of the moment shoving her heart up in her throat. They were unprepared, completely off guard, proverbial sitting ducks. The hunting party had laser-sighted weapons and the skill to use them. She and Giles didn't even have a decent-sized rock between the two of them. As much as she hated it, there was no choice but to run.

Again.

They started moving together, each pulling on the other's hand in their haste to make a quick getaway. But the downhill slope proved even more treacherous than the ridge they had just climbed. Buffy lost her footing first, slipping on the uneven, mossy slope, and instinctively tugging on Giles to try to right herself.

"Oh, sh--!" she began, too late realizing that her attempt to save herself only served to off-balance him. In an almost comical moment, both Watcher and Slayer hit the ground on their backsides and began an uncontrollable slide.

Thoughts of whoever or whatever was tracking them up the ridge were quickly forgotten. They lost hand contact as they tumbled and slid down the mountainside together, remaining close enough to each other that the distance between their bracelets was not a problem. Not that electrocution was the foremost thing on Buffy's mind. As they picked up speed, the bare, protruding branches sliced and scratched at her clothes and exposed skin, making her raise both hands in defense of the brutal, knife-like attack. She grunted and groaned as the rocks, which before had been a hazard underfoot, made permanent indentations in her back and legs and arms. The rough, uneven terrain constantly tossed her from side to side and back again, in a nightmare blur of mud, moss, dead leaves, and skeletal foliage. From the quick glimpses she had of Giles, as the world mercilessly bounced her from one hurt to another, she saw he wasn't fairing any better. If they somehow managed to survive this, they were both gonna hurt for a month ...

Then, as she blinked the dirt and debris out of her eyes, she saw it coming over the tips of her ruined black boots. Their rollercoaster ride was about to end ... with a cliff!

Acting on adrenaline, she flipped herself on her stomach, where her plan was to use the saplings and scraggy underbrush being tore down by her wild ride as a brake. Reaching out with a cry born of a primal nature, she managed to latch onto Giles with one hand, while simultaneously anchoring herself on a low lying tree branch. Tightening her grip, she brought the madcap journey to a stop.

Buffy thought herself prepared for the jolt when momentum caught up. She thought wrong. With her legs and lower body hanging over the bluff into empty space, and Giles dangling as a dead weight below her, she heard the sharp snap of bone even above even the sound of her own labored breathing. Then the woods echoed with the exquisite agony of her half-knitted ribs tearing apart.

"Buffy!"

She sucked air into her burning lungs, blinking back the sweat and pain, and desperately trying to summon the strength to hang on to him. Steeling herself against the pure torture of the ordeal, Buffy spat the grit out of her mouth and looked down at the man she loved. He was hanging precariously by one hand with his back to the rock face, the drop beyond his shoes every bit a hundred and fifty feet. The coming dawn shed very little light into the ravine below, but enough for her to tell there was water at the bottom, some sort of central pool formed by the surrounding mountains, which depending on the season, emptied their rain or snow runoff via a network of tall waterfalls and rugged gullies. Trouble was, the pool was the bullseye of a lot of large, jutting rocks. Hitting it, without taking a header off the side of the gorge first, would not be easy.

Giles--cut, bloodied, and absolutely filthy--looked up at her, panic painted on his face. His life was, literally, in her hands.

But not for long.

"Grab my wrist!" she shouted above the buzz of pain cloying her senses. Her tenuous, mud-covered grip on him was slowly beginning to slip. "Giles, you have to reach up and grab hold!"

He flailed about in the air, throwing his legs around as he tried to twist his body to the right position. "I can't!"

Buffy dug the nails of her other hand into the soft wood of her anchoring branch, burrowing in. "You've got to! I can't hold you like this!" She shut her eyes and grunted with the agony of bodily trying to haul him up, but his muddy fingers slithered through hers just a little bit more. "Giles, my ribs ... God, I can't--!"

He stopped kicking and squirming all of a sudden, causing her eyes to fly open and look down at him in alarm.

"Then you have to let me go," he said levelly.

"No." Uh-uh. No way. Not in a million years. She was not going to let him fall to a possible death. "That's not even an option here," she insisted, losing another quarter-inch on his hand.

"Buffy, listen to me--"

"NO!" She sucked down another ragged breath. Her chest burned. Besides the fact that she would never intentionally let him go, his noble self-sacrifice served absolutely no purpose. "If I let you fall, then I'm toast too. Your bracelet, remember? Just try to reach me!"

"Need a hand?" a familiar voice calmly asked.

Buffy's head snapped around in surprise.

Ethan Rayne skidded down the muddy slope to join her at the cliff edge. He squatted into her field of vision, pocketing a small electronic device. After peering carefully over the edge of the bluff and assessing the situation, he smiled amicably. "Well, well, fancy meeting you here."

"Go to hell," Buffy grated. But in truth, she was ready to beg him for help, to agree to whatever terms he put before her or do whatever he asked of her, if that's what it took to save Giles.

"Dear Buffy, I'm only offering a helping hand. Looks to me you could use one about now."

"Why would you want to help us?"

"Because I need you," Ethan said simply.

Buffy's eyes widened. "I'm losing him!"

Ethan quickly flattened himself on the muddy ground beside her, leaned over the edge, and stretched out his hand. He was still a few inches short of Giles' grimy tuxedo shoulder. Success would only come if the man in question made the effort. "Give me your hand, Rupert."

"You sodding bastard ... " Giles growled through gritted teeth.

"Yes, yes, we can exchange pleasantries later. Give me your hand."

Buffy felt Giles slip again. As her feeble hold on him diminished to the strength of his curled fingertips, her gaze flew to his in a moment of total candor. There was so much love in his beautiful green eyes, so much regret and pain and things left unsaid. But he didn't need to say any of them to convey exactly what he felt. She knew, in a heartbeat, just how much she really meant to him.

Beside her, Ethan was beginning to fret, yelling at Giles to grab hold of his hand, or else. Whatever the sorcerer needed them for, denying the backstabbing little weasel was first and foremost on Buffy's list. Giles' too, from the expression on his face.

With their Watcher/Slayer bond in tune and humming with the harmony of absolute love and trust, Giles nodded ever so slightly.

"Giles, for God's sake, man!" Ethan was yelling, obviously very afraid for his own life.

Buffy turned her head to look at him one last time. "You know what, Ethan? Giles and me, we've decided we can manage without your help."

"But--"

"Be seeing you," she said, using one of his own catch-phrases. Then she let go of her anchor, and gladly let Giles' weight pull her over the edge.

* * * * *

Giles broke through the surface of the pond, splashing up out of the freezing water and gasping for air. As he settled, he realized two things. Despite the block of ice forming in his stomach and the heaviness in his extremities, he was alive and ... alone.

"Buffy?" he called hoarsely.

Treading water double-time in order to stay afloat his clothes, he spun in a frantic circle in search of her. The approaching dawn hadn't quite penetrated the night shadows clinging to the bottom of the gorge, making it difficult to see. He squinted, wishing for his glasses. He knew she was somewhere close by; his bracelet would have informed him otherwise. He just couldn't see her.

Dire thoughts filled his head. What if she hadn't made it? What if her broken body floated half-submerged somewhere just beneath the surface?

"Oh dear God ... BUFFY!" His desperate shout echoed above the din of the nearby waterfall and reverberated off the surrounding cliff faces.

In answer to his call, she emerged up though the water just a few feet from him, heaving for breath but undeniably alive. His joy, however, was short-lived as he realized she wasn't splashing and flailing, as he had done in the icy water. She was deathly still with her head resting back, and he was again concerned she had not successfully cleared the rocks in the fall.

Dear Lord, if she had hit one and suffered grave injury ...

She choked out his name. "Giles?"

"I'm right here," he said, scooping her into his arms, his legs kicking madly in order to support them both. "Are you hurt? Buffy!"

She coughed in reply, which caused her to ball against him in obvious pain.

"Just hang onto me," Giles instructed, one arm supporting her and the other already paddling for the shore. As his feet touched bedrock, he ignored the protest of his exhausted, battered body and stood with her limp form across his arms.

Struggling over the mossy boulders in his wet shoes, water running off them both in torrents, Giles carried Buffy up the rocky embankment until he found a reasonably level area to lay her down. Mindful of potential injuries, he set her on a makeshift bed of soft pine needles beside a babbling stream. She coughed again, favoring her side and clearly in pain. He knew she had several broken ribs, but he prayed that was all.

Stripping off his wet tuxedo jacket, he balled it under her head to make her as comfortable possible. The cold, November air immediately permeated his wet dress shirt, which stuck to him like a second skin, making him shiver.

"Buffy?" With a gentle hand, Giles brushed the water-plastered hair from her face. She looked awful, the blood from countless cuts running down her cheeks in watery rivulets and her clothes--like his own--torn and ripped. "Please talk to me."

After hacking up another mouthful of water, she wryly managed to say, "Now there's something ... you don't get to do ... every day ... thankfully."

Giles couldn't stop himself from grinning like a madman, such was his immense relief. "Thank God," he said, still soothing her forehead, the action a poor substitute for the caress he longed to give.

"Urgh," Buffy said expressively. "I feel like I just went parachuting ... without the parachute." She looked up at him, studying him in the murky light with concerned eyes. Frowning, she reached for him, gingerly touching a tender spot on his temple and causing him to flinch. "You're hurt ... "

"And rather black and blue, I dare say." They both bore more cuts and bruises than he could count, but at least they had survived the fall. "I expect we'll live."

Buffy grunted, and attempted to get to her feet. "Only if we don't have to do that again." She winced, one hand clamped over her broken ribs.

Arm around her, Giles gently helped her up. "I don't think anyone in their right mind would ever want to do that intentionally," he remarked as he steadied her on her feet.

There came a cry of plunging terror, punctuated by the sound of an enormous splash in the pool behind them. Ethan Rayne had arrived at the bottom of the gorge.

Giles pulled a sour face. "I rest my case."

"What is his problem?"

Giles' temper flared. "I have no idea, but I'll bloody kill him!" He turned quickly, intent on heading for the pool, but Buffy grabbed his wet shirtsleeve.

"No, wait. He's not worth the effort. Let's just ... " She shivered, then grimaced. "Let's just go, before we freeze to death."

It took him a second to realize that the 'effort' she referred to was her own, that keeping within the safe radius of his bracelet while he thrashed his former friend to an inch of his miserable life would take more energy and enthusiasm than she had right now. And she was right. They now faced a new danger--hypothermia. Now more than ever, they needed to find a warm, safe haven, and shed their soaking wet clothes.

Giles shuddered at the thought. Spending time with Buffy in close quarters was enough to drive him to distraction. Spending time with her naked would surely send him over the edge.

He raked a frustrated hand through his wet hair, now acutely aware of the way her sodden clothes clung to her body. He stooped to collect his tattered jacket from the ground and awkwardly pulled it on. Nothing like a little uncomfortable trudging through the freezing, pre-dawn woods to get one's mind off ... other things. "Yes, yes, you're quite right," he said, picking up her hand out of habit. "Let's go."

"Oh, that's just bloody brilliant. Sod off and leave the one person who can actually help you."

They both turned to find Ethan slicking his hair back as he came towards them, stumbling over the moss-covered rocks and shivering in his wet clothes.

"I must say, this is a novel approach to staying alive, Buffy. I suppose, now, we can all look forward to dying of exposure instead of decapitation."

"One more step," Giles warned evenly, "and I swear I'll--"

"Rupert, perhaps you still have water in your ears," Ethan interrupted. He stopped, but well out of Giles' immediate punching range. "I said I could help you."

"As Buffy said, we don't want your help."

"Really? Not even if I tell you how to remove those?"

He pointed, causing both Buffy and Giles to look down at their joined hands, and the matching silver bracelets resting comfortably close to each other.

"You know how to open these?" Buffy asked, anxious to be shock-free.

"I should. I helped put them on," Ethan drawled confidently. "And I think I should warn you that, as cozy as the two of you appear to be with all this 'togetherness', removing them really is a question of priorities."

"How so?" Giles asked, not fond of the idea of Ethan Rayne's help, but grudgingly willing to hear him out.

"It appears your sporting chance," Ethan said gleefully, "was not so sporting after all. Those bracelets give off a sort of homing signal, which Milady and her lackeys are following at this very moment." Fishing in his pocket, he brought out a small electronic unit, reminiscent of a two-way radio. "Modified Global Positioning units," he explained, tossing the thing to Giles. "Not terribly difficult to understand. After all, I found you."

"After all." Giles caught the device and gave it a quick perusal. Despite having been submerged in the pool after Ethan jumped from the cliff, the thing was still functioning, recording the latitude and longitude of his and Buffy's bracelet as reds blips on a small topographical display. Part of him again immediately marveled at the idea of their demons and vampires adversaries using such sophisticated technology, while the other part of him was simply interested in doing what it took to survive. Stuffing the unit in his coat pocket, he looked at Ethan and asked, "And the hunting party?"

"About forty-five minutes behind me. Hence the urgency to get those bloody bracelets off before we go anywhere."

"We?" Buffy asked. "Since when are you playing on our team?"

"Buffy, I'm hurt," Ethan feigned. "Didn't I let you keep the Holy water? I have always been on your side."

"Coulda fooled me."

"Get these off us," Giles said flatly, "and I might let you keep all your teeth."

"How gracious of you," Ethan said, moving over to take both their wrists. He began to examine the bracelets as if he really did know what he was doing. "Milady has a rather vile sense of humor."

"You mean, apart from the fact that she collects human heads for fun?" Buffy asked, employing sarcasm. "Go figure."

Ignoring her, Ethan turned them to face each other, their joined hands and bracelets between them. "No, I mean the spell on these. Something to do with her late husband's infidelity, I expect. You see, your bracelets are secured in place by a love pact."

His explanation made Giles send a sharp glance at Buffy, only to find her already looking at him. The implications of Ethan's words were perfectly clear.

"Blood is the key, Rupert," Ethan continued. "Yours opens Buffy's bracelet, and vice versa. Diabolically simple really, worthy of something I myself might have devised."

"Don't flatter yourself," Giles grated, fighting the rising tide of emotions now boiling within him. The wanton look on Buffy's face was enough to shatter the virtuous intentions of the most honorable of men. He diverted his eyes.

"Well," Buffy said, "at least that's something we don't have any shortage of right now."

Giles forced himself to hold still as she reached up to the cut above his eye. Her touch was waiflike, but fiery hot against his water-chilled skin, and he winced despite himself ... not from her touch, but from the caress just barely concealed beneath it. He tried to douse the burning within him and concentrate on their dilemma, watching as she smeared his blood on the smooth metal of her bracelet. Following her lead, he stroked his fingertips over the open gash on her forehead, his breath catching as she melted into his palm. She practically mewled like a kitten beneath his touch, until he reluctantly pulled his hand away and painted the surface of his own dreaded bracelet with her blood.

Nothing happened.

And the lack of the anticipated result was just the thing Giles needed as a reminder that the bracelets--indeed, the entire situation--was Ethan's fault.

"That's it?" Buffy asked doubtfully.

"How odd." Ethan rubbed his chin. "Are you two certain you love each other?"

Buffy flushed. "What?"

Giles kept his gaze well away from her face. If he looked at her now, his facade would surely crumble. Instead, he glared daggers at his old chum for putting voice to the ever-present emotions, and stirring up even more trouble. "Now I kick your arse," he said, dropping Buffy's hand and bringing up his fist.

"No wait!" Ethan pleaded, keen to escape the trouncing he knew was coming. "Perhaps you should try ... saying it!"

"Why don't you just admit," Giles began, grabbing a fistful of Ethan's wet shirt, "that you don't have a bloody clue how to--"

"Giles?" Buffy's quiet voice interrupted. "I love you."

The stunning simplicity of those words had the power to change his world. Forgetting Ethan, Giles turned to Buffy with his heart in his throat. He had known her feelings, of course, but hearing her confess them aloud for the first time still took his breath away.

She found his gaze in the dim morning light, her expression never more sincere. "I love you with all my heart and soul."

For the longest moment, he simply held her honest hazel eyes with his own, robbed of his voice but not of his passion for her. It was something he had secretly longed to hear her say, and more recently, since deciphering the prophecy in the Codex, dreaded. She had almost admitted it the night before Halloween, in his living room, as they shared chocolate Kisses. Then, he had crushed her feelings out of necessity, but now ... now the necessity had shifted to something completely different. In a heartbeat, he realized he didn't want to disappoint her again. If they were going to die on this bloody mountain, then, by God, she would not perish without hearing him say it, and mean it, with every fiber of his being.

"I love you, too. God help me ... I have always loved you."

Hope lit Buffy's bruised and bloodied face, tears of joy welling in her eyes. Her expression spoke straight to his heart, and his answered in kind. Held captive by the look on her face, Giles felt his bracelet open and drop from his wrist, Buffy's following in quick succession. He swallowed the hard, raw lump of emotion in his throat, wondering if he had just made her the happiest woman on earth, or driven the final nail into her coffin.

'She will draw life from the one who watches and protects, and he will be her undoing.'

She closed the space between them in a single step, and, even as she fell into his waiting arms, Giles' heart broke with the knowledge that things must never go beyond the innocence of a simple embrace.

"Very touching," Ethan remarked off-handedly. He bent to retrieve the bracelets from the pine needles underfoot. "I'm so happy you finally found each other. Can we leave now?" He pulled back his arm, preparing to pitch the bracelets that had caused them so much grief, yet had brought them to this joyous conclusion, into the water.

"Wait, give me those!" Buffy abruptly ordered.

Reluctantly releasing her, Giles watched her take the bracelets. With their mystical catches now released, they looked like ordinary silver bracelets with ordinary latches and hinges. Evidentially, whatever magic held them in place, also concealed their workings but only while they were worn.

Taking care to keep them together or risk their electric bite, she said, "I've got an idea."

The GPS unit proved not only waterproof, but it floated as well. Using Giles' tuxedo bowtie, which miraculously still hung around his shirt collar, Buffy tied the bracelets to the tracking device and set the whole thing adrift in the babbling stream.

