The Unbreakable Series
Part 9 - Precipice

written by Koala





"We're headed home now, G-man."

Despite the immediate urge to chastise his young friend for his continued use of that appalling moniker, Giles deliberately kept his eyes on the yellowed, parchment pages of the book opened before him. The manuscript in question, which detailed some of the lesser-known customs of the Monks of the Order of Dagon, was not nearly as dull as the volume inscribed by their founding father, Tarnis, but in truth he had lost all interest in it an hour ago. He was simply feigning now, something to keep him out of the small talk, as he waited for Anya to finish closing out the shop's cash register and for Xander to take her home.

"Giles?"

The second prompt was his cue to look up, hoping the expression on his face suggested just how engrossed he'd been. "Hmm?"

Xander picked up his jacket from where it lay draped over the corner of the Magic Box's sales counter, shrugging it on as he took two steps towards where Giles sat, elbow deep in research at the tarot reading table. Behind him, Anya locked the cash drawer in the night safe, pocketed the key, and returned to the sales counter to gather her purse and sweater.

"I said, it's after seven, it's Friday night, so Anya and I are going to eat and make merry," Xander repeated. He gestured at the pile of books surrounding Giles. "Don't you have a home to go to? And a wife waiting to make with the merry?"

"What? Yes, of course," Giles said, playing along for appearances sake. "Good Lord, is that really the time?" He made a vague glance at his wristwatch, swapping his pseudo-annoyance for a look of fake surprise.

Xander grinned boyishly. "'A Watcher's work is never done', eh?"

Giles forced a smile. "Something like that."

"Don't stay too late."

"Yes, mother," Giles returned with a suitable scowl. He pretended to go back to his reading, watching from the corner of his eye while Xander and Anya quietly left the shop via the door to the alley behind the counter.

He gave them a good fifteen seconds to change their minds, then when they didn't return, he leaned back in his chair with a thankful sigh.

Lord, he thought they'd never leave.

Giles exhaled a long breath; solitude at last. Then the need hit, the longing he'd been holding back ever since the shop closed for business, washing over him like a breaker crashing in the surf. It called to him like a siren's song, and, letting it consume him, he pushed to his feet in answer. With an eager step, Giles crossed to the tiered display of scented candles, where he squatted in front of the sliding cupboards beneath, his hand delving into his pocket for his ring of shop keys. Selecting a small silver one, he wasted no time turning it in the cupboard lock. The door slid open to reveal his secret stash of alcohol, this time sequestered in a place where not even another nosy Council audit would find it... at least not without the key.

He procured the half-empty bottle of single malt scotch from beside its unopened twin, and took it back to where he kept his tea chest and kettle. There he snagged a mug, and poured a generous shot before settling back into his chair at the tarot table, all interest in the Monks of Dagon and any secrets they may hold, forgotten.

Putting the bottle down within easy reach, he took a long, slow swallow. The whiskey burned a trail of liquid fire all the way down his throat. Eyes closed in appreciation of the sensation, Giles let the tendrils of liquid heat find their spot, knowing those false fingers of warmth were the only pleasant touch he was likely to receive that night. The thought further soured his mood, and he drained his mug in a single swallow. But it wasn't enough. It was never enough.

His eyes sought the bottle in anticipation, his conscience mindful of what he was doing. Intoxication was not his goal. The alcohol was simply a crutch, something to help deaden him to the inevitable response that awaited him at home... or rather, the lack of response from his 'waiting wife,' his 'darling better half,' the 'woman of his dreams', whom apparently couldn't care less if he came home or not.

Not that Buffy ever said or did anything. Quite the contrary, it was the things she didn't say and didn't do that tore through his chest as assuredly as if she'd driven a stake through his heart. They may live in the same house, eat at the same table, and sleep in the same bed, but that was where any similarities to an actual marriage ended. Five weeks had passed since her mother's death, and with that single event, everything changed. Giles understood and was sympathetic to Buffy's grief, her emotional numbness, the walls she felt she needed to reconstruct in order to provide a stable foundation for her equally grief-stricken sister.

For the first three weeks, he tried to be supportive, living up to his promise not to let her grieve alone, but instead of helping, he produced the opposite result. She'd grown colder toward him, more estranged and detached, until the woman he thought he knew became a stranger to him. So he'd backed off a little, and taken to dulling the pain of rejection with alcohol, while watching the love of his life slowly drift even farther away. It was with growing trepidation that he recognized the parallels. She'd done the same thing to Riley Finn when her mother first took ill--pushed him away, until he walked away. Not that Giles intended to walk away--that decision would be Buffy's alone to make--but he couldn't help but see that metaphorical fork in the road drawing nearer. It scared him to death to think that meeting it might be the last thing they ever did together . . .

"Giles?"

Xander stood in the gap between the sales counter and the wall, the open alley door at his back.

Giles hadn't heard him return, but irritably wished for him to be gone again. "Goodnight, Xander," he said deliberately. He wasn't in the mood for company... or counseling.

Unperturbed, Xander slipped into the chair next to him, hands clasped together on the tabletop, clearly not going anywhere without answers. Which was precisely why Giles didn't want him to stay. There were no easy answers to his misery.

Giles poured himself another drink. "I thought you an Anya had plans for the evening?"

"Yeah, I can see that. Got all the way to the car before I realized my keys must have fallen out of my jacket on the counter." Xander held them up, looped around his finger. Watching Giles put down the whiskey bottle, his expression grew even more concerned. "What're you doing?"

A cynical smile cracked Giles dour mood as he raised his refilled coffee mug. "Pretty bloody obvious, isn't it?" he asked, pulling no punches this time.

"Yeah, well, it looks to me as if you deliberately waited until An and I left so you could sit here alone, and slowly get bombed. But since the Giles I know has a 'Buffy' to go home to... that kinda makes the sort of sense that doesn't."

Giles smirked. "What bothers me most about that sentence is that I completely understood it."

"Then explain it to me," Xander prompted meaningfully. "'Cause I sure don't!"

Giles diverted his gaze. "Xander, I know you mean well, but this doesn't concern you. Any of you."

"See, that's were you're wrong. You're my friend. And friends don't let friends drink themselves into oblivion without asking why. Besides, I've seen enough drunks in my own family to know that no problems are ever solved with drinking." He shifted in his chair, getting comfortable, as if he figured they might be there for a long time. "You're avoiding going home--got that. So you're... what? Avoiding Buffy?"

"I'm not avoiding anything or anyone," Giles snapped, although he lowered the mug after Xander's candid statement about his alcoholic family. "I was simply... taking the edge off first."

"Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Home is the problem. You and the Buffster have a fight? Trust me, Big-G, fights are good for just one thing... the making up afterwards. Buy her some flowers, apologize for anything and everything, and then expect some quality Buffy-loving in return. You can thank me in the morning."

Giles let go a bitter chuckle. Even if he and Buffy had quarreled, what Xander suggested was so far out of the equation, it was laughable. They hadn't been intimate for over a month.

Xander shrugged. "Hey, works for me."

"And I'm sure it would work for me, too," Giles admitted, "if not for the fact that Buffy and I... "

But he couldn't say it. In truth, he wasn't sure he wanted to put voice to something so intangible, if for no other reason than that the confession would make it real.

"Buffy and you what?"

Giles stared into his mug, swirling what was left of his scotch and its false comfort.

"Giles, Buffy loves you. Really loves you."

"I know she does. And I love her."

"Okay... failing to see the problem," Xander said. "You forget, I've known you both for five years. I've seen how much you mean to each other, and recently how right you are together. Giles, I watched you and Buffy take your wedding vows. Whatever's going on, I know you guys can work it out, if anyone can."

"I'm afraid it's... not that simple."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not a question of 'love.' Buffy simply doesn't want... " Giles looked up at his young friend, unable to stop his broken heart from pouring out of his eyes. "She doesn't want me in her life anymore."

Xander's mouth fell open in shock. "She told you that? I mean, she actually said it to your face?"

"She didn't have to." Dejected, Giles regarded his coffee mug again, absently turning the base on the tabletop. "I see it in her eyes, every time she looks at me... feel it in the way she avoids my touch." He shook his head in utter despair, and let go of everything that he had bottled up for the past month. "Buffy is the driving force in my life, she always has been. Always. Without her, I have no direction. No motivation." He pushed the mug aside in disgust. "Except to try to dull the pain she unwittingly causes."

"Oh my God... " Anya's quiet, disbelieving comment turned Giles' misery into embarrassment. Obviously wondering what was taking Xander so long to retrieve his car keys, she had returned to the shop via the alley door.

Sucking down the unmanly emotions that threatened to swamp him, Giles glanced up as Anya slid into the seat on the other side of her boyfriend.

"Buffy's having an affair," she declared firmly.

Giles frowned. He had expected empathy, denial, or even ridicule... not a new and entirely ludicrous accusation. "I beg your pardon?"

"Honey, little sympathy here. Giles is hurting bigtime."

"I've seen this a thousand times," Anya said. She gestured at the scotch bottle. "Although usually it's the scorned woman doing the commiseration thing with the booze."

Giles' patience thinned. "Buffy is not having an affair!"

"How do you know? All the signs are there. You just said," Anya insisted. "The avoidance, the coldness. When was the last time you two had sex?"

"That's none of your business."

"It's been a while," she concluded. She turned to her boyfriend, confident of her analysis. "Buffy's an attractive, healthy, sexually active female. Since she's not getting it from Giles, she's getting it somewhere else. I'm telling you, she's cheating on him."

"An," Xander said in warning.

"What?" she asked innocently, before she suddenly tweaked. "Oh... right." Remembering her social graces, Anya turned a comforting smile on Giles. "If it helps, and I was my old self, I'd go smite her for you right now."

With a discreet roll of his eyes, Xander turned his attention back to Giles. "Look, Buffy's just been through a tough time recently, losing her mom and all."

"I know that," Giles admitted helplessly. "And Lord knows, I've tried to be a patient and understanding husband... even when she insisted on lying to her father and family about us." He rubbed his brow. Whether it was the booze talking or because he was eager to spill his broken heart to someone, now that he had started he couldn't stop. "In the weeks since her mother died, things at home have gone from bad to worse. We don't talk anymore--not about the things that matter--we simply carry on as if nothing is amiss... strictly for Dawn's benefit, mind you. I'm not sure Buffy even realizes what it's--what she's--doing to us." A heavy sigh deflated him. "Every night, when we go to bed, I hold her in my arms... and watch her grow a little more distant, feel her push me away just a little bit further." His tone took on a note of desperation. "I'm losing her, inch by inch, and I don't bloody know how to stop it!"

"You could have an affair, too," Anya suggested helpfully. Two sets of eyes turned on her; one disbelieving, one appalled. "You know, tit for tat. Then you let her know you've been screwing around and make her jealous. Make her want you again."

"All well and good in some bizarro dimension, An," Xander said patiently, "but in the here and now, not real helpful." As Anya tried to figure out the flaw in her logic, he turned his attention back to Giles. "You should talk to Buffy about this. You said yourself, it may not have even registered with her that something's wrong."

Giles' lips twitched into a thin smile. "You're saying this really is all in my head. That I should be 'patient and understanding' a tad longer, until she works through her grief, and it'll all sort itself out."

"I'm saying that you're hurting and she's hurting, and while the 'hurting' originally came from different 'hurts', it's now just all rolled into one big messy hurtful 'hurt.'"

Giles and Anya both looked a bit confused.

Xander shook his head and tried again. "Okay, forget that. What I'm really saying is... communication is key to any successful relationship. The longer you let things fester, the more they'll just eat you up from the inside."

"Literally?" Anya asked in all seriousness. "'Cause that's really gross. Like some of those nature shows on TV, where larvae incubate inside a living host... " She shivered dramatically.

Giles knew that Xander was, of course, right. But unfortunately, while talking may have been the sensible approach, he and Buffy had given up communicating weeks ago, around the time when they'd given up intimacy. Now, any conversation meant first acknowledging that there was, indeed, a real problem developing between them. How did he tell her that he believed if they were to continue along this path, then they were likely to head in different directions? Given Buffy's current indifference, would such a confession be for the better, or the worse? Would she even care? Would she call it quits on the spot? Could he accept her decision if she did?

The thought filled him with dread. "And if Buffy really doesn't want me in her life anymore?" Giles asked, a quiet note of trepidation in his tone.

"Never gonna happen." Gripping his shoulder, Xander gave him a positive smile. "Trust me, G-man. You're not a puzzle piece like Riley or Angel that never really fit in the 'Buffy' landscape. You're the whole picture."

Giles regarded Xander with a look of gratitude, his confidence bolstered. Anya, however, looked as if she were about to comment to the contrary.

"And the day Buffy dumps you for some lamebrained-yet-studly-stud for a quick and meaningless roll in the sack," Xander added, cutting her off, "is the day I'll sleep with Spike!"

* * * * *

"Honey, I'm home," Giles called softly as he entered the house, more to himself than anyone who was present. He smirked at the pop culture phrase, putting down the bouquet of flowers he had bought on impulse at the supermarket florist stand when he stopped for a roll of breath mints. Hands free of his red tulip encumbrance, he removed his suit coat and temporarily hung it over the stair rail in the foyer.

He spied Dawn, in the living room to his left. She sat on the floor with an open notebook spread on the coffee table before her, glued to the television. He fondly shook his head. It never ceased to amaze him how American teenagers could concentrate on their studies while partaking in such a mind-numbing distraction, and actually learn something in the process. Popping another peppermint into his mouth, just for good measure, he joined her, sitting on the couch at her back.

"Hi, Giles," she greeted him, without looking up.

In response, his hands went to her shoulder for a fatherly squeeze. Unlike her sister, Dawn not only welcomed his permanent presence in her life, but also every bit of affection he could give. Glancing over her shoulder at her notebook, however, his fondness turned into a frown. The page was completely blank. Yes, it was Friday night, and yes, she still had the weekend to complete her assignments, so he wasn't about to break into parental mode just yet. But come her next report card, if her grades were less than expected, he would put his foot down about no television until after her homework was done.

He smiled to himself, musing--despite the tatters of his love life--how delightfully odd and wonderful it felt to have gained 'a daughter' and 'a sister-in-law' in one neat, compact package.

"You're late tonight," Dawn said as her TV show broke for a commercial, and she allotted time for a quick discussion. She pulled out from under his hands and swiveled to face him, arms locked around her knees.

Giles leaned back against the couch cushions, adding distance under the guise of making himself comfortable, self-conscious of the alcohol that may linger on his breath. "Rather heavy workload at the moment, I'm afraid," he lied with a smile. It was better Dawn didn't know the truth of just how strained his relationship with her sister had become. She would only try to get involved in repairing it, when it was something Giles and Buffy needed to sort out in private.

"Well, the bad news is, you missed supper," Dawn said with a mock frown. Then she smiled brightly. "But the good news is, you missed supper." She grimaced theatrically. "Buffy tried making lasagna, or something remotely resembling lasagna. I think. Not real sure if she used pasta or cardboard, but I saved you a plate if you wanna risk it. It's in the fridge, ready to be micro-nuked."

"Thank you," he returned, raising a skeptical eyebrow for Buffy's non-existent culinary skills. "I think."

"You do know where the Alka Seltzer™ is, right?"

"I do indeed." They shared a conspiratorial grin.

Dawn heard her show start again, and her attention was immediately divided between him and it. "Buffy's upstairs. She told me to send you up, pronto. She has a surprise for you." She gave him an outrageous wink. "Just keep the noise down, okay? Some of us have homework to do." With that, she turned her full attention back to the television.

Giles remained seated for a moment, his heart turning over in dread of whatever Buffy had planned now. While part of him should be thrilled at the prospect that his sullen and distant wife had actually requested his company, in the bedroom no less, another part of him knew, from the abysmal state of their relationship-in-general and their sex-life-in-particular, that the encounter would not end in the loving scenario Dawn envisioned. To the contrary, perhaps Buffy had finally wised up, and was about to send him packing...

Leaving the teen to watch her show, and knowing it was in his best interest to face the music now rather than later, Giles returned to the foyer to collect his flowers. He spent a moment rearranging the blooms to perfection within their shiny green cellophane wrapping, stalling, trying to find a spark of hope in what he was about to do.

'Think positive, old man,' he told himself. This very well may be the turning point. Maybe Xander was right, and the flowers would indeed help break the ice for an overdue and serious conversation. Maybe upon receiving them, Buffy would fall into his arms and kiss him senseless, their estrangement forgotten.

Yes, and maybe the Council would knock on their door with its sincere congratulations for their marriage, and well wishes for a long and happy life together.

With a glance up the staircase, Giles crunched the last of his peppermint and swallowed hard. He drew a deep, fortifying breath, and slowly ascended... like a man going to the gallows.

* * * * *

At the end of the upstairs hall, their bedroom door was partway open. Giles slowly pushed it fully open, still fearing the worst, so the sight that greeted him was an utterly pleasant surprise.

The love of his life lay on their bed, striking a spread-eagled yet seductive pose atop the rumpled bedclothes, bathed in nothing more than the gentle glow of a single bedside light. Although still fully dressed in blue jeans and a v-neck top, she was barefoot and with naked midriff, and Giles decided that she was, indeed, either waiting for him, or engaged in the somewhat unconventional practice of making 'snow angels' on the covers.

Going with the former sent a rush of heat to his nether regions. "Buffy?" he called tentatively, once he had found his voice.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, a beautiful smile lighting up her face--the first he had seen in several weeks. It lifted his spirits in a millisecond flat.

"Hi, handsome," she intoned affectionately; two simple words that made him grin like a lovesick fool. She moved her arms, flapping them on the rumpled bedcovers, making him raise an eyebrow at her apparent attempt to, indeed, make an indoor 'snow angel.' "Well? What do you think?"

"Um... "

Buffy playfully rolled over onto her stomach, a casual pose that inadvertently allowed him a first class glimpse of cleavage. She patted the mattress in front of her. "It came."

"What?" he questioned, still at a loss.

"Our new bed," Buffy said, enlightening him. The one they had gone shopping for a few weeks ago, before things turned really ugly; the one he thought might make a difference to her morose mood. The model they chose had been out of stock at the time, but was evidently back in stock as of today.

Then he noticed. Gone was her mother's sleigh-styled double bed, which had been too short for his long frame and uncomfortably firm, replaced by an antique brass headboard and low profile footboard, and a soft and plump, posture-friendly, queen-sized mattress. As with in the furniture shop, when they had innocently laid together under the stern gaze of a matronly saleswoman, his libido took a time-out to imagine Buffy hanging onto that brass framing, as he pushed them both toward the pinnacle of pleasure.

Buffy rolled onto her back again, testing the comfort of their new mattress by bouncing her hips. Still watching, Giles stifled a groan.

"They delivered it this afternoon. Setup was included. And they hauled the old one off for no additional charge. Cool, huh?"

"That's... um... wonderful."

She stopped bouncing and nodded at his bunch of flowers. "You gonna give me those? Or just stand there holding them until they wilt?"

"Oh... yes!" Giles managed to get his feet to move and, encouraged by the fact that they were actually talking to each other, eagerly went to her. In the back of his mind, however, the more rational and less desperate side of him was cautiously waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop. Reaching the side of their new bed, he fell to one knee, eye to eye with Buffy as he presented her with a small but genuine token of his unbreakable love.

"What's the occasion?" Buffy asked, having rolled over onto her stomach again, but avoiding his gaze. "You didn't know about the bed, did you? 'Cause I didn't, until they called about forty minutes before they delivered it. Lucky Dawn and I were here. Although I think supper took a direct hit because I had to be up here supervising."

"No, I didn't know. And there is no special occasion, except to say 'I love you'... which I haven't told you nearly enough as of late." As Buffy accepted the bouquet from him, he took the opportunity to tell her again. "And I do. I love you so very much."

Giles held his breath as he waited for her to answer in kind, waited for the one person who mattered most in his life to reciprocate those three little words and heal the hole she had made in his heart.

Resting on her elbows, Buffy drew the bouquet close, the cellophane crinkling noisily as she delighted in the delicate fragrance of the blooms. She smiled into the spray, then looked up and raised her left hand to touch his temple, her eyes following her trailing fingertips rather than seeking out his anxious gaze. With a tender touch, Buffy took her time to re-familiarize herself with the angles and planes of his face, as if she were seeing him, touching him, for the first time. Eventually, her index finger settled across his lips, a ghost of a smile playing on her own. Unable to resist, he gave it a quick kiss, before she pulled her hand away and finally focused her gaze on his.

