Seeking Sanctuary
written by Pythia


Rating: FRT
Spoilers: Through Season 6 - Fic is AU Season 6.
Summary: Buffy is troubled, lost and drowning in despair. There is only one place left for her to go.
Thanks: To Gail, for taking time out to read this when I know she has a great many other things to do.
Author's Notes: The story is based on the idea that, after Buffy died and Giles went back to England, he sought escape from guilt and memory in the most remote place he could find. Which meant that Willow was unable to contact him when she called to let him know that Buffy was back.
Feedback Author: Pythia
Author's Website: Warriors And Watchers



The wind that brushed the surface of the sea was cold. It billowed out the curve of the sail and it lifted little flares of white foam out of the undulating waves as the boat cut its way through them. The ferryman frowned at his passenger as she sat in the bow of his vessel, shivering in the wind's caress. She wasn't exactly dressed for a boat ride; she'd appeared at the dock wearing little more than a strappy sundress and a lacing of sandals - attire which might have been suitable for walking on the beach at midsummer, but was far from appropriate for a trip out to the islands in the middle of January. At least the day was still bright, although the sky was building threatening clouds low on the horizon and the bite of the wind had the weight of rain in it.

"Are ye aright, lass?" the old man asked, concerned by the pinched whiteness of her face and the way she was rubbing warmth into her bare arms. She was what he might call a bonny wee thing; her hair was long and very blonde, and the body beneath the thin fabric was delicate and slender. Too slender, he'd have said, studying her with a fatherly - or perhaps a grandfatherly eye. She was thin and her features were drawn with too many cares. It was more than the simple matter of the winter cold, he thought. There was something about her that suggested she was chilled though - not just to the bone, but to the soul itself.

"I'm fine," she assured him, not bothering to look back in his direction. Her eyes were on the horizon - or rather on the low curve of the island that breasted the horizon, its dark rocky cliffs and heather strewn slopes little more than a hazy shadow against the looming clouds. "How much longer until we get there?"

"Oh," he answered, leaning on the rudder to swing the small boat in towards the lee of the island, "not long now, lassie. We'll beat the rain in, that's for sure. Are ye certain ye want me to just drop you off at the place? The man might be out a fishing, or gone to Invaree - and if there's storm in the air, he might be away a while."

"He'll be there." The young woman's words were certain, the one thing about her that held no doubt. The ferryman wondered who she might be; the man's daughter, perhaps, although she had none of his look about him. None of his accent either. He was a sassanach and no mistaking it. She spoke with a soft American twang, one as filled with sunlight as the drape of her dress and the tumble of her hair. There was none of that light in her eyes though. Those had the same, haunted quality that'd he'd seen the man wear the day he'd first brought him out to the island. As if they were both lost, adrift without an anchor or a safe harbour to call home.

"Aye, well, if you're sure." He didn't want to leave her - and he hadn't wanted to bring her out to the island at all, not with the storm threatening, and her dressed for August - and no case or travel bag with her either. But she'd insisted - an odd, distant insistence, with her eyes already turned to the island and her thoughts ahead of her journey. And he knew the man would have a care of her, if he were there. He didn't know how he knew, but he knew; knew it with the gift his family had owned for generations, and which had given him cause to put the man's bags in his boat and take him out to the Sully all without question or charge. He'd felt the power in him that day - and he felt the power in this one too, a quiet strength firmly linked to the old ways and the old patterns of things.

"I'm sure," she said.

"And will he welcome ye, lass?" The old man didn't know why he asked, since he already knew the answer - but ask he did, concerned about this fragile creature. Concerned too about a haunted man and the shadows which constantly beset him. She might be *made* welcome - but he wasn't sure that there would be good in the meeting, or joy in the words which followed. The man had been running away from pain - and here it was, running towards him, for good or for ill, wrapped up in nothing but flimsy cotton.

"I - I don't know. But I have to see him. I need to see him."

"Aye," he acknowledged warily. "But after that? I can wait if ye wish it. Bring ye back, if there's need."

She turned then, dragging her gaze away from the looming shape of the island to look at him with haunted eyes. "There'll be no need," she said, her voice as pale as her face. Her words were colourless and empty, as if she'd no hope or heart to fill them. "I have nowhere else to go."

The boatman shivered, a response both to her sorrow and the sudden flicker of fear that it inspired. Did he ferry a living soul, or a ghost? There was an echo of the grave in her eyes, a whisper of places far from the witness or knowledge of living men. She was no ordinary traveller, that was certain - but he had no idea what she was, or why she had come to this place. His hand crept to cover the ornate cross that lay hidden above his breastbone, seeking the reassurance of its weight. There was no sense of evil or fell purpose about her, but he trembled just the same. Perhaps she was a spirit, a summoning or a revenant, sent to seek the man in payment or punishment for some past deed. Perhaps she was what he was running away from.

It wasn't his business - but he'd taken a liking to the man, for all his shuttered looks and the shadows that sat about his shoulders. He'd feel no pleasure in bringing him his doom, no matter how the fates determined it. His doom - or his destiny? He felt as if he were a witness to one of the old tales, a whisper of ancient heroes and older spirits woven around the wreaking of the world. Who was she?

And who was the man? Why had he chosen to bury himself in the ruins of the past, to disguise himself with scholarship when his soul was painted with sorrow, pain and power?

Old tales. Stuff and nonsense. She was just a tourist - and the man no more than a foolish sassanach, occupying himself with things better left well alone. It was none of his concern if she wanted to be abandoned in such a God-forsaken place, or that she'd chosen to freeze to death in the name of fashion.

The man had a good heart and would have a care of her.

No matter what it might cost him.

"Ye know your own mind," the ferryman decided, nodding towards their destination. "I'll drop ye at the old quay and ye can walk down to the beach from there. If his boat is up on the strand he'll be somewhere to be found. Up among the ruins perhaps, walking the beach or working in the croft. And if there's no boat... well, he'll be away and you'll need to find shelter where you can. I don't think he locks his door, so - "

"He never used to," she interrupted with an unexpected smile. "Thank you." The smile faded. Everything faded. The sudden flare of life and colour which had crossed her face was lost as she turned away. The old man nodded. None of his business.

But he'd be back, come the weekend, carrying the mail and the milk among other things. Plenty of excuse to see the end of this tale, one way or another.

Or the beginning of a new one, perhaps.

"Not long now, lass," he murmured, turning the boat towards the shore. "Not long at all."

* * * * *

The wind had picked up a bitter bite by the time she stepped out of the boat and onto the weathered stone quay that jutted out from the island's shore. The sky had turned grey, and the feel of impending storm was beginning to hang heavily in the air. The Sully seemed an unwelcoming place in the darkening light. Its jagged heights were stark against the sky; their peaks were draped with menace while beneath them the sea washed up onto a bleak and empty shore.

The ruins that draped the promontory added weight to that impression; the tumbled stone had weathered into ominous shapes, the remains of ancient towers jutting up like decaying teeth, or broken bones. Buffy Summers shivered as she stood on the quay, staring out at the desolate landscape with equally desolate eyes. The island looked the way she felt - empty, abandoned, bereft of all life and hope. It suggested exile rather than refuge; it was hard to believe that anyone would willingly seek sanctuary in such a harsh and unforgiving place.

"Away down the quay and across the beach, lassie." The ferryman's voice drifted into her thoughts with a warmth and a sympathy she tried hard to ignore. He was a creature from another world, a fey thing, tainted with life and the ignorance of the living. He knew nothing of her; nothing of who she was or what she had done. What right had he to feel for her, to offer her such care and concern?

"Hurry now. Before the rain comes."

She threw him one last look - one that nodded thanks for his services rather than gratitude for his concerns. He nodded back, his weathered face creased in quiet concern - then kicked out and firmly pushed his boat back from the stone. She let out a small breath she hadn't been aware she was holding, relieved that he was doing as she'd asked and leaving her. She hadn't been certain that he would.

His departure allowed the emptiness to swirl back into her heart, let those last lingering hints of his concerns flicker and fade to nothingness in the depths of her soul. She felt as forsaken as the island, existing in a bleak and empty world which knew neither warmth nor comfort. She had fled from the suffocating attentions of her friends, desperate to escape their painful concerns, their well meaning if utterly misguided sympathies - and her flight had brought her here, seeking... Seeking, what, exactly?

She wished she knew.

She had been dragged from the bliss of death and brought back to a world that was harsh and unforgiving, one that was filled with noise and confusion and demanded an effort that she had neither the strength nor the will to face. Everything was too hard, too discordant, too challenging. How could she function as a friend, as a sister, as a human being, when even the need to breathe felt alien to her? She was numb, inside and out, sinking into a morass of nothingness, wading through a world of shifting, intangible sand.

And the emptiness in her heart, the yawning gulf that lay between her and the friends that had fought to call her back, echoed with a need she couldn't define, with a desire that had neither shape nor definition. She had reached out to touch the fires of life - and had felt their warmth freeze in her veins and the chill of death enfold her like a shroud.

The bite in the wind was almost warm compared to that.

She walked down to the end of the ruined quay, skirting the place where part of it had slid away into the wash of the surf and trying not to slip on the dampened stone. Waves were curling in from the open sea, their foam topped weight breaking against the jutting barrier and painting the surface of the ancient stone with a swirl of water. Her feet were wet by the time she reached the chiselled rock which anchored the construction, but she ignored the discomfort, concentrating on making her way down the narrow steps onto the beach. The descent took her below the height of the quay, and for a moment or two its solid presence provided shelter from the rising wind. The beach appeared to be protected from the thunder of the open water by the line of the quay on one side and the jut of the rocky promontory on the other; their sheltering arms created a secluded bay filled with the whisper of the surf and the soft, haunting murmurs of the wind. The tide was encroaching on the curve of the sand, its long low waves rolling in with lazy confidence. Buffy felt as if she'd stepped out of the world altogether - as if she'd stepped down through time, and into the realms of myth and history.

