The Unbreakable Series
Part 3 - Of Protocol & Tradition

written by Koala





"Are you sure you don't have another one?" Buffy asked, determined to feed the ragged corners of the dollar bill into the uncooperative machine.

Giles frowned and grunted in reply. It was a moot question, after all, since in his present position, he couldn't even reach the wallet in the back pocket of his trousers to check. The fact that she'd already asked the same thing twice only added to his growing irritation. He had let himself be persuaded by her coy smile and easy promises that it would cost 'just a buck' and take 'five minutes tops', but Buffy hadn't actually partaken in such nonsense since high school. He should have known, before driving all the way out to the Sunnydale Mall, that inflation had tripled the cost, and that five minutes invariably meant fifteen.

"One a little less... used?"

"I'm not a bloody bank teller," he grumbled. He shifted uncomfortably, emphasizing his discomfort at jamming his large frame into an instant photo booth clearly intended for midgets. In the process, he jostled Buffy, who was sitting on his lap, causing her to miss the slot and glare. "Sorry, but my leg is going to sleep."

"What are you saying? That I'm too heavy?"

"I'm saying," he said, as she stubbornly turned back to the money feeder again, "that this two-by-two shoebox you've squeezed us into is--"

She made a sudden sound of success, cutting short his gripe. Peering around her, Giles felt genuine relief wash over him as he watched the cantankerous photo machine finally swallow the last dollar bill... a feeling that was extremely short-lived when it promptly spat it halfway back out.

"Great. Now it's stuck." Buffy's shoulders sagged in defeat. Momentarily giving up and leaving the worn dollar hanging, she turned to him in real disappointment. "I just wanted a photo of us together. For my locket." She touched the gift he had given her for Christmas, just weeks ago, where it glittered on a gold chain against her black sweater. She pouted, so adorably, that he instantly forgot his discomfort and impatience and instead longed to kiss the sulk from her jutting lip.

Raising a tender hand, Giles combed his fingers through her loose blonde locks, never tiring of the feel of it. Sequestered behind the photo booth curtain, he brought her head down to quell her disappointment with a gentle kiss; one that began tentatively but quickly escalated as their enthusiasm grew. It amazed him, sometimes, the intensity of passion Buffy could stir so quickly and easily within him. She made him feel young again, pre-Watcher days, when sex had been a constant teenage pursuit. And yet, what he shared with her went far beyond just the carnal urges of any normal, red-blooded male. With Buffy, he had touched something deep inside, and found himself.

While the physical act of making love with her was a big part of it, it wasn't the only part. Loving Buffy was tireless hours of research and training and preparation. It was standing by her side, physically and emotionally, no matter what. It was the violence of slaying, and the constant threat of injury or death... and so much honest love and joy that he sometimes believed his heart would explode.

It was, he realized, being crammed into an instant photo booth just to make her smile.

Warming to the tender ministrations of his mouth, Buffy shifted accommodatingly on his lap, her arms finding purchase on his shoulders as she embraced him as best their cramped quarters would allow. So involved, neither noticed her brush against the dangling dollar, or that the movement was enough to feed it back into the photo machine. Completely lost in each other, they even failed to notice the flash bulb that went off several times.

They only broke apart, and rather abruptly, when, minutes later, someone threw back the green, half-curtain providing a modicum of privacy within the booth. Disheveled and guilty, they looked around, thankful to find it was only Dawn scowling at them, and not Mall Security or a miffed parent.

"Can't you guys keep your lips off each other for even five minutes?"

"Sure, we can. But that was more like ten minutes. Or longer."

"Whatever." Dawn rolled her eyes with the typical disgust of a 14-year-old. She offered a narrow strip of paper; their processed photos, which she had retrieved from the drop slot outside the booth.

Completely shameless, Buffy smiled the carefree grin of the happily-in-love, and snagged the photos from her sister. Giles, with his arms still resting lightly around his love, admired them as she held them up. All four candid snapshots had captured them in a tender kiss, revealing far more of their love and devotion to each other than any posed photo ever could have. He thought the third in the sequence was the best, a profile pose of them with closed eyes and lips barely touching.

"See?" Buffy asked, clearly pleased with the results despite the effort. She tapped the third photo in psychic agreement. "Told ya it'd be worth it."

Giles returned her smile. "And you were right. It's even worth the fact that I've lost all feeling in my right leg."

She gave him a playful slap. He was encouraging her into another kiss, when Dawn interrupted again.

"Lisa and I wanna go eat," she announced in a bored tone, making reference to the red-faced friend standing behind her, whom Dawn had insisted accompany them on this after school excursion to the Mall.

Giles spared a kind thought for the girl's discomfiture. She had probably never seen her parents share a passionate kiss, and with him and Buffy having wandered the Mall, hand in hand and doing a rather good impersonation of 'parents', such was the source of her embarrassment.

"Before you two totally make us gag," Dawn added.

"You know," Buffy told him in mock parental seriousness. She used her thumb to wipe a telling smudge of lipstick from his mouth. "We probably should feed the children before we go home for a serious make out session."

Dawn groaned and rolled her eyes.

Giles smiled, already longing to finish what they started. "Quite so. We probably should."

* * * * *

The Food Court was packed when they arrived around six-thirty, so Giles secured the first available table he saw and then rustled up an extra chair for a total of four. Feeling very husbandly, he dutifully parted with enough cash to take them all to an upscale restaurant--twice-- and then volunteered to mind the assortment of plastic-bagged purchases while Buffy took the girls to get their food. Watching them navigate from food stall to food stall in search of the perfect gastronomical delight, he smiled wistfully. He endeavored to soak in the normalcy around him, absorbing all the little details and nuances of the life he was trying so hard to give Buffy. He refused to believe that a few stolen moments, such as these, were all they were destined to ever share of it.

Yet despite his conviction, deep down where the Council-bred Watcher in him still lived, he found it troubling that he had not heard a peep from London in the three weeks since his visit. Time was not an ally to them in this battle, and something in his gut told him it was running out fast. This creature, Glory, was still at large, still working towards her own agenda... which they were no closer to discovering any details about, let alone stopping. Surely, with the Council's top minds on the job, and with the abundance of information contained within their Central Library, they had uncovered something by now? Why hadn't they contacted him?

Irrationally fearing a demonic attack at any second, Giles nervously scanned the crowd to pinpoint Buffy and the girls, who had split up. He spied Buffy at an Indian restaurant, dragging plates from the counter onto a tray, and frowned slightly, hoping she hadn't bought him a strong curry, which would upset his stomach and thus put paid to any 'later' plans. Across the way, Dawn and her friend had settled for an old American standby, and were presently on their way back to the table with their hamburgers, sodas, and huge piles of French fries.

Giles forced himself to relax, and just enjoy this extremely ordinary slice of life. 'Carpe Diem,' he decided, because to sit and contemplate gloom-and-doom theories of a possible apocalypse, while the other residents of Sunnydale went about their mundane lives in a completely clueless fashion, was only asking for trouble. And never had there been a clearer picture of ignorance to the unseen evil this town harbored, than here, at the Sunnydale Mall. At times like this, he envied society's collective ability to overlook the horror, and find contentment and fulfillment in everyday lives.

Dawn and her friend rejoined him. Clearing their purchases off the table, Giles helped the two teens transfer the fast food from their trays, whether they wanted him to or not. In the process, he managed to catch Dawn's eye and impart a paternal frown of disapproval for her non-nutritional meal choice. The relaxed hours shopping and the family atmosphere of the Mall had worked together with favorable results. It wasn't often he experienced this side of domestic life, and it came as something of a shock to realize that the feeling wasn't nearly as unnerving to a bachelor of his years, as it probably should have been. Never before had he so seriously contemplated the idea of being a husband and a father; never before had he been so completely in love with the right woman.

Returning to his chair, Giles watched Buffy as she threaded her way back to him, laden with food. He was pleased, and somewhat relieved, with her choice of mild Tandoori chicken and Pulao rice for him, although less so at the small bowl of Mulligatawany soup she had chosen for herself. In his opinion, lentils and broth were not enough to feed a mouse. Her thin framed belied her Slayer strength; she was far too skinny, at least to him, and the fantasy of fattening her up, of keeping her barefoot and pregnant--and therefore safe--for the next few years was suddenly a very appealing one.

"Want your papadom?" Buffy asked, her hand already edging to claim ownership.

"What's mine is yours," he said, busy pulling the wrapper off a flimsy plastic fork.

"Not legally." Buffy grinned, snagging the crisp, deep-fried disc off the side of his plate. "Not yet, anyway."

He shared a smile with her, happy to know that while it was far too soon to even consider the prospect of marriage and settling down, she was not completely horrified by the idea. Their relationship as a couple may still be a new thing, still full of exploration and discovery, but their friendship had survived years of tears and pain, and even death. It had a permanence attached to it that he had never before felt with anyone . . .

Someone knocked into Giles from behind, making him drop his first forkful of food on its way to his mouth.

"Oops, sorry!" said the man.

Giles half-turned, readying a glare for the perpetrator's carelessness, despite the apology.

"Rupert?" the culprit asked.

Giles swiveled around even more, and was surprised to discover the face of an old friend before him. "Carl? Carlton Fisk?"

A quick glance confirmed that the man, whom he had not seen since their teaching days together at Sunnydale High, was indeed dining at the Food Court with his family; a young brunette woman not much older than Buffy, and a toddler of about three. He stood up, genuinely pleased to see his old friend, and the two of them shook hands.

"It's been a while," Carlton said with a grin. He was Giles' age, although stouter in build and balding in back.

"Indeed, it has. Here, allow me," Giles offered, as the young woman, whom he suddenly noticed was pregnant, struggled to bring their table closer and join them. He paused to throw a wry look at his friend. "Well, I can certainly see what you've been up to, Carl."

Carlton chuckled, and helped Giles maneuvered the two tables together, quickly transplanting the Fisk family, and their respective trays of food, into the conversation.

"This is my wife, Angie," Carlton introduced her. "You may remember her from school, Rupert. My first son, Ryan," he said, indicating the young boy. He rested a loving hand on his wife's enlarged belly. "And my soon-to-be-second son, Devon."

Giles smiled a greeting at the young woman. He didn't recognize her, even though it was rather obvious that she would have been a student at Sunnydale High the same time he and Carlton were on the faculty. Detouring from where that line of thought was headed, he indicated the two teens quietly eating hamburgers and fries, and began his own introductions. "This is Dawn, and Lisa."

"Hi," the chorused together, then giggled over their timing.

"And this is Buffy, my--" Giles hesitated, suddenly unsure of the right words to introduce the love of his life, especially after the implication of Carlton's own student/teacher affair. After clearing his throat, he tried again. "My, um... m-my... "

"The word he's having a panic attack over," Buffy supplied easily, "is 'girlfriend'. Hi, nice to meet you both."

Giles huffed out an exasperated breath.

"You know, you look familiar, Buffy," Carlton mused. "Were you a teacher's aide at Sunnydale High?"

"Student," Buffy confirmed. She smiled at her lover, enjoying the mortification reddening his cheeks. "You were a teacher there with Gi--Rupert? I don't remember you."

"Probably because you didn't take woodshop."

Buffy grinned. "You'd be surprised how handy I am when it comes to whittling."

Carlton laughed. "Rupert, buddy, I knew you were holding out on me. I always figured you were up to some extracurricular activity in that library of yours." He paused to chuckle again, laying his arm across his young wife's shoulders. "Hell, I guess we were both lucky Herr Snyder never caught on."

"Quite."

