The Unbreakable Series
Part 5 - Crushed

written by Koala





It was pretty clear to Buffy from just the first few notes, that the band playing The Bronze tonight were a rock band, not really cut out for the slow love song they were currently murdering. Still, they could have been banging on kitchen pots and wailing like banshees, and she wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere but where she presently was--on the dimly lit dance floor in the arms of her husband.

Eyes closed, her head resting against his chest, Buffy trusted Giles to lead her... well, anywhere! She would follow him to the end of the earth, without question or hesitation. She sighed, blissfully content. It was only fitting she should feel this good, considering the battle she'd had getting him there. He'd agreed to the night out reluctantly, his lack of enthusiasm due to his devotion to--what else?--research. True, he'd made some headway thanks to the information Dawn remembered from her encounter with Glory in the x-ray lab, but he'd been stuck with his nose in a book every night, and Buffy was going stir-crazy at his apartment, where she had been living for the past week.

The first few evenings she had accepted her idleness, even welcomed it due to the injury she was still recovering from--a hole in her chest made by the pointy end of a thrown tire iron. She had been content to rest and recoup, watching TV while Giles worked at his desk and catered to her occasional whims. By the third night however, with her wound fully healed, she began some aggressive channel surfing, as her attention span waned and her boredom grew. By the end of the week, with all quiet on the Hellmouth and not even a stray vampire to stake, apathy made her want to throw his damn books out the window! Being married to a bookworm, she discovered, could be an exercise in frustration. Luckily, Giles made up for any lack of social graces with his bedroom prowess.

So when Xander read in the newspaper that The Bronze had finished its renovation--a necessity following Olaf the Troll's rampage last Christmas--and suggested the Scooby Gang hit the 'Grand Re-Opening' party for old time sake, she begged and pleaded for a reprieve from the tedium. Giles, in his best Watcher-voice, told her to have a good time with her friends, but they were 'his friends' too, and it took an inordinate amount of pouting and whining before he finally agreed to accompany her. After all, she argued, they never did anything as normal as just 'go on a date.' It would be fun.

Giving in, Giles even agreed to let her pick his wardrobe, a daunting task considering the man's last trip to an actual clothing boutique had been decades ago. They compromised on a cobalt blue suit, but there was no way Buffy was letting him wear a button down shirt and tie. He wore that to the Magic Box everyday, and she successfully argued that this was not 'work' but 'pleasure.' In the back of his closet, she unearthed a black t-shirt, which he had apparently acquired free with a purchase at 'Downtown Paint & Paper.' Never worn, and with the logo on the back, it would work just fine provided he didn't take his jacket off. A bit more pouting and he agreed not to wear his glasses, but the icing on the cake had been persuading him to don his earring.

The 'Dressed by Buffy' look took ten years off him, not that his age was a big deal to her. Still, it both amused and thrilled her that Giles had managed to turn the head of just about every female in the nightclub, without a clue of how genuinely attractive he looked. She was just dying for an old acquaintance from Sunnydale High to come up to her in the ladies room and ask about the gorgeous stud muffin she was with, so she could flash her wedding ring and inquire if they remembered their tweedy school librarian. Giles looked hot. So hot that Buffy was secretly grateful he had chosen the tweed-look over this one when he'd first moved to Sunnydale. Otherwise, he would have been fighting off women with a stick. And if that had happened, by the time she'd grown up enough to take notice, he may have been seriously involved with someone else, or even married. There were plenty of candidates; Jenny Calendar, Olivia... even her own mother!

The idea that she still would have fallen in love with him regardless, but been forced to hide her feelings because he was happy in the arms of another woman, drew a discontented sigh from Buffy. She pressed closer to him on the dance floor, holding on tight, holding on forever. She couldn't believe she was this much in love, when not long ago she'd believed that Riley Finn was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Deep down, part of her feared that what she now shared with Giles wasn't real, or that it wouldn't last, or that The Powers That Be couldn't possibly bless her--the girl without a future--with this sort of happiness.

By the third chorus of the ballad they were slow dancing to, Giles was humming along in her ear. He surprised her when he quietly sang; "This love is unbreakable, it's unmistakable. And each time I look in your eyes I know why... "

Buffy pulled back to look up into his eyes, tears of joy glazing hers. Somehow, he always knew the right time to say the right thing. With a loving smile, Giles twirled her under his arm, then embraced her again, this time from behind. With a kiss to her hair, he rested his cheek against the top of her head, his hips swaying with hers as they finished their dance. His words and actions instantly banished all those unsubstantiated thoughts of badness. In fact, all she could think about, courtesy of the way he moved with her, was getting him home to bed . . .

As the band launched into a rock number and the house lights came up, she reluctantly allowed the magic to end. Slow dancing in the dark was one thing, but she knew better than to try to get him to stay for something with a more up-tempo beat. Giles led her by the hand, back to the table they shared with the others. They passed Willow and Tara, and Xander and Anya on the way, both couples staying to bust a move to the new song.

"Would you care for another drink?" Giles asked, chivalrously depositing her in one of the low, trendy chairs that had been part of The Bronze's remodel. Gone were the industrialized black vinyl couches of old, replaced by stylish and contemporary tan seating grouped around squat, lighted tables.

Buffy nodded, hot and bothered, but not from dancing. Her thoughts were still elsewhere. "Coke would be good."

Giles looked over to evaluate the crowd at the bar. "Back in a moment."

The Bronze's 'Grand Re-Opening' had obviously been a rousing success, and as he moved away into the swell of bodies, Buffy instantly missed his presence and longed for his return. She smiled giddily to herself, still coming to terms with just how blissfully in love she was with him. After all her failed relationships, it was a feeling--a life--she thought she would never know. It was the stuff of legend... or at the very least, of every romance novel she had ever read. As corny as it sounded, Giles was everything she ever wanted, and everything she would ever need. For as long as it lasted, until death inevitably parted them, she planned to enjoy every single moment of what they'd been given.

While waiting, she turned her attention back to the dance floor, idly seeking out her friends. Tonight was the perfect end to the perfect week. Her mother and sister were due home tomorrow, having spent the past eight days at a beach house owned by Giles' friend, where she and Giles had sent them for safekeeping after the gang tackled Glory in the Radiology Lab at Sunnydale General. Glory had been neither seen nor heard from since the incident, which prompted Xander to suggest that maybe Willow's potluck teleportation spell had send the Hellgod a long long way from Sunnydale, somewhere it would take her months, possibly years, to return from--Mars if they were lucky. Neither Buffy nor Giles were convinced they could be that fortunate, only that wherever their adversary was, she would undoubtedly reappear when they least expected it.

Watching her friends shake it up on the dance floor, Buffy pouted at the thought of losing her newly found marital bliss, thanks to her mother and sister's homecoming. Although she knew they couldn't stay in hiding forever, their return meant she had to give up being a wife and again shoulder the responsibility of The Slayer, protector of the innocent.

It meant that she would have to move back home.

Since there had been no reason for her to live at Revello Drive with her mother and sister gone, Buffy had moved in to Giles' apartment for the duration. Very quickly, she realized what she had been missing; sleeping with her husband, waking up with him every morning, cooking, eating, showering with him... and a whole bunch of other mundane verbs she hadn't even considered before. It had been like the honeymoon she and Giles never took, only without the leaving town bit. Now it was all about to come to an end. Not that she blamed anyone. Her mother needed to return to work at the Gallery, and Dawn's weeklong suspension from school was over. It was time for them to come home and get on with life. It was just a shame, because Buffy had really started to settle into the role of Mrs. Rupert Giles. It was--

"Bleedin' crime, is what it is," Spike announced, dropping into her line of sight in the tan chair opposite.

Although she had to agree with him on that point, Buffy simply gave him a look. Giles wasn't the only one sporting a new wardrobe tonight, although just who Spike meant to impress with his khaki cargo pants, gray shirt, and brown leather jacket, she had no idea. While new clothes had made Giles look sexy and cool, Spike just looked like a yuppie... especially with his Budweiser.

"Jacking up the bar price to pay for fixing up this sinkhole," Spike continued conversationally. "Not my fault their insurance doesn't cover 'Act of Troll.'"

"Gee," Buffy suggested patiently, "maybe it's time you found a new place to patronize."

"I've half a mind to. Especially since the flowering onion got remodeled off the sodding menu. It's the only thing this place had going for it."

When he failed to take the hint to leave, she frowned. "What are you doing?"

Spike looked confused. "What do you mean, what am I... ?"

"Here. At this table. Talking to me, like we're some kind of 'talking buddies.'"

"Well," he explained reasonably, "I saw you sitting here alone. I thought--I don't know--you could maybe do with a bit of, you know, company."

Buffy shot him an incredulous look. Was he actually sitting there suggesting their relationship was something other than 'barely tolerable', that they were more to each other than 'sworn mortal enemies,' that they were--oh God!--'friends'?

This time, Spike did take the hint. "Suit yourself," he grumbled, offended, getting up to leave. But he'd only taken a step or two away when he stopped and turned back. "Although... "

Buffy rolled her eyes, wishing him gone before he completely ruined her evening.

"It's just... we took on that Glory chippie together," Spike reasoned, as if that single incident should be the thing to erase the slate and get him in her good graces. He had apparently forgotten all their prior confrontations, when they'd been squarely on opposite sides. "I was right there with you, fighting the fight."

"Actually, you were sleeping the sleep of the knocked unconscious," she pointed out.

"Still," Spike insisted, "points for intent. You'd think that would be enough to cut me a sliver of slack. Earn a little consideration... respect."

Giles chose that moment to return to the table with their drinks. Putting Buffy's Coke on a coaster before her, he took his seat, which had previously been positioned close enough for him to slide his arm around the back of her chair. Taking a swallow from his bottle of imported Guinness Draught, he deposited it on the table as well, smirking over Spike's cheaper but popular choice of beer. "And here I thought with their remodel, The Bronze was attempting to draw a classier sort of clientele."

Spike took one look at him and returned the smirk. "Is that why you're playing dress-up? Pretending you're a class act?"

"Look who's talking." Giles leaned back in his chair, his left arm going possessively around Buffy's shoulders.

Although his voice was calm and controlled, Buffy saw the anger flash in Giles' eyes. He was one breath away from throttling the vampire. Attempting to quell his temper before he made a scene, she raised her left hand to pat his, stilling the light circles his fingertips were tracing on her bare shoulder long enough to exchange a small smile with him.

"Oh, you've got to be joking!" Spike complained, watching them, finally spying their wedding rings glinting in a flash of nightclub lighting. When Buffy turned a 'why are you still here?' look on him, he shot back an expression of utter disbelief. "You married the sorry sod?"

"No," Buffy corrected, "I married the man I love."

Spike shook his head, dumbfounded. "Nobody keeps me in the bloody loop!"

"Is there a reason we should?" Giles asked flatly.

Focused on Buffy, Spike ignored him. "How long?"

"Since the Council's visit."

Spike gawked at her for a moment as the time factor sank in, then he just looked hurt. But Giles was right; Spike wasn't a friend or part of their group, and there was no reason for them to have told him anything.

"You know, I get what he sees in you," Spike said, his eyes meandering over her in a totally wigsome way. "What man wouldn't? But what I don't understand is what a girl like you could possibly see in a broken down old git like him?"

Buffy felt Giles tense at the insult, or maybe it was the way Spike looked at her. She quickly quashed the situation with a few well-chosen words. "You mean apart from the fact that he's smart, caring, and my other half?" She pretended to think for a moment, then leaned forward in her chair to answer. "Does the term 'stevedore' mean anything to you?"

Spike's jaw hit the floor. "What, him?"

"Hey, Un-Evil Dead, you're in my seat."

Buffy glanced up over the vampire's shoulder as Xander and Anya returned, fresh from the dance floor.

Spike acknowledged them, sighing with the realization that he was not going to be getting any respect from anyone. "Bugger it." He made a grab for his beer bottle as he stood, knocking it over in his haste. A second attempt snagged it, but left a foamy swath across the lit tabletop.

Scowling, Buffy watched him leave as Xander and Anya sat down.

"Pillock," Giles muttered under his breath, leaning forward to reclaim his drink.

"Xander, I think you may have hurt his feelings," Anya said, as Willow and Tara also returned to the table, flushed from their dance.

"And you should never hurt the feelings of a brutal killer," Xander quipped. He considered his words for a moment, then added, "You know, that's actually some pretty good advice."

Giles smirked. "Would be, if Spike actually qualified for that category."

Xander grinned, enjoying his newfound 'Spike-bashing' buddy. "Yeah, I guess I should have said 'neutered lamb'... in which case you can hurt his feelings all you want."

"Here, here." Giles toasted the idea with his beer bottle, then took a long swallow.

"So who's up for some more liquid refreshments?" Xander asked. "I'm buying... for I am Payday Man." Grinning, he flexed his fully mended arm in emphasis of the fact that his plaster cast had finally been removed--his broken arm another consequence of Olaf the Troll's Sunnydale rampage. With its removal came his return to his job as a construction worker, and the corresponding financial freedom that, tonight, was his to flaunt.

Buffy picked up her Coke and took a sip; Tara and Anya both nodded in agreement.

Willow rummaged her purse for a bottle of aspirin. "I could use a water."

Watching, Buffy sympathized. A week after the confrontation, Willow still suffered from the side effects of the powerful teleportation spell they had used on Glory. She worried not only about her friend's health, but that the spell was the only weapon that had proven effective against the Hellgod. She didn't even want to think about what would happen if and when Glory eventually turned up, and Willow was forced to cast it a second time.

Getting to his feet, Xander looked around the group, tallying drink orders on his fingers. "Giles and Buffy check... so that's a large Coke for yours truly, a Diet Sprite, an orange juice, and a water."

"And a bag of cheesy chips," Anya put in. "Dancing is like sex," she told the others. "It makes me hungry."

"Oh, cheesy chips sound like a good idea," Tara added shyly, half-raising her hand.

"Ditto," Willow dittoed, smiling at her girlfriend.

Xander looked to Giles. "Wanna give me a hand with all that, Big-G?"

Silence.

Buffy glanced at her husband, noting his distraction with a group of Bronzers hovering near the bar. It was only when a few of them moved that she spotted the bleach-blond head at the back of the bunch, and realized Giles had become pre-occupied with tracking Spike's whereabouts. She touched his arm, vying for his attention.

"Hmm?" Giles immediately looked at her, the questioning look on his face suggesting that he hadn't heard Xander's request, or any of the preceding conversation.

"Xander needs help with the drinks, sweetie."

"What? Oh... of course." He covered his lapse with an apologetic smile, put his Guinness on the table, and quickly followed Xander as he threaded through the throng toward the bar.

Buffy watched Willow shake two white tablets onto her palm in preparation of her glass of water. "Poor Will. Still getting those headaches?"

"Fewer and further between but... yep, they're still exercising their visitation rights."

"Honey, in case you didn't hear me the first six thousand times," Tara said, "no more teleportation spells."

"Well, it's just we have squat in the way of a Glory-fighting arsenal, and another run-in with her, and my headaches and nosebleeds are going to be the least of our problems."

"You know what?" Buffy decided. "Tonight is perfect. I'm out on the town with my honey and my bestest buds. How about we go just a few more hours without saying the name 'Glory?'"

"I'm down with that," Tara said with a smile. "Let's just call She-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named another name. Let's just call her--"

"Ben!" Buffy said, lighting up as she spotted the young man. He was sitting on a sofa across the way, chatting with a couple of guys.

