The Unbreakable Series
Part 2 - Unbreakable

written by Koala





With a heavenly sigh, Buffy settled back into the arms of the man she loved. She closed sleepy eyes, content to just lie with him and bask in the warm afterglow of their lovemaking.

"That was so amazingly amazing," she whispered, smiling against his sweat-slicked shoulder, the fingers of her free hand tracing idle circles over his heart.

Giles planted a loving kiss on her temple, saying more with that tender gesture than any words ever could have. His fingertips swept over her bare skin, cooling in the night air of his bedroom loft, his touch as comforting as velvet against her soul.

As he pulled the bedclothes up around them, Buffy snuggled in, listening to the reassuring sound of his slowing heartbeat. It seemed impossible to her that a little over a week ago they had been 'just friends', just a Slayer and her Watcher with no romantic entanglement... because it felt like she'd been in love with him forever. A misstep during training had initiated their first kiss, the accident a wellspring of a deep but mutual passion. Christmas had come and gone during that time, and this year Giles had given her the best present ever; his unconditional love. She realized that he'd secretly been giving the same thing to her for years, but it was different now that she knew, and now that he could express it to her in a physical way.

Of course, the gorgeous gold locket he bought her helped put a smile on her face, too. He told her he'd wanted to enclose a picture of them, together, but didn't have one, to which she replied that they would have to rectify that a-sap and go to the mall. Giles sheepishly admitted that he hadn't set foot in the Sunnydale Mall since they'd fired a rocket launcher at The Judge; one of those silly Giles-centric things that only endeared him to her even more. Her teasing answer was that they would find one of those instant photo booths and squeeze inside, where, behind the curtain, she would sit on his lap, and they could make funny faces at the camera as it shot off four poses for a buck.

Smiling lazily at the memory that was only a few days old, Buffy cuddled closer to the man she loved with such intensity that it was both exhilarating and scary. They had been practically inseparable for the past week, finding time to be together whenever circumstances allowed, which in reality meant every night after patrol. To the world in general, their affair remained private. Only Dawn knew, although not the actual details, just how close Buffy and Giles had become in the past eight days.

Eight days. That was only one more than 'seven days', which was how long her new love was going away. To England, no less. Giles was flying out tomorrow.

A small sound of disagreement escaped Buffy, making her possessively tuck her hand around her lover's waist and again question how she could possibly endure the next week without him. His gentle touch ran up her arm, in answer to her dissent. He obviously knew what she was thinking, because he was thinking it, too.

"I know," Giles whispered softly, his lips close to her ear. "But a week will pass quickly, and I'll be back before you know it."

"I wish you didn't have to go," she said for the umpteenth time.

"If there were any other way, you know I wouldn't. But we've exhausted all our options here, and we're still no closer to discovering a way to defeat Glory." He sighed, his free hand brushing her cheek in a feathery caress. "I suspect with the abundant resources of the Watcher's Council at our disposal, we'll fare much better."

"We'd better," Buffy grumbled unhappily, "or your leaving me for a whole week will be all for nothing." She lifted her head to look at him in the dimness of the loft, her eyes finding his in the moonlight casting patchwork shadows across their bed. She could just make out his expression, enough, at least, to know the love in his eyes was meant only for her. "I wish you didn't have to go," she repeated.

They both knew there was no other choice. As much as she hated to involve those stuffy old guys in the stuffy old suits, the Council really was their best bet. Her last run in with the super-powered demon chick searching for The Key, had done nothing but prove to Buffy that she, even with all her Slayer strength, was ill-equipped to fight her and win. Without any knowledge of who or what Glory was--her origins or plans or weaknesses--and their limited resources in Sunnydale now depleted, Buffy grudgingly agreed with Giles that the Council's Central Library in London may prove more fruitful. They needed information, and, as much as she feared the repercussions should the fact that her sister was numero uno on Glory's agenda become common knowledge, Buffy knew their one chance at finding that information lay somewhere within the dusty archives at the Watcher's Council headquarters.

"Buffy, you have my word," Giles said, doing his mind-reading trick again. "I promise not to even mention Dawn's name."

"But you are going to tell them about The Key, right? That Glory's looking for something called The Key?"

"I have to." With a sigh, he diverted his gaze. "If we want even a chance at uncovering something useful about Glory, then the Council will need to at least know what we do. We have to give them something to work with."

"I just don't trust them," Buffy stated, matter of fact.

Giles' hand caressed her cheek again, bringing her petulant gaze back to his. "Dawn's secret will be safe."

Buffy nodded reluctantly. She may not trust the Council as far as... well, as far as Giles could kick one of them, but she did trust him. With her life, and with her sister's. She laid her head on his shoulder again, hugging him tight.

If only England wasn't so far away . . .

Missing him already, she pouted over the unfairness of it all. She had only just found him, and Fate was already stepping between them, crowding their lives, hanging over their heads like a gray cloud of doom. She could hear him now, the same voice of reason he had used just yesterday, when informing her of his proposed flight; 'Life is rarely fair, Buffy. Life on the Hellmouth even less so. We can only roll with the punches it throws us, and go on.'

Of course, she knew Giles was only making the trip for her. He wanted, more than anything, to keep her safe, which in this case meant providing her with the knowledge to fight Glory and win. The alternative was simply unacceptable to him, and he would have traveled to the ends of the earth and back if that's what it took to keep her alive.

Maybe she should count herself lucky that he was only going 'across the pond' . . .

Contented and loved, warm and safe in his loving embrace, Buffy had almost dozed off when something innate roused her up to sitting. Diverting her gaze from Giles' hopeful look, she climbed out of bed. Similar to the way her highly developed Slayer senses could detect the onset of night, she could feel the sunrise coming, less than an hour away. She didn't want to go home, she had to.

"Buffy... "

She knew exactly what caused the disappointment in his tone; they had covered this ground before. "Don't. Okay? You know I can't stay." Determinedly, she began hunting down her clothes in the slivers of moonlight and shadow, donning them in an orderly fashion before she changed her mind. God only knew, she wanted to stay and sleep in his arms. She wanted to open her eyes and find him there beside her in the new morning sunshine. But she also knew that with her mother in remission and still somewhat dependant, her responsibilities lay elsewhere other than in Giles' bed.

Besides, with Riley gone, it was much easier than trying to explain just where she had spent the night.

Giles made a grunt of frustration, making Buffy guiltily chew her lip. She sat beside him again, gently touching his face in the hope he would understand. Poor guy. In the past week, she had stopped by his house every night after patrol, loving him with all the passion she possessed, and then leaving him, cold and lonely, before the sun rose. Her mom may have known of and accepted her relationship with Riley, including the sex part, but Buffy doubted she would be so broadminded with the knowledge of her sleeping with Giles.

"When then?" he wanted to know, meeting her gaze in the dimness of his bedroom loft. His hand strayed to her arm, his touch encouraging and optimistic, contrary to his defeated words.

"Soon," Buffy promised. With a kiss, she pulled away, finding her feet again. "It's just that--" She turned to him, part of her thankful that his expression was now hidden in shadow. "Mom's still kinda... fragile. I just don't want to upset her with the news of 'us'. Not right now. But soon," she repeated convincingly. "As soon as she's feeling better, it's the first thing out of my mouth."

Giles let go another frustrated sigh and rubbed his hand over his brow. She knew he was opposed to keeping their relationship a secret, but nonetheless thankful he allowed it to be her call. She looked at him for a long moment, stretched out in his bed with the covers pulled to his waist, naked, gorgeous, and hers, and was almost overwhelmed by the desire to crawl back into his loving embrace.

Steeling herself, Buffy turned away before she caved. She couldn't stay, any more than she could find the words to tell her mother the truth . . .

* * * * *

The gang gathered at the Magic Box mid-morning the following day. They thought it was for a routine Scooby meeting, or for another tireless research session on their current Big Bad, until Giles informed them of his unexpected trip home. He skimmed the exact details of which, mindful of the fact that no one outside Buffy and himself knew anything about The Key, confessing only that he was headed to the Watcher's Council for help; for any information they could give him about defeating their latest foe.

Surprisingly, they were all more enthusiastic about the prospect of his absence, then in the actual reason he was going.

"You're going away for a week? That's great!" Anya's undisguised glee at having the store and the money to herself sent Giles into a panic.

Sitting at the tarot reading table and pretending to focus on the book opened before her, Buffy held back a grin. It was, of course, a stuffy-British-reserved-Giles-type-panic, but a panic nonetheless.