"Thank you," she whispered. Not exactly what he'd been hoping for, but sincere, nonetheless. But she followed it up with the other three words he was so desperate to hear. "I've missed you."

"Oh Lord, Buffy," he breathed, his heart suddenly wanting to burst with joy. Despite the fact that they hadn't missed a night sleeping in each other's arms, he'd felt so estranged from her that he may have well been sleeping with a stone figurine. "I've missed you too, love. So much."

She regarded him intently, looking into him in a way that no one else could. Slowly yet deliberately, she lifted his glasses from his face and put them on the nightstand for safekeeping, the action giving him hope. "I don't know how we got lost in such a terrible place, but I do know I want to leave there, right now, with you."

"Yes," he agreed. He moved from his knees to sit beside her on their new bed, his hands finding natural purchase either side of her hips as she rolled to her back to accommodate him. "God, yes."

Looking up at him, still holding her flowers, Buffy's free hand found the end of his tie. She wound it around her fist, effectively reeling him down to her, her eyes never leaving his. She stopped when she had no more tie to wind, with his face mere millimeters from hers and her breasts tantalizingly brushing his shirtfront whenever she drew breath.

"You smell like peppermint," she observed with a soft smile. "Let me taste."

Giles had never been able to say 'no' to her demands, whatever they were, and this time was definitely no exception. Eyes closing, he lowered his head to kiss her with as much tender passion as he could find within himself. So full of heartfelt relief, and so fervent in his desire to engage her in some serious loving, he failed to notice the kiss, and his accompanying caress, was a completely one-sided venture... until long, breathless moments later, Buffy forcefully used her Slayer strength to push him away.

With a single bounce, he back-flipped off the end of their new bed, his skull narrowly missing the low, brass footboard as he crashed to the floor on all fours. Recovering, he used his elbows to haul himself halfway back up onto the mattress. "Bloody hell... "

"Giles--God--I didn't mean to... "

He cracked the whiplash out of his neck, his tie askew. She'd nearly throttled him with that stunt, not to mention given him a concussion. Regaining his feet, he stood over her in search of an explanation.

Sitting up now, hugging her bunch of flowers so fiercely that it broke stems and caused petals to fall every which way, Buffy looked horrified by what she'd done. "I am so sorry."

Huffing out his indignation, Giles yanked his tie back from ninety-degrees and tentatively returned to his spot beside her.

Buffy cowered in response to his closeness.

Giles hesitated. He wasn't sure what offended him most; the fact that she had seen fit to end his advances--which she had asked for--with such unnecessary force, or that she now shrank away from him in fear that he might press the issue. Angry and hurt, he followed her recoil with a scowl on his face, risking life and limb as he crawled up over her trying to fathom her unfathomable behavior... until tears unexpectedly threatened to spill from her eyes.

"Buffy?" he asked, as the pile of pillows at the head of their new bed halted her retreat. He stopped chasing her, and simply looked at her in complete exasperation.

"I'm sorry," she repeated, one hot tear slipping free, one arm thrown protectively across her chest. "I thought with our new bed and all... I thought I could... that if we could just get back into some sort of routine it would all be okay again."

Not wanting to lose what little headway they'd made in patching things up--or, at least, her verbal acknowledgment that there was indeed a problem between them--he backed off to a less intimidating position.

"Routine is good," he agreed, realizing that fixing the predicament went far beyond a bunch of flowers and a little chat. His longing for her touch, and the alcohol he had consumed, had made him blind to that fact until now. He kinked his neck again, hearing the vertebrae crack. "At least we know you haven't lost any of your Slayer prowesses due to the lack of recent training," he quipped in an offhand attempt at levity.

"Yeah," Buffy agreed miserably. "I can beat up demons until the cows come home, and then I can beat up the cows. But I'm... not sure I like what it's doing to me."

Giles turned a frown on her, not comprehending.

She diverted her gaze. "I'm starting to feel like being the Slayer... is turning me into stone."

"Turning you into stone? Buffy... " His hand found her knee in an instinctive gesture of comfort, an instant before he balked at the fact that he had just reflected on her indifference toward him in precisely that manner.

"No, think about what I did to you just now. I asked you to kiss me, and when you did, I went ballistic. I've been horrible to you for weeks. And to Dawn. And I don't know why except... except for what Aunt Arlene told me."

"What did she say?" he asked, seriously doubting anything her kindly aunt had said could have led to this.

"She said it was okay for me to cry, because I wasn't made of stone." Buffy's gaze found his again, brimming with tears. "But she was wrong. I must be--I am--because how else can I explain why I'm so cold and unresponsive toward the man I love."

"But at a time like this--" he began to reason.

"No."

"--you're bound to feel emotionally numb." He understood grief to be an instrumental part of the problem, the catalyst behind it. He just didn't know how to help her through it.

"No, it's more than that. I totally shut down, Giles. I shut you out and pushed you away, when you were--are---the one person I should have let in." She looked at the crumpled bouquet in her arms, unaware of the death-crush she had on it until that moment. "I'm still pushing you away."

Reaching out, Giles gently took the beat up tulips from her, and placed them on the floor, alas now destined for the trash. His hands returned to the mattress, either side of her hips, in an unassuming and unthreatening manner, yet still suggesting his desire to be close to her, as if nothing she did would ever be enough to push him away entirely.

"And now my mom is gone," Buffy continued morosely, "and I loved her more than anything. And I don't know if she knew."

"She knew." He reached out a hand to her tear-streaked cheek, cupped it a moment, before letting it travel down to rest on her shoulder. He squeezed gently. "Always."

"I don't know." She sniffed back fresh tears, and looked up into his eyes with a tortured expression. "To slay, to kill... it means being hard on the inside. Maybe being the perfect Slayer means being too hard to love at all."

"Buffy--"

"Giles... I love you."

He regarded her with maudlin hope, the first time he had heard her say those words in over a month. But there was no miraculous healing of the hole she'd torn inside him, because despite her candidness, he just didn't see the spark he used to see in her eyes.

"Love... love, love, love, love," Buffy continued, equally troubled. "Giles, I can say it 'til I'm blue in the face, but I just don't feel it... in here." In a bold move, she picked up his hand from her shoulder and pressed it between her breasts, over her heart. "And I want to. I want to say it to you and mean it like I used to... with every fiber of my being. But I just... don't." Her voice cracked on the last word, and she started to cry in earnest.

Giles hesitantly gathering her up into his arms, relieved when she allowed him to hold her while she wept. At least her tears were encouraging; she hadn't completely lost all ability to feel emotion. He very much doubted that she'd lost her ability to love, either. It had simply been buried beneath her overwhelming grief for her mother, and her stubborn insistence to be a rock of solid support for her sister. On that count, Buffy had unwittingly turned herself to 'stone.'

He realized then, with suddenly insightful clarity, that solving their problem with intimacy meant first solving the problem she perceived within herself.

"How serious are you about this?" he asked gently, nuzzling the side of her head with his cheek.

"Ten." Pulling away, she sat up a little straighter. "I'm serious to the amount of ten."

"There is something," he explained, reluctantly letting her create a gap between them again. He met her hopeful gaze, bridging the distance with his hand to wipe away the last of her tears. "In the Watchers' Diaries. A quest. I found it when I was researching our shared dream."

"A quest? Like finding a grail or something?"

"Not a grail. Maybe answers."

Giles' mind quickly worked through the logistics of the undertaking, chiefly about the metaphysical part of her that had been given to him for protection when he first took up his post as Watcher. Her 'Slayer essence' had been transferred to him via a Council binding ritual, assuring that Buffy was indeed his Slayer and he was her Watcher. In order for Buffy to embark on this journey of Slayer self-discovery, Giles temporarily needed to surrender his guardianship to a spirit guide. The spell to do that was a relatively simple one, and well documented in the diaries he'd already read, diaries that also revealed the locations of several of the sacred places set aside for just such quests. He only hoped that breaking their Watcher/Slayer bond, in light of discovering some as-yet-undetermined influence had tampered with it in order to make them share a recurring nightmare, would not leave her feeling even more isolated and alone.

Despite his misgivings, he gave her an encouraging smile. "It would take a day, perhaps two--"

"I'm not leaving Dawn," Buffy interrupted. "Not with Glory looking for her."

Dawn suddenly launched herself into their bedroom, slipping around the open doorway in a very telling manner. "Sure you can. What's the deal?"

Buffy frowned at her sister. "How long have you been eavesdropping?" She threw a pillow at her in annoyance. "Snoop!"

Dawn caught it and tossed it right back. "Since something crashed on the floor and I came up to make sure we weren't under attack by the monster of the week," she said, inadvertently referring to Giles' unplanned and close-up inspection of the bedroom floor. "And it's not like you locked the door or anything to say 'we're having sex, don't come in.' You didn't even close it," she added in her own defense. She folded her arms, determined not to move without an answer. "So... what quest?"

Giles cleared the embarrassment from his throat. Not because of Dawn's comment that a locked door meant 'warning: sex in progress', but rather because in the month since he'd moved in to Revello Drive, they hadn't even shut it. "One that some Slayers before Buffy found helpful in regaining their focus, learning more about their role." To Buffy, he said, "There are a number of sacred places for this purpose scattered across the globe. There's one near here, in the desert. It's not far."

"But I can't go. I'm not leaving you, Dawn."

"If you have to go learn... I mean, if it'll help you out, then I think you should do it." She grinned confidently, and Giles was grateful for her maturity and understanding, even though she had no clear picture of the real problem plaguing Buffy. "I can hang with the gang. I'll be okay."

Buffy glanced at Giles, then back at Dawn. She rose from the bed and crossed to her sister, who warily watched her approach, as if still expecting some form of sibling payback for the eavesdropping stunt. To her surprise, Buffy threw her arms around her and pulled her into a ferocious hug.

"I love you, Dawn. You know that, right?"

"Yeah. I love you, too."

Releasing her, Buffy kept her hands on Dawn's shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I love you. Really love you."

Dawn smiled uncomfortably and glanced at Giles for support. "Getting weird."

"Sorry, but it's important that I tell you," Buffy said, tenderly combing a lock of hair from her sister's face. "Weird love's better than no love."

* * * * *

"Some say it's better than the real thing," Spike said, studying Warren's latest robotic masterpiece--an exact replica of Buffy--in great detail. His head tilted as his eyes took a lustful wander over the thing. It looked like Buffy, for sure, standing there in the middle of Warren's mother's empty basement, but its--her--eyes were closed, and it--she--was completely motionless. He frowned. He could have as easily been looking at a souped-up shop mannequin, like the one he'd stolen and dressed in a blonde wig and Buffy's clothes. All in all, the more he studied the end results of Warren's work, the less impressed Spike started to become. "She looks good, but what about the rest? A little walk, a little talk... perhaps a zippy cartwheel."

Warren frantically stuffed the last of his belongings into his backpack, eager to leave town. He'd far outstayed his welcome, especially after the fiasco with his first robot/girlfriend, April. "Hey, she's great," he said, giving his best salesman pitch. "You'll be real happy, I swear. She's got everything you asked for, all the extra programming. Tons of real world knowledge, the profiles you gave me about her family and friends... "

"All the extra programming, right?" Spike asked, meaningfully.

"The stuff that you wanted. The scenario responses... you know, the special skills." A maniacal laugh escaped Warren at the thought of the bizarre programming Spike had requested. "All of it. Now you said that I could leave town--"

He made a dash for the door, but Spike grabbed a fistful of his shirt and stopped him in his tracks.

"Wait. I'm not sure I'm a satisfied customer," Spike said, still studying the robot. "She looks a little shiny to me. You know, a touch of Plasticine™... "

The Buffybot's eyes suddenly open. She looked directly at Spike and smiled in a way that would have made his heart skip a beat, if it were actually beating in the first place.

"Spike?" she asked, bewildered yet obviously happy to see him. She sounded like Buffy all right... or at least how he dreamed Buffy would sound, if she were head over heels in love with him instead of that Watcher wanker. "Oh, Spike!"

Without hesitation, she threw herself into his arms and kissed him passionately. Warren took the opportunity to make good his escape, but this time Spike didn't care. He had what he wanted, what the poncy Watcher thought was his alone to enjoy.

The Buffybot broke the kiss, and smiled at him.

Flushed, Spike quickly changed his opinion of his artificial lover. "She'll do."

* * * * *

Giles stirred from sleep as Buffy moved in his arms. When she pulled away completely, he opened his eyes in search of her. It was still dark--he guessed somewhere in the early morning hours--but he could see her, silhouetted by moonlight, sitting on the side of their new bed with her back to him.

"Buffy?" he asked drowsily, wondering if something were amiss.

"Gotta pee," she announced eloquently, and stood to move off in the direction of the bathroom.

Closing sleepy eyes, Giles took advantage of her brief absence to roll onto his back and stretch his limbs. A contented sigh escaped him. Their choice of bedding had been exceptional; this was by far the most comfortable mattress he had ever slept on. He couldn't wait to try it out in other ways, which he may be one step closer to achieving, should Buffy's spiritual quest prove successful...

When he next opened his eyes, the room was awash with gentle morning light. Although he hadn't intended to fall asleep while awaiting Buffy's return, fingers of weak sunlight now crept across the floor of their bedroom as the new day vied for a foothold. He was still on his back, and when he turned his head, he found Buffy sharing his pillow, wide awake and looking at him. He smiled; he'd had such a delightful dream about her, and their new bed.

"Hey," she greeted him softly, returning the smile.

"Good morning. What time is it?"

"Just after six."

"Good Lord, are you feeling all right? Up at the crack of dawn?"

She grinned easily, accepting the teasing. "I couldn't get back to sleep. Anyway, I found something better to occupy my time."

"What?"

"Watching you."

Giles raised a wry eyebrow. "I believe that's my job description," he countered with mock seriousness. Rolling onto his shoulder to face her, he searched her face, his hand tenderly combing some hair from her cheek. Like every morning, he wanted to greet her with a kiss, but this morning he felt he had a better chance of her actually allowing it. They'd made headway on the problem last night simply by acknowledging it, but whether he was any closer to his goal of showing her how very much he loved her, even with a simple kiss, remained uncertain.

Deciding to risk it, since her side of the bed faced the windows and--worst case scenario--he would land on the floor rather than the front lawn, he leaned closer. But Buffy immediately withdrew, her head flinching backwards in an obvious attempt to avoid him. Trying to turn that action into something less hurtful, she smiled happily.

"What do you say we get an early start?" Buffy asked, changing the subject.

Giles hid his disappointment, something at which he had become very adept. "On what?"

"The quest, silly."

"I'm not sure how agreeable Dawn will be, when you wake her up at this hour to drag her over to Xander and Anya's." Giles raised a thoughtful eyebrow. "Nor Xander and Anya, for that matter." Even though they had telephoned last night to arrange Dawn's sleepover, he knew the pair were not early risers.

"I didn't mean we had to leave right this moment," Buffy reasoned. "But I'm guessing there's some Watchery stuff you need to do first, right? We could get started on that. And I could... make sandwiches. Or something."

Sandwiches? While it was true enough that in preparation of her quest he needed to obtain a few items from the Magic Box, Giles didn't share Buffy's enthusiasm to get things moving quite so early, nor for the 'picnic' she envisioned this undertaking to be. Still, he didn't want to quash her interest in it either.

"Why don't we start with breakfast first?" he suggested as a compromise.

They roused Dawn an hour later, which, on a Saturday morning, did nothing to impress the teen. After breakfast, Buffy again suggested making sandwiches for the road trip, but her eagerness turned to disappointment when she realized they had used the last of the bread for toast. Filling a thermos of coffee--thinking of Buffy rather than himself--Giles assured her they would simply stop to eat when the need arose. Although Buffy insisted that, all things going well, they would return to Sunnydale tonight, Giles still suggested they each pack an overnight bag, just in case. After grabbing some warm coats from the closet, Giles waited patiently while Buffy re-packed Dawn's overnight bag with the exaggerated obsession of a mother hen.

The three of them arrived downtown at the Magic Box at eight-thirty and parked on a meter in Maple Court, which at that hour, before any neighboring shops were open for weekend trade, was no problem. Giles quickly found the spell book he needed, and went about collecting the necessary supplies. Chasing down his magic gourd, which hadn't seen use since their run-in with Adam, he ventured downstairs into the basement storage area, and inadvertently gave himself a start when he rounded on the robotic version of his friend's--Carlton Fisk's--young wife. The tarp covering it had pooled at its feet, as it obediently stood in a dark and dusty corner like a forgotten naughty child. Shaking off his repulsion for the thing, and the primary use for which it had been constructed, Giles retrieved his gourd, and his wife and sister-in-law, before they all headed out.

After stopping at Xander and Anya's place to drop off Dawn, which did indeed rouse the couple from bed despite it being after nine, Giles drove out of Sunnydale to catch Interstate 5 and headed south for Los Angeles, where they would eventually intersect with and follow I-10 toward Palm Springs and their final destination.

On the road, and with four-plus hours of driving still ahead of them, Giles humbly reflected that perhaps Buffy had been right in wanting to get an early start. They didn't talk much, as had awkwardly become their norm over the past few weeks, and soon the motion of the car and the boredom of the highway lulled Buffy to sleep. Glancing at her, with her face turned away toward the passenger window, Giles let her rest, knowing she would need all her wits and stamina for the coming trek.

Around two that afternoon, she finally stirred. They'd made good time despite the inevitable choke points of traffic. Not even the predictable chaos of the LA interchanges, or Giles' mumbled curses at the folly of the city's drivers, had had the power to awaken her. The first he knew that Buffy was back in the land of the conscious was when she stretched and yawned in the passenger seat beside him, somewhere the other side of Palm Springs.

"Good nap?" Giles asked, sparing her a brief smile.

Although the BMW's top was up, Buffy blinked at the bright afternoon sunlight. She fished in the bag by her feet for a pair of fashionable sunglasses, donning them to stare at her watch. "I can't believe I slept that long!"

"Well, you didn't get much sleep last night," he said, his hand tentatively bridging the gap between the bucket seats to find her leg. She permitted his touch, almost like the 'good old days' of their four months of marriage. "And since I have no idea how long this quest is actually going to take, I thought you could use the rest."

"Where are we?" Buffy asked, looking around the empty stretch of two-lane blacktop shooting straight as an arrow toward the mountains ahead. The terrain had changed dramatically since she'd gone to sleep; the lush, green coastal vegetation now replaced by rolling plains of sandy soil dotted with cacti, sagebrush, and yuccas. During the course of the journey, they'd climbed several thousand feet in elevation, too, so the air was noticeably drier--far less humid than coastal Sunnydale--and when the sun sank lower in the sky, the chill of the high desert would settle in. Noting the decided lack of civilization on either side of the road, she gave him a suspicious look. "This doesn't look like the way to Palm Springs. Y'know... movie stars and mud spars?"

"Perhaps because it's not. We passed through there a half hour ago. We're on a back road, coming up on a little place called. . . " Reluctantly breaking physical contact, Giles put his hand back on the steering wheel, and reached his other hand into the door pocket to retrieve a map. Neatly folded to show their current position, he gave it a quick look to confirm the name of the upcoming town. "... Conchetta."

"What's at Conchetta?"

"A garage, hopefully." Giles tucked the map away again, glancing at the dash, in particular at the gauge with the needle nosing ever closer to the big red 'E'. "I need to get some petrol."

"You mean, 'fill up with gas,'" Buffy corrected, suppressing a grin. "Giles, you really need to learn to speak the local lingo."

"'You say tom-may-to... '" he quoted, enjoying her teasing. At least they were talking to each other, almost bantering like their old selves.

Quite unexpectedly, Buffy brightened his world with a radiant smile. "But 'let's not call the whole thing off,' okay?"

"Okay." Encouraged, not wanting the conversation to end, Giles asked, "Are you hungry?"

"See? Sandwiches? Who told you so? Huh?"

"You did, darling," he replied, sounding suitably henpecked.

Buffy grinned triumphantly, then gave the question serious consideration. "Yeah, I could do with a bite of something. Although I doubt we're gonna find a McDonalds way out here in the back of beyond. Probably have to settle for a greasy spoon instead."

