The Unbreakable Series
Part 7 - In This Life

written by Koala





Buffy opened the front door to her mother's house, waving to Giles as he tooted the horn and pulled away from the curb. She entered jiggling her keys, with her grass-stained coat slung over her arm and her mood improving. Somehow, just being around the man she loved made life seem a little bit brighter. Unfortunately, he had declined her invitation to come inside, saying that he really should return to the Magic Box, if only to spell Anya for a very late lunch break. And it was late--dealing with April the robot had taken more time than Buffy anticipated. Still, Giles promised he would call her later, after Willow and Xander had delivered the deactivated robot to the shop's basement, and hopefully they could arrange to get together for dinner. If she was lucky, she could stretch that into the evening as well.

"Hey, Mom," Buffy called, the greeting automatic. She put her keys on the side table by the door, her attention drawn to a brand new issue of BRIDES magazine, waiting in a stack with the day's mail. She picked it up, flicking through the glossy pages of bridal gowns and fancy receptions, a slow smile creeping across her face.

Buffy's bleak mood brightened even more. She and Giles hadn't talked much on the ride over from the playground--there wasn't a whole lot left to be said on the subject of them not ever having kids that hadn't already been said. Since she had now accepted the fact, she decided the best way to deal with it was to concentrate on living her life with Giles to the fullest. And what better way to start than to marry him again. Of course, with all that had gone on in the past few days, she hadn't had a chance to broach her mom's wonderful idea of a big church wedding and fancy reception to him yet. Maybe she should just take a few of these magazines over to his place and leave them not-so-discreetly lying around...

Her mom still hadn't appeared to greet her, so Buffy moved a few steps into the foyer to call up the steps, absently hanging her coat over the stair rail as she did. "Hey! Wedding-planner lady! Want me to pick Dawn up from school?"

Still no answer. Frowning, Buffy looked down the hall toward the kitchen. Her mother must really be involved with something...

"Mom?"

She turned and glanced into the living room, finally spotting Joyce lying on the couch. A yellow legal pad sat on the coffee table before her, three-quarters of the page covered with handwritten notes. Easy to see what her mom had spent the day doing; making more wedding plans.

Buffy smiled warmly. Given her mom's attention to detail, it was really shaping up to be a grand, fairytale do, complete with her very own Prince Charming. Lost in happy thoughts of wedding day bliss, Buffy idly wondered what it would take to convince Giles to wear a white suit...

"Whatcha doing?" Buffy teased, moving into the room to join her mother.

She stopped, cold. The shock hit like a sledgehammer had slammed into her chest; like the hand of God had just squeezed all the air out of her lungs, paralyzing her. Joyce lay on the sofa, with one arm dangling loosely over the edge, the pen she had been using to make her notes now on the floor, where it had slipped from her inert fingers.

"Mom?" Buffy's voice trembled as comprehension began to take hold; as she realized her mother was staring at the ceiling with sightless eyes. "Mom?"

But her mother didn't answer, couldn't answer, because her mother was...

Tears flooded into Buffy's eyes; a timid and fearful note crept into her voice. "Mommy?"

Dead.

* * * * *

Giles arrived back at the Magic Box roughly the same time as Xander and Willow. He told Anya to put the 'back in 15 minutes' sign on the front door and lock it, and then went through the training room to the door at its rear, to help his young friends bring their awkward robotic package in from the alley. Together, the three of them managed to maneuver the 'dead' robot inside and through to the store, pausing at the tarot reading table to catch their breath. Although made mostly of plastic and light-weight alloys, while deactivated, the robot was a human-sized dead weight and as awkward as to manhandle.

"So... this is Carlton's wife," Anya said, joining them. She looked over the smiling robot doppelganger of Angie Fisk, unimpressed by the truly lifelike achievement of its synthetic construction.

"No," Giles corrected patiently, as Willow began tinkering with the access panel in the thing's midriff, "this is the robot that his estranged son, Warren, built in his wife's image."

"On account that she was Warren's girlfriend first," Anya continued, getting the facts straight.

"Well... yes."

"The girlfriend Carlton stole from him." She frowned. "Sounds like a classic case. Pity I'm not still in the vengeance business, I could have made his penis fall off."

"Thank heavens for small mercies."

"Okay, I've disconnected the jumper to her C-MOS," Willow said, as if she honestly expected them all to know what the blazes she was talking about. Straightening with a triumphant grin, she showed them her palm, but none of them were overly impressed with the tiny square piece of plastic half the size of a fingernail--the mysterious 'jumper'.

"I think you'd better give us the idiot version, Will," Xander said on behalf of all.

"Oh, well, see... even if the robot does somehow manage to recharge her batteries, which you said she'd been doing," Willow said, handing the jumper to Giles. "This breaks the circuit to her ROM BIOS, so she won't be able to boot up--reactivate--regardless of the state of her power cells."

"So she's--its--effectively dead?" Giles asked, examining the tiny component in his hand. It was amazing how something so tiny could be so significant.

"Correctamundo. Although you need to say 'deactivated' if you want to impress someone with your technical know-how."

Giles glanced at the automaton's happily smiling death mask. "Well done, Willow."

"So... what are we gonna do with her now?" Xander asked, his suggestive tone and scrutiny earning him a punch in the arm from his lingering girlfriend. "Ow! What?"

Giles frowned, rubbing his chin. "I hadn't really given much thought beyond the 'storing it in the basement' part."

"Pity there's no retail demographic for sexbots," Xander mused, plucking the tiny jumper from Giles' palm to examine it. "We could've made a bundle. Hey, you could start a new side line!"

Anya hit him again.

"I think not," Giles said sternly, retrieving the all-important jumper and pocketing it for safekeeping.

A tap on the glass window at the front of the store had the entire group rounding in that direction. Through the partly drawn Venetian blinds, a familiar face tried to peer into the closed shop. It was Carlton Fisk, and he looked... anxious.

"Anya," Giles said, moving off in that direction, "please help Willow and Xander find a spot for the robot in the basement. And then you might want to take Xander out for a late lunch."

"Well, gee, Boss, thanks," she returned, her sarcasm for the lateness of the afternoon hour. It was well past lunch; it was almost time to pick up Dawn from school. "But I'd rather you tell Xander to take me out for lunch," she said, as the three of them began to manhandle the heavy, cumbersome robot toward the basement stairs. "So he can use his money, not mine. Xander, do not put your hands there if you want to keep all your fingers!"

"She's just plastic, An," Xander complained. He stepped down onto the first stair, his hands cupped to the robot's chest as he took the thing's weight, while the girls jostled into position to help. "You show me a better handhold and I'll be happy to comply."

Closing the basement door on them, Giles turned and completed his journey to the shop's front door. He threw back the bolt and opened it for his friend, the familiar tinkling sound of the bell filling in a few seconds of silence that immediately settled between the two men.

"Carl," Giles greeted him, feeling slightly anxious as his gaze swept over the child dozing on his friend's shoulder. "Is everything... all right?"

Carlton nodded slowly, rubbing his son's back in an idle gesture of paternal comfort. "Yeah, we just came from the hospital. The doc said Ryan's fine. It's just that . . ." he began awkwardly. "I mean, I... you... at the playground... God, Rupert, if you hadn't been there... "

"It's all right, Carl," Giles said understandingly. And he did. Carlton had just crossed the invisible line; he'd stepped out from behind his mundane life as uninformed Hellmouth resident and survived his first serious encounter with the darker side of Sunnydale. Unfortunately, when faced with the dilemma, specifically the life or death of his son, Carlton froze. Giles had been the one to keep the cool head and administered CPR to save young Ryan's life. He looked at the boy, mustering up a smile as sleepy eyes opened to stare at him.

"I still don't understand any of what happened," Carlton admitted quietly, his voice pitched low so as not to alarm his son with his own misgivings. "I mean... Warren building the robot for revenge--I can understand that. But Buffy... you told me to let her fight that thing. Alone. And she did!" He shook his head, amazed and perplexed. "Do you have any idea how strong that robot was? How strong she was? I've got the bruise on my arm to prove it."

"Adrenaline," Giles said, although the excuse sounded lame, even to him. "Buffy was pretty shaken up by what happened to Ryan."

"Join the club!" Carlton shook his head. "Look, I'm not sure I want to know, but right now you could tell me all this magic mumbo-jumbo is real and that Buffy is some kind of superhero, and I'd not only believe you, I'd be grateful." He reached out his free hand and clapped Giles on the arm. "Grateful to call you both my friends. Thank you."

Giles nodded again, unwilling to elaborate, but humbled by the compliment nonetheless.

"Tell story," Ryan said hopefully, pointing at Giles. He grinned mischievously. "Wif monsters."

Both men shared a smile at the boy's unfailing ability to try to con a tale.

"Not now, Ryan. We have to go home to Mommy, and your little sister."

Ryan pouted with the normal displeasure of a disappointed three-year-old, clearly no worse for wear from this near-death encounter.

"Next time, I promise," Giles said, reaching out to ruffle the boy's tawny hair with genuine affection. Suddenly remembering something, he reached into the pocket of his suit coat. "Meantime... " He offered the well-loved toy car to Ryan; the same toy car the child had dropped when the robot almost strangled him, and which Buffy found in the playground later.

Taking it, Ryan turned to his father in utter delight. It was clearly one of his favorite toys, thought lost forever.

"Don't thank me, thank your Uncle Rupert," Carlton told him.

Giles' heart thudded in his chest upon hearing that he had attained 'uncle' status. A few years ago, such a title would have meant very little to him, but now, in the light of Buffy's acceptance of the fact that they were to remain childless by reluctant choice, it was truly an honor. Ryan was the son he and Buffy would never have.

"Fank you, Uncle Rupert," the boy intoned shyly.

"You're quite welcome, Ryan."

The basement door opened, allowing Willow, Xander and Anya access back into the shop.

"Okay, everything's shipshape," Xander announced as the trio joined Giles and Carlton.

"Or in this case... 'shopshape,'" Willow added with a smile. "No more rampaging robot."

"Very good," Giles acknowledged.

"Sander!" Ryan exclaimed happily, pointing at Xander with his toy car.

"Hey squirt." Xander grinned, please to see the boy was back to his old rambunctious self. To Giles, he said, "So, if there's nothing else on the afternoon agenda, Anya and I are gonna go eat." He made a move to slip his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders, but winced instead, rolling his shoulder.

"Honey, are you all right?" Anya asked in concern.

Giles raised a thoughtful eyebrow at the question, the same question he had asked upon discovering Xander had been tossed through the front window of the Fisk house by the April the robot. His young friend was lucky only to have a few bruises and minor body aches from the incident. The best he could hope was for Anya to pamper him silly... which Xander would no doubt consider a worthwhile consequence of being thrown through a plate glass window.