"Yes, well, thankfully not everyone is as delighted about the idea," Giles said, coming to an innocent but telling stop behind her chair.

The heat of his body immediately reached out to her, his closeness, the memories of intimacy, and it was all Buffy could do to muffle a sigh and keep her eyes on the printed page. They'd only been parted a matter of hours, and already she longed for him to touch her again, similar to the way in which he had the preceding night, when he stood behind her and slowly undressed her, leisurely welcoming each new spot of skin he exposed with a hot, moist kiss . . .

Buffy mentally shook herself. Giles would never touch her in that way or any other in front of their friends, specifically because she had asked him not to. Still, fantasies of him ravaging her so seductively in a public place made her glance across the table. As the conversation took a turn into who was better suited to run the Magic Box in the proprietor's absence, she studied each her friends in turn.

Anya, Xander, Willow, Tara. She could imagine each of their reactions to the news that she and Giles had become lovers: Xander, utter shock and disbelief; Willow, stunned but ultimately happy for them; Anya, inquiring if the sex was really that good; Tara . . .

Of them all, Tara's reaction would probably be the one Buffy favored most, for she was the 'hopeless romantic' of the group, and she alone would recognize their new relationship for exactly what it was. True love. Looking at them in turn, Buffy wanted to tell them. She wanted her friends to know that she was not--as they thought--drowning in a bitter pool of rejection because Riley had up and left, preferring the jungle to her. She wanted to blurt out at the top of her lungs that she was giddy in love with the man standing casually at her back. She wanted to, but she didn't.

Buffy tuned back in to the real world as Giles moved away from her chair, the loss of his nearness as palpable to her as losing a limb. Seven whole days. How on earth was she going to cope?

Moving to the checkout counter, Giles picked up a ring of keys and tossed them to Xander. "We'll take my car," he said, clearly having decided to accept the younger man's earlier offer to drive him to the airport. Then he turned to face them, his blanketing gaze intended as a farewell to all.

Xander's witty comeback about driving the Beemer was lost on Buffy, as Giles' eyes finally found hers and all the air rushed out of the room. Her breath stuck in her throat, because she knew exactly what he was asking, even without the words. He wanted her to go with him to the airport, where he stood a better chance at stealing a quite moment in a secluded spot to say goodbye to her properly.

She diverted her gaze. Slapping the cover of her book closed, Buffy pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. "I have to go too," she announced, not daring herself to look at her love or acknowledge the disappointment she knew she'd find on his face. His expression would be almost twin to the one he had worn last night, when she left him alone in bed. She couldn't deal with that; with being unable to express the words to make it better because of present company. Instead, she opted to flee. "I have stuff to do. College stuff."

"Oh, that's right," Tara agreed, glancing at Willow to remind her. "Registration for next semester starts today."

"See you guys later," Buffy said, her head down as she practically ran to escape. She should have known Giles wasn't going to let her go so easily.

"Buffy? A word in your ear?" He followed her to the front door of the shop, where she stopped but fidgeted nervously, eager to be elsewhere lest her cover be blown. God help her, audience or not, all she wanted to do was kiss him until they were both gasping for breath, to try to fill up her senses with him, enough to last her through the coming lonely week. "Come to the airport. Please?"

Buffy threw a glance at her friends, who were still seated around the reading table, now arguing about who had more finesse handling customers. They were, thankfully, out of earshot of Giles' purposely hushed tones. "And say what to Xander when we have our big teary goodbye kiss and I can't let you go?" she asked, sotto voce.

"Would the truth be so horrible?"

"Not horrible, just... inconvenient."

Giles lowered his gaze, the explanation getting older each time she used it.

"Hey... I'm gonna miss you so much," Buffy told him earnestly, already counting the hours. "Call me, okay?"

"Every day."

She offered a furtive smile, trying to raise his downed spirits. "We can have phone sex." Off his appalled look, she shrugged. "Well, think of it this way--if Mom caught us, we wouldn't have to worry about telling anyone." Another discreet glance at the tarot table again ensured their privacy. Breaking her own rule of no public display of affection, Buffy put her hand on his forearm, the fabric of his suit a poor substitute for the warmth of his skin. "Love ya."

Giles' gaze found hers again, his eyes speaking the words from his heart, even before his lips moved to reciprocate. "I love you, too."

* * * * *

Across the room, Tara happened to glance toward the front of the shop just as Buffy reached out a hand to Giles' arm. Normally, she would not have given it, or their private talk, a second thought. Like the others, she had assumed it was simply some last minute words of advice from a departing Watcher to his Slayer. But the way Buffy touched Giles was far from professional. It seemed personal, tender somehow... almost a caress. At first she thought she was imagining things, since she always saw love in the most unlikely places, until Giles mouthed those immortal words that brought everything into a bright, new perspective.

Buffy left the Magic Box without further ado, and, ducking her head as Giles turned back to the group, Tara leaned a happy smile against Willow's shoulder. If ever two people belonged together, it was Buffy and Giles. She was glad they'd finally figured it out, because everybody deserved to have somebody who cared.

And their secret would be safe with her.

* * * * *

London hadn't changed much in the years since he had left it, although Heathrow certainly had. Grateful for his single carry-on and one small valise, Giles navigated the bustling crowd without the difficulties of his fellow travelers, most of who were weighted down under far too much luggage and Duty Free. Quietly, without incident, he found his way curbside.

A cab took him to an address in Kensington. It was a heavy old, brown-brick building just off the High Street, built in the 17th Century but in no particular style. It was unremarkable and commonplace in its total lack of elegance and design, just the sort of 'secret' headquarters for a covert institution such as the Council of Watchers.

The front door was locked, but the burly man who answered the bell recognized his name and let him inside. The notion that he was expected became concrete, when he was met in the lobby by an attractive woman in her thirties, wearing a smart, tweed business suit, glasses, and with her hair tied back in bun, who had clearly been assigned to await his arrival.

"Mr. Giles, Emily Anderson," she introduced herself, holding out her hand in a gesture of formal greeting.

Shedding his topcoat and scarf, and laying them on top of his suitcase, Giles stepped forward to politely shake her hand. "Ms. Anderson."

"I say, you looked positively bushed. Long flight?"

He smiled wearily. "Too long." With his layovers in LA, St. Louis, and New York, he'd been in transit for the better part of fifteen hours. Time zone changes played havoc with his internal clock, and with Buffy having demanded his attention every night that past week, 'bushed' was an absurdly simple understatement. Locally, it was just coming up on noon, but his body was already starting to feel the sluggishness of jetlag and the lack of sleep.

"May I offer you some refreshments, then? Cup of tea, perhaps?"

"I'd like to see Quentin Travers," Giles said, shrugging off his fatigue and getting straight to the point; the reason he had willingly left the arms of his beloved Buffy and put the Atlantic Ocean between them.

"I'm afraid Mr. Travers is... unavailable. But Mr. Blair will see you."

"What do you mean, 'unavailable'? He knew I was coming. Today."

"He's been unexpectedly called away."

Giles scoffed in derision, his good mood deflating. The news was unanticipated, unacceptable, and absolutely bloody typical of Travers to string him along. "Poncey bugger," he murmured under his breath.

"I assure you," Emily said, loyal to her boss, "Mr. Blair is quite capable of overseeing any requests you might have."

"I'm sure he is," Giles said, resigned. He hadn't come all this way just to be disappointed. He would simply make the best of whatever curves the Council threw at him. "Perhaps I will have that tea, after all."

"Certainly. This way."

She led him to the forth floor chambers of one Tobias Blair, Assistant Director, the outer room of which served as a sort of secretarial office. Emily rounded the single oak desk in a manner that suggested familiarity and ownership. She was clearly Blair's personal aide. Behind her desk, a small area had been reserved for tea making facilities, and was presently home to an electric kettle, a Chatsford pot, china cups and saucers, and a matched set of three wooden tea chests.

"Darjeeling, Oolong, or Earl Gray?" she asked over her shoulder.

Making his choice, Giles browsed the bookshelves while she prepared the tea, noting that most of the volumes on display were of the harmless variety, the normal sort of business texts and legal paraphernalia one might find in any successful London establishment. It was the Watcher's Council at its diabolical best; saving the world with bureaucratic bull. To them, a Slayer was simply a means to an end, a tool wielded by their collective hand that was both expendable and replaceable. Pulling political strings to acquire and maintain control of that tool was where their real power lay, and it made him angry, and at the same time shameful, to have once shared their cold-blooded principles.

"I must say, your reputation precedes you, Mr. Giles," Emily said, drawing his attention. He turned to find her paused over a tea cup with a blue and white carton. "Milk and sugar?"