"For example," Tara finished, unsure.

"I'll be right back," Buffy said, putting down her drink as she got to her feet. A week had passed already, and she hadn't yet thanked Ben for looking out for Dawn at the hospital, prior to Glory's arrival. She was extremely grateful that he had been on shift that night, otherwise their run in with the Hellgod in the x-ray lab may have played out very differently.

* * * * *

At the bar, Giles waited behind Xander's shoulder while his young friend ordered and paid for the drinks. He had lost sight of Spike in the shuffle, so he glanced back over to their table to make sure the vampire hadn't doubled back in his absence. Spike wasn't there, but neither was Buffy. Curious, Giles' eyes went in search of her, following the path to the ladies room, the dance floor, the band on stage... until he eventually spotted her chatting happily with a young chap in a secluded alcove tucked down one side of the club. Fighting an immediate pang, he craned his neck for a better look at her companion, until he realized it was that Ben fellow, who worked at Sunnydale General. Giles shook his head, sheepishly taming his jealousy, remembering what Buffy said, days ago--they needed to thank the young intern for looking after Dawn. Apparently, she had simply taken the opportunity to do so.

"Better keep 'the little woman' on a tighter leash, Rupert," came a taunting voice in his ear. "Or she'll be spreading her legs for Pretty-Boy, there, faster than you can spell D-I-V-O-R-C--"

Spike never finished his taunt, thanks to Giles' fist in his face. He followed the vampire as he reeled backwards, scattering bar patrons and spilling drinks, ready to hit him again. He wasn't drunk, but he had consumed enough alcohol to act on impulse and to hell with the consequences. "You bloody bastard!"

Orders forgotten, the crowd of young people around them hastened to disperse. Most were eager to remain confrontation free, while others verbally expressed their grievances. Incensed, Giles cared little for his audience. Public place or not, Spike was about to meet Ripper.

"Yeah, well," Spike shot back, rubbing his jaw as he regained his balance, "if you ask me, that's a helluva lot better than being a 'dirty old bastard.'" He punctuated his sentence by throwing a surprise punch of his own, which connected firmly and sent Giles sprawling in the opposite direction.

Toppling the unsuspecting strangers behind him like tenpins, Giles suddenly found himself doing a close-up inspection of the sticky linoleum floor. He tasted blood, and his mouth smarted, but both sensations were quickly overshadowed by the rather satisfying sound of Spike howling in pain. The chip in the vampire's head that prevented him from inflicting harm on humans without a severe backlash had fired, giving Giles a distinct advantage in a fight. Not that he needed one to give an annoying little prat like Spike a damn good thrashing.

"Giles!" Xander was suddenly kneeling beside him, helping him sit, looking more shocked by his behavior than concerned for his wellbeing.

Shrugging off any help that Xander may have been about to offer, Giles angrily climbed to his feet, ready to finish his impromptu rearrangement of Spike's sneering face.

Only he never got the chance.

A burly bouncer poked a weather baseball bat between the two brawlers. "All right, that's enough."

"Gramps started it," Spike said accusingly, standing off and looking victimized. He used the back of his hand to wipe the blood from his nose, making a big production out of it; making Giles out to be the bad guy.

"And I'll bloody well end it, too," Giles growled dangerously, pressing forward against the restraining hand that gripped his bicep. Spike's 'get real' smirk only further irked his temper.

"Outside," the bouncer ordered. "Both of you."

"Giles, what the hell are you doing?"

Buffy's voice made him hesitate, and he looked down at her, at his side, only then realizing that the restraining hand he assumed belonged to Xander was actually hers. He glared irritably, and swore in a way that astonished her more than the fact that he had instigated a barroom brawl.

The bouncer made a rough grab at Giles' arm, intent on tossing him out by force. Buffy instinctively stepped between them and, without breaking eye contact with her husband, landed a well-placed elbow in the big guy's beer belly.

"Don't want no trouble," the bouncer said in a winded voice. "So you all just better leave."

Which is how the Scoobies abruptly found themselves out on the pavement.

Seething in quiet rage, Giles stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and sucked at his tender, swelling lip. Damn thing stung like blazes. He listened in sullen silence as Buffy said an apologetic goodnight to the others, before Xander and the girls headed down the street to where they had parked the car.

She and Giles started walking, side-by-side, in the opposite direction toward their own car.

"I can't believe you did that!" Buffy said, exasperated by his behavior. "In three years of high school and almost two of college, I've taken on more vamps and demons in there than I can remember--even a troll!--and not once have I managed to get myself thrown out for starting a bar fight! God, I'm banned from The Bronze! Way to go, Mr. Smooth."

"Yes, well," Giles said acidly, "I apologize if my defending your honor has put a crimp in your social calendar." He worried his split lip with his tongue, and winced. "And it was Spike's fault. So you can bloody blame him."

"Okay," Buffy declared firmly. The hand she laid on his arm drew him to an immediate halt. She turned to face him in the dark, deserted street with empty cars lining the curb, the rock music from The Bronze now just a heavy thrum in the background, frowning. "This stops now."

"What?" Giles asked sulkily, although he knew perfectly well what she was talking about.

"You, Spike, and whatever the hell is going on with the two of you. Giles, he's only pushing your buttons because he knows it will get to you. And you're letting him!"

She was right. Experience had shown that Spike had no interest in them except to cause trouble. Ashamed of his behavior, of having again let himself fall victim to Spike's manipulation, Giles glanced at his feet.

Buffy's hand moved on his arm in a gesture of reassurance and forgiveness, her angry expression softening. "Whatever he said to provoke you isn't true," she said, astutely guessing that whatever words had gone down, they undoubtedly involved her for him to have reacted so violently. "You know that, right?"

Giles merely grunted in reply, taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze. Spike may have bared the physical brunt of his anger, but deep down, he knew that when he'd seen Buffy talking and laughing so carefree with another man, part of him had instinctively wanted to throttle poor Ben, too. He wished it were that simple, that he could do as she asked and turn his feelings on and off at will. Although he usually kept them under better control, the truth of the matter was that he was hopelessly in love with an incredibly beautiful and desirable young woman. Buffy turned heads, whether she noticed or not, and the sooner Giles accepted that he was destined to exercise his green-eyed monster every time another man so much as looked at her, the better.

"You have nothing to worry about," Buffy insisted. She showed him her left hand, tapping her thumb against the platinum wedding ring on her finger. "The ties that bind, remember? It doesn't matter what anyone says. I married you because I love you. Only you."

Letting the last of his temper deflate on a sigh, Giles nodded. "Even if, sometimes, I'm a jealous old fool?"

"Even if you get us kicked out of every nightclub in Sunnydale."

"There's more than one?"

"No, not really." Donning an affectionate smile, Buffy took hold of his arm, turning him to continue along the deserted sidewalk. "And see? Still loving you, 'even if'... "

Neither Buffy nor Giles noticed the cigarette butt that landed on the pavement in their wake, or the booted heel that slowly stepped out to grind it underfoot. Moving from the shadows into the weak glow of a nearby streetlight, Spike blew a lungful of smoke at the full moon above. Morphing into his vampire visage, he watched the couple walk arm in arm until they were a safe distance ahead, then he melted back into the moonlight shadows and discreetly began to follow.

* * * * *

Spike ducked out of sight, flattening his back against outside wall and melding with the night shadows until the Watcher finished locking up. The sound of the drawn bolt and the porch light going out were the signals that drove him forward again, crouching to peer into Giles' apartment via the small, glass sidelight to the left of the front door.

He watched Buffy and Giles find each other in the middle of the dimmed living room, and although he couldn't hear their actual words, their body language spoke loudly enough. Buffy raised a tentative hand to Giles' face, gently touching his swollen lip and asking if it hurt. In response, Giles scooped her into his arms and kissed her with a fierceness that suggested his split lip was the last thing on his mind.

Bodies pressed tightly together, they shared a mutual hunger, mouth to mouth. Buffy stood on tiptoe, wanting more, until she impatiently hopped up and hooked her heels around her lover's hips. Giles caught her rear end and steadied them both, all without breaking their kiss, as if he danced this same dance with her a hundred times before. When Buffy threw her head back and exposed her throat to him, it was Spike who let out a lustful little moan. He could almost hear the pounding of her blood beneath her smooth, white skin, almost feel the steady thrum of it beneath his tongue as passion pulsed wildly through her veins. He watched, his own blood set to boiling, as her unworthy husband devoured his prize, the thrill his alone to enjoy.

Turning with her, Giles took a few urgent strides toward the stairs. Arms and legs holding tight, it was Buffy's turn to consume her lover with passionate abandon, as he navigated the way up to the bedroom. Losing sight of them on the mid-point landing, Spike pulled back from the little window by the front door. Lust on the rise, he moved, silent as a shadow, around to the side of the apartment building in search of the upstairs window that corresponded to the location of Giles' loft.

Scaling the wall to the second story proved no challenge for his vampire prowess, nor did concealing his presence while perched in the darkness of the sill above. Through the glass, Spike watched the lovers tumble into the bedroom, lips and limbs still entwined in a frenzied dance of desire. They turned off the light for privacy, not that it mattered to Spike. The undead could see equally well in the dark. He watched Giles set Buffy back on her feet, but frowned impatiently when, for the longest moment, the two simply gazed into each other's eyes. What passed between them was so pure and so honest, that Spike would never--could never--understand it.

As the tempo slowed, the passion rose. Their clothing fell away under slow hands and lingering caresses, until Giles took Buffy to his bed and began to worship her in a way that Spike had only ever dreamed of doing. For a long time, the vampire silently watched their union of heart, body, and soul, watched them give and take from each other with equal fervor and pleasure--fast and wild, slow and easy--until they finally declared their love together in one earth shattering moment.

Spent, Watcher and Slayer settled in each other's arms, so nauseatingly in love that it made him sick to his stomach. As he turned from the window and disappeared into the night, Spike realized he had just learned two important lessons. 1) He wanted Buffy like he had never wanted her before, his zeal to taste the passion he had witnessed making his lust for blood seem tame, and 2) he would never ever have her... while Rupert Giles remained part of her life.

* * * * *

Giles signed his name on the bottom of the deposit slip with his usual flourish, then ran a critical eye down the column of numbers to verify the figures one last time. Finding his total correct, he gathered the deposit book along with the cash, checks, and credit cards slips--the day's takings for the Magic Box--into the green leather moneybag and zipped it closed.

"That's that, then," he told his audience of one.

He stood up from the tarot table at the back of the store, where he normally performed this daily task, checking his wristwatch. It was just past two in the afternoon. He was on schedule; there was still plenty of time to make the deposit before the bank closed. Lifting the jacket of his suit from the back of his chair, he glanced at Anya as he pulled it on. Sometimes her ex-demon ways unnerved him, such as now, when he found her simply standing there, looking at him with a--dare he say--blissful smile on her face.

He quickly grew uncomfortable under the expression. "What?"

"I just love watching you handle the money," she confessed dreamily. "Your big, strong hands... the way you run it through your fingers when you count it... like you're caressing it, making love to it." She sighed.

Giles raised an eyebrow as he straightened his collar, not sure whether to feel embarrassed, flattered, or bemused. "Yes, well... I'll just pop out to the bank, then," he announced, non-committal, retrieving his deposit bag from the tabletop.

Anya forestalled him with a hopeful look. "Do you think, maybe, one day, you'll let me go to the bank, where all the money is?"

"Do you think that's wise?" He shuddered at the thought of Anya, whose love for the dollar was legendary, overcome with a full-blown orgasmic experience while in such close proximity to all those greenbacks, possibly while standing in line for the next available teller.

She gave his question serious consideration before coming to a similar conclusion. "No, probably not. It would just make Xander jealous. Then he'd start hitting people and get us thrown out of public places."

With that, Anya turned and headed back to the sales counter, leaving Giles to wonder whether or not he'd just been insulted. She was such a confounding young woman! Part of him honestly admired Xander's interminable patience. Without further word, he slipped out the back door via the exit in the training room.

For February, the day was absolutely brilliant, with a warm winter sun sitting high in a cloudless blue sky. As it had done for the past week, the weather inspired him to walk rather than drive the short distance to The First Federal Bank of Sunnydale. It was, after all, barely two blocks, still in the downtown district with the Magic Box, the hardware store, the Book Stew, and the Espresso Pump. Locking the door and stepping out into the alley behind the shop, Giles kept his green, zippered moneybag close to his chest. He scanned the narrow lane before him, mindful of the fact that he probably should vary his daily routine a little, and make himself less of a target for some poor desperate sod in need of a wad of cash.

But the alley was just as deserted as it had been all week.

He started humming as he walked the short distance to the main road--the chorus of the song he and Buffy had slow danced to the preceding night. A smile crept over his face as he recalled the way their 'date' had ended, in his bedroom loft, the perfect end to a perfect week of matrimonial bliss. It was with genuine regret that he watched Buffy pack her bags this morning, and with even greater reluctance that he drove her home to Revello Drive. With her mother and sister returning from the beach house this afternoon, the honeymoon was--quite literally--over. As unenthusiastic as he was for them to give up their little slice of 'normal' and face their destinies once more, he also knew that as Watcher and Slayer there was very little choice. The Hellmouth may be quiet now, but Glory was not out of the Big Picture, no matter how many times he clicked his heels and wished her gone.

A sound caught his ear, yanking him back to reality with a jolt. He was close to the end of the alley now, close enough to see the pedestrians and cars of an ignorant populace enjoying the daytime safety of Main Street. He spun around at another obtrusive noise, looking back the way he'd come as instinct warned of a looming threat. But there was nothing to see, save for the dumpsters overflowing with commercial refuge, the odd bit of graffiti, and the closed rear doors of the neighboring shops on his block.

"Must have been a cat," he murmured, relaxing a bit, confident in his ability to best any would-be human attacker. And he was certain, at this time of day, any threat would indeed be human. The dead of night was traditionally the hunting time of vampires, and experience had shown that most demon species, too, shied away from the daylight hours, preferring the anonymity of night in which to kill and feast, and generally run amok. That in mind, Giles shrugged and turned to continue on his way . . .

... and walked straight into the cloaked chest of a very tall, very large, and apparently non-flammable, vampire. Hand raised to shield his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun, Giles' gaze traveled upward to the familiar yellow eyes, crooked fangs, and ridged forehead, sheltered from the blistering daylight within the folds of a cavernous burlap hood. Heavy boots and elbow-length gloves completed the thing's protective ensemble, while a couple of rusty nails sticking out one end of a length of two-by-four lent a certain 'medieval menace' to the homemade weapon in its hands.

"Meow," growled the vampire.

Panicked, Giles turned again, only to find two more daylight-proof vamps now cutting off his retreat, likewise armed with crude wooden bats. Pride wouldn't allow him to bargain for his life, and he knew better than to try to take them on barehanded with three-to-one odds. Instead, survival instincts kicked in and he attempted to flee. But they were stronger, faster, and prepared, and they clubbed him down before he had even taken two steps.

It was over in seconds. Repeat blows to his kidneys and ribs brought him to his knees, but it was the one to the back of his head that made him see stars and sent him sprawling.

The sun-warmed asphalt of the alley sizzled beneath Giles' cheek. Eyes closed, he let it burn, the pain a reminder that he was--somehow--still alive. Something thick and wet matted his hair and ran down the back of his shirt collar. Through the buzz in his ears, he heard his attackers speak, but they sounded as if they had cotton in their mouths.