Since the Magic Box looked set for a slow afternoon, Giles made a suggestion. "Anya, why don't you have the rest of the afternoon off, and take Xander home."

"With pay?"

"With pay."

Xander grinned again, clearly thinking along the same lines as Giles. "Nothing like the G-Man offering to pay for an afternoon of 'naughty nurse' to make me feel better."

Giles rolled his eyes as the pair shuffled out onto the sidewalk, Xander clearly playing up his 'injuries' for attention's sake.

"I need to get back to school, too," Willow said, glancing at her watch. "I promised to meet Tara for lunch over an hour ago." She smiled a shy farewell at Carlton as she slipped between them and out the door. "Bye."

"Um... would you like to come in? Cup of tea, perhaps?" Giles asked out of politeness, although he suspected Carlton, too, had other plans.

Sure enough, Carlton shook his head. "Angie will be waiting for us." Before he turned to leave, he offered his hand for a handshake. "Thanks, Rupert. I owe you, buddy."

"No... you don't," Giles assured him, gripping the offered hand. With a final nod, Carlton slipped out into the mid-afternoon sunshine.

The bell tinkled loudly as Giles closed the door. Sparing a thought for everything that had happened that day, Giles found himself gazing down the length of the completely deserted store. He smiled shrewdly, thinking that for once he might actually get some work done. There was still some much-needed research to be done on Glory and these 'Knights of Byzantium' chaps, not to mention unraveling the reason behind the nightmare he had shared with Buffy some months ago. Prophetic dreams were the Slayer's specialty, not the Watcher's, and yet he had no other explanation as to why they would have dreamed the same thing at the same time.

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

Determinedly shutting out those nightmarish images of blood and death, he decided that tea was most definitely the first order of business. Heading for the break area behind the tarot reading table, he put the kettle on, only belatedly remembering he had forgotten to take down the 'back in 15 minutes' sign from the front door. Laying out his cup and saucer, Giles decided to leave it there for another few minutes, while he popped next door to the Espresso Pump for a couple of their fresh-made jelly doughnuts. Anya wasn't the only one to have missed lunch, and what with the early start he and Buffy had gotten that morning, it had been a good eight hours since breakfast.

Deciding he'd be back before the kettle boiled, thoughts of deep-fried-strawberry-filled heaven already making his mouth water and his empty stomach growl, Giles crossed to the cash register for a couple of dollar bills. He'd only just closed the money drawer, sparing a wicked grin for Anya's inevitable protestation of his raid, when the telephone interrupted his sweet-tooth daydreams. Sidestepping to the wall by the counter to answer it, he lifted the receiver after the second ring.

"Hello?" In the following seconds of silence, it occurred to him that that was not how the proprietor of a business should answer the telephone to a prospective customer, and berated himself for being more preoccupied with his stomach than with public relations. The lengthy pause made him decide to re-addressed the caller with a more formal, 'Magic Box, your one stop spot to shop for all your occult needs' greeting. He opened his mouth to speak, but was abruptly cut short by the familiar sound of his wife's voice.

"Giles," Buffy said, her soft, haunted monotone instantly causing the hair on the nap of his neck to stand on end, and all thoughts of food dissipate. "You have to come."

"Buffy?" he asked, packing a dozen questions into that single inquiry.

"She's at the house."

"Who is? What's happened? Buffy!" But he was talking to dead air; she had already hung up.

Panic flooded every cell and nerve ending in him, head to toe, as worst case scenarios tumbled through his head at breakneck speed, running slipshod over each other as each one vied for dominance. And at the top of his list of Calamitous Events, thanks to his fresh revisit of that horrific, shared nightmare, was the Hellgod Glorificus.

Adrenaline propelled Giles into action, his sprint to the front of the store completed in record time. Pausing only to fling open the door, he was halfway out it into the street when he remembered he hadn't turned off the tea kettle, and risked burning the place down unless he did. Muttering irrational curses under his breath for letting Anya go home at a time like this, he caught the door with his foot, and raced back to the offending kettle to rip the plug from the wall with unneeded force.

Nothing hindered his second attempt. Locking up, he bolted for his car. Normally he parked the BMW in the alley around back, but because of the late hour of his return, he had instead, this afternoon, parked on a meter at the end of Maple Court. As such, his car was literally, thankfully, right outside the Magic Box's front door. Dire thoughts filled his head and he started it up--chiefly Buffy engaged in a life or death battle with Glory, and losing--while his fear of the bloody aftermath he would find when he eventually reached the Summers' house knotted his stomach into a cold, tight ball. He again recalled their shared nightmare, of watching his beloved impaled to a tree trunk by Glory's sword, rivulets of Buffy's blood painting the horror across his mind's eye in vivid shades of crimson.

Giles gunned the Beemer down the road toward the busy t-intersection with Main Street at a speed that would have earned him a ticket had there been any cops around to see him breaking the law. As it was, he only narrowly avoided bowling over the UPS driver, who stepped from around the front of his parked truck, parcel in hand, without looking. Giles slammed on the brakes, the loud, screeching skid causing everyone the immediate vicinity to stop what they were doing and stare in his direction. Insolence quickly replaced the UPS man's 'deer-in-headlights,' 'life-flashed-before-his-eyes' expression. Patting the Beemer's red hood, he saluted Giles and smugly continued on his way.

Swearing a blue streak, Giles ignored the disdainful stares and head shakes of his less-than-impressed audience, and made a right turn onto Main. Taking a deep breath, he forced down his overwhelming sense of all-out panic, despite the obvious urgency of the situation. Strange how he had been able to such maintain a cool and level head over the incident with Ryan, but not in matters pertaining to his wife. But the reckless alternative was to risk hurting an innocent bystander, or being stopped by the cops, or even injuring or delaying himself in an otherwise avoidable fender bender. This in mind, he eased off the gas, but still pushed the speed limit by a good five mph.

Revello Drive was less than ten minutes from the Magic Box by car. On a whim, Giles decided to take Beaumont across to Hadley, even though it was a residential street and thus subject to a slower speed limit, because it meant he could avoid the inevitable bottleneck of the elementary school zone, which, at 2:15pm, had just let out. Avoiding the area, as the school busses loaded up and mothers collected their children, would save him a precious minute or two.

Normally.

On the corner of Beaumont and 9th, he was forced to a crawl, as a crowd of curious onlookers clustered around a Sunnydale Paramedics van. Through the forest of legs, Giles spotted two uniformed men attending what appeared to be an injured child on the sidewalk. A mangled bicycle lay tucked under the bumper of a cream-colored SUV, while a hysterical woman tried to explain to a policeman what had happened. Another cop directed traffic, waving him on with an annoyed frown for his rubber-necking.

It was a full ninety-three seconds later when Giles finally pulled to the curb outside Buffy's house. Leaping out, he ran up the walk with his heart clogging his throat. It crossed his mind that perhaps the sensible thing would have been to bring weapons, but the idea was just as quickly dismissed. Buffy had weapons; they would make do... provided, of course, he wasn't already too late...

The front door was open, and the house itself sat aglow in the sleepy silence of the afternoon sunshine. All appeared quiet, which only heightened his anxiety level over what he would find inside.

Dear God, he had only dropped her off here twenty minutes ago. How could all this have happened in such a short interim?

Realizing he still had no clear idea what 'this' was, he took the porch steps two at a time, and crossed the threshold from daylight into the dimmed interior of the foyer without hesitation.

Breathless from panic rather than exertion, Giles abruptly stopped. Buffy was straight ahead of him, down the hall kneeling on all fours, staring at a square of paper towel soaking up something on the rug. "Buffy!" he called breathlessly.

She looked up at the sound of her name, her expression neither surprised nor welcoming, merely acknowledging his arrival.

The first thing he noticed was how pale she looked, how the thin coat of perspiration made her face shine with an unhealthy pastiness. Whatever had happened, Buffy was still in shock from it.

"What is it?" he managed around the lump in his throat, his words simple and concise in his haste. "Is it Glory?"

She stood up and faced him, but made no move to close the gap between them. "I'm waiting. The coroner's coming," she said, her calm frankness sending chills down his spine.

But her words raising more questions than answers. "What?"

"I have to tell Dawn," Buffy concluded simply, lost in a world of her own. "She's at school. I'll go there."

Giles frowned, confused. "I'm not sure... " As he took a hesitant step toward her, something caught his eye in the living room to the left. He turned to look, and saw Joyce, in repose, on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, her eyes wide and unseeing. Of all the horrors he had expected to find, this was not one of them. He moved instinctively to try to aid her. "Oh, God."

"No," Buffy said. "No, don't. It's too late."

Dropping to his knees, Giles took Joyce by the shoulders and gave her a shake, still hoping for a response despite the bleakness of Buffy's 'coroner' statement, and the cold, bluish pallor of her mother's skin. "Joyce?"

"They're coming for her," Buffy called, still eerily calm as she followed him into the living room. "No... no, we're--"

"Joyce!"

"We're not supposed to move the body!"

The clinical reference made Giles look up. Someone had told Buffy that--evidently, the 911 paramedics had already been and gone.

The harsh realization of exactly what had awaited Buffy upon her arrival home from the children's playground both shocked and appalled him. He had happily dropped her at the curb, and left her to face this alone. Not that he could have known; not that anyone could. Everyone believed the surgery to remove the brain tumor had been successful, and that Joyce had fully recovered. If that was, indeed, what had killed her.

Buffy stopped just inside the living room, completely aghast by the finality of her admission. Her hand trembled as it went to cover her mouth, as if in silence she could take back what she had just said, and change her mother's fate by simply changing her choice of words. Giles watched tears pool in her eyes, as she stared at the cold, prone truth lying on the floor before her.

Getting to his feet, he rushed to take her in his arms, his heart heavy and breaking for her. Stricken, Buffy just continued to stare over his shoulder.

It wasn't until she turned her face into his chest, and he felt the wetness of her tears soak through his shirt, that he forcefully backed her out of the room and into the foyer, away from the sight.

They stood there for a long moment, hugging each other in the warm Californian breeze that ruffled the sheer hall curtains, and gently stirred the nearby wind chimes into cheerful discordance. Giles expected Buffy to break down into a sobbing, emotional mess any minute, but apart from a few preliminary tears, she simply trembled against him as she struggled for breath and some semblance of control. No doubt it would hit later, when she was over the initial shock, and he silently vowed to be there for her then.

Tightening his embrace, he pressed his lips to the side of her head. "Dear God, Buffy, I'm so very sorry."

Several seconds of silence passed before she spoke in a disjointed whisper. "They said... it was probably an aneurism. Does that... hurt?"

"I... I don't think so," he said, hiding his reservations in order to give whatever comfort he could.

"I'm gonna be sick again," Buffy said point-blank. She pulled out of his arms and ran for the back door.