"Thank you, yes," he answered, watching her add both to his cup. "Although I'm certain I have no idea what you mean." He stepped closer to take the saucer she offered him, and nodded his thanks.

She motioned him to a comfortable-looking guest chair, and then seated herself opposite, behind her desk. For a moment, they sipped in silence, the hot Indian tea hitting the spot and almost making him feel among the living again.

"What's it like?" she suddenly asked, abandoning propriety for a genuine case of hero worship.

"Pardon?"

"Living on the Hellmouth, risking your life night after night, your Slayer at your side? Sounds terribly dangerous."

Giles smiled fondly at the thought of Buffy. "I suppose it is," he admitted. "But worthwhile, nonetheless. I find it... fulfilling." He rested his cup on the saucer in his other hand. "And frustrating sometimes," he continued, thinking of their present zero amount of information on Glory. "Often quite painful, in a physical sense. And in an emotional sense... "

"Your Buffy sounds quite a handful."

"There's no other place I'd rather be."

Emily quirked her head at such revealing honesty, making Giles instantly regret being so candid. Buffy had long been a proverbial thorn in the Council's side, from the very start refusing to play by their rules. He, too, had eventually turned his back on a generation of duty and conformity. If the Council had even the slightest inkling of his and Buffy's romantic entanglement, then he didn't doubt their pettiness in refusing to help simply out of spite.

"Even after the Cruciamentum?" Emily asked, genuinely interested.

The question gave him pause. They both knew Council policy demanded that all Watchers maintain a strictly professional relationship with their charges. They also both knew that it rarely worked out that way, for it was humanly impossible for two people to go through so much together and not form some sort of attachment. To that end, the Council imposed the Tento di Cruciamentum when each girl reached the age of eighteen. This test, in which the Slayer was administered a drug to temporarily nullify her powers before she faced a vampire opponent, was allegedly to demonstrate proficiency, but thanks to her Watcher's part in the proceedings, it carried a rather nasty side-effect of breaking any and all emotional bonds between the two. Although it had been a Council mandate for hundreds of years, it was nothing more than a cruel and barbaric act that ultimately tore a Slayer from the safety of her Watcher's care, if the test itself didn't kill her first.

In short, the Cruciamentum made certain that the Watcher/Slayer relationship remained objective and impersonal. Accounts of it were well documented within Council annals, although by tradition, of those few Slayers who actually survived, the majority never fully forgave their Watchers' betrayal and thus, tragically, never lived to see their next birthday. Whether by the test, or from the resulting rift thereof, the Council heartlessly culled its Slayers on a regular basis, ensuring subservience and allegiance, by manipulating the emotional detachment of its two key players.

"Even after," Giles answered quietly, painfully remembering Buffy's Cruciamentum--the look in her eyes as she threatened to kill him if he so much as touched her, and his own strangling fears that she would never trust him again. But she had forgiven him, and their bond not only survived, but flourished. They had been through so much together in the two years since, all the ups and downs, the laughter and the tears. Now the look in her eyes, each time they made love, only reaffirmed to him that what they shared was truly unbreakable.

Until one of them died.

Reminded of the reason he was there, Giles looked up and caught Emily's eye with an expression of renewed determination. Sitting forward, he slid his half-finished tea onto the corner of her desk, feeling fortified by it and the memory of his beloved. He didn't want to lose her. He wouldn't. "Perhaps I could see Mr. Blair now."

* * * * *

He expected Tobias Blair to be one of Travers' peers; a gray-headed, or even balding, man in his mid-to-late sixties, a Council paper-pusher who fought with a pen rather than a sword, who had probably never faced a vampire in a fight in his entire life. So to discover Blair was, in fact, a well-dress, well-educated, athletically built Englishman a bit younger than himself, came as something as a shock.

"Mr. Giles, I'm sure I needn't remind you that you are no longer a member of this institution."

"I'm well aware of my standing with the Council," Giles said, trying hard to remain civil. In truth, he'd just about had enough of the pompous decorum. But it would do no good to lose his temper, so he sat subordinately in the guest chair before Blair's desk, feeling ridiculously akin to a schoolboy called before his headmaster.

"Then you are also aware that we have every right to deny your request."

"Yes, but... I assure you, helping us would only be in the Council's best interest. If Buffy fights this 'Glory' creature and loses, who knows what hell-on-earth will result? The Council will be short one of the finest Slayers it's ever known and--"

"Buffy Summers is not the Council's concern."

Giles gritted his teeth, barely holding his temper in check. "No, but she is the only thing standing between mankind and the forces of darkness. Buffy's already died once. You know as well as I do that in the event of her passing, no new Slayer will be called. If she dies, then the world will be defenseless, and the Council's entire grand-bloody-purpose will be rendered invalid."

He sat back, troubled by the sudden ease with which he so coldly spoke those words. Buffy's death, while inevitable, was not something he liked to put into thought, much less speak aloud. It was this place, he decided, glancing at the imposing, wood-paneled walls. Council Headquarters still silently demanded his duty and compliance. He couldn't wait to leave.

"I'm not sure we can spare the manpower for such a research undertaking," the Assistant Director concluded.

"Of course," Giles returned in biting sarcasm. "Because writing requisitions for toilet paper and other sundries obviously keeps you all hopping."

Much to his surprise, Blair chuckled. "Quentin Travers warned me of your wit, Mr. Giles. I must say, you do not disappoint."

"I'm so glad I amuse you." Angered, Giles pushed to his feet. The only thing this meeting had achieved was to elevate his blood pressure. 'Arrogant bloody bastards, the lot of them.' They'd all been brainwashed into believing their way was the only way. He and Buffy would simply have to make do on their own. And if he lost her, if she died fighting Glory because of something the Council refused to tell him, then--by God--he would spend the rest of his days seeking vengeance on them all. "Seems I've wasted my time here. Good day."

He was halfway to the door, mumbling rash, inaudible threats under his breath, when Blair spoke again.

"I can grant you temporary access to the Central Library."

Giles slowly turned, eyes narrowing slightly as he waited for the catch. He found Blair still seated behind his pretentious oak desk, although now with his chair tipped back, and his fingers steepled across the middle of his three-piece suit, in a posture of idle compliance.

"Of course, you're just one man, and the stacks can be quite intimidating." Blair's dark eyes found his. "You made a good case for your Slayer's worth, Mr. Giles. I shall put your request before a formal hearing tomorrow." Tipping his chair forward, he reached for a pen and a slip of paper, and started scribbling. "Emily will arrange 'clearance' for you, for the duration of your visit. At this point, it's the best I can do. Should the Council approve your request, you'll have a lot more manpower at your disposal, and better chance of finding the information you need."

It was with genuine relief that Giles stepped back to Blair's desk, and took the piece of paper so casually offered between two fingers. "Thank you," he said, looking at the tiny slip. It seemed so insignificant, but in truth, that one small scrap of paper and the authorization it gave him, might very well turn out to be the difference between Buffy's life, and death.

* * * * *

A gentle hand on his shoulder roused him from a deep sleep. Lifting his cheek from the page of the book open before him, Giles groggily sought to right his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "Buffy?"

He turned stiffly in his hard-backed chair, still disoriented by the darkness beyond his tiny pool of lamplight, instinctively reaching out a loving hand. It wasn't until she tensed under his caress that reality came rushing in.

"I'm sorry," he apologized, mortified to realize where he was and who he was with. He quickly turned his attention back to the books and empty Thai takeaway containers strewn haphazardly across the table in front of him. "I thought you were... that is... I never intended... "

Emily smiled as she drew out a neighboring chair, her pleasant features now illuminated in the soft glow. "Perfectly all right," she said gently.

"I... worry about her," he admitted ambiguously, keeping his telling gaze well away from hers, lest she learn too much.

"I understand." A thoughtful frown appeared as she continued to study him in profile. "Do you have somewhere to go?"

The question brought his bleary eyes back to hers. "Go?"

She smiled again, not without affection. At some point during the long afternoon and evening hours they had spent together researching, just the two of them against the almost overwhelming contents of the Central Library, something mutual had clicked. Giles had found himself actually enjoying her company, something he never anticipated in light of her present employer. Emily was bright and witty, a willing and capable research assistant who, once she dropped all that toffee-nosed, Council-born posturing, became a welcomed companion in his one-man crusade.

"In case you haven't noticed," she explained, "it's somewhere on the lonely side of three in the morning. If you don't already have a hotel room for the night, I'm afraid, at this point, you're not going to get one."