"That should buy us a little time," Giles agreed, watching the unit bob away in the running water. By the time the Xazax huntress and her party found it, they would be miles in the opposite direction. Or such was the plan.

"I just wish I knew how much," Buffy said doubtfully, taking his hand again. There was, of course, no need for her to maintain physical contact with him now or even keep in close proximity, but somehow it just felt right.

Giles looked down at her, drawing strength and confidence from the love in her eyes. Despite the strenuous nature of their ordeal, he felt revived by her nearness. Confessing his love had not been the disaster as previously dreaded, his courage rewarded with solace and fortitude never imagined possible. He squeezed her fingers and smiled, confident in his ability to love her as he had always loved her; unrequited and from afar, and thus without threat to her life.

"Enough," he promised.

His renewed determination strengthened the morale of his battered Slayer. Buffy may have been down, but she was definitely not out of this fight. To prove it, she drew her weary, injured self up to her full height, and then, as the first fingers of sunlight wandered lazily over the ridge above, she turned to find them an alternative way out of the ravine.

* * * * *

Giles spotted it first, and when he told her there was 'a cabin up ahead' Buffy almost broke into tears. In truth, 'cabin' was way too nice a word. It was little more than an abandoned shack, but even so, it offered shelter and the much needed chance to rest.

By the time they had actually got what passed for a door open and then secured again behind them, the sun was nearing mid-morning, completely destroying what little cover they had found in the twilight. Not that there had been any sign of the Xazax huntress or any of her lackeys. Maybe they had outwitted them, although Buffy didn't think so. There was still a battle coming, and before it did, she needed some serious downtime with her regenerative Slayer powers.

While Giles and Ethan did the manly thing and investigated the small interior for food and supplies, Buffy took the opportunity to collapse on the dusty cot she spied in one corner. Her ribs throbbed. It seemed as if they had been trudging uphill and down dale for a day, but in reality, it had only been a few hours. Her empty belly rumbled in protest from the lack of food to come its way in the past forty-something hours, and her wet clothes, previously the cause of painful shivers, had dried just enough to chafe her skin in places she was not readily going to admit.

She was grateful when, from her sideways position on the cot, she spotted Giles tending an ancient-looking woodstove with kindling and a match. Within minutes, he expertly had a fire going and welcomed warmth filling the room. Ethan, she noted, had unearthed a cache of canned food in a small kitchenette area, and was busy providing comic relief as he desperately tried to open one, first with his bare hands and then with the corner of a rickety wooden table, which together with its lone chair happened as the only other furniture in their quaint little home away from home.

Her gaze returned to her man, as he stripped off his wet tuxedo jacket to warm his goose-fleshed skin against the fire he had just lit.

'Her man.'

Buffy smiled at her phrasing, her shameless gaze devouring a tantalizing curve of muscle beneath his damp dress shirt. Unfortunately, she knew that despite his personal discomfort in those wet clothes, modesty would prevent him from shedding any more in present company. Instead, Giles took up the argument with Ethan, easily winning possession of the can of food and then finding something sensible with which to open the lid.

Her smile was one of contentment, despite the situation, despite her injured ribs. Giles had confessed that he loved her, and, remembering the way she had first awoken in his arms in the hunting lodge, she was pretty sure he meant as a woman, not as a Slayer or a friend. He loved her as she loved him; all hearts and flowers and the sound of a thousand violins.

But her smile slipped a bit as the inevitable pang of doubt crept in. Maybe he only said it because he wanted the stupid bracelet off his wrist. But Ethan said they were held in place by a 'love pact'. Surely the spell wouldn't have worked unless he truly meant it?

Noting 'her man' heading across the room toward her cot, Buffy buried her doubts and sat up to meet him.

Giles squatted at her side, offering a smile and a spoonful of food from the opened can he had taken from Ethan. "Hungry?"

It had the distinctive, spicy aroma of corned beef hash, and cold or not, Buffy's mouth watered at the prospect of real food. "Thanks." She took the can, greedily consuming half of its greasy meat and potatoes before she spoke again. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, offering him the spoon, "you want some?"

"The pantry is well stocked," Giles confirmed, flicking his head to where Ethan had settled down with another can to devour a cold meal of his own. "You eat."

Buffy did not have to be told twice, and set about finishing off the remainder of the can. "Just as well this place has food," she said conversationally between mouthfuls.

"Yes," Giles agreed thoughtfully. "It's rather well equipped, actually, for a shack out in the middle of nowhere."

"You think there's an owner ... who may come back?"

In answer, Giles patted the bedcovers of the cot on which she sat, sending a cloud of dust into the air and proving a point. "I suspect this place has been abandoned for quite some time. I don't think anyone will be popping in unannounced. Still, it would probably be prudent--"

"Well, I--for one--don't care if a new hellmouth opens up under the floorboards," Buffy announced, pushing the empty can at him and lowering herself back down on the cot. She winced, until she found a reasonably comfortable position. "Now I'm fed, I need some serious Slayer rest."

"How are your ribs?" Giles asked gently.

"Broken."

Giles pursed his lips, clearly concerned. She was in no condition to take on the Xazax or the hunting party, and they both knew it. "Perhaps there's a first aid kit--some tape we can use to strap them. Why don't you--" He hesitated, looking away before continuing. "Why don't you get out of those wet clothes, and I'll see what I can find."

He went to move away, but Buffy stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Giles?" She sat up again, waiting until his reluctant gaze swung back to hers. Despite her love for this man, the awkwardness of the moment still made her blush. "Good advice and all, but ... I think I might, um, need a hand in the, er, undressing department."

His mouth opened in mortification, but no words came out.

"Turtleneck sweater and all," she concluded quickly. And it was the truth. In her present condition, she doubted her ability to get the thing off over her head without causing herself unnecessary pain. "Would you help me? Please?"

The red went right up to his hairline. Looking like he would die of acute embarrassment, he nodded and stood without answering, his eyes focusing everywhere but on her. "Y-yes. O-of course."

Buffy clambered back to her feet one last time before rest, unable to remember when Giles had last been so flustered that he resorted to his old fuddy-duddy stutters. She faced him, letting her damp leather duster slip from her shoulders and onto the floor. Something fleeting crossed his face, a brief glimpse of an emotion she had never seen before. But it was gone before she could fully identify it, replaced by customary expression of her trusty, moral-to-the-core Watcher. He gave her an awkward smile, ready to help despite his obvious discomfit.

"Go for it, Ripper," Ethan called gleefully, proving himself a spectator despite Buffy's unspoken wish that the man just drop dead.

With an annoyed half-glance behind him, Giles stepped around Buffy to grab the blanket from the cot. He spent a moment reaching and stretching to drape the thing over the exposed rafters, making a small, triangular area of privacy. Unfortunately, the price for this privacy was restricted space, so Buffy and Giles found themselves facing each other in very close quarters.

The unexpected intimacy of the moment did not escape them. Together, they ignored Ethan's growl of, "Spoiled sports," their eyes locked in indecision and their bodies at a standstill.

Finally, Buffy made the first move. "Um," she instructed, indicating that he should he pull up the hem of her sweater. "If you could just... ?"

"Yes ... right ... " Giles hesitated, uncertain of where he should put his hands. "Buffy, I'm not sure--"

"Come on, Giles," she quipped, deliberately misunderstanding. If he thought this was awkward, she didn't dare tell him that all she wore underneath was a lacy black bra. Taking pity, she turned her back to him to spare him further embarrassment. "I know you're not a total boy scout. You know how to undress a woman."

His voice, when he next spoke, came as a soft purr in her ear, his body so close to hers that she felt the heat coming off him in waves. "Perhaps, but I've never undressed my Slayer."

"Same thing," Buffy assured him. She bit her lip, holding back a moan as his fingertips traveled down her arms in search of the hem of her sweater, so like the caress she had always dreamed of him giving that it reached deep inside her and mercilessly squeezed her heart. Obligingly, she held her arms up as best she could, so that he could divest her of her damp, wool turtleneck. Despite the cold air assaulting her skin, she felt like she was on fire. She was suddenly glad he couldn't see her face, or the undisguised need he had so easily summoned forth.

His gentle fingers traced the tape she had strapped around her ribs the first night, before heading to the plane hangar back in Sunnydale. Her recent 'swim', not to mention all her sweating and exertion, had loosened its stickiness, so now it hung in loops that were more annoying than helpful. She felt him find one end and begin to peel it off, his arms repeatedly taking the length across the front of her body as he changed hands, her discarded sweater draped across the crook an elbow.

Stripped to her waist, with Giles' arms all but around her as he worked to remove the tape, Buffy let the fantasy flourish to full bloom. Her breathing quickened with the hot and lusty desires bursting forth within her, her head conjuring images of their first time together, passion consuming all her common sense. She had longed for--no, ached for--this moment forever. She looked down at her exposed flesh, rising and falling as she drew small, excited breaths, chilled by her damp clothes and longing for Giles' warm touch.

He finished freeing the tape. But when it and her sweater didn't plop on the cot in front of her, and when his hands didn't offer another caress or go in search of the clasp on her leather pants, Buffy finally realized that her fantasy was simply that. Her fantasy, and hers alone.

She mustered the courage to turn around and look at him, only to find he wasn't looking at her. Suddenly embarrassed by her rampaging hormones, Buffy self-consciously brought her arms up to cover herself. Her fingers found the chain with her silver cross dangling around her neck, but reflexively curled around the other item attached; Giles' ring. It was the one little piece of him that was completely hers and, for the moment, she was unwilling to give it up.

Giles studied the floor. "Very, um, very fetching," he remarked, trying to sound casual in his observation of her frilly feminine underthings.

"Black was my combat color. To rescue you in," she babbled. "Not that I ever expected you'd actually get a chance to see ... "

"Yes, well ... I'll hang this by the stove to dry," Giles told the floor, meaning the sweater he still held. "You continue ... undressing. I'll return for the rest momentarily."

Buffy remained silent, not trusting herself to speak. Why, when it came to expressing how much he meant to her, did she regress to sounding like a stupid schoolgirl?

Giles' expression suddenly turned aghast. "You can, um, manage ... with the rest, can't you?"

"Oh!" Her eyes widened with the knowledge that he had just asked if she were capable of getting her pants off without his help. "Yeah. Absolutely. I'm good."

He looked genuinely relieved as he pulled back a corner of the blanket screen.

"Giles?"

"Yes?" He finally allowed his gaze meet hers. There was nothing in his eyes to suggest his embarrassment was anything but that. No hint that the fire burning in her loins or the passion pulsing though her veins was in any way mirrored in him, or that the sight of her half-naked had any masculine affect at all. All she found was the helpful, unassuming gaze of her very best friend.

"Thanks for the food."

With a smile and a nod, he left her.

Alone.

* * * * *

"I'm telling you, Rupert, you're being a right berk. Take my advice, and shag like bunnies while you both have the chance."

"Thank you so much, Mr. Romance," Giles said, busy investigating the cupboards in the small kitchenette for something resembling a first aid kit. Oddly enough, along with the dusty cache of canned food and bottled water, all he had found so far were several canisters of salt, stacked neatly in a cupboard under the sink. Someone, it appeared, liked to risk high blood pressure.

Despite his fatigue, his limbs weary from both exhaustion and injury, Giles would not seek rest while there was still something useful to be done. After granting himself a few minutes for a cold, canned meal and half a bottle of room-temperature water, he had pushed himself to carry on while his Slayer recuperated. His job was to watch over her, keep her safe, and by God, that's precisely what he intended to do. One of them had to be capable of fighting their enemy when the time came.

"Bugger," Giles swore softly, frustrated at not finding anything resembling a first aid kit. An old, torn map and compass were about the best he had done so far. He supposed he should be grateful; at least now, they could finally ascertain exactly how far away they were from the nearest help.

"If nothing else," Ethan said, raising a knowing eyebrow, "it will greatly improve your temper. I'll even pretend not to watch."

Giles pulled a sour face, annoyed that he and Ethan had somehow fallen into an old rapport. They weren't friends, and it irritated him that circumstance deemed they should act as if they were. "Of course," he said sarcastically. "How boorish of me not to realize sex is the answer to all our problems."

Ethan grinned lecherously. "Works for me."

"I'm not you." Closing the cupboard, Giles turned and wearily trudged toward the front of the cabin where more storage racks and shelves lined the walls. Here, wrapped in a tatty piece of rag, he turned up what appeared to be a sharpening stone. "And as such, I'm quite capable of handling things my own way."

"Apparently not," Ethan returned wryly, following. "Or you'd be playing 'hide the salami' right now."

"Must you be so vulgar?" The shelves proved just as fruitless in his search for basic medical supplies, and the aggravation that settled in was the result of a number of things.

"Look, you want her, she wants you. It's a simple equation, Rupert, one that men and women have been solving since the beginning."

"Not simple. Not for us." Spying a stack of logs from the cobweb-ridden pile just inside the door, Giles stooped to retrieve some. He handed a couple to Ethan, and then carried his load back to the tinderbox by the stove where they would serve a more practical purpose. But as he passed by the blanket hanging across the corner of the room, a pang of desire hit him in the gut. Ethan was right. His pent-up frustration for the woman lying half-naked behind the flimsy makeshift barricade was only getting worse. God only knew, he had almost lost control when he stripped her to her underwear. He was a man, after all; a man in love, and his desire was as potent as it was primal.

'And completely misplaced,' Giles sternly reminded himself. It could never happen. He and Buffy could never be. The prophecies of Pergamum Codex had seen to that.

Ethan, who wasn't helping matters with his 'suggestions', caught him staring wistfully at the blanket screen. "Oh? And what aren't you telling me?"

With a glare, Giles continued to the woodstove, Ethan in tow. He restacked the logs without comment, then he headed back across the single room to pick up where he left off.

"Well?" Ethan asked, still dogging his heels. "I'm intrigued, Ripper. I was never truly convinced it was your upstanding moral character that kept you on such a chaste path."

Giles ignored the sarcastic slurs in favor of his investigation. On the other side of the door, he unearthed an ancient-looking wooden footlocker, which like the rest of the shack had clearly seen better days. He crouched to push open its creaky lid, and inside, found an unexpected but welcomed discovery. Old clothes.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"No," Giles said, shaking out a man's red, flannel shirt and a dusty pair of blue jeans that looked like they might fit. Straightening, he held them up to himself for a test. The owner of the cabin seemed to have been about his height, but bigger in build, especially around the middle. Satisfied, he put them aside and began rummaging for something that might suit Buffy. Fashion statement they may not make, but at least they were relatively clean, warm, and--most importantly--dry.

"Pity," Ethan mused, eyeing the discovery over Giles' shoulder. "Your love life--or should I say, sad lack thereof--is the best entertainment going."

Having selected a huge knitted sweater, and sweatpants that would no doubt swim on her, Giles scooped up entire the bundle and rounded on his former friend with a frown. "Since when has my love life been of any interest to you?"

"Your love life has always been of interest to me." Ethan paused, fastidiously picking through the leftover clothes. He obviously didn't like the choices. "Which explains why I've been so bloody bored for years."

"Touché," Giles said dryly, moving away with his bundle.

"'Ello, 'ello, what's this?"

Despite his intention to let Ethan Rayne carry on doing his own thing, Giles turned to look. In rooting through the poor selection of clothes in the footlocker, Ethan had turned up something rather odd. The tails of an old shirt were caught between the trunk's pineboard base and side, giving the impression of a false bottom.

Together, they emptied out the rest of the clothes to examine it more closely. Perhaps it was nothing more than a bit of humidity-warped siding creating the illusion of a false bottom, but Giles' curiosity had the better of him. Running his fingers over the rough interior rewarded him with the discovery of a small hidden catch in the rear corner. When he released it, the footlocker's base panel popped up about half an inch.

He spared a look at his compatriot, who appeared just as intrigued. Whoever or whatever once lived in this dilapidated cabin on the Xazax huntress' estate, obviously had something to hide.

Getting his fingers under the panel, Giles pried it up to find out what.

"It's a book!" Ethan announced. "All that to hide some ancient bloody book!"

"Yes, but the real question is why bother to hide it, out here?" Giles asked, guessing the treasure was infinitely more precious than the other man assumed. "What makes it so valuable?"

Ethan began to look a little flustered. "Perhaps it's a first bloody edition ... who cares?"

"Perhaps," Giles agreed absently.

Almost reverently, he lifted the cracked, brass and leather bound tome from its carefully concealed recess. Dry clothes forgotten, he carried it over to the cabin's rickety wooden table and settled down to find answers to some of his questions. The flowing script of a language he did not immediately recognize greeted him when he opened the cover. He squinted in the dim light, slipping easily and naturally into full Watcher Mode.

"Can you read any of it?" Ethan asked, joining him at the table with the bundle of clothes. He deposited the entire lot in the center, then started to change out of his own wet attire, surreptitiously stealing the flannel shirt that Giles had selected for himself.

"Not sure," Giles said, turning the yellowed parchment with the care of someone who respected the printed page. "Some, perhaps. More if I had time."

"Well, that, old son, is something we don't have a hell of a lot of."

Giles continued to study the book, completely oblivious to Ethan's disrobing, as he tried to make sense of the unfamiliar characters and syntax before him. Some words looked almost familiar, their repetition enough to give him a quick, fundamental grasp of their supposed meaning. Given a day, he could probably translate several key passages. But as Ethan had said, they didn't have a day. They may not even have the next few hours, depending on how well Buffy's deception with the bracelets and the GPS unit had worked. The Xazax and her demon posse may very well be outside, surrounding the cabin, at that very moment ...

"We should be making weapons," Ethan said, buttoning his dry shirt. "If we are going to fight instead of run, we should be making preparations, not wasting what little time we have."

Giles turned another page, aware that his ex-friend was for once talking sense. Not that stakes and spears would be much of a match against the laser-sighted weapons and sophisticated tracking equipment their enemy employed--a point they both understood all too well.

"You know what she is, Rupert. Xazax, you said. Well, let me tell you something that I learned first hand. She's extremely powerful, with a body like a bloody great chunk of rock beneath a velvet skin. Sticks and stones are not going to break anything."

