The Unbreakable Series
Part 12 - When The World Was Mine

written by Koala





"D-a-d-d-y," Buffy spelled aloud, carefully sculpting each vanilla letter atop the fresh chocolate surface. Finishing with a swirling flourish underneath, she sat back to admire her handiwork, immensely pleased. Even the little rosettes she'd attempted actually looked like flowers. With leaves and all. The days when boiling water posed a major challenge to her culinary skills had been left behind with the slaying. Wiping her hands on her apron, she smiled warmly at the three-year-old boy watching her triumph from a nearby kitchen stool. "What's that spell, honey? C'mon say it with me . . . Dad-dy."

"Daddy," he repeated with a delighted grin of recognition. "Daddy's burfday."

"That's right," Buffy agreed, covering the birthday cake with an opaque plastic dome and returning it to its place in the refrigerator. "And it's a surprise, so we mustn't tell him, okay?" Closing the fridge door, she glanced at the boy as he nodded in serious agreement. "I know he said not to make a big deal out of it," she went on as if talking to an adult, "but it's his 50th, and that's a milestone, and I think it needs some celebrating."

"I'm phree," he announced, expertly holding up three fingers as proof.

Taking a seat on the opposite side of the island counter, she grinned lovingly. "Yes, you are."

A very intelligent three-year-old. She was aware that most of her conversation went right over his head--most, but not all. He got the gist of a lot of things, probably even more than she gave him credit. He was Giles' son, after all. Given that he could already count to ten in five different languages, the kid had proven he had brain cells to spare.

Christopher Jamison Giles had arrived on time and without complication. He was born at 1:23am in a London hospital, a stone's throw from the modest apartment Buffy and Giles had purchased and moved into shortly after the defeat of Glorificus. He was his parents' pride and joy, spoiled rotten by his Aunt Dawn, who lived on campus at the nearby university she attended. CJ, as the American contingent had dubbed him, much to Giles' chagrin, was blessed with his father's green eyes and a smile to melt hearts. A bright and happy child, he possessed Giles' aptitude for learning and Buffy's zest for life. He was the offspring of Watcher and Slayer, a gift, a life miraculously born from lives steeped in darkness and death. He was a child of destiny, guided by the hand of fate.

Reaching out, Buffy rustled her son's blond hair, absently noting that it needed a trim. "But you know what's the best thing about making a birthday cake for Daddy?"

Eyes wide, CJ shook his head.

Buffy dragged over the bowl she had used to mix up the frosting. A small amount of sugary vanilla still clung to the sides, specifically left there for a little mother/son bonding.

Demonstrating, she dipped her finger in the frosting, then licked it clean. "Mmm . . . yummy . . . "

Without further prompting, CJ mimicked his mother. Finger covered in vanilla cream, he managed to get most of it in his mouth, and grinned in delight.

Together, they cleaned the bowl with deliciously sticky fingers and a lot of giggling. Buffy had just placed it in the dishwasher rack along with the other pans and utensils she had used in her baking, when she heard the front door open. Not a moment too soon.

"Buffy, I'm home."

"Daddy!" CJ said excitedly, sliding from his stool.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Buffy barely intercepted the boy as he scooted for the kitchen door with the intensity of a small cyclone. Kneeling, she used her apron to wipe his hand and the telltale vanilla from around his mouth. "Surprise, remember? Don't tell Daddy about the birthday cake."

He nodded impatiently, eager to be on his way to greet his father.

Smiling, Buffy let him go. She rose to her feet, listening for Giles' inevitable grunt as thirty-five pounds of excited toddler slammed into his hip. Untying her apron strings, she decided it fell to her wifely duty to inspect for damages later that night, when she gave him his other birthday surprise.

Moments later Giles entered the kitchen, sans his topcoat and briefcase, CJ perched happily on one arm. "Hello, darling," he said, greeting her with a quick kiss on the cheek. He sniffed the air. "Something smells delicious."

"Cake," CJ said automatically.

"That would be the roast I've had in the oven for the past two hours," Buffy said quickly. Since the cake had been her morning activity, and since the aroma in question clearly belonged to the cooked meats category, she figured she had her son's slip successful covered. As long as Giles didn't look in the fridge.

CJ impatiently squirmed for release, so Giles let the energetic toddler slip to the floor. Unaware that he was mimicking Buffy, he gave his son's hair an affectionate tussle. A ball of energy, CJ raced into the living room, giving his parents a moment alone in the kitchen.

"Buffy, I told you not to go to a lot of trouble," Giles said knowingly of the special birthday meal she had so lovingly prepared for him. He loosened his tie a bit. "It's just a day, like any other."

Buffy, however, begged to differ. Stepping closer, she played with his necktie, her eyes wandering appreciatively over him. His executive position at the British Museum required corporate attire for his workday, and she was well aware how scrumptious the trim lines of a well-tailored suit made him look. So scrumptious, in fact, that on the occasions when she and CJ had been in the city and met him for lunch, she'd practically had to beat off every female member of his staff with a stick. Figuratively speaking, of course. They all knew their boss was happily married and blissfully in love, but Buffy still liked to put in an appearance now and then just as a friendly reminder. Giles remained oblivious to all the unrequited adoration; he only had eyes for one woman, the one he married, the mother of his child.

"Who said I went to any trouble?" Buffy said coyly. "This is just your average roast leg of lamb, to be served with mint jelly--excuse me, mint sauce--golden baked potatoes, and a selection of seasonal, steamed vegetables."

Giles chuckled, drawing her into a casual embrace. "You sound like a commercial for a cooking show."

Hands clasped lightly behind his waist, Buffy grinned up at him. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"Splendid. It was." He leaned down to kiss her again; a kiss that said she need never doubt the depths of his feelings for her. After four years of marriage, their passion for each other grew stronger every day.

For a moment suspended in time, Buffy lost herself in him . . . just him . . . only belatedly realizing that despite Giles' sincerity, the kiss was also a sneaky diversion. He moved slightly in her arms--a single sidestep and a tiny lean to the right--his goal the refrigerator door behind her for a before-dinner snack.

She responded with a similar dance step, and, fearing he would spot the cake, bumped the door closed with her hip. "Uh-uh," she said with a grin, "you'll spoil your appetite."

Giles opened his mouth to protest when CJ sped back into the room.

Zeroing in on his father, he grabbed one large hand in both of his. "Daddy, look . . . " He began tugging with all his might, which extended Giles' arm horizontally, nothing more.

"I think someone wants your attention." Buffy moved to the stove to check on the status of her roast. "He found 'The Wiggles' website today," she explained of CJ's enthusiasm. "By himself. I swear he's some sort of computer savant. He's gonna grow up and invent the next big thing, you watch. Supper will be ready in an hour."

Giles grunted in surrender, knowing he'd been outmaneuvered. "Am I at least permitted a cup of tea?"

"I'll make you one," Buffy offered. She straightened. "Oh and . . . Dawn's coming."

"Daddy, look!"

"And she'd bringing her new honey, Simon, with her," Buffy continued carefully. She masked caution with a happy smile. "So we finally get to meet the guy she's gone so totally ga-ga over."

"As long as he doesn't turn out to be a prat like the last one. Where does she find these clots?"

"I suggested they stay the night--y'know, on account of the weather forecast. They're predicting snow . . . well, sleet. That's snowish. Kinda." Keeping her attention on the sink, where her rinsed vegetables were draining in a stainless steel colander, she hedged, "I made up the bed in the spare room for them."

Giles gaped, suitably scandalized. "Both of them?"

"Dad-deee . . . "

Turning slightly, Giles scooped his son up into his arms in an effort to placate his impatience. Then he turned an utterly appalled expression on his wife. "Good Lord, you mean, Dawn's . . . she's . . . she told you?"

"I'm her sister. Of course she told me." On the phone, when they'd discussed her visit, followed by real concern over how Giles would take the news of the planned sleeping arrangements. Loading the veggies into the steamer, Buffy glanced at him. He was wearing his fuddy-duddy face, as expected. "Giles, you're not her father. This isn't your call."

He huffed out a breath. "Yes, but . . . " CJ squirmed for release and Giles set him on the floor again. Bored with his parents' conversation, the boy darted away. "But I've always felt as if I am. I've always taken that responsibility very seriously."

"I know."

"She's too young, Buffy," Giles said disapprovingly.

"She's nineteen."

"Precisely. Too young to be shagging some pillock she met at university!"

"I was nineteen when I fell in love with you." Trying to reason, Buffy turned and slipped her wet hands around him for a hug. "And when I married you . . . "

"You were two weeks shy of twenty," Giles argued sulkily.

"And barely twenty-one when I gave birth to your son." Cheek resting against his chest, she awaited his next comment. When he failed to make one, she continued, "You know, better than anyone, that there are times when my feelings for Dawnie are much more maternal than sisterly, 'cause I take my guardianship of her seriously, too. But we are not her parents."

"Aren't we?"

Buffy lifted her cheek to look up at him in question.

"Perhaps not biologically, although that's certainly debatable, given how little we know of the process the monks used to create her . . . but we are in every other way it counts. You can't expect me not to be upset by this."

Drawing a breath, Buffy tried again. "This is what we fought for, sweetie, what we almost died for, so many times over. To give Dawn a life of her own. The hardest thing we have to do now is let her live it. And if that makes us her parents, then we're her parents."

Slowly, in surrender, Giles' arms closed gently around her. He kissed the top of her head. "As a former Watcher," he admitted ruefully, "it's something of a wake-up call to realize the biggest challenge I now face is 'watching' Dawn mature."

"Welcome to normal," Buffy said, head tilted back. Their eyes met, and in his, she found everything she ever wanted, now and forever.

Giles smiled, fingertips tenderly combing a wisp of hair from her cheek. "And how do you like your normal life, love?"

Blissfully content, Buffy snuggled against the warmth of his chest, eyes closing as his arms tightened around her. It didn't get any better than this; a husband who adored her, a beautiful son, and a house far, far away from the death and darkness of the Hellmouth.

"Wouldn't trade it for the world . . . "

* * * * *

Consciousness returned slowly, like a long walk out of a thick fog bank. Lost in the in-between, Giles wondered if this was heaven. Was he dead? Had the blessed agony finally ended? Then the pain hit; a searing intensity in the left side of his torso that reassured him he was, unfortunately, still alive.

With a grunt of exhaled breath, he opened his eyes and blinked to focus. What he saw had him instantly throwing off his grubby blanket and attempting to sit up. "Buffy?" he croaked in alarm.

She sat in a slice of moonlight, her back against the paint-peeled wall of the dingy abandoned gas station, a blank expression on her face. Clustered around her, as if trying to decide what to do, the others--Xander, Anya, Willow and Tara--heard his return to the living and acknowledged him with a brief glance. Clearly, Buffy's wellbeing took precedence over his own. As it should.

Determination drove Giles up as far as one elbow, where his strength waned. Pain prevented him from venturing further, until Anya joined him with a helping hand that pulled him the rest of the way up to sitting.

"What happened?" Giles asked, one hand clamped protectively, instinctively, on his injury.

The pain had increased tenfold with his vertical shift, and he gritted his teeth against it. Still, it could have been much worse, he realized, as his fingers found and gingerly explored the fresh dressing over his wound. The addition of soft, gauze padding and a tight elastic bandage kept his innards where they belonged, and he could feel the hard knots of a row of sutures underneath. Someone had tended him while he'd been unconscious, someone with access to medical supplies and first-rate knowledge of their use. Not someone of present company, of that he was certain.

He looked down; the dinner-plate sized bloodstain on his cream-colored sweater now dried to a dark, dirty brown; the precision cut made in the material from the hem up to the ragged spear hole; the clinical white of the compression bandage visible between the flaps. He couldn't remember much of what happened after the Winnebago accident, just snippets of a laborious walk to this place, and drifting in and out of consciousness, as he lay prone on the hard counter top, but nothing of the person responsible for saving his life. Indeed, the last thing he could recall before passing out completely was Buffy informing him . . .

Giles blinked in surprise. The last thing he remembered was Buffy's tearful admission that she was pregnant!

His gaze flew back to her, his expression a mixture of incredible love, overwhelming joy, and renewed concern, just as Xander grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little.

"Buffy!" Xander yelled in her face, trying to startle her from her stupor. "BUFFY!" He shook her harder, but she remained still and unresponsive, her eyes wide and chillingly vacant.

"That's enough!" Giles barked, instantly causing Xander to back off.

As Xander retreated to re-think the problem, Giles attempted to find the floor with his feet, but Anya wisely stopped him. He was still incredibly weak from his ordeal, no doubt to the blood loss, and falling flat on his face would accomplish nothing. Instead, he settled his weight back on the hard countertop that had become his makeshift bed, gathered the ratty blanket in his lap, and steadied himself with a deep breath.

"Now, would someone care to explain to me what's going on? What the devil happened to Buffy?"

"That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question," Xander replied, running a hand through his unkempt hair, his frustration evident.

It had been a rough twenty-odd hours for them all. From their hasty exodus from Sunnydale, to the Knights of Byzantium's surprise attack on their stolen motor home, to the subsequent crash of the vehicle that forced them to abandon their escape plans and instead barricade themselves in the deserted gas station.

"One minute we were sleeping," Willow offered, "the next someone was screaming and we all ran in here to find Buffy and Dawn trying to calm Ben down."

"Ben?" Giles asked.

"Medical intern Ben," Anya explained quietly. "From the hospital. He saved your life."

Giles nodded. Intern Ben had been a persistent face of calm and reassurance at Sunnydale General throughout Joyce Summers' illness. He had earned Buffy's trust and respect, and since he also possessed the necessary medical knowledge for field surgery, it was no surprise that she had--somehow--contacted him for help.