He grunted in reply, readjusting his glasses and pulling a fresh book toward him, getting his second-wind. "I'm not tired."

She laughed. "Of course not. But I am. And unfortunately, my orders were to 'keep you in sight at all times'. So until you decide to call it a night, I am, sadly, stuck here."

"Blair's idea?" Giles asked with a smirk. It was difficult to completely dislike the man, when he had already helped so much, yet almost impossible not to when he insisted on the babysitting detail.

Emily nodded, unable to hold back a yawn. "I suppose I could take you home with me." Her eyes widened in horror the moment the words left her lips, a ruby blush tinting her cheeks as she met his gaze in the intimate circle of lamplight. "Good Heavens! Did I really say that?"

Giles gave her a companionable smile. "I'm afraid so."

Her turn to be embarrassed, Emily glanced away. "Forgive me. I simply meant... "

She hesitated a moment too long, giving Giles his final clue. She was attracted to him, and confirmation of what he thought he'd been feeling since their first shared cup of tea had the power to simultaneously flatter and terrify him.

"I simply meant, I live alone, and I have plenty of room." Finding the courage to look at him, she added, "I assure you, the offer is entirely innocent." She found another small smile. "Although perhaps a tiny bit selfish. I truly do need some sleep, Rupert."

He raised an eyebrow, wondering when they'd gone to a first name basis. "Perhaps you're right," he agreed, looking at the latest tome he had opened before him. To be truthful, the ancient Latin text seemed to be doing the backstroke across the page. He rubbed his tired eyes under his glasses, knowing that since they hadn't found any useful information about Glory yet, in their fatigued states it was unlikely they would find it tonight. He had nowhere else to go, so, in a decided move, he slapped the book cover closed and pushed back his chair. "You're certain I wouldn't be putting you out?" he asked, lifting his discarded suit coat off the back of another.

She shook her head, fighting another yawn, also finding her feet. "I'd be more put out if you insisted on staying here."

Giles helped her gather the cold remnants of their Thai dinner and empty tea cups. While she found the trash bin and then rinsed the china, he took a moment to stack the books in a more orderly fashion before turning out the light.

Something jumped in his gut as he headed for the basement elevator with her, making him realize that despite his unbreakable love for his beautiful Buffy, the jolt he'd experience upon learning of Emily's attraction to him wasn't such a bad feeling, after all.

* * * * *

She lived less than ten minutes away by car, and he was grateful for the fact that her modest, double-story, flat had two cozy bedrooms upstairs; at least he didn't have to spend what remained of the night on the couch.

"It's not much," Emily said, cautiously remaining on the threshold as he moved into the small guest room. A single bed nestled against one wall, looking inviting beneath a traditional patchwork quilt, while a bare dresser and chair sat opposite. "But I think you find it comfortable."

Putting down his luggage, Giles turned to favor her with an indebted smile. "I'm sure I shall."

"I have the heat on," she added as an afterthought, "but there's an extra blanket in top of the wardrobe, should you get cold." She pointed out the door, to the left. "WC's the second door down the hall, to the right. I'll lay a clean towel out for you before I go to bed."

He nodded. "Thank you."

She smiled back, hesitant to leave. He waited for her to say something, until the silence bordered on awkward.

"Well... goodnight," she said finally, turning into the hall and heading for her own bed.

"Emily," Giles called, aware that he had used her name for the first time. It seemed natural, given the friendship they'd forged during their long hours of research, but he immediately regretted using it for fear it gave the wrong impression.

Sure enough, when she faced him again, he found a wistful look in her eyes. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be bothersome but... would you mind, terribly, if I made an overseas phone call? I will, of course, reimburse you for all charges."

For a moment, she simply stared at him, baffled by the fact that what he asked and what she wanted were not the same thing. "Oh!" she exclaimed, finding her bearings again. "Um... of course not. I'll just... bring you the cordless."

After she left to retrieve the phone, Giles let go a long breath and sank onto the side of the bed to kick off his shoes.

"Good show, Giles," he murmured to himself, well aware that what Emily wanted from him was not a polite reminder of his significant other. He was a man, after all, and he had been feeling the vibes and reading the signals all evening. He wasn't deaf, dumb, or blind. He was simply taken. While the knowledge that another woman found him attractive was extremely flattering to his ego, his heart remained steadfastly true to the love of his life, in Sunnydale.

He shucked off his suit coat, finding a hanger for it and his overcoat in the empty wardrobe. Lifting his suitcase onto the bed, he unzipped the main section and began searching for something suitable for night attire. He hadn't given any thought to sharing digs with a companion, much less with one of the female persuasion, and since packing space was an issue, he figured a t-shirt and boxers would suffice. A decision, which in hindsight, he would surely live to--

Something black and frilly caught his eye, peeking out from beneath the small pile of clothes in his bag. Curious, he lifted a couple of folded Oxford shirts to examine it more closely. It wasn't until he had retrieved the item and was holding it up for inspection that he realized, with a longing moan, it was a pair of lacy black knickers. To be precise, a pair of Buffy's lacy black knickers.

'The little minx... '

With Ripperish glee, he recalled the last time he had seen her in them... and out of them . . .

Emily returned with the cordless phone, catching him mid-fantasy. Mortified, Giles turned to meet her, swiftly tucking Buffy's naughty little surprise behind his back before she noticed. With a friendly smile that suggested she hadn't seen a thing--or if she had, she had the good grace not to mention it--she stopped just inside the door and held out the phone to him. He took one long stride forward to take it from her, then another equally long one back.

"If there's nothing else... ?" she asked, sensing his discomfort.

"No, thank you. You've been more than kind already."

They shared another amiable, yet somehow regrettable, smile before she turned and left. This time, he closed the door behind her.

* * * * *

As soon as his head hit the pillow, his weariness rolled back in, wiping out his second-wind like a breaker crashing in the surf. Lying on his side, Giles pressed the cordless phone to his ear, and listened to the line clicks as the connection went through. It would be early evening in Sunnydale; he should catch her at home.

The fingers of his free hand idly played with the silky black lace he'd taken to bed with him, his mind adrift. No doubt Buffy's offer for phone sex had been genuine, otherwise why bother planting the enticement? He hoped she wouldn't be too disappointed upon learning that he wasn't up for anything so inspired tonight. He simply wanted to hear her voice, and make sure that all was well in his absence. What he'd told Emily earlier was true enough; he really did worry about her.

Dawn picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"

Recognition snapped him back from the dreamy-Buffy-place he'd wafted into, his sense of moral decency making him quickly stuff the black panties under his pillow, even though the teenager was an ocean and a continent away.

He rolled over onto his back, one arm thrown over his head as he stared at the shadows moving on the ceiling. "Dawn, it's Giles."

"Oh, hey! Are you still in England? 'Cause you sound like you're right next door."

"The wonders of modern technology," he mused with a sleepy smile. "Yes, I'm still in England." Finding himself unexpectedly staving off a yawn, and knowing small talk would most likely put him to sleep, he pointedly asked, "Is Buffy there?"

"Nope," the teen answered succinctly.

"Oh... " His mood deflated despite her good cheer.

"But if it makes you feel any better, she finally took down all of Riley's pictures from her room yesterday. She said she didn't have any of you to put up in their place, then got all weepy about it. She really misses you."

"Well, I miss her, too," he confessed gently, having no qualms sharing his feelings with the teen. Dawn had been there the first time he'd brought his Slayer some rather telling gifts of chocolates and flowers. With teenage enthusiasm, she'd instantly figured out his intent, and, much to his surprise and relief, actually approved of him courting her sister. She was still his only confidant in this, since Buffy insisted on keeping their relationship a secret from all. "Is she out on patrol? Is everything all right there?"

"Yeah, everything's fine... well, except for the troll Willow and Anya sorta accidentally conjured up. He kinda did a bit of pillaging and stuff."

"Did you say 'troll'?"

"Yeah, Anya's ex-boyfriend."

"Good Lord! She dated a troll?"

"Well, he wasn't a troll back then, at least as far as I could tell he wasn't. I dunno. I only caught bits of it when Buffy and the others stopped off here, before they decided to take her out for ice cream--you know, to try to cheer her up. Figures they didn't ask me to go."

Giles' fuzzy head was still trying to play catch-up. "So Buffy fought this troll... she won, I presume."

"Oh yeah," Dawn agreed, as easily as if she were agreeing to having chocolate syrup in her milk. "Willow did a spell and sent him off to Troll Land. Although... not before he wrecked half of downtown, the Bronze, and... never mind. So, Giles, did you get a good movie on your flight?"