"Is he dead?"

"Looks dead."

"Boss wants him dead."

"Boss also said to make it look like a damn accident."

"So he 'accidentally' smashed in the back of his skull."

"We shoulda just waited in the truck 'til he was crossing the road, like I said."

"Long as we get paid, who the hell cares?

"So is he?"

"What?"

"Dead, you moron."

Something cold and leathery pressed against the side of Giles' throat.

"No pulse. Must be dead."

"You sure? I can't feel a damn thing with these gloves on."

"Well, I ain't taking 'em off and scorching my fingers! You check him."

A boot roughly nuzzled his injured ribs, hard enough to rock him on his stomach. Giles bit back a whimper of pain, playing possum in the hope that it would save his life.

"Dead enough for me."

"Then let's go. I'm barbequing in this getup."

Through dazed, half-lidded eyes, Giles watched the three vampires leave him in the alley... until one turned, almost as an afterthought, and ran back to tug the corner of the bank deposit bag from beneath his prone form.

Then he was alone with the blackness gathering inside his head... the sweet merciful blackness . . .

* * * * *

Buffy yawned, following Tara and Willow through a hallway at UC Sunnydale, having just sat through another infinitely boring session of English Lit. Truthfully, she wasn't sure why she even bothered to go to class anymore. With all that she'd missed when her mother was sick, it wasn't like she had enough credit to pass or anything. She'd really dropped the ball on her education this year. And she honestly used to enjoy Professor Lillian's class, especially the poetry. Maybe it was the social aspect that kept her coming back, the 'hanging out with her friends at college' bit.

She eyed them as they walked ahead of her; Willow and Tara totally engrossed in the lesson they had just attended and oblivious to her presence.

"I just don't see why he couldn't end up with Esmeralda," Willow said, enthusiastically discussing their current assignment. "They could have the wedding right there, beneath the very bell tower where he labored, thanklessly, for all those years."

"No, see it can't end like that, 'cause all of Quasimodo's actions were selfishly motivated," Tara argued. "He had no moral compass, no understanding of right. Everything he did, he did out of love for a woman who would never be able to love him back." They stopped at a vending machine, and Tara began fishing in her book bag for some change. "Also, you can tell it's not going to have a happy ending when the main guy's all bumpy."

As Willow pulled out a quarter and handed it her girlfriend with an affectionate smile, Buffy glanced at her watch, partly out of boredom and partly because she wondered what time her mother and sister would get home. She'd spoken to them on the phone earlier, after Giles dropped her off at the house that morning, but her mom didn't plan to leave the beach house until sometime after lunch. Which in 'mom language' meant it could be as late as five o'clock. That brought up the possibility of Buffy having to cook dinner... but was she cooking for one, or three? Maybe she could persuade Giles to come over, and she could just cook something for the two of them. Better still, have him cook for her. He was a much better cook, anyway. At least his stuff was edible. Unlike some of her disastrous attempts, most of which she'd made in the preceding week. His Moussaka with Bechamel sauce was to die for . . .

"What did you think, Buffy?" Willow asked, finally including her in the conversation.

"The test isn't till tomorrow, right?" She shrugged, not worried. What was one more failed grade at this point? "I don't have an opinion 'till then."

"But you read it, right?"

"Kinda not," Buffy admitted, thinking of the past week, and how busy she'd been testing out her non-existent culinary skills. Still, the fun came in trying out new things together. Not to mention making sweet love every other spare moment they could find. Her mood took a definite upswing at the remembrance of those shared little slices of heaven. "But I rented the movie."

"Oh, with Charles Laughton?" Tara asked, retrieving her snack bar from the vending machine's drop bin.

Buffy feigned a frown. "I dunno. Was he one of the singing gargoyles?"

"Oh boy," Willow said, shooting a dubious look at Tara as they headed for the student lounge.

"What?" Buffy asked innocently, then grinned at her friends. "I'm kidding! Of course I--"

"BUFFY!"

They all stopped and turned as Xander anxiously came running up to them. Face flushed and out of breath, he'd obviously been looking for them for a while. His expression was grave, plus anytime Xander was on campus, it only ever meant one thing--something was majorly up.

Heart leaping to her throat, Buffy immediately feared the worst. Had he come to tell her that her mom and sister were in a car accident on the way home from the beach house? Or had Dawn tried to cut herself again? As bad as those both scenarios sounded, strangely Buffy found herself prepared to deal with either one.

What she wasn't prepared for was the news Xander actually told her. "It's Giles. He went to the bank, but when he didn't come back... " He shook his head and started again. "Anya found him. Buff, he's been mugged!"

* * * * *

Propped up in his hospital bed, Giles gingerly fingered the bandage around his head, wincing as he found the still-tender spot at the back where they'd stitched him up. He hated hospitals. Visiting someone was bad enough, but his aversion to them grew tenfold when he was the patient. Bloody doctors and their 'procedure,' wanting to keep him overnight for 'observation.' He was fine. It was just a hit on the head--a simple skull fracture and a small laceration that, like all scalp injuries, had a tendency to bleed profusely and look far worse than it was. Some cracked but thankfully not broken ribs, and some nasty cuts and bruises tallied out his list of woes. As a Watcher, he was no stranger to war wounds, and he'd suffered worse than this at the hands of Gwendolyn Post. Being hospitalized was, in his opinion, a complete waste of time... not to mention a test of his thinning patience.

Of course, the persistent headache didn't help his request for dismissal, nor did the dizziness and nausea that threaten to turn his stomach inside out every time he tried to stand up.

"Giles?"

He tried to ignore the way the room lurched sickeningly as he rolled his head to the other side of his pillow, the soft, hesitant sound of her voice instantly brightening his disagreeable mood. Eyes wide and brimming with unshed tears, Buffy launched herself through the door of his room. He spotted Xander hovering anxiously out in the hall, exchanged a quick look with him, grateful to his young friend for the moment of privacy with his wife.

Buffy stopped just short of his bed, wanting to touch him but afraid to, for fear of whatever they had told her about his current bout with 'head trauma.' Weak from the painkillers they had fed into his IV, Giles meekly offered his free hand to her, palm up, pleased when such a simple gesture was all the encouragement she needed. She squeezed his fingers, and fell into his embrace without further encouragement.

"Oh God," Buffy murmured, curling up on the bed with him, her cheek against the front of his borrowed hospital gown. "Oh God, oh God, oh God... "

"Shhh," he hushed her gently, trying not to wince from the way his ribs creaked in protest to the slightest of movements. He stroked her hair in a selfless gesture of comfort. "I'm all right, love."

Buffy sputtered against his chest, almost hysterical in her relief. "Liar." She lifted her head to look at him, wiping away spilled tears with the back of her hand. "But you're alive, and for that I'm very very grateful."

He held her gaze for an extended moment, until her expression changed to a frown of deep concern. Looking down, she picked up the hand she still held, their fingers entwined, and examined the peppering of puncture wounds and purpling bruises on his forearm. He had similar small perforations all over his body, caused by the rusty nails. Adding insult to injury, his arse still hurt from the tetanus shot. Not to mention that his suit was in need of a very patient tailor . . .

Buffy met his gaze again, protectively wrapping his large hand in both of hers. "Giles, what happened? Xander said you were mugged! In the middle of the afternoon!" Her tone proclaimed her surprise at how a detrimental aspect of very human society could be the thing to shake up their lives on the mouth of Hell. "Like, for money!"

He nodded a slow affirmative. Buffy had enough to deal with already, so Giles decided, then and there, that he would not tell her this was no ordinary mugging, that his assailants had indeed been vampires... at least not until he was able to understand it himself. He'd been replaying the event in his mind since regaining consciousness, but the clues, remembered from when he lay semi-conscious on the hot asphalt, were still sporadic and jumbled in his head. He was certain he would decipher them eventually, given time. The only thing he knew for certain was that money had not been their primary objective, even though they made a belated effort to make it look like a routine robbery. So if not for the cash, why attack him? And why in the middle of the day?

"That's what we'd like to know, too," a voice answered Buffy's question from the door.

She swiveled on her perch on the side of his bed, and Giles looked past her shoulder. A man and a woman wearing the blue and black uniforms of the Sunnydale Police Department stood there, the latter taking notes.

The man took a step into the room, removing his hat. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Giles, but we're going to have to ask you to leave while we take a statement from your husband about his, er, encounter."

Buffy stared at them, until she finally figured out they were talking to her. Giles smiled to himself; it was the first time anyone--strangers--had referred to her by her married title, and she was obviously still getting used to it. "Oh... yeah... right."

He met her eyes as she turned back to him. "I'll come back later. Anything you want?"

"Pajamas with pants!" Giles announced without any hesitation. "God forbid, I have to walk around this bloody hospital bare-arsed."

Buffy gave him a little grin, as he hoped she would. "I dunno, it's such a nice ass, too."

Growing serious, he focused on her, as if the two waiting police officers didn't exist. "I take it your mother and sister arrived home without incident?"

"That's my next port of call. I was at school when Xander came and got me."

He nodded slowly, mindful of the way any movement made the room spin. "You should stay with them tonight, love. Don't worry about coming back to see me until morning, I'll be fine. With luck, you can take me home then."

"You're just saying that so you can moon all the cute nurses," Buffy teased, but he could tell her heart wasn't in it. Seeing him laid up in a hospital bed really bothered her.

Giles smiled fondly, hoping to allay her fears. "Wouldn't dream of it."

The clearing of an impatient throat brought them both back to the real world.

"Tomorrow, then," Buffy agreed, reluctant to leave. She cupped a hand to his red, asphalt-singed cheek. "Poor baby. I know how you hate hospitals. I hate them, too." Leaning forward, she whispered, "Sure you don't want me to come back later and check for the boogieman?"

"I'm sure," Giles said, smiling at her reference to her brief hospital stay and subsequent run in with der Kindestod. His hand found hers again, on the mattress between them, his thumb instinctively drawing gentle circles on her skin. "Besides, I plan to do a lot of sleeping between here and tomorrow, so I won't be very good company."

"Especially if the nurses wake you up every hour to see how you are." Disentangling her fingers from his, Buffy gently took his bandaged head in both her hands. "You'll definitely be Mr. Grumpy Bear." Despite the audience, she tenderly kissed his forehead, then his eyes, and nose, and finally his mouth. When they broke apart again, the look in her eyes proclaimed those three little words to him in silent, loving declaration.

The bed jostled unintentionally as she slipped to her feet, causing him to swallow a groan, lest he worry her with the knowledge that he wasn't quite as able bodied as he claimed. Buffy paused at the door to his room to impart one last, regretful smile, then she was gone, leaving him alone with two of Sunnydale's finest.

One of the cops closed the door after her, ensuring privacy.

Eyes closing, Giles leaned back against his support pillows, holding his ribs as he shifted into a more comfortable position in preparation of their questions. His headache was back, banging a persistent tempo on the inside of his skull. He just wanted the police questions over with, so he could rest. Of course, he would not be telling them all the facts either, although for an entirely different reason than why he neglected to tell Buffy. He'd already been admitted to the hospital for observation of any 'neurological impairment'. Confessing to ordinary civilians that he had been attacked by vampires--in broad daylight no less--would undoubtedly earn him a quick ticket to the psychiatric ward. Or at the very least, an extended stay.

Two sets of footsteps echoed on the cold hospital tile--one heavy, one light--as the cops came to stand at his bedside.

"Been married long?"

The male officer's opening question surprised him. Eyebrow raised, Giles threw a look up at the man who was roughly his age, balding, moustache, with a hard face that had seen one too many tragedies. "And that information is relevant to my case how?"

"Call it professional curiosity." The policeman drew up a chair without invitation, and made himself at home. "I'm Officer Brogan, that's Officer McCahill," he said, surreptitiously nodding at his female companion as a signal to start taking notes. With a casual air, he reached to put his hat on the nightstand. "She's very attractive, your wife. College student, is she?"

Giles eyed the man warily, suspicious of the 'buddy' camaraderie, and where this 'professionally curious' line of questioning was headed. "Buffy attends UC Sunnydale, yes. But I fail to see--"

"Boyfriends?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Did she have any boyfriends there?" Brogan repeated levelly. "College guys. Hormonally charged, ready for a good time, no commitment, party boys. You know the type."

Giles balked at the man's audacity. "I'll have you know that Buffy and I are very happily married."

"Yeah, I got that," the cop agreed with a disarming smile, "from the way she said goodbye to you just now."

"Then what the bloody hell--?"

"Look, I'm sorry if I offended you, Mr. Giles, but it's my job to investigate all avenues of possibility. Truth is, we aren't convinced this was a random mugging. More like a pre-meditated assault." Brogan leaned forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees and fingers steepled; body language that proclaimed him as less 'cop' and more 'trusted friend.' "Your wife's a very beautiful young woman. Surely, you've noticed other men looking at her... looking in a way that makes you mad as hell?"

Giles diverted his gaze, remembering that very feeling, at The Bronze, just last night... the way his stomach clenched and his blood pressure shot sky high, the way he'd wanted to throttle the life out of every man who looked at, and wanted, what was his.

"Yeah... that's what I'm talking about," Brogan said, noting his reaction. "Now, is there any face you've noticed more than once, hanging about? Anyone who's approached your wife directly, maybe even flirted with her on occasion? Someone who has, maybe, exhibited hostility toward you... like he knows the only thing standing between him and your wife, is you?"

"No," Giles lied softly, as the cop's summary unexpectedly brought one face to mind; a bleach-blond vampire who acted precisely in the manner just described. For months, he'd been catching vibes that Spike's association with Buffy had taken a left turn, now he knew his gut feeling had been right. The vampire wasn't simply provoking him for some perverse form of entertainment, pushing his buttons for fun like Buffy thought, he was doing it because--

Good Lord! Spike was jealous!

The revelation caused Giles' fist to clench on the mattress beside him, so forcefully that it threatened to pop the IV catheter out the back of his hand. The animosity between the two of them was not all testosterone and male posturing. It was real; real enough to kill for. They were both in love with the same woman.

He closed his eyes, as the events of the afternoon suddenly made perfect sense. Why else would those vampire half-wits go after him in the middle of the day? Only one reason: because Spike's chip prevented him from dealing with things himself. The pillock had instead conned some dim-witted cronies to try to do the job for him, probably making it look like a robbery in order to divert attention... although no doubt paying them with the cash from the stolen bank deposit.

"Mr. Giles? Are you all right? Should I call someone?"

Attempting to calm his inner rage, Giles rested his head on his pillow, keeping his eyes screwed shut. He tried to relax and control his breathing, but his brain wouldn't let go of one simple, blood-boiling thought.

Spike had feelings for Buffy.

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, I can't... "

"That's all right. I understand that head trauma can sometimes scramble your memory for a little while. But if you think you're up to continuing... ?"

"What else do you want to know?" Giles asked flatly, just wanting the interrogation over.

"We spoke to the young lady who works for you, the one who called 911." Brogan motioned at his female companion, who consulted her notebook.

"Jenkins, Anya Christina Emanuella."

"Miss Jenkins," the cop continued, nodding to himself. "Peculiar young lady. Anyway, she mentioned an incident to us that happen last night at The Bronze nightclub. Ring any bells?"