"And then?" Giles prompted, since that only answered half of his question.

Willow frowned, trying to remember the details. "I don't know. All hell broke loose. One moment Ben was here, the next Glory came and took Dawn."

A lump of distress clogged Giles' throat. "Glory has Dawn?"

His mind went to a dark place at the thought of her, the daughter he never had, in Glory's clutches. Everything they hoped to achieve by leaving Sunnydale had been in vain. No wonder Buffy was catatonic.

He studied her again, concerned and longing, her vacant expression confirming her voluntary withdrawal from all the death and pain and heartache. Clearly, she'd retreated deep inside herself in order to escape the horror of this reality. Somewhere more pleasant. Somewhere, he feared, she might never want to leave.

Giles slumped back down onto the hard countertop-turned-bed with a hand to his brow in grief. Buffy . . . Dawn . . . the two most important people in the world to him. Had he lost them both?

"We're gonna get her back," Xander said determinedly. He glanced at Buffy, his resolve waning slightly at the sight of their only hope of rescuing Dawn sitting senseless on the floor. "Both of them."

Before any of them could fall into further depression, the gas station door opened and Spike strode in.

"Seems a better part of a century spent in delinquency just paid off," he announced smugly. "I hotwired Ben's auto. Who's for getting the hell out of here?"

Eager to do something, anything, Xander jumped in. "All in favor, let's do it." He pointed at Giles. "You good to go?"

"Don't worry about me," Giles said rather unconvincingly, still flat on his back. Apparently, they'd forgotten he was still recovering from a near-fatal injury. He made a valiant effort to rise again, barely able to move without causing himself extreme agony, but he'd be damned if he became the reason they stayed.

He stifled a tortured groan, lest he revealed too much and they changed their plans.

Anya, the only one close enough to hear it, again helped him to sit upright. A frown crossed her face as she took in his pasty complexion; the pain registering on his face despite his best efforts to keep it at bay. In a show of compassion, she lifted a hand to his brow and gently combed the sweat-plastered hair from his forehead.

Willow looked from Buffy's still form to her wristwatch. "It's been almost a half an hour," she said worriedly.

"Slayer's going to be all right, won't she?" Spike asked. He took a few steps towards Buffy, frowning in concern. "She can't just be brain dead. I mean . . . she's still Buffy somewhere in there, right?"

Xander impatiently turned for the door. "Spike, c'mon, we're not going to get Dawn back by sitting around here."

Hands on hips, Spike stood his ground. "You're not going to get Dawn back any way you slice it, Harris. That's for Buffy to decide."

"Good, panic." Xander's arms slapped his sides in frustration. "That ought to help."

"We should move her," Willow said. Then she frowned. "Unless we shouldn't. Should we?" She turned to Giles, looking for an answer.

Anya beat him to it. "Couldn't that make it worse? I think I read that somewhere."

"I am so large with not knowing," Xander confessed.

"It's impossible to know for sure," Giles said, still trying to find his strength. "Losing Dawn after all that Buffy's been through . . . " He chose his words carefully, leaving himself out of the equation, not wanting to worry them with his condition. "I think it pushed her too far, into some sort of catatonia."

"You don't need a diploma to see that," Spike said sourly. "I'll snap her out of it." Unaware he was repeating Xander's actions, he grabbed Buffy by the shoulders and roughly shook her. His attempt, however, was far more violent. "Buffy! Oy, rise and shine, love!"

"Spike," Anya began warily, "I don't think you should do that to a pregnant woman."

Anya was right, and watching Spike manhandle Buffy without any concern for her condition made Giles instantly see red. Gritting his teeth, he found the concrete floor with his feet, grudgingly shaking off Anya's restraining hand.

"Come on, people. The girl's endowed with Slayer strength. This is hardly the time to get dainty, even if does have a bun in the oven." He shook her more vigorously, jarring her neck and shoulders, threatening to give her whiplash. "BUFFY!"

"We tried that," Xander argued.

"Stop it," Giles grated, lumbering painfully toward the vampire assaulting his wife. This was the cruel and uncaring monster Buffy had asked to watch her back during her pregnancy. Some ally. Spike obviously cared little for the wellbeing of the baby, his allegiance only given in the hope of receiving something personal in return.

As if to verify this, Spike pulled back his fist and punched Buffy hard in the face. No reaction. Not from Buffy, anyway. Spike, however, grabbed his head with a howl of pain, as his implant fired.

"We didn't try that," Anya admitted.

Reaching Spike, Giles grabbed two fistfuls of his black leather duster, adrenaline and anger providing the energy he needed to haul the vampire off the woman he loved. Straightening, they glared at one another, testosterone on the rise.

"You bloody maniac. We could be dealing with neurological impairment. Do you want to kill her? Or cause her to miscarry."

Eye to eye with Giles, Spike forcefully shrugged off the restraining hold. He gave a contemptuous smirk. "Finally told you, did she? 'Bout bloody time. You do know you're the last to find out, right?"

"Touch her again, and I swear I'll kill you."

"We have to do something," Spike insisted angrily. "I can't just sit here watching. You waste time with kid gloves, but I'm willing to wager, when all is said and done, Buffy likes it rough."

Wise to the innuendo, Giles reacted like a jealous husband, delivering a left hook directly to Spike's jaw. He felt something tear in his side with the exertion, a stitch or two pulling free, not enough to stop him from picking Spike up off the ground and punching him again. In return, Giles took a fist to the face, then heard Spike bark out a subsequent cry, just as Willow turned to regard the fight.

"Separate," she ordered in a calm, controlled tone. Magic pushed the two combatants to opposite sides of the room.

Stumbling backward, Giles grunted in pain. Hands flat against the rough countertop for support, he staggered to remain upright, leaning protectively to his wounded side. Catching his breath, he looked across at Willow in surprise and admiration. He felt as if he'd been pulled away by the strength of three burly truck drivers. A physical interaction spell of such force took an adept understanding of the mystical arts and a disciplined mind.

"One day, Watcher," Spike warned, swiping blood from the corner of his mouth.

"Can't wait," Giles agreed, already looking forward to the time he permanently removed the vampire from his and Buffy's lives with a nicely sharpened stake.

Spike stepped up to the challenge, slapping his chest and making a threatening move forward. "Bring it on, Gramps!"

Willow's magic again intervened, this time tossing Spike through the air and slamming him into the far wall of the abandoned gas station. The vampire slid to the floor in a dark corner, momentarily out of sight.

Giles regarded Willow with even more respect . . . as well as a little gratitude for her having considered his injured state before unleashing that particular aerial stunt.

"Buffy's out. Glory has Dawn," Willow announced, calmly stating the facts. "Sometime real soon she's going to use Dawn to tear down the barriers between every dimension there is." She eyed Spike as he sulkily shuffled back to the group standing together in the moonlight. "So if you two want to fight, do it after the world ends, okay?"

Suitably chastised, both Giles and Spike nodded in reluctant agreement to a truce.

"All right," Willow went on, assuming group authority. "First we head back to Sunnydale. Xander will take Giles to a hospital. Anya's looking after Tara. And Spike, you find Glory. Check her apartment to see if she's still there. Try anything stupid, like payback, and I will get very cranky." She looked around the ragtag group, the weary souls Fate had once again entrusted with the task of saving the world. "Everyone clear?"

Anya cautiously raised her hand, like a wary child addressing a stern schoolmistress.

Willow nodded at her. "Anya?"

"Um . . . what will you do?"

"I'll help Buffy."

Giles was far too jaded for any hand-raising high-jinx. Instead, his lips pursed in a tight smile, his thoughts on the matter left unsaid.

As the others dutifully moved about to gather their few belongings in preparation of leaving, Giles shuffled over to Buffy, his movement slow and painful. In hindsight, he realized that attacking Spike in his current condition had not been one of his better ideas.

Grimacing, he fell to one knee in front of her. She still lacked expression, any and all outward signs of discomfort or distress, which again suggested she was in a good place, a happy place . . . the reaffirmation of which shattered any spark of hope in Giles' heart into a million jagged little pieces. He could only imagine the anguish she must have felt thinking him about to die; the shock of Dawn's abduction; the idea that he would leave her to raise their child alone. It must have been overwhelming, to have driven her so far away.

He reached out his hand to touch her cheek with the backs of his fingers, tender and loving, hoping the familiar intimacy would register somewhere in her subconscious and lead her home. But she remained lost to him, shut in a reality of her own choosing, beyond his reach.

"Let's move, people." Willow ordered behind him.

Pulling her head towards him, Giles placed a lingering kiss on Buffy's forehead, then stood to join the others.

Outside, he was aware of the stoop in his posture, the favorable lean he'd adopted, and the way his feet dragged in the desert dirt as he made his way across to Ben's hotwired car. Xander carried Buffy, Willow guided Tara with a determined hand on her elbow, while Spike ran ahead to seize the driver's seat, and Anya--designated pack mule for a lumpy knapsack and Giles' sports bag of weapons--brought up the rear.

Even in the dark, the bloodshed and carnage was utterly repulsive. Dozens of men lay dead in the desert sand, pools of blood glinting in the flickering orange glow of their campfire. All had perished, butchered by a single hand.

Giles flashed on the scene, straight from the nightmare he had shared with Buffy.

'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.'


Prophecy at work? Or something else . . .

"Dear Lord," Giles murmured, picking his way through the tangle of bloodied corpses.

"Glory's handiwork," Xander, stepping over a body, answered coolly.

Giles stopped in his tracks, appalled by the slaughter. The Knights of Byzantium, although fanatical in their cause, for right or wrong, were still human beings, men. They deserved better than to be left in the desert sun to rot, their bones picked clean by vultures and coyotes.

"We should do something," Giles said feebly. He shook his head, realizing it was a lost cause. "Bury the dead. Something . . . "

Xander stopped and turned to face him with a somewhat incredulous expression, Buffy draped across his arms, her eyes as unseeing as the dead around them. "Even if we had--I dunno--a dozen willing volunteers with a bulldozer and shovels, we have no time." With that, he turned and continued on his way to the waiting sedan.

Anya touched Giles' arm as she passed him, offering a compassionate smile. "Makes you glad vampires dust when you kill them, huh," she said in another frightful example of her lack of tact.

Although she did have a point.

Reluctantly accepting there was no other choice, Giles continued toward the car, stepping over the dead in somber silence. Xander was right. They couldn't waste time with futile efforts, no matter the feeling in his gut, when the fate of humankind hung in the balance. Should Glory succeed, millions would perish, slaughtered just as assuredly as the knights, including Buffy and Dawn. For their sakes, if for no one else's, he had to concentrate on doing the job expected of him.

At the car came challenge number two; how to squeeze seven adults into a single, mid-sized, sedan with bucket seats.

"Am I the only one thinking we're gonna need a Plan B?" Xander asked skeptically.

Spike swung himself behind the wheel and reached under the dash for the wires he had exposed earlier. "You're welcome to try hitchhiking," he suggested, knowing full well the zero traffic quota out in the middle of nowhere. He sparked the bare ends and the engine spluttered into life. "Well, c'mon. Those who are coming, get in."

"Giles, you take the front," Willow ordered, again assuming command of a seemingly hopeless situation. "Anya, you sit on Xander's lap in the back, Tara can sit on mine, Buffy between us."

Xander shrugged, seeing no other way. "It'll be tight."

"It'll redefine the meaning of the word 'sardine,'" Anya corrected unenthusiastically.

Settling into the front passenger seat, Giles called to Xander. "Give her to me," he said of Buffy.

"Giles, you were skewered like a shish-kabob," Xander reasoned. "Three-plus hours of sitting is going to be hell enough, without a hundred-and-a-bit pounds of Slayer in your lap."

"Give her to me," Giles repeated, his look brooking no further argument.

Xander shrugged in compliance. Gently as he could, he handed Buffy's dead weight into the car, head first, and helped settle her on Giles' lap. Shifting to accommodate her, Giles bit back a groan.

"Okay?" Xander asked.

"Wonderful," Giles lied, already feeling an uncomfortable pressure building against his injury. Three-plus hours would be sheer bloody agony. Raising his hand, he tenderly pressed Buffy's cheek to his chest, and tucked her head under his chin. He held her protectively-- her and his unborn child. For her, agony was a small price to pay.

The others piled into the back; four of them. With a final, somewhat bemused, glance over his shoulder at the human pretzels pretending to look comfortable, Spike put the car in gear, flipped on the headlights, and stepped on the gas.

The sedan lurched forward, spewing dirt from the rear tires, the jarring motion causing Giles to grit his teeth. As the car quickly accelerated to well over the speed limit, holding his tongue became harder and harder. Not so much because of personal discomfort, but because seven adults meant they were grossly overloaded, and reckless driving only increased the potential hazard to everyone's health.

At least to everyone with a pulse.

"What?" Spike asked, noting Giles' frown of disapproval in a sidelong glance. "You don't like the way I drive?"

Giles smiled thinly. "Perhaps if you hadn't learned on a horse-drawn carriage . . . "

"Yeah, well, tell you what," Spike suggested. "You drive."

Surprised to hear him so readily relinquish control, Giles looked at him.

Spike smirked derisively as he added, "And I'll sit there with Buffy on my lap."

Angered, Giles focused on the road ahead.

"Afraid I'll cop a feel?" Spike goaded him. "Or that Buffy will like it?"

"Just drive," Giles said flatly, fighting down his rising temper.

Cuddling the woman they both pined for closer, Giles reclined against the headrest and breathed deep. Bloody vampire. 'One day' couldn't come soon enough. If they weren't in a car, and if he weren't injured . . .

A slow smile crept across his face. Vengeance apparently had many guises.

"What?" Spike asked suspiciously.