"Dawn?" Giles prompted patiently. "And?"

In the silence, he could hear the girl struggle with herself over what to tell him. She eventually sighed in resignation, and settled for the truth. "And I don't think the Magic Box totally escaped the pillaging part."

It was his turn for a resigned sigh. He scrubbed his hand over his face.

"Look at it this way," Dawn offered brightly. "At least now you don't have to worry about taking down the Christmas lights."

He groaned again, imagining the state of the shop. But there was absolutely nothing he could do about the apparent demolition tonight, or from another country, so he simply let his exasperation go on another long breath. "You will tell Buffy I called?"

"Sure. Do you have a number I can give her to reach you? That'll cheer her up."

"Um... " He pulled the handset away from his ear, squinting in the dim light without his glasses, looking for something that told him the number from which he was calling. He didn't find one; it must be written on the base. "I'm afraid not," he said into the phone. He rubbed his eyes again, willing himself to stay awake for just a few minutes longer. His brain felt as if it were encased in cotton wool; he was fast losing touch with awareness.

"Oh, wait. I can write it down from the Caller ID. Hang on."

Groggy as he was from being awake for the past forty-odd hours, Giles was unaware that Dawn had put down the phone and gone in search of a pen. "You might also tell her that I'm staying with a... a colleague. A female colleague. I wouldn't want her to get the wrong impression should she call and another woman answered the phone."

"Okay, got it," Dawn said, coming back on the line after writing down the long digit number. "Anything else?"

"I believe that about covers it."

"You sound kinda sleepy, Giles. Maybe you should go to bed."

He smiled fondly. "I think that's a wonderful idea."

"I'll tell Buffy to call you in the morning--your morning--so you can get some shut-eye. Um, what time is it there right now anyway?"

"Four in the morning. I believe I'm eight hours ahead of you."

"Okay, I'll write that down too. She can work it out."

"Very good. Goodnight, Dawn."

"Bye."

They hung up together. Still wearing a warm smile of affection, Giles reached out a lead-filled limb to put the cordless phone on the night table. As the red digits on the alarm clock beside it flashed over to 4:02am, he slid swiftly and easily under a rolling wave of deep, exhausted sleep.

* * * * *

Emily was up by eight the following morning, and in high spirits. Although she had not been in the employ of the Watcher's Council for very long, she had already adapted to their grueling schedule of being available around the clock, at least to the point where she functioned quite well on a minimum number of hours sleep. The same could obviously not be said for her houseguest, who, when she paused to listen by the closed door of his room, had not yet stirred from his silent cocoon of slumber.

By ten, she had phoned her boss to explain the situation, although not without some initial discomfiture about having invited home a stranger. Blair confirmed his orders to 'stay with him', adding she should 'have him back at headquarters in time for the two o'clock board meeting', in which his appeal would be formally addressed. So she showered and dressed, polished off an entire pot of breakfast tea and two marmalade crumpets, and pondered, incessantly, just how long she should wait before she roused her guest.

Poor man. Last night, he'd been virtually dead on his feet. But he was in London for a reason, and an early wake up call would not have been as unwelcome as it sounded. On the other hand, another arduous day, and possibly night, of Council meetings and research on just a few hour's kip wasn't going to prove terribly productive.

As she put the kettle on for a noontime cuppa, Emily found herself marveling at the man's sole dedication to his Slayer. Before meeting him in person and witnessing him in action, she'd had no idea of the true depth of his selfless devotion, since her only source of reference had been his Council personnel file. It stated that he was rebellious, hard-headed, and unpredictable, that he lacked the proper discipline of a Watcher and had, thus, been officially relieved of his duty almost two years prior. But she'd read between the lines, the fact that despite his being fired, which itself was an insult to his calling, he had stayed. He had stayed with his Slayer, on an active Hellmouth no less, where some power greater than duty, or responsibility, or even the trials of the Cruciamentum, kept him grounded. In her eyes, that had turned the Council 'bad boy' into some sort of romantic hero.

And he was handsome. It hadn't made mention of that in his file, either.

She smiled to herself, sitting down at her kitchen table to sip her tea, musing that perhaps she'd read one too many bad romance novels. Yet having met him, and spent significant time with him, she knew, without question, that Rupert Giles was in a class of his own. Regardless of what they did or didn't put in his file, the Council could definitely benefit by a few more dozen like him.

The corded phone extension on the kitchen wall rang, jarring her from her daydream. She answered it quickly, grateful for the fact that since she usually kept the cordless by her bed, its ringer was turned off. This incoming call would not have prematurely awakened her guest.

"Emily Anderson," she announced to the caller.

There was nothing but silence on the other end. Thinking it a wrong number, and that the caller had already rudely hung up, she was lowering the phone back to its cradle when an American voice started speaking.

"I'm... calling for Rupert Giles?" the feminine voice asked, uncertainty turning her statement into a question.

"Oh yes," Emily responded, guessing her identity. "Is this Buffy?"

"Um, yeah... it is... " Nervousness and worry punctuated another short pause. "Is Giles there?"

"Yes, but he's still in bed." Deciding that now was as good a time as any to rouse him, she added, "If you'll hang on a moment, I'll just wake him."

"'kay," Buffy said very quietly.

Emily heard the vulnerable quiver in the girl's tone, the unease, and interpreted it to mean only one thing. Thinking there was something amiss on the Hellmouth, she put down the phone and hurried up the stairs. She was halfway down the hall when she realized the guest room door was already wide open, and sure enough, when she paused to check, he was nowhere inside. On instinct, she continued to the bathroom. Its door was slightly ajar, but not enough to suggest he required privacy, or that this was an inopportune moment, so she knocked once and barged in.

She found him with only the thick, navy-blue towel she had supplied knotted at his waist, the split at his thigh revealing an alluring skull tattoo--an odd companion to the symbol in the crook of his elbow. Evidently, this Watcher-trained 'good guy' had once been a rebellious 'bad boy'. His hair was still wet from the shower and slicked back from his forehead, moisture still clinging to the contours of his upper torso as he stood in front of the steamed vanity mirror. He turned to her with a questioning frown, allowing her to see the foamy, white lather covering his throat and one cheek, and the disposable razor in his hand. His state of undress momentarily fazed her, perhaps as much as her casual appearance fazed him. His gaze swept over her blue jeans, plaid shirt, and unbraided hair--luscious auburn waves that flowed freely over her shoulders--before meeting her eyes again, and she knew, with certainty, it would take little effort on her part to fall completely in love with this man.

"What is it?" Giles asked, alarmed by the peculiar look she knew must be on her face; one part calamitous doom, the other part surprise with just a hint of rising passion.

Emily pulled herself together. "Buffy's on the telephone. She sounds... Rupert, I fear something dreadful may have happened."

"Oh Lord... "

She saw the telling shift in his expression, the alarm materializing on his face and the absolute dread filling his eyes, a reaction that went far beyond that of a Watcher simply concerned for his Slayer. He was reaching for another towel and pushing past her even before she had the chance to breathe. As he disappeared out of the bathroom door at a jog, she realized, with sudden clarity, the real reason he had stayed behind on the Hellmouth with his Buffy.

Crushed by the awareness that his Slayer had not only his undying devotion, but his heart as well, Emily slowly returned downstairs to the kitchen. She had every intention of hanging up the phone extension to give them privacy, but as soon as she picked up the handset and heard his soothing voice speaking words of love and affection, jealousy turned those good intentions to bitterness and scorn. Putting her hand over the mouthpiece, Emily raised the phone to her ear to listen.

Buffy was crying, not hysterically, but enough to completely turn whatever it was she was trying to say into a sputtering, garbled mess.

"Please, love," came Rupert's velvet tones, relieved and loud on the upstairs cordless. "Calm down. I can't understand you."

With effort, she did. "Tara had the same problem yesterday," Buffy finally managed, her voice still aquiver. "On campus, when we signed up for Greek Art. The alternative was European History, but that just reminded me of you, and that you were so far away from me and... " She disintegrated into another unintelligible outburst, sounding nothing like the strong-spirited, invincible Slayer Emily had painted in her mind. "I don't know why I'm so super-sensitive about this. The guys think it's because I miss Riley, and I wanna tell them it's not him, it's you, but I can't and... and now when I call, I find you're in bed... with another woman."

"Buffy, darling, I'm not with another woman," Rupert reassured her over the sound of her tears. "Emily is a colleague."

"She's a Watcher?"

