The Unbreakable Series
Part 8 - Evergreen

written by Koala





Buffy looked... well, 'horrified' was the first impression that sprang to Giles' mind. At that moment, she utterly and completely dreaded the prospect of talking to her father on the telephone.

Dawn, on the other hand, was on the verge of a meltdown of the hysterical sort. Still standing at the foot of their bed with her hand clamped over the phone's mouthpiece, she again thrust the kitchen cordless towards them and pleaded with her sister to take the unexpected call. "He wants to talk to Mom! Buffy, you have to tell him!"

Tell him that their mother was dead...

Giles felt the tension in Buffy. He freed himself from her desperate embrace, offering a small smile of encouragement when she seemed reluctant to let him go. He took the opportunity to tip the items of jewelry from his palm, back into the plastic bag Dr. Kriegel had given him yesterday--Joyce's personal belongings that had been removed from her body in the morgue. He entrusted them to the safety on the nightstand, where Buffy could find them later. Prior to Dawn bursting into their bedroom unannounced, he and Buffy had started to go through the sentimental contents; indeed, she still had her mother's gold chain wrapped around her hand.

Noting Buffy's body language--the stiffness in her spine and the fact that she had not yet responded to her sister's plea--his hand returned to her shoulder in silent confirmation of his support.

Buffy's horrified expression suddenly dissolved into a teary one. She nodded at Dawn in acceptance of what she needed to do, the action inadvertently loosening one wet drop, which spilled freely down over her cheek. Hand outstretched, she reached across the ruffled bedcovers to take the phone from her relieved-looking sibling.

As Dawn gratefully relinquished possession, Giles heard Hank Summers' tinny voice filling the morning silence. Over and over, the man asked what was wrong, clearly wondering why neither of his daughters was answering.

Sniffing back her emotions, Buffy put the phone to her ear. "Dad?" she asked timidly, staring at the chain that had belonged to her mother. The small gold cross on the end of it glistened in the cheery morning sunlight.

Although Giles was no longer able to hear Hank's voice, he could well imagine the ensuing conversation, the hard questions fired off in rapid succession, none of which Buffy seemed in a particular hurry to answer. When she clammed up completely and let go of her tears in earnest, Giles knew the task of disclosing the bad new had instead fallen to him. Not that he resented the job; indeed, he had spent last night calling all the relatives and friends he and the girls had found in Joyce's address book to tell them the same.

Gently moving to take the phone from Buffy's unresisting fingers, Giles used his free arm to gather her into a hug. Together, they settled back against the plump pile of pillows at the head of their bed, where she sobbed quietly against him while he spoke to her father for the first time.

Hank was still asking what was going on--his temper flaring at the continual lack of answers--as Giles lifted the phone to his ear. Without waiting for a cue, he interrupted the tirade. "Mr. Summers... Hank... "

There was a pause on the other end, then a snide comment. "Who the hell are you? Joyce's new boy-toy?"

"I most certainly am not," Giles said, instantly affronted by both the insinuation and the unpleasant tone. He'd never met the man, and already he didn't like him.

Hank snickered. "Excuse me... 'man-friend.' At least you sound my age."

"I'm Rupert Giles. And I'll have you know that I'm--" He hesitated as Buffy's fist clutched the front of his t-shirt.

She vehemently shook her head, and just like last night when he had called her relatives, silently begged him not to tell the truth. Buffy insisted it was simply 'easier,' and Giles grudgingly had to admit that she did have a point. Because to explain his relationship with Buffy first, garnering the inevitable congratulations and well wishes for a happy marriage, and then following up by dropping the bombshell of Joyce's death was not the sort of phone call he would like to receive, either.

"--a good friend of the family," Giles finished with a frown at her for making him lie. Again.

"Sure," Hank said, unconvinced. "Not that it's any of my business. What's good for the gander, eh? It's about time Joycee let her hair down and had some fun. She's not getting any younger, you know."

Giles elected not to make a rather tasteless comment on just how right he was on that count. Instead, he moved slightly to accommodate Dawn, as she crawled onto the bed on his other side. He lifted the arm with the phone, allowing her to lay her head on his shoulder. In short order, both girls where huddled with him in much the same way as on the couch last night when he made similar phone calls, looking to him for comfort against their grief as they once again listened to him relate the news of their mother's passing. "Hank, there's something Buffy and Dawn would like me to tell you."

"Yeah? Well, why don't you put one of them back on and let them tell me themselves? I mean, I arrive at work this morning and my callback service tells me that someone from America tried to phone last night. I check, but it's not any of my Stateside associates, so I do the right thing--I wait for an appropriate hour and I call my girls to see if it was them... and first Dawn sounds close to hysterics, then Buffy bursts into tears... and neither of them will put their mother on." As if something tweaked in his brain for the first time, his tone grew a little more apprehensive. "What the hell's going on over there, Giles? And where's Joyce?"

"Joyce is dead," Giles said flatly. He hadn't meant to sound so blunt, but in the few moments they had been talking, Hank Summers had completely managed to tick him off. Cold as it was, that, at least, shut up the smart-talking mouth. But given the way Hank's daughters were both holding onto him in the wake of his words, it also made Giles feel incredibly callous. Trying to muster up an ounce of compassion for the man, he ran his free hand up and down Buffy's arm and amended, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for you to hear it like that."

Hank took a moment to recover from the shock. When he next spoke, despite what he should have been feeling for his ex-wife in the wake of such news, his tone still came across as hostile. "How'd it happen? Car accident? I told her that damn Jeep was a rollover waiting to happen, but would she listen?"

"No, it was a medical condition," Giles said, realizing he would probably have to explain.

Hank knew nothing of Joyce's brain tumor or its subsequent removal, simply because the phone number he had previously given Buffy and Dawn had been disconnected at the time when they had tried to call. Although he was their father, he hadn't cared enough about them to keep in regular contact after the phone problem was fixed.

Giles glanced at Hank's daughters, both sullenly silent and no doubt reliving the experience of their mother's death through his words. "A brain aneurysm," he explained.

Buffy looked up at his words, guilty tears blurring her eyes. She still blamed herself for not being there, for sitting in the children's playground with April the Robot while her mother died.

"There wasn't anything anyone could have done," he said, mostly to Buffy. "It was very sudden and, I'm told, not painful. She didn't suffer."

"Shit... " Hank swore, the sound of it immediately making Giles bristle. Despite their divorce, Joyce deserved more from the man to whom she had given the formative years of her life than a cold, harsh expletive. "Put Buffy back on."

Giles looked down at his wife again, meeting her gaze. "Yes, she's, um... " He made a motion with his the phone, suggesting that her father wanted to talk to her. Buffy immediately caught on, and with widening eyes, vigorously shook her head. "I'm afraid she's unavailable at present."

"'Unavailable?' What the hell does that mean? I'm her father! Put her on the damn phone, now!"

As loud as Hank's voice was, Buffy heard the request for herself that time. Clamping the phone to his chest to mute it, Giles lowered his tone to a whisper. "Buffy, as much as it pains me to admit, he's right. He's upset, understandably so. You really should talk to him."

"No." She pulled away, out of his embrace, looking at him with tear-burned eyes. "I can't," she declared, jumping off the bed and rushing into the bathroom to escape.

The door slammed, and his heart ached for her... even if he didn't understand her reasoning. His natural instinct was to go to her and comfort her. He certainly didn't have any more time for her loser-father's lack of compassion. He had nothing in common with the man, and from this brief but telling introduction, he wasn't likely to find common ground with him anytime soon.

Hank was still ranting when Giles put the phone back to his ear. He decided to go with a 'brutally honest' approach, and to hell with what Hank thought of him. This wasn't about Hank Summers, or what he did or did not feel at the moment; it was about Buffy needing his comfort and support to get through this terrible time. "I'm afraid, the truth is that Buffy simply doesn't want to talk to you right now."

"Doesn't want--? But she's--!" Hank changed tack, his tone accusatory. "Just who the hell are you?"

"Nor do I. Good day." Looking at the keypad, ignoring the tinny threats and curses directed his way, Giles thumbed the OFF button to end the call. He tossed the phone to the bottom of the bed with a disgruntle sneer. 'Pillock... '

Lifting her head from his shoulder, Dawn looked at him with reddened eyes. She sniffled once, barely holding it together. "He can be a real jerk sometimes."

"Yes, he can," Giles agreed readily, still fuming from the encounter.

"But he's still my dad, and that kinda gives him a 'get out of Jerkdom free' card in my book, y'know?"

Her words softened his frown into a smile. And with those few words, Dawn made him see that truth for what it was. In the wake of Joyce's death, any reconciliation between Hank and his daughters could only be beneficial. As Dawn had just reminded him, family was important, perhaps never more so than in times like these. And as distant as members became over the years, drifting through life on their own separate paths, it was a sad but honest fact that death was the one sure way to bring them all back in contact. "Yes, you're quite right. And I... probably shouldn't have hung up on him."

"Nah," Dawn said, with a little grin, "that he deserved."

Giles chuckled, giving her a fatherly hug. They sat in silence for a moment, enjoying the company in the morning stillness, but when his gaze inadvertently drifted to the closed bathroom door, Dawn drew away.

"You should probably go to her," she said, obviously disappointed to discover where he truly wanted to be.

With a warm smile for both her astuteness and her maturity, Giles nodded. And although there was nothing more he wanted to do than comfort his distraught wife, the vulnerability and loneliness in Dawn's expression gave him pause. Clearly, Buffy wasn't the only one in need of his support.

"How are you holding up?" he asked gently, his hand returning to her arm, the physical contact conveying his compassion. He wanted her to know that despite all that Buffy meant to him, he still had plenty of love left over for her.

Dawn shrugged, trying to be nonchalant, but she couldn't hold his gaze. "Okay, I guess. Maybe better than Buffy is." Hesitating, she glanced at the closed and silent bathroom door. "I know I shouldn't have sprung that on her--Dad, I mean--but I panicked. I didn't mean to upset her. Honest! I just... just... "

When she struggled for the right words, tears welling again, Giles hushed her gently. "It's all right, Dawn. You did what your instincts told you. You came to Buffy--to us--for help." He mustered up a smile for her. "And despite your father's cantankerous disposition this morning, we survived."

Dawn turned hopeful eyes on him. "Just like a real family?"

"Just like," Giles promised. Even now, the morning after a day of tragedy and tears, his vow to unite the three of them as a real family remained a solid goal. There wasn't much else he could offer them, in this life they were forging on the mouth of Hell, other than to try to be a better husband to Buffy and a surrogate father to Dawn.

As if to prove she was onboard with this newfound philosophy, Dawn initiated another quick hug, but just as quickly terminated it. Hesitating, her gaze again found the closed bathroom door. "I figure there's probably some stuff that you guys need to take care of today."

He nodded gravely. "There is rather a lot to do in the wake of... in preparation of... "

Dawn looked at him directly, sparing him the words that he really didn't want to say. "I wanna come with," she said determinedly. "I wanna be involved, okay?"

Although Giles understood Dawn's motives, he didn't think that letting the teen accompany him and Buffy to Dr. Kriegel's office to sign the outstanding morgue paperwork, and then to the mortuary to make the funeral arrangements, was in any way in her best interest. "Dawn, I really don't think--"

"I don't wanna be left here all alone!"

Her raised tone shocked him back to grim reality. Of course she didn't, and it was insensitive of him not to have considered her feelings about being left alone in the house so soon after her mother's death. School was, understandably, not an option today. Not this soon. Alternatively, he could have suggested that she spend the day with Xander and Anya, or Willow and Tara, but even to him, that simply sounded as if he were trying to push her out of the way while he and Buffy attended to adult matters. Even though Dawn had not been born to Joyce in the conventional sense, she was still Joyce's daughter in all the ways it counted. Leaving her out of decisions of this magnitude was, perhaps, something her father would have done, and Giles wasn't about to make the same mistake.

With an understanding sigh, he quietly gave in to her wishes. "Very well. If you think you're feeling up to it."

"Yeah." Nodding, her sad smile turning even more melancholy as she realized exactly what was in store for her that day, Dawn climbed off the bed. She retrieved the cordless telephone from the ruffled bedcovers by his feet, and back-stepped toward the bedroom door. "So I'll just, like, go learn how to make hot tea... since it's probably something I'll be doing a lot of from now on." She paused on the threshold. "I'm glad you're here, Giles."

"Well, I'm glad you're glad," he returned fondly. "Because there's nowhere else I plan to be other than here with you and Buffy."

With a look of heartfelt gratitude, she disappeared out into the upstairs hall, leaving the bedroom door open in her wake.

His smile fell in her absence, as his apprehension returned in full. Blowing out a heavy sigh, Giles' gaze once more zeroed in on the wooden barrier separating him and his grief-stricken wife. Steeling himself for the emotional eruption that no doubt awaited, he moved across the room to listen, with some trepidation, for any clue as to what may be happening within.

Contrary to what he expected, absolute silence greeted him.

At least, he concluded optimistically, at least Buffy hadn't taken to locking herself in there, inconsolably crying her eyes out.

He rapped gently. "Darling?"

No answer.

He tried the door handle, relieved to find it unlocked. "Buffy?" he called softly, pushing it open.

He found her sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, shoulders slumped, head down, staring at her mother's gold chain.

Without a word, Giles squatted in front of her, trying to make eye contact. "Love?" He combed a stray lock of hair back from her cheek.

His touch made Buffy lift her head to regard him, her tears gone but her eyes still red. "Was he mad?"

It took him a moment to realize that her question was in reference to her father, and that she was not--as he assumed--overcome with fresh grief for her mother. Giles swiveled to one knee. "Yes, he was, rather. But not at you."

Her eyes widened in alarm, fearing the truths he may have told in her absence. "Oh God, you didn't... ?"

Instantly on the same wavelength, Giles fought to keep his frustration of that particular subject at bay. Her excuse that it was simply 'easier' not to admit that they were married was starting to make him question just who was benefiting from the lie.

Mustering up a terse smile, he nonetheless attempted to allay her fears of him having confessed. "No, I didn't tell him about us. I'm afraid I... rather rudely hung up on him in mid-tirade."

"Oh." Buffy looked relieved, but she glanced away with a frown upon realizing that this action had probably done nothing to improve her father's mood, or endear her husband to him. "Oh."

Giles cupped her face in his hand and brought her gaze back to his, his thumb wiping the last wet track from her cheek. "In a day or so all will be forgotten. You can call him then, or whenever you feel up to the task, and I'm sure he'll be happy to hear from you."

"Maybe. I guess. As long as he doesn't give me the third degree about you... which you just know he will."

Unhappy with her insistence to keep their relationship under wraps, his gaze dipped momentarily. "Buffy, your father is going to discover the truth about us eventually, and it will only hurt him more--and anger him more--the longer you wait to tell him." He looked back at her. "Didn't you tell me he was involved with his much-younger secretary?"

"Can you say 'hypocrite-much'?"

"Then perhaps you've misjudged him, and his reaction. Your mother accepted me... even approved of me, in her own way. As I'm sure will your father and the rest of your family." He gave her a coy little grin, hoping to receive one back. "I'm not such a bad chap, after all."

Buffy failed to see any humor in the subject. "My dad is not like Mom," she explained hopelessly. "Look, he hasn't been part of my life since high school, okay? Before that even. And I don't want 'you and me' to be the reason he thinks that he should be now. You do remember the 'chasing you with a shotgun' thing, right? I'm telling you, he'll just cause trouble."

Giles still hoped to make her see the sense in some sort of compromise. "Or, in light of yesterday, it's possible that now is the perfect time for reconciliation."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "You've never met him. And you know what? If I have my way, he'll stay in sunny Spain with Miss Perfect Boobs forever, and you'll never have to."

"Buffy--"

"Giles, you heard, on the phone, what a jerk he can be. He didn't send me a birthday card; he didn't even call back when Mom got sick." She looked into his eyes, wanting him to agree with something that he simply could not. "He won't understand. And no way will he ever approve of you."

He let go a sigh. Buffy's reluctance to tell the truth was becoming more insult than irritation. "Darling, in case you haven't noticed, I don't need your father's 'understanding' or his 'approval' in order to love you. And since I'm not some flat-broke college boy who needs to gain his favor in order to procure financial support, he can think what he bloody-well-likes of me."

When she glanced at her hands in her lap, twisting her mother's gold chain around her fingers, Giles made a concerted effort to calm his exasperation toward her, and her father's anticipated and no doubt colorful condemnation, before he spoke again.

"I simply meant... you're no longer the child he still perceives you to be. You're a young woman who makes her own decisions, Buffy, one of which was to marry me. Regardless of what your father thinks about us, there's not a bloody thing he can do to change it."

"I just don't need him--want him--butting into my life right now."

Such was the adamancy in her tone that Giles hung his head in defeat. It was clear that her decision not to reveal the truth of their relationship ran deeper than her thinly veiled excuse that it was 'easier' on all involved. If knowledge of their marriage was the potential motivation to bring Hank back to Sunnydale, then not telling him was surely Buffy's way to keep him at a distance. She refused to accept that, despite his shortcomings, Hank Summers was still her father, and that now was the perfect time for her to forgive him for his abandonment and welcome him back into her life.