"Nothing," Giles answered, suddenly content to gaze at the brilliant swath of stars in the pre-dawn desert sky. He wondered if Spike had even noticed.

Ben's car had a sunroof.

* * * * *

"'Happy birthday dear dad-dee,'" Buffy sang, encouraging the toddler sitting on her lap to sing along. Together with Dawn and her boyfriend, Simon--who turned out to be gracious, charming, and an arts and history major--they sat around the dining room table wearing silly paper hats, waiting for Giles to blow out his candles. "'Happy birthday to you!'"

"Daddy!" CJ chorused when it was over.

"Make a wish, sweetie," Buffy said warmly.

Giles regarded her and CJ for a moment, his expression loving, touched. He blew out an exaggeratedly long breath, even though she'd made it easy on him by adding only five candles to his cake.

Cheers went up as the last one extinguished. Even CJ clapped excitedly. Shifting on his mother's knee, he reached to impale his finger in the closest side of chocolate frosting.

Buffy dutifully snatched back his advancing hand. "Someone's impatient."

"Cake," CJ confirmed hopefully.

"Yes, that's a splendid idea," Giles agreed, picking up a knife and starting to slice.

"I'll put the kettle on," Buffy said, preparing to stand with CJ in her arms.

Dawn stopped her. "I'll get it," she volunteered happily. "Tea all round?"

Collective nods.

"Wanna help, Simon?"

"It would be my pleasure, love." He turned an apologetic smile on Buffy and Giles. "Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Giles."

"Oh, you can just call me 'Buffy.'"

"Buffy." With a winsome smile, Simon followed after Dawn.

As soon as the pair had disappeared into the kitchen, Buffy leaned across the corner of the table to whisper to her less-impressed husband. "God, he's so cute! No wonder Dawn's totally head over heels for him."

"Yes, he does exude a certain 'boy-band' prettiness," Giles acknowledged loftily, "but at the first sign of a synchronized dance step, he's out the bloody door."

"Smart, too," Buffy went on, ignoring the sarcasm. CJ, attention focused elsewhere, squirmed for freedom, so she let him slide from her lap, watching with maternal caution as he ran for his toy box in the corner of the adjoining living room. "And polite and sociable, and witty, and--"

"--and I'm suddenly convinced Dawn is not the only one smitten," Giles finished. Pausing in his cake-cutting duties, he reached out his free hand. Finding Buffy's on the tabletop, he gave it a gentle squeeze. "But I'm afraid you're stuck with is this old man."

Turning her palm up, Buffy laced her fingers with his and squeezed back. "Not really a problem . . . since he's the only one I really want."

When Giles gave her a silent 'are you sure?' look, she squeezed even harder in equally silent reassurance.

With four generous portions served onto white china plates and a much smaller slice in a blue plastic bowl, Giles sat back, staring at the hole he'd made in the double-layered, chocolate frosted, yellow cake. A little more than half of it was missing. He shook his head in something akin to amazement, as if the cake somehow represented his life, with a sizeable chunk of it now gone. "Good Lord . . . fifty."

"And still fabulous." Rising to her feet, Buffy shifted easily from her chair to Giles' lap. She let her fingers wander lazily through the hair at his temples. True, there was more gray there now, but in her eyes, it only made him an even more attractive package.

"That's easy for you to say," Giles quipped, his arms nonetheless finding natural purchase around her slim form. "You're only twenty-four."

"Is that whining I hear, mister?"

"No . . . "

The tender touch of her hand on his cheek brought his sulky gaze to hers. "'Cause if it is, I'll just have to reprimand you with a stern hand . . . maybe a little spanking . . . "

Giles gave her a sexy little grin and tightened his embrace, all regrets for the passage of time forgotten. "I rather like the sound of that."

"Mmm, I bet you do." She touched her forehead to his and gave him an Eskimo kiss. Looking into his loving eyes at such close range prompted her to the realization that all those times she thought she was in love--with Angel, with Riley--she'd been so incredibly wrong. Loving Giles made her see that she'd never really been in love at all, until him. Moved, she added, "Happy birthday, sweetie. I love you so much."

"I love you too, Buffy. Thank you for a lovely dinner."

They shared a kiss, long on passion and tenderness but short on time, as CJ decided that with his parents otherwise engaged, it was a good opportunity to snag himself a plate of cake . . . one of the big slices.

Catching the movement in the corner of her eye, Buffy broke the kiss. "Hey, hey, hey! Not so fast!" Standing, she quickly reached to steady the plate about to spill its chocolaty contents onto the cream-colored carpet, but not before the frosted edge collided with her son's eager hand.

"Mum-my . . . " the boy complained as she took it from him.

"In a minute, honey," Buffy said, returning to her seat at right angles to her husband and putting the slightly used piece of cake in front of her own setting. "Don't you want to wait for Auntie Dawn and Simon?"

CJ shook his head with exaggerated vigor.

Giles reached for his son, lifting him backwards onto his knee. "Manners, CJ. It would be impolite to start without our company."

Unperturbed, CJ reached out a hand toward his goal, but his father held him put. "Want yummy." Noting the chocolate smudged on his fingers, his hand immediately withdrew and went into his mouth . . . which meant he also got frosting all over his face.

Picking up her napkin with an amused scowl, Buffy leaned forward to clean him up before Dawn and her boyfriend returned. It was a joint parental effort, and even though Giles held him, it was still a battle, with CJ preferring to keep the clinging confectionery than have it removed with his mother's linen napkin.

Suddenly, there was a squeal of delight from the kitchen. Both Buffy and Giles paused to look in that direction, then at each other.

"What the devil . . . ?" Giles asked quietly. He looked poised ready to rush the kitchen in defense of Dawn's honor.

Buffy stilled him with a hand on his shirtsleeve. "Wait."

Reluctantly, Giles did, bouncing his son on his knee in an effort to humor them both.

A moment later, Dawn appeared in a whirlwind rush, Simon a step behind, dragged along by the hand. Both wore smiles of pure love and happiness.

"Ohmygod, you guys! You'll never guess!" Dawn blurted all aflutter, waving her a hand in front of her face for air. She stopped at the table to catch her breath, and then thrust her left hand out for them to see. On her third finger sat a shiny new diamond solitaire ring. "Simon just proposed and I said yes!"

Buffy turned an astonished look on her equally astonished husband. Neither of them had seen that one coming. Turning back to Dawn with a happy smile, she pushed to her feet and swept her little sister into a heartfelt hug of congratulations.

Yep, life was good.

* * * * *

The sign for the Sunnydale City Limits flashed past Giles as he stared aimlessly out the passenger side window. Perking up a bit, he glanced at his watch, but it had stopped, yesterday, when the crystal cracked in the motor home crash. Turning his head, he strained to look over Buffy's motionless form at the clock set in the car's dash.

8:37am.

He breathed a silent sigh of relief. For the past two hours, he had been sitting in quiet agony. Buffy's dead weight pressed heavily against his wound, any pain medication he'd received from Ben long ago worn off. He tried shifting her into a more comfortable position, but the cramped quarters of the front seat negated any real improvement.

"Where to?" Xander, now driving, asked. They'd only stopped twice--once for gas, and once to rearrange the seating assignments as the sunrise crawled sleepily over the empty desert. Much to Giles' inner glee, stop number two had banished the sun-sensitive vampire to the darkness of the trunk . . . which also put a thankful end to his persistent, and highly ludicrous, hypothesis that good Doctor Ben was working with Glory.

"Your place," Willow instructed from the backseat. Tara grew anxious in her arms, muttering disjointed quotes about time and its passage, and the importance of things that needed to be accomplished that day. "We'll be safe there while you take Giles to the hospital."

"I don't need a bloody hospital," Giles insisted irritably. He nuzzled the top of Buffy's head with his chin, a gesture of both affection and concern. What he needed--what would make him feel a hundred percent better--was for her to come back to him.

But his defiant tone had grown less adamant with each passing hour, as his agony expanded to engulf the entire left half of his body. The once crisp white compress covering his wound now bore a contrasting splotch of crimson, clear evidence of the stitches pulled during his scuffle with Spike.

Although reluctant to admit it, Giles knew he did, indeed, require further medical attention. It simply galled him to be indisposed at a time when Buffy needed him most.

Xander pulled the car around the back of his apartment complex, stopping in a swatch of shade cast by the building. They all climbed out and stretched, except Giles, who despite his suffering was reluctant to give up custody of Buffy. Alone in the car, he pressed his lips to her hair, and muttered a short prayer for her safe and speedy recovery, despite the doubt and fear tying his stomach in a knot.

The moment ended when Xander opened the door. The distraught expression on Giles' face gave the younger man pause.

"We'll fix this," Xander said, oozing the confidence that Giles somehow failed to find within himself. Frankly, he had no idea what to do in order to 'fix' things.

Xander gripped Giles' arm for a manly squeeze of reassurance. "She'll be okay." Shifting position slightly, he reached in for Buffy. "C'mon, let me take her."

Eyes closing, Giles kissed his beloved's precious head one last time, before allowing Xander to lift her out of the car. As her weight disappeared, the pressure on his wound lessened from agonized to merely crippling. Drawing a shuddering breath, Giles watched Xander walk away with Buffy in his arms, her sightless eyes staring back over his shoulder in a hauntingly vacant farewell.

Willow and Tara followed Xander around the corner of the building, heading for the lobby entrance, while Anya lingered in anticipation of Giles needing help, something he was determined to prove wrong. Bracing himself for the inevitable torture, Giles swung his right foot out to the concrete, gripped the car frame for support, and hoisted himself out of the bucket seat.

He bit back a cry, his hand holding his side, suddenly unsure which was worse--sitting or standing. Turning, he leaned heavily on the roof for support, appalled to realize it was the only thing keeping him upright.

Anya was immediately at his side, ready to act as a crutch.

"I'm fine," Giles insisted, his pride refusing help. The last thing he wanted was to look like an invalid, even if he presently felt like one.

She eyed him up and down, contradicting his claim. "You look like hell."

"Brutally honest, as always."

Her gaze focused on the compression bandage, visible through the scissor-cut flaps of his bloodstained sweater. "And you're bleeding again."

His hand moved to cover the area from view. "I'm fine."

"Just don't die, okay?"

"I shall try my hardest not to . . . "

"You'd better. Because last night Buffy thought you were gonna die, and look where that got us?" Anya made a sound of frustration and rolled her eyes. "I mean, Geez Lousie! If you do, she'll have nothing to come back to, and without her, we have a snowball's chance in hell against Glory. I don't want to die, Giles. And I don't want Xander to, either. So don't you, or I'll never forgive you."

Despite the outward insensitivity, her eyes gave her away. There was real concern for him hiding just beneath the surface.

Pursing his lips into a thin smile, Giles delivered an equally insensitive response. "It's reassuring to know that although Dawn is presently in the hands of the enemy, Buffy is lost to us, and mankind is most assuredly headed for early extinction, that your self-absorbed interests remain unfailingly intact."

Anya brightened a little, knowing he'd heard the words she hadn't said. "'Brutally honest,'" she paraphrased happily. "As always."

Reaching out his free hand, Giles encouraged her closer. She stepped to his side without hesitation, and he slipped his arm around her shoulders, wordlessly surrendering to the support she offered earlier.

Pleased, her hand clutched a fistful of his ruined sweater to help guide him on unsteady legs. As they took a few lumbering steps away from the car, a faint metallic tapping sound stopped them again. Turning, they looked toward the rear of the vehicle, having completely forgotten.

"Oy!" came a muffled voice from within. "Are we there yet?"

* * * * *

Upstairs, in Xander's bathroom, Giles reluctantly admitted that Anya was right. As he regarded his reflection in the vanity mirror above the sink, he realized that he did indeed 'look like hell.' Unshaven, unkempt, and filthy, if he walked into a hospital in this condition, then they would want to keep him for a week.

Attempting to remedy the situation, he struggled to pull off his ruined sweater and t-shirt without causing himself undue pain. Luckily, on that count, when Xander had brought up their few belonging from the trunk of the car, he'd given Giles Ben's looted medical bag. In it was a bottle of prescription strength painkillers that, once fully in his system, would help relieve the agony until he reached the hospital. Until then, however, undressing took a bit of doing, and a lot of grunting in order to prevent himself from crying out . . . or worse, passing out. Eventually, though, Giles dumped both garments in a pile on the floor.

Exhausted and standing naked to the waist, with the exception of the compression bandage around his middle, he washed his face and chest with warm soapy water, and scrubbed the dried blood from beneath his fingernails with a stiff bristle brush. He was toweling dry, feeling halfway human again for his efforts, when someone knocked quietly on the bathroom door. Careful to hide the telling, fresh bloodstain on his bandage with the towel, Giles opened it to reveal Xander, again, this time with Anya at his side.

"Thought you could use a few more things," Xander said, offering clean clothes. He handed over a folded bundle consisting of a soft gray t-shirt and a cream-colored jacket similar in style to Giles' own, which, along with the clothes he'd just discarded, was destined for the trash once he'd reclaimed his wallet and keys.

Anya, playing the cordial hostess, bore a toothbrush still in its wrapper, a comb, an unused deodorant stick, and a disposable razor.

With these, Giles was able to complete the transformation back to something closer to normal . . . if one didn't count the noticeable lean as he favored his injury, the 'old man shuffle' in his gait, or the golf ball-sized bruise purpling on his forehead.

In the dining room, to his surprise, he found the gang putting together an impromptu, hodge-podge breakfast of toast, cereal, and two-day-old Chinese takeout. Despite the urgency of the situation, Giles' appetite recognized the lack of nourishment to come its way in the past twenty-four hours and threatened mutiny if he didn't take time out to join them. After all, an army marched on its stomach, or so the saying went.