Giles pulled a face. "And imagine my surprise, at finding myself preferring the former over the latter in that statement."

"Relax, British Guy, it's an American expression. It means a small, cheap diner."

"It most certainly is not American," he argued playfully. "It's a colloquial British term dating from the 1920s, used in reference to an establishment with a less-than-rigorous approach to hygiene and dishwashing."

"A small, cheap diner," Buffy repeated for clarification. "But if it's any comfort to know, greasy spoons don't necessarily have greasy spoons... except the really small, really cheap ones."

A green road sign flashed past on the right shoulder. It read: 'CONCHETTA, POPULATION 500.'

They exchanged knowing looks.

A moment later, Buffy pointed at the first town building, coming up ahead. "Ooh, gas station! 'I Spy' points for Buffy!"

The arrival bell rang twice as the BMW ran over the twin rubber strips near the front pump in a two-pump garage. As soon as they were stationary, Buffy climbed out of the car to stretch her cramped limbs with cat-like grace, before exercising further with a walk around the side of the building where the restrooms were located.

A man--early 30's, olive-skinned, wearing greasy jeans with a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat--approached from out of the mechanic's area, where a dark blue pickup that had seen better days was in for service. "Buenas tardes, señor."

Throwing off his seatbelt, Giles got out to stretch his legs. "Good afternoon."

"Señorita," the man said, tipping his hat as Buffy passed by.

She flashed him a smile. "Hey."

The mechanic's gaze momentarily dipped to watch her disappear around the corner of the shop area, unashamedly ogling the feminine sway of her hips. Wiping his hands on a grease-covered rag, he gave Giles a toothy grin. "I fill her for you, no?"

An innocent enough statement in broken English and referring to the car, surely, but Giles immediately picked up on the innuendo aimed toward Buffy. Whether or not it was intentional was open for debate. "No, I'm quite capable," he assured the man, managing a double entendre of his own. "Thank you."

The mechanic shrugged. "Sue yourself, señor." He returned to the workshop, but not before pausing at the side of the garage for another leer around the corner at Buffy's backside. Shaking his head, mumbling in Spanish, he returned to his work.

Reigning in his green-eyed monster, Giles began to pump his gas. Such was his curse, he supposed, for being in love with an incredibly attractive young woman--the constant awareness of how much other men desired her. Leaning against the Beemer's fender, Giles turned his attention elsewhere, letting his gaze travel across the road. On the other side of the highway, which itself had deteriorated into a two-lane stretch of crumbling bitumen, he spied THE SIESTA MOTEL--a single story, L-shaped building, featuring a dozen cheap rooms fronting onto a dusty parking lot. A crooked row of yellow concrete buffers followed the L, their sole purpose to stop guests from backing right into their rooms. From the crumbling state of them, that task had been put to the test several times.

He frowned in disapproval of the rundown appearance of the place. It was far from THE RITZ, but in a town this size and this far off the beaten track, it was quite possibly the only accommodation going. With luck, Buffy's foray into the desert wouldn't take as long as anticipated, and they could indeed drive back to Sunnydale later tonight, rather than add their names to the guest register.

The pump lever jerked in his hand, cutting off and signaling a full tank. Returning it to its cradle, he screwed on the gas cap and shut the cover. Over the top of the BMW's ragtop, Giles looked around for Buffy, but she had vanished from sight, probably taking the opportunity to visit the restroom. Eyeing the amount he owed, he headed into the adjoining convenience store to pay.

Inside, a six-foot tall spinner stand near the front door immediately caught his eye. The stand itself was not of interest, depleted of all but a few dusty, bent postcards. Apparently, nobody bothered to refill it because nobody ever came to Conchetta by choice. On the top row, however, he spied an unexpected but appreciated surprise--some dog-eared maps sagging down over their holders like weary old men withered by time and gravity.

He worried the store clerk by unfolding two before he found what he was looking for. While the road map of southern California had been invaluable getting them thus far, it was sadly lacking when it came to the local lay of the land, chiefly the surrounding desert. Although the location of the sacred place Giles intended to take Buffy was partly spiritual, he wanted to get as close to the physical locale as possible. He was aiming for somewhere within a two mile radius, lest Buffy find herself faced with a hell of a long walk. This map of the local area would be a tremendous help.

Paying for his map and his gasoline, Giles headed back to the car, only to find Buffy now leaning against it, involved in a cheery conversation with the Mexican Marauder.

Giles' step faltered. He wasn't sure what peeved him more; the fact that the mechanic was openly flirting with her, or that Buffy was happily flirting back. That she could apparently talk up a storm with a complete stranger, when talking to him--her husband--had clearly presented itself as a major chore over the past month, further irked his temper.

With a grunt, fighting down another pang of jealousy, he climbed in behind the wheel without saying a word. Perhaps 'flirting' was the wrong word in regard to Buffy, he grudgingly decided, given her present frame of mind. As he refolded his new map to fit in the door pocket for easy access, he determined that she had simply struck up an easy rapport while waiting for him. He should be happy for her willing involvement in a casual conversation. It marked a turning point in her attempt to find her way out of the hole she had dug for herself. She really was trying. Now, if he could just quell his decidedly homicidal intent, as he listened to that sod brazenly chat up his wife, things would be peachy.

Unlatching the glove compartment, Giles angrily tossed his old map inside. Straightening, he impatiently drummed his fingers on the wheel while Buffy stumbled over her woeful Spanish skills, completely oblivious to the fact that she was being hit on by a pro.

"Buffy, are you ready?" he finally asked, leaning over the passenger seat to call out the window. He flipped the door handle for her, somewhat ungraciously hitting her in the butt, but she took the hint.

"Gracias," she told the mechanic as she slipped in beside him, the smile still on her face. "Well, I found out were the local greasy spoon is... "

But before she could elaborate, the mechanic bent down and grinned at her through the window. "Come back anytime, señorita," he suggested. "I be most happy to service you."

'Yes, I'm sure you would,' Giles thought belligerently, starting up the engine. Stepping on the accelerator, he pulled back out onto the road faster than he should have, causing the Mexican to hastily back step or risk his toes.

Buffy bumped over the curb; Giles hadn't even given her a chance to buckle her seatbelt. Clicking it in place, she turned a frown on him. "Whoa, where's the fire?"

Giles gritted his teeth, lest he lose his temper at her and her blind-bloody-eye to the flirtatious mechanic. "I'm simply eager to get where we're going," he said levelly.

"But we're gonna eat first, right?"

"Buffy, you appear to have forgotten the reason behind all this, why we're here in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention that you, yourself, wanted to keep this to a day trip, if possible. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can return home."

Pulling her sunglasses partway down her nose, Buffy looked at him over the top of the dark lenses. "But now that I've had time to think about it, I'm, like, starving!"

He grunted in frustration. "Well, perhaps you wouldn't be, if you'd actually eaten more than half a slice of toast for breakfast."

She pouted. "But you said we could stop." Quite unexpectedly, she reached across to touch his knee. Her caress was deliberate, and very, very distracting. It was the first time in a month that she had initiated any form of physical contact, and he momentarily had pause to turn around and take her back to THE SIESTA MOTEL for the afternoon, Slayer quest be damned. "Please?"

The realization that he was acting foolishly on both counts made him ease off the gas pedal. He glanced at her, keeping one eye on the road and cautiously slowing as the downtown area came into view.

"If you eat fast," he agreed jadedly, covering her hand with his own. On impulse, he lifted it to his lips for a quick kiss, before letting go.

Buffy brightened at his actions. "And I wanna put the top down, too, okay?"

"Yes, I'm sure that will expedite things considerably."

"Aw, c'mon, grouchy, it's a beautiful day."

"Darling, we're not here for the scenery," he reminded her again.

Not listening, Buffy leaned forward in her seat. "Okay, see the traffic lights?" she asked, pointing toward the upcoming intersection. She needn't have bothered; they were the only traffic lights in town. Decaying downtown buildings drizzled past, most of which were dark and boarded up with no signs of life. "You gotta turn right there. Then three blocks, and right again."

Or so said her new admirer. Scowling, Giles followed the directions, and in short order, discovered the true extent of Buffy's appetite. 'Starving' was, indeed, an apt description. Sitting in a small booth, on the opposite side of the table from her, Giles watched her devour more food than he had seen her tackle in a very long time... which was good; she could definitely do with a little more meat on her bones. She put away two large burritos, a bowl of refried beans, and a plate of nacho chips drowned in salsa, in the same time it took him to consume a single toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, and a cup of tea--the latter of which he wasn't entirely convinced hadn't been made with dishwater.

Tea aside, which was clearly not a regional delicacy, JOSE'S was not a typical 'greasy spoon', and far from what he expected to find on the recommendation of a mechanic. The seating area was clean and tidy, and the staff, including their waitress--a friendly woman in her mid-forties and of Mexican descent--possessed more than a basic standard of grooming and hygiene. If that didn't speak for itself, then the clientele most certainly did. Even at two-thirty in the afternoon, there was scarcely an empty table to be found. It appeared to be the local spot for 'pie and coffee.' Baffling, to say the least...

Giles hadn't realized his attention had drifted, until he was startled back to the present by their waitress' question.

"More tea, señor?"

He jumped slightly, finding the woman in his personal space, dangling a tea bag by its string above his cup while flaunting a carafe of her atrocious hot water. That was the problem with his tea; it had been made in a coffee carafe. "N-no, thank you," he stuttered, much to her disappointment.

"You want me, you call me, no? I make you happy."

"No. I mean, yes. I shall. Thank you."

She smiled suggestively, and moved off to tend another customer.

Good Lord, was everyone in this town that hard up for sex? Or was it merely him, frustrated beyond belief, hearing innuendo in every sentence, and imagining lewd and licentious behavior everywhere he looked?

He looked across the table at Buffy, as she slurped the last of her soda through a straw in a noisy and unladylike fashion.

Everywhere except in the eyes of the one person who mattered most.

Buffy regarded him with the same detached indifference as she'd been using to look at him for the past month. He wondered if she'd even noticed that another woman apparently found him attractive. Did it bother her, the way the unwanted attention she garnered from other men bothered him? Was she even remotely jealous? Or did her present insensitivity make her impervious to all emotions?

His scrutiny, or perhaps the expression on his face, made her suddenly stop slurping.

"What?" Buffy's eyes widened in horror as she hastily reached for a napkin. "Do I have a big blob of salsa on my chin or something?"

Giles diverted his gaze, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. "No, no... I was just thinking, if you're finished, we really should be underway." He threw a couple of bills on the tabletop for a tip, looking everywhere except at Buffy.

He paid for lunch, then escorted her out to the car with a light but possessive hand on the small of her back, well aware of the stares that followed them. At her insistence, he put the top down and retrieved their coats from the trunk.

After much map consulting and very little swearing on Giles' part, they arrived at their destination with a good three hours of daylight left. Pulling off the highway, he drove a few hundred yards into the desert, mindful of where the solid terrain gave way to softer sand. The last thing he wanted was to get stuck, so he ventured into the dunes only as far as he dared, picked a spot at random, and pulled up beside a tall, spiky-leafed Joshua tree.

They got out together. Hands in the pockets of her long coat, which she was no doubt glad he had insisted she bring, Buffy followed Giles as he went to open the trunk.

"What's in the trunk?" she asked conversationally, watching him root around in it.

"Supplies."

"Supplies? Like food, water... maybe a compass? Have you been holding out on me, mister?"

"No, I meant the supplies I retrieved from the Magic Box." He gathered said supplies--spell book and magic gourd in one hand, a large bundle of twigs tied with string in the other--before he straightened and turned to her.

Buffy eyed his 'picnic' offerings with a teasing grin. "And this from the guy who thought 'sandwiches' were a bad idea." She nodded at his twigs. "News flash: I don't think I'll ever be that hungry."

Using his elbow, Giles slammed the trunk lid closed, sparing little time for her quip. He glanced around, getting his bearings, deciding that he was fairly close to where he intended to be--give or take a mile. "Very amusing. Come on, this way."

As they walked further into the dunes, the Watcher in Giles kicked into full gear, and he explained the next step in the process.

"You see, the location of the sacred place is a guarded secret. I can't take you there myself. I'll have to perform a ritual to transfer my guardianship of you--temporarily--to a guide." As he spoke, they climbed a small dune to a higher plateau, where he stopped, with a 360-degree panoramic view of the empty desert stretching from there to the horizon. Satisfied, he put his book and gourd on the ground, and began unraveling the string tied around the twigs. "This'll do."

"A guide... but no food or water? So it leads me to the sacred place, and then a week later, it leads you to my bleached bones?"

"Buffy, please." He gave her a wry smile as he worked. "It takes more than a week to bleach bones." Giles dropped to his knees and began to arrange the twigs around himself in a circle.

"So how's it start?" Buffy asked, watching.

"I jump out of the circle, then I jump back in it, then I... " He glanced away with a sheepish smile. "... shake my gourd."

"I know this ritual. The ancient shamans were next called upon to do the hokey-pokey and turn themselves around."

Circle complete, Giles got to his feet with his gourd in hand, and shot her a withering look. "Go quest."

Buffy waited, an amused glint in her eyes that he knew well. With a sigh, Giles resigned himself to looking like a right berk in front of her. He hopped out of the circle, then back into it, and then finally shook his gourd.

"And that's what it's all about," Buffy teased.

They both waited. An eagle squawked in the empty sky overhead.

"That it?" she asked flatly.

"Yes, that's it." Giles kicked aside some of the twigs with the toe of his boot, breaking the magic circle.

Buffy shrugged. "I don't feel any different."

"Nor did you when your Slayer essence was first placed under my protection, years ago." He stooped to put his magic gourd on the ground with his book, then moved out of the circle, brushing the sand from his hands and knees. "Buffy, it's a spiritual possession, not a physical one. You're not supposed to 'feel any different.'"

"So... what happens now?"

"Now, you quest."

She glanced at the desert around them, devoid of life save for the scrub bush and various yuccas dotted over the endless sea of dunes. "But... how do I know where to go?"

"Follow your instincts. Your Slayer essence is now free of my constraint. Allow it to rule your intuition." Off her doubtful look, he added, "I'll attempt to summon a guide to aid you."

"How will I know this guide? I mean, will he be like one of those guys at the airport, wearing a chauffeur's cap and holding a little sign that says: BUFFY?"

Chuckling, Giles pulled her into an impromptu hug. "I agree that would be tremendously helpful, but alas, no. Trust me, you'll know your guide when you see him or her or it." He paused as the moment turned serious. Once again, he was sending her out to face the unknown, and while he didn't believe there was any physical danger to her in the undertaking, the mental quandaries that awaited could prove overwhelming, especially in her present emotional state of mind. "Be careful," he whispered, risking a kiss to the side of her head.

Much to his relief, Buffy's arms rose to return his embrace. "You, too." She drew back far enough to look up into his eyes. "Don't let a mountain lion eat you or anything."

Giles nodded, mustering up a warm smile. "I shall try very hard not to." He raised his hand, intent on touching her cheek with the backs of his fingers and perhaps initiating a more loving kiss, but she pulled away, and, with a final glance over her shoulder, turned and walked into the desert.

* * * * *

In his crypt, Spike stirred from blissful, exhausted slumber, the smile put on his face by the Buffybot some hours earlier still firmly in place. He'd dreamed of making wild, passionate love to Buffy, and as he lazily returned to consciousness, he realized that in all the ways that mattered, he had. The Buffybot was Buffy's complete doppelganger. It--she--wasn't a substitute for the real thing, she was better than the real thing. She obeyed his commands, catered to his whims, conformed to his wishes, all without question, no matter how depraved, cruel, or twisted. Let the wanker Watcher try to get his Buffy to do that!

The only thing Spike missed in settling for a robotic substitute was that he hadn't been able to taste her in the midst of high passion. To have bitten her, to have felt the dribble of her warm, salty blood on his lips as he shot his dead seed deep into her, would have just been the icing on the cake.

He smacked his lips, hesitant to leave his 'perfect place' and open his eyes. Instead, he rolled onto his shoulder and reached for his artificial lover, hoping to engage her in more of the same... which was when he suddenly realized that she wasn't there.

He sat up in his bed atop a stone sarcophagus with a start, looking around his deserted crypt with the panicked eyes of a madman. Moonlight streamed in through the high, half-moon windows, leaving few hiding spots in the darkness. Where the bloody hell was she? She was a robot, for Pete's sake! All plastic and metal and computer innards. Call of nature? Bloody hell... since when did a robot answer the call of nature?

A bolt of inspiration struck. He'd requested 'extra programming,' as that dweeb, Warren, called it, which basically consisted of a list of specific reactions and behavioral traits as befitting Spike's version of what a Slayer was like, all in hope of making the Buffybot as true to original as possible... or what Spike believed Buffy would be like if she were truly that much in love with him. Consequentially, to figure out where the Buffybot had vanished to, all he needed to do was figure out where the real Buffy would be at this time of night.

His eyes widened at the answer. "Cripes!" Spike muttered to himself, throwing back the blanket covering his naked form.

She'd gone slaying.

He dressed quickly, after finding his scattered clothing, and lit out of his crypt at a dead run. He had to find her before someone else did, namely one of those annoying Scooby do-gooders. If it got back to Buffy that he had sponsored and now harbored a sexbot in her likeness, then there would be far more than just hell to pay. And not only from a brassed off Slayer. That wanker she'd tied the knot with, under some insane delusion that she was in love with him, already had a stake waiting with his name on it...

Spike ran. He ran through the first two cemeteries at full speed, dodging effigies and leaping headstones, the tails of his long black coat flapping in his wake like a demented creature of the night. He was just about out of steam, and ideas, when he spotted her in the third graveyard talking to, of all people, two of the Slayer's pals; Xander and Anya.

Mustering up his second wind, Spike charged at them out of the shadows, before his robot lover could reply to Xander's probing inquiry to her weird state of mind. God only knew what she'd already told them; perhaps he should have paid as much attention to her social interaction input as he had to her sexual responses. "Hey! Wait up!"

The Buffybot turned to greet him with a welcoming smiled. "Spike!" To the Scoobies she enthusiastically added, "It's Spike... and he's wearing a coat!"

Spike finally reached them, looking from Xander to Anya and back again, trying to determine just how much they had or hadn't figured out. From the looks on their faces, they were close to realizing something was amiss, but still not sure what. It was time to do some damage control before they got wind of the charade. "Yes... ah... hello all."

The Buffybot reached for his hand, an affectionate gesture that any other time he would have welcomed. Spike quickly pulled away, covering with a nod at Xander. "Buffy's back early, I see. Lots of patrolling all 'round tonight then, is it?"

Much to his annoyance, the Buffybot didn't take the hint to leave him alone. Another programming flaw--no subtlety. Not to be put off, she linked her arm with his, exactly the way he had demanded Warren make her do. Spike jerked back as if her touch hurt.

"Ow!" he feigned, trying to sound convincing in front of his ever-curious audience. "Hey, give a fella a break there, Slayer." Undeterred, the Buffybot again tried to be close to him. Spike completely ignored her, stepping toward the others. At least he didn't have to worry about hurting her feelings. "I'm glad you're all here," he told Xander and Anya in all seriousness, still holding his 'hurt' arm, "'cause... um... the place is crawling with vamps tonight... tons of them. I think we ought to split up." Anything to get the bloody robot away from their inquisitive eyes, somewhere he could enjoy her attention in private.

"We haven't seen any vamps," Xander remarked. "Are you sure there's--?"

The crack of a dead tree limb and the low, menacing growls warned of the approaching danger, moments before three vampires in game face emerged from the trees and rising mist of the silent graveyard.

"You're right," Anya said in resignation.

"Yep," Spike agreed in mild annoyance. Of all the times for company to show up. "Guess so."

Looking for a quick meal, the vampires attacked. Going into Slayer Mode, the Buffybot rushed forward to kick one to the ground, while Spike tackled another, leaving the third for Anya and Xander. Rising to the challenge, Spike punched his opponent, grabbed his arm and flipped him, all in one neat move. A glance at the Buffybot while he waited for the vamp to get up again, revealed that Warren was a bloody genius; her 'slaying' was absolutely brilliant. Her timed kicks and blows were perfect, playing out in the same synchronized ballet of death he had watched the real Buffy perform hundreds of times over.