"I'm afraid not." There was no way Giles was telling the police anything about Spike, this time for the same reason he decided he wasn't going to tell Buffy that Spike had been responsible for the attempt on his life. He knew exactly how she would react, and Giles selfishly wanted the pleasure of staking that bleached bastard all to himself.

"You don't remember starting a fight? Or being thrown out by management? Were you drunk, Mr. Giles?"

"No."

"You sound sure."

"I am sure. I only had two beers all evening."

With a dubious glance at his companion, Brogan sat back in his chair. "What else do you remember about last night, then?"

"You mean apart from going home and making love to my wife?" Giles challenged with a pointed glare.

"This guy you punched, this... " Brogan again looked to his female companion for the name.

She flipped back a few pages in her notebook. "Spike," she supplied.

Brogan smirked. "Now there's a name for a guy who lacks confidence in his virility. What a loser." When Giles didn't take the bait, he continued. "This Spike character... he a friend of yours?"

"My memory may be a bit scrambled, officer," Giles answered acerbically, "but I dare say I'm not a man who normally goes around punching his friends."

"Friend of your wife's, then?"

"Look, is there a point to this? Because if you don't mind, my bloody head is about to explode!" That, at least, was the truth. Giles massaged his bandaged temple, emphasizing the fact.

After a beat, the cop used the armrest of the chair to raise himself to standing. He retrieved his hat from the nightstand. "We'll be in touch," he concluded, looking at his female companion and nodding to the exit.

Giles huffed out a long breath of relief at their departure, then winced irritably at the sharp stab of pain it brought to his abused ribs.

At the door to his room, Brogan stopped to don his hat and deliver one parting piece of advice. "You seem like an intelligent man. Smart enough to know that this is a police matter, and that taking things into your own hands will only get you into trouble."

Eyes closed, Giles simply nodded, his head spinning, his ribs throbbing, and his heart all twisted up in bitter, jealous rage. Spike was in love with Buffy!

Normally, he would have agreed with the cop and let the law take its course, but this was not a normal assault and robbery, and the Sunnydale Police were a sublimely thick lot when it came to anything pertaining to the Hellmouth. Even if he were to tell them the truth, and even if they did actually believed him, there was very little they could do... although having Spike arrested and thrown into a bright and sunny jail cell did hold certain appeal. No, despite the cop's warning, the resolution to this particular problem would only come from a time-tested method of old-world justice.

Revenge.

"Get well soon," Brogan called as he and his partner left.

After a moment, Giles opened his eyes and stared at the far wall of the empty, silent hospital room. "I intend to," he vowed in a soft, Rippery tone.

* * * * *

"Earth to Buffy."

Buffy blinked, and looked across to the driver's seat with a confused frown.

Xander smiled understandingly. "I said... we're here."

She glanced out the side window of the car at her mother's house, porch light on in defense of the fading sunlight, then back at Xander, realizing she must have tuned out shortly after they left the hospital.

The hospital. Where the man she loved with all her heart had been admitted with head trauma after being mugged. How could something so astonishingly normal intrude on their lives like this? Mortality gave her a good, swift slap in the face; Giles could have been killed for something as stupid as money.

'The hospital.' Her lip quivered, and she bit down on it to make it stop.

"He'll be fine," Xander said knowingly. "After all, this is Giles we're talking about. Mr. Concrete Cranium." When his attempt to dispel her fears with humor fell flat, he reached over to put a hand on her shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. "He'll be okay, Buff."

"I just," she began, feeling the sting of pending tears. "I mean, if something happened, and I... if he... Xander, I love him so much."

"I know. Come on, I'll walk you in."

Her mother's Jeep Cherokee was in the drive. Buffy stared at it dully as they walked past, thinking it ironic how she and Giles had sent her mom and sister away for safekeeping. If she'd only said 'yes'; if only she hadn't been such an idiot when Giles suggested a romantic getaway and they'd gone to the beach house instead, he wouldn't have gotten mugged, and he wouldn't now be lying in a hospital bed with a concussion and three fractured ribs.

This was all her fault.

"Dawn?" her mom called as Buffy and Xander closed the front door behind them.

"No, it's me, Mom."

Her mother swept into the foyer to greet her with a warm smile and a quick hug. They parted, mother and daughter still holding hands. Buffy immediately noticed the difference. Her mom looked more relaxed than she had in a long time, confident even. A week on the beach in the winter Californian sun had brought the color back to her face, which had been missing in the months following surgery to remove her brain tumor. All in all, Joyce looked as if she had just come back from unwinding on a week's vacation, not laying low, on the lam from a rampaging Hellgod.

"So how was the beach," Buffy asked, trying to distract herself from thoughts of Giles.

"Buffy, we had the best time," Joyce confirmed with a happy smile. "We did some serious mother/daughter bonding and... I think Dawn's going to be just fine."

Buffy nodded, relieved to hear her sister had come to terms with her mystical origins. They were a family again, whole. Or they would be, if Giles were there.

"Although," Joyce continued wryly, dropping Buffy's hands, "I think after a week of only boring old Mom to talk to, she was glad for a chance to escape. The moment we got home, she asked to go to Lisa's house." She smiled fondly. "How was your week, honey? Did you spend some quality time with my favorite son-in-law?"

Thoughts of Giles made Buffy's eyes prick again. "Yeah," she managed around the emotion tightening her throat. All she could think about was the honeymoon they'd had at home, the way they'd made love and laughter and the start of a new life together, which had all abruptly ended that afternoon in the alley behind the Magic Box. Right now, she'd even settle for a lifetime of sitting home watching Giles in full Research Mode, every boring night, as long as he was home, safe. "It was great," she said, sputtering into tears and falling into her mother's arms for comfort. "It was the best week of my life."

Confused by the contradicting words and emotions, Joyce held her sobbing daughter and looked at Xander for an explanation.

"Giles is in the hospital. We just came from there."

"Oh, Buffy... " Joyce's good cheer sunk as she drew away. With a maternal hand, she stroked her daughter's face. "What happened? Is he... ?"

Thinking of him all banged up, Buffy bit her lip in lieu of an answer, which caused alarm to register on her mother's face.

"He was mugged, of all things, but he's gonna be fine," Xander said with quiet confidence. He met Buffy's thankful gaze. "He is," he insisted.

Buffy nodded in silence, grateful to have the strong support of such a good friend. Xander's conviction made her believe. She sniffed back the last of her tears, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, hanging onto Xander's faith as if her life depended on it. In a way, it did.

"Come on, then," Joyce said positively, taking a step away. "I'll make us some dinner, and then when Dawn gets home, I'll drive you back to the hospital to see him."

"No, it's okay," Buffy said, hesitantly. When her mom looked a question at her, she explained. "We kinda decided if would be best if I didn't... I mean, he needs to rest. I know that. And he won't get that if I'm there being a complete basket case." Fighting back the waterworks, she searched for a distraction. "But I need to... to keep busy. Take my mind off things. Maybe I should go patrolling... kick something's butt."

"Do you think that's smart?" Xander's question earned him a frown. "I mean, you just said it yourself, Buff. You're a basket case. Your mind isn't on the job, and that makes you an easy target."

"Honey, Xander's right. I'm sure Rupert wouldn't want you out there tonight, either."

Buffy nodded unenthusiastically, remembering he had told her to stay home with her mother and sister, perhaps even for the same reason. But she needed to do something to take her mind off the present situation. "You say Dawn went to Lisa's house?"

* * * * *

When Dawn wasn't at her friend's house, Buffy started to panic. It was well dark by the time she made her second sweep of the neighborhood. Ending up at the downtown park, Buffy walked to the empty carousel--one of Dawn's favorite spots--and tried to decide what to do next. But she couldn't think straight when haunted by happy memories of Giles' slow caresses, and her sister's infectious giggles.

She checked in with her mom via the payphone at the park entrance, but Dawn hadn't come home either, and her mother had started to panic. Maybe her sister wasn't quite as 'fine' with the truth of her origins as her mom believed. Growing more anxious by the moment, Buffy finally decided, just like a week ago when Dawn had run away after learning about The Key, that 'multiple sets of eyes' were the fastest way to find her errant sibling.

Fraught with anxiety and at the end of her emotional tether after an afternoon of upheaval, Buffy kicked in the door to Spike's mausoleum harder than was necessary. Bordering on desperate, she hoped he wouldn't hold what happened last night at The Bronze as a reason not to help her. She didn't have any money, so she couldn't try to bribe him, but she was on autopilot, emotions stretched taut, and already storming across the crypt's dirty floor when she realized that she might be barking up the wrong proverbial tree.

"Spike, I need your help," she said without any preamble of greeting. "Dawn is--"

But the words stuck in her throat as she spied her sister sitting cross-legged on top of a concrete sepulcher opposite the vampire in question. A lantern flickered between them, casting eerie shadows on the cobweb-ridden walls, caskets, and burial statuary, as if they were two kids away at camp telling ghost stories around a crackling fire.

"--here," Buffy finished in confusion.

"Spike was just telling me a story, and he was just at this really cool part," Dawn began enthusiastically.

Emotions doing a complete one-eighty into anger, Buffy glared at Spike as he climbed down to his feet. "What the hell is this? What is she doing here?"

"Just hanging out," Dawn supplied, indifferent to her sister's pissed tone.

"Here?"

"Can you please let him finish the story?" Dawn whined. "Then you can do the lecture."

"I was just about to send her home," Spike said in apology. "I knew you'd be fretting."

Worst thing was, he actually sounded as sincere as he looked. In some bizarrely infuriating way, Buffy knew Dawn was safe with him, at least safer than she was out wandering the streets of Sunnydale after dark.

Buffy folded her arms, scowling first at the vampire and then at her sister, not sure which of them should be first in line for a taste of her temper. "Dawn, get your stuff. We're getting out of here."

* * * * *

"Why doesn't that register with you?" Buffy said, having began the lecture immediately after she and Dawn left Spike's 'home.' The graveyard was silent in the moonlight, deserted, and Buffy stomped in an angry gait between the rows of headstones toward home. "Crypt plus vampire equals bad."

"Because it was Spike!" Dawn said defensively.

"Hanging out with Spike is not cool, Dawn. Okay? It's dangerous and... " She paused to think of the appropriate word. It didn't take long. "Icky."

Dawn smiled timidly. "I don't think Spike's icky."

"Yeah, well, think again, sister," Buffy warned. But then she noticed the coy look on Dawn's face, and reality came crashing down for the second time that day. She brought them to a stop and turned to her sister, arms folded. "You have a crush on him."

"No, I don't!" Dawn blurted in telling denial. Then thinking about it, she grinned and added, "It's just... he's got cool hair, and he wears cool leather coats and stuff." She frowned pointedly. "And he doesn't treat me like an alien."

"He's a killer, Dawn," Buffy said with controlled annoyance. She detested everything about Spike, including his allegedly cool hair and leather coats. To make matters worse, every time circumstance forced her to reevaluate her loathing, all her stupid brain could remember was the disgusting way he tasted when he kissed her, when Willow's spell had gone awry--God, when she believed she was in love with him and planned to marry him! That was not a memory she wanted to revisit. Ever! The insanity in the back of her mind that hinted it could be Dawn's possible future only further unraveled her composure. "You cannot have a crush on something that is dead and evil and a vampire!"

"Right, that's why you were never with Angel for three years."

"'Was'. Past history. In case you haven't noticed, I'm very happily married to a man with a pulse." Thoughts of Giles again threatened to punch holes through the thin veneer that was her self-control, so she redirected her irritation back at Dawn before it was too late. "Besides, Angel's different. He has a soul."

"Spike has a chip. Same diff."

Despite her efforts, Buffy's overwrought emotions finally exploded. "I can't listen to this! Spike is a monster, okay? Plus you are only 14-years-old." Belatedly, she realized how parental that last statement sounded. On top of everything, she was turning into her mother.

"I like hanging out with him, is all," Dawn admitted. "And even if I did have a crush, he wouldn't notice in a million years. Not with you around."

"What does that mean?"

"Spike's totally into you."

Stunned speechless, Buffy simply stared at her sister.

"Oh, come on, you didn't notice?" Dawn asked in jealous disbelief. "Buffy, Spike is completely in love with you."

Not comprehending how such a thing could even be possible without the aid of witchcraft, Buffy tried to get her brain to form a coherent sentence and her mouth to deliver it. Didn't work. "Huh?"

* * * * *

'Spike's in love with me!'

Buffy tossed fitfully in her bed, huffing out her frustration in a sigh and throwing back the covers. After several minutes of pointlessly staring at the ceiling, she turned onto her side, closed her eyes, and again tried to sleep. But she kept thinking about what Dawn had said, which made her think about Spike, which in turn only made her feel guilty because she wasn't thinking about her husband lying all banged up in a hospital bed.

Giles, the man she loved, who had punched Spike at The Bronze. God, did he know? Had he guessed?

Spike, the subject of much loathing and disgust, who was in love with her! How sick and perverted was that?

Thoughts spiraling in an endless circle of unrest, Buffy resigned herself to the fact that sleep was beyond her tonight. She curled into a tight ball, burying beneath the covers and longing for daylight. Her bed was too big, too empty. She missed Giles' arms around her, the warmth of him as he slept close, the way he somehow managed to keep part of himself in contact with her at all times, be that a hand or an arm or simply a hip snuggled to her side. In the endless, lonely darkness of this night, she even missed the annoyingly cute way he tended to snore softly whenever he flipped onto his back.

With another heavy sigh, Buffy surfaced restlessly, and stared at the clock.

3:27am.

3:28am.

The house--her mother's house--was quiet and tranquil in the early morning hours, save for the faint ticking of the grandfather clock that stood in the foyer downstairs. Listening, she counted off the seconds in her head, absently timing her digital alarm clock with the old-world craftsmanship while she reviewed the evening's events. As if the conversation in the graveyard had never been, the three Summers women settled down after dinner for a little female bonding; hot buttered popcorn and THELMA AND LOUISE. As much as she loved that movie, and as much as she enjoyed time spent with her mother and sister, Buffy's heart just wasn't in it.

3:29am.

Spike was in love with her!

At 3:30am, in an attempt to steer her guilty thoughts in the direction she wanted them to go, she curled a hand to the chain around her neck, where her fingers found the gold locket Giles had given her last Christmas. Cracking open the tiny lid, she held it up to the moonlight to regard the photo inside. It was of her and Giles, their lips barely brushing in a tender kiss, taken at the instant photo booth at the Mall shortly before they were married. This small memento--and the other three sequential shots on the strip--were the only pictures she had of them together, making her realize that it simply wasn't enough. There should be an album of wedding photos, and engagement photos, and candid photos taken by their friends since they'd become a couple, even some birthday photos. But there were none. Nothing. The goons who attacked Giles could have just as easily taken him from her forever, and she would have no keepsakes of the life they now shared except this tiny picture in her locket and . . .

Eyes misting, Buffy unearthed her left hand from the bedcovers, and stared at her wedding ring.

For an hour or more, she cried hot, silent tears for her absent love, until she eventually fell into an emotionally exhausted sleep... where she dreamed of a blond vampire's amorous, yet unwanted, touch . . .

* * * * *

"Buffy, stop fussing!" Immediately regretting his outburst, Giles bit back his annoyance, and tempered his request with a term of endearment. "Please, love. I'm all right."

"Okay... geez," she said, offended despite his hasty backpedal.