Pulling up a chair, Giles looked around at his army; a boy, a witch, and a vengeance demon who was out of the biz. Tara was down for the count, and Spike had already departed on his assigned recon mission to Glory's digs. Their leader was one-step away from being certified for the mental ward, and he, the rock they all leaned on, could barely support himself on his own two feet. What a sad and sorry lot they were.

And yet together, they were strong. Together they had defeated apocalypses, saved the world several times over.

Together.

"Where's Buffy?" Giles asked, suddenly finding reheated Moo Goo Guy Pan as unappetizing as it first sounded at nine-thirty in the morning.

They'd sat her in a chair in the master bedroom, away from the noise and the light, and the rhythm of life. As Giles silently looked in on Buffy from the doorway, his heart gave a heavy heave. She sat in profile to him, her wide, vacant stare still frighteningly devoid of awareness. Every now and then she blinked; an involuntary reaction rather than a sign of her return.

Giving in to his desire to be close, he limped over and dropped to a knee before her. His eyes roamed over every intimately familiar curve and pore of her face.

"Buffy? Love?"

No response.

He caressed her cheek with a tender hand, remembering the way she always melted into his touch, the feather-soft kiss of her lips on his palm.

Still nothing.

Disillusioned, Giles bowed his head.

"You could try kissing her," Xander said from the doorway. When Giles glanced over at him, he shrugged nonchalantly. "Seemed to work pretty well for Prince Charming. You ready to go?"

"This is no fairytale, Xander." Giles pushed to his feet, awkward, grimacing, but unaided. "Nor does this story appear to be headed for a particularly happy ending."

"Willow's cooking up something--"

"Doesn't matter," Giles interrupted bleakly, finally facing the grim truth of the matter. Holding his side, he slowly moved to join Xander. "Wherever she is, whatever fantasy world Buffy has retreated into to escape the horrors of this one, I imagine she's found contentment. The weight of the world has been lifted from her shoulders. There is no pain or death or slaying where she is, just happiness and love, and everything she's ever wanted in life."

"But she has that already with you . . . well, some of it anyway."

"Yes, and the last time she saw me I was flat on my back with one foot in the grave." He paused remembering the moment, the conversation, in stark clarity. "I thought . . . " Giles began to confess. "I believed that I . . . " Guilt stricken, he found himself fighting the crack in his voice. "I took away her hope, Xander. I said goodbye to her . . . right before she told me she was pregnant."

"Oh, man . . . " Catching on, Xander exhaled a long breath. "And then Dawn . . . oh, crap . . . "

"Precisely. Glory took Dawn and Buffy assumes I'm dead." Struggling not to choke on the lump of raw emotion in his throat, Giles couldn't resist one last look back. But Buffy remained motionless, staring blankly into space, living a dream of her own making. "Regardless of what Willow is 'cooking up,' the truth of the matter is that in order for Buffy to come back to us, she has to want to leave the perfect life she's imagined for herself. Given that we're facing the end of the world and Buffy believes she's already lost everything, where do you think she'd prefer to spend her final hours?"

* * * * *

Sitting at her makeup table in the bedroom, Buffy rubbed some body moisturizer onto her hands and arms. It smelled of jasmine, and instantly brought a pleasant childhood memory to mind, of a time before her calling, and the big old tree in the backyard of their LA house that scented her childhood dreams. She loved picking the delicate white flowers, and could still recall sitting in the backyard the first time her mom showed her how to string a necklace from them, like a Hawaiian lei, her dad tucking one in her hair, behind her ear, like a real hula girl.

That, in turn, reminded her of her parents' upcoming visit.

Although happily married for over a quarter century and still hopelessly in love, Hank and Joyce Summers had never been to England. Spain was the closest they had gotten, on a cruise ship six years ago, before Buffy and Giles had moved to London. Therefore, they'd only ever seen their grandson in photographs and talked briefly with him on the telephone. Buffy missed them terribly, and was really looking forward to the two weeks they planned to be there . . . although she still wished they would reconsider their decision to stay at a nearby motel. Last week, on the phone when finalizing arrangements, she'd broached the subject. Her mom secretly confessed it was her dad's decision and to let it go. Hank never had come to terms with his eldest daughter being married to a man his age, and while he and Giles were cordial to each other on those rare social occasions, living under the same roof for two weeks ran the risk of damaging an already fragile relationship.

Movement caught her eye. Buffy looked up via the vanity mirror to see Giles enter their bedroom and quietly close the door behind him.

"That was quick," she said, rubbing lotion on her left elbow and forearm.

Still looking decidedly nummy, with his shirtsleeves half-rolled to his elbows and his tie rakishly undone, Giles crossed to sit with her. Positioning his body behind hers on the bench seat, he drew her against him for an intimate embrace. Meeting her gaze in the mirror, he smiled contentedly over her shoulder.

"'Sleeping Beauty,'" he murmured of the reading material picked for CJ's obligatory bedtime story. "Does it every time."

"And Dawn and Simon?"

"Their door is closed, so I assume they're also . . . sleeping."

"Right." Buffy squeezed some more jasmine scented lotion onto her hand. "They're young, they're in love, and they just got engaged. Of course they're . . . sleeping."

"I'd really rather not think about them," Giles admitted, dropping a gentle kiss onto her bare back, just to the right of the strap of her silky white chemise. "Not when you smell so delightful."

Inspired, his hands left their clasped position under her ribcage and rose to her arms. Fingers entwining with hers, he gently took over the task of applying the lotion to her skin. Slow and steady, up and down, for several minutes his hands moved with hers in a creamy massage of sensuous jasmine.

Resting her head back against his chest, Buffy delighted in the sensations stirring within her as he led her down a familiar path. Ever the conscientious parent, she managed to say, "We should lock the door."

Giles sowed a row of hot little kisses across the back of her shoulder to the nape of her neck. "Already did." At the same time, his lotion covered hands moved from her arms to her legs, stroking the tops of her thighs and slipping lightly up under the short hem of her nightie.

Buffy shivered then giggled. "Pretty sure of your chances, aren't you . . . "

"Well, it is my birthday."

"You're right, it is," she agreed in all seriousness. "And I have a special surprise for you."

Groaning wantonly, he stood, and suddenly she found herself lifted into his arms. He took her to their bed and laid her gently on the covers, following her down to kiss her with passionate abandon.

She smiled when his lips left hers in favor of a tender assault on her throat. "Whoa, hang on there, tiger."

He growled ravenously against her skin in response.

"I have to tell you something first."

"Then please do," Giles said shamelessly, "so we may resume with some deluxe snog-plus."

She let out a startled gasp at the location of his unseen hand. "I'm serious! This is important."

His playful adoration immediately ceased. Resting on his elbows, he looked down at her. "Then you have my full and undivided attention."

Hands finding a place at the back of his neck, her nerves comforted by the feel of his lower body fitting snuggly against hers, Buffy looked up into Giles' loving eyes. "Um . . . last time I beat around the bush so much that it got harder and harder to say. So I'm just gonna cut to the chase, okay?"

Smiling, Giles stole a kiss to the tip of her nose. "Okay."

"I'm late."

His expression collapsed. "What?" He may have asked for clarification, but the astonishment that materialized on his face said he understood all too well.

"A few weeks late," Buffy confirmed. "So today I tried one--well, three, actually--of those home test thingies and . . . " She smiled; this was so much easier the second time around. "Sweetie, I'm pregnant. Again."

Giles couldn't contain his delight. It came over his face as an expression of pure elation. "Are you sure?"

"297% sure."

"Buffy, that's wonderful!" He kissed her again, this time in joyous celebration. Drawing back, he paused wearing an unexpected frown. "But darling, you hated being pregnant. You said--"

"But I love being a mom. I'm actually kinda good at it. And," she reasoned, "CJ will be four by the time she's born. That's a good age gap, so the timing's right."

"She?"

Buffy tightened her embrace, pulling him closer. "Yeah. I think, this time, I'd like a girl."

"A daughter," Giles repeated, awed. He nodded in agreement, deliriously happily.

"Although another boy would--y'know--be okay, too."

"Absolutely."

"But a little girl--"

"--would make my life complete."

Somehow, Giles always seemed to know the right time to say the right things. Never had she felt so loved, so happy, so content. Nothing could replace the feeling, not even if she had a thousand lifetimes to live.

They kissed amorously, two people deeply in love, until their rising passion gradually made way for other, less chaste, desires. Clothing fell away, piece by piece, under slow hands and cherishing kisses, until their bodies finally joined together in the moonlight. For the longest time, they danced in a passionate embrace, to a timeless rhythm, until the building crescendo exploded in a symphony of bliss.

Cuddled up in the afterglow, Buffy rested her head on Giles' shoulder, exhausted and satisfied, listening to his thundering heartbeat slow to normal. Part of her knew they should get dressed and unlock the bedroom door in case CJ needed them in the night, but another more selfish part of her just wanted to lay with her lover for a little while longer.

Safe in the warmth of his arms, Buffy watched Giles drift ever deeper into sleep. She yawned sleepily, but before she followed him, she really did need to attend to the locked door. Careful not to wake him, she pushed back the covers on her side of the bed. Released from her embrace, Giles rolled onto his side, his face turned away from her.

"Still fabulous," she confirmed in a whisper.

As she slipped from bed, something caught her eye near the bathroom door. Something moving. A shadowy figure . . . where no moving shadowy figure should have been.

It was adult-sized, which ruled out her son, not that CJ could have gotten into their locked bedroom anyway. In fact, the only other way in or out was the tiny horizontal window in the shower recess in the adjoining en suite, and since they lived on the top floor of a three-story apartment building, that didn't sound too feasible. Unless . . .

Quickly finding Giles' discarded shirt in the pile of clothes on the floor, she buttoned it over her naked form and headed cautiously across the moonlit bedroom, her steps silent on the plush carpeting.

It could be a vampire, although she seriously doubted it. In the three-and-a-bit years they had lived in London, Buffy could count her dealings with the undead on one hand. They didn't bother her, and she didn't go looking for trouble in their territory, either. She'd retired from that job when they left California and the Hellmouth behind, buried the Slayer forever more.

A prowler, then? Or an undead Peeping Tom who, having gotten his jollies watching her and Giles make love, was now in search of a speedy exit?

Riled by the invasion of privacy rather than the possibility of burglary or becoming a midnight snack--or both--Buffy prepared to introduce her uninvited guest to her fist. She may have buried her old Slayer instincts, but that didn't mean she couldn't kick major butt if needed. Shifting into high gear, she moved from the carpet to cold tile, her toes registering the sudden temperature drop, her fists clenched and ready.

"Who's there?" No answer. "I saw you!"

Reaching out, she found and flipped the light switch. Unprepared for the sudden illumination, Buffy blinked at the stinging assault on her retinas. Nor was she prepared for just who she found standing in her English bathroom in the hours after midnight.

Battle stance relaxing, her mouth dropped open in shock. All she could do was stare at the intruder in utter disbelief.

Willow Rosenberg gave her a friendly smile and a cheery wave, and tried not to look too embarrassed. "Hi, Buffy."

* * * * *

"Word of advice, Mr. Giles. Next time your phone rings and you run to answer it," the ER doctor on shift--a Dr. T. Leyland--said, although his eyes never left the clipboard on which he was making some notations, "put down all sharp objects you may be holding first."

"Yes, doctor," Giles said with the overdone patience of someone who clearly wanted to be elsewhere.

"Although your friend--what did say he did for a living?"

"A cobbler."

The ER doctor nodded absently. "He did a first class job on your stitches."

Giles smiled thinly, and wisely let the topic slide. He couldn't tell them the truth, any more than he could use the old standby that he'd been mugged in the park. Both would involve the police and initiate an investigation, taking time he didn't have . . . not to mention flag him for possible psychiatric evaluation. So he'd made up some inane prattle about tripping and impaling himself on a kitchen knife, then being stitched up by a visiting 'friend' with a background in shoe repair. It was an even more farfetched explanation than Buffy's recount of the time her mother blamed a vampire bite on a run in with a barbeque fork. They'd believed Joyce then, and, remarkably, they believed him now.

Which didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in the Sunnydale medical profession.

As such, Giles was well past being ready to leave. He hated hospitals, and he hated the ER even more. Mostly, he hated having to take time out attend to his personal woes when the lives of others, loved ones, were in far more peril. There was work still to do, be it research or reconnaissance, if they stood any chance of finding Glory before she sacrificed Dawn for her ritual. For the past few hours though, all he'd accomplished was to sit on his arse in a small, sterile, examination room just off the main ER lobby, and watch a steady stream of Weekend Wounded shuffle past the open door in varying degrees of misery.

And worry about Buffy. And Dawn. And the end of the world.

At Giles' request, Xander, who had been more absent than present, suggesting he shared the hospital phobia, had left to 'phone home' for an update on Buffy. That was five minutes ago, just before the doctor attending Giles returned with his final diagnosis.

The good news was they'd re-stitched the sutures he'd pulled, cleaned and re-dressed his wound to hospital specifications, and given him shots for fighting infection and reducing pain. For the past hour or so, they'd dripped a bag of fresh blood through a catheter in the back of his hand, giving him a much needed top-up. The bad new was they wanted to keep him until tomorrow, so they could schedule a CT scan to check for possible damage to his kidney and/or spleen. His counts were all in the normal range, so they didn't expect to find anything amiss. It was simply a precaution.

Upon hearing this, Giles immediately began plotting his escape.

Finally finished with the note taking, Dr. Leyland hugged the clipboard and gave his full attention to his patient. "We have all your insurance details on file, so it'll just take me a few minutes to find an orderly to help you upstairs to a room." He gave a patented 'there's no need to worry, everything will be fine' smile and left the room.