"I'm well aware of her physical constitution."

"Then how do we kill her?"

"I have no idea."

"If only we had a jackhammer ... or a back hoe ... or even a bloody cellphone!" Off Giles' enquiring glance, he explained, "To call in the Marines."

"Technology is not the answer," Giles said, returning his scrutiny to the book. Something about it called to the Watcher in him. Old tomes like this had served his predecessors for centuries in the battle against the forces of darkness; he only hoped this one would give up the secret of its age-old inscriptions and help him now.

Towards the back, he found a page bookmarked with a piece of plastic, the size and shape of a credit card. Giles held it up for inspection, but it was Ethan who identified it.

"That's a key card!" the sorcerer said in surprise. Then the implications hit. It was identical to the key cards that opened the electronic door locks inside the hunting lodge. "Oh crap. We're really in it up to our necks this time."

"But what's it doing here? In this book?"

Ethan grew even more irritated. "You know, I'd be a lot happier if you stopped asking the bloody questions, and started answering them."

With a grunt, Giles returned to his scrutiny of the page before him. This one, the bookmarked page, depicted a portrait of a female demon. He already knew her high, ridged cheekbones and sensuous dark complexion, and just as in real life, in the banquet hall of her hunting lodge, her eyes were the things to capture and hold him. Even when rendered in parchment and ink, there was no mistaking the mesmerizing clout of those quicksilver Xazax eyes.

Rousing himself, Giles scanned the adjacent passage, confident in his ability to get more than just the general gist of the words. He knew little of her species' physiognomy, beyond the common anecdote of 'stone beneath a velvet skin'. His books always referred to their alluring beauty, and the quick tempers and unmerciful wrath that had made the females of her species so dominant over lesser, supple-bodied beings. His books always referenced the Xazax's physical crushing strength; never before had he read of a weakness.

Until now.

No wonder this volume had been so well hidden! If the Xazax huntress were to know of its existence--

"Good Lord," Giles said quietly, as all the pieces fell into place.

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Ethan said, glumly resigned to his fate. "You've just worked out what I've been dreading all along ... that this cabin is where Milady's adulterous husband conducted his little love trysts. That this is where she caught him, red-handed, and thus she knows all about the place and is undoubtedly headed here right now ... where she will find us, and take our heads, and mount them in the same disgusting manner as she did his, and God, Rupert, we're doomed to be wall ornaments!"

Closing the book, Giles raised an eyebrow at his ex-friend's uncustomary outburst of panic. "Look around, 'old son'," he said calmly, sweeping an arm over the dilapidated, dusty interior. "I doubt even you would stoop so low as to bring a woman here for a bit of slap and tickle."

Ethan looked, conceding his point that the cramped, dingy little room was far from the ideal setting for candlelit seduction. "Not exactly the Ritz, I'll grant you."

"Precisely. There's not even a suitable bed."

"Some people actually prefer--" He changed tack. "What are you saying?"

Giles held up the key card, studying it as he made his point. "I'm saying that I think this cabin did, indeed, belong to Milady's late husband. But it wasn't a love nook. It was a refuge; a secret place the poor sod's demon spouse knew nothing about. A place where he could escape her."

Ethan looked doubtful. "You got all that from the book?"

"No," Giles said, looking back at the leather and brass bound tome on the tabletop before him. "All I got from the book ... was how he intended to kill her."

* * * * *

"Seawater?" Buffy asked doubtfully. "You sure? Ordinary, everyday seawater? Ow!"

"Sorry," Giles's soft voice said in her ear. He paused only a moment before he continued to strap her broken ribs with the strips of cloth he had torn from a bed sheet. "And yes, ordinary, everyday seawater. Apparently, it's extremely toxic to a Xazax. Has an erosive effect on their silicone-based constitution."

Sitting on the cot with her back to him, wearing only her lacy black bra, matching panties, and a dusty sheet, Buffy tried to digest the information he had just given her. But her brain wasn't quite ready to accept any new input. Despite their situation, she had slept soundly all afternoon, although probably only because her subconscious knew Giles was there, watching over her. Nightfall finally roused her from slumber; her innate Slayer senses telling her it was time to get up and go kill something.

She yawned, sleepy but strong after her uninterrupted downtime. Her ribs still hurt, but they were mending and the bandage would help. She felt almost like her old self, ready for action; ready to take the fight back to the Xazax bitch queen.

"Pity we're probably, like, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean," she commented, then grimaced as her Watcher pulled on the makeshift strapping again. "Urgh, I still need to breathe, Giles."

"Sorry, but it needs to be tight if it's going to do any good. And you're missing the point."

"Being?"

"What's the one thing that makes seawater different?"

"Um ... the sea?"

"Salt. And thanks to the late husband, there are several pounds of it in storage in a cupboard under the kitchen sink."

Buffy felt him finish with the bandage, and almost sobbed at the loss of his touch when he drew back his hands. No wonder she couldn't think straight, with his fingertips gently caressing her skin, sending tingles right though to her core. Salt. The word tried to work its way into her brain, but there were just too many sensations flying around inside her for anything peripheral to sink in.

She shivered as Giles' warm hands returned to run tentatively up and down her bare arms. "Better?" he murmured in her ear.

Buffy barely held back her whimper. "Much," she said, and she wasn't just referring to her patched ribs. While in his arms, the whole world seemed a much better place. In a bold move, she pressed back against his chest, desperate to know if he would run ... or stay.

Nuzzling her hair, Giles whispered, "We can make it, Buffy."

Her heart swelled with joy, threatening to burst. "I know we can."

"If we can just get the salinity right, I believe we can defeat her."

"Huh?"

"As I recall from Willow's foray into saltwater aquariums, we need to mix approximately 96% water with roughly 4% sodium chloride. Of course, we'll have to guess without a hydrometer, but I should imagine guesswork is on our side. The saltier, the better."

Pulling away, Buffy swiveled around on the cot to face him. "Hydro--? Giles, what--?"

"Hydrometer. It measures the salt content of water," he explained. He had the good grace to look confused by her furious expression. "For when we ... make the saltwater ... "

"You're talking about making saltwater?" she asked, simultaneously going from blush to frown and back again.

"Of course." He went visibly on the defensive, spine straightening, body language pulling back from her ever so slightly. "What are you talking about?"

Right then, she decided it was time to lay all her cards face up on the table. After all, how could she fear losing him, when she wasn't sure he was hers to begin with. "I'm talking about us."

It was still a taboo topic, judging from Giles' negative reaction. He diverted his eyes and went to move away, to put even more distance between them, build more walls. Determinedly, Buffy grabbed his hand to anchor him to the cot. It was now or never time.

She squeezed his fingers until he looked up. She didn't flinch from his anguished gaze, but rather looked past the hurt and into the depths of his beautiful green eyes, searching for the truth. "I'm talking about you telling me you love me, but acting like you don't."

"I'm not acting like anything," he said defensively.

She sighed. "Then I so totally don't understand any of this." Raising a tender hand to his beard-stubbled cheek, she decided to start from the beginning. "I love you ... so much."

"And I love you," Giles returned, but this time it was almost an apology.

"Then why haven't you even kissed me?"

"Because I ... " His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, but he didn't look away. "Because I don't want to give you false hope."

Buffy struggled to understand. "You mean ... you do love me ... but just not ... " Realization hit, hard and fast, making her bite her lip to hold back the tears. "But just not like that. God ... " She couldn't bear to face him any longer, to see the love now shining in his eyes and know it was not the same as what she felt for him. It devastated her.

"No. Like that." A gentle finger under her chin lifted her eyes back to his. "Buffy, you are the woman who stole my heart," Giles confessed in a moment of total candor, the simplicity of his words taking her out of the depths of despair and sending her soaring into the clouds. "I am completely and hopelessly in love with you, and there is no greater sorrow in my life than not being able to show you how much."

"Then kiss me. Show me."

Desperation crept into his tone. "I can't."

Buffy pouted in frustration. "Still not getting the whole picture here, Giles."

He dipped his head, his voice hardening as he attempted to explain. "There's a prophecy--"

"I don't care." Her instantaneous response brought his apprehensive gaze back to hers.

"But it's in the Codex--"

"I don't care!" Buffy insisted, although deep down, she did. She was no stranger to the prophecies of the Pergamum Codex, or the uncanny accuracy of its predictions. Resentment was the last emotion she expected to feel, but it came anyway. "There's a prophecy that says if we kiss, we die? Who the hell made that one up?"

"It doesn't exactly refer to ... kissing," Giles said uncomfortably.

"What then?" The downward cast of his eyes had the same effect on her temper as a bucket of ice water. "Oh. You mean--?"

"I'm afraid so."

She knew, then, that this situation was just as tough on him, maybe even tougher. How long had he lived with this, loving her quietly without ever letting her know, fearing that if he did it would somehow cause her harm? How long had he wanted her, as badly as she wanted him now?

Buffy reached for Giles, not realizing how desperate she was for him to hold her until his arms closed around her to complete the embrace. She held tight for a moment, trying to plug the hole inside her heart with something positive. "So ... hugs are okay, then."

"Quite definitely."

"And kissing is safe."

"I imagine so, but Buffy, I don't think it would be wise."

"Why not?"

"Because if you kissed me, I'm not certain I could control myself."

She smiled, rubbing her cheek against the soft, green Henley shirt he had found to wear. "Me neither."

Giles said nothing in reply, but one of his hands came up to cradle the back of her head, the gesture so loving that it brought a fresh sting of tears to her eyes. Why did it have to be this complicated? To be in love with someone without a chance of ever expressing that love in a natural and intimate way was not a life she wanted. Once before, Fate had told her she couldn't have the man she loved because of a curse. Now it said she couldn't have the man of her dreams because of a prophecy. She couldn't walk away a second time. She wouldn't.

"Promise me," she whispered, still holding him tight, "if we get out of this alive, we'll try to work it out."

"You have my word," Giles promised, his lips moving against the crown of her head. "If there is any possible way for us to be together, then you and I shall find it."

* * * * *

Standing just on the other side of the blanket screen, Ethan feigned a gag. How bloody typical. Giles and his Slayer may as well spend eternity as inanimate wall heads for all the action that relationship was going to get, spare themselves all the bloody Shakespearian tragedy. Still, as long as they got him out of this mess in one piece, back to where he could have a decent hot meal and sleep in a real bed with a willing human partner, then he'd go along with whatever plan they concocted.

Of course, if things didn't quite turn out as he hoped, he did still have one ace left up his sleeve ...

Noting things had grown quiet behind the blanket, Ethan moved away before he got caught eavesdropping. While there was no greater fun than egging on Rupert, right now there were other, more serious issues with which to contend. Namely, keeping his head.

* * * * *

The book Giles and Ethan found provided a proverbial 'ton of useful information', and Buffy hung on every word as Giles related everything there was to know about the mighty Xazax race. Sitting cross-legged on a faded rug before the woodstove, wearing her highly unfashionable new duds, Buffy listened studiously as she ate her first hot meal in several days. Supper, this time, consisted of a can of beef stew that Giles had opened and heated like he'd been doing it all his bachelor life. Together, Watcher and Slayer did what they did best--formulate a plan to defeat the lady demon and her minions, and the means by which to execute it.

Sunlight, Giles re-read the passage to her between mouthfuls of his stew, while not lethal to a Xazax as it was to the vampires in her employ, did have a painful, blinding affect on those weird silver eyes. Any bright light did. It explained why, with all the technology and modern cons at her disposal, Milady kept her lodge dimmed to the candela of a few rustic torches. This in mind, it was a better than average guess that the light-sensitive huntress and her mostly-flammable posse retreated to their lair during the daylight hours. To Buffy, the knowledge brought genuine relief, because it meant an end to running about the woods, helplessly fleeing for their lives like a couple of hysterical mundanes. Now they had direction. Now that they knew where and when to strike, they could take the fight back to their enemy's home turf.

The notion stirred Buffy deep down where her darkest Slayer instincts lived, until her need to start staking vamps and killing demons became a physical ache. She attempted to quell it, at least until the time was right. This dark legacy left to her by the First Slayer was something she had never liked or wanted, but she didn't seem to be any closer to ridding herself of it despite the hours of mediation she had worked through under Giles' guidance.

Putting aside her empty stew bowl, she glanced over Giles' shoulder at the nearest of the little shack's grimy, bare windows. It was night outside, and just a glimpse of it was enough to infuse her Slayer blood with its ancient call. Night meant the Xazax was out hunting them, but the she-demon would need to retreat to her lodge for refuge in a little over ten hours. If they didn't cross paths first, Buffy intended to be there to welcome her home.

Her distracted gaze fell on Ethan, sitting apart from her and Giles, ever the loner as he consumed his rationed food. She never had liked the man personally, and her trust-factor had sunk even lower these past couple of days. Allowing him to play on the home team made about as much sense as putting the water-boy in as quarterback. Ethan was uber-unreliable, and with her and Giles in agreement of this fact, she wondered why the hell they were going along with it. The man just worried her. Bigtime.

Feeling her stare, Ethan turned his head to look at her, making her miss Giles' comment. The sorcerer's eyes were dark and calculating, giving nothing away and promising even less. The small smile of false camaraderie he offered did little to ease her misgivings. In fact, the coldness of it made her shiver despite the heat wafting from the front of the woodstove.

"Buffy?" Giles asked, noting her distraction. Reaching out, he put his hand on her arm to capture her attention.

"Huh?" she asked, raking her eyes back to her Watcher. She was worried about Giles, too, but in a totally different way. "Sorry, what?" He hadn't rested nearly enough, and he looked haggard with those dark rings under his eyes. His many cuts and flowering bruises did nothing to help ease her mind, and when he moved, he limped. She needed to get them out of this; she needed to him home.

Giles glanced knowingly over his shoulder, then back at her. He, too, remained unconvinced about Ethan's newly found loyalties, but there seemed little option at this point ... although abandoning the louse and letting him fend for himself had sounded pretty darn reasonable to her when she suggested it.

"We were discussing weapons," Giles reiterated.

Outside, near a weathered stack of uncut firewood, they had found a wood ax in a chopping block, and the whetstone Giles earlier uncovered amidst the cabin riff-raff proved just the thing to take the rust off its edge. It wasn't quite the medieval battle-ax Buffy was used to wielding, but it was balanced and sharp, and would cleave a demon or vampire head from its shoulders almost as well.

Since making stakes from scratch was a time consuming and fiddly chore, they instead broke the old wooden chair into several handy pieces, fashioning four long, tapered splinters from its splayed legs and half a dozen arrows from its back spokes, probably all in a quarter of the time. The saltwater that was so toxic to a Xazax was a relatively easy mix, thanks to the ingredients left by Milady's conniving ex-spouse, although finding something suitable to put it in proved a much more challenging task. Unfortunately, the husband hadn't got that far with his plans before his demise. Eventually, they settled on using the squirt gun Giles still had in the inside breast pocket of his discarded tuxedo jacket. Although plastic, it had survived destruction just as its owner had done. It wasn't much, Buffy realized, watching Giles fill it to the brim without seeming to disturbing the waterline in the sink, holding maybe a couple of ounces of saltwater if they were lucky. They would have to get close to use it, and make the shot count.

The thing that really impressed her about Giles' 'MacGyver' skills was the 'bow' he made to fire the arrows. Constructed using the aluminum barrel of an old, long-handled flashlight, there was nothing typical about it. After unscrewing both the end cap and the reflector bulb, and dumping out the way-dead batteries, he threaded an elasticized length of cord cut from his tuxedo suspenders into the empty cylinder. Securing the ends of this in place by tying a leftover strip of bandage around one end, he loaded an arrow in his improvised 'bow', pulled the cord and nocked arrow out the end closest to him, aimed the thing at arm's length, and let fire. With a little ingenuity, he had found a way to propel some flying fatality across a room, with reasonable accuracy and the force needed to pierce a vampire's heart.

Smiling, Buffy wondered if those stuck-up Watchers who never invited him to their Retreats really knew what they missed.

With their arsenal complete, the last item in their battle cache was the terrain map and compass, because without being able to find their way back the hunting lodge the entire operation became moot. Spreading it out over the table, all three gathered round. It was hand-drawn, dog-eared and torn along its creases from untold years of use and abuse, but it showed, quite clearly, the locations of both the hunting lodge and the cabin. A closer look revealed that the lodge was sketched as 'under construction', so it seemed likely that the late husband had once lived in this old shack, maybe even long before his demon wife had ever entered the picture. Giles was convinced the Xazax knew nothing of their present safe haven, neither its position nor its existence, a fact that so far had worked to their advantage.

Eager as she was to kill something, Buffy wasn't looking forward to the trek back. She and Giles had slogged through an entire night and half a morning of uphill and down dale hell to get to the shack, and the thought of retracing all those backbreaking miles only made her groan. Somewhat sheepishly, Giles pointed out that they hadn't exactly walked in a straight line, and sure enough, a quick study of the map revealed that they had trudged the proverbial 'long way round'. Going back to the lodge, with the aid of the map, would be simpler, easier, and much faster.

Before leaving their safe haven, Buffy changed back into her own black turtleneck sweater and leather pants, which had dried by the stove. Although essentially ruined by the downhill mountain slide, it was a question of necessity rather than humility, since the comically large fit of the clothes Giles scavenged for her would only hamper her fighting technique. Giles and Ethan were comfortable in their new garb, blight on the fashion world not withstanding, so they stayed as they were, although each added another heavy shirt as an additional layer of warmth.

So with their plans laid, and their do-it-yourself weapons at hand, around midnight the three of them set out into the woods.

* * * * *

Buffy crouched at Giles' side and studied their objective. "Looks quiet enough," she said, hefting the wood ax to her shoulder, eager to get the show on the road.

She, Giles, and Ethan had taken cover from the approaching dawn near the Xazax's private jet, the only cover available in the open flatland surrounding the hunting lodge. With its wheels chocked and wings tied down, the jet sat idle at the end of the little dirt airstrip that overlooked the front gates of the hunting lodge, a few hundred yards south. Unlike in Sunnydale, there was no hangar to hide behind as the sun came up and obliterated what little cover they had in darkness, just a part-ways fallen down tin shed, and a dozen rusty fuel drums.

