The Unbreakable Series
Part 4 - Ties That Bind

written by Koala





Giles scrutinized the tiny objects before him, his brow furrowed in concentration. Pushing his glasses further onto his nose, he bent down to eye level in order to assess each of them in closer detail. It was difficult to believe something this small required such monumental consideration, the outcome of which he would have to live with for the rest of his life.

At least he had narrowed it down to these two.

With a critical eye, he examined the features of both, weighing the pros and cons for which would be the better choice. There were numerous factors involved in making the right decision--tradition versus practical considerations--and he painstakingly reevaluated each for their own merits and faults.

Gold or platinum? Conventional or contemporary styled?

Never had he believed that choosing wedding rings could be so astoundingly complex. Certainly, he was old-fashioned at heart, and until he started talking with the jeweler that afternoon, he hadn't really given thought to purchasing anything but traditional gold bands. Now he wasn't so sure. Given Buffy's calling, the fact that she would be slaying in his choice, he was now leaning towards platinum, if only for its durability.

His eyes darted from one pair to the other in critical analysis of the two wedding sets resting on a black velvet counter mat before him. He wished Buffy were there to help him decide, but then again, if he involved her he would not be able to surprise her on her 20th birthday, next Tuesday.

The jeweler made a disagreeable noise, obviously impatient with his indecision. Giles straightened, his gaze still fixed on the ring sets, rubbing his chin. After one last long moment of deliberation, finally made his choice.

"These," he said, much to the delight of the man behind the counter, who had spent the last hour and a half personally tending to him. "I'll take the platinum set." Modern and stylish without being ostentatious; he hoped Buffy would like his choice.

"A good choice, sir, for the active woman," the clerk assured him, hurriedly collecting up both rings sets before he changed his mind. "Will that be cash, check, or credit card?"

"Check." Giles followed the jeweler to the cash register, pulling out his checkbook and pen. At least money was no object. The direct deposit the Watcher's Council had made into his account--the lump sum payment for the retroactive salary owed to him as Watcher--would not only buy their wedding rings, but also pay for everything else they needed to start their married life together, and well beyond. Perhaps even a down payment on a house... something larger than his cramped one-bedroom apartment that would convince Buffy to move in with him, something with a more modern kitchen and room for expansion . . .

As Giles tore out the check and handed it to the clerk, he found himself fighting unexpected melancholia at the thought of a future that, thanks to fate and destiny, would likely never happen. While nothing would have been more gratifying to him than the notion of children, someday, and of growing old with the woman he loved, the reality of the situation was that neither seemed a very likely scenario. Call it 20/20 hindsight, but now they had beaten the Council at their own game, Giles guiltily understood why his superiors imposed tests like the Cruciamentum and enforced seemingly ridiculous rules to prevent any romance between its Chosen. A Watcher and a Slayer had no future together--here, on the Hellmouth, even less so. There was no 'happily ever after' in store for him and Buffy, no matter how much they pretended to believe there was. Indeed, anything beyond even tonight's patrol was speculative, at best. Buffy was a slayer, destined to share the same fate as all the slayers before her, and all those who would inherit the legacy after she was gone.

"Well, well," said a familiar voice behind his shoulder, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say Rupert Giles was turning into a 'mall rat'."

Giles raised an eyebrow at the man who stepped into his peripheral vision, recognizing his old friend from Sunnydale High School. He hadn't seen Carlton Fisk in two years, until he'd run into him, and his young pregnant wife and son, during a trip to the Sunnydale Mall last week to utilize an instant photo booth. That had been just before Quentin Travers and the Council delegation had arrived in Sunnydale; before he and Buffy had jumped feet first into 'a marriage of convenience' to prevent them from deporting him.

"Never," Giles said, feigning offense to the 'mall rat' reference. He slipped his checkbook and pen back into the inside pocket of his tan leather jacket, and faced his friend. "I was simply in need of a reputable jeweler."

They shook hands in greeting. Carlton smiled broadly, and Giles endeavored to return it. Never was there a more blatant reminder of what he and Buffy would never share than what Carlton had with his young wife, Angie.

"They do good work here," Carlton agreed, indicating his purchase of a beautiful diamond necklace.

"Lovely. Special occasion?"

"You remember me telling you about my soon-to-be-second-son, Devon?" Carlton asked, referring to the introductions he'd made while indicating his pregnant wife. "Well, 'Devon' turned out to be 'Diana', six pounds eight ounces, and two weeks early."

"That's wonderful news, Carl, congratulations," Giles said, although unable to stop the thud of his breaking heart.

"Yeah, I'm one lucky guy," Carlton agreed honestly, aglow with the pride of a new father. "To have a girl like Angie fall in love with an old fossil like me."

Giles nodded, thinking of Buffy, who was only a year younger than Angie. The jeweler tending him asked for 'his fiancée's' ring size, so he fished into his shirt pocket for the piece of paper on which he had traced the inside one of Buffy's other rings, specifically for this purpose.

Carlton took note of the word 'fiancée'. "Finally talking the plunge, I see," he said, paying for his diamond necklace with a credit card.

"Took, actually." Giles smiled, suddenly giddy with new-fangled pleasure of being a husband. "Five days and counting."

"Congratulations yourself, then." Carlton raised an eyebrow. "Although since you're just now buying rings, you've got me curious. When I met Buffy last week, she wasn't pregnant and about to give birth, nor was she wearing an engagement ring. So I'm guessing... " He snapped his fingers. "Got it. Her parents finally found you out." He grinned again, pocketing his wallet and collecting up his bagged purchase with a brief nod to the clerk. "Shotgun wedding, was it? Daddy upset to learn his little girl was dating a man older than himself?"

"Not quite. Although I dare say the shotgun is a definite possibility when her father is told. He's abroad at the moment. Buffy's parents are divorced."

"Well, at least you only have to fight one of them at a time," Carlton mused, knowingly. "So... you married Buffy. What, did you have a momentary lapse of sanity or something?"

Giles chuckled, enjoying the good-natured teasing. It was nice to have a friend his own age who understood things--at least things pertaining to the non-Hellmouth side of his life. "We sort of... eloped."

"Oh, I can imagine how well that went over with dear old Mom."

"Quite," Giles agreed, sparing a thought for poor Joyce. Although overall supportive of his relationship with her eldest daughter in a determined-to-give-Buffy-all-possible-happiness-in-her-destined-to-die-young-life sort of way, Joyce had almost needed oxygen when they dropped the bombshell of their impulsive nuptials.

Carlton laughed. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, 'been there, done that.' Although 'Daddy' never really has made a point of actually speaking to me. Here's hoping a new granddaughter brings him 'round."

The jeweler returned to give Giles his receipt, telling him the resized rings would be ready to pick up Tuesday afternoon, which was perfect timing. Tuesday was Buffy's 20th birthday, and he could think of nothing more he wanted to give her than his undying love and devotion. What better way to show her than with their already overdue wedding rings? Of course, the other little gifts he planned to shower her with probably wouldn't hurt, either.

He and Carlton left the jewelry store by mutual accord, and suddenly found themselves back out in the ruckus of the Sunnydale Mall on a Saturday afternoon. No doubt their young wives would feel right at home amidst the bustling throng, but for two middle-aged men buying expensive jewelry for their young wives, they felt completely out of place amidst the mostly adolescents hanging out on the weekend.

"There's a sports bar down the street," Carlton said, obviously having the same eye-opening experience as Giles. At least at the bar they would be surrounded by people old enough to drink. "Buy you a beer?"

"Delighted."

* * * * *

"So... no honeymoon?" Carlton asked, politely waiting until they were halfway through their second beers to broach the topic. They sat either side of a booth table at the back of the Lenny's Sports Bar & Grill, far enough away from the big screen television to hold a conversation in relatively normal tones.

"Hasn't been time, I'm afraid," Giles confessed, absently watching his thumb trace though the condensation on the outside of his glass. It was unfortunate, but true enough. The Council had stayed an extra two days after Buffy's power play, the time needed to divulge everything they had gleaned about Glory, every last scrap of information and speculation no matter how small or insignificant, or ridiculous it sounded. Emily, thankfully, had been sent away the morning after, presumably on the same flight that had been booked for Giles' deportation. Then, as quickly as they came, Travers packed up his cronies and returned to England, leaving behind such a plethora of potentially useful--or useless--information that it was almost overwhelming.

The following days had been spent sorting through the muddle; long, exhaustive hours that Giles squandered away as he deciphered fact from fiction and slowly pieced together a clearer picture of who and what Glory was, hours and days that should have been devoted to his new bride. But old habits died hard, and he had been a Watcher far longer than he'd been a husband, and unraveling the arcane knowledge within the books, documents, and files the Council had provided was vital.

"Is that why you look so down in the dumps?"

Giles glanced up, unaware that he had dropped into a brooding frown. "Sorry?"

"I didn't know selling magic-mumbo-jumbo to the masses was so time consuming," Carlton quipped of Giles' day job. He raised his half-emptied glass for a sip. "Seems to me that all work and no play has made Rupert into a dull husband."

"Yes," Giles agreed, musing only half-heartedly that if he didn't allot some quality time to Buffy soon, then he would have no one but himself to blame when she filed to have their marriage annulled. "I suppose, in a way, it has."

"Then I've got the perfect solution." Putting down his beer, Carlton fished in his pocket for his key ring. From it, he finagled a single brass key as he spoke. "Angie and I--well, 'I' actually, but what's mine is now hers and all that--anyway, we have a house on the beach, couple of hours drive up the coast." He placed the key on the tabletop, and slid it toward Giles. "It's nothing spectacular, weekender sort of thing, but it's comfortable, and secluded... and I think you should take Buffy there for a few days before she divorces you."

Given present circumstances, Giles immediately shook his head. "I can't possibly--"

"Can't, won't, or don't want to?"

"Carl, I know you mean well, but there's... the shop... a-and other things."

"The shop? You're putting the shop above your lovelife?"

"It's not that simple."

"It never is. Especially when you're in love with a woman less than half your age." Carlton drained the last of his beer and thumped the heavy glass on the tabletop. "Look, Rupert, I've met Buffy--I mean, she's gorgeous! She could've had any man she wanted, but she chose you." He pushed the key a little closer to Giles. "Don't let her think she made the wrong choice."

Giles stared at the brass key. The idea of getting away for a few days, just the two of them, was something he had only ever dreamed of actually doing. Now he was being offered the opportunity, with no stings attached. Could it really be that easy? With Glory on the rampage, he seriously doubted Buffy would ever agree to leave her mother and sister unprotected for any length of time, and rightly so, but part of him had already started to warm to the idea. It would be so delightfully 'normal' to go somewhere together, without the fear of what the coming night would bring, and just... enjoy each other's company.

Of course, the fantasy of escaping the rigors of slaying and the constant threat of injury or death was nothing new. It was simply something he had long considered--even in high school--as impossible. Now that he and Buffy were lovers, the desire to whisk her away someplace safe was magnified tenfold.

He eyed the key on the tabletop before him, sorely tempted.

Carlton noted his hesitation, and weakening resolve. "Take it for the weekend... or the whole week, if you want. With a new baby in the house, Angie and I won't have any time for romantic getaways anytime soon. The place is yours, whenever you want it, for however long you want it."

"That's a very generous offer."

"It's also your chance to take a blanket down on the beach, and make love to your wife under the stars."

"Good Lord, it's that secluded?" Giles asked, doubtful that any spot of Californian beach could be so private.

"Yeah, it really is. It's a good place to make babies. Believe me, I know."

Despite himself, Giles barked out a laugh. "That's the last thing we need right now!"

Carlton chuckled. "Then be warned, my friend, babies work to their own agenda."

In a decisive move, Giles reached out and claimed the key, sliding it toward him under his palm. It wouldn't hurt to take it, after all, even if he never used it. But the fancy had taken root in his mind, and practicalities aside, a little relief from the constant stress might actually prove beneficial to them both. Of course, even to consider it, he'd have to step up his research a bit, and pull double-duty for the next few days to clear the mess the Council had left behind, which certainly wasn't going to score him any husbandly points. But he would make up for it with a romantic getaway, starting, if he played his cards right, on the eve of Buffy's 20th birthday . . .

"Thank you," Giles said, pocketing it the key. "For the warning and the opportunity."

"Just enjoy it." Still grinning, Carlton flipped over an unused cardboard coaster to write on, and motioned to him with his hand. "C'mon, give me your pen, and I'll draw you directions."

* * * * *

'Tarnis, 12th century, one of the founders of the Monks of The Order of Dagon. Their sole purpose appears to have been as protectors of The Key. The Key is not directly described in any known literature, but all research indicates an energy matrix vibrating at a dimensional frequency beyond normal human perception. Only those outside reality can see The Key's true nature. The Key is also susceptible to necromanced animal detection, particularly those of canine or serpent construct--'


The last letter of the word skidded a bit as he was grabbed from behind, the unsightly new tail on the 't' causing him to frown. Pen paused, Giles looked up from his journal. Transcribing 'The Book of Tarnis' from its original Latin to English, then recording it in his own words, required concentration at the best of times, never more so when Buffy insisted on distracting him. Arms looped around his neck from behind, she proceeded to nibble, insatiably, on his ear. While he appreciated the attention, now was not the right time or place--especially not if he wanted to finish his research in time to surprise her with his proposed beach house getaway. Her birthday party was tonight, and the translations were taking longer than he anticipated. He was never going to finish it all, but he wanted to accomplish as much as possible.

"You're supposed to be training," Giles said patiently, his breath catching slightly as her tongue found an erogenous zone.

"All finished."

"I didn't see you use the pommel horse."

"That's 'cause you weren't watching." Leaning forward, Buffy planted a loving kiss on his cheek, a move that pressed her entire body snuggly against his back. "Too busy with your books. Again." She made a disgruntle noise. "I think I'm jealous."

Giving in with a grin, Giles tossed said books to the blue mats presently covering the training room floor, and promptly hauled his Slayer--his wife of just eight short days--around onto his lap.

