The Unbreakable Series
Part 11 - Freefalling

written by Koala





'Saturday, 5th May, 2001.


'It's been two weeks since I took Buffy into the desert, to the sacred place of the slayers who walked before her, in order for her to touch base, as it were, with her Slayer psyche; two weeks since I promised her that such a sojourn would provide the answers she sought within herself. Alas, I fear it has simply raised more questions. Biggest of all is this riddle of death, this abysmally grim reward promised her for a job well done.'


'Bloody hell,' Giles thought, throwing down his pen and sitting back with a frown. Thinking about Buffy's demise always riled his emotions. From the start, it had been difficult for him to accept that her calling meaning an early grave. Now, it was impossible. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, and drew a deep, calming breath. Keeping his journal up-to-date was important. How many times had he turned to the written wisdom and experience of his predecessors? So, with the hope of future Watchers finding something in his words to prolong the lives of the girls and young women in their charges, he endeavored to continue.

'By decree, a Slayer's lifespan is short, violent, and for the most part, a lonely, loveless existence--details I assure you I've strived to correct. Consequently, death is not the reward she should be expected to give, nor graciously receive. At this point, I have no idea which applies to Buffy--the giving or receiving--but I pray it's not the latter. Were she to die of old age, in my arms, the grief would be crippling enough. But if I had to watch her die so young, in the line of duty, if the inexplicable yet hauntingly real dream we shared some months ago were to become my reality, then I have no doubt her passing would kill me as well. Perhaps not in the physical sense, but emotionally and mentally I would simply cease to function.


'Which brings me to the actual context of this rather cryptic prize, whether or not Buffy's 'gift' does indeed refer to physical death or to something entirely more abstract. I have a theory, but I've little time to research it, since our focus, energy, and resources must be pooled into a far more immediate concern--Glorificus. The Hellgod wants The Key, that much is certain, but precisely what she intends to do with it remains as baffling as the true nature of Buffy's reward.


'Perhaps if I were to start at the beginning . . .


'According to research, we know a monk named Tarnis founded the Order of Dagon in the Twelfth Century. This benevolent order dedicated itself to hiding and protecting The Key, itself a very old and very powerful sphere of living energy, the true purpose of which remains unknown to us. However, one must assume, given the zealousness of the Knights of Byzantium, who also seek The Key, that its power surpasses anything known to man. Recognizing the danger of the monks' passive decision, the Knights instead sought to destroy The Key. For right or wrong, they failed in this quest, and for centuries The Key remained safely hidden from the world by ancient magicks.


'Fast forward to October of last year, or as near to that date as I can gather, and the appearance of Dawn Summers. Conversations with Buffy revealed that her 'sister,' as we all believed Dawn to be, was actually a magical creation born of the Monks of Dagon. By tapping into The Key's sentient energies, and by using, from what Buffy tells me, some form of mystic DNA from the Slayer herself, the monks were able to mold The Key into human form--Dawn. They then sent her to Sunnydale, where they knew the Slayer would protect her. Using spells and magicks beyond my understanding, they altered the perception of everyone with whom Dawn was likely to come in contact, thus assuring the success of their plan.


'And it would have worked, too, had the exiled Hellgod, Glorificus, not been in search of The Key for her own nefarious reasons. If we could only decipher for what purpose The Key was originally fashioned, then we would have a better understanding of Glory's ultimate goal, and, with luck, the means to find a way to stop her. Alas, knowledge of The Key's true purpose died with the last monk of the Order, butchered by Glory in her merciless quest for its possession. In hindsight, I believe it was this threat of annihilation that inspired the desperate monks to create Dawn and hide her in the world of humans.


'Why is Glory so obsessed with obtaining such an ancient artifact? What does The Key open? One would think, with an energy source so impressive and so old, that written record of it and its function must exist somewhere, yet I have been unable to find one despite the resources and---albeit reluctant--cooperation of the Watcher's Council at my disposal. While it's true we hold The Key, it's equally true that only Glory knows its secrets. If she acquires it, I fear mankind will suffer unspeakable torment.


'Meantime, her ruthlessness continues to threaten our small group of friends, as she systematically destroys us in search of her prize. Latest to fall victim to the Hellgod's insatiable appetite for the human mind is Tara Maclay, but I fear she won't be the last. Indeed, as I write this, a gut feeling tells me that time may be running out faster than we think. The clock is ticking, not only for us, but for all . . . '


Reaching the bottom, right-hand, corner of his journal, Giles was about to turn the page and continue when something caught his eye on the desk underneath. He pulled the sheet of paper from under the cover, and sat looking at it in the warm, noontime sun of the Summers' living room. It was a hardcopy printout from the 'Courts of California' website; his application for joint legal guardianship of Dawn.

"Altered the perception . . . " Giles murmured to himself, pondering the form and his signature at the bottom. Yesterday, he'd been gung ho in wanting to make his paternal relationship with the teen legally binding; today, he was having second thoughts.

No, not second thoughts. Differing thoughts. In updating his journal, he'd begun thinking like a Watcher instead of a surrogate father. The notion that his feelings for Dawn weren't as real as he perceived, rather as false and manufactured as the girl herself, was both disturbing and entirely plausible. Given what he'd just written, Giles was forced to re-evaluate his attachment to her and face the simple fact that what he felt was nothing more than a triggered response, placed in his head by the Monks of Dagon and their magicks.

Perhaps, in actuality, Dawn meant nothing to him at all. And yet it seemed real, felt real, and the one and only time she'd called him 'dad,' the cartwheels in his stomach had been unquestionable.

As baffling as this was, with no easy answer, the big question he still had to ask himself was if the situation arose, if The Key did indeed turn out to be something that needed to be destroyed rather than protected, would he be able to sacrifice Dawn in order to save humanity?

More importantly, would Buffy?

The thought of his errant wife turned his contemplation to the present. He sighed heavily, remembering they were still fighting. He'd acted rashly last night, with an especially unfavorable reaction to news of her taking Spike as an ally. He'd completely flown off the handle without giving her a chance to explain, as seemed to be the case with anything concerning the lovesick vampire meddling in their lives. He'd lost his temper, yelled quite a bit, and left Buffy in their bedroom, alone. Despite this morning's attempt to apologize for his behavior, Buffy had stormed out of the house with Dawn, under the guise of visiting Willow and Tara at the college campus for lunch. She was teaching him a lesson, one that he no doubt thoroughly deserved.

Giles glanced at his watch. The foursome would be enjoying their impromptu picnic right about now. It would likely be several hours before Buffy returned home, before he got another chance to try to reconcile with her.

Lord, he hated fighting with her, although they certainly seemed to do their fair share of it.

The telephone rang, making him frown at the interruption. Putting down his application for legal guardianship, Giles pushed back his desk chair and went through to the kitchen to answer it.

"Giles!" Buffy's alarm was evident.

Reacting to it, his heart instantly leaped to his throat. "Buffy, what's going on? What's hap--?"

"Get out of the house," she said with chilling clarity.

"Buffy?"

"Just do it! Glory knows! She knows Dawn is The Key and she's after us!"

At that, her panic became his panic. "Oh dear Lord . . . are you--? Is Dawn--?"

"We're okay."

"And Willow and Tara?"

"I... don't know." Her voice cracked; she was on the verge of tears at the thought of her friends dead. "I had to make a choice, so I grabbed Dawn's hand and . . . and . . . "

"You did what needed to be done," Giles said, packing as much positive reassurance into his tone as he could muster. Inside, he felt far less certain of Willow and Tara's fate.

"I-I think we've given her the slip--Glory, I mean. But that might just be because she's planning on heading us off at home. Giles, you don't wanna be there when she arrives. She'll kill you!"

Stirred into motion by the threat of his imminent demise, Giles headed back to the desk in the living room. "Where are you?" He slammed his Watcher's Diary closed, trapping the application for legal guardianship within the pages, and turned with it as he awaited Buffy's reply.

"A few blocks from the campus. Giles--God--are you listening to me? You need to get out of there now!"

Aware of the terror in her voice as she repeated her request, he dropped to one knee by the weapon's locker behind the armchair and threw open the lid. His favorite battleaxe and a short sword went into a sports bag, also from the chest, along with his journal, which held too many important Watcher/Slayer secrets to fall into the wrong hands.

"I'll meet you at the shop," he said, grabbing the sports bag handles as he stood. He turned for the front door, pausing just long enough to claim his jacket from the coat rack. He was lowering the phone, thumb hovering over the OFF button, when he heard Buffy shout 'no.'

"Glory knows about the shop," she explained when he bought the phone back to his ear. "It's not safe there, either."

"Then stay where you are. I'll be there in--blast!"

"What?"

"My car." Giles silently cursed himself for leaving it double-parked at the fairground yesterday in his haste to find Willow and Tara. Consequently, it had been towed, fined, and taken to the City impound.

"We have to keep moving, anyway," Buffy said, her voice shifting around the payphone's mouthpiece as she kept a vigilant--yet panicked--eye on her surroundings. "Xander's place," she decided. "We'll meet you there. Go now, Giles. Promise?"

"I'm on my way."

She hung up before Giles had the chance to utter another word; before he could tell her to be careful, or that he was sorry for their fight, or that he loved her, or a million other things.

Time to move. Trading the telephone for his keys, he quickly left the house. He slowed, briefly, on the front porch to lock up--no doubt a completely useless tactic against a Hellgod, but nonetheless a habit that wasn't easily broken--and to cast a wary eye over the neighborhood, just in case Glory was already in position, waiting to pounce.

Revello Drive appeared quiet enough, having fallen under the spell of a lazy Saturday. Frank Overton at 1629, directly across the street, was busy giving his lawn a spring trim with his riding mower, the noise masking out the usual languid sound of birdsong and children playing and kicking up the familiar summer scent of fresh cut grass. The man happened to glance up as Giles started down the front walk, delivering a cheery wave of a work-gloved hand. Giles spared him a nod and nothing more. Overton was an all right sort of chap, in a horticultural-obsessed sort of way, but this was no time to stand around discussing the fundamentals of proper lawn care.

Setting a brisk pace, Giles headed down the sidewalk, still cursing the fact that just when he needed his bloody car, it was unavailable. There was, of course, Joyce's Jeep Cherokee sitting in the garage, but it had been in virtual mothballs since her death, months ago, and would likely take more than the turn of an ignition key and some colorful verbal threats to get it started; time he didn't have to spare. He really needed to make a decision to either sell the thing, or give Buffy some brush-up lessons and let her drive it . . .

Dear Lord, how could he possibly think of something so normal and ordinary, while in the midst of running for his life from an exiled Hellgod?

He arrived at the apartment block Xander called home twenty minutes later, confrontation free. At first, he feared no one was home, until Xander's sleepy voice answered the security buzzer on the third try.

"Yeah?"

"It's Giles." He automatically tried the outside lobby door again, but it remained stubbornly locked.

"Yo, G-man, what's the deal?"

"Open the bloody door," Giles growled into the stainless steel speaker grill, "and I'll tell you."

"Oh, right." This time he was buzzed in without question.

With one last glance over his shoulder, Giles entered the building, crossed the mosaic tile floor to the stairs, and ran up them two at a time. Xander was waiting, hanging onto his front door, clad only in boxer shorts and a scruffy toweling bathrobe.

"What's up?" Xander asked again, scratching his head and yawning.

"Is Buffy here?"

"Um, no, she lives with you now."

"Bloody hell." Giles pushed past him into the relative safety of the apartment. He felt only marginally better when Xander locked the door behind him, dropping his sports bag at the foot of the couch before turning to his young friend. "It's Glory." He'd started to shake, but it wasn't just from the adrenaline rush of fleeing from his possible demise. Buffy hadn't arrived, and a real, honest-to-God fear for her wellbeing had taken hold of him.

Xander noticed too. "Whoa . . . maybe you'd better sit down."

Giles did, taking a load off before his knees buckled completely. Another thought alarmed him. "Where's Anya?" he asked, remembering her plans to spend the afternoon at the Magic Box taking inventory of the items that Willow had admitted to 'borrowing.' The shop wasn't safe, and in the instant it took to ask the question, he truly feared for Anya's life as well.

Xander grinned blissfully. "Bedroom. She wanted something . . . 'special' for lunch."

"Please, spare me the details," Giles begged out of habit.

"Xander?" Anya's voice, from down the hall. "Is that Giles?"

"Yes, honey."

"Then tell him to go away. We haven't finished basking in the afterglow yet."

Xander's satisfied grin widened even more.

Giles rolled his eyes, but truthfully, he was glad their sex life had taken precedence; it had kept Anya from the front line, so to speak.

Xander casually dropped into the armchair opposite. "So, what's all this about Glory?"

"Buffy called." Giles ran a worried hand through his hair. He really didn't have a lot of facts to tell, just the basics. "Apparently Glory now knows Dawn's true identity."

"Holy moly . . . " Anya said, joining them. Giles glanced over his shoulder at her, but immediately diverted his eyes at the sight of his employee bed-ruffled and so scantily dressed in one of Xander's t-shirts. "How'd that happen?"

"I don't know," Giles admitted, trying to focus on something other than how very little skin the cotton material actually covered. "But I expect we'll find out as soon as Buffy arrives."

"Buffy's coming here, too?" Anya pouted in frustration. "Great, now it's a party. Xander . . . "

Lost in his own concerns, Giles tuned them out. He hardly noticed as Xander went to his girlfriend, and hushed her protests with a gentle kiss and a loving hand. He nodded absently when Xander said that he and Anya were going to dress a little more appropriately for the upcoming company, and disappeared back down the hall toward the bedroom. His mind had wandered into uneasy territory. Where was Buffy? Why hadn't she arrived?

Finally alerted to the fact that he'd been left alone in the expanse of Xander's sunlit living room to fret and chew on a very unpalatable knot of escalating anxiety, Giles pushed to his feet and began to pace.

What if Glory had . . . ? No, he wasn't going to think the worst. Buffy and Dawn were simply 'on their way.' They had to be.

Dear Lord, what was taking them so long? He had truly expected them to be there. Safe.

At the curved section of louver windows that covered the eastern living room wall, he stopped to throw a watchful look out over the apartment building's exterior. Trimmed hedges and newly turned spring flowerbeds made a cheerful and appealing entranceway into the complex. He craned his neck to see past some tall oak trees, but the sidewalk beyond was devoid of pedestrians.

Where in God's name were they?

Just then, the buzzer near the front door sounded, causing Giles' heart just about leaped out of his throat. Crossing the room to it in a rush, he took an annoyed second to scan the panel, before eagerly stabbing the button marked, 'Press to Talk.' "Buffy?"

"Giles? I mean, no, it's Willow."

He waited for them as they hurried up the steps, mimicking Xander by hanging onto the partly opened apartment door. Ushering Willow and Tara inside, Giles quietly bolted the door behind them, knowing that locks and security doors provided little protection against the might of a rampaging Hellgod. Relieved as he was to see them alive and well, his focus remained on his absent family.

Xander and Anya rejoined the group, as Willow finally managed to quiet Tara's latest nonsensical ramblings and seat them on the couch. Preferring to pace, Giles bided his time marching between the kitchen and the living room window, pausing at the latter with each pass to glance out in the hope of seeing Buffy and Dawn. But only the May sunshine greeted him, with its cheery sounds of a lazy Saturday. Such was his distraction that he missed most of Willow's recounting of their indoor picnic in Tara's dorm room, until she reached the part where Glory showed up.

Giles stopped pacing and turned to Willow in astonishment. "Good Lord, she actually ripped out the wall?"

"Yeah, she really did."

The group fell into an uneasy silence. Nowhere was safe from the Hellgod, least of all the apartment they foolishly referred to as such. Realizing this, Willow calmly stroked Tara's hair, while Xander reached for the intrinsic comfort of Anya's hand. Even more fretful now, Giles looked at his watch. Forty-five minutes had passed since Buffy's frantic phone call telling him to leave the house. Where the bloody hell was she?

When the downstairs security buzzer finally announced her arrival, some ten-agonizing-minutes later, they were all on such pins and needles with waiting that they all jumped.

Beating Xander to the wall panel by three paces, Giles stabbed the talk button, and anxiously asked, "Buffy?"

"Yeah. Let us in."

He was hovering at the apartment door, waiting for them just as he had for Willow and Tara. The difference came in the greeting he bestowed once Buffy and Dawn were safely locked inside. Giles had given Willow a relieved smile and briefly squeezed her shoulder in a gesture of support; Buffy immediately received a full body hug that he never wanted to end.

"Thank God you're safe," he murmured in her ear, so overjoyed with relief that he actually had to fight to contain some very non-manly emotions. Opening his eyes, he looked over Buffy's shoulder at Dawn, who gave him a quick smile. "Both of you."

"You too," Buffy whispered in return, for the moment content to be held tight in his embrace. All too soon, however, she pulled free and stepped away.

Although reluctant to let her go, Giles had little choice. Empty without her, he watched her take up an immediate sentry post by the Venetian blinds where he had earlier kept a vigil, and realized that despite the love they shared, the dire circumstances, and the short reprieve of the moment, they were obviously 'still fighting.'

Dawn, on the other hand, seemed invigorated by the whole 'close encounter.' Without too much encouragement, she launched into her version of The Escape with the enthusiasm and zeal of having successfully cheated death with her big sis, The Slayer.

Giles rubbed his brow with a shaky hand. It was a miracle they were alive. He glanced at Buffy, noting the protective hand she moved across her abdomen when she thought no one was looking. An ugly swath of purple bruises marred her skin in that location--she'd shown them to him just last night--and he quickly realized that the getaway Dawn was busy relating with some embellishment was not without aggravation to that particular injury.

Although interested in the details, his attention was nonetheless divided between listening to Dawn and studying the not-so-Slayerish set of Buffy's shoulders, as she continued to stare out the window in fear of imminent confrontation. Yet, the more minutes that passed without one, the more Giles began to believe that Glory, for whatever reasons, had made a tactical retreat.

" . . . and then whoosh!" Dawn concluded, drawing Giles' full attention with the hand gesture to demonstrate the 'whooshing.' "All of a sudden, Glory's standing right there in front of us, all skanky and blonde and thinking she's all that just 'cause some bumpy-heads kiss her stinky feet--although she does have nice feet--and she's coming right at us and Buffy's just standing there, not even blinking, like 'bring it on!' And then wham!" Dawn looked smugly proud of her older sibling, and rightly so. "Hellbitch in orbit."

Equally impressed, Xander shot Buffy a cocky grin. "Go, Buff!"

In that instant, Giles, too, felt incredibly proud of his Slayer. "I knew you'd best Glory eventually. I mean, all our years of training--"

"A truck hit her," Buffy confessed, shattering the illusion of stunning triumph as just painted by Dawn. Her attention was still focused out the window; she didn't consider their miraculous escape as quite the same feat of heroics.

"Oh."

"You threw it at her?" Anya asked.

"Well, no," Dawn hastily backtracked, this time with a little less flamboyance. "She more kinda waited for it to hit Glory. But then Buffy ran really fast, and we got away."

