The Unbreakable Series
Part 10 - Mums & Dads

written by Koala





Buffy's pace slowed as she approached the brick pillar fence that denoted the front entrance to UC Sunnydale. Stopping completely, she looked at the sidewalk just beyond the tips of her fashionable yet practical knee-high boots. The concrete was no different in appearance than that of the path presently underfoot, yet in taking just one more step, she would undeniably, irrefutably, unquestionably validate her transition from student to ordinary civilian.

She'd just come from the registrar's office, all the necessary paperwork completed. She was officially a non-student... or would be, as soon as she left the campus grounds. She hadn't wanted to quit school, but circumstances--trying to care for Dawn and protect her from Glory-- required that she do so. Besides, she reasoned, trying to soften the blow of discontent, she'd missed so many of her classes this year due to her mom getting sick, she didn't have enough credit for a passing grade anyway.

Still, it felt like giving in... or giving up.

The sound of the bell distracted her. Clutching her book bag, Buffy glanced back over her shoulder one last time, capturing the memory of the campus buildings aglow in the noontime May sun, watching as her peers--or rather ex-peers--darted between classes. Summer break was only a few weeks away and she told herself she would return in the fall to continue her education, all the while knowing that the outcome of the afternoon ahead would very much dictate whether or not that was a promise she could keep.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy stepped off the university grounds. There, it was done. Over with. Now she just had to get through the rest of the day.

She started along the sidewalk, focusing her thoughts on the future. She needed to go home and change her clothes, further transforming herself from student to responsible adult, and maybe have a quick bite of lunch before she collected Giles at the Magic Box by three o'clock. They had a three-thirty appointment at the middle school, called before Dawn's principal like the parents of a misbehaving child. Buffy couldn't imagine what Dawn had done for her to receive a personal invitation from Principal Stevens, but the school office had called late yesterday to set up the appointment 'at her earliest convenience.'

Last night in bed, Buffy told Giles about it, and to her relief he'd insisted on accompanying her, reasoning that whatever trouble Dawn was in, part of the responsibility for her alleged delinquent behavior was now his. Buffy worried, until Giles gave her that smile of his--the one that made all the badness in the world just disappear--and reassured her that it was probably nothing more than the warning of a possible failing grade, if Dawn's recent lack of homework participation was any indication.

But Dawn's school troubles weren't the only worry on Buffy's mind, not that she had the courage to confess to Giles what was. Not yet, anyway. Not until she was sure.

That thought brought her full circle to her more immediate afternoon plans. Although homeward bound, at the corner intersection she turned right, heading into a neighborhood of clothing boutiques, fast food restaurants, and arcades frequented by college kids, as opposed to going left towards Revello Drive. She checked her watch as she continued down the street. As planned, she had a good few hours grace before she needed to be at the Magic Box, which is why this was the time she had allotted to deal with the Numero Uno worry on her mind.

Her period was late. Six days late. And she'd never been late in her life.

There was a drugstore in the cluster of shops making up a small strip mall a block away. She headed inside, collecting a green plastic hand basket to hide behind, hoping she didn't look too much like a student in need. She was aiming for anonymity, and succeeding, until she passed the cosmetics counter and a girl, not much older than her, recognized her on sight and called a cheery hello. Buffy recognized the girl too, belatedly realizing that although months had passed and her life had changed dramatically, she'd semi-frequented this pharmacy with Riley, killing time with the clerk over the latest makeup trends while he purchased condoms.

That thought only made her even more self-conscious as she searched the appropriate aisle for what she needed. Luckily, she found the home pregnancy test kits without having to ask--there were a bunch from which to choose, taking up two shelves, including a store brand--but she hesitated, looking over her shoulder, when picking up a box to read.

Buffy told herself she was being stupid. Buying a pregnancy test should not make her feel so embarrassed and uncomfortable. It wasn't as if she were a college party girl fearing the consequences of some post-party bliss. She was a married woman with a husband who loved her. Not only that, she and Giles had talked about having kids...

And decided not to. Giles didn't want kids right now. He'd said so, very plainly, when she'd suggested the idea following a Sunday afternoon spent with the Fisk family. He didn't think the time was right to bring a child into their world, and with Glory hunting them and all, she reluctantly agreed. Hence, they'd both decided that 'no kids' was the mantra for their immediate future.

Maybe that was why she felt so insecure. If the test proved positive, what would that do to them? It had only been two weeks since he had taken her to the desert for her Slayer Quest; two short weeks since they'd patched up their relationship, after she had almost single-handedly destroyed it. She wasn't sure their marriage could survive another wedge of badness driven between them so soon.

Wanting to be as sure as she could be without an official visit to a doctor, she selected three different brands--all claiming to give 99% accurate results--avoided the cosmetics counter on the way to the cash register, and finally headed home. Between the three tests, Buffy figured she had increased her chance of accuracy to 297%; good enough to make her either sigh in relief, or cry quietly, all alone, and dread the thought of telling Giles that he was going to be a dad whether he thought the timing was good or not.

Refusing to let herself ponder his inevitable disappointment, she locked herself in the bathroom even though there was no one else at home, and quickly read the instructions. The two minutes she had to wait for the results were undoubtedly the longest two minutes of her life. Over and over, she told herself that in all likelihood, it was simply stress--or something--making her late, because they always used contraceptives and they were always careful.

Finally rousing herself from where she sat waiting on the closed lid of the toilet, she nervously approached the vanity, where the three small test sticks foretold her future. Part of her wasn't sure she wanted to know, while another part of her desperately needed to. Hand shaking, Buffy picked up each test stick individually to read the results; two with blue plus-signs, one with two vertical pink lines. She checked the directions again, just to be sure.

"Oh God," she murmured, feeling her lower lip quiver and tears sting her eyes. They should have been tears of joy, because she loved Giles with all her heart and soul, and being in his arms made it so easy to forget that she was the Chosen One, with the world to save on an ever-increasing basis. Instead, they were tears of regret.

297% accurate. She was pregnant.

* * * * *

Giles counted change from the cash register drawer, closed it, then looked back across the counter at the young Wicca he was serving with a friendly smile. "Thank you for shopping The Magic Box. Please come again."

He handed the girl her change and her purchase, the latter in a paper bag with the Magic Box logo emblazoned in two colors on the side, his smile staying in place as he prepared to wait on the person who had lined up behind while he was concluding the transaction. There were at least half a dozen other potential sales roaming the store, practically a record for what seemed like an ordinary Thursday afternoon.

However, his smile turned loving as the next customer's identity was revealed to him. He'd been so busy convincing his previous sale that salamander eyes were an excellent substitute for newt eyes, and considerably cheaper, that he hadn't even seen her come into the store. Nonetheless, he was, as always, terribly pleased to see her. His gaze swept over her, loving and admiring. She'd dressed accordingly for their afternoon appointment, looking very grown up and confident in black slacks and a champagne colored top set off by a black paisley scarf, her hair and makeup perfect.

"Buffy," Giles said contentedly, rounding the sales counter to the floor to greet her with a kiss on the lips. Early in their relationship, he had refrained from expressing himself in a public place, but after the near-dissolution of their marriage, following Buffy's compete withdrawal after her mother's death, he now took every opportunity to remind her how very much he loved her. Straightening, he threw a glance at his wristwatch. "Good Lord, is it that time already?"

Buffy cocked a wry eyebrow at him. "You forgot, didn't you, Mr. It's-Important-I-Come-With?"

He rallied to his own defense, despite knowing teasing when he heard it. "I most certainly did not. The Magic Box has been beset by, well, customers this afternoon, and I simply lost track of the time." Grin dissolving into something a little more serious, he gave her arm an encouraging squeeze and changed the subject. "I trust everything went well at the university?"

"Yep, I'm all dropped out," she confirmed happily, although the smile she adopted lacked the enthusiasm of someone truly pleased to have left their school days behind. Buffy confirmed his suspicions with a nonchalant shrug that, again, was far from genuine. "It's the best thing for now, I know."

Raising his hand, Giles caressed her cheek with the sort of tenderness he usually reserved for private quarters, touched by the notion that she had given up so much for her sister. History dictated that a Slayer's lifespan was short by decree, and living a normal life in the allotted time was an almost impossible feat. To know that Buffy had willingly sacrificed what little of life she'd been granted for the sole benefit of another, simply made him love her even more.

"You can always return next semester, if you wish," he offered, hoping to perk up her mood. "Or even next year."

"Yep," Buffy said again. She mustered up another smile as she covered his hand, still cupped to her face, with her own. Picking up his fingers, she looked up into his eyes, grateful for his support, yet he could tell that something still troubled her, something far bigger than the decision to suspend her education, and he suspected he knew what. There may not be a 'next semester' or a 'next year' for her, or him, or for any of them.

Giles may not have been blessed with Slayer senses, but even he could 'feel' Glory closing in, first with her thwarted attempt to kidnap Hank Summers, then with the capture and subsequent torture of Spike. It didn't take a genius to figure out that any one of their small circle of friends could be next on the target list. All the Hellgod needed to do in order to procure her precious 'Key' was rip through them, one by one, until she found it.

And he did, unfortunately, mean 'rip.'

"Watch out! Comin' through!"

Giles heeded the warning and sidestepped, taking Buffy with him, as Anya enthusiastically barreled past on her way to the cash register to ring up another sale. Sparing a distracted glance at the incense and candles in romantic and passionate fragrances, then another at the elderly couple purchasing them, he paused to marvel at Anya's uncanny retail abilities, the fact that she had made good on her earlier guarantee to 'make those fogies buy things.' She would be completely in her element when he left her in charge for the afternoon, with so many prospective transactions so enticingly close. For her, it would equate with an orgasmic experi--

A handkerchief on his cheek pulled Giles' attention back to his wife. He was pleased to note that Perky-Buffy had returned, and that whatever plagued her thoughts was now a topic delegated for later discussion. With a suitably cheeky grin, she set about wiping a smudge of lipstick from the corner of his mouth.

"Can't have you meeting Dawn's principal looking like you've just been ravaged," she explained in all seriousness. She completed her grooming of him by straightening his already straight tie, her fingertips lightly traveling down the lapels of this suit as she met his gaze again. "Ready to face the music?"

* * * * *

Despite being early, they were called into Principal Stevens' office along with a sullen-faced Dawn, who glumly awaited their arrival in the administrative hallway, at precisely three-thirty.

"Miss Summers, Mister... ?"

"Giles," he introduced himself, shaking the woman principal's hand. "Rupert Giles."

"Marjorie Stevens." She was a stern-looking woman dressed in a brown suit, with her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense, all business fashion. "Please, take a seat."

"Actually," Buffy corrected, obediently sitting, "it's 'Mrs. Giles' now. Has been since January. But you can just call me 'Buffy.'"

Resuming her own seat behind her desk, Stevens shot Giles a scandalized look, but quickly hid the expression under the guise of studying the file folder open before her. Still, her reaction made her disapproval obvious. "Yes, well... Buffy. I'll just make a note of that and have Beverly update our records."

Giles wanted to say something, but held his tongue for Dawn's sake. As Stevens scribbled a memo on Dawn's file, he looked at Buffy, ready to offer support with a small smile or a nod, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. In fact, she seemed... out of sorts, far more intimidated by the older woman's negative reaction to their relationship than expected. Or perhaps it was her surroundings... called to the principal's office dredging up some unwanted personal memories of similar experiences. But she'd been distracted in the car too, he realized, which left him wondering if it were really this encounter with Dawn's principal that bothered her, or thoughts of Glory and an uncertain future that still weighed heavily on her mind.

Spying her hand resting on the arm of her chair, Giles covered it with his own. He gave it a little squeeze, and when she responded with a glance, he gave her that small smile of encouragement for whatever troubled her.

Clearly grateful, Buffy put her free hand over his and held on tight.

Looking past her shoulder, Giles noted Dawn. She wore a suitably unenthusiastic expression as she sat waiting for her inevitable dressing down, and refused to look at anyone.

"I suppose you're wondering why I asked you here today," Principal Stevens began, closing the file and clasping her hands together on top.

"Whatever it is," Buffy said hopefully, "we'll make it better. Promise."

Buffy shot Giles a meaningful glance, prompting him to add, "Yes, I admit to being somewhat remiss in making sure Dawn completes her homework assignments on time, but--"

"Please," Stevens interrupted. She looked at them with a stern eye. "Am I to understand that neither of you is aware of how many absentee days Dawn has had in the past two months?"

"Absentee?" Giles parroted, confused. He'd driven Dawn to school every day since he'd moved into Revello Drive, two months ago. He had clear recollections of waiting curbside and watching her walk into her home building. 'Absentee' was not a word that made any sense to him.

"Four?" Buffy speculated, not realizing the question was rhetorical. "Five? Ten?" When Stevens glared at her, she clutched Giles fingers tighter and added, "I'm guessing 'none of the above.'"

"Thirty-eight."

The number floored them. They looked at each other, dumbfounded, then back at Principal Stevens.

"That's not possible," Giles argued, recovering from shock. "I drove her to school myself."

Buffy was busy dividing the five-day school week into 'thirty-eight.' The answer lit up her face in surprise. "That's nearly two months right there!"

"Precisely," Stevens said.

Buffy turned an accusatory frown on Dawn, who was sitting in the chair to her right and staring at her hands now that the truth was out. "You lied to me?"

Dawn glanced up, and Giles briefly caught her eye with a scowl before she focused on her sister. "Didn't lie... exactly."

"Really. What about all the times I asked you how school was and you said 'fine'?"

"Well, it was," Dawn protested. Guilty as charged, she returned her attention to her hands in her lap. "You didn't ask if I was in it when it was fine."

"The homework," Giles said, figuring it out, causing everyone to turn questioning looks on him. He drilled Dawn with a stern parental eye. "All the times I assumed you were simply slow doing your homework because of the television, you weren't doing it at all... and the television was simply a diversionary tactic so I wouldn't ask." He grunted in disapproval. "I'm very disappointed with you, Dawn."

"'Disappointed' you may be, Mr. Giles, but since you're not Dawn's legal guardian, the responsibility, I'm afraid, falls on Buffy."

"Now see here," he began testily. In the eyes of the law, he may not officially be responsible for Dawn, but within the bounds of the emotional commitment had made to his new family he was as dedicated as they came. Besides, he'd been a bachelor all his adult life, so fatherhood was hardy something he could be expected to excel at overnight. "Buffy and I--"

Buffy squeezed his hand, quieting his further protestations.

"I don't know what to say," she admitted to Stevens, equally thrown by her sister's deception yet willing to accept the blame. "I'm sure you're aware that the past few months, y'know, have been kinda hard for Dawn. Not that I'm saying that's an excuse."

"I understand," Stevens returned, showing an ounce of compassion. "Your mother was a lovely woman and we'll all miss her very much. I know how difficult it must be."

Giles tightened his grip on Buffy's hand, endeavoring to be the strong, silent support she needed.

"It is. Especially for Dawn. She's just a kid."

"Well," Stevens disagreed, "I think we both know that Dawn is a lot more than 'just a kid.'"

Giles tensed alongside his wife, wondering exactly what this woman meant. Was she a minion of the Hellgod, privy to the truth and toying with them for some perverse form of pleasure? His eyes darted around the room, seeking potential weapons.

"She's a talented young girl with a sharp mind," Stevens went on, proving she was nothing more than a concerned educator. She looked pointedly at Dawn. "When she puts the effort in."

Relieved that this encounter had no chance of turning into a bloodbath, Buffy tried to reason. "Look, I realize that there's been some ball-dropping, but I'm sure this will all--"

"Dawn?" Stevens interrupted, looking at the teen with a falsely friendly smile. "Why don't you wait outside for a few minutes?"

Dawn immediately grew anxious at the suggestion, the knowledge that she was to be discussed in greater detail behind her back. Buffy nodded for her to go, silent confirmation that it would all be okay. She waited until her sister had left the office and the door closed in her wake for privacy, before turning back to Principal Stevens with a pleading expression.

"We'll do better," she promised sincerely, still holding onto Giles' hand. "I mean--okay--we're new at this parenting thing and we screwed up... but I swear to you we'll do better."

"Buffy, no one expects you to become your mother," Stevens said, again showing a sensitive side. "But Dawn is still a minor by law, and being named her legal guardian comes with responsibilities that the State takes very seriously. Now, I wish I could just let this pass with a warning, but for Dawn's sake, I'm afraid I can't."

That alarmed Buffy; Giles could tell from the death grip she applied to his fingers. "What're you gonna do?"

Stevens gave them both a hard look before answering. "I'll be watching for a marked improvement to Dawn's attendance--and grades--before we break for summer vacation. That gives you several weeks to reform." Her expression softened as she focused on Buffy. "I know how distracting married life can be, especially for newlyweds. But if it becomes 'distracting' to the point where you can't look after your sister, then I'll have no choice but to inform the proper authorities and allow the State to step in to rectify things. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Buffy nodded solemnly. "You're saying I need to shape up, or they'll take her away from me." She looked at her husband, tears threatening. "From us."

"What can we do?" Giles asked, tearing his gaze from Buffy's pending tears. "Beyond the obvious of making certain Dawn attends school and does her homework in future."

Stevens turned her attention to Giles. "Have you ever considered applying for joint guardianship? It would give you more parental control. More authority."

"Truthfully, I'm not sure I'm eligible," he confessed, not having given the matter thought beyond what he considered his own lack of qualifications. "I'm a resident, you see, not a citizen."

"But this is where you've made your permanent home?"

He couldn't help but send a small smile Buffy's way as he answered. "It is."

"From your demeanor and appearance, I'm guessing you can provide for Dawn financially."

"Yes, of course."

"And you're gainfully employed?"

"I own and run a business downtown."

Stevens nodded, satisfied. "The fact that you took time and came here today clearly shows that you care for Dawn a great deal. Plus you already live with her, so you have an established relationship. I'm no lawyer, Mr. Giles, but I'd say that more than qualifies you for the job."

"Even though she's technically my sister-in-law?"

"The Court doesn't make decisions based on a person's 'technical' association with a child, but rather on what's best for the child."

Giles looked at Buffy for confirmation that she wanted him to pursue this. In doing so, she would officially be giving him equal say in how to raise Dawn; equal authority in disciplinary actions, equal share of Dawn's affection. No more of this 'overriding my authority' piffle that she liked to pull every now and then, especially when Dawn wanted to slack off and Buffy gave in to her pouting. If he saw this through, then his decisions would carry the same weigh as hers, and he would expect both Buffy and Dawn to respect them.

Buffy nodded, eyes pleading, giving his fingers an anxious squeeze.

He turned back to Principal Stevens, his mind made up. "How would we go about setting this process in motion?"

* * * * *

The car ride back to Revello Drive passed in silence; Dawn in the backseat, anxious to know what had been said in her absence but too afraid to ask; Giles alternating stern looks between the traffic and the rear vision mirror; Buffy staring glumly out the passenger window, miserable to the core.

If she'd learned one thing from her meeting with Principal Stevens, it was that she totally sucked at the whole 'motherhood' thing. How could she possibly hope to raise her own child, when she couldn't even make her sister go to school?

The thought of being a mom made her look down at her belly--wonderment and panic simultaneously vying for dominance--then at Giles, as he resumed 'eyes front' after his latest silent chastisement of Dawn via the rear vision mirror. He seemed pretty cool with the whole 'officially sharing responsibility for Dawn' deal, so maybe he'd be cool with the news about being a real dad, too.

"Giles?"

"Mmm?" he asked, eyes on the road.

But upon realizing the magnitude of the news that she was so casually about to drop on him, Buffy's nerve fled. She instead found herself floundering like a beached whale, caught in his sideways glances and growing curiosity.