"Oh, we weren't together back then," Buffy clarified. "At least not like that... like this. I mean, Giles and I knew each other, and hung out in the library a lot... I mean, a bit... but we weren't--y'know--lovers." Looking from Carlton, to his pregnant wife, and then to the child who had obviously been conceived in a similarly private campus nook, Buffy suddenly changed the subject. "So, how long have you guys been married?"

"Since graduation," Angie answered shyly.

"Class of... ?"

"'98."

Buffy nodded. It was the year before her own graduation, which had been marred by the Mayor's attempted ascension and the total destruction of the school. "Cool," she said quietly, although without any real enthusiasm.

Giles noted the look on her face as she stared at her soup, and wondered if she, too, had just glimpsed 'them' in Carlton and his family, had the circumstances been just a tiny bit different. Quite unexpectedly, the domestic normalcy he'd been doting on seemed as unpalatable as the food cooling on the plastic plate before him.

'Wake up, Giles!' his inner voice called. He was a Watcher, Buffy was his Slayer, and this was the Hellmouth. Domestic normalcy was a term that did not--should not--enter the equation. 'Dear Lord, what the hell were they doing playing mums and dads?' Because that was exactly what they were doing; play acting at roles that could never truly be theirs . . .

Dinner conversation remained friendly but sporadic, lagging in the wake of the stark reminder of what would never be, until finally the little boy began making a fuss that signaled the end. Before Carlton left, he wrote his home address and phone number on a paper napkin, in exchange for the Magic Box business card Giles plucked from his wallet. Giles shook his old friend's hand farewell, truly wondering if they would ever see each other again. He hadn't made many friends on the SHS faculty; Carlton was one, and Jenny had been another.

Thoughts of Jenny, and of her death at the hands of Buffy's vampire lover, only sent him spiraling further into depression. Carlton was, perhaps, safer by not keeping his acquaintance. No doubt he was happier . . .

Shortly after the Fisk family's departure, and having had a gutful of all the happy, normal, and blissfully ignorant people around him, Giles gathered up the trash and suggested they leave. While the girls collected up their respective purchases, Buffy made a quick dash to the Chinese food vendor, explaining that takeout could be easily reheated for her ailing mother.

Such was the dour mood that had unexpectedly descended on both Buffy and Giles, no one dared speak a word for the entire car ride home.

* * * * *

It was well dark when Giles arrived at his apartment, after first dropping off Dawn's friend at her house, and then Buffy, Dawn, and their numerous packages at Revello Drive. Buffy didn't ask him to come in, so he didn't press he issue, although as he left her on the doorstep with a chaste kiss on the cheek, he wondered, for the first time since they'd become a couple, if he would see her later or not.

His car keys made a clatter as he threw them on his desk, the sound loud in the silence of his empty bachelor apartment. Shedding his leather jacket onto the back of the desk chair, he wearily went to the kitchen to make tea. He turned on the desk lamp, purposely keeping the lighting to the minimum; gloom was a far better medium in which to brood.

What had begun as a cheery outing to the Mall with the woman he loved had ended, abruptly, on a rather depressing note. He hadn't said anything to Buffy; he hadn't needed too. The stricken look on her face had told him that her disillusioned thoughts ran along similar lines. Running into Carlton and his family had, if nothing else, confirmed that no matter how hard they tried, no matter how badly they wanted a normal life together or pretended it was within their grasp, nothing would ever change who and what they really were--Watcher and Slayer.

It had been a slap in the face, a wake-up call to them both. It was part of why the Watcher's Council forbid just such a relationship.

Tea made, although having lost his desire for it, Giles returned to the living room with his cup and saucer. He sank into the chair at his desk, struggling with a decision he knew had to be made. Finally, believing it was for the better, he reached into the pocket of his discarded jacket and retrieved the paper napkin with Carlton's address and phone number. He tore the thing into a dozen or more pieces before he changed his mind, then sat with his elbows on the desktop and his head in his hands, lamenting a friendship that had, in reality, ended almost two years ago.

He remained that way for a long time, until his tea had cooled to an undrinkable temperature. He pushed it aside, untouched, thinking that a glass of single malt whiskey would better suit his present mood. Straightening, his eyes automatically searching for the familiar liquor bottle, he noticed that the red light on the telephone/answering machine by his elbow was blinking, indicating a new message. Pushing to his feet, focused on the bottle sitting on the end of the kitchen counter rather than who had called, he idly stabbed the 'play' button as he crossed to retrieve his Scotch.

Giles' hand froze halfway to the bottle, the recorded voice stopping him cold.

"Rupert, this is Emily Anderson, from the Watcher's Council. I'm sorry to have missed you, but I've been asked by Tobias Blair to inform you that there is some news in regards to your recent visit. I shan't go into details over the phone, but suffice to say that Quentin Travers and a small delegation will be arriving in Sunnydale tomorrow, to personally deliver the information... "

Turning his back as Emily's voice disclosed itinerary details, Giles picked up the bottle of alcohol on his kitchen counter. Only half listening, he uncapped it and poured out a glass.

He choked on a mouthful of it at Emily's next announcement.

"Unfortunately, the hotel did not have enough vacancies to fulfill our needs, so I volunteered to find alternative accommodation. I hope my staying with you won't be a problem, Rupert, but I thought since I allowed you to stay with me... well, we can sort out the details when I arrive."

Giles shook his head in derision, and then swallowed the rest of his drink. 'No, no bloody problem,' he thought with dry sarcasm, in that his apartment only had the one bedroom, with just one bed. Buffy, who was already vehemently opposed to the Council's unwanted intrusion into their lives, was simply going to love this little glitch . . .

* * * * *

"Here, I'll get that," Buffy told Willow, hurriedly removing the half-emptied Chinese takeout containers off the sofa in the living room. "Sorry. Mom's still not a hundred percent, and I guess I haven't really been taking up the slack."

"No, the place looks fine, Buffy," Willow said, unsuccessful in her attempt to lie.

Buffy sighed as her friend finally took a seat on the cleared couch. In truth, the place looked like a pigsty. She would have to get serious about the cleaning thing... tomorrow.

"Yeah, it's just us," Tara agreed with a smile, indicating the small gathered group. Anya sat between the two witches, while Xander, with his arm still in plaster from his run-in with Olaf the Troll, occupied the armchair opposite. Giles, having been the last to arrived, made no comment, either way, as he moved through the untidy living room to the fireplace at its head.

Regardless of her friends' willingness to overlook her shortcomings, Buffy felt compelled to continue her spur-of-the-moment clean-up, even if it was a case of 'too little, too late'. She and Dawn had been home from the Mall for less than an hour, barely long enough for their convalescing mother to swallow a few mouthfuls of micro-nuked General Tao Chicken, and certainly not long enough for the sort of cleaning regiment the entire house was in such desperate need of. Besides, the last thing she'd been expecting tonight was a Scooby meeting. But when Giles had unexpectedly called her about twenty minutes ago and told her to assemble the troops, she figured it must be important, much more so than her obvious lack of housekeeping skills . . .

Buffy pulled up short as she unearthed a military-style, khaki sweater from the far side of the couch. Memories of its owner, and of the slow, sensual way she had divested him of it in this very room, suddenly flooded her mind. It had been the night of her mother successful surgery to remove a brain tumor, the same night she had first kissed Giles in the training room, and then, completely confused by the resulting emotions thereof, had rushed home to have some pretty spectacular sex with her then-boyfriend, Riley Finn.

A lot sure had changed in a month.

"Hey, that must have belonged to... " Xander began, then just as quickly shut up.

Buffy's apologetic eyes were instinctively drawn to her now-boyfriend, Giles... but she guiltily couldn't hold his gaze. What must he think of her, keeping souvenirs of her past lovers, like notches on a headboard? But it wasn't as if she'd known Riley's sweater was there; if she hadn't been so remiss in her responsibilities around the house, she would have found and disposed of it long before now.

"Aren't we supposed to have a meeting?" Xander asked, sensing the awkward pause forming between Buffy and Giles.

"Yes, yes, we're here for a reason," Giles agreed, thankfully putting business first. Leaning a hand against the fireplace mantel, he gathered his thoughts. "I've had some rather... well, I've had some news. It seems that the Council of Watchers has found some information that may help us out."

"About Glory?" Buffy asked, taking a seat at the far end of the room.

"Presumably. We'll find that out when they arrive."

Buffy wasn't sure she was hearing him right. "Arrive? They're coming here?" God only knew, the last thing she needed right now, especially after their eye-opening trip to the Mall, was the Council looking over her shoulder, watching and judging her every move, their presence a constant reminder that the love she shared with Giles was doomed to failure. "Giles, I don't want them to come here," she said, hearing the desperation creep into her tone but unable to stop it. "I don't trust them. Make them not come here."

"I'm afraid they're already on their way," he said, apologetically. "Our old friend, Quentin Travers, is heading up a delegation."

She didn't like the sound of the word, 'delegation', one bit. It was too official, too stuffy and British and Watchery. And with Quentin Travers running the show, the whole deal was getting worse by the minute.

"They're gonna screw everything up," Buffy told the khaki sweater she held in her lap. Looking up, she met Giles' steady gaze in something close to panic. "They're gonna find out about us, and they're gonna ruin it."

"Buffy--"

"No, I'm serious," she insisted, aware that this conversation was really not one to be had in front of their friends. At the moment, she didn't care. It wasn't like her love for Giles was a big secret anymore, although in hindsight, it probably would have been better if it still had been. "Council policy, remember? You told me. Falling in love is against their rules."

"What kind of crappy rule is that?" Willow asked.

"Wait until you hear their views about sex," Anya added, before multiple pairs of eyes hushed her to silence. "What? Willow gets to make a comment!"

"Buffy," Giles tried again in a gentler tone. He slipped past the coffee table toward her, and then sat perched on the end of it, in front of her chair. "I'll grant you that, officially, yes, a Watcher's relationship with his Slayer is a question of protocol and tradition." He cupped her chin in his hand, bringing her uneasy gaze up to his. "But I am no longer officially your Watcher, and even if I were, nothing on God's green earth would ever stop me from loving you."

"But why do they have to come here?"

"I assume it's because what they have to say is of vital importance."

Giles hand traveled down the length of her arm. Disentangling her fingers from the khaki sweater clasped in her lap, he took her hand in his; the act suddenly making her realize she was clinging to the wrong lifeline.

"And if, in coming here," he continued, "they can help us get a grip on what we're dealing with, then I say we persevere with whatever inconvenience it causes us. Because right now, we can use all the help we can get."

"Don't they have phones?" Xander asked. Slipping into a terrible British accent, he added, for effect, "Hallo, Buffy, here's some stuff we know, pip pip."

"Yeah, phones!" Buffy agreed, seizing the possibility. She squeezed Giles' hand until he winced, desperate for him to make things better. "See, I'd like them on phones."

Giles looked away, unable to maintain eye contact. Three weeks ago, the Council had made him fly all the way to England, rather than use the phone to inform him they had absolutely no information on Glory. Why the hell, when they actually knew something useful, would they use the telephone now?

When he let go a defeated sigh, Buffy knew it was way too late to stop the inevitable. The ball was already rolling. The Council was a-coming. And despite Giles' verbal assurances, and the solid, protective warmth of his hand around hers, something cold in her gut told her the end was fairly nigh.

* * * * *

Although Giles had been the last to arrive for the Scooby meeting, he was also the last to leave. The news of Emily staying with him was something he wanted to inform Buffy in private, primarily so he could assure her with plenty of kisses and loving words that there was absolutely nothing to it. As he waited for Buffy to see their friends out the door, he puttered about the living room, scowling slightly at the mess. He eventually picked up Riley Finn's sweater, knowing he shouldn't be jealous of a bit of woven, khaki wool, yet unable to suppress the feeling. He seriously doubted Buffy had kept the thing as a memento, but the image of her clinging to it for support, instead of him, still burned in his mind's eye.