There was a sense of sanctity about the island, one that went far deeper than the chill of the air and the bitter caress of the wind. The bleakness of the landscape held echoes of vaulting cathedrals, and the endless wash of the water against its shores spoke a soft and fervent prayer. She'd had spent too long in darkness, too much time in the company of demons and monsters to ever feel welcomed in such an atmosphere.

Another shiver possessed her as she stood there; this was an ancient, sacred place, and she was intruding on its secrets. She had no claim, no connection to this ancient realm, this place of sorrows and silences. She didn't feel as if she belonged here - but it was her last hope, her all but final destination.

If there were no answers for her here, then - after this - there would be only one place left for her to go.

Even so, she hesitated.

Could she do this? Could she desecrate this sanctuary, invade its hallowed ground and lay her grief at its guardian's feet? He'd come here to escape her - to escape her memory, the echoes of her presence and the emptiness she'd left him. They'd parted with unhappy words, ones forged between them by mutual love and unbearable necessity; he'd given her the only answer, and still she'd found another way - one that he might never be able to forgive her.

She wasn't sure that she could forgive herself for what she'd done.

No matter that she'd had to do it, no matter that it had been meant, no matter how right it had felt at the time; she'd chosen the easy option, the way that had held no cost for her - only cost for those she'd left behind, in the need to live on without her, with the bitter festering wounds of abandonment and grief.

Was that why Willow had fought to bring her back? Because the cost of losing her had been too high, the price more than any of them were prepared to pay?

Was that the price she was paying now, her soul pulled from eternity and plunged into the ice of a living hell? Could she bring that here - here to this echoing, mournful refuge, this place of eternal sorrows that offered, not - peace, exactly, but certainly solace. Solace and sanctuary and solitude?

She nearly turned back. Nearly moved to retrace her steps, up the twisting stone and out, towards the thunder of the sea. The ocean would welcome her, she thought, feeling a sudden longing to seek its embrace, the need to bring everything to an end. No more confusion. No more pain. Just - no more.

It was then that she saw him.

It was only a glimpse - the vague shape of a figure walking across the far end of the beach. But his presence shot through her like a bolt of fire, like a lifeline flung at the final moment, catching her heart, anchoring her desperate soul. She was running before she knew it, running towards him, lifted by the wind, carried across the sand like a leaf torn from a storm tossed tree.

* * * * *

It had been the whistle of the kettle which had pulled him from his work. Long, painstaking work, the kind of work he could get lost in: handling the delicate pieces of broken pottery, the hints of worked metals and the echoes of lives long gone and long since forgotten. He'd unearthed a treasure trove of pieces from his first forays into the winter soaked earth, and he needed to catalogue them all - to map them using his meticulous measurements, confirming their source and location from his notes and sketches of the site, and to clean and date and determine every one before carefully packing them away, ready to be sent south for the museum's consideration.

He'd been pouring over them all day, skipping breakfast and barely pausing for lunch; the day had been too bitter to coax him back up to the excavation and besides, he'd needed to do something with the trays of artefacts before they overwhelmed the tiny croft and drove him out into the teeth of the wind. He'd dropped the kettle on the fire at some point between dating shards of thirteenth century pottery and sketching the delicate strands of the twisted wire brooch he'd lifted from a dead woman's breast only the day before. There was an oddly satisfying irony to the fact that he - Rupert Giles, ex-Watcher, expert on matters of the undead and the dealings of demons - should have found refuge here among inanimate bones and the ruins of the past. He acknowledged that irony every day, wrapping himself in history, in the certainty of weathered stone, in the cold hard work of the excavation, in the cling of the earth, and the endless grandeur of his chosen place of exile.

He occupied himself with trivial things, with measured study and undemanding fact, finding sanctuary in the arms of humdrum activity. In a place where monks had meditated and hermits had communed with God for centuries, he'd sought his release in the mechanics of physical labour and the mind numbing detail of cataloguing and cross referencing - and yes, there was irony in that too, although it wasn't one he cared to think about.

In fact, most days, he tried not to think at all.

He wasn't really thinking as he plucked the kettle out of the fire and used it to fill the waiting teapot, nor as he poured himself a cup of tea and went to stand by the open half door to drink it - but his mind was sufficiently alert to catch sight of the lowering cloud that spilled across the horizon. Dark, ominous clouds; they promised storm weather, the rumble of thunder and the lashing impact of the rain. He grimaced and put down the cup, grateful that he'd thought to cover his currently half excavated trench before he'd come down from the ruins the day before. Last time the weather had turned ugly he'd been forced to spend three days trapped inside the stone walls of the croft. Bad days, filled with smoke and damp and misery. This time he should fare better - he'd sealed the worst of the leaks in the roof, had stacked layers of peat and buckets of sea coal ready for his fire, and stocked up on oil and candles. Since the diesel for the generator was both precious and rare, he'd learned to ration it, saving the niceties of power for important things - like the radio, on those few occasions that he needed to use it.

The comfort of the croft wasn't his only concern though; he'd have to go out and drag his boat further up the strand, in case the wind and the tide tried to steal it away from him. It wasn't much of a boat, but it had served him well over the past few weeks, and it would be a wrench to lose it. Fresh fish pulled from the sea, the odd lobster dragged up from under the promontory's point, and the ability to sail as far as Marchess or Invaree added a certain richness to his otherwise spartan life - not to mention giving him something else to do, other than dig, and sort and brood.

Giles sighed, reached back to drop his glasses on the table next to his notes and reluctantly clambered into his sea boots, thrusting his sock-wrapped feet into their cumbersome depths. His hand half reached to lift the heavy windcheater from its hook, but he changed his mind and pushed open the bottom half of the door instead. This wasn't going to take long and it wasn't actually raining - not yet, at least. All he had to do was walk down to the boat, drag it a little further up the strand and make sure that its anchor was embedded deep into the sand up above the usual tide level. With luck - and the help of his sturdy boots - he wouldn't even get his feet wet.

He was being optimistic, of course. It only took a few steps to move from the snug, smoky warmth of the croft into the shivering, bite of the wind and - once engulfed in its embrace - to realise that the weather had already deteriorated from a crisp, clear January day into the bitter, ice filled swirl of threatening storm. The cold and the chill cut through the air like knives, lifting instant colour to his cheeks, and misting his hair and beard with the first threats of rain. It wasn't worth retracing his steps to fetch his coat since, by the time he'd done so, it would almost certainly be raining for real. He set his shoulders and gritted his teeth instead, striding down the steps and onto the slope of the beach, intent on completing his task and getting back into the warm as soon as he could.

The boat was lying at a slight angle against the sand, with its prow turned towards the shore and the surf tugging at its stern. The anchor rope was at full stretch, and the heavy metal hook was buried deep. So deep he had to work hard to tug it free. He'd not taken the vessel out for a couple of days, and the shifting tide had been slowly dragging it back towards the sea. Normally he would be happy to leave it where it was. It took less effort to launch the thing when half of it was already afloat - but he didn't want to lose it, and the increasing agitation of the ocean was only a hint of what he suspected was still to come. The bay was generally well sheltered by the promontory on one side and the old stone quay on the other, but if the wind rose any further - or swung round to drive in straight from the east - then it would be subjected to the full force of the North Sea in a winter fury.

It's far too remote, Rupert. Miserable place. Harsh weather and spartan conditions. And this time of year?

A memory of Quentin Travers' words - a mixture of stern, if well meaning advice, unwanted sympathy and a slightly confused reaction to his choices - lifted an ironic smile to his lips. He hadn't cared what time of year it was. The prospect of harsh weather and deprivation had suited his mood - and he knew a lot about misery. He'd been living with it every day. Every day since...

He grimaced angrily, refusing to follow the thought all the way down. That kind of thinking only led to pain and regret, brought back memory and took him to dark and unwelcoming places inside his head. He'd come to the Sully seeking refuge from those places, only to find he'd brought them with him; the peace he sought - peace of mind, if not peace in his heart - still seemed impossibly distant, even after all this time. Time, they'd said, would heal the wounds. The nagging ache in his gut had long since vanished - but the savage lacerations that events had ripped through his soul were still painful. Still bleeding. There was a cold empty space inside him that felt as if nothing would ever fill it - and while the soaring grandeur and the harsh demands of his chosen sanctuary helped numb the agony of his loss, it could do nothing to salve the bitterness of the experience.

Or the inescapable of guilt that wrapped every moment of it.

The anchor finally pulled free of the sand and he tossed it into the prow of the boat for a moment, reaching gritty hands to grab hold of the hull and begin dragging the vessel further up the beach. The wood was slick and it was hard to get a firm grip. Cold surf washed around his feet - and the sudden surging wave, which gave him unexpected aide by lifting the boat and driving it forward, also managed to immerse him up to his knees. He was soaked through in seconds.

"Damn and blast!" Giles cursed, as much from the shock of the cold as from real annoyance. The boat had jammed itself firmly against a jutting rock and his hands had slipped, leaving painful layers of raw skin scraped along the gunwales. It was too much. Suddenly everything was too much. The weight of the world crashed down on him with a vengeance, driving a dark wedge of despair deep into his wounded heart.

His hands clenched convulsively on the wood and he leant forward with a groan, bowing his head and closing his eyes as a feeling of utter despondency surged through him. It didn't matter how hard he fought, how much he tried to distance himself from his guilt and his grief, the shadows still came back to haunt him. For one long, unbearable moment, he was standing - not knee deep in the bitter cold swirl of the winter surf - but somewhere at the foot of a swaying, makeshift tower, the last warmth of a dead man staining his hands while the tumbled form of his Slayer came to rest on the cold, hard ground in front of him.

Every time.

He could play and replay the moment over and over in his head and it never changed, never altered in clarity or impact. There'd been nothing he could do, nothing he could have done that would have saved her - and he hated himself for hating her choices, for wanting to deny the poetry of her gift, and her right to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the world.