Xander and Anya, on the other hand, had apparently developed a novel approach to dusting a vampire that was uniquely there own; Xander grappled with the creature, letting it all but throttle him while Anya danced around waiting for an opportunity to stake it.

"Spike! Be careful!"

The Buffybot's warning came in the nick of time. Spike glanced around, ducking under the arm and fist aimed at his head with an elegant move of his own. Springing to his feet, he resumed the fight, trading punches with his less experienced opponent, finding himself enjoying the brawl. It got the blood moving in his veins, something his unbeating heart failed at miserably. A good scrap up always made him hot, made him hard.

Unbeknown to Spike and the others, Glory's minions lurked in the nearby bushes, watching events unfold--specifically 'the Slayer's' protective nature towards Spike--with keen interest. Their goal was to determine who amongst the Slayer's brood was most important to her, and therefore most likely to be the Key their mistress sought.

"No!" the Buffybot called again, watching Spike trade blows with the vamp, mistakenly under the belief that he was in trouble. "Get away from him!"

Without further ado, she dusted her vampire in an almost offhanded fashion, and focused her attention on Spike, as he twisted his opponent's arm into a position that arms normally didn't bend. The move broke bone, tore cartilage, and toppled his adversary to his knees in utter agony. Attentive to his needs--as always--the Buffybot tossed her stake to Spike, who caught it and dusted his downed kindred without thought or hesitation, putting the poor bugger out of his misery once and for all.

Together, Spike and the Buffybot walk back to where Anya was helping Xander to his feet. The third vampire was also dust. Not that it would have worried Spike if one or both of them had been killed in the fight; that simply would have meant two less mouths to blab about 'Buffy's' odd behavior.

"I think that was probably the big action for the night," Spike said, hoping that it was indeed enough to get him and his eager-bed-partner out of the spotlight and back to his crypt for a little post-tussle tussle. "You two can toddle on home if you want."

Xander ignored the order and instead looked at the Buffybot for confirmation. "Buffy?"

"Yes," she agreed happily. "Spike and I will do it alone. You guys head home."

Not liking the idea, but nonetheless agreeable to it, Xander gave her a final nod, and he and Anya moved off toward the cemetery gate.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Spike turned his full attention to the Buffybot. She frowned, squirming uncomfortably as she rolled her shoulders. He knew, instinctively, what was bothering her... mostly because he'd had her programmed that way.

"I don't understand this," she protested. "I did the slaying. I should be--"

"Satisfied?" Spike asked in a wanton growl. He was far from satisfied himself. The slaying was just the foreplay.

She nodded. "But I'm not. I'm all... my skin is all hot. Do I look hot to you?"

He smiled lewdly. "Always."

"You better feel me to make sure," she said suggestively, quietly running algorithm #445687.

"I can do that." Spike roughly pulled her into his arms, silently praising the wonders of modern technology as he locked his mouth on hers in a fiery kiss.

* * * * *

Rounding the wrought iron cemetery gates, Xander and Anya headed home. She coughed and wheezed, and he glanced at her with a distracted frown. He was still trying to accept that Buffy had so easily dismissed their company in favor of Spike's.

"Urgh, I breathed in a quart of vampire dust," Anya complained, pocketing her stake now that the threat had passed. Despite Spike's insistence that the place was 'crawling with vamps', until a few minutes ago they hadn't seen any in the hour they'd been patrolling. "That can't be good."

Knowing she'd live, Xander recast his mind to his hurt feelings. "I wish Giles had told us they were back from the desert. I wish I knew what went on there."

"Oh, you know... Slayer/Watcher stuff. Probably some silly ritual with an enchanted prairie dog or something."

"And hopefully some quality Wife/Husband stuff," he added. He glanced at Anya as they meandered down the sidewalk. "Whatever it was, I think she's still a little spacey."

Anya shrugged. "She fought okay."

"Yeah." Xander stopped walking as something odd occurred to him, bringing them both to a halt. "Hey, she never asked about Dawn."

"That's true."

"And did you see a wedding ring on her finger?"

"Can't say that I did."

Xander didn't like the implications one bit. "Something's wrong." He glanced behind them at the cemetery gate, the decision already made. "Come on."

They snuck back into the deserted graveyard, and moved cautiously across the moonlit plots, ducking low hanging tree limbs in need of a trim, as they headed back to where they had parted company with Buffy and Spike. Not that Xander expected them still to be there, but it was a good enough place as any to start looking for them... so he could ask Buffy what the hell was going on that she preferred Spike's company over theirs. As they rounded a moss-covered mausoleum that fronted onto the area where they had dusted the three vampires, despairing moans caught their attention. Holding Anya's hand, fearing a new threat, Xander slowed their approach to a stealthy crawl until they were able to determine just what they were facing.

"I hear something," Anya whispered unnecessarily.

Xander hushed her. At the corner of the mausoleum, they peered through the trees for the shock of their lives.

Spike lay on his back atop of a grave, Buffy straddling him, thrusting up and down on him. Although both were still fully clothed, the flair of Buffy's pleated skit concealing all the naughty bits, it was obvious they were engaged in something Xander would rather not think about them being engaged in, period, in this lifetime or any other.

Buffy moaned with pleasure, her head thrown back as she shamelessly rode the vampire toward oblivion. "Oh, Spike! You're the big bad. You're the big bad!"

Xander, convinced he was going to be scarred for the rest of his life, recoiled in shock. Still holding Anya's hand, he dragged her away from the scene, back around the mausoleum, where they escaped, unseen, into the cover of the overgrown trees. Slack-jawed and mute, he couldn't believe he'd just witnessed Buffy having sex with Spike. But as they headed for the cemetery gates at a brisk walk, his thoughts sympathetically turned to Giles.

Poor Giles. The guy was going to be devastated by this news... if he didn't already know. Was that why he hadn't contacted them upon their return from the desert? Was he home alone, now, drinking through his misery? Giles evidently had good reason to be concerned about his crumbling relationship with Buffy. His marriage was on the rocks--no, from the look of things, it was already over. In hindsight, Xander couldn't blame the guy for finding a little solace in a bottle. If the shoe were on the other foot, Xander thought he might have turned to drinking Scotch, too. Gallons of it.

How did things get this bad, this fast? Although he knew that 'this fast' was not as overnight as it appeared. Judging from his conversation with Giles at the Magic Box, things had been silently falling apart for the past month. The question was how he had been so blind to what was happening to his friends.

"I know you said it's not polite to say 'I told you so,'" Anya said, her steps rushed, her heels making staccato clicks on the pavement as she kept pace with his longer stride. "But I told you so!"

And she was right. Never again would he so casually dismiss her quirky instincts. Buffy was having an extramarital affair. She was cheating on her husband.

With Spike!

As they briskly headed down the sidewalk toward home, Xander shook his head to clear it, but the straddling and thrusting remained indelibly burned onto his retina, just as the moaning kept ringing in his ears. When he got there, provided he could form a coherent sentence, he had to tell Willow.

Because somehow, someway, they had to fix this.

* * * * *

The car door slammed, waking him with a start. Glasses askew, hair rumpled from sleeping with his head wedged against the upholstery, Giles threw off the musty blanket he kept in the trunk and sat up in the backseat of the BMW, ready for the intruder's attack. It took him a moment to realize that there was no intruder, nor any attack--mountain lions generally didn't open the car door and get in first. Indeed, a creature of that size and strength would have simply lunged through the Beemer's ragtop--which he'd put up as meager protection against the desert chill after sunset, hours ago--and devoured him before he was even halfway towards realizing it.

Adjusting his glasses, he spied Buffy sitting in the front seat, staring blankly out the windshield. From her sullen silence and rigid body language, Giles immediately deduced that things hadn't gone terribly well on her quest. That, in itself, was extremely disappointing, and took an instant bite out of any anticipation he may have had for her exuberant return.

"Buffy?" he asked quietly, both in query to her trek and to announce his presence in a way that wouldn't startle her. Evidently, she was well aware of him, for she didn't jump or turn in surprise, but continued to regard the moonlit vista of desert landscape beyond the car's front bumper in absolute silence. He shifted his large frame into a more comfortable position. The BMW's backseat hadn't been designed for anyone over five-feet tall to partake in successful napping. Finding the tilt lever by feel alone, he tipped the driver's seat forward, reached for the door handle and pushed it open.

He climbed out a little awkwardly, clicked the seat back into place, then climbed in again, this time beside his brooding wife. In the chilled darkness, Giles regarded her for an extended moment, hoping she'd say something to initiate the conversation, or at the very least, give him the green light to inquire into the details of her six-hour-long desert sojourn. She didn't. Her eyes remained fixed on nothing, somewhere straight ahead, her expression blank.

Resigned, he diverted his gaze in defeat. "Should I even ask how things went?"

Buffy still wouldn't look at him. "Giles, I'm tired and cranky. I just wanna go home, okay?"

Facing front, he obediently turned the ignition key, the hope he'd harbored for a miraculous solution to all their problems dwindling down the drain.

After forty-five minutes of complete silence, Buffy spoke as an iridescent green road sign flashed in the headlights: 'CONCHETTA, POPULATION 500.' "Can we stop?"

"Are you hungry, or just in need of a bathroom?" Off her silence, he clarified, "Shall I head for the diner, or the garage? Although, I can't promise either will be open at this time of night."

"The motel."

Giles glanced at her, equally uncertain of her suggestion and the destination. "Are you sure? I mean, we could be home in roughly five hours. Quite possibly sooner, given the lighter nighttime traffic around LA."

"And that would still be, what? Two in the morning?" Buffy finally regarded him across the darkness, frowning. "I'm car-ridden-out for the day, Giles. Five hours? I don't think I could sit here for the next five minutes without turning homicidal."

He smiled tightly, eyes on the road and slowing to thirty-five as they entered the town limits. "Not something I'm anxious to see, I confess."

They drove up the main street, deserted but for a couple of cars, and on through the one and only set of traffic lights flashing yellow four ways. Buffy sent a look down the street as they passed the turn off to the diner but said nothing, so he continued out towards the other side of town. Keeping his eyes peeled all the way, Giles hoped to spot another, less rundown, motel, but as he had sadly mused earlier, THE SIESTA MOTEL was apparently the only accommodation around for miles. He thought about suggesting they go on to Palm Springs, but after Buffy's 'homicidal' remark, and guessing the afternoon and evening she'd had to induce such a mood, he decided he was better off not suggesting anything right now, merely accommodating her wishes.

He pulled into the derelict motel's parking lot, sandy gravel, blown in from the neighboring dunes, crunching loudly beneath the BMW's tires as they made the sole tracks across the gritty concrete expanse. All the lights were out save for the roadside marquee, its flickering red neon 'Vaca_cy' sign missing the letter 'n'. By comparison, the gas station across the road was lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. The convenience store was apparently a 24/7 deal, which was a handy thing to know should Buffy--once they were finally settled in--have a late night snack food attack. Parking in front of Reception, Giles donned a questioning expression and spared Buffy a final glance, but she didn't say or do anything to suggest she had changed her mind. So he got out without comment, and walked to the door.

The office lights were out too, so he cupped his hands against the glass of the door and peered inside. He jumped, startled as a jackrabbit, as Buffy noiselessly sided up to him.

She pointed. "Try that," she suggested, her breath fogging in the chilled air.

Recovering from his near heart attack, Giles glanced down at the night bell, and obligingly pressed it. From somewhere inside came the faint sound of a buzzer, which promptly stopped again when he withdrew his index finger.

They waited.

"There doesn't appear to be anyone in attendance," he said, thinking Palm Springs was looking better and better all the time. He regarded Buffy in the moonlight and opened his mouth to suggest it, when her somber expression unexpectedly turned into a smile.

"No, look."

He did, as a rather frail-looking woman in her seventies and wearing a Seventies floral bathrobe, appeared on the other side of the glass door and began fumbling with the locks. A security chain prevented it from opening more than a few inches.

"Yes, dear?" the woman asked, focusing on Buffy since they were more or less the same height. "Can I help you?"

"Um, yeah, hi. We're real sorry to disturb you so late," Buffy apologized, "but we'd like a room please. If that's okay."

The old woman looked surprised by the request, then delighted. "Of course it's okay, dear. This is a motel. Not that there's much business to be had nowadays. We don't get many people just passing through Conchetta anymore, not since the interstate came."

"When was that?" Giles asked conversationally, in regard to the highway's construction.

"1977." Without further ado, the woman promptly shut the door in their faces, threw off the security chain, then opened it wide to allow them access. "Now get yourselves in here before you freeze to death." Leaving them to close it in their wake, she shuffled around the check-in counter at the back of the room. A narrow hallway, marked with a crooked PRIVATE sign on the wall above, ran back behind the desk for about ten feet before it angled off to the right, where the soft sounds and flickering light of a television set drifted out of the darkness. "Now, a room you say?"

"Just for the night," Buffy continued, still looking guilty for the after hours disturbance. "We'll be leaving in the morning."

Consulting the guest register for reasons that completely baffled Giles, considering theirs was the only car to have graced the parking lot since the last great sandstorm from probably decades ago, the woman paused to regard them both in turn. "Twin beds?"

Although she ultimately fixed him with a discerning eye of disapproval, Giles allowed Buffy to be the one to answer that. She did so with great aplomb, clasping her hands together on the counter in a way that clearly showed off her wedding ring. "Just one. A queen-size, if you have it. As you can see, my husband's pretty tall."

The old woman took note, and, looking suitably chastised for her unjust assumption of their relationship, smiled apologetically at Buffy. "I'm afraid we only have twins and full beds, dear. But I... could let you have the honeymoon suite. It costs a bit more, but it has complimentary satellite TV and a whirlpool tub in the bathroom, big enough for two."

"Really?" Buffy brightened considerably. "That'd be cool! I so could use a nice hot soak." She looked over her shoulder at Giles. "Can we?"

Giles eyed the old woman suspiciously. Whirlpool tub or not, she was hustling them, he was certain of it. She'd already admitted to not doing a roaring trade, and now that she actually had a paying customer, she was out to gouge him for as much as she could. "How much?"

The old woman eyed him in return. She knew he knew, but wasn't about to back down because of it. "Two hundred."

He scoffed out loud. For that price, he could buy four-bloody-star Palm Springs luxury. "And how much for a room without a hot tub?"

"Giles!" Buffy said in protest and embarrassment.

The old woman's eyes narrowed determinedly. "One seventy-five. Plus tax, of course."

He scoffed again. "Buffy, this is preposterous. Let's drive on to Palm Springs."

"No," she said firmly, "it's late. Let's not." She faced the old woman again, making the decision despite his obvious objection. "We'll take the one with the hot tub."

The woman smiled triumphantly at her. "Of course, dear."

Mumbling curses under his breath, Giles pulled out his credit card.

"We don't take credit, dear. Just plain old cash money. There's an ATM at the bank downtown, if you need it."

He turned a look of disbelief on Buffy, willing her to intervene and stop this lunacy. She knew he carried a substantial amount of cash with him on a trip, in case of emergency, which this most certainly was not. This was plain and simple highway robbery.

Unfortunately, Buffy wasn't up for any more arguments. "Just pay the lady, Giles, okay? I'm tired."

Gritting his teeth, he did as asked, slowly counting out the bills into the woman's waiting hand.

It was an average room, of average size and décor, despite its high price tag and 'honeymoon suite' reputation, but it was tidy and clean, with a double bed dominating its center. The usual luggage racks and pre-fab closets took up one corner, while a bolted-down TV set sat alone on the empty chest of drawers across from the foot of the bed. Evidently, the room's 'suite' credentials came from the inclusion of a small, round table and two faded armchairs, both of which had faced one too many afternoon sunsets through the window at the front.

Buffy preceded him in, but stopped short upon realizing exactly what their two hundred dollars had bought--or hadn't bought, as the case may be. Determined not to bear the brunt of any 'I told you so's, she instead turned her annoyance on him.

"I never knew you were such a tightwad," she remarked, crossing to open the bathroom door for a hopeful peek inside.

"My grandmother had some Scottish blood," he said casually. Dropping their individual overnight bags, Giles followed to peer over her shoulder. There was, indeed, a whirlpool hot tub in the remodeled bathroom... remodeled that was, in the Dark Ages. He turned away, smugly unsurprised. "It's in my nature to be a tightwad, especially when I know I'm being taken for a ride."

Buffy shut the bathroom door, frowning. "C'mon, Mr. Retroactive Council Pay, you have two jobs. It's not as if we can't afford it. And that poor woman has to eat."

Giles sat on the foot of the surprisingly comfortable bed, if one didn't count the obvious sag in the center. No doubt, the 'honeymoon suite' lived up to the activities its name implied. "And it's suddenly my responsibility to feed her for a month?"

But Buffy was already bored with the argument. He could tell by the way her shoulder sagged under the weight of whatever burdened her now, post-quest. "Whatever. I'm gonna take a bath. You need to use the facilities first?"

He shook his head, wisely neglecting to tell her that drinking her entire thermos of coffee, out of sheer bloody boredom, had left him pissing in the desert. She moved past him to retrieve her overnight bag, then wordlessly disappeared inside the bathroom and shut the door. Giles stood and collected his overnight bag, too. He found the controls to turn on the heat, and set the thermostat to a comfortable temperature. Taking his car keys out of the pocket first, he shrugged out of his coat and stripped down to his ribbed turtleneck sweater, which with the heat on would be more than adequate. On the way back to the bed, he snagged the remote control for the TV and kicked off his shoes.

He sat alone while she bathed alone, and the precipice between them inched a little wider.

* * * * *

Xander fumbled with the heavy metal door barring the entrance to Spike's crypt, trying to get it open without making too much noise. Noise would completely ruin the way he intended to burst in, all noble and knightly, defending Buffy's honor. Not that 'defending Buffy's honor' was in his Scooby job description, but when he'd swung by the ex-apartment of the man whose job it was, Giles' place--like Buffy's house--was locked up tight and in total darkness. Giles was either out cold on a bender, not wishing company, or simply not at home. Xander had no idea which, although judging from what he'd witnessed at the Magic Box last night, he was leaning heavily towards Door Number One. Since he wasn't up to any late night larceny to find out, and since no one was at home at Revello Drive either, he instead decided to see what he could pound out of Spike about the illicit affair the vampire was having, destroying the relationship of two of his best friends in the process.

Besides, what better place to look for Buffy than in Spike's bed.

Xander cringed, immediately rescinding the thought. He and Willow had talked it over with the others, concluding that Buffy's tryst fell into the realm of the insane. He needed to find her and talk some sense into her, pronto. Because despite his own initial wiggins, months ago, at the idea of Buffy and Giles as a couple, anyone with eyes could see how much they belonged together.

The crypt door finally budged, allowing him to push it open without too much extra muscle, although the rusty hinges still announced him with a loud squeak. Spike was, oddly enough, just standing around in the middle of the candlelit tomb, cigarette in hand and looking a little bedraggled. That idea made Xander scan the darkened nooks and crannies for his bed partner, but the vampire appeared to be alone... which probably just meant he'd blown it with the noise factor and Buffy had skedaddled. Since sociable chitchat was not on his 'to do' list, and since Spike was not his friend despite any allusions to battle camaraderie courtesy of the earlier scuffle in the graveyard, Xander decided to jump straight to the point.

"I saw you," he announced in an accusing tone. "In the cemetery with Buffy."

"Yeah?" Spike asked, looking a little apprehensive that he'd finally been found out. God, how long had this been going on? "Can't see how it's any business of yours."

"It's my business because Buffy's my friend. She's gone through some stuff lately that... well, it's affected her. And you're taking advantage of her."

"She's upset about her mum," Spike said offhandedly, moving around to the other side of his sarcophagus-bed, and taking a drag on his cigarette. "And if she turns to me for comfort... well, I'm not going to deny it to her. I'm not a monster."

"Yes, you are a monster," Xander insisted angrily, following him. "Vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them."

"Well, yeah," Spike had to concede, "you got me there."

Infuriated by the casual dismissal of such a serious topic, Xander grabbed Spike, fisting two hands in the front of the vampire's black t-shirt. He got in his face to make his point. "In case you haven't noticed, she has a husband to comfort her."

Spike was unimpressed. "That wanker? Puh-lease!"

"And I swear, if he doesn't stake you after finding out about the 'comfort' you've been giving Buffy, I swear... I will."