'Unless . . .'

The thought came to Giles unbidden, piercing his heart with the force and sharpness of breaking glass.

Was there another reason she didn't want to introduce him to her father, or her relatives?

"Are you ashamed of me?" he asked quietly. He risked a glance up, his hand finding hers and wrapping her cold fingers in his warmth.

Buffy's eyes grew wide. "What? No!" Her grip tightened around his. "Oh, sweetie, no! I love you!"

He brought her hand to his lips for a quick kiss, confident, at least, on that count. "I know you do, but that wasn't what I asked." Then he met her gaze head on. "Are you embarrassed to tell your father--and your family--that you married a man more than twice your age?"

She wrapped her other hand around the one he held. "I could never be embarrassed of you. 'By you', maybe, if you go wearing that silly sombrero in public anytime in the next millennia... but never 'of you.'"

"Are you sure?"

"Giles!" she said in protest. "Of course I'm sure."

He nodded reluctantly, still harboring inner doubts yet letting the subject die. Looking down, lest she notice the reservation in his eyes, he regarded their joined hands... which was when he noted a loop of Joyce's gold chain poking out from between Buffy's fingers. Gently unfurling them, he took the chain and pooled it, and the gold cross on the end, into his palm.

"This afternoon, when we go to the funeral home," Buffy said quietly, "I want to give that back to Mom." She shrugged, unsuccessfully staving off the wellspring of grief that immediately threatened. "Or at least, give it to the funeral director to put on her body--"

The word was her undoing, and before Giles could further reflect on Buffy's reasons for wanting to hide him in the family shadows, she sputtered into tears. Thinking only of her, he shifted to kneel before her. He kissed her head and pulled her close, whispering comforting words against an ache that had no solace in any given tongue.

"Giles?" Dawn's voice, coming from the other side of the bathroom door that exited into the upstairs hall, sounded hesitant. "Buffy? You guys okay in there?"

Buffy immediately pulled out of his embrace and fought for control of her tears, drying her eyes with an unsteady hand. "God... I don't want her to see me like this. It'll just upset her."

"We're fine, Dawn," Giles called, his concerned gaze still fixed on his grieving wife.

"You're not, like, doing anything naughty in there, are you? On second thought, don't answer that," the teen amended quickly. "I really don't wanna know."

Returning her mother's gold chain to the palm of her hand for safekeeping, Giles closed Buffy's fingers around it and bent his head to impart a loving kiss. With another kiss to her forehead as he stood, he crossed to the hallway door. As per Buffy's wishes, he cracked it open only as far as was necessary, using his body to conceal the interior from Dawn's inquisitive eyes.

He gave the teen a smile to subdue her curiosity. "We'll be down in a moment. Was there something you needed?"

Dawn abruptly quit trying to peer past him and turned her attention to him instead. "I just wanted to tell you your tea's ready. And... I'm kinda hungry, on account of that whole 'not eating' thing yesterday, so I was thinking... you want eggs and toast with that?"

He nodded, even though breakfast was literally the last thing on his mind. At least she hadn't suggested cold, leftover, fried chicken. "Sounds lovely."

"Scrambled, sunny-side up, or over easy?"

The soft sound of running water distracted him, but he dared not spare a glance behind to see what Buffy was doing lest he pique Dawn's interest as well. "Whichever you prefer."

Dawn seemed satisfied. Either that, or she again instinctively knew that she was intruding, and that his focus was elsewhere. "Right. Don't be long, okay?"

Giles nodded again, more relieved at her departure than thankful for her offer of breakfast. As Dawn headed back down to the kitchen, he shut the bathroom door and faced his wife. Buffy had run some water into the vanity sink and was staring blankly into the mirror above it, drips from a cold splash still clinging to her face. Moving to her side, he offered her a towel, which she took mechanically, without any real recognition.

"You'd better go supervise," Buffy said, drying off. "Dawn and cooking are unmixy things. Believe me when I say the last thing I need today is for her to accidentally burn down the house."

Despite the humor in her words, she remained staring at her reflection. Feeling for her, Giles' hand found its way to her shoulder. He regarded her via the mirror, hoping for a reaction, but she kept her gaze diverted.

"You're probably right," he offered, trying to lighten the tense mood. "The integration of a teen into the world of culinary arts is a dangerous affair." When Buffy's flat expression didn't even crack, he gave her shoulder a squeeze, but she still remained frozen and indifferent to his presence. "Why don't you shower and dress? You'll feel better," he added, feeling uncomfortable despite himself. "I'll make sure Dawn doesn't do too much damage to breakfast."

"'Kay." Without meeting his gaze, Buffy pulled out from under his touch. She moved to the hall door and opened it with the caution of someone defusing a bomb, then, after finding the area sibling-free, she wordlessly ducked across into her bedroom, presumably for a change of clothes.

Giles watched her with mixed emotions. Despite her apparent willingness today to accept physical contact, in other ways she almost seemed even colder toward him than she had yesterday, when she continuously pushed him away. Her aversion to revealing the truth of their marriage to her father and her family still bothered him on some deeper level, but since he knew from experience that grief made some people act irrationally, he decided not to push the issue just yet.

Still, it was for the protection of his own fragile heart that he vacated the bathroom prior to her return.

* * * * *

Despite Dawn's valiant effort for 'fried eggs with tomato and toast,' breakfast turned into a rather large vegetable and cheese omelet made by Giles, its king size due to the fact that the teen's skill at cracking eggs without breaking the yolks was nonexistent. The time passed cordially enough while Buffy showered and dressed, Giles and Dawn acting as if they had been making breakfast together for years. All in all, it gave him a sense of purpose, and a sense of acceptance--something that had recently become lacking in his relationship with the teen's older sister.

Buffy searched for and found a photocopy of her mother's Last Will & Testament in a drawer in the master bedroom. When they checked in with Joyce's lawyer for the original, Giles suggested they should also remember to ask if there were any other papers, such as a life insurance policy. Over a second cup of hot tea came the somewhat untraditional reading of the Will. Buffy and Dawn sat in sullen silence at their places around the table as Giles read the single page aloud. Less formal than in a lawyer's office, the familiar family atmosphere helped disperse the anguish of the moment, and while some tears were still shed, it was a necessary task that provided some vital information for the day ahead.

Joyce's Will had been written the year after her arrival in Sunnydale. Although it precluded Giles as part of the family and therefore a benefactor, it clearly stated that Buffy, if of age, should become sole guardian of her sister, until such time that Dawn turned eighteen. Joyce named Buffy her executor, and left everything she owned, including her minor partnership in the art gallery, to be divided equally between her daughters. To her twin sisters in Illinois, provided they did not pre-decease her, she left a lump sum of $10,000 each, which together with any outstanding medical and funeral bills, Buffy dolefully figured would pretty much deplete her mother's bank account. Hank Summers didn't even get a mention.

On conclusion of his reading, Dawn quietly asked to be excused and sequestered herself in the bathroom for the next hour. Understanding that she needed some 'alone time,' Giles let her be and suggested that Buffy do the same. Instead, they washed and dried the breakfast dishes with little conversation passing between them, after which Buffy began some impromptu housecleaning.

Left to his own devices, and realizing he needed to shower and shave and get the day moving, Giles checked on Dawn. In the upstairs hall, upon finding the bathroom still occupied, he gave serious thought to the possibility of adding a second. When, finally, it was his turn, one look from the doorway confirmed that a good chunk of his retroactive Council pay was indeed going toward some future remodeling and renovation.

And possibly maid service.

The mess was extensive, far beyond anything he thought two females capable of making in the given timeframe. The fresh laundry hamper provided him with the last dry towel in existence, but the lukewarm water failed him just after he had his hair lathered in shampoo. He was practically a popsicle when he stepped out, shivering and teeth chattering, having used colder-than-cold water to rinse the soap from his scalp.

Tomorrow morning, he was bloody going first...

Of course, all the suffering would have been worthwhile had he found Buffy waiting for him in their bedroom ready to warm him up, but, as he unenthusiastically predicted, she was nowhere in sight. Not that, this morning, he truly expected the sort of 'warming up' from her that his libido was planning, but it would have pleased him no end to find her there, regardless, making a start on truly turning her mother's bedroom into 'theirs.'

Everywhere he looked, Joyce was still there. Her clothes, jewelry, makeup... even her choice of wall art.

And in the corner, beneath the window, his suitcase, left open last night when he procured some sleeping attire in the dark. T-shirts and boxer shorts hung out over one corner; shoes several sizes bigger than what someone would have expected to find were parked under the makeup table; his clean suit, still in his garment bag, hung from the handle on the front of the closet door; his discarded one draped limply over the back of a chair.

Looking around, he concluded that at least he had made an attempt, paltry though it was, at the transition. By contrast, there was nothing at all of Buffy's in this room; in fact, on second glance, it appeared that he shared this temporary little love nook with Joyce.

Detouring from where that line of thought was headed, Giles unhappily decided that the bathroom, too, could do with the addition of his shaving kit and sport-scented deodorant stick, proudly proclaiming his masculinity in a domain populated exclusively by females for far too long. Provided, of course, he could find space in the forest of shampoo bottles and other beauty aids to put them.

Sighing as he unearthed some casual clothes from his case, he knew that--yes--he was probably being unfair, and--yes--it was perhaps too soon to expect that sort of voluntary adjustment from Buffy, even though she had been the one to invite herself in last night, and crawl into bed with him. Clearly, her heart had accepted the coming change, even if her head hadn't yet recognized what she needed to do to accomplish it.

While dressing, he pondered the idea of unpacking, if only to give himself a less 'homeless road warrior' look, which he was destined to adopt if he didn't soon find hangers for his dress shirts and suits. Ultimately, he decided that creased and rumpled clothing was simply going to be his curse for the time being. The last thing he wanted was to appear pushy, clearing Joyce's things out of a drawer or into the corner of the closet in favor of his own. Buffy and Dawn needed time to grieve, and time to adjust to his permanent presence.

Polishing his glasses on a clean handkerchief, he headed back downstairs, ready to face whatever the day threw at him. He just hadn't expected it to throw it quite so soon.

He found Buffy on all fours, cleaning a stain off the hall carpet near the kitchen door, while trying not to let herself deteriorate into an uncontrollable teary mess. With a wad of paper towel in one hand and a spray bottle of carpet cleaner in the other, she scrubbed in a manner that suggested her mind wasn't really on the task, but rather lost in the reason behind what had caused it. Watching her, it suddenly registered that he had found her in a similar position yesterday, when he arrived at the house just minutes after her chilling monotone phone call to the shop.

She was cleaning up her own day-old vomit.

Buffy tore another excessive wad of toweling from the almost depleted roll and gave the soaked, clean spot of carpet another dousing of spray, before resuming her diligent scrubbing. One look told him that she'd been on this job for a while, judging from the way the cleaned area stood out against the rest of the hallway runner. Evidently, her ultimate goal was to eliminate the pattern.

Giles went to her, picking her up to put a stop to her 'mad maid' routine. "Buffy... come on, love, it's clean." 'Like the rest of the bloody house,' he thought, a quick glance around revealing exactly how Buffy had spent her time since he'd gone upstairs. "You can stop now."

Buffy tried to pull away. "No! I have to... it's still... I need to... "

"No, you don't," he said, forcefully holding onto her arms to prevent her from returning to her knees. She immediately stopped struggling, and looked at him with a startled expression that suggested her focus had been so intense that, until that second, she had no clue that the spot--or the house--was actually clean. His heart broke for her. "You don't," he reiterated gently, noting the white residue of cleaning agents encrusted on her hands. "Come on. Let's get you washed up."

He stripped her of her spray bottle and left it with the mountain of used paper towel, in the middle of the hall floor. Arm around her shoulders, he led her into the nearby kitchen and around the island counter to the sink. There, he grabbed a squirt of lemon-scented liquid soap from the dispenser, ran some water, and gently began to wash the coating from her fingers. The contact was immediately intimate, with the sound of the tap dribbling in the background, the morning sunshine spilling in through the pane above the sink to illuminate her golden hair, and the feel of her small fingers soaped in suds and slipping through his.

"You broke a nail," he observed casually.

"Yeah, a couple actually," Buffy said. She shrugged, avoiding his gaze, confirming that she felt none of the fledgling desire sparking between them. "They'll grow back."

Giles raised an eyebrow. This from the girl who, just a few years ago, would have stopped everything and let the world go to hell in a hand basket over a broken fingernail.

He focused his attention on removing the crud spotted on her wedding band, her small hands dancing with his in the soapsuds, twisting around and around, sliding in and out, slick and effortless. It would have been an incredibly erotic experience, had Buffy not been too emotionally numb to notice.

The shrill ring of the telephone abruptly intruded. They looked at it simultaneously, sitting so innocuously in its cradle on the opposite countertop, where Dawn had returned it earlier. Buffy immediately tensed, her soapy fingernails biting into his skin with the grip of a ravenous pitbull, as the irrational fear that it might be her father calling back took hold.

Neither moved. Then, after half a dozen rings, it just as abruptly stopped.

Buffy visibly relax. A little chagrined, Giles rinsed the excess lather from them both, turned off the tap, and bundled Buffy's hands in a soft, terrycloth kitchen towel. He shared the drying with her in morose silence, trying but failing to catch her eye.

The phone rang again, instantly bringing that look of sheer dread back to her face. Giles scowled, and made a pointed decision to answer the bloody thing. Let him rant, let him rave; he could handle Hank Summers. Still, determined to be courteous for Buffy's sake, when he lifted the receiver, his tone was civil.

"Hello?"

"Yo, G-man. Figured I'd find you there this morning."

"Good morning, Xander," he said, watching the apprehension drained from Buffy for a second time in less than two minutes.

"So... busy with a little hanky and a little panky, were we? That why I had to call twice?"

"Actually, we were washing our hands," Giles said, truthful but amused.

Xander paused, and Giles could almost see his boyish confusion all the way down the telephone line. "Okay, if that's how you do it in England, fine and dandy. And apart from cleanliness, how goes it at the Summers' house today?"

Giles was a little more serious when he answered. The interlude had passed; it was back to facing the somber mood of the day. He checked his wristwatch against his internal timetable. They needed to be at the hospital by mid-morning and finish up the paperwork, which would leave the afternoon free to make contact with the funeral home and get the ball rolling there. While none of them was eager to face this responsibility, it was, quite simply, something that had to be done.

"We're coping," he told Xander, mindful of the tenuous line both Buffy and Dawn were walking between 'coping' and 'absolute misery.' "As well as to be expected." He glanced over at Buffy as she neatly folded the kitchen towel and returned it to its hanger. She stood there for a moment, just looking at it, lost and unsure of what to do next. He really did need to get them all moving, provide some direction for them to follow. To Xander, he said, "I was, um, planning to call you later and speak with Anya. See if she feels up to opening the shop for a few hours this afternoon. If not, that's perfectly understandable. It can remain closed all week, if need be."

Xander's voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. "Between us guys, that's probably not a bad idea. She's taking this thing with Joyce really hard, Giles, maybe even harder than me. I think... I think she needs something to do--y'know?--to keep her mind off things."

"Yes, I do know," Giles said, looking up as Buffy wandered aimlessly out of the kitchen. Concerned for what she may attempt next in order to 'keep her mind off things,' he followed discreetly, with the cordless clutched to his ear. But he stopped when he saw that she had taken a plastic garbage bag from under the sink when he wasn't looking, intent on picking up the wads of soggy, used paper towel in the hall.

"Watch ya doing?" Dawn asked Buffy, sliding around the corner of the living room with her hairbrush in hand.

Xander said, "Hang on, I'll get An for you."

As he waited for Anya to come on the phone, Giles watched Buffy stand, rubbish forgotten in favor of what she perceived as a more worthwhile and time-consuming pursuit. Taking Dawn's hairbrush, Buffy led her sibling through into the living room. Giles followed as far as the doorway, where he parked a shoulder, and remained attentive but not intrusive. As expected, Buffy balked as they approached the couch, but she put on a brave face for her sister's sake, and together the two sat on the couch that, just twelve hours ago, Buffy had insisted she would never sit on again.

"Hello? Giles? Hello?" Anya asked. "Xander, there's no one there... "

"Good morning, Anya," Giles said, still distracted by Buffy and Dawn, who were talking quietly but out of his earshot.

Buffy started to brush her sister's long auburn locks. Dawn nodded at something Buffy said, and then, in a display of sisterly bonding, allowed Buffy to start braiding her hair into two long plaits.

Satisfied that neither was in danger of an emotional meltdown in the next few minutes, Giles took advantage of the short reprieve and slipped back out into the hall. There, he devoted his attention to Anya, who also needed the comfort and support of her friends. "Xander tells me that you may feel like making some money today... "

* * * * *

It was coming up on noon when they arrived at Sunnydale General's morgue wing to finalize the paperwork to release Joyce's body. Security was unusually tight, the corridors crawling with men and women wearing the black and blue uniforms of the Sunnydale Police Department.