She withdrew her helping hands from his person, which allowed him--finally--to function under his own steam. Getting out of the car had been almost as much of an ordeal as getting in, the result of which, his head throbbed and his ribs ached. He was just glad Buffy had seen fit to bring him a pair of sweat pants and a bulky sweater to wear. At least he was comfortable in that respect. Right now, all he wanted was to go inside, sit in his favorite easy chair, and relax... without all the bloody fussing.

Irritable, but nonetheless glad to be home, Giles stood side-by-side with Buffy as he impatiently waited for Xander to find the right key and unlock the front door. Pushing it open, his young friend then moved aside and made a grandiose gesture for them to enter. Giles scowled crankily. He knew he should be grateful to Xander for taking time off work to bring him home. Buffy, too, was missing school in order to assist... and if he weren't mistaken, she'd had an English exam this afternoon. But their 'assistance' was starting to get on his nerves.

Grunting at the notion that he had become such a burden, Giles shuffled past his minders, one hand instinctively holding his fractured ribs as he moved. He knew their fussing came from the fact that they were simply trying to help, but their unrelenting persistence to do everything for him--especially Buffy--made him feel like a complete invalid. True, the wide cotton bandage around his head and his decidedly 'old man' shuffle probably made him look like an invalid, but his temperament was far from belonging to the realm of the agedly infirm.

Slowly, Giles moved into his living room, which was still awash with late afternoon sunlight. Lord, it felt good to be home. It was as if he'd been away months, rather then simply overnight. Bloody hospitals. If he never saw the inside of one again, it would be too soon. And what he wouldn't give for a decent cup of tea. That in mind, he gingerly headed for the kitchen.

Buffy stopped in the middle of the living room, watching him, unsure, as if the place were foreign soil to her. Behind her, Xander shut the door and laid the ring of keys on his desk, before he too took up close scrutiny of the patient. Noting their disquiet, Giles stopped at the door to the kitchen, instantly regretting having jumped down Buffy's throat for showing compassion and concern. After all, when she was injured, wasn't he the first who wanted to pamper her senseless?

Giving in with grace, he gave her a suitably chastised smile. "Darling, would you make me some tea? Please?"

She brightened immediately at the notion that she was, once more, the most important thing in his life, the love that was radiating off her lighting up the room. "You bet," she said, moving around him with a warm smile. "You just get comfy and relax."

"Yeah, come on, G-Man," Xander said, leaning over the back of the sofa to pat the cushions. "Park it, and put your feet up."

"Actually," Giles sheepishly told them both. "While I'm standing, I think perhaps a trip to the bathroom is in order." As Buffy opened her mouth to speak, he added, "And before either of you ask if I need help, believe me when I say that I've been successfully doing this solo since I was a toddler." With a wry smile, he reached out his free hand to draw her head to him for a quick kiss. "If I'm not back by the time the kettle boils, then you have my permission to initiate a search and rescue."

* * * * *

Buffy filled the kettle and put it on the stove, then laid the strings of a few teabags over the side of Giles' white china pot sitting on its trivet. She waited until she heard the bathroom door shut down the hall, and then turned to Xander.

He flopped onto the sofa in a way that suggested he was testing the springs, crossing his ankles on the coffee table as he made himself at home. "Is it just me," he quipped, "or is that a huffy hubby?"

"It's not you," Buffy said, joining him on the couch. "He's definitely Mr. Grumpy Bear," she murmured, thinking of their conversation, yesterday, in the hospital. She was just glad he was home.

Xander grinned good-naturedly. "Good thing they let him out today, then. Tomorrow he may have been completely past the point of being suitable to live with."

"Xander?" Buffy asked, only half-listening. There was something far more exasperating on her mind than Giles' understandably touchy temper, the same something that had kept her awake for most of the night--Spike. Specifically, Spike's crush on her. While part of her was embarrassed and disgusted by it, another part was desperate to share the secret, if only to have it debunked. She couldn't very well confide in Giles, at least not in his present condition. He'd just been released from the hospital. Limiter chip not withstanding, another run-in with Spike over her, and Giles would be back in the ER quicker than she could say 'obsession'.

"What?" Xander asked, growing serious as he noted her troubled expression.

She hesitated. "Never mind." Then she changed her mind again. "It's just that... Dawn... said that... "

Xander pulled his feet off the coffee table, his hands clasping together between his knees as he gave her his undivided attention. "Yeah?"

Buffy shrugged. "Forget it."

"Buffy... " He gave her a look that guaranteed it was safe to talk to him. Her secret, whatever it was, was already in the Xander vault.

"She thinks that... she said that... " Buffy looked at Xander and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, even though Giles couldn't possibly hear. She squirmed guiltily, then blurted, "Spike's in love with me."

Xander stared at her for one horrified moment, then unexpectedly burst into laughter.

"I'm not joking," Buffy said in exasperation.

"Oh, I hope not," he managed between giggles. "It's funnier if it's true."

"Xander, this is serious!" With a guilty glance down the hall, she lowered her tone again. "And would you mind not doing that? Giles might hear."

"All right." He put on a straight face, but he couldn't hold it and began to laugh again. Off her pointed look, he endeavored to calm himself. "So... Giles doesn't know?"

"No." Buffy pouted. "I wanna tell him, but I can't."

"Why? It's not real. I mean, how upset can he get over one of Spike's fevered daydreams that's never gonna happen?"

"Were you at The Bronze the other night?" Buffy asked meaningfully.

"Okay, point taken."

"I dunno," Buffy said, sighing in resignation. She leaned back against the couch. "He punched Spike--maybe he already knows. I just have no idea how to bring up the topic... not without hurting his feelings or making him mad."

"So where did Dawn... " Xander asked, still amused, "how did she come to this extremely entertaining conclusion?"

"She was hanging out with Spike. I think she has a crush on him." The kettle started to whistle, so Buffy got to her feet to tend it, in the process missing Xander's double take and subsequent look of dismay.

"What?"

"I mean, I always knew that he had this weird fixation with me," Buffy said absently, pouring the boiling water into the teapot. She didn't elaborate and say she thought Spike's obsession probably could have started as residue from Willow's wacky spell. She didn't want to think about that incident at all.

"But I'm the one she has a crush on," Xander said, not listening anymore. "Me!"

Buffy laid out two cups and saucers, knowing Giles preferred them to mugs, then as an afterthought she looked at Xander through the kitchen pass-through. "You want tea?"

"It's always been me! Big funny Xander! Oh, what? She just suddenly decides I'm not the cool one any more? Why is that okay?"

Suddenly, the front door burst open and Spike, smoldering slightly under a thick tartan blanket, came rushing in from the fading daylight. "Look out! Coming through!"

Buffy moved back into the living room, arms folded in annoyance as she watched the vampire toss his protective cover to the floor and stamp out the minor flames.

Xander, too, got to his feet, no longer amused. "Speaking of 'uncool.'"

"Too right," Spike agreed. "I'm bloody on fire!'"

"Not what I meant."

Ignoring him, Spike focused on Buffy and, much to her shock and revulsion, swept her into his arms for a hug before she could do anything to stop him. "Buffy, I'm so sorry. I just heard. And I want you to know... I'm here for you. Whatever you want, whatever you need, I'm your man."

Regaining her senses, Buffy forcefully pushed out of Spike's cold embrace. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Spike faltered, regarding her with an expression that was part confused, part hurt. "I just... I thought you might, you know, need a shoulder to cry on." He glanced at Xander. "Or something."

"Why would I need that? And even if I did, what makes you think I would ever need it from you?"

"Yes, Spike," Giles said quietly, his tone dripping acid. He rejoined them from the direction of the bathroom, going straight to his wife and laying a possessive hand on her shoulder. "Tell us why you think Buffy needs anything from you at all."

Spike did a double take when he saw Giles, as if he'd seen a ghost, but recovered quickly. He focused on Buffy, who simply glared in return.

"Okay," Spike reasoned. "Seems I may have got hold of some wrong information. Acted... rashly."

"Really."

"But I got another bit of info you might be keen on knowing."

"Sorry, all out of cash," Buffy returned icily. She went to turn into Giles' embrace, intent on helping him to the couch, making him comfortable, and bringing him his tea, when Spike spoke again.

"I got a bead on the blokes who--" He glanced up at Giles, then back down at her. "--beat up your hubby."

Giles smirked contemptuously and shook his head, but Buffy missed the look that passed between the two.

"Do tell," she said.

"I'll do better than that. I'll show. They're holed up in a warehouse downtown." He turned to collect his blanket off the floor, but straightened with a frown when Buffy didn't budge. "Come on, what are you waiting for?"

"I'm the Slayer, not Batman," she retorted. "Isn't this something for the police to handle?"

"They're vampires," Spike revealed with a sly grin.

Buffy rounded on Giles, miffed and hurt that he had neglected to share this juicy little tidbit with her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Pulling his irate gaze off Spike, Giles redirected it at her. "Because I didn't want you doing this. Going off half-bloody-cocked, looking for revenge."

Buffy bristled to his unpleasant tone. "I am not half-cocked, and I am not out for revenge. Slayer. Vampires. That fits my job description, remember?" As far as she was concerned, the conversation--the reasoning--was done with. She nodded at Spike, motioning him to lead the way.

Much to her surprise, Giles forcefully grabbed her by the arm and turned her to face him. "No. I absolutely forbid it."

Angered by the bluntness of the order, not to mention the order itself, Buffy jerked her arm free. She couldn't believe he'd just said that! "You what?"

Giles glared at her, Force One, putting his foot down. "You heard me." His chin lifted slightly in defiance to the fury he must have seen blazing in her eyes. But after a brief standoff, he was the first to back down, possibly because he knew it was in the best interest of their relationship to do so. "Buffy, I don't want you going anywhere with him."

"I'm a big Slayer, Giles. I can take care of myself."

"You're also my wife, and as such, I expect you to show a modicum of respect for my decisions... "

Not listening, she huffily stomped to the door and out into the late afternoon sunshine, leaving Spike to exchange a triumphant little smirk with her silently fuming husband, before the vampire threw his blanket over his head and followed.

* * * * *

It wasn't until Buffy was sitting alone with Spike in the cramped quarters of his car that she realized it wasn't the place she wanted to be. Part of her guiltily wished she hadn't been so pigheaded, or that Giles was a slightly more forceful husband. Or not. She just wished she'd listened to him, and stayed home. She sighed; she still had a lot to learn about 'give and take', the fine art of compromise that was crucial to any successful marriage.

They had parked in a side alley between two tall warehouses, shielded from both prying eyes and the setting sun, and they'd been sitting there, waiting, for more than an hour. Night had fallen in the interim, and to Buffy, the warehouse they were watching for supposedly 'suspicious activity' was far less suspicious than the vampire sitting beside her.

She eyed him warily with a sidelong glance, scarcely able to believe she was actually going along with... whatever this was. She should just get out now, and go home. Except that... the opportunity to deal with the vamps who had put her lover in the hospital was a strong incentive to stay. Giles was right; she was doing this partly for revenge. They'd hurt her man, so now they'd pay. Truthfully, she'd almost been relieved to hear his attackers were non-human, and thus punishable by non-human laws. She desperately wanted to stake something!

She eyed Spike again. Spike, who was in love with her. God, what did she ever do to deserve that curse?

Without warning, he reached across the battered seat, toward her leg. Fearing he was actually putting a move on her, Buffy flinched. "Hey!" Spike had his uses and she didn't want to have to stake him but, by golly, she would!

Much to her chagrin, her leg was not his objective. He popped the glove compartment and took out a hip flask. Buffy watched him take a swig, but grimaced when he offered it to her.

"Eww."

"It's not blood, it's bourbon."

Buffy gave him a pointed look. "Eeeww."

"Suit yourself," he said with a smirk, screwing the cap back on and returning it to the glove compartment.

They lapsed into silence again, which was fine by Buffy. Spike was the last person she wanted to talk to right now. Glancing at her watch, her thoughts drifted to Giles. It was just after six; she wondered if he'd eaten yet. Or how long Xander had stayed with him. She should have been the one staying home to look after him, instead of going off... well, 'half-cocked' was as good a description as she could come up with.

Spike drew her attention again, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he started humming. Buffy scowled. She hated vampires who hummed. The last one had been insane, and had kidnapped her mother on her 18th birthday.

"I wanna be sedated... " he sang suddenly, the harsh words and tune in stark contrast to the tender love song that Giles had sung to her while dancing at The Bronze. Breaking off, Spike shot her an inquisitive look. "Do you like The Ramones?"

She was about to answer negatively when he hushed her, and instead pointed out the front window. Two shadowy figures approached the warehouse door, arms laden with six-packs of beer and bags of snack food. They paused to look behind, either to make sure they weren't being followed or because they expected company, then shrugged and disappeared inside.

Seriously thankful for an end to the evening's stagnation, Buffy climbed out of the car.

It took only a minute for her and Spike to cross the deserted alley to the door. Stake in hand, desperate for action, she kicked it open and burst inside. Startled, the two vamps, who had made themselves comfortable on a sofa that was too far gone even for the city dump, bolted to their feet. By comparison, a spanking new-looking big screen television blared before them; THE PRICE IS RIGHT if she wasn't mistaken.

"Slayer," one growled, clearly pissed at the interruption of their movie night. He put down the DVD rental box he was reading, and growled.

The other, an ugly but not real intelligent-looking brute, grinned at Spike like a child who had just been given a surprise toy. In preparation of what was to come, he shuffled to the end of the couch to collect a bloodstained length of two-by-four with a couple of rusty nails in one end.

Buffy's stomach turned over. If these really were the vampires who had attacked Giles, then the blood on the homemade club was his, and the rusty nails had been the things responsible for all the tiny perforated wounds he had on his arm, as he raised it in a vain attempt to defend himself.

Rage pounded through her veins at the image it brought to her head. These creeps had hurt her man! For money!

Driven by emotion, she blindly charged the nearest one, but he anticipated her move and easily sidestepped to avoid her. This small tactical error on her part put her in clubbing range of the vamp with the two-by-four. Swinging it like a baseball bat, and following through like he was going for a home run, he provided her with a bird's eye view of what it was like to be a fly ball.

Buffy's back hit the crossbar of a scaffold tower across the room, knocking the breath from her. She dropped to the dirty warehouse floor in a dazed, but otherwise uninjured, heap. Desperately trying to drag air into her lungs, she instinctively looked back to the battle incase Slugger had decided to finish the job... and instead saw the first vamp explode in a shower of dust. Spike executed a rather elegant pirouette through the cloud, which ended with him burying his stake in the chest of her surprised-looking assailant.

"Good riddance, you useless bloody pillocks. Now where's your missing friend?" Looking around, Spike spotted her, still where she had fallen, hand on her chest as she regained her breath. She was only winded, but the fact that she hadn't yet climbed to her feet greatly alarmed him. "Buffy!"

Then he was at her side, helping her up. Annoyed, Buffy batted off his hands and climbed, a bit shakily, to her feet on her own.

"Are you all right?" Spike asked, holding her elbow, his concern genuine.

She determinedly pulled her arm free. "What do you care?"

Spike was taken aback. "Of course I bloody care."