The crypt door suddenly opened to reveal a group of brown robed figures. Xander and Spike turned at the interruption, as the leader, his hawked face gnarled by open boils and pockmarked skin, spoke in a pleasant, educated tone.

"Gentlemen," he said politely, coming forward, "I'm so sorry to intrude, but I wonder if I might beg a moment of your time?"

"Friends of yours?" Spike inquired quietly.

Xander didn't have a chance to answer. He was punched in the gut, and went down out of breath, as all hell broke loose around him--education and manners forgotten. He didn't know who these demony guys were, only that they seemed to be here for something specific.

"Guess not," Spike concluded, before throwing himself into the fray.

Spike lashed out at the nearest leprotic face, but there were three more waiting behind to take their comrade's place. Recovering, Xander gritted his teeth and got to his feet. While part of him disliked the fact that he was helping Spike, another part of him quickly realized that the vampire was the 'something specific' these demons wanted. And for whatever reason, he couldn't let that happen.

'Better the demon you know,' he decided, smashing his fist into the nearest decaying face.

Turning, he kicked another, and punched yet another, but it was quickly apparent that he and Spike were fighting a losing battle. There were just too many of them, and they just didn't seem to realize that they were supposed to fall down when hit.

One clubbed him from behind and Xander saw stars. He dropped to the dusty floor of the crypt on his hands and knees, trying to shake the sudden lethargy from his body. He was hit again, and his limbs collapsed beneath him, his cheek acquainting itself with the gritty floor. He lay there in a half-conscious state, his tunnel vision narrowing as he watched the demons gain the advantage over Spike.

"Tie his hands," the leader said, as his followers managed to wrestle the vampire to his knees and subdue his fists at his back. "Miss Glory will want him restrained."

Something tweaked in Xander's fuzzed brain, but the blackness pushing in on all sides was just too great. It beckoned him to a dreamlike place, to let go of the throbbing pain and succumb to peace. Giving in, the last thing Xander saw was Glory's minions dragging Spike, bound, gagged and kicking, out the door of his crypt.

* * * * *

Laying back on the bed, propped up on lumpy pillows, Giles drearily watched the late night news while awaiting the arrival of the pizza delivery chap. He'd found an old phonebook in one of the drawers, and, with no idea if the pizza store still existed twelve years after the directory's publication date, tried the downtown Conchetta number regardless. As luck would have it, they were still in business, and still open at that hour, and assured him of a piping hot, freshly made pepperoni, cheese, onion and black olives, pizza within the next half hour.

The room was still cold; obviously, the heat controls were on the fritz, which was bloody typical, given what he'd paid for the room. Then again, he decided with a glance at the bathroom door, it did provide the perfect excuse for him and Buffy to cuddle up together in bed...

Stomach growling, he impatiently glanced at his watch, just as someone knocked cheerfully on the door of the motel room. In spite of--or maybe because of--Buffy's earlier accusation, Giles gave the young man a very generous tip. Kicking the door closed with his foot, he put the pizza box on the table and took a slice in a paper napkin. Crossing to the closed bathroom door, he informed Buffy that supper had arrived, should she be done turning herself into a prune anytime soon.

She assured him she would be out in a few minutes, so he returned to stretch out on the bed, and picked up the TV remote. Not up for any mental challenges and bored of the news, he surfed up a few channels while attempting to pick the bits of black olive off his pizza slice, distractedly looking for programming with even a mild entertainment value. Something quite unexpected caught his eye, but it was gone before he was sure, his black olive fetish having momentarily snagged his attention. He paused to consider what he'd seen, then surfed back for a second look.

Sure enough, he'd found the adult channel in all its naked glory. Pizza forgotten, he watched the two people on the screen shag like bunnies... until all the frustrations of the day--indeed, of the past month--caused an inevitable male reaction. Giles frowned accusingly at the bulge growing in his jeans, knowing that to think and feel and react this way would only cause him even more frustration and grief in the long run.

Disgusted with himself, he turned off the TV and devoured his pizza in aggravated silence, willing his erection to subside before Buffy reappeared. It helped, a lot, that when she finally did emerge from hot tub heaven, her chosen night attire was a pair of baggy gray sweat pants, and an oversized t-shirt that hung almost to her knees and down past her elbows. Very unflattering to her figure and not in the least seductive, which he supposed was purposely her point.

Buffy shivered, but he couldn't tell if it were real or merely theatrical for effect. "It's cold in here. Didn't you put the heat on?"

"I did. But apparently it's not included in the two-hundred dollars."

Ignoring his sarcasm, she helped herself to a slice of pizza, and sat cross-legged on the bed, facing him. She'd let her hair down, and it curled and kinked around her shoulders in a delightful manner, after having been tied back in a ponytail for so many hours on end. She smiled fondly, her earlier apathy miraculously whirlpooled away. "You got black olives for me."

"Well, I know you like them."

"Yeah, but you don't."

He gave her a little smile. "Such are the sacrifices one makes in marriage." Reaching to retrieve the pizza box and paper napkins, he deposited both on the bedcovers between them.

They ate in silence, until one of them, he wasn't sure who, accidentally sat on the remote and brought the TV to life. The moaning and the thrusting was back on the screen in all its explicit detail, almost causing Buffy to choke. She turned a part-amused, part-traumatized expression on him.

"God, Giles, what are you watching?"

"I wasn't watching anything," he said defensively, keeping his gaze diverted lest his body betray him again.

"Well, we don't need to watch that," Buffy said firmly, seeking out the remote control beneath her knee. She aimed it, and the ecstasy vanished with the touch of a button. "Especially while we eat."

"And after we eat?"

That gave her pause, and made him wonder why on earth he'd said it. He knew the score with her on that count, that anything more physical than a simple cuddle was presently off limits. Perhaps because it was his desperate hope of hopes that her desert quest had ferreted out the answers she needed to find within herself and changed the bloody rules.

Buffy shrugged, indifferent. "What's the point? It's just sex."

Giles smiled tightly, but held his tongue. He wanted to tell her that the point was to arouse them, to incite their animal instincts until they acted upon their carnal urges like a normal married couple. He wanted to remind her that this room, the fabled 'honeymoon suite,' was her choice.

"It's meaningless," she concluded, licking her fingers.

That frank observation concerned him. "You think sex is meaningless?"

"For them, totally," Buffy clarified, nodding at the TV. "I mean, yeah, two people having a really good time. Woohoo." She reached for a second slice of pizza as casually as if they were discussing the weather. "But it's not like it means anything to them. They don't love each other."

It suddenly became very clear what she was talking about. The TV depicted images of cold, passionless sex; two strangers rutting on camera for no other reason than to stimulate the voyeurs who watched. And she was right. When he and Buffy made love, it was not simply to satisfy any 'incited carnal urges.' When they made love, it touched something deep inside each of them. It meant something.

Or at least it had, a month ago...

Halfway through her second slice, Buffy sullenly picked off a piece of pepperoni and, out of the blue, announced, "'Death is my gift.'"

Still pondering 'the meaning of love' versus 'the act of sex', Giles stared at her, dumbfounded. Sometimes, the workings of Buffy's mind were a complete enigma to him. "What?"

Buffy suddenly found new interest in her slice of pizza, keeping her gaze glued to it as she picked off strings of cheese, bits of olives and pepperoni, one by one. "That's what my spirit guide told me. 'Death... is my gift.'"

Putting down his pizza, Giles reach a hand to grasp her shoulder, hoping to encourage her gaze to his. It worked, and as Buffy lifted troubled eyes to him, all contemplation of food and love and sex evaporated in favor of tending her woes.

"What else did your guide say?" he asked gently, encouraging her to continue now that she seemed willing to discuss it.

Buffy shrugged, dropping her deconstructed pizza slice back into the box. Wiping her fingers on a napkin, she drew her knees up and hugged them. "That I'm 'full of love,' and 'love will bring me to my gift,' and my gift, well... we've already cover that little gem of a surprise."

Giles tried diverting her focus from death by chasing up another path. "You're full of love?"

"Yeah, apparently I'm not so much made of stone like I thought, but more like... a Buffy-caramel. Hard shell on the outside with a squishy-love center," she admitted gloomily. "Go figure. I'm just a ball of sunshine."

"But isn't that good news? Buffy, I thought--"

"Wait." She silenced him with both the word and a look, her mood turning somber. "I need to tell you something." She paused slightly to gather her thoughts, glancing away, as if she'd deliberated this decision for hours. When her eyes found his again, the honest love he saw shining in them took his breath away. "I know things have been awful between us for the past month, but I want you to know that through it all, I never stopped loving you. And so, having said that, I think... " Her lower lip started to quiver, so she sucked it to make it stop. "I think you should leave me before it's too late."

Giles couldn't believe what he was hearing. Not the part where she said she loved him, but the rest. He tried, but he couldn't get his brain around the ending where she said she wanted him to leave. He replayed her request in her mind. No, he'd heard her correctly. She'd just asked him to leave her. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Tears began building in her eyes, but she determinedly put up the wall and dammed them back. "'Love will bring me to my gift.' And it did. Love brought me to you... and if death is the only gift I have to give you, then I'd rather you leave me now and be safe."

"Buffy--"

"No. You had the dream, too. Glory, the dead knights, all that blood on the ground. I watched you die." Her hand trembled as she reached out to caress his stubbly cheek. "Death is my gift to you. We both know it."

Giles took her hand from his face and gave it a desperate squeeze, wanting to remind her that in their shared dream, she had died, too. On the face of it, the words of her spirit guide could apply to either--or both--of them. Despite Buffy's insistence, 'gifts' could be given or received, and unlike her, he wanted all the facts before he started hastily drawing conclusions or unraveling cryptic riddles. The only thing of which he was certain, was that no force on heaven or on earth had the power to make him voluntarily up and leave her.

"Even if that were true," he said, casting doubt for both their sake, "then I'd rather die than turn my back and willingly walk away from you. If I'm forced to live my life without you, Buffy, then I choose not to live it at all."

She unexpectedly grew angry. "Giles, you're not listening to me! Staying with me means certain death!"

"And you're not listening to me!" he retaliated. "Whether I live or die, stay or go, is not your decision to make!"

"It is! And I think deep down inside, the Slayer part of me has known that all along. That's why I've been pushing you away... I've been trying to make you go before it's too late! It just took this quest-thingy for me to become all 'clued-in gal' and figure it out."

He shook his head, exasperated, and tried to reason. "You've been pushing me away because you're grieving for you mother, while at the same time attempting to adjust and be a 'mother' to Dawn. And we came out here for this 'quest-thingy' in order to solve our problems... not invent more."

"'Invent?'" She looked hurt by his insinuation. "You think I'm making this up? You think I'd intentionally rip out my heart and soul, and ask you to leave me on a whim?"

"I apologize. 'Invent' was a poor choice of word. But before either of us rush to any foolhardy decisions, I believe we should research--"

Done with the talking, she tackled him, pushing him backwards onto the bed with her mouth pressed to his in a desperate kiss. She tasted of pepperoni and black olives, and starved of her touch, he instantly began to devour her, as if she were the food of his soul. Buffy shared his hunger, needing little encouragement to unleash the passion that had been suppressed for far too long.

They kissed for a long time until, breathless with need, they reluctantly parted. Pausing only long enough to remove his glasses and put them safety out of harm's way, Buffy favored him with a saucy smile and climbed over his hips, settling herself against him in a way that aroused him faster and harder than any meaningless TV images. Groaning, Giles made a quick grab for the pizza box and frisbeed it out of the way, before pulling her back down to him for a zealous kiss.

Their hands spoke the language of love, reading each other's bodies like the blind reading Braille. Needing even more contact, his palms skimmed up under the hem of her unflattering t-shirt and traveled over the silky smooth skin of her back. Now that the drought was over, he couldn't stop touching her, and he couldn't get enough.

When she pulled back for a second time, Giles hoped to God that she wasn't putting a premature stop to things, not when she had started it. But he needn't have worried, because Buffy looked down at him with nothing but desire smoldering in her eyes. Sitting up, she slowly tugged off her t-shirt, revealing herself to him with a teasing smile.

His eyes roamed over her with unabashed ardor, and he felt the rush as if he were seeing her half-naked for the very first time. "Lord, I want you," he confessed raggedly.

"I can tell," she admitted wryly, wiggling her hips in emphasis of just where she sat. "I want you, too." Leaning down to him, Buffy's mood grew serious as she placed a featherweight kiss on his lips. "Show me this still means something."

Giles fingers combed through her loose, golden hair, brushing it back from her face so he could look into her eyes. "Oh, love... always."

He kissed her with renewed fervor, rolling her over so that he was on top. Free to roam, her hands intimately reacquainted themselves with him, knowing just where and how to drive him wild. Yet as his lips left hers and blazed a soft, slow trail down her throat, an unwanted thought pushed its way into his mind. He ignored it in favor of the sound of her drawing down the zipper on his jeans and the anticipation of her exploration within... but even so, just moments later, he was again forced to deal with the reality of the situation.

"Buffy, wait." His voice was a hoarse, distracted whisper, so soft he wasn't even sure he'd spoken the words aloud. He certainly hadn't wanted to; even now, he shifted his hips to encourage her to continue. He closed his eyes and moaned at her knowledgeable touch, fighting the temptation not to lose himself completely. Clinging to his last thread of sanity, he finally put his hand over hers in order to impede her incredible feat of re-familiarization. "Buffy... wait."

Her hand stilled instantly, as if she thought she'd done something wrong. Sure enough, when Giles lifted his head, he found insecurity clouding the passion in her eyes.

He allayed her fears with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, love, but I... I'm afraid I didn't come prepared for this."

"Oh... " Buffy frowned in unexpected irritation, withdrawing her hand from the front of his jeans in a gesture of resounding protest. "Seriously? You packed an overnight bag, knowing there was a good chance we'd end up in a motel room somewhere, and you didn't pack any condoms?"

Frustration reared its ugly head again. He flung himself onto his back, beside her, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose while the other reluctantly tucked himself away. "Yes, well, color me stupid, but given how things have been between us as of late, I didn't, in my wildest dreams, imagine I'd need any."

She folded her arms, pouting in frustrated disbelief.

Noting her reaction, the fact that she really had wanted this, Giles yielded to the blame and rolled back onto his elbow. His fingertips traveled down the valley between her breasts in a feathery caress. He met her eyes in silence, seeking forgiveness for his foolish oversight. She gave it wordlessly, accepting her part in the culpability, so he lowered his head to kiss his way along her collarbone to the juncture with her throat, where he then took the opportunity to dip his tongue into the sensitive hollow. She giggled in response, her arms going around him in light encouragement, as he half-covered her body with his own, playfully nibbling and nipping his way back up her throat until he was eye to eye with her again.

His hand traced the contour of her inner thigh in a tender caress, and although still clothed in sweat pants, her moan was a favorable reaction to his touch. "There are other ways for me to please you," he reminded her.

"I know, and... I want that." Her hands found purchase at the back of his neck, holding his gaze fixed with hers. "But I also want to feel you inside me. Tonight more than ever."

Caught in the crossroads of insatiable need and rational thought, Giles rested his forehead against hers, sharing her yen for a night of tenderly rediscovering what they'd lost, and the frustration that seemed destined to go hand in hand with it. They could, of course, continue without using any form of birth control, the potential consequence of which was not unpleasant, unwanted, or previously unconsidered. Yet he still harbored doubts over the wisdom and timeliness of bringing a child into their world, when a showdown with Glory was imminent... not to mention in the wake of Buffy's new 'leave me or die' revelation.

He withdrew from her side so suddenly, that the rush of cold air that replaced his body heat inadvertently caused her to shiver.

Modestly covering herself with her arm, Buffy watched with uncertainty as he zipped up his pants and reached for his coat. "Um, sweetie?"

"The convenience store in the garage across the street is still open," he explained, praying he was right about it being a 24/7. He buttoned his coat in a vain attempt to hide the evidence of his desire, and sat beside her to slip into his shoes and don his glasses. Swiveling, he cupped her face in one hand and drew her to him for a loving kiss. As he stood again, he glanced down at her breasts, perked by the chill and by her arousal. "Hold that thought. I'll be back in five minutes."

"Make it two."

* * * * *

A buzzer announced his arrival inside the convenience store. Shaking off the cold, Giles glanced over to the counter, and was a bit taken aback to see his old 'friend,' the Mexican Marauder, tending the shift... minus the cowboy hat. Good Lord, didn't the man ever sleep?

The chap glanced up from the magazine that held his attention, sharing the recognition and the surprise. "Ah, señor! You return!" With a glance outside at the gas pumps, he turned a frown on Giles. "I no see your car. Your señorita... she dump you?"

"No, she didn't dump me," Giles replied, irritably reminded of Buffy's plea for him to leave her. "If you must know, we're staying at the motel across the street."

In a hurry, with no time for idle chitchat or to search every aisle, Giles hedged toward the counter so that he didn't have to shout when he asked for what he needed. Although there were no other cars outside, and the town itself seemed dead, even on a Saturday night, he wasn't completely certain that he and the mechanic were alone in the store. The last thing he needed was for Mrs. Motel Gouger to be present down one of the aisles, doing some celebratory spending of the chunk of cash he'd grudgingly forked over. This was a 'guy thing,' or so claimed Buffy, who flat out refused to buy condoms, period. Not that he could blame her; there were certain embarrassing items he preferred not to purchase for her, such as tampons, so he supposed the discomfiture went both ways.

As he hesitantly drew closer to the counter, mentally testing derogatory phrasing versus plain English for the least awkward way to ask, the mechanic smiled at him with male affinity. He held up the magazine he was ogling, letting the centerfold drop open for Giles to see.

"What you think, señor? You like?" He tapped his chest and winked. "Raul like very much."

"Charming," Giles said, uninterested, diverting his gaze. "Um--"

"You no like looking at naked girls?"

"Just one. Do you--?"

"Ah... " Raul put down the magazine, grinning. "Your señorita," he said knowingly. "She very beautiful--very, very beautiful. You either very lucky man, or very bad man. She no your daughter, no?"

"No, she's my wife." Giles' patience was running thin. His fingers curled around the edge of the countertop in a desperate grip. "Now look here, do you sell--?"

"Then you very lucky man, señor," Raul concluded.

"I won't be, if you keep bloody interrupting me!"

Raul shut up, looking offended.

Giles ran his hand through his hair, calming his temper. "I'm sorry. I'm just in a bit of a hurry. I need to purchase... to know if you stock... " He hesitated.

"What, señor?"

Giles lowered his voice. "Nodders."

"Qué?"

"French letters."

"Qué?"

"Johnnys."

"Qué?"

"Jolly bags."

"Qué?"

"Fish skins."

"Qué?"

"Raincoats."

"Qué?"

"Shower caps."

"Qué?"

"Rubbers."

Raul shook his head, holding up his hands for Giles to stop. "No entiendo, señor."

"Condoms, man!" he finished in a desperate shout.

Finally understanding, Raul broke into a lewd grin. He tapped the side of his nose, and pointed a 'you da man' finger at Giles. "You very very lucky man!"

Giles was too exhausted to be peeved. "You have some?"

Raul nodded, and moved out from behind the counter. "Come, I show you."

Halfway down Aisle 5, as Raul stopped and frowned at an empty peg, mumbling in Spanish, Giles' hopes sagged like the waning erection in his pants.

"Wonderful," he said in defeat. Well, that was that, then. Buffy would be disappointed, but he'd just have to lavish her with extra-special attention and make it up to her in other ways.

"I tell you what I do, señor," Raul said, noting his disillusionment. "It against store policy at this time of night, but for you, I open the men's room. Come."

Confused, Giles followed the man back towards the counter, watching as he retrieved a key tied to a huge, round, wooden fob, from a hook by the cash register. "I'm afraid I... don't understand."

"Come, come." Without explanation, Raul went outside the store, leaving Giles to follow him around the corner of the mechanic's workshop to where the restrooms were located. Unlocking the gents, he pushed open the door with a smile and a flourish, but Giles honestly couldn't say anything about the cramped, tawdry bathroom with two urinals and a single stall really impressed him, least of all the smell.

He frowned at the man in confusion. "Um... "

"No no, you see," Raul insisted, leading the way inside. He flipped on the light, and Giles did indeed see. On the wall between the two urinals was a vending machine.