He hadn't just cared about her. He'd loved her. Loved every selfish, self-indulgent, self-absorbed moment of her; the way she'd wanted to defy her fate and the responsibilities it demanded of her. She'd been an infuriating, frustrating charge - and a total joy to his heart, a spirit that had fired his soul. It was on days like this that he wanted to curse her, wanted to reach out and shake her lifeless body, demanding to know why on that day, of all days, she'd finally understood the selflessness of her destiny - and chosen to follow it to its ultimate end.

"Giles?"

The sound of her voice was soft, an anxious, sorrowful whisper that turned his heart and cut him to the soul. It had sounded so real. So real, in fact, that - for one terrifying second - he could have sworn she was right beside him.

"I'm sorry, Buffy," he murmured, not daring to lift his head or open his eyes. If he did that, her ghost would leave him; leave him with nothing but memory and regret - and the deep aching emptiness that swirled in the hollow of his heart. "I am so sorry." His voice choked on the words. Sorry wasn't enough. He'd failed her. Left her to struggle for her own solutions, because the ones he'd had to offer just hadn't been acceptable.

There should have been another way. Another answer. He should have found her one.

One they both could have lived with...

The wind shifted a little, the change heralding the onset of rain. Cold spears, the ice of descending precipitation, began to strike at his hunched shoulders with almost bruising force. He sighed and tilted his head up and back, letting the water hammer into his face, letting it wash away the treacherous tears that had spilled onto his cheeks. They mingled like ice and fire; the weeping of the world and the white hot protests of his soul.

"Don't be sorry. Be Giles."

Her voice was so close - so real- that for a moment he thought... His breath suddenly caught in his throat. A phantom hand clenched around his heart. Slowly, fearfully, he turned his head and opened his eyes.

"Buffy?"

She was standing on the beach. Standing there, staring at him with wide, haunted eyes. Buffy Summers. His Slayer.

His dead Slayer.

The wind was tugging at her sundress and making her hair dance. The rain was patterning her skin, and the surf was swirling around her sandled feet; she was thin and wan and as pale as a ghost. "Hey," she ventured, her lips quirking in the brief echo of a smile - one that slipped away and was lost almost before it had time to form. "Miss me?"

He opened his mouth - but no words came out. He was afraid to move, afraid to even breathe. He felt suspended, held in a moment between pain and joy, his heart pierced by her presence; it fluttered and struggled inside his chest like a moth caught in a candle flame. It just wasn't possible - but she was there.

Really there, a figure as solid and as soaked as he was, lashed by the rain and caressed by the ice filled wind. She was shivering - and not all of it was from the cold.

Giles let go of the boat. Strode out of the surf and went to her. She didn't move - or vanish - as he approached; her eyes watched him with anxious intensity, and her body quivered, almost as if poised for flight. He hesitated as he reached her, doubt and disbelief warring with the evidence of his senses. He wondered if he were losing his mind. He knew she was dead. He'd carried her home after her fall, had stood over her grave. She could be nothing more than a phantom; a ghost conjured up by his grief.

And yet, and yet... She stared up at him as he stared down, the moment poised in eternity, the requisite six inches of proprietary space between them - and that little distance yawned like a gulf, defining the abyss that lay between life and death. His sense of the world hung in precarious balance; one wrong move, one wrong word, and he knew she would be gone. Gone forever, taken from him a second time.

He lifted his hand. Tentatively, delicately, he reached to brush the rebellious strands of rain slicked hair from her face - and felt them cling to his fingers, felt the whisper of them, their reality, against his skin. "Buffy," he breathed, acknowledging the miracle, turning her name into a prayer.

And then she was in his arms, hugging him with fierce and desperate need, the hard curve of her body pressing against him as she shook with heart wrenching sobs.

* * * * *

They didn't stand like that for long - although the moment felt like forever, an instant of eternity captured within her soul. Buffy marvelled at the feel of familiar arms around her, at the sensation of embracing the solid, certain warmth that lurked beneath layers of salt spray and rain soaked wool. It was a feeling she never wanted to lose; she felt anchored and protected, encircled by his strength and immersed in his presence. She pressed her face against his chest, not bothering to hold back the tears that had somehow welled up from inside her. She had cut herself off from the world for so long, buried her emotions so deep, that this sudden release was giddying. She'd wrestled with pain, and effort, and misery for weeks, each numbing moment pushing her soul closer and closer to utter despair - and now all of that came bubbling out of her, the anguish and the wretchedness wrenched from her heart with savage intensity.

He hadn't known that she needed to cry.

Perhaps she'd forgotten how.

"Ssh," he soothed inconsequentially, pressing his check against her hair and stroking the curve of her shoulder with reassuring gentleness. He was shaking almost as badly as she was, holding her against him as though he feared she'd vanish the moment he let go. Perhaps he did; as far as he knew, she was a ghost, just an apparition sent to haunt him by the storm. "It's all right. Everything's going to be all right."

They were words, nothing more, offered as meaningless comfort for a distress he had no real way to measure - but they tore at her heart with desperate pain. Nothing was right. Nothing could be right, when she was so wrong, and so out of place. She clung to him like a limpet, feeling herself battered and torn by the storm of emotion that had been unleashed inside her. Anger and pain swirled into the empty spaces in her heart, dragging fear and hopelessness with them. It threatened to overwhelm her, to drown her in its turbulence.

But the rock to which she clung stood firm, holding her, sheltering her; his warmth, his certainty, gave her the strength she needed to pull herself up from the flood. Slowly and fearfully, she lifted her head and looked into his eyes. It was a moment she'd been dreading. She had every expectation of seeing what she'd seen in every other pair of familiar eyes these past weeks. Confusion. Anxious, misplaced sympathy. The pleasure at her return tainted by all the pain of her leaving in the first place - and the hints of anger, the guilt and the blame placed on her shoulders, the long, anguished cry of the bereaved as they fought to understand the injustice of death. Her friends had been unable to understand the reason for her choices - and her sister had still carried the guilt of being the one left behind.

The man in her arms had every right to feel that way too. More right, perhaps, than any of them.

Buffy expected to see it in his eyes. Not just the pain and the reproach, but the regret and the grief tangled together like barbed wire wrapped around his soul. She thought she'd look, and that she'd see, and when she did the moment of their connection would dissolve like mist, vanishing like a long forgotten dream.

She held her breath as their eyes met; she was trembling on the edge of the flood, waiting for it to rise up and sweep her away. She was expecting accusation. What she found was absolution.

His smile was gentle, and his sympathy profound. There was pain - and grief - in the way he looked at her - but they were nothing compared to the deep and abiding love that lurked in the depth of his eyes. It gathered her up, welcomed her, measured her and forgave her, all in an instant.

"I thought I'd lost you." His words were shaky. He still didn't quite believe she was there. Nor did she.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, pressing herself back into his embrace, echoing his earlier words with the same heartfelt need and passion. None of this was right - not yet- but suddenly she knew it could be and it would be; with his help she would find a way - a way in which she could weather the storm and reach safe harbour.

"Don't be sorry," he said, sounding as if he were choking back a mix of laughter and tears. "Be Buffy. Be real."

"I am. And... I am," she assured him, a little surprised by her own confidence in the assertion. "Will - Willow brought me back. Back from the dead... back from - " She hesitated, shivering with memory. She didn't want to tell him - but not telling had been part of the problem. Part of the pain. "From heaven, Giles. I was in Heaven, and they tore me out of it."

"Oh dear Lord." His arms tightened around her. His words were soft and fervent - a true prayer, rather than simple exclamation. "I had no idea... Are you all right? A-are you...?" He couldn't formulate the question, couldn't find the words to express what he needed to know. Buffy's tears welled up a second time.

"No," she sobbed, clinging to him with a sense of desperation. "No... Giles, I-I think I came back wrong. Everything - everything's too harsh, too hard, too much. I've tried and I've tried, and I just can't... I don't know how... They took Dawn away from me. They said I wasn't fit to care for her - and I was glad, because... I'm not. I'm not. Everything's just fallen apart. Xander walked out on Anya. Will and Tara broke up and - and I... I slept with Spike. He hurt me and I wanted him to. I wanted him to because... because at least he made me feel."

She paused, trying to catch her breath, trying to fight the flood of words and self-loathing that had come pouring out of her. It felt like poison welling up from a wound; her ugly, bleeding heart laid bare for him to see. "Do you... do you hate me?" she asked in a small voice, quivering with shame.

"Oh, Buffy," he sighed, an unexpected note of amusement in his voice. "You silly girl. Of course I-I don't hate you. I am having a little trouble b-breathing here, but quite frankly, that doesn't seem to matter at the moment..."

"Oh," she reacted bemusedly, oddly disappointed by the absence of stern words. Then what he'd said registered. "Oh." She sprang away from him with wide-eyed guilt, and he reached to catch her shoulders before she bolted completely.

"Buffy..." He was looking at her with sympathetic affection, smiling a little sadly in the depths of an unexpected beard. He was, she realised warily, no longer the stuffy, tweed-clad librarian who'd struggled so hard to cope with the stubborn, wilful teenager who'd been placed in his care. But he was still Giles- still, in that indefinable, destiny shaped way, her Watcher.

Still the guardian of her soul, the keeper of her heart.

The beard was a nice touch actually; it gave him a weathered, rumpled look, a suitably roughened edge to match the stark wilderness in which he'd sought refuge. She took a moment to look at him - really look at him - and found her lips curling into a wary smile. His sweater was torn and frayed at the neck, and had little leather patches sewn into the elbows, he was wearing thick and heavy jeans, tucked firmly into a pair of solid boots - and he was soaked. From head to toe. The rain was falling heavily by now; it had plastered his hair tight against his skull and was running in little rivulets into the curls of his beard and then dripping out again.