Finally placing the military-style pullover on the seat of the armchair Xander had vacated, Giles slid the old, paint-chipped chair Buffy had used back into its place under the equally old, paint-chipped desk. He stood with his hands in his pockets for a moment, silently watching her in the foyer as she said a final few words to Willow and Tara, before sitting down on the couch. He hoped that, with her chair now put back in its rightful place, she would join him rather than choose the armchair and the comfort of an absent lover.

He glanced up at the soft sound of Buffy's voice. Dawn had come down the stairs in search of a late night snack, no doubt curious about the nature of the impromptu meeting at such an odd hour. With soothing words and a gentle hand that was more maternal than sisterly, she told her not to worry, and then ushered the younger Summers back upstairs to a warm bed.

Buffy paused in the archway, her head down, her arms folded, and a somber expression on her face. She took in the fact that he had straightened up a little in her short absence, her gaze falling briefly on the location of Riley's sweater, before she moved to the couch and flopped down beside him in something akin to defeat. Giles lifted his arm in invitation, grateful when she curled into his side.

He welcomed her presence with a kiss on the crown of her golden head. They sat in absolute silence for a minute or two, Buffy playing with the buttons on his shirtfront, both of them staring at the khaki sweater on the seat of the armchair opposite, but lost along different trains of thought.

News of his unwanted houseguest was foremost on his mind. Giles, of course, had the option of telling Emily exactly what she could do with her brazen self-invite... except for two things. One, he really did owe her for her hospitality, and two, even though she was only a junior member of the Council, she was, nonetheless, a member. No doubt one in better standing with Travers than himself. He did not want to rock that boat; those waters were already choppy enough.

"When do they arrive?" Buffy finally asked, her tone resigned.

"Sometime tomorrow."

"For how long?"

"A day or two, I expect."

She grunted in reply. "That's at least one day too many. I don't like this."

"I know," he said, comforting her by running a gentle hand up and down her arm. "I can't say I'm overly fond of the idea of the Council prying into our lives again, either. Buffy, about their visit--"

"Last time, they put me through that test and it almost killed me," she cut in. "And then, when I was Faith, they almost killed me again. Honestly, I really can't handle almost being killed right now."

He chuckled at her sarcasm. "No more tests. I promise."

Buffy lifted her head from beneath his chin and pulled back to look him in the eye. "You really think they know something useful about Glory?"

Giles reluctantly let her leave his embrace, immediately missing the warmth and feel of her body against his. "I can't imagine they'd come all this way for a spot of tea."

Buffy didn't share his poor attempt at levity. "And if they do find out about us? What then? They can't enforce their stupid rules, can they?" A panicked look crossed her face, as the worse case scenario came to mind. "Giles, I can't lose you. Not now that I've finally found you. I won't survive... "

Using the backs of his fingers, he hushed her with a caress on her cheek. "Buffy, I'm not going anywhere, and there's nothing they can say or do to make me." He diverted his eyes, knowing she wasn't going to like what he had to say about Emily. She looked so fragile in the lamplight, desperate to know that he was still going to be in her life after the Council left. If he mentioned Emily now, she would only jump to conclusions and upset herself even more.

"What?" Buffy prompted in a tiny voice, noting his torn expression.

He changed tact. "I think, perhaps, it would be in our best interest if we didn't provide any fuel for that particular fire."

"Meaning?"

Looking up, Giles met her anxious gaze. "I think we should stop seeing each other."

Real tears immediately welled in Buffy's eyes. "You're breaking up with me?"

Her words took him by surprise, until he realized what he'd said, and the way she'd heard it. "No!" He quickly pulled back her into his arms. "Oh Lord, no. I meant while they're here. God, Buffy... I'd sooner be dead, than purposely choose a life without you."

Sniffling back her unwarranted tears, her arms went around him in response. They rested quietly for a moment, just holding each other in the silence of the living room, their combined gaze again falling on the contents of the armchair opposite. Only the rhythmic tick of the grandfather clock accompanied them.

"Two days, huh?" Buffy asked eventually.

Attuned to the same wavelength, he rubbed his cheek against her sweet-smelling hair. "We still have tonight."

"I can't believe your friend thought we were having sex in the school library," she remarked, out of the blue. "I can't believe I never heard a rumor about him and Angie in the woodshop!"

Giles chuckled, the action jostling her lightly against his chest. "Well, I dare say he wasn't the only one who thought that about us. Looking back, we were hardly discreet with all our after school training, and late night research." He chuckled again. "Lord knows what people thought when Willow and Xander joined in."

"Oh God, that is so embarrassing!"

"Not half as embarrassing as what we can do, if you come home with me."

They parted again to look at each other, hands seeking hands, unwilling to lose physical contact.

Buffy smiled a sultry smile of acceptance. "Just let me pack my toothbrush."

She left him with a quick kiss on the lips to tide him over, and then stood, heading upstairs to retrieve a few things for an overnight stay, including a change of clothes for her morning classes. Pausing halfway out of the room, she backtracked to the armchair to pick up the discarded khaki sweater.

Giles watched her with renewed interest, already wondering how he would react if she insisted on keeping the wretched thing.

Keeping her eyes on the sweater in her hands, Buffy asked, "Is that donation bin for the homeless still just up the street from the Magic Box?" She looked up at him with a small, poignant smile, letting go her past.

He nodded gently.

"Good." Buffy tossed him the sweater. "Tomorrow, donate that for me, would you?" She resumed her original course, up the stairs to pack a bag, so she could spend the night with him.

He examined Riley's sweater, feeling somewhat hypocritical about keeping news of his unwanted houseguest a secret, when Buffy had openly chosen to cut all ties with her past.

Lord, he was jealous of a piece of knitted, dyed wool! Buffy had a hell of a lot more to be jealous about, namely the discovery of another woman shacked up with him. He cursed himself for not telling her before suggesting they shouldn't see one another for the duration of the Council's stay... because if he told her now, she would immediately think he had an ulterior motive.

He sighed, knowing this situation was, in all likelihood, going to blow up in his face.

* * * * *

The first thing Emily noticed, upon entering the Magic Box, was the quaint little bell above the door that announced her arrival. Coming to a stop at the back of the group, where her less-than-important position with the Council of Watcher's deemed she stand, she glanced over their shoulders, eagerly zeroing in on her target. Little did her colleagues know the major role she had been asked to play in Director Travers' official delegation to Sunnydale.

She was almost as excited about her first trip to California, as she was at the prospect of seeing Rupert Giles again. They had really bonded during his short visit to London last month, or so she had convinced herself, and in the weeks they had been parted, her infatuation had only grown. Despite the knowledge that he was presently involved with someone else, Emily felt that given the right circumstances and the proper encouragement, she had more than a fair chance with him. Director Travers was counting on it.

From behind her colleagues, she spotted the object of her desire tending a customer. Her heart turned over at the sight of him, and at the gentle sound of his voice, even though he was presently only selling a book. This man could read the telephone directory and make it sound like sweet nothings. He was dressed in a suit, looking as handsome as ever, his hair slightly longer than the last time she had seen him. How she would love to run her fingers through it, especially where it kinked at the back of his collar.

"Measure precisely, and please don't skip ahead," he told the woman buying the spell book.

"He's quite right," Travers said, drawing a startled expression from an unsuspecting Giles. The Director took the book to give it a brief examination, using his vast experience in such matters to determine whether it was safe for public use. "You wouldn't want to do anything dangerous... turn the wrong person into a badger."

"Quentin," Giles greeted him, recovering nicely from his shock.

But there was tension in his body language, and Emily knew he was being courteous only for appearances sake. She was quite intimate with Giles' personnel record, enough to know there was no love lost between him and Quentin Travers.

Giles purposely reclaimed the book and returned it to his customer. With a tight smile, he directed the young woman to the cash register to complete the sale, before readdressing the Director. "I didn't realize you were here."

"Evidently."

"It's been a while. I see you've brought some of our... colleagues with you."

Giles' wary eyes swept over the group without recognition, and Emily's enthusiasm fell. While it was true that Giles had never met any of her colleagues before, save, of course, for Travers and herself--and Phillip, who had been manning the door on the day he visited headquarters--she had expected something, some brief nod of recognition, or a fond glance that suggested he actually remember their time together in London. It made her wonder if wearing her hair down in a fetching ponytail, rather than up in her usual business-like bun, had been a bad choice. Or perhaps it was her newly acquired contact lenses that threw him?

"Would you care to introduce us?"

"First I thought we might catch up," Travers said, steering Giles away from the group and down the steps that marked the mid-point in the shop.

Hiding her disappointment, Emily followed Lydia to the shelves opposite, vowing to find a moment alone with the man of her dreams, later, to reacquaint themselves properly.

Her colleagues spread out too, covering the magic shop from front to back, mingling with the customers as Director Travers and Giles stopped near the checkout counter to talk. Since Emily didn't possess Lydia's knowledge of the arcane artifacts, statues, and crystals on display, she instead found an unobtrusive spot to stand until needed. Unlike the others, she was from a secretarial gene pool rather than a hereditary Watcher one, and had been officially included in the group for her accounting and organizational skills; Travers wanted a full inventory of the Magic Box during their stay. Unofficially, she was there because in a fit of jealous rage upon discovering the true nature of Giles' relationship with his Slayer, she had 'confessed'--to her boss, Tobias Blair, and then by default to his boss, Quentin Travers--to having had a one-night stand with Giles during his visit to London. Her inclusion in the Sunnydale delegation, at Director Travers' request, had thus become an essential part of his secret agenda.

It was with such conviction to this belief, to the confessed night of unbridled passion that was, in reality, all in her head, that she had gone from being simply a useful secretarial tool, to a key player in the Councils' ultimate goal to bring Rupert Giles back into their fold. Past mistakes had demonstrated that issuing orders directly to his Slayer bore no fruit, and now, in wake of what had come to light about this creature, Glory, it was imperative that the Council fought the coming war with a disciplined and dedicated hand.

'The Slayer is the instrument by which the Council fights,' Travers had said. 'Control Rupert Giles, and one automatically controls the girl.'

Of course, as Travers had told her, they would have to mask this intention by shifting the focus of their visit, pretending it was solely about the Slayer's worth. It would be up to Emily to woo Giles back onto their side, while they attended to Buffy with aimless tests of her abilities and evaluations of her technique. By the time she realized the distraction, it would be too late.

Spying some tea making facilities on a shelf behind a large round table, a task with which she had some proficiency, Emily went to work. The flight had been long and tedious, even in First Class, and Director Travers was not a young man. Driving from LA to Sunnydale, they had checked into their hotel right away, and then driven to the Magic Box with barely a half hour in between. No doubt, a good, hot cup of tea would hit the spot... as well as score her some more 'good favor' points.

The kettle was still warm from recent use, and still with a sufficient water level, so she simply put it back on to boil. Wrinkling her nose at finding only tea bags in the tea chest, she strung a few onto the side of a white, china pot. But her eyes flew back to Giles when he mentioned his Slayer by name; "Buffy and I have been training a great deal these days. There's a back room... "

Jealousy flared in her. She could well imagine the sort of 'training' they had been doing, and from Travers' snide reply, so did he. Nevertheless, Travers knew nothing of the love affair Giles had going with his teenage charge; it was simply one unpleasant comment in a long line of unpleasant comments that marred their association. She may have intervened, right then, out of spite, had Nigel and Lydia, both experts in spotting potentially dangerous items for sale to the public, not seized the moment by bringing questionable objects to the Director's attention. Instead, Emily schooled her emotions back in check, lest she tip her hand too early, knowing her chance would come.