Pulling up at a red light, he tuned his full attention to her. "Buffy?"

She shook her head, unable to meet his gaze. What was she thinking? Becoming Dawn's joint legal guardian was a far cry from the burden of having a baby of their own. Dawn was a teenager, self-sufficient when it came to things like hygiene and meals. Caring for her was a completely different set of rules to caring for a baby, dealing with the clockwork feeding, the regular changing, and the constant crying... not to mention the major crimp it would put in their love life. Of course Giles wouldn't want that! When it came right down to it, she wasn't entirely sure she did, either.

"Never mind." Heading off his frown with a smile, she added, "It can wait."

At home, they continued the voluntary isolation by separating into three different rooms; Dawn in the living room, obediently starting on her homework with no TV; Giles in the dining room, settling down to peruse the forms Principal Stevens had printed from the 'Courts of California' website; Buffy in the kitchen, trying real hard not to burst into tears while she made her husband some tea.

Ten minutes later, she sucked up her wayward emotions and slid a cup and saucer onto the table by Giles' elbow, earning herself a warm smile in return.

"Thank you." But instead of reaching for his tea, Giles reached for her, and Buffy glumly allowed him to pull her onto his lap. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked astutely, his arms resting lightly around her hips.

"No. I mean, yeah. I mean... " Arms looped around his neck, Buffy met his gaze at close range. He had such beautiful green eyes; she really hoped their child would have them, too. The thought made her look away, guilt-ridden and cowardly. She pushed to her feet almost in tears. "I can't do this."

"Do what?"

Putting a few paces between them, she whirled to face him, nervously wringing her hands. "This. The whole 'mom' thing. I majorly suck at it."

"Buffy, love--"

"Giles, I'm The Slayer. I kill things, not nurture them. I haven't got a single maternal gene in my entire body." She thought about that for a moment, then added, "In fact, that's probably a pre-requisite... all 'mom genes' liposucked out at birth. I bet that's how they make slayers."

Amused by her whimsical theory, Giles held out his hand to her.

Buffy doggedly refused his invitation with a quick shake of her head. If she allowed him to pull her back into his arms, he'd only soothe away her emotional aches with sweetly whispered words and a tender touch... and right now, she didn't deserve either. She deserved to feel miserable, and blameworthy, and totally ashamed for her cowardice.

"Buffy, I've said this before and I'll say it again; no one expects you to become Dawn's mother... I dare say least of all Dawn." Focusing on his cooling tea, he lifted the cup from the saucer. "We messed up and we were called on the carpet for it," he conceded, raising the cup to his lips. "'We' being the operative word in that statement." He took a sip. "Hence, as you've already assured Principal Stevens, we'll do better."

That wasn't exactly the gist of the 'I'm a sucky mom' tirade she was on, but she went with it anyway. "And if we don't. If some nosy social worker starts snooping around, digging into past history?" Her eyes widened with sudden alarm. "God, what are they gonna find? I mean, are Dawn's records that complete? What if we can't even produce a birth certificate?"

"Darling, why don't we leave the panicking until there's actually something to panic about, hmm?" Putting down his cup, Giles held out his hand to her again, and this time Buffy accepted, reluctantly allowing him to pull her back onto his lap.

Settling, she pouted. "I hate being a grownup."

Arms around her, Giles nuzzled her neck with tender affection. "Surely not all of the time?"

His breath tickled, and she couldn't help but giggle despite her dour mood. "Okay, so it does have its advantages."

He growled playfully, landing a light kiss on her throat that made her skin tingle.

The intimacy made her pull away again. She so needed to tell him. She went to stand--to escape--but this time Giles held tight, refusing to let her go. She could have forced the issue, of course, but she really didn't want to alienate him right now. When her hesitant gaze found his again, his eyes were full of concern. He knew something was up.

"I have something to tell you," she confessed, bravely holding eye contact at close range.

Giles waited.

Sucking her lower lip, Buffy touched the backs of her fingers to the graying hair at his temple. She loved him so much, more than she ever thought it possible to love someone. With him, she'd found her place--something she thought lost forever after being called as The Chosen One--and she knew the sentiment was mutual. News of pending parenthood should have made him incredibly happy, sent them both over the moon with utter joy. Through love, they had made life... and if that wasn't a poignant and fitting result of the union of two people who dealt with death and destruction on an everyday basis, then she didn't know what was.

"Sweetie, I'm... " But she couldn't say the word, and instead ended up staring at him with an expression close to something a person might wear upon hearing that the world was going to end in the next thirty seconds.

What if the test was wrong? What if she'd screwed up reading the results? No sense in getting his temper all riled up over nothing...

"You're what?"

"Just real glad that you're doing this," Buffy finished lamely, pressing into his embrace so that he wouldn't see right through her sham. "With Dawn, I mean. I don't think I could manage on my own." That, at least, was the truth. She only had to look at this afternoon as conclusive evidence that she really had no idea how to be 'a mom.'

Giles returned her hug then released her, pulling back to comb a tender hand through the loose hair framing her face. Cupping her cheek, he brought her wayward gaze to his. "If you had to, you could," he said with conviction. "But you're not alone in this. We just need to put our collective foot down with her."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed unhappily, "Dawn needs an authority figure. A strong guiding hand. She'll listen to you."

"Not me. Us. Buffy, we're her only real family now. She needs us to do this for her."

"Right. She needs us. Us, the grownups. The authority figures. The strong guiding hands and stompy feet that is 'us.' I-I mean, it's not like she's a baby... or anything... needing constant care," she hedged, testing the waters regardless.

Giles gave her a grateful grin. "Good Lord, no!"

Any spark of hope Buffy may have still harbored over Giles reacting positively to the news of pending fatherhood instantly evaporated. By that statement alone, she found further justification for her decision to keep 'mum about mom.' At least for now. She masked her heartbreak by playing with his tie.

A glance at the legal forms scattered on the tabletop drew a frown from Giles. "Do you think your father will contest my involvement?"

"Why should he?" Buffy reasoned, grateful for the change of subject. "He didn't want Dawn living with him before. Nothing's changed. And it's not like you're adopting her. He'll still have parental rights and that nasty child support payment, if he ever decides to make it." She shrugged. "On that count, he'd probably be happier if you did adopt her."

"And you? You're fine with this, too?"

"Totally on board." She leaned down to kiss his lips, short and sweet but nonetheless sincere. "I'm so grateful that you're here... in my life. I love you so much."

Giles smiled a little. "I love you, too. And there's nowhere else I want to be, except perhaps... " He threw a sheepish glance at his watch; it was coming up on five. "... on the telephone. I really should ring Anya at the shop. See how her afternoon progressed."

Buffy nodded, grateful to steer well clear of the topic of babies. "I'll check on Dawn and the homework sitch," she suggested. "Then help you with supper."

"Sounds like a formidable plan."

She shared another quick kiss with him before climbing off his lap, taking a deep breath as she focused on the present. It was time to try to bolster her sadly lacking maternal skills. After all, not telling Giles she was pregnant didn't make it go away. She was going to have to face being a mom sometime, so she might as well get in as much practice as she could beforehand.

"Okay," Buffy said firmly. "Here we go. Early to bed, early to rise, balanced breakfast, hospital corners. It's a new beginning."

Standing, Giles reached for his cup and gulped down a few swallows of tea. "That's the spirit."

She gave him a confident nod and smile before they parted company--Buffy heading through the archway into the foyer and across to the living room, while Giles went the opposite way into the kitchen to find the telephone.

"Discipline, authority, order," Buffy murmured to herself. But she stopped short at the sight of Dawn happily gabbing on the telephone about the cuteness of someone named 'Matthew', her homework forgotten on the floor. Anger instantly replaced all of Buffy's other emotions. "What is this?"

Spying her, and then Giles--entering the living room via the kitchen/hall door and wearing the same pissed expression--Dawn cupped her hand to the cordless phone's mouthpiece. "Call you back," she said quickly, then hit the OFF button.

"I thought I told you to do your homework?" Buffy said angrily.

"I was."

"Please don't lie to me."

"I'm not," Dawn insisted. "Look, thanks to my jaunt to the principal's office, I missed some of last period. I needed to ask Lisa something."

"Didn't sound like that to me," Buffy said accusingly.

"Nor to me," Giles confirmed.

Dawn shrugged. "So we may have gotten a little distracted... that doesn't mean we weren't talking about homework to start with." She looked from Buffy, closing in on her right, to Giles, approaching from her left, and forced a hesitant smile. "What? Are you both ganging up on me now?"

"No one's 'ganging,'" Buffy said, stopping when she realized they were, indeed, a step away from 'ganging.'

Giles didn't stop until he was right beside Dawn. Without another word, he silently reached down his hand for the telephone. Rolling her eyes, Dawn surrendered it into his palm.

"As of now," Giles said firmly, "your phone privileges are revoked until further notice."

Dawn looked up at him in open-mouthed shock. "What?"

"You heard. No phone calls," Buffy clarified in support of her husband.

"You're kidding."

"I would never kid about something as serious as taking the phone away from a teenage girl," Buffy said, meaning it. "And you're grounded."

"For how long?"

"Until we say otherwise or until hell freezes over." Buffy shrugged. "Whichever comes first."

Dawn's expression proclaimed her disbelief over her punishment. She crossed her arms and pouted at the unfairness of it all. "Fine. Don't listen to me then."

"Go to your room," Buffy said resolutely. "And don't even think about leaving it until you can show me or Giles your finished homework. I'll bring supper up."

Dawn glared, first at Buffy then at Giles. "Fine," she repeated testily, grabbing up her books and pencils in an disorderly fashion, and stomping out of the room.

Suddenly torn, feeling a pang of guilt, Buffy watched her go. Giles sided up to her, as Dawn continued to stomp noisily all the way up the stairs. The slamming of her bedroom door punctuated her protest, and made Buffy flinch. It was only Giles' presence that stopped her from going after her sister to apologize for the major harshness and take everything back.

Buffy let go a sigh, deflating herself in the process. "Please tell me we just did the right thing."

"We did the right thing."

Still in doubt, Buffy looked up at Giles. "Then how come I feel so bad?"

"I think we've both just learned that being 'good parents' can sometimes be difficult and unpleasant. But doing what's right, opposed to what's easier, is the key to success." Distracted by his earlier cause, he looked at the telephone in his hand, thumbing the ON button then keying in the Magic Box's number. As he put it to his ear, he added, "I dare say, in time, we'll improve."

Buffy opened her mouth to say 'or make her hate us in the process,' but Anya, who picked up on the other end of the line, had already snagged his attention. As she temporarily lost him to the contagious glee of the ex-vengeance demon and her bonanza afternoon in prosperous retail, Buffy sighed again and headed to the kitchen to start on supper.

* * * * *

Usually when she made love with Giles, the only thing on Buffy's mind was... making love with Giles. But tonight, her thoughts were crowded. Motherhood, babies, Dawn, Glory, the gift of death, and how to tell her husband the truth, were endless whirling snippets that all vied for attention at the most inopportune moments. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy it, or that he didn't leave her satisfied in the end, but tonight, she simply wasn't relaxed enough to revel in the bliss.

When he came back to bed after disposing of the condom, she wordlessly snuggled into his arms, guiltily knowing that she'd blown yet another opportunity to tell him that birth control wasn't strictly necessary anymore. They'd already done the deed. The rabbit died weeks ago.

Poor bunny. She'd give anything to have it alive and hoppy again.

Her troubled thoughts kept her awake long after Giles had fallen into a contented sleep. Restless, she rose around 2:00am, gingerly slipping from his embrace without disturbing him, pulling on a pair of bikini briefs and the dress shirt Giles had discarded inside out, in the heat of the moment. It smelled of him, and wrapping herself in it was a bit like still being wrapped in his loving arms. Taking some blue jeans and her best boots from the closet, she paused with them in hand, throwing a final glance at her lover before heading to the bathroom to finish dressing.

Buffy checked on her sister on her way downstairs, still feeling guilty about the punishment she'd dealt. Still wearing her day clothes, Dawn lay curled on her bed, sound asleep, the empty dinner plate and milk glass Buffy had earlier delivered sitting in a pool of lamplight on her desk, beside her much contested--and stubbornly incomplete--homework. Entering, Buffy extinguished the light and pulled a blanket over her sister. Collecting the dirty dishes, she quietly withdrew from the bedroom, closing the door in her wake.

She left the house a few minutes later with nothing but a stake in her jacket pocket and her inherent need to kill something. Release of some pent up anxiety was her goal, and there was no better way she could think of to blow off steam than some down and dirty slaying. It wasn't until she'd patrolled through two cemeteries without spotting a single vampire that she dolefully reflected that staying home and making tea would have probably been a more productive form of stress relief.

Feeling suddenly drained by the inactivity, Buffy came to a stop, picked a headstone to sit on, and, with a heavy sigh, gazed up at the moon.

Pregnant. How could this happen?

Well, she knew how 'how'... the real question was 'how come?' Why now?

She wasn't ready for this. Maybe Giles was right, and they never would be. Fate had plans for her--them--big plans that were already written. Any way she looked at it, pregnant was the last thing she needed to be. Just looking past the whole 'Giles doesn't want kids' and 'I'm a sucky mom' deal, she'd seriously begun to doubt her ability to best Glory in a fight. Every time they'd crossed paths, Glory had totally kicked her ass. How could she possibly win while pregnant? The coming months were going to be more than difficult; they were going to be impossible. She was The Slayer. She had a job to do. But how could she do it when she'd knowingly be putting her baby's life at risk each time she went into battle?

Come to think of it, wasn't that exactly what she was doing now?

Buffy blinked in surprise. She was out there looking for a fight, when she should be curled up in bed with the father of her child, safe. She needed to go home. She needed to wake Giles and tell him, and they needed to come up with a plan for how they were all going to make it through the next eight and a half months alive--

She turned, startled, at the sound of a hungry growl and running footsteps, only to find herself tackled by one of three vampires looking for a quick and unsuspecting snack. Using momentum to his advantage, the tall, lanky vampire--whose long, dirty blond hair, colorful swim trunks, tank top and flip-flops suggested he'd been a surfer in life--landed on top of her, grinding her face into the dirt before taking a fistful of her loose hair and yanking her up. Buffy spat out grave dirt as Surfer Boy bodily hauled her around for his pals to see.

"Dudes, check it out," he drawled to his kindred, still holding her by the hair. When she began to struggle, he lifted her up until the toes of her boots left the grass, leaving her with no solid footing with which to launch a productive counterattack.

Eyes beginning to water, Buffy clutched at his fist, her primary goal to try to stop him from pulling her hair out by the roots.

The other two vamps, also newly turned ex-surfers, were unimpressed with the catch of the night.

"Dude, she's all skin and bones," one commented distastefully.

"Hardly enough blood for one, dude, let alone the three of us."

"Then get your own, ungrateful dudes," the surfer-vamp holding Buffy said, pouting.

His friends waved him off as a disappointment, and left to find plumper pickings. Still holding her off the ground by the roots of her hair, the vamp swung her around to face him, morphing into his human visage. "Hate to say this, little dudette, but you are a pretty scrawny catch."

Still clutching onto his fists to help alleviate the pain, Buffy almost gagged when assaulted by the baddest bad breath on the planet. Obviously, he was new, because he had no idea of who she was. "Looks can be deceiving."

He grinned at her, looking her over with hungry eyes. "Yeah, a totally tasty snack anyway."

Done with the misery he was causing, Buffy saw her chance now that they were face to face, and introduced her boot to the one anatomical spot that was the great equalizer of all men, dead or alive.

Surfer Boy's eyes crossed. "Narly ... " Enraged, he didn't just let her go; he threw her aside like a rag doll.

Unprepared for her sudden flight path, Buffy flailed in the air, until she landed, spread-eagled, across the tombstone she'd earlier used as a seat. She hit the cut granite like a sledgehammer, her body cracking off a corner before she and the rock chunk tumbled onto the silent grave beneath. Curled on her side, arms clutched around her throbbing abdomen, she cast a fearful look over her shoulder in the event that her crippling kick hadn't been crippling enough.

Sure enough, Surfer Boy straightened and, thoroughly pissed by her attack, showed her a meaningful mouthful of crooked, yellow fangs. As a prelude to his battle charge, he let out a menacing growl... which was unexpectedly cut short as he disintegrated into dust.

A split second later, Spike came dashing through the cloud toward her, stake in hand.

"Buffy!"

His face, although concerned, was still black and blue from the beating he'd sustained during Glory's torture session. Despite what she thought of him personally, Buffy hadn't forgotten what Spike had endured for her and Dawn. He hadn't cracked under pressure, and Dawn was safe because of it.

Pocketing his stake, Spike dropped to one knee beside her, but, having been on the receiving end of her temper since she'd discovered the robot he'd had built in her image for the sole purpose of sex, he stopped short of offering a helping hand. Instead, he tried for eye contact as she painfully pushed herself up to sitting. "You all right, love?"

"I'm not your 'love,' so quit calling me that."

"Fine... Buffy. Are you injured?"

"Just a bit winded." Trying to get to her feet, however, she grimaced in pain. Her stomach, where she'd hit the tombstone, smarted like crazy. A few hours downtime with Slayer Healing would see her right as rain, but her biggest fear of the moment was that she might have unintentionally hurt her baby. "Help me up."

The request surprised Spike, but not enough that he needed to be asked twice. Taking her by both arms, he helped her to her feet with an uncharacteristic show of real gentleness.

Grateful, Buffy looked up into his eyes, and in that single glance, she was privy to the mixed bag of feelings the vampire had for her. Love. Hate. Passion. Loathing. Spike's emotions played for dominance on an internal battlefield, the man he once was constantly at war with the demon he had become. Part of him wanted to make tender love to her, while another part of him viciously wanted to rape and kill.

But the moment passed quickly, as Spike's gaze darted away. "We should leave before the other two come back."

Back to business, Buffy frowned. "How'd you know--? Were you following me?"

Evading the question, Spike warily continued to regard their surroundings. "Not that I couldn't handle them on my own," he said loftily. Looking back at her, he nodded at the way she was still holding herself, obviously in some degree of pain. "But you need to recoup, and I'm done babysitting for the night."

"I don't need babysitting, by you least of all." She doggedly turned away to prove it, but the sudden twisting movement caused her to wince again, and no amount of trying to pretend it didn't hurt was going to get by Spike. "I'm fine."

"Right," he agreed doubtfully. "Tell you what, pet... since I'm headed home and it's on the way, why don't I walk you as far as the phone box up near the main gate, and you can call your old man to come get you."

"Can't. Don't have a quarter," Buffy admitted. Not that she had any intention of calling Giles, anyway. No way she wanted to wake him up and explain what she was doing in a cemetery with Spike, when he had gone to sleep with her cradled in his arms, in their bed. Done with the talking and with Spike's unwanted company, she took another grimacing step... which prompted the vampire to abandon his guilt-ridden standoff and put his arm around her waist for support.

They stopped to exchange looks.

"Just don't get any ideas," Buffy warned.

"What? And risk The Wrath of Rupert?" he said in jest.

"It's not him you have to worry about," she promised sincerely.

Spike conceded with a nod. "You're hurt. I just wanna get you somewhere safe. I'll wager even Hubby Dearest would understand that."

They began to walk again, slowly, Buffy holding her injured midsection with both arms and letting Spike take most of her weight. Each step was painful, and she tried hard not to whimper as they headed for the nearest cemetery gate.