"I think," he was saying, "that you and have a-a lot to talk about. But not here and not now- because right n-now, the important thing is to get you somewhere warm and dry before you catch your death..." He trailed off, colliding with his own thoughtless phrasing. The sudden, stricken look in his eyes turned her heart over.

"Been there. Done that," she said softly. "But... warm and dry sounds good." Lightning flared across the distant horizon. It was followed by a heavy rumble of thunder, the sound of ancient gods quarrelling somewhere in the heavens. It summoned up memories of a boiling vortex, of violent forces trying to tear the universe apart. Buffy shivered, all the way to her soul. "Better than good," she corrected shakily. "Does it do that - a lot, around here?"

Giles' smile was wry. "Now and again. It's that time of year." He put his arm around her shoulders and turned her inland, gesturing up the beach. "We'll be safe enough in the croft. I've a good fire going, and I-I've fixed - most of the leaks in the roof."

She'd taken two steps before she remembered what he'd been doing when she'd found him - a task he seemed to have forgotten about completely. "Oh," she exclaimed, glancing back at the beach. "Giles... y-your boat. You were - "

"Oh bugger," he cursed, half turning back. "Ah, what the hell. Leave the bloody thing. If it washes away, it washes away."

That didn't seem right somehow. Hadn't he braved the onset of the rain to drag it to safety, and wasn't she the reason he hadn't managed to do so? It would be her fault if the storm dragged it away - and she carried enough guilt as it was. She really didn't want the burden of any more. Especially where he was concerned.

Besides, it really wouldn't take much to complete the task.

"No," she decided, slipping out from under his arm. "It's okay. I'll get it."

"Buffy..."

She was at the edge of the surf before he could stop her, reaching to seize the rail of the boat and lift it out of the water.

"... that really isn't..."

All it took was one good heave to break the grip of sand and surf; once it was free she dragged it forward, pulling it up until it lodged on a sand bank further up the beach.

"... n-necessary. Ah. Yes. Well, that - that will do." Giles stared at the rescued vessel a little bemusedly for a minute. "I - um - see you... haven't lost your strength."

The boat had a name. Buffy could see it now, the curl of words painted lovingly just below the prow. 'Summers Gift'. Had that been its name before? Or had he chosen to call it that, a poignant reminder of events he could neither prevent or forget? She lifted her head as he reached to lift the anchor out of the prow. Lightning flashed a second time and - for a moment - she saw not just the rumpled, familiar figure that was his current shell, but all of him, from outer flesh to inner spirit; the wounded warrior and the weather worn, weary Watcher within him. There was a deep and bleeding hole in his soul. A Buffy shaped hole, she realised guiltily, an emptiness as desperate and as intense as her own. She'd torn the heart out of him, the day she'd died. Torn it out and taken it with her into the light.

"Still the Slayer," she quipped, wincing at the quiver in her voice. That sudden glimpse, the vision of the hurt *she'd* caused, had shaken her to the core. "Still your Slayer," she corrected, hoping - against all hope -that it was true.

He'd turned to heft the anchor so that he could throw it further up the beach; the correction turned him back, turned him towards her in a startled beat, as if he hadn't quite believed what he'd heard. Then he smiled. Deeply. Warmly. And with more than hint of shy pleasure lurking in the depths of his beard. "Always," he affirmed, tossing the angled steel away without another thought. He held out his hand instead, and she took it, anchoring herself within his grasp.

Seeking sanctuary beside his wounded soul.

* * * * *

He'd never given the interior of the croft much thought before; its Spartan furnishings had served his basic needs and he'd fitted its spaces well enough, spending as much of his time outdoors as he did in. When he was home, he didn't need much more than the warmth of the bed, the convenience of a tabletop or two and a space in front of the fire to sit and work once the sun went down. Now, looking round his sanctuary, he realised how small and cluttered it seemed. Books, papers and artefacts loomed out of the semi-gloom, piled higgledy-piggledy on every surface; trays of potsherds, bones and as yet unidentified items jostled for space beside his crockery, his fishing gear and his digging tools; the laundry basket was overflowing and he hadn't bothered to make his bed. Hadn't made it, it fact, for days. Sleep was something he sought when his body refused to function without it. The duvet that lay sprawled across the feather mattress was as rumpled and askew as the rest of his life.

Giles heart sank at the sight; had he fallen so low, that he would endure such conditions without even noticing the fact? The glance he threw towards the young woman beside him held more than a little mortification. What would Buffy think, finding him living in such neglected disarray?

It was hard to tell from her expression. Her face was pinched and pale, partly because of the cold and the crying, although more, he suspected, from her long struggle with despair and dismay. She slipped out from under his arm and went to stand by the fire, reaching cold hands to warm them against the flicker of flame. She was shivering, he realised, shivering with the kind of deep-seated chill that would take more than a few friendly embers to dispel. He cursed himself for his selfish distraction, hastily closed and bolted the door and then reached to drag a blanket out of a nearby chest, bringing it over to drape it around her shoulders with gentle care.

"We need to get you out of those wet things," he said worriedly, concerned that she might already have taken harm from the onslaught of the weather. She didn't respond for a moment; she was staring into the fire as if mesmerised by it, staring with an intensity that sent a shiver down his spine. "Buffy?"

"Is the fire warm?" she murmured, pushing her hands closer to the blaze. "Is it? Everything I touch seems like ice..."

He caught her fingers before she could sink them into the flames, turning her away from the fire as he wrapped his hands around her own. Her skin was cold and clammy, like a dead thing; for a moment his heart skipped an anxious beat, echoes of a long held nightmare clutching at his soul. Had she been returned to life? Or had she come back as something else, a revenant from the grave, summoned into unlife, like the creatures she had once hunted and slain?

"You're just cold," he told her anxiously, pushing that shiver of fear aside with determination. Whatever she was, she was Buffy - and hadn't he felt her heart beating against him when she'd held him, out on the beach? Beating like a wild, frightened thing, pounding itself against her ribcage as the storm of her emotions raged through her soul? "C-come on," he chivvied gently, reaching under the blanket to start undoing buttons and ease sodden cotton off her shoulders. "Let's get you out of these r-ridiculous clothes and into something a little more sensible, shall we? I have... I- I probably have something you can wear..."

She didn't resist his attentions, but nor did she move to help him. She simply stood there, watching him as he carefully peeled the rain soaked material away from her clammy skin. It could have been an utterly embarrassing moment for both of them - but somehow it felt right and natural to be attending to her like this. He had spent too many hours, in the long months since her fall, wishing that he had found some way to let her know just how precious she had been to him - and this simple gift of care, this expression of tender concerns, seemed liked a blessed penance; the very least that he could do.

"Are they?" she asked a little worriedly as he encouraged her to step out of the sodden dress and let him take it away. "Ridiculous? My clothes, I mean."

He scooped up the flimsy fabric, letting it hang, dripping and mishapen from his hand. It had been, he realised, a very attractive garment once; one well suited to grace her figure and enhance her elfin beauty. "Well," he allowed reluctantly, "perhaps not in Southern California... but on the Sully? In mid-January? Quite ridiculous. Unless, of course, making a fashion statement is more important than keeping all your fingers and toes."

She nearly smiled at that; a soft, hesitant twist of her lips that turned his heart over. "A person needs toeness," she said. "Fingerness too. Preferably ten. Of each."

"Indeed," he agreed, tossing the damp bundle onto the flagstones beside the fire and turning back to help her with the next layer. She bit her lower lip as unhooked her delicate bra and helped her wriggle free of its confines. Being that naked - with him - was clearly beginning to register; when he turned to add the garment to the growing pile she carefully pulled the blanket in around her and huddled into it as if to say 'enough'. He didn't press the point, but pulled across the padded chair and settled her into it, blanket and all.

"Giles?"

"Mmm?" He'd crouched down to give the fire a poke, stirring up the heat before adding a fresh layer of peat and coal.

"Aren't you - shouldn't you... you were out in the rain too, you know. You're all... soggy. Wet beardness and kinda steamy."

He frowned, glancing down at his wool-clad arm to see what she was talking about. Sure enough, his outer layer was steaming gently, the moisture in it reacting to the heat from the fire. "Bugger," he murmured, hanging the poker back on its hook and reaching - almost without thinking - to investigate the state of his beard. The result was a small shower - and a gulping half-giggle from Buffy, who'd clearly caught the look that had chased across his face. Giles gave her an anxious glance, then grimaced and stood up, silently berating himself for getting distracted again, even for a second or two. She needed him to be focused; he needed to get her warm and dry, for her to be safe and sheltered from the storm.

Whether that be the howl of the wind and the rattling impact of the rain on the roof - or the boiling turmoil that sat behind her eyes.

"I won't be a moment," he promised, stepping over to grab a couple of clean towels from the rail by the sink. "Here. Dry your hair. I'll be right back."

He was peeling himself out of the sodden sweater as he spoke, throwing it - and the equally sodden shirt beneath it - onto the already overflowing laundry pile. He kicked out of his boots, leaving them to softly steam by the fire, and strode across the room to find clean dry clothes for the both of them. He was acutely aware of Buffy's eyes on him as he did so. She was watching him with a disturbing intensity, the towel he'd given her still lying in her lap, and her hands clenched convulsively into its softness. It hurt to see her like this, to see her so unsure of herself, so distraught and disconnected - but if what she'd said was true...

He shivered, recalling her words with an almost physical stab of pain.

I was in Heaven, and they tore me out of it.

He couldn't begin to imagine what that might be like. How it might feel to have achieved a state of bliss, only to be ripped away from it - to be forced back into the demands of life, just when you were finally done with it.

Finally at peace.

Lightning flared through the windows, briefly painting them both with harsh white light before plunging them back into candle-lit cosiness. The shiver became a cold hard hand, clenched in his guts. A surge of anger and disgust spiralled up from it, upping his heart rate and tensing every muscle. He knew who'd done this. Who'd led the well-intentioned and utterly unthinkable deed. How dare she? What thoughtless, foolish arrogance had made Willow think that she had the right to make such a choice? Did she give no thought to consequence? Make any kind of effort to determine where Buffy was before she called her back?