'Eight days,' Giles thought, silencing Buffy's giggle with a slow but passionate kiss. Her eager response only made him realize how much more she deserved than these few stolen moments. Carlton was right; a romantic getaway was just the thing they needed. No doubt he would spend the entire time atoning for being a 'dull husband'... and devilishly loving every minute of it.

The kiss ended all too soon, and Giles pulled back to bestow a weary, apologetic smile on his new wife. "Still jealous?" he asked, hoping to have imparted just how much he loved her without the need for words.

Buffy's eyes grew mischievous, as her arms encircled his neck. She had hardly broken a sweat, despite allegedly having completely what he considered a well-rounded workout session, and her mood was clearly more playful than aerobic. "Um, yeah. I'm thinking I might just need a little more of that husbandly TLC to make me feel... y'know... un-jealous."

"Pommel horse," he insisted, knowing that if they got into it now, he'd get nothing more done for the remainder of the afternoon. There was his research, yes, but he also needed to revisit the jewelers for his rings... if, indeed, he could sneak away from the shop without too many explanations.

"You're not going to cut me any slack, are you?" Buffy asked, pouting. The little minx knew what a good pout could win her, but he wasn't giving in; it would spoil the surprise he had in store for later tonight. "Even though it's my birthday?"

"Especially since it's your birthday," Giles said, hiding a teasing grin. "We don't want you getting flaccid in your old age."

"I'm gonna remember you said that," she promised, climbing off his lap. "When it's your birthday."

He set her on her way with a pat on the rump, watching her walk to the pommel horse, where she effortlessly executed a handstand mount. The natural ease of her skill and agility never ceased to leave him in awe. Buffy brought her legs down through her arms, extended them horizontally for a moment, before she settled into a scissors routine that would have given an Olympic gymnast a run for a medal.

Refocusing on his work, Giles reached to retrieve his discarded books. Finding the right spot in his Watcher diary, he began to write again:

'The monks possessed the ability to transform energy, bend reality. They started work, but the Council has suggested to us that they were interrupted, presumably by Glory. They obviously did manage to accomplish the task. They had to be certain the Slayer would protect it with her life, so they sent The Key to her in human form; in the form of a sister.'


Frowning again, he glanced up, although this time lost in thought. At a Scooby meeting last night, here at the store after closing, Buffy had insisted it was time their friends knew the truth about The Key. The news of Dawn's true origins had been met with mixed results. Willow and Xander were initially angry to learn they had been kept in the dark, but ultimately sympathetic to the reasoning behind it. He wasn't sure Buffy's decision to tell them was all for the best, because the more people who knew, the better chance Glory had of eventually discovering the secret. By all accounts, this 'Hellgod' was a powerful being not to be underestimated, a formidable opponent who, at this point in time, he wasn't completely convinced Buffy could defeat. And if the Slayer stood no chance, what hope had the rest of them?

His thoughts turned to Willow and Tara, whom, earlier, he had left drawing runic symbols in colored sand on the street outside the shop. He wondered if their incantation for an 'early warning' detection spell had been successful. Such a spell might give them a heads up to Glory's arrival, but it did little in the way of actual defense. The truth was, if Glory discovered that Dawn was this mystic 'key' she so vehemently sought, then there was nothing any of them could do to prevent her from marching in and taking it . . .

Giles felt Buffy's arms again encircled him from behind, her loving touch bringing him back to the present.

"Happy now?"

"Well done." He patted her arm, hoping she hadn't noticed that he had tuned out and completely missed the pommel horse regimen he had ordered. Looking down, he spied his signet ring on her left hand, still standing-in as a substitute for a proper wedding band. It reminded him that he needed to return to the jewelers at the Mall before the party tonight, to pick up their rings . . .

"I'm gonna grab a quick shower." Her voice grew husky as she whispered in his ear. "Wanna join me?"

Giles moaned wantonly at the suggestion. With all the research, especially in the past few days in his doubled effort to clear the workload, intimacy had become a casualty of their present predicament. Swiveling on the green settee, he mustered up a regretful smile for another lost opportunity.

"Darling, I'd love to." He indicated 'The Book of Tarnis', still resting open on the wide arm of the couch, and his journal in his lap. "But I still have work to do. I'm sorry."

Buffy's face fell in obvious disappointment. "You know," she said, attuned to the same wavelength, "we had more fun before we were married."

"Buffy--"

"I know, I know. Research is important, I get that. Doesn't mean I have to like it." She stood sulkily, and headed for the small recessed bathroom in the back of the training room without another word, catching up her day clothes along the way.

Frowning, Giles watched her shut the tiny door. Even without an insane, invulnerable Hellgod threatening the world, or his desire for a weekend getaway, what she perceived as his apparent devotion to duty wasn't just about 'the research.' Their marriage was of utmost importance to him, and figuring out a way to keep her alive long enough to partake in it took priority over all.

Readjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose, he determinedly returned to his books.

* * * * *

Showered and dressed in a t-shirt and skirt, Buffy trailed behind Giles, idly sipping on a bottle of water. He was in super-research mode, still fussing with his Watcher diary and making notes as he walked from the training room into the shop. Her eyes dropped to regard his butt. Giles had a nice butt for a guy his age. Although, if she were being totally honest with herself, she liked it a whole better without the baggy sweat pants covering it... something she hadn't been seeing a whole lot of lately.

She really wished she had been able to tempt him into showering with her. Not that he actually needed a shower. Although still in his workout clothes, Giles hadn't done anything in the way of training with her today, engrossed as he was in one of the old books the Council had left him. There was a ring of truth to what she'd said earlier; she was starting to feel jealous of his books, and the time and attention he gave them. If it wasn't for the fact that she knew how important the information contained within them was, she probably would have turned into Psycho-Wife a week ago.

'Wife.' She was still getting used to referring to herself in that capacity, although no more so than actually calling Giles her 'husband.' Yet that was exactly what they were. Despite Council policy, and all their stupid rules and traditions, she and Giles had made the incredible transition from 'Watcher and Slayer' to 'Husband and Wife.'

The thought made her giggle.

"I'm not sure our regular workout is challenging you any more," Giles commented distractedly, hearing her laugh as they headed for the sales counter. "Perhaps we should make it harder."

"You always think harder is better," Buffy returned jauntily. "Maybe next time I patrol, I should carry a load of bricks and use a stake made of butter."

Reaching the counter, Giles turned to her and scoffed. "Very amusing."

Buffy grinned, turning the smile into a greeting for her sister, who had just arrived at the Magic Box after school.

"I'm sure Dawn feels that way about her schoolwork sometimes," Giles said, also welcoming the teen with a warm smile.

"That true?" Buffy asked. "How was school today?"

"The usual," Dawn said, opening her homework book on the counter. "Big square building filled with boredom and despair."

"Just how I remember it." Buffy spared a brief look at Giles, as he prepared to hide his books in a secret compartment under the sales counter. No doubt he'd get them out again and work some more when Dawn was gone, but for now, the information within, especially in his dairy, was not something intended for her sister's eyes. "So," she said, attempting to distract Dawn. Capping her water bottle, she purposefully moved away from the counter. "What's the homework sitch?"

It worked. Dawn's gaze followed her, rather than pay attention to what Giles was doing as he popped a secret catch and slid his books inside. "We have to imagine what we'll be like ten years from now, and write a letter to our future self. The teacher's clearly so out of ideas. Wanna help?"

"Maybe later. I have some stuff I have to do first." Like putting up the decorations for her own birthday bash. As usual, her mom had insisted on doing 'the party thing', even in spite of--or maybe because of--her recent brain surgery. Buffy felt she needed to help out, so she had volunteered to blow up balloons and string streamers in the living room.

"Is it about that weird girl that came to the house?" Dawn asked.

"Glory," Buffy clarified, folding her arms. "And no it's not."

"Like you'd tell me anyway. 'Dawn's too young' and 'Dawn's too delicate.'"

"Right. A young, delicate pain in my butt."

"I just think you're freaking out 'cause you have to fight someone prettier than you," Dawn teased. "That is the case, right?"

Buffy approached Dawn, needing her to understand that this wasn't a game. "Glory is evil. And powerful," she said seriously. Then she gave her sister a 'get real' look. "And in no way prettier than me." She didn't miss the way Giles quirked an eyebrow over the cash ledger he was studying. He'd pay for that later.

"I just think you're getting soft in your advanced age," Dawn badgered. "She didn't look that tough to me."

"Who's getting soft?" Xander asked, as he and Anya appeared at the counter.

"The birthday girl," Dawn pointed out.

"Pretty soon," Anya added cheerfully, as Willow and Tara joined the conversation, "she'll be slaying with a cane."

"Oh!" Willow said enthusiastically, turning to Buffy. "You could have one of those canes with a secret pull-out handle, only instead of a swordstick, it could have a stake inside."

"Guys," Buffy said, looking around at her friends in mild disbelief. They were only teasing. At least, she hoped they were. "I turned twenty, not eighty-two. Okay?"

"You have to admit, Buffy," Giles said, wandering back to the cash register with the ledger in hand. "For a Slayer, twenty is bordering on geriatric."

"Geri--?" Slack-jawed, Buffy let the word die. He was the one too busy with his musty old books to take her to bed! "Right," she announced, grabbing her sister by the elbow and starting for the exit. "We're leaving." Noting the shift in Giles expression, the fact that he honestly thought she was miffed by his teasing, she let go of Dawn and backtracked to give him a quick kiss to prove that she wasn't. "I'll show you 'geriatric' later tonight, mister," she promised. "If you can tear yourself away from your books."

"Consider them already forgotten." To prove his point, Giles dropped the ledger on the counter and scooped her into his arms. Despite the audience, he lowered his head to kiss her quite thoroughly.

"You two," Xander complained, "all lovey-dovey and making with the touchy-feely, acting like a couple of newlyweds."

Reluctantly ending the kiss, Buffy shot her friend a pained look. "Xander, we are newlyweds."

"Well, yeah. I knew that." Xander shuffled his feet as everyone looked at him.

Buffy glanced at her left hand, still resting on her husband's shoulder, and tried not to frown. While the significance of Giles giving her his signet ring was touching, the little girl inside her who wanted to grow up, fall in love, and marry her Mr. Right, just didn't understand why he hadn't bought her a real ring. Sure, she knew the importance of his research about Glory and tolerated the hours he devoted to it, but deep down Buffy feared that maybe Giles had really meant it when he told her, in the car, on their wedding night. Nothing had really changed between them. Their marriage was, after all, just their signatures on a piece of paper to stop the authorities from deporting him.

Because no one would ever suspect they were husband and wife. Apart from no wedding rings, they didn't act any differently, they didn't live together, and in the whole eight days they'd been married, they had only slept together once. To be fair, though, that wasn't all the fault of Giles and his marathon research. Buffy had grown extremely reluctant to leave her mother and sister unguarded with a crazy Hellgod on the loose, especially at night, and she couldn't really blame Giles for not wanting to sleep at her house, in her bed, with her mom just down a few feet the hall. That was kind of wiggy, even to her.

Staring at Giles' signet, she wondered if things would ever be any different. Even if they lived together, it was clear to her that they would live very separate lives. She'd still spend her days at school while he worked at the shop, and then he'd waste the evenings researching while she was out on patrol. If she were lucky, their paths would cross for maybe an hour or two... when they went to bed, too tired to do anything but sleep.

Giles touched her face, the tenderness of action snapping her uneasy gaze back to his. He smiled fondly, and Buffy hid her unfounded doubts and insecurities way down deep in a place where he wouldn't see. Too late she realized that he had noticed something amiss.

She pulled out of his arms before he could pursue the matter. "See ya," Buffy said, conjuring up a smile.

He nodded, letting whatever he had been about to say remain unsaid. With Dawn in tow, Buffy hurriedly left the Magic Box.

* * * * *

Giles heaved a sigh of relief as the bell above the front door of the magic shop tinkled as Buffy and Dawn left. "Thank God," he murmured to himself. "I thought she'd never leave."

Xander raised an eyebrow at him. "And here I was thinking you were Mr. Happily Ever After."

Not even dignifying that statement with an answer, Giles crossed to the cash register. There was a soft 'cha-ching' sound as he opened the money drawer. "I simply have somewhere else I need to be, and I'd rather she didn't know."

"Oh, I get it," Xander quipped knowingly. "You forgot, didn't you, and now you gotta rush off and buy her a present."

"I certainly did not," Giles returned, slightly affronted by the implication that he had forgotten his wife's birthday. "I simply need to pick it up."

"Sure," Xander smirked. "Been a little too busy with the books lately, huh Big-G."

"At the jewelers," Giles insisted.

"Ooh," Willow crooned excitedly. "Is it expensive? Diamonds? Pearls? Diamonds and pearls?"

"I bet it's a ring," Anya said astutely. Giles glanced at her, wondering if he were really that transparent when it came to buying jewelry for his beloved. "Well, Buffy doesn't have a real wedding ring," she explained, "and you need to go back for those after they're resized, so my bet is that's what it is."

"That's so romantic," Tara joined in.

Cat out of the bag, Giles suddenly broke into a grin. "I just hope she likes it."

"She will," Willow said, smiling, "if it's coming from you."

"And if it's really expensive," Anya added.

"It's a wonderful birthday present, Mr. Giles," Tara agreed. "I'm sure she'll love it."

"There's, um, more, too." Giles turned to the small group--Xander and Anya, Willow and Tara. "But first I need to ask a favor of you all."

* * * * *

"Prezzies!" Buffy all but squealed with delight.

"See? Just what you needed," Willow announced happily. She resumed blowing soap bubbles, which she maintained added 'a party ambiance.' Giles just thought they added a 'sticky ambiance' but prudently kept his opinion to himself.

"You are very, very wise," Buffy agreed. "Now gimme, gimme, gimme!"

Giles hid a smile in his cup of tea. For someone who, just yesterday, insisted that she had no interest in celebrating her 20th birthday, Buffy was certainly enjoying the moment. He glanced at their friends--Willow and Tara, Anya and Xander, Joyce and Dawn--all gathered that evening for the occasion in the Summers' party-decorated living room, and thankfully not a demon or vampire or other Hellmouth problem in sight to spoil the event.