Eyeing the soaked square of paper towel on the hall floor, Giles tentatively followed. He found her leaning over the porch rail, retching into a flowerbed of cheery spring blooms. But it had been just as long since breakfast for Buffy, and her stomach was empty. All she could manage now was some ugly-sounding dry heaves.

With his hand resting lightly on her back, they rode out the worst of it together. When she finally straightened and turned to him, he had a clean handkerchief waiting, and lovingly cupped her sweaty cheek while she wiped her mouth. Their eyes met in an unbreakable moment. She looked awful--pale and clammy skinned--and he had never wanted to hold her, or comfort her, more than he did at that moment. He led her to the porch steps and made her sit, leaving her side only momentarily while he retrieved a glass of water from the kitchen.

Buffy sipped it in a bird-like fashion, consuming hardly enough moisture to wet her lips, let alone wash the bitterness from her throat. Giles sat on the step with her in silence; sunlight filtering though the trees and creating a moving tapestry of shadow and light; wind chimes tinkling in the breeze; one hand always in contact.

"School lets out in forty minutes. I need to tell Dawn," Buffy said again, her monotone a wary indication of the shock that still had her in its grip. That, and she was staring straight ahead with a vacant, haunted look.

"I'll fetch her," Giles offered quietly, although he knew, at once, that collecting Dawn before the bell and refusing to tell her why would only have the teen worked into a panic by the time they returned to Revello Drive.

Buffy apparently knew this, too. "No, I should go there."

"Then I'll go with you."

Buffy turned to look at him, her blank expression withering into one of glassy-eyed guilt. "I was sitting in the playground with that stupid robot while my mother was dying--died. I mean, if I'd been here when it happened, instead of... " She bit her lip, holding back the emotion. "I might have been able to save her."

Giles' heart grew heavy again, both sensitive to Buffy pain and lamenting Joyce's passing. He slipped his arm around his beloved's shoulders and pulled her close, his chin resting on the top of her head as he fought to control his own remorse. If he was going to be there for her--and Dawn--then he needed to remain strong. Grieving was something he could do in private. "Buffy, love, don't do this to yourself."

"But I should have been here!" she insisted vehemently, shrugging off his embrace in an unanticipated spat of anger. "We both should have! Discussing wedding plans!"

'Wedding plans?' He shook his head, bewildered. What the devil... ?

Buffy challenged him with a look, wanting him to say something--anything--but he had no answer to give. 'Wedding plans' aside, they both knew that had they not been at the playground, little Ryan Fisk would have most certainly died. It was a cruel choice, a life for a life, and not one that either of them could have consciously made. Surely, she could see that...

Reaching out, Giles was again ready to offer the comfort of touch, but Buffy pulled away, wordlessly getting to her feet and heading back inside.

A little hurt by her blatant rejection, but nonetheless sympathetic to whatever form her grief may take, Giles picked himself up and followed. He stopped in the kitchen, tucking his hands in his trouser pockets in lieu of trying to touch her again, watching as she tipped the remainder of her glass of water in the sink.

"Mom was planning a big wedding for us," Buffy explained quietly, without turning, preferring to stare out the small window above the sink. "So I could marry you again, only this time in style... in a beautiful white gown, with a cake and an album full of photos... and with Mom and all our friends there to watch. . . " She broke off as her voice cracked, her back still to him.

He stood in silence, watching as she glanced down at something. When she finally turned to face him, Giles realized she had the gold, heart-shaped locket he had given her last Christmas clasped in her hand.

"At least we don't have to disappoint her with the news about no grandkids." Buffy's maudlin smile just about broke his heart. It was an appalling thing to say in light of her mother's death, but she wasn't thinking straight. Buffy wasn't thinking, or feeling, or reacting. She just looked numb, holding his gaze but making no attempt to seek the comfort he wanted to give. Never had the gap between them felt so wide.

"Buffy--"

"Hello? Anyone home?"

The interruption was ill timed. They both glanced in the direction of the front door, before meeting each other's eyes again.

"That's probably the coroner," Buffy said in a matter-of-fact tone that momentarily gave Giles chills, the significance of her words lost to her in grief.

She moved purposefully toward the kitchen door, but Giles intercepted her at the end of the island counter.

He touched her shoulder with a tentative hand, drawing her gaze up to his. "Why don't you let me take care of this?"

Buffy nodded slowly, apparently grateful for his intervention. On impulse, he kissed her forehead, then left her alone in the kitchen in order to attend matters in the living room.

The front door was still open from Giles' rushed arrival, and when the uniformed chap waiting patiently on the threshold noted Giles coming down the hall, he nodded a somber greeting.

"Mr. Summers?"

"Rupert Giles," he corrected, noting the 'County Coroner' van parked behind his BMW at the curb. "Joyce Summers is... was my mother-in-law."

The man nodded in understanding, and motioned at his colleague, who stood waiting behind with a folding gurney. "We're very sorry for your loss. If you could show us to the deceased?"

"Of course. This way." Giles led the two men through to the living room, then stood watching from the doorway as they laid out a heavy, black rubber, body bag on the floor beside Joyce.

"Mother-in-law, you say?" the man asked curiously, looking up from his work. No doubt he had expected an elderly woman.

Before Giles could answer, Buffy sided up to him and the coroner's question became self-explanatory. Arms folded, she stared at the almost surreal scene before her.

Resuming his work, the man studied the computer printout on his clipboard, and checked off a few items before exchanging a few words of medical and legal jargon with his colleague. Satisfied, the two men moved into position--one to Joyce's shoulders, the other to her feet--to lift her body into the black, rubber bag.

The long slow draw of the zipper was deafening loud, and final, in the sunshine of the Summers' living room. One man thoughtfully held the body bag away from Joyce's hair, so it wouldn't catch, while his colleague carefully zipped it home. Giles diverted his gaze to Buffy, who was still morbidly glued to the scene before her. The last thing she saw was her mother's sightless eyes concealed beneath the heavy black rubber.

He put his arm around her, his hand instinctively running up and down her shoulder in a compassionate gesture. But she still refused to look at him, or even acknowledge he was there. Suddenly, his helplessness to spare her this misery made him frustrated and angry. Belatedly, he tried to turn her away, but Buffy remained stubbornly rooted to the spot.

"What happens now?" she asked flatly.

"We're taking your mother's body to the morgue at Sunnydale General," the first man said sympathetically. He stood, clipboard in hand. "If you haven't already, you should contact her physician, Doctor--" he checked the printout "--Kriegel. He'll probably want to schedule an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death. The sooner the better, although the on-site call seems pretty accurate."

"An aneurism," Buffy said in monotone.

"That's right. I'm very sorry for your loss."

Buffy nodded at the customary phrase, still staring at the shapeless mound of black rubber on the living room floor. It wasn't until the two men lifted the body bag onto the collapsible gurney that she finally acknowledged her husband's existence.

"Go with her," Buffy ordered, looking up at him.

Giles frowned. "What about Dawn?"

"I'll get Dawn, and we'll meet you at the hospital."

Giles immediately hated the idea of burdening Buffy with sole responsibility of informing Dawn of their mother's passing. "Buffy, we should tell Dawn together, and then the three of us can then go see Dr. Kriegel."

Buffy shook her head in a gesture of familiar determination. "No." Her gaze momentarily slipped to the gurney as it was wheeled past, before returning to his. "Giles, please, go with her. I don't want Mom to be alone."

Instead of arguing the rationale behind what she was asking and making matters worse, Giles reluctantly bowed to her wishes. "Very well."

"And call Willow and Xander," Buffy said, suddenly stirred into action. Crossing to the stairs, she collected her black duster from the rail where she had laid it earlier. "They'll want to know, too."

"Buffy... " Giles called, again unsure, as she disappeared outside in an unexpected blur of movement. Frustrated, he followed, pulling the front door closed behind him. He caught up with Buffy curbside, as she stood watching the coroner's van pull away down the street. But the moment he joined her, she turned to leave. He gently snagged her arm to forestall her, concerned for her present emotional state of mind. "Buffy, please wait."

"Go with her!" Buffy insisted, jerking free to point at the departing van. She skipped backwards a few steps, making any further attempt on his part to stop her moot. Her eyes pleaded with his heart to understand her wishes, even when his head could not. "If you love me, you'll do this for me," she declared. Turning before he could comment on either the depth of his devotion or the validity of her request, she tore off down the sidewalk, headed for the middle school.

Giles shook his head, this time in frustration. He should have been adamant in his decision to accompany her to inform her sister. He cursed himself for not speaking up, for not reminding Buffy that she needed his support far more than her dead mother... and then belittled himself for such an abysmally heartless thought.

Huffing out a breath, he turned to his car, keys jingling irritably in his hand as he spied some neighbors, who had started to gather in their front lawns, no doubt concerned by the presence of the County Coroner. They would find out soon enough, but he didn't want to deal with them right now. Deliberately ignoring them, even Mrs. Nosy Nextdoor, who attempted to gain his favor with a cheery wave, Giles did a U-turn in the middle of Revello Drive and headed for the hospital.

* * * * *

If someone had asked him exactly when the realization that Joyce Summers was dead hit, Giles could have quite honestly said it wasn't when he saw her lying prone on the living room floor, or when dourly following the coroner's van to the hospital morgue. Nor was it during his brief and to-the-point conversation with Dr. Kriegel, who informed him the exact cause of death would be determined by an immediate autopsy, or even those long forty-two minutes he spent sitting alone in the grim silence of the morgue wing at Sunnydale General. No, if someone had asked him, Giles would have answered that Joyce's passing fully impacted him when he made The Phone Call.

It was the sound of it ringing, unanswered, for what seemed like an eternity that made it all too real; made everything snap into sharp clarity, and the depressing words inside his head echo unspoken. In the blink of an eye, he was transported back to a night three years prior, to the same raw feeling in the pit of his stomach as he became the bearer of bad news and made a similar call.

"Hello?"

Pushing the memories of discovering Jenny, dead in his bed, far from his mind, Giles let go the breath he hadn't realized he was holding and attempted to keep his tone as neutral as possible. "Tara, this is Giles." He tried to clear the lump from his throat. "I need to speak with Willow."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Giles, you just missed her." There was an uncertain pause, then, "She just went down to the laundry. See, since we sort of missed our lunch date--which, by the way, I totally understand--we're going somewhere nice for dinner instead, and--go figure--Willow suddenly remembered she needed to do laundry first."

Only half-listening to her explanation, Giles let go a heavy sigh and ran his hand through his hair. He'd psyched himself into breaking the news to Willow, not her roommate.

Tara picked up on his hesitation and asked, "Do you want me to get her to call you when she gets back?"

"No. No, I'm at the hospital on a payphone."

"Hospital? H-has something happened?"