Not ten minutes ago, they had observed the hunting party return from another all-night trek, seeking sanctuary in their rustic log-walled lair, just as Giles said they would, prior to sunrise. The Xazax herself appeared enthusiastic despite the lack of a kill, but the vampires and demons in her employ looked weary and depressed by a second night without bagging their quarry. Previous hunts had obviously been a lot less work, and morale was low; something else that would work to their advantage.

They waited patiently as first light crept slowly over the sleepy landscape, allowing the vampires and demons within the lodge time to stow their weapons and settle down for a day's sleep. Buffy knew they were horribly outnumbered, but she also figured they didn't sleep with their guns. If she and Giles could sneak inside while they were all sawing logs, then it might be possible to dispose of them quietly, a few at a time.

That was the plan. Looking over the slight downward lie of the land and the position of the fuel barrels again, Buffy came up with another one. "I dunno. Maybe we could just burn the whole place down."

"That would undoubtedly take care of the vampires and demons," Giles replied, "but you're forgetting the Xazax. Her constitution is silicone based. You can't hurt stone with fire, Buffy. And this sport of hers must be stopped."

"Oh please," Ethan remarked in disgust. "Enough of the moral certitude already. The truth is, if we're ever going to get back home to civilization, we need to find the pilot for that." He motioned at the tied down plane.

Buffy scowled. The man's fondness for self-preservation never ceased to amaze her. Although he did have a point.

"He's human, by the way," Ethan added, glancing at her.

"And just following orders, I suppose," Buffy said resentfully. "Like you."

"I had no choice."

"There's always a choice," Giles said bitterly. "You simply opted for the easy way out. As usual."

Buffy looked at Giles, watching him stay focused on the lodge as he belittled his former friend. He was right, of course; Ethan had sold them out to save his own neck once, and now that it was on the line again, she had no doubt he would do it again.

"What about the key card you found?" Buffy asked, returning to the business of just how they were going to get inside. There were two of those thick-but-obedient spiky demons standing guard behind the tall, iron gates, and they didn't look like they were going anywhere or would be dozing off on the job anytime soon.

"Key cards only open interior doors," Ethan told them. "Not the main gate."

"Is there another entrance?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"How about the direct way, over the fence?" Buffy asked. She knew, from when she and Giles had been escorted out and given their 'head start,' that the gate and fence were electrified with enough current to fry the average human to a crisp, but she felt confident in her ability to vault it and take out the two demons before they had even figured out what was happening. Still, unless there was a handy-dandy power switch somewhere just inside to flip off and let Giles and Ethan in, she would be on her own inside the lair of at least fifty heavily armed foes. Not exactly what she considered fair odds, not even by her standards.

"Too risky," Giles said, obviously thinking along the same lines. He favored her with a smile to let her know that he would not allow her go alone. He was going in with her, no matter what, even though part of her wished she could make him stay put, where he would be safe.

"There is one way," Ethan said slowly, drawing both their attention. "Not that I'm particularly fond of ever setting foot back in there, you understand, but in times of crisis we all need to make sacrifices."

"Now who's spouting self-righteous poppycock?"

"Just tell us."

"Well," Ethan began, a sly smile creeping across his face, "we could ... "

* * * * *

They didn't like his plan and well they shouldn't, Ethan thought, as he boldly marched Rupert and his Slayer up to the front gate. He had an arrow nocked in the homemade 'bow', and its elasticized cord rigged for quick release. The splintered point rested between Buffy's shoulder blades, while the ax she was so fond of swinging sat casually on his shoulder. He could almost feel her helplessness as she played prisoner with Rupert, her distrust of him like a tangible thing.

Ethan smiled to himself. Wise little Slayer. The simple flick of his finger and he could run her through with the arrow, which may not kill her outright but would certainly slow her down. What a pity she had no choice but to go along with his suggestion. He could hardly wait to see the look on her face when she realized she had been betrayed. Again.

"This had better work," Giles warned threateningly over his shoulder, equally oblivious to the double-cross. "There's no place you can hide if it doesn't."

"It will," Ethan insisted confidently. And it would, because what neither of them knew was that he still had telepathic control over the quill demons standing sentry inside the gate; the ace up his sleeve. Once inside, he would silently order the beasts to do his bidding, which chiefly meant taking his prisoners to Milady, by force if necessary, and bargaining their heads for his own ... and that of her pilot, of course. Buffy may scoff at his self-preservation, but Ethan knew he wasn't going anywhere without the jet's human pilot. Essentially, he was setting the man free, and the fellow would undoubtedly bend over backwards in gratitude. Yes, with a little luck he would be on his way home within the hour, fleeing in luxury on her private jet, perhaps sipping a dry martini while Rupert and his Slayer were--quite literally--on the chopping block.

"You're sure you know the way to the Xazzy bitch queen's lair, right?" Buffy asked for the third time. "And that key card will get us in?"

"Oh, yes. I'm quite familiar with her inner sanctum," Ethan returned truthfully. The thought of her satin and silk torture chamber made him shudder with the grim reminder of why his whole body ached in so many different places. He was glad he was walking behind them so that they couldn't see him flinch. "Relax, you two, and follow my lead."

Buffy reached to take Giles' hand, the pair exchanging a small, encouraging smile as they drew near the iron gates of the lodge. Watching them, Ethan rolled his eyes. Chaos knew, they were so lovey-dovey it was sickening. It was almost a pity that they would never live long enough to consummate their relationship. The fallout from that, from what he understood of the prophecy, would almost been worth sticking around for ...

The demons standing guard behind the gates stirred as Ethan boldly marched his prisoners into their field of vision, silently rearranging their towering bulks to block all comers. Both raised the poison-tipped quills running down their backs and arms in a defensive gesture meant to deter intruders, a sure indication that they had gotten their attention. Unperturbed, Ethan stopped just on the other side of the gate, the electric charge so intense it made the air sizzle and the fine hair on his arms stand on end.

I have a gift for Milady. Open the gates," Ethan announced.

Neither demon moved, nor lowered their hackles.

Ethan frowned at them, adopting that confident air he was so good at fabricating in order to save his own neck. "You know who I am, and you know I have Milady's full authority. Now open the gates, or there will be hell to pay."

Mentally, he added, 'This is a trap and I am being forced to help them. The prisoners intend to kill Milady, and me, and are not to be trusted. You must help me. Now.'

After a short paused, both demons moved to comply. And they were in.

* * * * *

Realistically, Giles knew he and Buffy stood little chance of defeating a gun-toting horde with only their homemade stakes and bow. Their best chance, he believed, was in taking on them on in small, manageable numbers. That plan may have been simple in design, but it was extremely difficult to execute in their present environment, chiefly because it involved sneaking around cramped quarters without raising the alarm.

There was an alternative, one that well may turn out be the difference between failure and success, which is why Giles reluctantly allowed Ethan to take the lead. If they struck at the heart first, then the body just may die as a result. If they killed the Xazax mistress, her minions might revert to the unorganized rabble that they were, making easier targets for him and Buffy. Ethan claimed Milady's inner sanctum was in a secure, hidden location that they would never find without his help, but putting their lives in the hands of a man who had turned on them more times than one could count did not sit well.

Worried, Giles glanced at Buffy, who refused to let go of his hand as Ethan wordlessly marched them through the gates, up the short path, and into the dark ground floor of hunting lodge. She didn't look up, not even when Ethan closed the heavy wooden doors and locked them with the key card they had found in the book, its electronic beep a stark reminder that without that piece of plastic, there was no chance of retreat. Buffy's face was set in a determined mask as she mentally prepared herself for the coming fight. Her mending ribs were a still handicap, although not one that she would allow to slow her down. Giles admired her courage and fortitude in the face of such overwhelming odds, as he had done a hundred times before, and tried to draw strength from it. They could all very well die in the next few minutes, but there was no place he would rather be than at her side.

As before, torches kept the foyer dimmed to an eerie glow, with thick, dark shadows hanging between their intervals despite the daylight outside. It took Giles' eyes a moment to adjust from bright sunlight to the sudden gloom, before the hapless stares of Milady's trophies again filled him with a sense of dread and despair. Trying not to look at the empty plaques bearing his and Buffy's titles, he quickly moved across the bloodied flagstones.

The timing for this attack, Giles realized, could not have been better. The foyer was deserted, lacking interior guards and stragglers who had not yet found their beds. Their enemies were all somewhere upstairs. He knew the tactical room and armory were located upstairs, as too the bedroom where he and Buffy had first been imprisoned. It was therefore a reasonable assumption that all the sleeping quarters were up there in the warren of long, dark hallways and closed doors, perhaps even including the 'hidden' inner sanctum of the Xazax herself. It would be just like Ethan to fabricate such a lie and insist on his value to the team effort, if it were of personal gain ...

At the foot of the rustic staircase leading up, with still no opposition in sight, Giles stopped. He turned to Ethan, intent on retrieving the weapons he and Buffy had surrendered in order to look the part of convincing prisoners. There was no further need for the pretense, and something in his gut told him they would be needing them real soon.

Giles' first surprise was the sight of the two quill demons trailing obediently behind his old friend. His second was the toothy smile that crept over the sorcerer's face. Even without the flickering glow cast by the torches, there was definitely something sinister about it.

"Sorry, old man," Ethan said without any hint of regret. "Change of plan."

* * * * *

Giles gritted his teeth, letting Buffy put his frustration and anger of being betrayed by Ethan Rayne--again--into words.

"You slime," she grated quietly, well aware of the need for lowered voices. Drawing undue attention to themselves, especially now when it would only bring allies to Ethan's side, was not a good idea. "No," she corrected, "you're lower than slime. You have to look up to slime. Slime sits so far above you, you can't even see it from where you're standing."

"Yes, very amusing," Ethan said with no time for petty insults. "Now, if you please." He indicated they should ascend the foyer staircase, his quill demons stepping around him to enforce the command. When neither Buffy nor Giles moved to comply, Ethan shifted the ax resting on his shoulder in grim warning. "There's no need to make this ... messy."

Temper flaring, Buffy made a hostile move, ready to pound the traitor into next week despite the demons blocking her way. Giles physically restrained her, softly speaking her name, wondering if his old friend really had the gall to take their heads. Buffy turned in his arms, momentarily transferring her rage onto him for his obstruction of Slayer justice. But her temper was a resource better spent elsewhere, and knowledge of this quickly passed via a look between them.

She backed down, albeit a tad reluctantly, but ready for whatever he had in mind. Surreptitiously pushing her onto the first stair, Giles confronted his former friend, who was standing safely between his pet demons. He hoped Buffy understood his intentions, that there was only one course of action to take. He felt her hands on his back, a signal that she did. "You really believe you can bargain with the Xazax?"

Feeling cocky, Ethan shrugged and stepped forward to gloat. "It's simple commerce, Rupert. She has what I want--a pilot to get the hell out of here--and I have what she wants." He smirked, swinging the ax head off his shoulder and into his hand. "Your heads."

"Not yet, you don't." Quicker than Ethan thought possible, Giles did what he had been itching to do since Halloween night on his doorstep. He punched Ethan in the face, hard enough to knock him backwards into his pet monsters and split his lip. "Pillock."

Before his demons could set him back on his feet, Giles and Buffy bolted up the curved, wooden staircase. Halfway up, as Ethan angrily shouted orders at the quill demons to give chase, Buffy reached around and grabbed Giles by the arm, physically hauling him up behind her when his exhausted leg muscles began to peter out.

At the top of the stairs, they almost ran right into the scaly demon who had been Ethan's dinner buddy. The thing was catching a bedtime snack, chewing on a grizzled thighbone of dubious origin, and stopped to blink its red eyes at them several times as if just as surprised by the encounter. For a split second, no one moved. Then, at the lumbering sounds of the quill demons closing in behind them, the Watcher/Slayer team saw their opportunity and reacted like a well-oiled machine. Buffy let fly with a roundhouse kick to the scaly demon's head, which made the thing lose its mouthful of raw meat as well as its grip on the greasy thighbone. At the same time, Giles tore a lit torch from a mounting bracket and used it like a baseball bat.

Dribbles of fat ignited on the stunned demon's face, licks of flame quickly trailing along the evidence of its bedtime gorging to engulf its upper torso. It let out a high-decibel shriek, flailing its scaled limbs as it tried in vain to douse the fireball. Spinning in panic, it lost its balance and careened down the staircase like a flaming bowling ball, toppling the two dim-witted quill demons who were on their way up, as sure as if they were tenpins. Several steps below them, Ethan had no choice but to hop the wood banister to escape being either charred or flattened. With a cowardly yelp, he ended up dangling in the stairwell, a survivable but inconvenient drop into the foyer flagstones his only option.

"This way!" Buffy called, taking the initiative, one hand clamped on her broken ribs but the determined look still on her face.

Giles loped down the narrow log-walled hallway after her, his body too sore and exhausted to manage anywhere near top speed. Worried and anxious, Buffy threw a look over her shoulder at him ... just as there came a soft beep of an electronic lock and a door opened on their left.

"Buffy!" he cried in warning, as two more surprised-looking vampires, who had no doubt left their beds to investigate the commotion in the hall, emerged. Flicking a stake from her sleeve, Buffy dusted one before recognition of own his demise even registered on his face, while Giles took on the other with his flaming club. He didn't set this one alight quite so easily, so he took to pounding the thing into submission until it fell, dazed, to its knees. Buffy pirouetted from her attack and gracefully drove her stake though its back to pierce its heart.

Even before the ash had settled, another beep and another bedroom door opened further down the hall. And another.

"Run!" Giles ordered, alarm creeping into his voice.

"Where to?" Buffy asked, ignoring his order and instead adopting a fighting stance, her stake held at the ready. She motioned her head at the growing group of vampires and demons groggily gathering in the narrow hall behind them, as well as in front of them. They were effectively sandwiched.

"Bloody hell ... "

Flexing his fingers around his sputtering torch, his only weapon, Giles warily watched the vampires in front of him figure it out. As recognition of their advantage dawned, their sleepy human faces contorted to their true bestial visages. Brows crinkling and fangs showing, they began to swarm forward en masse, the team morale that had been on the decline now surging strong. He and Buffy were utterly outnumbered, but at least their enemies lacked those high-powered, laser-sighted weapons that spelled instant death.

The vampire nearest Buffy snapped his jaws and let out a low, menacing growl. She grimaced theatrically, and fanned the air in front of her face. "Don't you guys ever brush before bed?"

Giles felt her hand on his thigh, as she thrust a spare stake into his grasp, but he had little time to offer even a small smile of gratitude. Moving back-to-back with her, he kept his eyes on the vampires slowly advancing on him.

"Nothing like a little Watcher snack to help me sleep," snarled the one closest him.

"Save me a piece of Slayer," he heard another call from further down their ranks.

"Eat stake, dead-boy," Buffy said angrily, a moment before Giles felt the rush of cold air as she pushed away from his back. The vampire closest to her exploded into ash even before her taunt had died. She immediately began trading punches and blocking blows from the leader of the group facing her, the narrow hallway hampering them to attack one or two at a time.

With problems of his own, Giles fielded a clumsily thrown fist, kicked, turned, and drove his stake into the chest of the closest vampire he could reach. Holding his breath, he plowed through the dust cloud, using his torch to club the one waiting behind. He brought his knee up when that vamp instinctively doubled over from the blow, meeting its jaw with a satisfying crunch of splintered bone. He silenced its yelp by staking it as it fell, but two more behind were already reaching through the ashes of their fallen kindred to grapple with him. Spinning, he landed an elbow in the face of the one to his left, shattering nose cartilage, while the one to his right tore the torch from his grip and yanked his arm behind his back. The vampire holding him hurled him face first into the log wall, hard enough to daze him for a moment. It held fast, twisting his arm into a painful position. With his cheek ground against the wood, Giles grunted from a knee to the kidneys and an almost dislocated shoulder, knowing that they had him even before he felt the other half-dozen pairs of eager hands seize hold. One squeezed his wrist, forcing him to relinquish possession of his stake or suffer the consequences.

At least, Giles thought, as he reluctantly gave up his weapon, at least he had reduced their number by two and injured one. As ineffectual as that may be in the larger scheme of things, if felt bloody good.

"Anyone for a wing?" asked the vampire threatening to tear his shoulder tendons.

Giles gritted his teeth as another one of them answered. "Just remember to save the head. We're dead meat if you damage that."

"You're already 'dead' meat, you vampire git," Giles said defiantly. He was unable to stop himself from crying out as his captor gave his arm a solid yank.

"And in a moment," the vamp returned, its foul breath almost making him gag, "you and your Slayer are gonna be little-bitty-bite-sized morsels."

From his pinned position, Giles' concerned gaze flew to Buffy. She was similarly outnumbered, but giving the vampires hell. Still, he saw the problem. The hall's confined space was both an advantage and a disadvantage, limiting the enemy to attack just a few at a time as had been his original plan, but also nixing any chance Buffy had of executing the time-tested fighting techniques he had taught her over the years. As with his own short-lived battle, as fast as she dispatched one adversary with her stake, another undead or demon body was waiting in the swell of their ranks to replace it. With a sinking heart, he watched her dust another one before two more got the better of her, landing a series of body blows that felled her to her hands and knees. Buffy let out a cry of real agony as a vampire with a decidedly bloodied face took revenge by callously landing a boot in her broken ribs.

Enraged, Giles struggled in vain to free himself. "You bloody bastard!" he spat at the offending vampire. "Leave her alone!"

Down the hall, another door beeped and opened.

"What the hell is going on out here?" The icy rage in the Xazax's voice stopped the action cold, as if the entire hallway had suddenly been frozen in time.

The grip on his arm relaxed, easing the pressure off his shoulder joint and allowing Giles the opportunity to pull his cheek away from the log wall. He turned his head as the swarm behind him parted in almost biblical fashion, allowing the Xazax huntress easy passage into the heart of the fray. She glided forward in her low-cut, satin and silk sleepwear, pulling on a wispy robe and looking more the part of a seductive temptress than cold-blooded killer. Trailing in her wake was her ever-faithful minion Tay, his half-disfigured human face a grotesque parody of his vampire visage. He had his energy taser with him, and looked keen to use it.