A condom vending machine.

"Good Lord."

"The bus from Phoenix, she used to stop here twice a week."

"Let me guess... before the interstate?"

"Si, señor. And with rooms so close," Raul said, gesturing across the road at the dilapidated motel. He shrugged, as if the location alone was enough to explain everything about this raunchy little town. No doubt, there was something in the water. "Raul do good, no?"

Reasoning aside, Giles grinned, mentally rescinding every insult and defamatory thought he'd ever had about the lecherous mechanic. "My friend, you may have very well just saved my marriage."

* * * * *

When Giles returned to the motel room, it was in darkness, save for the glow of the television screen. As he shut the door in his wake and shucked off his coat, the moaning told him exactly what channel Buffy had chosen in his absence.

"Buffy, what on earth are you watching?" he asked, playfully paraphrasing her earlier remark.

He raised a wry eyebrow at her as he approached, but forgot all about further chastising her choice of programming when he noted the location of her hand, between her raised knees. Although hidden beneath the bedcovers pulled up to her waist, it was obvious she was pleasuring herself.

Without stopping what she was doing, she regarded him with a look that made the heat instantly rise in his belly again. "Please tell me you had some luck at the store?"

Distracted, Giles proclaimed his success by holding up two foil packets.

Buffy frowned slightly. "I didn't know you could buy 'singles.'"

"Don't ask," he cautioned, deciding that when they left tomorrow, he was definitely not filling up with gas until Palm Springs or later.

Sitting beside her, he put the condom packs within easy reach beneath the bedside lamp, then devoted his complete and undivided attention to his busy wife. Particularly, he eyed the vigorous motion of her hand beneath the covers, the fact that she felt no shame for continuing her actions in front of him. Indeed, her brazenness excited him, and he watched, almost mesmerized, as her breasts rose and fell in time with her strokes. Gone was the shy teen he had married several months ago, unsure of her sexual expertise, replaced by this confident young woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. He had educated this side of her, one known to no other, one that made her completely his.

Picking up the remote, Giles silenced the pending onscreen orgasm, reducing the intimacy to just the two of them. Darkness engulfed them until he turned on the bedside lamp, which threw a soft, muted glow towards the corners of the room. For the first time since he'd paid for this lackluster accommodation, he was glad of the penny-pinching addition of a low-wattage bulb.

Placing his hands on the bed either side of her, he leaned close. "I thought all that was meaningless?" he asked of the TV sex.

"To them, it still is. But when I touch myself, all I can think about is you. Your hands, your mouth, loving me." Buffy logic again, and completely baffling to him. Not that he cared at the moment, given her current level of interest.

She lifted her hand from beneath the covers and offered it to him. Without hesitation, Giles sucked her fingers into his mouth, his eyes closing momentarily as he delighted in the taste of her. "Mmm, delicious."

Buffy broke into a devilish grin, lifting his glasses from the bridge of his nose. "Plenty more where that came from," she assured him, placing them on the bedside table.

"You don't mind if I decide that for myself, do you?"

In a lustful move, he stripped the bedcovers to her ankles. She giggled and gasped in response to the gust of chilled air that assaulted her bare skin, but quieted under the intensity of his ravenous gaze. Unabashed, she slowly parted her knees for his perusal.

The moment slowed; the mood sobered. He wanted her so very much. He longed for her, craved her, not just physically, but to soothe the ache in his soul, heal the hole inside his heart. He wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in her arms again, where he belonged, where destiny had decreed him to be even before she was born. The solace he found in her embrace knew no bounds, for it was the only place where everything in his life seemed right and pure and safe. He missed it terribly. He missed her.

Buffy sat up, taking his face in both hands, looking into him. There, before him, she let go everything she had been holding back since her mother's death, knocking down the walls, once and for all. "I don't care what my spirit guide said, I don't ever want to lose you. I love you so much."

His heart jolted in his chest. With that candid, yet honest, declaration, he saw the familiar spark return to her eyes, felt the contentment of old flood the void between them.

"I love you, too," Giles returned, gathering her close for the sweetest of kisses. "More than mere words can ever hope to express."

Buffy's arms went around him in a light embrace as he lovingly nuzzled her neck. "Then don't tell. Show me."

He did, for several glorious minutes, enjoying the simple, unadulterated pleasure of sitting with her, sharing soft caresses and tender kisses, showing her--reminding her of--the true love that bound them together heart, body, and soul.

Eventually, he laid her down, gently arranging her on the pillows, combing the hair from her trusting eyes with an adoring smile. With a final promise to her lips, he relocated to the foot of the bed, where he settled between her parted knees. He took his time lavishing the insides of her thighs with teasing kisses, first one then the other, eliciting sighs of anticipation and delight from her, before he finally planted a kiss on her hot, moist center. He tasted her again, this time by slowly dipping his tongue inside her honey pot.

"Delicious," he repeated softly.

Buffy moaned with pleasure, her fingers combing through his hair to hold him close, wordlessly encouraging more. Starved, Giles closed his eyes and lovingly feasted upon her sweet nectar.

"Oh... God... " she murmured, losing herself to his hunger. "Fingers. I want fingers, too."

He obeyed with first one, then two, which slid effortlessly in and out of her slick, tight channel. Palm up, he curled them slightly, watching with a grin as she whimpered, confirming that he'd found her g-spot. Her hips bucked wildly as his tongue joined the rhythm, flicking over her sensitized nub in time with the movement of his hand, expertly leading her closer toward her release.

She came against his mouth with a rush of warmth, and he greedily drank in her juices until he was completely intoxicated. Mindful of where she was--in a motel with paper-thin walls--Buffy held on to a scream, and instead gasped and squealed as she writhed uncontrollably. Hands fisting in the sheets, she threw her head from side to side as he continued to love her through another wave of pleasure. Finally spent, she quieted to a trembling rasp of heavy breathing, a sheen of fine perspiration glistening on her skin.

Rising to his hands and knees, Giles crawled up over her naked form. Buffy met him nose to nose, looking amazed, grateful, and satisfied. Holding his gaze, she reached for him, pulling him down into a breathless kiss, her tongue seeking out the taste of herself. Arms around him as if she never intended to let him go, she held him close, ignorant of the roughness of his wool sweater chafing against her breasts.

Still fully clothed, he settled between her knees, his erection pressed to her belly, straining for release from the confines of his jeans. Yet he continued to cherish her for as long as she allowed it, selflessly giving all the love he had, his own needs--as always--second to hers.

In an unexpected show of strength, Buffy took control. She flipped him over onto his back, and assumed a straddled position across his hips. Sitting up straight, she moved against him--a little wiggle over his crotch that coaxed a fevered groan from deep in his throat.

"My turn," she said, breaking into a naughty smile.

The flat of her palms pressed against his chest, traveling down over the coarse wool that barricaded her from his flesh, until she found the hem and gave it a meaningful tug. Eager to accommodate her, Giles rose to his elbows and helped her remove his sweater, his undershirt following it to the floor in much the same manner. Bare-chested, he settled back to enjoy whatever she had in mind.

The crisp chill of night assaulted his warm skin, until her velvet touch returned, leaving a trail of fiery heat in her wake. Buffy deftly followed the tracks of her fingertips with her lips and tongue, causing him to giggle. She paused at the sound to share a knowing smile. She was the only person in the world to have ever heard him giggle during sex, the only partner with whom he had felt comfortable enough to give himself so completely. Proving she was a woman with priorities and not to be distracted, she scooted backwards down his legs, far enough to reveal his belt buckle and tented jeans. Deft fingers undid the buckle, as he propped a pillow behind his head and watched with mounting fascination. The snap on his jeans came apart under her touch, and she drew the zipper down for the second time that evening.

She leaned down to him but stopped, causing him to gasp in anticipation. She caught his eye with a teasing grin, then resumed her tender exploration, parting his fly and dropping a soft kiss on the white cotton of his shorts beneath. The fact that there was still a layer of cloth separating her from his hardened flesh drove him to distraction. Imprisoned by his own desire, he reached down an impatient hand to set himself free.

Buffy took over again, encircling the base of his impressive member with her small hand. She began to stroke him, keeping one eye on his strained expression as, moments later, she picked up the pace and ran her tongue up the entire length of him. Despite the fact that he was watching, Giles responded with a jolt and a sharp intake of breath--involuntary reactions to the intimate contact. She shuffled forward on her elbows, her breasts flattening against the denim lining his inner thighs, as she rose to take him in her mouth.

Words--indeed, coherent thought--failed him. His back arched off the mattress, his hips reflexively thrusting toward the ever-increasing jog of her hand and the warm wetness of her mouth. A few minutes of vigorous attention was almost enough to finish things for the evening.

Focusing on her bobbing head, he reached down to brush her hair back so that he could see her face. "Buffy... love... " he managed to say, "unless you want my trip to the convenience store to be in vain, I implore you to stop now."

Releasing him with a wanton lap of her tongue, she raised her head to impart an amused yet amorous smile. "Couldn't have that," she agreed. Hands flat on the mattress either side of his chest, she moved back up to kiss his lips with the same slow, blazing passion she had demonstrated below. "I think it's time you lost the jeans."

He couldn't have agreed more. While it may not have been the most romantic move he'd made that evening, it was by far easier and quicker for him to stand and shed the remainder of his clothes and shoes, than it was for her to try to wrestle them off while reclined.

Naked, Giles returned to the bed. But before he could settle back against the pillows in a prone position and let things resume, Buffy crawled into his lap. So instead, he sat with her on the sagging mattress, Buffy sitting between his legs, with her feet together behind his butt and her arms resting lightly on his shoulders.

His fingertips combed her hair back over her ear and explored the contours of her cheek, while his eyes roamed every pore, slaking his thirst for her. He cupped her face to meet her gaze, and in that moment, he saw his entire existence reflected in her eyes. With every kiss, she breathed life into his soul; with every touch, she made his heart beat stronger. If life required a reason, then in her, he had found his. She was everything he wanted, and everything he would ever need, now and forever.

Buffy put her hand over his, and, as if sharing those very sentiments, closed her eyes and turned a loving kiss into his palm. Fingers laced with his, she kissed her way up his forearm, pausing to investigate the sensitive crook of his elbow with her tongue, before continuing to his shoulder, along his collarbone, and up his throat to find his lips. He smiled against her mouth, enjoying the unhurried titillation, before claiming her in a more earnest kiss. His arms encircled her, deepening it, pressing her lower body closer as a reminder of his steeled length wedged between them.

Hands clasped at the back of his neck for support, Buffy broke away, arching backwards as if they were slow dancing and he had just dipped her. The move presented her breasts to him, her nipples standing to attention in the chill of the room, so he took the opportunity to suckle her, lavishing the same tender devotion to each in turn. She sighed with delight, and he drew her back up to him with a pleased smile.

They looked into each other's eyes, the passion rising, the foreplay past.

"I want to be inside you," Giles whispered heatedly.

Buffy nodded, and, in answer, retrieved one of the condoms. She sat back a little from him, her legs still resting over the top of his. He watched eagerly, as she tore open the pack and started to roll it on. Unfortunately, she broke the mood by giggling at the result.

Giles stared at his erect member, now sheathed in ridiculous, tri-colored latex depicting the stars and stripes of the American flag. "Bloody hell... "

Buffy laughed again, flipping her loose hair back over her shoulder. "I bet you wouldn't say that if it was the Union Jack."

He grinned, reaching for her again, seeing the funny side. "Of course not. Anything for Queen and Country."

She feigned a sober look as she moved back into his arms. "Well, if Old Glory bothers you so much, we'll just have to hide it somewhere you can't see it."

"Sounds like the perfect solution," he agreed, catching on.

With the help of his hands cupping her bottom, and using his legs for leverage, she raised herself off the mattress. With one hand to hold him steady, she guided his tip into her opening, before thrusting downwards to take the full length of him inside in one rushed but fluid motion.

They both moaned, pausing eye to eye, to enjoy the initial sensations of their long overdue union.

"Oh, Lord," he breathed, bestowing quick tiny kisses on her face and lips, his hands questing down over her hips as if making sure she was really there. She was so gloriously hot and tight that it truly felt as if this were their first time together.

Buffy moaned, returning his urgent ministrations with the same breathless passion, placing little kisses anywhere she could reach. Adjusting to him, she began to move, up and down, slow and easy, deliberately setting the pace for a leisurely coupling. His hands returned to cup her butt, instinctively lending her his strength and support, not that she needed it. He closed his eyes, attuned to her rhythm, awash in the alternating sensations of heat and cold as her body rose and fell, taking him in and out.

His mouth found sweaty flesh at the base of her shoulder. He nuzzled and nipped, kissed and caressed, whenever he could, losing himself little by little, as bits of his willpower flaked off inside his lower belly. Striving to maintain control, he tightened his arms around her during one downward thrust. Buried deep, he laid her backwards on the bedcovers. Buffy hung on, her ankles locking around his hips and her arms around his neck when she realized his intent.

After a bit of contortionist jostling, they settled with him on top, sharing another giggle over the fact that their feet now had all the pillows until he snagged one and made her comfortable. Still inside her--miraculously--he began to move his hips, continuing the lazy rhythm she had started, gazing down into her eyes. The love that passed between them in a look spoke far more eloquently than any words he could ever hope to articulate.

Lowering his head, he kissed her gently, at the same time lengthening his stroke for maximum pleasure. Her mouth opened under his in a muted gasp, proclaiming her approval, her fingertips skimming over his back in an ethereal touch. Pushing up to rest on his hands, he increased the pace a little, and watched the sensations play across her face in testament to the bliss he was providing. Dedicating himself to her enjoyment, he strove to show her just how much he had missed her this past month, how much he selflessly enjoyed making love to her.

Most of all, he hoped to prove to her how very much this all meant.

For several long minutes, noise of their lovemaking filled the silence of their dimmed motel room; the quickening slap of flesh on flesh, the rising gasps and moans, the bedsprings that sounded like off-key crickets on a hot summer night.

"Faster." Her face scrunched and her breathing became short, telling him she was close.

He obeyed. His own control slipped moment by moment, thrust by thrust, but he endeavored to hold on. Without breaking the rhythm, he leaned down to bury his face in the side of her neck, attacking her throat with uneven, ragged kisses.

"Come for me, Buffy," he whispered in her ear, already feeling her exquisite tightness begin to clench around him.

She moaned loudly, as if his permission was all she needed in order to let go. "Oh God... yes... faster... !"

"Come for me!" he commanded heatedly, ignoring the sweat dripping into his eyes, running down the furrow of his spine, and pooling on her body between them despite the chill in the room, all in favor of keeping his now-urgent tempo.

Every muscle in her body seized up when her orgasm hit, an inarticulate gasping-scream tearing its way free of her throat. Giles grunted, fighting for sanity, as her inner walls squeezed him with Slayer strength. He gritted his teeth against the pressure of his own building release, feeling the heaviness in his groin, the burn of the hot seed he longed to spurt forth. Like a cork in a bottle of warm champagne, he was ready to explode.

Buffy twitched beneath him for a final time, as her earth-shattering orgasm finally crested into serenity. Determined to love her utterly and completely, he pulled back to rest on his hands again, but kept moving within her. Slower now, with short thrusts that pushed against her throbbing inner walls, he looked down at the ecstasy on her face and waited for her to open her eyes.

When she finally did, she wore a blissfully sated smile. "Wow... " She reached up her left hand to touch his cheek, and he kissed her fingers, and her wedding ring, before she let it drop. "That was... wow. But you didn't... ?"

"No." He favored her with a shameless smile. "I'm not finished with you yet." He thrust in deep, holding himself there in emphasis of his point and making her groan.

When she focused on him again, her expression turned mischievous. "What did you have in mind for an encore?"

He pulled out entirely, causing her to whimper in protest of his loss, but he compensated by worshiping her with more kisses--tiny, urgent kisses that burned like spot fires on her cooling skin.

"Turn over," he ordered, nibbling her earlobe, "I want to take you from behind."

Obliging, Buffy rose to her hands and knees, facing the end of the bed. Giles moved in behind her, their position an unintentional mirror image of the strangers on the TV. He hid 'Old Glory' again, this time without any prior fanfare, and she welcomed him with an appreciative gasp, her head thrown back in sheer delight.

"God, it feels like you just grew three inches."

"Only for you, love," he said, amused, because she always said the same thing whenever they made love this way.

His hands rested on her hips, gently pulling her delightful derrière towards him at the same time he pushed forward, striving for maximum penetration. He did his utmost to maintain the deep, slow rhythm she liked, pacing himself, knowing her third climax could take some time, but now that he'd started moving again in earnest, his own blood was quickly set back to boiling. It was with some disappointment that he realized he would find release before she did.

Leaning forward over her, palms flat on the rumpled bed sheets on either side of hers, he dropped a line of muted kisses across the back of her shoulders, then another extended one to her golden hair. Wanting, so much, to please her again before he was done, he reached a hand down to where their bodies throbbed and joined. She moaned in approval of his touch, as he used a finger to coax her to join him in his pending ecstasy.

Buffy's breathing shortened. She shuffled her knees outward, opening herself to him even more, changing the angle to suit her needs. She gasped a ragged request for more speed, so he increased the tempo of both his hips and his hand. Eyes screwed closed, his cheek pressed to the top of her head, he waited for her on the edge of heaven.

He wasn't sure which of them pulled the other over, because they came together in an explosive moment; one heart, one soul, one voice.

He repeated her name as he rode the crest down the other side, his body continuing to surrender all the love he had to give. She was the center of his universe, and he knew, in that instant, that she belonged in his arms as much as he belonged in hers, no matter the counsel of fate or spirit guides. His life began with her, and if a greater power so deemed it, it would end with her, too.

As his muscles began to shake uncontrollably, and his knees and elbows threatened to cave, Buffy took an unflattering, exhausted nosedive into the rumpled bedcovers at the foot of the bed; a move that ended their coupling. She curled onto her side, and after she had her breathing under control, turned a languid smile on him.

Awed by her mere presence, Giles gazed down at her in absolute adoration. She looked gorgeously disheveled and thoroughly loved, and he saw in her eyes everything that ever needed to be said between them.

"Double wow," she murmured contentedly.

"Yes," he agreed, still a little breathless, "I believe I must wholeheartedly concur."

She giggled at his purposely-formal phrasing, and raised her arms to him, still craving the closeness of his touch. He submitted to her gladly, for a moment spent away from her was a moment too long, and a month of neglect had been a nightmare for them both. Settling at her back, he drew her into his embrace, despite knowing that he'd have to leave her again in a minute or so and attend to things. Buffy's hand found his, resting on her hip. Fingers entwined, she drew his arm tighter around her and shivered against his warmth. She brought their joined hands to her lips, and lovingly kissed each finger before settling it against her heart.

They lay together for several precious moments, enjoying the afterglow and content to listen to each other breathe, until things became uncomfortably sticky. Although he hated to break it, he really did need to attend to the cleanup, before the sleep that beckoned claimed him entirely.

Retrieving his hand, Giles gently smoothed her bedraggled hair back into place and kissed her ear. "Why don't you get under the covers?" he suggested, rising to an elbow before she could protest his necessary departure. "I'll just be a moment."

"Mmm... " she murmured sleepily, shivering a little as he left her.

In the bathroom, he pulled off the outrageous tri-colored condom with an amused shake of his head. Buffy was right; the Union Jack would have been far more appropriate. Still, she was always teasing him that, while in America, he needed to be more patriotic, and he grinned raunchily at the idea of no better way to show patriotism to his adoptive homeland than by using a Stars and Stripes prophylactic to shag the love of his life into sweet oblivion. He'd definitely keep this experience in mind for the next time she playfully reprimanded him.

Washing and drying, he was about to return to her, when he noted several viscous, white drips on the dark blue tile floor. Frowning, he used a wad of toilet tissue to wipe up the mess, never once considering that 'drips' were an indication of a more fundamental problem. He simply assumed the condom had torn during removal--not a common complaint, but not entirely unheard of either--and the drips were more an annoying hindrance than evidence of a potential predicament.

As he re-entered the main room, Giles stopped, his heart turning over at the loving sight that greeted him. Buffy hadn't moved, despite his suggestion to take shelter against the night chill under the covers, and was curled in a ball where he left her, on the foot of the bed, naked as the day she was born. He smiled fondly, approaching, noting the evenness of her breathing and the fact that she had fallen asleep. Ego stoked, for her utter exhaustion was entirely his doing, he put one knee on the mattress and gently gathered her small body into his arms. He kissed her temple as she stirred, hushing her back to sleep.