Leaving him, Buffy examined the contents of the room for further proof that this was indeed the lair of her husband's attackers... anything to put distance between herself and Spike's unwanted attention. She picked up the DVD rental and frowned; those gnarly vamps had been about to get in touch with their sensitive side with a Drew Barrymore flick. As Spike came up behind her, Buffy deliberately headed to the far side of the room. Next to some heavy burlap robes, on a dusty shelves made of an old, paint-splattered plank, she found conclusive evidence--the Magic Box's bank deposit bag. She unzipped it and looked inside. The cash, of course, was gone, but the rest--the deposit book, credit card slips, and personal checks--remained untouched.

She swiveled around as Spike hit the power button on the new TV, silencing Bob Barker's infamous, 'Come on down'. They caught each other's eye across the small distance that separated them, the empty warehouse echoing in the resulting hush, and reality bursting her denial bubble like a pin stuck in a balloon.

"What is this?" Buffy asked in a defiant tone, the deposit bag clutched to her chest like a green leather shield.

Spike cocked his head at her in question. "What is what?"

"This. The stakeout, you leading me to the guilty perps and playing hero, the flask?" She frowned at him, risking ridicule in the hope that he would prove her--and Dawn--wrong. "Is this a date?"

Much to her relief, Spike looked horrified and insulted. "A da--? Please! A date. You are completely off your bird! I mean... " His expression abruptly changed to one of hopeful anticipation. "Do you want it to be?"

"Oh... my... God, " Buffy said, as everything her sister told her, everything she loathed and despised and wished were an utter lie, became solid, undeniable truth. Spike really was in love with her! She paced away, putting distance between them before she dared face him again. "Are you out of your mind?"

Relieved that there was no longer any need to pretend, Spike slowly sauntered toward her, the distinctly male menace in his gait making her automatically back up. "It's not so unusual, you know. Two people... in the workplace... feelings develop."

"I'm married!" Buffy blurted, holding up her left hand to show as proof. "Happily married. Blissfully married. Feelings do not develop."

"You can't deny it," he said, coming closer. "There's something between us."

Backed to a wall of industrial garbage, Buffy scowled in agreement of at least that point. "Loathing. Disgust."

Spike stopped directly before her. "Heat," he corrected. "Desire."

"What part of 'I'm blissfully married' don't you understand?"

"Something's happening to me," he confessed, his eyes taking a lustful wander down over her body, making her reposition the deposit bag. "I can't stop thinking about you."

"Spike, you're a vampire. You don't know what feelings are."

"I damn well do! I lie awake every night."

"You sleep during the day!"

"Yeah, but... " He sighed in frustration. "You're missing the point. This, what I feel for you, is real. Buffy, I love--"

"Don't!" she interrupted vehemently. "Just don't. There's only one man I ever want to hear that from, and you're not him." She pushed him away with enough force to make him backpedal in order to catch his balance, and headed for the door. "I'm going home. To my husband."

"Oh, come on, you two don't even live together! Just get it on, now and then, for a quick shag... when the old bloke can manage. What kind of husband is that?"

Angered by the taunts despite knowing better, Buffy rounded on him one last time. "What, are you spying on us now?"

Spike started toward her again, hand outstretched. For one hideous moment, Buffy thought he was actually going to try to touch her. Her revulsion must have registered on her face, because he stopped, sighed, then tried another tack. "Buffy, we need to talk about this--"

"No. We don't need to do anything. Okay? There is no 'we.' Understand that, Spike. For your own good."

"Buffy... "

But she left without looking back.

* * * * *

Supported by pillows, sleeping in a half-upright position, Giles stirred groggily as the bed moved, and something warm, soft, and curvy nestled against his good side. Night had fallen and the loft was in darkness, but he smelled the familiar scent of her fruity shampoo, as she snuggled beneath his chin. One arm went tentatively around him, mindful of his injuries.

"Hey, it's just me," Buffy whispered in greeting. "Your disobedient wife, back from her half-cocked revenge kick."

Relieved at her safe return, Giles moved slightly to accommodate her, lifting his arm to encourage her into his embrace. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but the prescription pain medication Xander made him take with his tea had left him drowsy, especially on an empty stomach. He rubbed his hand over his face, trying to wake up. "What time is it?"

"Coming up on seven. Did you eat?"

"No."

Buffy made a disagreeable sound. "I'm a bad, bad wife. I should have been here to take care of you. I should have listened. Are you still mad at me?"

Giles considered the question for a moment. He should be. Too often, Buffy allowed her heart to rule her head. It was an unhealthy trait for a slayer, but an admirable one for any human being. While most ordinary people would only ever dream of taking retaliatory action to their problems, here, in their world, it was almost routine.

"No, I'm not mad anymore," he admitted softly, nuzzling the top of her head with his cheek. He smirked. "I'm bloody used to you disobeying me by now."

"Only 'cause I love ya," she said, nestling closer.

"Did you find anything at the warehouse?"

"Yeah. It's a done deal. The vamps who attacked you are officially dust. You want me to make us some dinner? I do a mean toasted ham and tomato sandwich. It's that little shake of pepper that makes it perfect."

"Mmm," he murmured vaguely, ire briefly flickering to life at the disappointing thought of not being able to deal with those three vampire gits himself.

Giles expected Buffy to move away; what he didn't expect was the pool of harsh brightness that assaulted his night vision as she turned on the bedside light. He blinked, trying to meet her gaze as she faced him.

Unsure, Buffy hiked one knee to the mattress between them. "There's something I need to tell you."

Looking into her beautiful face, he studied her in the lamplight, fortified by the love he found shining in her eyes, meant only for him. Raising a hand, he combed her hair back from her cheek. "What?"

Holding his gaze, she hesitated. Guilt made her glance away, at the same time making Giles guess that sometime during her evening sojourn, she had discovered Spike's secret crush. She wanted to tell him, but she didn't quite know how to broach the topic of another man having feelings for her. What did she think? That he would blame her for Spike's obsession?

Giles knew he should let her off the hook and confess that he already knew, but he didn't want to reveal his trump card just yet. Not while his own plans were still unfulfilled; she would only try to stop him, tit for tat.

"I... um... I brought you a souvenir," Buffy finally said, covering for the awkward moments of silence.

"Oh?"

"The deposit bag from the Magic Box, complete with contents... well, minus the cash."

He nodded. "That's some consolation, I suppose."

"Yeah. Better than nothing. Although, I bet if we go back there before it gets stolen, we could hock the big screen TV they bought for a pretty price."

"That's all my life is worth? A bloody big screen TV?" He frowned. "Are we talking forty-two inches, or sixty?"

"I'd say... fifty." Off his wounded look, she amended, "Fifty-five. But they had a DVD player, too."

Giles grunted, offended despite the absurdity of the comparison, the value of a human life against modern consumer electronics.

Buffy leaned toward him and made things better with a kiss, which, frankly, obliterated all rational thought. She smiled against his mouth when he automatically tried to deepen it, and pulled back. "Don't suppose you'd settle for some quality nookie instead of that toasted sandwich?"

"Normally, that's not even open to debate." He gave her an apologetic smile. "But I'm afraid my doctor gave specific orders about what I can and can't do for the next few months."

Buffy pouted in disappointment, nodding understandingly, then caught on. "Wait, months? Okay, I really hope you're just teasing me now."

Grinning, Giles pulled her to him for another kiss, longer this time, his fingers tangled in her hair. In response, her hand trailed lightly down his chest and over his sweat pants. He let out a fevered groan, his body instantly reacting to her touch.

It took a great deal of willpower to terminate her caress, while he still could. Capturing her hand in his, he broke their kiss. "Now who's teasing?"

"No go, huh?"

"Not because I don't want to," he said in gentle rejection of her proposal. 'Although that's an outright lie,' he thought. Had he really wanted to indulge in her offer, the painkillers already in his system would have helped compensate for a lot of the discomfort, while the passion she aroused in him would have undoubtedly dulled the rest. But tonight, of all nights, Giles didn't want Buffy to stay. He needed to send her home to her mother and sister, so that he could get on with what he had to do . . .

"Yeah, well... truthfully? I didn't expect you to say 'yes'," she admitted. "Color me selfish, but after spending a few hours in Spike's company, I just... " She guiltily chewed her bottom lip, her small hand moving in his as she entwined their fingers. "I just wanted to show you how much I love you. And I do. Love you. Have I mentioned that today already?"

Giles felt a warm resurgence of love for this amazing young woman. "Yes, but I never tire of hearing you say it. I love you, too." His words bought instant relief to her troubled expression. They kissed again, slow and tender, making the moment last.

When it ended, this time by mutual accord, Buffy gave a resigned sigh. "I guess if I can't feed your passion, then I might as well feed your stomach. You want cheese on that, too?"

"Surprise me."

She shot him a sassy smile as she climbed off the bed. "Always."

* * * * *

He thought she'd never leave.

Giles didn't want to tell Buffy to go home, partly because the last thing he wanted was to rouse her suspicions, but mostly because he never intentionally wanted to push her away. So he allowed it to be her decision, in the meantime letting her pamper him as she saw fit. She fluffed his pillows, made him that toasted sandwich and another pot of tea, and served him in bed with a lap tray and a cheerful yellow-orange California Poppy, freshly picked from Mrs. Menendez's garden. Appetites sated--for food at least--they cuddled together in the loft, until she offered to drag his thirteen-inch, black and white portable TV upstairs so they could watch a movie. Giles had feigned contentedness, which was not difficult with the woman he loved catering to his every whim, so all it took was a few well-timed fake yawns for Buffy to take the hint. Reluctant and pouty-faced, she suggested they have an early night, so he could rest.

She left around nine, kissing him goodbye in a way that brought up an unexpected urge to ask her to stay. But the moment she left his bed, the impulse died, replaced by an equally potent desire to exact vicious revenge. He waited a few minutes, in case she made an impromptu return, before heading downstairs to his weapons locker in the corner of the living room. His fractured ribs gave a twang of protest, drawing his hand to them as he knelt to throw open the lid. In his present condition, executing his plan was not going to be easy.

He selected a pistol crossbow for its lighter weight and ease of handling. With perfect aim, the short wooden bolts were as lethal as those of its larger rifle-stock cousin, but killing Spike outright was not his intention. He wanted the vampire to feel pain first, both physical and emotional, while he returned the beating and taught him a lesson; Buffy was unavailable and unattainable.

Buffy was his.

Expression hardening in the dim light of his apartment, Giles added a couple of wooden stakes to his kit, some Holy water, a medieval axe, and a short sword. Heaping everything into a sports bag, he headed to the bathroom.

Since getting in and out of his sweater was more trouble than it was worth, he simply hiked up the hem, and held it in his teeth while he struggled to wrap an elastic bandage around his chest, as tightly as he could stand. While at it, he unraveled the one from around his head, chiefly to make himself look less like a card-carrying member of the walking wounded. The stitches in the back of his scalp stung a little, exposed to the cool night air, but it was nothing compared to what lay in store. Revenge did not come without cost, its price: agony.

Garnering all the medicinal help he could find, he hunted down his bottle of prescription painkillers, in the kitchen, where Xander left them earlier. He swallowed four--twice the recommended dosage--counting on adrenaline to have diluted the sleep-inducing side effects by the time he reached his destination.

After awkwardly throwing on a coat, Giles left his apartment. The thought occurred that he should leave some sort of note detailing his actions, if not his reasons, should things go horribly wrong and he not return. But he just as quickly dismissed the idea, flashing on Buffy's heartbroken face as she found and read it tomorrow. If all went according to plan, come morning he'd be asleep in his bed, waking to her loving touch in the soft February sunshine.

He parked his car outside the main gates of the cemetery where Spike had taken up residence, preferring the discomfort of walking the short distance through the graveyard on foot, lest the noise of his vehicle alert his quarry. He still favored the time-tested element of surprise. The chip in Spike's head prevented any real retaliation, but one lucky punch or kick to his cracked ribs, and Giles knew the tables would very quickly turn. In a way, his injuries served as his 'limiter chip.' If nothing else, it was going to be an interesting encounter . . .

Approaching the dark, silent mausoleum, he took the pistol crossbow from his sports bag, transferring the weight of the remaining weapons into his other hand. The drag this put on his injured side made him pause, but not stop. The pills and the strapping had sufficiently done their job. Over the next few minutes, the dull throb may very well escalate to an excruciating ache, but even that wasn't enough to overshadow the jealousy and rage he felt every time he imagined Spike lusting after Buffy... Spike ogling Buffy... and, the kicker, in some weird alternative universe, Spike making love to Buffy . . .

Rechecking his crossbow, which he would use for an instant kill if needed, Giles reached for the cold, rusted handle on the crypt door.

* * * * *

"Spike actually told you?" Willow asked in revulsion. "He said, 'I love you'?"

Just as creeped out by the idea, Buffy fought a shiver and looked at her mom. Joyce and Willow were sitting with her in the Summers' living room, listening to her recount her woes with her unwanted and icky suitor, with equal parts disbelief and disgust.

"I didn't let him get that far," Buffy said firmly, paraphrasing what she had said at the warehouse. "The only man I wanna hear that from is my husband."

Joyce, sitting on the coffee table before her daughter, looked worried. "Does Rupert know? Honey, did you talk to him about this?"

"I wanted to," Buffy said glumly. "And I came real close to spilling the beans, but... "

"But you weren't sure how he'd react," Willow finished for her.

Buffy sighed. "He knows I love him, it's not that. But ... you remember the other night, at The Bronze?"

"What happened at The Bronze?" Joyce asked.

"Spike was there," Buffy explained miserably. "He and Giles got into this fight. Punches flew. And we kinda got kicked out."

"Oh, dear." At a loss, Joyce stood and began to pace.

"Buffy, I'm really worried about this," Willow admitted.

"So am I," Joyce agreed. "Spike sounds like he's becoming dangerous."

Buffy shook her head. "Not really. As long as it's still chips ahoy in Spike's head, he can't really hurt me, or any of us." She tried to look on the bright side. "Besides, this thing will probably just blow over. I mean, he knows Giles and I are married... that I'm taken." She looked from Willow to her mom and back again, trying to convince herself as well as them. "It's just some weird Spike thing. He'll forget me and have the hots for some Gak demon before we know it."

Willow still thought otherwise. "I don't know. These things can become pretty twisted."

"And Spike," Joyce said worriedly. She returned to sit on the coffee table again, ringing her hands in concern for family and friends. "I mean, he's--"

"Pretty twisted," Buffy agreed dolefully.

"You made it clear, right?" Willow asked. "That you and he could never happen, because you're with Giles? That there's no possible way? Ever?"

"Oh yeah," Buffy said with conviction. She looked at her mom, then doubted herself. "I think so." She shook her head in resignation. "I dunno... I was just so grossed out to know it was all true."

"Then you have to talk to him again."

Buffy stared at her best friend, as if she'd just grown another head. "What?" The idea of going anywhere near Spike made her blood run cold. "No! No, I have to avoid him again."

"Not until you shut him down completely," Willow reasoned. "If he thinks there's even a little chance with you, there's no telling what he'll do. And, while I don't want to be the one to say this, the person he's likely to lash out at is... "

Buffy paled several shades as the implications hit home. "Giles."

Willow nodded solemnly.

"But he can't, right?" Buffy said, turning the facts over in her mind with a growing sense of unease. "I mean, the chip will stop him from doing anything to seriously hurt Giles." She nodded, trying to convince herself that what she'd witnessed at The Bronze was just a one-off occurrence. "The searing pain is a big deterrent. Right?"