"No, nothing's--" Giles began automatically, then reneged on his reluctance to tell Tara first. "Well, yes, actually, something has happened. Something rather serious, I'm afraid. Buffy asked me to telephone Willow to inform her... both of you... " He stopped again, suddenly unsure how to proceed.

"Mr. Giles? You're kinda making me nervous."

He wanted to reciprocate the attempt at levity and tell her to drop the 'mister', that 'Mr. Giles' was his father and a complete pillock at that, but the timing was inappropriate. "There's been an accident."

"Is someone hurt? Xander? Anya? Oh God, is it Dawn? Is Dawnie okay?"

His compassion instantly rallied to calm Tara's concerns. "No, nothing's happened to Dawn. Or to the others. It's... Buffy's mother. Joyce is... " He rubbed a hand over his eyes, still unable to say the words and make it real. "Something went wrong," he finished lamely.

"Wrong?" Tara repeated in a tiny fearful voice that suggested, by his hesitation, she already knew the truth. "Is she... ? I mean, you said 'hospital.'"

"I'm afraid she's... passed on." He swallowed hard, as the words left his lips and took a firmer grip on his reality. "Buffy went to tell Dawn, at school. I'm expecting them to arrive here any moment."

Silence. Long deathly silence that made his ears buzz.

"Tara?"

"I-I'm still here. I just... "

"I know. Me, too," Giles admitted, fighting to keep the tremor from rising his tone. He would not allow himself to mourn her just yet. At least, he would not allow it to show. Buffy needed him to be strong; they all did. Still, he felt sick inside, all twisted up in his grief for Joyce, and concern for his wife and sister-in-law. Shock was also there, and anger. He spared a thought for Buffy's infuriating insistence to take on the burden of telling Dawn such dreadful news by herself, and then shot an impatient glance at his watch, wondering why the hell they hadn't yet arrived. He just wanted them there with him, so he could comfort them.

To Tara, he quietly said, "Buffy thought Willow would want to know. Perhaps you and she could... ? I mean, I know Buffy and Dawn would appreciate your show of support."

"Of course, we'll come right away. T-the hospital, you say?"

"The morgue, actually."

"Oh." Another long pause that neither of them was in a hurry to break. "Was it--you know--natural?"

Tara's noticeable ability to remain calm and composed in the wake of calamity surprised him. Then again, perhaps not. As a relative newcomer to their close-knit group, Tara had not shared in the history that the rest of them had, and thus her level of involvement was somewhat reduced. It didn't mean she cared less, just that the impact of Joyce's death affected her in a different way. Part of him was thankful to know that she would be there for Willow as a pillar of support, rather than an emotional mess. It was precisely the strength of character he was trying to find inside himself for Buffy and Dawn.

"The doctor suspects an aneurysm," Giles said mechanically. "They're performing an aut--" He broke off, trying to be less blunt. "They're trying to find out exactly what happened, now."

Movement caught his eye. He half-turned in the less-than-private wall booth with the phone still clutched to his ear, its stiff silver cord tethering him to the spot. He looked up anxiously, hoping for Buffy and Dawn yet anticipating just another white-coated morgue attendant grimly shuffling past. His stomach turned over when he saw anxiety duly awarded; Buffy leading her despondent-looking sister in from the long, sterile corridor that joined this wing to the main part of the hospital.

"Tara, may I ask a rather large favor of you?"

"Um, sure. Anything."

"Please telephone Xander and Anya at home," he said, edging away from the phone as far as his metal umbilical would allow. "Buffy felt they'd want to know about her mother, too."

"Okay. We'll probably all meet you there in a little while. Do I need to write down directions?"

"Xander will know where to go," Giles said distractedly, watching as Buffy dutifully made Dawn sit on a depressingly gray lounge in the waiting area. The teen didn't take much prompting, and immediately buried her face in her hands, mourning her mother in a way that made his heart ache all over again. Buffy, her hand resting on her sister's shoulder in an inadequate gesture of support, looked over to meet his gaze with dull, somber eyes. "I'm sorry, Tara, I have to go."

"I understand. See you soon."

Gaze still locked with Buffy's, Giles hung up the phone. But as he started toward her, she purposefully looked the other way, focusing instead on her grief-stricken sister. Once again, Giles was hurt by an overt sense of rejection. As such, upon reaching her, he resisted the urge to make physical contact. It was quite clear that Buffy didn't want him to touch her.

Dawn, however, was another matter.

As soon as he was within range, the younger Summers shot up and launched herself into his arms. The bear hug that followed stole his breath, such was the desperation in her embrace. Dawn clung to him as if he were the last person on earth; indeed, with the exception of her sister and her absentee father, he was now the only parental figure in her life, the only one she could turn to for help or advice. The burden of responsibility had clearly shifted, and Dawn seemed as eager for him to take the mantle as Buffy seemed impartial to his compassion.

Hugging Dawn close, her small frame shuddering against him in unchecked grief, Giles met Buffy's eyes again. There was nothing he could say to her to make it better, and since she wouldn't allow him to give physical comfort, he was at a frustrated loss of what to do.

His expression must have said as much, because after a moment of holding his gaze, the cold, unemotional wall Buffy had built between them started to collapse. He watched it crumble in her welling tears and in her shift in body language, until she too threw her arms around him, sandwiching her sister in the process. Closing his eyes to hold back his emotions, Giles managed to plant a kiss on the top of his wife's head, then one on Dawn's as well, which prompted the teen to hang on even tighter.

Together, the three of them mourned Joyce's passing.

* * * * *

Unlike a regular wing of the adjoining hospital, which was abuzz with the infinitesimal sounds of life, the morgue, by comparison, was deathly silent.

'No pun intended,' Giles thought grimly, as he fed his last dollar bill into the vending machine nestled in the hallway just outside the large, rectangular waiting area. He pressed 'E6' on the control panel this time, then somberly watched his selection drop into the collection bin below. His stomach growled in anticipation of food. Hungry as he was, even vending machine food sounded like a good idea... although he drew the line at the neighboring coffee machine, which in his limited past experience, always seemed to spit out something akin to sludge.

Giles reached down through the slot to retrieve his prizes; a sticky bun for himself, and a couple packs of cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers for Dawn.

Buffy wanted nothing--from the machine or from him.

Straightening, his gaze fell on her from afar, stoically sitting where he had left her on the gray, leather lounge alongside her equally stoic sister. Giles paused watching Buffy, with her hands in her lap, her straight spine, and her expression bleak. But the fact that she was dealing with this alone was by choice. Her choice. He'd thought the emotional tide had finally broken through Buffy's wall; he'd thought wrong. Immediately following their hug, Buffy had withdrawn from him again. Couldn't she see that she didn't have to be the strong one in this? He would be strong for her, if only she would let him.

His gaze shifted to Dawn. The poor girl; how was she coping? If outward appearances were any judge, she wasn't faring any better than her sister. She appeared to be in a state of numbed emotional shock. Either that, or she simply refused to believe any of what was happening, despite her present less-than-subtle surroundings.

Rousing himself, Giles went back across the waiting room, taking the empty seat beside Dawn. When she glanced at him, he offered the snack crackers along with a comforting smile. Dawn said nothing as she took them without any real enthusiasm and resumed staring at her now-full hands in her lap, making him momentarily regret his decision not to venture further afield in search of the hospital's cafeteria. But he hadn't wanted to leave them alone for even the few minutes it would have taken to hunt down some 'real food'. They were awaiting Dr. Kriegel's autopsy report, confirmation of the cause of Joyce's death, and that wasn't the sort of news Giles wanted Buffy, or Dawn, to face on their own.

He glanced at his sticky bun, unexpectedly finding that he, too, had lost his appetite. He wished he could take them away from here--home.

But home was an empty, less-hospitable place now, without their mother.

Giles sighed in frustration, knowing better than to suggest Buffy take Dawn home and let him handle things here, anyway. He glanced at his watch, annoyed. Where were the others? More than an hour had passed since he had spoken with Tara. And what was taking the doctor so long?

Putting his sweet roll on the seat beside him, untouched, he regarded Buffy and Dawn once more. Both looked so alone in their grief, despite meager few inches that separated them. For the umpteenth time, he wished he could do something to comfort them. He wished he could be the husband Buffy wanted, and the father Dawn so obviously needed.

Without warning, he flashed on the afternoon, not so long past, when Buffy had made him the happiest man on earth by suggesting they get married. Immediately, no less. It had been a spur of the moment decision governed completely by circumstance--namely the Watcher's Council threat to deport him within twenty-four hours--capped off with a dull, monotone ceremony conducted at the County Clerk's office by an equally dull, monotone official, and Xander as sole witness.

Glancing down, Giles studied his wedding ring--a matching platinum band to the one on Buffy's finger. So much had changed for them in so little time, and yet, so much had remained the same. As much as he loved her, and knew that she loved him, they weren't exactly poster candidates for the ideal married couple; they didn't even live together. He wished he could give her more... like children of their own and the promise of a future. Lord knew, he'd sell his soul for the chance to grow old with her. But Destiny had decreed them to be Watcher and Slayer first, and Husband and Wife second.

Or had it?

Like a bolt from the blue, Giles understood the reasoning behind Joyce's ambitious goal to have him and Buffy remarry in a church, followed by a fairytale wedding reception with all their friends and loved ones in attendance. Joyce had wholeheartedly accepted him and his position in her daughter's life, and wanted nothing more than for them to be a real family. Her untimely death signaled changes and new beginnings for them all... and Giles abruptly realized what he needed to do, the legacy with which he would honor her.

Buffy needed a husband, Dawn needed a father, and--so be it--he was flooded with the sudden yet vigorous determination to be both. That, of course, meant several alterations in their present relationships, staring with him moving in to Revello Drive with them, which was a less ludicrous option than having the girls attempt to share his one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. There would have to be some compromises, of course, but nothing they wouldn't all get accustomed to in time...

Dawn looked at him, almost as if she had felt the strength of his new resolve like a ray of sunshine on her gloomy disposition. With a compassionate smile that wordlessly proclaimed everything would be all right, Giles slipped his arm around the teen's shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze.

"Buffy!"

All three of them looked up at the sound of Willow's voice. She was zeroing in on them, arms already outstretched for an inevitable hug; Xander, Anya, and Tara close in tow. Getting to his feet along with Buffy and Dawn, Giles shoved his hands in his pockets and allowed his young friends to provide the comfort and support he so much wanted to give. He watched with a pang of disappointment as Buffy accept Xander's bear hug without a second thought.

"If there's anything we can do... " Xander began.

"Glad you're here," Dawn commented as Tara released her, the first words she had spoken in over an hour.

Willow released Buffy and stepped back to arm's length. "I love you so much," she confessed, barely holding back her tears.

"I know."

"They're not telling us anything," Dawn said to Tara, again making Giles feel like the odd-man-out.