"I don't know how we got away," Buffy admitted, still convinced their pending demises loomed somewhere close outside. As far as Giles could tell, the most threatening thing out there was sunshine and birdsong, and unhurried amble of weekend life. "That truck couldn't have slowed her down for more than a second."

"Well, 'how' isn't important," Giles said, attempting to appease both his Slayer's flagging morale and his wife's surly disposition. "All that matters is that the two of you are safe."

With a loud, disbelieving scoff, Buffy turned to face him with a doubtful expression. "Safe?" Her face turned angry. "We've barely been able to manage not getting seriously dead every time we've crossed paths with Glory. Now that she knows that Dawn is The Key . . . ?" With a shake of her head, she left the facts unsaid. They were all in serious danger now, especially Dawn.

Still trying for appeasement and a rational solution, Giles offered, "There must be something in the 'Book of Tarnis' that we've missed. Something we can use against Glory."

"Piano!" Anya perked up excitedly, confusing everyone.

Xander, sitting next to her, halfheartedly agreed. "Because that's what we used to kill that big demon that one time!" Then he frowned. "No, wait, that was a rocket launcher. An, what are you talking about?"

"We should drop a piano on her," Anya continued. Off their collectively blank looks, she added, "Well, it always works for that creepy cartoon rabbit when he's running from that nice man with the speech impediment."

Giles rolled his eyes. "Yes, or perhaps we could paint a convincing tunnel on the side of a mountain. Let's just keep thinking, everyone." He looked at Buffy, and managed to catch her eye. "Perhaps we should reassemble at the magick shop, see if there's anything--"

"We can't fight her," Buffy announced flatly.

"Well, not yet, no, but--"

"No, not ever. She's too strong, Giles. We're not going to win this with stakes or spells or pulling out some uranium power core." Buffy look a deep breath and made a difficult decision. "She's a god and she's coming for us. So let's just not be here when she starts knocking."

"Run away?" Anya asked, appalled. She thought it over for a moment then added, "Finally, a sensible plan."

"That's not what she meant," Xander retorted. He looked to Buffy for clarification. They all did. They'd never run away from a fight before. Regrouped, re-strategized, replenished supplies and weapons maybe, but never, in all their years together on the Hellmouth, had any of them even considered the simple prospect of 'running away.' "Is it?"

"Well, we can't stay here," Buffy declared, her emotions almost spilling through. She was understandably distressed, and close to losing it. "She'll just kill us off one by one until there's no one left standing between her and Dawn."

"Buffy, we all understand the severity of the situation," Giles said calmly, "but there must be another way."

"No. We stay, we die. Show of hands for that option?" When no one did, she continued with the plan. "All right. Nobody goes home, nobody tells anybody we're leaving. Just pack up whatever supplies we need and that's it, we're gone."

"Cool," Dawn said softly, breaking the ensuing silence with a misplaced attempt at humor. "Don't have to study for that geometry test."

"What about wheels?" Xander asked in all seriousness. "I don't think everybody's going to fit in the Xandermobile."

Giles scowled, again annoyed with himself for being in the predicament of having no car just when he needed one. The thought of using Joyce's Jeep Cherokee again flashed through his mind, but was just as quickly dismissed for precisely the same reasons as before.

"Just get your stuff together." Buffy started across to the apartment door. "I'll handle the rest." Hand on the doorknob, she turned to her sister. "Come on, Dawn."

Less than enthusiastic at the prospect of leaving her newly found safe haven, Dawn balked. "What? No way. I wanna stay with Giles."

"Buffy, given what's happened, I'm sure Dawn could use some downtime," Giles agreed, siding up to the teen and slipping a fatherly arm around her shoulders. He gave her a gentle squeeze, pleased when Dawn slid her arm around his waist and exchanged a grateful smile.

Buffy turned a condescending look on them both, which ended in an expression that suggested she was suddenly convinced her normally astute Watcher now possessed the IQ of a frozen fish stick. "It's not safe here."

"As you've just bleakly reminded us, it's not safe anyway," Giles argued, stepping forward in a way that directly challenged her judgment on this point. Everyone could see that Dawn had been through enough for one morning; she needed a break. "Least of all, out on the streets."

"If Glory finds you here, she'll kill you," Buffy announced grimly. "All of you," she said, locking eyes with Giles. "And then she'll still take Dawn. It's a risk I can't take."

"You're not the one taking it," Giles countered, riled by her stubbornness and inability to see that her sister really would rather stay with him than go traipsing around town on a no-doubt-illegal automobile hunt. He crossed his arms in emphasis of his disapproval, but Buffy merely countered with another infuriated glare. She was still pissed at him, but punishing Dawn, making him wonder if this discussion would have played out differently had they earlier resolved last night's spat.

"Maybe we should all leave here a-sap," Anya interjected uneasily.

"Yeah, we could all go muster up some more wheels together," Xander agreed, still abiding by the 'safety in numbers' scenario. Or perhaps he was simply trying to head off the major marital blowout he saw coming.

Giles' gaze remained fixed on Buffy--his beautiful, courageous, and infuriatingly obstinate Buffy. Her expression shifted slightly, and he recognized the 'now look what you've done' accusation directed his way for challenging her in front of present company, for overriding her authority and pitting the others against her, too.

Bloody hell, wasn't that--less than thirty-six hours ago--precisely what she wanted him to do? Take joint legal guardianship for Dawn . . . joint authority, joint say in decision-making pertaining to the teen's wellbeing? And every time he tried, he ran right into a brick wall named 'Buffy.'

With effort, he calmed his temper. "I'm simply suggesting--"

"No," she cut him short, taking a step that brought her back to stand in front of him; sole receiver of her unwarranted hostility. "Dawn comes with me." She didn't glance at her anxious friends, but rather dismissed them with a single word. "Alone." When no one challenged her, she took her sister by the hand and headed back to the apartment door, the decision made. "We'll meet you downtown in one hour, across from the bus station."

Beyond the rueful look she managed to share with Giles, Dawn offered no further resistance. Clearly, she didn't want to be the reason Glory attacked and killed the people she loved. Buffy had managed to make that hypothetical supposition into a concrete certainty, and in doing so, had given her sister no viable recourse but to comply or be responsible for the outcome.

As the door closed quietly behind the two and all eyes hedged back towards him, Giles ran a frustrated hand through his hair and huffed out a sigh.

'For the love of God,' he thought in exasperation. Damned if he didn't love her with every fiber of his being, but why did she have to be so bloody--

* * * * *

"--unreasonable," Buffy declared, adding that to her long list of Giles' shortcomings, all of which she had verbally expressed in the past twenty minutes. Repeatedly. "I mean--God--I love him, but why can't he just--"

A timely pothole in the road surface jarred the question from her mind, leaving her to concentrate on more immediate concerns, such as hanging onto the back of the Winnebago driver's seat lest she land on her butt. She was beginning to appreciate that standing up in a moving vehicle really wasn't a good idea.

"I don't think Giles was being unreasonable," Dawn interjected. Bored and still unhappy about being dragged along, she bounced on the foam cushions that surrounded the camper van's small 'U' shaped table.

Two road maps, one of California, the other of Nevada--both courtesy of the previous owner and found in the glove compartment--were spread out on the tabletop, but Buffy had abandoned her initial study of them to find the best escape route out of town in favor of finding the fastest local route to collect her still-very-vulnerable husband and friends. That meant giving Spike, who was driving, directions, even though he complained every time she did.

"No one asked you," Buffy grumbled to her sister.

"He was just looking out for me," Dawn continued regardless, tiring of her sister's incessant ranting, "like you asked."

Sparing her a startled glance, Buffy realized Dawn was right. Giles was only doing what she'd pleaded with him to do, when she begged him to become her sister's joint legal guardian.

The epiphany was startling, making her blink. 'God, I'm so totally brainless sometimes. Guess that shows who's the unreasonable one . . . '

Why did he even still love her? Why did he put up with her? Giles had the patience of a saint. He was so going to make a great dad . . .

The guilt from having not told him of their pending parenthood brought the sting of tears to her eyes, which she stubbornly fought off by attempting to focus on the present. Sucking it up, Buffy leaned over Spike's shoulder in an attempt to see out through the tiny rectangle of the Winnebago's windshield left uncovered by aluminum tinfoil.

Spike, wearing welder's goggles for extra protection against the glare of afternoon sunlight coming through the tear, navigated the rundown RV they had illegally acquired, from a parking lot out by the Interstate, through the back streets of Sunnydale, following his own directions rather than Buffy's. He shrugged absently at her most recent complaint against her husband, making her aware of the fact that she was starting to sound like a broken record on the subject.

"'Unreasonableness' is the least of his shortcomings, pet. Try 'old'? Or 'completely wrong for you.' Just like this sodding boxcar-on-wheels. I dunno why you picked this over that pretty little Porsche . . . "

"Just drive," Buffy said, irritated by both the reminder of their grand theft auto and Spike's redundant opinion of the man she loved. True, that red Porsche would have made for a faster, more stylish, getaway . . . but only for the three of them; Buffy, Dawn, and Spike. No way was she abandoning the people she loved, and the motor home, however aged and dilapidated, was the only 'conveniently available' choice that could accommodate them all. And they didn't 'steal' it, merely commandeered it in an emergency situation. Not that she was convinced the owners of the RV would see it that way, when they finished shopping and returned to their empty parking spot. Still peering out the hole in the tinfoil, she was grateful for the distraction when the Sunnydale downtown area finally rolled into view. "Take the next right."

As if he hadn't heard, Spike sailed on past the intended turn.

"Are you deaf? Or were you just born stupid?" Buffy snapped disdainfully.

"It's a one-way street," Spike said defensively. "I figured when you said, 'let's keep to the speed limit and maintain a low profile,' that didn't include attracting attention in a fender bender."

The tears Buffy fought to deny abruptly erupted in a splutter, which she just as quickly fought to get under control. Sinking into the bucket passenger seat beside him, she wiped her eyes, aware of the unwanted attention now directed at her.

Spike gave her a worried, sidelong glance as he navigated the traffic. "You all right?"

Buffy nodded defiantly, not trusting herself to words, and avoided eye contact.

"You know," Spike said off-handedly, "as much as I hate that pillock you're shackled to, I really do pity him . . . having to live with you and your sodding hormones for the next eight and a half months."

That got Dawn's attention. "Spike knows?"

"'Bout the baby?" Spike snorted indignantly. "'Course I bloody know."

"Dawnie, sit down," Buffy ordered when her sister stood and began to approach; it really wasn't safe, or smart, to stand in a moving vehicle.

Dawn grumpily sat again, frowning. "Is there anyone who doesn't know you're pregnant? Apart from your husband, that is."

Spike chuckled. "Still haven't told the old bloke, eh? What, you afraid he'll leave you?" He pondered the idea as he made a right turn and circled back around the block to follow Buffy's original direction. "Never you mind, pet, you'll always have me."

Reliving all those old doubts and fears about confessing their pending parenthood to Giles, Buffy was grateful when the Winnebago slowed and she could turn her attention elsewhere. Standing behind the driver's seat again, she looked out the hole in the tinfoil and was relieved to see Giles and her friends waiting curbside across from the bus station, in front of Impact Realty, as arranged. As Spike brought the old rattletrap to a halt directly beside them, punctuating the stop with a loud engine backfire, Buffy retreated to the table to study the maps. Eager to rejoin their friends, Dawn crossed to open the camper's door for them.

Giles' tone of voice, expressing his displeasure of her choice of getaway vehicle with a snide comment, made Buffy keep her head down rather than greet him. He was still 'in a mood,' and since she wasn't up for another confrontation, her best course of action was to avoid him.

Her friends filed inside; Willow and Tara, the former also unsure of her choice of a practical getaway vehicle; Xander and Anya, the latter carrying a backpack and looking oddly excited about the impromptu road trip. Giles brought up the rear, securing the camper's door behind them before looking around. Buffy, head down and scrutinizing the tabletop, sensed a heap of trouble brewing in the short pause before her husband spoke.

"What's he doing here?"

"Just out for a jaunt," Spike answer cheerfully, his tone and manner only further antagonizing Giles. "Thought I'd swing by and say 'howdy.'"

"Out," Giles ordered brusquely. He tossed the small sports bag he carried onto the floor, staking his territory.

Tired of the testosterone battles whenever she put these two together in the same room, Buffy rounded on her husband. "He's here because we need him."

"The hell we do," Xander said, backing up Giles.

"If Glory finds us," Buffy reasoned, "he's the only one besides me that has any chance of protecting Dawn."

"Buffy, come on--"

"Look, this isn't a discussion!" Feeling the emotional tide rise to a crest again, Buffy shot to her feet before her hormones swamped her. "He stays. Get over it." Hiding tears behind anger, she grabbed up a map and stomped into the small, back bedroom of the motor home, slamming the sliding door in her wake.

God, she just did it again . . .

Alone, she stood for a moment, drawing a calming breath and fighting back the wave of emotions threatening to pull her under. Although muffled by the wood veneer wall, Buffy heard Spike's condescending remark to 'buckle up, kids,' a moment before the motor home lurched forward.

Tossing aside the map, she wearily sank onto the small bed nestled beneath the Winnebago's rear window, grateful to be reunited with her husband and friends, and finally underway. Although to 'where' was still undecided. Heading east, and keeping off the main roads, about summed it up. Despite the maps, she had no clear destination in mind, mostly because what she'd said earlier was true; nowhere was safe from the Hellgod.

Nowhere.

Feeling suddenly vulnerable, Buffy hastily closed the Venetian blinds and drew the curtains--thin, cotton, green-and-orange checked things that were surely right out of Martha Stewart's worst nightmare. Settling on her side, she drew the hot pink bed blanket up under her chin. Although it did nothing for the décor, it was snuggly-soft and smelled of lavender; comforting to at least two of her senses. Turning her face into it, she curled into a ball. She wanted to cry, but now that she had the chance to do so in private, the tears she strove so hard to deny simply refused to come.

Moments later, a soft knock on the door made her glad they hadn't. The knockee didn't wait for her reply, but slid open the door and stepped inside her sanctuary without an invitation.

Giles quietly slid the door closed behind him, maintaining a modicum of privacy despite the poor soundproofing of the motor home's walls.

Surfacing, Buffy glanced up at him, her heavy heart sinking further at the detached look on his face. She didn't want to fight with him any more; she didn't have the emotional strength. So she stayed curled on her side, hugging the pink blanket in lieu of where she'd rather be--in the shelter of his loving embrace.

A minute passed with nothing but the rock and rattle of the old camper van and the labored sound of the cantankerous engine for company. Evidently, Giles wasn't taking the hint; he wasn't leaving without the opportunity to berate her judgment for bringing Spike in on this latest venture. If only he knew the real reason for her uneasy allegiance with the vampire, then he might understand. Resignedly, she looked up at him again, this time in a gesture of surrender. If he was going to yell, then she just wanted to get it over with . . .

He met her gaze with a steady expression that gave nothing away, although from his body language, with one hand casually tucked in the front pocket of his blue jeans, she sensed that he wasn't there to trade further barbs with her on the subject of Spike. And for that, she was suddenly very grateful.

The Winnebago bumped and rolled over another pothole, this time causing Giles to take a seat or risk looking like a complete fool when he lost his footing. Settling on the narrow mattress by her hips, he turned his attention to the modest and unfashionable furnishings of the small, mobile bedroom.

"Not exactly the Ritz," he commented dryly, picking up the map she had discarded for a cursory glance, then setting it down again, out of the way. It was an icebreaker, neutral ground; he wasn't there to argue, rather to make amends. Which was fine by Buffy. She desperately wanted to make up with the love of her life. She felt so disjointed while at odds with him; doubly so when running for their very lives.

Giles swiveled slightly, placing one hand on the mattress by the wall, the other by her side, trapping her between. She looked up, watching his face shift to a loving, yet apologetic, expression that melted her heart the same way it had so many times before.

"I'm sorry," they said in unison, then smiled at their timing.

"You first," she encouraged.

"Buffy, you know I love you."

"I know. I love you, too."

"And despite the fact that we seem to do so often enough, I detest quarrelling with you."

"Me, too. Hate the quarrelling."

Giles glanced away, solely accepting the guilt for their latest estrangement. "I believe I still owe you an apology for last night. I acted . . . rashly . . . to the news of your decision to ally yourself with Spike."

"Ya think? You acted like a total prig!" To her mind, she'd repeatedly tried to avoid the confrontation, while he was the one who completely lost control of his temper. However, when he frowned, she regretted laying all the blame so squarely in his lap. "Sorry."

"No, no, you're right," Giles relented. "I suppose I was . . . priggish. But for good reason. You see, I realize you're The Slayer and I am merely your Watcher--"

"Hey, there's no 'merely' about it. You're my everything."

That brought his eyes back to hers, his expression grateful. "What I'm trying to say is . . . I know we've only been married a short time, but it's hard for me, now, to let you be 'The Slayer.' You're 'my wife,' and as difficult as it was for me before to watch you form alliances with 'the enemy'--with Angel--it's virtually impossible for me to sit idly by and watch you do so now."

"With Spike, you mean."

"With any man. Buffy, I've never had cause to consider myself jealous or possessive, but never before have I been so utterly in love with someone. I'm loath to admit that I completely lose control whenever another man so much as notices you. Especially when it's Spike, and especially when you encourage him."

"I don't--"

"But you do defend him. Last night, for example. And just now."

She pouted. "I don't mean to. It's just that--"

"He's useful." Giles nodded in grudging agreement. "The Watcher in me knows you're right, even though your Husband wants to punch that bloody smirk right down his throat." He let go the building frustration on a sigh. "I accept that Spike has his usefulness. And in future, I shall endeavor to keep my green-eyed monster on a tighter leash and be more tolerant of your relationship with him."

With a guilty smile, Buffy raised her hand to her husband's cheek. "It's not a 'relationship,' okay? There's only one man I want to have 'relations' with, and I'm talking to him right now. Spike is business. That's all."

Putting his hand over hers, Giles turned her palm to his lips for a quick kiss. "I know that, of course, but it's nonetheless reassuring to hear you say so."

"He can help protect Dawn," Buffy insisted. A little reluctantly, she added, "And me."

Giles tried hard to keep the resentful look off his face. Despite his promise, his expression slowly transformed into the same one she saw every time she mentioned the vampire in a helpful context. Spike was a hindrance, not a help, not to mention the source of so many contentions between them. If only Giles knew why she needed the vampire in their lives, he'd not only understand the alliance, but maybe even approve of it . . .

In a proverbial blinding flash, it occurred to Buffy that despite the time, the place, and the sucky circumstances, the moment was precisely right for her to confess everything. Giles deserved to know the reason behind her decision to enlist 'the enemy's' protection for the next eight and a half months.

Scooting back to sit up a little straighter, she clutched his hand to her stomach, where his baby grew inside her, and gently broached the subject. "We never did, um, have our talk last night."

Giles looked surprised, if not slightly alarmed, by her willingness to recap the ugly fight that resulted in them sleeping in separate rooms, especially so hot on the heels of resolving it. "I was rather hoping 'Spike' covered the majority of it."