Giles gave the man ninety whole seconds before he made his move, starting by gingerly lowering his feet to the floor. The catheter needle pinched as he pulled it out, and covering the pinprick with a wad of gauze and a length of sticky bandage, left on his table for just that purpose, proved tricky with only one hand. The atrocious purple-colored hospital gown came off without causing him any pain, thanks to the little ties on the sides, although the same could not be said for dragging his borrowed t-shirt on over his head. Taking a break from the simple yet presently taxing exercise of dressing his top half, Giles sat on the edge of the stiff, plastic-lined mattress for a breather.

Dear Lord, he was going to have to suck it up better than this.

Through the open door of his room, he spotted Xander coming back down the hall. It was time to leave, and news of Buffy's condition was just the thing to inspire his momentum.

Sliding his right arm into the sleeve of his jacket, Giles stood again. He immediately felt a pull in his injured side, his hand instinctively going to the area even though it was just the tightness of skin where the new stitches overlapped. He met Xander at the door, and not a moment too soon. A scrubs-wearing orderly had stopped at the nearby nurse's station to confirm the location of his intended pickup. To Giles' indignation, the orderly nodded and headed towards him . . . pushing a wheelchair.

"Can you . . . ?" Giles asked, indicating the jacket he had only managed to don halfway. There was no time to stop and put it on properly; they had to keep moving.

"Sure." Walking beside him, unaware of Giles' pending jailbreak, Xander draped the other side over his shoulder. "There. How you doing?"

"It only hurts when I answer pointless questions," Giles quipped, shuffling parallel to the green EXIT sign above the double glass doors on the other side of the busy ER. As tempting as it was to make a beeline directly across the waiting room, there was no guarantee the small crowd of injured adults and wailing children would successfully mask his escape. So he decided to play it safe and skirt the area to the adjoining corridor, staying close to the wall. "How's Buffy?"

"Willow's on it. Or . . . in it." Xander reported. "She's working some spell, trying to reach Buffy psychically."

Stopping by a water fountain, Giles looked at him for confirmation, both horrified and impressed. "She's gone into Buffy's mind?"

The amount of things that could go wrong with that was staggering, the results of which could leave both Buffy and Willow mentally impaired for the rest of their lives. But it was better than any idea he had come up with, or, frankly, was likely to come up with in the near future. It was Buffy's only hope.

'Mankind's only hope,' Giles amended silently, for without the Slayer they were all most assuredly doomed.

"Pretty trippy stuff," Xander agreed, failing to see the danger.

"It's extraordinarily advanced." A glance behind confirmed the confused orderly coming back out of his vacated examination room, no doubt wondering where the pickup patient was. Head down to avoid eye contact, Giles continued shuffling forward, his determination dragging Xander along beside him. "I was thinking," he said, partly to distract Xander from the brewing hubbub, and partly because the Watcher in him was still looking for a loophole, something to give them an edge in the upcoming battle, "we should check on Glory's victims while we're here."

Xander fell into step beside him. "The mental ward? I've already been. The vegetable section is closed. Nobody there. It's like they all just got up and walked away."

"Perhaps they didn't like the food," Giles quipped, although just how an entire hospital wing of certified mental patients could get out of their beds and walk out without someone noticing them was something of a mystery. Then again, they were minions of Glorificus, just like those blistery faced, scraggly haired demons she kept around to do her dirty work. No doubt every person in the mental ward was now in her service, whereabouts unknown, doing her bidding.

And if they could escape this dreadful place, then so could he.

Or . . . perhaps not.

At a t-intersection, Giles drew to a reluctant stop, his escape plans momentarily thwarted. Spike stood beside an unattended hallway cart in the adjoining corridor. With one eye still on the mounting hullabaloo behind, Giles watched the vampire pick rather fastidiously over a selection of blood bags, then promptly pocket one.

Wonderful. And here he was trying to avoid attention.

Behind, commotion over the 'missing patient' intensified to incorporate a nurse in the search. Xander was just glancing over his shoulder and about to comment, when, thankfully, Spike approached them.

"Checked out Glory's flat," Spike said of his pre-assigned recon mission. "Looks like the Great One has scampered."

On top of everything, it wasn't the news Giles wanted to hear. "Gone to perform her ritual with Dawn," he said in disappointment and frustration, "and leaving us entirely clueless."

"Not entirely," Spike said cryptically. "I know this bloke. Well, not so much a bloke as a demon. But still, bookish. All tuned in to the nastier corners of this, our magick world." He pulled out a cigarette as he spoke, and, putting it in his mouth, began patting his pockets in search of his lighter. "It's a bit of a last resort really, but still, we might persuade him to suss out Glory's game plan."

To Giles' distress, Spike lit his cigarette in plain sight of a NO SMOKING sign on the hallway wall, a blatant violation that was sure to draw the attention of staff and security alike. Not to mention the possibility of setting off the smoke detectors.

"Sound worthy?" Spike asked, unabashedly blowing out a lungful of smoke towards said smoke detectors.

Giles nodded, both in agreement to Spike's plan and in resignation of his ever-likely hospital stay.

"Paging Dr. Leyland to the ER. Dr. Leyland to the ER."

"Hey," Xander began, "isn't that--?"

"Off we go then," Spike said with a nod at Xander. "Meet back at the shop?"

"Whoa, whoa, wait." Xander turned to Giles, concerned. "You gonna be okay? Need me to drop you home?"

Giles shook his head. "I'll be fine," he repeated for the umpteenth time that day.

'Besides,' he thought determinedly, 'I'm not going home.'

They parted company, Xander and Spike heading down the right hand juncture, following the twist and turn of multiple corridors and elevators towards the public parking lot, while Giles went left toward the center of the crowd-filled ER. It seemed the lesser of two evils, since he doubted he had enough steam to make the long journey to the parking lot unaided, and asking Spike for help was akin to committing a mortal sin. The street, although the riskier proposition to reach unseen, was much much closer.

The double glass doors leading to the main ambulance dock and Emergency Room entrance were just ahead. Giles froze as, from the corner of his eye, he spotted Dr. Leyland arrive on the scene. The orderly and duty nurse immediately seized his attention as they simultaneously attempted to explain the situation. As chance would have it, all three then turned and headed for the vacated examination room.

Seeing his chance, Giles hoofed it as fast as his battered body would allow, which basically meant his pace increased marginally from shuffle to shamble, as he headed directly across the waiting area for the exit. Avoiding a crying child in a grass-stained soccer jersey, a quietly-in-pain adult holding his arm, and a leather-clad teenager who appeared to have come out second best to a motorcycle, Giles kept right on going. The automatic door slid obediently open as he approached, and without further hindrance, he stepped out into the Sunday sunshine.

Free.

* * * * *

"What are you doing here?" Buffy asked indignantly, her voice pitched low so as not to wake her husband sleeping in the next room. "How are you doing here?"

"'What' is easy," Willow said breezily. "The 'how' is a little bit more complicated."

Buffy crossed her arms. "I have time."

"Oh . . . okay . . . well . . . I lit some scented candles, focused my hocus pocus, and here I am." When Buffy looked less than satisfied with her seriously uncomplicated explanation, Willow added, "You smell that?"

"Smell what?"

"Jasmine. That's how I connected with you. Smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers there is."

Doubtful, Buffy sniffed anyway. To her surprise, Willow was right; there was still a slight hint of jasmine in the air.

"Although," Willow confessed, stepping to the bathroom door and looking back across the moonlit room to where Giles slept soundly, bedclothes pulled to his waist, his bare back to them, "I kinda thought this was gonna be a childhood memory, since that's where you told me your jasmine tree was. You know, some place safe."

"Safe?" Buffy parroted. Following Willow's lead, she allowed her angry gaze to soften as she looked across at the man she loved, the man who had given her a home, a child, and a normal life. "There is no safer place for me than in Giles' arms."

"Yeah, silly me." Willow blushed. "Should have thought of that before I . . . before you . . . "

Buffy's indignation returned. "Were you watching us?"

"Of course not! Not on purpose anyway. You know I don't feel that way about either of you." Willow hesitated then added, "Although I did see more of Giles tonight than I ever wanted to . . . not that I ever--y'know--wanted to . . . "

Furious, Buffy opened her mouth for a caustic reply about privacy, when a child's sleepy voice stopped her.

"Mum-my . . . "

Willow, hearing it too, turned a questioning look on the baby monitor sitting on the nightstand on the vacated side of the bed. Without a word, Buffy took a silken, powder blue robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door and donned it over Giles' shirt. She was cinching it closed when the child called again, this time a little louder, and a little more impatient.

Giles stirred at the sound of his son calling. He looked over his shoulder. "Buffy?" he asked blearily, realizing she had already risen from their bed.

She quickly crossed back to him, returning him to the land of slumber with the caress of her hand on his bare back. "I'll check," she promised. "Go back to sleep, sweetie."

With a contended murmur, Giles did just that. Holding a finger to her lips to indicate for Willow to be quiet, Buffy led the way to the bedroom door.

Willow followed her down the dark hall, lit only by moonlight from a tiny skylight in the vaulted ceiling, to another closed door. Hand resting on the door handle, Buffy motioned for Willow to wait outside, then quietly opened it and went in. She went straight to her son's bedside, sitting on the edge of the mattress and taking him in her arms.

"Shhh, honey, it's okay." Smoothing back his blond hair, she delivered a loving kiss to his temple. "Bad dream?"

CJ nodded miserably, and Buffy automatically began to rock him.

"Wow, Buffy . . . " Willow said in awe, venturing forward despite Buffy's request, the biggest smile on her face. "Is he yours?"

Buffy shot her friend an alarmed look. "You don't remember my son? Will, you're his godmother!"

Willow grinned happily. "I am? Cool!" She moved to the foot of CJ's bed, and waved off Buffy's warning look. "Don't worry, he can't see me. No one can, except you." She smiled giddily, suddenly a doting aunt. "A boy, huh? He looks just like you and Giles." Then came the frown. "But . . . you only told me, yesterday, that you were pregnant. Just how far in the future are we?"

"Excuse me?" Buffy asked, confused. She'd told no one she was pregnant again, least of all Willow, who she hadn't seen or spoken to in ages. She still remembered the botched job she'd made of it the first time, when everyone and his dog heard the joyous news before Giles. That wasn't happening this time around. This time it was all by the book. "And why can't anyone else see you?"

Buffy suddenly feared her initial assumption may have been correct. Had Willow been turned? Or worse? She instinctively cradled her son closer.

But if there was a threat, Willow wasn't making it. She was too busy nosing about CJ's bedroom in search of the answer to her question. She regarded the model fighter airplane hanging from the ceiling and the scuffed soccer ball in the corner, but her eyes lit up at the sight of one item sitting on the dresser. "Mr. Gordo!"

"Miss Snuggles," Buffy corrected.

"Mummy?"

"Um, you wanna sleep with Miss Snuggles?" she asked, covering, reaching across for the fuzzy soft toy. "For company?"

CJ nodded, clutching the cuddly pink pig under his chin.

"Okay," Willow conceded, "case of mistaken identity." Her head tilted a little as she scrutinized the boy nestled so protectively against Buffy's breast. "How old is he anyway? Three? Four?"

Buffy remain quiet, letting Willow guess. No sense in letting her son think she was turning into a loony tune, talking to her imaginary friend.

Then again, wasn't that exactly what she was doing?

"Fursty, Mummy . . . "

"All right, honey, I'll get you some water," Buffy said, standing, "but then it's right back to sleep again, okay?"

She gave him a loving smile as she settled him back on his pillow, and pulled the covers up over him and Miss Snuggles. Chances were good that he'd be sound asleep before she returned with his drink. Counting on this, she leaned down to kiss his forehead, then left the room, again motioning Willow to follow.

* * * * *

Twenty minutes later, Giles paid a cab driver at the curb, unlocked the front door of the Magic Box, and gratefully stepped inside. Being Sunday afternoon, the cul de sac end of Maple Court lacked even the most dedicated occult window shopper. The Espresso Pump, next door, was a popular hang out for teens and young adults, but it really didn't attract a good clientele until early evening, when the movie theatre opened, so Giles simply put the 'CLOSED/Shop Hours' sign on the door and left it unlocked for Xander and Spike's inevitable return. First on his To Do list was to call Anya.

"I'm at the shop, if you need to contact me," he explained of his present whereabouts. Having already informed her of his condition, slightly fabricated though the diagnosis was, and of her boyfriend's new quest, the conversation came to a natural conclusion. Giles hesitated a moment, then added, "How's Buffy?" It had only been half an hour since Xander called home for an update, and he expected no change. Still . . .

"Same, I guess," Anya confirmed. "The bedroom door is still closed. No sound coming from within, which I suppose is a good thing. Didn't Xander tell you?"

"Will you keep me informed of any progress?"

"I'll have Buffy call you as soon as she can," Anya returned confidently.

They hung up by mutual accord.

The shop suddenly seemed too quiet, devoid of its usual throng of customers and the ever-present Scooby gang researching at the tarot table. Giles doubted he could concentrate in all this unnatural silence. The alternative was to sit and mope about Buffy and fret over Dawn, so instead he got down to the motley business of saving the world.

As he put the jug on for tea, he mentally mapped out his afternoon. Immersion in more probably-fruitless research was needed until Xander and Spike showed up, for no other reason than to steer this thoughts from the real direction they wanted to go. Hopefully, the pair would glean something useful, or potentially useful, from Spike's 'bookish' demon friend. At this point, any small snippet of information would be welcomed.

Taking 'The Book of Tarnis' from its hiding place in a locked drawer, he carried it and his tea to the tarot table. Giles sat, determined to read through the monk's autobiography one last time. The tight, dense, Gothic script wasn't particularly easy on the eyes, or inductive to prolonged hours of productive study. There was always a chance he'd gotten a translation wrong--one word that changed the entire meaning of a sentence. Indeed, there were several words he'd had to make educated guesses about due to bookworm holes in the vellum.