Buffy tore into the first of her many brightly wrapped gifts with undisguised gusto, only to be genuinely touched by the thoughtfulness of what she found inside. He made a fond quip over Anya's apparent eagerness to own the gaily-patterned spring frock from Willow and Tara, secretly hoping that his own selections of women's apparel would receive equal enthusiasm. Ninety-percent of the gift boxes stacked on the coffee table and the lounge were his doing. Giles had been first to admit that he lacked certain skills when it came to the latest in ladies fashions, so his gifts tended toward perfume and lingerie that was simply pleasing to him. A somewhat selfish notion, he had decided when the 'Victoria's Secret' clerk suggested that he pick out something that he liked, but nonetheless an effective marketing ploy, given the dollar amount he had dropped in that single store.

And no matter, anyway. All of these playful and mischievous presents for his new wife, although well intended, were simply the appetizer to his real gift, which currently rested in a small, green velvet box in the pocket of his tan jacket. All he needed was the right moment in which to give Buffy with her wedding ring, a moment he preferred to be in private.

Eager to be part of the birthday proceedings, Dawn got up from beside her mother, and offered her sister a square item, hastily wrapped in tissue paper that had clearly seen better days. "Here. Open mine."

Buffy put on a sisterly face of suspicion, but the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth gave her away. "It's not going to explode, is it?" She opened Dawn's gift to find herself looking at a home-decorated photo frame, her smiling fading a little as she looked at the photo within.

"It's from when we visited Dad that summer in San Diego," Dawn explained. "I put the shells on it myself. We picked them off the beach."

"I remember," Buffy said quietly, mixed emotions running across on her face.

Giles felt for her, knowing--as Buffy did--that the memory Dawn related was completely false. Judging from their expression, the others all realized the poignancy of the moment too. The event never happened, despite the photographic and physical evidence of it in Buffy's hands. It was simply one more mind-trick of the Monks of Dagon in their deception to bring a glowing ball of energy to life.

An awkward silence filled the room.

"Well, geez," Dawn complained, growing uncomfortable with the way everyone started diverting their eyes whenever she glanced at them, "don't get all 'Movie of the Week.' I was just too cheap to buy a real present."

Wanting to make everything right, Buffy stood and gave her sister a heartfelt smile and hug. "Thank you." She exchanged a troubled look with her mother over Dawn's shoulder, before regarding Giles with an expression that tore him up inside.

There was, of course, nothing he or anyone could do to fix the situation. Until six months ago, Dawn Summers had simply not existed, despite the very real memories they all had to the contrary. All he could do was expedite the passing of this heartrending moment.

"Um, here, darling," Giles said, stepping forward to park his empty tea mug on the corner of the coffee table. As Buffy released her sister, he picked up the nearest of his boxed gifts and presented it to her with a kiss on the cheek. "Happy birthday."

Trying to get back into the party spirit, Buffy settled in her chair to unwrap her present. It was lingerie--passionate red silk, and extremely suggestive. Just the thought of Buffy wearing it to bed made Giles' temperature rise, but when she shamelessly held it up for all to see, heat of a different sort colored his cheeks. As she worked her way through the stack of gifts boxes, she revealed more items of intimate apparel than he remembered buying--but obviously did--in various styles of black, red, and white lace. When she was finally done, the empty boxes and torn wrappings tossed casually to the floor, he was slightly embarrassed to note that his wife was practically buried under a mountain of silk and satin.

"Easy to see what's on Giles' mind," Dawn said, proving grown-up regardless.

Anya scooped up the nearest black teddy and admired it longingly. "It's all so lovely," she crooned again. "And very, very sexy."

Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, well... "

"And look!" There was the sound of Velcro ripping, then a wanton sigh from Anya. "This one has an easy access crotch."

"Oh Lord... "

"Newlyweds," Xander grumbled.

Buffy chuckled, enjoying the discomfiture of her furiously blushing husband, as Anya launched into a rather detailed sales pitch as to why Xander should buy her similar sleepwear.

"I think now would be a good time to check on dinner," Joyce announced quickly. She pulled Dawn up by the hand, then disappeared into to the kitchen with the impressionable younger Summers in tow.

* * * * *

Sometime after they ate--a casual meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, and so many party tidbits that even Xander admitted defeat--Giles finally found himself alone with Buffy in the kitchen. He had surreptitiously followed her in there after she had left the party in living room in search of a drink. The ring box in his jacket pocket was burning the proverbial hole; his plans for a romantic getaway on the tip of his tongue. Although he knew his first gift would be readily accepted and hopefully appreciated, he still harbored some reservations about her reaction to the second.

When Buffy had left the Magic Box earlier that day, Giles had squared things with the others. Their friends all exuberantly agreed to keep a closer eye on Joyce and Dawn for the next few days, perhaps even enlisting Spike's help if need be, so that he and Buffy could enjoy something of a belated honeymoon at the beach house. Now all that remained was to convince the woman in question that leaving town would not be as detrimental or problematic as she would initially perceive it to be.

The love of his life was pouring water from a plastic pitcher into a glass, her back to him, when he entered. Wearing a smile, he silently approached to embrace her from behind.

Of course, there was no 'sneaking up' on a Slayer, and Buffy instantly relaxed into his arms as if she had expected no less than his touch. He kissed her cheek in greeting, then hugged her close. "Good birthday?"

"In the relatively short history of Buffy Birthday Bashes... the best yet."

He rocked her gently, relishing the feel of her small body tucked against his in such an intimate manner. Her golden hair was like silk against his cheek, her perfume a delectable assault on his senses, and the thought of her wearing some of that sexy lingerie piled in the living room was enough to send his pulse racing. This was the first private moment they had shared all evening, the first chance he'd had to present her with a gesture of his unbreakable devotion, and broach his plans for the next few days. He dearly hoped she was in a receptive mood, because right now, all he wanted to do was whisk her away and worship her until they were both blissfully exhausted.

"Do you have any idea how much I love you?" Giles began.

Buffy let out a chortle of genuine amusement. "Considering the amount of lingerie you just gave me, I kinda think everyone does."

"Yes, well, the saleswoman was very... persuasive. You don't mind, do you?"

"That for the first time since we've known each other, you're interested in giving me frilly-lacy-girly stuff instead of razzed knuckles from a quarterstaff lesson? Color me not minding."

He chuckled.

"And don't tell Xander and Anya, but I liked your present a whole lot better than their blue fish lava lamp." She turned in his arms, facing him with a cheeky expression. "I'm beginning to think you have a naughty side, Mr. Giles."

"Only 'beginning?' Then, clearly, I'm doing something wrong."

The banter died between them, Buffy's teasing smile fading all too quickly. He knew that hesitant expression well; there was something on her mind.

"You do, don't you?" she asked.

"What?"

Buffy bit her lip. "Love me... the way I love you. All hearts and flowers and a thousand violins. Like if something bad happened tomorrow, I couldn't make it without you."

His features softened as he tenderly cupped her cheek. "Yes," he told her simply, from the heart. "I do."

He'd only just lowered his head to kiss her properly, his left hand moving down her face and arm to make a casual dip into the pocket of his jacket, when Joyce entered the kitchen.

She stopped short. "Oh... sorry... !"

Buffy and Giles immediately broke apart. He felt like a schoolboy, guiltily caught stealing kisses in the hallway. Looking away, he quickly shoved the ring box back into his pocket. Although there was nothing shameful about what they were doing, Giles doubted he would ever feel comfortable expressing his feelings for Buffy in the presence of his 'mother-in-law,' mostly because of the history he and Joyce shared on account of that wretched chocolate. Instead, he turned to the counter by the window to pour himself a glass of wine from an opened bottle.

"No problem," Buffy said, clearly having no qualms whatsoever. "Everything okay?"

Joyce continued on her way to the island counter. "We needed more," she explained, picking up a bundle of white paper napkins. "Unless you want to spend tomorrow helping your old mom get chips 'n' dip out of the rug." She went to leave again, give them their privacy, but paused and turned to with a curious look. "Have you two ever thought about... ?"

"What?" Buffy prompted, when her mom stopped mid-sentence.

"It's silly," Joyce said, "but just now, when I heard Rupert say 'I do,' I wondered if you'd given any thought to really getting married."

Buffy face mirrored the surprise on Giles' as he sipped his wine. "Mom, we already 'really' got married a week ago."

"I assure you, Joyce, it was all perfectly above board."

"I'm not doubting that. I just meant... " She smiled at her daughter in a very maternal, and perhaps a bit melancholy way. "You deserve a proper wedding, honey. At a church. With a minister. And a big reception afterwards with lots of invited guests."

"Guests like you," Buffy said, knowing how much her mom regretted not witnessing her and Giles exchange wedding vows. Such was the drawback of an impulsive ceremony in the County Clerk's office.

"Exactly."

"As long as it's something big enough to make notable dent in Dad's wallet," Buffy agreed with a mischievous grin.

Her mother returned it. "That, too."

"If Hank doesn't come after me with a shotgun first," Giles added dolefully, remembering his conversation with Carlton as he grabbed a handful of party mix.

"As far as I know, Dad doesn't own a shotgun," Buffy said deadpan.

"Ha ha."

"Although to be honest, I really can't tell if that's a 'real memory', or one of the false ones that came with... " Buffy's sentence trailed off as she glanced down hall and spotted her sister, who was lingering by a side table holding of plates and other party sundries, obviously eavesdropping. "Dawn? Whatcha doing in there? Party getting slow?"

Taking another sip of wine, Giles watched Buffy's cheerful expression slip. Unable to see Dawn from his present vantage on the other side of the kitchen, he could only listen to the exchange, but the uncertainty written on Buffy's face proclaimed what they were all now feeling. The incident with the photo frame had made everyone edgy, each of them now second-guessing themselves for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Given Buffy's comment about the 'false memories' that the Monks had fabricated to justify Dawn's existence, he worried, as Buffy did, about what the teen had overheard and how she had interpreted it. The poor girl deserved to know she 'wasn't real', but how--exactly--did one explain that to a loved one while avoiding the inevitable repercussions?

"We need plates," Dawn called over the familiar tinkle of stacked glass being picked up, covering. "Cake time."

Buffy smiled nervously as her sister returned to the living room. When her eyes traveled to his, Giles gave her a nod, sympathetic to her plight. The confrontation had been averted, at least for now. But it was a ticking time bomb, and something told Giles that when it detonated, there would be hell to pay. Dawn deserved to know the truth about her origins, if only they had a clearer picture of what to tell her. While he had made some headway on that topic with his recent research, he was still far from having all the answers that Buffy wanted--and Dawn needed--to hear.

"Well, you heard your sister." Joyce retrieved a handful of spoons to go with her paper napkins, then snagging Buffy's arm, mother steered daughter from the kitchen. "And it's traditional for the Birthday Girl to be part of this."

Giles stepped after them, floundering slightly at another missed opportunity. Alone in the kitchen, he pulled the small, green velvet box from his pocket again, looked at it, and sighed with a sense of mounting frustration.

* * * * *

Reluctantly returning to the living room, Giles was just in time to hear Dawn complain to her mother, rather accusingly, that Xander and Anya were talking about her behind her back. It was a typical teenage response to the insecurities she was no doubt feeling, and he again regretted Buffy's decision to tell their friends the truth about the teen. While he hated to be the one to say 'I told you so,' he had, unfortunately, seen this coming.

"We were talking about sex," Anya explained when Joyce looked to her for an explanation. "I mean, you know us, sometimes we like to pretend stuff--"

"Anya," Xander cut in, more than a little embarrassed.

"You know, like say there's a fireman or a shepherd--"

"You know what?" Buffy said, knowingly. "Let's not have this exchange of images right now."

"Oh. Right. Of course," Dawn said, sarcastic and angry. "Can't let Dawn hear anything. Fine. I'm just gonna go to bed. That way I won't accidentally get exposed to like... words."

Dawn stormed up the staircase, leaving everyone feeling uncomfortable. Buffy glanced at Giles for help, but there was nothing he could say or do right now to make matters any better where it concerned her sister. He flinched as he heard her bedroom door slam, somewhere upstairs.

"Cake?" Willow asked sympathetically, offering a plate in the hope of defusing the tension in the room.

Giles' concerned gaze fell on his wife. Perched on the arm of Tara's chair, he watched Buffy's shoulders slump in despair. With her birthday party rapidly deteriorating into the blowout it had been in previous years, he stepped forward to take the plate, desperately wanting to halt the descent into gloom before it engulfed them all. "Um... thank you, Willow."

Joyce, realizing his intentions, followed. "Good idea."

The others all reluctantly took a plate, until they all balanced a slice of chocolate cake, which they ate in subdued silence.

For a couple of long minutes, the only sound in the awkward silence was that of the cutlery on glass plates.

Looking miserable, Buffy was only a couple of bites through hers, clearly having no appetite for it, when she put it aside and got to her feet.

Giles frowned as she left the room without a word, wondering what on earth she intended to say to her sister that wasn't only going to make matters worse. But she didn't head up the staircase to Dawn's room, as expected, rather down the hall beside them, toward the back door.

Joyce immediately put down her plate, maternal instincts kicking in as she made to follow her despondent daughter. While there was nothing she could say or do to comfort Dawn, Buffy was a different matter.

Giles stopped her with a hand on her arm. They exchanged a brief look. He hoped she would respect the fact that he was now Buffy's husband, and that it was his place to go to her. After a long moment, and with a reluctant nod, Joyce backed down. Sliding his empty cake plate onto the coffee table, he headed after his wife.

* * * * *

He found her at the end of the hall, standing in front of the small window beside the back door, staring out at the blackness of night beyond. Giles stopped a few feet behind Buffy, knowing she had heard his arrival. He holstered his hands in his trouser pockets and waited for her to face him in her own time.

"There's a garden trellis just outside this window," she told him quietly, her back still to him. "Before she and Mom knew I was The Slayer, Dawn used to climb down it and follow me on patrol, to spy on me. Do you remember how you would find her, and get all fatherly and concerned, and bring her home?"

"I remember." The hell of it was, he did remember. For better or worse, Buffy's little sister had always been part of his life since moving to California, even though he now knew those events, as real as they were to him, had never happened.