"It does--he does. But not all of it." Preferring to look at their entwined fingers rather than meet his now-troubled gaze, Buffy played with his wedding ring. Mustering up the courage, she finally looked into his eyes. "I need to tell you some stuff, but you gotta promise me you won't freak."

His expression immediately clouded, her warning instigating the same reaction she'd hoped to avoid. "Very well."

Unconvinced, she tugged on his hand. "No, I mean really. Don't freak, okay?"

Giles hedged a wary smile. "You're beginning to make me nervous."

"Not half as nervous as this makes me. Um . . . " Sobering to the task ahead, Buffy raised her free hand to his face, watching her fingertips trace every familiar curve and pore. "I love you. So much. I know we talked about this and decided it wasn't a good idea, but sometimes things just happen. Only . . . you and I both know that things don't 'just happen' in our wacky world, they happen for a reason--Fate, Destiny, whatever you want to call it. So I guess there's a reason 'why,' and a reason it's 'now,' even if we haven't figured it out yet." She looked him squarely in the eye . . . but now that it was crunch time, hesitation found her, giving Giles the opportunity to break her flow.

Gone was the apprehension. Now he just looked fondly amused. "Darling, you're babbling."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just . . . " But the right words still wouldn't come out of her mouth.

"Does this have something to do with your Slayer Quest into the desert?"

She gently squeezed the hand she still held. "Yes!" It had everything to do with their jaunt to the desert, specifically the night they spent at the Siesta Motel; the night their child was conceived. She looked at him with a hopeful expression. "Yes, it does."

Giles pulled back a little, nodding, and she could tell by the set of his shoulders and the crinkle of his brow that she'd just lost him to full Watcher mode.

"Mmm, I've been giving that some thought, too," he said, confident he understood. But the first words out of his mouth confirmed he was on a completely different wavelength. "This riddle of death, this 'gift' of yours, may be precisely that. A riddle. Perhaps it's not a reference to physical death after all, but rather the death of a known convention."

"Like a Home Expo or something? 'Cause there's something we wouldn't miss . . . "

Giles smiled. "I was referring more to a habit, a tradition, a way of life." He gave her fingers an encouraging little squeeze. "Your calling, for example. Buffy, your reward for besting Glory--your gift, as it were--could very well be something you've always wanted. A new start. A normal life." He bought their clasped hands to his lips and placed a gentle kiss on the back of hers.

The idea stunned her, pushing all baby announcements to the wayside. A normal life was something she'd dreamed of for so long. "You really think so?" she asked, suddenly desperate to hear him confirm it.

"Well, I'd like to try researching it a tad further before I make any firm promises, but yes." He smiled lovingly, brushing his lips over the back of her hand. "I believe it might be."

"A normal life," Buffy repeated, awed, again finding herself on the verge of tears. But this time they were happy ones. Sniffing them back, she turned a watery smile at him. "With a house with a white picket fence, and 2.3 kids in the yard?" she said nervously, bringing the conversation full circle.

Reaching out, Giles gently gathered her into his embrace. "And a husband who is absolutely, irrevocably, smitten with you."

She held on tight, completely overwhelmed by hope. She was right. Things didn't 'just happen' without reason. Not to them. So was this--being pregnant--Fate's way of telling her that she did indeed have a future ahead of her? With her sister, her husband, and the joy of children?

Oblivious to her thoughts, Giles drew away slightly, breaking the hug, and with one hand under her chin, tilted her face towards his for a long-overdue kiss. Closing her eyes, Buffy reveled in the feel of his lips descending on hers, the gently increasing pressure of his mouth as he slowly deepened it and let his passion for her run free. If there was one thing she actually liked about the quarrelling, it was the deliciously sweet making up afterwards; the unbreakable reassurances she found in his touches and kisses, the look in his eyes that told her, no matter how bad it seemed to get between them, Giles loved and adored her, always and forever.

Two stray tears trickled down her cheeks; tears of elation. She loved him too. She loved him more than anyone or anything, and the possibility of having a full, long life with him was just too much for her crazy mixed up pregnancy hormones to handle. When they finally parted, several blissful minutes later, Giles gently held her face in his hands. His thumbs tenderly brushed away the wet streaks, his smile full of so much honest love that it made her want to cry all over again.

"Apology accepted?" he asked.

"Not quite," she whispered.

Grabbing the front of his tan jacket, Buffy pulled him back to her, ready to dismiss the world around them as she again lost herself in his kiss. But just millimeters before their lips met, the Winnebago's speed abruptly slowed to a noticeable crawl. They both turned their heads, almost cheek to cheek, simultaneously looking at the closed sliding door as if it could somehow offer insight into the decided lack of forward momentum.

"We're stopping," Buffy announced unnecessarily, as the RV swerved slightly to the right, pulling to the curb. Why they should be stopping when they were supposed to be fleeing greatly alarmed her. "Glory," she said fearfully, releasing Giles and getting to her feet just as the vehicle stopped completely. Recovering from the accompanying jerk, her voice cracked as she added, "Dawn."

She beat Giles to the sliding door by two strides and threw it open with Slayer strength, her rushed and noisy entrance into the main cabin startling the others. Her gaze singled out Dawn, who still sat at the table with Willow, Tara, and Anya, looking bored. Xander, on his feet, was halfway towards the camper's main door when he turned to regard her.

"What's happened?" Buffy asked, both alarmed and confused by the decided lack of trouble. "Why have we stopped?"

"Easy, Buff," Xander assured her. "No big."

Spike stood up from the driver's seat, lifting the welder's goggles to the top of his head as he turned around to face her. "Seems Ma and Pa Motor Home weren't planning on going much of anywhere 'cept the mall," he explained. "We're running on fumes."

Xander flung open the door, allowing a thick slice of California sunlight to splash across the toes of Spike's black boots.

"Oy!" the vampire protested, jumping back. He stood there glaring. Effectively pinned in the shadows near the front of the vehicle, he wasn't very threatening.

With a smirk, Xander stepped outside.

"Bring me back a pack of smokes," Spike called amiably, "and a bag of those sour cream and onion crisps . . . "

"So we're just out of gas?" Buffy asked, relaxing slightly, her gaze following Xander as he disappeared behind a stand of gas pumps. The others were getting to their feet, too, anxious to stretch their legs for a few minutes, including Dawn, who was hoping to make a swift exodus after Willow and Tara . . . until Buffy grabbed her arm. "Whoa, where'd you think you're going?"

With a knowing roll of her eyes for the sisterly intervention, Dawn pulled to a standstill. "Restroom first, then the convenience store. Lunch got interrupted, if you remember."

"No junk food," Buffy insisted, glancing out the door at the small store adjoining the deserted garage.

"What else do you expect a 7/11 in the middle of nowhere to have?"

She had a point . . . although they weren't exactly 'in the middle of nowhere,' not yet anyway, rather just a few miles out of town. Still, Spike had stuck to her instructions about taking back roads, so they were well off the beaten path. Hence, the prospect of finding a fresh salad bar inside was pretty much slim-to-none.

"Can I have some money?" Dawn asked hopefully.

Sensing Giles stop behind her, Buffy suddenly decided that now was a good time to give him exactly what she'd asked him to have, then subsequently denied; parental control. "Ask Giles," she told her sister, then stepped out into the sunshine.

Although she didn't turn around, she could imagine the look on his face, and the quick change in the expression when Dawn used her best pout on him. He'd cave, of course. Royally. Those two had bonded in a way Buffy never imagined possible, like a real father and daughter. So he'd give in to her, happy to finally put his parental rights into action, Dawn would return to the camper with an armload of junk food, and Buffy would save face while still maintaining her 'overbearing sister' act. Everyone would be happy.

Except maybe Giles, Buffy decided upon giving the marquee displaying the jacked-up gas prices a cursory glance, when he discovered he was also the one who had to pay for their fill up . . .

* * * * *

Giles was last to re-enter the RV, ten minutes later. Buffy, torn between sitting with her sister and friends who were sifting through their junk food spoils, and withdrawing to the solitude of the back bedroom, glanced up as he shut the door. He looked first at her, with an encouraging smile, then at Spike, who, as the only one to have waited onboard--not a voluntary decision--had again claimed the Numero Uno position in the driver's seat. Giles expression instantly soured, his body language turning aggressive as he approached Spike, who looked smug and smiled in a 'nah-nah-nah nah-nah nah' sort of way.

Buffy rolled her eyes. 'Oh boy, here we go again . . . '

"Move," Giles ordered curtly.

"Sit down, Gramps," Spike replied arrogantly, turning the ignition key. The camper's argumentative engine rumbled into spluttering, backfiring life. "So we can get this show on the road again."

Giles remained steadfastly put, his voice calm despite his menacing stance. "Move, or I'll remove you myself."

Recognizing the threat in the coolly controlled tone, Spike glared up at him. His hands tightened on the steering wheel, determined not to relinquish control. "I'd like to see you try."

"And again, you tempt me to make it permanent."

Since they were only wasting time and effort arguing, Buffy swiftly intervened, siding up beside Giles. She immediately caught Spike's eye, and from the look on his face, he obviously expected her to defend him. Again. Mindful of her recent conversation with Giles, she instead sided with her husband. "You heard, Spike, move. I want Giles to drive."

Spike looked surprised, then hurt, then betrayed. Finally, he just looked beaten. Without further comment, he got up and sulked off to join the others at the table.

Buffy exchanged a look with Giles, speaking fluent 'husband/wife' with him in a glance, before he gave her a small smile of appreciation and focused on the task at hand. The first thing he did after making himself comfortable in the vacated driver's seat was to rip a bigger hole in the tinfoil covering the windscreen.

"Do you have a particular destination in mind?" Giles asked quietly, also peeling back a corner of the foil covering the window to his left, giving him access to the side mirror outside. With a loathsome expression, he balled up the torn foil and disposed of it in the door pocket. Although he was going along with her plan to leave town and showed support for her decision, it was clear he still didn't wholeheartedly approve of it. To his Watcher-trained mind, making a stand and fighting it out--to the death, if necessary--was the way things needed to be done, and it bothered Buffy, on some deep emotional level, to know that he, and possibly the others, considered her actions cowardly . . . even if no one ever said it.

She thought she was being cowardly, so why shouldn't they? She was The Slayer, with capital letters. She'd made a reputation for herself in Sunnydale as evil's resident ass kicker. Bad guys were supposed to flee from her presence, not the other way around. She could imagine the scene, when word got out; all her prior and future nemeses gathered at Willy's for a celebratory toast and big snicker for her apparent spinelessness . . .

Despondent, Buffy dropped into the bucket passenger seat and swiveled it to face Giles--far better scenery than the tinfoil still covering her side of the windshield. She shrugged in answer to his question, miserably reminded of the reason behind their little road trip. "Just keep heading east on the back roads, I guess."

Wrestling the camper into gear, Giles pulled the old rattletrap back out onto the deserted two lane blacktop. He lapsed into silence, content simply to drive and get an initial feel for the vehicle's particular perks. Behind them, at the table, Dawn instigated a zany discussion about the science behind the uniformity of Pringles™, evidently without a care in the world, while Xander bit into a sauce-dripping chilidog with a little too much relish and onion on top for Buffy's taste, despite Anya's dire warning of the consequences of consuming spicy food while in motion.

In that moment, Buffy envied her sister and friends, wishing that she, too, had the ability to turn off 'real life,' even just for a short period, and forget that they were on the run for their lives without a destination or a plan. But she couldn't because she was 'The Slayer,' and for her there was no respite, no escape from the fact that at any given moment, death could come knocking on the door of their rundown Winnebago in the guise of one very pissed off Hellgod.

Her gaze shifted back to Giles' profile; the man who set her soul on fire with just his touch; the father of her unborn child. God, she wished she could just tell him why she was running away from the fight! They all suspected it was to protect Dawn, and it was, but it was also to safeguard her baby. Spike was right; pregnant meant vulnerable. She couldn't beat Glory when she was herself, what chance did she have while pregnant?

Willow's lunchtime warning surfaced from the recesses of her memory. In fact, every time she glanced at Willow and Tara was a dismal reminder of how fragile their lives really were, how things could change dramatically in the proverbial blink of an eye. They were being chased by a foe that, from all accounts, was invincible and determined to eradicate them from the face of the planet. There was no 'if' in the question of Glory catching up with them, simply 'when,' and Buffy's expectations of the outcome couldn't be any less morbid. The truth in Willow's wisely spoken words scared her far more than the prospect of the battle itself, for if she fell, if she died without telling Giles about the baby, then when he found out from someone else it would not only kill him figuratively, but quite probably physically, as well.

He'd be inconsolable. Gutted. Suicidal. Not the legacy she wished to leave the man she loved, and yet, she continued to keep her secret despite the many chances and stolen moments Fate had granted her to tell him.

'That's gonna change,' she vowed, watching a crinkle slowly crest over his forehead until a divot of concentration formed between his brows. She could tell him now . . . just say those three words out loud for all to hear . . . only it wasn't the sort of bombshell she wanted to drop while he was in control of a moving vehicle. Nor was it really something she wanted to blurt out in front of the others, even though half of them already knew. Eventually they'd have to stop again, whether for gas or supplies or simply to change drivers when Giles grew fatigued, and when they did, she promised to steal him away for a few moments in private.

Her eyes pricked with emotion at the thought of finally being able to share with him the joy of their pending parenthood. God, they were having a baby! Provided, of course, they survived the next eight and a half months, and provided he didn't totally freak at the announcement and leave her. There was still the nagging possibility that he might react badly to the news, considering finding out hadn't initially inspired her to sing and dance, either. But he loved her, and if he did react in a negative way, then she would simply have to ease him into the idea with lots of quality Buffy-loving . . .

Sensing the weight of her gaze, Giles gave her a sidelong glance. The divot deepened at the unusual sight of her all misty-eyed and dependent. "Buffy?" he asked, endeavoring to keep one eye on the deserted road ahead.

She put on a brave front. "S'okay. I'm just . . . tired."

That, at least, wasn't a complete lie. Apart from the emotionally draining days she'd had of late, all of the Winnebago's windows were either covered with pulled blinds or plastered with sun-reflecting tinfoil. The lack of outside visual stimulation, the stagnation of the drive, and the softness of the seat in which she relaxed with present company, all combined to lull her gently toward the sanctuary of slumber.

Giles gave her an understanding smile. "Then perhaps you should take advantage of the fact that we've a comfortable looking bed in the back room."

"Can't. I mean, what if something happens?"

"And what it if doesn't?" Giles countered resonably. "You should rest now, love, while you have the opportunity. Things might be different later on."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, still reluctant to abandon her post, to give herself that little respite from 'real life' the way her sister and friends did.

Hearing her note of weakening resolve, Giles added, "At the first hint of trouble, you have my word we'll wake you."

Suddenly, the idea of some downtime not only sounded appealing, it became impossible to resist. Wearily, Buffy used the armrests of the chair to push to her feet. Before moving away, she stepped closer to Giles, sliding gentle arms around his neck in a way that neither startled nor distracted him. She hugged him, and left him with a kiss on the cheek; short and sweet but packed full of devotion. She was glad they weren't fighting anymore. Being on solid ground with him soothed some of the ache in her soul, making at least that part of her life seem right again.

He responded by affectionately patting her arm. Withdrawing, she headed back through the camper, past her now-silent friends, whose collective attention had been captured the moment she stood. Without a word to them, she closed herself in the small but comfortable bedroom at the back of the RV.

* * * * *

She wasn't sure how many hours--or was it just minutes?--had passed, only that a soft knock on the sliding door startled her from a light doze. Instantly awake and alert to possible danger, despite the unobtrusiveness of the knocking and the daylight still behind the pulled blinds, Buffy rose from her semi-recline position against a mountain of cushions and pillows in one corner of the small bed, and sat up a little straighter to receive her guest. Part of her hoped it was Giles come to check on her, and they could finally have their 'conversation,' but since the motor home was still in constant forward motion--with a few more bumps thrown in to suggest they'd left the tarred road behind for something a little more weather-beaten--that hope died as quickly as it came.

The door slid open part way to reveal Dawn, one hand behind her back.

"Hey," she said, her unflustered tone immediately telling Buffy that all was quiet on the Winnebago front. "I think Anya's gonna try to cook. Wanna come watch the tears and recriminations?"

Letting go the tension, Buffy mustered up a small smile. "Maybe later."

She beckoned her sister to join her, suddenly wanting the company. This whole big scaredy runaway was as much for Dawn's benefit as it was for that of her unborn child. No, more. Dawn's wellbeing meant everything to her. Sometimes, the strength of her maternal instincts scared her. But they also invigorated her. Buffy had found renewed strength in Giles' interpretation of her 'gift,' the alluring prospect of living a full and complete life with her sister, and her husband and many, many children. Now she truly had something to live for . . . if Glory didn't kill her first.

Dawn slid the door closed behind her, and sat on the mattress. "You okay?"

Buffy raised a hand to Dawn's face and combed back a lock of stray hair. "Yeah. I'm just . . . " She hesitated; 'tired' wasn't going to cut it now, considering her rest. "Truthfully, I dunno what's wrong with me."

"I do. You're pregnant and not eating. You gotta keep your strength up," Dawn said worriedly.

"If you're about to tell me I'm 'eating for two now,' then I might just have to sock you." Looking down at her snug, black leather pants, Buffy pouted. "I'm already lamenting the fact that I may never wear these again."

"We missed lunch," Dawn insisted, "not that eggplant actually qualifies as real food, so . . . " With a grin, she pulled the hand from behind her back, revealing a banana. "Here. Rescued this from Anya."

"Anya brought a banana along for the ride?"

"Go figure. That and a can of SPAM™. And believe me when I say that fried SPAM™ with banana--" She shuddered distastefully "--not on anyone's most wanted list. Especially not Xander's."

"The chilidog?" Buffy asked, taking the fruit.

Dawn nodded happily. "He's ready to blow chunks."

"Poor guy," Buffy said, but she couldn't keep the amusement off her face. "Thanks for the banana. I am . . . kinda peckish."

"Peckish?" Dawn teased. "You're talking in Giles-speak now? Then it is true what they say about married couples."

Buffy smiled fondly, truly amazed at what she had picked up in her vocabulary. "You'd be surprised."

"Anyway," Dawn said, indicating the banana, "I hear they're actually good for you, full of potassium and junk. But you really need to start on a diet high in folic acid. Or drink lots of orange juice. It's good for the baby."

Buffy cocked her head, amazed. "Where'd you learn that?"

"From that book you bought . . . " Dawn broke off, realizing she'd revealed too much, and thinking she was about to get chewed out for it. "Oops."

Buffy's initial surprise at Dawn's continued snooping turned into absolute delight over the fact that her sister had so thoroughly embraced the idea of becoming an aunt. She could only hope and pray that Giles would find fatherhood similarly appealing, and that they all lived long enough for the happy little dream to come to fruition. "Mega-brat."

They shared a sisterly moment, happy despite knowing the danger imminently ahead.

"So . . . what'd Giles say when you told him?" Dawn asked excitedly. "Was he, like, totally floored?"

Buffy guiltily diverted her gaze.

"Buffy, you gotta tell him!"