"She works for the Council. I'm staying with her, that's all. Didn't Dawn tell you?"

"No, and for that I kill her as soon as she wakes up," Buffy threatened meekly. She sniffed back her tears again. "I just miss you more than I ever thought possible."

"I miss you, too. Do something for me?"

"What?"

"Close your eyes," Rupert told her gently.

"'kay... "

"Now, look inside your heart, and you'll find I'm not so far away after all. All you have to do is remember how much I love you, and part of me will always be right there with you."

Another loud sniffle punctuated the romantic silence. "That's beautiful," Buffy whispered.

"And very, very true."

"I love you, too," she added softly, as though fearful someone might overhear. "Come home soon? I swear I won't survive the whole week."

"I promise I'll do my best. Our request is formally going before the Council's board of directors this afternoon... "

Emily quietly hung up the kitchen extension, letting them have the rest of their conversation in private. Besides, she'd already heard more than enough to know the truth of the matter. She understood why they kept their love affair secret; Council policy regarding fraternization between its Chosen was very clear. True, Rupert Giles was no longer a paid Council employee, but he was, by birthright, under oath to honor their creed until his dying breath.

An official reprimand was probably out of the question, but with regards to his request for Council assistance, which would utilize Council man-hours and Council resources, Emily knew Tobias Blair would find this information almost as interesting as she did. As, too, would Blair's superior, Quentin Travers, when he returned from spending the holidays with his daughter's family . . .

Before the Watcher's Council agreed to anything, Rupert Giles and Buffy Summers would both need to prove their worth.

* * * * *

Giles sat in the Council's stately boardroom, located in the penthouse suite of their London HQ, idly reflecting that the room certainly lived up to its name. He was 'bored' beyond belief, despite the importance of the meeting. It was all pomp and ceremony, after all. They were either going to help him or they weren't, but protocol and tradition prevented them from giving him a simple answer. He tried to remain focused as Tobias Blair presented his and Buffy's request for assistance in longwinded, Council-learned tedium, but instead found himself drifting through a more licentious memory of a pair of black lace knickers.

He drummed a pencil in frustration. Ever since her phone call, he had ached for Buffy's touch. When she told him that she had not taken off the gold locket he gave her, not to bathe, or sleep, or slay, he found himself, despite his advice, in need of a similar tangible connection. Hiding a Ripperish grin, he imagined the uproar amongst his stodgy superiors should the contents of his pocket, in all its lewd implications, become common knowledge. Shagging one's Slayer until the sun came up was simply not in the Council bylaws. They decreed that no Watcher should ever scratch his Slayer's itch, no matter how much she begged.

The thought of Buffy begging, naked and in his bed, almost had the power to do him in. He bit down hard to stop a moan, and attempted to refocus on the present. There was, of course, a serious repercussion to that pleasurable but 'improper' thought, and she was presently seated in the high-backed, leather office chair on the other side of her garrulously gesturing boss.

Giles glanced at Emily, and found her either diligently taking minutes or doodling--he couldn't tell which. Despite their easy camaraderie of yesterday, she'd been aloof and distant since Buffy's noon time phone call, and he wondered not if she had figured out the true nature of their relationship, but rather what she intended to do with such potentially damaging information. The Council was a 'by the book' institution, no exceptions. They had already fired him for a lesser infraction, with complete disregard to his heritage and the devotion of his entire adult life to their cause. While they could not fire him again, they could use his violation of there code as grounds for refusing to help; a decision that may yet prove to have disastrous consequences.

Luckily, Emily, like Giles himself, was present at the meeting in a strictly non-speaking capacity. Indeed, since he was no longer a Council member in high standing, he had not even expected to attend. It was a courtesy they extended to him as 'the' formerly active Watcher, one that in hindsight, he could have done without. He could have better spent his time researching in the Central Library . . .

"Thank you, Mr. Blair," concluded the chairman, a stern-looking, gray-headed chap in a three-piece suit.

Giles watched Blair take his seat again, catching his eye. He gave the man a discreet nod, glad for an ally despite his interminably long proposal. As the Council's most senior members began to deliberate amongst themselves in hushed undertones, Giles gaze fell to them in turn.

A few of the more friendly faces he recognized seated on the Board of Directors most assuredly accounted in his favor. Thornley, for one, had been a close friend of his father's, and a mentor to young Rupert during the early days of his training. Willcox was another. Without a doubt, he'd had both their votes even before the first word had been spoken. He was not so certain about the remaining ten members, each of them 'old school' Watchers and sticklers for Council edict. None of them had ever personally been given the responsibility of a Slayer of their own, and thus ruled by time-honored convention rather than personal experience. It was the Council's strength as a governing body, and its weakness, that its most senior delegates and lawmakers knew absolutely nothing of what it truly meant to stand in battle at a Slayer's side.

Giles realized he'd tuned out again, when Blair nudged him and threw a meaningful nod in the direction of the chairman.

"Mr. Giles," the chairman addressed him again, clearly unimpressed at having been ignored. "The ballot is six to six." He gestured his head at the single empty chair to his right. It wasn't like Quentin Travers to miss such a noteworthy decision, if only to depose it. "It appears that in the absence of our deciding vote, the floor falls to you. Is there anything you wish to add in your favor? Anything else you can tell us about this 'Glory' creature?"

Pushing to his feet, Giles took a moment to gather his thoughts. The hand he slid into his trouser pocket brushed against silky black lace. "There is one more thing you may find of interest." It was time to play his trump card, the one he had been hoping to avoid, if at all possible, for Buffy's sake. But they needed the Council's help, and if this was the only way to sway them, then so be it. "Glory is looking for something called 'The Key'. We don't know what that is, or her agenda for it, only that she is merciless in all attempts to find it."

This new information had the desired effect. The room erupted into a cacophony of loud conversation as the board members all started speaking at once, all asking Giles questions he couldn't, or wouldn't, answer. In his pocket, his hand became a fist around his one physical connection to the woman he loved, the woman he risked everything for, in order to protect her. The bond, however scant, made him stronger in the face of their interrogation, making their accusations of deceit bounce right off. True to his promise, he did not mention Dawn by name. They would simply have to draw their own conclusions from the information already supplied.

Somewhere around the hundredth time of saying he did not know the answer to the question asked of him, they started arguing with each other. Theories and speculation started flying around the room, ranging from practical conjecture of the known facts, to the completely nonsensical. As the chairman banged his gavel and brought order to the chaos, Giles knew only one thing for certain. He had gotten their attention, and along with it, their unanimous support.

Relieved, he sat down in his chair and let go a long breath, knowing his work there was done. He could return to Sunnydale and leave the problem in their more than capable hands. With the Council's best minds assigned to the task, and with the overwhelming array of information available at their fingertips in the Central Library, it would only be a matter of time before someone unearthed the secrets he and Buffy so desperately needed to know.

* * * * *

The bell on the front door of the Magic Box tinkled, announcing an arrival. Since the sign in the window proclaimed the store 'CLOSED' for clean up, courtesy of the destruction caused by Willow and Anya's troll, it was a good bet it wasn't a customer.

Broom in hand, Tara glanced up, figuring it would be Dawn. It was just on dusk, and the teenager was probably searching for her sister, and, with their mother still not feeling one hundred percent, the likelihood of supper sometime in the near future. Along with Willow, Anya, and herself, Buffy was lending the Scoobies a helpful hand in the wake of Olaf the troll's visit. Xander, with his arm set in plaster from his run-in with Olaf, seemed to be enjoying the role of supervisor, without having to actually supervise anything. The comic book spread before him on the tarot reading table seemed to be doing a good job at holding his attention.

Tara straightened, her small intake of breath revealing her surprise at who had just entered the shop. He was supposed to be away for a whole week, a period of time the gang had hoped to use to their advantage and get the worst of the destruction cleared away, but he was back early.

The others either noticed or heard her reaction, and also stopped work to look around at their mystery visitor. Tara smiled a greeting at him, although Giles' eyes sought out only one person in the group.

On the other side of her, she heard Buffy breathe his name, almost in reverence. "Giles... "

His expression grew warm, love shining in his eyes for just one person, as if he had been parted from her for months instead of days. It only lasted a second, but enough for Tara to smile knowingly to herself.

Then, remembering present company and the fact that his and Buffy's relationship was supposed to be a secret, Giles surveyed the damage to his shop with a customary frown. He dropped his suitcase and carry-on bag at his feet, shrugging out of his topcoat, which was a bit too warm for Sunnydale, even in the winter, and laid it on top. "It's a good thing I wasn't away any longer than three days," he said, maintaining the pretense for watchful eyes.