He rubbed his brow, desperately trying not to be jealous of his young friends and their uncanny ability to bring both Buffy and Dawn out of their private hellholes, when he--apparently--could not.

Anya brought him out of his self-loathing by capturing him a desperate embrace. Initial shock quickly gave way to compassion, and Giles raised a gentle hand to pat her shoulder. Joyce's death had impacted hard on them all, even Anya, whose random displays of a lack of any real human emotions were simply because she was so newly human herself. It was only through death, that they had all began to appreciate life, and the lives they had been given.

Movement caught his eye. Still trapped in Anya's desperate embrace, Giles was the first to spot Dr. Kriegel entering the waiting area. "Doctor?"

Silence descended, and all heads turned. Buffy and Dawn immediately detached themselves from their friends, and fell into step with Giles as he approached the doctor, who had stopped a few yards from the group. The rest of the gang, knowing it wasn't their place to intrude, huddled together as if seeking safety in numbers.

Giles held his breath as he, Buffy, and Dawn stopped before the white coated neurosurgeon.

"Okay, I've examined your mother's body," Kriegel said, his soft spoken voice sounding loud and final in the stark silence of the morgue's waiting area.

"Can we see her?" Dawn asked sullenly, confirming Giles suspicion that the teen was still having a hard time accepting the truth of what everyone was telling her, until she saw evidence of such with her own eyes.

Buffy hushed her. "Dawn, not now."

"The on-site report seems more or less accurate," Kriegel told Buffy, confirming the coroner's findings at the house. "Your mother did have what looks like an aneurysm--a sudden hemorrhaging from a ruptured arterial vessel near the... where the tumor was removed."

"Shouldn't we have known about that?" Buffy asked. "That it was a danger?"

"Sometimes these things are detectable," Kriegel continued quietly, "and sometimes they're not. Joyce was aware of the possibility of a rupture and the effects. She didn't even get on the phone, so clearly this was very sudden. She may have felt a little nausea, and probably passed out as it happened."

Buffy looked stricken as the doctor's words no doubt played out as pictures in her mind. She was blaming herself again--he could tell. She'd already expressed guilt to him over sitting in the park with April the robot for too long, watching the machination 'die' as her own mother suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. Dawn just wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the floor.

Feeling for them both, Giles raised a gentle hand to Buffy's back, offering the comfort of touch despite her earlier opposition to it. She didn't reject him this time, although he wondered if she was even aware, such was the numbness in her expression.

"I doubt there was much pain," Kriegel said, as if in answer to the expression ruling Buffy's face, "and even if someone had been by her side, it's doubtful that this could have been dealt with in time."

Giles was grateful for that; someone else other than him reassuring her that it wasn't her fault. He nodded as the doctor looked at him. "Thank you, Doctor."

Buffy still had trouble letting go her guilt. "A-are you sure... that there wasn't a lot of pain?"

Dr. Kriegel nodded sympathetically. "Absolutely. I'm sure it was extremely sudden and that she didn't suffer at all."

Giles roused himself, eager to move forward and spare his wife any more unnecessary anguish. "What needs to be done now?"

"Well, there'll be some forms and some decisions you'll need to make," Kriegel told Buffy.

"Buffy, why don't you let me handle those as much as I can?" Giles asked, stepping around to face her, his hand still in contact with her.

To his surprise, and relief, she agreed. "Please."

"We will need you to sign a couple of release forms," the doctor told Buffy.

"Yes, thank you, Doctor," Giles said dismissively. True, as the next of kin it was Buffy's job to sign the pertinent legal forms, but since she had actually accepted his help, he intended to spare her as much of the other paperwork as possible. With his heart breaking for her anew, he gently pulled her into a loving embrace, which although she did not resist, she did not respond to as hoped, either. "I'll figure out which ones you need to see," he said, laying a kiss on the top of her head before he let her go.

"We'll be here," Buffy called despondently, as the doctor led him out to the main corridor and past the vending machines.

* * * * *

Dr. Kriegel's office was in the main wing of the hospital, and was as sterile in appearance as the rest of the place. The only signs that he actually frequented the place at all were the wilting potted palm one corner, the overflowing wastepaper basket beside his desk, and the spare--although slightly more rumpled than what he was wearing--white coat that hung on the rack by the door.

Kriegel motioned for him to sit in the visitor's chair in front of his desk, while the doctor himself settled into his burgundy leather office chair with a telltale squeak. "I wasn't aware that you and Miss Summers were a couple now," he began almost conversationally, while searching his desk drawers and the file cabinet behind for the relevant paperwork. The observation was, no doubt, based on the parting display of affection that Giles had bestowed on Buffy.

"She's my wife," Giles said simply, feeling no need to defend his relationship any further than that.

"Really?" Kriegel quickly covered his surprise. "I'm sorry, it's just that the last time you were here, awaiting the news of Joyce's brain surgery, I had the impression you were more a father-figure type... or even that you were involved with Joyce."

Giles smiled thinly. "A lot has changed."

"Mmmm," the doctor agreed, non-committal. Having gathered all the legal forms he needed, Kriegel rolled his chair back to his desk. "Well, the good news, then, is that since you are Joyce's legal son-in -law, you can spare Buffy a good deal of this." He indicated the short stack of papers that would still take a good hour to get through. "Buffy will still need to sign the actual release forms before her mother's body is removed from the morgue, but you can start with... this one." He passed the first triplicated document across the desk, along with a pen, and stacked the rest of the pile on Giles' left. "Fill in as much as you can. I already have Joyce's medical history and insurance details on file, so you can skip that. Also, if you happen to know the name of the funeral home Buffy intends to use, we can get that ball rolling, too."

"Brown Brothers, in Fremont Street," Giles said automatically. In truth, he had no idea which of Sunnydale's numerous, prospering mortuaries Buffy would choose, but it was the one he had chosen to look after Jenny Calendar, and they had proven both professional and fairly priced. He looked at the form the doctor had given him, the words and letters momentarily swimming into an unintelligible jumble as he spared a thought, and a prayer, for dearly departed Jenny.

Yes. A lot had changed. In his time in Sunnydale, too many lives had been broken or lost, too little love had been founded and forged. Remarkably enough, he'd found himself standing on the side of the lucky ones. Love like he never expected to know in this life, was his. His entire existence had always revolved around Buffy to some extent, but now, as husband and wife, she was the heart of it. She breathed life into his soul and light into his world, and if she left him tomorrow, he would surely die from the hole she left inside him. He wondered, not for the first time, how different it would have been, the path he might have walked with Jenny and the love he and Buffy would have consequently let pass by, had Angelus not resorted to cold-blooded murder that fateful night... had Angel not relocated to Los Angeles, had Olivia not been so rattled by the truth, had Riley not set his sights on the jungle...

They were all gone, stripped from existence like autumn leaves in a September breeze; not dead--with the exception of Jenny--but no longer part of their lives, either. They were lessons in the fragility of life, that no matter how much one strived for stability, change was inevitable... and usually when it was least expected.

And now Joyce was gone, too. It was different, of course, for death was so final and cruel, and taught the harshest lesson of all. Life was a precious and all-too fleeting affair. Love was the only thing that made the whole crazy ride bearable--loving and being loved in return.

As such, Buffy's grief wounded him as deeply and undeniably as a knife in his own chest. To see her in such pain, to feel it and taste it and know it as his own, and yet be completely ineffective in his best efforts to ease it--

"Mr. Giles?"

Snapping out of his lament, Giles attempted to focus on the present. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Are you... all right?" the neurologist asked with a note of professional curiosity. "You sort of zoned out there, for a bit."

Pulling himself together, Giles shifted in his chair. "I'm fine. Just gathering my thoughts." Doing just that, he made an attempt to start on the first form atop the small stack, but Kriegel stopped him by pulled a zipped plastic bag from his coat pocket and placed it directly on the paperwork.

Giles stared at the baggie for a long moment, feeling the knot return to his stomach. The label was written in thick black marker, categorizing the owner's name, date of death, and morgue reference number. The contents were the sum total of personal possessions that Joyce had been wearing at the time of her passing; two rings, a pair of earrings, a wristwatch, and a small cross on a gold chain.

"I didn't want to upset Buffy or her sister any more," Kriegel explained, "but I take it you'll see that they receive their mother's belongings in due course."

Without making eye contact with the doctor, Giles slid the plastic bag off the desk and into his suit coat pocket for safekeeping. He was grateful for the man's prudence, and would, as suggested, wait for the right moment to return the jewelry to their rightful heirs... although preferably sans the impersonal and somewhat sterile plastic baggie. He doubted anything was of great monetary value, but the sentimental value could not be dismissed.

"In due course," he intoned quietly, then set to work on the papers before him.

Dr. Kriegel let him be, finding other medical paperwork with which to occupy himself. Sitting opposite, Giles filled out what he could on several forms--the repetition of name, address, and phone number etc--leaving blank what he couldn't answer, along with the spaces intended for Buffy's signature. As he worked, he began assembling a mental checklist of all that needed to be done in the coming days, things to which he could, if need be, attend to without involving Buffy or Dawn, but things that needed to be done, nonetheless.

On top of the list was making contact with the funeral home director, choosing the casket--or was it Joyce's wish to be cremated?--deciding on a church service or a civil service, and informing family and friends. Next came finding and reading Joyce's will, and then doing their best to uphold her wishes. The transfer of title to the house and property deeds, the car, and the art gallery Joyce founded upon moving to Sunnydale would follow in the coming weeks, along with name changes to every monthly household bill. There was also the taxation, driver's license, and Social Security offices that needed to be informed, not to mention those dozen other official phone calls that were required in order to ensure that everyday life continued without a hitch.

And last but not least, there was finding periods of quiet time for the three of them, for the tears they would inevitably cry in each other's arms, and the solace they could only find together.

As a family.

Taking a break, Giles rubbed his brow and glanced at his watch. He was making good headway; the face-down stack to his right had grown somewhat larger than the face-up stack to his left. He was about to resume when someone rapped a hasty knock on the closed door of the doctor's office. Without waiting for Kriegel to answer, the caller burst in, and Xander spoke his name with a gut-wrenching degree of urgency.

"Giles? I think you should... that is, Buffy and Dawn... "

Giles swiveled in his chair, anxiety instantly churning his stomach. "Xander?" he asked warily, telling himself that the young man's tone was due to the present circumstances, and not because something untoward had happened in his absence.

Xander glanced at the doctor before answering, the moment's hesitation making Giles' heart leap to his throat. "I think you should take Buffy and Dawn home... now." He motioned with his head, emphasizing the unspoken need to hurry.

"Oh dear Lord," Giles said under his breath, fighting the rising panic. He turned back to face Dr. Kriegel again, contemplating the worst as he endeavored to find a calm yet plausible excuse. "Perhaps we could continue this tomorrow?" Regardless of what the doctor thought or said, Giles scuttled to his feet without waiting for an answer. "It has been a rather trying afternoon for them."