"You think I don't know that?" she snapped a little too harshly. "Sorry, I just . . . " She blew out a sigh. "It's just so hard. Every time I try to . . . " But she'd run out of valid excuses.

"Remind me never to fall in love. Or have a baby."

"Believe me, on that last count," Buffy said, slipping into semi-serious Mom Mode, "bet on it until you're thirty . . . or married. Whichever comes first."

Dawn poked her tongue out, then sobered. "Seriously though, I don't get it. Giles loves you. You're the center of his universe. Why would you think that telling him you're having his baby would make him anything but totally gaga?"

"It's complicated, Dawnie. Giles and me, we're . . . " Buffy shook her head, unable to find the right descriptor. " . . . complicated."

"That I already know. You're both totally insane." Dawn smiled cheekily. "But there's a bright side."

"There is?"

"At least things can't get any crazier. Right?"

No sooner were the words out of her mouth, than an arrow pierced the wall just inches behind Buffy's head. Startled, they both turned to regard it, before Buffy threw a long-suffering look at her sister.

"You know this is your fault for saying that," Buffy quipped.

Her Slayer senses went off like a firehouse bell. Adrenaline stirring her into motion, she parted the Venetian blinds to peer outside. Trailing behind the Winnebago, alarmingly close and gaining, were a dozen or more fully armored knights on horseback, doing their best to lay siege to the traveling vehicle. Buffy recognized them instantly: the Knights of Byzantium. Their agenda was the same as Glory; they also sought The Key, but for an entirely different reason. Glory sought to harness The Key's powers for her own evil purposes, whereas the Knights were hell bent on destroying it before it fell into the Hellgod's hands.

Another arrow pierced the thin metal shell of the RV, this time close to where Dawn sat, signaling time to move or risk becoming a shish-kabob. As a rain of arrows began to pelt the rear of the camper, Buffy determinedly grabbed her sister by the hand and ran for the sliding door.

* * * * *

"Giles!"

He heard Buffy's warning call mere seconds after he'd spotted them in his side mirror, closing in on the Winnebago at breakneck speed.

"I see them," Giles confirmed, keeping a wary eye on the side mirror as well as the road ahead. The Knights of Byzantium had come out of nowhere and were gaining ground behind them fast. Any second now, they would be alongside the camper, and there would be less room to maneuver and evade.

"See who?" Spike asked, a second before his question was answered with an arrow slamming through the wall close to where he stood.

"Arrows!" Xander exclaimed unnecessarily.

"Bloody hell!" Spike cursed.

"They're throwing arrows!"

"Dawn, get down under the table," Buffy ordered, and presumably pushed her sister into doing just that.

Giles had no time to turn around to check. The knights had gained ground, their horses frothing at the bit as they galloped full tilt either side of the lumbering motor home, surrounding it on both sides. More arrows pierced the walls, left and right, forcing the occupants to stay low in the center of the vehicle. Wrestling with the steering on the bumpy gravel road, his foot to the floor as he tried to coax just a few more miles-per-hour out of the tired, labored engine, Giles watched a single knight resolutely advance on his position, and gruesomely guessed his intent. What better way to bring the RV to a halt than to kill the driver?

Of all the times for his ego to evict Spike from the job . . .

For a moment frozen in time, Giles watched the slowing closing knight via the side mirror, and wrestled with his conscience. These were men, not creatures of evil; ordinary men fanatical in their mission to find and destroy The Key--Dawn. They intended to kill her without mercy or regret, and acknowledgement and acceptance of this resolved his indecision. His newly discovered paternal instincts won out over his Watcher sworn oath to protect mankind. The knights had crossed the line when they threatened the people he loved.

Showing no such hesitation at the idea of killing a fellow human being, the knight raised his crossbow and fired at Giles' head. Instinct had him jerking forward and sideways to avoid it as it pierced the wall, while still maintaining control of the vehicle, just barely escaping a direct, and possibly fatal, hit to the neck. Straightening, Giles looked out the side mirror again, but his adversary had backed off, presumably because the weapon only had one shot before it needed reloading. Indeed, the other knights bearing empty crossbows had also fallen to the rear of the pack, allowing the remaining riders, those armed with axes, swords, and grappling hooks, to move in for their chance at a kill. This time, the plan was to try to board them.

"Weapons?" Giles called, hoping Buffy had found the sports bag he'd brought with him from home. He glanced up into the rear vision mirror in time to watch her toss it at Spike.

"Hello, you're driving one!" Spike said facetiously.

"Don't hit the horsies!" Willow cried, taking cover under the table with Dawn and the others.

"Oh, we won't," Buffy assured her. She ran up beside him, one hand tightening on his arm as she bent low for a desperate glimpse out of the hole ripped in the tinfoil. "Aim for the horsies," she instructed softly.

Giles nodded bleakly. Another glance in the side mirror revealed a knight with a wicked-looking pole lance headed his way, evidently sticking to the plan of taking out the driver first.

Timing was everything. Pulse racing, he waited precious seconds for the knight to pull alongside him. As the knight drew the lance back over his shoulder to throw, Giles jerked sharply on the steering wheel, precariously swinging the motor home directly at his adversary. The horse reacted to the threat of a big metal box aimed its way with a whinny of fear, and peeled away from the pack to shoot off into the desert scrub before the rider could tame the frightened animal.

'One down, about fifteen bloody more to go.'

There was no way the old motor home could outrun them, so clearly their best chance lay in out maneuvering them. A tricky task at best, as Giles quickly discovered while attempting to regain control of the vehicle. It was top heavy with a low center of gravity. Another sharp swerve like the one he had just executed was, clearly, to risk a rollover.

"Did we shake 'em?" Xander asked. A sword blade stabbed through the roof, narrowly missing his head, answered the question. It was withdrawn again just as quickly.

Giles glanced up at the sound of boots on the roof, the knight who had gained access via the service ladder on the back of the camper changing position for another try at stabbing someone. Sure enough, the sword came through the ceiling again, this time above the table where the others remained safely hidden.

"Stay low!" Buffy warned, turning to Spike to claim a weapon from the sports bag. "Watch out for the--"

Again, the sword pierced the metal roof, this time close to Buffy's head. Spike reacted to the threat, reaching up to grab the blade with both hands, and hanging on despite the knight's repeated attempt to pull it free.

Blood seeped down Spike's wrists as the razor sharp blade sliced into his palms. He grimaced, ignoring the pain, and continued to hold tight. "Now might be a good time for something heroic."

Buffy wheeled. "Xander! Hatch!"

Not liking the plan for her to go up top and challenge the knight, but with no alternative in mind to suggest, Giles glanced in the rear vision mirror, doing his best to keep the vehicle on a steady course as he watched Buffy climb onto the table and open the access panel in the ceiling. He wanted to call to her to look in his sports bag for the battleaxe or sword he had stowed along with his Watcher's journal, but lost the opportunity as Xander boosted her through the small opening, onto the roof.

Concentrating on the road ahead, Giles knew the option of using the motor home as a weapon was now moot. With Buffy on the roof, all he could do was keep driving straight and steady, giving her as much firm footing to work with as possible, while still trying to outmaneuver the other knights. Luckily, they seemed to be hanging back, simply keeping pace with the Winnebago now rather than trying to assault it, until such time their compatriot up top was either successful or defeated.

Putting the notion of Buffy's defeat from his mind and concentrating on driving, Giles nonetheless glanced back as Spike suddenly screamed in pain. The vampire's grip on the sword had finally weakened to the point where he'd been forced to let go. The blade immediately disappeared upwards, leaving him with unusable, bloodied hands, but that was the least of Giles' worries. He instinctively feared Buffy's chances now, against an armed and single-minded opponent.

The sound of frantically stomping boots on the roof seemed impossibly loud, amplified by the metallic box structure of the RV, as the two squared off. As Spike fell into a seat by the table, awkwardly trying to bandage his cut hands with strips of rag ripped from an old dishtowel, Dawn poked her head up to help.

"Dawn, stay down!" Giles warned, automatically glancing up as something heavy thudded onto the motor home's rear quarter. A body no doubt, too heavy to be Buffy's . . . which hopefully meant she had gained the upper hand. Frustrated by his inability to see or help, Giles looked out the side mirror to check the status of the trailing knights. Instead, to his horror, he watched Buffy tumbled off the roof.

She somehow managed to catch hold of the railing running along the top edge of the Winnebago, but was left dangling precariously against the slick metal siding, the gravel road whizzing past beneath her while the remaining knights on horseback galloped in to finish her off. Without thinking about the futility of such an action, Giles accelerated, desperate to outrun them for Buffy's sake. But there was no speed left in the tired, old engine.

The triumphant knight on the roof bent over her with the intention of loosening her grip, but Buffy swiftly nixed that plan with a kick to the head. Then, with the athletic grace of an Olympic gymnast, she vaulted back on to the roof, disappearing from his sight to resume the fight. Frowning, Giles looked back at the road ahead, again reduced to doing nothing more than listening to the scuffle of footsteps that recommenced above.

Attention divided between the road and his side mirror, when he looked again, he spotted another knight take his turn at matching pace with the camper. Once alongside, he threw a rope with a grappling hook, which caught on the upper rail. As he secured it, Giles swore under his breath, watching helplessly as the man left his horse and proceeded to board the Winnebago to aid his brethren. Two sets of heavy boots trampled around the metal rooftop; two men attempting to kill the woman he loved.

Cursing, Giles held the vehicle on a steady course for her, trying to placate his husbandly reservations with the reminder that Buffy was a trained professional. She'd fought worse odds than this and won, mostly against hellish creatures with superhuman strength. He again reminded himself that these were mere men, not monsters . . . although they did possess one dangerous advantage. The knights' collective strength lay in their fanaticism to their cause and persistent number. Like ants at a picnic, they could easily overthrow a superior opponent simply with their sheer determination.

Moments later, he watched Buffy reduce said persistent number, as one chainmail-clad body went flying off the Winnebago's roof. Another check of the side mirror revealed a second body, with an axe embedded in his chest, left in the dust on the road behind. The trailing pack of knights wisely saw this reduction as temporary defeat, for they called off the attack and slowed to attend to their wounded and dead.

Giles let go a thankful sigh, as the Winnebago pulled away into the relative safety of the empty desert . . . safe, at least, until their opponents regrouped and mounted a second wave attack, this time possibly with better organization, deadlier weapons, and the vengeful zeal to use them. But for now, they were victorious, and alive, and the road ahead was clear, the knot of knights and horses behind them fading further and further into the distance with each passing second.

When they were completely out of sight, Giles turned and called to the others. "Everyone all right?"

They all nodded a battle weary affirmative. Dawn even gave him a smile.

Relieved, he looked back at the road again . . . only to see a lone knight, separated from the pack, charging right for them. In the few microseconds the event took to play out, Giles recognized the pole lance in the knight's hand, and realized it was the same knight who had earlier tried to spear him coming back for a second attempt. Knowing his only chance lay in an evasive maneuver, Giles aimed for the oncoming horse, again trying to startle the animal and cause it to bolt.

Unfortunately, this time, the bluff didn't work, and the knight was able to get off his throw. The pole lance shattered the driver's side windshield, found its way through the rungs of the steering wheel, and embedded itself in Giles' left side.

White hot pain tore through him, causing him to lurch and loose control of the Winnebago. Giles barely had time to register anything but the intense, searing torture before he blacked out completely. Driverless, the top-heavy RV toppled, rolling on its right side with a shriek of twisting metal. It skidded along the dirt road for several yards, until momentum finally brought it to a deathly, final stop.

* * * * *

Buffy wasn't sure what made Giles swerve so violently, but she assumed it had something to do with the knight galloping towards her at full tilt, eager to rejoin his brethren now in retreat. She ducked her head as the horse thundered past, then, as the dust settled, rose to her hands and knees in search of the Winnebago.

Thanks to Giles' crazy driving, she'd been flung from the camper's roof like water from a duck's back, only to land on her backside in a roadside ditch. She frowned, indignant, hoping that he had at least noticed her absence and stopped to pick her up, before the knights regrouped and came back to finish what they started.

But her world came crashing down around her, like the debris still settling on the road ahead, at the sight of the motor home toppled on its side several hundred yards away.

'Ohmygod!'

At first, she was too shocked to move, then, picking herself up, she dashed towards it at a dead run. Heart in her throat, she stopped just behind the vehicle, visually assessing the damage, looking and listening for signs of life within.

'Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!'

Giles . . . Dawn . . . her friends. Where they dead? Hurt? Dying?

She went to the right, which put her on the side where they roof was, the hatch she'd climbed up through still hanging open. As she sprinted for it, vague moans and coughs reached her ears; at least they were still alive. She poked her head in the open hatch, eager to see and help, but she was unprepared for the chaos she found inside. The interior looked like a wacky house at an amusement park, askew by ninety degrees . . . one that had also been put through a blender. Just about all of the storage cupboards had opened, spilling their contents into the mix. Her friends, and every other item in the camper not nailed down, had been tossed all over the place. They were battered, bruised, and cut, huddled together on the 'wall' on the kitchenette side that was now the 'floor,' amidst broken china and a variety of kitchen utensils and cookware. Thankfully, though, they all appeared to have escaped major injury.

"Dawn!" Buffy yelled, spotting her sister clinging to Spike, their backs against the sideways tabletop as they fought to come to their senses. Likewise, Willow held Tara, trying to prevent her mounting hysterics, while Xander and Anya comforted each other in the immediate aftermath of the wreck.

"Buffy!" Dawn coughed, the debris still raining down inside the camper mixed with the desert dust wafting in from outside. "I'm okay."

The sound of someone groaning in pain jerked Buffy's attention toward the front of the vehicle.

"Giles?" She could see him, still in the driver's seat, head lolling with gravity, one arm dangling in space. Cold fear gripped her stomach in a vice-like clench. "GILES!" She started to climb in through the hatch, desperate in her sudden need to go to him.

Xander, rising stiffly to his feet and rubbing the back of his head, stopped her. "Go around front," he suggested instead. He coughed and turned, climbing over the interior wreckage towards the driver's section.

Nodding to herself, Buffy withdrew and did as asked. Clouds of steam from a blown radiator hose and the astringent odor of various leaking engine fluids greeted her as she rounded the front corner of the toppled Winnebago. She hurriedly waved through them to reach the tinfoil-covered windshield, but stopped dead in her tracks, staring in disbelief and shock at the spear sticking out of the glass on the driver's side.

A scream snapped her out of her standstill. Steeling herself, Buffy moved closer and peered through the hole. Since Spike had taped every window of the RV with aluminum foil, she had to stand on tiptoe in order to see in through the only spot that wasn't covered.

Xander stood awkwardly under the driver's seat, trying to maneuver Giles out of it and onto the floor. This had evidently roused Giles from his semiconscious state, because instead of groaning, he was now screaming in a way that chilled Buffy to the bone. As envisioned, one end of the pole was sticking harmlessly out the shattered front window, but the other, pointy, business end was embedded in Giles' left side. A patch of dark red blood, already the size of a saucer, stained his tan jacket. As Xander tried to move him, the spear, which was also through the steering wheel, caught and shifted, aggravating the wound. Giles was, in effect, impaled on his seat.

"Kick in the window!" Xander shouted, grunting with the effort of trying to hold up Giles and take his weight off the injury. He was beginning to lose the battle, when Spike joined him. Together they supported Giles, who was now fully awake and screaming in a way that none of them had every heard before. "Buffy!" Xander yelled, when she failed to move.

Buffy put everything she had into her kick, Slayer strength shattering the lower half of the safety glass into thousands of rounded shards that exploded harmlessly inwards along with countless shreds of aluminum tinfoil. Using her elbow, she quickly cleared out the rest of the glass, then climbed through into the Winnebago on her hands and knees.

She stood, sharing cramped, awkward quarters with Spike and Xander as she raised a tender hand to try to soothe the pain from her husband's bruised and tear streaked face. "Giles . . . oh God . . . " Tears began to run down her own cheeks.

"Pull it out," he managed to say through his labored anguish. His eyes suddenly flashed open and found hers. "Pull it out."

Buffy shook her head. "I can't." It wasn't a question of strength. Spears had barbs, like fishhooks; they went in easier than they came out. She couldn't bear the thought of causing him any more pain.

"Y-you can," he said, the cost of fighting to keep the agony at bay showing plainly on his face. "You must."

"He's right, pet."

"Buffy, we can't hold him much longer, and we can't move him unless you do as he says."

Tears falling in earnest now, she held eye contact with Giles as she again shook her head.

"Please," Giles begged.

One of his bloodstained hands found hers, warm and sticky, his grip feeble. He was barely hanging onto consciousness, perhaps even to life. She looked at his wound, the crimson stain stark and mesmerizing, then back into his anxious green eyes. He trusted her. She loved him. Loathe as she was to cause him any more distress, what choice did she have?

"Buffy!" Xander prompted, exertion slowly catching up with him.

Even Spike, with his vampire strength, appeared to be yielding, mostly thanks to his severely cut palms. "Anytime now would be good."

Raising a shaky hand, Buffy hastily brushed the tears from her cheeks. She could do this. She had to.

Movement caught her eye. Dawn had come closer in order to see what had happened and was now poised a few feet away, behind Spike and Xander, horrified and as white as a sheet. But there was no time to coddle her. "Dawn, find me something to use as a compress. Clean kitchen towels, or a pillow, or . . . just whatever you can find. Hurry!"

Stirred into action, Dawn nodded and moved away to fulfill her task.

Buffy looked back to Giles. His eyes were closed, his breathing was short, and his teeth were clenched as he bit back his pain. Sweat beaded his forehead, but his skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. He was going into shock.

A small pile of clean, folded, terrycloth towels--in an alarming green-and-orange checked pattern that precisely matched the Winnebago's décor-challenged curtains--were thrust her way. Buffy took them with a thankful smile at her sister, selected the one on top of the stack, then concentrated on the job ahead.

"Hold him still," she ordered Spike and Xander, even though she knew they were already struggling to do exactly that.

She prepared a towel in her left hand, ready to use, then put her right hand on the shaft of the spear, several inches above where it penetrated Giles' tan jacket. Experimentally flexing her fingers around the rough wood, she decided that one quick jerk would be better than trying to ease it out slowly, like pulling a sticky bandage off bare skin.

She took a deep breath, glancing at his face and bracing herself for his inevitable scream. And pulled.

Giles' shriek of agony nonetheless cut her to the quick. Buffy did her best to close her heart to it, tossing the bloodied spear back through the steering wheel and out the window, following quickly as Spike and Xander laid him on the camper 'floor' amidst the scatter of broken safety glass. Thankfully, the ordeal had been too much for him and he'd lapsed into merciful unconsciousness.

Kneeling at Giles' side, Buffy opened his jacket to check his injury, but was instantly appalled by the sight of an even bigger, dinner-plate-sized, circle of rich, wet blood on his sweater underneath. A fresh well of it started to bubble up from beneath the torn, cream-colored material, like a hot mud spring at Yellowstone. She quickly clamped the towel over the wound, keeping pressure on it, despite the futility she felt at the action. The injury was obviously deep, possibly involving internal organs . . . and God only knew how much worse she'd just made it by ripping out the spear. 'Pressure' wasn't going to help much. He needed a doctor pronto. Better yet, a surgeon.