The vampires restraining Giles bodily pulled him back from the wall and forced him to meet their mistress, while the ones that overpowered Buffy had to carry her forward to stand at his side. Giles' concerned gaze swept over his Slayer. Still reeling from the brutal kick to her ribs, sweat now beaded Buffy's forehead. She looked pale, and nauseous, and barely able to stand upright without the help of the vampires holding her. The pain lashing at her must have been unbearable. He longed to take her in his arms, to offer both comfort and support, but the many hands restraining him made it impossible.

The Xazax's temper quelled slightly as she took in the reason for the disturbance, and her subdued prisoners. Reaching out a stone cold hand, she gripped Giles' unshaven jaw and roughly forced his gaze to hers. "Surprise, surprise. I can't say this has ever happened before on one of my hunts."

Giles jerked his face away, but before he could tell her to go to hell, a familiar voice joined the conversation.

"Milady!" Ethan shuffled forward, pushing through vampire and demon throng, eager to be seen and heard. "Milady, if I may present you with my gift."

"Well, if it isn't my wily sorcerer," the she-demon mused coldly, hands going to her hips. "You too, have proven far more resourceful than I first gave you credit." Then she frowned, her quicksilver eyes flashing so dangerously that Ethan actually flinched. "You assured me waiting made the reward sweeter, sorcerer, but there is a limit to my patience."

"Yes, well ... " Ethan began, floundering. His obedient quill demons shuffled up to his back, no doubt now acting as his personal bodyguards. "I only wanted to prove my loyalty."

"By running away?"

"By delivering--" He swept his hand in a grandiose motion, indicating Buffy and Giles in a silent fanfare. "--your prize."

"You prat," Giles growled. To think he had given the man his trust, to think he had once even called him a friend.

Well, two could play his back-stabbing little game.

"Milady," Giles began respectfully, "you must believe me when I say that the sorcerer is the real power here, and a very real danger to you."

"What?" Ethan asked, his manipulative smile replaced by genuine surprise.

"He's been playing you from the beginning, lying to you, tricking you into believing that Buffy is a champion, but for his own twisted purposes." Giles motioned his head at Buffy, who honestly looked ready to pass out on her feet. He buried his concern for her and pressed on. "But look at her. Does this frail, helpless girl really resemble the mighty warrior he paints her to be?"

"Giles!" Ethan yelped in protest.

"I think not," Giles continued, noting he was making the right impression on the right person. "He betrayed you once and he'll do it again ... the same way he betrayed us. We were lucky to escape him, and only came here in the hope we may offer this warning in exchange for amnesty."

Ethan blink, totally stunned. Then the fear started to settle in.

Giles looked smug. 'Take that, pillock.'

"This mighty Slayer does appear rather ... fragile," the huntress agreed.

Ethan faced the demon huntress with an expression so smooth it could melt-in-your-mouth. "Milady, I beg you not to believe these false and rather desperate accusations. Ask any one of your vampire minions of the Slayer myth. I swear to you, she is the prize you seek."

"Well?" she asked Tay, over her shoulder.

Before the vampire could answer, Giles cut in. "It's true the Slayer myth is known to all vampires, Milady, but I assure you it is simply that--myth. In reality, the sorcerer's magic is the power behind it. Behind us. Buffy and I ... we are simply pawns in his game. And I fear if you do not help us, you will be next."

"No," Ethan muttered in denial. "No-no-no, no-no! H-he's lying through his teeth!"

"I rather think not."

"You are, too! You just lied about not lying!"

"Did not."

"Did too!"

"Enough!" The Xazax glared at Ethan for a moment, before her cold, silver gaze assessed Buffy and Giles. Without further word, she turned, majestically sweeping down the hallway through her silent but loyally parted sea of riff-raff. "Bring the humans to my chamber, Tay," she ordered. "All of them."

* * * * *

Buffy studied the interior of the Xazax's lavish bedchamber from under hooded eyes. Although the agony of the kick to her broken ribs had abated to a dull, tolerable throb, she kept up the pretense of being dead on her feet. She sensed Giles looking at her, trying to assess the extent of her injuries, his concern, love, and fear evident in the weight of his gaze. It took all of her willpower not to reach for him, or even look at him, because there was just no way she could let him know she was only faking without giving away her advantage. Out in the hall, through the buzz of real pain cloying her senses, she heard what he had told their demon captor in an effort to buy time ... and give Ethan a taste of his own medicine. As far as Buffy was concerned, the Xazzy bitch queen could go on believing she was a 'frail, helpless girl' right up until the moment she killed her.

To further this illusion, she slumped a little more in the arms of the vampire guard who held her. There were three guards in total, all vampires, one each to restrain her, Giles, and Ethan. The fourth vamp was right-hand minion, Tay, still looking dominant and smug behind his hi-tech energy taser. Apart from the Xazax, the only other occupant of the room was a dark-haired man, just a little older than Giles, who was obviously naked as he cowered under the bedcovers. No points for guessing what he and the lady demon had been up to before the interruption in the hall.

Silken robes flowing behind her like wisps of virgin mist, the Xazax paced to the foot of her massive four-poster bed, whirled, and paced back again, obviously thrown by the unexpected turn of events. The door to her inner sanctum had been electronically locked behind them, and the only way to open it again was with the key card that Tay dutifully presented to her ... or with the one Ethan still had. Like in the room where she and Giles had been held prisoner, all the windows had been shuttered against the daylight world, the only light provided by wall torches and the embers in the fireplace.

Not that getting out of the room was a high priority on Buffy's 'To Do' list. By now the rabble out in the hall were probably organizing themselves, finding weapons, readying for a midnight snack even if they did have to shoot it first. No, for the moment, she and Giles were much safer inside the bedchamber with the Xazax and a couple of minions, even if the demon huntress did seem a little ticked off. What was that Giles had said about her species' hair trigger temper?

"All I wanted was a nice, new, matched set for my collection," the Xazax complained as she finally settled on her bed next to her reluctant lover, toying with the key card. "And what have I? A 'ménage a trios' who care little for the rules of the game! This is no fun, Tay. No fun at all. Why aren't they running away?"

"Would it please Milady, if I took all three downstairs and had them shot?" Tay asked helpfully. "I could bring you their heads on a silver platter?" he sing-songed, trying to persuade her. "And tonight, we could all dine in gastronomical delight."

"Tempting ... " the Xazax mused, but then she pouted like a child whose sandbox had just been invaded by a bully. "But then, I would never know."

"Know, Milady?"

"Which of them is telling the truth."

"I am," Buffy heard both Giles and Ethan chorused together. "He's lying," they said in unison. She rolled her eyes as they broke into another chorus of "Am not!" "Are too!" like a couple of schoolboys.

"Silence!" Such was the authority in the Xazax's voice, they both--thankfully--shut up. Reclining on her plump pillows, the demon huntress spent the next few moments rearranging her long, shapely limbs into a position that was both comfortable and provocative. Her seductive moves effectively drew the undivided attention of every male in the room, alive and undead, Giles and Ethan included.

'Bitch,' Buffy thought. She really hated women who used sex as a weapon. Taking advantage of the distraction, she surreptitiously scanned for potential weapons, but the bedchamber had been outfitted for luxury and seduction, not combat, limiting her choices. The ornate wooden columns of the Xazax's four-poster bed seemed the best bet ... if she or Giles could get close enough to break one. Buffy still had half a bottle of Holy water in the breast pocket of her duster, and Giles had his squirt gun concealed somewhere on his person ... if he could take his mind off the enemy's body long enough to remember it.

'Sheesh, men.'

As if attuned to her disapproving thoughts, Giles cleared his throat. "Milady, if I may," he began, his tone suggesting he had changed his stratagem toward diplomacy.

"I said, silence! I will hear no more lies ... from either of you," she added when Ethan opened his mouth. "I'm beginning to think your entire species is incapable of telling the truth. The Powers know, my late husband never could."

Waving them off as if they were annoying gnats, the demon huntress deposited her key card on the small table by her bed. She picked up two other items and began playing with them instead. From under half-lidded eyes, Buffy recognized the two shock bracelets worn by her and Giles, the same ones she had send down river as a decoy. Amusing herself with them obviously gave the Xazax an idea, because her expression quickly shifted into that of seductive temptress. As this new idea of 'fun' began to take full flight, her alluring, quicksilver eyes raked over Giles in a way that instantly woke up Buffy's green-eyed monster.

"You know, Watcher," she told him in sincere admiration, brandishing a bracelet, "this was brilliant. Do you realize, you are the first human I've hunted to have successfully removed the bracelets? And then to use them in such a manner? You sent me miles out of my way."

"I'm so glad you're impressed," Giles returned acidly. "But I assure you, we were only able to remove them because Ethan told us how."

"I see." She shamelessly looked him up and down again, then let her no-less-appreciative gaze slip to Ethan. "Come here, sorcerer."

Ethan took a step back, an instinctive reaction that revealed his true horror, but the vampire guard behind him roughly pushed him forward. "M-milady?" he ventured, tripping a little. He straightened and conjured up a smile, obviously deciding it was time to do what he did best in tight situations--grovel. "Milady, surely my return to you, with your prize no less, speaks something of my loyalty? I would never betray you."

"Sit," she ordered with a sensuous smile, patting the covers of her luxurious bed with her free hand. As a brusque aside to her current bed partner, she added, "You, out."

Buffy tried not to look as the naked man obediently scrambled from under the covers and scrounged for his clothes.

"Isn't that ... ?" Ethan asked about the identity of the departing man. He adopted a reluctant position on the foot of the bed, clearly doing his best to stay as far away from the she-demon as possible.

"My pilot, yes." Reaching out, the Xazax took Ethan's hand and forcibly drew him closer, keeping hold to prevent his escape. "You intrigued me with your promise to teach me something I did not know of the needs of human males," she cooed seductively. "After you left, he was the only human male available. Unfortunately, he knows nothing of which you speak." She smiled, seeming amused. "Why do you ask? Are you jealous?"

"Insanely," Ethan said with a lewd grin. He may have looked and sounded convincing, but Buffy knew him well enough to know it was nothing more than an act to save his own ass. Lifting the Xazax's hand, he leaned toward her, the action to show subservience and to place a kiss on the back of her rock hard fingers.

The huntress smiled sensuously. "Then imagine how you will feel," she said to Ethan's humbly bowed head, "when I replace you with the Watcher."

Ethan's head snapped up in alarm. "What?" He suddenly brought up his other arm and stared at it, aghast. To Buffy's surprise, and no doubt his own, there was a shock bracelet now clamped around his wrist. "But I-I-I--"

He tried to move away, but she held him firm in her one-handed, stone cold, death grip, eliciting a full-fledged scream from him as she mercilessly crushed all the bones in his hand.

"Take him," the Xazax ordered Tay. "The girl, too. Release them, and I shall resume my hunt ... " She looked back at Giles, her manner so provocative that it left no doubts as to her intentions. "In due course."

With the flick of her wrist, she threw the matching shock bracelet toward Tay, who put out his hand to catch it. But it never made it to his grasp.

Elbowing the vampire guard to free herself, Buffy's hand snaked out to pluck the bracelet from mid-air. Straightening from her slumped position and defiantly lifting her head, she drilled the Xazzy bitch queen with a look that would have trampled any human female rival at twenty paces. "I don't care if you hunt me through the wilderness, poke me with your energy taser, or even call me a 'fragile girl' for the rest of your natural life ... which, I might add, is gonna be pretty short. But you try to go pelvic with my man, lady, then you're really gonna know what it's like to piss me off."

"Your man? I thought you said--?"

"I lied. You know, that old human trait?" A slow smile crept over Buffy's face. It was a challenge. And a warning. And a signal.

Suddenly, her fist was in her guard's face, breaking his nose, an instant before her elbow landed in his gut again and winded him. Before the other guards could react, she let fly with an expertly placed jump kick to the chin of vampire standing behind Giles, her boot whistling past the side of her Watcher's head with a mere fraction of an inch to spare. She grabbed the guard's arm as he teetered backwards from the blow, and instead used momentum to fling him into his pals, toppling all three.

"Oooh, triple bonus score for the Slayer," she mused gleefully, watching the tangled pile of vampire arms and legs try to sort themselves out.

Giles gave her a quick smile that spoke volumes of his relief, love, and renewed determination. Buffy favored him a wink, but lost sight of him in her peripheral vision as the three guards picked themselves up, and Giles rushed forward to the Xazax's bed.

* * * * *

Tay leapt to the defense of his mistress, either out of loyalty or simply because he was spoiling for a good fight. He cut Giles off, making the latter literally skid to a stop on the animal fur rug at the foot of the Xazax's bed. Morphing into his vampire visage, the minion brandished his taser in a threatening manner, the electric charge rippling deep purple between its dual prongs. The smell of the burnt ozone was a clear indication that the thing was set high enough to do far more than simply stun.

For her part, the demon huntress appeared more amused than alarmed, and chose to stay reclined amidst her plump pillows and silken linens while Tay took care of the details. Still whimpering from his broken hand, Ethan scrambled away to safer quarters and tried in vain to pull the bracelet off his wrist. By all accounts, the thing did not yet appear to be giving off any shocks, despite its mate being all the way across the room in Buffy's hand, thus Ethan's eagerness to remove it was by reputation only.

Giles warily watched Tay approach him from around the long side of the luxurious four-poster bed. As the vampire made an impatient but clumsy lunge across the corner, Giles easily jumped back to avoid being stunned.

Don't kill him, Tay," the Xazax ordered. "Not yet."

"Yes, Milady," the vampire droned automatically, but from the hideous grin on his face--the disfigurement Buffy had caused earlier with her Holy water making the expression insanely grotesque--Giles knew the minion had plans of his own.

Tay slowly came around the foot of the bed. Giles waited until the right moment, then he dove for the corner bedpost and hoisted himself on it so that he could kick the vampire in the chest with both feet. The startled vamp hurtled backwards into the wall and went down, dazed but not out, although somehow managing to maintain a grip on his dreaded taser.

Seeing his chance, Giles planted his feet then let fly with a sharp kick to the bedpost. He splintered the wood first try, then got his hands around its polished bulk to pried away a long, tapered length. At just under four feet, it was more a spear than a stake, but it would serve its intended purpose all the same.

Looking up, he noted the Xazax, still reclined on her bed, but with a dramatically different expression ruling her exotically beautiful face. Gone was the calm amusement present when Tay had been defending her, replaced now with a healthy dose of feminine apprehension. Giles caught her eye and the moment gave him pause, because she looked, for all the world, the part of helpless female victim with him cast into the role of male aggressor. Her quicksilver irises rapidly changed color as her emotions shifted between curiosity and concern. When he grimly reached in his pocket for his squirt gun, she actually looked a little fearful ... right up to the point when he revealed the plastic toy.

Then she laughed. Heartily.

* * * * *

The three vampire guards took a beating from Buffy, but they kept getting back up. She spun, kicked, ducked, and connected with each of them in turn, oblivious to the pain each of these movements caused her broken ribs. Straightening after knocking all three down for the umpteenth time, she blew the hair out of her eyes ... and wished mightily for a stake as all three started to clamber back up.

Although her eyes were focused on them, her keen hearing picked up on a tiny sound behind her. As the lead guard lunged for her again, Buffy grabbed two fistfuls of the front of his shirt. Using his momentum, she turned, hauling him around to use as a shield against the as yet unknown threat looming at her back. Good thing, too. Her instincts had been right. The vamp sizzled and stiffened as Tay jabbed him with the taser, frying him from the inside out. Buffy instantly let go, as the vamp jittered and sparked between her and Tay. He finally dropped to the bedroom floor, a crispy critter, making her wrinkle her nose at the offensive odor of burnt hair and blackened flesh. He wasn't dead--or deader--just seriously scorched. "Ew, I think I prefer the dust."

Tay growled in frustration, but Buffy grabbed his wrist before the taser in his hand powered up with another charge. Spinning, she parked her hip in his groin and flipped him onto his back, where she neatly snapped the shock bracelet she had caught around his wrist. Surprised by this move, Tay could do little but glare up at her, as the soft, silver surface of the bracelet magically morphed to hide all evidence of a way to remove it.

"Congratulations," Buffy told him flatly. "I hope you and Ethan will be very happy together."

Enraged, Tay's free hand locked around her ankle and pulled her off her feet.

Buffy landed hard on the polished wood floor, the wind knocked from her lungs and her busted ribs on fire. A yelp of pain penetrated the buzz in her ears, and she rolled over to look in that direction, fearing something had happened to Giles. But it was Ethan who was jumping about and crying out as if he were being stuck by a barrage of invisible pins, and Buffy suddenly realized that now the bracelet's 'circuit' had been completed with another victim, the cuffs had begun to adversely react to the excess distance that separated them.

As she climbed to her hands and knees, sore and still a little winded, Ethan looked at her.

"You can't be serious?" he pleaded, eyes wide. He yelped again, not sure whether to nurse his broken hand, or try to remove his bracelet, or run in one direction or the other. "Buffy, please! Help me!"

* * * * *

Giles heard Ethan's plea for help, and since it involved Buffy, he turned to see what was going on. His aim with the water gun slipped, allowing the demon huntress the opportunity to slither from her bed. What Giles saw behind him made him completely forget the Xazax and swear in a low voice.

Moving like the creature of the night he was, Tay silently stood up behind Buffy, towering over her as she put her hand on her broken ribs and climb to her feet, seemingly with no clue that the vampire she thought was down for the count was bringing up his fully charged taser to jab her.

The vampire minion jerked in tiny spasms that appeared to come in almost perfect synchronization with the ones menacing Ethan, but Tay ignored them in favor of his chance to kill a Slayer. Giles opened his mouth to shout a warning, but one of the vampire guards tackled him out of nowhere. He grunted instead, as he landed on the bed with the thing, losing his grip on the water pistol and the length of bedpost in the process. They bounced once before plunging over the side of the mattress, entangled in the satin sheet.