Much to his relief, Kriegel nodded sympathetically. "Looks like you've made a good dent in it anyway," he said, reaching across to gather the forms Giles had completed. He tapped the bottom edge of the small stack on his desktop to straighten it. "I know the coming days will be a busy and difficult time for you all, but please remember that I need Buffy's signature before I can release her mother's body to the funeral home."

"I understand." Belatedly, Giles offered his hand across the desk. "Thank you, Doctor. I'll bring Buffy by to see you tomorrow."

Standing, Kriegel returned the handshake with a solemn nod.

Turning to Xander, who was still hovering anxiously by the door, Giles hurried out into the hall.

"What's happened?" he asked in a low tone, dreading the answer as the two of them set a brisk pace through the lively hospital toward the morgue wing.

"I'm not real sure on the details," Xander told him, "only that Dawn decided on a solo visit to see her mom... and ran into one of our friendly neighborhood undead, sleeping on the slab next door."

Giles stopped suddenly, fear tightening his throat. "Dear God, is she--?"

"She's fine. Buffy dusted him. Dawn's just a little shaken, but if you ask me, it's not from the vamp attack... "

"What do you mean?"

Xander shifted uncomfortably. "I think... seeing her mom like that... y'know... I think it just suddenly became all too real for the Dawnster. You really should take them both home, Giles." Realizing what 'home' now meant for the girls now, he amended, "Or someplace. Your place. My place. Hell, even out for pizza would be better than here."

"Yes, you're right," Giles agreed determinedly, as they started to walk again. His steps were brisk and decisive. Enough of hanging around such a dreary, despondent place. Enough of the misery and grief, and of not allowing him to give comfort to the two most important people in his life. "Anywhere but here, indeed."

* * * * *

His suggestion to stop for pizza was met with utter silence, while his offer for them all to spend the night at his apartment was met with resounding protest. By way of compromise, Giles found the drive-thru line for a bucket of fried chicken and some vegetable sides, before the three of them returned to Revello Drive in unenthusiastic silence.

"Dawn, you should eat something," Buffy insisted some twenty minutes later, despite the cooled and completely untouched food on her own plate.

"Look who's talking."

"I just don't feel like eating right now." Buffy paused, struggling to put her emotions into words. "God, I dunno what I'm feeling, only that it's definitely not hungry." She pushed her plate away in disgust, still refusing to make eye contact with anything but the tabletop.

Sitting right angles to her at the head of the Summers dining table, Giles put down his fork. He felt slightly guilty for having polished off seconds, when neither of the girls has so much as tasted a single green bean. His hand sought to cover Buffy's in a familiar gesture of support, but she sensed it coming, and withdrew both hands to her lap to escape his touch.

"Can I be excused?" Dawn asked flatly.

"Not until you eat something," Buffy insisted.

"Giles?" Dawn asked.

He looked down the table to where the younger Summers sat, surprised that the teen had so quickly and easily pinned a parental role on him, all without prior discussion. Schooling his expression, he met Dawn's bleak look with a small smile, and nodded his consent. If she didn't want to eat, then there wasn't anything he or Buffy could do to force her. She would, when she was hungry; he was sure of it.

Dawn's chair scraped the hardwood floor in her haste to retreat to the sanctuary of her room. As she ran up the stairs, Buffy finally lifted her head from the scrutiny of her unused cutlery to look at him. Giles readied a compassionate smile for her, and as such, was unprepared for the hostile glare he found directed his way.

"Why did you do that?"

"What?" he asked, clueless.

"Override my authority."

"Override--? Buffy, she wanted to go to her room, not cliff-diving in Acapulco."

"Fine," Buffy returned heatedly, finding no amusement in his defensive sarcasm. She pushed back her chair and stood. "And who's she gonna listen to now, when she does wanna do something reckless and you're not here." Barely hanging on to her threatening emotions, she stalked off through the adjoining foyer and into the darkened living room.

"Buffy... love... " Giles called, hastening to follow. She had a good point, and he cursed himself for not having realized it sooner. He'd been far too preoccupied with the rather gallant notion of becoming the father Dawn needed and the husband Buffy wanted, to see that Buffy's newfound legal guardianship over her sister should have been given equal consideration.

She hadn't turned on the light, and consequentially, he almost walked into her in the relative darkness of the living room. Buffy had stopped dead, staring at the couch.

The couch where she found her mother lying dead.

"Darling?" Stopping behind her, Giles tentatively put his hands on her shoulders. She immediately tensed under his touch, and, although unwelcome, it told him this was no longer about authority, and who had it. This was back to being about Joyce, and Buffy building walls to shut him out.

"I'm all right," Buffy lied, the tremor in her voice betraying her. "I just... I mean, you probably wanna get on home... and you should... we'll be fine... 'cause we have to be, and... God... my mom really is gone... "

Despite her initial resistance, Giles turned her into his arms, and hugged her tight as the floodgates finally opened. Her small frame trembled against him as she cried her heart out in unrestrained grief, and all he could do was hold her until the moment passed. He was afraid to risk anything more, for fear she would withdraw from him again.

When it passed, he spoke softly in her ear, without breaking his embrace. "I can stay here tonight, if you like. I'll sleep on the couch so that--" He was relieved to feel her nod of acceptance against his shirt, but less enthused when she determinedly pushed out of his arms, cutting short his words.

She stopped a few feet away, staring into the darkness with her back to him, bravely sniffing back the last of her tears. It was as if she considered them a sign of weakness, rather than a natural and necessary show of human emotion. She had yet to comprehend that grief was an essential part of the healing process.

Trying not to feel stung by her rejection, again, Giles holstered his hands in his trouser pockets before speaking. "Buffy, I understand how you feel right now, and I know that you don't want me to touch you, but--"

Buffy whirled on him. "Is that what you think?"

He almost laughed. "You've made it pretty obvious, wouldn't you say?"

"Then you don't understand anything at all."

"Buffy--"

"I have to do this, okay? I have to be like this... act like this--strong--a rock--for Dawn's sake. I'm all she has left now."

Giles' heart melted. "No." He closed the gap between them, cupping her cheek with a gentle hand and bringing her vulnerable, tear-drenched eyes back to his. "No, she has me too. Buffy, you don't have to do this all alone. You just have to let me in." He hesitated. He hadn't planned on springing this on her so soon, but she'd just given him a perfect opening. "I love you so very much, and I love Dawn. I want to be a better husband to you, and a father to her. I want us to be a family... and I think, perhaps, it's what your mother wanted for us, too."

Giles watched her lower lip trembled, and the way she countered the reaction by sucking on it. Unable to resist, he lowered his head to kiss away her misgivings. He lingered close, planting additional tiny kisses on her still-damp lashes before he pulled back to find her gaze once more. "We've been married for what? Three months?"

"Eleven weeks, three days, four hours and about... " Buffy looked at her watch, but it was a token gesture on the part of misplaced levity. "... seventeen minutes. But who's counting?"

"And," Giles continued in all seriousness, "I feel it's time I stopped playing the part-time bachelor and made the commitment real."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I want to sleep with you every night, and wake with you every morning. Meaning I want to help you raise Dawn, and watch her grow into the woman we both want her to become." He paused, the backs of his fingertips stroking her cheek in a loving caress, the sincerity in his eyes never wavering. "Meaning I want to be in your life even more than I am now. I want to be your life, Buffy, the same way you've become mine."

"You are," she declared. Teary-eyed, she finally stepped out past her walls and into his arms. "God... you are."

Heart turning over, Giles held her with a sort of desperate tenderness. "You don't have to do this alone, love," he repeated solemnly. "And I'm not just referring to tonight, or tomorrow, or even next week. Let me be here for you permanently. Let me move in with you and Dawn."

Buffy sputtered once, but fought to hold back before the emotion ran free. She nodded eagerly against him in lieu of a verbal agreement. Sighing, Giles held her until she lifted her cheek and sought his eyes in the dimness of the room.

"I love you so much," she said, the candid confession causing the last of her defensive walls to crumble behind her.

Overcome, he was just lowering his head to kiss her in earnest, when, an inch before their lips met, the light snapped on and a voice stopped him cold.

"I don't have to start calling you 'dad,' do I? 'Cause that would be, like... weird."

They straightened, looking toward the foyer.

Dawn hovered on the threshold, eavesdropping, a hesitant yet hopeful smile forming on her face. Without waiting for an answer to her first question, she quickly posed another. "Does this mean I get Buffy's room?"

Giles cleared his throat, realizing he would have to adjust to Dawn's spontaneous yet inevitable intrusions. As long as she learned to respect a closed bedroom door, then they'd get along just famously. "One: I think we can both do without that particular endearment, and two: that's entirely up to your sister," he said, bowing to Buffy's 'authority' on the second matter. He gave Buffy a smile to indicate his deference, adding, "Although it does make more sense that we take the larger, more comfortable bedroom."

"Plus it connects to the bathroom," Dawn added helpfully, clearly already envisioning a move of her own. "So you guys can take disgusting showers together and I won't ever have to know."

"Yes, well... " Giles cleared the embarrassment out of his throat. Still, Dawn did have a point. There was a twinkle in his eye as he smiled at Buffy, but the mischievous spark he felt was quickly shot down by the look of absolute horror on her face.

"Wait. You expect me to sleep with you--" She shook her head, revising her statement. "You expect me to have sex with you in my dead mother's bed?"

"Eww... " Dawn commented in disgust, and, having heard enough on that particular topic, promptly found somewhere else to be.

Suddenly frustrated, Giles combed his hand through his hair. How something so right could be turned so completely on its arse in less than thirty seconds was beyond his comprehension, and before he realized what he was doing, he was--again--using sarcasm as a weapon. "Well, I dare say we'll change the sheets first."

Buffy looked like she wanted to slap him, but moved away instead.

"Bloody good show, Giles," he mumbled to himself, realizing he'd really put his foot in it this time. He followed on her heels, threading through the living room to the far exit, across the hall, and on into the kitchen, calling her name. "Buffy... "

She completely ignored him, and instead, in the kitchen, started clearing up the leftovers of impromptu their takeout meal... which considering no one had eaten but Giles, was quite a lot.

Giles stopped and leaned his back against the wall, letting go his frustration on a sigh. "I'm sorry, love. That was an appalling thing to say."

"You're damn right it was." Snapping the plastic lids on the green beans and mashed potato sides, she angrily stowed the Styrofoam cups in the fridge, and then went in search of an airtight container in various cupboards to store the leftover biscuits.