* * * * *

Spike's crypt was closer than Revello Drive, and they made it there without any further nocturnal confrontations. Buffy sank into the ratty armchair that faced where the big-screen television once stood... before Giles put an axe through the front of it. Now it was just a vacant spot of gritty concrete floor, with the outline of the TV's base still etched in the dirt. Appearances aside, the armchair was soft and comfortable, and she sighed, grateful to be off her feet and stationary, instead of out walking the wary walk of the wounded at three in the morning, vulnerable and further aggravating her injury.

Long minutes of silence passed. Looking around for Spike and not seeing him, Buffy shifted position slightly so that she could unbutton the lower half of Giles' dress shirt, the tails of which hung out loose over her jeans under her coat. Mindful of the fact that she wasn't wearing a bra, she parted the material just far enough so that she could inspect the damage beneath, but she couldn't see it all, so she unzipped her jeans partway, too. Sure enough, her stomach and lower torso bore a large, mottled, red-turning-purple spot as evidence of some major bruising. Sure, she'd broken off a corner of solid granite using nothing but her body, which for any normal person would have included breaking bones and smooshing organs, but for her, as The Slayer, unsightly bruises and a little pain simply came with the territory. Normally she wouldn't have made such a big deal out of it, but tonight was different, because tonight she wasn't just thinking of herself.

Holding back sudden tears, she ran a slow hand over the smooth flesh of her exposed abdomen; her left hand, her wedding ring catching a glint of crypt candlelight. A few short hours ago, she hadn't even been sure she wanted this baby; now she didn't know what she'd do if she lost it. For the first time since she'd found out, and despite her earlier tirade to Giles about her decided lack of maternal skills, Buffy suddenly felt confident in her ability to learn whatever 'mom expertise' she lacked in order to be a good mother. Quite unexpectedly, she thought of her own mom, and was filled with remorse that she had not lived to see her first grandchild...

"It's not as good as your mum's," Spike announced, causing Buffy to jump and look up over her shoulder at him. Embarrassed and startled, she quickly covered herself. As if he hadn't noticed her show of skin, he pushed a chipped mug of what smelled like hot chocolate at her. "On account I ain't got any of those little marshmallows, or a microwave to melt them in. Just a kettle."

Appreciative of the offer, not the timing, Buffy took the mug and wrapped her cold hands around it. "Thank you." She blew on the top before taking a cautious sip. It may not have tasted exactly like her mom used to make, but it was warm, and good, and hit the spot.

Spike withdrew to the other side of his crypt and sat on the concrete sarcophagus he used as a bed, a similar mug of steaming hot chocolate in his hand.

Another awkward silence fell between them, not that Buffy was in a hurry to engage present company in the guise of cheery chitchat. In fact, if she and Spike never spoke again, it would be fine by her. Despite the odd sense of camaraderie, and the feeling that she had defected to the enemy camp, she told herself that she was only there out of necessity. And it was a very temporary gig. She had every intention of letting her husband wake up in the morning and find her exactly where she was supposed to be. All she needed was a couple of hours--

"How long?" Spike asked obscurely.

"How long what?"

Spike gave a smirk. "How long have you been pregnant, Buffy?" he asked formally.

Almost spitting out a mouthful of hot chocolate, Buffy gawked at him in shock. Managing to swallow, she vehemently denied it. "Are you insane? Whatever gave you that crazy idea?"

Putting down his mug and getting to his feet again, Spike sauntered over to her. "C'mon, love, I'm a vampire... heightened sense of smell and all, remember? I know the 'normal you,' and the 'once a month' you. Your scent has changed to something new." He squatted in front of her, hands on either armrest, effectively trapping her. Eye to eye, he shot her a deviant little grin. "You smell pregnant." With that, he delighted in giving her a good, long sniff.

Disgusted, Buffy wanted to be disgusting in return, at the same time reminding him of their non-existent relationship. "Maybe you just smell the sex I had with Giles earlier tonight."

"I can smell him on you, too," Spike confirmed, his eyes dipping to rake over her in a way that made her skin crawl. "All over you... "

His undisguised lust made her more than slightly uncomfortable. She held her breath, recalling the internal war she had earlier witnessed in his eyes. This Spike was the one who wanted to hurt her.

Sensing her apprehension, he stood and retreated to the other side of his crypt. "Mostly because you're wearing his bloody shirt," he concluded in a casual tone. Reclaiming his mug, he sipped his hot chocolate as if the preceding moments hadn't even happened. "So... how long?"

She thought about denying it again and simply walking out. But in truth, Buffy was busting to tell someone, even if Spike wasn't the top name on her list. "A few weeks, by my calculations." She couldn't stop a smile of pure joy or the happy babble. "I think it happened the night we spent at the motel, in the desert. Although I still can't figure out how. I mean, we used a--"

Spike's flat look iced her happy babble. "You mean the night Glory tortured the hell outta me, trying to make me tell her who the sodding Key is."

Elation abruptly squashed, Buffy guiltily diverted her gaze. She honestly didn't know what to say to that.

"You do know it's a death sentence, right?" Off her frown, he continued. "Buffy, every vampire in town who has crossed paths with you in the past will be able to smell the change in you, and those who haven't will hear about it, word of mouth, sooner rather than later."

She hadn't thought of that... mostly because until Spike told her, she hadn't realized that her olfactory signature had even altered to such a recognizable degree. It made sense, though, since her body was now going through a major hormonal change... and it was probably only going to get worse as her pregnancy progressed. If they could 'smell' her now, just wait until her baby actually developed enough to have a heartbeat. Would the entire vampire and demon population of Sunnydale then 'hear' her condition, too?

Again, Buffy's instinct was to turn to Giles. If there had ever been any other pregnant Slayers, he'd know... and he'd know what to do, how to progress, how to keep her and her unborn child safe.

"Pregnant means vulnerable," Spike concluded with a concerned frown, coming back to stand in front of her. "When this gets out, they'll be hunting you in droves."

She looked up, defiant, her hand instinctively covering her belly. "I don't care. I'm having this baby."

Spike looked doubtful. "Have you ever seen a pregnant woman do a roundhouse kick?"

It was easy to be defiant now, but Spike was right. In a few months, when she was as big as a house and unsteady on her feet, just going upstairs to the bathroom would prove challenging. Slaying, therefore, would become a non-issue by her mid-term... provided, of course, she survived that long.

An uneasy solution crawled into her mind. It was clear, from what she'd just learned, that if she was going to make it to full term, then she was going to need help. Not just from her husband and friends, who could make a passable attempt at routine nightly patrols, but from someone who possessed her strength, someone who could bail the others out of trouble when they needed it, someone who had proven she could trust to protect Dawn--and her--with his life.

Buffy regarded Spike again, and the unsightly purple and black bruises he wore as badges of loyalty. "Then you'll have to help me."

"Me?" he asked incredulously, clearly not wanting the job. "I'm not the bloke who knocked you up! Not that I could, mind, being dead and all."

"I'll pay you," she offered, although she had no clear idea where she would get the cash. Not from Giles; he'd go ballistic if he knew she were cahooting with this particular devil. He just wouldn't understand why she needed Spike's help. To that end, she sweetened the deal. "And I'll promise not to stake you anytime in the near future."

Spike scoffed. "Bloody gracious of you."

"So will you?"

"Get your bloody Watcher to help you! This is all his sodding fault." He turned a frown on her. "It is his, isn't it?"

Not dignifying that with an answer, Buffy simply glared.

"Right. Sorry. Forgot the old geezer was 'the one true love of your life'... even if you did treat him like a doormat last year, and for most of the time before that. Funny, I always thought that title fell to Angel." Spike gave a casual shrug. "At least it's not Captain Cardboard's. That's all we need around here; a wailing bloody GI Junior."

Buffy's hackles were up. "I did not treat Giles... I was a kid back then, okay?"

"And now you're what? A responsible adult? Why, because there's a ring on your finger? Because his bun's in your oven? Cripes, are you both so busy playing 'mums and dads' that you've forgotten there's an insane Hellgod out there who wants us all dead?"

"I haven't forgotten anything," Buffy said with controlled anger.

Coming back to her, Spike shook his head in derision, his anger directed at Giles. "How could he do this to you? He must know how dangerous it is. How the hell does he expect you to fight in this condition?"

Guilty despite her anger, Buffy diverted her eyes. "Giles... doesn't know."

Spike stopped ranting and almost laughed. "What?"

"We didn't plan this, it was an accident. I haven't told him... yet."

"Then why are you telling me?"

"I didn't. You guessed."

"Oh, this is rich... "

After a short pause, Buffy brought the question full circle. "Look, I already know I might not survive a showdown with Glory, and given what you just told me, now I have to face that I might not survive this pregnancy. I know I won't, alone."

Sobering, Spike mulled this over before answering. "You really want the tiny tyke that much?"

"More than anything. I know the timing sucks, and--truthfully?--you're not the only one who wonders if I'm ready for this. But I love Giles so much. I want this baby. His baby. I want him to have something of me, so that when I'm gone, he can look at our child, everyday, and see that part of me is still here with him." She paused, not sure what had prompted her to pour out her heart like that, especially to Spike, who would also, after her inevitable demise, gaze upon her child with forlorn regret. "So will you help me? Please?"

Spike looked at his feet. "I don't want your money, and I don't want your promises. I don't bloody want anything from you, Buffy, except... " He looked at her with unrequited longing, the words left unsaid.

Buffy stared back, a lump in her throat, knowing that the only thing Spike wanted from her was the one thing she could not--would not--ever give him. They weren't friends, they'd never be lovers, but clearly, her one shot of some sort of future with the man she loved with all her heart depended on them becoming allies. Giles would have a fit if he ever found out she'd thrown her lot in with Spike, and perhaps rightly so, because she already felt as if she had committed an act of betrayal simply by suggesting it.

After a long moment of warring indecision by both parties, during which Buffy reconsidered the sanity of her proposal and almost told him to forget it, Spike broke eye contact and nodded his acceptance.

"That a 'yes'?" Buffy asked thickly, needing verbal confirmation that she could count on him, that he 'had her back' for the next eight and a half months, despite the high emotional price they would both pay for this alliance.

In the flickering glow of candlelight, Spike looked at her across the small expanse that separated them. "I'm in love with you," he said with simple conviction. He spread his hands in a gesture of hopeless defeat. "What choice do I have?"

In that instant, frozen in time, Buffy did indeed feel a spark of emotion for the despondent vampire, something she had never felt before. In another life, things might have been different between them, but in the here and now, with Rupert Giles firmly ensconced in her heart, this uneasy truce was the only thing she had to give in return.

She chose not to answer his question, and instead snuggled into the comfort of the ratty armchair and returned to sipping her cooled hot chocolate. Spike, too, took refuge deeper in the shadows of his crypt and lapsed into silence. Good thing, too, Buffy decided. No more talking was the best thing for both of them.

She was already feeling better, physically, the fact that the pain in her belly had subsided a good indication that she hadn't miscarried. In an hour or so, she'd get Spike to walk her home, and in the morning, she promised herself she would sit Giles down and tell him that he was going to be a dad. Whatever his initial reaction, they'd get through it together, because she loved him and he loved her, and that was enough.

She drained her mug, and despite the sweetness of the hot chocolate and her renewed joy at motherhood, circumstance left a bitter taste in her mouth.

* * * * *

6:00am.

Silencing the alarm, Giles opened sleepy eyes to the weak gray light of the new day. At some point during the night, he'd rolled onto his back, and although it was not his normal sleeping position, he still felt wonderfully refreshed. Their new mattress truly was an impressive marvel of modern bedding technology. Without doubt, he could sleep through an earthquake, and not notice a thing.

What he did notice, however, was the small, warm body stirring next to him. He shifted position to spoon around her from behind, letting one hand trace a light caress down her thigh as he buried his face in her golden hair to greet her. She was wearing his shirt, he noted, where he, by comparison, was still nude following last night's lovemaking. He hadn't even felt her leave his embrace, or get out of bed to don it--bloody mattress. Cheek on her pillow, he cuddled her close and allowed the languid peace and stillness to tempt him back to slumber.

It was, however, Friday--a workday--and Giles knew he'd have to get up and moving sometime within the next five minutes or he'd miss his 'first shower' cue. It was a tenuous margin at best, and if Dawn beat him into the bathroom, then he'd be late to the Magic Box for sure. But the temptation of stealing a few extra minutes to lay with Buffy and bask in the miracle of her love for him, and only him, was simply too great.

Contented, he was just drifting off when the snooze alarm sounded with a stark blare of the buzzer. Buffy hated it to such a degree that she routinely suggested he use the more soothing and therefore sleep-inducing 'wake to your favorite CD' function, which is precisely why he didn't. He'd never get out of bed in the morning then.

With a surrendering groan, he reached to silence the alarm for a second time, just as Buffy turned over to face him.

"Hi," she greeted him, yawning.

"Good morning."

They kissed gently--just lips, which completely negated the issue of morning breath. Drawing apart, Giles watched her yawn again and noted the dark circles under her eyes... not what he expected of someone having just awakened from a restful night on such a comfortable mattress.

"You look tired," he observed.

"Probably 'cause I only just got to sleep an hour ago," Buffy confessed.

His frown deepened. "I'm sorry, love. You know I have a tendency to snore when I sleep on my back. You should have woken me."

"Wasn't your fault."

"It was, if I kept you awake."

She said nothing to the contrary, and with a weary groan, made a move to get out of bed and face the new day.

Giles stopped her with a gentle hand. "Darling, why don't you see if you can get in a few more hours sleep?" he suggested. He may have had a morning deadline to keep, but now that she had officially left school, there was nothing to stop Buffy from staying in bed until noon. Seeing a frown of protest coming, he cut her off before she could put voice to it. "I'll make sure Dawn is up, and fed, and to school on time."

Relaxing back on her pillow, Buffy's expression turned grateful and loving. "You make a great dad."

Pleased, he kissed her again before rolling away to get out of bed. He stood, aware of Buffy's appreciative gaze on his naked behind, despite the lure of some more slumber time. She insisted he had a 'cute butt,' although he never personally considered it as such, not that he'd had reason to scrutinize it the way she did. Pulling on a pair of royal blue boxers, her soft sound of disappointment nonetheless made him grin as he went about procuring clean clothes from his drawers and closet.

"You sure you don't wanna just drop Dawn at school, and come back and join me?" she asked shamelessly. "You could bring a box of jelly donuts, and we could stay in bed all day. Or until we get so sticky that we need to get up and take a shower."

He spared her a glance, finding her, as expected, ogling appreciatively. Her approval of his middle-aged physique sent his ego soaring, as he selected a dress shirt and began sorting through his neckties for something complementary in color and design. "Sounds delightful. But unfortunately, I can't."

"Nhhn... "

"Anya reported the arrival of several large crates yesterday afternoon, and she was so busy that she didn't have a chance to open them," he reported absently. "I dare say there's quite a lot of new inventory to be unpacked, priced, and displayed, and I'd prefer to get it done before the weekend." Finally choosing a tie, he draped it over the shoulder of his shirt, then hung the hanger on the front handle of the closet door and headed into the bathroom. "Lest we have to face it first thing Monday morning... "

Seconds later, Giles popped his head back out, finding Buffy now wearing a familiar pout.

"Sticky or not, you could still join me for a shower, if you wish," he suggested. As with other 'work and school' mornings when there was no time for sex, showering together had proven an intimate alternative.

Knowing this, Buffy's pout of disappointment instantly transformed into a devilish smile. "Finally something that makes me wanna get out of bed." She got as far as throwing back the covers, but stopped short and looked down, as if the sight of herself wearing his shirt came as a complete surprise.

Their eyes met across the bedroom; his curious, hers slightly anxious.

"Actually... raincheck?" she asked, sitting back and covering her torso with the bedcovers again.

Giles' head tilted a little as he picked up on her awkwardness. "Everything all right, love?"

"Sure," she said easily, "it's just that... that... if I joined you, I'd only make you late... which would make Dawn late, which would bring down the wrath of Principal Stevens on everyone, which we definitely don't want."

Giles nodded at her logic, nonetheless a little disappointed at the prospect of showering alone.

"I do wanna talk to you about something though," Buffy added. "When you have time. Say... tonight?"

Her seriousness forestalled him, the cheeky disposition that had eyeballed his bare behind with genuine delight, gone. "Buffy, if it's that important, then Anya can most certainly do without me for the morning."

"No, I... tonight would be good for me... if it's okay with you. I need time to collect my thoughts." Her expression shifted into a shy smile. "Otherwise it'll all just be Buffy-babble."

He studied her for a moment longer--lying in their new bed, wearing his shirt, looking delightfully rumpled and his--until the weight of his concerned gaze forced her to look away. In truth, Giles had been expecting this talk since yesterday, when it became obvious that something of a rather large magnitude was responsible for her disquiet. Possible topics ranged from this incident with Dawn, to Glory, to her mother's death, to the cryptic riddle posed by her recent Slayer Quest into the desert. Whatever it was, leaving things unspoken was undoubtedly the fastest way to a troubled relationship, and he was quite sure that neither of them wanted to travel that road again.

Realizing his frown had turned pensive, Giles schooled his expression back into a loving smile. "Tonight, then. We'll make time to talk, I promise."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, suddenly anxious at the prospect. As he turned to go into the bathroom for a second time, she once more stopped his progress with a spontaneous question. "Giles?"

"Yes?"

Their eyes met again. Whatever truths Buffy wanted to reveal were destined to remain a mystery for now, as he watched her change her mind at the very last second. Instead, she settled for an old, faithful standby.

"I love you."

"I love you, too," he returned in kind, his smile firmly in place lest she see that he had noticed her hesitation. Turning his back, he let his pensive frown return as he headed into the bathroom for his morning shower.

Whatever it was, he'd find out tonight.

* * * * *

Avoiding conversation, Buffy pretended to be asleep when Giles thoughtfully slid a cup of hot, fresh brewed coffee on the nightstand beside her. Believing the sham, he didn't try to wake her, rather tiptoed about their bedroom collecting his wallet, watch, and keys. Despite her heart's desire to confess her secret, she continued the pretence as he left her with a gentle kiss on the cheek, and a light and loving caress of his fingertips on her hair. It was only after she heard his car pull out of the driveway, knowing that Dawn was with him and the house was empty, that she surfaced from their bed. Throwing back the covers, she blew a weary sigh at the ceiling, hating herself for being such a coward, and a miserable liar to boot.

In the bathroom, she disrobed before the vanity mirror, revealing the unsightly swath of bruises across her abdomen, and the real reason she'd belatedly declined Giles' shower invitation. She hadn't gone to bed with them last night, so if he saw them, she'd have no option but to admit everything. They'd be gone in a few days, thanks to her accelerated Slayer physiognomy, but in the meantime, if Giles got frisky, she would have to remember to 'have a headache.'

'Or just tell him.' The graveyard romp at two in the morning, the vamp attack, taking refuge in Spike's crypt... oh and by the way, did she mention she was pregnant?

Buffy made a disagreeable sound as she stood under the shower spray, eyes closed and letting the hot water cascade down over her slender body. The question was 'how.' How did she tell Giles that he was going to be a dad, when she knew it was the last thing he wanted to hear? Should she be spontaneous and just blurt it out? Like she'd almost done in the car yesterday and in bed this morning? Or would it be better to take her time and set the mood first? Take control of the situation and therefore, the conversation?

As she lathered up with some fruity-smelling shampoo, she knew the trouble with approach number one was that without rehearsals and careful planning of what she wanted to say, she truly did run the risk of letting her language skills be overrun with emotion and turn it all into a messy, teary, nonsensical babble. Approach number two did seem a bit underhanded, but it was also her best bet for total comprehension.