* * * * *

Buffy's innate Slayer Alert System redlined right off the scale, making the hair on the nape of her neck stand on end. She spun around, bringing her fists up, and came face to gruesome face with Tay. He made a wild swing at her with his taser, but the spasms he was experiencing hampered his aim and dexterity, and made him easy to dodge. Buffy counter-attacked with a punch to his face and a knee to his gut, then backed away while he recovered, giving herself room to maneuver. As they squared off again, she reached into the breast pocket of her black duster for her bottle of Holy water.

"Hey, I'll trade you," she offered, pointing at his taser and then at her bottle. "Deal?"

"You already used that," Tay said, leering coolly. "It's empty." He came at her, his taser sparking.

Buffy pitched the little bottle like a pro ball player, slamming it right into the side of his head. It exploded on impact, the glass cutting his into cheek, ironically on the good side of his face, the remainder of its blessed contents splashing and searing his undead flesh. Shrieking in pain, Tay dropped his weapon in favor of cradling his smoking injury in his hands, and skulked away into the same corner where Ethan was still trying to rid himself of his bracelet.

"Half-empty," Buffy clarified. "To a pessimist like yourself, that is. Being an optimist, I preferred to remember it from our last encounter as still being half-full." She stooped to pick up the energy taser, a spoil of war. But she didn't have much of a chance to enjoy her victory, as ScorchBoy and his guard buddy, whom she had temporarily beaten into submission, crowded her on either side. She gave them a tired, battle-weary roll of her eyes. "Can't you guys take a hint?"

* * * * *

Sickened and horrified, Ethan watched the badly burned vampire huddle in the corner, not two feet away from him. Extremely wary of it, he kept his eyes glued to its every move, no matter how unthreatening the creature seemed at the moment. It had retreated to lick its wounds, figuratively speaking, and as such, it appeared completely neutral to his presence. At least the thing's close proximity put a temporary end to the sharp jolts that were even worse than the throbbing pain of his broken hand. But how to get the damn bracelet off the thing's wrist? He had no stake, so killing it was not an option, and running into the fray to get one seemed an even more perilous pursuit than staying put.

The solution that came to mind made his eyes grow wide. In all likelihood, since Buffy and Giles had worn these very bracelets, they were still magically held in place by that very same thing.

A love pact.

Ethan's mouth dropped open. So a confession of undying love would rid him of the wretched thing? Somehow, he doubted it would be that simple, that if his feelings weren't genuine the key wouldn't work, but Chaos only knew he was willing to try. At present, he was willing to try anything!

"I love you," he whispered, grossly embarrassed. If it heard, the disfigured vampire didn't react, merely continued to ignore him and moaned quietly to itself. He cleared his throat. "I love you," Ethan repeated a little louder.

Completely humiliated, he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone else was within earshot, but Buffy was still fighting the remaining two guards, Giles was nowhere to be seen, and the Xazax had found her pitiful pilot and was fussing with him for some unknown reason in front of a large, antique armoire.

Ethan looked back at the vampire. "I love you," he said once more, with feeling.

Then it came to him, and he snapped the fingers of his good hand. Of course! Words were not enough. He needed a smear of the vampire's blood! But how in the name of Mayhem and Havoc was he going to get that?

Carefully studying the withdraw vampire's face, at least the part of it he could see through the repugnant wisps of smoke and the cracked, black flesh, Ethan noted that Buffy had split its lip during their rabid exchange of feet and fists. A stringy chord of bloodied saliva stretched from its mouth to dangle beneath its chin.

Grimacing, Ethan tucked his broken hand safely under his arm. Cautiously watching for any movement of even vaguely hostile intent, he reached out with shaky fingers.

* * * * *

"Buf-fy!"

Punching down a vampire, Buffy faltered. Her Watcher's strangled cry made her whirl around, her eyes zeroing in on the two sheet-covered figures grappling by the far side of the Xazzy bitch queen's comfy-looking bed. One of them had to be Giles and the other the vampire guard who tackled him, but she had no idea who was who because the satin sheet they had become entangled in now draped them from head to knee. For a moment that lasted an eternity, she watched them blindly struggle with each other, their body language and grunts suggesting each had the other by the throat and was throwing their opponent around the room in an attempt to gain the upper hand. But the more they moved, the more tangled up they became.

Someone slammed someone into the wall, hard enough to rattle the flickering torches in their metal mounts, and Buffy grimaced with a bad feeling that Giles was on the receiving end. Breaking out of her bubble, she made a move to rush to his aid. But one of the guard's she had just pummeled to the floor unexpectedly leaped up right in front of her, blocking her way. He growled menacingly, saliva dripping from his crooked fangs, his yellow eyes ablaze.

Irritated by the delay, Buffy jabbed him with the taser, her aim true to the one anatomical spot that was the great equalizer of all men, dead or alive. He jerked, spasmed, and his eyes rolled up in his head. When he collapsed at her feet in a fetal position, she felt pretty sure he wasn't going to get up again any time soon.

Quickly crossing the bedchamber, Buffy took in the situation in a glance, but had to jump backwards out of the way as the sheet-covered pair's wild thrashing almost steamrolled her. Spying the tapered length of bedpost sticking out from under the bed, she grabbed it up and prepared to run it through the vampire's chest.

But she hesitated, doubting the very impulse that made her fight. She didn't want to stab Giles by mistake! Or taser him, for that matter. And the sheet was too twisted and knotted around them for her to pull it off.

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and concentrated. The world slowed until time crawled by at a snail's pace. She let her Slayer senses guide her, feeling through the fury of the melee until she found the emptiness of the soulless vamp. Her target shifted as they struggled, so she waited a moment for her chance.

Buffy swung the bedpost like a club. The dull, squishy sound of connection opened her eyes, in time to see one of the figures drop from under the bloodied sheet, out cold. Or worse. In the blink of an eye--the time it took for the draped figure left standing to untangle the sheet she experienced a whopping great pang of uber-doubt. She wasn't brave enough to look down at her feet, suddenly terrified she would find the man she loved lying there with his skull bashed in, dead, in a spreading pool of his own blood.

Giles tugged off the sheet, his hair rakishly ruffled, the red finger marks on his throat evidence of how close the vampire came to throttling him. When he looked at her, bewildered yet sensitive to the horror still shining in her eyes, she almost forgot they were in the middle of a life and death situation and fell into his arms. Holding back, she settled for a quick smile instead, holding his gaze while she slammed down her bedpost and dusted the vampire stirring at their feet.

"Thank you," he said gently, taking a brief timeout to comb a lock of hair from her face, the gesture so full of love that she practically had a meltdown on the spot. He was in the midst of returning her smile when his eyes pulled away, and his expression changed back to that apprehensive look she'd been seeing a whole lot too much of lately. "Behind you," Giles warned quietly.

Feeling their presence even before she turned, Buffy brought up her bedpost again, this time to throw as a spear. She impaled ScorchBoy and his neutered pal on it, one behind the other like a vampire kebob, before it thudded into the far wall and their undead corpses exploded into ash.

"Huh ... that one vamp was way hardier than he looked," Buffy remarked, a little surprised her taser stun had been less effective than she thought. "Considering I nailed him in the--" Blushing, she surrendered the weapon to Giles. "Here. You'd better take this."

"Yes, they're all insanely loyal to their Xazax mistress," Giles agreed, taking the taser. "Such is the fear of repercussions she inspires." His eyes danced around the room, his expression darkening again. "Where is she, by the way?"

Buffy turned and pointed. "She and that pilot guy are over--" But they weren't in the last place she had seen them, which was standing in front of the huge antique armoire. Frowning, she completed a full circle just to be sure, confirming that as large as the luxurious, dimly lit bedchamber was, the Xazax and her human pilot were nowhere in it. "Well, they were over there."

"There must be another way out of this room," Giles concluded, striding away with Buffy in tow.

They paused by the bed to find and retrieve his squirt gun, before continuing on to the antique armoire that dominated a large, better than average area of wall space from floor to ceiling. Giles wasted no time flinging open the double door and pushing aside the apparel on the hangers found within.

"Giles, no offense, but I'm starting to think all this James Bond stuff has gone to your head," Buffy started to say ... but she shut up quickly when his investigation revealed a familiar looking electronic lock panel on the back wall.

Giles spared her a knowing look. "Really. Then why bother to place a lock inside a closet?"

Buffy smiled, honestly impressed that Mr. Low-Tech-Guy had even thought to look. "Clothes really do make the man. At least they would have, if you'd still been wearing the tux. Did I ever tell you how glad I am you decided against the jumpsuit?"

"We can discuss the merits of my choice of a Halloween costume later," Giles said absently, returning his scrutiny to the electronic lock. "Right now, the Xazax has several minutes head start."

"You think that leads to another room?" she asked, watching him fiddle with the panel. As with the lock on the door of their bedroom cell, it was simple in design but complex by nature. There were only two lights, designating locked and unlocked, and a single slot for the card, but a whole bunch of multi-colored wires and complicated integrated circuits waited within. Just how Giles intended to hotwire the thing was as baffling to her now as it had been before. Technology just wasn't his forte, and it probably never would be. "Kinda like a secret passage?"

"I'd rather wager it leads outside to her jet."

"The shed!" Buffy said, remembering the part-ways fallen down shed that sat at the end of dirt airstrip and appeared to serve no purpose. It was great camouflage for the exit, and it suddenly made perfect sense. The Xazax huntress was a big technology buff, and if she went to all the trouble to install and build such an elaborate, super-villain escape route, then chances were good it would lead out to within a few yards of her equally ostentatious, super-villain escape vehicle.

"Precisely."

"And she's got her pilot. Giles, if she manages to take off ... " She didn't need to finish the sentence for it to be understood. If the Xazax escaped, she would--eventually--set up shop elsewhere and start her disgusting sport of hunting humans all over again. Hundreds more innocent people would be captured, hunted like animals, and killed for their heads. They had to stop her.

Not to mention the trouble it was gonna be getting home to Sunnydale without transportation. Ethan was right. It wasn't like there was regular bus service to the wilderness ...

"Then pray the sunlight slows her down," Giles said. He stopped fussing with the electronic lock, frustrated. "Of course, it would help if we could get this bloody thing open!"

Buffy peered around her Watcher, noting the stark red light on the panel. "It's locked."

"I can see that," he said a little testily. "What we need is one of those blasted key cards." Giles straightened to pat the pockets of his flannel shirt, searching for the plastic card he had found in the book touting the Xazax's vulnerability to saltwater. Suddenly remembering he had given it to Ethan downstairs, he looked over her shoulder, tilted his head to one side in the expression of the patiently puzzled, then motioned her to look.

Following his lead, Buffy turned. She frowned. "What the hell is he doing now?"

* * * * *

Bending over the huddled vampire, Ethan collected another long, stringy dribble of blood, winding it around the fingers of his good hand with a disgusted grimace. The first lot hadn't done a damn thing to open his bracelet, and he could only surmise that when watered down with saliva it was less potent, which is why he needed obtain another sample. He had already smeared some of his own blood, courtesy of the split lip Giles had given him, on the vampire's bracelet, but again without success. He wasn't yet prepared to believe the problem lay in his falsely proclaimed feelings for the vile creature, at least until he had exhausted all other avenues.

"I love you, Tay," he said again, smearing more drooled blood on the surface of his bracelet. At least the vampire appeared to be out of it. The thing hadn't stirred in the slightest or made any aggressive move whatsoever. He knew it wasn't dead, because it hadn't turned to dust, but he had sincere doubts of its current mental state following Buffy's second attack with the Holy water, which as far as he could tell, had eaten away most of the soft tissue in the thing's hideously disfigured face. "I worship and adore you. Tell me you feel the same. Just a whisper, old chap. Please?"

"Why Ethan, I never knew," said a female voice.

He looked around, finding Buffy and Giles standing behind him, and pulled a sour face. "You'll notice I'm not laughing. In fact," he said, showing them his broken hand, which was already beet red and swelling badly, "I can't say I find any of this particularly amusing."

"It's not," Rupert told him, deadpan. "When you're on the receiving end."

Gritting his teeth at the extreme pain it cause simply to move his hand, Ethan motioned at the bracelet smeared with the vampire's blood. "Then help me get this bloody thing off!"

"We can't," Buffy said calmly. Off his glare, she added, "Hey, it's not our fault your feelings for each other aren't for real."

"By the wrath of Chaos," Ethan began heatedly. But he never finished the threat, because Giles grabbed him by the throat and slammed him into the wall. The man's fingers callously dug into his windpipe, and as Ethan began to wheeze from lack of oxygen, he realized Ripper had just put in a much overdue appearance. He began to sweat, the agony from the sudden jolt to his broken hand expediting his body's natural responses.

"We only want one thing from you, Ethan."

"The key card," Buffy clarified. "Give it to us."

Despite the chokehold, Ethan smirked right in Giles' face. "Bugger you ... old man."

Giles reached out with his free hand and grabbed Ethan's broken fingers, twisting them until he had elicited a howl so tortured it made even Buffy cringe.

"I don't have time to play games," Ripper hissed. "Believe me when I say it would be quicker to kill you."

Eyes bulging, having expelled his last breath on his scream, Ethan started to sputter.

"Giles," Buffy admonished, a warble of concern creeping into her tone. Why she should express concern over him was beyond Ethan's comprehension, although compassion for others always had been one of her failings. When Giles still didn't let up, she took matters into her own hands, pushing between them to frisk him.

Buffy's intrusion forced her Watcher to back off. Rupert didn't let go of his throat or his broken hand, but he did ease up enough for him to draw a little air into his lungs. Ethan gasped, turning the involuntary response into a moan of pleasure, as Buffy's hands began to move over him in a quick but methodical pattern. Noting how much this annoyed Rupert, he smirked, pretending to enjoy the attention, as her flattened palms moved lower to search the front pockets of his borrowed jeans. Maintaining eye contact with his adversary above her blonde head, Ethan raised a suggestive eyebrow, the expression for no reason other than to goad Rupert. She was his vulnerable spot, far more effective than any knee in the goolies would have been, and hurting him was something Ethan very much wanted to do at the moment.

Finding what she wanted, Buffy slid her hand into his pocket, and Ethan let out a little groan of unadulterated delight. In reality, the Slayer's touch did little to arouse him, but when Giles' eyes narrowed with pure spite, he knew he had successfully scored a victory point. It was even worth the payback squeeze to his broken fingers.

"Got it," Buffy announced, holding up the plastic key card.

Ripper thumped the back of Ethan's head against the wall for good measure, making him see stars, before he released his chokehold and turned with her to leave.

"Slayer ... " Sensing her presence, the insane vampire was suddenly on its feet. It swooped on her from behind, tackling her to the floor and clumsily falling on top. They both slid across the polished bedchamber floorboards until momentum stopped them somewhere near the middle.

Grateful for release, Ethan cowered and leaned a shoulder against the wall for support. Nursing his hand, and trying to ignore the twitches coming from his bracelet, he watched Giles grab the vampire and haul the thing off his Slayer. Like a man possessed, he threw the creature fair across the bedchamber, demonstrating far more physical strength than Ethan would have thought him capable, especially after all he'd been through. So much for his respite; Ethan had to jump out of the way as the disfigured vamp plowed into the wall beside him, crumpling like a house of cards.

Looking over, he briefly caught Giles' eye. Noting the vampire did not get back up, the Watcher turned his complete attention to his Slayer. Picking up Buffy by elbow, Ethan heard Giles muttered something about not having time to deal with the vampire, then watched they two of them rush to the antique armoire. Ethan lost sight of them as they disappeared inside the huge double doors, but even from this distance, there was no mistaking the familiar soft beep of the key card being swiped.

They were leaving. A low, feral growl drew his undivided attention. Ethan's gaze swung back to the vampire slowly finding its feet beside him. Chaos knew, they were leaving him to fend for himself with a completely unstable vampire who wanted to rip his throat out!

"Sorcerer ... I told you one day it would be just you and me."

"Oh crap!" Slowly backing away, Ethan began to chant. "I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you ... " Eyes locked with the hideously burned, not to mention completely insane, monster before him, he frantically tugged at his bracelet. But it just wouldn't budge, no matter how many times he said it.

Drawing itself up to its full height, the vampire showed its fangs in a grotesque smile, the black, charred flesh around its mouth cracking and oozing foul smelling fluid. It cocked its head to one side, inspired by the false words of affection. "Then let's neck ... lover."

It blew him a kiss, the one yellow eye that hadn't blistered out of its socket gleaming with unnatural desire. Ethan's eyes grew wide. He wasn't sure what terrified him most; the fact that this vile, repulsive creature intended to kill him, or that it wanted to shag him first.

When it lunged for his throat, he screamed like a woman.

* * * * *

Giles paused as Ethan's scream died behind him, but he didn't turn around. Descending the steep, spiral staircase inside the escape panel was like descending into the proverbial black pit, and with legs as unsteady as his were, he needed all his concentration just to maintain his footing.

Buffy, on the stair below him, glanced around and caught his eye. In the dim light, he motioned for her to keep going. Allowing himself to be distracted by a situation he already considered closed would only prove detrimental. Ethan could take care of himself, and if he couldn't ... well, the man did have it coming.

They had left the armoire door open behind them, channeling as much of the weak bedchamber light as possible into the pitch-black staircase. While they could just barely discern the steps before them, what waited at the bottom remained a complete mystery. Giles wished he'd had the foresight to grab a torch from a wall mount, but there was no going back up now. Another delay would cost them their goal.

The narrow, iron staircase was a tight corkscrew descending at least two stories, and by the time their feet found level footing again, they were standing well below ground, under the lodge's brick and mortar foundations. It smelled musty and damp, with a wet cold that immediately seeped into his bones. In the light filtering down from the bedchamber, Giles could see that the passage had been toiled from the bedrock by nothing more than sweat and pain and muscle, its roughly hewn walls bearing marks made by pickaxes and shovels rather than modern tunneling equipment. Rough timber beams that did not even come close to building code shoaled it in a haphazard manner. 'Unsafe,' was the word that flittered though his mind, followed quickly by 'likely to collapse at any moment'. The escape route, he concluded, had been an afterthought rather than something part of the building's original design. And a rather shoddily constructed one at that.