"I smell gas," Xander commented, squatting beside Buffy in the cramped space. Billows of hissing steam mixed with noxious engine fumes still engulfed the front of the camper, just on the other side of the window she had kicked in. He sniffed again, alarm manifesting on his face, then stood. "Everyone out! Now!"

"Bloody hell," Spike said, donning his welder's goggles before running to the back of the camper to find something he could use as protection from the afternoon sun.

Buffy looked over her shoulder, locking gazes with her sister, who hovered on the fringe, the teen's concern for Giles evident. "Dawn, go!" Watching an expression of protest form on Dawn's face, she quickly added, "Help the others."

Given a useful task, Dawn forgot her protest and turned to assist Willow in getting Tara on her feet, before they all maneuvered through the debris toward the open hatch. Finding her backpack, Anya quickly followed. With the motor home tipped on the side with the door, the hatch and the front window were the only immediately available exits.

"We'll have to drag him out," Buffy said to Xander, repositioning herself at her husband's shoulders to do exactly that.

Grunting in agreement, Xander shifted to help her, and together they dragged Giles through the shattered front windshield to safety, the heels of his boots leaving furrows in the dirt behind him.

A Desert Ironwood tree, rooted alongside the top of the roadside embankment, became their first refuge. Rather than try to climb up the slippery dirt edges to it, they instead rested on the road below in the patchwork umbrella of shade cast by its scraggly limbs. Buffy propped Giles' back against the dusty embankment and made him as comfortable as she could, given the circumstances. No sooner was he sitting upright than she again clamped her blood-soaked kitchen towel to his side, watching severe pain flit across his features as he returned to full consciousness.

Now that they were out in the sunlight, she wanted to get a better look at his injury. Maybe it wasn't as bad as she feared. Maybe it was just a whole lot of blood that made it look worse than it really was . . .

Lifting the kitchen towel, she peeled back his jacket for another peek. The amount of blood now saturating Giles' sweater gave her and the others--anxiously glued to the proceedings--their first real indication of the severity of the injury. Spike swore softly from under his protective bed blanket. Willow and Dawn both let go muted gasps of horror.

Reapplying pressure with the towel, Buffy frowned in fear and frustration. Fear, because the wound looked even worse than she expected, and frustration, because try as she might to stop it, rich dark blood continued to ooze between her fingers. Her current compress was totally soaked and therefore useless; she needed a clean towel. Feeling more helpless than ever, Buffy realized she'd left the stack Dawn had handed her inside the camper.

For a brief moment, she glanced longingly in its direction, but the fifty or so feet across to where it lay tipped on its side may well have been a hundred miles. She wasn't about to leave Giles, but nor would she ask any of her friends to risk their lives by going back inside the smoldering wreck.

When the familiar British voice spoke softly to her, Buffy looked back so fast she almost gave herself whiplash. "My bag . . . "

"Shhh, sweetie, save your strength. Don't try to talk."

"Weapons," Giles insisted feebly. His eyes opened and fixed on hers in an expression that tore at her heart. Here he was, mortally wounded and bleeding to death, with no chance of medical attention in sight, and his first concerns were still for her and Dawn. "You might need . . . protect Dawn . . . "

"I'll take care of it," she promised.

"Buffy . . . if I . . . if . . . "

"No," she said in denial. Her eyes pricked at the very thought of losing him this way. 'God, please, not this way.' Finding his sticky hand, she gave it a firm squeeze. "You're gonna be okay. You're gonna make it."

But despite the conviction in her tone, deep down inside she wasn't so sure of his chances.

Realizing that this may be her very last chance to tell him about the baby, Buffy drew a breath to say the words . . . but stopped. Was it fair to tell him now? If Fate really did have plans to take him from her, was he better off not knowing?

Leaning forward, she instead pressed a desperate kiss to his sweaty forehead, an action designed to hide the tears of regret glistening in her eyes. Pulling away, she mustered up a confident smile, just for him, hoping it would give him the courage to live. Giles tried to return it, but the sentiment turned into a grimace that eloquently proclaimed his agony.

Willow appeared in her peripheral vision, kneeling at her side, automatically reaching to take over the job of applying constant pressure to the blood-soaked kitchen towel. "Go," she said, the flick of her head indicating the camper.

Torn between the knowledge that weapons may be their only chance of survival if the knights returned, and risking not being there if the unthinkable happened, Buffy hesitated. She looked back at Giles when she felt his flagging strength drain from the grip on her fingers, watching his head loll and his eyes close again. His grimy, sweat-streaked face closed to a private world of misery and pain, and his breathing became shallow and labored.

And still the blood kept coming, trickling out of the ragged hole in his side at a steady, consistent rate. It stained her fingers, her wedding ring, and her heart.

Fighting the urge to cry, Buffy raised a gentle hand to his cheek. Giles was dying. And she, with all her Slayer strength and training, with her Chosen destiny and years of experience fighting all the evils of the world, could do nothing but helplessly watch the man she loved slip slowly and painfully out of her life.

Rather than reveal what she feared in her heart, to give up all hope and break into mournful sobs, she got to her feet without a word to anyone, and sprinted back toward the toppled Winnebago.

* * * * *

She crawled in through the hatch this time, thinking it best to avoid inhaling the probably-toxic vapors near the front of the vehicle if possible. Somewhere, something plastic was burning. Although she couldn't see any flames, she could smell it. That and the layer of lethal black smoke hugging the wall-turned-ceiling. Ducking under the sideways table, Buffy spotted Willow's spell book in the debris, its pages fanned open and waving in the draft sucking fumes and dust inside the camper. Grabbing it, she turned in search of the sports bag she had earlier handed to Spike. Unearthing it from beneath a pile of strewn seating cushions and assorted kitchen cookware, she hastily pushed Willow's book inside with Giles' weapons and what looked like one of his Watcher's journals. Zipping it up and pulling the strap over her shoulder, Buffy bent double, keeping low as she started to climb over the tangled wreckage towards the driver's area. She spied the pile of clean kitchen towels where she'd left them, but the blood on the floor, mixed with pebbles of broken safety glass and shredded tinfoil, gave her solemn pause.

Coughing at the fumes, which were far more offensive near the broken front windshield than at the rear of the RV, Buffy quickly added the towels to her booty and made her way back to the hatch, eyes peeled for anything else she thought may be useful to them. Just before she exited, she spotted a plastic bottle of spring water and picked it up. Clearly, Dawn had been mistaken in thinking the travel munchies in Anya's backpack only consisted of SPAM™ and a banana. It wasn't chilled, but it was a welcomed addition to her salvage collection.

Out in the fresh air again, Buffy took a moment of cough the last of the noxious vapors from her lungs. Straightening, she looked around. Eager though she was to return to Giles and the others, it suddenly occurred to her that she'd been so preoccupied getting him safely out of the camper and settled in the shade, that she hadn't taken time to check out her surroundings, in particular if they were in imminent danger from the knights . . . or Glory. Since the low grade of the earth road on which she stood obscured everything except what was directly ahead and behind her, she made a run up the slippery embankment onto higher ground, with an unobstructed three-sixty degree view.

There were no clouds of dust on the horizon, which meant no cars or trucks--or galloping horses--headed their way. In fact, there was nothing.

Her heart sank at the endless expanse of empty desert, dotted with a trees and clumps of sagebrush, stretching for miles in every direction toward the distant mountains. Although it had seemed a sensible plan at the time, she now regretted telling Giles to 'stick to the back roads' because they were stranded in the middle of proverbial nowhere, with nothing or no one in sight save for . . .

She shielded her eyes with her hand. Save for a lone building, baking in the desert sun a half a mile or so away that could be a gas station. Maybe it had a payphone, and/or people who could help Giles. Even though there were no immediate signs of them, the Knights of Byzantium were still out there somewhere, regrouping. While another attack seemed inevitable, as long as they didn't specifically come looking for the wrecked Winnebago, the knights were just as likely to assume they had continued on their way and launch an ambush a few miles further up the road.

Maybe. Slim hope though it was, Buffy clung to it. Armed with a plan, she returned to the others, just as Xander expressed the unspoken group need to find shelter, and soon.

"Yeah, and right bloody quick," Spike added on a more literal level. "I'm burning up out here."

His welder's goggles provided good protection for his eyes, despite making him look bizarre, and the blanket he had claimed out of the motor home's back room, although threadbare in places, kept most of the sun off his exposed skin. 'Most' but not 'all,' if the sizzle emanating from his general direction was any indication. Obviously, his ego was too macho to take the thicker pink fluffy blanket, even though it would have served him better.

At present, he was the least of Buffy's worries. Dropping to her knees beside Willow, she let the sports bag slide from her shoulder in favor of exchanging the blood-soaked towel her friend held firmly against her husband's side with a fresh one newly purloined from the toppled motor home.

"Hold this," Buffy instructed. As Willow resumed the job of keeping pressure on Giles' injury, she uncapped the bottle of spring water.

"Hey, that's--"

"Not now, An."

"Giles, sweetie . . . drink this . . . "

Even though Giles' eyes were still screwed shut, she was pleased when he responded to her, parting his lips to allow her to tip a few small swallows of tepid water down his throat. Buffy longed to take a hearty swig herself, but there wasn't enough to go around, and right now Giles needed it more than any of them. So she instead capped the precious bottle and put it back in the sports bag.

Xander, who had struggled up the loose dirt of the embankment to get his bearings, let out an optimistic shout. "Hey, there's a building over there!"

He pointed in the same direction as the gas station Buffy had spotted, causing the others to look too, hope lighting up their collective faces.

"Then what are we bloody waiting for?" Spike asked. He took an anxious step in the direction, then stopped again when no one moved to follow. Turning, he answered his own question with blunt coldness. "Oh, right. For Gramps to start pushing up the daisies. Wish he'd bloody hurry with that."

Incensed, Buffy leapt up and slugged him in the jaw. Hard. So hard that Spike lost his grip on his protective blanket, causing him to howl as sunlight hit his exposed face. He scrambled to cover himself again before he became a crispy critter.

"How dare you," Buffy challenged, her hatred for the vampire never more virulent. She had tears in her eyes as she stood her ground, stalwartly denying a truth she had been forced to acknowledge in her heart as a distinct possibility. "Have you no compassion at all?"

"That would be a 'no,'" Xander interjected, equally pissed at the idea that they were all waiting for Giles to die before they made their next move. He jumped down the embankment to rejoin the others on the dirt road. "And not just because of the whole soulless vampire thing."

"I didn't mean . . . " Spike began, obviously trying to weasel his way back into Buffy's good graces. "All right, look, I'm sorry if the truth hurts. Okay? But anyone with eyes can see your old man's on his last legs. We--you--need to start thinking about what's best for the rest of us. Those knights--"

"I'm well aware 'those knights' are still out there somewhere. You got an elsewhere to be? See ya." Buffy turned her back and knelt by her husband again, her actions declaring where her loyalties lay.

Giles' eyes were open, looking at her. He'd heard the exchange. Worse yet, he seemed in agreement with Spike. "Buffy . . . "

"NO!" She vehemently shook her head and tried real hard not to shout at him again. "You're not gonna die." But her conviction wavered, and her lower lip began to tremble. "I won't let you."

"Not . . . your choice . . . I'm afraid," Giles said raggedly. He smiled a little; a morbidly sad expression that seemed way too much like 'goodbye.'

Picking up his hand, caked with desert dust, Buffy squeezed tight, trying to anchor him in her life. Right then, she decided she was going to save him. Whatever it took, whatever sacrifices she had to make, whatever perils she had to face, Giles was going to live. In eight and a half months, he was going to be a father, they were going to buy a nice little house with a white picket fence, in a nice quiet normal town, maybe a dog, and they were going to live their proverbial 'happily ever after' for many many many years to come.

"Think you can walk?" she asked softly. Her free hand tenderly combed through the sweaty hair at his temple.

"Buffy, you should--"

"It's not far," she cut in gently, having no desire to hear the words he wanted to say. "Half a mile tops." She looked at Xander, visually giving him his cue, then back at Giles. "Xander will help me support you."

"Um, Buffy . . . " Dawn interrupted warily.

"Oh crap!" Spike blurted in alarm, then took off running in the direction of the gas station, his threadbare blanket flapping behind him like a poor man's cape.

Pushing to her feet, Buffy turned with the others, following Dawn's pointing hand to see what had inspired her sister's sudden unease and Spike's frantic flight. Tall flames now licked out the top of the doomed Winnebago, just fifty feet away.

Buffy's eyes widened as panic took hold. They were too close.

"RUN!" She slung the strap of the sports bag around her shoulders, already pulling on Giles' arm as she called for help. "Xander!"

As the others heeded the warning and took off after Spike, Buffy and Xander each took one of Giles' arms over their shoulders to support him between them. Giles let out a yelp at the fast and rough treatment, but there was no time to accommodate gentleness. They stumbled after the others, half-carrying, half-dragging Giles between them. Because of the height differences, Xander made a more suitable crutch, so Giles leaned more heavily on him than on Buffy, making the going difficult for her. Her strength and speed constantly made her misstep in her haste to put as much distance as possible between them and the Winnebago before it--

She heard the explosion first, a deafening roar that came right before the heat from the blast nuzzled against her back and threatened to singe her ponytail. The ensuing concussion knocked them all forward into the dirt. Crawling over Giles' shoulders, Buffy buried her face in the back of his jacket, her hand fisted in the material, as debris rained down on them.

When it finally stopped, Buffy lifted her head to check on her friends. They were similarly strewn on the road ahead, all struggling to recover, coughing and wiping the grime from their faces as they sat up in a daze. Tara began wailing, while Willow did her best to comfort her.

"Dawn?" Buffy called anxiously, watching her sister push herself to sitting.

"Surviving," she reported jadedly, even though she now sported a nasty cut on her forehead and a smudge of soot on her chin. She coughed, then accepted help from Spike, whose vampire speed had taken him out of the blast radius, while something undeniably human had brought him back to help.

Buffy looked over at Xander as he roused, coughing, from the other side of Giles. "You okay?"

"Fine and dandy." Battered and bruised, he labored to his feet. He brushed a bucket load of dust from his clothes, his gaze distracted. "Just let me check on Anya."

Buffy nodded absently as he moved away, in something of a daze herself. She glanced behind at the huge bonfire that was the doomed Winnebago, and the mushrooming plume of thick black smoke rising high into the clear desert sky. So much for not attracting attention. That plume would be seen for miles.

Suddenly, the need to find shelter before the knights returned to slaughter them all just turned desperate. Buffy could fight, but she couldn't fight an armed horde, not alone, and after enduring a rollover and an explosion, her friends were barely able to stand on their feet without teetering over.

Determinedly shaking off her stupor, she turned her attention to Giles, still face-down in the dirt and the only one of them who hadn't yet stirred.

"Giles? Sweetie?"

No response. Not even a painful moan or whimper.

As gently as she could, she rolled him onto his back. A spittle of blood now seeped from the corner of his mouth, while the skin beneath the dirt stuck to his right cheek bore the redness of road rash or singeing. He was bruised and cut and as dirty as hell, eyes closed and completely motionless.

Strangely, it wasn't the bitter taste of panic that rose in her throat, it was sadness, loss, and resigned acceptance. It was all the things she wanted to say to him, now muted forever. It was the private pain of her heart shattering into a million pieces.

Her hand shook as she reached to check for a pulse in his neck, not quite knowing what she would do if she didn't find one.

Xander returned, dropping to his knees beside her, just as she pulled her hand back. "Oh God, is he . . . ?"

A joyful tear carved a niche through the grime on Buffy's cheek. "He's out cold again. His pulse is weak, but he's alive." She sat back, relieved, thinking unconsciousness was probably the best pain relief they could give him right now, even if it did make moving him a little more difficult.

"He's filthy," Xander commented, flicking dirt from Giles' shoulder.

Buffy eyed the dirt covering practically every inch of his front side, courtesy of their nosedive, particularly that caked to the wet, sticky patch of blood. Fearing infection, should any of it manage to find its way into the open wound, she added, "Help me get his jacket off."

Together, they managed to maneuver Giles out of his bloodied jacket. Reapplying pressure with her semi-soaked towel, Buffy stared at the fresh blood that had fallen in random splotches on the road when they moved him. So much blood. Staining the desert dirt.

Déjà vu hit, hard and fast. She'd seen this scenario before. Maybe not 'seen' seen, but in her mind's eye she knew it well. And while it may not be exactly the same situation, the blood on the ground and the fatal hole in Giles' side came right out of the dream she'd shared with him on more than one occasion.

Blood.

It was everywhere; viscous dark pools of it glistening in the moonlight, soaking into the barren earth. The Knights of Byzantium lay scattered around her, all dead or dying within a small radius of their campfire, crushed like ants beneath the thumb of the deity they opposed--the Hellgod, Glorificus.

Of course, there were some major differences, including that, in the dream, she had fallen in battle, slaughtered along with the rest. It wasn't night, and there was no campfire, but the similarities were sufficient to make her start questioning them.

A showdown with Glory was imminent, check. Giles' eerily similar injury, check. All that blood on the desert dirt, check. The knights--

"Buffy, that smoke will be visible for fifty miles. We gotta book," Xander said, his apprehension rousing her from the nightmare she'd begun to relive.

A nightmare that was slowly turning into reality. Was the dream prophetic after all? If so, was this the start of it? Were inescapable events now set in motion?

Anxiety took hold. She was no closer to unraveling the true meaning of the dream than Giles had been a month or more ago, but if the knights played a major role, then it seemed a smart idea to put as much distance between them as possible. That way, hopefully, Fate could be avoided.

Or at the very least, sidestepped.

Wishing she had the wisdom of Giles' counsel on the matter, Buffy instead started hauling his unconscious form up onto his feet. Again, with Xander's assistance, they each took an arm over their shoulders--she with the sports bag of weapons slung at her outer hip, Xander tossing Giles' bloodied tan jacket to Willow.

As the survivors made their shambling way down the deserted road toward the gas station, and hopefully safe haven, Giles roused from oblivion. He was groggy at first, his head repeatedly lifting and then falling until his chin hit his chest, his pain minimal. Towards the end, though, as they drew closer to the lone building, he was fully awake and crying out with every laborious step his supporters took. They were almost there when Willow gave an uneasy shout, causing everyone to pause and look behind with a collective feeling of utter dread.

A cloud of dust stretched out along the road behind, not too far from where they had left the burning Winnebago.

"Keep going!" Buffy ordered anxiously, picking up the pace. The cloud represented either a truck and salvation, or the knights and certain death. Given the circumstances, her money was on the latter.

They needed to reach shelter, and they needed to reach it now. It was obvious none of them were in any condition to fight, but the presence of other people meant witnesses. Even though deliberately putting others in harm's way rubbed against the grain of her calling, Buffy was banking on the knights--being 'knights'--possessing some sort of code of ethics or honor. With luck, that meant not launching an all-out massacre with innocent bystanders present. And if they were forced to make a stand, then they had a better chance of defending themselves with a roof over their heads and a strong wall at their backs.