For unbeknownst to Travers or the Council, Emily was working toward her own secret agenda. She cared little about the rift she would create by driving a wedge so firmly between Watcher and Slayer, even if it did cost her her job, her title, and most of her self-respect. Despite the resulting fiasco, the Council would still have their Slayer, their precious, although somewhat rebellious, instrument with which to fight their tedious little war, and she would have the one thing she had dreamed of having ever since she had first read his Council-written personnel file, a year or more ago.

The kettle was just about to whistle when Emily intercepted it, pouring hot water into the pot and allowing the tea bags to steep. She looked around again at the sound of Nigel's voice, right on cue, finding him standing at the top of the mid-point landing and addressing the entire store.

"Magic Box shoppers, we're going to have to ask you to leave. The store is closing early today."

Eyes darting to Giles for the reaction she knew was coming, Emily felt a small sense of adverse satisfaction from the look that crossed his face; a mixed expression of resentment and uncertainty. With that one simple act, Director Travers had reminded Giles not only of the authority the Council possessed, but that he was still a Watcher in their eyes, and thus still vulnerable to their policy. A man like Giles didn't belong in the arms of his 19-year-old Slayer, nor did he deserve to be suppressed under the Council's thumb. What he needed was a mature woman of dedication and guile--and British, no less--someone who could love him thoroughly despite his many flaws.

Snapping back to the present, and to the role she must fulfill until the time was right to make her move, Emily played 'delegate'. She turned to the young couple browsing the scented candle rack nearby, pointedly removing a short, fat, red candle from the man's hands before herding them to the exit. After showing out another reluctant-to-leave customer, she returned to check on the tea, hearing Giles ask about the nature of the 'review' the Council had in mind--the crux of Director Travers' plan to disguise the true intent of their visit. It was a dangerous game, all this deceit and double-cross, and it only made her smile.

"No one said anything to me about this," Giles insisted, no doubt feeling victimized by the announcement that he and his Buffy were to be put under a Council microscope.

"Let's sit down, and talk about it over here," Travers suggested graciously, heading for the large circular table near the tea facilities.

"You all stand around and look somber," Giles told the rest of the group, who gathered in around him like a rear guard, should he entertain the notion of resisting their recommendations. "Good job."

"You used to respect us, Giles," Travers remarked of his impertinence. "You used to be one of us."

"You used to pay me. If you recall, firing me was not my idea."

"Touché." The Director sat with the confident airs of someone making himself completely at home. "But you were on the inside once. You know what sort of resources we command. We've discovered information about this creature, your Glory," Travers said, as Gordon, the accountant of the group and the only one with a briefcase, opened it and took out some papers. "Some of it is clearly vital; the rest is merely extremely disturbing." Emily placed a cup of tea at her superior's elbow, without intruding on the conversation or interrupting its flow. "And it won't be handed over until we're convinced that you and your Slayer are prepared for it. Thus the review."

Looking up, she watched Giles take his hands out of his pockets and lean on the table in a gesture of repressed rage. She could see it in his eyes, just how much he resented this intrusion, as well as hear it in his quietly controlled tone.

"I'm not having you put her through another one of your insane tests," he said, making Emily remember their conversation, a month ago, about the Cruciamentum. That event was well documented in his Council personnel file, by the refereeing Watcher--Quentin Travers. The fact that Buffy had, if only for a time, turned against him for his part in the proceedings was a good sign that she might be persuaded to do so again, if given the right incentive.

"It's not a test. It's a check of her methods."

"Is there a difference?"

"Giles, I didn't want to do this, but it seems I need to remind you that you are, by birthright, a Watcher... whether we 'pay you' or not. If the Council deems it necessary to enforce a check of your Slayer's motives and abilities, then you are obliged, under sworn oath, to cooperate." Travers leaned back in his chair when Giles looked suitably chastised. "If you oppose us, I will have no recourse but to launch an official, detailed inquiry into why you so vehemently object... which I'm certain will require a team of Council investigators to spend many months here in Sunnydale. Am I making myself clear?"

"Crystal," Giles agreed quietly, no doubt fuming under his coolly composed exterior.

"Good. Then you can start by showing us your journals, and bringing us up to speed on your latest methods of training."

* * * * *

Emily yawned, only then realizing she had been reading the same ledger page for the better part of ten minutes. Despite the fact that the sun had set just a half hour ago, jetlag and time zone shifts were starting to catch up with her. With a wane smile, she recalled Rupert's similar disregard for fatigue upon his arrival in London, how by three in the morning the poor man was still doggedly hitting the books, despite that his eyes had a tendency to droop closed every few minutes. Emily doubted she possessed that same level of commitment, because right now, all she wanted was a hot meal, a long soak in the tub, and then to curl up in the arms of the man she had fallen for long before she had ever met him in person . . .

Snapped back to full alertness with a start, she frowned at the prospect of only being able to achieve two out of those three wishes at present, something she fully intended to rectify before the end of the week. Gordon sat across from her, tirelessly tapping his calculator as he paged through the shop's financial records, lost in his own little world of monotonous columns of numbers. Just watching him made her yearn for a reprieve. She was fighting another yawn when the bell above the front door of the shop tinkled to announce an arrival. Since the store had been closed upon their arrival late afternoon, and since the remaining members of the delegation were presently in the back room with the proprietor, it was a good bet that it wasn't a customer.

Swiveling in her chair, Emily was grateful for the chance to flex the tired muscles in her neck and back. But her sense of gratitude instantly faded upon learning the identity of the person who had just come in off the street, replaced by something cold and envious, roiling in the pit of her stomach. Although Emily had never met the Slayer in person, she was familiar with the contents of the girl's file at Council HQ. It included a photograph, one that, in hindsight, did nothing to compliment her slender grace and beguiling beauty. No wonder Rupert had fallen for her; she was a blonde-headed goddess, in any man's book. But she was just nineteen, a child, old enough to put her life on the line in order to save the world, but not so to be a candidate for Rupert's affection.

Buffy's unsure gaze found hers, in the dimness of the magic shop after hours. "Um... hi?"

"Hello," Emily returned, mustering up a pleasant smile. Gordon was too immersed in his accounting to acknowledge the newcomer with anything beyond a single glance, so she stood and went to meet the approaching Slayer, a hand outstretched in false friendship. No time like the present to set her plan in motion. "You must be Buffy. I'm Emily Anderson. We spoke, briefly, on the phone, when Rupert stayed at my flat in London."

"Oh... yeah," Buffy returned uncertainly, nonetheless giving the offered hand a quick shake. She had quite a grip, this Slayer. What a man Rupert was, to take such a tigress to his bed. "I'm guessing the Council has arrived."

"Indeed we have, although Mr. Travers is in the back room at the moment... talking 'shop' with your Watcher, I imagine."

"Sounds about right." The girl smiled hesitantly, looking around Emily to where Gordon was still incessantly tapping on his calculator. "What're you guys doing?"

"Just a little bookkeeping. Well, I must say, it's lovely to finally meet you in person," Emily gushed dramatically, successfully diverting the Slayer's attention from their audit. "Rupert has told me so much about you, I feel as if I already know you."

"Well, that's kinda embarrassing. On account that he hasn't mentioned squat about you."

Emily tried not to look too disappointed by the news that she had not continuously populated his thoughts, as he had hers. "Not surprisingly. I'm sure he doesn't discuss such things with you."

"Things?"

"Of a personal nature. Grown-up things." Emily smiled and turned on a coy look. "His 'love life', for want of a better term."

Much to her delight, Buffy paled two shades of white. "His what?"

She'd taken the bait, now to get her to swallow the hook. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I hope you don't mind, but I really don't feel comfortable discussing my relationship with Rupert with you. Perhaps we could talk about something else?"

"Relation... ? Wait, you're telling me that you... ? And Giles? My Giles?"

Emily smiled congenially, and even managed a slight chortle. "He may be your Watcher, but I hardly think that's grounds for ownership."

"But he's my--!" She pulled up short, eyes widening in alarm of what had almost come out of her mouth. "He's my friend... and he wouldn't... with you... no offense."

"None taken." A shy smile cemented the girl's worse fears in cold, hard stone. "Although I assure you, we most certainly did. And just between us girls, it was the most incredible night of my life. He has this decidedly sexy tattoo of an oh-so-seventies flaming skull on his thigh--here." She pointed to her own thigh, high enough to suggest the proper level of intimacy. Enjoying the almost comatose look she had provoked, Emily maintained her charade by donning a blushingly innocent mask. "Forgive me, I shouldn't have said that to you."

Buffy diverted her gaze, just barely holding it all together. She was so ashen, she honestly looked as if she were about to be sick.

"I say, are you all right?"

"It's just that he's, um... " Buffy began timidly. "He's sorta... seeing... someone."

"Good heavens! He's involved with someone here?"

"Yeah, he is... was... I guess it's over now."

"Do you know who?" Emily waited, the thick silence punctuated only by the rhythmic, hollow tap of calculator keys, wondering if the high and mighty Slayer actually had the audacity to admit her officially forbidden relationship to a known Council member.

Sucking on her lower lip and fighting welling tears, this time Buffy only managed a quick shake of her head.

"Well, obviously it was someone whom he didn't care very much about," Emily said in a confident tone. She put her hand on the girl's shoulder in a gesture of phony friendship. "Rupert is not the sort of man to cheat on someone he truly loves."

The door to the back room opened as if on cue, and Giles, Travers, and the rest of the Council delegates emerged into the shop.

"We've been developing sort of a hybrid fighting style," Giles was busy telling the Director. "Let me outline her progress for you, and I think you'll see that your review isn't strictly needed." He stopped when he noticed Buffy standing next to Emily, taking in how obviously chatty the two of them had been, before his worried gaze settling on his young lover's distraught face. Clearly, he wondered what his girlfriend had heard to upset her so, but he was presently powerless to do a damn thing about it.

"Miss Summers," Travers said in greeting. "Good to see you again."

Somehow, Buffy managed to find her voice. It came out as a tiny, meek whisper, hardly befitting a Slayer of any worth. "Mr. Travers."

Travers grunted in agreement of her decidedly benevolent tone. "Giles has just been telling us of your training regimen. Perhaps you'll favor us with a demonstration while we're here."

"Um... yeah... sure. Will tomorrow be okay? I kinda don't feel real good right now."

"Buffy, are you ill?" Giles asked in genuine concern.

Emily could tell he was just itching to go to her and offer comfort. Curious, she shot a sideways glance at the Slayer, but the girl simply diverted her eyes from the man she believed had cheated on her. Emily hid a smile. This was even easier than she expected.

"Tomorrow would be fine," Travers agreed. "Shall we say, high noon?"

Buffy nodded submissively, the significance of the chosen hour not lost on her.

Noting his group of weary Watchers, Travers said, "I think perhaps it's time we called it a day here, start again fresh in the morning." There was a consensus of agreement amidst the jetlagged Council members. "Oh, and Emily, did you manage to find yourself alternative accommodations?"

Emily was supremely grateful to her superior for providing her with the perfect coup de grace. "I certainly did. Rupert has graciously allowed me to stay with him. I just need to pick up my suitcases from Lydia's hotel room first." She smiled pleasantly, loving the deliciously tormented expressions Buffy and Giles helplessly threw at each other. No words passed between the two; no words could, in front of present company, unless they wanted the world to know their illicit little secret.

"Good," Travers agreed, pleased, but for his own furtive reasons. "Very good indeed."