Lost in their mourning, and their memories of their previous visit, neither Giles, Buffy, nor Dawn gave any thought to the reason why the cops were suddenly so interested in the place... until, as they headed for Dr. Kriegel's private office, they were stopped by an officer for attempting to enter a 'restricted zone.' A casual enquiry revealed the problem was related to an incident that happened yesterday, when the body of a man mysteriously disappeared from the morgue, leaving no clues to the perpetrators but a thin layer of dust in an otherwise sterile environment. Fearing further incidents of what the police deemed either the work of vandals or a student prank, the inner areas of the hospital housing the staff offices and such were immediately cordoned off by armed personnel, which the higher-ups no doubt thought would do a better job controlling public access than those extremely intimidating 'Hospital Personnel Only' signs.

With no choice, Giles left Buffy and Dawn in the same drab, gray waiting area where they had sat yesterday, while he went to the desk to have the neurosurgeon paged. It took the good doctor more than twenty minutes to arrive, but he apologized for having kept them waiting and quickly escorted them past the police to his office. With grim determination, Buffy settled down to the wretched business of signing her name over and over, and filling in those forms that Giles hadn't been able to complete for her.

After a morose and emotionally draining hour, the three of them headed out to their next destination. In the car, Giles' inquiry whether they wanted lunch before proceeding--and therefore a well-deserved break--was met by Dawn's complete silence and Buffy's quiet resignation to 'just get it over with.' Lacking inspiration of his own, he dutifully steered the car across town to Fremont Street, where the Brown Brothers Mortuary was located.

A solemn looking man, in his late thirties and wearing a subdued jacket and tie, met them in the foyer of what appeared to be a converted Spanish colonial house. He greeted them with a cordial yet understandingly sympathetic smile, which Giles assumed was one of the perks of being an undertaker--you never had to guess the moods or needs of your customers.

"Good afternoon, I'm David Brown."

Giles didn't recognize the man, despite his earlier dealings with the Brown Brothers when Jenny Calendar died. Obviously, he'd dealt with the other brother. He offered his hand for a quick handshake.

"Rupert Giles. This is my wife, Buffy," he said by way of introduction, sharing none of her reservations at divulging their relationship. In fact, if he were being honest with himself, he preferred to get things straight from the start, lest he be mistaken for her father later on. "And her sister, Dawn."

"A pleasure to meet you both."

"Um... their mother passed away, yesterday," Giles began in awkward explanation, "and we're here to begin making some... arrangements."

"My deepest sympathy to you all," Brown said sincerely, still politely addressing Buffy and Dawn despite their reluctance to make eye contact with him. Looking back to Giles, he swept his hand to the left in invitation. "If you'd all like to follow me to my office?"

Giles nodded, and Brown led the way down a long, quiet, dimly lit hallway. Giles ushered the girls along before him when neither appeared terribly keen to move. Burying his hands in his trouser pockets, he brought up the rear, concerned forming on his face as he watched Buffy withdraw a little more from a world where she didn't want to be. She was trying to be strong the only way she knew how, arms folded as she alienated herself from him and her sister, holding all the pain inside.

His gaze shifted to the teen, who looked girlish in her braided pigtails but equally miserable in her grief. Perhaps he should have stood firm in his decision not allowing her to accompany them. This was no place, no business, for a 14-year-old. Personally, he'd be glad when it was all over and done with, and they could start moving forward with their lives again. But, as Buffy had reminded him last night, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel wasn't going to start getting any brighter until sometime after the funeral.

In the meantime, they were all stuck here, in this dismal, gloomy place... and he wasn't just referring to his present surroundings. 'Here' was the ambiance of death, and it lingered, everywhere, no matter if the days were filled with sunshine and laughter or the nights with moonlight and stars. In this time, so soon after, those left to grieve wore the ambiance of death like a second skin. Only time would allow them to shed it.

Brown showed them into his office, waiting at the door until they had all taken seats. For the second time that day, Buffy, Giles, and Dawn found themselves in the company of despair. The undertaker's office was remarkably similar in appearance to that of Dr. Kriegel's sterile, off-white walls, where all signs of life had been neglected in favor of the chosen profession. The only immediate difference between the two was that the unintelligible chatter of hospital communication on the doctor's intercom had been replaced by the soothing, ethereal enchantment of Brown's piped music.

The first question Brown asked was if their mother had requested to be buried or cremated. Joyce hadn't stated either in her Will, and, judging from the way Dawn and Buffy exchanged looks, Giles knew that neither of them had given any prior thought to the matter. They decided quickly, and without too much debate, to give their mother a burial, after which the undertaker explained a brief timetable of events that would occur in the following few days.

Sitting quietly in the background, since he didn't feel it was his place to make the decisions, Giles couldn't help but admire the man's genuine compassion for his clients. He responded to Buffy and Dawn's questions in a courteous and professional manner, never once showing any tedium in providing the same answers to the same questions that he must have recited hundreds, if not thousands, of times during the course of his career.

In his quietly spoken tone, Brown assured the girls that once he had the green light from the morgue, he would personally collect their mother's body and bring her here, to the funeral home, where preparations for her burial would begin. The embalming would take a few days, but in the meantime there was plenty for them to do. Had they decided on a church or a gravesite service? They should contact their local minister or registrar, and make arrangements for his or her availability, which would decide the actual day for the proceedings. Had they given any thought to a selection of flowers? Brown gave them a glossy color brochure, explaining that the mortuary provided wreaths and arrangements at competitive prices, but they were free to check with the local florists, if they so desired.

And finally, the casket. There was a showroom on the premises with various models on display, if one or both of the girls would like to take a look around.

Buffy volunteered, and Brown called for an associate to take her to the showroom. Dawn declined to accompany her, preferring to stay with Giles, while he exchanged a few final words with the undertaker and collected the various documents they could take home, complete at their leisure, and drop back anytime in the next few days.

Glancing at the paperwork, Giles realized it was just a few forms outlining the mortuary's legal and moral obligations, another needing Joyce's religious preferences, the locations and prices of the various plots available in Sunnydale's numerous cemeteries, a pamphlet about coping with bereavement, and unobtrusively on the bottom of the stack, the all-important list of expenses--basically a form to say who intended to pay for what and how. Finally, something Giles could take care of himself.

Business concluded, Brown suggested they all go to the showroom and join Buffy. As they followed the funeral director the short distance from his office in the back of the converted house to the showroom at the front, Giles noted Dawn's growing despondency. It was time to take her home. She'd had enough of this misery for one day. He slipped his arm around her shoulders for a quick hug, and gave her a smile when she glanced up at him.

Together, they walked toward a closed door at the end of a corridor lined with somber gold curtains and white column pedestals. Opening the door, Brown frown upon noticing the showroom light was off. He reached in and turned it on... which was when Giles spotted Buffy standing before a mahogany casket at the far end of the room, its lid partway up as she examined the interior.

She flinched at their intrusion and at the hard glare of florescent lighting, clearly preferring the morbid solitude found in the darkness of a room filled with coffins of different woods and color, sample wreaths made from silk flowers, and cremation urns of various designs.

"Buffy," Giles said gently, "you're here... "

Somewhat guiltily, Buffy closed the casket lid and folded her arms.

"You all right?" he asked, noting her expression.

"Yeah."

"Did you find something you like?" Brown asked.

Buffy nodded at the casket in front of her. "This one."

Dawn hesitantly moved from Giles' side, rounding the rows of coffins to examine Buffy's selection. She stood on the opposite side of it, gazing down at the varnished wood and brass fittings adorning the box that would soon hold their mother in eternal sleep.

"It's a fine choice," Brown assured her. "It speaks of your deep feelings for the deceased."

Buffy diverted her gaze, the choice made, the deal done, all without need of the undertaker's soft sell. She threaded her way back through the other display coffins to join Giles. Using a hand to turn Brown out into the hallway and complete their business, Giles nonetheless kept a parental eye on Dawn as they started to leave. She had grown too quiet for his liking, and he again found himself questioning his judgment for agreeing to her demands to be involved.

He stopped as they reached the showroom door. Dawn hadn't moved, rather remained stock-still and staring at the coffin before her. Looking up and noting the concern on his face, Buffy stopped too.

They all waited for the teen to say or do something, but it was Buffy who instinctively knew the reason for her sister's disquiet.

"You don't like it?"

"No, it's not that," Dawn began, her attention still locked on the mahogany casket Buffy had chosen. "What if Mom... ? What if she'd like something else better?"

"Dawn... "

"I mean, how do we know for sure?" Dawn asked. "She's the one who has to be in it forever."

"Dawn, maybe it wasn't such a good idea you coming along," Buffy said softly, the glance she shot at her husband only proving that she mimicked his misgivings.

"No, it's fine. It's just... "

"I'm serious. You shouldn't have to deal with this stuff."

"If you'd like a few more minutes to decide... " Brown offered, perceiving dissention in the sibling ranks.

"No," Buffy said decisively, turning to the undertaker. "It's done. It's fine." She faced her sister for confirmation. "Okay?"

Dawn nodded solemnly.

"Okay," Buffy concluded, and marched out between Giles and Brown, the discussion over.

Brown politely motioned for Giles to precede him, but Giles declined with a quick shake of his head. Eyes still on Dawn, who remained transfixed by the mahogany casket, he heard Buffy, out in the hall, asking Brown about returning her mother's gold chain and cross to her. Tuning them out, he quietly moved through the rows of empty coffins to stand at Dawn's side.

She either failed to acknowledge his presence, or she simply flat out refused to; her lack of an expression made it impossible to decipher her mood.

"Dawn?" he prompted after a moment.

"Why did this have to happen, Giles? And why to Mom?"

"I don't know," he admitted sadly.

Her gaze still on the coffin, she sniffled, making Giles realize that despite her outward brave appearance, like her sister she was just barely holding onto her tears. Moving to her, he drew her into his arms for a comforting hug.

"Let's go home," he said gently, and with one final glance at the morbid display of death around them, steered them out of the showroom.

* * * * *

During the drive back to Revello Drive, Buffy kept her maudlin stare focused out of the passenger window, chiefly so that she didn't have to commit herself to actual conversation with her sister and husband. Her despondent mood was growing worse. Picking out her mother's casket was undoubtedly one of the hardest things she had ever had to do. She'd seen her share of coffins in her time as Slayer, but their use hadn't really hit home for her until this afternoon. She supposed it was morbid curiosity that had led her to look inside at the white satin lining of the showroom model. Dawn was right; her mother would be in that wretched box forever, and Buffy had needed to know--to visualize--what that would be like.

How long was 'forever' anyway? Was it timeless? Eternal? Or was it simply the number of years it took for flesh to rot, and bones to disintegrate to powder in the earth? Is that what 'dust to dust' really meant?

She absently touched her hand to her throat, devoid now of the gold cross and chain that had earlier nestled in the hollow there. She had worn her mother's chain to the funeral parlor but left it with the director, when he promised to return it to her mom just as soon as that were possible.

Gold. A metal that didn't corrode or rust. It would survive her mother's mortal remains. Buried in the ground. Enduring the ages. Everlasting. Evergreen.

Still gazing out the window, watching the sun-bathed streets of Sunnydale flash past in a blur, Buffy mentioned to Giles that she had left the piece of jewelry with Mr. Brown.

"What chain?" Dawn asked from the back seat.

"The one with the cross that Mom never took off," Buffy answered, feeling the warmth of Giles' hand cover hers in her lap. "It was in a bag of stuff that Dr. Kriegel gave to Giles yesterday."

"And you didn't tell me?" Dawn said in an accusatory tone.

"I haven't had time."

Buffy looked at Giles as he glanced in his rear view mirror. When he frowned, she knew that Dawn was probably pouting, her arms folded as she figured they had left her out of the loop. But Buffy's explanation was true enough; they just hadn't had time. The world had been a blur of movement and pain in the thirty-odd hours since she had found her mother on the couch, and it was just easier to shut things out than to deal with them.

"What other stuff?" Dawn asked.

"Just the rings and stuff she was wearing when she... " Buffy hesitated to even say the word. She hid her grief by again turning her attention out of the passenger window. "I'll show you when we get home, okay?"

The rest of the trip passed in complete silence. Buffy was first out of the car, and she headed up the front walk towards the house without waiting for her husband or sister. They had bonded anyway, and Buffy was sure that if she turned around to look at them, she would find Giles with a consoling arm around Dawn's shoulders. She wished, for a moment, that he had his arm around her shoulders, but just as quickly squashed the idea. By choice, she wanted to be left alone. It wasn't because she didn't want the comfort of his touch, it was because by accepting it, she would be giving herself permission to cry, to breakdown into Tearful Emotional Buffy right in front of the world.

Unexpected movement caught her eye as she mounted the steps onto the porch. Buffy stopped, spying two shadowy figures sitting in the afternoon shade of the porch swing to the right. She took up a defensive stance while her eyes adjusted from having come out of the bright sunlight, just in case. But since it was still sunny, the intruders posed no possible threat as vampires... which was good because--go figure--she hadn't even thought to take Mr. Pointy or any of his kindred with her to the funeral home on this particular visit.

She squinted at the figures, who acknowledged her presence with weepy smiles, aware that Giles and her sister were coming up the path in her wake. Any trouble, and they would be caught right in it. But the two intruders didn't look the types to be minions of any neighborhood nasties. In fact, Buffy decided, a split second later as she relaxed her fighting stance, she'd seen garden gnomes with more threatening demeanors than these two.

The pair regarded her with sorrowful eyes, as if they shared all her pain and grief at the loss of someone dear... and it occurred to Buffy, in a blinding flash, that that was because they did.

"Aunt Arlene?" she asked in a tone that was part question and part surprise. She looked at the other woman, who was an identical twin right down to the matching set of three-piece, burgundy-colored, coordinated luggage. "Aunt Darlene?"

"Buffy," the first woman said, standing to encompass her niece in a welcoming hug. "I'm Darlene, she's Arlene. How are you, dear?"

"Right, sorry," Buffy agreed, as Darlene moved aside and let Arlene step in to greet her with another hug. She never had been able to tell the two apart.

"You look exactly the same as I remember," Arlene said tearfully. Releasing her, she stepped back with a sad smile.

"Really?" Buffy asked doubtfully. "I mean, I haven't seen either of you since we lived in LA."

"Dear, has it really been that long?"

"And Dawnie," Darlene cooed again, turning her attention Dawn's way. She went down the porch steps to where Giles and Dawn had stopped, and enveloped her with the same welcoming hug. "My, how you've grown."

Buffy frowned. "Wait, she's grown up and I haven't changed?"

"And this," Arlene said, following in her twin sister's footsteps to give Dawn a quick hug, before refocusing her attention on Giles. "This must be Rupert." She gave him a poignant smile meant to console him in his loss. "We spoke on the phone last night."

"Oh! Yes, of course--" Before he could avoid it, he too was swept up into a welcoming bear hug from the twins, this time simultaneously. With the same awkwardness that always came from being forced to share something personal with complete strangers, he patted their respective backs until they finally let him go. "Um... it's a pleasure to meet you both," he said, although from his tone, he didn't sound entirely sure of that fact.

"What are you guys doing here?" Buffy asked from her position on the top step, a question that brought her aunts' attention back to her.

"Dear Buffy," Darlene explained, a lacy-edged handkerchief at the ready to dab the tears from her eyes, "you've lost your mother, but we've lost our big sister."

"We didn't want you and Dawn to be alone at this terrible time," Arlene added. "We would have come for the funeral anyway, so we--"

"--decided to come a few days early. We caught the first flight out of O'Hare this morning."

"We thought we could help, dear. We didn't count on Rupert still being this much in the picture." Darlene shot an apologetic smile at Giles. "No offense."

"None taken," Giles said, completely lost to their meaning.

"'In the picture?'" Buffy prompted. She knew, from when Giles had spoken to them on the phone last night, that they had no clue of his real relationship to her. In fact, she had begged him not to tell. So what the heck were they talking about?

"Still dating your mother, dear," Darlene began.

"She hasn't mentioned him in ages," Arlene finished.

"No, wait, see... " Dawn said, trying to clarify things. "You guys have it all wrong. Giles wasn't dating Mom. He's Buffy's--"

"--friend!" Buffy announced quickly, cutting her sister off. All eyes turned to her, but the only ones that mattered were her husband's, and he just looked... incredibly disappointed. She shuffled under the combined weight of all their stares. "Giles is my really really good friend," she said, trying to make the fib a little less hurtful. She gave him a smile, hoping he would understand why she needed to do this. But he didn't understand; in fact, now he just looked pissed. "And I love him very very much."

"That's so sweet," Arlene said, clueless. "I'm sure he's almost like a father to you--"

"No... he's really not."

"--considering how long he and your mom had been together," Darlene agreed, ignoring Buffy in favor of again finishing her twin sister's sentence. "How long has that been now, Arl?"