"Buffy . . . "

This time the feeble plea came from Giles. She and Xander were already dragging him, the toes of his boots scraping uselessly in the dirt behind him. His head sagged and rose as he doggedly fought the blackness wanting to engulf him. His sweaty, pasty complexion worried her, as did the steady trail of blood left in his wake.

'Breadcrumbs,' she thought bleakly. 'It'll lead them right to us . . . '

When Giles stifled another agonized cry, Buffy regarded his eyes-closed, teeth-clenched expression. "Almost there, sweetie. Hang on."

"Can't . . . please . . . "

"You can," she insisted, determinedly keeping the frantic pace. No way she was leaving him, even if he begged. No way.

When they finally reached their destination, Buffy realized, with a sudden sense of overwhelming defeat, that the gas station wasn't the sparkling oasis of civilization or fortification for which she hoped. The gas pumps clearly hadn't pumped anything in a long, long time, and the rusted husk of the old-fashioned, wheel-less truck left out front could have easily been parked there in the 1960's. The settlers or homesteaders in the area either kept their vehicles 'until death do they part,' or else the gas station had been out of business, boarded up, and abandoned literally decades ago.

Leading the way, Spike launched a running kick at the door. The rusty padlock and chain stood no chance against his vampire strength, or his fervent desire to be out of the sun, and snapped off on the first try, permitting them easy entry.

As they stormed into the place, Buffy mentally tallied two new felonies for this venture. 'Breaking and Entering' and 'Trespassing' had just been added to her fast growing rap sheet--not that either was anything particularly new to her, given her calling. Her gaze swept over the shadowy interior in a single glance; wood planks nailed to every window, meant to keep out intruders; all furnishings and fixtures removed or stolen long ago; paint peeling from the thin plaster walls; cobwebs and debris predictably making homes in all corners. An ancient coffee vending machine loomed to one side of the door like a silent sentinel of more prosperous times. A concrete pillar in the center held up the roof. And ahead, to her right, a shop counter, long enough and wide enough to accommodate a body.

'Accommodate a person,' she amended, instantly disliking the morbidity of her assessment for obvious reasons. It would provide somewhere for Giles to rest, without that somewhere being the floor or the ground. She automatically began steering for it, eager to grant his wish for immobility and spare him any more pain.

Spike was suddenly in her way, making Buffy determined to go through him rather than around him. But instead of being difficult, he took Giles from her, very gently, and helped Xander lift him onto the shop counter. Buffy frowned, wondering if the vampire was trying to make up for his earlier compassionless remarks, or trying to set himself up as potential boyfriend material for after she was widowed.

That thought, coupled with the sight of her husband dying right in front of her, crippled her so much that she had to turn away. Numb, Buffy let the sports bag slip from her shoulder. She looked at her hands, shaking with adrenaline and emotion and covered in dried blood, and desperately tried to hold on to whatever strength she had left. The others were going to look to her for leadership, so she didn't have the luxury of falling apart right now.

Willow crouched beside her to unzip the sports bag, and then quickly moved to Giles' side with a fresh kitchen towel. She folded his tan jacket with the bloodstain inwards, and propped his head on it as a makeshift pillow, then immediately reapplied pressure to his still-bleeding wound. Xander, also playing nursemaid, retrieved Spike's discarded threadbare blanket from the floor, shook it, then covered Giles from the hips down. Although she knew she should be doing something to assist, Buffy still found that she couldn't turn around to look at him.

Dawn became her much-needed distraction. Unshed tears glistened in her sister's eyes, as she watched the man she loved like a father quietly fight for his life.

Crossing to Dawn, Buffy took her shoulders, vying for attention. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, but . . . " Her watery gaze shifted from the scene behind. Dawn looked frightened. Really frightened. "Is Giles--? I mean, he's . . . he's gonna be okay, right?"

A wellspring of fresh emotion bubbled up inside Buffy. Fighting to keep it at bay, she pulled her sister into a heartfelt hug. She could lie and say he would be fine, but sugar coating it now would only make for frayed emotions and unfair accusations later on, should the worse happen. "I don't know, Dawnie. God, I honestly don't know."

Dawn's embrace tightened, and they held each other for an extended moment, until Buffy, needing to do something constructive or risk a breakdown, moved to one of the boarded front windows to peer out through the crack between the planks.

Half a mile away, the black smoke from the doomed Winnebago still rose skyward, but thankfully the immediate area surrounding the gas station remained devoid of unwelcome visitors.

"You have another plan, right?" Anya asked. Like the others, she looked frazzled by recent events, and sported her share of bruises, cuts, and dirt. "One that doesn't involve pointy knives and a Winnebago?"

"We'll rest here for a minute," Buffy said, equally rattled by all that was happening. "But then we have to keep moving."

"Where?" Xander asked in frustration. They'd all been out there in the desert. They all knew there was nothing else in sight, no other buildings or signs of civilization for a hundred miles or more.

"I don't know!" Buffy admitted desperately. "We just . . . we can't stay here. It's too close to the wreck; we're too easy to find."

"Buffy!" Willow called suddenly, still tending to Giles.

The fear in her voice that clearly proclaimed she should get her butt over to her husband's side a-sap stirred Buffy into a frantic run. "Will, how is he?"

One glance at him answered her question. A fresh spittle of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He was still unconscious, but he had started to shake--convulse.

"I think I slowed the bleeding, but . . . " Willow finished her sentence with a morbid look that clarified, without doubt, that Giles was most certainly going to die without proper medical attention.

"Okay . . . okay, just give me a minute." Buffy turned away, trying to focus on a plan, trying to think like a leader. But she couldn't push past the mental barrier that she was about to lose her other half, forever.

Suddenly, a flaming arrow punched through one of the old boards covering the front window, crossed the room without filleting anyone, and embedded itself in the wall behind.

"Dawn, get down!" Buffy shouted in alarm, just as a second arrow followed a similar track.

When Dawn, shocked, failed to move, Buffy grabbed her sister and forcefully pushed her down into the corner behind the counter on which Giles lay.

Willow dropped into a crouch, pulling Tara to safety with her. She rummaged in the sports bag for her magick book, then began flicking through the pages for a spell that might help.

Xander took care of the arrows, yanking them from the plaster and stamping out the flames. Signaling to Anya to keep low, he darted across to the punctured window for a little reconnaissance.

Crouching beside the counter, Buffy reached up to clamp one hand on the bloody kitchen towel, trying her best to keep pressure on her husband's wound despite the untimely attack. "Xander?"

"We've got company," he reported, ducking on reflex as more flaming arrows peppered the inside of the room. His expression turned bleak as he looked across at her. "And they brought a crusade."

"How many?" Buffy asked.

"Fifty . . . that I can see," he reported glumly. He looked back out the hole. "Plus a couple of Jawa rejects and one official looking dude on a horse."

"Willow?" Buffy called, knowing a defensive magical barrier was probably their only hope.

"I'm working on it!"

Spike crossed to the ancient coffee vending machine and began to manhandle it in front of the door, but his damaged hands hampered his efforts. Recognizing it as a good plan, Buffy darted over to help. Together they managed to tip the machine over, placing it in a position that prevented the door being pushed inwards. It wasn't much, but at this point, anything that could help delay the knights' invasion was worthwhile.

The ranged attack abruptly ceased, and the close up siege began. Surrounding the abandoned store on three sides, the knights began hammering on the boarded-up windows and ramshackle walls with ball hammers and axes, seeking entry. Judging from the shop's dilapidated state, that wouldn't take long. The noise was deafening, the pounding coming from all sides except the door leading to the interior of the building . . . which Buffy realized, with alarm, they had not had the chance to check for other entrances. An enemy group could be flanking them right now . . .

Dawn's desperate scream for help had Buffy turning aid her sister, as an arm reached through a newly fashioned hole in the wall in search of her. Buffy had only taken two steps in that direction when that inner door opened to allow access to an attacking knight. He caught her off guard with a right cross that sent her sprawling.

The wind knocked out of her, startled rather than hurt, Buffy looked up from her position flat on her back to see the knight standing over her with a raised mace. He was about to pummel her into oblivion when Spike flew out of her peripheral vision with a counterpunch to the knight's jaw. Spike immediately howled in pain, holding his head and dropping into a corner as his limiter chip fired, but the few seconds he bought her was all the time Buffy needed to regain her feet and jump back into the fray.

Being human, and therefore no match for her Slayer strength and abilities, she put the attacking knight in a coma, easily and effortlessly. But he was just 'one man.' The other two dozen or so presently tearing down the walls around her were another matter entirely.

"Willow!" Buffy called again, as a desperate reminder that whatever magick she was planning to use, needed to be used now.

A flash of movement caught her eye. Buffy turned as Dawn left her protective cover to stand beside Giles. The teen looked down at his now utterly still form with an expression of teary-eyed dismay that suggested she thought the worst that happened. Maybe it had. Buffy had no time to check before the next wave of attack came, also from the direction of the inner door.

"The Key," the lone intruder announced.

Buffy spun, deducing from this guy's authoritative armor--complete with a red cape held in place by a large jeweled clasp--that he was the 'official looking dude' of whom Xander earlier spoke.

Dawn gasped, equally surprised by his recognition of her true form as she was from the hostile move he made to eliminate her with his drawn sword.

Thinking fast, Buffy scooped up the mace dropped by Knight Number One and hurled it from the hip. It may not have been her best aim, since she was aiming for his head and it hit him in the forearm, but it was hard enough to cause the general to lose his grip on his sword. Enraged at the interference, he instead lunged at Buffy, which was fine by her. One punch was all it took to subdue the guy . . . whose position was evidently more ceremonial and decorative than it was hands-on, down and dirty, offensive. He spun from the force of the blow, careening into the concrete pillar in the center of the room and conveniently knocking himself out cold, saving Buffy the trouble.

"Xander," she called over the din of breaking planks and plaster, and shattering glass. Running back to Giles, Buffy clamped a firm hand over his bloodied kitchen towel, and nodded in the direction from which the general and the knight had attacked. "Go check for another door and see if you can lock it. Spike, go with him."

As the two moved off to obey, Buffy craned her neck around to look at Willow. The immediate threat had passed, but there was still the menace of the fanatics pounding on the outside determined to get in. She was about to send another none-too-subtle reminder her friend's way, when Willow spoke in a low, guttural tone.

"Enemies, fly and fall. Circling arms, raise a wall." Willow finished the incantation by raising her arms, allowing a sphere of blue light to emanate from her fingertips until it expanded outward to engulf the entire building.

The attempted demolition abruptly ceased, as the invading knights were repelled backwards, tossed from the exterior of the gas station like rag dolls thrown by a naughty child.

Feeling the warm gush of fresh blood between her fingers, Buffy turned her gaze to her husband's wound. The towel compress was completely soaked again. Bleakly wondering when the bleeding would stop, and how much more blood he could afford to lose, she was thankful when Willow sided up to her with a fresh towel obtained from the sports bag.

They traded off without comment.

"How long will it hold?" Buffy asked of the energy barrier, reapplying pressure to Giles' injury with a fresh compress. She tried to concentrate on the battle, and not the fact that he was slipping away from her, moment by moment.

"Half a day . . . maybe." Willow crossed to the boarded window to peer out one of the many holes that now peppered the place. "Or until Heckle and Jeckle punch a hole through it." She turned back to Buffy with a downcast expression. "They've got the Jawa rejects chanting over it."

We found three doors, but only one to the outside," Xander reported, as he and Spike rejoined the group. Anya rushed to hug him, showing surprisingly human fear for his absence and consequent relief for his safe return. "The interior ones lead to an empty stockroom and an equally empty--and may I add, disgusting--bathroom . . . even if it hasn't been used in decades. The external one was open and goes through the garage/maintenance area. We secured it, so no one's surprising us again." He threw a grim nod at Giles. "How is he?"

"Been better," Buffy admitted despondently, again fighting the urge to look at her unconscious husband. If they were going to survive this, then she needed to concentrate on something helpful to their situation, and not on watching Giles die. If he weren't out cold, he'd probably tell her the same thing. Her friends needed direction, a leader. She had to suck up her personal issues and be that leader, for all their sakes.

"So," Spike said, looking down at the fallen general. "What's the story with these role-playing rejects?"

Following his gaze, Buffy found the direction she needed. "Let's find out."

* * * * *

Blood.

It was everywhere; viscous dark pools of it glistening in the moonlight, soaking into the barren earth. The Knights of Byzantium lay scattered around him, all dead or dying within a small radius of their campfire, crushed like ants beneath the thumb of the deity they opposed--the Hellgod, Glorificus.

Giles roused himself from where he had landed in the dirt, the force of the impact having momentarily dazed him, and looked up to see Buffy determinedly draw a sword from one of the dead. He wanted to call to her, to warn her, but he found he had no breath. Instead, all he could do was watch.

Driven by rage, fueled by her love for him, Buffy charged the Hellgod, sword held high and ready to strike. The experienced arc of her blade spelled a quick decapitation for any undead or demon opponent, but Glory was no ordinary foe; something seemingly forgotten in the desire for swift retribution.

Buffy swung.

Turning from her latest kill, Glory effortlessly halted the blade descending toward her throat, catching its razor edge with one hand without dire result.

"Hey, nice sword," the Hellgod quipped, tearing the weapon from Buffy's hand and tossing it end over end to catch it by the hilt. In the blink of an eye, the tables turned, and it was now the Slayer on the receiving end of cold-blooded vengeance. "Bet it hurts."

In one quick movement, Glory pulled back the sword and thrust it through the woman he loved, impaling her to a tree trunk.

Buffy didn't even have time to scream. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open in shock, her dying gaze turning to him in fear and apology, the hand with the wedding band he had slid on her finger desperately reaching for the help he couldn't give. She jerked and twitched, her eyes pleading with him, until her body was suddenly and completely still.

'No . . . '

Pain bit into Giles' torso as he tired to stand, to go to her, and he abruptly realized the real reason behind his immobility. Glancing down, he pulled a shaky hand away from his side and found it covered in blood--his blood--the wound beneath deep and penetrating, although not instantly fatal.

He looked up again, his horrified gaze watching as Glorificus smiled sweetly at her defeated enemy, and tugged the sword from the tree. Released from its skewer, Buffy's body slid to the ground, slaughtered like the rest, lying motionless in a spreading pool of her own life's blood.

i>Blood.

He watched a small rivulet of it; Buffy's blood, seeping across the hardened earth to mingle with his . . .

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Hearing his howl of denial, Glory turned her full attention to him. Their eyes locked in the glow of the sputtering campfire, the distance that separated them no more than a few yards. He was the last obstacle between her and her goal, and he vowed, with his dying breath, not to let her win. Sparing a tearful glance at his lover's sightless eyes, he begged that the Hellgod would just finish what she started. There was nothing left to live for now. Nothing.

With a deceptively friendly smile, Glory ambled toward him. Holding his bloodied side, Giles scramble backwards on the moist, sticky ground, until the armored body of a fallen knight stopped him. His back against the corpse, he looked up as his wife's murderer stopped in front of him.

She crouched, her expression changing to one of compassion as she took the hand he had clamped to his side and looked at the dark crimson stain smeared across his palm. Despite his meager resistance, she bent her head to examine the mortal wound she had earlier inflicted. Almost tenderly, she replaced his hand on it to staunch the arterial flow. "Aw, does it hurt much?"

"Go to hell."

"Sweetie, I'm trying to. Just give me The Key--okay?--and I'll be gone. You either know who has it, or you know where it is."

"I'll tell you nothing."

Angered, Glory punched him in the gut. The agony was exquisite and all consuming. Red-tinged darkness pushed in at the edge of his vision, threatening mercifully sweet oblivion. Fighting not to give in to it, Giles gritted his teeth and blinked the sweat from his eyes. The fresh, warm ebb of blood between his fingers told him he didn't have much longer.

"Give . . . me . . . The Key."

He no longer had the breath to deny her with words, so he let his head loll back and glared at her instead. The fingers of his free hand crept, unseen, across the bloody soil behind him.

Glory tenderly combed her hand through his hair. "Brave little Watcher, you and I both know you're dying. But with a little medical attention, I can keep you alive for days while I torture the information out of you. Maybe even weeks. There's no need for you to endure that. Just give me The Key, and I'll let you slip away quietly, here and now." Grabbing a fistful of his hair, she yanked his head around, forcing him to stare at his dead Slayer; his lover, his wife. Buffy's sightless eyes still gazed at him from where she had fallen. "And you can be with her, forever."

Giles' outstretched fingertips touched cold steel; a dagger worn at the dead knight's hip. He curled the hilt of the weapon into his hand, and, knowing he only had once chance, mustered up everything he had left. His bloodied fist lashed out, connected, and, remarkably enough, toppled Glory to her backside. Stunned by such insolent behavior, she glared at him for a split second, but it was all the time he needed.

In a final act of defiance, Giles plunged the knife deep into his own chest . . .

* * * * *

He woke with a start; a sudden jolt and an abrupt intake of breath that sent a shudder of crippling agony through his entire body. Giles cried out as reality came crashing back. He forced himself to lie still, acutely aware of his surroundings and his condition . . . chiefly the ragged hole in his left side that was disturbingly similar to the injury sustained in his nightmare. Breathing hard and sweating, he realized he was still in the deserted gas station, lying prone on the counter, with the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Night had fallen since the last time he was conscious--another dream coincidence?--the only light source provided by some flickers of orange filtering in through the planks on the windows to create a rough pattern of horizontal stripes on the walls opposite.

And he was alone.

Dear Lord, had they left him for dead?

Suddenly terrified of dying alone, he tried to sit up, but the movement was too great and, with a shriek that clearly proclaimed his suffering, Giles slumped back down on to his makeshift jacket-pillow in wretched defeat.

'Lord, please, don't let it be a long, lingering death.'

A gentle hand touched his arm, bringing instant reprieve.

"Buffy?" he asked hoarsely, wondering if their shared nightmare had brought her back to his side. Had she also noticed the growing similarities between it and their present situation, the fateful path they had started down by leaving Sunnydale?

"Hey, no, it's me." Dawn stepped into his line of sight, on his right. "Buffy's in the stockroom, with the others. They're clearing space so we have somewhere safe to sleep tonight. But I can get her . . . "

She was already moving to do so when Giles stopped her. "No . . . " When Dawn turned back to him with a question on her face, he added, "I'm sure she's . . . needed . . . "

"Or not, since she really shouldn't be lifting heavy stuff on account that she's pre--obably gonna need all her strength later."

Giles frowned slightly at her odd pronunciation, and the telling the expression on her face as she hastily changed her words mid-sentence. Letting it go, he turned his head to indicate the flickers of orange light filtering in from outside. "What's . . . happening?"

"Oh, the knights found us. They tried to get inside, but Willow put up this magic force field thingy after we captured their general," she offered as an easy explanation. Instead, it added even more profundity to the unsettling parallels of the dream and reality. "Buffy interrogated him," Dawn continued. "He's tied up in the garage now."