The low growl that escaped his throat was involuntary; an expression of fury and frustration that counterpointed the rumble of overhead thunder. There was, inevitably, just a little self-recrimination added into the mix. If he'd stayed, would this have happened? Would Willow have come to him, given him a chance to prevent such utter foolishness?

Or - he glanced at the pale figure shivering by his fire - would he, distraught with grief, riven heart and soul, have chosen to help her instead?

The anger dissipated as quickly as it had come. He couldn't be sure of his answer to that and - knowing that he might have been tempted, knowing that the depth of his pain might have overruled his judgment - he couldn't truly condemn the young witch for following the wishes of her heart.

But he would speak to her about it.

Once he'd assessed the damage she'd caused, and done what ever he could to resolve its consequences.

One thing at a time, he told himself firmly, throwing open the chest at the foot of his bed and starting to rummage through it while he briskly towelled his hair and beard dry and kicked out of his damp jeans in order to climb into dry ones. He didn't even give a second thought to what he was doing. He could hardly be self-conscious about stripping off in front of Buffy when he'd just helped her undress - especially when the reasons for doing so were exactly the same. Somehow, somewhere, they seemed to have got past the issues that would have added awkwardness to the situation. Maybe her dying had done that; or maybe it was just realising that she was more important than an imposition of cultural proprietary that had no relevance in their relationship anymore. He'd held her dead body in his arms, had helped to wash and dress it ready for burial. In death she'd stripped him to the soul; what was there to worry about in the simple exposure of his skin?

It only took a few moments before he was back at his Slayer's side, his arms outstretched to offer her what he'd found; a clean pair of flannel pyjamas, a pair of long woollen socks and one of the two heavy Aran sweaters that he'd acquired since coming to the Sully. The second was already wrapped comfortably around him, creating a welcome layer of warmth over the soft t-shirt he'd found to slip over his head.

Buffy frowned warily at the pile, reaching a tentative hand to feel the textures of flannel and wool. "Oh," she registered, turning the cautious touch into a scrunching grab. "It's all soft. I thought - it looked... "

"Scratchy?" he supplied unable to help his quiet smile at her expression of surprise. "Far be it for me to disillusion you, Buffy, but... um... while I may be living the life of a hermit, hair shirts are strictly optional."

"Really?" She came the closest to offering him a true smile that he'd seen since she arrived. "I mean - you don't - well, I always thought... the authenticity thing, you know? Doing it... right?

Giles didn't know whether to feel affronted, that she thought him to be defined by such pedantry - or amused at the image of himself that her words conjured up. He did have a tendency to insist on attention to detail, didn't he...? He sighed, letting both emotions go, letting them slide away with only a moment of regret. There had been a time when he might have risen to the challenge, might have been spurred into offering up the expected banter and engaging her in vigorous repartee - but his soul was battered, his spirit numb, and he really had no heart for the game.

Not for the moment, at any rate.

"Right?" he questioned softly. "Nothing's been right since..." He left the thought where he found it, seeing the pain stir in her eyes - and feeling it twist in his heart. "But - you're here now." The sheer wonder of saying it choked his voice and sent shivers though his soul. "That's all that matters. That, and getting you warm," he added, dragging himself determinedly back to practical concerns. Buffy stared at him for a moment, her fingers still clenched around the softness of wool and flannel.

"Can you do that?" she asked eventually, the words filled with impossible hope and the terrors of despair. "Can you make me warm again?"

Thunder muttered overhead, a soul shivering, low voiced rumble of sound. The weather outside was wild and dangerous, a howl of ice filled wind and bitter, furious rain. But the roof was sturdy and the croft had weathered far worse weather than this. There were no terrors in the storm that raged around them both; it was the one that tore at his slayer's heart that sent a shiver of fear through the Watcher's soul. Her face was painted with the flicker of firelight; gold shimmered in her hair, reflecting from the soft glow of the lamps. Her eyes were deep pools of sky grey and sea green, echoing sights and experiences he had no way to comprehend. She was a ghost, an impossible creature - and she was Buffy; the centre of his world. His duty. His destiny.

"I don't know," he answered honestly. "But, if you'll let me... I'm willing to try."

* * * * *

He talked to her while he helped her dress - then and afterwards as he bustled through banking up the fire, making soup and then sharing it with her, a solid mug of comfort that she clutched in her chilled fingers. The soup tasted of cream and spice and happier days; the words tasted like a half forgotten memory, the rich depths of his voice and the sense of safety that it wove around her. She savoured them both, slowly and with almost guilty pleasure; she knew she didn't deserve this, didn't merit his care or his affection. But he offered her both without hesitation, pouring them over her like a healing balm. Healing, she suspected, for both of them; he spoke with an open honesty that would have had no place in the guarded, wary world that they had once shared. Sunnydale had been a place of secrets and secrecy; she'd known her Watcher well, but she'd known very little about him. Here, in this quiet sanctuary, besieged by storm and isolated from the world, he gifted her with himself, filling the threat of silence with revealing words and wry observations.

He talked of the Sully, of his life on its windswept hills and its sea washed shores; about living rough and coping with the issues of isolation. About the largesse the island offered him; about taking eggs from the cliffs, scavenging for wild herbs and long hours fishing out in the bay. He told her about the crayfish that lurked in the rocks at the foot of the headland, and the taste of wild oysters gathered at low tide. He spoke, too, of days of hunger, of times when his stores ran low and the weather chained him the island so that he was forced to ration what little he had. He'd even, he said, run out of tea once; a horror he narrated with earnest self mockery. She had to laugh at that, at his words and his expression, seeing the quiet twinkle lurking in his eyes. It felt good to laugh. The smile he found to answer it was even better.

Moment by moment he did what she'd asked him to do; he made her feel warm again. Not just warm to the skin, however cosy and comfortable it felt to be wrapped in his trappings, but a deeper, more fundamental warmth; one that eased the ache in her heart and soothed the anguish of her soul. There were no demands and no expectations; just the words, washing over her. She immersed herself in them, drinking them in as if each syllable were as precious as raindrops landing on a parched earth.

The hammer of the storm slowly grew quieter, the shouts of thunder turning into muttered, distant rumbles and the howl of the wind slowly died away, leaving whisper of the rain to become a gentle backdrop to the gift of his litany.

Over the soup he spoke about his work, telling her about the study he was pursuing in the ruins - the cataloguing of stone, the unearthing of old bones and the discovery of precious treasures. Not vessels of gold or silver, but the tiny fragments that evoked the past; the shreds of cloth, shards of pottery, glass beads and disintegrating metals that wrapped their buried owners in the echoes of their lives. She listened with genuine fascination as he related the legends and the histories that those echoes were confirming. They weren't his usual topics; instead of legends of monsters or the horrors of prophecy he gave her spiritual tales, stories of the monks and nuns who had come to the island hoping to find themselves. The ruin on the hill was that of a monastery, built to house those who'd lived and prayed among the island's silences; it had been founded by a woman now hailed as a local saint, an Abbess said to have the power to speak to the dead and to bring peace to unsettled spirits. She had come to the Sully, it was said, seeking refuge from the evils of the world; she'd set up the altar stone from her old priory at the heart of the island - and ever since then, the legend said, no evil creature had been able to set so much as a foot on the Sully's sacred stones.

Others, he said, had followed her over the years; seekers of truth, men and women in search of a closer rapport with God...

"Refugees from pain," he concluded softly, watching her with haunted eyes. "Those in need of sanctuary."

She put down her now empty soup mug and reached to hug the blanket more tightly around her shoulders. "Did they find it?" she asked, remembering how she had felt stepping down into the bay - the sense of sanctity and the weight of ancient sorrows underpinning it. No evil creature can set foot here... It might be a legend, but there was a great deal of truths in legends - and here she was, curled up inside Giles' sweater, sitting safe inside his croft. The island had not rejected her. She didn't think she was evil, but then she'd come back so empty, had felt so twisted and wrong...

"Maybe," her Watcher sighed softly, staring over the rim of his mug and into the shimmer of flame. "I know I did."

His words - so soft, so sorrowful, so resigned- raked claws of anguish across her soul. The day before she'd have reacted with an inward flinch and withdrawn even further into herself, seeking to escape the inevitable sense of guilt and pain. But here, cradled in the warmth he had given her, safely anchored in the loving harbour of his heart, she could finally accept that there was no escape from those feelings. That they were part of the healing process, vital steps in the journey she had been asked to make. A journey he had been taking ahead of her, torn by grief and burdened by regret and remorse.

Buffy slid from the chair and joined him on the floor, moving to wrap her arms around him. "I'm sorry," she murmured, laying her cheek against his shoulder. His immediate reaction was wary surprise - after which he quirked a quiet smile behind his beard, curled his arm around her waist and tucked her in comfortably beside him.

"Don't be," he said. "You did what you had to. As did I. You gave your life to save the world. I took one for the same reason."

He took...?

Buffy lifted her head to stare at him. He was still gazing into the fire, his eyes clouded with memory and his focus distant.

"Yours was the nobler deed, I have to say. Something to be proud of..." His voice tailed off into pensive silence. She went on staring.

Ben.

He killed Ben...

It wasn't hard to figure out. She'd left Glory's mortal prison lying in the dirt, battered and bleeding from her attack - and when she'd come back from... well, from where she'd been, there'd been no sign of him, or her for that matter. She'd never asked about his fate. Never even thought to question what had happened after she'd gone. Glory had been defeated, and she wasn't coming back. It was only now that she realised why.

A part of her wanted to be angry. Wanted to push away from him with accusation and condemnation in her eyes. He had killed. Killed a helpless man in cold blood. He had death on his hands and the strength of will to commit murder.