Buffy laughed, but the sound was tainted with remorse. "I never told you this, but... one time--junior year at high school--Dawn snuck into the library one night when we were training and saw everything. She threatened to tell Mom that the school librarian was attacking me with a broadsword... unless I paid her."

"Yes, well, she was a very resourceful 12-year-old," Giles agreed fondly, automatically, before he realized that memory was false too, and Buffy was simply torturing herself out of frustration and guilt.

With a quick glance behind to confirm their privacy, he moved to stand behind her. He could almost feel her pain, and wished, not for the first time, there was something he could do to spare her from it. He rested his hands on her shoulders, before allowing them to travel up and down her bare arms in a comforting caress. His left hand departed her smooth warmth of her skin at the base of his stroke, instead delving purposefully into his jacket pocket. Now may not be the most 'politically correct' moment to do this, but he dearly wanted to see Buffy smile again, see her face light up with the same joy that unwrapping her birthday presents had brought earlier.

Buffy rested her head back against his chest. "I had to buy Dawn's silence," she continued. "Cost me six week's allowance, which, when you're a teenager, seems like a small--" She hesitated as he reached round her to hold the opened ring box in her line of sight. "--fortune."

Giles broke into a warm smile as Buffy spied his gift, melancholy thoughts of the sister-who-wasn't going right out of her head. He watched, over her shoulder, as she reached out a slow hand to pluck the smaller of the two matching wedding bands from the green velvet box. Buffy turned to him, suddenly teary-eyed and trying hard not to cry.

"Do you... like it?" he asked hesitantly.

"It's beautiful. It's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen." She fell into his waiting arms, and hugged him with an intensity that surprised him. The platinum rings, although handcrafted and expensive, were rather plain in style--solid bands with beveled centers and a lightly brushed finish. They were certainly nothing to get this emotional about.

"Then let's do this properly," Giles said, when Buffy finally allowed him to step out of her desperate embrace. Pocketing the green velvet box, he retrieved the wedding band from her, and met her heartfelt gaze with loving eyes. "Rings carved from amber or bone have been exchanged as tokens of affection as far back as the time of cavemen, but it was the ancient Egyptians who first used a pure circle of gold, or other precious metal, as a symbol of love. They saw how, by its geometric shape, a ring signified eternity, without beginning or end."

Buffy sniffed back her pending tears, and chewed her lip as she tried to hold it together.

Giles raised her left hand, and slowly worked his signet ring from her finger as he spoke. "By Roman times, of course, a ring served as a public declaration of marriage between a man and a woman, much as it does today. It's a symbolic tie that binds two hearts, two bodies, and two souls into a single unified whole forever." Gently, he slid her wedding band home, where it belonged. "By giving you this ring, Buffy, know that I intend to honor the vows I took with you for the rest of my life."

Buffy's tears finally spilled free, tracing tracks of joy down her cheeks, and prompting him to wipe them away with a gentle thumb. "God," she whispered earnestly, "I love you so much."

Lowering his head, he tenderly kissed her sweetly parted lips. Buffy's arms went around him again, holding him in a way that proclaimed her desire to hold him evermore. A noise outside the window prompted them to part--a noise quickly dismissed as a cat or some such, as Buffy's hand dipped into his coat pocket in search of the green velvet box.

"My turn," she announced, opening it to retrieve the matching men's ring. Lifted his left hand, she paused with it at the end of his finger to look up into his eyes. "Um, I don't really have anything to add to your 'History of Wedding Rings,' except to say that this ring--your ring--in the whole history of rings is the only one that truly matters." She slipped it on his finger. "Because it means you're mine."

"Always and forever."

She raised her hand to touch his face, her newly bestowed wedding band glinting in the soft light of the hall. "I've missed you."

He nodded, knowing his research had made the past eight days as lonely for her as they had been for him. "I've missed you, too."

"I don't wanna sleep alone tonight. No ifs, no buts, no books." She turned a saucy smile on him. "How about... later... I model some of that sexy lingerie for you? And you can play with the Velcro."

"Oh, Buffy... " Suddenly, he was the one overcome with the urge to shed tears of utter joy, but masculine pride fought them down. Still, the force of the emotion--the realization that this vibrant, passionate, and incredible young woman loved and wanted only him--remained stuck like an arrow through his heart. Carlton Fisk was right; he was, indeed, an extremely lucky man.

"Is that a 'yes'?" Buffy asked wryly, watching the emotions flit across his face.

Giles took her hand, gently squeezing her fingers as he revealed his plans for a romantic getaway, just the two of them with nothing to do but verify their love for each other, over and over and over. "There's a place, a beach house, just a few hours drive up the coast. You remember my friend Carlton? He--"

"Wait," she interrupted, frowning slightly as she acknowledged what he was saying. "I just want us to sleep together. You want us to leave town to do it?"

"Just for a few days." The disagreeable look on her face prompted him to add, "Or even just overnight."

"I can't leave!" Buffy said, suddenly angry that he could even suggest such lunacy. She forcefully reclaimed her hand from his, a gesture that spoke far more eloquently than words.

Giles sighed. He had expected opposition to his plans, but not outright hostility. "I just want us to spend a little uninterrupted time together." He chanced to look at her, trying to reason, but she was still glaring daggers. "We deserved at least that much."

"And Dawn? What does she deserved? Oh, wait. How about you working to find the truth of who and what she is? How about the reassurance of knowing that I'm here to protect her whenever the Big Bad Invincible Hellgod comes knocking, wanting to stuff her in some cosmic lock and give her a good twirl?" She started moving away from him, her irritated gait dashing all hope.

"Buffy... "

She rounded angrily. "I can't believe you even suggested this now! What about your research?"

"Frankly, I think a break may be precisely what I need."

Miffed, she crossed her arms. "So that's it, huh? I've spent the past eight days being neglected, tolerating your love affair with a bunch of musty old books, and now that you wanna quit for a while I just have to go along with it like... like a dutiful wife?"

Her words provoked his male ego. "Well, I am your husband."

Buffy gaped, as if she hadn't quite heard him right. "What sort of medieval chauvinism is that? Word to the wise, Giles: Don't think that just because we're married you can tell me what to do, or you're gonna find yourself sleeping alone a lot."

"I am not trying to tell you what to do!" he said in unexpected exasperation, marveling at how the conversation had gotten so out of control so fast. "Heaven forbid, you'd actually listen," he added, sotto voca. Making an effort to control his foolishly riled temper, Giles mustered up a sympathetic look and gently took her by the arms. "We could both use a break, Buffy," he amended. "And since we never had a honeymoon... Look, I've already taken the liberty of speaking to the others, who have agreed to keep a close eye on things while we're gone. Even your mother thinks--"

"My mother? You talked to my mother about this?"

"And she agreed--"

Forcefully, Buffy pulled out of his embrace. "Then why don't you take her?"

Giles bristled to the accusation in her tone, the unwarranted insinuation that he still harbored any attraction for Joyce. 'Bloody band candy.'

"Because I'm not going anywhere," Buffy concluded firmly. "I can't. I have responsibilities here, and so do you." Turning on her heel, she stomped back down the hall in a sulk.

* * * * *

Twenty minutes later, Buffy found herself sitting on the couch--alone--still sulking. Her party had wound down in the wake of Dawn's temper tantrum. Willow and Tara had found a quiet corner for a conversation, while Xander and Anya had found themselves somewhere private for some overdue smoochies, no doubt inspired by the pile of sexy lingerie. The man who had given her said mountain of silk and satin--and a beautiful platinum wedding ring--was presently standing across the room, eating another slice of birthday cake while quietly talking with her mother. Every time he made eye contact, Buffy childishly looked the other way and sulked a little more. She knew she was being unfair, that she had way over-reacted to his suggestion of a romantic getaway, but she couldn't help it. Giles, of all people, should understand why she couldn't leave town right now.

Finally, unable to stomach any more cheery chitchat between him and her mom, especially in light of what she had accused him of in the hall, Buffy changed chairs, flopping over onto the armchair facing the couch, which conveniently put her back to them both. It wasn't as if she was jealous of her mom, or of her mom's past history with her husband. It was just that . . .

She studied her new ring, turning it around her finger. It was plain but beautiful, at least to her. Given all that it signified, it could have been fashioned out of razor wire and she would have still cherished it. Her emotional insecurities--chiefly that stupid one about Giles viewing their marriage as little more than a piece of paper granting him permission to remain in the country--had instantly melted the moment she spied it sitting in the green velvet box. He'd planned all this perfectly, right down to getting her correct ring size. He'd waited and surprised her when they were alone... and then he'd gone and blown the perfect moment with the impossible suggestion of a belated honeymoon.

She pouted some more, only then realizing that it wasn't the suggestion of a honeymoon that had her in such a sulk, but rather the fact that she knew it could never happen. Things--their lives, for example--weren't that simple around here. She was angry with the Hellmouth and Destiny... not with Giles.

"Idiot," Buffy murmured, chastising herself. She'd have to remember to make that distinction to him, make sure he knew that their squabble wasn't his fault. She sighed miserably. This birthday party was shaping up to be the suckiest in a long line of Sucky Buffy Birthdays... and it was all her fault. Well, maybe not all her fault; Dawn's temper tantrum hadn't exactly induced a festive mood.

"Oooh, did Giles give you that?"

Buffy glanced up as Willow and Tara slid onto the couch opposite her, the two witches holding hands and wearing happy, knowing smiles that suggested the polite inquiry was completely rhetorical. Like the 'romantic getaway' plans, Buffy suspected they were in on 'the ring' secret, too.

"Yeah," she said glumly. Belatedly, she held out her hand for them to look at it. "Finally a real wedding ring that actually fits, so I don't have to worry anymore about losing his signet. Really didn't want to do that. It was a gift from his grandmother," she finished lamely, using casual conversation to mask her dour mood.

It didn't work. After admiring at the platinum band, Willow and Tara exchanged a perceptive look.

"So everything's okay?" the redhead asked. "You know, with you and Giles?"

"Peachy," Buffy said, mustering up an unconvincing smile. "Newlyweds, remember? All touchy-feely, can't keep our hands off each other."

"Right. That's why you're sitting here all by your lonesome looking miserable," Willow remarked. "While Giles is standing all the way on the other side of the room doing his best to hide the fact that he's miserable, too. Don't you like your ring?"

"I love my ring," Buffy said sincerely, glancing at it as she instinctively held it to her heart. "It's just that... " She looked at her friends. "He wants us to go away for a few days, alone. Kinda like a belated honeymoon."

Willow looked confused. "And the idea of getting snuggly with your hubby makes you miserable because... ?"

"It doesn't," Buffy was quick to point out. "I want us to get snuggly. I want us to get so snuggly that we completely exhaust ourselves from all the snugglies. But I can't leave town. Not now. Not with Glory--"

"Oh, my God... " Tara murmured suddenly. Horrified, she straightened to look at something over Buffy's shoulder.

Heart leaping to her throat at the expression, Buffy turned to confront whatever unknown horror now lurked behind her chair. Vampires, demons, or Hellbeasts crashing her party, she could have dealt with, but what she saw turned completely threw her for a loop.

Dawn stood in the doorway, a butcher knife in one hand and blood streaming down her other arm from a gruesome gash. "Is this blood?" she asked flatly, sounding distant and unfeeling.

"Dawn!" Buffy called, rushing to her sister's aide on legs of lead. Her mother was also immediately there, wearing a matching mask of horror and shock. As Buffy took in what had happened and her distress turned to anger, her question of 'who did this to you?' dramatically changed to the realization of; "What did you do?"

"This is blood, isn't it?" Dawn asked again. "It can't be me. I'm not 'a Key.' I'm not a thing."

"Oh, sweetie, no," Joyce said, trying to find words of comfort. "What is this all about?"

"What am I?" Dawn harshly asked the woman she knew was not her mother. "Am I real? Am I anything?"

Having no answers, Joyce drew her into a hug. As Dawn began to cry in earnest, Buffy again felt the familiar sting of pending tears. A gentle hand rested on her shoulder from behind, but rather than turn and fall into Giles' waiting arms, Buffy instead covered his hand with her own to show gratitude for his silent support. This was part of why she couldn't leave town, although she could have done without her little sister making such a graphic statement of the fact.

Stepping around her, Giles reached for the knife dangling from Dawn's unresisting fingers. As he placed it aside, out of reach, Buffy snapped out of her stupor and was galvanized into action. The midst of a family crisis was not the time to fall apart.

"Let's get her upstairs," she suggested to her mother, "and see to that cut."

* * * * *

It wasn't as bad as it looked, leading Giles to conclude that it was not a deep enough cut to require stitches or a trip to the ER. Trusting his expertise, Buffy stood behind him in the upstairs bathroom as he knelt by Dawn, patching her up much the same way he had tended her war wounds after many a rough night slaying. But Dawn didn't have Slayer healing powers, and part of her worried about infection and... just making it through the night without a repeat incident.

Arms folded and feeling more useless than she let on, Buffy glanced at her mother, who hovered silently in the doorway, looking frazzled by the whole ordeal. The notion that someone they loved could inflict harm on them self to make a point had been a somber and poignant exclamation to the end of Buffy's party.

"You'll be fine," Giles gently assured Dawn, touching her cheek with paternal affection. He appeared perfectly calm and collected, in contrast to Buffy and her mom, who were both close to losing it. He was a rock, Mr. Emotional Marathon Man--a least on the outside--and Buffy had never been so glad of the fact.

Dawn, on the other hand, had not said a single word, her tear-streaked face an impassionate mask.

As Giles got to his feet, Buffy noticed his eyes were full of unvoiced concern. Without further word, he tossed the bloodied gauze and antiseptic swabs into the trash bin by the sink, and began to wash his hands in hot, soapy water.

"Come on, honey," Joyce offered, stepping forward. She took Dawn by the shoulders and steered her to the door. "Let's get you into bed."

Compliant to the point of being really scary, Dawn obeyed, submissively allowing her mother to lead her down the hall to her room. This wasn't over. That much was clear to Buffy as she turned to her husband.