"I see. How long . . . have I been out?" Privately, part of him feared that days had passed, and he had become a burden on his wife and friends, who loyally sat by waiting for him to die before they attempted to escape or fight.

"Couple of hours. Right now, it's a waiting game."

"Waiting for what?"

Dawn shrugged gloomily. "The force field to fail, I guess. Then it's curtains for all of us."

"I'm sure Buffy will . . . think of something . . . before then." Giles coughed with the effort of speaking, the jarring sensation contorting his face into a mask of acute pain.

Dawn touched his shoulder, concerned. "Can I get you anything?"

Despite feeling abysmal, sarcasm found its way to the fore. "A large scotch . . . would be nice."

Instead, Dawn retrieved a half-emptied bottle of spring water from somewhere out of his line of sight, and uncapped it. Holding it to his lips, her other hand supporting his head, she helped him swallow a few tepid mouthfuls and wash the taste of blood from his mouth.

It wasn't alcohol, but he was grateful for it anyway. "Thank you."

"How do you feel?" Dawn asked, returning to water bottle to its place. She pulled a face at the stupidity of her question.

"Better," Giles lied with a smile.

Unfortunately, Dawn saw right thought his charade. "I don't want you to die."

"That makes . . . two of us," he quipped lightly. But it was no joking matter. Dawn, like the others, knew death was close at hand. Realizing that this may be his last chance to say goodbye to her, Giles donned another smile that barely masked his agony. "But sometimes things happen," he continued, aware that Buffy had imparted virtually the same words to him earlier in the back of the Winnebago, "whether we want them to . . . or not. I accept that. So must you."

A single tear spilled down Dawn's cheek. "How can I? When I'm the thing that everyone wants, the thing they're willing to die for, kill for." She pouted unhappily. "I wish the monks had never made me. I mean, what good am I? I just take up space pretending I'm a real girl, and bring pain and suffering to the people I love. Everyone would be better off if I was still just a big ball of stupid energy."

"We all have pasts . . . we'd rather leave behind," Giles struggled to say. "It doesn't matter who--or what--you were . . . what matters is how you live your life now . . . and what you make of yourself in the future." He smiled at her again, his hand finding hers for a fatherly squeeze. "You're the daughter I never had . . . the daughter I wish I'd had . . . and my one regret . . . is that I will never have the opportunity . . . to see you grow into the amazing woman I know you will be. I love you, Dawn, as if you were my own. And my life was infinitely better . . . for having known you."

She spluttered into tears at his deliberate use of the past tense, already mourning his passing. "I love you, too. And I just want you to know . . . I think you would have been the best dad in the whole world. I know Buffy should be the one to tell you this, but--"

"Dawnie?"

Startled, she looked up as Buffy stepped up to the other side of the counter on which he lay.

"Give us a moment, okay?" Buffy asked her sister.

With a nod, Dawn reluctantly withdrew, holding on to Giles' right hand until arm's length, when she was forced to let go. Her gaze still lingering on his as she shuffled away, until she finally turned and went quietly through to the adjoining room to be with the others. With effort, Giles watched her go to the very last, believing his time was near and that he would never see her again.

"Hey, handsome." Leaning over him, Buffy gently brushed the sweat-plastered hair back from his forehead. She pressed a loving kiss there, then picked up his left hand in hers, their wedding rings making a muted 'clink' as they touched. As his fuzzy gaze focused on her, she donned a brave smile, but he could see in her eyes that she, like her sister, feared the inevitable. "Didn't know you were back with us."

"Not for . . . much longer," Giles confessed morbidly, his strength waning. His conversation with Dawn, however brief, had greatly exhausted him.

"Don't say that."

Helpless, he watched tears well in Buffy's eyes, and wished, if nothing else, he had the power to spare her the coming heartache. "You were right . . . before. Things don't 'just happen' . . . in our world . . . without reason."

She studied him a moment then astutely said, "You're talking about that dream we shared, aren't you?"

He frowned, wondering how she knew. "I thought . . . you were working . . . in the stockroom?"

"I was. But it occurred to me earlier, out in the desert. Your injury, the blood, and now the knights camped at our door . . . Giles, what's it mean?" Before he could answer, Buffy launched into her own rationalization. "We talked about this, remember? And you seemed pretty sure, then, that it wasn't Glory's doing, rather a warning from unknown benefactors. 'Benefactors' being benevolent and of the good. So nothing bad can happen." Her grip on his hand turned desperate. "Right?"

But she was asking for reassurances he couldn't give. "You need to . . . prepare yourself . . . in the event that I--"

"No," she said, suddenly cross, trying unsuccessfully to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. She swiped them away with an angry hand. "Don't you dare say goodbye to me. Not here. Not now."

"Buffy--"

"I told you, I'll think of something." Her grip turned desperate. "I don't care about the stupid dream, okay? I'm not gonna let you die!"

He wanted to tell her that's she'd best think quickly because his time was running out. Instead, he tried to ease the heavy weight of responsibly he saw settling on her shoulders. "I wish I'd . . . "

"What?"

His lips quirked a little. "Let Spike drive."

Buffy sputtered once--a cross between a laugh and a sob--then completely fell apart in front of him.

Feeling guilty for having made matters worse, Giles tried to offer compassion with a squeeze of her hand, but his grip was too feeble for her to even notice. When she put her head down on his chest and began sobbing in earnest, he struggled to raise his free hand to touch her golden hair one last time. Defeated, he instead settled for the memory of it slipping freely though his fingers, the silkiness of it as he combed it from her face, all those times they made sweet love together.

As Buffy wept against him, Giles' heart broke for her. He had accepted death, even welcomed it as an alternative to the misery and pain of his existence now, but he thoroughly detested the idea of forcing her to face the world without him by her side. He promised her 'forever.' It was never his intention to break that vow so soon.

Eventually, her shudders subsided to a sniffle of discontent, and then finally to silence. Tears spent, Buffy lifted her head to look down at him, causing him to smile slightly at her red and puffy eyes and the wet tracks streaking through the grit and grime on her face. Realizing she was not looking her best, Buffy hastily tried to compose herself.

"I'm sorry," she said meekly, clasping her other hand around the one she still held.

"For what?" he asked in amusement, yearning to see her smile. "Soaking . . . my pullover? Or showing . . . that you care?"

"We should have stayed in Sunnydale," she said, having none of the levity. "If we had, none of this would have happened."

"Don't," Giles said firmly, humor forgotten. The last thing he wanted was to leave her feeling responsible for his death. "What you did . . . was necessary . . . what I've always admired."

She offered a doubtful smile. "Running away?"

"Being able to place your heart . . . above all else." The breath he took was ragged and painful, and caused Buffy to frown in ever-mounting concern. Time was short. He could feel the blackness gathering, waiting to coil around him and devour him whole. All the things he needed to say to her needed to be said now, or be forever left in a void of silence. "I'm so proud of you, you've come so far. You're everything a Watcher and a husband . . . everything I could have hoped for." Strength sapped, he endeavored to hold eye contact with her, wanting her image being the warm glow that lingered to the very end. "I love you so much."

Buffy sniffed, stemming a fresh flow of emotion, her grip instinctively tightening on his hand as she felt him slip a little further out of her life. "I'm pregnant," she announced simply.

Since her admission was so far to the left of what Giles had expected her to say, at first he didn't--couldn't--comprehend. Then his eyes widened with wonder and shock. He tried to repeat the word back to her for verbal confirmation, but try as he might, his mouth failed to speak it.

'Pregnant?'

His head lolled as his world turned upside down and inside out. It was the happiest moment of his life, and the most incredibly poignant one he'd ever known. His joy was overwhelming, hand in hand with the heartrending knowledge that he would not live to hold their newborn child in his arms. He would never experience the contentment and frustration of parenthood, all the wondrously rewarding the trials and tribulations of raising a family with the woman he loved. He would never stand, overcome with fatherly pride, watching his child grow to adulthood. With just two words, Buffy had made him happier than he ever imagined, yet all he could do was lay there enveloped in a private world of misery and pain, unable to tell her so.

'Pregnant!'

"Sweetie? Did you hear me? You're gonna be a dad." Buffy lovingly lifted his hand to her cheek and nuzzled it. "So see? You can't die. You have to stick around and share my 'gift' of a new life. A normal life . . . with our 2.3 kids and a white picket fence." Tears threatened again, despite her valiant effort to keep them at bay. "Please don't leave me."

Suddenly, he didn't want to surrender quietly and accept the inevitable. He wanted to fight the agony, kicking and screaming if he had to; he wanted to live. He wanted grow old with her, and die in a comfortable bed surrounded by their many grandchildren.

But his spent body had other plans, and his eyes drooped closed in apparent defeat. Blissful oblivion stood on the fringe of unconsciousness, beckoning him back into its peaceful blackness. He tried to fight it, to stay with his beloved and share the joy of her happy news, but it reached out and wrapped its arms around him like a wanton temptress, until finally it drew him, reluctant and silent, deep into its velvet embrace.

* * * * *

Time. It played a waiting game. For Giles to live; for Giles to die; for Willow's spell to fail and the knights to kill them all. It didn't matter, it was all the same. All waiting. For time.

Buffy did the leader thing. She interrogated the prisoner, re-secured the perimeter or the night, and ordered her troops to rest. Only when they were settled down in the cleared stockroom, sharing the meager food rations from Anya's backpack, did she allow herself to return to her still-unconscious-and-rapidly-fading husband and the role of anxious wife. Spike, preferring her company to that of her friends, found an old upturned five-gallon drum for her to sit on at Giles' side. There, she rested her head against the hard counter on which he lay, holding his hand.

For three hours, Buffy sat with an unconscious Giles, worriedly noting his clammy skim and his short, ragged breathing, and overall worsening condition. Even in oblivion, he suffered. Every now and then, her thumb gently caressed the back of his hand in the hope that somewhere in his comatose state he would sense her touch, and find the strength and motivation to return to her. Three long hours had passed since she'd negotiated an uneasy truce with the knights outside, asked Willow magically hotwire the out-of-service payphone, and made a desperate call for help. Sitting with Giles in the darkened front room of the abandoned gas station, she had plenty of time, waiting, to do as he asked and prepare herself for the worst.

It wasn't working.

The emptiness inside her just kept yawning open, wider and wider, a void of growing desperation that her heart was freefalling through on the way to hitting rock bottom. She couldn't imagine her life without him, and she certainly couldn't see herself doing the single parent thing. She didn't even want to try. What she wanted was for Giles to get the medical attention he needed, and wake up to tell her that he was overjoyed with the news of their pending parenthood. If nothing else, the look on his face at her tearful confession was enough to convince her that telling him had been the right thing to do, even if her timing was totally suckworthy.

Somewhere around midnight, a flash of bright light through the horizontal window planks startled her back to the present.

'Headlights,' she thought, anxious and relieved. Not for the first time, she regretted leaving Sunnydale, if only for the travel factor.

Although reluctant to leave Giles' side for even a moment, Buffy gave his hand one last reassuring squeeze, then crossed to peer out between the window boards in the hope of finding salvation. It came in the form of a silver sedan, rolling to a stop amidst a wary group of Byzantium Knights, who were also taking the opportunity of the temporary ceasefire to rest and regroup around their campfire. Honor bound by her plea for mercy, they grudgingly allowed the wary driver to leave the vehicle and start toward the derelict gas station, unmolested.

"He's here," Buffy announced quietly to Spike, who lingered close in the shadows while she watched Giles fade, ready and willing to be a shoulder to cry on in her initial moment of grief. She honestly didn't know whether to be angry or thankful, because she was certainly going to need someone to turn to if . . .

Steering her morbid thoughts well clear of that path, Buffy pulled open the shop's main door to await the new arrival.

The young intern from Sunnydale General greeted her with an apprehensive smile. Buffy knew him only as 'Ben,' and while he may be too young to possess the same level of skill and experience as his employers, he had shown competence, compassion, and kindness for her and Dawn in the past. She only hoped he could help her now.

"Hey," Ben said, the easy smile replaced by momentary surprise when Buffy hauled him inside and secured the door behind him. By the time she had the old coffee vending machine again wedged against it to prevent unauthorized entry, Ben had spotted his patient laying prone on the countertop, in the darkness opposite, and had diligently gone to examine him.

With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Buffy found to courage to join him for his initial diagnosis.

"You forgot to mention the costume party outside," Ben joked lightly, standing the flashlight he had brought with him on its end.

"Sorry. I didn't know who else to call."

An umbrella of soft light fanned down over them. It was a notch above the filtered orange campfire flicker, but not by much. To Buffy's mind, it was still too faint to read by; therefore it was certainly not bright enough to conduct something as delicate as field surgery.

Unconcerned, Ben snapped on a pair of latex gloves from his surgical kit, and checked Giles' vitals. Satisfied with a faint but steady pulse, he began to peel off the blood soaked kitchen towel that was now literally glued to his side. Buffy swallowed the lump in her throat, an emotion inspired by a morbid fear of what awaited underneath.

"No, it's okay," Ben said, instead digging in his bag for a pair of scissors. Abandoning his peeling, he proceeded to cut Giles' bloodied sweater and t-shirt away from the wound, upwards from the hem, with tiny careful snips. "I mean, yeah, not how I pictured seeing you again, but I'll take what I can get."

"Thank you for coming," Buffy said gratefully, oblivious to the pick up line.

Spike, however, rolled his eyes upon hearing it, and withdrew to his place in the shadows.

"My pleasure."

Buffy continued to stare helplessly as Ben slowly parted the bloody layers of material to reveal the full extent of Giles' wound in all its horrific glory. Fresh dark blood welled up from inside the ragged hole in his abdomen now that the congealed parts on his clothes had been disturbed. At the sight of it, Buffy had to look away. She found a distraction in trying to read the expression on the Ben's face as he completed his examination; the level of concentration mixed with compassion for his patient and concern for the severity of the injury. Under it all, she saw the reservation, the 'What have I gotten myself into?' look of someone thrown into a totally bizarre situation without any explanation.

When Ben paused to search through his bag again, Buffy posed the question that had been on the tip of her tongue for hours. "Is he gonna be okay?"

"There's a lot of damage," Ben admitted clinically. "I can try to stabilize him--stitch him up and stop the bleeding--but we really need to get him out of here."

"I think the guys with the pointy swords kinda have other ideas," Buffy confessed gloomily.

"Don't they always."

"Look, I know this must seem extra OUTER LIMITS to you . . . " she began, trying to offer some sort of rationalization, however lame. She would have wanted one too, if she had driven three-or-so hours out into the desert, in the dead of the night, only to be greeted by a bunch of grown men acting like lunatics wearing chain mail and carrying swords, to tend to a life-threatening injury that they all knew would be better treated in a hospital.

"This? Nah. I've seen things you wouldn't believe." Ben prepared a syringe of clear liquid. Morphine, she figured, for the pain. Holding it up, he tapped out the air bubbles and squirted a small stream skyward. "Y'know, emergency room, full moon on a Saturday night?"

"If this gets too weird, just tell me. I'll understand." She watched Ben roll up Giles' sleeve, swab the vein in the crook of his arm with antiseptic, and make the injection.

"Don't worry about me," he said, returning the used syringe to his bag. He hunted in it for some more antiseptic swabs to begin cleaning the wound itself. "I won't leave until I've worn out my welcome."

Still oblivious to the come on, Buffy reached to reclaim Giles' hand. She gave the back of it another caress with her thumb, watching his face for any sign of recognition. Again, there was nothing but pain registering on his features. She hoped the morphine worked quickly, and eased some of his suffering.

"He means a lot to you, doesn't he?" Ben asked, noting her actions.

A bevy of emotions gathered in the back of her throat. "Yeah." She fought them back, wanting to believe that although the percentages still weren't in his favor, Giles now had a fighting chance to survive this ordeal. She looked at the young man who literally held her husband's life in his hands and answered with her heart. "He does."

Still working, Ben regarded her with a hesitant little glance. "Look, I know this probably isn't the right time to bring this up, but I've learned to seize the moment or miss out completely. So . . . "

"What?" Buffy prompted in alarm.

He kept his eyes on the job and shrugged almost nonchalantly. "I just thought that maybe . . . when this is all over . . . you and I could--y'know--have coffee . . . "

Buffy blinked in surprise. "You're asking me out on a date?"

Ben exchanged his bloody swab for a clean one and grinned at her over the top of Giles' prone form. "Well, yeah. I guess I am."

She balked at his invitation. "Ben, I'm really flattered . . . and I like you, but--"

"You flirted with me," he insisted, "that night we met at The Bronze . . . " He shot her a dimpled smile designed to melt the female heart. "Which is cool, because I kinda flirted back. I like you too."

Buffy cast her mind back to the incident, which happened months ago, a week after her twentieth birthday. She'd convinced Giles to take her to The Bronze for the establishment's 'Grand Reopening' party, and, spotting Ben in the crowd while Giles was off buying drinks, she'd gone to thank him for taking care of her sister the night Dawn discovered she was 'The Key' and had turned up at the hospital as a runaway. Clearly, Ben had misunderstood the nature of her gratitude.

"Wait . . . " Ben smile clouded as he, too, recalled the incident. He looked at Giles' unconscious form, slowly putting the pieces together. "He was there, too."

"All right, back off, Doctor Kildare," Spike said, making them both jump as he appeared out of the shadows. "You're barking up the wrong tree."

"And you," Ben said with a frown, eyeing Spike. "You got in a fight with him at the bar." Indicating Giles with a blood-covered latex glove, he asked Buffy, "I know he's not your dad, but he was at the hospital with you a few times when you mom was sick. Is he some kind of . . . bodyguard?"

Biting her lower lip, Buffy shook her head. "He's my husband," she confessed, desperately hoping such an admission wouldn't scorn Giles' only hope into packing up his surgical bag and leaving.

Floored, Ben gaped at her. "You're married?"

"Bingo," Spike said dourly, "give the doc a cigar."

Buffy crossed her arms, putting her left hand on her shoulder to reveal her wedding ring. "I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. It's not like I was hiding the fact, I guess it just didn't come up in conversation."

Looking from Buffy to Giles to Spike and back to Buffy, Ben nodded stiffly and returned to cleaning Giles' wound, rejection written all over his face.

Buffy exchanged a worried glance with Spike, wondering if Ben had known the truth beforehand, would he still have been as eager to answer her call for help? Had he responded because he thought she needed him and medical knowledge, or because he thought she was interested him as potential boyfriend material and doing so would score him points? Without even trying, she'd broken the poor guy's heart. What if he really turned out to be that shallow? Could she count on his professionalism to put personal issues aside and do his job accordingly?

Abruptly, Buffy realized how very little she actually knew about 'Ben Something.' He could be the enemy in disguise, for all she knew, and she had just entrusted Giles' life to him.

"I'm real sorry," she began again, rattled by the sudden speculation. She reached for Giles' hand again, needing the connection now more than ever.

"No, it's okay," Ben answered, head down but noting the way Buffy's hand clasped his patient's lax fingers. Shifting his gaze, he returned to his work. "I should have known. The beautiful girls are always taken."

With another roll of his eyes for the lovelorn, Spike drifted away.