"Since Joycee first told us about 'Ripper'? Almost two years, I think."

"Ripper?" Buffy sputtered in shock, sparing a glance at Giles, who looked just as stunned by the revelation. "Mom told you about 'Ripper'?"

"Only all the pertinent details, dear," Darlene confirmed with a suggestive wink.

Arlene chuckled in amusement, sharing a fond memory of her late sister. "You remember, Darl? How she had us scrambling for our dictionaries, trying to see who could find the definition of 'stevedore' first?"

"Oh dear Lord... "

Buffy's jaw hit the ground. "She told you that, too?"

"What's a 'stevedore'?" Dawn asked innocently.

"Never you mind," Giles and Buffy chorused.

Dawn shrugged. "Fine. I'll just look it up later." Off their combined scowls, she added, "Or not. Geez... "

"I didn't think she told anyone about that," Buffy said, still flabbergasted that her mother had not only confessed to that magic-induced, one night stand with Giles, but that she had bragged about his performance afterwards.

Darlene climbed the porch steps and linked arms with her niece. "Dear, we're her baby sisters. Joycee told us things that she would never admit to anyone else." She turned an appreciative look on Giles that started at his toes and slowly moved upward to his face... just in time to watch him turn a darker shade of crimson.

"Oh, I get it," Dawn said, crossing her arms. "It's something to do with sex." She rolled her eyes. "Boring."

Arlene's cheery mood abruptly deflated. "We were her baby sisters, Darl," she corrected solemnly, making everyone take a step back and remember the reason for their impulsive reunion.

Dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, Darlene nodded. "You're right. And if we're being totally honest here, we weren't in touch as much as we should have been."

"We didn't even know about the brain tumor until you told us last night, Rupert."

"Why didn't you call us, Buffy? We would have been here like a shot."

"Illinois is only a few hours away by plane," Arlene added meaningfully. "Unlike Spain."

Buffy shook her head, wondering why she hadn't thought of them either. Possibly because, as she said, she hadn't seen them since she lived in LA, back in the days when her mom and dad were still together, and they'd all been one big happy family. Well, that was a lie. She couldn't remember the last time that phrase applied to them. Maybe it had been because a few months ago, when her mother was first diagnosed with 'a shadow', her life had totally sucked. Even though it took hindsight to realize it, Riley started acting like a selfish prick the moment her mom went into the hospital. Then, on top of that, the knowledge that Dawn wasn't really her little sister but some mystical ball of energy hand-crafted into a human being by some equally mystic monks, and--gee--what with that crazy hellchick bent on trying to kill her just because, was it any wonder she'd never even given a thought to calling two people who, in recent times, had simply become signatures at the bottom of birthday and Christmas cards?

The only person she'd tried to call was her father, and Buffy suddenly realized that she'd been tying to contact the wrong side of the family for the wrong reasons. She lived with her mother, and these were her mother's sisters. A glance at Dawn brought the candid revelation of what a sisterly bond was all about back into sharp perspective, making Buffy extremely overcome with guilt that her aunts had not been more involved in her life--or in her mom's life. It was too late for her mom, but not for her and Dawn. It would all change now. Buffy was determined to make sure of that.

"It's really great to see you guys," she said, meaning it. "I am so grateful that you came." She diverted her guilty gaze by searching in her purse for the house keys. "Let's go in, and we'll have some tea and catch up."

"Sounds lovely, dear," Darlene said, giving the arm she still had linked a loving squeeze.

Buffy suddenly realized that she didn't have her house keys--Giles did--and her eyes flew to him in question. His cold look knocked the breath from her lungs. She hadn't seen him look this angry over something she'd done since high school, when she'd lied to him about Angel's return from Hell. Holding her gaze, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. He detached a secondary ring with just the house keys on it, which until this morning had been hanging on a peg in the kitchen, labeled as 'spare.' Without a word, he relinquished his short-lived possession, handing them off to Dawn, who headed up the porch steps to unlock the front door.

Glad to be doing something useful, Dawn chattily showed her aunts into the house, leaving Buffy alone on the porch, her eyes still locked with Giles, who stood on the path below. He stepped towards her, the height difference of the stairs finding them eye to eye. Giles withdrew a bunch of folded papers from the inside pocket of his jacket--the forms and pamphlets Brown had given to him at the mortuary. Peeling one from the bottom, the one concerning all the funeral expenses, he handed the rest to her without saying a word.

Taking them, Buffy looked down, mainly because she couldn't deal with the look on his face any longer. He had every right to wear that royally pissed off expression; she just couldn't handle knowing that she was the cause of it.

Her gaze fell on the two matching sets of luggage by her feet--six pieces in all. "Can you give me a hand with these?" she asked, not trusting herself to look up.

Giles said nothing, but when he gave her a perfunctory farewell kiss on the cheek and then took a step away, her eyes flew to his departing form in absolute shock.

"Wait! Aren't you coming in?"

Giles stopped a few feet from her. She watched the broad line of his shoulders tense, before he turned around to face her with that same stony expression.

"Buffy, if you go inside, right now, and admit to your aunts that I am your husband, then yes, I will gladly stand by your side. But if you persist with this... charade, and continue to let them believe that I am--was--your mother's lover, then no. I'm going home."

His choice of words cut deep. Just last night, he'd told her this was his 'home,' with her and Dawn. She bowed her head, unable to do what he asked, and just as unable to look him in the eye and tell him so. He knew anyway; she heard his huff of frustrated disgust as he turned to leave. Giles had taken just two steps down the path when she found her voice again.

"Don't go." Her lower lip trembled as realization struck. "Don't leave me to do this all alone. You promised you wouldn't!"

He stopped again, but spoke over his shoulder, so mad he could no longer stand to look at her. He indicated the form he had kept. "I'll take care of what I can. And you're not alone. You have your aunts."

"But I won't have you!"

He smirked in derision. "Are you sure you want me?"

"Of course I do! I love you!"

"I love you, too," Giles echoed flatly, and for the first time, Buffy found herself questioning whether or not he meant it.

"If you do," she said defensively, "then you won't do this. You won't give me some stupid ultimatum that unless I go in there and confess about us, you'll leave me. Not now. Not with all this other stuff I have to deal with."

He turned to face her. "Buffy, I'm not leaving you, I'm simply returning to my flat," he said in a coolly controlled voice. "Under the circumstances, I think it best."

She latched onto dwindling hope. "After," she promised. "When the funeral is over, then I'll tell them. I swear I will. Please, just let me get through this. Just... come inside."

He held her gaze for a moment longer, then looked away with doubt riddling his expression.

"Giles, please... why can't you understand?"

"Because I can't! And you have no bloody right asking me to condone such behavior!" The anger he'd been holding back suddenly flared to the fore. "You say you love me, and you say you're not ashamed of me, yet you persist in lying to your family about me." He shook his head in utter disappointment, and turned his back on her again, obviously fighting to keep himself from saying something they'd both regret. Knowing the battle lost, his tone grew sarcastic. "My things are still in your mother's room. Fortunately for you, they will only help corroborate your story."

"That's a cheap shot."

"So is being introduced as your 'friend.'"

"But you are my friend," she said, back on the defensive. "You're my very best friend in the whole world. I was telling the truth. You know that friendship is part of it."

"But not all of it, which is precisely the bloody point."

"Giles--"

"You want me to be your 'friend,' Buffy? Very well. I'll be your 'friend.' One who is going home to sleep in his own bloody bed!" That said, he started walking towards his car again. "Call me when you want your 'husband' back."

Buffy had never felt so alone than when she watched him drive away. Never. She thought they'd talked about it and it was cool and everything. She thought he understood that she had enough on her plate right now, and how having other people tell her that she was too young for him, or he was too old for her, or that their marriage was already doomed, or--God forbid--any of it getting back to her father and thus prompting his involvement, was all just stuff she didn't have the emotional strength to deal with right now.

Watching Giles leave, she knew just how wrong she had been; how badly she must have hurt him. She'd been right to put up walls between them, and wrong to let him tear them down. Because now she was alone, with no one to blame but herself.

Sniffling back her tears, she effortlessly picked up two of her aunt's suitcases and took them inside, wondering how she would explain Giles' sudden departure to Dawn... without rousing her aunts' suspicions.

* * * * *

Jinx slowly came back to consciousness, first one eye opening then the other, but neither able to focus on anything beyond the blur of brown robes and bad complexions hovering around his prone form. Gradually, he became aware of a dull ache in his mid-section, which quickly escalated to an excruciating pain as the world caught up and snapped back into focus like a big rubber band.

"Ah! He lives!" Murk's face swam into his field of vision, crooked teeth arranged in a twisted smile of ripe boils and pockmarked skin. An ugly-looking darning needle, with a long black threat still attached, was poised in his bloodied hand. "And on cue. I just finished sewing you up."

Jinx flinched as Murk yanked the thread, sealing the stitches of the knife wound that, earlier that evening, had been inflicted by Master Ben. He tried to sit up, but the excruciating pain stopped him even before Murk did.

"Lie still. Her Most Magnificent One wants you to live," Murk said, "and it would only hurt me if you didn't."

Nodding, Jinx did as asked. His hand crept to his disrobed stomach, fingering the coarse ends of the tied off thread and the lumped flesh that now held his innards where they were supposed to be--inside. Master Ben's attempt to silence him after accidentally divulging that 'the Key' was in human form had been a sloppy one at best. He should have aimed higher; a quick stab through the heart, not the stomach.

"Where is Her Superior Superlativeness?" Jinx asked, suddenly remembering that his mistress had requested the others to aid his recovery so that he may again have the pleasure of reciting his discovery to her without all the painful moaning. Eager to comply, he attempted to sit up again... and moaned painfully.

"Resting," Murk told him, returning to his side with a bloodied cloth on which to wipe his bloodied hands. "You should save your strength, brother. Lest you annoy Her Most Exceptionally Dressed with your whining."

"But I bring news of 'the Key,'" he argued. "And Her Voluptuousness requested that I declaim it for her again as soon as possible."

"We know," Murk agreed. "We all heard your wonderful news and... " Pausing, he glanced at his fellow robed minions in attendance. "We intend to act on it." He smiled down at Jinx again. "No doubt, Her Illustrious Shining Skin Tone will be extremely pleased with our self-initiative."

Jinx grimaced at Murk's attempted sycophantism.

"What? Too personal?"

"Too... mortal."

Murk put down the bloodied cloth and smiled again. "No matter. When I deliver Her Exceptionally Giftedness 'the Key'--" He shot a wink at Jinx for what he believed was a winning compliment "--my obsequiousness will be the last thing on Her Most Generously Rewarding One's mind."

"You expect to find 'the Key'?" Jinx asked, doubtfully. "Just because I told you it's in human form?"

Murk grinned. "Thanks to you, brother, I may even gain the same lofty favor with Her Highest Highness that you have."

"But... how?"

"We just need to watch the Slayer's people, see who is new amongst her brood."

Jinx blinked. Of course! It was a dastardly simple plan; he wondered why his miserable and so-unworthy-to-be-in-Her-Most-Dazzling-Holy-Lightness'-employ brain had not thought of it first. "But... Her Most Regal Splendidness did not order this?"

"Hell no, she never even thought of it," Murk said, momentarily forgetting himself in his delusions of grandeur.

"Yet," Jinx corrected loyally. No doubt, such cunning simplicity would eventually be conceived in the superior mind of his mistress.

"Whatever. If I beat her to it, I can reap the rewards." Murk placed his hand on Jinx's shoulder and shoved him back down against the hard, uncomfortable tabletop.

Jinx grimaced, but managed, this time, to hold back his whimper of pain.

Murk smiled whimsically. "That is to say, it will be an impressive and remunerating bequest on my part. Don't you agree, brother?"

Jinx reluctantly nodded, relaxing his torn body as the rigors of his ordeal caught up. Something wet and warm dribbled down his side. He wiped it with his hand, then held it up to look, surprised to find his palm covered with blood...

* * * * *

Blood.

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

Buffy roused herself from the morbid resignation of her own impending death, and bent over the nearest dead knight to unsheathe his sword. With sorrow in her heart for the life she and Giles would never share, she looked over to where her love had landed in the dirt, flung there by her adversary as carelessly if she had been swatting a gnat. The force of the impact had momentarily dazed him; she could tell he was in great pain. Yet something innate, perhaps the intrinsic bond they shared as Watcher and Slayer, caused Giles to look at her as she drew the sword. His eyes proclaimed his alarm, and his agony. In the heartbeat that their eyes met, she knew that he was dying. In that glimpse, she saw his life slipping away, ebbing between his fingers as a spill of crimson from the mortal wound in his abdomen.

But he would not greet death alone.

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

Buffy swung.

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

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

In one quick movement, Glory pulled back the sword and thrust it through Buffy's torso, impaling her to a tree trunk.

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

She heard Giles' scream of denial in her head. 'No... '

Hanging onto life by a thread, Buffy watched the torture biting into Giles as he tried to stand; tried to reach her. The look on his face was pure shock, as he abruptly realized the real reason behind his immobility, and the blind passion that had driven her to act so rashly. Glancing down, he pulled a shaky hand away from his side and found it covered in blood--his blood--the wound beneath deep and penetrating, although not instantly fatal.

She saw the horror in his eyes, as Glorificus tugged the sword from the tree. Released from her skewer, Buffy slid to the ground, slaughtered like the rest, lying motionless in a spreading pool of her own life's blood.

Blood.

From her fallen, prone position she watched a small rivulet of it, seeping across the hardened earth to mingle with Giles' . . .

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" This time he screamed it aloud.

Hearing the howl of denial, Glory turned her full attention to the man Buffy loved, the man still devotedly struggling--and failing--to find his feet on the other side of the sputtering campfire. The distance between him and the Hellgod was no more than a few yards. He was the last obstacle between her and her goal, and Buffy prayed, with her dying breath, that Giles would not allow the Hellgod to win. Unable to help or even speak, she lay dying, the blackness pushing in. The glance he spared her confirmed that he already mourned her death, and welcomed his own. There was nothing left to live for now. Nothing.

With a deceptively friendly smile, Glory ambled toward Giles. Holding his bloodied side, he scrambled backwards on the moist, sticky ground, until the armored body of a fallen knight stopped him. His back against the corpse, Giles defiantly faced his beloved's murderer. Buffy wished she could call to him. She wished she could tell him that they'd be together soon, on the other side, but all that remained of her black-tinted world was a tunneled glimpse of her defiant-to-the-end-husband, as he faced death in the guise of red lame and high heels. She could only pray his passing, unlike her own, would be swift and merciful.

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

"Go to hell."

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

"I'll tell you nothing."

Angered, Glory punched him in the gut. His expression said just how exquisite and all consuming the agony was. Fighting not to give in to it, Giles gritted his teeth and blinked the sweat from his eyes. Buffy watched in expressionless horror, her soul ready to be set free, but still tethered to her dying body. She was waiting for him, and the fresh ebb of blood from between his fingers was testament that he didn't have much longer.

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

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

Glory tenderly combed her hand through his hair. "Brave little Watcher, you and I both know you're dying. But with a little medical attention, I can keep you alive for days while I torture the information out of you. Maybe even weeks. There's no need for you to endure that. Just give me the Key, and I'll let you slip away quietly, here and now." Grabbing a fistful of his hair, she yanked his head around, and for the last time on this mortal plane, Buffy locked eyes with her Watcher, her lover, her husband. "And you can be with her, forever."

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

In a final act of defiance, Buffy watched the man she loved plunge the knife deep into his own chest...

* * * * *

Adrenaline propelled her upright in her bed, a strangled scream dying in her throat. The dream had been so vivid and real that it took Buffy a full minute to realize she was not lying on the hard ground in the forest in a pool of her own blood, but was safe in her room, in her bed, and just having a really intense and graphic nightmare.

Breathing hard, she wiped the cold sweat from her brow, and tried to calm herself. As the familiarity of her moonlit bedroom became clearer, the residue of the experience faded. She flopped back down on her pillow, hoping she hadn't just woken the entire household. Holding her breath, she listened for any telltale sounds coming from the neighboring bedrooms, but Dawn and her aunts appeared to have slept right through her shriek. Dawn, she knew, could sleep through a nuclear explosion, and Aunt Arlene and Aunt Darlene, having come to a truce over 'who got what side' of her mother's bed, apparently could too.

Reaching out, her fingers touched something soft and fuzzy, and she eagerly drew Mr. Gordo in under the covers for a much-needed cuddle. The stuffed animal was a poor substitute for the warmth and security found in her husband's arms, but Giles wasn't there. He was at his place, sleeping in his own bed, because of her... stupidity. When was she ever going to learn how to do this 'wife' stuff right?

The thought of him was enough to bring back the hellish imagery of her dream; Giles lying in the dirt, his life draining away through the fatal wound in his side, Glory gloating over him. Never mind that she, herself, had been skewered like a kabob and left for dead. Buffy's only concern was for the man she loved.