In passages pertaining to The Key, Tarnis continuously wrote about its importance and its power, and the need for secreting it from the world, information that, sadly, lacked the specifics Giles was after. Nowhere in the entire volume was there anything concrete about The Key's true purpose. Indeed, he'd gleamed more in the car, heading back to Sunnydale, than he had from his many tedious hours of study, when the others informed him of what they'd learned while he'd been unconscious. In Buffy's last conversation with the captured Byzantium general, the knight revealed Glory's agenda, in which she planned to open some sort of dimensional doorway and return to her own realm. While this somewhat benevolent sounding master plan didn't appear to threaten mankind's early extinction, the general concluded otherwise, with a dire tale of dimensional barriers failing, unleashing all manner of hell on Earth.

This was, without a doubt, why the monks considered The Key's sentient energies so dangerous, but it still wasn't what Giles was looking for. Not any more. The monks feared the consequences of using The Key in its raw energy state. With The Key now in human form, critical factors had changed. Unraveling precise details of the transformation process became his new goal, for only armed with such knowledge did he have any hope of discovering an exploitable weakness in Glory's attempts to use it.

Use Dawn.

Pausing, he allowed himself a sympathetic thought for the teen, out there, somewhere, frightened and alone, desperately hoping for him or Buffy to find and rescue her. He wondered if she'd been treated well, or privy to a stern hand. A pang of something undeniably paternal drove him back to the manuscript in dogged resolve.

He flipped to a section alluding to the Dagon Monks' more mystical talents, chiefly their practiced ability to transform energy and bend reality. Tarnis developed this talent at a young age, but by the time of his death seventy-four years later, he had grown into a master sorcerer, well versed in the mystical and the magickal, of transcendental feats of shaping space, matter, and energy. Had he chosen to walk a dark path, he would have made a formidable foe.

Throughout the centuries, the knowledge was passed from member to new member of the monastic order, ensuring Tarnis' secrets survived generation after generation. Indeed, progress meant his techniques were improved upon rather than forgotten, until the present day Monks of Dagon finally used their ancient teachings to sculpt The Key into Dawn.

Again, with details of this process were excluded, and Giles was beginning to think it was a deliberate omission . . . almost as if there was a companion volume, somewhere, that held all the 'real' information.

Dear Lord, he just needed one tiny break. Just one. For Dawn's sake.

A twinge in his injured side refocused his attention on the here and now. Stiff and sore, he pushed to his feet with a more immediate goal in mind; to find a bottle of painkillers, prescribed after a mugging in the back alley, a few months ago, left him nursing several cracked ribs and a Godzilla-sized headache. Now, where did he put them?

Giles rummaged through a utility cupboard behind the cash register in search of his prize. Successful, he returned to his tea making area with the brown plastic bottle in hand. He'd just swallowed two with a mouthful of cold tea, when the tinkle of the bell above the front door alerted him to someone entering the shop.

Anxious, he looked up, hoping Xander and Spike had been successful in their acquisition of knowledge.

But it wasn't Xander and Spike.

Giles frowned, even though he recognized them man coming down the shop's mid-point steps toward him. "Good Lord . . . what are you doing here, Carl?"

Carlton Fisk had been on the Sunnydale High faculty with Giles. They'd become good friends during their tenure, but had lost touch after the school was destroyed. They'd reunited just a few months ago, courtesy of an accidental meeting in the Food Court at the Sunnydale Mall. Carlton, a baseball fan but no relation to his famous Red Sox namesake, had married his student lover, a delightful young lady who was only a year older than Buffy. They already had two children together, a three-year-old boy and a new infant daughter, and were prime examples of the 'normal life' Buffy and Giles so desperately wanted, but believed would never be theirs.

"You're a hard man to find," Carlton chided, stopping at the foot of the steps. A plastic shopping bag bearing the logo from a local grocery chain dangled from one hand. The other, he offered for a handshake.

Giles greeted him as expected. "I'm sorry?"

"I've been calling your place for a month now," Carl explained. "Got your answering machine, over and over. Last night, when the thing hung up on me without letting me leave another message, Angie said I should try going 'round there . . . make sure you were still alive." He smiled. "According to Mrs. Menendez, who, by the way, is the very definition of a 'nosy neighbor,' you haven't been home in months. She thinks you've been deported. Or dead. Hell, I haven't seen or heard a word from you since Buffy's mother's funeral, so for all I knew, she was right."

Giles smiled thinly. "My apologies. I moved in with Buffy and Dawn after Joyce passed away, over on Revello Drive. And I've simply been . . . busy."

Carlton eyed the old books spread open on the tarot table. "As I can see." He grew a tad anxious. "Not more evil doppelganger robots built by my degenerate son I hope?" he asked, referring to Warren Mears' first robotic creation that bore an uncanny resemblance to Angie Fisk. Warren's second robot, commissioned by Spike as a sex toy, was an exact replica of Buffy. Both automatons now resided in the basement of the Magic Box, their computer circuitry disabled by Willow.

"Nothing so dramatic," Giles said, carefully keeping a nonchalant smile in place. He could warn the man that the end of the world was fairly nigh, to collect his family and head for the proverbial hills, but all that would accomplish in the overall big picture would be to inspire panic, fear, and confusion. If Glory succeeded in her plans, no place would be safe from the chaos she unleashed . . . not even the hills.

His injury reminded him that he needed to sit again. Grimacing, Giles automatically put his hand on his wound and motioned for the other man to take a seat at the tarot table with him.

Carlton put the plastic bag he carried on the lit tabletop as he sat. "What happened to you?" he asked, noting the somewhat tentative way Giles moved. "Buffy kick you out of bed? Literally?" He grinned knowingly. "Got quite a kick, your girl."

"That's a story for another time."

"Speaking of, how is Buffy?" He gestured around the empty shop. "And if this is your secret to avoiding the chores and yard work the rest of us henpecked husbands get to spend our Sundays doing, then I'm opening a downtown business, too."

"She's fine," Giles lied. Whether it was guilt from the ease with which he said it, or the simple fact that he was truly envious of his friend's sublimely normal lifestyle, Giles surprised himself by adding, "Buffy's pregnant."

"Well, congrats, dad!"

"Believe me, it wasn't something we planned."

"Never is." Leaning across, Carlton slapped his arm in a friendly gesture. "Seems you really have been busy, you randy old goat. You're gonna love fatherhood."

Giles grinned, unexpectedly giddy with the thought of being a new dad. Until now, he hadn't really allowed the news to sink in, let alone express to anyone the utter joy with which it filled him. How could he? When Buffy . . .

He reined the emotion back in, half of his heart still broken. There would be time to celebrate later. Just the two of them. If the world didn't end in the meantime.

"So what brings you here?" Giles asked again, deftly changing the subject.

"Well, apart from wanting to know if you were still breathing," Carlton said, pushing the bag towards Giles, "Mrs. Menendez wanted me to give you this. If you're lucky, it won't be a month-old Paella."

With a curious frown, Giles pulled the item from the grocery store bag. Inside was a rectangular cardboard box. The handwritten label was addressed to him at his old apartment on Oakpark Street, block letters in black marker pen, with no 'Sender' details, on any side, that he could find.

"That's odd," he said, looking for a postmark but not finding one. "I had my mail redirected to Revello Drive. Nothing should have been delivered to the flat."

"Mrs. Menendez said it came by private courier. She had to sign for it." Carlton shrugged. "She also said she's had it for a while, because she didn't know how or where to find you. Apparently, I'm the first person she's seen drop by your place, so she handed off responsibility to me. Since I was just as in the dark, I figured my best bet was the shop."

"How extraordinary," Giles said of his package. He was pushing painfully to his feet, when Carlton stopped him.

"Let me. What do you need?"

Gratefully settling again, he nodded towards the sales counter. "Shelf under the cash register. There's a pair of scissors . . . or a knife, I believe."

After Carlton had retrieved a retractable blade box cutter, Giles set to work opening his mystery package. Clearing away some Styrofoam™ peanuts inside, he picked up a folded note that rested on top of what was obviously a well-packed book.

'Rupert,

'Our people recently unearthed this in a monastery in the Czech Republic. The building had recently been destroyed and was scheduled for demolition. Our research department has deemed it to be an exemplar manuscript, its inclusive use of Latin pre-dating Slavic languages of the area and period. As per my promise to your charming young wife, I am sending you this new information as it becomes available to us.

'Regards,

'Quentin'


"What's an 'exemplar manuscript,'" Carlton asked, reading over his shoulder.

"Oh dear Lord . . . " A jolt of adrenaline shot through Giles. Could this be . . . ? His hands trembled as he reached into the packing material for the book in question. "It's the original manuscript from which all copies of a book were hand inscribed, until the invention of the printing press. The master text, if you will." He lifted out the large old tome, placing it on the tarot table with all the reverence it deserved. This was a very old, and very valuable, one of a kind, book.

Moreover, it may very well prove to be the lucky break he needed.

Flipping off the brass bindings, he opened the cracked leather cover to reveal a wonderfully lush, fully illuminated medieval manuscript, complete with fancy gilding, multi-colored marginalia, and rubric headings. It was scripted in 'Carolingian Minuscule,' a lower-case cursive developed in the scriptoria of the Carolingian dynasty, which most scholars, including Giles, found far easier to read.

"'The Book of Tarnis,'" Giles intoned, trying not to get his hopes up. But it was hard not to, since this was clearly the original, perhaps even penned by Tarnis himself, complete with what appeared, at first glance, to be quires of prayers sewn in the back.

Carlton found his seat again. "Okay, you're talking to a layman here, buddy, but if this is the original and that's your copy," he said, pointing to the smaller book already open on the table, "then how come they look so different? I mean, the size for starters . . . and yours doesn't have any pretty pictures. Isn't a copy meant to be 'a copy'?"

"Usually, yes. Unless . . . "

Giles flipped to mid-point in the new tome, then spent a moment finding the corresponding place in his version that the Council had personally delivered several months prior. Quentin Travers and his delegation had attempted to hold this book hostage until Watcher and Slayer complied with their demands, and even threatened Giles with deportation. In an act of sheer defiance, Buffy had proposed marriage to him, and they'd tied the knot in the County Clerk's office that same afternoon. Then she'd given Travers her demands, and the defeated delegation had returned to England with their collective tail between their legs, grudgingly pledging help from afar.

And about bloody time they upheld that promise. It wasn't as if the end of the world didn't directly affect them too.

A quick comparison of several paragraphs confirmed the texts of the two books varied dramatically.

"This is a sort of . . . missal," Giles announced of his smaller, more compact, volume. Off Carlton's shrug, he explained. "A service book, if you will, most likely intended for the junior monks, containing the necessary text for their daily study and recitation."

"You mean kind of like a high school textbook. The younger ones learned the basics from the shorter, 'Cliffs Notes' version, rather than from the longwinded, college-level books of their elders."

"Precisely."

Giles sat perfectly still as the implications sank in. No wonder 'The Book of Tarnis' had been of so little help.

All this time, he'd been researching the abridged edition!

* * * * *

In the hall bathroom, under the muted glow of a tiny nightlight, Buffy half-filled the yellow plastic 'Wiggles' cup CJ used while brushing his teeth under the cold water faucet.

"How come no one can see you?" she quietly asked, glancing at Willow's shadowy figure standing in the bathroom doorway, via the mirror above the sink.

At least she had a reflection, which knocked two of Buffy's fears off the top of her list. Willow wasn't a vampire. Therefore, she wasn't dead--or a ghost--either. She frowned and turned, 'Wiggles' cup held chest height, hip resting against the cream-colored porcelain.

"Pregnancy hormones," Buffy announced in triumph, answering her own question. "You're a figment of my imagination."

"Um, no," Willow said carefully, "I'm not the thing you're imagining here." Her expression turned hopeful. "You remember being pregnant?"

Buffy grinned in honest delight, her hand resting instinctively on her lower belly. "I am pregnant. Again."

"Buffy that's . . . !" Willow began happily, caught in the moment. Then she shook her head as reality took hold. "Wait. Yes, you are . . . but it's the first time. You only told me yesterday, when you and Dawnie came for a picnic lunch with me and Tara at school. Don't you remember?"

"No."

Yesterday, she'd taken CJ shopping in the city. She'd lunched with her husband in a corner restaurant near where he worked. She'd bought her son a new winter pullover, a size too big so it would still fit him next year.

"The Winnebago?" Willow prompted, stepping forward into the tiny light. "The gas station? The Knights of Hack and Slash?"

Something tweaked in the back of Buffy's mind, but she fought to deny it conscious thought. "No."

Giles had ordered steak and kidney pie with chips for lunch, then covered everything with tomato sauce. She'd fondly reminisced about French fries and ketchup, and eaten a green salad.

"Glory has Dawn."

The 'Wiggles' cup slipped from Buffy's hand, clattering to the tile and sloshing cold water over her toes. Aware that she'd started to breathe in short pants, and her pulse had begun to race, she somehow managed to squeeze out an answer. "No."

Dawn was asleep in the other room. Cuddled up with her fiancé. A model student, she attended university here in England.

And yet . . .

Focusing, Buffy dropped to her knees, grabbing the nearest bath towel to sop up the mess she'd made on the floor.

Willow squatted with her. "Buffy, you have to remember something!"

She shot upright again, the abrupt movement taking a stunned Willow with her. "What is it you want?" she asked, suddenly feeling threatened but for a reason she couldn't define. "Why are you here? Doing this?"