Unsure of what to say or do next, Buffy stood there holding her husband's hand, watching as her accidentally snubbed suitor meticulously tended the gaping wound in his side.

"Why don't you leave this to me?" Ben asked after a moment. He glanced at her. "Get some rest. You look like you could use some."

"'Kay." Gently placing Giles hand on the countertop beside him, Buffy hugged herself and turned to go. Hesitating, she looked back at Ben. "Please don't let him die."

"I'll do my best," he said, finally looking up at her with the compassionate smile she'd come to know well when her mother was sick.

Breathing a little easier, Buffy reluctantly withdrew to the inner doorway. There was nothing more she could do, and with Giles receiving care, she needed to think of herself and her baby. As Dawn had pointed out; they missed lunch, a thought that made her idly wondered what happened to that banana. She was hungry and tired and emotionally distressed--far from what the pregnancy books recommended as ideal for expectant moms. Downtime was recommended.

Pausing, Buffy looked back across room, seeing Ben bent over Giles as he worked by flashlight. She told herself it was okay that she didn't even know his last name. In the past, he'd proven himself as 'one of the good guys' and he wouldn't let her down. Not maliciously anyway. She was well aware that Giles' life still hung in the balance, but at least now, with Ben's presence and medical expertise, the scales had tipped a little more in his favor.

Spike joined her in the doorway, concern on his face and a companionable hand on her arm. "You all right, love?"

Buffy wiped the back of her hand over her eyes, brushing away the moisture gathering there. "Yeah. Thanks for the intervention."

"All part of the service," he said quietly. "I promised to watch your back until the tiny tyke arrives, whether that means staking vamps, getting beat senseless, or ripping the heart out of some lovesick Romeo . . . figuratively speaking on that last one."

They exchanged awkward smiles, allies not friends.

"Go rest," Spike said, looking her over with an affectionate smile. "I'll stay and make sure Gentle Ben gets the job done right."

Buffy nodded, and with a final glance at Giles, she and Spike went their separate ways. Wandering into the darkness of the room beyond, she felt oddly grateful for Spike's decision to linger unobtrusively in the background while Ben patched up Giles. Unnerving as it was, never would she have expected the vampire's presence to be so sincerely welcomed.

* * * * *

It had been a backbreaking job clearing piles of junk from one side of the stockroom and stacking it on the other, especially after the ordeal of the day. They were all tired, hungry, bruised, and irritable, and working to clear some space was a task no one relished. Someone, probably Willow, had organized the laying of a carpet of dirty old cardboard on the floor for comfort and warmth. It wasn't much, but it was better than the bare concrete. Just. All in all, Buffy decided, as she looked in on her sleeping friends from the stockroom doorway, their makeshift barracks left a lot to be desired. At least the knights camped outside had a fire to keep them warm. The stockroom's only saving grace was that it was an interior room, and therefore the most secure place they could find to bunk together for the night . . . if one didn't count the many holes in the ancient roof.

By moonlight, she could see they were clumped together in two groups; Dawn cuddled up to Xander's left side, a mirror image of Anya on his right; Willow gently holding Tara, next to them. They were all exhausted, physically and emotionally, and, despite the enemy camped just beyond their walls, they had all succumb to their fatigue. Buffy longed to join them, but before she did, she decided to checked the exterior door one last time, if only to satisfy herself that in the event of Willow's magical barrier failing--or being brought down by the chanting clerics--no one would be storming the place and slaughtering them in their sleep.

As Buffy threaded back down the corridor to the maintenance garage, she was oddly grateful for the holes in the roof that allowed moonlight to filter in at irregularly spaced intervals. Entering the garage, she glanced at their prisoner, whose accommodations were even less impressive than that of her friends. Earlier, they had bound the General's hands behind his back and tied him to a support column in the center of the double garage, but they had benevolently allowed the binding to be loose enough to allow him to slide to the floor beneath. At present, General Forehead-Tattoo was slumped against his bonds on the oil-stained concrete, awkwardly taking a nap.

Or pretending to. With no desire to find out if he were just faking, Buffy moved around to the far side of the building with just one goal in mind. She checked the exterior door, rattling it a bit to satisfy herself that it hadn't been touched since Xander and Spike reported they had locked it. As she moved back toward the inner door through the piles of litter and the debris of ages, she passed by an old porcelain washbasin with rust stains ringing the drain. No one had been more surprised than her to discover it still worked, the water it supplied courtesy of a large galvanized tank outside that gathered occasional rainwater. God only knew how stagnant it was, or what cornucopia of bacteria it nurtured. Drinking it was a big no-no, but as long as she kept her mouth shut, a cold splash of it on her face was a welcome refreshment.

The past couple of days had been long and demanding. Gripping the sides of the sink with both hands, drips still rolling off her face, Buffy quietly reflected on them. So much had happened, from the daunting prospect of first discovering she was pregnant, to Dawn's truancy and the threat of possible Child Welfare involvement, to the all-out panic of Glory learning her sister's secret identity and their subsequent flight from Sunnydale, to here, holed up in this awful place, suffocating under the hopelessness and guilt and despair of watching the man she loved fight for his life. She honestly didn't know what she would do if Giles didn't make it, how she would cope with life, slaying, or raising their child alone. How would she ever find the words to tell him or her about their father without turning into a total basket case because she still believe, no matter what Giles said, that his senseless death was all her fault?

'God, please, don't let him die . . . '

Pursing a trembling lower lip, she looked down at her still-flat belly--it would be another couple of months before her condition began to show--her left hand gently caressing the area as if she could somehow comfort the little soul inside her. Too many thoughts whirled through her mind to try to pinpoint just one. So much joy, too much pain . . .

That's when the General spoke, proving her suspicions were correct. Then again, maybe it was just really hard to get quality sleep while tied to a post. "I overheard your followers talking behind your back."

Buffy turned, donning a mask of defiance. The General was on his feet, looking smug and in control, despite his confinement. "They're not my 'followers,' they're my friends. And they do not talk behind my back."

"The witch told the boy you are with child." He made a disapproving tsk-tsk sound. "A leader who keeps such important secrets from the troops never bodes well for a successful campaign."

Crossing to him with three angry strides, Buffy backhanded him across the face. "Shut up!" She had to admit, if felt good to hit something.

Recovering from the blow, the General spat out a mouthful of blood then defiantly looked at her again. "You speak denial, yet your actions confirm they spoke the truth."

Buffy bristled. "You know nothing about me, my friends, or the situation."

"I know that by harboring The Key, you risk bringing unspeakable torment and suffering to this world. Is this what you want for your child?"

It was so close to Giles' argument about why they should never have children that she was completely taken aback, the fire in her instantly doused to a gutted ember.

Recovering before the doubt and the guilt swallowed her whole again, Buffy reached down deep inside where the leader in her lived. "What I want, and what I'll get, are two entirely different things."

"Stay on this path, girl, and your legacy will be an eternity of death and misery to untold legions."

"I am not your enemy," she insisted, refusing to acknowledge 'doomsday' as the reward for keeping her sister alive. "Look, we may have different agendas here, but our goal is the same--to keep Glory from getting The Key. If we worked together, maybe we'd have a better chance at stopping her, before she tries to use it for . . . whatever the hell she's going to use it for!"

"You don't know? Is ignorance why you so adamantly protect what countless generations of my people have fought to destroy?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

The General smirked knowingly. "The Beast hails from another dimension--"

"Right. Hellgod. Strong. Megabitch. Got that much."

"--banished here," he continued, unperturbed, "some twenty-odd years ago by the triumvirate with whom she once ruled, and trapped within the mortal body of a newborn male created specifically for that purpose. Unfortunately, the identity of this man has never been revealed, but he is The Beast's only weakness."

"Kill the man, and Glory dies too," Buffy murmured, wondering, if it came down to it, could she--would she--take an innocent life in order to save an innocent life.

"My Order knew nothing of The Beast's presence until she began seeking out The Key. Generations of my kin have fought to destroy The Key before it befell evil hands, but we have failed. Now The Beast seeks it, we must not fail again."

"But what's it . . . 'open' . . . for want of a better word? What's she gonna do with Daw--The Key when she has it?"

"Once in possession of The Key, The Beast intends open a gateway and return from whence she came."

It was so preposterously simple that Buffy almost laughed. "That's it? That's Glory's master plan? To go home?"

"You misunderstand. Once The Key is activated, it won't just open the gates to The Beast's dimension. It's going to open all the gates. The walls separating realities will crumble. Dimensions will bleed into each other. Order will be overthrown and the universe will tumble into chaos . . . all dark . . . forever." The General glared at her with undisguised repulsion. "This is the world that awaits your unborn child."

Buffy looked away in momentary defeat. Giles was right. That wasn't the world she wanted for their child. She wanted 'normal.' She wanted the proverbial white picket fence, the dog, and the 2.3 kids in the yard. She wanted a world where her child--every child--was safe and happy and loved.

"You wish to 'work together?'" the General asked. "Then end this. Now. Destroy The Key, and the will of The Beast will be broken. Trapped in her living cell of flesh and bone, she will fade from existence, and all this madness will end."

"I will not kill my sister," Buffy said evenly, fighting the urge to hit the man again just for suggesting it.

"Then you will perish alongside her," he vowed. "Of that my men will make certain." Dismissing her and diverting his gaze heavenward, he began to chant. "The Key is the link, the link must be severed, such is the will of God."

Fuming, Buffy moved around behind the pole to test on his bonds. Angered just enough to forget compassion, she tightened the rope, ignoring his grunt, negating all further opportunity for him to sit or rest on the floor. He could stand up until sunrise, as far as she was concerned.

"The Key is the link, the link must be severed . . . " As Buffy steps back into his line of sight, arms folded, the General looked directly at her, his determination matching hers. "Such is the will of God."

Barely holding back the blasphemous comment she wanted to make, Buffy turned on her heel and stalked out of the garage.

* * * * *

The General's litany stayed with Buffy as she returned to the stockroom. Standing in the moonlit darkness, her friends all sound asleep before her, she gazed down at Dawn--the sister she never had, the sister she'd always had--thinking how easy it would be to obey the General and end all this madness, right now. She could defeat Glory, an actual god, with what little effort it took to snap Dawn's neck.

Quietly settling beside her sleeping sibling, Buffy was touched by the way Dawn immediately sensed her presence and shifted herself from Xander's shoulder onto hers, without ever waking.

Kill Dawn? Destroy part of herself?

'Ain't gonna happen,' Buffy thought determinedly, protectively hugging her sister. She pressed a light kiss to the side of Dawn's precious head. 'And anyone who suggests it as the only solution to the problem can take a hike.'

Despite her stubborn resolve to remain awake, either in the event that Ben called her, or the knights outside reneged on their honor code, or the General found a way out of his bonds, the day caught up with Buffy and she soon nodded off.

She dreamed of a cozy house in the suburbs, with a white picket fence and huge tree in the front yard with a child's playhouse nestled in its branches. Sitting cross-legged up there and waving to her was three-year-old Ryan Fisk, only in this scenario, he was her son. Hers and Giles'. She happily called to him, and he obediently climbed down, running to where she waited on the front porch to hug her legs with great affection. She looked down at him, but couldn't see him properly over her huge pregnant belly; she looked ready to give birth any moment. Giles drove up in his car, arriving home from work. He looked scrumptious in his suit and tie, his executive position as Director of the local museum requiring formal attire. He greeted 'his son' with a tussle of his tawny hair, and swept his wife into his arms to kiss her passionately. Wantonly, Buffy returned it; eight hours away from her husband's loving touch was unbearable. Scooping Ryan into one arm, Giles put his other arm around her, and they went into the house as a family. As they ate dinner together, a meal prepared with love and care, Buffy proudly looked at her husband, 'her son,' and at her sister, newly graduated from high school and headed to college in the fall, grateful for this chance she had been given, this gift of a normal life.

And then someone screamed . . .

Startled awake, a slither of cold fear crept down Buffy's spine at the sound of someone screaming. Her first thoughts instinctively turned to Giles. Only it wasn't a cry of pain she heard, more like desperation, and in the blink of an eye, she realized it wasn't Giles doing the screaming either. She looked at her friends, still bathed in moonlight. They were equally disorientated, looking dazed and confused as the groggily roused from slumber.

And then Buffy realized that Dawn was missing and the fear escalated tenfold.

Heart in her throat, she was up and running as Anya groggily asked Xander what was going on. Without waiting for the others, she darted through the dark hallway, back toward the front shop where Giles lay on the countertop, dying.

Buffy stopped just inside the door and took in the scene. Giles was still out cold, but now seemed to be resting a little more peacefully, no doubt thanks to Ben's ministrations. Dawn was present, currently attempting to get the young intern to calm down. Ben was the one doing all the yelling, and had retreated to the far corner of the room, completely panicked, begging for someone to let him out. Buffy's first thought was that he was having some kind of epileptic fit.

"You don't understand, I gotta get out!" Ben yelled. Driven into flight, he barreled past her, headed for the garage and the only other exit from the building. "Open a door now!"

"What happened?" Buffy asked her sister, turning to follow.

"I dunno," Dawn admitted, running down the hallway beside her. "I had to go to the bathroom, and on my way back I thought I'd check in and see how Giles was doing. Ben gave him something in a needle, then he just freaked out."

When he found the garage door locked as well, Ben's panic intensified. He turned to Buffy as she entered the room, pleading out of wild desperation. "LET ME OUT!" Whatever was going on with him, she sensed he was one step away from becoming violent.

Ignoring the satisfied smirk on General Forehead-Tattoo's face, Buffy complied. "Okay," she said calmly, hoping that some fresh air and open space would help ease whatever had Ben worked up into such a frenzy. Realizing the others had all gathered in the maintenance garage behind her, she turned to them. "Will, open a door."

"NO!" Ben cried ambiguously, clawing at his head as if something inside his skull was trying to weasel its way out.

None of them were sure what happened next, only that Ben yanked on two fistfuls of his hair and screamed in pain . . . and suddenly Glory stood in his place, wearing his clothes.

Recovering from the shock, still unsure what she had just witnessed, Buffy instinctively grabbed Dawn's arm and pushed her sister to the rear, shielding her with her own body as the Hellgod's smug smile assessed the situation and came to rest on her.

"Well, what do you know?" Glory asked. "Little Ben finally did something right."

"The Beast!" the General said, straining against his bonds, as anxious as Buffy about Glory's unexpected appearance. Already, Buffy couldn't remember just how the Hellgod managed to get inside Willow's magical barrier. And where was Ben?

"Hey, it's Gregor," Glory acknowledged amicably, as if greeting an old friend. Picking up an old hubcap from a nearby pile of junk, she Frisbee'd it in his direction. With the strength of a god behind it, the rusty metal sliced halfway through the General's chest, killing him instantly. As he slumped forward against his bonds, lifeless, she coldly added, "Now it's not."

With an angry shout, Spike rushed at the Hellgod, Xander right behind him. As easily as if she were swatting gnats, Glory dispatched Spike, batting him away with the casual flick of her hand. His uncontrolled trajectory took him right into Xander, and they both crashed into the wall, hard enough to shake the dust from the ceiling of the old building.

Buffy heard Willow begin to chant something and saw her chance to charge the enemy, if only to keep her busy long enough for Willow to completed her spell. But she too was tossed off like a yesterday's garbage . . . right into Willow. She and Willow crashed to the floor, landing in a tangle, both bruised and winded. By the time they got themselves sorted out and were on their feet again--a matter of seconds--Glory had grabbed Dawn's arm and made a rush at the nearest exit, the same exit Ben had just checked and found securely locked.

But no locked door was going to stop a Hellgod; Glory smashed right through it.

"Dawn!"

'Ohmygod, she's got Dawn!'

Panicked, Buffy gave chase, all Slayer training and experience forgotten. Now she was just a desperate sibling, hoping that Willow's magical barrier--a surrounding bubble of energy about fifteen feet from the outside perimeter of the building--would be enough to contain the retreating abductor.

'This was it,' Buffy realized. This was where she would make her stand, where she would fight Glory for custody of her sister, or die trying.

Outside, Buffy watched Glory literally punch her way through the barrier. Beyond it, the Knights of Byzantium galvanized themselves for battle, instantly tripling Buffy's fears for her sister's life. The knights wanted The Key dead. Killing her was their goal, judging from what the General had said earlier, in order to 'break the will of The Beast.' Oddly enough, Dawn's best chance of survival lay with the person who had just kidnapped her. For one horrific moment, Buffy watched Glory turn the arcing blades of numerous swords back on their owners, splitting flesh and spilling blood. So many fell in so little time, until the rivers of crimson ran together, staining the desert floor.

Stirring herself, Buffy charged the barrier in pursuit, aiming to use the same hole Glory had just opened to get to the other side. But the surface tension quickly closed the rupture, and Buffy found herself repelled off it like a rubber ball bounced off concrete, stuck on the inside.

"DAWN!"

Turning in something close to an all-out panic, Buffy darted back into the abandoned garage.

"Willow," she ordered frantically, "get it down! Now!"

As Willow began to chant again, Buffy rushed back outside. The barrier dissolved around her, but instead of giving chase, her pace unexpectedly slowed to a crawl. Glory was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in her wake, she left the entire troop of knights, dozens of men, scattered on the battleground, mercilessly slaughtered one and all.

Vaguely aware of her friends following her outside, Buffy walked among the bodies, the dead and the dying, whatever courage and determination she had just moments ago draining right out of her.

"The car," Spike yelled, pointing at Ben's silver sedan. "Get the keys."

Evidently, he had not stopped to tally the carnage laid before them, the absolute futility of even the thought of giving chase.

"Buffy!" Willow called, also missing the point Glory had so vividly made. "Buffy, we have to find Dawn. We can't let Glory--"

But Buffy had. She got the message, loud and clear. She came to a complete standstill amidst the eviscerated corpses, the men who demonstrated the might and fury of a Hellgod with their so easily snuffed out lives.

The scene before her blurred into a nightmarish image from the dream she had shared with Giles. All the knights, dead on the ground, blood glistening in the firelight, Giles' mortal injury . . . it was all coming true.

Knees buckling, Buffy collapsed to the ground in a near catatonic state. It was all coming true!

"Buffy, you have to get up!"

She heard Willow, but her voice seemed distance and fogged, her words laughably ridiculous in light of the bloodshed before her.

"We need you!"

Tears flowed down Buffy's cheeks, unabated. Everything, her entire world, was falling apart. Her sister was now in the hands of the enemy, her husband still lingered at death's door, and there was nothing she could do to help either. She was freefalling again, into a bottomless pit of hopelessness and despair, so deep she doubted she would ever find a way out.

Her life sucked beyond the telling. She brought nothing but pain and misery to everyone she loved. She never asked to be The Slayer, never wanted to be the one girl who saved the world on an every-increasing basis. There was only one thing Buffy wanted from life, only one thing she needed.

A house with a white picket fence, 2.3 kids in the yard, and a husband who loved her madly; a house with a white picket fence, 2.3 kids in the yard, and a husband who loved her madly.

A house with a white picket fence, 2.3 kids in the yard, and a husband who loved her madly . . .

Read the next chapter: When The World Was Mine