She screwed her eyes shut and buried her cheek in the top of Mr. Gordo's head. It was the second time she'd had this dream, the first time being a few months ago, on the night of her twentieth birthday. Experience had shown that recurring nightmares were usually the realm of the Slayer, prophetic omens of what was to come.

It was a warning. Giles was going to die. He was going to sacrifice himself in order to protect Dawn's secret.

Driven by an urgent need to talk to him, to see him warm and alive, and hold him in her arms, Buffy was halfway out of bed before she spied the time on her alarm clock.

4:48am.

Too early to call him or drop by his apartment, especially given their fight on the front porch and the way they had parted. God, what she wouldn't do to take it all back and have him here with her right now.

She snuggled under the covers again, but since sleep was not an option now, she tossed restlessly and tried to turn her thoughts elsewhere. But the only other thing on her mind was her mother's funeral, which did not help ease her already depressed, 'gloom and doom' mood. She rose a half hour later, thus avoiding the inevitable bathroom crush, and was working through her third cup of coffee when, around seven, she heard the front door open and close, and one of her aunts ventured into the kitchen--although she still couldn't tell which one.

Buffy glanced up from the floral brochure she had been staring at for the better part of the past hour, deciding that before she said 'yes' to what the funeral home had to offer, she would call a few local florists and check their prices. She frowned a little at her aunt's attire--street clothes not pajamas. She'd just arrived home, and since Buffy had been awake since almost five that meant her aunt must had gone out in the middle of the night!

"Good morning, dear," she said, putting a box of donuts on the counter that explained her arrival, but not the reason behind her super-early departure. "Is that coffee I smell?"

"Just brewed," Buffy answered, indicating the half full carafe still sitting in the coffee maker. "Well, 'just' an hour ago, anyway. It's still hot, though."

"I don't care if it's syrup. Hit me with it."

Rousing herself, Buffy rustled up a mug from the cupboard and poured her disheveled aunt a cup of strong, black, French roast. Her aunt didn't say another word until after she had downed her first sip, and then that was only an appreciative 'ahhh.'

"Rough morning at the donut shop?" Buffy asked, unable to hide her curiosity. Off her aunt's raised eyebrow, she amended, "Well, that is where you went, isn't it?"

"We like to get them fresh. And your Aunt Darlene and I do enjoy a brisk morning ... jog."

It was Buffy's turn to raise an eyebrow. She wanted to ask, 'At four in the morning?' but sipped at her coffee instead. After all, it was none of her business what her aunts did or where they went... even at four in the morning.

"Darlene's gone upstairs for a shower. I hope that's all right?"

Buffy nodded over her mug. "I've had mine, and Dawn won't be up for hours."

They shared a fond smile over the island counter. Hands wrapped around her mug, Arlene eyed the brochure Buffy had been reading.

"Anything I can help with, dear?"

Buffy looked down at the colorful printed page of funeral wreaths and floral arrangements, her brief reprieve over. It was back to facing the day again, and the heartache she felt in trying to decide on something so ultimately insignificant as what flowers she should purchase for her mom's funeral. Not to say she didn't want them to be nice or anything, but in the big picture, flowers were just flowers, and her mother was still dead.

Tears threatened again, making Buffy wonder if there would ever come a time when she would be able to think of her mom without them. The grief was still too raw; it hurt way too much for her to think she would ever heal. Arlene, sensing this, scooted around the island to pull her into a hug. Together, they let the tears out. It only lasted a few minutes, but once it was over, Buffy did feel better for it.

"I'm sorry, I... "

"Nonsense." Arlene managed to catch her eye, as she shrugged off the last of her own tears. "This is why Darlene and I came." She tore off two sheets of paper towel from the standing holder on the counter, and handed one to Buffy. "It's okay to cry, Buffy. You're not made of stone."

"Maybe I am," Buffy murmured, drying her eyes. Why else would she continuously hurt the people most dear to her?

Sucking it up, she offered her aunt a small smile. Grief was like that, she suspected; filled with moments of absolute despair, followed by others where she could laugh and smile, and recall fond memories.

"Um," Buffy began, diverting her gaze lest she start thinking about her mom again. She tapped the brochure, pointing out a beautiful standing wreath. "You think this one? But with white flowers?"

"I think that would be lovely." Holding back her own tears, Arlene reclaimed her coffee mug for another sip. Shifting away, she parked a casual hip against the counter opposite. "Rupert seems nice. Your mom was lucky to have found a man like him."

"She was... very fond of him," Buffy said carefully, with just a little twinge of guilt for twisting the truth--again. "We all are."

"Must be all that English charm."

Buffy glanced away. "Giles is great. He's like a father to Dawn."

"A better one than Hank ever was, I expect. Which wouldn't be hard," Arlene readily agreed. Realizing what she had said, she quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, dear. I shouldn't have said that about your father. I'm sure he had his reasons for leaving, and I know that your mother once loved him very much."

"No, it's okay. My dad and I aren't exactly on what you call 'speaking terms,'" Buffy admitted, pondering how much it must hurt to fall out of love with the person you married. "Or any terms, really."

"Did you manage to get in touch with him?"

"Yesterday morning," Buffy said, the event seeming like it had been a lifetime away. "Giles talked to him. About Mom."

Arlene smiled unexpectedly. "Do you always call him by his last name? Rupert, I mean."

"What?" Buffy blinked. She'd never really thought about it before, how odd it must seem to strangers. "Oh, yeah... habit, I guess. He's always been just 'Giles' to me."

"'Always?'" Arlene asked, picking up on the word.

"He was one of my teachers back in high school." She shrugged, thinking just how odd Aunt Arlene would think it, if she admitted she had married said teacher and that she still called him 'Giles,' even in the heat of passion. "It just kinda stuck."

Arlene nodded, her expression thoughtful. "It's good that he's here... well, not 'here' here, right at this moment, but... in your life. You girls need someone to look after you." She shook her head, dismissing the idea as soon as it was spoken. "Although I suppose that's too much to ask of any man, with your mom gone."

"I don't think so," Buffy said quietly. She gathered up the tri-folded brochure, using it as an excuse so that she didn't have to look her aunt in the eye. "Giles loves me, and he loves Dawn. I think, with the right encouragement, he still might want the job."

Finally, something out of her mouth about Giles that wasn't intentionally misleading. Although given their fight, she desperately hoped that he still wanted the job. She flipped open the donut box as a distraction from the thought, snagging a jelly-filled one and deciding that if Arlene asked her outright, she would confess the truth about her relationship with Giles. Poor Aunt Arlene would probably have a cow! Right before she chastised her, and told her he was too old for her, or she was too young for him, or something...

But Arlene just took a glazed donut for herself and let the topic slide. "So what's on the agenda for today? Whatever it is, I hope you're planning to let your Aunt Darlene and me help?"

"That'd be great," Buffy agreed truthfully, around a mouthful. "Um... Mom wasn't religious, so I still need to find a minister willing to do the service. I foresee a morning of phone calls, if you wanna start on that. Then we need to call everyone and let them know what day... "

"As soon as we do, I'll let Jeff know, too."

"Uncle Jeff is coming here?"

"Only for the funeral," Arlene admitted sadly. "Although he'd like to, he can't get the time off work for a proper visit. But he's bringing Timmy with him, so you can finally meet your cousin."

Buffy nodded, thinking how she hadn't seen these people in literally years, and now they were all coming here in one fell swoop. She wasn't totally convinced she'd survive the influx. All she needed right now was for Glory to re-enter the scene.

'Don't go there,' her inner voice warned. There was enough on her plate to deal with; her mom's funeral, cranky Giles, being strong for her sister, and cordial to people who almost qualified as strangers. No, the Glory problem was something that would just have to wait. The norm--in this case her aunts--and the not-so-norm--namely her clandestine life as a Slayer--were two things that should never be mixed.

"He's almost three now," Arlene added in regards to her son, licking her fingers as she finished her donut.

Nodding, Buffy looked away, suddenly losing her appetite and feeling very guilty for not having kept in touch. It wasn't as if she didn't love her aunts and uncles and cousins, it was just that she'd been busy trying to cope with the ups and downs of her own life. It was no excuse, of course, but it did make her realize that family was family, that blood was thicker than water and all that, no matter what.

Arlene put down her empty coffee mug. "Will there be a visitation?"

"I, um, hadn't given it much thought." Which was true. Buffy hadn't thought any family members would actually make the trip to Sunnydale, so she hadn't planned for any other service but that of the funeral itself. Although now asked, she remembered reading, somewhere in all the literature from the funeral home, about them having a chapel where visitations could be held.

"Well, if you decide 'no,'" Arlene said understandingly, "Darlene and I would still appreciate the chance to say a private goodbye."

Buffy frowned, not quite comprehending. Then it dawned. "You want to... see her?" Tears threatened again, as she remembered seeing her mother for the last time; wrapped in a white plastic sheet, lying on the stainless steel morgue table with her head propped up by a block of wood.

Reaching out a loving hand, Arlene was just a tearful as she drew Buffy into another hug. "Yes, dear, we really would."

* * * * *

That afternoon, Buffy found herself standing on the curb outside the Magic Box, trying to find the courage to go inside. Dawn had tagged along, her mood sullen after spending the past several hours checking out the prices in three downtown florists... which Buffy figured was only marginally better than the 'pissed off' mood she'd adopted after Giles left. Dawn made no secret of whom she blamed for making him go, but she also understood that only one person could make him come back.

Their aunts were off saying a personal farewell to their sister at the Brown Brothers Mortuary. They had requested to go alone, and Buffy and Dawn had respected their wishes. With a call to the mortuary to expect them, they arranged for a taxi at noon, then passed the morning, all four of them, selecting a dress suitable for Joyce to be buried in, which Buffy's aunts then delivered during their visitation. They were scheduled to meet up at the Magic Box rather than Revello Drive whenever Aunt Arlene and Aunt Darlene were ready, since both appeared genuinely enthusiastic about seeing the inside of a 'real magic shop'... especially when Dawn mentioned that Giles was the proprietor.

Buffy's enthusiasm, if she ever had any, bottomed out hours ago. Sorting through funeral details wasn't exactly at the top of her fun list. Likewise, she wasn't looking forward to facing her probably-still-irate-with-every-reason-to-be husband; she just needed to. Although she tried to dismiss it, she was still haunted by lingering remnants of her nightmare. Seeing him die had been so terrifyingly real. For her own piece of mind, she needed to see him alive and well, and tell him--warn him--of her prophetic dream. It hadn't exactly come with a time-and-date stamp for her to know 'when' the event happened, so for all she knew it could be as near as tonight.

"You coming in or what?" Dawn asked, tired of her sister's indecision. She had already issued a warning to Buffy that she had 'better make up with Giles or else.' Buffy didn't really know what 'or else' meant, but she wholeheartedly agreed with the 'making up' part. She just needed to find the nerve to do it.

She heard the telltale tinkle of the bell above the door as Dawn opened it, and looked up at the red and gold letters on the blue shop sign. She watched them sparkle in the afternoon sunshine, still stalling. Giles was probably going to yell again, in that quiet non-yelly British way of his, so she may as well just get it over with.

Anya was busy with a couple of customers near the front of the store, and Dawn immediately took advantage of this to encourage her feuding sister and brother-in-law to get snuggly. Spying Giles at the back of the store, she gave Buffy a meaningful nod, before turning her attention to investigating whatever latest goodies the shop had to offer.

At least, Buffy thought, the matchmaking deal was keeping her sister occupied, something else to do other than dwell on the details of their mom's funeral. It was no surprise either; Dawn had been Giles' inside confidant in this romance right from the start. She missed his presence almost as much as Buffy did.

Buffy found courage in the memory of their first 'accidental' kiss caused by a misstep during training, and the morning after, when Giles brought her flowers and candy, ready to confess his love. Taking a breath, she followed her sister's lead and headed down the shop's mid-point steps. She spied Giles sitting at the tarot reading table, with books piled high on all sides and an empty tea mug at his elbow. He was clearly in research mode, as oblivious to his surroundings as he usually was when absorbed in one of his dusty old tomes. In the blink of an eye, she recalled the blissful week they had spent 'honeymooning' in his apartment, and the one surefire, infallible way she knew to distract him from his reading. She glanced over her shoulder, noting the almost-lack of customers, only halfheartedly wondering if she dared do that in public.

She wandered right up to him, encouraged by the fact that she had worn a dress she knew he liked, but disappointed to find she still had to speak before he took any notice.

"Hi, handsome," she said, mustering up an apologetic smile.

Giles looked up from his book, his surprise quickly tempering into something far more grateful at the sight of her. "Buffy... "

She frowned slightly, noting that he hadn't shaved. Nor was he wearing a suit and tie, as per his usual work attire, but rather a pair of old blue jeans and a khaki green Henley shirt. Then she saw it in his eyes, the fear and the relief, an instant before he pulled her onto his lap--customers be damned--and kissed her with a sort of desperate passion.

"I'm sorry," they said together, when it ended. They smiled at their timing, and kissed again.

This time it was a slow kiss, packed full of so much honest love that it made Buffy melt; luckily for her she was sitting down. With all the badness between them instantly forgotten, her arms found their way around Giles' neck, encouraging continuance of his kiss. In response, Giles' embrace tightened around her, as if he intended never to let her go. She opened to him, recognized his need, but also his tenderness. Giles still loved her, despite their stupid fight... although she hadn't expected this sort of yumminess until after she had groveled in apology. There was something else on his mind, something he wasn't telling her.

They were interrupted by Anya. She didn't say anything, she just stood beside them, waiting for them to stop and acknowledge her. Lost in her husband's kiss, Buffy was quite prepared to let the ex-demon stand there all day, but Giles thought otherwise.

After an extended moment, he reluctantly pulled back. Nose to nose with Buffy, his hand gently trailing along the contours of her face to comb his finger through her hair, he quietly asked, "Is there something you wanted, Anya?"

"Dawn."

That caused both Buffy and Giles to look up at her.

"Take her," Buffy said mockingly.

"Oh no, I don't 'want' want her," Anya hastened to explain. "Xander and I already had that talk. I don't want a child right now, and neither does her. But... look at her!"

They did, peering around Anya in opposite directions until they located Dawn behind the counter with a feather duster in her hand, trying to be nonchalant as she kept a diligent eye on them.

"She's after my job!" Anya announced, her raised voice drawing the teen's attention.

Dawn wandered over to her sister and brother-in-law, an approving smile on her face at the sight of Buffy's present location on Giles' lap. She idly flicked her duster as she passed various items, pretending not to notice any obvious 'making up' that was in progress.

"You don't have to do that, Dawn," Giles said. "Just relax."

"Yes, sit down," Anya suggested happily. "We have some very amusing chicken feet you can play with."

"That's okay."

"Don't you watch television?" Anya asked. "I thought all children despised effort and enjoyed cartoons."

"I like being useful. It keeps my mind off things."

"Then useful you shall be," Giles agreed, still not onto her matchmaking game. "I can teach you how to work the cash register. You can ring up sales."

"Cool." She gave him a serious look. "When you don't have your hands so full, that is."

Anya looked mortified. "Ring up sales? With the money? She gets to fondle the money?"

"Anya... " Buffy said meaningfully. With the 'making up with Giles' thing going so well, Dawn genuinely needed something else to do, especially given the morning they had had. Their own house was spotlessly clean thanks to her and her aunts, which briefly caused Buffy to wonder if it were an inherently female trait to clean when in need of a distraction.

Anya took the hint. "But of course, it's wonderful that you find doing my job so distracting." The bell alerted her to a new customer, and she mustered up a smile for Dawn. "I am unthreatened. Proceed." Still, she practically ran to beat her 'rival' to the potential sale.

Giles shook his head in amusement. Dawn just grinned knowingly, then returned to her casual dusting, one eye on them and the other on the various 'cool' items on display within the Magic Box.

Buffy turned her attention back to Giles as his hand moved lightly on her hip.

"'Hands so full,'" he quoted softly, watching his caress and finally cluing in on Dawn's insinuation. "Good Lord... "

"My sister, youngest yenta on record." She ran the fingers of her left hand through the graying hair at his temple. "So... where were we?"

"What do you say we take this somewhere a little more private?"

Amenable to that idea, Buffy rose from his lap. She turned and offered him her hand, which he accepted with an affectionate smile. With a glance at her sister, who just barely refrained from doing a victorious air punch, Buffy walked to the training room with her husband.

* * * * *

The moment Giles shut the door behind them for privacy, his mood changed. Turning, he holstered his hands in his pockets, lest he give in to the need to take Buffy into his arms and kiss her senseless. There was something important on his mind, the same 'something important' that had awakened him at five that morning in a lather of cold sweat, and driven him to sequester himself in the Magic Box, researching, shortly thereafter.

"Buffy, we need to talk."

Picking up on his serious tone, Buffy searched his eyes for clues. She found none, of course, because she could not have guessed what he intended to tell her in a million years. It was time she knew that they had shared the same nightmare, twice, each of them witness to the other's death at the hand of their mutual foe. Buffy's present enthusiasm for physical contact mirrored his own, suggesting vestiges of the horror lingered just as vividly in her mind. He, too, wanted nothing more than to hold her and love her; anything to reassure himself that it had all been just a dreadful dream. But the Watcher in him knew better.