By the end of her shower, she had a plan. A candlelit dinner for two was in order, followed by a little cuddling and kissing on the couch, and then--bam!--drop the bomb and be prepared for the fallout. Drying off, she wrapped herself in a towel, wondering why this was so incredibly hard. Brushing out her wet hair, Buffy again regarded her reflection in the vanity mirror, and answered that question aloud.

"Because I'm scared."

Scared of Giles' reaction, scared of losing him, scared of babies and of being a mom.

She stared hard at her image, trying to look into herself, to see what Giles saw when he looked at her. Was Spike right? Was she 'still a kid' in his eyes? Too immature for the daunting task of motherhood? Was that one of the myriad of unspoken reasons why Giles didn't want children with her?

"Sweetie, I'm pregnant."

She watched herself speak the three words infinitely more difficult to say than those other much-sought-after three words in the English language. By comparison, 'I love you' was a piece of cake. Biting down on her quivering lip, she continued to study herself in the mirror, her eyes dipping down to take in the fluffy, peach-colored, bath towel hiding her bruises, then flying back to her own gaze with renewed determination.

What she'd told Spike was true. Scared though she may be--of practically everything concerning her pregnancy--she wanted this baby more than she wanted anything else in the world.

Giles' baby.

Now she just had to make him want it, too.

* * * * *

Jinx and two other brethren devoted to serving Glorificus, humbly stood before the Hellgod in the high-rise luxury apartment she was forced to inhabit while in this appallingly human dimension. Having been present as Brother Slook reported his conclusions in the quest for the identity of The Key, Jinx now basked in the splendor of his mistress' obvious pleasure. He liked it when his mistress was pleased; it was far more conducive to his wellbeing than when she were irate. Or hungry.

"So, it's her," Glory announced happily from her throne of red velvet and mahogany. "Under our noses all this time. I like the detail work those monks did. Quirks, foibles, passions... it's all so cute, so... human, y'know? Pretty convincing really, but not convincing enough."

The mighty, and extremely fashionable, Glorificus slowly stood, her expression changing from the cheerfulness a child might exhibit at a birthday party, to the grim determination of a bloodthirsty killer. One by one, she looked her unworthy servants in the eye, and Jinx found himself struggling not to squirm under her most magnificent and powerful gaze.

"You all know your assignments," Glory confirmed, and he nodded obediently, along with his brothers. Failure now was not an option. She smiled happily again, lighting his world with the grandeur of her presence. "Good. I think it's time to collect The Key."

* * * * *

Buffy had long ago accepted that Giles was better in the kitchen than her. Cooking a passable dinner for him was a learning experience to which he graciously submitted, despite those rare occasions when the aftermath kept him up all night, but serving a meal intended to impress and seduce him into a receptive mood was still an impossible feat for her. So, realizing her chances for success were better 'bought' than 'made,' she perused a takeout menu over a fresh cup of mid-morning coffee, and decided to hit the mall rather than the supermarket that afternoon... as soon as the latest load of washing was done. She'd already put fresh sheets on their bed, in the ever-hopeful chance that she had Giles' reaction figured wrong, and, after she told him, they retired to their bedroom to tenderly express their mutual joy. Now she was just killing time, waiting to throw the kitchen towels and her mother's fine linen tablecloth into the dryer before she left the house.

All like a regular 'domestic goddess.'

The phrase had her smiling into her coffee cup, because it was all so normal and not the least bit Slayery. In fact, it was seriously housewifey, and in a surprisingly contented way. The more she thought about it, the more Buffy embraced the idea of being a stay-at-home mother, raising their normal child, in a normal household, with her and Giles in the roles of a normal mom and dad... Fate and Destiny not withstanding.

Pondering the takeout menu, she decided on a selection of Giles' favorite entrees. He had a fondness for Indian food, minus the hot curries, and there were no crispier papadoms in all Sunnydale--according to him--than the restaurant on the corner of Beaumont and Lopez. Plus they delivered, so she could order via phone and save herself the hassle of trying to get hot food home hot, while on foot.

She really should have Giles give her some brush up lessons so she could pass her driving test. She'd need to know how to drive in order to ferry their children to and from school...

Children. Plural.

Her grin was goofy, but the happy giddiness surrounding her was just too great to deny.

It was with renewed confidence that Buffy finally left the house. Success was in her sights in the form of a mouthwatering array of Indian dishes, served by candlelight on her mother's best china and backed by some light Kenny G. Her culinary skills may leave everything to be desired, but her feminine wiles definitely knew how to set the mood.

The bath and body shop at the mall was her primary destination. She'd managed to rustle up some unused, long, tapered dinner candles for the table setting from a box in the basement, but for the smooching afterwards, she purchased two 10oz pillar candles from the 'Sensuality' aromatherapy line, fragranced with jasmine and vanilla, and guaranteed, according to the salesgirl, to put her man in the right frame of mind for anything. In the event that Giles didn't develop an amenable disposition by candle scent alone, she also purchased some matching body lotion for when they got close.

Next on her plan was a detour to see Willow and Tara, but Buffy got a little sidetracked before she even left the mall, first by an incredible, have-to-be-insane-to-miss sale going on at Victoria's Secret, then again when passing the bookstore's sidewalk table, where a yellow and black cover caught her eye. With the exception of the odd romance novel or tabloid magazine, she didn't have a lot of time for reading. Study was either Slayer-related or school-related... or had been until yesterday.

And this definitely fell into the category of 'research.'

With a self-conscious glance over her shoulder, she picked up 'Pregnancy for Dummies' and started flipping through it. Despite the casual and humorous format, the information within made her realize that not only was the book and title targeted at her, but that she had a heck of a lot to learn in the next eight and a half months... a time period which rapidly expanded to 'years' when she began thumbing through 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bringing Up Baby.'

Filing 'The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-To-Be' in the back of her mind for possible later purchase, she took 'Pregnancy for Dummies' to the cash register, still surreptitiously scanning the crowd to make sure there was no one about she knew. It was bad enough that Spike had guessed her secret; she didn't want anyone else to know until after she'd had a chance--or rather worked up the nerve--to tell Giles. This was not the sort of news she wanted getting back to him, secondhand.

Happily toting the evidence of her impromptu shopping spree in several large plastic bags stamped with the Sunnydale Mall logo, Buffy found herself entering the women's dorm at UC Sunnydale at a quarter to three. Thanks to her splurging, she was running later than intended, so she wouldn't be able to stay long--just long enough to ask Willow and Tara for a major favor.

As she walked across the common area to the stairs, she smiled to herself, all the misgivings she'd expected to feel for being back on campus, in the wake of her decision to quit, absent. In their place was a big happy bubble containing her new purpose in life, something that far overshadowed her despondency over her decision to drop out. School was no longer even a blip on her radar, because in just twenty-four hours, her priorities had completely shifted to focus on her husband, her sister, and her baby.

Her family.

It was a 'happily ever after' dream, a future not usually reserved for a Slayer, but nonetheless the elusive one Buffy had always so desperately wanted. Not even Spike's reminder of her calling and the pending danger from the undead population, or from Glory, could intrude on her good mood. Not today.

Hand raised, Buffy was about to deliver a jaunty knock on the door of Willow's room, when it abruptly opened in front of her to reveal Willow in the middle of a heated argument with Tara.

"I'm really sorry that I didn't establish my lesbo street cred before I got into this relationship," Willow said in icy, controlled anger, her hand still on the door handle and her attention focused inside the room. She had yet to notice Buffy, while Buffy tried very hard to become invisible. "You're the only woman I've ever fallen in love with, so how on earth could you ever take me seriously?"

Tara, however, was in the perfect position to note Buffy's presence, but it didn't stop her from pleading with her lover to stay to try to resolve things. "Willow, please!"

"Have fun at the Fair." With that, Willow angrily turned to leave.

She faltered, almost walking into Buffy, who had the good grace to look completely embarrassed for accidentally stumbling into such a private conversation. Recovering quickly, Willow pushed past with nothing but an irate frown, and continued on her way without saying a word.

Buffy watched Willow stalk down the hallway in a cloud of anger, then turned her guilty gaze back through the open doorway toward Tara. She attempted a smile. "This is a bad time," she said by way of possibly the lamest apology ever. "I'll just... go."

"No, it's okay," Tara said, obviously fighting back tears.

Buffy hesitantly shuffled into Willow's room, feeling as much an intruder as Tara with its rightful owner gone. She stood there with her shopping bags--evidence of her cheerfulness--and waited for the other girl to initiate an uneasy dialogue.

When Tara next turned to her, she'd donned a friendly smile that didn't take a genius to figure out was completely faked. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

"Me, too. Sorry you guys were fighting, I mean."

"Willow's just... " Tara shook her head, accepting the blame for whatever had transpired. "I said something totally stupid."

Buffy chewed her lip, and, despite not knowing all of the circumstances, attempted to ease some of Tara's evident pain. "I know it's probably not much help, but... Giles and me, we fight sometimes, too. Usually about dumb, insignificant things. I think it's all just part of a normal relationship."

Grateful, Tara nodded. "I-it's our first one."

"Really?" Belatedly, Buffy tried to cover her surprise. All couples fought from time to time; it was a fact of life. How long had Willow and Tara been together now?

Tara dipped her gaze in embarrassment, while Buffy continued to feel uncomfortable, standing there cocooned from the real world inside her happy daydream. The sole intention of her visit had been to ask Willow and Tara if they would look after Dawn tonight, so that she and Giles could spend an intimate evening together without interruption. In light of the argument she'd unintentionally witnessed, asking that now seemed incredibly selfish and insensitive.

The silence grew awkward, neither knowing what to say.

"I should probably go," Buffy said again, hedging a smile. She thumbed her free hand over her shoulder at the door, jostling her shopping bags in the process.

This time, Tara didn't try to dissuade her.

"I have to pick Dawn up from school," Buffy explained, just in case Tara got the wrong impression and thought her company wasn't good enough, which was totally untrue. "Sorry."

"It's okay," the other girl said, again with the false smile in place. Roused into motion, perhaps by the thought of being left alone to stew on their argument, she moved towards the door. "Willow and I were... I was headed out anyway... to the World's Culture Fair." Stepping out into the hall, Tara locked the door and turned to Buffy. "You and Dawn could come too, if you want," she suggested. "I-I mean, I could walk with you to the school, and we could all go together."

"Sounds like fun," Buffy agreed automatically, then hated having to burst Tara's hopeful bubble. "But 'fun' is not something on Dawn's agenda right now. It's real important she does her schoolwork."

Tara nodded in understanding. Neither she nor the rest of the gang were privy to the inside scoop of what was said in Dawn's principal's office, although they did know about the visit and had inevitably drawn their own conclusions.

Buffy and Tara walked together in silence until they reached the campus gate, where they parted company for their individual destinations.

As she headed for the middle school, Buffy's thoughts turned to Willow, and the anger in her body language as she stormed off after the fight. Buffy seriously hoped it was over something 'dumb and insignificant,' and that her friends would make up soon. Buffy hadn't known Tara very long, but she could see how much she brought to her best friend's life. Despite her initial freak over Willow's coming out, Buffy was a firm believer that everybody deserved to have someone special in their life.

She smiled fondly as she walked, thinking of her friends' similarly wigged reactions when she and Giles had officially admitted to coupledom. And just look where they were now. In less than six months of--mostly--wedded bliss, she and Giles were having a baby! The gang would be shell-shocked but happy for them. She couldn't wait to tell them. Like tomorrow. After she'd told and shell-shocked the man in question.

The bell rang just as Buffy reached the front of Sunnydale Middle School. Still safely shielded from reality inside her happy daydream, she waited curbside with the other moms, knowing, as they did, that their charges would not appreciate the intrusion into their space. She spotted her sister just a few minutes later, as she exited school with her friend, Lisa, both in the midst of a gigglefest... which evaporated the instant Dawn spotted Buffy. The peeved eye-roll that replaced it was a major clue to what her sister thought about the chaperone home.

"Hi, Buffy," Lisa said, smiling in greeting as both girls joined her, shrugging the backpack hanging from one shoulder into a more comfortable position.

"Hey."

"Call you later?" Lisa asked Dawn, as she prepared to head toward her own home. Normally they would have walked partway together, sharing schoolgirl secrets, but Buffy's presence had clearly thrown a wrench in the works.

"Dawn's grounded," Buffy said firmly, interrupting her sister's enthusiastic nod. "With no phone."

Dawn's expression turned into frustration. "So says Warden Buffy."

"Okay, well, see you Monday then," Lisa concluded, sensing sibling tension was building to bursting point, and consequently eager to be elsewhere.

"Count on it," Buffy assured the teen as she departed.

Dawn sent a final wave after her friend, glared at Buffy, then started down the sidewalk without waiting. Buffy watched for a moment, flooded with guilt. She hated being the tyrant--in Dawn's eyes--but what Giles said last night was true; being a good parent was sometimes difficult and unpleasant, something she had taken to heart and intended to apply to her own child. She knew that if she caved now and gave Dawn back unlimited phone privileges, her homework would most likely never get done, so her grades would continue to suffer, until Principal Stevens called her and Giles to her office again, the outcome of which was just unthinkable.

She had to be firm, so they could remain a family.

Lost in thought--serious ones this time--Buffy started after her sister. She caught up at the corner as Dawn waited for the pedestrian lights at Beaumont and Addison Street to change.

"So how was school today?" Buffy asked conversationally.

"What do you care? As long as I was in it."

"Were you?"

The accusation behind the question made Dawn shoot another indignant glare her way.

"Sorry, that just came out."

Turning back to watch the endless flow of traffic, Dawn shrugged dismissively, but whether it was for school in general or for being asked of her questionable attendance, Buffy couldn't tell.

"A lot more boring than going to the mall," Dawn eventually answered. She nodded at the collection of shopping bags her sister held, all bearing the Sunnydale Mall logo. "As you obviously know. Good to see you spent your first day of freedom being productive with Giles' money."

"Hey!" Buffy took offense, even though she grudgingly admitted that her sister did have a point. She hadn't meant to go on an impulsive shopping spree, but the sales had just been too good to miss. No doubt she'd be singing a different song when Giles saw the credit card statement.

In a surprise move, Dawn grabbed one of the bags. "Did you buy me something?" she asked, attempting to look inside.

It was the bag from the bookstore. Panicked that the book inside was an instant giveaway, Buffy hastily snatched it back, and put on an angry parental face. "No, I did not buy you anything. You're grounded, remember?"

"Is that a book?" Hands on hips, Dawn frowned at Buffy as she rearranged her shopping bags away from prying eyes and grabby hands. "You bought a book for Giles and nothing for me? Figures."

"It's not for Giles, it's for me."

Dawn balked. "Seriously? Like... you never read."

"I read," Buffy said defensively. "Occasionally. For relaxation and pleasure." Off Dawn's doubtful look, she added, "I do."

"Whatever." She shrugged casually, but furtively rose to the challenge. "Let me see, then."

Dawn made another halfhearted grab for the bag in question, but Buffy avoided her by twisting, which was a sharp reminder of the bruises and injury to her mid-section. She fought not to wince.

Crossing her arms, Dawn rolled her eyes again; an expression Buffy was tiring of fast. "Oh, I get it. It's, like, 'The Kama Sutra' or something, right? Well, shoot, with all the noise you two make practically every night, I figured you'd both already read it. Twice!"

"How do you know about 'The Kama Sutra'? On second thought, don't answer that."

"You know, doing it that often, you'd better watch out," Dawn warned ominously.

"For what?"

"Duh? Babies!"

Buffy gaped at her sister, speechless.

Dawn shook her head in emphasis of her point. "Buffy and babies--definitely not a winning combination," she remarked meanly. "Then again, if it gets you off my case, maybe I should suggest it to Giles."

The lights changed and Dawn stalked across the crosswalk in a huff. Pushing down the tears that threatened and mustering up all that she could find of her newly found 'mom' skills, Buffy followed several yards distant. Dawn was right. Not about her and babies being a disaster in the making--she was trying very hard not to let herself believe that again--but right in that there needed to be some sort of reward system in place for towing the line, before total rebellion brought anarchy and annihilation to the present, and future, peace of the Summers-Giles household.

Maybe if she drew up some sort of schedule, with time set aside for homework, chores, and leisure. Throw in some TV allotment and a smidgen of phone time as an incentive, and it just might work... without her sister hating her guts in the process.

At home, in the dining room where Buffy could supervise Dawn's schoolwork, Buffy brought up the subject in the hope that they could find middle ground before dinner. With Willow and Tara fighting, she needed to ask Dawn the favor intended for them; to stay in her room tonight and not interrupt her and Giles' evening. Of course, that probably meant she would have to fill her sister in on the baby news before she told her husband, if only to quell her curiosity and keep her from eavesdropping. Given the callous things Dawn had said earlier, Buffy really wished she had brought her sister something at the mall, to use as a bribe in lieu of the truth...

"Okay, I think the next step is to make a chart," Buffy began, putting all the bad words behind them. She could do the 'mom' thing. She could.

Picking up one of the blue and white checked dishtowels from the laundry basket on the chair beside her, she started to fold it. While Dawn had procured her customary afternoon glass of milk and cookies, Buffy had collected the laundry from the dryer in the basement, again slipping easily and naturally back into the role of domestic goddess. With Dawn now settled at the table, her homework books opened before her, it was time to find a compromise.

"A schedule," Buffy clarified. "I'll write down all the things you're supposed to do and when you have to do them, and then I'll leave a box next to it, which you can mark with an X when you've accomplished the task."

Dawn stared at her in disbelief.

"What? You want gold stars?" Buffy asked, as if she were talking to a five-year-old. She knew what Dawn wanted--her TV and phone privileges restored. This was just some down and dirty sibling payback for the snarky comment about her and babies... not that Dawn could have known just how close she hit to the mark. "Okay, you can have gold stars."

Dawn took immediate offense; they weren't off to a very congenial start in their compromise. "I don't want gold stars." She threw down her pencil in protest. "I don't want any of this."

Without warning, Buffy's need for payback evaporated. She knew Dawn was angry and frustrated over her punishment, and lashing out the only way left open to her. Her expression softened as she tried to reason. "I'm just trying to give you a normal life."

"Good luck," Dawn mumbled irritably. She reluctantly picked up her pencil and returning to her books.

Noting this, still clutching a folded dishtowel, Buffy sobered to the real crux of the situation. Part of her again wanted to give in, if only to see her little sister smile again, but she reminded herself that this was all for Dawn's own good. The homework, the grounding, the schedule... her and Giles playing the big stompy feet of wicked harsh authority. She hadn't forgotten what it was like to be fourteen, just wanting to hang with the gang, despite mom and dad's heated protests...

"What?" Dawn asked self-consciously, shifting under Buffy's stare. "What am I doing wrong now?"

"This is for real, Dawn."

The candid declaration snapped Dawn's temper. "No, it's not. I'm not real so why would my exciting graph of chores be real? Who cares if 'a Key' gets an education anyway?" Making her point, she closed the cover of her textbook and folded her arms.

"It's a chart," Buffy corrected evenly. "Not a graph. And you are real."

"Yeah? Those monks put grades K through 8 in my head. Can't we just wait and see if they drop 9 in there, too?"

Angered by the flippancy, Buffy slammed her hand down on the table, the action sudden and loud enough to make Dawn jump. "Damn it, Dawn. This is serious."

"Why? Why should I care about any of this?"

"Because they'll take you away!"

Silence.

Buffy hadn't meant to let that particular cat out of the bag, threatening her sister with matters of the court in order to make her comply, but there it was, out there, nonetheless. Suitably stunned by the admission, Dawn's body language instantly changed from defiant to submissive. Unfolding her arms, she sat forward, the rebelliousness she'd previously displayed now gone.