"Didn't look too much like a deterrent to me," Willow admitted grudgingly. "More like... an inconvenience. Buffy, Spike hates Giles, because Giles has something he wants--you. It's rage driven by passion. It's dark, and it's dangerous... and, to him, the pain is probably worth it."

"Ohmygod!" Buffy jumped to her feet, the spontaneity of the action catching her mom and friend by surprise. All the facts congealed in her head, conclusive and indisputable. Then a cold lump settled in the pit of her stomach at the idea that she could already be too late. "Spike's gonna try to kill Giles." She started for the door, on autopilot. "I have to go to him. Spike has free reign into his apartment."

Joyce followed her to the door. Trying to be helpful, or at least show support, she lifted Buffy's coat from the rack and handed it to her. "Do you really think Spike will try something so... drastic?"

Buffy donned her coat, flipping her hair out the collar. "Normally, if he did, Giles would beat him to a pulp without even breaking a sweat. But right now Giles is lying in bed, injured and defenseless. Spike knows that if he's going to act, now's his chance."

She hesitated as her mother opened the door for her. Spike could enter Giles' apartment without an invitation, thanks to their 'odd couple' roommate adventures last year. But it wasn't just Giles in danger, because Spike had previously been invited into all their homes, hers included.

Willow approached, having made a quick detour to the weapons chest. With a grim expression, she handed Buffy a wooden stake.

Taking it, Buffy met her friend's gaze. "Will, there's something I need you to do for me while I'm gone."

* * * * *

Metal creaked ominously on rusty hinges, as Giles pushed open the crypt door. He stood on the moonlit threshold for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to his dark surrounds.

Short, fat candles, clustered in dim corners, provided little luminescence, their limited glow lost to the slivers of moonlight filtering in through the grimy half-moon windows. The mostly unfurnished expanse made everything echo and reverberate--footsteps, voices, pain--the bleak concrete burial sarcophagi and dirty floor only adding a sense of foreboding to the cold, unwelcoming place Spike called home. The worn armchair and the silent TV could never hope to achieve an ambiance of even minimal hospitality.

Giles stopped as he passed it, then turned around for a second look. A big screen TV, with a DVD player sitting on the shelf underneath. So much for Buffy's idea of hocking it. Furious at the idea that he had inadvertently paid for these luxuries--with a beating no less--he took the battle ax from his weapons bag and put the blade through the glass front with a single swing. He stepped back, one hand holding his ribs, satisfied with the resulting shower of sparks and shards, and puffs of pungent black smoke.

Shoving his ax back into his sports bag, he took a candle from its perch and did a quick sweep of the crypt interior, just to make sure his adversary wasn't lurking in a darkened corner, waiting to surprise him. But if the destruction of the TV hadn't brought Spike running in protest, nothing would. The crypt was, as Giles had first assumed, empty.

Disappointed and frustrated despite his payback carnage, Giles was about to leave when he spied a raised concrete square sitting on the floor between two of the sarcophagi, which looked conspicuously at odds with its surroundings. Frowning, he dropped to one knee to examine it more closely, dusting the top with his hand. It didn't take long for him to realize it was a trapdoor of some kind, a suspicion confirmed when he pushed it aside to reveal a metal-shored hole and a ladder leading down.

Torchlight flickered up from somewhere below. The catacombs beneath Sunnydale were well known to the demons and vampires who dwelt subterraneously during the day, making up a seemingly endless network of twisting tunnels leading all under the town, and providing the perfect way to move about undetected. This entranceway was not newly constructed for Spike's benefit, but rather something that had been there for a long time, possibly built by the Spanish explorers who had first settled here and christened the area, Boca del Infierno.

Determined to do what he came to do, Giles descended the ladder.

The cavern beneath was cold and damp, strewn with centuries of debris, including large chips of rock that lay where they had fallen. Old coffins dotted the area, many open or smashed, exhibiting the remains of now-forgotten men, still adorned in tatters of the clothes in which they were buried. Tunnels branched left and right, stretching into the inky blackness beyond. A lit torch hung on a nearby wall bracket, providing a modicum of light to the immediate area. Ditching his candle in favor of it, he made his way deeper into the smaller passage to the left, where a faint glow--possibly another torch--beckoned.

He kept one eye on his back, as he followed the roughly hewn tunnel, ducking the protruding roots of topside trees that picked at his hair and clothes. The shadows hugged close, both ahead and behind his meager pool of light. Before long, the passage opened out again, this time into a smaller grotto. As expected, a torch flickered in another bracket on the wall, its lit presence suggesting that someone or something had recently visited. He spotted a recessed nook, which, curiously, made a vain attempt to conceal something of obvious 'importance' beneath a white dustsheet.

Giles crossed to it with a frown, and lifted one corner of the sheet. What he found beneath both shocked and appalled him.

Apart from the blonde wig, the mannequin's plastic features bore little actual resemblance to Buffy, but he recognized the clothes right off--notably the baby blue cashmere sweater he so loved to touch. He gave the sheet a more forceful tug, and it fell away to reveal what he could only describe as 'a shrine.'

He backed away, transfixed. In the glow of his torch, Buffy's face greeted him from dozens upon dozens of pictures--some candid photographs, others hand drawn portraits, but all the work of the fanatically obsessed.

Spike.

The more his eyes skimmed the collage, the more jealousy and rage boiled to the surface within him. There were other items too, personal items; a hoop earring, a lipstick in Buffy's favorite shade, one of the red lace teddies he had given her for her 20th birthday. The latter, especially, indicated that the vampire had raided her bedroom just this past week, while she'd been 'honeymooning' at his apartment.

Hand clenching and unclenching mechanically at his side, Giles made to move away and continue his search, when his foot skidded on some surplus glossies, carelessly strewn on the rock floor. Some were cut into jagged pieces by an enraged hand, while others bore the disfigurement of cigarette burns to the face and groin. Holding his torch over them, he frowned as he tried to make out the marred figure; a man... in broad daylight... emerging from an alley.

It came to him in a jolt that, as much as Buffy's pictures were cherished and revered, these mutilated and discarded ones were all surveillance photos of him.

Giles turned to leave... only to pull up short upon discovering the object of his seething hatred standing rigidly behind him.

"See anything interesting?" Spike asked flatly, the smirk turning the corners of his mouth the only thing adding expression to the cold and murderous look on his face.

Giles leveled his crossbow, his palms sweating, but not from fear. He hated the vampire with a passion unmatched; he was so going to enjoy hurting him. "You sick bastard."

"Takes one to know one... Daddy Dearest." Spike raised a liquor bottle for a quick swig. But it was empty, so he angrily threw the bottle into the shadows, where it smashed on a rock.

"Is that supposed to insult me?"

"It should. For years, she was like your sodding daughter."

Giles smirked in contempt. "Fat-bloody-lot you know."

"I just don't get what she sees in you." Ignoring the crossbow pointed at his chest, Spike distastefully looked him over. "Even with Captain Cardboard around, I always thought I had an outside chance. But you--you take the bloody cake! Bloody Watcher, brainwashing her with all your 'chosen' and 'destiny' crap. And while we're at it, doesn't shagging your Slayer clash with your high-n-mighty Watcher's Creed? That why the Council was here, sniffing about? Rupert get caught with his finger in the pie?"

Enraged, Giles felt the steam coming out his ears. "I ought to kill you. Right here, right now."

Spike laughed, drunk and bitter. "This from the bloke who, just a few hours ago, had trouble taking a tinkle without help."

In a lightning quick move that proved the vampire wrong, Giles swung the butt of his crossbow, viciously hitting Spike in the face and knocking him to the ground. Breathing hard in shallow pants, trying to ignore the burning agony such a move brought to his injured ribs, he stood over his rival, hoping to God he'd get back up so that he could have the perverse pleasure of knocking him down again.

Spike gave a maniacal little laugh, licking the blood from the corner of his mouth, but made no attempt to stand.

"Get up," Giles ordered, barely able to contain the hatred in his voice as he slipped quietly into Ripper Mode.

The vampire fell silent as he glanced up, meeting his gaze in the flicker of torchlight. "I'm in love with her."

It was Giles' turn to laugh, but it was cold, hard, and bitter. "What could you possibly know about love? You're a monster without a soul."

"I know she's all I think about, dream about," Spike confessed quietly. "She's in my gut, my throat, my loins. Every time I close my eyes, I remember the way she smelled and tasted, the way her body felt beneath my hands after the witch's spell went wrong. I'm bloody drowning in her, and it's killing me!"

"No, that's my job," Giles said flatly, his mind painting pictures he didn't want to see. But the alternative was to acknowledge that Spike's 'love' almost mirrored his own; that Buffy had become as necessary to him as the air that he breathed; that she lived in every cell of his body; that he craved for her to touch him and was heaven sent when she did. Not liking the comparison, the thin line between love and infatuation, he took aim with his crossbow again. "I said, on your feet."

Spike sneered resentfully. "She never told you, did she?"

"Told me what?"

"The truth," Spike taunted, slowly climbing back to standing. "Everything that happened between us, thanks to Red's bungled spell."

Giles' eyes narrowed in a hateful glare. It was a topic he and Buffy never talked about; taboo, even though there were no other secrets between them as man and wife. It worried him, in the small hours of the darkest, loneliest nights, that she did indeed have something to hide.

"The fun thing was," Spike said quietly, confirming his worse fears, "you were lying right there on the couch. She knew you could hear us, but she didn't care. The risk of being caught made the thrill more intense. So you may have tricked her into marrying you, you sodding old bastard, but I had her first."

Rage pounding through him, Giles' index finger curled tighter around the trigger of his crossbow. He didn't know if Spike's words were true or not, since, by the same bungled spell, he had been blind and in his own world of turmoil and trouble. He remembered hearing them kissing, which was bad enough, but was that all they were doing? Or was this just more lies and treachery to goad his temper?

"You cold-blooded, manipulative little prick," Giles spat. "You have no idea how much thrashing you is going to improve my mood."

"And I'll have her again," Spike concluded with fanatical conviction. "Just as soon as I get rid of you."

Arm lashing out in anger, Giles roughly poked the end of the crossbow in the vampire's chest, hard enough to leave an indentation. "Don't push me, Spike. Because I don't have a chip in my head, and I will kill you."

Spike grinned malevolently, finding the threat of his imminent demise insanely amusing. "Oh, right. The bloody chip. Well, let me tell you something, Rupert buddy... I know you don't have a chip in your head."

Holding his gaze but deferring to reason, Spike stepped aside, and from the shadows of the darkened grotto behind him, Giles watched a very large, very pissed off vampire in full game face emerge into the torchlight. Noting the familiar length of two-by-four that it slapped into one hand, he swallow nervously.

"And neither does he."

* * * * *

"Sweetie?" Buffy called softly as she entered the loft. She hadn't turned the light on, for the same reason she kept her tone to a whisper. Giles needed rest, and if he were asleep, she didn't want to wake him up unnecessarily to ask him if he was okay. Instead, she crossed to the other side of the bed to pull the curtains.

Turning, expecting to see him sleeping soundly in the moonlight, Buffy faltered at the sight of ruffled sheets on an empty bed. In the following millisecond, her heart leapt to her throat and threatened to strangle her. She took the stairs back down to the living room two at a time, pausing at the end of the hall to call down to the bathroom, just in case she had missed him. But her mind kept telling her, as she waited for an answer in the empty echo, that he would have turned on at least one light.

When there was no answer, worse case scenarios began manifesting in her mind. Had Spike kidnapped Giles? That sounded too bizarre, even for her bizzaro life. Besides, what she said to Willow and her mom was true; Spike couldn't actually hurt Giles by himself . . .

'By himself.'

The phrase stuck in her mind, a merciless loop that chilled her with each passing. Spike's limiter chip may have prevented him from hurting Giles, but it didn't stop him from hiring someone--something--else to do the dirty work for him. She began to pace, trying to think straight--trying to think like a slayer--but the fear that swamped her kept getting in the way. She was still trying to decide her next course of action when she spotted the open lid of his weapons trunk. She stopped to examine it, and noted several missing items.

And that's when the bottom dropped out of her world. He knew. Giles knew that Spike was in love with her!

"Oh, God," Buffy murmured to herself. Fear drove her into action. She headed for the door at a run, with just one thought in mind--the hell with worrying about what Spike might do, Giles was going to get himself killed.

* * * * *

Giles recognized Spike's lackey as one of the trio of hired half-wits who left him for dead in the alley. But Buffy said she had dusted his attackers. How then... ?

Alarm and confusion momentarily gripped him. Thrashing Spike was one thing, but taking on a healthy, hungry, linebacker-sized vampire in his injured state was--if nothing else--going to hurt. Crossbow shifting to the new threat, Giles instinctively backed up a few steps.

"What's the matter, Watcher?" Spike sneered, sitting on a jutting rock to enjoy the show. "Cat got your tongue?"

Giles flashed on the vampire meowing at him, right before it clobbered him senseless. He blinked back to the present as the hired muscle launched itself at him from across the grotto, easily leaping the fifteen or so feet in a single bound. He fired his crossbow mechanically--an impulse precipitated by the fear of impending pain--but a moving target was harder to hit with any accuracy. As such, his bolt merely winged the vampire in the arm, but was hardly enough to faze it.

There wasn't time to load another bolt. Following instinct, Giles ducked and weaved as the vampire lashed out at him with the length of bloodied wood, attempting to play tee-ball with his head. He ignored the sharp stabs in his chest, and fumbled in his weapons bag for something with which to defend himself. But he couldn't breathe right, his vision swum, and in short order his legs collapsed beneath him as his body folded defensively. On his knees, Giles' hands found purchase on the short sword and the battle ax inside his bag. Swiveling, he rallied the strength to raise both weapons--blades crossed--just as the vampire tried to split his skull like a melon.

The impact sent a resounding jolt through his already damaged ribcage, forcing a grunt from him. Sweat beading his forehead, Giles bit down hard, steeling himself to ignore the pain. If he took the easy way out and surrendered to the torture in his chest, it would all be over in seconds... although part of him had to wonder if prolonging the agony would really do any good, or prove anything to anyone. This vampire was going to kill him, and Spike--damn him--was going to sit by and let him.

Spike, who would win.

Spike, who would have a clear shot at Buffy.

The thought of them together summoned forth something fierce and primal from deep within. Directing all his pain into it, Giles pushed back against the vampire's brute strength with a furious roar, forcing it to back off. The sharp, polished blades of his medieval weapons took a good nick out of his attacker's crude bat, making him hold tight the hilt of both his sword and ax as the vampire withdrew.

On the rock, Spike calmly lit a cigarette while awaiting the next round. Bloodshed was imminent, but Giles preferred if it not be his. His attacker took a moment to grin at him in grim amusement, then casually looked over at Spike as together they gloated over the consequences of the alley encounter.

This inadvertently gave Giles a much-needed moment to recover. Blinking the sweat from his eyes and shaking his head to try to clear it, he endeavored to close off the pain, shut it out. Unsteady, he climbed to his feet. He was alarmed to discover that he couldn't straighten up properly, but rather listed to the right, favoring his injured side. As he tried to catch his breath in short gasps, Giles realized that the burning numbness down his right side meant he no longer had the dexterity to hold on to, let alone use, one of his weapons. Making a choice, he reluctantly surrendered the sword and transferred the ax into his other hand, while his free arm curled protectively against his injured ribs.

"You hungry?" the big vamp asked Spike.