* * * * *

Buffy's emotions hovered midway between complete denial and a broken heart. She didn't want to believe what Emily had said about Giles, that they had been lovers in London, and yet all the facts seemed to add up to just that scenario. As she took a shortcut through the cemetery, running full tilt towards Giles' apartment on the other side of town, the words he had said to her just last night echoed relentlessly in her mind.

'I think we should stop seeing each other... stop seeing stop seeing stop seeing... '

At the same time, she could still feel the touch of his hand, every caress and kiss and sensation he stirred within her, as they made sweet love in the moonlight of his bedroom loft. Last night, the depth of his passion had left no room for doubt.

Yet Emily had described the tattoo on his thigh too precisely for it to be a wild guess. If she'd been talking about the Eyghon one in the crook of his left elbow, she would have just assumed the woman had seen him in an undershirt. After all, he had stayed with her in London; he wouldn't have been wearing a suit and tie the whole time. But this tattoo, the one on his upper thigh--there was no way she could have seen it if Giles had kept his pants on!

No way.

To further cement the idea of infidelity, when Buffy had phoned him at Emily's place, desperate to hear his voice across the ocean that separated them, she found him--God!--in bed. He'd sweet-talked her, and she'd given him the benefit of the doubt. Then. But if Giles really was guilt-free, why hadn't he told her that Emily was going to stay with him? And why had he insisted they not see each other for the duration of the Council's--her--visit?

Buffy knew why, but she still needed to hear the man she thought was head over heels in love with her say it to her face.

Unaware of the tears running rivers down her cheeks, Buffy ran even faster, ironically straight to the one person who had the power to either cure her or kill her with the truth. She had left the Magic Box first, but she was on foot, and Giles and Emily had the speed and convenience of his car. She was banking on the fact that it would actually take them longer to reach his apartment since they first needed to detour to retrieve Emily's luggage. By taking a few creative shortcuts and not stopping for anything, it was her desperate hope of hopes that she would arrive in time to intercept him in the courtyard.

A blur flew out from behind the corner of a mausoleum, hitting her from the side and tackling her to the ground. They slid for a moment, her assailant ending up on top, pinning her down. Enraged by her emotions, and the delay, however brief, Buffy blindly lashed out with a punch to his face, then brought up her foot to kick him off.

They sat up together, toe to toe, staring at each other in the moonlight of the deserted graveyard.

"Sorry," he said, rubbing his jaw.

"Spike." Buffy scowled in disgust, checking for grass stains and tears on the elbows of her leather coat. "What the hell did you do that for?"

"I thought you were a--never mind. Suffice it to say I'm out here being the good guy. Not for money, if that's what you're thinking. Your heartfelt gratitude is plenty. I expect I'll be getting that any moment."

"Gratitude. For knocking me on my ass and dragging it through the dirt?"

"For doing your job."

"I don't need you to do my job. I don't need you for anything." Defiantly wiping the wet tracks from her cheeks, Buffy got to her feet. She brushed the dirt off her pants in quick, angry movements, then turned and stalked off. She really didn't have the time or the patience to deal with Spike right now . . .

"So where are you off to in such a hurry then?" Spike asked, falling into an easy step beside her. "To get some sweets from your sugar daddy? If you ask me, the old bloke is too, well... old... for you to be calling him your boyfriend. How about your manfriend? Or better yet, your old-codger-who-can't-get-a-shag-otherwise-friend?"

"You know what?" she asked, pulling up and angrily rounding on him. "I don't need a 'boyfriend', by any name, to pretend to do my job or for any other reason."

"Don't need, or can't keep? You keep making notches in the headboard, but eventually they get up out of the bed and run off, don't they? Maybe your beauty's fading, the stress of slaying aging you prematurely." He cupped a hand, chest height, demonstrating. "Things not as high, not as firm. Is that what's got you all teary-eyed? The Watcher-wally left you, too?"

"Leave me alone, Spike."

"Dunno why you ever thought it would work in the first place, pet. Bloke like that needs a more mature, intellectual type, to hold his interest."

With that cheap shot, Spike departed, leaving Buffy standing alone. Her shoulders sagged; she felt completely broken. For several minutes, she just stood there in the moonlight, the tender memory of loving Giles looping through her mind in exquisite, torturous detail. She may talk tough about not needing him in her life, but in truth, she would fall apart without him. God... she already had.

Spike was right. She couldn't compete with a woman like Emily, who was everything a guy like Giles probably needed. She was British, for starters, thirty-something, book smart, and a card carrying member of the Watcher's Council. In all respects, Emily was his opposite number, the other half he needed to complete himself. If he truly did have feelings for her, then Buffy knew that she--a teenaged, still in college, American--had zero chance.

Maybe Giles never truly loved her. He hadn't had much of a love life in Sunnydale; in fact, with the exception of Olivia's infrequent overnight visits, he hadn't had a love life at all. Maybe that's all she was to him; an accessible, consenting bed partner.

Even so, when she started to run again, she made up her mind to forgive him, completely, even if he had strayed. Whether or not she could sit idly by for the next few days, while knowing the situation, was another question entirely. Despite her fear of losing him, she refused to let herself become 'a convenience' to any man; if Giles wanted to try it again, he was going to have to make a commitment this time.

She vaulted the cemetery fence without breaking her stride, took a left down the darkened street, a right, then another left, and suddenly she was on Giles' street. Her pace slowed as she spotted his red BMW parked at the curb in front of his apartment complex, disappointment flooding her as she realized she had lost her chance... but only just. She spotted Giles' back, as he lugged two suitcases into the central courtyard. As he disappeared behind the 'Residents Only' gate, Buffy put on a burst of speed, desperate to talk to him. Part of her was praying--to whatever god or gods would listen--that she would still hear him tell her that this whole deal was just some big, dumb, horrible misunderstanding, that everything was fine between them, and that he loved her so very, very much . . .

The solar lights lining the walk inside the gate had automatically switched on at sunset, showing her the way along the familiar path to his door. As she passed by the babbling fountain, she heard that door latch, just ahead of her, his name dying on her lips as she, again, just missed him.

Reaching the closed door and instinctively grabbing for the handle, Buffy suddenly stopped. She stared at her outstretched hand, stilled halfway on its journey toward the antique brass knob, her breath catching in her throat. Normally, she would have just barged right in, and he would have welcomed her intrusion with a happy smile and a warm embrace. But normally, he did not have another love interest standing in the middle of his living room.

Buffy hesitated a moment longer, before she finally snatched back her fingers as if they'd been burned. Instead, she sidestepped to the small, window-boxed pane of glass beside the entranceway, and, with her heart in her throat, peered inside. She couldn't hear what was being said, but she could see them, clearly, as they stopped by the couch . . .

* * * * *

"It's not much," Giles modestly told Emily, putting down her two suitcases. "But it's home."

He mustered up a congenial smile as she turned in a complete circle, surveying the interior of his humble apartment until she faced him again. The sultry look she gave him, now that they were alone, made him guiltily divert his gaze.

"Um, kitchen," he said, pointing out the obvious. "Bathroom, down the hall to the left. I'm afraid I've only the one bedroom, in the upstairs loft, but it's yours for as long as you're here." He looked at her, directly, so there was no mistake about his intentions. "I'll be fine on the couch."

"You don't have to, you know."

"What?" he asked automatically, even though he knew precisely to what she was referring.

To demonstrate, Emily took a step closer to him, so close that it was easy and natural for her to rest her open palms on the lapels of his suit. "Sleep on the couch," she confirmed, her hands traveling slowly up his chest in a leisurely caress.

Giles looked down at her, knowing he had to put an immediate stop to this, before it exploded out of control. "Emily--"

But she silenced his protest with a kiss, pulling his head down towards hers before he could stop her, wantonly claiming his lips with hers . . .

* * * * *

With open-mouthed shock plastered on her face, Buffy slowly backed away from the little window by the front door. The bottom had just dropped out of her world. Giles had just plucked her heart out of her chest and stomped it into a million tiny pieces.

God, it was true! All of it!

Turning in tears, she fled into the night.

* * * * *

Giles reached behind his neck and firmly took hold of Emily's wrists. He jerked her away, roughly terminating her unwanted kiss. She looked more amused than disappointed, as he angrily held her off at arm's length. "What are you doing?"

"I had hoped that would be rather obvious."

Feeling suddenly trapped by the situation, Giles released her. He turned his back, wiping his hand over his mouth to rid himself the taste of her. It was true that they had struck quite an easy rapport while he'd been in England. He was not blind to the feelings she had for him, or that she might act on them if given the right opportunity. But he had believed that Emily, who had somehow guessed the truth about him and Buffy, was smart enough to realize she didn't have a snowball's chance in hell.

It was a delicate situation, because Emily was a loyal Council member in possession of some potentially damaging personal information. If he scorned her, outright, then she had the means and method to hurt him back. He could care less about his own disgrace in front of his peers. What worried him were the ramifications of the Council, should they be informed of his taboo--in their eyes--relationship with his Slayer. They would arrange to have him deported back to England quicker than he could blink, wielding the power of their bureaucratic pen to make certain he never set foot in California again. His absence would kill Buffy emotionally, and perhaps even physically; a Slayer who lost the support of her Watcher was, by written account, living on borrowed time.

"Emily," he began again, facing her. His best bet was to try to reason with her, remind her he was taken. "I'm very flattered you find me attractive, but... "

Giles hesitated, suddenly unsure about his confession. If he openly admitted his love affair with Buffy under the pretext that Emily already knew about it, and he was wrong, then he'd only be arming her with the ammunition to use against him.

"But there's Buffy," she said, filling in the blanks and proving to him that Theory #1 still held. He needed to handle this dilemma with care and precision. She put her hands on his chest again, her fingers splaying as she eagerly sought contact with the skin beneath his shirt. She smiled unashamedly at him, as if the words she'd just spoken meant nothing to her. She unscrupulously didn't care if he was involved with someone else or not.

"Y-yes," he stammered, forcing himself not to back away from her caress. "Buffy. You see, I'm really rather... in love... with Buffy."

"I know."

"Then you also know I won't betray her."

"Dear Rupert, she already thinks you have."

He flashed on Buffy's distraught expression at the Magic Box, and his blood turned to ice slithering through his veins. "What did you tell her?" he asked, in dread of the answer.

Emily smiled seductively. "I simply mentioned your tattoo." She slid a slow hand over his upper thigh, making the muscle tense. "This one."

"How did you... ?"

"That morning, when you were shaving and I came to tell you she was on the telephone... you were only wearing a towel, which parted in precisely the right spot for a rather pleasant view."

Giles looked away, sick to his stomach at the thought of what Buffy must presently be experiencing, alone and convinced he had been unfaithful, because of this woman's jealousy and a few carelessly clever words. Instinct had him reaching for the cordless telephone on his desk, desperate to explain to her, if she would talk to him. He speed-dialed the Summers house, but Emily stabbed her finger on the 'End' button on the base, overriding the handset and terminating the call before anyone answered.

Slowly, deliberately, she took the phone from his unresisting hand, and replaced it in its cradle. "I'd really rather you didn't call her tonight," she ordered, and he just barely held his temper in check. "Not when we still have important matters to discuss. Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll let you talk to her."

"You and I have nothing further to say to one another."

"But I haven't stipulated my conditions yet."

"Conditions?"

"Mmm, see... in case I haven't managed to make my intentions clear... I want you, Rupert."

In emphasis to her point, he felt her hand caressing his upper arm, and the heat of her body as she moved in close. His eyes flew to hers, filled with loathing.

"And I assure you," she said in a husky tone, "I always get what I want."

"Then I suggest you prepare yourself for your first big disappointment."