"Take me away? What do you mean?"

There was no option but to tell the whole truth. And as unpalatable as it was, if this were the way to make Dawn understand the gravity of the situation, then so be it.

"They'll take you away from me and Giles," Buffy said, the weight of those words unexpectedly turning her thoughts to that of her own child. If the authorities took Dawn due to her inability to be a good parent, would they automatically take her own child when it was born, too? Startled, she looked down at the blue and white checked towel she held, covering her abdomen, her eyes unexpectedly pricking. "That's what your principal told us when you weren't in the room."

"But... I thought Giles was applying for joint guardianship?"

Buffy looked at her sister again, fighting the onslaught of emotion. She made a swipe at her eyes before Dawn noticed something was wrong. "He is, but it won't make any difference in the overall big picture if you don't listen to us. Dawn, if we can't make you go to school, then we won't be found fit to be your legal guardians."

Point made, and in an effort to disguise her rampant emotions, Buffy redoubled her efforts to fold the kitchen towels. Finishing with one, she immediately reached into the basket for another.

Dawn sat quietly for a moment, watching, realizing, as the full impact of what she'd just been told finally hit home. Her next question betrayed her apprehension. "Where would I go?"

"I don't know," Buffy confessed, just wanting to drop the subject before she lost it completely. God, they would. She just knew it. They'd declare her an 'unfit mom' and take her baby from her. "Dad, maybe. Aunt Arlene, if she'll have you, or... foster care. I didn't really wanna ask."

Dawn frowned in anger. "You know, you could've told me that instead of grounding me."

Buffy faltered, distressed by the realization that losing Dawn to strangers carried the same surge of anguish as losing the unborn baby in her womb. She sniffed back the wellspring of emotion that was determined to seep forth, evasively ducking her chin. Her mom would never have let this happen... because her mom was a good, capable parent, and she never would have let things get this far out of control.

"I'm sorry. I didn't wanna scare you into compliance."

"No, you just bullied me into it instead."

Dawn's accusation was like a battering ram against the floodgates, and Buffy fought hard not to let it breech her crumbling defenses. As a distraction, she reached into the laundry basket for another item to fold, but what she pulled out was her ultimate undoing. Her mother's fine linen tablecloth, with its hand-tatted edges made by her maternal grandmother, which her mom only brought out on the most special of special occasions, and which Buffy had planned to use tonight in her gastronomic seduction of Giles, had shrunk in the dryer and was now a misshapen rectangle about one third of its original size.

It was completely ruined.

Domestic Goddess? What a laugh. Who was she kidding? She'd never ever be a good mom, no matter how hard she tried...

Unable to hold back any longer, Buffy clutched what was left of the linen tablecloth to her face and burst into tears, right in front of her confused-looking sister.

* * * * *

Given the bonanza afternoon Anya had had yesterday, Giles spent the entire day restocking the Magic Box while she attended to customers. Not that he was complaining; business was booming, which was a good thing considering the way his wife loved to shop. He spent the morning unpacking the contents of the various shipping crates Anya reported had arrived--inventory both welcomed and well timed--and the afternoon sorting, pricing, and putting everything out on the shelves. With his daily trip to the bank to make a deposit--and a rather large one at that--also under his belt, Giles finally found time to attend the morning's mail... even though it was, in reality, late afternoon.

Pulling a rectangular cardboard box across the glass counter towards him, he reflected that, sometime ago, he remembered seeing Willow come into the shop. Such was her morose mood at the time, he knew that something big troubled his young friend, and as loathe as he was to admit it, he'd been too busy, then, to find out what. Not that Willow had appeared eager to engage in conversation. Indeed, after an initial glum wave of greeting, she had slumped into the beanbags and cushions in a corner of the reading area at the front of the store, away from him and Anya and the customers, clearly wishing to be left alone for the duration of her stay. Neither he nor Anya had approached her, and had instead devoted themselves to their individual tasks, which in Giles' case meant getting the abundance of new inventory put into stock before the store closed.

In fact, if he were being truthful, he had forgotten Willow was there.

So it was with some surprise that he spied her ambling down the Magic Box's mid-point stairs, ready to touch base with the world again, just as he reached for a pair of scissors to cut the packing string from around the cardboard box addressed to him.

"I hope this isn't a return," he muttered in slight annoyance. "Everyone wants petrified hamsters, but they're never happy with them."

Willow leaned dejectedly on the other side of the counter, feigning interest.

As he opened the box, Giles frowned at the cloud of depression that still hung over her. "You all right?" he finally asked.

"Yeah," she said miserably.

"Ah yes, because your good mood is both obvious and contagious." He reached into the open box, relieved to find several more long flat boxes--incense sticks in various fragrances--and not the anticipated fossilized rodent.

"I had a fight with Tara," Willow confessed. She rolled her eyes in emphasis of her plight. "It was awful."

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said, meaning it, knowing firsthand the pain of being estranged from a loved one.

"Me, too."

Leaving her with an encouraging smile, Giles took a bundle of incense boxes to the shelf behind the counter. "You two don't quarrel much, do you?" he asked, stooping to open the sliding cupboard beneath the shelves. They kept overstock there, so he deposited most of the new incense within... all but three scents that he knew were running low in the display.

"Never," Willow said gloomily. "Until today."

Straightening, Giles took two steps toward the incense display, intent on restocking it, when a faint tapping from the direction of the door leading to the back alley distracted him. "Well, now it's over," he said absently, listening. What the devil... ?

"Over?" Willow asked in sudden alarm. "How can it be over? I just found her!"

Such was her genuine distress that Giles instinctively headed back to the sales counter to offer what comfort he could. "The quarrel is over," he corrected gently.

Willow sighed unhappily. "Oh. Yeah."

There it was again. The tapping sound. As if some brainless thief was trying to pick the lock and break into the shop while it was still open for business.

He focused on Willow for a moment, keeping the conversation flowing, lest the would-be burglar suspect detection. "And you'll feel better when you've made your apologies, and you'll know that you can fight without the world ending." Giles moved to the back door as he spoke, putting down the three boxes of incense, still muttering away under the presence of normality. "I know it all seems bleak now but as they say, this too... "

In a rapid but perfectly timed move, he opened the door and quickly shut it again, effectively smacking the would-be intruder on the head with it.

"... shall pass."

Something in a familiar dirty, brown robe tumbled across the threshold, stunned. Ignoring the astonished look on Willow's face, and Anya running from the other direction to see what the commotion was all about, Giles grabbed the intruder by the scruff of the neck and dragged him through the beaded curtain to the shop floor. Turning out a chair from the tarot reading table, he literally threw his uninvited guest into it.

"Wow," Anya said quietly, a reverence that covered both Giles' quick actions and the intruder's presence.

Standing over his prisoner, Giles took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands--an involuntary reaction to the leprous looking skin and greasy, scraggly hair. "Now, what do we have here?"

"Oh, he's one of those things that work for Glory," Anya announced, not realizing the question was rhetorical.

"Yes," Giles agreed dangerously, using his height over the seated minion to intimidate. "How helpful."

"I do indeed work for the god," the minion confirmed, not that there was much room for doubt, given its dress and appearance. It fidgeted in the chair, clearly perturbed by Giles' cool tone of voice and menacing manner. "Let me go, if you do not wish to incur her anger."

"She's not here," Giles reminded the thing. Although the demon put on a brave front, he could tell it was terrified, and he played on this emotion in an effort to gain some valuable inside information. Anything new it told him could be the thing to give Buffy an edge, meaning the difference between life and death for her. Indeed, for them all. To this end, he purposefully kept his tone cold and neutral. "What a marvelous opportunity for you and me to talk."

"I will not betray Glorificus," the demon said defiantly. "I will never talk, no matter what heinous torture--"

"Actually," Giles interrupted the tirade, "you're talking quite a lot. Just not about the right things." He watched in satisfaction as the minion trembled with anticipation; he was getting through to it on some basic level. "Tell us why you're here."

"No words shall pass my lips that will bring peril to Glorificus."

But evidently, not the right level.

Giles spoke to the others without ever taking his eyes off his prisoner. "Girls, get the twine that's on the counter. Let's tie him up."

As they turned away to fetch it, he smiled a Ripper grin and cracked his knuckles in a sure sign that he meant business. Thanks to the numerous breaks and tendon stresses courtesy of Angelus, several years ago, two fingers on Giles' left hand could now twist at a truly gruesome and unnatural angle. There was only a little pain in this action for him... but he was banking on the fact that the demon thought it to be a lot more.

The fear of what would be done to him, if Giles could inflict that sort of monstrous torture on himself without so much as blinking an eye, instantly turned the tight-lipped minion into a willing songbird. "No, no! I'll tell you! Anything! Please! Whatever you want! Anything!"

"What happened?" Anya asked, as she and Willow returned with the lengths of twine cut from the incense packing box, both girls confused by the sudden turn of events.

"He changed his mind," was all Giles offered.

"I'm... I'm supposed to watch," the minion revealed in defeat, fearing for its extremities. "We're watching the Slayer's people, while Glory fetches The Key."

Giles shared a suddenly alarmed look with the girls.

"Glory knows who The Key is?" Willow asked, aghast.

"Oh, God... " Horrified, Giles pulled off his glasses. His mind raced through scenarios as he sought to determine exactly where Dawn would be at this time of day. Home, surely. With Buffy. School had been out for more than an hour. That meant she stood some small chance with Buffy there to protect her.

Unless Glory killed Buffy, and took Dawn regardless...

Dear Lord, he might have just lost them both.

Anya was the one roused into action. "We've gotta call Buffy."

"Too late, too late," the minion gloated happily. "Glorificus will find the witch, and there's nothing you can do to stop her."

"Witch?" Anya asked. "What do you mean?"

The answer came to Giles and Willow at the same time. They locked eyes, both panicked.

"Tara... " Willow grabbed her coat and ran to the front door of the Magic Box.

"She's the new one among you," the minion explained triumphantly. "It wasn't hard to figure out. The Glorious One will have found her by now."

"Willow, wait!" Giles called, knowing she'd need help. "I'll go with--"

"No! Call Buffy, and then go look in Tara's room. I'm going to check the Fair." Willow was gone before he could offer a better suggestion, the door closing behind her with its merry jingle.

Acting on impulse, without any consideration for his unrestrained prisoner, Giles let three long strides carry him to the telephone by the sales counter. Turning his back, he picked up the receiver and started punching in the number for home. Taking full advantage of Giles' agitated state, the demon minion saw its one chance for escape. Leaping off the chair, it knocked a startled Anya to the floor, and barreled at Giles.

Giles spun around at the commotion, but not in time to avoid the attack. A punch in the gut doubled him over, winded, and caused him to drop the phone.

Glory's minion bolted for the alley door and fled to freedom. Cursing his carelessness, Giles slowly straightened, a hand on his stomach, and forced himself to breathe. Spotting Anya, still dazed, he lurched back to the shop floor to help her to her feet.

"Are you hurt?"

"No, just... surprised. Giles, it escaped!"

"It's the least of our worries right now," he admitted, sitting her in the same chair so abruptly vacated by their uninvited guest. Returning to the counter, he scooped up the phone, still dangling by its cord, and put it to his ear. Dead air met him; his dialing had been interrupted, the call incomplete. Since he couldn't remember the last number he keyed in, he hung up, waited an impatient moment, then again tried to call Buffy.

* * * * *

"Buffy, c'mon. I said I was sorry," Dawn pleaded, awkwardly patting her sister on the back.

Buffy shook her head, still robbed of a voice. Beneath her hands, tears streaked her face, although the active flow had, thankfully, stopped. They sat side by side on the couch in the living room, where none of Dawn's attempts to alleviate her misery had been successful. Nor would they be. This wasn't Dawn's fault. Buffy had just finally accepted the inescapable conclusion that she'd tried so vigorously to deny.

She was a total failure as a mom. She was having a baby that would most likely only be hers until the moment of its birth, provided she actually lived through her pregnancy. Her husband would leave her for not being a responsible adult, thus allowing the state take custody of their child, and her sister was going to end up in foster care, abused by strangers.

"I'll do my homework," Dawn promised, oblivious to the real reason behind Buffy's tears, but nonetheless still feeling partly responsible. "And my chores. And I'll go to school, everyday. Hey, I wanna stay here with you and Giles, too." She paused for a moment, then added, "C'mon, quit crying. Please? We can even make the graph together."

"It's... a chart," Buffy murmured meekly.

"Yeah," Dawn admitted with a triumphant grin, "I know."

Realizing she'd been had, Buffy sniffed back the last of her tears, and finally lifted her watery gaze to her sister. "Brat," she teased fondly. She threw her arms around Dawn and pulled her into a ferocious hug.

Dawn returned it, and they shared a sisterly embrace for an extended moment.

"There's something I want to tell you," Buffy said upon releasing her sibling. "Something I haven't told anyone yet, not even Giles. And you can't tell him either. Promise me, Dawn."

"Okay, okay, I promise I won't tell." Dawn fidgeted, her expression growing anxious, as she automatically feared the worst. "What is it?"

Buffy raised a gentle hand to comb some loose hair back from Dawn's pretty, young face. She was going to find out sooner or later, so it may as well be now. Then she might understand, and grant, the special evening Buffy wanted alone with Giles and no interruptions. "There's a reason I'm such a basket case right now, and it's not just because of the threat to take you away... although that's a biggie." Holding eye contact, she took Dawn's hands in hers. "It's because I just found out--"

The phone rang.

"What?" Dawn wanted to know despite the interruption, figuratively on the edge of her seat.

And rang.

Buffy hesitated, diverting her gaze. This was not something she could casually announce on her way to chat on the phone.

And rang...

"I know I have no phone privileges," Dawn said hesitantly, "but you want me to get that?"

Chewing her lower lip, Buffy could only nod. As Dawn reluctantly got to her feet and went through to the kitchen to pick up the cordless phone, Buffy felt the tears threaten to swamp her again. It had to be those pregnancy hormones kicking in, she decided. Stress and hormones. She wasn't normally this much of a crybaby. She pricked up as she heard Dawn's speak Giles' name, a second before her sister reappeared in the doorway, headed back to the couch with the phone against her ear. God, his timing was impeccable. He was undoubtedly going to want to talk to her, so she'd better pull herself together quick.

"Giles, I'm fine. We're fine. Really," Dawn insisted. She found Buffy's gaze again. "Sure, she's right here." She offered the cordless with a frown. "I dunno what's with you two lately, but he sounds... kinda weird."

Dragging the back of her hand across her eyes a final time, Buffy composed herself and took the phone. 'Kinda weird' covered a multitude of things, none of which was particularly out of the ordinary for life on the Hellmouth. "Giles?"

"Buffy, thank God." Genuine relief was evident in his tone. "Something dreadful has happened. It seems that Glory has come to the erroneous conclusion that Tara is The Key."

"What?" Adrenaline raced through Buffy, cascading over all other emotions and rendering them invalid, bringing her Slayer instincts to the fore. With them came her wicked sense of sarcasm. "How did Hellbitch reach that stunningly brilliant conclusion?"

"I'll explain later. Right now, we need to find Tara. Buffy, her life is in real danger. Willow thinks she may be attending the World's Cultural Fair and has gone there to look, but I fear, should Glory have already found Tara when Willow arrives--"

"--they'll both end up dead," Buffy concluded with a shudder.

"I'm going to check Tara's dorm room, on the off chance that--"

"No need, she's not there," Buffy said, then hastily explained. "I went to visit them earlier this afternoon. Tara left Willow's room at the same time I did. She was headed to the Fair. Don't worry, I'll find them." She was hanging up, stirred into action and eager to shake the nervous tension and unwanted anxiety in a good old-fashioned fight, when she heard Giles' speak her name again. Impatient, she brought the phone back to her ear.

"One more thing," he said carefully. "We can't be sure this isn't some sort of elaborate ruse... one that has us preoccupied, chasing rumors all over the fairground, while Glory collects the real Key. As much as I dread something untoward happening to either Tara or Willow, your priority here must be to protect Dawn."

Buffy looked at her sister, growing more worried by the moment, as she listened and noted Buffy's reactions. "I know somewhere safe. I'll take her there first."

"Where? Never mind, you can tell me later. I'll meet you at the fairground," Giles said determinedly. With sincere conviction, he added, "I love you."

"I love you, too," Buffy responded with all her heart, hoping, like Giles, that there would be many more opportunities after this battle for them to tell each other again and again and again.

Hanging up, Buffy temporarily put all personal issues on the backburner, and focused on being The Slayer again. Glory had kicked her ass every time they met in combat, and although she had no idea how to beat the Hellgod, or even if she could, nothing was going to stop her from trying to save her friends' lives. The best she could hope for was to accomplish that task without losing her own.

Or her baby's.

She was back to being all business when she looked at Dawn, and said, "Get your coat."

* * * * *

Giles arrived at the Sunnydale fairground mere minutes after talking to Buffy. The parking was atrocious, late on a Friday afternoon, as if the entire population of Sunnydale had simultaneously chosen that day and time to attend. So he doubled-parked close to the main entrance, jumped out of the BMW, and completely ignored the irate attendant's threat to have his car towed if he dared abandon it.

Inside was bedlam. Balloons and paper lanterns hung gaily from trees, obstructing his view. Dozens of people were in costume, threading their way through the crowd to hand out carnival prizes from gaudily decorated buckets. Chinese men and woman in traditional dress danced around a golden Buddha with a large paper dragon. Flags of various nations fluttered in the breeze overhead. Teenage boys lined up at the sideshows, trying to impress teenage girls with their manly skills by winning tacky trinkets.

Pushing through the throng, Giles realized he had no clue where to look. The best he could do was keep moving, alert and scanning the mass of bodies for any signs of Willow or Tara--or Glory. But waves of people, both visiting and entertaining, kept getting in his way, hindering his progress. It irked him, on some immaterial level, that the blissfully unaware populace of Sunnydale was, again, going about their mundane and uneventful lives, completely ignorant to the life and death struggle happening right under their very noses.

He fought their swell for another few minutes, until he happened upon a grassy incline, leading down to a concrete walkway lined with some cedar and iron park benches. Strings of helium-filled, red-white-and-blue balloons had been twisted together to form columns, then anchored either side of the path to fabricate a tunnel of festive arches, pointing the way to the Americana exhibit. On one of the benches, he spied Willow holding Tara to her breast, quietly sobbing her eyes out.

Giles skidded down the slope and dropped onto the bench beside her. With a somber eye, he took in Willow's grief and Tara's uncomprehending, blank expression. Appalled, he drew them both into whatever comfort he could offer in his embrace.

He and Willow had both arrived too late to save Tara. With the exception of a bloodied hand, she appeared physically no worse for the encounter; mentally, however, there was clearly no one home. Given the Hellgod's reputation for absorbing the energies that bound the human mind into a cohesive whole, it wasn't hard to hazard a guess as to what had happened when Glory discovered Tara wasn't the prize she sought. Whether out of revenge, or the simple convenience of an available snack, Tara's mind had been invaded, and devoured.

Such was the source of Willow's torment... and his. While this 'brain-sucking', as Tara herself once labeled it, happened to other nameless individuals, he could detach himself from the cruelness of the Hellgod's methods and concentrate on researching a way to destroy her, or at the very least, stop her. But now that tragedy had befallen one of their own, there seemed no hope, no chance--however slight--that they might ever triumph. Gone was his Watcher-bred determination. There was just emptiness and heartache inside him, and an overwhelming sense of guilt.