"But it's just a piece of furniture," Giles insisted. Joyce's room--the master bedroom--was better suited for two. If they were going to do this--live together like a normal married couple--then they may as well be as comfortable as they could. Off Buffy's unwavering glare, he suggested a compromise. "We could buy a new bed, if you like. And all new linens." But she was still glaring, so he changed tact to an old faithful standby. "In fact, I believe it's time we went shopping together and spent a hefty sum of my retroactive Council pay on all those things we might need to do this right." Nothing like offering a woman a guilt-free, all expenses paid, shopping spree to put a man back in her good books. "Don't you agree?"

"That couch in there," Buffy said, unconvinced, pointing in the general direction from which they had just come, "is also 'just a piece of furniture,' Giles. But I can't even look at it now, any more than I could let you sleep on it tonight, and then see you lying there, the same way Mom--" Her lower lip trembled again, making her bite down hard on the rising emotional tide. She diverted her gaze. "Right now, I can't even face the thought of going into Mom's room, let alone ever sleeping in there... with or without you."

He hung his head in defeat. If that were truly how she felt, then the coming days were going to be even harder on her than he imagined.

"What are we gonna do with all Mom's stuff, anyway?" Dawn asked, reappearing in the kitchen doorway as if my magic. Despite her earlier request to go to her room, it was obvious that the teen found the idea of being alone tonight as unpalatable as the cold fried chicken still sitting on her dinner plate in the other room.

"I don't know," Buffy admitted, starting to bag the remainder of the chicken pieces in a Ziploc™. "Box it up, sell it, give it away--I honestly don't know right now, Dawn."

"Or we could just... y'know... keep it," Dawn suggested, sounding a little distressed at her sister's apparent disregard for the only keepsakes they had of their mother. She stepped more fully into the room, again looking at Giles for an ally. "Some of it, anyway."

He raised his arm, encouraging her to his side and into a hug. "I'm sure Buffy will let you keep whatever you like," he assured her.

But Buffy said nothing in reply, rather continued to bag the cold chicken with undue force.

Silence fell between them like a wedge of broken glass--Giles and Dawn wrapped in a hug on one side of the island counter, watching Buffy work diligently on the other. She disappeared into the dining room for a moment, only to return and unceremoniously dump the uneaten food in the trash, and their dirty plates in the sink.

"So like," Dawn said finally, unable to stand the tension any longer, "when do we... tell people?"

Giles briefly lifted his arm from Dawn's shoulders to regard his watch. It was only early evening, and there was no time like the present to begin the unpleasant task of making phone calls to friends and relatives to inform them of Joyce's passing. "Did you have someone in particular you wanted to... inform?" he asked gently, returning his hand to the teen's shoulder for a reassuring squeeze.

"Dad," she said, her gaze shifting from his to Buffy's. "I mean, he should be the first to know about Mom. Right?"

Buffy stopped, still as a statue, her hesitation all-telling. Then, attempting to cover, she resumed her cleaning up, tossing the empty red and white cardboard chicken bucket into the trash bin with a flourish. "Fine. If only we knew where he was."

"What about that phone number in Spain?"

"What about it? You know it didn't work last time we tried... when Mom went in for surgery."

"But it's the only one we have," Dawn protested.

"It's worth a try, Buffy," Giles said. Her glare made him belatedly realize he had, indeed, inadvertently taken Dawn's side again. He straightened from the wall, pulling back his shoulders and releasing the teen in the process. "Would you like me to make the call?"

Dawn was nodding teary approval, but Buffy was equally adamant in her refusal of his help.

"No. I'll do it." She stepped around the island counter in a decisive move, grabbing the kitchen phone extension from its wall holder. "It's just easier."

Giles nodded reluctantly, knowing she was probably right. Neither wanted his first contact with her errant father downgraded to an insult match, which it no doubt would when Hank discovered the truth of Giles' relationship with his eldest daughter. Joyce may have accepted, and even approved, their marriage, but Hank was still likely to come after him with the proverbial loaded shotgun.

"Dawn, will you get Mom's phone book?" Buffy asked quietly, staring at the phone keypad. "I think it's by the phone in the living room. Or in the drawer underneath," she called as Dawn obediently left to retrieve it.

Silence... so loud that he heard the hum of the dial tone all the way across the kitchen.

Giles watched Buffy carefully. She was still staring at the keypad, now with tears forming in her eyes. "Buffy?"

"I-I changed my mind. I don't think I can do this," she confessed, one wet drop suddenly splattering onto the phone. "I mean, how do I tell my father that my mother is dead?"

Reaching out, Giles crossed to take the phone from her unresisting hand. He said nothing, but hoped his actions would only reinforce what he'd already said; she didn't have to do this alone, she just needed to let him help.

With a shaky hand covering her mouth, Buffy backed away. Dawn returned with the small, cream and gold address book, took in who was now actually doing the calling in a glance, and offered the small book to Giles instead.

He thanked her with a look, and automatically thumbed the alphabetized index to 'H.'

"It's under 'D,'" Buffy told him quietly. "For 'Dad.'" She had retreated to the other side of the island again, arms folded and trying hard not to cry in front of her sister, but obviously wishing she were elsewhere. "I wrote it in when Mom first went into the hospital."

Giles found and dialed the long-digit number, watching Buffy and Dawn as he waited for the call to go through the international exchange. They had both fallen back into sullen silence, the miserable reality of what they were doing shattering their short reprieve.

"It's ringing," he reported.

"Well, that's better than I got when I tried," Buffy admitted, her body language shifting to something a little more apprehensive as she dreaded the possibility that she actually might have to speak with her loser-father.

"Maybe Dad had the number reconnected," Dawn suggested.

"Yeah, when he paid the bill," Buffy corrected bitterly.

They all waited anxiously for someone to pick up. But no one did, and eventually the line went dead.

Giles hung up the phone with a disappointed shake of his head--disappointed for the girls' sake, because now they'd have to go through the same anxiety of speaking to their deadbeat dad again later. "No answer."

"He could be asleep," Dawn said, still hopeful of making contact. "Isn't it, like, four in the morning or something there right now?"

"Or perhaps it's his office number," Giles added thoughtfully. He looked at Buffy, who was now remorsefully staring at the floor. "And Dawn's right, and it's simply not business hours in Madrid. We can try again later."

"We should call Aunt Arlene and Aunt Darlene, too," Buffy said quietly. Looking up, she somewhat sheepishly explained the rhyming names. "Mom's kid sisters in Illinois. They're twins."

Giles quirked an eyebrow. Never again would he wonder why the love of his life was named 'Buffy'...

* * * * *

An hour later, they had gone through the entire address book from 'Arlene' to 'Zek's Garage'. Giles had made short but poignant calls to the names and numbers Dawn identified as family and friends, while skipping those entries believed to be colleagues or buyers from the Gallery, or other business acquaintances.

Pressing the OFF button on the cordless, he rested his head back against the plump cushions of the couch, emotionally drained. There were only so many times that one could relate the same bad news and remain immune to the effect.

Dawn sat curled beside him the whole time in sullen silence, unwilling to move too far from the innate comfort and compassion he offered, while Buffy paced restlessly, unwilling to look at them, and unable to speak to her relatives.

'Perhaps,' he thought, concerned for her, 'perhaps she'll fare better when we call back in a day or so with the funeral arrangements... '

Giles glanced at his watch, noting the hour. "Should we try your father again? Or do you want to wait until the morning?"

"Wait," Buffy said immediately.

"Try him," Dawn said in unison.

Buffy rounded on her sister. "Wait," she insisted, and Dawn backed down without a fight.

"I think, perhaps, we should call it a night then," Giles suggested. "You both look... well, emotionally exhausted. It's been a very long and stressful day."

Buffy stopped pacing in order to give him a 'get real' look. "Giles, it's like nine o'clock. Not even Dawn goes to bed this early."

"I think I'm gonna," her sister said to the contrary, climbing up off the couch beside Giles. She stopped and turned to him, suddenly unsure about something. "Will you be here in the morning?"

"Always," he promised. "Goodnight, Dawn."

"'Night." Dawn surprised him by delivering an impulsive kiss on his cheek, before rushing out of the living room and up the stairs without so much as a look at her sister.

"I'm so glad to see you two have bonded," Buffy remarked shortly, sounding jealous rather than approving.

Giles held out his hand to her, his wedding ring catching the overhead light with a quick sparkle. "Come sit with me."

Buffy balked. Not at his invitation, but rather at his location. She shook her head, determined not to sit on that living room couch ever again. Clearly, he could add a new lounge suite to their shopping spree.

Deciding to cut her some slack, Giles wearily pushed to his feet. Stopping before her, he wrapped himself around her for a fleeting but much-needed hug. "How are you holding up?" he asked, his voice a soft whisper in her ear, his hand tracing comforting circles on her back.

"I'm not," Buffy admitted as they drew apart again. She looked up into his eyes, and he saw the helplessness still shining in them. "At least I don't think I am. I can't really tell. I just feel... numb."

"Sounds perfectly normal, given the circumstances." He raised his hand to her cheek. Now that she was permitting physical contact again, he couldn't stop touching her. "The only thing I can promise is that it will get better in time."

"Yeah, but we both know it's gonna get a whole lot worse first."

He nodded in sad agreement. The coming days were definitely going to take their emotional toll. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel wouldn't start to look any brighter until sometime after the funeral. They both knew that this quiet reprieve was just the lull before the storm--one of many they would face together. "You really should try to get some rest."

Buffy wasn't listening. Without breaking eye contact, she found his hand and gave it a desperate squeeze. "I'm just so grateful that you're here, taking care of us and actually wanting the job. I honestly don't know what we--what I would do without you." She glanced down. "I'm sorry I didn't see that before now." When she looked up at him again, grateful tears had made her eyes glassy. "I'm sorry I shut you out. I'm just... stupid, I guess."

"No, you're human."

She sniffed, trying not to cry. "I don't deserve you."

"Well, I'm afraid you're stuck with me. Because there's nowhere else I want to be, love, and nothing else I want to do. Not now, not ever." He frowned unexpectedly, prompting immediate alarm in Buffy's expression. "Perhaps that's not entirely true." Off her growing distress, he brought her hand to his lips for a reassuring kiss. "I really should pop home and pack a bag of clothes, otherwise I'll have to do it in the morning, and I did promise Dawn I'd be here when she wakes up."

Buffy was clearly relieved. "Don't scare me like that!"

He let their hands drop between them, but didn't let go. "Will you be all right for half an hour or so?"

"Yeah. I think I can manage without you for that long. I might... take a hot bath, then get into bed. Now that you mentioned it, I am kinda exhausted."

"I'll be as quick as I can." He made to step away, but she tugged on his fingers, holding him back.

"Promise?"

"I promise," he vowed, pulling her back into his arms and kissing her gently. Nothing on God's green earth could ever make him leave her.

Nothing, except for death itself...