He squinted into the blackness ahead. A pinpoint of weak light marked their destination, but making their way from Point A to Point B post haste was going to be difficult in the dark. The Xazax was a skilled huntress and, thinking of the covered pit, he was concerned with what traps she might have laid to prevent someone following.

The sharp crack of the armoire panel slamming shut made both him and Buffy jump. They whirled around as one, looking up. But their light source had been extinguished, and they found themselves staring into total darkness, as if they had been suddenly entombed, swallowed by the earth itself.

"Giles?"

"Right here," he said, reaching out to where he knew Buffy had been standing. He connected with her shoulder, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't move. Let your eyes adjust first."

"And then you can both give me a hand!" a voice called from the top of the spiral staircase.

'Ethan.'

The vampire chasing him thumped and kicked the other side of the closed panel, trying to break through, but the electronic lock held it back. For now.

Giles blinked as a tiny flame sparked into life above him. In the encompassing blackness, it had the intensity of a bonfire. Cigarette lighter in hand, Ethan slithered down the staircase to join them. But he jerked as he reached the bottom, dropping to his knees and crying out in pain. He may have escaped the vampire by shutting himself inside the secret panel, but he couldn't actually run very far away from it because of the shock bracelet on his wrist.

Giles wrested the lighter from his ex-friend's failing fingers and held it high, glaring.

"Help me!" Ethan begged, cradling his swollen hand. Still on his knees, he looked up, doing his best impersonation of pathetic. "Please!"

"We so don't have time for this," Buffy said. Annoyed, she turned and moved into the blackness ahead.

Above Giles and Ethan, wood splintered as a fist punched a hole through the door. A small circle of light spilled into the stairwell, the soft halo adding to the latter's terror.

"You're right," Giles agreed. "We don't have time for this." Pushing the taser into Ethan's good hand, he pulled away. "Good luck."

"Wait! You can't just leave me!" Ethan yelped, scrambling to his feet. He sent a nervous glance up the stairwell at the sound of the vampire continuing to tear down the door with its bare hands, then jerked again as his bracelet shocked him.

"Give me one good reason why not?"

Sweat beading his forehead, Ethan turned on at little charisma he could muster under present conditions. "Rupert, old man, you're not angry because of what happened upstairs, are you? I'm on your side!"

"You've betrayed us for the last time." Giles indicated the taser. "That's a better deal than you ever gave us."

"What, you actually believed that little charade?" Ethan casually blew it off. "I told you to follow my lead. You must admit, I was rather convincing."

Giles snorted in disbelief. Similarly exasperated and out of patience, Buffy turned and started down the dark passageway at a brisk, determined pace.

"You believe me, don't you?" Ethan turned his terrified gaze to Giles, gripping the sleeve of his borrowed shirt in an effort to stop him from following his Slayer. "For God's sake, don't leave me here! That bloody vampire will kill me!" He paled. "First ... if I'm lucky."

The barricade at the top of the stairs finally gave way to the force of a boot. A swath of unobstructed torchlight flickered into the darkness again, the accompanying wooden fragments raining down the stairs making both men take defensive action. Giving up his hold on Giles' arm, Ethan raised his good hand to protect himself from the shards of falling debris, a move that allowed the Watcher to straighten.

"In that case," Giles said, paraphrasing, "I suggest you run." Pulling away with a Ripperish gleam in his eye, he hobbled after Buffy.

"I can't run!" Ethan called after him. "You know I can't go more than ten feet from the vampire because of the bloody bracelet! AHGEGH! See? Rupert? RUPERT!"

Reaching Buffy, Giles exchanged an even look with her. "Just desserts," he told her, then held the cigarette lighter above his head to light their way.

* * * * *

There was another steep spiral staircase at the other end, this one also bathed in light from a door left open above. This time it was weak sunlight filtering in, not torchlight, and the 'door' turned out to be a steel trap design, similar to a hinged manhole cover, in the cement floor at the back of the old shed. Reaching the top, Buffy kept low in the stairwell, hugging the last few steps as she surveyed the scene before her.

The shed, which sat outside the electrified fence several hundred yards from the hunting lodge, was no more than a twenty-by-twenty foot room of corrugated iron siding, too small to house the luxury jet from the mountain alpine elements, and too large for the single, rolling tool cart angled in one corner. Old newspapers, empty plastic oil containers, beer cans, and other garbage littered the stained concrete, suggesting the building was used for maintenance of the most basic sort.

The Xazax huntress lingered in the shadows near the open front door, watching, with effort, as her pilot readied her private jet for takeoff. At last, something in their favor, Buffy thought, relived to find the she-demon had not escaped despite Ethan's untimely interruption. From what she could make out from her present vantage, the pilot guy was busy pumping gas out of one of the rusty fuel drums into the plane's wing tanks, so Milady would not be going anywhere until that job was done.

"Hurry, you imbecile!" the Xazax called impatiently, one hand shading her delicate quicksilver eyes against the brutal onslaught of morning sunlight, the other modestly clutching closed the front of her silk wisp robe. "Or I'll have your head on a platter."

"What is it?" Giles quietly asked from his position on the spiral staircase, a step or two beneath her.

"Showtime," Buffy whispered back. Silently climbing out the stairwell, she positioned herself behind the Xazax, crossing her arms before she spoke. "What is it with you and heads on platters and plaques?" she asked aloud, pleased by the astonishment the demon huntress showed as she whirled around. "No wonder your marriage didn't work out. We humans don't like to be threatened with our lives every five minutes."

"Slayer."

"Bitch queen," Buffy returned pleasantly. Giles said the Xazax had a short fuse. Buffy added an insolent grin to her greeting, eager to test how short.

The Xazax glared, her eyes changing color, the insult taken. Still smiling, Buffy sensed Giles emerging from the stairwell behind her. Eyes locked with those of her opponent, she took a slow step to her right, which put her in a better position to keep an eye on her man's safety, if only in her peripheral vision. She saw him withdraw his water gun, but Buffy really hoped he wouldn't use it right away. The Xazzy she-devil was in line for some Slayer retribution first.

Milady looked from one to the other, then smirked. "Very impressive. The hunter becomes the hunted, however briefly. Well, it appears I have a moment or two to spare here, so I'm rather pleased to have the opportunity to kill you both before I leave."

Bringing up her fists, Buffy settled into a fighting stance. "Bring it on, lady. God knows, I'm just itchin' for a good chick fight."

"Buffy, be careful," Giles warned seriously, privy to information about the Xazax's superior strength and her own broken ribs. His fingers flexed eagerly around his squirt gun, but he needed to be a lot closer before he used it, its precious contents something he couldn't afford to waste.

Buffy tensed, ready for the silent bell to sound in her head and signal the start of Round One. But the completely unexpected sight of Ethan crawling frantically out of the trapdoor and scrambling, terrified, across the shed on his hands and knees was a major distraction.

"I will crush you like a bug," the demon huntress declared, unfazed. Taking advantage of Ethan's diversion, she pounced with all the grace and power of a panther.

From the corner of her eye, Buffy saw her coming but could do little to avoid her. The Xazax's hands latched around her throat and squeezed with enough crushing power to pulverize an ordinary human's spine. Buffy gasped, brought both arms up on the inside of her opponent's and pushed outwards in the standard maneuver to break a chokehold. But it wasn't as simple as it was with a vampire or other, less powerful demon, so she added the heel of her boot to the she-demon's unshod toes.

With a small cry of indignation rather than pain, Milady backed off, but it was enough to allow Buffy to follow on the attack. She grunted with effort as she landed several fists to the demon-supermodel face and torso, but quickly realized that Giles was right. The Xazax's stone constitution was no match for her supple flesh-and-blood blows. It was like pummeling a brick wall with her bare hands, and she quickly found herself with the bloodied knuckles to prove it. Likewise, kicking only added more bruises to her shins and legs, while doing absolutely zilch in the way of damage to her enemy.

Catching one such kick, Milady merely smiled, and tossed Buffy backwards with such force it felt like she'd been shot from a canon.

* * * * *

"Buffy!" Giles cried in alarm, as the Xazax effortlessly threw his Slayer into the wall. Much to his horror, Buffy went right through the tin siding, before landing on her back, in the sunlight, several yards beyond. Worse, she did not get back up.

With no idea if Buffy were merely winded, or if her broken ribs had finally punctured a lung and she now lay in agony just trying to breathe, Giles knew he couldn't help her until he finished what she started. He stepped forward to take her place in the fight, bringing his squirt gun to bear as the demon huntress turned her enraged quicksilver eyes on him.

Taking refuge in a disused corner, cradling his hand and no doubt wishing for the power of invisibility, Ethan shouted a warning that came just a few milliseconds too late.

Tay tackled Giles from behind, just as he was about to shoot. As a result, the water gun jolted from his grasp, as he went down beneath the burned and charred bulk of the vampire minion. Flat on his stomach and pinned by the vamp's inhuman strength, Giles' hand stretched longingly toward the plastic child's toy an arm length away, but his fingers still came up a half inch short of actually touching it.

The vampire straddling his back guffawed with the irrational glee of the completely insane, his objective at this point not to bite or kill, but seemingly just to stop Giles from getting to his feet.

Outside, the jet's turbine engines began a slow building whine into life. Noting this, Milady gave up all interest of dealing with Giles, and spun around in a whirlwind of satin and silk.

"Ethan! Stop her!"

Giles wasn't sure whether it was the command in his tone or his ex-friend's desire for revenge, only that he was grateful when Ethan reached out his good hand for the squirt gun. Springing up in a surprisingly agile move, Ethan stopped the Xazax's hurried departure by stepping into her path, the plastic gun aimed at her head. Restrained by the insane vampire, Giles could do little but watch events unfold before him.

Milady favored Ethan with an impatient look. "Holy water is for vampires, sorcerer," she said assumingly.

"I know," he returned levelly. "See, I'm not the berk you think I am. I know what seawater does to you."

Taking a second look at the squirt gun and deciding he was serious, the Xazax's anger transformed one of her most alluring smiles.

"Then join me," she said.

Ethan lowered the aim of the squirt gun a little, making Giles grit his teeth. "You're offering me power? Even after all this?"

"I'm offering you a place at my side."

"I assume by that you mean horizontally, as well as vertically."

Thinking she had scored a point, she turned on the seduction. "We shall be lovers every night. You will be my favorite consort."

"In that case ... " Expression turning ruthlessly cold, Ethan raised the water pistol and fired a stream of saltwater directly into her eyes.

The Xazax screamed, burying her face in her hands and dropping to her knees as the saltwater ate though her velvety flesh like acid.

"Power and money, I would have accepted," Ethan told her. "Unlimited abuse by you, I'd be dead in a week. Milady."

Stirred by the mention of her name, Tay's mirthless laughter abruptly ceased as some semblance of reality kicked back in. He straightened, but remained sitting astride Giles' back with enough bulk and muscle to hold down the weary Watcher with one hand. Before he could rise to aid his screaming mistress, a flying piece of tin, thrown like a deadly Frisbee, cleaved his grotesque head right off his shoulders.

Face down, Giles closed his eyes at the shower of vampire dust that rained all over him, opening them again at the sound of the silver shock bracelet landing on the cement with a metallic clatter. He reached out to grab it, just as Buffy appeared at his side and helped him stand.

"Are you all right?" they asked each other at the same time. The Xazax's blood-curdling shriek drew their attentions before either could answer.

Ethan continued to squirt saltwater at the she-demon, looking appalled, frightened, and most of all, vengeful. When finally the liquid ammo ran dry, he threw the thing at her as she writhed in an agonized ball at his feet. Giles thought he might have even taken to trying to throttle her with his bare hands, had one not been so badly broken in so many places. Instead, he just stood and watched her die.

Together, Giles and Buffy went to Ethan's side. The three of them watched in horrified fascination, as the mighty Xazax huntress was defeated with a child's toy and a few ounces of salt and water. Even more appalling than the burns inflicted on a vampire by Holy water, she appeared to be ... melting.

The saltwater bubbled and ran down her face in thick, viscous tears, causing deep incisions in her velvety, chocolate skin before carving into the stone beneath. Wherever the dribbling water touched, it caused a similar reaction, until great chunks of her weaken flesh began to drip away. These, in turn, contacted other places, beginning a chain reaction that quickly spread the infection over her entire body. Wet, sandy puddles grew, large and formless, on the dirty concrete floor beneath her, like a magnificent sand sculpture disintegrating with the incoming tide. Even with this little salt, her silicone-based constitution was suffering breakdown on the cellular level.

Feeling pity despite himself, Giles lowered his gaze ... and completely missed the Xazax rise to her feet with a screech so distorted by her dissolved vocal cords it did not even sound to have come from a living thing. Sending all three reluctant allies toppling with a single swat of a stubbed stone limb, she lumbered toward the door of the shed, leaving gooey sand mounds in her wake. So twisted and distorted by the meltdown, her once voluptuous body now bore little resemblance to its former glory.

Buffy was on her feet first, determined to slay the demon. Reaching the rectangle of sunlight spilling through the door, the Xazax stumbled in its brightness and fell, losing a good portion of her liquefied leg in the process. Buffy delivered a roundhouse kick to the back of her head, hoping to faze her, but ended up more surprised than anyone when her connecting foot cracked her skull like it was made of eggshell. The blob that had once been the she-demon crumpled, her outer layer of chocolate-colored skin finally splitting wide open, and allowing her softened center to ooze out over the shed's concrete floor.

Laboring to pick himself up, his entire body aching from fatigue and exertion but kept mobile by adrenaline, Giles limped across to where his Slayer stood triumphant. He put his hand on her shoulder, showing his support and pride for another job well done.

After a moment, Buffy looked up from the sickly yellow and white goop on the floor, turning to him with a disgusted grimace. "Ergh. I don't think I'm gonna ever eat another Cadbury Crème Egg as long as I live!"

With a small smile, Giles touched a loving hand to her bruised but beautiful face, happy to see her victorious, grateful to see her relatively unscathed. She smiled as his fingers brush the hair from her cheek, covering his hand with her own.

"Well, that was ... not what I expected," Ethan admitted, joining them, his broken hand tucked protectively under his arm.

"Is she dead?" asked a man's hopeful voice.

The three looked toward the open shed door, where Milady's human pilot hesitated to enter. From his body language, Giles knew the man posed no threat, that he was as much a victim in the Xazax's game as they were, and just as relieved by her demise.

Nodding, Giles answered him. "She is. It's over." There was, of course, one final loose end to tie up before it was truly over, but the disposal of the vampires and demons within the lodge was easily achieved with Buffy's earlier suggestion. A fuel barrel with a flaming oil-soaked rag and the slope with which to roll it toward the lodge through the opened gates would take care of things quite nicely.

"Good, I wasn't sure how much longer I could stall." Still cautious, the pilot ventured a few steps inside, but stopped again as he spied what was left of the Xazax. He pulled a face, shrugged, then looked up at them. "So ... any of you good people need a ride? I got cellphones on board, too, if you need to call anyone. God knows, my wife is going to wonder where I've been!"

Buffy slid her arm around Giles' waist. Favoring him with a cheeky smile, she said, "Technology. Gotta love it."

Putting his arm around her shoulders, Giles returned her infectious grin. "Actually, I think I've had enough technology to last me quite a while, thank you." Drawing her close, he planted an impulsive kiss on the top of her head. She looked up at him, her surprise quickly turning to delight.

"Oh, please," Ethan complained about their show of affection. "If you two are going to be like this the entire flight home, then I think I'm going to be sick."

Giles shot him a raised eyebrow that quite clearly said if he didn't like it, he could walk. Ethan glumly backed down. Not that he would ever admit it aloud, but Giles was a tad proud of his old friend too, who had really come through in the end. Of course, it did nothing to wipe his slate clean of all his other nefarious deeds and double crosses, but for the moment, in light of the outcome, Giles was willing to overlook the man's many shortcomings.

Tossing Tay's shock bracelet to him, the mate for the one still around Ethan's wrist, Giles turned his complete attention back to the young woman who was his world. Arm in arm, they followed the pilot out into the bright, morning sunshine.

"Seriously though, Rupert ... do you have any idea how I can get this bloody thing off?"

Buffy and Giles just laughed.

Together.

* * * * *

'Wise men say, only fools rush in,
But I can't help falling in love with you.
Shall I stay, would it be a sin?
If I can't help falling in love with you.


'Like a river flows, surely to the sea,
Darling so it goes, some things are meant to be.
Take my hand, take my whole life too,
For I can't help falling in love with you.'


Giles held the last note and let the chord died in the acoustics of his living room. He sat quietly for a moment in the silence that followed, a melancholy smile on his face. It was a pity he had missed 'Elvis Appreciation Night' at The Espresso Pump, and even a greater pity that he would never sing those words to the woman who had stolen his heart. He could still feel her resting in his arms, her head on his shoulder as she slept the entire flight home. Sleep, however, was not a luxury Giles allowed himself while Ethan Rayne was onboard, no matter how amicable their recent alliance, or how unthreatening Ethan appeared with his broken hand. It was outside the terminal at Sunnydale, while arranging for a cab to take them to Revello Drive, that they lost track of him, undoubtedly to resurface sometime in the future when they least expected it.

Three days had passed, and Giles had not seen nor heard from Buffy since they parted company that evening. When she told him, on her doorstep, she was going straight to bed and staying there for a week, it took every ounce of his willpower not to answer the invitation in her eyes and join her. Her sister thwarted the kiss he tried to give her in the darkness of her front porch, although in hindsight, it was all for the best. Dawn had been frantic with worry and beside herself with relief after Buffy's cellphone call from the jet, and the two of them needed some time to catch up. In spite their offer to come inside for a while, Giles thought it best to take the waiting taxi back to his place, where he stood under a hot shower then poured himself a good, stiff drink.