Blowing a lungful of cigarette smoke into the air, Spike shook his head and motioned a hand at Giles. "Buffet's all yours, mate. The little woman wouldn't like it if I came home smelling like my last meal. Bon appet--"

Spike's sentence was cut short, as Giles abruptly came back fighting.

"Bloody hell," he said in quiet surprise.

Drawing on all the rage and adrenaline he had, Giles attacked the vampire with his ax, forcing it to retreat. Unfortunately, although surprised by the offensive move, the vampire parried his one-handed swings with its homemade club better than Giles anticipated, the harsh contact of his blade against the wood sending thuds of pain through every part of him. With a bellow of everything he had left, he used both hands to draw the ax back for his killing blow... which was when the vamp chose to counterattack with a short, sharp jab with the squared-off end of its club.

It aimed for his one weakness, and connected with his exposed chest with a sickening crack. Crying out, Giles went down hard and fast, the pain piercing and completely incapacitating, the hand he clutched to the point of impact finding the protrusion of at least one broken rib.

In light of this new agony, the emotions that had sustained him throughout the ordeal were quickly wearing thin, giving way to a world of suffering raking his entire body. Looking up from his defeated position, curled on his side, he watched the vampire's face slowly drift into his field of vision; a maniacal mask of crooked teeth arranged in a merciless smile.

Helpless, Giles watched it raise its bat to bludgeon him to death, and sent a final silent pledge to the woman he loved... which was when she miraculously appeared beside the vampire in time to intercept the downward arc of its club.

"You big bully. Go pick on someone your own size," Buffy told the towering brute, who had a good twelve inches and two-hundred pounds on her. "Better yet, why don't you pick on me?"

With a furious roar, it ripped the bat from her grip and swung at her head.

Ready for the attack, Buffy did a backflip-handspring, and settled into a fighting stance several yards away, fists raised. Livid, the vampire growled and lunged. Giles struggled to follow the fight, desperate to watch as they squared off. Buffy got past its shoddy defense, just like he had taught her, to land several expert punches and kicks to its brute ugly face and torso. When the vampire finally got it together enough to swing at her again, she weaved right, which caused the club to wallop the rock floor instead. Already structurally weakened by Giles' ax, it splintered into matchwood. Seeing her chance, Buffy used a running jump, planted both feet in its chest, and kicked her opponent halfway across the torch lit grotto.

The vampire hit the cave wall, and was buried beneath a heap of falling rock and debris. It did not get back up. Giles would have preferred if she had followed through and staked the thing while it was down--either winded or unconscious--but her concern for him had overshadowed her battle sense. Buffy was on her knees at his side, gently pulling his head onto her lap before he found the breath to tell her to go finish the job.

They met each other's eyes. No words passed between them, as Buffy brushed the sweat-slicked hair and grime from his forehead; no words were needed. They spoke it all in a single look.

The threat loomed large behind her shoulders, without warning, without sound. Still short of breath, Giles forcefully gripped Buffy's forearm, ready to yank her out of harm's way--the sword drawn back over the shoulder of their recouped vampire foe. Her expression changed to confusion as alarm registered on his face, but before she could react, Giles jerked her down on top of him, to safety.

Missing with its horizontal swing, which would have decapitated Buffy, the vampire swung again, this time with a downward stroke. Seeing it coming, Giles rolled onto his side despite the agony the movement caused him, taking Buffy with him, until she slid off his chest and they ended up nose to nose. The sword blade struck the rocks where they had just lain, with a clangor that echoed throughout the grotto... and just as suddenly, it was all over. One moment, the threat had been a vampire with a sword, hell bent on killing them both, and then next it was simply an ownerless sword clattering to the ground through a cloud of dust.

Fanning his way through the cloud came Spike, playing the hero, looking for compensation. Together, they looked at the vampire; Giles with a glare. He wished he had the breath--and the courage--tell Buffy the truth about her lovesick admirer.

Ignoring him, Spike fixed Buffy with a hopeful look. Tossing aside the leftover splinter from the homemade bat, he gallantly offered his hand to help her to her feet. Lying on the rough rock floor on his side, Giles turned his gaze back to his wife, suddenly unsure of her reaction, given the secrets earlier spilled between him and Spike. The decision--the choice--was hers.

He watched with dread as she looked at the outstretched hand, and then felt heartfelt relief as her expression slowly turn to a scowl of disgust.

Knowing rejection when he saw it, Spike dropped his hand and bowed his head.

When Buffy turned her angry gaze back to him, Giles held his breath. Then, taking his face in her hands, she made her choice and kissed his lips, claiming him in front of the forlorn vampire.

Giles closed his eyes, surrendering to the heavenly moment, and when he opened them again at the end of their kiss, Spike had retreated in defeat. Buffy remained in his haphazard embrace, gazing into his soul for several long, heartfelt moments, until the hardness of the rocks beneath them became an issue for his battered form. He grimaced as she left his arms, sitting up, and then turning to help him do the same. An agonized groan escaped him as he went vertical, his arm tucked protectively into his side.

"You okay?" she finally said, still supporting him.

"Been better, actually," Giles admitted jadedly.

Buffy's eyes roamed the grotto, widening a little as she spied Spike taking sanctuary amidst the only place he could ever hope to possess her--his shrine. Poor bastard; Giles almost pitied him.

"Let's go home," Buffy said quietly. "We're done here."

* * * * *

Buffy knew that each step was hell for Giles, so she took as much of his weight as possible on the slow walk to Revello Drive, thankful for her Slayer strength to be able to support him. She chose her mother's house, despite his protest that he was 'fine', since it was closer than his apartment, and she knew, just by the way he couldn't stand up straight, that he desperately needed rest and attention. Of course, she had suggested they take his car, which was still parked at the outskirts of the cemetery, but no way, even in his present condition, was Giles allowing her to drive. She pouted, and told him--only half-heartedly--that that's what he got for not giving in and teaching her.

The usually short walk home felt like a marathon. Giles never said a word, neither in pain nor frustration nor apology for his 'going off half-cocked' and almost getting himself killed. She was mad as hell at him for doing something so undeniably stupid. But she was also concerned, and for the moment, getting him home took priority over some pointless argument. Sure, all married couples fought, that was simply part of married life, although usually it was over something important like money, not over the insanity of almost getting killed because of some dumb male testosterone. What did she have to do, damn it, to prove she was his?

They had just reached the path leading to the front door of her mother's house, when she heard Spike urgently calling her name, as he came running along the sidewalk behind them. God, what now? Didn't he ever learn?

"Buffy! Come on, now. Stop! You can't just walk away from this."

"Already have," she returned determinedly, still concentrating on helping her husband up the walk. She felt Giles hesitate, but used her superior strength to force him to continue. No way was she letting him and Spike get into it out here on her front lawn. Or maybe that was the answer--put them in a ring together until they beat each other senseless. Men!

The front door opened. Joyce and Willow appeared in the doorway, both initially shocked by Giles' condition. He was still stooping, although trying hard not to show the agony wracking his body with each painful step. Much to Buffy's relief, both women rushed forward to take over her job and help Giles into the house.

"So we had a fight," Spike admitted, stopping as the threesome disappeared inside. He slapped his arms at his side, the sound like bat's wings against his 'cool' leather coat. "It's not our first, love, and it doesn't change anything."

With Giles in good hands, Buffy angrily rounded on Spike, ready to explode. "It changes everything, Spike! I want you out. I want you out of this town; I want you off this planet! You don't come near me, my friends, or my family again. Understand?"

"But--"

"And if I ever find out you had something to do with what happened to Giles in the alley, I swear, I'll kill you."

After that simple declaration of fact, she turned on her heel and stomped away, her mind already turning to her injured husband. But Spike still wasn't taking 'no' for an answer. He doggedly followed as she marched up the porch steps.

"You know it's not that easy," Spike insisted. "We have something, Buffy. It's not pretty, but it's real... and there's nothing either one of us can do about it."

Buffy walked into her mother's house. A quick glance to her left confirmed that she and Willow had settled Giles on the couch, and were presently fussing to see exactly how comfortable they could make him. Bet he just loved that . . .

"Like it or not, I'm in your life," Spike said, coming up the steps as she turned on the other side of the threshold. "You can't just shut me out."

But instead of walking into the house, as he clearly expected to do, the vampire was stopped dead in his tracks, repelled by an invisible barrier.

He recoiled with a surprised look, and met her gaze in a silent question. Grimfaced, Buffy watched his expression change to one of slow realization. He couldn't believe what had happened, that she'd really asked Willow to revoke his invitation with a spell, even though he'd just walked into the evidence of it. She had, indeed, 'shut him out.'

Holding his hurt gaze, Buffy took a step back, and wordlessly closed the door in his face.

* * * * *

Giles hated the immobility that came with a broken rib, and he hated being laid up in his apartment with nothing to do but read. Still, since Glory was on the rampage--somewhere--he tried to make good use of the time and expand his knowledge on the Hellgod and her motives, but instead he inadvertently became a clock-watcher, longing for Buffy's daily visits to break the tedium. Every afternoon, like clockwork, he heard the front door open and the sound of his name on her sweet lips, definitely the high points of his otherwise fruitless days.

She pampered him silly, almost to the point of exasperation, insisting it was simply the 'in sickness and in health' clause put into action. He wisely shut his mouth and let her have her way, not wishing to remind her that they'd both recently broken the 'to honor and obey' part. Each evening, after dinner--which if he were being totally honest, Giles was relieved that Buffy had seen the wisdom in not trying to cook herself, but rather brought takeout or something prepared by her mother--Buffy would cuddle with him, as they shared small talk or a movie well into the night. She always left him to sleep alone, which he grudgingly knew was for his own good.

Never did they talk about Spike, or the reason Giles had gone to the grotto that night.

Anya took over running the shop, proving herself quite capable of all aspects of the job. She could have quite a career in retail, if she so chose. Willow and Tara helped out after school, or whenever they could. Xander, who had retrieved the Beemer from the cemetery, volunteered to do the daily banking via car, and then went home each night to enjoy the perks of his girlfriend's over-enthusiasm for the American dollar.

By day ten, Giles was feeling well enough to make a decision. Tomorrow, he would make an appearance at the Magic Box, and start getting his life back on track. His ribs still hurt like blazes, but with the help of his medication he was getting around, able to do things for himself that just a week ago had been impossible. Or perhaps he had simply learned to move in a manner conducive to the pain? Regardless, his mind was made up... because the stagnation was driving him insane.

He told Buffy of his decision that evening, while they relaxed in each other's arms, propped up in bed watching the 1939 version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

"I guess that means you're feeling way better then, huh?" Buffy asked, scooping one of the last spoonfuls of Mint-Chocolate-Chip ice cream out of the bottom of the container. She held it up for him, watching as he took the drippy spoon into his mouth.

"Well enough," he responded around the half-melted confection. "I'll go bloody bonkers if I'm forced to spend too much more time as an invalid."

Buffy giggled, scraping the bottom of the container as she dredged up the final scoop.

"Not to mention, putting on ten pounds," Giles said, watching her lips close around ice cream spoon with suddenly wanton desire.

"Then we'll just have to put you back on a training schedule, with a little more exercise for around your middle," she agreed lightly. Pouting at the empty ice cream container, she placed it aside.

Giles hands skimmed lightly down over her arms. "Actually, there's one 'exercise' I'm looking forward to participating in again."

Head resting on his shoulder, Buffy grinned up at him with a coy smile. "Oh?" she asked innocently, although the look in her eye told him she knew exactly what he was talking about. Because of his injuries, intimacy over the past week or so had been reduced to cuddling and kissing.

"Mmm," Giles agreed, lowering his head to capture her lips with his.

Tonight, for the first time since being attacked in the alley, Giles felt well enough to ask her to stay, but to his disappointment, Buffy broke their kiss before he had even begun to pose the question.

"Do you have any idea," she asked, holding his questioning gaze with a devil-may-care smile, "how long I've been waiting for you to give me the green light?"

Guessing her intentions and welcoming them, Giles smiled. "Rough estimate... ten days?"

Hands resting on his shoulders, she climbed over his legs, shaking her head. "Uh-uh. Eleven. I wanted to do this after you came home from the hospital, remember?"

"Do what?" he asked, enjoying the game, his hands automatically finding purchase on the backs of her thighs, spread so delectably across his own.

Buffy lifted his glasses from the bridge of his nose and placed them on his nightstand.

"You do realize, of course," he began in all seriousness, "that although I want to, I might not be able--"

She silenced him with a teasing kiss that left him hungry for more. "You don't have to do anything," she told him quietly. "Except enjoy." With that, she began an unhurried, slithering descent down over his pillow-propped body, disappearing under the bedcovers with a playful flourish.

In the flickering light of the old black and white movie, Giles grinned in wicked delight. Not quite what he had in mind, but he wasn't about to stop her, either. Of course, it meant that he would have to change his strategy for later . . .

He gasped at his wife's knowledgeable touch, then giggled uncontrollably. "Lord, your mouth is cold!"

He didn't understand her muffled reply beyond that it was something about ice cream, nor was he too intent on trying to figure it out. Bliss was the only thing on his mind as she started to gently, selflessly, pleasure him. It felt so good; the erotic stimulation of heat smothered within cold, her talented hands, her amazing tongue. Moaning, he captured her bobbing head, still hidden from view beneath the bedcovers, holding her to him in eager encouragement.

Remembering what she told him, Giles' gaze flew to the ceiling, as he gave himself over to guilt-free enjoyment. If his ribs were protesting, he certainly didn't notice; all coherent thought had now left the building. His mouth fell open and his head lolled on his pillow... and he suddenly found himself facing the loft's single window.

Something moved in the night shadows beyond the pane of glass, making his eyes narrow with suspicion. He continued to grunt and groan under Buffy's enthusiasm, but part of his attention had been diverted to the stirring outside the window. Just when Giles decided that it was only his imagination, Spike moved into the moonlight, deliberately revealing his presence.

The two men exchanged silent glares of deep, seething hatred.

Giles knew he should have been livid to learn his rival was also a voyeur, but instead he somehow felt... triumphant. After all, he had what Spike wanted, what they were both willing to kill for, and right now he had it in the palms of his hands. They were still resting lightly on either side of Buffy's head, as she continued her steady rhythm of passion beneath the bedcovers. So instead of being angry at Spike's intrusion into their private life, Giles chose to be arrogant and flaunt his prize.

Let the bastard watch; let him see exactly what he'd never have . . .

As Buffy picked up the pace for the grand finale, Giles rested his head back against his pillow, and sent Spike a slow, victorious Ripper-smile.

Slipping into his vampire visage, Spike returned it with a snarl of barely contained jealous rage. Flipping him the finger, the vampire withdrew into the shadows.

* * * * *

Spike dropped to the ground beneath the apartment's second story window, just as his vampire hearing picked up the dim cries of the other man's ecstasy. He scowled over his shoulder at the window above, then took a final drag on his cigarette before tossing it to the ground. The butt joined a dozen others, crushed out behind an inconspicuous garden bush. He shook his head, slipping back into his human face, but the fury remained inside, the lust, the passion--the vengeance--unfulfilled. There were still scores to settle, trophies to be claimed.

Bloody Watcher thought he'd won.

A yappy little dog barked, and the porch light came on in Mrs. Menendez's neighboring apartment. Adjusting his crotch, Spike moved off into the night.

Bloody Watcher thought wrong.

Read the next chapter: Picture Of You