She laughed at his defiance, and unexpectedly moved away. Turning, she focused her full attention on his kitchen. "I could murder a cup of tea," she remarked jauntily. "You?"

The rapid shift in conversation and demeanor threw Giles. "Very well," he agreed, warily watching her move into the kitchen to make some tea.

She began systematically looking through his cupboards for the required items, acting as if she owned the place--or at least planned to--all threats and desires seemingly forgotten. "I thought we might order takeaway for dinner. What do you say?"

He attempted to sound casual, his mind working double-time as he tried to get a grip on what was going on. Schizophrenic tendencies? Did she even remember the conversation of a few moments ago? Or was this just an act to catch him off guard? "There's a... a lovely little Thai place just down the road."

"Splendid. I'll have my usual."

Usual? Like he bloody remembered what she'd ordered that night in the Central Library!

Filling the kettle and putting it on to boil, Emily wandered back into the living room. She stopped several feet in front of him, regarding him impassively for such an extended moment, that he was the one who felt uncomfortable.

"Bedroom?" she asked suddenly, reaching for the smaller of her two suitcases on the floor beside the couch.

Giles automatically picked up the other one. "Um... up the stairs." He gestured with his free hand, still a little uncertain, and then allowed her to precede him.

Once in the loft, Emily put her case down next to the bed and stretched languidly, like a cat. When she turned around to face him, she was smiling again--this time the innocently friendly smile he had come to enjoy during their hours of research together.

"It's been quite a day," she began conversationally. "Now I know how you felt; arriving in London then spending the entire day at Council HQ."

"Quite," he agreed, still distrustful of the seemingly harmless banter. Putting down her other suitcase, he watched her sit on his bed with a little bounce to test the firmness of the mattress. The springs squeaked. She glanced up at the sound, and caught his eye with an expression that made him blush.

"I dare say it gets quite noisy in here," Emily commented wryly, which only made him blush even harder.

Despite himself, Giles watched her pull the hair tie from her ponytail and shake out her auburn locks. Without warning, she flopped backwards, arms over her head as she stretched out, presenting herself in a most provocative way. Something potently male in him insisted he pay attention as her hands traveled leisurely back to her sides, caressing the covers, and leaving them ruffled and inviting in her wake.

"If only these walls could talk, hmm?" Rising to her elbows, Emily captured his gaze again. "She doesn't have to know, Rupert. Unless, of course, you choose to tell her." She drew his reluctant attention once more, this time by starting to undo the buttons on the front of her tailored business suit. "And, if you play your cards right, I promise the Council will remain clueless about the two of you."

He realized, then, that her abrupt mood swing downstairs had been nothing more than a ruse to coax him to the bedroom. Refusing to feel intimidated by her entrapment, he crossed his arms and adopted a casual pose, leaning against the wall. "Sexual blackmail, Emily?"

She smiled, letting the front of her coat fall open to reveal full breasts outlined under ivory silk. "The best kind."

Giles smirked. "And if I... succumb... to your demands, and give you what you want, how will I know you won't try to blackmail me again?"

"You're missing the point, love," she crooned, raising one idle foot and using the other to kick off her heels. With great attention, she idly repeated the action with her other shoe. "I'm not asking for just one night of unsurpassed bliss. My plan is to stay here, in Sunnydale, with you. Provided you play by my rules, the Council will never hear a word about you and your precious Buffy, whom I will allow you to continue to see. On occasion."

"How very gracious of you."

"You do know--don't you?--that permanent deportation is their probable course of action?"

"Ah, I see," he said resentfully, cluing in. "You're saying that provided I do as you ask, you'll keep your mouth shut so that I can remain here in Sunnydale."

She smiled. "I knew you were a quick study, Rupert. I'm so glad we understand each other. If I can't have you, then neither will she."

He nodded, keeping his bitterness and humility well hidden. She was holding a gun to his Green Card, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, except pretend to go along. If he refused to cooperate, she would blow the whistle on him and Buffy, which meant deportation and the strong possibility that he would never see his love again. If he, in turn, lodged an official complaint crying 'sexual harassment', she would still turn the tables on him and inform Travers of his forbidden relationship, to the same result. And finally, if he obliged Emily's request for even a single night of cold, meaningless sex, Buffy would hate him, and--rightly so--never, ever forgive him. Any way he looked at it, the bottom line was the same; a lengthy Council inquisition that could take months, concluding with a verdict that remained constant, despite the circumstances.

He would lose Buffy... forever.

"It seems I've underestimated you," Giles said in quiet defeat.

Downstairs, the teakettle began to whistle. Emily hurriedly got up off the bed, like a dutiful wife, but lingered close on her way past him to the stairs. She put her hand on his chest again, this time in a gesture that signified a change of ownership. "Why don't you order that Thai now, love, and we'll have a lovely, romantic dinner first... "

* * * * *

A swath of sunlight woke Buffy. In her dozy half-sleep, she swatted aimlessly at it, where it threatened to burn a hole in the side of her head. Eventually, though, she opened her eyes to a bright new day. As awareness returned, she realized she had fallen into an emotionally exhausted sleep sometime after hearing the grandfather clock downstairs chime five in the morning.

Her sand-filled eyes sought her alarm clock, but widened in surprise. It was almost eleven!

With a groan, Buffy rolled over. She hadn't bothered to change out of her clothes last night; she hadn't even bothered to crawl under the bedcovers. Luckily, her leather coat, black turtleneck, and Slayer resistances had been ample protections against the January chill.

The weight and size of an object in her palm caused the reason why she had been emotionally exhausted to come flooding back. Curling onto her side, Buffy slowly opened her outstretched hand in that same swath of brilliant sunshine that had just awoken her. The gold locket Giles had given her for Christmas glinted like a million bucks. With her heartache already threatening to overwhelm her again, she cracked open the tiny lid and stared at the picture inside it; the picture she had just added yesterday.

Her thumb gently caressed Giles' image, captured as he tenderly kissed her in the photo booth at the Sunnydale Mall. The memory made her touch her own lips; a poor substitute for his kiss. How was it possible, that the two people in the photo had gone from needing each other like oxygen, to this desolate place of pain that she was presently in... all in about a day?

"Buffy?" It was her mom's voice, calling from the hall outside her closed bedroom door. A soft knock followed.

"I'm awake, Mom," she called, closing her hand around the locket and wiping her eyes. She sat up, swinging her booted feet to the floor, and even managed a smile as her mother opened the door.

Joyce's maternal gaze swept over her, instantly picking up on all the little nuances that a casual eye would have missed, including that she still wore the same clothes as yesterday. "Is everything... all right?"

Buffy nodded in a way she hoped was convincing. Her mother was still recovering from brain surgery, and the last thing she needed was the burden of her firstborn's sucky love life. "I, um... I didn't get in until real late last night," she lied, but her mom had been in bed early so she would had no idea what time Buffy had really come home. "Well, this morning actually. I guess I just fell asleep before I found my PJs." It didn't sound very believable, not even to her.

Apparently not to her mom, either, because Joyce came to sit with her on the side of the bed. "I thought you were staying over at Rupert's again, considering you've hardly spent a night here at home in weeks."

"I know... it's just that, right now, with the Council's visit and all, he kinda asked for... space."

Seeing the distress in her daughter's eyes, Joyce attempted to make things right. "Honey, Rupert loves you so much. You know he'd never intentionally push you away." She tried to lighten the mood with humor. "He knows what I'd do to him, if he tried." When that didn't work, her mom's arm went around her slumped shoulders for a quick hug. "I'm sure having those pesky Council members following him around must be awfully stressful. It'll be all right, you'll see."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed miserably, wanting to believe her mother's words, but unable to rid herself of the recollection of Giles kissing one of those pesky Council members. It sure hadn't looked like he found it too 'stressful.' With a sigh, she opened her fist and stared at Giles' gift.

She didn't resist when her mom took the locket from her palm, and silently refastened the chain around her neck. It was a token of Giles' love, and Buffy realized, with a start, that she had almost turned it into a memento of a past event. She didn't want it to become something she found under her pillow a month from now... like Riley's sweater. The thing of it was, she still loved Giles, regardless of what he'd done.

She met her mother's eyes. A look passed between them, and Buffy knew with that one small act, her all-knowing, all-powerful mother had given her back the courage to fight for the man she loved.

"How about I make us pancakes for brunch?" Joyce asked.

Buffy managed a guilty smile. "I should be the one looking after you. Sorry I've been so bad about that lately."

Joyce nodded in understanding. "Believe it or not, your old mom actually knows a thing or two about falling in love." She brushed a lock of hair from Buffy's face. "Be with him, love him with all the passion you possess, but for heaven's sake use contraceptives."

"Mom!"

"I know, I know. I'm not prying. I'm just not ready to be a grandmother yet."

Despite her misery, Buffy broke into a grin at the thought of a 'little Giles' running around the place, or a 'little Gilesette', one that she helped to make. She thought about his friend, Carlton, and his wife, and of the domestic normalcy of just 'going to the mall' together. Then she remembered the reality of the situation, and her face fell. She hid her expression from her mother, who had tried so hard to cheer her up.

"So," Joyce said. "Pancakes? Whipped butter? To hell with the calories?"

"Sounds great... but I really don't have time. I need to take a shower, 'cause I have to be at the Magic Box by high noon and I don't wanna be late."

"High noon?" Joyce asked, referring to the expression rather than the time.

"Yeah, the Council wants to review my fighting techniques." She sighed, already resigned to a gloomy defeat. "Then I figure they're gonna lynch me."

* * * * *

The Council's review consisted of several different stages. They had spent the morning on Stage One, interrogating Buffy's friends--and even Spike--questioning them in the hope of gaining the inside scoop on what made The Chosen One tick. The noontime demonstration, however, began the first of the tests for the Slayer herself, starting with an examination of her physical prowess.

It seemed simple enough to Buffy; all she had to do was to protect the dummy in the middle of the training room, while Phillip, the Council heavy, did his best to attack it. What they neglected to tell her, until they were just about to start, was that she would be blindfolded during the fight, and obeying counter-tactic commands from Travers, in Japanese.

Consequently, and in record time, Buffy managed to 'kill' the dummy by embedding an ax in its chest, all in spite of Giles' unhelpful attempts to translate the appropriate aikido or jiu-jitsu moves shouted by his superior. Adding to her failure, she also managed to break a few of Phillips ribs in the process. It had, of course, been an accident; one instinctive retaliatory kick when his wayward strike had inadvertently caught the gold chain around her neck, and snapped it.

"I can do better," Buffy pleaded when it was over, presently more concerned with Travers' assessment of her shoddy performance than where she spied her dropped locket, safe and sound on the training mat. "Just let me try again. Please?"

"No, that's all right," Travers said condescendingly. "I don't think we need to see any more physical tests for a while." The test, however unfair she thought its execution, had resulted in the 'death' of the 'person' she had been assigned to protect. As in real life, she didn't get a second chance.

Buffy glanced at Giles for support, but he wouldn't look at her, and instead stood quietly at Travers' side. At some point, he'd drawn a dividing line between them, figuratively speaking. Because he was acting way too much like a Watcher, and not enough like the man with whom she was still very much in love. Buffy's eyes sought Emily, and found her helping Phillip to his feet. This was her fault. All of it. The buckets of tears she had cried, Giles' crappy mood... and even this, her failure in the first of the Council's proposed tests.

"We can move on now," Travers continued. "Look into your strategies and plans... figure out what's going on in that head."

"Good," Buffy said unhappily. "Head stuff."

"We start at seven tonight. Give you time to... " Travers paused to give both her and Giles a look that was ripe with an innuendo that Buffy completely missed. "Well, however you prepare."