"We'd do best to keep a close eye on her tonight," he said quietly, turning off the tap and accepting the towel she had waiting for him. "Thank you. Although it's unlikely she'll try anything quite so extreme again."

Buffy nodded glumly, folding her arms. She turned to leave. "I'd better go give the others a status report so they can go home."

"Yes, I expect they'll be anxious to know Dawn's all right." Hanging the towel on its rung, he hesitantly added, "I'll... wait in your bedroom."

She stopped, but kept her back to him, and forced her head to say the words that were in direct contrast to the feelings in her heart. "You should go home too, Giles."

"Buffy... " He touched her arm, coaxing her to turn around, but she resisted. "Perhaps I should stay," he offered gently. "You know, just in case."

Mustering up her courage, Buffy slowly faced him. She wanted nothing more than to tell him just how much she needed him and his silent strength with her tonight, all night, but she couldn't. Somehow, Dawn had discovered the truth about herself. The shock of that discovery had led her to act in an extraordinary--and totally stupid--way. No one said it, but they were all worried about what she might try next. Giles was the only one among them capable of fixing things. But he couldn't fix them by staying the night.

"This is a family thing. I know," Buffy corrected when he began to object. "Technically you are family now, and yes, you've always been more like a dad to her than Dad. But that's just more lies and false memories. Right now she needs me and Mom. We need to deal with this on our own."

"I understand that. And I certainly don't want to interfere. I just thought... you might need me."

Buffy's heart turned over. Despite herself, she gave into the urge to fall into his arms. "I do need you. I need you so much. Don't ever think I don't."

He smoothed her hair with a tender hand. "I simply want to help."

"And the best way you can, right now, is by finding answers to Dawn's questions." Buffy pulled away from the warmth and security she somehow always found in his embrace, no matter how bleak the situation, and look up into his concerned green eyes.

Giles nodded, acquiescent, and laid a chaste kiss on her forehead. "You're right, of course. I'll go home and continue my research."

Reluctant to let him leave, Buffy rested her cheek against his chest. She closed her eyes, cherishing the feel of being in his arms for an extended moment, wondering when the next one would come. Because all she could see that lay ahead was another long and lonely night without him, and the prospect of and even bigger crisis come morning . . .

* * * * *

Blood.

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

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

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

Buffy swung.

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

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

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

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

'No... '

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

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

Blood.

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

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!"

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

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

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

"Go to hell."

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

"I'll tell you nothing."

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

"Give... me... the Key."

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Adrenaline propelled him upright from where he had fallen asleep over his books, screaming. Giles blinked, gasping for air. As the sound of his horror dispelled in the silence of his darkened apartment, he came to realize two important things. 1) there was no dagger sticking out of his chest, and 2) he was tightly clutching his side as if that injury, at least, had been real. Almost fearfully, he removed his hand and looked at it. There was, of course, no blood smeared on his palm, nor was there a fatal stab wound beneath his shirt. It had all been a nightmare.

Spent, Giles collapsed back in his desk chair and fought to calm his ragged breaths. On the desktop before him lay a rare volume on the lesser-known history of the Byzantine Empire. Research into the mystical origins surrounding an ancient brotherhood of knights, their fanaticism marked by symbolic tattoos on their foreheads, coupled with the ordeal of Dawn's attempted self-mutilation earlier that night and his unspoken worry whether Buffy could defeat Glory, had no doubt contributed to his subconscious fabricating such a horrendous dream.

And while the chilling sensations of his dream self-sacrifice were haunting enough--he could still feel the cold bite of steel slicing though warm muscle and sinew--it was the very real, very vivid memory of watching his beloved perish at the hands of their seemingly invincible enemy that left him shaking. This night, of all nights, Giles wished he had awakened to find her curled up beside him, to be able to take comfort in her touch, and have her soothe away his fears with gentle hands and loving words. But it was not to be.

Blood. Rivers of it, everywhere. Buffy's and his... ebbing together on the barren ground...

Raking a hand over his face, he glanced at his watch in the pool of lamp light.

4:17am.

It was too early to call her without waking the entire Summers' household. Besides, he had nothing new to tell her; he was no closer to unearthing the answers Buffy wanted than he had been yesterday, or even last week. But in the wake of his nightmare, he found he needed to hear her voice, something to reassure himself it had only been a dream.

Since sleeping alone was now an even less appealing prospect than before, Giles gathered himself and stood. After stretching the kinks from his spine, punishment for falling asleep at his desk--again--he headed for the kitchen. A pot of tea would both settle his nerves and pass the time, at least until a more decent hour in which to telephone Buffy.

With his first cup in hand, he returned to his desk, the lamp still shedding a harsh pool of light over his books in the morning stillness. Now that the gut-wrenching terror of seeing the love of his life so brutally slain had subsided, he endeavored to replay the events of his dream in a more rational fashion. It wasn't in his nature to have prophetic dreams--that was Buffy's territory--so he concluded that the inspiration behind it had indeed been nothing more than a combination of the upset with Dawn and his present workload.

Satisfied with that explanation, he sipped his tea and skimmed the open volume before him, picking up where he'd left off before falling asleep. He had discovered that recruits to this particular sect of the religious order of Byzantium knights had, throughout the ages, been sworn to oppose a being known was 'The Beast,' a name that, if nothing else, produced a new point of reference for him to explore in the other volumes and countless documents the Council had left. He wished, not for the first time that night, that he had remembered to retrieve his journal and 'The Book of Tarnis' from the Magic Box before Buffy's party, but time and circumstance had conspired against him. He'd have to wait until morning to do his cross-referencing.

He was on his third cuppa when the tiny sound of a key turning in a lock made him look up, the noise loud enough in the silence of his concentration to startle him from his reading. The front door opened and Buffy quietly entered. Spotting him in the lamplight, she hesitated, just as surprised to see him awake and hitting the books at this hour as he was by her unexpected, but welcomed, visit.

"Hi," she said, closing the door behind her.

Relief flooded through him like a tangible thing, obliterating the persistent remnants of his nightmare once and for all. "Lord, you're a sight for sore eyes."

"Literally?" Buffy asked. She motioned at his books and the fact that he was still wearing the same clothes as he had been at the party last night. "I didn't mean you had to come home and pull another all-nighter."

"I didn't," Giles admitted sheepishly. "I, er, fell asleep at my desk." Tilting his chair back, he reached out a weary hand to beckon her to him.

Buffy responded to his invitation, climbing onto his lap without a second thought. She curled up under his chin, as grateful for the physical contact as he. "Pity. I was hoping you'd be in bed, so I could just sneak upstairs and crawl in beside you."

Letting his fatigued eyes fall closed again, he nuzzled her golden hair with his stubbly cheek, breathing in the familiar scent and texture of it. She was alive, she was real, and she was his. "That can still be arranged."

"Sure," she said, unconvinced. "And just how much sleep do you think we'd get then?"

"Who said anything about sleep?"

"Exactly. We're meeting the guys at the shop at nine." Buffy lifted her head from his shoulder and gave him a serious once-over. "And you look like crap."

"Thank you very much."

"You need some real sleep, Giles," she insisted. "In a bed, unless you want to twist your spine into a permanent pretzel." As an afterthought, she touched his roughened cheek. "Shower and a shave wouldn't hurt, either."

He grinned devilishly. "Yes, well, it seems to me I know a rather good back-washer who may be interested in that particular proposition."

Buffy returned his smile. "Deal. On the condition that we get a few hours sleep first."

"Very well." They shared a quick kiss, a promise made for later. Truth be told, he could do with a few hours kip, and now that she was here to sleep in his arms, it would be possible. "So are you going to tell me what you're really doing here at... ?" He checked his watch. "Good Lord, Buffy, it's half past five!"

Guilty, she diverted her gaze. "I know. I-I couldn't sleep. I--"

"Dawn?" he asked expectantly, fearing the worst. "Is everything... ? She hasn't... ?"

"No. No, all's quiet on the Summers front. At least for now. Mom and I tried to talk to her last night but--you remember how scary-quiet she was?"

He nodded.

"Well, as soon as we didn't have the answers she wanted, she just started yelling and threw us out of her room. She hasn't made a peep since. We took turns looking in on her, though, like you suggested. No change." Sitting up on his lap, Buffy stretched the fatigue from her limbs. Evidently, she could use some sleep, too. Focusing her attention on the opened books on the desktop before them, she asked, "Find anything?"

It was clearly a diversionary tactic, meant to steer him from the real issue of why she was there before sunrise, but it failed. The fingers of Giles' left hand gently combed a stray lock of hair from her face. "Buffy, what is it?" he asked, instinctively knowing there was something bothering her.

"Nothing. It's just dumb."

"What?"

"It's just that... I kinda had a dream."

Her words stilled his hand at her cheek. She faced him again, and this time he saw the troubled look in her eyes. He recognized the fear because he felt it too. The notion that they had experienced the same terrifying dream briefly crossed his mind, but was just as immediately dismissed. Despite their unique Watcher/Slayer bond, such a thing was not only unheard of in the annals of Council history, it was, as far as he knew, impossible... without the help of external influences.

"Well, 'nightmare' would probably be a better description," she amended dully, her eyes dipping away from his.

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

Buffy shrugged, the casualness of the action chilling. "No big. I was fighting Glory, you were there. There was blood everywhere on the ground, and the bodies of the Knights of Slice 'N Dice." She kept her daze diverted. "Glory killed me." Then she lifted haunted eyes back to him. "Worst thing was... I think she killed you, too."

With proof positive that they had, indeed, somehow shared the same nightmarish experience, Giles pulled her close for a consoling hug.

"It shook me up, and I... I just needed to see you." Pulling back, Buffy offered a smile that wasn't quite able to disguise the real terror lurking just below the surface. "Pretty lame, huh?"

"No," he returned, gently rubbing circles on her arm. He completely understood, since he'd fought off an identical urge of needing to telephone her. "It's quite understandable. And I'm glad you're here."

As he settled her head against his chest again, Giles allowed his comforting expression to drop. He knew, first hand, just how upsetting the nightmare had been, but to confess he had shared the same experience with her would only trouble her more. Buffy had enough on her plate to deal with right now. Before he introduced a new conundrum into the mix, he needed to research it and have ready answers for the inevitable questions.

"It was so real," she murmured, unable to let it go, her fingers clutching the front of his shirt. She suddenly sat bold upright, eyes wide. "You don't think it was one of those prophetic Slayer-type dreams, do you?"

Giles faltered for a believable comeback, because that was exactly what he had just been contemplating. Again, he saw the terror begin to creep back into her eyes as she waited for him to deny it, revisiting the horror in her mind's eye.

"It was just a bad dream, Buffy," he lied, for her sake. They held each other's gaze for a long moment, neither one completely convinced. He could see the questions forming, the doubt clouding over her face like an afternoon thunderstorm, but quickly silenced her with a far more pleasant prospect. "Let's go up to bed."

"'Kay."

They stood together. As Buffy headed for the stairs up to the loft, Giles reached to turn off his desk lamp, an action that cast his open books and papers into pre-dawn darkness. Tomorrow, he would add a new topic to his already overtaxed research load.

* * * * *

They were the last to arrive at the shop the following morning, stealing an extra hour of sleep that they both desperately needed. After a shared shower that was--much to Giles' chagrin--all about cleanliness, they'd eaten a quick bite for breakfast, then stopped off at Revello Drive to check in with Buffy's mother. Joyce reported that apart from Dawn stomping off to school in a huff, everything appeared fine, so there was nothing anyone could do until the teen returned home again later that afternoon. Giles promised to have answers by then--a promise he would do his best to keep.

A few minutes after ten, Buffy and Giles finally entered the Magic Box. Since the store had just open for business, there were as yet no customers, which allowed Xander and Willow to continue their conversation while sitting on the center steps. Anya fussed behind the sales counter, optimistically preparing for the day with dusting, straightening, and counting the money in the cash register multiple times. All three looked around as the bell above the front door announced the late arrivals.

With a smile at Buffy, Giles gave the hand he held a quick squeeze before letting it go. It was time to put their personal lives on hold again and concentrate on the current crisis... which was still Buffy's sister.

"Sorry we're late," Buffy began.

"How's Dawnie?" Willow asked right off, her concern evident as she and Xander both got to their feet.

Leaving Buffy to fill them in, Giles continued on his way around behind the counter. His destination was the hidden compartment where, yesterday, he had hidden his journal and 'The Book of Tarnis' after training. Hopefully, today would be the day when the monk's flowing Latin script gave some of its secrets.

But the drawer had been sprung, and he frowned as he spied the books he thought he'd concealed laying open and discarded on the countertop.

"Anya," he began, picking up his journal. It contained all his observations, be that speculation or known fact. It referred to 'Dawn' and 'the Key' by name, and was open to his last entry. "Have you been messing with my books?"

"Why would I want to mess with your musty old books?" she asked, flitting the feather duster past him. "I can't sell them, therefore I have no time for them."

Giles' frown deepened. 'If not Anya, then who the devil... ?'

"I still don't know what set her off," Xander was saying to Buffy and Willow. "Only that seeing the Dawnster standing there doing a 'Carrie' is not an image I'm gonna forget real soon."

"Which is why we need answers," Buffy said, slipping into a chair on the other side of the sales counter and looking expectantly to her husband. "We need to find out everything we can about 'the Key.' What it's for, who created it--"

"--why Glory has a big girl-god jones for it," Xander added.

"This isn't about her," Buffy insisted. "It's about Dawn. She deserves to know where she came from. She needs to know, or it's just going to eat away at her until she tries something like that again. Or worse." She shuddered at the thought.

"Oh dear Lord," Giles said. He was still regarding his jimmied secret drawer, half-listening to the conversation, when the clues all came together.

They all looked at him.

Buffy scowled. "I hate it when you say that."

Ignoring her quip, Giles waved his journal at her. "This is what must have set Dawn off."

"I thought you hid that?"

"I did." He shook his head, mystified. "How did she find these? How did she get in here in the first place?"

It was Anya, still paying more attention to her store duties than the conversation, who inadvertently provided the answer.

"Eww!" she exclaimed, turning from her dusting with a bronzed chalice. She put her hand into the cup and distastefully pulled out a cigarette butt. "Who's been using the Urn of Ishtar as an ashtray?"