But Tara could tell, as his gaze fell on Buffy again, that his disapproving scowl was purely for appearances sake. From his body language, she knew he longed to take his love in his arms and kiss her senseless.

"Hi, Giles," Willow chirped up brightly, making a somewhat clumsy attempt to hide her broom behind her back.

"You shouldn't be back yet," Anya told him brusquely from her cleaning spot behind the cash register. "You're supposed to be away another four days."

Xander grinned at his girlfriend, then at the man coming slowly down the middle steps toward them.

"I told you I should have used magick to get this place cleaned up quicker," Willow said to her co-conspirators.

"Yes," Giles agreed sarcastically, stopping before them, "because we all know nothing could possibly go wrong with that."

"Hi, Mr. Giles," Tara greeted him, grinning ear to ear.

He gave her a small smile in return, then looked as if he were about to make another comment on the half-demolished state of the shop, when Buffy literally launched herself at him. He caught her in his arms, as equally surprised as the other Scoobies.

For a moment, he returned the hug, then pulled back just far enough to look at her. The single happy tear trailing a wet track down her cheek made him raise a gentle hand, her expression telling him all her reservations about hiding their feelings from their friends had just evaporated. Arms encircling his neck, she pulled him down into a long, loving kiss on the lips, right in front of everyone. If Buffy had surprised him with this move, it didn't show, because Giles needed no more encouragement to follow his heart. Forgetting the audience, he embraced the woman he loved and eagerly returned her kiss.

The Magic Box rang with stunned silence. Tara grinned, sighing happily over their obviously deep love and affection for one another, and the fact that they no longer felt it necessary to keep it hidden. Xander moved across to join her and Willow, cautiously cradling his broken arm. Anya also joined them, until the four Scoobies stood a little apart from Buffy and Giles, all but Tara watching with their mouths open and their eyes wide, unable to believe what they were witnessing.

"Okay," Xander asked finally, "did you just do another spell, Will? You know, like the one you did with Olaf? Only you sent us all to Bizarro Land, right? Because that can't possibly be Buffy playing tonsil hockey with Giles... "

"Right there with you," Willow agreed, stunned by the passionate scene being played out in front of her eyes.

"New Year's Eve is not until tomorrow night," Anya commented, equally puzzled. "I thought that was when people who normally didn't kiss each other did?"

"It is." Xander's eyes raked the rafters, as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. "We didn't hang mistletoe in here, did we?"

"Not a sprig," Willow squeaked.

"So will someone please explain the major lip-lock going on over there?"

"They're in love," Tara answered with a dreamy smile.

Three sets of eyes stared at her, dumfounded.

"Since when?" Xander and Willow chorused together.

"You mean they're having sex, too?" Anya asked.

"Since... " Tara began, then shook her head and changed tact. "You guys just haven't noticed because you've known Buffy and Giles since high school. You have them neatly pigeon-holed and labeled what you want them to be, because it's all nice and easy, but the truth is they've changed. Trust me, they're in love. It was one of the first things I noticed."

With an affectionate smile, Willow reached for her hand. "Sounds to me like you should have majored in psych, sweetie."

"But this is Buffy!" Xander insisted, waving a hand at the couple still in a passionate clinch. "And Giles! And--ohmygod!" He clamped his hand over his eyes with theatrical flair. "Tongue! Too much tongue!"

"Giles could do with some Slayer-induced orgasms," Anya mused, head tilting as she studied them closely. "He'll be a lot less stuffy and repressed."

"Not helping, An."

"Tara's right," Willow said, her fingers laced with her girlfriend's, as she conquered her shock and realized the truth.

"But--"

"Xander, Buffy and Giles have found each other. Who are we to criticize?"

Both couples looked at their respective partners, realizing that they had all changed since high school. In light of their own unconventional relationships, they were hardly in the position to pass judgment. They looked up as Buffy and Giles finally broke apart. The couple remained close, in their own little world, until they finally remembered their audience. A little embarrassed, they turned to approach their friends, still hand in hand.

"Yes, well," Giles said, finally finding his voice. "I believe we owe you all an explanation."

"Giles, let me," Buffy began nervously. "You guys, there's kinda something we've been wanting to tell you."

"After that little demonstration," Willow said with a huge smile, "I'm thinking we already know."

"But you're okay with it, right? With me and Giles?"

Xander smiled, and reached out his good arm to draw his ex-demon girlfriend to his side. "Yeah, I think we can handle a little unconventional romance."

Buffy turned an adoring smile on the man whose hand she still clasped tightly in hers. "I just love him so much."

"Kinda figured that one out, too," Willow said happily, surreptitiously brushing at the corners of her eyes.

"Your welcome home kiss didn't leave much doubt," Tara explained helpfully.

"I'm sorry I've been such a basket case the past few days," Buffy apologized. "I wanted to tell you all it was because I missed Giles, not Riley... "

"Riley who?" Xander put in.

"I just couldn't find the right words," Buffy admitted. "Guess I was scared you guys would... disapprove or something."

"And if we did?" Xander asked. "That would change your mind?"

Buffy and Giles exchanged another loving smile. "No way," Buffy told the man she loved, her conviction deep and true. "Nothing will change my mind, or my heart. Not ever." Her eyes grew wide as she turned back to her friends. "Just... don't tell my mom, okay?"

* * * * *

After dropping off Giles' luggage at his home, an intimate meal at one of Sunnydale's finer Mexican restaurants was in order. After three long, lonely days without him, Buffy was almost giddy with happiness. Content to simply sit and watch him with an adoring smile, he could have ordered her a plate of rusty nails and she would not have cared in the slightest. It was getting on to nine when he took her home. She knew he was tired, having just flown in from England and all, but she selfishly insisted he come in, wanting and needing his support when she broke the news of their love affair to her mother. In short order, they found themselves alone at the dining room table, when Joyce, with a single glance at the weary Watcher, volunteered to make them all some tea.

"Your mother's looking well," he commented quietly. Reaching out, he patted her hand in a gesture of encouragement. "I'm glad to see she's back on her feet."

"Me too," Buffy agreed. Although with a long road to recovery still ahead of her, the fact that her mom was out of bed, if only in a limited capacity, was of great relief to her and Dawn. She just hoped the declaration she was about to reveal wasn't going to be a setback. With their friends now privy to the truth, Buffy was anxious to spill the beans before someone else did. To this end, she nabbed Giles' hand before he withdrew it, thinking that if her mom walked back in and caught them being all touchy-feely, it would only be advantageous to the confession process.

Sitting at right angles to him at the corner of the empty table, Buffy gave him a loving smile. She'd missed him terribly in the few days they'd been parted, so much that just being near him again made her feel complete.

"Did you find my surprise?" she asked in a husky tone, a licentious gleam in her eyes.

"I almost had a heart attack over your surprise," Giles confessed with a grin.

Buffy returned his smile, leaning in close to whisper to him. "Later, I'll give you another one."

"Heart attack? Or surprise?"

"Both."

His low moan, from an imagined pleasure, sent a thrill of desire chasing through her. When he spoke, his voice was low and sexy. "As wonderful as that sounds, love, I'm not sure I'll be up for anything quite so energetic tonight."

"I know ways to get you up," Buffy returned wickedly.

They guiltily jumped apart, reclaiming hands, as Joyce appeared in the doorway laden down with a small tray of tea service. Ever the gentleman, Giles was instantly on his feet, relieving her mother of the small burden. Grateful, Joyce took a seat on the other side of Buffy, looking worn out from even the simple task of making tea.

"Rupert," her mom said, as Giles resumed his own seat and set down the tray, "I don't understand why the other Watchers made you go all the way to England when they don't know anything. I mean, couldn't they have just told you that on the phone?"

He smiled tightly.

"You don't know the Council, Mom," Buffy answered for him, watching as he poured three steaming cups from the china teapot, adding milk and sugar to two. "They're all rules and regulations, and for doing things by the book."

Realizing the full truth of her words, Buffy's meaningful gaze rested on his as she accepted her cup from him. The Council would have a collective cow if they were to find out about her and Giles. They were stuffy enough that they would probably refuse to help them simply because falling in love was a breach in protocol. Maybe this wasn't such a good time to tell her mom, or anyone. The less people who knew the truth, at least until the Council parted with the information they needed, the better.

"Yes, they are," Giles agreed quietly. He passed another cup of tea to her mom, pushing the tray with the milk and sugar within easy reach should she require them. "But given the information I've supplied them, I'm hopeful they'll know something useful soon." His expression turned regretful as he looked at Buffy. "We can only hope that this time they won't feel the need to share it in person."