Turning, he laid her on the cold sheets of an unfamiliar bed, tenderly tucking her loose hair away from her face, before he climbed in behind her to chase the chill from her skin with his warmth. He pulled the bedclothes up, making her comfortable, then shuffled closer to share her pillow. He watched her for a moment, never tiring of the peace he saw on her face in sleep. He wished he could take all the killing and fighting away from her, but he couldn't. So he settled for moments such as these, when their world consisted of just the two of them, and nothing or no one could touch them.

With a sigh of contentment for the woman back in his arms and the love flooding his heart, Giles closed his eyes, and allowed dreams of his beloved to lead him into slumber.

* * * * *

They got an early start in the morning, and with only a quick stop for breakfast and another for gas, managed to make Sunnydale by noon. As Giles pulled the BMW into the driveway at 1630 Revello, his thoughts turned to his desire for a decent cup of tea. Cutting the engine, he glanced over at Buffy, and his desire turned to her and the memory of the incredible night they had shared. They'd completely obliterated all their problems, which turned out not to be problems at all, rather that they had simply lost touch with each other in the wake of overwhelming tragedy. While Buffy grieved in solitude for her mother, desperate to be the dependable rock her sister could lean on, Giles let his frustration over his inability to comfort her rule. Last night, they had reconnected physically and emotionally, reinstating their love for each other and renewing their marital commitment in one exquisite moment.

Sensing his gaze, Buffy turned to him. With a loving smile, she lifted her hand from his leg, where it had unobtrusively rested for the last hundred miles. Her expression turned thoughtful.

"What?" he asked, unbuckling his seatbelt.

"I was just thinking. We have a brand new bed upstairs that needs... an inauguration," she said, a cheeky smile returning to her face. "Maybe, tonight, you wanna help me with that?"

"Really, Buffy," Giles said, immediately disliking her suggestion. Capturing her hand, he allayed her reservations with a gentle squeeze and a wry grin. "There's no need to wait until tonight."

Pleased with his alternative plan, she leaned across the bucket seats to him, meeting him halfway for a slow kiss. Perhaps something to eat first, Giles decided, then an intimate shower together, followed by a leisurely afternoon of lovemaking. After all, they had told their friends of the possibility of them being out of town until later this evening, so there was nothing on their afternoon agenda, save for collecting Dawn from Xander and Anya's apartment sometime before nightfall.

They got out together, Buffy reclaiming her long winter coat from the backseat, while Giles tended to their overnight bags and the other items in the truck. Since coastal Sunnydale was far warmer in climate than the high desert, Buffy slung her coat over her hands clasped before her, and headed up the walk to the porch and the closed front door. Giles, lightly encumbered with their luggage, followed, leaving the trunk lid up until he could return for the rest.

Putting down one of the bags, he dug into his pocket for his keys and opened the door. As they crossed the threshold, they spied Xander, Willow, and Anya grouped in the living room, engaged in quiet conversation.

Frowning slightly over the fact that their friends' presence meant their new afternoon plans were shot, Buffy moved into the living room. Placing their bags by the foot of the stairs, Giles pocketed his keys and followed. He stood behind her, a little irked and a little curious, as she spoke to announced them to the preoccupied trio.

"Whoa... group hang time?"

Xander, Willow, and Anya looked up at her in surprise, but the expression they turned on Giles was one usually reserved for the news of someone having died.

"That was quick," Willow commented cryptically, looking away.

"Giles!" Xander greeted him, attempting to cover any obvious discomfiture with a Xander-grin. "Didn't hear you knock, G-man."

"Well, I live here now, I have a key." He shot his young friend with a frown of disapproval for his trespassing. "And your excuse is... ?"

Noting that the conversation was being held over the open lid of her weapon's chest, not to mention that the trio was likewise armed with several of those weapons, Buffy's expression started to transform into concern. "What's going on?"

Battleaxe casually resting on his shoulder, Xander exchanged a brief look with Willow before answering. "Buffy, we need to talk. In private."

The secrecy--and perhaps the weapons--finally set off Buffy's internal alarm bells. "What's wrong? Is Dawn okay?"

"Dawn's fine," Willow assured her.

"Can we take this into the kitchen or something?" Xander asked again, sparing Giles a pained smile.

Irked by the notion, Buffy stood her ground. "No, we can't. Guys, anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of Giles. You know that."

Hurt by their clear attempt to exclude him, Giles put his hand on Buffy's shoulder, thankful, at least, for her unfailing support. She favored him with a quick but loyal smile, before redirecting her impatience to her hesitant friends.

The three exchanged tentative looks.

"Are you sure?" Willow asked timidly, not even game to make contact with Giles now. "I mean, you two seem all cuddly-wuddly again."

Giles glared at Xander; silent chastisement for spilling those particular beans.

Buffy took her husband's hand from her shoulder and drew it around her waist. "Yeah, we are," she confessed, a slight blush on her cheeks. "You guys may have noticed that we've had some issues lately, but we... worked through them. We're good again."

Head resting back against his chest, she sent a loving smile his way, and this time Giles returned it with heartfelt sincerity. He slipped his other arm around her, and, clasping his hands together just below her ribcage, placed a kiss on the side of her head. He hoped this public display of affection would be enough to dispel any lingering doubts Xander and the others may still harbor over their 'crumbling relationship', overturning the bleak impression he had erroneously given them at the Magic Box the other night.

Unconvinced, Xander shook his head. "So Giles doesn't know?"

"Know what?" Buffy frowned. "Would you please just say what you need to say? Before I have to beat it out of you?"

"Buffy, we care about you--you and Giles--and we're worried about you. The way you're acting, the things you're doing... "

"It's wrong," Anya said bluntly.

"Wait," Willow interrupted. "This shouldn't be about blame."

"Blame?" Buffy asked, growing more confused by the moment. "There's blame now?"

"No, there's only love," Willow insisted. Noting the way Giles held Buffy in his arms, the two of them looking so very in love, she glanced away with an uncomfortable look. "And some fear."

"We're just kind of thrown by the 'you having sex with Spike.'"

Aghast, Buffy stared at Anya in absolute disbelief. "The who whating how with huh?"

"Okay," Anya informed the others, "that's denial. That usually comes before anger."

"I am not having sex with Spike!"

"Anger," Anya pointed out.

"Are you guys purposely trying to break up my marriage?" Buffy asked, riled by the ludicrous accusation... a moment before she remembered the man whose arms she was in, and turned a terrified look on him.

As Buffy's widening eyes found his, Giles knew his face must have betrayed all his subconscious fears of her succumbing to the vampire's dark charm, so he made a concerted effort to school his expression into something more positive. The allegation was utter nonsense, after all, completely unsubstantiated and--

"Buffy, I saw you," Xander insisted evenly.

"That's preposterous," Giles scoffed. He searched within himself to find the depth of his conviction, deciding that what he and Buffy had shared last night far outweighed any false claims of an illicit affair. Last night was proof positive of their unbreakable love for each other. It was pure and whole, lacking any imperfections where deceit and distrust could fester.

"Anya, too." Xander looked at Buffy, his face a mask of disappointment. "We saw you and Spike, with the straddling. Sorry, Giles."

"When? When did you see this?"

"Giles, you don't believe them, do you?" Buffy said, hurt that he even had to ask. She pulled out of his embrace, turning to face him with a wounded look.

He met her gaze, hoping his eyes would tell her that, no, he didn't believe them in the slightest. But something had convinced them of Buffy's unfaithfulness, and as a husband, and the resident Watcher on the Hellmouth, he bloody-well-wanted to know what.

"Last night," Anya said, happy to answer the question. "In the cemetery out past Weatherly Park."

Buffy whirled to gawk at her, clearly starting to believe that their friends had lost their collective minds.

Giles frowned pensively. "Buffy and I spent last night in a motel room, hundred of miles from here."

"Making love," she pointed out unashamedly. "You guys, I married Giles because I love him. Not only that, I love being married to him. Now, I dunno who you think you saw with Spike, but I can tell you that it so wasn't me."

Movement caught the corner of Giles' eye; someone walking into the living room behind him. He just about jumped out of his skin when he got a good look at whom.

"Spike's mine. Who was with Spike?"

"Bloody hell," Giles said, physically taking a step away from the newcomer, as if, in the wake of the preceding allegations, he was committing adultery just by being near her. She was a perfect doppelganger to Buffy, every pore, every curve, and the conversation stalled significantly as the rest of the group took in her profound and unexpected presence.

"Oh... my... God... " Buffy murmured in astonishment, her eyes roaming over her twin in both amazement and disgust.

"And so say all of us," Xander said, equally flabbergasted.

It took only seconds for everyone to realize that 'Buffy's' extramarital activities with Spike in the graveyard were obviously a case of mistaken identity.

"Say, look at you," the newcomer said, smiling happily at Buffy. "You look just like me. We're very pretty."

"Two of them?" Willow asked, stating the obvious.

"Hey, I know this," Xander said, trying to find an ounce of sanity in a pound of the completely insane. "They're both Buffy."

"No," Buffy corrected patiently, figuring it out. "She's a robot. She acts just like that girlfriend-bot that Warren guy made. The one that looked like Angie Fisk." She turned an angry scowl on her friends. "You guys couldn't tell me apart from a robot?"

"Oh, I don't think I'm a robot."

"She's very well done," Anya commented, earning herself an appreciative smile from the robot in question.

Xander waved a dismissive hand, thinking aloud. "Spike must have had her built so he could program her to... "

Buffy was the first to pale at the implications, but Giles and the other weren't far behind her.

"Oh, dear Lord... "

"Yikes!" Willow said, appalled. "Imagine the things--"

"No!" Buffy said firmly. "No imagining! Any of you!" She directed a stern warning look at her husband, but he had to divert his gaze.

Xander guiltily raised his hand. "Already got the visual."

"In color," Giles admitted.

"People! Friends of mine!" the Buffybot spoke up, completely unaware of their horror and disgust. She simply hadn't been programmed to react to such. "You're forgetting the most important thing. Glory has Spike, and she's going to harm him."

Buffy and Giles simultaneously turned looks of exasperation on their friends.

"Glory has Spike?" Buffy asked flatly, as the real reason for the trio's weapon gathering suddenly became clear. Spike knew the identity of The Key, and with him in the hands of the Hellgod, it was only a matter of time before Dawn's secret was revealed and her life put in jeopardy.

"We were going to bring that up," Xander admitted awkwardly.

"We were getting weapons," Anya supplied helpfully.

"Grab 'em. We're going now," Buffy concluded. She smiled, sweet and dangerous. "I have to kill him."

As he stooped to select something from the weapons chest, Giles wasn't sure if she made that vow literally, because Spike was a liability who had fallen into enemy hands, or figuratively, as payback for this atrocious robot stunt.

"We don't even know where to look," Willow admitted.

Buffy exchanged a determined look with Giles, as he straightened with an antique pistol crossbow and a few bolts. "I know where to start."

* * * * *

They re-grouped in the park overlooking the expensive houses and high-rent apartments in the upscale part of town, forming their war council to plan their strategy. Months ago, Buffy had tracked the transmogrified snake, which Glory used in an attempt to 'sniff out' the Key, to this general location. Therefore, she reasoned, the Hellgod must live somewhere in the vicinity. Giles supposed it made sense, that an exiled deity would seek whatever meager luxuries this dimension, and Sunnydale, had to offer. This was certainly the part of town for it.

They split up into pairs, combing the area to establish the exact dwelling--Buffy and Xander, Willow and Anya, and Giles stuck babysitting the Buffybot. He suspected Buffy assigned him that task partly because she was banking on the fact that her robotic twin, in an effort to truly duplicate 'Buffy,' had been programmed to respond to 'her Watcher.' Should they need a little extra synthetic muscle in the upcoming battle, Giles may be the only one who could order her to fight. He dolefully reminded his Buffy that he'd never had much luck with her in the 'Slayer obedience' department, but nonetheless accepted his job and deferred to her leadership.

It actually wasn't such a bad detail, he decided as he wandered the fancy apartment complex on the east side, looking for any signs of a brain-sucking Hellgod and her demon minions in residence, apart from the annoying way the Buffybot repeatedly mispronounced his name 'Guyles'--a childish insult that was surely Spike's deliberate doing. That aside, she was quick with a perky smile at his every turn, and he soon found himself fascinated by her familiar mannerisms and recognizable behavior. Foolish though it may prove, he trusted her so implicitly that he gave her a battleaxe to wield, which she thanked him for with another perky smile before happily suggesting that they continue their search for and rescue of Spike.

Walking a few yards behind, he glanced at the automaton, his gaze inadvertently falling to the feminine wiggle of her hips. Although he berated himself for even dare think it, part of him devilishly wondered if she were truly anatomically correct... then, knowing that Spike had forged into that territory first, promptly dismissed all licentious thought on the matter forevermore. He did wonder, briefly, if his friend Carlton Fisk had felt the same odd attraction upon coming face to face with a computerized copy of his wife, Angie. Despite the moral improprieties of building automations in the likenesses of these two young women for sex, this 'Warren' chap definitely knew his stuff.

As Giles and the Buffybot approached the last apartment building in the estate, he ordered the robot to precede him into the lobby of a multi-story high-rise. He discovered, then, that Buffy was indeed correct in her assumption that her counterpart followed basic instruction from him without hesitation, making him muse how delightfully serene some aspects of married life would be, if his Buffy were as equally submissive. Then again, the fire in Buffy was the fuel for her passion. Without it, his Buffy would be as cold and unresponsive as the grieving young woman he'd lived with for the past month, and he knew, with certainty, that he'd sell his soul before he'd wish to return to that way of life.

A ruckus from within made Giles hasten his steps. He rushed up beside the Buffybot as she stopped inside the ground floor lobby to take in the scene. His gaze quickly scanned and assessed Buffy and Xander, already engaging a small group of brown robed demons... the same brown robed demons that had attempted to kidnap Buffy's father, Hank, after her mother's funeral. In the blink of an eye, he recalled Aunt Arlene calling them 'overgrown hobbits with leprosy,' which was certainly a more than apt description of their decaying complexions, and, more importantly, Aunt Darlene pointing out that they were probably minions of some superior being.

They'd found it. Somewhere upstairs, possibly in the penthouse apartment of this luxury high-rise, was Glory's home base.

Buffy and Xander were giving good account of themselves--Xander with the handle and blade of his axe, Buffy with repeated blows and kicks from her fists and feet. Slumped against the wall of the open elevator was Spike, out for the count. The vampire had apparently escaped this far on his own, and, given the bloodied and beaten state of him, Giles suspected he had simply run out of steam when he saw Buffy and Xander coming to his 'rescue.'

Giles determined all this in a glance. Quickly nocking a bolt into his crossbow, he called to his Slayer. "Buffy, we're here!"

He rushed into the fray, firing at the nearest brown robe and hitting it squarely between the shoulder blades. The demon went down without a sound and did not get back up. Before he could reload, another pounced on him in the wake of its fallen brethren, and Giles swung, connecting the solid wooden stock of his weapon with fragile flesh and bone. Free again, he turned to see Xander struggling with his foe, the demon winning, and rushed to help. It had Xander in a death hold from behind, threatening his throat with a stiletto dagger, so Giles used the stock of his crossbow to land a crippling blow to its kidneys. As its grip weakened enough for Xander to start breathing again, Giles snaked his arm around its barreled chest and hauled it off completely.

Unfortunately, Xander charged the minion in front of him, rather than turning to help Giles finish off the one with which he was still grappling. The thing sucker punched Giles in the gut with its elbow a couple of times, trying to break his hold. Each blow unbalanced him a little more, until the demon had enough leverage to flip him over its shoulder to the floor. Giles landed hard, flat on his back, but barely had time to draw breath back into his burning lungs, when his adversary added insult to injury by using his own weapon against him. Gripping both ends of the crossbow in its blistered, peeling hands, it yanked the stock up under his chin, choking him.

Getting his fingers around the antique wood, Giles countered by pulling down, but the demon had the advantage of better positioning. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe. Panicked, he looked up into the eyes of the creature gleefully strangling him, pleading for mercy. It smiled cruelly, and pulled the makeshift garrote even tighter.

Somehow, Giles squeezed out one last, strangled cry. "BUFFY!"

Both Buffy and the Buffybot turned at his plea. Buffy took a step toward him but was jumped by two minions, which left the robot to come to his aid. The Buffybot grabbed the demon by a fistful of its brown robe, dutifully using her mechanical strength to haul it off 'her Watcher,' but she wasn't expecting--or hadn't been programmed for--its reflexive counterattack.

Hand massaging his bruised throat and gulping down uneven gasps, Giles rolled to his shoulder and watched in horror as the demon violently clubbed the Buffybot with the crossbow. Such was the viciousness of the attack, if it had been his Buffy then Giles knew she would have been spitting up blood, half the side of her head caved in. Since it was the Buffybot, however, the injuries sustained were the robotic equivalent--a shower of sparks and a little puff of smoke. The momentum of the blow spun her helplessly into the nearby wall, where she sagged to the floor, her overloading power circuits sending blue arcs of electricity cascading through her systems. He looked away, before the sight of 'Buffy' dead tore through him.

High on battle adrenaline, the determined demon rounded on him again. It stood over him, sliding a crossbow arrow into place. Still recovering from the first near-asphyxiation, Giles heard the tension strain of the firing string as it locked in place. The demon meant to shoot him with his own weapon, and with a jolt of cold fear, Giles realized that given the close range, the crossbow's 50-pound draw, and the 200 feet per second velocity, that steel bolt was going to go right through his chest... skewering several major organs along the way.

With a maniacal smile, the demon aimed the loaded crossbow at his heart, but Buffy cartwheeled between them, kicking the thing in its leprotic head. The bolt went wide, harmlessly nailing a mailbox on the wall beside the elevator. Having already dispatched several of its comrades, Buffy was ready for retaliation. As it straightened, she backhanded it with her fist, hard enough to daze it and severely shake its confidence. Gaining the upper hand over a human was one thing, but the demon, thankfully, realized that taking on a pissed off Slayer was quite another.

Groggily picking itself up from where it had sprawled on the floor beside Giles, it abruptly turned tail and hastened to retreat. On that cue, what was left standing of the small, brown robed rabble fled up the stairs towards their mistress.

The threat over, Buffy relaxed her defensive stance and dropped to her knees beside Giles. "Are you okay?" she asked, concern on her face as she helped him to sit up.

"Yes," he said, still a little hoarse but thankful to be alive. It wasn't often, in battle, that his opponent gained the upper hand to such a dire advantage. His eyes automatically scanned her for obvious signs of injury, but found none. Unlike her, his throat was going to smart for a week.

Just then, Willow and Anya rushed into the elegantly furnished lobby, both looking ready for a fight. Taking in the fact that said fight was clearly over, Anya worriedly sought out her boyfriend. "Where's Xander?"

"Right here," he said, moving up behind her. With a grin to prove he was fine, he slung his trusty battleaxe over his shoulder.

Willow took in Spike and the deactivated robot in a glance. "Guess we missed the party."

Buffy helped Giles to his feet, her arm staying around his waist for support. "We should get out of here before Glory sends down more of her decrepit boy-toys," she suggested wisely. "Or picks the here and now for a personal grudge match."

"Yes, you're quite right," Giles agreed, having had enough demon duels for one afternoon. They'd gotten off quite light, actually, in not having taken on the Hellgod herself. Best to leave before that possibility became real.

"What about them?" Xander asked, gesturing a thumb over his shoulder at Spike and his artificial lover.

Buffy looked away from her fallen doppelganger, the lifeless eyes--her eyes--staring straight ahead. From the expression on her face, Giles guessed that she was as disturbed by the sight of her own 'death' as he.

"We need to find out what Spike told Glory. But not now, not here." Sensing Giles' gaze on her, she looked up at him, her arm hugging him closer. "You think you can manage to take him back to his crypt? I'll handle the robot and meet you at the Magic Box."

"Your car or mine?" Xander asked Giles, sharing the group's eagerness to leave the Hellgod's lair.

In answer, Giles tossed him his keys. After handing his own car keys off to Willow, Xander was out the door at a run.