"Yeah," she agreed, "we do." She drew a fortifying breath and forged ahead. "I had that nightmare again. The one with Glory, where I watched you die."

"I know," Giles admitted softly.

"There was blood, lots of blood, and all those dead knights, and--wait. You know?"

"Yes. I had it too." He gave her an apologetic look. "Again."

Buffy's mouth dropped open in surprise. "You mean... the night of my birthday party? You had it then, too?

He nodded. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, love, I just didn't want to upset you. Not until I had an explanation."

"Well, what is it?"

"I have no idea." Frustrated, Giles turned from her incredulous look, contemplating the possibilities aloud. "We both know the Watcher/Slayer relationship is an intricate one. For starters, there's a level of trust that far exceeds anything found in a normal relationship between two people, even most married couples. A bond, if you will. Only for us, it's somehow been intensified tenfold."

"But... how?"

"Perhaps something... changed when we became lovers."

Buffy wasn't buying that, and frankly, neither was he. "Okay," she reasoned, "I know that's like breaking a cardinal Council rule or something, but haven't any other Watchers and Slayers ever gotten it on? Giles, you can't honestly expect me to believe that we were the first!"

"We weren't," he admitted candidly. "The Council has never sanctioned physical relationships between its Chosen, but that's not to say it didn't happen. Human nature is... well, human nature. It's the primary reason for the Cruciamentum when the Slayer turns eighteen, to nullify any budding romance."

"Or nullify the Slayer," Buffy reminded him gloomily.

They met each other's eyes in a meaningful look. Buffy's Cruciamentum was not a memory either of them cared to visit. Closing the short distance between them, Giles drew her back into the protection of his arms, silently thanking God that she had forgiven him for his act of betrayal.

"And while most of these relationships were discreet and undocumented," he continued, pleased when her hands clasped together at his back, holding him near, "a few Watchers reveled in their Council notoriety, even after they were relieved of active duty. They chronicled their, um, encounters quite explicitly."

She laid her head against him, snuggling close. "So, in all this Watcher porn you've been reading, did you find any other references to shared prophetic dreams?"

"Not a one. We do appear to be the first in that respect." He planted a kiss on the top of her head. "Therefore, I think we can safely discount sex as the problem."

"There's a relief."

Giles frowned, still thinking aloud. "Perhaps it has something to do with the ritual... ?"

"Ritual?" Buffy parroted. She pulled back to regard him with a look of distress, her dislike for the Watcher's Council and their antiquated protocols and traditions legendary. "What ritual?" She released him from her embrace and stepped away. "And why haven't you told me about it before?"

"Because it's all rather dull and tedious, and until last night, I believed it to be absolute poppycock... all pomp and ceremony, handed down through the ages." From the look on her face, he knew he wasn't getting off quite that easily. Taking her elbow, Giles guided her to the couch and encouraged her to sit with him. "As your Watcher, I was required to partake in this ritual before coming to Sunnydale, the result of which, I was given guardianship of you. Not 'you' in the physical or legal sense, of course. I'm talking metaphysical."

Buffy looked at him, eyes suddenly wide. "Are you saying... you own my soul?"

"No, love," he said with a gentle smile. He combed a wisp of hair from her face. "I was granted exclusive custody of your... well, your 'Slayer essence,' for want of a better description. The ritual ensured that you were my Slayer, and I was your Watcher. I swore an oath to protect it--to protect you--with my life, and that's something I have always taken very seriously."

Giles watched the expressions change on her face as she digested this. Finally, she met his gaze again.

Looking into his eyes, trusting him in a way she trusted no other, Buffy touched his stubbly cheek with a waiflike touch. "Okay, that's not so bad. I already gave you my heart... not to mention my body. I guess you can have my 'essence,' too."

He took her hand, and turned a kiss in to her palm before continuing. "But something has changed," he said worriedly. "I'm not convinced this new 'bond' is a natural progression of what we share as Watcher and Slayer enhanced by our love, but rather the work of some independent outside influence."

"Magic? Glory?" The next thought came to her as a shock. "Magic and Glory?"

"That's something I've been trying to determine since about six this morning." Looking away, Giles let go a frustrated huff. "To no bloody avail, I might add."

She pulled her fingers from under his, and patted his hand in a gesture of encouragement. "You'll figure it out. You always do."

"Thank you," he said of her vote of confidence, reclaiming her fingers for a gentle squeeze. "Although it does seem rather unlikely that Glory is involved, if the dream is, indeed, forewarning of her plans."

"Yeah. We already know she wants to kill us. Why bother warning us first?" Buffy's sentence trailed away apprehensively.

Giles slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, reassuring her with a quick kiss. Head resting on his shoulder, they fell into an uneasy silence, until Buffy's fingers tightened around his in a way that demanded attention. When he looked at her, he saw the sorrow welling in her beautiful eyes.

"I don't want you to die," she said, reminding him that while the reason behind their shared dream was vexing to the point of exasperation, the contents of it was far more disturbing.

"I don't want you to die, either," he returned in tender confession, fighting a shudder of cold horror as the image of Glory impaling Buffy to a tree trunk invaded his mind's eye.

"So like... prophecy isn't foolproof, right? Whatever or whoever has done this to us, maybe they're on our side. They've shown us what happens, so we just... make it not happen. Right?"

"Right," he agreed out of comfort. Inside, he was far from convinced it could be that simple. If the nightmare was, indeed, a warning of future events, who could say that 'changing things' wasn't the catalyst that made it all actually come about? Perhaps they were safer by taking no action.

'Good Lord... paradoxical prophecy.' His head spun at the thought.

"Oh God... " As if realizing this too, Buffy pushed to her feet and began pacing.

Still sitting on the couch, Giles hung his head, mirroring her sense of defeat. He wished he had more answers, but the fact remained, despite all efforts, he simply didn't.

Buffy stopped abruptly and turned, tugging on two distraught fistfuls of hair at her temples. "I can't deal with this right now! Not now! I have to bury my mother in two days time! I don't have the strength to think about my husband's death, too!"

Suddenly overcome, she put her face in her hands and broke down where she stood.

Giles watched Buffy's heart break right in front of him, his own giving a painful lurch inside his chest. This was so unlike his normally strong and resilient Slayer, his confident and beautiful Buffy, that watching her suffer, and endure, this grief-stricken torment tore him in two. He rose and, crossing to her, took her back into his arms.

He said nothing as she sobbed openly against him. He didn't try to calm her with any soothing words, nor did he try to caress her woes away with a gentle hand. He simply held her while she cried, sharing what he could. Her tears subsided quicker than he imagined, and, as she sniffed back the last of them, he felt her arms go around him to return his embrace, content to stay exactly where she was, someplace he intended to keep her until his dying breath.

A long moment passed.

"This Friday, you say?" Giles asked softly, raising a gentle hand to stroke her golden hair.

"What? Oh... yeah. Mom's funeral." Buffy sighed gloomily and pressed closer. "It's all arranged... well, just about anyway. I still need to get the programs to the printers tomorrow. Did you know Mom didn't want a wake?"

"No, I didn't know that."

She nodded against his shirtfront. "So it will just be us going back to the house afterwards... plus Aunt Darlene, and Aunt Arlene and Uncle Jeff and Timmy."

"Sounds as if you've picked up a few more freeloaders."

"You'd be amazed at how many people I don't know have come by the house with flowers and cards and food in the last few days. But yeah, Uncle Jeff and Timmy--that's Aunt Arlene's husband and her little boy--are flying in from Illinois tomorrow. Dawn's gonna bunk with me so they can have her room... so unless you feel like sleeping with Aunt Darlene, who's divorced, lucky for us, you're probably better off staying at your place for now, anyway."

He tried not to show just how much her casual dismissal hurt.

Buffy, oblivious to the pain she so effortlessly inflicted, quipped, "And you thought getting bathroom time was tough before!" She tilted her head back to look up at him. "You're gonna be there, right?"

Head and heart in confusion, Giles stared down at her. 'Where?' he wanted to scream. 'Where, precisely, do I fit in your life?'

"At the funeral," Buffy clarified off his look.

"Of course," he said, although cut by the fact that she even thought she had to ask. "What, um, what time?"

"Three."

He nodded. "Then I'll pick you and Dawn up at two-thirty sharp. Do you suppose your uncle can find alternative transport for himself and your aunts?"

"No problem. From what I understand, he already has a rental booked. But... you don't have to. I can ask Xander--"

"Xander has enough to worry about ferrying Anya, and Willow and Tara."

"But--"

"Buffy, don't be bloody difficult about this. I'll be there at two-thirty."

Breaking eye contact at his brusque tone, she hesitantly resumed her spot nestled under his chin. Giles let out a long breath, expelling his temper with it, and hugged her close. He didn't know if she were intentionally still trying to hide him in the shadows, isolate him from any casual family chitchat so that he couldn't accidentally say something about their relationship, but since they were all going to be at the funeral together anyway, and since he really didn't want to fight with her about it again, he gave her the benefit of the doubt. The alternative, after all, was to spend his days and nights without her.

"Giles?"

"Yes, love?" he said softly, the endearment confirming that all was forgiven.

"Since you're now a Watcher with Council notoriety, you don't--y'know--write about us in your diary, do you? Not the everyday Watcher/Slayer stuff. I mean the... bedroom stuff."

"Good Lord, Buffy, of course not!" He pulled back, lifting her chin to give her a wry smile. "I'm saving those scandalous details for my memoirs."

She quirked a sassy eyebrow at him. "Bound to be a best seller then."

Still smiling, he lowered his head to kiss her lips in a way that proclaimed how very much he loved her, despite all her unfathomable foibles. Indeed, she could call him 'Fido' and keep him secreted in a doghouse, and he would still love her with everything he was, and everything he would ever be. The eternal enigma that was Buffy Summers was destined to be his pride, his passion, his pleasure, and his pain.

"Um, guys?" Dawn's voice interrupted them. Parting, they turned to find her hanging onto the partly opened door of the training room. "I think maybe you'd better get out here. Aunt Arlene and Aunt Darlene have arrived, and Anya's determined to sell them something."

* * * * *

'It never rains in California,' or so the song said. True to form, the afternoon set aside for them to say their goodbyes to Joyce Summers turned out to be no exception. More than thirty people attended the gravesite service at Shady Hills Cemetery, most of whom Giles didn't know. Besides the obvious members of Joyce's real and extended family, there were the men and women whom he guessed were friends, colleagues, and/or business acquaintances from her art gallery.

Standing beneath the shade of some century-old oaks, Giles somberly listened to the minister read the last rites. He kept a watchful eye on the two people standing directly in front of him on the fake grass matting, the centerpiece of which was the mahogany casket Buffy had chosen. Beyond this inconsequential camouflage was a large pile of dirt, ready to fill in the freshly dug grave. At one end of the matting was a beautiful arrangement of white flowers in standing wreaths. More flowers had been placed on the ground, many brought by those in attendance, himself included. Before the ceremony began, he said a personal goodbye to the mother of the woman he loved by laying a single white lily on Joyce's coffin.

Buffy and Dawn stood at the center of it all, each wearing grim faces but neither yet shedding tears. To his right stood Xander and Anya, silent in their mourning; to his left, Willow and Tara. Flanking them were the other guests, including Arlene and Darlene--Arlene with her husband and 2-year-old son. Earlier, Giles had acknowledged the presence of Carlton and Angie Fisk, pleased that they had come to show support for Buffy.

"... And we commit her body to the ground," the minister intoned solemnly. On this cue, the lowering mechanism started and the coffin slowly sank downwards. "Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust."

The first shovelful of dirt was thrown in, the act proving to be Dawn's breaking point. She turned her face into Buffy's shoulder, seeking comfort, and it took all of Giles' willpower not to go to the girl himself. Buffy put a consoling arm around her sister, her expression proclaiming her inner pain.

The ceremony ended shortly thereafter, and those in attendance slowly dispersed after a few words of condolence to Buffy and Dawn. Giles hung back, still standing behind them with his hands clasped together, despite the urge to pull them both into a hug and provide a stable shoulder for them to unleash their grief. One by one, Joyce's friends and relatives spoke briefly to the girls, and one by one, they somberly left.

Carlton and Angie Fisk, who were perhaps the only attendees barring the Scoobies who saw Giles as 'family' rather than 'friend' of the deceased, stopped long enough for Carl to shake his hand and Angie to give him a tearful hug, both expressing their deepest sympathy in much the same way they had expressed it to Buffy and Dawn.

Arlene and Darlene left with Arlene's husband, Jeff, who had his rental car packed and ready to take him and his son back to the airport after dropping the twins at Revello Drive. They planned to stay on for a few more days, or as long as Buffy and Dawn needed them. Arlene paused to give a few comforting words to Giles as the trio left, telling him to bring the girls home soon, before dark. As they walked away, he heard Jeff ask who he was, and Arlene identify him as the owner of the suitcase of clothes in Joyce's bedroom. Giles refused to allow the misrepresentation make him angry, not now. Not again. Let them think what they liked; he was done with allowing labels come between him and his love for Buffy.

Xander and Anya, and Willow and Tara, were among the last to leave, each wrapping their friends up in a heartfelt hug before they, too, headed for home. Finally, there was only Giles, Buffy, and Dawn left standing in the cemetery. Even the workers had gone, taking their faux grass carpeting and casket-lowering mechanism away with them after filling in the grave.

The shadows cast by the neighboring mausoleums and effigies had grown long when Giles finally approached Buffy. Dawn had turned to him earlier, just after the gang left, and he had held her while she cried for the better part of an hour. Buffy, on the other hand, had not moved a muscle or shed a tear. She just stood there, staring at the now-covered-in hole in the ground where her mother had been laid to rest.

Sunset drew near, and, ever the Watcher, Giles didn't want any of them out in the graveyard come nightfall. "Buffy?"

No answer.

"Love?"

Still no answer.

He stepped around into her line of sight, which finally caused her to look up. He saw the misery in her eyes, the heartache begging for the release she would not give. Without a word, he pulled her into his arms and held her tight. Closing his eyes, he kissed the side of her head, before he drew back just far enough to look at her.

Her eyes were bright, brimming with unshed tears. He touched her face, combing her hair away from her cold cheeks with a warm and loving hand. As tender as the action was, it had a secondary purpose; to hold her gaze to his, rather than let it return to her mother's grave.

"Dawn's ready to go," he said gently.

Buffy glanced at her sister and the long shadows around them, as if just now noticing the passage of time. "Yeah. She should probably get out of here."

"And you. Darling, I don't want you out here when night falls. Not tonight," he persisted, trying to make her understand how vulnerable she was, how her grief made her an easy target for even a newly risen vampire. Stepping back, he offered his hand. "Come on, let's all go home."

The emphasis was not lost on Buffy. His home was with her and Dawn, and he was grateful when she acknowledged this without further debate, reaching to take his hand. Her fingers laced with his, holding on, holding tight.

"You're probably right," she said, diverting her gaze as she fought to keep her emotions in check. "'Cause the way I feel right now, I might just let something big and bad sneak up and eat me... " When she looked up again, her tears finally fell free, splashing down her cheeks. "And take away all the pain."

"Oh, love," he breathed, giving a gentle tug to the hand he held. It was all the encouragement she needed to fall into the warmth and protection of his arms again.

Buffy sputtered against his chest, her teary outburst prompting Dawn to join them. Giles shifted to accommodate her into his embrace as well, and just like at the morgue a few days ago, the three of them again mourned Joyce's passing.

"Buffy? Dawn?"

They drew apart, looking in the direction of the owner of the voice. A man Giles' age approached from out of the long afternoon shadows, a bunch of flowers in his hand. Giles instantly had his suspicions, but it was Dawn who confirmed his identity with an anxious voice.

"Dad?"

She tore out of Giles' arms and ran into her father's waiting hug.

Buffy, too, resisted Giles' embrace, but for a totally different reason. She took a step away, putting a respectable space between them as she shrugged off her tears with a sniffle and a shaky hand.

Giles stood tall as Hank Summers approached, now arm in arm with his youngest girl. The two men made brief eye contact, before Hank singled out his other daughter.

"Buffy."

"Dad."

"Oh, sweetheart... " He swept her into a loving hug, the look on Buffy's face proclaiming her surprise. He released her just as quickly, but held her at arms length, as if he knew she would try to escape. "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. Damn airlines. There was a delay at Heathrow."

"There usually is," Giles murmured knowingly, eyeing the man who had just stolen Buffy and Dawn from him. His muttering was loud enough to win him Hank's decidedly unfriendly scowl. Neither said a word, but Giles instantly took offense to the belligerence directed his way. Still, he made an effort to be civil for Buffy and Dawn's sake, and offered a handshake, if not in friendship, then in a show of truce. "Rupert Giles. We spoke on the phone." Jaded, he added, "I believe I owe you an apology for hanging up."