When Tara started babbling nonsensically about snowballs and washing machines, grimacing at her injured hand, Giles let them both go. Recognizing trauma when he saw it, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and shook it out. Shifting to kneel before the pair, he reached for Tara's mangled hand, intent on splinting it in the soft, clean cotton before they moved her and caused unnecessary pain. Tara instantly protested, until Willow roused herself from her misery to calm her girlfriend with a consoling tone and a loving smile, which allowed Giles a moment to complete his task. He felt the bones shift and grate together as he gently tied it up, but Tara uttered nary a whimper.

"Her hand is broken in several places," he informed Willow. Pushing to his feet, he scanned the crowd, none of whom appeared to pay even the slightest interest in them. Their collective indifference angered him, but it didn't surprise him. As with all the battles fought nightly around Sunnydale while these ignorant people slept safely in their beds, he and the Scoobies were on their own. "We should take her to the hospital."

Willow agreed. Each supporting Tara by an elbow, they guided her through the crowd toward the front entrance of the fairgrounds, where Giles had parked. Or 'not parked', as the case may be. He sincerely hoped his car was still there, although it would be his own fault if it were not.

The smug expression worn by the parking attendant was an immediate bad sign, and it didn't get any better as the man approached. Sure enough, one glance confirmed that his car had indeed been towed in his short absence. Worse, he was presented with a hefty fine, plus a bill for the towing expenses, and then told he couldn't pay, appeal, or retrieve his car from the City impound until 9:00am Monday morning.

"Bloody hell," Giles cursed under his breath, stuffing the papers inside his suit coat. Just what they bloody needed. Now they'd have to get to the hospital on foot, or at least as far as a pay phone where they could call for a taxi...

The cheery toot of a car horn interrupted Giles' cantankerous thoughts, but before he could turn, Willow's face lit up in gratitude.

"Xander!"

"Hey, guys, need a ride?" Xander asked flippantly from the driver's side window of his dark colored sedan.

Anya sat beside him in the front, so Giles and Willow bundled Tara into the back between them, quieting her rambling tribute to Irish avocados.

"Well timed, Xander," Giles said thankfully, as they accelerated away.

"Not really. We've been driving around here for the past twenty minutes, looking for a place to park," Xander explained. He gave a jaunty salute to the frowning attendant, as they passed the orange cones denoting the exit to the street. "Good thing we couldn't find anywhere, or we might have missed you on foot."

"That doesn't look... right," Anya said, peering into the backseat. Her comment was in reference to Tara's handkerchief-bandaged hand, in particular to the fingers that stuck out from under the white cotton at unnaturally odd angles.

"Tara's hurt," Willow said urgently. "We need to go to the hospital."

Xander stepped on the gas. "No problemo."

An hour later, the four of them stood in a protective huddle around Tara, who sat on an examination table in a private room located just off the ER at Sunnydale General, oblivious to their collective worry. Giles and the others had been permitted to wait with her until the doctor, who did the preliminary x-rays of her shattered hand and mental evaluation, returned with his recommendations.

Studying said x-rays clipped to the light board behind the exam bed--for he couldn't look at the girl, with her glazed expression of a mind gone AWOL, without feeling some degree of responsibility--Giles wondered, for the umpteenth time, what on earth was keeping Buffy. She'd been a no-show at the fairground, or while they waited in the chaotic Emergency Room for someone to treat Tara. He'd tried calling home from a payphone, briefly leaving the room while Tara's broken fingers were reset, splinted, and bandaged in preparation of a plaster cast, but there was no answer. As a Watcher, Giles tried to dismiss Buffy's absence with professional distance, the knowledge that she was a capable and experienced Slayer, but deep down where the husband in him lived, he feared that something unthinkable might have happened.

Had Tara, under threat for her life, revealed Dawn's secret?

There was no accountability in the thought, even if she had, just grave trepidation for the fate that may have already befallen his errant wife and sister-in-law. He, of course, kept his misgivings to himself, for his young friends had suffered enough already today, and burdening them with his personal--and unfounded--fears was both unwarranted and unfair.

Behind him, the others perked up in anticipation as the doctor returned. Turning from the x-rays, Giles removed his glasses and was about to polish them--a familiar action that, to the trained eye, betrayed his agitation to the situation and/or surroundings--when he realized his handkerchief was stained with Tara's blood. Stuffing it back in his pocket, he donned his glasses again, but remained, by choice, distanced from the conversation, with one vigilant eye on the door.

The snippets he caught told him of Willow's understandable distress at the doctor's recommendation to keep Tara overnight in the psych ward 'for observation'--hospital policy and all that piffle. When finally, the doctor left, saying he would send in a nurse to take Tara up to a room, Xander unintentionally mirrored the turmoil inside Giles aloud.

"Man, words cannot express how much I hate this place."

"It's dreadful," Giles said, finally allowing himself to participate again.

Anya, too, agreed in her own peculiar way. "It's like communism."

Without warning, the door opened and Buffy rushed in. Having expected the nurse, Giles found his eyes wide and his heart in his throat at the sudden sight of his beloved unscathed.

'Thank God... '

"Hey." Buffy greeted their anxious faces with a sweeping glance, which lingered on him a fraction longer. They spoke volumes in a look, in the span of a few seconds.

A shot of adrenaline wanted to carry Giles to her, pull her into his arms in crushing relief, but his joy at her appearance in the face of Willow's overwhelming pain seemed tacky and rude, so he instead kept his feet firmly rooted in place. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he looked at the floor.

Buffy took in Tara's mental absence, then drew her best friend into a heartfelt hug. "Will, I'm so sorry."

Willow had fresh tears in her eyes when they parted.

Tara broke into a delighted smile and announced, "They kill mice."

"Tara... " Buffy hugged her, too, sharing the anguish of everyone in the room.

"I'm sorry it took me so long," Buffy told Willow, stepping back, "but Dawn's safe with Spike, so I can stay as long as you need."

That got Giles' attention, and got his hackles up. Gone was his compassion, replaced instantly by seething jealous rage. Spike? Bloody hell, this was her 'safe' haven for Dawn? The vampire they both abhorred? What the devil was she playing at? They were definitely having words over this later.

The door opened again, and this time the nurse they expected came in pushing a wheelchair. With Xander and Giles' help, they managed to lift Tara off the exam bed and settle her in the chair, despite her feeble and nonsensical protests. She calmed slightly when the nurse stepped to the rear of the wheelchair, out of her line of sight.

Clearly unsure of what was happening, Tara's hesitant gaze tested them all, one by one, until she found the person she so intrinsically trusted. "I told the cat," she said to Willow, "and now I beg my mother, sitting all alone."

"Bye, Tara," Willow called tearfully, watching the nurse wheel her out into the corridor. "I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."

But it was hard for Willow to let go. When Tara whimpered and held out her hand in a heartbreakingly desperate attempt to stay together, Willow made a dash for the door.

Xander stepped into her path, gently restraining. "Willow, no. It's just for one night."

"Yeah, I know but... it's a whole night. I don't think I can sleep without her."

The candid statement caused Giles to look at Buffy, standing on the other side of the examination bed, only to find her already looking at him with the same empathy and need.

"You can sleep with me," Anya offered. Her intentions were good, but her execution, as always, lacked subtlety and finesse. All eyes turned to her, making her shift uncomfortably. "Well, that came out a lot more 'lesbian' than it sounded in my head."

Stirred into doing something to help, Buffy moved to her distraught friend and took over from Xander. "Will, you just have to rest, okay? Right now, there's nothing you can do."

At first, she seemed agreeable, then everything in Willow's demeanor took a dark and vengeful turn. "Yes," she said coldly, "there is." She stalked purposefully out the door.

Equally alarmed by these ruthless intentions, Giles was only a step behind Buffy as she pursued Willow into the hospital corridor.

"No... no way." Grabbing her arm, Buffy spun Willow around to face her. "You cannot even think about taking on Glory."

"You saw what she did to Tara! I can't let her get away with it!"

"No. You have to let her get away with it. Even I'm no match for her, you know that."

"Willow, Buffy's right," Giles said, endeavoring to portray the calm and levelheaded voice of reason. Inside was a different matter. He understood the ruthless vengeance she wanted to exact; he understood it only too well. "Taking on Glory is suicide."

"I don't care."

"Well, we do!" Buffy said, truly fearing for her friend's life. "You wouldn't last five minutes with her, Willow, she's a god!"

The simple reminder that her quarry was, indeed, a mightier-than-thou deity appeared to placate Willow's grim determination somewhat, at least to their eyes, but Giles wasn't entirely convinced it was enough to stop her from going off half-cocked once their backs were turned.

To this end, he reached out to grasp Willow's shoulder, and gave it a gentle squeeze, a move that surreptitiously encouraged her ready-to-run stance to stay put. "Why don't you come and stay with us tonight?"

The out of the blue offer earned him surprised looks from both Buffy and Willow.

"Anya had the right idea," Giles continued. "You shouldn't have to be alone when you have friends." He smiled, going for a little levity in an effort to break the tension. "Not that I'm suggesting you can sleep with us, but we've plenty of room, and no pressing plans for the evening." His hand moved to rub Buffy's arm, prompting her to speak up and agree. "Right, love?"

Buffy was still giving him the most peculiar look. "Um... yeah... right."

Giles frowned slightly at her less than enthusiastic response, until he remember that they had made plans for the evening. They'd tentatively set aside 'tonight' for a serious and long overdue talk. But circumstance deemed this to be an equally, if not far more, important issue... and if Buffy's confession had waited this long, then it could surely wait another twenty-four hours.

Unfortunately, as much as Willow seemed to warm to the idea of having the people she loved around her tonight, she also picked up on Buffy's hesitation. "I don't know. I don't want to be a burden... "

"You're not." Focusing on Willow, Buffy took her best friend's hands and poured everything she had into convincing her. "You're not."

"Well... "

"Please?"

Giles held his breath. Not that he was desperate for a houseguest, but rather because with Willow under his roof, he could be sure she wasn't foolishly putting her life at risk by challenging Glory in a fight she couldn't win. Even with the impressive magic skills she had developed, Willow Rosenberg was ultimately no match for the Hellgod, Glorificus.

Body language told him she'd accepted even before she said it aloud, and he breathed a little easier, knowing she'd be safe. In the back of his mind, however, a nagging little voice branded him a hypocrite. For if the shoe were on the other foot, and it were Buffy upstairs in the psychiatric ward with nothing left of the woman he loved, then he, too, would have craved some bloodthirsty revenge, and nothing or no one would have stopped him...

He watched the two share another hug, the action further anchoring Willow in the storm of her discontent.

When they parted, Willow said, "I just need to get a few things from the dorm. Toothbrush and pajamas--y'know."

Buffy nodded. "I'll come with you."

"It's okay, I can manage," Willow insisted. "Besides, you two should probably go get Dawnie."

"Yes, I expect we should," Giles said levelly.

Buffy looked up at him with a culpable expression. "You mad about that?"

"That you suddenly found it acceptable to entrust Dawn's safety and wellbeing to the likes of Spike?" He gave her a stern look that eloquently conveyed his disapproval. Right now, he settled for glaring, not wishing to express his sincere displeasure over the decision in front of Willow, but reserving the option to rant and rave later, in private.

Buffy cringed uncomfortably, as if knowing all too well what was in store when they got home, then returned her attention to Willow. "Want us to pick you up in--say--half an hour?"

"That might be a bit of a problem," Willow answered, with a shrewd look at Giles.

He ran his hand through his hair as Buffy questioned him with a frown. Tables turned, it was his turn for a guilt trip. "I'm afraid I, um... ran afoul of the law this afternoon. But the parking at the fairground was a bloody disgrace."

"You got a ticket?"

"He got towed," Willow supplied.

Buffy looked scandalized. "Giles!" Then she grinned, and slipped her arm around his waist, leaning into his shoulder. "You felon."

He smiled tightly, and slid his arm around Buffy's shoulders, the humor, even at his expense, a welcome way to alleviate the tension. Xander and Anya joined them in the corridor, and by mutual accord, the five friends headed for the hospital exit. They fell into step; Willow to one side, Xander and Anya bringing up the rear. Outside, the group prepared to go their separate ways.

"I'll see you guys at home soon," Willow promised Buffy and Giles, who were still arm in arm.

"We'll bring the pizza."

Giles glared at Xander for his cheery self-invite, but simply got a Xander-grin in return.

"And the soda," Anya agreed. "Pizza without soda is like sex without--"

"An!"

Buffy shrugged in resignation. "Sure, why not. Let's make it a party." Realizing that she had just carelessly made light of a very grave situation, she hastily corrected herself. "Not a 'party' party, but... Anya's right."

Anya smiled, happy to impart her knowledge. "Personally, I've found 'cola' to be extremely complementary to the tomato-based palate."

"It's probably a good idea that we all stick together tonight," Buffy continued, her gaze traveling around the ring of suddenly somber faces. "Glory now knows that Tara isn't The Key, but that's not gonna stop her from trying to find out who is. Anyone of us could be next on her list. And if failure frustrates her anywhere as much as it does me, she'll only be spurred on to try again real soon."

It was a sobering declaration, not intended to scare, merely caution.

"Safety in numbers," Xander agreed. "Good plan. Guess we should bring a couple of sleeping bags, too."

* * * * *

They'd only been home ten minutes, due to the distance they had to walk from the hospital to Spike's crypt then back to Revello Drive, when the doorbell announced visitors. Giles, in the kitchen making himself some tea, stopped jiggling his tea bag and went to answer it. Buffy was still upstairs with Dawn, trying to console the teen, who had not taken the news of Tara's misfortune very well.

Xander and Anya stood on the front porch, their car occupying the empty spot in the driveway where the Beemer usually sat, she laden with a three-high stack of steaming pizza boxes and a two-liter bottle of cola soda, and he with an armful of pillows and assorted bedding.

Not long after, the group settled around the dining room table in preparation of a sullen meal; Buffy and Giles on one side, Anya and Xander on the other. Buffy hadn't been able to coax her distraught sister down to join them, and Willow had yet to show. In truth, no one possessed much of an appetite in the wake of the afternoon's dire events. Except, apparently, Anya.

"But she's okay, right?" Xander inquired of Dawn.

Hands clasped on the tabletop before her, Buffy's shoulder slumped a little more, an action that prompted Giles to abandon his teacup in favor of giving her arm a quick, comforting squeeze.

"Physically, yeah," Buffy said. "But emotionally, she thinks what happened to Tara is her fault."

Anya poured herself a tall glass of cold soda. "Well, it is," she said casually. "Dawn being the thing Glory's really after, and all." Three sets of eyes turned on her, but no one dared contradict. Disturbing though it was, the comment was factual, not malicious. "Shall we eat?"

"Honey, Willow's not here yet," Xander said, belaying the hand that tried to flip up the lid of the nearest pizza box.

"But it will get cold," Anya protested. "And you know pizza is best when you don't reheat it."

As Xander tried to explain the finer points of social graces, Giles frowned and glanced at his wristwatch. A good hour had passed since they parted company in front of the hospital, and his apprehension over that nagging voice in the back of his mind was growing stronger by the minute. He thought they had successfully made Willow see reason, but what if they hadn't? What if she had still gone off half-cocked anyway?

"I don't like this," he announced, voicing his trepidation aloud and cutting off Xander mid-sentence. He turned a troubled look on Buffy. "Willow should be here by now. We had further to walk."

Attuned to his thoughts, Buffy's eyes widened at the unspoken implication. Then she shook her head in denial. "No. We explained that there was no point."

"No point to what?" Xander asked.

"Willow wanted to go all paybacky on Glory," Buffy explained. "But Giles and me... we told her not to. That it'd be suicide."

Xander tried to digest this without much success. "So like... you're saying that a powerful and mightily pissed-off witch was planning on spilling herself a few pints of god blood for revenge, until you--what? Told her not to?"

"I'd do it," Anya said, grudgingly settling for a sip of soda. They all looked at her again, appalled to have their suspicions confirmed so straightforwardly by a former purveyor of cold-blooded vengeance. "I mean, for the right person, someone I loved." She glanced at her boyfriend. "If someone did that to Xander, I'd risk my mortal life for a chance at revenge, and to heck with whatever you or anyone else 'told' me. No question."

"As would I," Giles admitted quietly, truthfully.

Buffy stared at him in horror, as the real reason behind Willow's tardiness forced its way inside her resolve. Evidently, she had been clinging to his conviction on the matter, unaware of his internal conflict, until his frankness completely obliterated her faith.

In a blur of motion, she jumped up from the table, scaring him with her desperate intent. "Buffy!"

"Look after Dawn," she called over her shoulder, the front door slamming closed in her wake.

* * * * *

'Look after Dawn.'

It sounded so bloody final, as if Buffy herself believed that she wasn't coming back from this encounter. Giles silently cursed and belittled his judgment for ever leaving Willow alone in the first place. Of course she wanted revenge, regardless of cost. How bloody vain of him to think he had the power to dissuade her otherwise. By foolishly believing so, he had endangered both Buffy's and Willow's lives.

The waiting left him stagnant, isolated in a bubble with nothing but Buffy's last words, and his own guilt-ridden conscience, as company. He stood at the dining room window, gazing out into the calm serenity of night beyond the pane, devotedly holding a vigil for his Slayer's return and refusing to accept that she might not. Sunnydale went about its quietly uninformed business, unaware of the life and death struggle happening in a luxury high-rise across town. Even the cheerful chirp of crickets played in ignorance of his inner plight. He wanted to go after her, even though he knew he could offer no useful assistance in battle, but he wouldn't defy her and leave Dawn defenseless.

The need burned within him, the desire to be close enough to hold her in his arms, one last time, in the event that...

Giles lowered his hand from the part in the curtains, his wedding ring catching the light as he turned from the window. At the table, Xander, Anya, and Dawn--nothing like the aroma of hot pizza to lure a teenager from seclusion--ate in mechanical silence.

'Look after Dawn.'

His gaze fell on her; staring at her plate, her eyes still red from crying, the fabricated child who had come to mean as much to him as a child born of his own flesh and blood.

In an instant, he reflected on the way Buffy doted over her sometimes, more motherly than sisterly. Despite Buffy's doubts on the subject, he recognized her strong maternal streak. Dawn brought it out in her, even though Buffy had failed to recognize that herself. Likewise, Dawn stirred paternal feelings in him, traits he never knew existed, so much so that parenthood was truly something he hoped that he and Buffy might someday explore together.

Looking at Dawn, it hit Giles hard that if something unthinkable were to happened this night, then she would be all he had left. She wasn't his child--their child--even though it took little effort to believe she was. And although it was an odd thing to think of at a time like this, he wished he had applied for legal guardianship sooner. He didn't want to lose her to foster care or her father, should Buffy...

Disliking the train of thought, he turned his attention to his watch. Only a few minutes had passed since his last glance; twenty-two since Buffy had raced out to find Willow, presumably in the luxury high-rise lair of the Hellgod. Whatever happened in that showdown had happened by now, and she would either return to him in the next ten minutes, injured or unscathed, or he would somehow, some way, dredge up the courage to go looking for her body. Hers and, perhaps, Willow's, too.

"I want tea," Dawn announced suddenly.

Giles watched as she pushed away her half-eaten slice of pizza, and turned a somber gaze on him.

"Can I make you some?" she asked meekly.

His heart just about broke for her. Dawn wasn't stupid or na´ve; she knew the score. They all did. A muscle in his jaw twitched as he fought not to reveal his own tumult emotions. He needed to stay strong for her--for them all. He looked down at the mug he held, chest height, the contents cold and completely untouched. He'd forgotten he even held it. Dawn didn't want tea any more then he did. She simply wanted--needed--something to do to combat the interminable waiting.