Again, a sliver of something tried to slip to the front of her thoughts, but Buffy resolutely forced it back inside its mental cage. Throwing the wet towel and the plastic cup into the sink, she fought off tears that inexplicably wanted to come, and turned to clutch the basin for support.

"Because we need you," Willow pleaded.

"No," Buffy said in flat denial. She raised her left hand to wipe away a stray tear, noting the way it shook with a powerful emotion stirred from deep within a place she still refused to acknowledge. She stared at her wedding ring, determinedly sucking up her emotions, and slamming shut all the doors trying to open. "This is where I belong now. With my husband, my son, and my normal life. I've earned it."

"Buffy--"

"Get out of my head." She swung to face Willow, losing control, and repeated the demand in a rising tone of hysteria. "Get out. Get out! GET OUT!"

* * * * *

Willow started as 'reality' slipped a cog. In the blink of an eye, she found herself ousted from Buffy's current thought of her perfect normal life in England, and dumped right in the middle of a past and less pleasant memory.

Sand and cacti surrounded her, the five-foot-high spire of burning timber before her sending a plume of smoke high into the night sky. Heat licked at her face, while the chill of the desert at night nuzzled against her back. She looked to her right and saw Buffy, bundled in a winter coat, sitting expectantly on a rock.

Movement on the other side of the bonfire caught Willow's attention, and she anxiously peered through the flames at whatever Buffy was staring at as well.

The dark skinned girl moved slowly, crouched like a feral cat, her primitive clothing and war-painted face completing the picture of a predator on the prowl.

"Hey . . . I know you," Willow said. "You're the first original Slayer who tried killing us all in our dreams." She quickly realized neither could see nor hear her. This time, she was simply watching a memory unfold rather than participating in it. "How've you been?" she asked regardless.

"Death is your gift," the First Slayer told Buffy.

Buffy frowned. "Death is my gift?"

Willow didn't understand either. "Wait. Death is her what?"

"Death is your gift," the First Slayer repeated . . .

. . . and the picture hiccupped again. This time, Willow stood in the mobile bedroom in the back of the beat up Winnebago, as it hurtled down a dusty desert road at a blistering crawl. An invisible spectator again, she looked at Buffy and Giles, sitting together on the bed, talking quietly.

"Oh, I know this too. This was yesterday, before the crash." Willow smiled happily. "I'm so glad you guys found time to make up."

"I've been giving that some thought, too," Giles said. "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 fondly.

So did Willow.

"I was referring more to a habit, a tradition, a way of life," he explained. "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.

Buffy's expression turned hopeful. "You really think so?" she asked, sounding 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 again. "I believe it might be."

"A normal life," Buffy repeated, on the verge of happy tears. Sniffing them back, she turned a watery smile on him. "With a house with a white picket fence, and 2.3 kids in the yard?"

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

Again feeling like an intruder, Willow diverted her gaze as they kissed . . .

. . . and once more found herself standing in Buffy's London bathroom of the future.

Still by the sink, Buffy clasped two fistfuls of her hair, desperately trying to stop any more memory fragments from spilling forth.

"Buffy?" Willow asked, concerned. "You okay?"

Buffy nodded in recognition of her voice. At least she was a participant again, rather than just a spectator watching a memory unfold.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy regained control of her thoughts. Letting her hands drop to the sides of her powder blue bathrobe, she looked up with quiet resignation. "I need to show you something."

With that, she pushed past Willow to lead the way out of the bathroom.

* * * * *

Buffy cracked open the door of the master bedroom just far enough to get her head inside. Her gaze singled out Giles. As luck would have it, he still appeared to be sleeping soundly in their bed, although he had turned over in her absence, and now lay with one arm reaching across the empty sheets in search of her.

She motioned for Willow to follow her across to the closet she shared with her husband. Quietly as she could, she slid open the door and moved the hangers with his suits and shirts to one end, revealing a small section of the space below.

"Death is--was--my gift," she intoned softly, kneeling to clear away a dozen pairs of shoes, his and hers.

Curious, Willow stood watching over her shoulder. She frowned. "Hey, isn't that . . . ?"

Grass, in place of the carpet.

A six-foot length of neatly trimmed green grass covered the closet floor, surrounding a slightly larger rectangular mound of turned dirt. At one end of the plot sat a chiseled granite headstone, identical to the one Buffy had placed on her mother's grave.

"Giles was right," Buffy said. Moving aside with the armful of shoes, she allowed Willow to read the name etched in the marker.

'Here lies Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Died 2001'

"Wow, I've heard of people keeping skeletons in their closets," Willow mused grimly, "but this is definitely something new."

"That part of my life if over, Will. The Slayer is dead. I buried her four years ago, after we defeated Glory, and Giles and I moved away from the Hellmouth. I'm now just plain old Buffy the Wife and Mother."

"But that's just the point . . . we haven't defeated Glory." Willow seemed more than a little apprehensive. "And now is not a good time for all this denial!"

Letting her armful of shoes tumble quietly to the floor, Buffy stood and moved across to her dressing table. On it sat three framed photographs; one of her mom and dad, a recent studio shot of her, Giles and CJ, and one of Dawn in her cap and gown, holding her Sunnydale high school diploma. She picked up the middle one--of her, her husband, and son--and stared at it in the moonlit darkness.

"Buffy? Did you hear me? We need you!"

"No." Her thumb gently traced over the image of Giles and CJ. They were blissfully happy together, the three of them, away from all the badness of the Hellmouth. Here, she had everything she wanted, everything she needed. Here, she had the normal life for which she'd always longed. "I can't." She turned to her best friend with a look of determination. "I won't."

* * * * *

The quires sewn in the back of the larger tome sent by private courier, which, at first glance, Giles assumed were simply prayers of worship and devotion, were not, the strictest sense, prayers. One in particular turned out to be something far more valuable. His golden egg, in fact. The prize for which he had been searching. The proverbial jackpot.

There, scattered amongst pages of benevolent benediction, Giles found a treasure trove of incantation rituals practiced by the Monks of Dagon in their more mystical ceremonies, including the elusive transformation sequence of The Key to its human form, words that, until the appearance of Dawn Summers eight months ago, had lain dormant on the lips of mortal men for almost a thousand years.

Alone in the Magic Box after Carlton left--although not before innocently inviting him and Buffy to a barbecue at the Fisk house next weekend--Giles read the incantation several times over, just to be sure. After careful translation and study, he deduced something remarkable, although perhaps not entirely unexpected.

Sitting back in his chair at the tarot table, he pulled off his glasses and let the implications sink in.

Dawn Summers was his biological child. His and Buffy's. She was the daughter of Watcher and Slayer, conceived with the mystical DNA from him and Buffy, and born from a powerful bonding of sentient energy and ancient magicks. Just how and when the Dagon Monks had come by this mystical DNA was another mystery for another time, and one that may never be solved.

It didn't matter. Right now, Giles was too overcome with wonder and joy in knowing that everything he felt for the teen was, indeed, real. All his paternal feelings for the girl were genuine, which was a far happier conclusion than discovering the emotions had been constructed by the monks, as with the many memories that came packaged with Dawn.

Suddenly, the horrific dream he shared with Buffy also made startling sense. Given what he now knew, he was almost certain it was not so much a prophetic glimpse at their deaths by the hand of Glorificus, but rather an informational message intended for Dawn's 'parents.' True, dream events may have suffered a little influencing by his or Buffy's subconscious fears, and true, emerging from the abandoned gas station with an eerily similar wound in his side to such a déjà vu scene of dead Byzantium knights was prophetically unsettling, but the underlying significance still remained. Because the predominant aspect of the dream was . . .

'Blood.

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


"Blood is life," Giles quoted quietly. The Bible was full of references to blood equating life, and the loss of blood equating death, so it made sense to him that the mixing of their blood in their shared dream was intended to symbolize conception.

He was still sitting there, a huge smile, when the bell above shop's front door jingled for a second time that afternoon. Spike and Xander rushed in, the former suffering a slight singing courtesy of the late afternoon sun.

"Got something you should take a look at," Xander announced, jogging down the mid-steps two at a time.

Spike deposited a small, ornate cherrywood box on the tabletop in front of Giles, the exterior of which was also slightly singed.

Donning his glasses, back to business, Giles sat forward with a curious frown. "What is it?"

"Something worth dying for," Spike said grimly. Doing the honors, he lifted the top off the box, allowing Giles to peer inside the black velvet lined box.

From within, Giles carefully withdrew an old and delicate papyrus scroll. He laid it on the tabletop and slowly, carefully, unfurled it.

"Well, well," he remarked of the second ancient and extremely valuable one-of-a-kind texts to come his way in a matter of hours. "Apparently this is my lucky day."

* * * * *

Buffy stared at the framed family photo in her hand for a moment longer, then exchanged it for the one of her parents. They looked-- were--so in love with each other, so happy together. The way it should be. "Mom and Dad are coming to visit us next week," she said idly. She glanced over at Willow, still standing by the open closet and the grave of the past. "They've never been to England before. They've never even met CJ."

Willow shuffled, agitated.

Buffy continued to muse fondly, swapping the photo of her parents for the one of her sister at her high school graduation. She smiled in amusement. "Although Dawn's gonna shock the heck out of them with her big engagement announcement."

"Engagement?" Willow shook her head in frustration, and crossed the bedroom carpet to stand beside her. "Buffy, I know you know, somewhere in there, that none of this is real."

"It is to me."

"That's not the point."

"Then what is?"

"The point is that in order for you to live it up big here in Denial Land, you've abandoned the people who love you--need you--most. Dawn . . . Giles . . . "

His name stuck a chord deep within Buffy, unearthed a buried memory that started to claw to the surface. "Giles . . . "

A groan of pain caused Buffy's anxious gaze to fly to him. Although still in their bed with the covers pulled up to his waist, he was no longer naked from their lovemaking and sleeping contentedly. Now, he was dressed in a filthily cream-colored sweater, with a dinner-plate-sized patch of blood staining the left side. He convulsed in utter agony. Giles was dying, and Buffy was suddenly . . .

. . . back in the abandoned gas station--she and Willow--watching herself stand at his side, holding his hand, as he lay on the hard countertop, saying goodbye. Every word was an effort for him, as he slipped, slowly and painfully, out of her life.

"You need to . . . prepare yourself . . . in the event that I--"

"No," Buffy said in feeble denial, having accepted fate.

"No," Buffy repeated more fiercely, still full of hope. She tried unsuccessfully to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks, swiping 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." Buffy's grip turned desperate. "I don't care about the stupid dream, okay? I'm not gonna let you die!"

The scene flashed in a ball of bright light, and Buffy glanced at Willow, now standing next to her outside the gas station. She forced herself to look at the carnage left in the wake of Glory's departure. An entire troop of Byzantium knights, dozens of men, lay slaughtered on the ground. Just ahead, she watched herself walked among the dead, shell-shocked.

"Buffy . . . " Willow called futilely to the version in front of her. Then she looked at the one standing beside her in a powder blue bathrobe. "Buffy, what are we doing here?"

"This is when it happened," Buffy admitted guiltily.

"When what happened?"

Spike ran past. "The car! Get the keys!"

"Buffy!"

Willow turned at the sound of her own voice, and watched herself and Tara exit the gas station.

"Buffy, we have to find Dawn. We can't let Glory--"

"I'd seen all this before," Buffy explained to Willow. "In a dream."

Willow reached Buffy, who slumped on the ground in a catatonic state. "Buffy, you have to get up! We need you!"

"Buffy, when what happened?"

With effort, Buffy pulled her gaze from the paralyzed image of herself. "This is when I gave up hope."

The admission caused another flash that deposited her and Willow back in the London bedroom of the future. Giles, dressed in his filthy, bloodstained clothes, lay in bed, a puddle of blood gathering on the crisp white sheets beneath him. Eyes closed, brow sweaty and creased, his torment was evident.

Buffy turned to Willow, tears in her eyes. "I couldn't hold onto him, and I couldn't watch him suffer anymore, either. So when Glory took Dawn, when I saw all those dead knights, I just . . . I wanted it to happen. I wanted it to end. I wanted the normal life he promised me, like a normal girl, somewhere without all the pain, so I just--I just . . . I let him go."

"Wait," Willow said, cluing in. "That's why you withdrew from the real world? Because you think--you believe--Giles is dead?"

"I let him go," Buffy repeated in guilt-stricken remorse.

The finality of her words put an end to Giles' suffering, and his agony abruptly ceased. With one last exhalation of breath, he was suddenly still, at peace.

Both regarded his corpse; one of them horrified, the other tearfully acceptant.

"Buffy, Giles is fine," Willow said. Unnerved by the contradictory imagery before her, she refocused on her distraught friend. "Okay, maybe not up for running a marathon 'fine,' but he's far from pushing up the daisies just yet. Xander took him to the hospital, just to be sure."

Buffy's mournful gaze remained fixed on her deceased husband, still in his dirty clothes, watching the blood seep across the sheets to fill her side of the bed.

"He held you . . . in the car . . . he held you all the way back to Sunnydale," Willow reassured her. "And even then he didn't want to let you go. He loves you so much."

"I loved him, too. More than anyone."

"You love him," Willow corrected. "Present tense. And you can still have all this for real, it's not out of the question. Buffy, this . . . it has a name. It's called guilt. It's a feeling and it's important. You've carried the weight of the world on your shoulders since high school, and I know you didn't ask for this, but you do it every day. And so you wanted out for one second." She gestured around. "You wanted this perfectly normal Slayer-less life, with your husband and son, and your sister and your parents . . . because you thought you'd lost everyone who was important to you. But you're wrong. You haven't."

Turning away from the corpse on the bed, Buffy looked at her best friend, grief and remorse still ruling her expression. "I gave up. I got Giles and Dawn killed."