The old Buffy might have reacted badly to that realisation. Might have reared back and lashed out, angry at him and angry at herself because he had been right. Because he'd been driven to do the one thing that she could never do. But the new Buffy - the one that had been ripped from heaven and suffered the sorrows of the world - simply tightened her hug, pressing closer with a shiver of distraught sympathy. 'Death is your gift,' the first Slayer had said. Her gift to the world, to her sister? Or had it been his gift to her? His acceptance of a burden she could never carry.

He would have killed Dawn...

If he'd had to. If it had been the only way. He'd faced the truth of all that, and he would have done it - and he would have had to live with it afterwards, with knowing what he'd done.

With endless regret and unbearable remorse.

Looking at him now - at the anxious lines that creased his face and the look that haunted his eyes - she knew that he regretted Ben's death. Not just the necessity of it, but the deed itself. There'd been too much death that day, and he'd had to carry all of it: the murder and her suicide, shattering his world and tearing his soul to shreds.

No wonder he'd left Sunnydale when he did.

If she'd been capable of honest emotion in those early days of her return she probably would have been resentful for what he'd done; walking out on the Scoobies like that, abandoning Dawn to her guilt and her grief. It had never occurred to her that he might have done it to protect her from his own.

No-clue Buffy, that's me, she sighed, laying her head back on his shoulder and breathing in the warm, earthy fragance that was a little bit of peat-smoke, a touch of wet oiled wool, and a whole lot Rupert Giles. His scent was comforting - although nothing like the mindless, heedless comfort of dead flesh and cold kisses that she'd embraced with bitterness and self-loathing. Spike had made her feel weak, made her feel needy and desperate. She'd devoured his touch, his presence and his passion - and none of it had been enough to break through the ice that held her heart. Yet one simple breath, one whisper of that unmistakable, utterly Giles-y smell and she felt challenged and strengthened and found herself staring at painful truths with confidence. A shaky confidence, perhaps, but confidence none the less. When she'd set out that morning she'd thought she was running away from everything. It was only now that she realised she'd been running towards something. Something she needed. Something that made her complete.

"I had no choice."

"I know." Giles put down his mug and laid his hand over hers instead, warming cold fingers between the heat of his heart and his work weathered palm.

"Neither did you." She offered the words gently - making them an acknowledgement without censure, the forgiveness she knew he hadn't found in himself.

"I know that too." He paused for a moment, then added: "Doesn't make either of them any easier to bear."

"No," she agreed, still in that soft, forgiving tone. "Life sucks, right? Having to live it. Having to live with it. But we keep on.. keeping on. Doing the livingness. I guess. Except..." She frowned, thinking about it. "You're here, doing the hermit guy stuff - and - I - I came back and I - I just couldn't get it right again."

He sighed. A slow heave of his shoulders that expressed the weight they carried. "We are a pair, aren't we ...?"

"We always were."

Everything paused; a slow and pensive pause in which the echo of her words rippled and resonated like a distant chiming of church bells. Buffy looked up. Giles looked down. Their eyes met - and then he was smiling, hugging her a little closer with a soft gulp of happiness that held both laughter and tears.

"I missed you," he said. "I missed you so much."

She hugged him back, forgetting - for a moment - that she was a Slayer, and perfectly capable of breaking ribs if she wasn't careful. "I think," she admitted with a tearful gulp of her own, "I've been - missing me, too. I don't know who I am, anymore. I can't do it... without you. I need your help. I need you to be - "

"Your Watcher again?" he offered softly, no doubt recalling the last time she'd said those words to him. She'd meant them then. She meant them now, more than ever.

"Yes. No..." she corrected, then again, "yes... I - I don't know. Exactly. I just need *you*. The whole package. Watcher, teacher, friend - whatever. Be Giles. For me. So that I can be me again."

The smile he found for her was haunted; it came tinged with sympathy, affection, and hint of weary resignation. "I don't know if I can," he said. "That part of me - the Watcher, the defender of all that was good and true... I've lost him, Buffy. I not sure if I can find him again."

"You will," she murmured, cuddling up against him so that she could listen to his heartbeat, softly counterpointing her own. "We'll go look for him together. In the morning," she added, sleepily. "Once the storm is over..."

* * * * *

Giles woke to sharp morning air and the soft peaty smell of a fire that had burned down to little more than embers. The cold light of an equally cold day painted the interior of the croft in a softness of greys and shadows. He was sprawled out in front of his hearth still wearing yesterday's clothes, his socks rumpled around his feet, the rest of him half wrapped in a blanket - and he was alone. He groaned softly, feeling his body protest the after effects of sleeping on a hard stone floor. It had just been a dream. An achingly impossible dream.

He groaned a second time and carefully levered himself into a sitting position, blearily rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Just a dream.

Of course it had been. Buffy was dead and buried, laid to rest in the dark, dank earth. He'd carried her broken body home after the fall. Had washed and dressed her, and given her a soft kiss goodbye...

He shivered and dragged the blanket up around his shoulders. He needed to get up, to fix the fire and find something to eat. Needed to stir himself back into some pretence of life, needed to go through the motions and somehow survive another day.

He wasn't sure why he needed to, but he needed to.

Didn't he?

Memories of the storm and the ghost it had brought him whispered through his mind. The sight of his Slayer, soaked and shivering. The look in her eyes, so empty and lost.

And the feel of her tucked up against him, seeking sanctuary in his arms ...

"Oh, Buffy," he breathed, watching a wisp of smoke curl up from the embers, and feeling a tear echo its path as it spilled from the corner of his eye and slid down his cheek.

"Present and accounted for." Her voice cut through the silence like a return of the evening thunder. Giles practically jumped out of his skin. "Which is more than I can say for your bathroom. I went to use the little girl's room and - hey - no little girl's room. No little boy's room, either by the look of things. What do you do around here? No, don't tell me. I don't think I want to know ..."

Buffy was standing in the doorway, still bundled up in the clothes he'd given her, his windcheater draped around her shoulders and her feet kicked incongruously into his sea boots. Her cheeks were reddened by the crispness of the weather and her hair was mussed by exposure to the wind.

"Buffy!" He was on his feet in an instant, closing the distance to wrap his arms around her and hug her tight. "You're real. You're alive."

"Well, duh," she reacted, then realised what he must have thought and looked contrite. "Oh. Yeah. Still here. Still me." She relaxed into his bearhug, returning it with a gentler one of her own. "Still you, I think, although it's kinda hard to tell under all that hair."

The gentle dig was the final straw; the raw emotions that had ballooned inside his chest the minute he'd heard her speak welled out of him in a quiver of laughter and tears, a sudden rage of hysteria that he just couldn't stop.

"Oh, Lord," he gasped, clinging to her, holding her as if she were a rock and the world a storm that threatened to sweep him away. "Oh, dear Lord..."

"Giles? Giles?" It was Buffy's panic that reached him, throwing him a lifeline that he caught and used to bring himself under control. She was guiding him to the nearest chair, pushing him into it with concern. It was probably just as well. His legs had gone to total jelly and if he hadn't sat down, he'd have probably fallen down. "God, Giles, are you okay?"

"Ye-ye- yes," he managed to gasp, struggling for breath and feeling the room swim. He was still shaking with silent laughter and fighting down tears. He'd been overwhelmed with laughter, even reduced to helpless giggles once or twice, but he'd never had an attack quite like that before. There was a little part of him somewhere cataloguing the experience with fascination. The rest of him was just trying to cope with the way his heart was trying to tear itself out of his chest. "I'll ... I'll ..." He gestured helplessly, annoyed at his sudden inability to form coherent sentences.

"Be all right in a minute?" The look of horrified alarm on Buffy's face relaxed into one of wary suspicion. Giles nodded, trying very hard to get himself back under control. The sheer reality of her presence helped a little. Dreams didn't sink bruising fingers into your arm, not even in imagined panic - nor did they absently massage the damage away, applying a gently soothing rub of apology while they stared at you with bemused concern. "You'd better be all right," she ordered firmly, "because I don't think dialling 911 would do much good around here, even if you had a phone to dial with in the first place and ... Giles? Are you laughing at me?"

He shook his head, still quivering with inexpressible happiness. "For you," he managed to say, capturing her eyes with his own and hoping he could convey some of the overwhelming emotions that were pounding through his heart.

"Oh," she registered, then : "Oh wow."

Wow indeed. He looked away, closing his eyes for a moment as he tried to calm his breathing and regain a modicum of his dignity. Buffy's hand left his arm, departing with a little squeeze of reassurance; when he turned to look he found she'd stepped back to look at him, studying him with thoughtful intensity.

The bright red windcheater had slipped from her shoulders at some point, leaving her a mussed and unlikely angel engulfed in Aran. She was pale and she was unhealthily thin, but she was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"I - ah - umm ... I'm - I'm sorry about the mess," he apologised, the first non sequitur that sprang to mind. He needed to say something, to break the sudden stretch of silence that lay between them. "I-I wasn't exactly expecting company."

"No," she acknowledged softly, offering the word as an apology of her own. "I guess not." There was a beat as she turned to look around the cluttered croft, taking in its disarray. "So ... when did you turn into Xander, anyway?"

The question - delivered with such deadpan timing - threatened the return of his giggles. He had to swallow hard, several times, and even then he couldn't help the aching stretch of his grin. Buffy - somewhat surprisingly, given her mood the night before - grinned back. "Sorry," she said. "Didn't mean to set you off again."

"That's - um - okay," he assured her, taking some deep breaths and wondering if the struggling fluttery wings of joy that seemed to have taken up residence in his chest would ever settle down. He threw his own glance at the undeniable evidence of his shattered life and grimaced with sudden embarrassment. "I ... probably deserve that."

"Well ..." She held the thought for a teasing minute, then lapsed into a wry smile, one that actually touched her eyes as well as her lips. "I kinda like it, actually. It's - Xander-ish, but with cross referencing. I mean - who else but you would label all this stuff in trays, and ..." She waved vaguely at the tumbled gear in the corner. "... keep a couple of broad swords in among his shovels and his fishing poles?"