He mustered up a smile. "That would be lovely, thank you." But his face fell again, as Dawn turned and headed into the kitchen.

Giles exhaled, and his whole body seemed to deflate with it. He put his mug down on the corner of the dining room table. It was suddenly too heavy, and took too much effort to continue to hold. Emotional fatigue washed over him, surprising him with its intensity. He was about to sink into a chair, spent, when the click of the front door opening sent a heady, neutralizing dose of adrenaline racing through his body. He beat Xander and Anya to the foyer by three full steps, Dawn just a heartbeat behind.

"Buffy... " He swept her into his arms, as Xander hugged Willow, never more glad to see her--either of them--alive and uninjured.

She made a soft grunt of displeasure at his ferocious bear hug, and he let go instantly, stepping back with his hand on her shoulder to study her.

'Relatively uninjured,' he amended silently, looking her over with a critical eye.

Buffy countered his worried expression with a smile. "I'm okay." Her arm went protectively across her midriff. "Glory threw me over a sofa. Kinda had a hard landing, is all."

"You're sure?"

She nodded. "See to Willow."

In the living room, Giles tended Willow's war wounds with the First Aid kit and a practiced hand. Superficial though they were--a bruised shoulder and a split lip--the emotional scars would take far longer to heal. As too, perhaps, the magickal ones. He sensed something different in her now, a darkness in her aura where before there had been only light.

"You're lucky to be alive," he said sternly.

"Not feeling 'lucky' at the moment," Willow returned, gingerly rolling her injured shoulder, courtesy of where Glory had clobbered her with a solid, walnut coffee table.

"Well, we did try to warn you," Buffy said unhelpfully, settling herself into an armchair with a painful grimace. "Vengeance never works out well."

"Hey!" Anya protested. "I'll have you know I made a perfectly good living from it for a number of centuries."

Willow pulled her guilty gaze from the others, grouped behind Giles while he worked, and looked at him at close range. "I... took some things from the Magic Box," she confessed quietly.

He tried not to show his disapproval, or take his eyes off the task at hand. "Oh?"

Willow watched her hands twist together in her lap. "Mostly from the stuff you keep up in the loft," she amended quietly.

The loft that was off-limits, because it was his storehouse for everything he believed harmful to humanity. Amongst the items safeguarded up there were his books of darkest magicks. Giles scowled, caring little for the admission of her pilfering. What concerned him was that she'd believed, for right or wrong, that only dark power could fight dark power. It was this darkness that tainted her essence now, bitter to his intrinsic taste.

"I see."

"Then you can expect an itemized list of the stolen inventory in your hand by Monday morning," Anya promised.

"I didn't steal them!" Willow protested, turning her head to look at Anya, and in the process making Giles miss with his cotton swab. Realizing that was an outright lie, Willow returned her guilty gaze to him. "I just sorta borrowed them in advance. Like an IOU that people in the movies leave when they take something... without the actual leaving of the piece of paper bit."

"It's called shoplifting," Anya insisted, arms folded.

"I'll pay for everything," Willow said earnestly, then fidgeted. "Except maybe those neo-pagan athames with the inlaid red dragon tears that you had."

Despite his good intentions, Giles couldn't stop his reaction. "Willow, those were priceless!" Off her broken look, he quickly schooled his expression into something less condemning, and continued wiping her split lip with the alcohol swab. "And possessed extremely powerful magicks of their own."

"I know. But Glory still swatted them away like gnats. Giles... I don't think anything can stop her... "

Unsettling as this statement was, especially from a civilian survivor with a firsthand account, he chose not to comment, not to bolster her--and the others'--waning confidence with false claims of good always triumphing over evil... because deep down he feared she was right. They were all destined to die, simply living on borrowed time along with the rest of humanity until the Hellgod made her final move.

Yet as he cleaned the last of the dried blood off Willow's chin with a comforting smile firmly in place, Giles found that his biggest fear, and regret, was in knowing that the door his young friend had opened to the realm of black magick would never fully be closed again.

* * * * *

After a sullen meal of reheated pizza, they decided, by mutual accord, to retire early. After all, this wasn't a friendly get-together chock full of casual conversation and cheerful reminiscence. Gloom and doom permeated the air like a tangible thing. With Tara's misfortune and Willow's less-than-confidence-inspiring recount of her battle, they were all aware that 'safe' was a relative term. Tomorrow, they would have to come up with a survival plan, but for tonight, as Xander said earlier, their best bet lay in the 'safety in numbers' scenario... if only because there would always be someone nearby to raise the alarm.

They shuffled the sleeping arrangements to accommodate Xander and Anya in the guest room, leaving Willow, by choice, to sleep on the downstairs couch. Buffy immediately protested the idea of leaving her distraught friend alone again, but Willow assured her that she wasn't about to try anything else rash tonight, and this time Giles wholeheartedly believed her. She'd gotten 'revenge' out of her system, and simply wanted to be alone. Between this, her shoulder injury, and the fact that the magick rush had past, Willow was literally too weak to move.

Leaving Xander, Anya, and Dawn in the upstairs hall to squabble--with sibling familiarity--over bathroom rights, Giles followed Buffy into their bedroom and quietly closed the door. When he turned, he found her already curled up in the darkness gently tugging at her side of the bed. Without a word, he sat in the lamplight on his side of the mattress to remove his shoes and tug off his jacket and tie, troubled by her silence. Clearly, something plagued her thoughts. Whether or not it was the same 'something' that had beleaguered her since yesterday, he had no idea. Still fully clothed, he settled behind her, on top of the bedcovers, gently encouraging her into his embrace.

Letting go a heavy sigh, Buffy leaned into him, prompting him to deliver a kiss to the back of her head. His left hand strayed over her in a grateful caress, appreciative of her presence on so many different levels. When he encountered her hand, resting on her abdomen, he laced his fingers with hers and gave them a squeeze.

"Everything all right?" he asked, lifting his head from the pillow to initiate a conversation. His frown deepened when she didn't answer, although he still wasn't sure if her distress was physical or emotional. "Buffy?"

When she turned over to face him, he was momentarily thrown by the tears glistening in her eyes.

"Are you hurt?"

In answer, she bravely sniffed back her tears, and, holding eye contact, hiked up the hem of her blouse to expose her midriff. The ugly swathe of black and purple bruises marring her skin appalled him. Not only did they cover most of the area beneath her ribcage, but also disappeared lower on her abdomen, under the waistband of her slacks. As unsightly as they were, what shocked him most was the realization that this injury was not new; not the result of her recent encounter with Glory. This was established bruising, which, given the coloring and taking into account her Slayer healing, had to be at least twenty-four hours old.

It made no sense to him. Twenty-four hours ago, they'd gone to bed, made love, and slept in each other's arms. The bruises hadn't been there then, so just where, when, and how had Buffy acquired them?

Utterly confused, he looked a question at her.

"Last night," Buffy answered meekly.

Giles shook his head, still unable to comprehend, and was about to ask her to elaborate when she did so of her own accord.

"While you were sleeping, I had the urge to... blow off steam." She diverted her gaze from his, watching her own hands rest on her stomach again. "I had a lot on my mind, with Dawn in trouble, me quitting school, and... stuff."

"You went slaying? Buffy... " Stunned by the revelation, he floundered for something useful to say. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"I needed some alone time." She met his gaze once more. "But I got sloppy, Giles. My mind wasn't focused on the job, and a vamp got the jump on me. I was lucky Spike--"

"Spike?" Giles interrupted. It took a millisecond flat to send his blood pressure skyrocketing; just the mention of the vampire enraged him to boiling point. Then the suspicions dawned and he started to put the pieces together--waking this morning to find Buffy partially dressed, when he hadn't heard or felt her stir from bed; her hasty back-peddle at his invitation to shower together; her obvious lack of sleep; and, more recently, her abrupt one-eighty decision to entrust Spike with Dawn's safety. "You're telling me, you spent the night with Spike?"

Tears loomed in her eyes again. "Please don't do this."

But he couldn't not fume at the idea. Giles rolled away to his side of the bed, sitting with his feet on the floor and his back to her, as he tried to clamp down on his escalating temper. Buffy followed; he felt the bed move as she got to her knees behind him. Unfortunately, her soothing touch was the thing that pushed him to his feet, livid, while his absolute hatred of the vampire sent him careening wildly past the point of rational thought.

Running a frustrated hand through his hair, Giles began to pace. "Bloody hell... you spent the night with Spike." This time, it wasn't a question, just a soul-shattering declaration of fact.

"Not in the way you keep suggesting," Buffy said, irked by the repeated innuendo. "Giles, he saved my life. We just went back to his crypt and talked."

Giles stopped pacing long enough to stare at her, aghast. "His crypt?" This was getting worse by the moment. What next?

"We had hot chocolate," Buffy confessed, but looked away as the expression on his face suggested he'd heard the words 'hot chocolate' pronounced 'sex.'

Resuming his one-man trenching of the bedroom carpet, he swore with words she rarely heard pass his lips. He couldn't stand the thought of her keeping casual company with the vampire he utterly detested, nor the thought of her feeling indebted to said vampire for saving her life. Not that Giles wasn't grateful for Spike's timely intervention and rescue, if that were truly the case, but the idea of Buffy believing she now owed the bastard something, like compassion and--God forbid--friendship, just rubbed against the grain of everything he shared with her.

"Sweetie, would you please calm down? Nothing happened."

Giles rounded angrily on her, unable to get past the idea that she had left him sleeping in their bed--after they'd made love, no less--in favor of having 'hot chocolate' with the enemy. Offended, he went on the attack. "Nothing, obviously, except your new arrangement with him as Dawn's protector. Did you even, once, think to consult me on the matter?"

Buffy cringed at his raised tones. "Shh, the others will hear you."

"Then let them bloody hear!" he roared. "God knows, Buffy, you want me to share responsibility for this family, yet you insist on making decisions of this magnitude without me!"

His words rang in the silence that followed. Beyond their bedroom door, the upstairs hall and bathroom area had fallen uncharacteristically quiet.

"I did... what I thought was best... for Dawn and--" She broke off suddenly, fighting a tremor in her voice.

"At what price?"

"What?"

"Don't play coy. There's always a price when you make a deal with the devil," Giles said, his tone softer but still icy. "What does Spike get from you in return for his... allegiance?"

Buffy bristled at the insinuation in his tone. "You think I promised to sleep with him?"

"Did you?" After all, they both knew it was the only thing Spike wanted from her; the one gambit she could play, guaranteed to win.

Her mouth fell open in shock. "I can't believe you just asked me that! No!"

They glared at one another in the subdued light of the single bedside lamp, before Giles turned his back, although not without feeling some degree of guilt and foolhardiness. He was letting his hatred of the vampire weasel its way beneath his shields, and on some level, he knew this.

"Can we not do this?" Buffy asked at length. "Please? Can we just cuddle? And talk?" When he didn't answer, she let go all her residual anger on a sigh. "You're right. I should have told you about this earlier--this morning--and the reason why I needed to make a truce with him. I'm sorry."

Giles regarded her again; sitting on their bed, her beautiful face pleading for forgiveness that he stubbornly wouldn't give. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to take her back into his arms and apologize for acting like a complete pillock, but his battered pride simply wouldn't allow it. She'd stomped on it one too many times.

He let three long strides carry him to the bedroom door, but Buffy's question stilled his hand on the handle.

"Where're you going?"

There was a note of trepidation in her tone, one that suggested she feared he would leave the house, confront Spike, and take matters into his own hands. Good God, exactly what sort of truce had Buffy made, that Spike's wellbeing now meant so much to her?

Regardless of the fallout it inevitably would cause, he was sorely tempted to go stake the bastard anyway... and probably would have, too, had they not just covered the whole 'vengeance is fruitless' deal with Willow. In truth, he wasn't sure what pissed him off more--the fact that Buffy had made some sort of pact with Spike behind his back, or that she had, again, trounced over his parental authority with Dawn, even in the wake of asking him to share it.

He needed a stiff drink to calm his rage, and there was a half-emptied bottle of Scotch in the back of the kitchen cupboard.

When he opened the door without comment, Buffy again prompted for an answer. "Giles?"

"I need to blow off steam," he remarked dryly, using her own excuse back at her. He moved into the silent upstairs hallway, quietly shutting the door on the sound of her softly erupting tears.

* * * * *

Willow, too, was sobbing in the living room, lamenting a love now all-but lost. Giles could hear her, as he stood sipping his whiskey in the moonlit hall just off the kitchen. He was torn between comforting her, apologizing to Buffy, and plying himself with enough alcohol so that he didn't have to deal with either of them. While option three held a certain short-term appeal, he'd calmed down enough to recognize it as, ultimately, the least helpful.

Now that he had regained control of his temper, his compassion for the people he loved began to reassert itself in full. After just a few minutes of listening to Willow cry, he was ready to act on it. Just as he was about to put his glass down on the hall table and go console her, soft footfall on the staircase above alerted him to someone descending.

A moment later, Buffy rounded the newel post at the bottom and looked directly at him. She appeared startled by his presence, as if she truly had believed he'd gone off to sort out Spike with a sharpened length of timber. Then she saw the glass in his hand, and her expression turned into teary-eyed contempt.

The thud in his chest rattled his heart. At first, he wasn't sure if Buffy specifically came downstairs looking for him in order to make up, or if she always intended to comfort Willow, only that the sound of her best friend crying her heart out was the direction to which she responded. Only then did he realize that her jackass husband would have to manage on his own.

Breaking eye contact, Buffy moved into the living room to Willow. He followed as far as the doorway, watching as she sat on the couch to take Willow in her arms, listening as she whispered reassuring words of solace. Aware that he loomed somewhere in the shadows, Buffy glared in his general direction a final time, before turning her unconditional attention to her heartbroken friend. Her message was clear--his company was unneeded and unwanted.

Sobered by the rejection, Giles put down his whiskey glass and mounted the stairs, alone.

* * * * *

He was still alone when he woke the next morning, with an annoying swatch of sunlight burning in through the inch-wide crack in the hastily drawn bedroom curtains. He knew, even before he turned over in search of her, that Buffy hadn't come to bed last night. At least, not to his.

Giles belittled himself for the thought, then rolled onto his back and rubbed his eyes. He felt wretched in his new, sublimely comfortable bed, but not from lack of sleep. The unkind accusations and harsh words he had yelled in jealousy and anger continued to torment his conscience. In the light of the new day, they seemed unnecessary and cruel. Whatever Buffy's reasons for having formed an alliance with Spike, he should have trusted her judgment on the matter and been supportive of it. Instead of giving her a chance to explain, he'd acted like a complete idiot.

With a sigh, he wondered why they continued to do this, hurt each other, when there was so much love and tenderness for them to share.

Lord, he was a git.

A glance at the alarm clock told him it was still early, comparatively speaking. The house seemed silent, all other occupants late risers by choice, so he decided to take advantage of the fact and steal some bathroom time. He owed Buffy an enormous apology, and he wanted to be clean and freshly shaven when he gave it to her.

He'd only been under the shower spray a few minutes when there came an impatient knock at the bathroom door.

"You gonna be long?" Dawn's voice. "I gotta pee!"

Giles scowled at the interruption, and continued lathering up the bar of soap, the erstwhile idea of bathroom remodeling and extensions looking, as always, better and better with every interruption. It wasn't as if he--they--couldn't afford it, it was simply a question of managing time to see the project started and then completed.

"Five minutes, Dawn," he called back over the sound of the running water. Applying a handful of lather to his chest, he concluded that there was most definitely some dastardly universal plot at work to motivate the teen to disrupt his meagerly allotted bathroom time on such a regular basis.

* * * * *

Making a sound of impatience, Dawn backed off from the bathroom door and crossed her legs. Giles. Why did it have to be Giles? Throwing a fit would do no good, not like it did with Buffy, who would let her in to pee regardless of her state of undress... then complain about the change in water temperature that inevitably came with the flush. Dawn had no desire whatsoever to see Giles--or parts of Giles--naked. That equated to seeing her father naked, and--

Deciding it would be detrimental to her impressionable mind to finish that thought, she instead backed away toward her own room to wait. Maybe a bit of music would take her mind off the urge... and she had that n*sync CD Lisa had loaned her at school. Buffy and Giles may have suspended her TV and phone privileges when they grounded her, but her boombox had escaped their immediate attention. If she kept the volume low enough, then they might not--

An automatic glance through Buffy and Giles' open bedroom door revealed that her sister was not in bed.

Dawn stopped with an annoyed frown. If Buffy was--eww--showering with Giles, then forget 'five minutes.' Experience showed that they took forever! And almost always used all of the hot water.

She was about to vent her protest with a fist on the bathroom door, when something caught the corner of her eye. Something hastily stuffed under the foot of Buffy and Giles' bed, on her sister's side.

Dawn brightened considerably, as she realized the 'something' was a plastic shopping bag from the Sunnydale Mall, and judging from its secreted location, it had to be the one from the bookstore that Buffy wouldn't let her look in. This was her chance to find out why... and if it really was the infamous 'Kama Sutra,' then she just wouldn't read it... much. Besides, snooping was right up her alley, and what better way to forget her bladder was about to burst? No one ever caught her snooping; she was proud to think she had developed it to something of a delinquent art form.

She gave a light rap of her knuckles on the door, just in case her sister was elsewhere in the bedroom, like sifting through her closet for something to wear. No answer. With a furtive glance over her shoulder, and another down the hall, Dawn ventured into the room.

Good. No Buffy.

Dropping to her knees, she grabbed the plastic bag and wasted no time yanking it out of its conspicuous hiding place, tsk-tsk-ing over her sister's rotten choice of concealment. There were way better places to hide things in here; Dawn knew most of them from when their mom used to hide the Christmas presents.

Unless, of course, Buffy wasn't hiding it, but just being her usual sloppy self...

The back cover of the yellow and black book she found inside the bag caused her to frown... until she turned it over to read the front title. Then her jaw hit the carpet in complete surprise.

"Oh my God," Dawn murmured, casually fanning the pages of 'Pregnancy For Dummies' to make sure it was the real deal.

Then her face broke into a slow, elated grin.

* * * * *

"That was seven minutes," Dawn complained when Giles opened the bathroom door.

She was leaning against the doorjamb, arms folded, waiting impatiently in the hall. As far as he could tell, the rest of the household was still asleep. Rubbing his wet hair with one end of the towel around his neck, he scowled down his nose at her.

"And a half," she added for good measure.

"Yes, well, after you're done... peeing, I'd appreciate it if you allow me time to shave before you shower or go waking the others," he said, letting the towel ends settle around his neck in a self-conscious effort to cover his bare chest. He gestured a hand to indicate the bathroom was, temporarily, hers. "You can just be thankful I'm feeling extraordinarily considerate this morning."

"Because you're feeling guilty about the fight you and Buffy had last night?" Dawn asked.

"No, not because of that." Giles hesitated. "You heard us?"

"Duh? I think the entire block heard you." She shrugged. "Maybe not all the actual words, but your tone was pretty clear."

Guilty as charged, Giles looked at his feet. "I acted appallingly, I admit."

"Aren't you happy?" Dawn asked ambiguously.

"Happy?"

"Yeah, y'know, about Buffy."

Drawing his shoulders back, Giles gave her his best parental frown. Buffy's decision to ally herself with Spike without telling him really had nothing to do with Dawn, but as part of the family unit, if she required some sort of explanation, then he felt compelled to supply an honest one.

"No, I am not happy about Buffy. That she could do this to me--to us--without even consulting me on the matter is completely unforgivable." He smiled a little, despite his strong words. "Although I dare say, by breakfast, I shall have forgiven her completely."