* * * * *

"What's that smell?" Giles asked, grimacing at the offensive odor. He glanced around the interior of his car trying to locate the source, keeping one eye on the afternoon traffic as they headed across town to the graveyard Spike called home.

Xander, riding shotgun, frowned. He checked the bottoms of his shoes, before literally trying to sniff out the problem. "Oh crap!" he concluded while glancing over his shoulder. Twisting his body to fit between the BMW's bucket seats, he reached into the back.

Eyes flicking between the rear vision mirror and the road, Giles watched as Xander readjusted the tattered blanket he normally kept in the truck. Beneath it lay Spike, who had finally succumb to his injuries and lapsed into unconsciousness. Evidently, some part of the vampire had been exposed to a patch of sun, his burning dead flesh the thing responsible for filling the car with that disgusting aroma.

"Spike was just catching a few rays like a true California boy," Xander explained, offhandedly, turning forward again.

Still grimacing, Giles wound down his window for ventilation. "Charming. Bloody vampires."

"Sure you just don't wanna put the top down and be done with it?" Xander asked in all seriousness.

Giles pursed his lips into a tight smile. "Tempting as that may be, you heard Buffy. We need to interrogate Spike and find out exactly what he confessed to Glory. Unfortunately."

Xander made an unhappy sound. After a moment, he hedged a look at Giles. "I'm real glad I was wrong about her and Spike. Sorry I doubted her."

"Perfectly understandable. Given the robot's extraordinary likeness, I would have thought the same thing, had I seen them together." That statement bothered Giles on so many levels that he quickly changed the subject. "Did you manage to get Dawn to complete her homework?"

"Um, well, if by 'homework' you mean listening to CDs and watching TV, then yeah, she did a lot of it. But if you mean actual school-type, book-learning, then no. Can't say that she did." Noting Giles scowl, Xander added, "Tara's on Dawn Patrol right now. Fingers crossed she's a more educational influence."

Giles grunted in disapproval--not at Xander, but at Dawn for slacking off when she clearly knew better. He'd seen her homework notebook last Friday night. It was now Sunday afternoon. The page she'd been working on had better not still be entirely blank, or there would be hell to pay.

"Guess you're gonna have to put your fatherly foot down," Xander said with a knowing grin. Then he frowned. "Which has gotta feel weird, considering she's your sister-in-law."

"But necessary," Giles remarked candidly. With Joyce's death came the responsibility and desire to look after both Buffy and Dawn whatever way he could. He had already dedicated himself to being a better husband to Buffy. If that left 'playing the father' to Dawn, then so be it. It was true that in the eyes of the law, Dawn was, indeed, his sister-in-law, but in his heart, she felt like his own flesh and blood... so much so, that his nurturing and protectiveness of her came naturally. "She's young. She needs a parental role model in her life."

"And you've volunteered to be it." Xander broke into another grin. "Gotta hand it to you, Giles. You, the confirmed bachelor, doing husband and 'father' in zero to sixty. Never saw it coming."

Giles returned the smile, genuinely amused. "You're not the only one."

By the time they actually dumped Spike in his crypt, on the concrete sarcophagus he used as a bed, the vampire was semi-lucid again.

"I owe you blokes," Spike muttered feebly, as Giles and Xander headed for the door. Holding his damaged ribs, he groaned as he attempted to get comfortable. "Can't say I would have done the same for either of you, so... thanks."

Giles stopped, and with a somber glance at his companion, handed off the tattered blanket and retraced his steps back to where Spike attempted to settle. Looking down, he assessed the vampire's injuries with a clinical, dispassionate eye. Burned, broken, and beaten, he had clearly endured some horrendous torture at the hands of the Hellgod in her unstoppable search for The Key. The possibility that Spike had submitted to the pain and revealed Dawn's secret was not a chance Giles was willing to take.

Looking down at the vampire, he let the cold indifference of 'Ripper' bubbled its way to the surface. It was not out of the realm of possibility that after he extracted the needed information, Spike could be put down, out of his misery, like the rabid dog he was. Giles still owed the vampire for the street beating inflicted by his hired cronies, months ago, and he was just itching to level the scoreboard on that count. Nor had he forgotten Spike's insatiable lust for Buffy; this robot thing was just the latest sick obsession. Indeed, with this new potential risk to Dawn, Spike threatened everything that Giles held dear. His world would undoubtedly be a better place without the vampire in it.

"What did you tell her?" Giles asked with icy calm.

Spike's bruised and swollen eyes cracked open, the one that could focus finding Giles' hard gaze. "Right, look... you know that bit when I said I was grateful? I lied. Bugger off!" He coughed with the effort.

"Not before you tell us what you told Glory."

Spent, Spike's head just lolled from side to side as unconsciousness again threatened to take him.

Grabbing two fistfuls of torn t-shirt, Giles shook him. "Answer me, you sodding bastard!"

Xander stopped him with a restraining hand. "Giles, chill."

Giles glared daggers. "Whose side are you on, Xander?"

"You already know the answer to that. And if I were in your shoes, I'd want to beat Spike to an even bloodier pulp, too. In fact, I do anyway." Letting go Giles' arm, he nodded at the vampire, who had succumb to his injuries and passed out cold again. "But right now, that's not gonna get us what we need. We'll give vampire-healing a few hours, then we'll come back and deal with this properly," he suggested reasonably. "'Properly' meaning that I will personally sharpen a stake for you."

Letting go a tense breath, Giles reluctantly conceded. While pounding the information out of Spike may have proven enjoyable, it would not have been terribly productive, given the vampire's current unconscious condition. While Giles knew that, part of him hadn't cared. Part of him had simply wanted to destroy the monster who threatened his happiness.

Distastefully letting go Spike's torn shirt, Giles turned and headed out of the crypt before 'Ripper' changed his mind.

He and Xander didn't speak in the car, and arrived at the Magic Box just fifteen minutes later, the tinkling bell above the shop's front door announcing their arrival. Tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans, Giles glumly walked down the store's mid-point steps, his gaze finding Buffy's from afar. Tara and Dawn had joined her, Willow, and Anya in waiting for him and Xander to return. The Buffybot sat slumped over the tarot reading table, with Willow prodding at its circuitry through an access panel in the robot's back.

"What happened with Spike?" Buffy asked. "And let me just say that no tears will be shed if this story has a dusty ending."

"We dumped him back in his crypt," Xander said, joining the others at the tarot table.

"We tried to find out if he'd told Glory anything," Giles admitted, with a casual glance at his co-conspirator for later, "but he was too badly beaten to make much sense."

Anya shrugged. "Well, even if he told her, he'd just lie to us about it anyway, right?"

That logic unnerved Buffy. "Yeah, you can count on it. But I have to know. Now." She looked at Giles, and he was privy to the desperation and fear hiding just beneath the surface. "If he did give us up, then the three of us need to get out of town. I mean, she could be on her way right now."

Noting Dawn's growing anxiety, Giles casually pulled up a seat, as if running away were the furthest thing from his mind. "But not to worry, you know," he assured the teen, despite that he agreed with Buffy on all counts. Previous encounters had proven that they couldn't out-fight the Hellgod, so their best chance of survival was to out-hide her. "I'm sure we'll all be perfectly safe."

"We're 'safe,'" Dawn repeated doubtfully. "Right. And Spike built a robot Buffy to play checkers with." She turned a pointed look on Tara.

"It sounded convincing when I thought it," Tara explained sheepishly.

"Hey, I think I found something!" Willow reported of her initial investigation into the robot's internal circuitry.

"Ugh," Anya said distastefully, peering over her shoulder. "Looks very complicated in there. Personally, I'd rather look at guts."

"I've found where she's broken," Willow concluded happily. Looking up, she grinned triumphantly at Buffy. "Some of these wires got fried extra-crispy. It's an easy fix." Off Buffy's appalled look, she added, "I mean, not that I would. Unless you need me to, with a little reprogramming to make her work for us... "

Buffy's expression changed again, as Willow's suggestion inspired a new plan. She looked up from her disgusted contemplation of her robotic doppelganger, meeting Giles' gaze with a new look of determination. "Willow's right. There's only one person Spike trusts enough to confide in about what Glory did to him."

"It's far too risky," Giles disagreed. "You'd be putting Dawn's life--all our lives--in the hands of a... machine."

Buffy gave him a steady look, speaking without words.

Giles heard, loud and clear, and immediately detested the plan. "No," he said simply. The idea of his Buffy posing as Spike's artificial love slave was so abhorrent to him, that one word of negation was all he could manage.

"It's the only way," she argued. Considering the discussion closed, Buffy pushed the robot upright in her chair and began stripping the thing's clothes.

"Whoa," Xander said, widening eyes glued to the ever-increasing amount of Buffybot skin. "Am I the only one who missed something by not having Watcher/Slayer ESP?"

"Buffy's going to dress up like the robot and visit Spike," Anya informed him casually.

Mouth jogging open, Xander tore his gaze from the half-naked Buffybot and looked at Giles. "And you're allowing this?"

"No, I'm not." Angered by his wife's sheer defiance, Giles got to his feet as Buffy removed the last of the robot's jewelry--small nuances that would complete the masquerade. "Buffy, I really must insist--"

"We need to know, and we need to know now," Buffy maintained adamantly. Such was her haste to execute her plan that she momentarily forgot her audience, and started to pull up on the hem of her own knit shirt, revealing her midriff. Then, noting all eyes were on her as she prepared to change clothes in public, she hesitated. "I think it's time that was stored in the basement with the other one," she said, nodding at the Buffybot, now sitting at the tarot table in her frilly, lacy underwear with a smile on her face.

Gathering up the small pile of clothes and accessories, Buffy turned and headed to the training room. As the door softly clicked closed behind her, all eyes fell on Giles. Without a word to the others, for if he opened his mouth obscenities would surely flow out, he followed Buffy into the back.

* * * * *

Shoulder against the training room wall, Giles silently watched Buffy change into the robot's hot pink top, cream pleated skirt, and heeled pumps, disliking her plan even more with each rehearsal of a line in her counterpart's happy-go-lucky, air-headed voice.

"Spike, you're covered in sexy wounds," Buffy said, doing a truly believable impersonation of her duplicate. Putting on the hoop earrings she had taken, she added, "Do you want to have sex with me now?"

"Good Lord," Giles said appalled, causing Buffy to turn to face him. He met her gaze across the few yards that separated them. "You're not honestly going to ask him that, are you?"

"Why? It sounded ditzy enough to me... "

"And if he says 'yes'?" he asked in exasperation. Xander was right; why the hell was he allowing this lunacy?

"I can handle Spike."

"As long as he doesn't bloody try to 'handle' you." Pushing off the wall, Giles took a few steps toward her, still half-heartedly hoping to change her mind. The trouble was, although he disliked her methods, Buffy was right about it being their only quick means to an end. He regarded her head to toe, now looking and sounding so much like the automaton he had spent the afternoon babysitting that there was no doubt in his mind that Spike would be completely fooled by the masquerade. He ran his hand through his hair, barely hanging onto his irrational jealousy, and finally accepted her plan. "At least let me come with you."

"Giles, if he sees you, he'll know."

"Then I'll wait in the car." He crossed to stand in front of her, his hands resting lightly but possessively on her hips. "I just want to be close, in case you need me."

Buffy accepted his backup with a nod and a loving smile, and stood on tiptoe to kiss him tenderly on the lips--an action meant to calm the last of the reservations still churning in his stomach. It may have worked, too, had she not pushed something small into the palm of his hand. Drawing back, he stared at the object, the sick feeling escalating beyond control.

It was her wedding ring.

The unfounded fear of her returning it permanently haunted him during the silent drive back to the cemetery, and while he reluctantly stayed put in the driver's seat, as promised, while Buffy walked across the deserted graveyard toward Spike's crypt.

Watching the afternoon shadows begin to grow long, Giles fidgeted. Reaching into his pocket for her ring, he stared at the platinum band while trying to focus on the incredible night they had just shared, and everything that it meant. But his thoughts kept drifting to the long months he'd spent trying to ignore the vampire's insatiable lust for Buffy; Spike's inept attempt with hired heavies to remove him from her life; the stir of darkness at the window of his upstairs loft, before he had moved permanently into Revello Drive, that seemed to be present whenever he laid her in his bed.

Spike's obsession was dangerous and unhealthy. To them.

What if the beaten and barely conscious vampire sought comfort in his lover's touch? What if he made a move on Buffy and, in order to maintain the farce, she permitted it?

Clamping his fist around her wedding ring and shoving it back in his pocket, Giles climbed out of his car, but still found himself torn in his decision to go after his vulnerable wife, or allow his Slayer the leeway she needed in order to succeed. But the mere thought of Buffy allowing Spike touch her just made him crazy, so he took off toward the crypt at a run.

He slowed as he neared the heavy metal door, left partway open in Buffy's wake, as soft voices wafted out on the early evening breeze. He concealed himself behind it, just beyond the threshold, and listened to the conversation already in progress.

"Why did you let that Glory hurt you?" Buffy asked, giving an Oscar winning performance.

"She wanted to know who The Key was." Spike's voice. Labored. Confessing the truth to his 'robot,' as expected.

"Well, I can tell her, and then you won't have to--"

"No! You can't ever. Glory never finds out."

"Why?"

"Because Buffy--the other not-so-pleasant Buffy--if anything happened to Dawn, it'd destroy her. And I couldn't live, her being in that much pain. I'd let Glory kill me first. Nearly bloody did."

There came a long, relieved pause, which Giles took as his cue to end this monstrous pretense before it got completely out of control. He pushed open the heavy door, intentionally announcing himself with the sound of squeaky hinges. Noting the noise, Spike glanced over as Giles entered the crypt, before turning a look of stunned acknowledgment back on Buffy. She also noted Giles' arrival, and now that she had the information she needed, turned to go to him.

"And my robot?" Spike asked, finally figuring out to whom he was really talking.

The question stopped Buffy cold. As Giles joined her in the middle of the crypt, Buffy turned back to Spike, dropping the charade. "The robot is gone. The robot was gross and obscene."

"It wasn't supposed to--"

"Don't!" Buffy interrupted angrily. "That thing, it wasn't even real."

Spike lifted his head to look at her, forlorn. "I love you. And for one brief moment, I had you."

Jealous rage snapped the last of Giles' 'patient and understanding' resolve. He made a hostile move forward, ready to finish things for good, but Buffy put a calm hand on his chest to restrain him. Their eyes met in a brief moment, before she turned back to the despondent vampire.

"I gave my heart to the only man I'll ever truly love. And if death takes him from me tomorrow, then it will die along with him, forever. So the only thing you'll ever have of me, Spike, is a lie."

Spike hung his head in defeat and shame. Giles smirked, feeling churlishly victorious that he had gotten one up on his rival in such a deliciously notorious manner. The fact that Buffy found the sexbot so repulsive simply made the win even sweeter.

"Let's go home," Giles suggested, his hand finding her shoulder. "We're done here."

Buffy nodded and without looking at Spike, allowed her husband to turn her toward the crypt door. Every the gentleman, Giles stopped to allow her to precede him, but as she moved out into the fading afternoon light, he paused long enough for one final gloat over the battered and beaten vampire.

The two men locked eyes. Scores were tallied, and a clear winner for this round emerged. Despite his earlier need for retribution, Giles realized that staking Spike was simply too merciful. He wanted the bastard to stew on his defeat, what he'd lost, what he would never have. That was a far crueler fate than a dusting.

Still smiling, Giles quietly closed the crypt door behind him.

* * * * *

Relaxing on the couch after dinner that evening, Giles found himself nodding off in front of the television. His intention had been to--surreptitiously--supervise Dawn and her homework, presently represented by a mostly-blank notebook page opened on the coffee table before her, but she had insisted on switching over to a wretchedly unfunny American sitcom that, despite her occasional giggle, numbed him ever closer toward slumber. It had, after all, been a long day; an early morning after a late night and a long drive home, only to be thrown straight into battle, followed by a rather tense emotional moment, all contributed to him feeling fatigued beyond belief. Adrenaline spent, he was far too tired for homework supervision, something that would indeed change very soon.

He stirred as someone snuggled against him. Turning a smile into his beloved's golden hair, he hugged her shoulders closer and let his eyes droop closed again, this time in utter contentment.

A cutesy TV theme song, broken by an announcer's spiel, signified the end of the television show. Before that music ended, it abruptly changed to another, equally annoying, jingle.

"Dawn?" Buffy asked as her sister changed channels and settled in for another half hour comedy. "Don't you have homework to finish?"

"Not really."

The aloofness in Dawn's voice made Giles crack open a discerning eye. He watched the teen shrug dismissively, her attention still focused on the television.

"Just an assignment I need to do by... next week. Plenty of time."

That explanation apparently satisfied Buffy, but not Giles. Something was fishy. He was about to intervene, when his wife's fingers walked across his chest in a playful caress, snagging his wholehearted attention.

"You look tired," she observed.

He picked up her hand--her left, adorned with her newly returned wedding ring--and kissed it. "I am tired." He gave her a weary smile that was not fake. "It's been a long day."

"Yes," Buffy agreed, suddenly sensible, although Giles had the impression it was solely for her sister's benefit. "It has. For us both. A long, long day. I know it's still pretty early, but I think I'll go to bed." She shamelessly waggled her eyebrows, knowing Dawn couldn't see the expression, her hand returning to rub his chest in a seductive caress.

"Quite right, that's a marvelous idea," he said, pretending not to catch on. He stifled a yawn. "As soon as my head hits the pillow, I'll be out like a light."

Buffy's caress turned into an indignant tickle. Giles squirmed and chuckled, much to Buffy's delight and Dawn's annoyance.

"Guys, I'm trying to watch TV here," the teen complained, her back still to them, disinterested in their antics.

Suitably chastised, Buffy ceased her merciless attack. Getting to her feet, she offered her hand, inviting her lover to join her. From the look on her face, Giles knew that 'sleep' would not be forthcoming until much, much later in the evening. Heart filled with joy, he went willingly into her arms. When he was standing, she favored him with a loving smile before tugging on his hand, leading him toward the staircase, and the promise of passion that awaited upstairs.

"Don't stay up too late," Buffy warned her sister.

Dawn just nodded, glued to the TV, and waved them goodnight.

* * * * *

At eleven, as her last TV show for the evening finished and the boring local news came on, Dawn wandered upstairs to her bedroom. As she crept softly down the hall, avoiding all the known squeaky floorboards--the last thing she needed was a lecture about the lateness of the hour on a school night--she noticed something odd. The bedroom door at the end of the hall was closed... for the first time in the month since Giles had moved in!

Horrified, she stopped dead in her tracks, the instant knowledge of what that closed door signified and the activities happening--or to have happened--in the room beyond making her scrunch up her face in a silent, 'eww.'

But it only lasted for a moment.

'Well, it's about time,' she decided next. Giles thought she hadn't noticed the tension between him and Buffy over the past month, and Buffy was just too depressed to have noticed much of anything. But deep down, on top of trying to deal with her mom's death and all, the thought of her sister and brother-in-law headed for a breakup had bothered Dawn more than she would ever admit. They were finally a family unit, and she wanted them to stay that way. Whatever happened with the desert-quest-thingy Giles had taken Buffy on had obviously worked wonders, because they were all lovey-dovey again, their affection for each other back to being the real deal, and not just for show.

The faint sound of a giggle drew her attention back to the closed door. She rolled her eyes. No bet that if she tried the handle, she'd find it locked, which was about as subtle as if they'd posted a flashing neon sign in three-foot high purple letters that read; 'Don't come in, we're having sex.'

'No... making love,' she mentally corrected. Buffy and Giles truly loved each other. What they had went beyond the physical stuff. What they had came from the soul, the sort of love that, throughout history, had inspired all the great novels and songs. The sort of love she hoped maybe she could find one day.

The thought made her smile, brought a warm feeling to the pit of her stomach like the 'happily ever after' ending of an old romantic movie. Of course tomorrow, over breakfast, she'd tease them about making a racket and keeping her awake. She'd watch Giles blush with embarrassment over his toast and tea, and listen to Buffy casually tell her to put a pillow over her head next time. Such was the fun of being the kid sister.

With a nod to herself for the rightness of it all, Dawn turned off the hall light and quietly slipped into her room.

Read the next chapter: Mums & Dads