Three long and lonely days. Dawn had called to check on him at least twice in that time, Xander and Anya too. Willow and Tara had stopped by for a personal visit, bearing a pot roast of all things, everyone happy and relieved to have him home despite his injuries. His life was back to 'normal', a category self-summarized as meaning 'forever lonely.' Taking the bad with the good, he clung to the memories of their ordeal, specifically to those involving sleeping with the love of his life in their cozy bedroom cell. But to lie with Buffy, to hold her as she slept and greet her when she woke, was a pipe dream only within his reach for that one brief, stolen moment.

Here, in the real world, it could never be.

Putting aside his guitar, Giles wondered whether Buffy's lack of communication was simply the result of her needing time to heal, time to resettling into her life as guardian to her younger sister, or because she had actually come to her senses about falling in love with a broken down old fool who Fate foretold would never be able to make her happy. Despite having hit the books the morning following their return, he had not found a way for them to be together. The prophecy in the Codex was iron clad. There was no way he could love Buffy without fulfilling his part in a destiny that had already been written.

With a heavy sigh, Giles pushed to his feet, the emptiness inside him wide and bleak and seemingly insurmountable. He almost wished she would change her mind about loving him. It would be a far better thing for her to hurt him, to reject him, than he be the one forced to break her heart.

He grimaced as he stood, his body still stiff and sore from his backwoods adventure. Determined to shake off his melancholia, he returned to the task he had begun before seeking solace in his music. His living room had looked like a disaster area upon his return home, chiefly with books strewn every which way and chocolate mashed into the rug, and, with his research, he was only now just bringing order to it.

Half an hour later, he was down to re-shelving the last of homeless books, when there came a knock on his door. He turned quickly, forgetting his aches, and paid the price with a painful twinge.

*KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK.*

"Yes, yes, I'm coming!" Giles called, cross at himself for his enforced tardiness. With a book still in hand, he hobbled across his living room, hoping to answer the front door before his impatient visitor was forced to announce themselves a third time. Lord knew what he would do if it was Willow with another ghastly pot roast.

She stood in the lamplight of his porch, looking as fresh and lovely as a dewdrop on a spring morning, and for a brief but pleasurable moment, his world was lit with the sunshine and grace that was ... "Buffy."

"Hi." When she blessed him with a smile, he foolishly fell in love with her all over again.

Covering the emotion, as he had become so adept at doing over time, Giles managed a wry look. "Since when do you knock?"

"Since I figured out your privacy needs to be respected. Can I come in?"

"Of course."

He moved aside, grimacing again at the discomfort of his many aches. He shut the door on the crisp fall evening, turning to watch her removed her jacket, then wander though his living room as she had done so many times before. There was something amiss about her body language, though, warning him that this time things were very different. She was apprehensive, nervous, and he immediately thought he knew the reason. She had come to tell him that she had made a mistake; that when she told him she loved him, it was simply because they were the right words at the right time.

'It's better this way,' he glumly reminded himself, his heart already breaking.

Putting on a brave front, Giles started with some nice, safe, small talk. "Um, how are you feeling?"

Buffy twirled to face him, still grinning and radiantly beautiful. "Better than you, obviously. Still sore, huh?"

"Only when I move," he noted dryly, shuffling over to join her. "And your broken ribs?"

"Thanks to Slayer super healing, not broken any more." Buffy folded her arms, giving him the once-over. "Pity there's no such thing as Watcher healing."

Moving past her, Giles placed he book he still carried on the bookcase. "Yes, I must admit that would have been a beneficial perk."

"Oh, you got them back!" Buffy exclaimed, referring to his refinished bookcases, returned from the furniture specialist just that afternoon. Noting that his living room was conspicuously devoid of the leaning book towers that had occupied every bit of available space during her last visit, she ran an appreciative finger over the newly varnished surface. "Hey, nice work."

Giles nodded in agreement. "They did a splendid job." He indicated the short stack beside the coffee table. It was the same stack Buffy had knocked over the night before Halloween, and the only one to have survived Ethan and his pet demons' forced entry. "I was just putting away the last of them now."

"I'll do it."

"There's really no need--"

"I wanna help," she insisted, picking up a large old volume from the top of the pile. "Please let me help?"

Giles smiled hesitantly, sensing this small task was somehow important to her, although why still escaped him. "Very well. If you insist."

"I do. You just sit," Buffy instructed, taking his arm and pushing him backwards until his legs hit the front of his armchair. He promptly fell into it, slightly bewildered by her behavior. "And I'll have these all put away in a jiffy."

"Buffy--"

"Then I'll make you a nice cup of tea," she promised, sliding the book into position in its new home. "Although I'm gonna have to draw the line at attempting to bake scones. I know, how about a nice massage instead? Bet it would do those sore muscles a world of good."

The thought of her hands roaming freely over his bare skin caused a reaction that made him very glad he was sitting down.

"From now on," Buffy said happily, returning another book to its place, "there is nothing too good for my man."

Watching her retrieve another book from the stack, Giles suddenly understood what she was doing; why she had dropped by so unexpectedly and what she wanted. It wasn't to leave him, quite the opposite actually. She had come to seduce him. A lance went through his chest. Letting her down after confessing his feelings was not going to be easy ... on either of them. Things had been said in the woods, things that only made reality all that much harder to live with.

"I'm ... not your man."

"Sure you are."

"No, Buffy, I'm not. I can't be, and you know why."

She stopped, still as a statue, frozen by his rebuff. She looked down at the cover of the old tome in her hands, stretching the silence into minutes. Giles' breath caught in his throat as he followed her gaze and realized just what had captured her attention. She was looking at the cover of the book that had come between them; the Pergamum Codex.

"We need to talk," she said, her gaze finally coming up to find his.

Swallowing the raw lump in his throat, Giles rubbed his hand over his eyes. God, how he wanted to just take her in his arms and give her everything she wanted. If only it were that simple. Instead, he couldn't even bring himself to maintain eye contact, because every time she looked at him like that, all he wanted to do was fall at her feet. He had to be strong. He had to turn her away, despite all the love he had welling up inside him. For her own sake.

"I rather think we've said far too much as it is," he told her bluntly.

Shelving the Codex, Buffy moved to crouch beside his armchair. "No," she told him, lifting one of his hands to her cheek, forcing contact. "I'll never regret telling you that I love you. Because I do. I love you so much. Don't you believe me?"

"It's not a question of what I believe."

"I stole your heart. That's what you said. I still have it, don't I?"

"Buffy, you seem to be forgetting--" he began, but the soft kiss that she placed in his palm robbed him of all further speech and rational thought.

"Don't I?" she asked again. She held him spellbound with a look, turning the simple hold she had on him into a profoundly loving caress, the longing in her eyes so effectively feeding his steadily building passion.

"Forever."

She grinned, suddenly letting him go and getting to her feet. "Then I have something for you, too."

He had no idea what she meant, not even when she sat herself in his lap with a provocative little wriggle. Somewhere in his brain where all logic had been temporarily banished, Giles knew he should stop this behavior immediately, but he failed to construct an articulate sentence. In fact, his arms seemed to have acquired a mind of their own, too, as they rose involuntarily to find a natural resting place around her. Buffy mesmerized him again by raising her hands behind her head, her short, tight, tank-top providing the foundation for so many impossible fantasies. It wasn't until she had unclasped a chain from her neck and brought it to him on her palm that he realized her intent.

"My ring," he said, identifying the item beside her silver cross. He smiled at her, truly thankful. "I wondered where I lost it. It was a gift from my grandmother."

Buffy carefully threaded his signet ring off her chain. "You didn't actually lose it. Ethan left it as a calling card. I guess he wanted to make sure I tried to rescue you. And it worked." Picking up his hand again, she gently slid his ring home, then kept his fingers wrapped up in hers. "I didn't give it back before because ... well, because I needed to have something of you all to myself." Leaning down, she affectionately rubbed noses with him. "Now I have you, and that's a whole lot better."

She smelled of lilac and honey, and as he searched her face, so near his own, he inhaled her until he felt punch drunk. "Thank you ... for taking such good care of it."

"You're welcome," she said, studying his lips, as if trying to decide whether or not to taste them. Her eyes flicked to his. "Kissing is okay, right? Because I really wanna kiss you right now."

"Um, yes, it is," he reiterated in feeble protest, as she slowly lowered her lips to his. "Although perhaps not the wisest idea ... "

She tasted sweeter than he ever imagined, and although reluctant to give up such a heavenly treat so soon, he pulled back after just a moment, breaking the kiss while he still had the willpower to do it. Sitting in his lap as she was, the situation had the potential to run wild in the space of a single heartbeat. He brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers and smiled lovingly, hoping the gesture would convey all the things he wanted to say and do, but never could. Perhaps, provided things didn't get out of hand, he could permit himself to indulge in future displays of innocent affection ...

Buffy pouted, evidently not satisfied with his meager offering. "You call that a first kiss?"

As chaste as it had been, he admitted that he may have well planted a perfunctory kiss on her forehead. He thought nothing when she took his glasses from the bridge of his nose, and set them with her necklace beside the bowl of leftover Halloween chocolate on the end table, but when she turned to him with a predatory smile, a little alarm bell went off in his head.

"This is a first kiss."

Her lips claimed his with gusto, her tongue finding his and inviting him to share a passionate dance. Even as the thought of pulling away entered his head, her hands clasped together at the back of his neck, her Slayer strength keeping him close. Buffy didn't hold back this time, and her enthusiasm quickly gave way to the wild abandon he feared. Giles had never been kissed in quite such a manner, and it was all he could do to stop himself from giving in to her sweet lips and tender hands. Eager as he was to match her passion, he was at the same time terrified of the consequences if he did.

Desire swelled within Buffy, driving her to take bolder and bolder chances. Still, Giles let her have her way, believing he had control of the situation and that he could stop it any time. In truth, he enjoyed her possession of him. He was, and always had been, hers, after all. But as her wandering hands traveled a little too ardently over one of his many bruises, a twinge of pain caused him to whimper and flinch.

Buffy instantly pulled back to arm's length, her expression one of horror. "God, I'm so sorry! Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to hurt you!"

"You didn't," Giles admitted jadedly. "Sliding down a bloody mountainside hurt me."

"Oh." Relieved, she picked up his hand again, entwining her small fingers with his. She spent a moment massaging his hand, either deciding on her next move or mustering the courage to carry it out. Then, with a sultry look that made his breath stick and his heart skip a beat, she asked, "So ... where does it hurt?" Maintaining eye contact, she placed a sensuous, tongue-tasting kiss on the back of his scraped knuckles. "Here?"

Giles watched, aware of her intentions but too captivated by the overt sexuality of her actions to dissuade her, or pull away. Finally, he found his voice, although pitched slightly higher than normal. "Buffy, a-as much as I am enjoying this, I believe it would be in both our best interests if you stopped now."

She wasn't listening. Shifting her weight forward again, she planted another lingering kiss on the purple bruise above his eye. "Here?"

He swallowed hard. His verbal request may have been for her to cease, but his body's response was completely the opposite. "Buffy, please ... we can't ... "

"Here?" she asked huskily, kissing the sensitive flesh in the hollow of his throat. She stayed there, snuggled under his chin, nuzzling his neck with tiny, moist kisses that were an unstoppable barrage on his senses.

His pulse began to throb beneath the soft pressure of her lips, his breathing quickening. He was barely able to form a coherent thought as her eager hands continued their amorous exploration into previously uncharted territory. "The prophecy--!"

"I told you, I don't care about that." She sat up to look into his eyes again, her heartache and desire as plain as night and day. "Whatever happens, we'll deal with it together, like we always do. It's not like you're gonna turn into a homicidal vampire or anything."

The comparison to her disastrous one night affair with Angel hit him like a slap in the face. Curse or prophecy--was it Slayer's luck to never know love without a catch?

Buffy grew silent and still, and then spoke from her heart. "I know you want to protect me from everything within your power, as well as everything that's not." She smiled fondly. "I get that. It's one of the things I love about you. But I also know I don't want to be alone anymore. I've given this a lot of thought in the past three days, and ... I could die tomorrow--"

"No." He looked away, hating to hear her talk about her death. All Slayers fell in the line of duty. They perished alone, more often than not after violent and all too short lives.

"I could die tomorrow," she insisted. "The Xazax was right about us being a 'matched set,' Giles. We belong together ... although not in the way she had planned." She touched his cheek, bringing his gaze back to hers. "Don't deny me this. Don't make me give up my chance of living life because you're afraid of what might happen to me. Please. Let me love you."

Looking into her eyes, he knew he was lost. When had he ever been able to deny her anything? Her caress sent a tremor of desire rushing through him. He automatically fought to contain it, but the battle was lost even before it began. There was no way back from this point, no road leading to a safe retreat. There was only now, and the decision his heart had already made ... one that would tempt Fate.

Their eyes met in a candid moment, his love and desire for her completely unrestrained for the very first time. He raised his hand to cup her cheek, just the act of touching her sending the heat of desire though every part of him. In the past few minutes, his need had grown very evident, and sitting where she was she could hardly have missed it.

"No more chocolate kisses," Giles promised, remember a time when he thought that was all he would ever be able to give her.

Buffy smiled. It was an invitation she accepted gladly, melting into his waiting embrace. As their lips met again, her tender kiss set his passion free. No longer imprisoned, two hearts finally found each other and beat as one.

* * * * *

It was still dark when Giles stirred, his bedroom loft bathed in soft swaths of moonlight and shadow. Pleasant, idle thoughts of how damn near impossible it was to exhaust a Slayer brought a lazy smile to his lips. Trying had almost killed him, especially in his present condition, but he couldn't think of a more delightful way to go. She had taken him to heaven and beyond, and he felt indescribably wonderful despite all his physical aches and pains.

Sleepily rolled over, he reached for her, needing to touch her in order to feel complete. But he embraced only empty sheets.

"Buffy?" Giles immediately rose to his elbows in search of her, but she was gone, as if she had never been there. He was suddenly wide awake, his fear of the prophecy in the Codex giving rise to some very real panic.

"Oh Lord ... " he murmured, rising to hurriedly pull on a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt left discarded on the floor. Something had happened. Something he had initiated. He could feel it. Such was his haste that he almost tripped down the stairs on his sore legs, catching himself by the rail at the bottom. "Buffy!" he called desperately to the darkness of his empty living room.

'She will draw life from the one who watches and protects, and he will be her undoing.'

"No," he muttered in denial, quickly checking the kitchen and then the bathroom down the hall. "No ... no ... no ... " He never should have allowed her to seduce him. Never. He should have kept his head, damn it, not followed his heart. Because if he had caused--

He paused mid-thought, spying the back door ajar. He wasted no time going though it, taking the steps down to the outdoor courtyard two at a time. At the bottom, he stopped suddenly, as if he'd slammed into an invisible brick wall, his heart in his throat.

She stood by the fountain, its languid babble loud in the nighttime silence. Her back was to him as she stared at the waning moon still visible above the courtyard walls, one of his shirts providing inadequate protection against the chilly November air. She heard his arrival, her head cocking in his direction, but didn't turn to acknowledge him visually.

Fear froze Giles to the spot; fear like he had never felt before. "Buffy? What is it?" He took a tentative step, unsure if he should go to her, unsure if she wanted him to. "What's happened?"

"The prophecy happened." Slowly, she turned to face him in the moonlight, shivering slightly and hugging herself against the cold. "My ... 'undoing'."

He closed the small distance between them with a just few strides, intent on giving comfort, warmth, love--anything and everything. But when she made no move at all, he screeched to a halt, unable to tell if she wanted him ... or blamed him. When she looked up out of the shadows, he saw the telltale wetness painted on her cheeks, evidence of the tears that tore him in two. "Oh dear God ... "

"I felt it," she said softly, still making no move toward him, yet holding him captive with her tear-glazed eyes. "Like something was ripped from my soul."

A lone tear slipped from the corner of his eye. His arms rose to hold her, but fell uselessly to his sides again, empty. "God, Buffy, if I've done this to you--"

"You did, Giles. But you don't understand." Sniffing back her tears, she wiped her sleeve across her face before continuing. "I'm not crying because I'm hurt or in pain or anything. I'm crying because I'm ... happy."

That fazed him as surely as a left hook coming out of nowhere. "You're right, I don't understand."

"It's gone," she tried again.

"What is?"

She fell into his arms, snuggling against him, drawing his warmth and love into herself as he embraced her with a heavy heart. "My bloodlust. That dark, primal instinct that woke me in the middle of the night, made me leave my lover's bed, and hunt vampires for the sheer hell of it. I've been standing out here for half an hour trying to feel its call ... but I can't anymore. It's really gone."

There were no adequate words to describe his relief, as he finally comprehended what she was telling him. Once again, the prophecies of the Codex had been fulfilled, only this time the result was not gloom and doom, but something positive. The 'undoing' he so feared would bring her harm, had been nothing more than her losing touch with the dark legacy of the First Slayer, something he knew, from their time spent trying to overcome it, Buffy never wanted--or needed--in the first place.

Giles drew a ragged breath and kissed the top of her precious head, his tears flowing unchecked down his face.

"So thank you," Buffy said quietly, her cheek against his chest. "For loving me."

He sputtered once, his head delirious and his heart bursting with joy, and simply hugged her tighter. Never again would he let her go. Never again would he need to.

Pulling out of his arms at his non-verbal response, Buffy looked up at him. Surprised by the sight of his tears, then amused at the manly way he immediately tried to cover them, she raised a hand to wipe them dry. "Hey ... you okay?"

"Yes, yes," he said quickly, holding back further embarrassing waterworks. "It's just that ... you make me feel ... "

She raised a wry eyebrow. "Happy? Sad? Like a cappuccino and a jelly donut at four in the morning?"

He smiled. "Just 'feel', actually." He took her hand and kissed it, seeing only a mirror image of his undying love reflected in her eyes. Gently, he tugged on her fingers. "It's cold out here. Come back to bed."

"Only if you promise not to warm those on me, mister," she said, indicating his bare feet.

Giles laughed, happy, content, and blissfully in love. "Look who's talking. I thought I was sleeping with ten little ice cubes."

Sharing his laughter and now his life, Buffy allowed him to lead her home. Hand in hand, they climbed the courtyard steps, heading back inside to rewrite destiny their own way.

END