Hank ignored the offering. "I know who you are," he said, his tone laced with accusation, making Giles wonder how long he had been standing in the background, watching. Had Hank witnessed his display of affection with his eldest daughter? Had he guessed, and disapproved of, the true nature of their relationship?

As if in answer, Hank roughly pushed past his shoulder, kneeling to lay his flowers at his ex-wife's grave. Giles focused on Buffy as she crossed her arms, watching her father's apparent show of sympathy and respect with an expression of disdain.

"So where's your girlfriend?" Buffy asked bitterly.

Hank stood, dusting the fresh dirt from the knees of his dark suit. "At home. In Madrid. I didn't think it would be appropriate for me to bring her to your mother's funeral."

"That's the first thing you've gotten right in ages, Dad."

"Sweetheart, I know there's some bad blood between us, but I am hoping that now I'm here--" he indicated Joyce's grave "--under these circumstances, that we might be able to work some of it out."

Buffy ignored him and his offer of reconciliation. "Giles? I'm ready to go home now. Will you take us home, please?"

"Of course."

"Are you coming back to the house, too?" Dawn asked her father, proving far more receptive to his offer of a family ceasefire.

Hank put his arms around her shoulders and drew her near again. "Of course, honey." He looked at Buffy, as if daring her to defy her little sister's request.

"Fine," Buffy said in flat resignation. She turned and began stomping through the graveyard to where Giles had parked his car.

* * * * *

Back at Revello Drive, Arlene and Darlene gave Hank an even frostier welcome. To them, he was the man who had abandoned their sister, and it was quite clear that there was no love lost between the two sides of the family. The twins quickly took advantage of the late hour, and retreated to the kitchen to prepare a hodge-podge meal with all the leftovers from the preceding few days. Buffy couldn't stand to be near her father, and promptly went upstairs with the excuse that she needed to change her clothes. In her emotionally numbed state, she appeared to have forgotten what taboo topics might be discussed in her absence.

Only Dawn seemed happy to see him, and lingered close despite the obvious friction in the room. She tried her best to engage him in a discussion, asking questions about Spain and his life there, but when his answers became too succinct to qualify as actual conversation, she, too, took the hint, and went to help her aunts.

Giles was certain that no one planned for that contingency, the one where he and Hank would find themselves left alone in the same room.

Silence wedged itself between the two men for several awkward minutes. Giles knew he should have something to say to the man who was the father of the woman he loved, but at that moment, he couldn't think of one damn thing. Hank knew nothing of her calling as Slayer, or his as Watcher, and thanks to Buffy's dogged insistence, he also remained in the dark about their marriage. He couldn't imagine how Hank even began to perceive his eldest daughter's relationship with a man close to his own age. It probably all looked a little... odd.

Sitting back, Giles loosened his tie, hoping the casual act would help ease the tension.

"Would you care for a beer?" he asked eventually, figuring he had to have at least a couple of bottles of Guinness still stashed in the back of the refrigerator.

A muscle twitch in Hank's jaw. "Let's just cut the 'buddy' crap, okay?" He glared, his voice tightly controlled and pitched low to avoid any listening ears. "I'm onto your game."

"Game?" Giles echoed, lost.

Hank spat out a derisive laugh. "First my ex-wife... and now you think you can play my daughter, too? Is that it?"

Giles hesitated before answering. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Come on, I saw the way you touched Buffy, looked at her, in the cemetery."

Giles hadn't liked Hank Summers' snide tone and innuendoes on the telephone. In person, the feeling tripled. "Your point being?"

"I have an acquaintance, works with Immigration. Comes in handy in my position. As a favor, I had her run your name in the computer, and guess what I found? You were nearly deported three months ago. So I asked myself, why weren't you? And I tell myself, first Joyce... and now Buffy." He leaned closer, his tone confidential, intended only for Giles. "Touch my daughter, and I'll fucking kill you."

The threat caused Ripper to stir. How bloody ironic. Hank believed he was some sort of lothario, who had used a relationship with Joyce in order to skirt immigration laws, and now intended to do the same with Buffy. Giles would have laughed out loud, had there not been a ring of truth to it. Despite his 'acquaintance's' checking, Hank obviously didn't know that Buffy had married him in an impromptu ceremony in the county clerk's office for precisely that reason, or he would no doubt be doing more than merely threatening acts of violence.

Giles smirked.

"What's so funny?" Hank demanded.

"Nothing."

But Hank knew it was 'something.' His expression turned cold and hard, as he realized the implications. "Are you... ? Joyce has been dead less than a week! And you're telling me you're already in bed with Buffy?"

For a moment, Giles chose to ignore the question completely. But Ripper couldn't--wouldn't--let it go. He smirked again, goading the man for no other reason than that he was an annoying little prat who deserved it. "Regularly."

"Son of a... !" Hank threw a clumsy fist at him.

Giles dodged it easily, letting it slam into the couch cushions behind his head, and used the momentum to roll to his feet. There, he squared off with Hank Summers in the middle of the living room.

"You're dead meat!" Hank threatened, his face livid as he quickly freed his arms from the encumberment of his suit coat.

"I invite you to try," Giles dared, also shucking his suit coat and his glasses, tossing them haphazardly on the couch. So much for his initial plan of a father/daughter reconciliation. Buffy was right; the man was nothing but a big-mouthed rabble-rouser, and complete and utter pillock to boot. He was going to enjoy knocking him on his arse. "Take your best bloody shot, Hank."

The commotion brought everyone running--the aunts and Dawn from the kitchen, and Buffy from upstairs. Ignoring their gathered audience, Hank drew back his fist, ready to deliver another amateur punch... when he found his forearm seized from behind in a vice-like grip. He winced in pain and grabbed his shoulder with his free hand, letting out a garbled little girly scream before Buffy let him go.

"What the hell is going on here?" Fuming, Buffy moved between the two combatants, using her Slayer strength to push them apart before someone got hurt. Since Giles was no stranger to unarmed combat, that 'someone' would have undoubtedly been her father.

"He started it," Giles said accusingly, regaining his balance.

"What are you? Five? Do I have to make you go stand in a corner now?" Buffy transferred her furious glare to her father. "And you," she said resentfully. "I knew you'd just make trouble."

"Buffy, this man," Hank began, trying to make her see reason. He waved his arm at Giles, but the action caused him to wince again, and he rolled his shoulder before continuing. "He's not what he seems, sweetheart. He used your mother, and now he's using you... just so he can stay in this country!"

Unable to believe what she was hearing, Buffy gawked at him. Then she turned the expression on Giles, accusing him of telling truths that she had already insisted were better left unsaid.

Giles, having had a gutful of this whole bloody nonsense of who he was and why he was there, finally spoke his mind.

"Oh for God's sake, enough already!" He grabbed Buffy's left wrist, and despite her initial protest, held her hand up beside his own for all to see. Their matching platinum wedding rings flashed in the overhead lighting as he completed a half turn before Arlene, Darlene, and Hank's faces. "Don't any of you people have eyes? We're married!"

As jaw-droppers went, it was a pretty spectacular one. Giles didn't think Buffy's aunts could have been rendered any more mute had a demon cut out their tongues. Buffy, too, looked mortified, right before she turned a shade of scarlet that Giles had never seen before. He gave her a look of frustrated apology; sorry to put her on the spot, but nonetheless thankful the truth was finally out in the open.

Dawn grinned nervously at everyone. "So... who wants leftover beef casserole for dinner, and who wants the chicken pasta stuff with vegetables?"

Hank grabbed Buffy's upper arms and roughly turned her to face him. "Did he force himself on you? Did he?" Without giving her a chance to answer, he tried another possibility. "Are you pregnant?"

Despite her cool tone, Buffy angrily shrugged free. She shot a brief glance at her husband as she answered, "No, Dad, I am not pregnant."

"Then why?" Hank persisted, unable to comprehend. "Damn it, Buffy, you're nineteen--"

"I'm twenty. And, by the way," she added sarcastically, "thanks for remembering to send a birthday card."

"You're young," Hank corrected. "Too young to tie yourself down with a man my age."

"You are such a hypocrite! I bet you don't think that about what's-her-name? In Spain?"

"At least she's old enough to drink! And this isn't about me!" He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He was obviously under the somewhat medieval rationale that since he was her father, he knew what was best for her, period. "Look, I don't know how he brainwashed you into this, but I do know a few good lawyers. We can have it annulled." He glared at Giles. "And have him deported!"

Despite Buffy's small stature, she faced off with her father with all the tenacity of an offensive guard ready to protect the quarterback. "Nobody's doing anything or going anywhere. God, why is it so impossible for you to imagine that I married Giles because I love him. That's right, Dad! I love him. I love him! I'm in love with him, right at this very moment! As we speak! I. Love. Him."

Giles couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at her unnecessary repetition. Who was she trying to convince; her father or herself?

Remembering her stunned aunts, Buffy guiltily turned to them and finally came clean. "I'm sorry I misled you guys before. Giles isn't--wasn't--my mother's lover... well, except that one time she told you about, which we will never speak of again."

"Agreed, dear."

"And while he is to Dawn, he is most definitely not like a father to me."

"Yes, dear, we know," Darlene said, breaking into a warm smile that nixed the need for any more excuses. "We figured it out."

Buffy did a double take. "You did?"

"Well, you dropped enough subtle hints, dear," Arlene said, amused.

"Which were confirmed when we found the bridal magazines, and your mother's notes," Darlene explained. "The other day when we were tidying up."

"We know she was planning to give you and Rupert a big wedding--"

"--we just weren't aware that the two of you had already... eloped."

"And we haven't seen enough of Rupert to have noticed the rings, dear."

"Why didn't you say something?," Giles asked the nearest twin--he couldn't be sure which one. It would have saved him a whole bloody week of anguish and self-doubt, and sleeping alone.

Arlene and Darlene exchanged looks.

"We knew you must be keeping it secret for a reason," Darlene offered.

"We just didn't understand what that reason was." Arlene sent a hostile glare at her ex-brother-in-law. "Until now."

"It wasn't our intention to come here and pry into your personal life, dear," Darlene told Buffy.

"Nor to judge you. Joycee accepted your relationship with Rupert, so that's good enough for us."

"Besides... " Darlene--the divorcee--smiled at Giles again, eyeing him up much the same way she had on the porch step when they first met. "He's a wonderful man."

Buffy sidestepped to her husband and possessively linked her arm around his. "And he's taken, Aunt Arlene."

"Darlene, dear."

"Whatever."

Giles smiled down at the one true love of his life, his eyes crinkling into an earnest smile, confirming in a look that he was very much 'taken.'

Arlene and Darlene smiled at them with warm, gooey affection. The day had provided quite a range of emotions, from one end of the spectrum to the other, as had the entire week.

"I don't believe it," Hank complained quietly, drawing everyone's attention again. He scowled at Buffy. "Your mother--God rest her soul--approved of this?"

"Yes, she did. And you can believe whatever you want, Dad, it won't change a thing. Giles is my husband."

"Since when?" Hank wanted to know. "When did you marry him?"

Giles tensed, knowing Buffy's answer would only sound the bell for Round Two.

She stood defiant. "Three months ago."

"Dears," Arlene said with a sappy smile, "you're still newlyweds!"

Hank's eyes narrowed with his glare. He transferred the look from Buffy to Giles, still firmly believing what Quentin Travers' officially lodged paperwork proclaimed.

Giles half-anticipated another slugging match to break out, and pulled his shoulders back in preparation. But his opponent backed down with nothing more than a disparaging shake of his head.

"I can't sanction this," Hank said quietly, moving to retrieve his discarded suit coat. He shrugged it on, obviously intending to leave.

A worried look crept over Dawn's face. "Wait... where're you going?"

"News flash, Dad. We don't need your blessing," Buffy said, paraphrasing what her husband had told her a few days prior. Letting go Giles' arm, she folded hers across her chest. "And as far as I'm concerned, if you walk out that door now, then you may as well never come back."

Before she could resist, Hank pulled Buffy toward him for a chaste kiss on her forehead. "I'm your father. I will always love you. Remember that when he breaks your heart." Then he turned to Dawn, briefly drawing her close for the same farewell kiss.

"Wait," Dawn protested again, "you can't go!" As her father left her and headed into the foyer toward the front door, she turned to her sister. "Buffy!"

Buffy shook her head, her lips drawn in a tight line, and diverted her gaze. She wanted nothing more to do with the man she called 'Dad.'

Desperate, Dawn turned her gaze on Giles, pleading for him to intervene. He was, of course, probably the last person Hank would listen to, but he knew he needed to try. The sun had set, and for that reason alone, Giles couldn't, in good conscience, let anyone wander the streets of Sunnydale after dark without knowing of the potential danger.

Hank pulled open the front door, allowing a cool waft of night air access. Despite his dislike for the man, Giles was about to step forward and try to prevent him from leaving... when Buffy's aunts unexpectedly did it for him.

"Hank, don't be such a prude," Arlene scolded gently.

Giles and Buffy watched in amazement as she and her twin sister moved either side of Hank, both donning fond smiles as they each took one of his arms. Knowing the twins' dislike for their ex-brother-in-law, it made absolutely no sense that they would work this hard to get him to stay. On the contrary, Giles thought they would be glad to see the back of him.

"They're in love," Darlene cooed. "The sooner you accept that, the better for everyone."

As if controlled by twin radar, they silently coordinated their effort to steer Hank back into the living room, but they only got as far as turning him around when he caught on to their act and stubbornly refused to be led anywhere.

Angrily standing his ground, one forceful shrug was all he needed to dislodge their collective grip. He looked from Arlene to Darlene and back again, scowling. "Don't you get it? He's just using her, and getting--!"

Hank never finished his sentence. Multiple pairs of claw-like hands reached through the open front door behind him, took hold, and hauled him outside into the night.

Had someone asked Giles, later, he would have sworn that what happened next, happened in slow motion. Arlene and Darlene, their backs to the open doorway, exchanged dread looks at Hank's abrupt disappearance, then turned simultaneously to charge out onto the porch. Despite his surprise, Giles reacted quicker than Buffy, leading the way to the door with Dawn bringing up the rear. What he saw playing out on the lawn only astonished him further.

Arlene and Darlene were in the thick of it, locked in hand-to-hand combat with no less than a dozen brown robed figures, their hawked faces blemished with open boils and decaying skin. He wasn't entirely sure what flummoxed him more; Buffy's very normal and ordinary twin aunts from Illinois skillfully brawling with a pack of minions from the underworld, or the fact that they appeared to be winning. Hank, stunned into temporary immobility, simply gaped at the surreal skirmishing around him from where he landed on the front lawn, on his butt.

Driven by an innate yet primal urge, Buffy rushed past Giles and headlong into the fray, felling the nearest of the robed intruders who sought to kidnap her father with a head-high tackle. Straddling the prone figure, temporarily winded from the hard landing, she proceeded to pummel the thing senseless.

Gathering his wits, Giles instructed Dawn to stay where she was, ignored her inevitable protest and disagreeable pout, and took the porch steps in a single stride as he rushed to help fend off Hank's would-be attackers. He slugged the nearest demon in the face with his fist, sending it down for the count, only to have one of its kindred snake its scraggly robed arm around his neck from behind and try to choke him. An elbow to its gut, a quick shift of his hip and dip of his shoulder, and that particular adversary was sleeping on the concrete path in rather short order.

He turned, looking for Buffy, in hindsight thinking that the smarter thing would have been to grab some weapons from the chest in the living room before jumping feet first into the fight. But it was too late now for second guesses.

'And perhaps a tad unnecessary,' he decided, watching Buffy execute a graceful roundhouse kick that downed three demons at once, as if they were tenpins. She landed in a fighting stance, and barely had time to lock eyes with him before she was set upon by three more. Despite their numbers, the group was without weapons, and he quickly determined that they posed no more threat than that of a disorganized rabble.

Eyes widening in alarm, still struggling with her trio of crusty cronies, Buffy managed to call a warning. "Giles! My dad!"

Rabble or not, their intention to capture Hank remained their primary objective. Why, Giles couldn't even begin to imagine, but he reacted to his wife's shout in an instinctive fashion.

It occurred to him, as he turned back to where he had last seen the would-be captive in question, that the demons' uncoordinated and mostly ineffective assault on him, Buffy, and the twins, were nothing more than diversionary tactics to keep them occupied while two more underlings snuck in and claimed their prize... a theory well supported given that two such underlings were presently hauling Hank down the sidewalk.

Giles gave chase, noting the trickle of blood on Hank's forehead and his lax body posture. One of his captors had subdued him with a blow to the head, and although still hanging onto consciousness by a slim thread, his resistance had been reduced to nil. He was now a dead weight being dragged unceremoniously between the two, the heels of his shoes noisily scraping the concrete in his wake.

Again wishing for his crossbow or his sword, Giles launched himself at the nearest demon and grabbed it around the neck. Using momentum to his advantage, he locked his elbow, gave a hard twist, and snapped the thing's vertebrae as if it were kindling. It dropped like a decaying sack of potatoes in a dirty brown robe, causing its terrified companion to immediately release Hank and literally run away in fear of its life. A little disappointed it had given up that easily, Giles knelt at Hank's side.