Willow rolled her eyes in frustration. "Hello! Your husband and sister? Not dead yet! But they will be if you stay locked inside here and never come back to us!"

Something finally tweaked in Buffy's eyes, a recollection that overthrew all the despair and self-doubt. The touch of his hand, the whisper of his voice, the joy he gave to her by being part of her life. She wanted it all back. She wanted him.

Behind, on the bed, Giles drew a miraculous breath of life.

Buffy swiveled in anticipation, her mournful expression giving way to a hopeful smile at the sight of his bare chest rising and falling in the moonlight. "He's alive? Really alive?"

"Yes!"

Buffy looked back at Willow, optimism on the rise. "And Dawnie?"

"We're still working on that one," Willow confessed truthfully, "but if you come back, you can help us. We need you, Buffy. Giles needs you, and so does Dawn."

Glancing down, Buffy spread her left hand over her lower abdomen, her wedding ring catching a glint of moonlight. She was pregnant, but for the first time, not the second. "And . . . my son?"

Willow grinned. "The way I see it, in another eight and a half months, you and Giles can welcome him into the real world." With a confident nod, she turned and started to walk toward the adjoining bathroom.

"Wait!" Buffy called. "Where are you going?"

"Where you're needed." Willow stopped and looked at her with a final ultimatum. "Are you coming?"

Buffy blinked as reality crashed in on her like a wave breaking in the surf. Surfacing, she drew a short breath, part anxious, part regretful, and took in her new surroundings. Although the blinds were drawn, the bedroom in Xander's apartment was awash in the glow of the late afternoon sun. Her eyes eagerly sought Giles, whom she felt sure would be waiting to welcome her return, but she and Willow were the only occupants of the room. Her disappointed gaze landed on her friend, sitting across from her on the edge of the bed, as the realizations that her perfect world had been nothing more than a wishful fancy and her husband and sister were still in mortal danger, grounded her in the present.

She was back, but so was all the Slayer baggage and badness that went with her life. As the sorrow and regrets came pouring out, Willow crossed to kneel before the chair in which she sat, and drew her into a comforting hug.

Face in her hands, Buffy wept for the lost dream of the future, her normal life, and the few short hours when the world was truly hers.

* * * * *

Closer inspection of the singed cherrywood box revealed notches to hold two scrolls, suspended side by side, in the center of the velvet lined interior. Inside, however, Giles found only one, and in place of the missing text was something unexpectedly mundane. While one item was a very old and very delicate papyrus scroll, its ancient Greek inscription detailing 'The Ritual of The Key', the other was a rather ordinary, black marbled-covered, composition book that sold for a buck-fifty at any corner drugstore.

The first, Giles treated with the care and respect befitting such an extremely rare and valuable artifact. The second, he handled a little less so, although its contents proved to be just as priceless. Perhaps even more so. Because someone had not only taken great pains to translate the original ancient Greek into modern English, but had also--and from what he could tell, most expertly--interpreted the archaic procedure and updated it, so that instead of using The Key's sentient energy, the ritual could now be performed with the blood of a human girl.

The someone was no doubt Spike's demon friend, which led Giles to conclude that the chap was a key player--no pun intended--in Glory's master plans.

Detaching himself from the earlier happy discovery of Dawn's true origins, much the same way as he had pushed aside desperate concerns for Buffy's prognosis, Giles slipped quickly and easily into clinical Watcher mode.

He read the composition book twice in its entirety. It consisted of just a few handwritten pages, and the procedure wasn't overly complex. Indeed, the necessary steps were set out in such clear and precise order that any halfwit could follow them . . . even one who'd had their brain scrambled by a Hellgod with a voracious appetite for the human mind. The time of the ritual, however, was crucial to its success. Likewise, the location at which it must be preformed was a critical factor, although reference to this locality was excluded, deliberately, in both the original text and the composition book. Clearly, that information was something revealed in the sister, and missing, scroll.

In quiet contemplation, Giles stopped reading and stared into space as his mind processed the vital points. At a certain time, and in a certain place, Glory--and/or her minions--would perform a ritual bloodletting on Dawn, a sacrament culminating with the barriers between dimensional space dissolving into nothing. Countless dimensions, including those of the demon realms, would bleed into each other, thus creating chaos for mankind, and literal hell on earth.

"It's the end of the world," he murmured of the worst case scenario.

"Again?" Xander, sitting quietly to his right, aimlessly passing the time with a 'Fantastic Four' comic book, asked. "How come we never get the happily ever after ending, huh?"

Sitting on the top of the mid-point steps, Spike lifted his head from where it rested in his hands just to supply a droll answer. "This isn't a bloody fairytale, lugnut."

Xander frowned. "Why does everyone keep saying that?"

"'Cause our Sleeping Beauty ain't waking up with a kiss." Spike sought out Giles with a spiteful nod. "Turns out Prince Charming over there is actually a toad. 'Ere, Gramps, maybe I should have go . . . "

Giles smiled tightly in lieu of letting go the scathing comment on the tip of his tongue. As much as it pained him to admit, without Buffy, the fate of mankind had been cast onto the shoulders of the creature he detested most. No sense in rocking that boat, not while they were already in such rough waters.

Of course, he and the Scooby Gang weren't down and out for the count just yet. Their best shot was to prevent the ritual from starting, because, frankly, the alternative--the only way to stop it once it was underway--was an unacceptable choice to Giles, given his recent findings. Luckily, they had one fundamentally important ally on their side. Time. Both the original and the translation corroborated it as being essential to the success of the ritual, therefore, Giles concluded, it was also detrimental to its failure. If they could disrupt the ceremony before it started, even by just a few minutes, then Glory's window of opportunity would close, and they would win.

All well and good on paper, but none of them, with the exception of Spike, possessed superpowers or came even remotely close to being able to stand up to a Hellgod in a fight. Not to mention, they still had no clue where the ritual was to take place. Even going it solo, the five of them had no chance of canvassing all of Sunnydale.

Six, he amended silently, if by some miracle Buffy . . .

The phone rang, startling Giles. Closing his comic book on the tabletop before him, Xander dutifully went to answer the corded telephone on the wall behind the sales counter. Hopeful that it may be some favorable news about Buffy and/or her condition, Giles followed his progress with an anxious eye.

"Hello? Yeah, sure." Xander held out the phone. "For you, G-man. It's your wife."

His breath caught in this throat. "Buffy?"

"Well, unless you got another one stashed away somewhere," Xander said, his grin proclaiming his own relief at Buffy's recovery, "that'd be a 'yeah,' with a big 'woohoo' on the end."

Giles completely forgot his wound in his haste to hear her voice. He pushed to his feet in a rush, grimaced, and belatedly clamped a hand to his side as his feet determinedly shuffled him across the linoleum tiles toward his telephonic link to her.

"Buffy . . . "

"Giles? Oh God . . . "

The sound of her starting to cry caused a stab of pain far worse than anything his injury could throw at him.

"Oh God," she repeated with a sniffle. "I thought you were . . . I thought I'd lost you."

"I know the feeling," he sympathized, sharing her heartfelt relief. Aware of his audience, the proximity of Xander and Spike as they hovered anxiously for news, he doggedly forewent the unmanly tears. He turned his back, trying for an ounce of privacy. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah . . . I just . . . I'll tell you about it sometime. Right now, I just wanna see you, touch you, hold you."

Understanding, Giles bowed his head and closed his eyes. The same desire for physical contact was presently tying him in a knot, too. Hearing her voice was reassuring in its own way, but having her back in his arms was truly the only comfort that would ease the ache in his soul. He wished he could just go to her, like a normal husband, and that they could be alone together for however long they needed, but there were other, more immediate, plans on the evening's menu that simply prevented it.

"Dawn," Buffy whispered on cue.

"Yes," he said in somber agreement to the words left unsaid. Glancing back at Xander and Spike only further cemented him in the reality of their situation, the need, right now, for him to be a Watcher, not a husband. "Buffy, while you were . . . gone, I was fortunate enough to have come by two new sources of information. About Dawn, and about the ritual Glory intends to perform with her."

"I'm guessing . . . bad news?"

"Not entirely," Giles said with a wisp of a smile. Although suddenly, he was unsure how Buffy would react upon discovering her 'sister' was, in fact, her 'daughter,' and that he was Dawn's 'father.' "We should regroup here at the shop," he suggested, casting another glance at Xander and Spike, both still eavesdropping. "I'll explain then."

"Willow and Anya are already waiting to go. I just . . . I couldn't wait that long. I just needed to hear your voice."

"I'm glad you called," he admitted honestly. "See you in a few minutes?"

"Wild horses won't keep me away."

* * * * *

She arrived in the time it took for him to boil water and steep a pot of tea. Turning from the teapot behind the tarot table with a cup in hand, Giles looked up expectantly at the first jingle of the bell above the front door of the Magic Box. "Buffy?"

He'd taken no more than two anxious but laborious steps to greet her, when she fairly jogged down the mid-steps and skidded around the showcase into their little research nook.

And ran straight into his arms.

Giles stumbled under the impact of frantic Slayer, and sloshed hot tea over his hand. Even though the others, Willow, Tara, and Anya, followed close in her wake, settling at the tarot table with Spike and Xander, Buffy ignored them all in favor of him. Setting his cup down in one piece and relatively full of its contents, Giles returned the selfless attention by raising his arms around her. Eyes closed, her cheek pressed against his chest, Buffy responded by hugging him even tighter . . . until he let go a grunt, ever so softly, of obvious pain.

In that instant, Buffy's horrified gaze flew up to meet his, her desperate embrace slackening accordingly. "Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry!" she gasped, belatedly remembering both his injury and her runaway Slayer strength. Her eyes slid from his, down to his abdomen, watching as one hand tentatively touched the area hidden beneath his borrow gray t-shirt, before her anxious gaze traveled back up to his in silent inquiry.

"I'm fine," Giles insisted, wrapping her back in his embrace to prove it.

This time Buffy held him with a tenderness that soothed him right to the core. No more words were exchanged. No more words were needed. Chin resting on the crown of her head, he finally felt whole again. They rocked each other gently, completely oblivious to their watching friends, as if the world was there's alone and time had stood perfectly still.

Until Xander spoke, shattering the illusion. "Did you know that . . . Ben is Glory?" he asked Willow.

A conversation started on the topic of body sharing. Opening his eyes, Giles regarded the others over the top of Buffy's head. He, too, had had the revelation earlier, had been struck by the sudden awareness as a magickal veil lifted in his mind.

Loath as he was to admit it, Spike's prattle in the car that morning had been on the money. Ben and Glory were the same individual, twin entities inhabiting a single body, Yin and Yang, each fighting for dominance. From what Spike said, a powerful spell made anyone who witnessed the transformation from one to the other instantly forget, thus maintaining the secret identity of both. Spike, being somewhat other than human, was apparently immune to the affect. It was only now, as the time of the ritual drew nearer, that the fog had lifted. Whether or not the timing was significant, or simply an indication of Ben's final submission to the Hellgod, remained to be seen.

Giles pressed his lips to Buffy's golden hair in a cherishing kiss, signaling an end to the all-too-brief moment of closeness. It was back to business, and sure enough, she stepped out of his arms and turned to her friends. Giles took the opportunity to sit, gratefully dropping into his chair at the closed end of the research nook. While Buffy joined in the discussion, he picked up his bottle of pain medication, shook a couple of pills into his hand, and swallowed them with a swig of hot tea.

They'd all been fooled by Ben's trustworthy disposition and caring nature, although precisely what possessed the young doctor to drive three-plus hours out of town in the middle of the night to aid the 'enemy' was completely beyond Giles' comprehension. No doubt, the Glory side had not been too thrilled by this humanitarian decision . . . although in hindsight, it had, inadvertently, given her direct access to Dawn.

"This is all my fault," Buffy announced, as if she had read his thoughts. She swung back to him with a fretful look. "I may as well have handed her Dawn on a silver platter." Her eyes dipped to the bottle of pills near his hand. "Not to mention my brilliant getaway plan that almost got you killed." Determination folded her arms across her chest--determination to be the Slayer, right the wrongs, rescue her sister, and stop Glory. "Giles, this new info you have. What do we know?"

"Well, um . . . according to the scroll, it is possible for Glory to be stopped." He hesitated, knowing she wasn't going to like what he had to say. Indeed, he detested himself for even contemplating it as a valid alternative. But Buffy needed to know, in the event that things went horribly wrong with Plan A, and it became their only option. "I'm afraid it's . . . Buffy, I've read these things very carefully and there's not much margin for error. You understand what I'm saying?"

"Might help if you actually said it."

He nodded with a grim smile and removed his glasses, a subconscious gesture that further distanced him from the emotional ties of family. "Glory plans to open a dimensional portal by way of a ritual bloodletting."

Buffy grew anxious, but just as quickly tossed off personal bonds in an effort to remain focused on the problem. "Dawn's blood."

"Yes," he confirmed, fighting a familiar twinge that knifed through him. "Once the blood is shed at a certain time and place, the fabric which separates all realities will be ripped apart. Dimensions will pour into one another, with no barriers to stop them. Reality as we know it will be destroyed and . . . chaos will reign on earth."

She nodded at the scroll in question, still unfurled in the center of the lighted tabletop. "So how do we stop it?"

"The portal will only close once the blood is stopped," Giles said, attempting to remain detached and in clinical Watcher mode. But he broke eye contact with Buffy as the thought of Dawn, alone and frightened and innocent of the cruel hand fate had dealt her, pushed its way into his mind. "And the only way for that to happen is . . . " She was his daughter. His flesh and blood. And what he was proposing was something no parent should ever have to face. Looking up, he met his Slayer's gaze head on. "Buffy, the only way is to kill Dawn."

Read the next chapter: Author says additional parts planned.