"Good," Dawn agreed, visibly relieved. "I mean, it's gonna be great. I know it is."

"Perhaps," Giles said reluctantly, thinking that she was at least partially right; any alliance with Spike erred on the side of a bloody 'great' mess.

She touched his forearm. "It's just gonna take a while to get used to. Don't worry. I have faith in you... dad."

The endearment caused Giles to gawk at her, until, still grinning happily, Dawn slipped past him into the bathroom and shut the door on his utter astonishment.

'Dad.' She'd never called him that before, in fact, they'd both agreed that she wouldn't. He knew that she had accepted him as a surrogate father, welcomed his presence in her life as such, but the endearment still felt odd and unsettling and... strangely heartwarming.

He grinned a bit, and, taking hold of the towel ends around his neck, mouthed the word to himself. Then he tried it aloud. "Dad."

On reflection, it didn't sound too bad at all.

* * * * *

Showered, shaved, and dressed in casual clothes to start Saturday off right, Giles went downstairs as Dawn took command of the bathroom for a second time. The door to the guest room where Xander and Anya slept remained closed, and so the scene he discovered in the living room was quite unexpected.

Emotionally spent, Willow now slept soundly on the couch, but at some point during the night, Xander had also felt the need to come downstairs and comfort his best friend since kindergarten. He was huddled on Willow's left side, head on her shoulder, snoring softly. Buffy painted a mirror image on Willow's right, also currently visiting dreamland, while an unzipped sleeping bag kept the night chill from all three.

Seeing them like that brought a fond smile to Giles' face, and the memories of high school's less complicated relationships to mind. Not that he wanted to trade what he and Buffy now shared for 'the good old days,' but seeing them together touched a chord in him; three friends, who had been there for each other since the beginning, being there again at a time of one's personal crisis.

Letting them sleep, he continued to the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea, scanned the morning newspaper that he stealthily purloined from the front lawn, and grinned devilishly over the thought of the mayhem that waited should they all wake together and simultaneously require use of the single bathroom.

Forty minutes and one cup of tea later, Dawn joined him, instantly wanting cereal. Like a dutiful dad, he retrieved the appropriate box from the cupboard and served it up on the island counter, where Dawn had pulled up a stool, with a bowl and spoon. He was about to pour the cereal out, when he happened a glance at the nutritional table, and was amazed that Dawn was actually brave enough to eat the stuff. Putting the box away again, despite Dawn's visual and verbal protests, he cracked a dozen eggs into a bowl, encouraged her to start chopping some fresh vegetables, and together they started making an omelet big enough to feed a small army.

Not surprisingly, the smell of it cooking roused Xander first, and since he stole the covers, as he rose in a state equivalent to that of the walking dead, the girls squealed at the sudden chill left in his wake and quickly followed suit.

Around eleven, with the morning ablutions completed and all hungry mouths fed, they sat around the dining room table deciding what to do; how to proceed as a group, now that they were all in potential danger should Glory experiment, sucking out their sanity, one by one, until she found her Key. Nothing concrete came of the discussion, but turned an ordinary, lazy Saturday into a somber event.

Willow made an announcement.

"I'm going to the hospital, and see if I can get Tara released." She looked around the ring of solemn faces seated around the dining room table. It was a long shot, being the weekend, but none of them wanted to dampen her spirits and tell her so. Then again, the doctor they had seen yesterday had only mentioned keeping Tara 'overnight.'

"I'll come with you," Buffy immediately offered, putting down the second cup of coffee that she had been sipping for the last twenty minutes.

Xander partly raised his hand. "I'm wheelman."

Giles smiled secretly at the unfailing depth of the Scooby support network. He looked at Buffy, who sat two places down from him on the other side of Dawn, hoping to show approval in a glance, but she refused to make eye contact. He sighed inwardly. She'd been avoiding him all morning, clearly not yet ready to hear his apology or forgive him for his inexcusable behavior. He had no choice but to leave things unsaid and unsettled between them, because the team focus this morning was, and rightly so, on Willow's plight and their collective survival, whereas his present adversity was something of his own foolish making.

"Thanks, but I think... maybe... I wanna do this alone," Willow said, glancing at both her friends in the hope that they would understand.

"Will, you don't have to," Buffy began in protest.

"I know that, but I think I need to. I need to prove to myself that I can do this without turning all black-eyed and homicidal, or weepy-eyed and suicidal." She paused then added, "Tara needs me to be strong. I need me to be strong. I need to do this alone."

Silence reigned for a minute as they all digested and accepted this decision.

"Can I go over to Lisa's house?" Dawn suddenly asked Giles.

Lost in thought, he automatically nodded approval, and she was up and heading for her room with a cheerful, "Cool," before he remembered that she was grounded, and that he had yet to see evidence of any completed homework assignments that would help restore her suspended privileges. Buffy's rather loud and obnoxious scoff left no doubt to what she thought of his 'parental control.'

"Well, I'm going to spend the afternoon at the Magic Box, taking inventory of the loft," Anya said casually, toying with her empty coffee mug. It was a simple statement of fact, but it made everyone silently cringe. She was not renowned for her tact or compassion, and had just proven why.

Buffy turned a sympathetic look on Willow. "Maybe Dawn and I could meet you and Tara for lunch," she suggested. She threw in a smile, trying to brighten the gloom. "At the dorm. We'll bring sandwiches. And we can... have a picnic."

Willow frowned. "But isn't Dawn going to--"

"No, she's not," Buffy said firmly. With a hostile glance at Giles, she added, "She's grounded."

Knowing he'd been in the wrong, Giles didn't dispute the fact, although he did feel about three inches tall for having his authority so thoroughly debunked in front of their mutual friends. What a failure they must think he was as a 'father.'

Perhaps they were right.

Shortly thereafter, Buffy headed off Dawn's tactical house escape. The teen was disappointed by the change of sudden plans, but, oddly enough, didn't complain, as if she knew she had played on Giles' distracted mind and therefore half-expected to get caught. Willow, Xander and Anya packed up and left Revello Drive for their individual destinations, giving Giles the opportunity he needed to steal a moment with Buffy, before she left the house.

He gave her half an hour 'alone time' to calm down from his recent blunder, busying himself with the breakfast clean up. Dishes done, he made his way upstairs and knocked softly on the closed door of the bedroom they shared.

"It's me, love," Giles said, pushing it open when he received no reply.

Buffy was changing her clothes, her back to him, donning a pair of black leather pants that, as he watched the leather slide up over her white lace panties, instantly got his heartbeat racing. At the sound of her slowly zipping up, he inspected her from head to toe. The tight leather hugged her curves in the most seductive manner, the matching leather jacket she threw on over the layered black and white tee-shirts, making him wonder if she had purposely chosen this 'bad girl' look to goad him, to test that jealous temper of his against the stares and cat-calls he knew she would earn from other men.

"What is it?" Buffy asked impatiently, turning to him as she flipped her hair out of her collar.

Giles endeavored to pull his eyes up to hers and shut his mouth. Repentance replaced the look of lust on his face. "I know you're still angry with me, and you have every right to be--"

"Save it," she interrupted, moving past him for the door.

He grabbed her arm. "Buffy, please."

Angered, she shook free. "No, Giles. Not now."

"Buffy--"

"I don't have time to get into this with you!" she insisted irritably, looking up into his apologetic eyes. Sighing, she stopped trying to run away from him, and relented a little. "Look, it's Saturday, which means the deli near the campus closes early. I have to go."

She did, and he let her leave without saying another word. Standing at the top of the stairs, Giles heard her usher Dawn out of the house and the front door shut behind them.

Suddenly, he found himself in a very empty, very silent house.

* * * * *

Despite it being the weekend, the UC Sunnydale campus was a buzzing hive of activity, as students visited students, picnicked, played sports, or simply took advantage of the gentle spring breeze and warm afternoon sunshine.

Buffy watched Willow help Tara from a chair by the window of her downstairs room and settle her on the bed in preparation of lunch, mindful of her injured hand and talking to her the whole time about fun sandwiches and an indoor picnic. Dawn was also captivated by the love and care that Willow used to make her girlfriend comfortable in her new seating position. But there was also a great deal of sadness in the act; a helpless, childlike quality that broke Buffy's heart. Tara now had the mental aptitude of a toddler, and was totally dependent on an adult--Willow--for her survival.

Knowing the hardships and uncertain future that lay ahead for them now, made Buffy reflect on what she had with Giles and Dawn; her family, all of them happy and healthy. Well, maybe not exactly 'happy' at this very moment. She guiltily remembered the angry way she had left Giles standing in their bedroom, and the puppy dog look on his face. She knew he just wanted to make things right between them, but she stubbornly wasn't yet ready to accept his apology. Their fight, last night, had been all his fault. She had intended to tell him everything--the baby and Spike--but he hadn't given her the chance once she'd shown her bruises, and had instead blown up in her face. He deserved to stew just a little bit longer.

She had to admit, she'd been surprised, then smugly pleased, by the tongue-hanging-out look on his face when he'd seen her wearing black leather, although the reaction was unintentional on her part. The outfit was an old favorite, and she'd chosen to wear it simply because when she'd spied it in her closet, she realized that in just a few weeks' time, she would no longer comfortably be able to fit into the pants. That cascading thought had reminded her that she'd eventually have to shop for some unfashionable and unflattering maternity clothes, which in turn only reaffirmed to her that being pregnant was also 'all his fault.'

Still chattering lovingly, Willow sat beside Tara, combed a lock of hair from her face with a tender hand, and then looked across at Buffy--apparently on the same Scooby wavelength. "Did you and Giles make up after we left?"

Embarrassed to know that their fight had been universally heard throughout the house, Buffy dipped her gaze in lieu of admitting that they hadn't. Yet.

"You should," Willow said knowingly. She regarded Tara with a poignant smile, this time receiving a brilliant one in return. "Because you never know what life is gonna throw at you."

Remembering the quarrel she'd accidentally walked in on between Willow and Tara yesterday, Buffy felt guilty all over again. She looked from one to the other, saddened by the abrupt realization that they hadn't had the chance to make amends before Glory attacked and forever changed their lives. Willow must feel awful right now; guilty and remorseful. But she was also right. The fight Buffy had with Giles was just stupid. She should have told him earlier about her decision to trust Spike. She hadn't, so he got angry. That hardly constituted a reason for divorce. What if something happened to him today--or her--and he never even got the chance to know that fatherhood was in his immediate future?

Tears filled her eyes, at the unexpected revelation that maybe him not knowing was actually a good thing.

"Was it about the baby?" Dawn asked, earning herself the stares of two very stunned sets of eyes. "The fight, I mean."

"How did you... ?" Buffy began, shocked that her sister knew.

"Baby?" Willow asked, confused.

"Yeah, Buffy's pregnant," Dawn announced happily. "Isn't that, like, the coolest thing?"

Silence.

Ringing silence.

"Wow," Buffy murmured, recovering, coming to terms with the fact that her sister was not only the biggest snoop ever, but a total blabbermouth to boot.

"Is it true?" Willow asked, studying Buffy's reaction, chiefly her rather telling lack of a boisterous denial.

Buffy regarded her best friend with an expression that was part joy, part pain. "Yeah. It is."

"Oh my goddess... " Willow suddenly broke into a huge grin. "Buffy, that's wonderful news!" Noting her mixed expression, she faltered and asked, "I-isn't it?"

"I think so. I mean, I want it to be, but... " Buffy hesitated, diverting her eyes.

"But?"

"Giles doesn't exactly know yet."

It was Dawn's turn to look shocked. "Isn't that what the fight was about?"

Buffy gave her sister a long-suffering look. Getting angry would do no good; it would simply compound the guilt. "No, it wasn't. And by the way, thank you for disrespecting my privacy and snooping about in our room."

She followed her statement with a flinch-worthy glare, having finally figured out that the only way Dawn could have possibly guessed the truth was by finding the pregnancy book she had hidden under the bed. Well, that put together with her basket case mood of late.

"Buffy, you should tell him," Willow said, drawing her attention again. "Like, now!"

"I know. And I want to. I've tried to. It's just that--God." Buffy's fluctuating hormones threatened to embarrass her again. "I honestly don't know if I can do the mom thing."

Willow looked aghast. "You're not saying you're gonna... ?"

"No, nothing like that." Buffy looked down at her belly, snugly encased in tight black leather pants that she would most likely not wear again for another nine months. Or more. She touched the area with a gentle hand. "I want this baby; Giles' baby." She smiled suddenly, giddy with unexpected delight. "And is that not the weirdest thing you've ever heard me say?"

"For high school, totally freaksome," Willow admitted. "But you and Giles love each other, and you're married." She grinned. "Nowadays, not so much."

After a brief beat, Buffy's expression turned earnest. "I want this baby more than anything in the world. But I'm... not like normal girls. I don't get a 'happily ever after' future, with a house and a dog and a white picket fence. There aren't two-point-three kids running about in my yard." She sighed and shook her head. "I'm The Slayer. Death is my gift."

"Oh God," Willow murmured in sudden distress. "Last night, when you came after me... you put your baby's life at risk to save me. Buffy... "

"It's okay, Will, I didn't mean it like that. But you're right. What if something does happen? What if, next time, I'm not so lucky and Glory kills me." She regarded the distraught faces looking back at her. "Maybe it would be better--easier--if Giles didn't know he was going to be a dad."

Dawn immediately voiced her disapproval. "Wait, you can't not tell him something like this. This is huge!"

"I agree," Willow said adamantly. "You should tell him for precisely the reason you just said. Because if he lost you without knowing... "

Willow left the implications unsaid. She didn't need to. Buffy knew that if Giles learned the truth after she was dead, he'd be inconsolable, grief-stricken to the point of self-destruction. She knew him well enough to know his weapon of choice was alcohol, and that he'd quite literally drink himself to death. It was far from the legacy she wanted to leave him, the whole reason she wanted to have his baby. They were right, of course. She needed to tell him as soon as possible.

Tara broke the reflective silence with a soft sound of impatience.

Willow's attention immediately shifted to her, reaching for her good hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. "What is it, sweetie? You hungry?"

Tara nodded with the eager innocence of a child.

Shifting gears to the here-and-now, Willow nodded meaningfully at the large, paper, deli sack on the floor by Buffy's feet.

"Oh, right," Buffy said, catching on. After all, this is what she and Dawn had come for. She had hoped they could go outside and enjoy the May sunshine, but Willow thought it best if Tara eased back into society in tiny, incremental steps. Obliging, Buffy reached into the takeout bag from Skip's Deli for the top sandwich pack, and inspected it. "Chicken salad?"

"Right here," Willow said, taking her lunch.

"Eggplant, that's me. Salami with--eww--peanut butter?" Buffy's tastebud turmoil turned into a knowing eye-roll, as she handed the sandwich off to her sister. "And, here, I'm the pregnant one."

"Just wait a couple of months," Dawn returned cheekily. "You'll be begging me to make you salami and peanut butter sandwiches."

"What's Tara got?" Willow asked, trying to engage her girlfriend's enthusiasm in their impromptu indoor picnic.

"Oh, I got her tuna," Dawn said. "Does she like?"

Willow gently drew Tara's attention to the sandwich that Dawn unwrapped for her. Handing out bags of grapes, Buffy watched her sister display some hidden maternal talents. Maybe it was all the recent talk of babies, or maybe the 'need to nurture' was inherent in women of all ages. If so, then there really was hope for her as a mom yet.

"Tara?" Dawn said, offering half a tuna sandwich.

Still anxious of strangers, Tara looked at Willow, then back at Dawn. "Plastic and their six sisters. Six sick sisters." She favored Willow again, unsure. "Willow?"

"It's okay. Let's just start slow today." Willow indicated a single-serve cup of applesauce and a plastic spoon that Buffy had tossed on the bedcovers beside the grapes. "Buffy, could I have that?" Peeling the foil top off the cup, she spooned a mouthful into Tara's mouth, pleased when she took it without fuss. "That's my girl."

"Can I help?" Dawn asked.

Willow nodded, and gave the cup and spoon to Dawn. Tara again appeared a little anxious, but reluctantly accepted another mouthful of food, this time from Dawn.

"What're you gonna need?" Buffy asked Willow, realizing that her worries of an uncertain, unwritten future seemed irrelevant when compared to the reality her best friend had to deal with today.

"I don't know. They gave me a lot of stuff to keep her calm." Willow paused to give Tara an encouraging smile. "They said I might have to restrain her at night," she admitted doubtfully. "But she's fine. She looks at me and... she's fine."

Buffy's heart heaved. Tara was anything but 'fine,' even if Willow didn't want to admit it aloud. She honestly didn't know how they were going to manage, but it would tear Willow in two if she were faced with the decision to put Tara in an institution, even for Tara's own good. Buffy knew she wouldn't be capable of making such a decision, if it were Dawn. She'd already had a taste of what that felt like, losing Dawn, when faced with the possible threat of foster care.

If only she had gotten to the fairground sooner...

"I'm sorry I couldn't--"

"It's okay," Willow said, meaning it. There was no blame between them for what had transpired. "I can do this. I'm going to take care of her. Even if she never... " She turned another smile on the woman with whom she had found true love, only to have it so cruelly yanked out from underfoot. "She's my girl."

Buffy looked at her sister, raising her hand to gently stroke the silky, long, brown hair. She was more than Dawn's sister and legal guardian. She was Dawn's everything. Just like Willow was Tara's.

Quite unexpectedly, Willow's words, and courage in the face of adversity, filled Buffy with a renewed sense of confidence, something that had been waning on and off for the past couple of days. "I understand."

"I know you do." Willow smiled at Tara. "Hear that, baby? You're my always." Sealing the pledge, Willow kissed her on the forehead.

Without warning, the entire front side of the room shook and started to crumble into large jagged chunks of brick and mortar. Buffy jumped up in alarm, immediately thinking it was an earthquake, pulling Dawn up with her into a protective embrace. Her first fear, however, was that she was parted from Giles, that they had fought and hadn't reconciled, and that he--or she--would die, crushed and buried by rubble, without the truth of their pending parenthood ever being revealed. But the wall stopped quaking after just a few seconds, allowing sunlight to spill into the room through the gaping hole where the window had once been.

Bits of wood framing and angular shards of glass hung from the shattered wall, making Buffy realize that it wasn't an earthquake after all, but the deliberate, localized demolition of the front of Tara's dorm room.

Into the breech stepped Glory, fashionably dressed and casually dusting her nails. She smiled cordially at Buffy and said, "I told you this wasn't over."

"No!" Tara yelled hysterically, still under the impression that the walls were coming down. "The place is cracking! It's cracking! Cracking, no, no, no!"

Dawn's newfound nurturing instincts compelled her to try to calm her. "No, Tara, it's okay."

Tara looked up at Dawn, illuminated in a brilliant spotlight of May sunshine. As if seeing her for the very first time, Tara's expression turned to one of absolute awe. "Oh, look at that! Look at that. The light! Oh, it's so pure! Such pure green energy! Oh, it's so beautiful."

'Oh, shit... '

Worst fears realized, Buffy regarded the smugly triumphant Hellgod with a hateful glare; heart in her throat, pulse racing, adrenaline pumping. Every time they met in battle, even when she was mentally and physically prepared for it, Glory had managed to best her with little to no effort. Now, she was caught off-guard and cornered in the ruins of the demolished dorm, with nothing to fight with but her grim determination.

To that end, Buffy used a firm hand to push Dawn a little further behind her, shielding her sister with her mortal, flesh and blood, body. The quest was finally over. Glory had found her precious Key.

But no way in hell she was taking her...

Read the next chapter: Freefalling