Giles looked to Buffy as realization leveled her face into a dispassionate mask. There was only one among them who smoked, who would break into the shop after hours, who hated them all enough to put poor Dawn through such a harrowing ordeal.

Spike.

"I'll kill him," Buffy vowed with icy calm, slipping from her chair.

Giles raised an eyebrow as her watched her stomp toward the exit, but honestly couldn't find a reason to stop her.

* * * * *

"The hell of it is," Buffy said, laying bare-knuckle fists into the EVERLAST punching bag with all the fury of a royally pissed off Slayer, "he said it was my fault. I mean, he brought her here, he broke into the shop, and he read Dawn your journal... and then he's got the nerve to claim was my fault?"

Showing support yet wisely staying out of her way, Giles scoffed. "That's Spike for you. Never one to take responsibility."

He wandered to the far side of the punching bag, careful to avoid the momentum of Buffy's perfectly timed jabs. She had returned from her visit to the vampire's mausoleum half an hour ago, stomping back into the Magic Box in the same angry gait as she had left it, and announced a bit of impromptu training. Apart from killing the bag, this ranting was all she had actually done. Spike had apparently admitted to being the guilty party, the one responsible for the late night larceny and for exposing Dawn to the cold hard facts within his journal. Frankly, Giles wondered why the vampire wasn't already a pile of dust.

"Nah," Buffy concluded suddenly, in a complete and unexpected change of mood. Her temper spent, she straightened from her punching stance, huffing out a breath that left her shoulders sagging in defeat. "He was right. It was my fault." Turning, she retreated to the settee to reclaim her towel and a water bottle, falling onto the green cushions in a very unladylike fashion. "I should have told Dawn the truth--at least what we know of it--way earlier. She shouldn't have had to find out like that."

Giles followed, his own towel slung over his shoulder, unused. He hadn't broken a sweat; he hadn't even broken a standstill, just watching her. Changing into his sweats had been a wasted effort. He joined her on the settee, stagnation forcing a sigh out of him as he sat. His helplessness at not being able to make things right for Buffy and her sister frustrated him no end.

"Buffy, if anyone is to blame, it's me." He normally kept his journal at home. The compartment under the counter was a handy stopgap, somewhere convenient to shield detrimental information from inquisitive eyes while in the shop. It was never intended to serve as a proper safe hideaway. "I should have made sure my bloody journal was under better lock and key."

"I'm guessing she saw you hide it yesterday, when she came in after school," Buffy said quietly. "The little snoop."

"I'm sorry, love." Giles put his left hand on her knee, feeling like he'd failed her. "I should have been more careful."

"Guess we're both just a couple of big dumb screw-ups." Buffy picked up his fingers from her leg. Playing with his wedding ring, she gave him a small smile, casting no blame. "Just as well we're already married, 'cause I'd say that pretty much qualifies us as a perfect match."

He lifted his arm to settle it around her shoulders, hugging her to his side. "Indeed we are. Perfectly matched... not, er, screw-ups."

They shared a companionable moment despite the grim circumstances, Giles pleased to know that Buffy could still smile. Dealing with a seemingly invincible Hellgod out to destroy the world had made her life hard enough, but this whole business with Dawn was enough to push anyone to breaking point.

"I'm sorry, too," Buffy admitted with a guilty look, "that I screwed up your plans for a romantic getaway. I was just... stupid about the whole thing. My bad."

With great affection, he tapped the tip of her nose with his finger. "Forgiven."

"It's not that I don't want to go or anything... "

"I know. And, as it happened, you were right about the impracticalities of my suggestion at a time like this."

"Yeah... although I really wish I hadn't been. Not just for Dawn's sake, but... but because I wish we could just go away like a normal couple and have a real honeymoon." Biting her lip, she met his gaze. "But that's never gonna happen, is it? For us, there is no 'normal.' We're always gonna be Watcher and Slayer--doomed by destiny, fingered by fate."

Giles smiled thinly, feeling the heavy weight of truth in her words. Similar doubts had surfaced within him when chatting with his friend, Carlton Fisk, who with a young wife and two children, was a stark reminder of everything that he and Buffy would never have.

"We could resign," Giles quipped, trying to lighten the mood.

Buffy donned a pseudo-serious expression. "Dear Mr. Travers," she dictated. "We quit. Signed, your Chosen Ones."

He chuckled lightly, running his hand up and down her bare arm. "I'll wager he's still in hot water with the Board of Directors over news of our marriage. Considering the conditions we made him agree to before the Council reinstated me, I'd say a letter like that would very much make his day."

"Aw, I guess it isn't such a good idea to send it, then."

He threw her a surprised look. "This, from the woman who--a little over a week ago--took undisguised glee in shoving centuries of protocol and tradition right in their faces."

"Yeah, but... I've seen the light." Off his dubiously raised eyebrow, she grinned cheekily and explained. "If we quit the Council, then they stop paying you. And I have to confess that I kinda like being married to a man with two jobs and money to burn. I mean, just think of the assortment of shoes I can have!"

Giles laughed, enjoying the carefree moment for what it was--a timeout from reality. "Just think of the size of the house we'll need to put them all in!"

Buffy giggled; a lilting sound that, given all the discontent that seemed to be constantly around them, was pure joy to his ears. "Do you ever think we will?" she asked, her giggles giving way to a more somber expression.

"Buy shoes?" he asked playfully. "Undoubtedly."

"No, silly. Do the whole 'house with a white picket fence' deal."

He studied her for a moment, recognizing the hope in her eyes, the trust she had in him to make everything right, even those things that were completely beyond his power. Like life and death, and the fate that eventually befell all slayers. Like the future he couldn't promise her, despite the blood and tears he'd gladly sweat in order to provide it.

"I believe," he said gently, "that together you and I are capable of achieving anything." He smiled, hoping she wouldn't see though his charade. "And don't forget the dog."

"And the two-point-three kids." Buffy's eyes bugged as she realized what she'd said. "Oh God, I can't ever see me as a mom! I'd--like--totally suck at it!"

"I beg to differ," Giles returned, falling in love with this amazing young woman all over again--something he seemed to do at least a dozen times a day. "I've seen how you are with Dawn sometimes, when she does something to bring out your maternal instincts. I think you'd be an extraordinary mother."

"Yeah, well," Buffy agreed lightly, "we are talking about your kids here. They'll be born smart and well-mannered. Baby Gileses. Piece of cake."

He chuckled. "I'm not so sure my parents would have agreed."

"Why? Were you a terror as a little boy?"

"Name me one little boy who isn't?"

"Then we'll just have to have a little girl instead," Buffy said, sounding determined.

"So she can be just like her mother? Lord, help us!"

"Hey!" Buffy grumbled good-naturedly. "I meant, like me before I was called. Cute as a button."

He nuzzled her hair, enjoying the silkiness of it against this cheek. "Then she'll be adorable, and she'll have me wrapped around her little finger from day one."

"Just like her mom?"

"Just like."

Laughing, Buffy cuddled closer. "You know, all this baby talk is making me clucky."

Startled, Giles regarded her with a dose of mild panic. It wasn't that he found the prospect of fatherhood unpleasant, but they had been married less than two weeks. He was not yet ready to share her with the rigors of raising children. He wanted to have her to himself for a good while longer yet. "Really?"

"Yeah, but you can relax," she said, sensing the sudden tension in his body. "I'm not talking about tomorrow, or nine months from now, or even next year. I'm talking about... someday." She snuggled into his side with a blissfully contented smile and a happy dream for the future. "We should probably get the house and the dog first, see how it goes from there."

He kissed on the top of her precious golden head, hiding the sadness that sprang forth inside his heart at the realization that, for them, 'someday' was out of reach. Daydreams were nice places to visit, but the world in which they lived was not quite so rosy.

Buffy picked up the arm he had draped around her, and cocked her head so she could read the time on his wristwatch. Almost immediately, her good mood fell flat. "Shoot. Tell me that isn't the time."

Burying his heartache, Giles glanced over at his watch. Noon. "I'm afraid so." The whole morning was shot, and he had hardly made a start back into his research.

Buffy rolled her eyes and groaned theatrically. "Great. I'm gonna be late for class. Again."

She was up and moving away from him without warning. Sitting forward, Giles managed to snag her hand, reluctantly tethering her to him for a few seconds longer.

"Will I see you later?" It felt odd making a date to see his own wife, but under present circumstances, it was the only way.

"Wanna try out the baby making?" she asked wryly.

He hid a grin of amusement. "Practice, surely."

"You always were big on the 'practice makes perfect' thing."

"I still am. I foresee an inordinate amount of 'practice' for us in the future." Gently, he squeezed her fingers. "So... tonight?"

Buffy made a disagreeable face. "As much as I wanna say 'yes,' I honestly don't know."

"Dinner, then," he insisted, reluctantly settling for whatever he could get. "You still have to eat."

Finally, she nodded in acceptance. "Dinner with the man I love sounds nice."

Hearing her confirm his role in her life put a confident smile on his face. He tugged on her hand, selfishly hoping to coax her to stay. Her college education was important, yes, but she missed so much school when her mother had taken ill that he doubted one more absentee mark would make that much of an impact on an already failed grade. Not that he was telling her that.

And they spent so little time together as it was, shared too few fleeting moments without worry or obligation. Greedily, he wanted more. "And after?"

"Depends," she said, taking a step away that forced him to let go.

"On?"

She backed away with a teasing smile, heading for the small recess at the back of the training room where she could change from her workout clothes. "On how things go when I tell Dawn the answers she needs to hear."

If ever Giles had been given incentive to do research, then that was definitely it.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, knowledge was not gained by incentive alone. Weary from a long, uninterrupted afternoon translating Latin, on the heels of a long, uninterrupted week of the same, Giles pocketed his car keys and trudged up the front path of the Summers home. All his efforts had been futile, in so far as finding the exact details of Dawn's origins and Glory's agenda for her, but his 'date' with Buffy was something not even a crazy, invincible Hellgod had the power to make him break. He only hoped Buffy wouldn't be too disappointed with his lack of results.

A concerto of crickets accompanied Giles up the walk. It was just after seven, night had fallen, and the stars were already out, glinting down from the black velvet heavens like a jewel-basket of precious stones. It was a night for lovers--he hoped.

The porch light was on; he was expected. As he mounted the front steps, he ran a hand over his chin, belatedly checking his five o'clock shadow. Typically, he'd become so engrossed in his work that he hadn't noticed the shop closing or the time getting late, until Anya nudged him to announce that she and Xander were going home, thus reminding him that he, too, had somewhere else he needed to be. Forgoing a quick trip home for a shower and shave due to the hour, he instead made a valiant effort to straighten his tie as he approached the Summers front door. He was hungry, after all... and it wasn't entirely all for food.

He readied a smile for his love as he reached out to stab the doorbell. But his index finger froze an inch from making contact, as a loud siren erupted into life from somewhere within the house. Momentarily fazed by the high-pitched beeping, Giles just stood there for a moment, his mind in turmoil. Burglar alarm? Fire? One of Willow's protection spells triggered by the unexpected arrival of Glory?

Adrenaline and fear of the latter fueled him into action, and had him reaching for the door handle while simultaneously throwing his weight against the heavy wood. Fortunately, it was unlocked, and easily opened under a twist of his wrist... just in time for him to catch sight of Buffy and her mother making a dash for the staircase.

Buffy faltered upon seeing him make his unannounced entry, but only for the briefest of instants. "Willow's spell," she confirmed anxiously. "Glory."

"Dawn?" Giles asked, similarly reduced to concise sentences.

"Upstairs." Buffy was already turning to run up them, Giles preparing to follow her when the thought of weapons crossed his mind. His eyes darted away, his body contemplating the same route milliseconds later. They were kept in an antique wooden chest in the living room, but retrieving them would cost him several precious seconds . . .

"Wait," Joyce said, her command forestalling him as Buffy sprinted up the steps regardless. "It's not Glory."

Giles was only a step behind Joyce as they headed upstairs, all the while praying her recognition of the incessant beep was correct. They stood little chance of fighting off the Hellgod when armed. Bare-handed, it was suicide. In the hallway at the top, he spied Buffy poised outside her sister's closed bedroom door, trying the handle. When it failed to open for her, she took a step back and launched a Slayer kick at the jamb. The wood splintered, and what remained of the door flew inward with a clatter.

Following the two Summers women into Dawn's room, Giles finally realized Joyce was right. The shrill beep of the alarm was not--as Buffy feared--the unexpected appearance of Glory, but rather coming from the smoke detector, which had been set off by the fire Dawn had evidently started... after she had demolished her bedroom. He looked around at the mess; posters ripped from the walls; books strewn from the bookcases; ornaments and china figurines smashed into pieces on the floor. Everything he had known the teen to hold precious in her life lay shattered or in ruin.

In the center of the carnage sat a pink, metal, wastepaper bin with foot-high flames licking out the top.

"Damn it!" Buffy said angrily, grabbing a blanket from the bed to smother the fire. "Dawn!"

"Buffy... " Joyce said calmly.

"No. She could have burned the house down!"

"Buffy," Joyce tried again, motioning at the window. "She's gone."

Feeling his stomach sink, Giles came up behind his wife and put his hands on her shoulders. In front of them, Dawn's bedroom curtains fluttered in the night breeze, the open windowpane testament to how she had escaped the house unnoticed.

Buffy forcefully pulled away from under his touch, automatically set into motion by the knowledge of what lurked in the dark streets of Sunnydale at night, waiting to have her little sister for dinner. Or worse. If Glory had even an inking . . .

"It's not safe out there," Buffy said flatly, turning for the door. "I have to find her."

"I'll stay here in case she comes home," Joyce suggested.

"Phone the others," Giles called after Buffy. "We'll meet them at the shop and organize a search." He rushed out into the hall after her, wondering if she'd even heard him. "Buffy?"

Buffy stopped at the top of the stairs and turned, panic and tears evident in her eyes. "I... we... God, what do we do?"