"Are you all right?" he asked automatically, eyeing Hank's head injury. He summed up the seriousness of it with an experienced glance. It didn't look too deep, or as if it would need stitches, but rather just another clumsy, halfhearted attempt on the part of his would-be kidnappers--luckily for Hank.

Hank gingerly fingered the gash above his left eye. When he pulled his hand away, he looked a little shocked to find his fingers covered in blood. "Who were those guys?" His expression turned into a frown as he found Giles' eyes. "What were those guys?"

Locking a hand around Hank's forearm, Giles helped the other man to his feet, maintaining his grip when he teetered a little too precariously. "More importantly, what did they want with you?"

Hank gave him a suspicious look. "You saved my life. Why?"

"You're the father of the woman I love," Giles said simply, turning to find her in a glance. "Despite her hostile attitude, if something happened to you, it would tear Buffy apart. I don't want to see her endure the loss of another parent for a very long time to come."

Hank smirked. "So it wasn't anything... personal."

Noting Buffy, victorious and regrouping with her equally victorious aunts, Giles shot a wry look at Hank. "Not in the least."

Buffy and her aunts joined them in a rush, as what was left of the robed rabble fled in terror down Revello Drive. Half their numbers lay on the Summers front lawn, either dead or unconscious. Giles spared a glance at Buffy's aunts, who, rather surprisingly, seemed no worse for the experience. Indeed, they appeared invigorated by it.

"Dad, are you okay?" Buffy asked in concern, reaching out a firm hand to steady him as he swayed some more.

"Yeah, I'll live." He frowned. "Buffy, what the hell just happened here?"

It was one of the aunts who answered. "I think we should all get indoors first," she said seriously. Taking charge, she and her twin sister each grabbed one of Hank's arms again, and began ushering them all across the demon-dotted lawn toward where Dawn hovered anxiously at the front door. "We'll explain then."

Herded side-by-side, Buffy and Giles exchanged perplexed looks. It was a known fact that, as with the majority of unsuspecting residents of Sunnydale, normal people managed to invent and accept even the most implausible excuses in order to explain the unexplainable. As such, neither couldn't wait to hear this one.

Once Arlene and Darlene had them all settled safely in the living room again, and the front door locked against any further nighttime surprises, Darlene stood before them all, wringing her hands as she hesitantly began her explanation. Dawn retrieved an icepack for her father's purpling forehead, after Buffy used a clean kitchen towel to wipe off the blood and examine the small cut. Satisfied the injury was minor, she instead turned her rapt attention to her twin aunts from Illinois.

"Dears, we know you have questions about what just happened," she began, her twin sister standing at her side wearing an equally serious expression.

"You're damn right about that," Hank said from his slumped position in the armchair.

"The truth is, there is more to this world than meets the average eye," Arlene admitted candidly.

"The things that tried to kidnap your father, Buffy, were not human."

"They were demons, dear."

"What?" Buffy asked flatly. She turned to Giles, sitting beside her on the couch, her sister on his other side, mystified at how her seemingly normal aunts could possibly know about, and accept, the presence of demons in their world.

"Yes, yes, we know it's hard to believe, but--"

"--they're real, dears."

"Demons, ghouls, zombies--"

"--werewolves, vampires... they all exist."

Darlene gave her nieces a maudlin smile, hoping they'd understand. "That's part of the reason we needed to see your mother, dears."

"We owed it to her, and you," Arlene said, looking at both Buffy and Dawn, "to confirm her death was from all natural causes."

Buffy, Giles, and Dawn just sat there wearing matching masks of open-mouthed astonishment.

Hank chortled derisively. "Vampires? Demons? Just what the hell are you two on?"

Darlene rounded on him. "We've never liked you, Hank, and you can't begin to imagine how many times we wished you were demon fodder. So I suggest you just sit there quietly and be thankful that my sister and I had a momentary lapse of sanity."

Suitable chastised, Hank fell silent, and returned his icepack to his forehead.

"Still," Arlene said, thinking aloud as she turned to her twin, "those... overgrown hobbits with leprosy, for want of a better description, were a new one, Darl."

Darlene nodded in agreement. "We must remember to catalog them when we get home. It wouldn't surprise me if they were minions of some superior being, given their disorganization and clumsy implementation."

"Who are you?" Giles asked, quietly awed.

"Just a couple of aunts from Illinois," Arlene said with a friendly smile.

"Who happen to fight the forces of evil in their spare time," Darlene finished with the same smile.

"I must say, dear," Arlene said, smiling fondly at her niece, "you showed great promise in a fight. Have you ever thought about joining the cause?"

"I didn't know there was... 'a cause,'" Buffy admitted.

"Oh yes, I'm sure there's a covert group somewhere in town, armed and organized. There's quite a cornucopia of evil manifesting here," Darlene said, glancing at her sister with a smile.

"Reminds me of Cleveland," Arlene mused fondly.

"So that's where you two have been going at four in the morning!" Buffy said, eyes wide.

Darlene shrugged. "One must do, what one was born to do."

"You're not Slayers though," Giles clarified, intentionally using the word in a casual context. Only another Slayer--or ex-Slayer--with a capital 'S' would recognize it. Was it somehow possible that, many years ago, these women had escaped the notice of the Watcher's Council, and grown to maturity with the same inborn desire to fight evil? Did the gene run in Buffy's family? Did they also possess her extraordinary strength? Or was it all merely a huge coincidence?

"Well yes, dear, we've 'slayed' a lot of different things over the years."

"But no, neither of us is the 'Chosen One,' if that's what you're asking."

"Which begs the question," Arlene mused, studying him and Buffy with a suspicious eye, "just how you know of such sacred things?"

"Well, I... " he stumbled.

"He reads," Buffy put in, her hand finding her husband's leg as a signal to shut him up. "A lot. Mostly old stuff that no one else really knows about. I-in Latin."

Darlene chuckled. "Fairytales, by the sound of it."

"Say what?" Buffy asked, confused.

"The Slayer is a myth, dear," Arlene explained. "'One girl in all the world, a Chosen One, born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires and stop the spread of their evil.' It's a nice dream, dear, to believe there's a superhero, somewhere in the world, fighting the good fight."

"But the fact is she doesn't exist, and fighting evil is left to the little people."

"Like your Aunt Darlene and me."

Buffy and Giles looked at each other again.

"Where did you learn those spin kicks, dear? Kickboxing lessons?" Darlene asked, impressed. She nodded at her sister. "Very effective. Don't you think, Arl?"

"Maybe we should try incorporating them. We could get Buffy to teach us!"

"Um... "

"She was always getting into fights at school," Hank mumbled in explanation, his icepack still clutched to his head. Looking up, he finally acknowledged Giles' position in his daughter's life. "I hope you have better luck breaking her of that."

Giles nodded, accepting the gesture of truce, small though it was.

Hank nodded gruffly, then winced. "Ow! Damn it!"

Buffy was instantly kneeling by his side, a genuinely worried look on her face. Not surprisingly, having her father almost kidnapped by a bunch of scraggly demons, for reasons unknown, had made her see the light. She had just lost her mother; she wasn't about to lose her father, too. "You okay?" she asked him gently.

"Nothing a bottle of aspirin and a good night's sleep won't fix." He patted her hand. "Don't worry. I just have a headache worthy of King Kong."

Buffy smiled in relief. "You're gonna stay here tonight," she said protectively. "Where we can watch you, in case they try again." On impulse, she threw her arms around her father's neck. "I'm... sorry about before, Dad. I'm really really glad you came."

"Me too, sweetheart." Hank gave his ex-sisters-in-law an apologetic look. "Even though it's been one hell of an eye-opening experience."

"So," Dawn said, with the ravenous appetite of a growing teen, "now that we got all that straightened out, anyone else here starving?"

* * * * *

"You've returned!" Jinx struggled to sit up on the hard wooden table. He groaned at the pain the movement brought his mid-section, and promptly fell back down.

Murk, freshly returned from his dastardly simple plan to 'watch the Slayer's brood and see who was new amongst them,' flopped down in the seat beside his cohort in defeat. He rubbed his jaw and winced at the bruising.

"Where are the others?" Jinx asked, noting their numbers were cut by half.

"The Slayer had many skilled fighters," Murk said by way of explanation. "Twenty, at least."

"Oh." Jinx brightened. "The Key! Did you find it?"

"No." Pushing to his feet, Murk began to pace in frustration. "I thought we had, but he just turned out to be the Slayer's father, newly arrived in town for a funeral. An honest mistake anyone could have made, brother. Even you."

"So we're back to square one?" Jinx asked, part of him pleased that his brethren had failed. Now he, himself, stood a chance at gaining better favor with his mistress when he pleased her with the identity of 'the Key'... if only he had some clue where to look for it. While executed in a foolhardy manner, Murk's plan still held water. The difference was that Jinx knew better than to rush in so impetuously, before his mistress so ordered. There was an old saying amidst his kind; 'There are old minions and bold minions, but no old, bold minions,' something Murk would do well to remember next time he came up with a 'brilliant' plan of his own.

"Back to square one," Murk confirmed with a beaten sigh, flopping back down on his hard wooden seat. "How are you healing, brother?"

* * * * *

Even though Hank Summers left the following afternoon, Giles was pleased that Buffy used what time they had together to come to some sort of reconciliation with her father. They parted company on better, if not good, terms, complete with an invitation to visit him in Spain sometime, and, more importantly, a cellphone number where he could be reached night and day. Curbside, as he shut the trunk to his rental car, Hank paused to offer his hand to the man who had stolen his little girl's heart. Without a word, Giles and Hank shook hands, leaving any further understanding left unsaid.

Arlene and Darlene stayed a day longer, and when Giles drove them to the Sunnydale airport early on Sunday evening, it was with a sense of real sadness that he bid them farewell. He'd grown extremely fond of the twins during their short visit, and was going to miss them almost as Buffy and Dawn. There were few tears, but several repetitious promises to keep in touch, which he truly hoped they would. He kissed them both on the cheek, but stopped short of warning them to take care in their after dark activities. Despite appearances, these two were a formidable slaying team, who had been quietly kicking evil's butt even longer than he and Buffy.

On the way home, Giles took his girls for burgers--Dawn's choice--after Buffy threatened mutiny at the mere thought of another reheated potluck, which is how Giles reinstated himself as the man of the Summers' residence, all without fanfare or fuss.

Later that same night, he stretched out on top of the fresh linens of 'their' bed in 'their' room, idly flicking through an old issue of BRIDES magazine, while surreptitiously watching Buffy transfer the last of her clothes into 'her' new closet--something she had been suddenly inspired to do, and insisted on finishing before bed. With the help and encouragement of her aunts, she had sorted through and boxed up all of her mother's clothes and other personal belongings, which now sat stacked in the basement awaiting the next course of action. He could tell, just by watching her, that even such a small accomplishment had lifted a tremendous burden from her. It was a step forward in the right direction, as too was his presence there tonight.

He'd been allowed back into her life, if, indeed, he had ever really been dismissed from it. His clothes still sat in his suitcase under the window, albeit somewhat more wrinkled, and his toiletries still fought for space amidst the shampoo bottles and beauty aids on the shelf in the bathroom. Indeed, he was even wearing the same t-shirt and sweatpants pajamas he'd worn the last time he was there. It was as if he'd never left, in the wake of his promise to stay forever, and yet . . .

It seemed impossible that just one short week ago, they had attended a backyard barbeque at the home of Carlton and Angie Fisk, and even more impossible that that same night, Buffy had admitted to wanting a baby. His baby.

Giles watched her from the corner of his eye, lest he tip her off that his attention was on her, and not on the glossy wedding magazine spread on the bedclothes before him.

He'd denied her, of course. He'd had to. Theirs was not a world in which to bring a child. But he couldn't help but think--in hindsight--that there was something poignantly meaningful about the prospect of creating life in the wake of death. Given the same choice again, he may not be so rash.

He pretended to read as Buffy finally shut the closet door, careful not to slam it and wake her sister, asleep in the next room in these hours after midnight. She turned to him with a triumphant but mischievous grin, apparently satisfied with her ability to take up three quarters of the hanging space and over ninety percent of the shoe rack. Next he knew, he was bouncing with her as she flopped alongside him. When the bed settled, he gave her a loving smile, although he had to raise an eyebrow at the stuffed animal wrapped in her arms.

"What?" Buffy teased, noting his expression of skepticism. "You don't like my cuddle monkey?"

"Darling, it's a swine, not a simian."

With a cheeky expression, she leaned towards him, as if about to divulge a huge secret. "Confession time. You've got competition. I've been sleeping with Mr. Gordo for years, and I'm not sure I want to--that I can--give him up."

"Oh, really," Giles mused, playfully rising to the challenge. He carelessly tossed the magazine over his shoulder, where it landed on the floor beside the bed with a papery 'splat.' "We shall see."

She giggled as he drew her into his embrace, the sound quickly silenced as his lips found hers in a deep and passionate kiss, the pink pig still wedged between them like a fuzzy balloon. When Buffy's arms slowly wound around his neck, Giles dislodged the pig and evicted his 'competition' by way of the magazine, all without breaking their kiss. Arms encircling her, he drew her body against his own, the nearness of her only heightening his desire. He was hungry for her; they had not shared an intimate moment in almost a week.

Libido taking over, he rolled her beneath him, one of his hands beginning its tentative exploration up under the hem of her pajama top. As soon as he touched gold, Buffy broke the kiss by turning her head, which simply gave him greater access to her throat. It wasn't until she voiced her objection that he realized something was, indeed, wrong.

"Um, sweetie, wait... "

The dread words stilled him instantly. Frustrated, he buried his face in the pillow and stifled a groan.

"It's... I can't, it's too soon," Buffy said. "I'm sorry." With that, she slipped out from under him, and rolled to her side of the bed, hugging herself.

Giles watched her with a heavy heart. He understood 'too soon,' and he was a patient man. But he couldn't help but think that this was simply an extension of what she'd been doing all week. Ever since her mother's death, she had been standing him off at arm's length, hiding him at a time when he should have been the one person standing tall and supportive at her side. Just when he'd started to believe they might possibly make some sort of future for themselves, despite the odds stacked against them, when he'd committed to a new belief to unite the three of them as a real family, Buffy had given him so many reasons to doubt.

This wasn't about 'too soon.' This was about her pushing him away. Again. He didn't doubt that she loved him; he had simply begun to doubt whether or not she actually needed him.

"I'm sorry," she repeated softly, sounding unsure.

Reaching across the gap that separated them, Giles touched her back with a tender hand. Hiding his reservations, he mustered up a smile as she rolled over to meet his gaze. "I love you, and I'm here with you," he told her. "That's all that matters."

"I love you, too," she echoed, looking up at him with earnest eyes. "Can we just sleep together? As in--y'know--'sleep' together?"

"If that's what you want, of course."

He bent his head, intent on kissing her again, but Buffy turned her back as she snuggled in. Shrugging off the insecurities that wanted to return, Giles turned off the light and pulled the covers up around them both. He spooned himself around her, one arm reaching to hold her, as if that alone were enough to make her stay.

Their bedroom was awash with moonlight and shadow, a hauntingly surreal place in the late hour, after a long day--a long week--where reservations and doubts blossomed in the dark.

"Giles?"

"What?"

"When are we going shopping to buy our bed?"

Her question made him wonder if, perhaps, he had judged too harshly. Perhaps everything was fine between them, and her reluctance to make love with him simply stemmed from the mental block of doing it in her mother's bed.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

"When do you want to go?"

"Soon. I want to soon," Buffy told him, ambiguous enough to refer to both the shopping and the intimacy. Her hand found his, on the mattress before her, her fingers curling their way around it.

Giles planted the night's final kiss behind her ear, watching the restive shadows stir. "Goodnight, my love."

"'Night... "

The breeze rustled the curtains, restless like his thoughts. Part of him suspected he was being foolish, yet after such a taxing week of misery and lies, he no longer had a clear picture of what Buffy expected of him, or the role she wanted him to play in her life. He felt her slipping away from him, even here, in his arms, right now. No matter how hard he tried to hold on, or how much he strove to be the man he thought she wanted, Buffy continued to go her own way, following her own path, away from him. He saw a metaphorical fork in the road, somewhere up ahead, one that he was no longer certain they would choose to travel together.

Tonight, of course, she had the benefit of the doubt, and he trusted, come morning, that it wouldn't all look so bleak. He would start afresh, first by retrieving the bulk of his clothes and other belongings from his flat, and moving in permanently, reasserting his presence in Buffy's life. He would take her shopping and they would buy their new bed, and then they would christen it for hours as he worshiped her, body and soul.

He would make her need him again, or he would make her hate him in trying.

Disillusioned, Giles watched the love of his life lying peaceful and content in his arms, wondering just how long she intended to stay, just how long he could keep her, until sleep finally took him into its lonely, dreamless embrace.

Read the next chapter: Precipice