As the Council silently filed out of the training room to tend to Phillips broken ribs, Buffy turned a worried look on Giles. This time he actually attempted to alleviate her gloom-and-doom mood with an encouraging smile, but he still couldn't quite meet her eyes, and his attempt came off as a pained look for her less-than-stellar performance.

His obvious dissatisfaction upset her even more, because he suddenly slipped even further into the role of a dispassionate, judging Watcher.

Rattled, she turned to escape, quickly moving to the settee nestled along the training room wall, collecting her locket from the mat on the way. She couldn't do 'head stuff', where they put her under a metaphorical microscope, and prodded and probed until something incriminating popped out. They were going to bombard her with questions, everything from her nightly patrols to her private life, stuff that she could not--or would not--answer. They were going to expect her to be all savvy and Slayer-like, when all she had ever really been was regular and Buffy-like.

She couldn't do this, not in her present emotional state. Not without Giles' support. And from the looks of things, that wasn't something she was going to get back anytime soon.

As she picked up her street clothes in preparation of changing out of her sweats, his left hand appeared on hers from behind, instantly stilling her frantic movements with the innate security of his touch. Buffy watched his other hand cover her right, gently coaxing the broken locket and chain from her unresisting fingers. In the silence that followed, she heard the tiny snap of the locket lid.

"You were right," he said quietly. "That is a good picture of us. Worth every moment of being turned into a sardine."

Mustering up all her courage, Buffy turned, knowing that she might be looking up into his beautiful green eyes for the very last time.

With a small smile, Giles closed the locket and gave it back to her. His retreating hand strayed to her cheek, his eyes scrutinizing her face as if he were soaking up the memory for future use. His touch was so much like the tender caress she feared she would never again receive, she almost whimpered.

Giles' eyes grew troubled. His brow creased and his fingertips stilled as he said, "There's something I need to tell you."

Covering his hand with her own, Buffy lifted his fingers from her cheek, her eyes holding his. "I already know," she said, hoping to spare them both the agony of hearing those ugly words of betrayal.

"What? What do you know?"

"That you ... with Emily... in London."

"Buffy--"

"And I don't blame you, okay? I forgive you. You were away from home, and she was there, and... and... " She squeezed his hand in desperation, feeling her eyes prick with a sensation that had become all too familiar. With everything that was in her heart, she said, "I still love you. We can get past this."

"Oh, Buffy... " Giles' worried expression collapsed into one of absolute, heartfelt love. He wasted no time sweeping her into his arms to hold her tight. After the empty hell of last night, it was heaven on earth.

Folded safely into his embrace, her cheek against his tie, Buffy closed her eyes in an effort to stop her coming tears. But this time they were happy tears, because she knew, instinctively, that she was still the light of his life. She meant what she said; she didn't care about his infidelity. They were going to be okay. They could work this out. Together.

She felt Giles press a kiss to the top of her head, and responded by slipping her arms around him, inside his suit coat. The heat of his body instantly warmed her soul, leading her back from the cold and lonely place where she had been lost. They stayed like that for a moment, holding tight in each other's arms, until Giles completely spoiled the romantic mood with an unromantic chuckle.

"Oh, love... " he began. He let her go, pulling back to look in her eyes, and chasing the confusion from her brow with a tender hand. "Emily lied to you. I didn't... with her... in London."

"But she knew about your tattoo."

"She saw me in a bath towel," he explained. "Remember when you called? She thought it was important enough to interrupt my shave. That's all."

Buffy believed him. Completely. Her heart soared with joy, and she leapt back into his waiting arms with a smile so huge it almost hurt. Giles hadn't cheated on her. Better yet, he still loved her, wanted her, and needed her, as much as she did him. Spike was wrong; she was wrong. It really was just a big dumb horrible misunderstanding... although why Emily would trick her into thinking such a lie was still a very good question. Jealousy, maybe?

'Bitch!' Buffy thought, satisfied in the knowledge that her Giles was a man of principles and morals. Once he made a commitment, he stuck to it. She should never have doubted him. She never would again. Even if she did see him kissing another woman . . .

The recollection instantly burst her happiness bubble. With her cheek still resting against his chest, and her arms still holding him tight, she drew a deep breath. "I saw you kiss her."

"What?"

Buffy couldn't look at him. "Last night. At your apartment. I was about to knock on the door, when I saw you kiss her." She tried to keep the accusation from her tone, but failed.

Giles was silent for a long moment, his body tensing in her embrace. "No, love, you didn't. You saw her kiss me. There's a difference. And a reason." He released her, suddenly, and moved away, pacing out a couple of long strides. With one hand tucked thoughtfully in his trouser pocket, he turned to face her again. "I need to tell you this."

Buffy folded her empty arms. "You said that already. Just tell me, okay? It can't be any worse than me believing you slept with another woman."

"I'm afraid it can be, and it is. Because unlike that lie, what I have to tell you is the truth."

He looked down at the concrete floor of the training room, hesitantly edging back toward her with both his hands now in his pockets. Buffy suddenly picked up on his body language, the fact that he was trying not to touch her for a reason. She just didn't know what the reason was... yet.

"Earlier, before you arrived," Giles continued, "we had an impromptu Council meeting, during which... " His eyes flew to hers across the small distance that separated them. "Emily told Travers about us."

Whatever Buffy had been expecting him to say, it wasn't that.

"Buffy, last night, what you saw wasn't a kiss. It was Emily trying to blackmail me. She said if I didn't go along with her demands, she would reveal our relationship to the Council."

"And she did," Buffy concluded. Her eyes widened as she realized exactly what he was telling her. Giles had refused to play by the evil psycho bitch's rules. He hadn't given in to her blackmail demands, he hadn't slept with her, he hadn't even really kissed her. "She did!"

"Yes," Giles agreed, relieved that she understood, "she did."

"Well... what did you say to Travers? Was he mad?"

"What could I say? It was no use trying to hide it, when everyone we know, knows. With all the Council's bloody interrogation tactics, I'm surprised someone hadn't let it slip already. So I confirmed what she said. I practically pleaded with him to try to understand that I knew it was against Council policy, but that you and I had fallen in love, and--" Breaking off, he looked away again.

Buffy's heart bottomed out somewhere around her ankles. "Why do I get the impression he didn't give us his blessing?"

Two strides brought Giles back to her. Giving in to his need for physical contact, he took her by the arms, his face serious and his expression bleak. "It's a question of protocol and tradition. I swore an oath, as Watcher, to uphold their creed--all of it. And I broke it."

Fear knotted into a tight ball in her stomach. "That's just dumb," she said, although she knew it wasn't that simple. Her brain reminded her that she had just thought him to be a man of morals and principles concerning Emily. This really wasn't any different; an oath was an oath. "It's the biggest, dumbest, stupidest thing I've ever heard," she complained regardless.

"I know." He sighed in defeat. "But it's why they impose the Cruciamentum when a Slayer turns eighteen--to break the emotional ties before it comes to this... "

Her lower lip quivered, and she bit down to stop it. They'd covered this ground before, going over Council policy, together, looking for loopholes until their eyes crossed. Giles had reneged on his role in the Cruciamentum, because he loved her even then. The Council had taken steps to punish him by firing him. Now, with confirmation of the relationship they strictly forbid, they were going to take steps that were far more drastic.

Buffy knew what Giles was going to say, even before he said it. She launched herself into his arms again, holding onto him as if that alone was enough to stop what had already started. "No," she murmured, already in denial. "It isn't fair. You're not even a Watcher anymore. Not officially. They can't do this."

"I'm afraid they already have." Giles' arms tightened around her, as he softly whispered the words from her worse nightmare. "My Green Card has been revoked. I'm being deported back to England. Tomorrow."

Buffy screwed her eyes shut at the pain that lanced through her. "I knew this would happen," she told him unfairly, a few tears slipping down her cheeks. "I said they'd screw everything up. I told you to make them not come here!"

When Giles kissed the side of her head, desperately holding her to him with a fistful of her bunched hair, her tears started to fall in earnest. It just wasn't fair; she'd thought she'd lost him, only to realize she hadn't, only to find out that she still would.

"You could take me with you," she offered meekly, although they both knew it was impossible. The Hellmouth needed a guardian, and then there was Glory, and Dawn's origins, and a host of other stuff that made even the idea of leaving a complete and utter fantasy.

"I'll find a way back to you," Giles promised. "I swear I will."

"I don't want you to even leave! Not for an hour, a day, or--God--a month or more." Buffy pulled back to look at him through glassy eyes. "I won't survive without you. I can't do this by myself."

His agonized expression mirrored hers. She wasn't sure which of them initiated it, only that they were suddenly kissing each other so desperately, it could have been the end of the world.

Unless they found a way to stop the Council from coming between them, it would be the end of theirs.

* * * * *

Emily glanced at her wristwatch and scowled. She had no idea where Giles and his Slayer had vanished to after the noontime review, only that they'd left the store, together, not long after the Council had taken Phillip to get his broken ribs checked out... or so reported the strangely-spoken blonde manning the counter upon their return. Despite the scheduled appointment for the review, seven o'clock had come and gone, making Emily wonder if the wayward pair intended to show up at all, instead electing to spend their last night together in romantic, but tearful, seclusion.

The idea of them making love, at that very moment, made her blood boil with envy and contempt. Buffy may be a Slayer, but Emily was a calculating and manipulative woman, who longed for another opportunity to go one-on-one in the emotional ring. Judging from how diabolically simple it had been to get the girl to believe her earlier lies, Emily knew she could fabricate something equally vicious to hurt Buffy again.

A clearing throat derailed her retaliatory thoughts. Emily looked over at her boss, the one person who was keeping her from leaving the shop and going to look for her rival. Since she hoped to remain in the employ of the Council in wake of Giles' rejection, she had to cool her heels for a while. There would be time to take revenge on the little bitch after her gallant protector was deported.

Travers sat quietly at the tarot table, flipping through a file and making the odd margin note, the perfect picture of British reserve despite his growing impatience. The delay of the star couple was beginning to irritate everyone, save for the four children who were sitting silently in the upstairs storage loft with their legs dangling between the rails. Lydia, Nigel, and the others milled about elsewhere in the shop, looking at various books and examining the odd item here or there, but out of boredom rather than with any real purpose. The inventory was finished. She and Gordon had also finished their audit that afternoon, so there was nothing left for Emily to do in Sunnydale, except present herself as a formal representative of the Watcher's Council while they continued to put the Slayer through her paces... and make the tea.

To that end, she approached Director Travers, bending at his shoulder to ask, "Would you care for some more tea, sir?"

He declined with a wave of his hand and a shake of his head, his lack of verbal communication only reaffirming that she was still on thin ice with him. Not surprisingly, since she had single-handedly quashed his plan to bring Rupert Giles back into the Council fold, when at their morning meeting she had, in a fit of scorned jealousy, blurted out the true nature of Giles' relationship with his Slayer in a rather unladylike turn of phrase. Much to Emily's chagrin, Giles, looking no worse for wear from his night on the couch, had not denied the accusation, but rather confirmed it. In doing so, his admission had further pushed the Director into a corner, forcing Travers to act, officially, even though it conflicted with his personal agenda. A few high-powered phone calls to the right ears were all it took to invalidate Rupert Giles' residency status, and book him a one-way ticket home.

Childishly content with the knowledge that she, at least, would be in the same country with him, Emily obediently stood in her corner again. She vainly believed that Giles' steadfast refusal to love her was, ultimately, his loss. She could have made him so very happy, so much more than his scrawny, teenage tramp. Perhaps she still could . . .