"My car's out front," Giles said, reaching his distraught wife. He put his hand on her arm, hoping his touch would help calm her. He rarely saw her so upset, or looking helpless; it worried him. "Take a moment and call the others," he suggested again. "The quickest way to find Dawn is with multiple sets of eyes."

Pulling herself together, Buffy covered his hand with her own and nodded, wordlessly thanking him for his level headedness when she was ready to fall apart. Downstairs, she made two quick phone calls before they got underway.

They were halfway to the Magic Box when Buffy, anxiously scanning the dark streets from the side window of the car, told him to pull over.

"Is it Dawn?" Giles asked, his foot easing off the accelerator nonetheless.

She looked across the darkened interior of the BMW at him, and shook her head. "It's Spike. We need his help."

"No, we don't," Giles said flatly, spying the blonde vampire on the sidewalk ahead. Determinedly, he stepped on the gas again.

"Yes, we do," Buffy insisted. "Multiple sets of eyes, remember?"

Since he could hardly begrudge her his own logic, Giles reluctantly pulled the car to the curb. They coasted the last few feet behind the vampire, but before momentum had even stopped the car, Buffy had the window wound down and her head poked out.

"Spike!"

Shifting in his seat, Giles tried to remain impartial as the vampire turned at the sound of his name. Fighting animosity at the idea of asking Spike for anything, he tugged on his tie--since their dinner date appeared to have been cancelled--and undid the top few buttons of his shirt. He watched Spike wander back to the car, his arms laden with a paper sack of groceries... if one dared compare pig's blood and cigarettes to food staples.

"Well well, if it isn't Blondie and Deadwood out for a drive," Spike said distastefully.

When he bent to look inside the car, Giles ignored the insult to his usefulness and deliberately looked the other way. His fists clenched on the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. He had no time for the vampire these days; not since the incident with Adam, when Spike--to whom he had given shelter for months and almost regarded as 'company'--had bit the hand the fed him, so to speak, by manipulating Buffy, Willow, Xander and him into distrusting each other.

"You know, Slayer, if you let your old man drive you everywhere, that body of yours is going to--"

"We need your help," Buffy said quickly, partly out of urgency for the situation, and partly because she knew that Spike was intentionally trying to provoke Giles.

"Ah, well... in that case... " Spike straightened, shrugging indifferent shoulders at the request for his assistance. "Not interested." He began to walk away.

"We'll pay you," Buffy offered.

"We bloody will not!" Giles barked.

Buffy shot him an angry frown, before turning her attention back to Spike. "It's Dawn."

That, at least, got Spike's attention. He turned around, concerned on his face. "The nibblet? Why didn't you say?"

Buffy opened her door for him, scooting forward against the dash and tipping her seat to allow Spike access to the backseat.

"Wonderful," Giles muttered under his breath. He watched via the rearview mirror, as a grocery bag carried by an invisible vampire settled on the seat. "Spill one drop of pig's blood on my upholstery, and the cleaning fee is coming out of your bloody pocket!"

"Yes, Dad," Spike returned smartly, which only irked Giles' temper even more. To Buffy he said, "Guess who's getting crotchety in his old age?"

"Drive, Giles," Buffy ordered, with no time to waste on their childish squabbling.

Giles did as he was bid without further comment, leaving Buffy to fill in the details of Dawn's disappearance. Apparently, in her desperation to find her sister, Buffy had forgotten that just a few hours earlier she'd been ready to pulverize the blond vampire into dust. The blame for their present predicament lay squarely on Spike's shoulders, since he had, by his own admission, been the one to break into the shop with Dawn, callously allowing her discover the truth of her mystical origins from the clinical and detached words in his journal. How Buffy could even stand to be anywhere near him at this point was completely beyond Giles.

When Spike gallantly offered to help 'free of charge'--a comment that actually prompted Buffy to express gratitude--Giles again used his mirror to give his non-reflective passenger a scowl of contempt, just for good measure. Although he couldn't see him, he could well imagine Spike's smirk. The two of them would have 'words' later, when Buffy wasn't within hearing... or anywhere nearby to stop the inevitable staking.

Ten minutes later, Giles unlocked the front door to the Magic Box and ushered everyone, including Spike, inside off the street. Willow and Tara had been waiting curbside for a couple of anxious minutes; Xander and Anya arrived within another five.

Buffy quickly briefed them on what had happened. "She tore up her room... she burned all of her diaries."

"The Dawnmeister Chronicles?" Xander asked in surprise.

"She's been keeping those since... " Willow floundered, having trouble with the false memories. "I mean... "

"Since she was seven," Buffy confirmed. "I remember too, Will." She took a deep breath before continuing, calmer but obviously still extremely worried for her sister's wellbeing. "We have to find her. Fast. Before Glory or the Knights of Hack 'N Slash figure out what--who--she really is. Mom's gonna stay at home in case she shows up. I figure we split up and sweep the city." Buffy got to her feet, eager to get things moving. "Anya, will you stay here in case she shows up? Xander, Giles, you guys take the center of town. Willow, Tara, west side. Spike, you and I'll get the east side. We'll meet at the Restfield Cemetery, by the Alpert mausoleum, in... " She checked her watch. "Two hours."

Giles nodded, although he would have preferred if she had chosen him as her partner instead of Spike. Clearly, she wasn't thinking straight, but there was no time for debate. Buffy was as close to desperate as Giles had ever seen her, and wasting time on petty issues of jealousy would not endear him to her. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure how she would take the news, if Spike were to have an 'accident' while partnered with him.

Buffy regarded them all again in turn, her fraught expression testament to the fact that Dawn had once again brought out strong maternal instincts. "Just find her... please."

* * * * *

Near nine-thirty, the group met up again at the scheduled rendezvous spot.

Willow spoke first. "We looked, but no Dawn."

"What about the carousel?" Buffy asked anxiously.

"Checked there, too," Tara confirmed sadly.

Giles met her gaze as she turned to him with an expectant look. He wished he had better news.

"Nothing?" she asked with sinking hope.

He shook his head.

"Sorry, Buff," Xander said.

"We called Anya from a pay phone," Giles offered, holstering his hands in his trousers. He watched the love of his life fall apart just a little bit more, unable to help. "But I'm afraid Dawn didn't show up at the shop, either."

"Same report from Mom," Buffy confirmed. "She didn't go home."

The others shuffled anxiously, wanting to help but unsure how or what Buffy wanted to do next. When Spike laid his hand on Buffy's shoulder in a gesture of support, Giles' blood pressure rocketed sky high.

"You'll find her," Spike said with quiet confidence. "That's what you hero-types do."

Buffy regarded the vampire standing beside her with welling tears, looking ready to fall into his--or somebody's--arms. Taking that as his cue, Giles stepped forward and gently touched Buffy's arm, grateful when her watery gaze instantly refocused on him. Without hesitation, he drew her away from Spike, thankful that she needed no further incentive to receive a hug from him. Holding her close, he met Spike's eyes over her shoulder, his glare brooking no doubt of what awaited the blond vampire if he ever dared touch her again. Much to his annoyance, Spike just looked amused.

"God," Buffy murmured into Giles' chest, "anything could have happened to her. And not just Glory." She lifted her cheek from his shirt, and he saw, in her eyes, the worse case scenarios run a rampage though her head. "We better check the hospital."

* * * * *

Sunnydale General was always a hive of activity, even mid-week. Since it was located across town from the cemetery, they first headed back to the Magic Box on foot, and then drove there in two cars. Much to Giles' annoyance, Spike insisted on tagging along. He wasn't a part of their group, and it galled Giles to know that Spike believed he was. He was going to have to have a serious talk with Buffy about that when things calmed down. If, things calmed down. Right now, finding Dawn took higher priority.

Inside the ER, Giles waited apprehensively with the others while Buffy checked at the admittance desk. Staring, unseeing, at a vending machine, he tried to quell the unrest churning in the pit of his stomach. Although he would not let it show, for Buffy's sake, Dawn's little runaway stunt had not only brought out Buffy's parental instincts, but his as well. Ever since he'd moved there, he'd fulfilled the role of surrogate father to the younger Summers. At first, the responsibility had been unfairly thrust upon him, but over time he had grown to not only accept it, but to love it. Dawn was like a daughter to him, even though she was now--technically--his sister-in-law, and he loved her very dearly. If something had happened to her . . .

He glanced up, anxious but dreading the news, as Buffy turned from the desk and approached them with a bleak expression.

"She wasn't brought in," she announced. Her eyes settled on him, silently pleading for him to make it all right. He held her gaze in silent agony, wishing he had the power to simply snap his fingers and end her distress.

"Which is a happy thing, right?" Xander asked, obviously thinking the same thing as Giles; that Buffy's gloom and doom expression was not in keeping with the relief she should have felt upon learning Dawn had not been injured.

Buffy hugged herself, clearly at her rope's end. Vampires, demons, and monsters she could fight. Not knowing Dawn's fate, if she was alive or dead, or worse, was the one thing with the power to beat her. "I don't know, I... "

A janitor rushed between Buffy and the rest of the group, towing two uniformed security guards behind him as he babbled to explain his gruesome discovery: "... found him on the floor, in the break room across from the Radiology Lab. You guys gotta see him. His head's almost twisted clean off."

Buffy stared after them, the fiery determination of a Slayer flooding back into her stance and expression. "Glory," she said flatly.

Without thought, she started after the janitor. Giles grabbed her by the arm to stop her.

"Buffy, we need a plan," he said, knowing that if the Hellgod was, indeed, somewhere within the hospital, possibly for the easy pickings of fresh and helpless human brains, then they needed to prepare weapons and strategies before they tackled her, lest they simply want to add to the casualties list.

"The plan," Buffy returned boldly, shrugging free, "is that I kick her scrawny god-like butt back to whatever bitch-dimension it came from."

"You know it's not that simple," he said reasonably. They all did. Glory was much stronger than Buffy, and had bested her in combat the few times they had come face to face. "We need weapons."

"I have tire iron in my trunk," Xander offered.

"We have some stuff that might help, too," Willow said, glancing at Tara for confirmation.

Giles nodded. "And I have a crossbow." He looked to at Buffy. "Wait," he told her, pausing until he had her unwilling nod of compliance before he ran out to the parking lot with Xander and Willow. Time was of the essence.

Regrouping just minutes later, awkwardly concealing their weapons as they made their way through the hospital's public reception area, they followed the signs to the Radiology department, and Glory's last known position. A quick reconnaissance revealed there were two door, at right angles to each other, both exits connected by adjoining hospital hallways.

It was a simple enough plan; Buffy would burst into the lab via the main door, with Giles, Xander, and the two witches as her backup. Spike would wait for an opportune moment before rushing the other door, hopefully with the element of surprise on his side.

"Buffy," Giles called in a whisper, stalling her as they assembled at their assigned door. Face set for battle, she shed her heavy winter coat for maximum maneuverability, and turned to exchange a look with him. He shouldered past the others, shifting his crossbow to the other hand so he could raise his left to cup her cheek. She was about to take on a god, a being interminably more powerful than herself with a penchant for extracting living energy from human brains, and it abruptly hit him that in the next few minutes she, or any one of them, could lose their lives... or their minds. There were suddenly so many things he wanted to say to her--his Buffy, his Slayer, his wife--but he settled for just one. "Be careful."

"I love you," Buffy told him, with the sort of grim finality that made his heart skip a nervous beat. She briefly touched her hand to his, on her cheek, then turned to rush into the lab before he could reply in kind.

Steeling himself, Giles followed with Xander, Willow and Tara, determined to back her up in whatever way possible. But they all stopped, suddenly, taken aback by the unexpected sight that greeted them. Glory was, indeed, present... but so was Dawn, the Hellgod looming over her with malevolence in mind.

"Get away from my sister," Buffy ordered defiantly, the 'how' and 'why' Dawn came to be in the Radiology Lab at Sunnydale General at ten o'clock at night irrelevant.

Glory looked around at the sound of their intrusion, and smiled almost cordially. "Hey, we were just talking about you."

"Conversation's over, Hell-bitch," Buffy said. She launched herself at her adversary with everything she had; a furious whirlwind of precision punches and kicks.

Using the distraction, Dawn darted away from her captor. As she ran to the group, Giles grabbed her and pulled her to safety, relief flooding every fiber of his being at finding her unharmed. He hugged her briefly, then sequestered her behind a red 'bio-hazard' bin, and turned to face their common foe. He raised his crossbow but hesitated, unable to get in a clear shot, unwilling to risk hitting Buffy.

Buffy ducked one of Glory's punches, and came up fighting. When the Hellgod reached for her, Buffy spun, using momentum to her advantage. Locked in a deadly dance, they whirled across the room, until Buffy hurled Glory into a wall cabinet of empty beakers and test tubes. Countering, Glory kicked Buffy in the stomach, forcing her backwards, off balance.

The other lab door flew open and Spike appeared, taking in a quick assessment of the situation. Buffy recovered and rushed her adversary again, but Glory got in a lucky punch that connected with her face and sent her toppling for a second time. Seeing his chance, Spike rushed the Hellgod and grabbed her from behind, pinning both her arms to her sides. Thus restrained, Buffy came back with a series of brutal blows to the face.

"I thought you said this skank was tough," Spike quipped... although a little too prematurely.

Glory kicked Buffy in the head, then easily broke Spike's hold. As Giles rushed forward to pick up his dazed-but-not-out Slayer, Glory flipped Spike over her shoulder and threw him straight into the wall. Stunned, Spike could do nothing as Glory picked him up by the lapels of his black leather duster and head-butted him into oblivion.

Having fanned out around the room in search of a tactical position, Xander crept toward the fight with his tire ion at the ready. Willow and Tara, too, spread out from Giles and Dawn.

Glory hurled Spike's limp form into a wall display of x-rays, then tossed him onto a table of research apparatus. He slid across the top, sending broken glass and twisted metal raining to the floor.

Despite his personal grievances with the vampire, Giles worried when Spike landed battered and unconscious in a corner, and failed to get back up. As much as he despised him, his vampire strength made him Buffy's strongest ally. With him down for the count, she stood little chance of winning. He looked down at her, still in his arms, still trying to gather her senses after a brutal kick to the head. He was about to tell her that without Spike it was a useless cause, that they had Dawn and should try to flee while they still had the chance, when Glory--looking no worse for wear--stopped in front of them, hands on hips, to taunt.