"What about 'The Key'?" Buffy asked, suddenly all business. "Were they all over it? They don't know it's Dawn, right?"

"Yes, they were interested, but no, they don't know anything about Dawn." Giles gave her a reassuring smile, instinctively reaching out to cover her fingers with his. "I made you a promise, remember?"

Realizing Joyce was watching them, Giles reluctantly pulled back his hand. The three of them fell into companionable silence, sipping tea, until the third time he yawned into his cup prompted Joyce to speak up.

"You must be exhausted from your flight, Rupert. And here we are, keeping you from your bed like a couple of old women."

He gave her a weary smile. "I am rather knackered."

Buffy giggled at the phrase, the first time she had laughed since he had gone to England, three whole days ago.

"Then we should let you go home," Joyce said decisively.

Minutes later, Buffy saw the man she loved to the front door. She helped him shrug into his suit coat, and then held onto the open door as she faced him across the threshold. Giles lingered on her doorstep, as reluctant to leave, despite his obvious fatigue, as she was to see him go.

"Guess I'll see you tomorrow then," she said, unable to hide the note of disappointment in her tone. As much as she would have liked to have dropped by later, after her patrol, she understood that he needed rest. Poor guy was almost asleep on his feet.

In an instinctive movement, he reached out to cup her cheek, and then pulled her close for a goodnight kiss, not on the lips, but on the side of her head. It didn't matter how Giles kissed her, he always managed to make her feel special, and completely his.

"Goodnight," he whispered with a loving smile. With a final tender caress to her cheek, he turned and headed down the front path to his car.

Buffy watched it pull from the curb before she shut the door. As it latched, she leaned on it with a dreamy sigh. That was when she noticed her mom was standing in the shadows of the kitchen doorway, watching her. And from the look on her face, she knew. She knew everything. The only thing Buffy couldn't tell was whether or not she approved. Suddenly uncomfortable about confessing her new love without him there for support, she turned quickly, one hand reaching for the coat rack, and the other for the door handle.

"Think I'm gonna go stake something," Buffy said quickly, opening the front door again in a vain attempt to escape her mother's coming inquisition.

"Buffy," Joyce called levelly, stopping her. She came through the dimmed dining room to join her in the foyer.

"Yeah?"

For a moment, they just looked at each other; mother and daughter having both known the love of the same man. That alone was reason enough for her mother to disapprove of her relationship with Giles. That, and about a gazillion other things she was certain her mom could come up with. Finally Joyce broke the immobility between them, reaching past her daughter's shoulder to shut the door. This was it. Confession time. And Buffy realized she was gonna have to go it alone.

"How long has it been going on?"

"What?" Buffy asked innocently, resisting the urge to squirm. The last time she and her mom had had The Talk it had been about her big mistake sleeping with Angel, and it had made her feel just as uncomfortable.

"Buffy, I may not feel like my old self yet, but I have eyes," Joyce said. "You've been miserable for three days, and in the half hour Rupert was here you were smiling and even giggling." She took her daughter's hand, and with nothing more than a slight tug, led the Slayer through to the couch in the living room. There, they sat together, knees touching, before Joyce continued. "Not to mention all the covert touches you two shared. I'm guessing he even kissed you goodnight."

Buffy studied her hands in her lap. "Guess I'm pretty transparent, huh? I just--" She looked her mother in the eye. "I just missed him so much."

"Are you in love with him?"

"Yeah," she confessed quietly. "I am."

Digesting this, Joyce glanced away. "And he loves you. I've known that for a long time."

"You have?" Buffy asked, bewildered. "How come I never noticed?"

"At the risk of sounding clichéd, 'love is blind'." Joyce reached out to reclaim her daughter's hand. "Buffy, you're nineteen, and he's a couple of years older than me."

"I know. But age doesn't matter. To me or to him."

"It might when you're fifty, and he's--what?--nearly eighty?"

"I'm The Slayer, Mom. Statistics show I may not make it to twenty-five, let alone fifty."

Joyce looked utterly appalled by such a chilling statement of fact.

"I know Giles probably isn't what you had in mind as a potential son-in-law," Buffy pleaded, "but he makes me happy. He makes me feel safe and wanted and loved. I'm stronger with him, stronger than I ever was alone. It's like... he completes me, makes me whole." She paused to regard her mother with a smile that came straight from her heart. "I know that sounds like it's right out of some bad romance novel, but it's true. I want to be with him for... well, for however long I have left."

They regarded each other for an extended moment.

"Oh boy," Joyce said in resignation. She looked down at their clasped hands, applying a gentle pressure as if fighting to hold onto her little girl for as long as possible. "I guess... there's not a whole lot I can really say to that, is there?"

"That you're okay with 'us' would be kinda nice."

Buffy swallowed the lump in her raw throat as her mother's eyes sought hers again.

"I only want what's best for you, Buffy. That's all I've ever wanted." She nodded to herself, finally accepting the situation for what it was. Raising a hand, she combed her daughter's blonde hair from her face. "And if your choice is Rupert, then I suppose it doesn't really matter what I think. If you love him, and if he truly makes you feel the way you say, then that's good enough for me."

Tears welled in the corners of Buffy's eyes. "I love you, Mom." She fell into her mother's arms to share a hug.

"I love you too, sweetheart. Don't ever forget that."

* * * * *

It was after midnight when, after a boring, routine patrol, Buffy let herself in the front door with the key Giles had given her. Despite what she'd told him on her front doorstep just a few hours earlier, that she would 'see him in the morning', her patrol route had led her to his door, the same way it had every night in the short time they had been together. She closed it quietly behind her, locking up, her arrival identical in manner and approach as it had been for the past two weeks. She slipped out of her coat and hung it on the rack, smiling at the thought of a piece of her clothing now having a permanent place on the stand inside his door.

The familiar darkness of Giles' living room greeted her as she moved into the house, her Slayer night vision requiring no additional lighting to see her way. All was silent in the moonlight and shadow, and there was something comforting about the solitude that wrapped itself around her. Here, tonight, she felt as if she had finally come home.

Kicking off her shoes, she padded in her socks, up to his bedroom loft, expertly avoiding stepping on the squeaky floorboards she'd identified from practice. Unlike the preceding few nights, when he had been in England and the place had been so lonely and empty without him, and unlike the other recent times, when she arrived after patrol to find him smiling at her from his bed as he awaited her, tonight Giles was fast asleep. That he lay on his newly designated side of the bed brought an affectionate smile to her lips; that he faced its empty center with one arm outstretched in search of her, even in sleep, made her heart turn over with joy. For a moment, Buffy just stood there, alone in the moonlit stillness, watching her Watcher dream peaceful dreams. He looked so adorable while asleep, this man of hers, with all the pressures of living on the Hellmouth and the responsibility of a Slayer wiped from his handsome features. At once, she reflected on the depth of his devotion to her, all that he had given up to be at her side. What miracle had been worked for her to have finally found him? All the love he had given her, the joy he had brought her in such a short time, and the promise of passion yet to come. She could only pray she was capable of returning it, body and soul, that she could give back enough to sustain him for when the time came and he was forced to face a life without her.

Pushing thoughts of her own mortality to the back of her mind, Buffy slowly, quietly began to undress, her adoring gaze never once leaving his sleeping face. She stripped to her panties and bra, then replaced the latter with one of Giles' t-shirts as scant protection against the December chill. Climbing into bed, careful not to disturb his slumber, she pulled the soft bedcovers up around them both. With his outstretched arm beneath her shoulders and her head on his pillow, she continued to watch him, cherishing him at close range. Practically nose to nose, she eventually gave in to the desire to touch him, allowing her fingertips to gently brush his roughened cheek. How she loved this man, and how grateful she was to have him in her life.

Despite her intention not to disturb him, her tender touch registered on his face as a twitch. Instinct made him roll over onto his back, the arm beneath her automatically taking her with him. Buffy snuggled in close, soaking in his warmth and his love. She sighed softly, happy to stay exactly where she was forever more, however long--or short--that may be. She focused on happy thoughts, like tomorrow morning, when they would wake sharing their first new day together, and perhaps make love in the weak winter sunshine. Tonight, however, she was content to finally sleep in the arms of the man she loved.

When, at last, Buffy surrendered to the lateness of the hour and the contentment in her soul, she closed her eyes and found Rupert Giles exactly where he promised he would be, for all time.

Inside her heart.

Read the next chapter: Of Protocol & Tradition