He coloured a little at that. Old habits die hard. There was nothing to fear on the Sully; nothing to fear, and nothing to fight - but the swords stayed close to hand, just in case. "The - um - stuff in trays is supposed to be labelled," he explained, watching her as she began to move round the room, taking a closer look at his things. "This is my work, Buffy. Remember me telling you ... last night? About my excavations?"

"Oh. Eww," she realised, hastily putting down the shard of pottery that she'd just picked up. "You mean ... this is all dug up out of the grave stuff? Things they - they buried with the dead?"

"Exactly." He had to smile at her squeamish reaction. "It's fascinating what people thought they might need with them in the afterlife. Souvenirs of who and what they were. And, *really*," he chuckled. "I would have thought you, of all people, would be the last person to be fastidious about a little grave dirt."

Giles realised what he'd said as soon as he'd said it, and his heart contracted with a sudden jolt of guilt and pain. He hadn't meant to imply ... He'd been thinking of her as the Slayer, as the determined and courageous soul who'd dealt with vampires and ghouls and other foul things with only a moue of disgust. She was standing there, poised by his finds, her body suddenly rigid, her shoulders tense and her hands clenching convulsively. He was on his feet in seconds, instinctively reaching for her - and then held back, suddenly unsure of his right to do so, or her likely reaction to his touch. "I'm sorry, Buffy," he said, cursing himself, cursing his thoughtless, cruel words. "I - I didn't mean..."

Her eyes had closed. She flinched as he spoke, reacting as though he'd physically struck her. For one long unbearable moment she stayed that way, transfixed by memory, caught in a moment he had no way to empathise with.

"You didn't know," she murmured eventually. Her words were flat and colourless, delivered without emotion, or expression. "You couldn't know. How could you know? You weren't there. Oh, God," she gulped. Her head jerked and her eyes flew open, frantic and unfocused. "I woke up in my coffin. I - I had to - had to - claw my way out, like a vampire. Like a dead thing. Everything was too bright, too loud, too harsh. And you weren't - there!"

The joy in his heart recoiled with anguished alarm, assaulted by her protest and her pain - but he refused to let it escape. He seized hold of it instead, locking it away for safe keeping while he worked out how to deal with her distress.

"I'm ... sorry," he offered again, tentatively putting his hand to her shoulder, resting it there with wary concern. "I really am. I-If I'd known, I - I would have been there. You know I would. But I ... I- I'm here now." He didn't know what else to say. Trite phrases and words of meaningless comfort tumbled though his head and he rejected them all. Buffy didnt need platitudes. He suspected she'd already had her fill of those.

She looked down at his hand, then slowly tracked along the length of his arm and up, to meet his eyes. The bleakness in her expression slowly softened into a wan, apologetic smile. "Yes," she breathed. "I guess you are."

There was a beat, as they both considered that - and then she was pressed up against him again, wrapping him in a determined hug. One that suggested she was never going to let him go.

He didn't really have a problem with that - provided she allowed him to breath occasionally.

"Y-you know," he said with a sudden sense of insight. "It's all right for you to be angry. I-I'd be angry, if someone ... if I were ..."

"In heaven?" she offered woefully. "You can say it, Giles. It's true. I was done. I was safe. I was at peace. And they - they pulled me out without a 'by your leave' or a 'you mind if we ...'" She broke off with a sob. One that she followed with a teary sniff. "Rock bottom sucks," she decided, loosening her bearhug so that she could lean into him instead. Giles took the opportunity to take a slow breath and drag a little oxygen back into his lungs. "I mean - look at me. Pathetic much? There you were, all in the happy moment, and making with the Slayer jokes and - I just ... I just shatter into pieces. Tell me," she asked, tilting her head to look up at him with haunted eyes. "If - if you had been there? Would you have stopped them? Or would ...?"

"Would I have helped?" He wrapped her in a gentle embrace of his own, staring over her head and out through the half open door. There was a hint of winter sun glinting off the sea and the sky was pale, far paler than her eyes. He wondered how best to answer that question - and settled for a sigh of honesty. "I don't know. But I do know this," he added, pulling back a little so that he could look down at her. "If I had? I'd have made some sort of effort to find out where you were first. And bloody well dug you up, before I started casting spells."

She blinked at him. The corners of her lips twitched - and then she was burying her face in his chest again, using his sweater to muffle her own sudden attack of giggles. "Oh God," she gulped. "Giles, did I ever tell you how much I love you?"

"Uh ... well, um," he reacted, looking down at her in bemusement. "I-I think you did." The memory that sprang to mind wasn't a matter of words. It was the way she'd looked at him, that day they'd faced the knights of Byzantium - the way she'd looked when she thought he'd been about to die. It had been a desperate, distressing moment - but recollection of what she'd conveyed in that look curled a quiet smile behind his beard. "Yes, I - I seem to remember something..."

"Liar," she accused, filling the word with affection. "I don't think I did. Not really. But I do. Love you, that is." She heaved a heartfelt sigh, snuggling in as close as she could get. Which couldn't have been much closer, short of major surgery. "This is nice," she decided. "I could stay right here forever."

Giles' smile became a wry grin. He'd been thinking much the same thing himself. "I-It's an option, I suppose," he allowed, giving it a moment of not entirely serious consideration. "But ... the fire is going out, so we'd get awfully cold, and then - there is a little matter of breakfast to think about ... Not to mention lunch, and dinner and I ... I tend to get a crick in my neck if I go to sleep standing up. Besides," he added warmly, "I'd like to show you the Sully, and Isolde's altar, and the sunset from the cliff top. Maybe even take you fishing. If ... um ... you want to come, that is."

Buffy slowly and warily took a step back - not letting go, but giving herself room to look at him properly. "You'd take me ..." She took a breath and tried again. "I thought, m-maybe ..." She needed a second breath and a swallow. "You're not going to - sendmebacktoSunnydale?" The fear came out in one long rush, and he watched a note of wonder dawn in her eyes. Had she really thought he'd send her away? Or had she expected him to drag her back to the hellmouth and insist she served her destiny, no matter what?

"Buffy, I just got you back from the dead. I'm not about to send you anywhere. Not until - not unless- you want to go." A sudden flare of concern clutched at his heart. Was there something she wasn't telling him? "Do you need to go? Is Dawn in trouble? Xander in danger? Willow out of control?"

She frowned, digesting the questions and the order he'd asked them in. "No," she offered to the first, quiet and reassuring. "No," to the second, packing it with sisterly affection. "Not that I know of," to the third, which was honest, if not totally reassuring, and - finally a: "Not any more."

Not any ... It was his turn to frown, lines of concern deepening across his forehead. While Buffy was his Slayer and a part of his soul, the other members of his adopted family held just as important a place in his heart. Dawn was safe, Xander was probably being - well, Xander. And Willow ... "She did something ... unwise, didn't she?"

Buffy nodded, looking down at the floor with what looked suspiciously like guilt. "Maybe I should have seen it coming, Giles, but ... I-I just... I guess I didn't know how anymore. She was so - so proud of what she'd done. She didn't see how I was hurting. How could she? I ... couldn't tell her. I couldn't tell any of them."

He reached to tilt her chin up, a gentle, wordless demand that she look at him. Not so that he could read the pain in her eyes - since he could clearly hear that in her voice - but simply to offer her the absolution he knew she needed. Yes, she was Buffy, she was the Slayer, and she tended to hog responsibility when it came to the bad things that happened in her life - but she wasn't responsible for Willow's misjudgements, and she certainly wasn't responsible for the consequences of those misjudgements. No doubt the young witch had meant nothing but good in her determination to bring her friend back from the dead. No doubt she'd thought she had the strength to handle that kind of power.

It was just that power, being power, tended to corrupt the unwary, and lead the reckless astray.

He knew all about that sort of arrogant mistake.

"Pride," he murmured softly, "often precedes a fall. This sounds like a long story, Buffy, and I don't think you're quite ready to tell me it yet. Just ..." He paused to consider what she could tell him that would pacify the now gnawing knot of worry that was taking root in his guts. "Tell me that she's safe, she's not burned too many bridges, and that someone's taking care of her. Because I need to take care of you, and I'm not sure I can do that if I'm worrying about Willow."

Buffy stared at him, a glimmer of tears welling in her eyes. The starkness of her guilt faded, to be replaced - first by a look of anxious gratitude, and then by a small and haunted smile. "You always take care of me," she murmured softly. "I need to take better care of you ... But there's no need for you to be worry-guy," she went on, a little more briskly. "Will's ... safe. She's with Tara and - well, my part of her wish came true, so, I'm thinking - that place in Devon? Where Anya took them? That's where she'll find the help she needs."

Devon?

He knew a place in Devon; an old place, filled with quiet power and guarded by much wiser hearts than his own. Was it too much to hope that Willow, his poor, sweet Willow, had found refuge in the one place that would understand how the magic might have claimed her - and help her claim it back?

It had been too much to hope for anything lately - but he looked, and there it was, the last of Pandora's gifts, fluttering in the depths of his soul. It felt good to find it there.

The knot in his stomach loosened a little. Buffy had given him the assurance he'd asked for - but he couldn't help a raised eyebrow and an anxious quirk of his lip. There'd been a little too much information in her words - and then not quite enough. "Wish?" he prompted worriedly.

He'd half expected further guilt at his question. What he got was wry embarrassment. "Oh. Yeah. Umm ..." She looked away for a moment, then back, looking apologetic. "Remember I said - Xander left Anya?"