"If he wakes up," she said, indicating Spike's prone form, "tell your boyfriend to watch his mouth."

Buffy's eyes flared with undisguised rage. She pulled out of her husband's restraining arms and was up on her feet pounding into Glory, beating her back through the sheer force of her anger. "He is not my boyfriend."

Standing off to the side of the lab, holding the small leather pouches they had retrieved from Xander's car, Willow and Tara began to chant quietly together in Latin. Giles didn't recognize the spell they were performing, nor did he have time to think about it. His concentration was fixed on Buffy as she pummeled Glory into submission, waiting his chance with his crossbow.

Buffy launched a jump kick at Glory's head, intent on returning the favor, but Glory seized her foot and stilled it without effort.

"Hey," Glory said, "those are really nice shoes." She tossed Buffy off in much the same effortless way she had with Spike, but Buffy's Slayer skills and training kicked in and she executed a mid-air back flip to land safely on her feet, getting in her head kick on the way.

"Giles, now!" she called, diving out of his line of fire.

Ready, he shot off the bolt. His aim was true, and it hit Glory in the abdomen, where it would have felled, or at least faltered, any demon or vampire adversary. With the Hellgod, however, it merely bounced harmlessly off her red silk dress like water off a duck.

"Oh, please. Like that's--"

Xander, seeing his cue, rushed up behind Glory to let her have a tire iron to the back of the head. The blow, like Giles' crossbow bolt, did little else but piss her off. She turned to him, ripping the weapon from his grasp as he brought it round for a second attempt, catching his neck with the hook end.

"Watch the hair."

She threw Xander across the room into Giles, who in turn went backwards into lighted x-ray display, both of them crashing to the floor in a shower of glass and electrical sparks.

Dawn screamed.

Having had enough of their puny human attempts to defeat her, Glory singled each of them out, pointing at them with the tire iron as she decided who was first in line for her wrath. "Time to start the dying. Starting with the whelp."

She hurled the tire iron like a spear... right at Dawn.

"Dawn!" Without hesitation, Buffy threw herself in front of her sister, using her own body as a shield.

Still dazed, Giles watched in horror as the tire iron impaled Buffy in the shoulder, flashes of his nightmare racing back to haunt him. He struggled to get his body moving, to go to her... and Dawn, who in her panic of seeing her sister writhing on the floor with a two-foot shaft of steel sticking out of her chest, had left her protective cover.

"Buffy!"

"Get back!"

"Nice catch," Glory commented. She glared around the room. "Is that the best you little crap-gnats can muster? 'Cause I gotta tell you, so not impressed."

Unlike in his dream, where he had been immobilized, Giles managed to crawl to Buffy's side. He reached for her... just as she yanked the tire iron out of her body with an agonized groan of pain. Quickly, he riffled his jacket pockets for a clean handkerchief, holding her in his lap as he applied pressure to stanch the steady ebb of dark red blood.

"Oh God," she whimpered, her blood-covered hands shaking before her. She looked up into his eyes, obviously in severe pain and shock--no condition to continue the fight. "Get Dawn out of here."

"Lie still," Giles ordered, trying to come up with a feasible course of action.

"Giles, go!" Buffy ordered, gritting her teeth. She raised her hand to replace his on the bloodied handkerchief, crimson staining her wedding ring. "Leave me!"

There was never any question of him obeying; he'd die alongside her before he abandoned her to certain death. Still applying steady pressure to her wound, his eyes darted left and right in search of inspiration. Spike was still unconscious. Xander likewise winded. Willow and Tara were busy working their spell, but for how much longer he couldn't begin to guess. And Glory . . .

Giles glanced up to find Glory sauntering victoriously toward where he sat on the floor with his injured wife, Dawn huddled worriedly at his back, and his enemy preparing to take everything that he loved away from him, forever.

But as Glory walked between Willow and Tara, the two witches each threw a handful of glittering powder into the air. It gently rained down on her, much to her vexation. "Look what you did to my dress, you little--"

Willow clapped her hands, completing the spell with one last word shouted in Latin. "Discede!"

Glory promptly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"Willow!" Tara called in alarm as the redhead collapsed, weakened by the spell. She rushed to her lover to help.

For an instant, Giles couldn't believe it was actually all over, that the threat had passed, and that they had all survived. Buffy struggled to sit up, so he helped her, doing his best to keep firm and constant pressure on her shoulder. This time he let her take the handkerchief from his fingers.

"I'm okay." Buffy motioned her head at her friend. "Help Willow."

He nodded, relieved beyond words that she was alive--that they all were--and went to lend his assistance.

"Dawn... " Buffy said, reaching out her good arm to pull her sister into a brief hug. She spared a glance at her best friend, who was still half-lying on the floor, blood trickling from her nose. "What did you do to her?"

"Teleportation spell," Willow said breathlessly. "Still working out the kinks."

"Where did you send her?"

"Don't know. That's one of the kinks."

Giles arrived at Willow's side. Together with Tara, they gently helped her to sit up. "That was an incredibly dangerous spell for an adept of your level," he said.

"Yep," Willow agreed sluggishly. "Won't be trying that one again soon."

Across the room, Spike groggily came to. Xander found his feet again too, unsteady on them as he was. Kneeling at Willow's side, Giles regarded each of them in turn. All things considered, they had survived relatively unscathed. It could have been much worse. His gaze fell on Buffy, as she turned her full attention back to her runaway sister.

"Are you okay?" Buffy asked, looking her over for obvious signs of injury. Apart from a few minor cuts and bruises, the teen appeared fine. "Did she hurt you?"

Dawn gave her an emotionless look. Now that the battle had ended, the problem of her mystical origins were still very much an issue. "Why do you care?"

"Because I love you. You're my sister."

"No," Dawn said flatly. "I'm not."

"Yes, you are," Buffy insisted. She took Dawn's hand, indicating the small, bleeding cut on her palm. "Look, it's blood. It's Summers blood."

Across the room, Giles watched them, his eyes narrowing as he was again haunted by remnants of his dream.

Blood. Buffy's and his... running together across the barren earth...

Buffy winced as she pressed her hand against her shoulder wound, coating her palm red. She clasped hands with Dawn, mixing their blood together on their palms.

"It's just like mine," Buffy said. "It doesn't matter where you came from, or how you got here. You are my sister. There's no way you could annoy me so much if you weren't."

Dawn looked at Buffy for a long movement of indecision, then, accepting the truth for what it was, she threw herself at her in a tearful hug.

"I was so scared," Dawn admitted, her chin on Buffy's shoulder.

"Me, too."

Leaving Willow in good hands, Giles went back across the lab to the two most important people in his life.

"Me, too," he intoned, dropping to his knees before them. Buffy glancing at him without breaking her hold on her sister, a moment before he folded them both into his embrace. He felt one of Dawn's arms go around him, holding tight, as he laid a grateful kiss on the side of his wife's head.

* * * * *

Slowly, tenderly, Giles peeled Buffy's black, silk blouse from her and placed it aside. They met each other's eyes in the dim light of her bedroom, her expression consenting, trusting, loving. Reaching behind her, he unfastened the eyelets of her bra, then let the cups fall forward onto the bed between them. His eyes roamed appreciatively over her nakedness, her small but perfect breasts perked in the chill air, inviting his touch, before his gaze settled back on hers.

"It's a good thing we're lovers," she whispered quietly. "Or I'd be having a major wiggins with you doing this, this way."

"As would I," he confessed dryly, reflecting on all the nights past when she had come to him after a particularly rough patrol. He bent his head closer, instantly intoxicated by the scent of her, but, just like those times past, intimacy was not the foremost thing on his mind. Using an antiseptic swab, he began to clean some of the dried blood from her shoulder wound and the skin around it. The dark material of her blouse had hid how truly awful it looked.

Buffy winced at the cool sting on her open flesh.

"Sorry." He frowned as he inspected the wound more thoroughly. The puncture, caused by the tire iron Glory had thrown like a spear, had thankfully stopped bleeding, but it was a deep, jagged gash, which, in his opinion, needed several stitches to close. Here, in Buffy's bedroom, with nothing a basic First Aid kit, he possessed neither the skill nor the materials to comply. "I still say we should have had a doctor look at this. We were, after all, in a bloody hospital."

"Did you want to stick around and explain to them why we trashed their x-ray lab?" Buffy asked rhetorically. "Besides, we needed to get Dawn somewhere safe."

He bowed his head in acquiesce, focused on his task. She was, of course, right. They had no way of knowing where Willow's teleportation spell had sent Glory, whether it was next door or to the next county. For all they knew, she could have been back on the rampage, angrier than before, bursting back into the Radiology Lab at any moment. That, and their spot of unplanned demolition, had made leaving the hospital post haste seem like a smart idea. They split up in the parking lot, going to ground for the night; Xander, Willow and Tara in one car, headed for the Magic Box to pick up Anya; Buffy, Dawn and Giles in his car; Spike and his pig's blood on foot.

Buffy and Dawn's homecoming at Revello Drive brought a tearful but happy reunion between mother and both daughters. Giles stood at Buffy's side with his arm around her waist, as Buffy insisted that, in light of their confrontation with Glory, home wasn't a real safe place to be right now. She did her best to act as if Giles was simply her moral support, but he could tell Buffy was leaning on him for much of her physical support, too. She was in no condition to fight should her enemy choose tonight for a rematch, and Buffy was close to fretting over this fact while her mother and sister remained on the front line.

So he made a suggestion, one that earned him startled looks but no opposition. Joyce and Dawn then quickly packed a bag, clothes and essentials for a few days, and then fled into the night in Joyce's Jeep Cherokee. They were headed up the coast, just a few hours drive, to the secluded beach house owned by Giles' friend. The tie to Carton Fisk was so remote that Giles doubted Glory would ever figure it out. Dawn and Joyce would be safe there, for however long he and Buffy needed them to be.

Now, there was only the problem of tending his injured, but stubborn, wife.

"Bloody fool way to stop a crowbar," Giles remarked, straightening, setting aside his used swabs.

"It would have killed Dawn."

"It could have killed you," he returned levelly. He looked her in the eye. "Buffy, a few inches lower and to the right... " But he was lost for words as the realization of just how close he'd come to losing her finally hit home. His nightmare flashed before him; Buffy impaled through the heart right before his eyes. He shook it off. Now was not the time for comparison or analysis.

"But it didn't," she said, raising her good arm, her fingers finding his stubbly cheek. "I'll be okay."

"I think this may require stitches."

"I'll be okay. Really. All I need is my trusty Watcher to slap on a bandage and a good night's sleep."

"And your husband? Doesn't he get a say in this?"

Her fingers dropped to his hand, and gave it a gentle squeeze of reassurance. "I'll be fine. The bleeding's stopped, hasn't it?"

He nodded reluctantly, knowing he could argue until he was blue in the face and it would not do him an ounce of good. Pursing his lips, Giles rummaged the First Aid kit for some surgical gauze and tape, and a fresh, rolled bandage. He wrapped her wound as best he could, the loops he made around her neck and under her arm in order to hold the dressing in place making the whole thing look far more serious. When he was done, he helped her lie back on her pillow.

Buffy winced at the movement. Despite her reassurances of being 'okay', she was obvious in a great deal of pain.

"I'll get you something," he said quietly.

Collecting the used materials and the First Aid kit off the bed, Giles went across the hall to the bathroom in search of some painkillers. Moments later, he returned with a glass of water and two white tablets in his hand. Sitting beside her, he gently raised her head a few inches so that she could swallow them.

He set the glass of water on her nightstand and frowned, still not satisfied with her decision to forgo proper medical attention. "Buffy--"

"Don't, okay? I told you, I just need some rest." Her eyes found his in the dim light. "Will you take my shoes off for me? And my pants. I wanna get into bed properly."

Giles did as asked, stripping her down to her white satin panties, trying not to jostle her shoulder too much in the process, then helped her under the covers. Without invitation, he turned off the light and joined her, fully clothed sans his shoes, and on top of the bedcovers at her back. Buffy leaned into his embrace as best she could, searching for a comfortable spot before she lay still. His left hand found hers, by her hip.

Several long minutes of heavy silence passed before she spoke. "Well, this totally sucks."

"What?"

"First time I have you in my bed, we have the house to ourselves, and I'm too banged up to take advantage of you. And I really wanted to get in some of that 'practice' we were talking about earlier, too."

He looked down at her over her bandaged shoulder, and couldn't stop a loving smile. "All I want right now is for you to recover. There will be plenty of time for 'practice' later."

She turned her head slightly, meeting his gaze. "Promise?"

He saw the wanton look in her eyes, and sympathized with the feeling. It felt as if an eternity had passed since the last time they made love. "I promise," he said, pressing his lips to her shoulder, just above his handiwork.

With a little moan, Buffy drew his arm tighter around her and snuggled in. By morning, her regenerative Slayer powers should have kicked into overdrive, and she would wake, if not fully recovered then well on the way. Otherwise, he was insisting she see a doctor, and no room for discussion. He glanced down at her, stubbornly wrapped up in his embrace, and marveled at how they had somehow managed to find love amidst all the death and destruction.

Soon, Buffy's breathing leveled out, and her grip on his hand slackened as sleep took her into its peaceful, healing realm. Around him, the house was quiet, empty, the stillness of it imparting a wary sense of calm. For him, there was no chance of a restful respite, for he would not allow himself to sleep while danger was still about. He had to remain vigilant, should the need to flee unexpectedly arise.

A breeze ruffled the leaves of the tree outside the window, moving the patchwork swath of moonlight and shadow across the bed where they lay. His weary gaze shifted to regard their joined hands resting on the mattress before her--fingers intertwined, wedding rings touching. So much had changed between them, and yet so much remained the same. Tonight, Buffy didn't need 'her husband,' she needed 'her Watcher'. So he settled his cheek on her pillow behind her, and did the thing he was trained to do, the job that had brought him across an ocean to her.

Tonight, while Buffy slept, Giles simply watched.

Read the next chapter: Crushed