Twenty minutes later, the bell above the shop's front door finally sounded, and all eyes turned to the couple who had just come in. Giles and his Slayer appeared in high spirits for two people who had less than twenty-four hours left together. In a defiant display of their affection, they held hands as they came down the steps to where Travers patiently sat.

"You're late," the Director gruffly told them.

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, her jaunty tone seeming completely out of place. "Giles and I were having such a nice, candlelight dinner, we decided not to rush."

Travers grunted at her audacity, but focused on the pages of the file in front of him, where he had summarized what he had in store for his review. "Now that you're here, we can begin. Due to the hour, we'll skip the more obvious questions--"

"There isn't going to be a review," Buffy interrupted. Letting go of Giles' hand, she drew a sheet of paper from her coat pocket, unfolded it, and calmly placed it over his file.

The insolent act made Travers glare at her, rather than at it. "Sorry?"

"No review," she repeated simply. "No interrogation. No questions you know I can't answer. No hoops, no jumps... " She smiled at Giles. "And no deportation of the man I love."

"Miss Summers," Travers said huffily, "you've made your blatant disregard for Council policy perfectly clear, but I assure you, I've been in touch with US Immigration, and nothing you say or do will prevent them from sending Mr. Giles--"

"Quentin," Giles cut in pleasantly, "do shut up and listen for a change."

Suitably chastised by a subordinate, Travers endeavored to save face.

Buffy used the pause to look up at her friends, causing Emily to glance around too. The children had been waiting at the Magic Box for the errant Watcher and Slayer almost as long as she and her Council colleagues. Except for the boy with the cast on his arm, Emily noted. He had been the last to arrive, sometime later, on his own. She overheard the girls trying to wheedle information out of him about just where he'd been, but he refused divulge anything, except to say, rather cryptically, that Buffy and Giles would be there after their celebratory dinner and that they'd all find out the big secret then. Emily couldn't imagine why on earth Buffy and Giles had chosen to 'celebrate' their pending separation, but the knowledge did open another potential door, once back on British soil.

"Very well," Travers agreed. "What is it you have to say?"

"Only this," Buffy said confidently, drawing center stage again. "You're wrong about me not having the power to make a difference. I do. It just took me a while to figure it out. When Giles told me you were going to deport him, it broke my heart. But it also made me realize that I have the greatest power of all on my side. Love."

Travers scoffed. "Love is for fairytales, Miss Summers. Not for the darkness of the world in which you and I live."

"Wrong again. Love is a very valuable tool. See, I know. I used it." She looked him directly in the eye. "I used it to get the State of California to pronounce me 'Mrs. Rupert Giles'."

"What?" Travers bellowed in outrage.

At the same time, the news sent a shockwave rippling through all those present in the Magic Box, drawing stern disapproval from the Watchers' camp, pleased excitement from Buffy's friends in the storage loft, and intense seething jealousy from Emily's little corner.

Buffy motioned to the sheet of paper she had put in front of Travers, finally forcing him to look at it. "Of course, that's just a photocopy. It'll be a few weeks before the real one comes in the mail. But I assure you, Mr. Travers, it's all completely legal. At 4:15 this afternoon, Giles and I were married at the County Clerk's office... witnessed by one Alexander Harris."

"Told you it was big," Xander whispered to his friends up in the storage loft. The girls looked suitably delighted.

"I'm an American," Buffy concluded. "Giles is now my husband. Ergo, he's not going anywhere against his will. And 'nothing you say or do' can change that."

Blinded by resentful rage, Emily snapped. Infuriated by the fact that this slip of a girl had beaten her at her own game, she grabbed a sword off a nearby shelf, and, without thought to the consequences of attacking a Slayer, wildly charged the teenager who dared to come between her and her imaginary lover.

Everyone reacted, but none possessed faster reflexes than the target herself. One hand grabbed Emily's wrist, easily halting the downward stroke of the sword, then Buffy merely twisted the weapon from her opponent's grip, and used a well-placed elbow to nullify any chance of a repeat attack. Emily landed on her backside, dazed and bloodied from a broken nose.

Two of her colleagues were instantly at her side, helping her to sit and offering handkerchiefs. They both looked to Buffy, wearing expressions that said they weren't real clear which of two appalled them most.

Emily made a rash move to lash out again, but Nigel firmly held her back.

"Yeah, you'd better keep her out of my way," Buffy warned. She rotated the sword in a skillful arc, before surrendering the hilt of the weapon to him. "Because I really enjoyed doing that."

When Emily started shouting threats and obscenities, Nigel and Gordon began to drag her, albeit kicking and screaming, into the back room.

Buffy made a face. "Whoa, didn't know English chicks knew those kinda words."

"Yes, well," Travers said, obviously embarrassed by the outburst of one of his own. "I'll attend to that... loose end... later."

Buffy wandered back to him, oozing confidence. "You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watching 'Masterpiece Theater'. You can't stop Glory. You can't do anything with the information you have, except maybe publish it in the 'Everyone Thinks We're Insane-O's Home Journal.' You need me... not only to deal with whatever's threatening the world this week, but to give your jobs, your lives, some semblance of meaning. And the only way you're gonna get me is on my terms." She paused, letting that sink in before she continued. "So, here's how it's gonna work. You're gonna tell me everything you know about Glory, then you're gonna go away. You'll contact me if, and when, you have any further information, but you will not, under any circumstances, meddle in my personal life, or my husband's. Are we clear?"

Travers, having skimmed the document before him, pushed it away and grudgingly accepted the fact that he had been outsmarted. "Your terms are... acceptable."

A whoop of joy and applause erupted from the upstairs storage loft. Buffy turned to throw a triumphant and loving smile at Giles, but he did her one better, and swept her up in a hug that momentarily lifted her up off the floor. Much to the Council's collective vexation, Watcher and Slayer shared a long and passionate victory kiss.

When Giles finally set Buffy back on her feet, and they broke apart still rapt in each other, Travers cleared his throat in a bid for attention. "Rupert?"

"Quentin?"

"It appears that the Council is in need of a new liaison with the Slayer. Are you interested in the job?"

Taking a defiant leaf out of Buffy's book, Giles played hardball. "What are you offering?"

"Official reinstatement as Watcher, with full pay."

"Retroactive?"

Travers made a disagreeable sound, proving he didn't like this, but that he had little choice if he wanted to remain at the forefront of the business of fighting evil. Bringing Giles back to the Council, thus gaining control of the Slayer, had been the original purpose for his trip to Sunnydale. He had hoped to achieve his goal without so many attached strings, but at least, this way, he could face the Board of Directors without admitting a complete failure. "Of course."

"Then I accept."

"Good." Travers began gathering his papers together, keeping his gaze well away from the two lovebirds carelessly rubbing tradition right in his face. "Time's getting on. I suggest we meet back here tomorrow morning at nine... pool our resources about Glory."

"Ten," Buffy insisted, giving her new husband a meaningful wink.

Giles grinned.

Travers looked up, finally offering a tight smile in recognition of their union. "Ten," he conceded. He stood, his file and all but one piece of paper tucked under his arm. He approached Buffy and Giles, offering the copy of their marriage license while wearing that same tight smile. He still didn't approve, but he knew when he was beaten.

"Why don't you keep that," Buffy suggested happily, "for the Council's records."

Indignantly tucking the document in his file, Travers brushed past them on his way to the front door. He collected his ready colleagues along the way, Nigel and Gordon hauling the pacified, but still bloodied, Emily between them.

"Just a minute," Buffy called. She waited until Travers had turned to her again. "Glory. I want to know."

"Well, there's a lot to go through."

"Just tell me what kind of demon I'm fighting."

"Well, that's the thing, you see. Glory isn't a demon."

"What is she?"

"She's a god."

Buffy's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh... !"

* * * * *

Giles pulled his BMW to the curb and cut the ignition. For a long moment, he and Buffy were content just to sit and listen to the soft ticking of the engine, as it cooled in the chill of the January night. After her magnanimous and enthusiastic victory over hundreds of years of strictly enforced Council edict, Buffy had reverted to sullen silence on the short journey to Revello Drive. He knew the unexpected revelation that Glory was a 'god' had upset her, but he also instinctively knew that it wasn't what accounted for her present dour mood.

He glanced past her, up the front walk, and noted the living room lights were still on. Not surprisingly, since it was only round nine. Her mother and Dawn were still up, and he was suddenly dreading the thought of being there when Buffy dropped the proverbial bombshell. On the other hand, he would never entertain the idea of allowing her to do so alone. For better or worse, they were in this together.

Thoughts of exactly what 'this' entailed, his focus pulled back to settle on his new bride, sitting quietly beside him and staring unhappily at the dash. No doubt, the magnitude of what they had so impulsively entered into that afternoon was starting to sink in. Admittedly, time had been of the essence, and it seemed an easy and natural solution to the problem at hand, but in hindsight, he couldn't help but think they had both rushed into something that neither of them had given proper thought.

Good Lord... they were actually married! Not the sort of wedding he had dreamed of giving her, filled with flowers and ribbons and cake and champagne, with their handsomely dressed friends and loved ones gathered to witness their solemn exchange of vows, but married nonetheless.

Giles picked up her hand, hoping to draw her glum attention. "Penny for them."

Rousing herself, Buffy attempted a smile. "Sorry, I was elsewhere."

"I noticed." He waited, but when she failed to continue, he shifted around in his seat to face her. Although it hurt, deep inside his heart, his absolute, unbreakable love for her made him give whatever space and time she needed in order to readjust to the role of his wife. "Buffy, if it makes you feel any easier about what we did... it's just a piece of paper. Nothing has really changed between us."

She pursed her lips, her eyes glazing with impending tears. "Is that what you think?"

Realizing he'd said the wrong thing, Giles emphatically shook his head. "No! No, on the contrary, there are certain things I want to change. Living arrangements, for example. I simply thought you might be... "

The pressure of her hand was a gentle reassurance. "I'm not," she said. "I don't regret any of it. Okay, maybe the timing was a little rushed, and the County Clerk's office kinda sucked, but I married you because I love you, not because I had to." She smiled sheepishly. "Well, maybe because I 'had to', but you know what I mean."

"I'm hoping because you 'wanted to' is somewhere in there," he said in amusement. He felt a warm rush of emotion at the smile she gave him, faithful in his conviction that whatever fate chose to throw at them, they would conquer it together. "So why the glum face?"

She pouted again. "'Cause I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna tell my mom she missed her eldest daughter's wedding."

"Ah, yes. Not a conversation I'm looking forward to, I'll admit."

"Tell me about it. I mean, she's cool about us and everything, which I'm grateful for, but this... this is one of those 'forever' deals. She's gonna go ballistic."

"Then perhaps we should just get it over with," he suggested. Holding her gaze, he brought her hand to his lips to bestow a tender kiss. "After all, this is technically our wedding night. Suffice it to say, I have plans."

His promise of passion brought a beautiful smile to her face... one that faded slightly when he let go of her hand.

"I kinda wish we'd had time to buy rings," Buffy said, examining her bare finger.

"Then allow me to provide a temporary solution." Pulling off his signet ring, he took her left hand again, and gently slid it home on her finger. It was far too big for her, and hardly the engagement diamond and gold wedding band she deserved, but from the heartfelt expression that crossed Buffy's face, Giles knew the significance meant just as much.

After a moment, she giggled with genuine amusement. "We're doing this all backwards."

"Darling, I'd do it in a zigzag, if you asked me to."

"Interesting notion," Buffy returned cheekily.

They shared a kiss by mutual consent, further reinforcing the commitment they had made to each other. Then they climbed out of the car, and headed up the walk, arm in arm.

Read the next chapter: Ties That Bind