* * * * *

He was trying for absolute silence as he opened the door to Buffy's bedroom, so the telltale creak of dry hinges made him grimace. Luckily, the noise wasn't loud enough to rouse her from slumber. Giles looked in on Buffy from afar, the same way he has just looked in on Dawn. Despite the day's tremendous upheaval, or maybe because of it, both girls had fallen asleep in his absence and appeared to be resting soundly. True, he had been longer than expected, chiefly because he went via the shop on the way back, double-checking that he had actually locked up this afternoon when he'd sped out of there like a bat out of hell.

As such, he didn't have the heart to wake either of them. So for an extended moment, he just stood there, hanging onto the partly opened door and watching the love of his life lie peacefully in the soft glow of moonlight. And in watching her, Giles found himself sorely tempted to shuck his clothes and join her. But as powerful as that desire was, another still overrode it. The day had been a poignant rollercoaster ride. Sleep was what she needed; loving would come later.

Trying to be just as silent as he closed the door, Giles withdrew out into the hall. With only the tiny glow of a nightlight to show his way, he bent to retrieve his newly packed suitcase of clothes in one hand, and the garment bag containing a fresh suit in the other. Since Buffy had already expressed alarm at discovering him sleeping on the couch, and since there really wasn't any other viable option, he headed, thus encumbered, for the closed door at the end of the hall.

It opened with the same telling squeak--he'd have to remember to pick up some hinge lubricant from the hardware store across from the Magic Box--and he stepped inside the unfamiliar darkness with an almost reverent feeling. While he had to admit that the idea of sleeping in Joyce's room so soon did have its moments of feeling a little odd, he also knew that as soon as his head hit the pillow and he closed his eyes, any weirdness would be quickly forgotten, as he wafted into that dreamy-Buffy-place he had been visiting nightly for more years than he was willing to admit.

True to form, she filled his subconscious the same way she filled his waking moments, and he was soon dreaming of holding her, and loving her, and seeing the silver in her hair as he grew to a ripe old age at her side...

Hours later, a barking dog woke him with a start, that and... something hard and unidentifiable, lodged in the small of his back. The numerous heavy aches in his body told him he had been sleeping in the same position on his side for too many hours on end, but also reminded him that he had not moved for a very specific reason.

Buffy.

Even blind, he would have recognized the familiar curve of her body tucked against his, the weight of her head on his arm as she slept in his embrace, the intimacy of her derriere nestled in his crotch.

Ignoring the uncomfortable wedge still in his back, he cracked open eager eyes in search of her. But the morning sunshine spilling in through Joyce's window was a sensory overload that prompted him to shut them again. He had forgotten to pull the curtains--truly the last thing on his mind when he'd changed into his sweatpants and t-shirt, and wearily climbed into bed.

Sometime during the small hours, he vaguely remembered waking, briefly, as Buffy crawled into bed and cuddled up beside him, now craving the comfort of his touch as vehemently as she had yesterday rejected it. Finding him in her mother's bed was apparently not as problematic for her as she'd earlier stressed, for they had quickly fallen back under the spell of slumber in the shelter of each other's arms.

He breathed deeply, taking in the lingering scent of her fragrant, fruity shampoo, her silky blonde hair fanned like spun gold across his pillow. His hand moved on her hip in a feathery caress, drawing the first contented sigh from her, while the welcoming morning kiss he reached to plant behind her ear induced another.

Giles finally opened his eyes as Buffy rolled over to face him--not a sight he intended to miss. To lay with her, to wake with her, was a tireless, lifelong ambition.

"Good morning," he said in a sleepy low tone, admiring her imaginative cow-spot pajamas with a subtle smile.

She stretched sleepily, her body momentarily brushing full length against his. "Hi, handsome."

He grinned. He loved it when she complimented him like that, reinforcing the fact that she only had eyes for him.

Buffy settled on his pillow with a loving smile, greeting him nose to nose, breath for breath. For the longest moment, they simply regarded one another, each content to revel in the sight of their lover in the stillness of the unspoiled morning, before the world was fully awake and the chaos of life began anew.

"Sleep all right?" he finally asked, although he knew she had. He would have felt her tossing and turning had her dreams been restless. What he was really asking, in veiled terms, was if sleeping in her mother's bed with him was indeed the mental obstacle she had earlier perceived.

"Yeah... strangely enough, I really did." Buffy propped herself on her elbow, the opposite hand with her wedding ring reaching out to touch his unshaven cheek. "Although I think maybe the company had a lot to do with that."

"I couldn't agree more."

She smiled, and was leaning down to kiss him when something caught her eye on the other side of the bed, behind him. She stopped, mid-way, frowning. "I just thought of something else we need to buy when we go on that shopping spree of yours," she said shrewdly, with a nod in that direction.

Giles followed her lead, half-turning onto his back in order to see what she was talking about.

"New locks," Buffy finished knowingly, just as he spied Dawn, curled up on his other side, her knee the solid something that was wedged so uncomfortably in his back.

"It wasn't locked," Dawn argued, proving she was awake despite the fact that her eyes were still closed, "which could be interpreted by some people as an open invitation." She opened her eyes to regard her sister, who was still peering down over Giles with a disapproving frown. "Or not," the teen apologized sheepishly. "Okay, I'm sorry already! I meant to scoot before either of you woke up. I just kinda... I needed... "

"It's all right, Dawn." Feeling compassion for the teen, as a father felt for a daughter, Giles favored her with a smile. "Under the circumstances, I don't see any harm done."

"Not this time," Buffy said, with a stern warning for her sister, "but you do not ever come into our bedroom again when the door is closed. Under pain of death. Capiche?"

Dawn took immediate sisterly offense. "This is Mom's room. You said you didn't want it."

"This was Mom's room," Buffy said, turning a loving smile back to her husband. "I had a change of heart."

He was relieved to hear that she'd conquered that fear, but more so to know that she truly was going to be all right. Together, they were going to get through this terrible time. Together, they could conquer anything.

Ignoring her sister, Buffy continued in her desire to kiss him, fully and passionately on the lips. Losing himself, Giles responded, his eyes closing and his hand cupping her cheek to hold her to him... until something moved at his back, jostling the bed in a way that forcefully broke his kiss.

"I am so not staying here if you guys are gonna start that," Dawn complained, swiftly jumping out of bed.

"No way we want you to," Buffy agreed lightly, eagerly reinstating the kiss.

With a groan of teenage disgust, Dawn left. At least Giles assumed that's what the rather loud and pointed closure of the door indicated. Letting her slip from thought, he concentrated on the task at hand. He took Buffy in his arms and rolled her over beneath him in order to kiss her more thoroughly. Waking up with her was most definitely a good thing...

Several breathless minutes later, they parted by mutual accord, and went back to sharing a pillow while looking into each other's eyes. Under other circumstances, they may have allowed their passion free reign, but today was not the day for that--something they both understood and accepted.

"I thought this would be a lot more freaksome," Buffy confessed quietly, again nose to nose with him. "But for some reason, it's not." She stretched out against him, smiling. "And that's definitely of the good."

"Yes," he agreed, teasingly, "it most certainly saved my wallet. Lord knows, you Summers women like to shop."

Buffy actually giggle, the sound never more pleasing to his ears. "C'mon, you just know I'm not gonna let you off the hook that easily."

"And somehow, I expected no less." He shared her smile, until she grew serious again.

"There is still the question of what we do with all of Mom's stuff. I mean, we can't keep it all--her clothes and that."

"There's no need to rush into any rash decisions. Take your time, love. Talk with Dawn, and together you can decide what you want for yourselves, and what to give away. Your aunts may wish to have something. Perhaps even your father, too." He combed his hand through her hair, away from her face, never tiring of the softness of it running through his fingers. "Which reminds me... there is something I need to give you."

"I'm talking about giving stuff away," Buffy quipped. "Now you're giving me prezzies?"

"Not exactly." Leaving her with a puzzled expression, he rolled over and got out of bed. His suit coat was hanging on the back of the chair to Joyce's makeup counter. Picking it up, he searched the left hand pocket, then returned to the bed with the item mostly hidden in his hand, which only served to stir Buffy's curiosity further still.

Hiking a knee on to the mattress, he sat beside her, his mood and posture suggesting that this was not be the sort of surprise she was going to enjoy. "Dr. Kriegel gave me this yesterday, in his office." He tipped the contents from the impersonal plastic bag onto his palm, then offered the few small items of Joyce's belongings to their rightful heir.

Then he waited, watching Buffy carefully for a reaction. At first, she didn't react... then, after what seemed like an eternity, she raised a shaky hand to pluck her mother's gold chain from the palm of his hand. She held it up, her lower lip quaking with pending tears, until the tiny gold cross on the end of it was suspended in mid-air between them. It spun of its own accord, catching a ray of morning sunlight. Joyce was not a religious woman, but in Sunnydale, wearing a cross was a necessity. Upon discovering her firstborn's true calling, Joyce had bought and donned the jewelry, and had not taken it off since.

Until yesterday.

Buffy's eyes traveled back to his, brimming with fresh tears--the first of many he would see that day. Sharing her remorse, he reached out his free hand to cup her cheek. His thumb chased away a stray tear, as he drew her towards him for a hug. Somewhere downstairs, they heard the telephone ring, but thought nothing more of it as Buffy sniffled against his t-shirt, and he laid a kiss to the top of her precious head.

"So what happens now?" Buffy asked sullenly.

"I'm afraid, first thing after breakfast, we need to go see Dr. Kriegel again. You still need to sign those release papers. Then, if you feel up to it, this afternoon we can touch base with the funeral home, and see how soon we can begin making... arrangements."

"Right," she agreed unhappily. "Time to be Buffy the Brave again."

"But not alone," Giles reiterated. "I'll ask Anya to open the shop, if she feels up to it today. If not, it can remain closed for as long as this takes." He pulled back to look at her, emphasizing his point. "I won't let you do this alone, Buffy... and don't you forget it."

She gave him a sad but cooperative smile, and then completely out of the blue, declared, "I love you."

"I love you, too," he responded in kind, the sincerity no less for its easy repetition. He kissed her again to seal the pledge.

The bedroom door burst open and Dawn rushed in unannounced.

Ending the kiss prematurely, Buffy eloquently asked her sister, "Dawn? Didn't we just have this discussion about doors?"

But Dawn ignored her, and it was only then that Giles noted the teen's somewhat frantic disposition... and the fact that she had the cordless telephone clutched to her ear.

"I know I sound upset. I am upset," she told the caller in a tone approaching hysterical. "No, I can't explain right now! No... no, you really can't! Here, talk to Buffy instead."

She stopped at the foot of the bed with tears welling in her eyes, and panic in her stance, completely oblivious to Buffy's scowl of certain death.

Without pause, Dawn clamped one hand over the mouthpiece and thrust the phone toward her sister. Her voice cracked with emotion as she announced, "It's Dad!"

Read the next chapter: Evergreen