He nodded warily, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Well ... he did andshewentbacktothevengenancebusinessandshe'sa - demonagain althoughIdon'thinkherheart'sreallyinitsomehow." The words came out in one long rush, as though telling him quickly would let her gloss over the import of what she said. "Anyway ... after Will did ... what she did, Tarasaidshecountedashavingbenwronged and Anyaofferedherawish and IthinkshethoughtTarawouldwishWilltobearatlikeAmyor something ..." He was watching her with fascination, the rollercoaster of high drama and total soap opera that was life in Sunnydale spilling out of her at the same breakneck speed that they'd always had to live it. He hadn't forgotten it; he'd just spent time away from it - and to hear it, like this, made him feel as if, when leaving the hellmouth, he'd somehow managed to step out of life and time altogether.

Maybe he had. Time wasn't the same on the Sully. It moved at its own pace and kept its own council. It had held him suspended for what had felt like forever. And here was Buffy, bringing him back the gift of forward motion along with everything else.

He'd have to teach her how to stand still, once in a while ...

"... butthenshewishedthatWillandIcouldfindthehelpweneeded - and Anya brought me here," she concluded with a gulp for breath and another of those sheepish looks. "Well, not here, exactly, because she said she couldn't, but she brought me to that - place - yesterday, and the man brought me on his boat ..."

"Clanlarris," he offered thoughtfully. "The village - it's called Clanlarris. And the man's name is MacDougan. Dougan MacDougan. Although he's generally just known as Mac."

It was her turn to stare at him - wide eyed and disconcerted. She'd clearly hadn't been sure how he'd react - and it was equally clear that quiet calm had not numbered among the possible options. "So Anya's a demon again ..." He paused to consider all the ramifications of that. It didn't surprise him very much. Oddly enough it didn't worry him either.

She brought her back to me ...

"That's why she couldn't bring you as far as the Sully. Demons can't set foot here. Not while Isolde's blessing holds."

"Oh." Buffy frowned for a moment, and then her puzzlement cleared. "Oh yeah. So you said. Last night." He smiled at the way quiet realisation dawned on her face. Realisation ... and a sense of disconcerted wonder. "This really is sanctuary, isn't it," she breathed. "No - demons, or vampires, or anything I'd need to be all Slayer-y for ..."

"I - ah - wouldn't say that," he teased. She tensed and he quickly diffused the moment with a grin. "You - um ... rescued my boat yesterday, remember?" A sudden worried thought struck him. "You *did* rescue my boat, didn't you? It is still there?"

"Still there," she affirmed, giving him a look he'd never seen before. A soft, loving look, filled with affection and apology. "All anchored and kept safe from the storm." She stepped in close again, laying her hand, and then her head gently against his heart. "Just like me."

His arms folded around her again, holding her with reverence, with appreciation for the miracle she'd always been. "Oh, Buffy," he breathed, packing his heart into the sound of her name. They stood like that for a moment - for an eternity - and then he heaved a reluctant sigh. "You know, I really do need to do something about the fire," he said. "Fancy a cup of tea?"

The laugh she found to answer him was the sweetest sound in the entire world.

* * * * *

Dougan MacDougan stared into the teeth of the wind, guiding his boat through waters that were choppy from the unsettled weather. The grey lines of the Sully shimmered on the horizon, its crags mellowed into the sky by morning mists and the drift of winter cloud. For once, the familiar sight didn't lift his spirits; he was too worried about what he might find once he reached the island. The young woman's face had haunted him, all the way back to Clanlarris and through all the days since. He knew it was none of his business, but he hadn't been able to let it go. She had carried so much pain with her - and while the sacred island offered refuge to the hurt and the heartsick, there was a fear in his heart that she had been beyond help. Beyond all reach.

He'd cursed himself for leaving her, for not staying to see that she reached the man safely -for not making sure that there'd been someone there to take her in. And he'd prayed that, if the man had been there, their meeting would have been a welcome one, and not the cruel and bitter consequence that he feared.

He'd been witness to how fragile the man was, how close he walked to an edge no soul should ever choose to cross. He'd found refuge on the Sully, in seeking Isolde and living in her shadow - but he hadn't found healing and he hadn't found peace. Not the peace of heart he desired.

The man had seen too much, done too much; he carried it in his eyes, and it had weighted his heart, encased it in stone. Mac had felt the power in him that first day, but he'd never seen it. It was chained by his sorrow, a cloak of despair that clung to the Englishman like a shroud.

The young woman had come wrapped in that same cloth, and Mac feared that it might have been more than either could bear. If the weather had been better, he'd have been back the next day - but the sea had kept him home, and his heart had kept him awake through the long nights of winter storm, and the chill days that followed them.

There was a hint of sunlight peeking through the haze by the time he brought the boat to rest beside the tumbled quay. It gilded the tips of the Sully's peaks and sent cloud shaped shadows dancing down their slopes. The ferryman stepped off the gunwales and looped the mooring hawser around the nearest stone bollard, frowning a little as he recognised new damage wrought by the storm. The stone causeway had been there a long time - but in the end, time, wind, and weather would drag it down into the sea.

He walked down the sturdy length that remained, pausing to kiss his fingers and rest them respectfully against the keystone at the causeway's end. Its carvings had long since vanished into vague bumps and hollows, but he could trace them easily in his mind. The circle for light, the cross for sanctuary and the tree for life; Isolde's blessing, carved here many centuries ago. They were carved, too, at the base of her altar, incised there with deep and determined certainty. He'd said as much, that first day - and the man had gone to find them, turning back the raised sod that covered the stone and unearthing their freshness to the light of day.

Mac had pondered the wisdom of that; the need to discover the past and bring it, stained by time, into the present. 'We are what the past has made us,' the man had said, and then he'd sighed, a deep and weary sigh.

'Aye,' Mac had answered, 'but past is past. Where's the reason in digging it up again?'

The man had sighed a second time,more wearily than the first. 'So that we remember who we are,' he'd said. 'So that, what was done, has meaning. We should never forget. The worst possible sin is to forget ...'

Except, of course, that that was exactly what he'd wanted to do, and couldn't, and that was the burden he carried and the reason he delved into history, because the present was too hard to bear, and the future had no meaning for him. Not any more.

There were days Mac cursed his gifts, that told him too much and yet not enough to know what needed to be done.

The beach was littered with storm debris; sea washed shapes of wood, piles of deep water kelp ripped from its anchorage, the drape of a barnacle encrusted net, an unlikely twist of chain, and the occasional dead fish. Gulls were scavenging among the reek of seaweed, and his approach sent them wheeling up in protest, a flutter of wings lifting, like angels, from among the stones. Their flight obscured his view, so that he emerged, dazzled by whiteness and deafened by raucous defiance, into the space before the croft almost before he was aware he'd reached it.

Isolde was dancing on the strand.

Not the staid and sturdy saint, captured in manuscript and medieval stone; this was the true power of the Sully, a lithe and lovely thing, a creature of grace and strength, clad in white and outlined by radiant light. Her knight, her eternal defender, moved beside her - a figure dark beside her brightness, yet charged with a light all his own. For a moment, Mac looked back a thousand years or more, seeing the souls that had cleansed the Sully of an ancient evil and made it a sanctuary for all time - and then he blinked, and everything focused, and the vision was gone.

Well, not entirely. There were two figures moving on the beach; the young woman, and the Englishman. They were - the old man blinked a second time - fencing. With a pair of deadly looking swords that danced and clashed and whirled with determined delight. He'd have thought - from the first glance, from the clearly uneven nature of the match - that the man would have had the better of such a slender lass in moments. But she was holding her own. More than holding her own. She was forcing the pace and laughing with it, driving her opponent back up the beach, darting in to strike and slash with wild abandon. The man was defending himself with remarkable skill, but for all his parries and his counter blows, he could not hold his ground. He was being forced to retreat - and that finally proved his undoing.

A slip, perhaps a step on an uncertain stone, betrayed his balance; he staggered under the next blow, his sword slewing sideways, and his body hastily twisting as steel thrust forward to take advantage of the misstep. A lithe foot swept out - and the man was lying flat on his back, a sword point at his throat and the young woman grinning down at him in triumph.

"Gotcha," she crowed. "Still got it, still swinging it, *still* number one on the hill."

"Ah ..." The man was gasping for air, his lungs heaving from effort. "Quite. Umm - you - do - know," he added a little breathlessly, "that it is usual for a knight to be - gracious in - victory, as well as defeat?"

"Yeah?" She was still grinning broadly. "You yielding?"

"No," he answered matter-of-factly, threw his sword up to knock hers from her hand - and swept her feet out from under her with a remarkably agile twist of his own.

"Hey!" she protested, turning the tumble into hasty back flip that took her several feet back down the beach. "No fair!"

"Serious combat never is," the Englishman declared, easing himself up into a sitting position and wincing as he did so. "But ..." His hands went wide. "I yield. Consider that a - dying twitch."

"Not in a million years," his opponent retorted, with decided feeling. She walked back up the beach and offered him her hand to help him up. "That is, a big no to the dying thing ... where you're concerned. Twitching, I get. Just 'cos something's down, don't mean it's out. Got it."

"Good," the man smiled, brushing sand off his jeans. "I think that'll do for today, don't you? We can ... do this again tomorrow."

The young woman grinned, dipping down to recover both weapons. "Wassa matter, Watcher-mine?" she teased. "Out of practice?"

"Yes," he shot back, his voice still a little breathless. His head tipped in the old man's direction. "Besides, we have a visitor. Good morning, Mac."

"Good morn," Mac acknowledged warily. He didn't quite know what to make of the two of them - the man in his jeans and his thin dark sweater, and the woman wearing what appeared to be one of the man's white shirts, belted in around her waist. She was barefoot and bare-legged, and her hair was caught back at the nape of her neck. They both looked as if they ought to half freeze to death in the sharpness of the wind - except that he was sweating, and she was flushed and glowing.

The difference in her - in the both of them - was breathtaking.

"Oh," the young woman had reacted. "Umm ... er ... hi. Good to see you again."

"Aye," Mac agreed, looking her up and down with quiet approval. "You too, lass. 'Tis a fine sight you are for a man who'd feared to find what had become of ye. A fine sight indeed."

She looked down at herself and blushed a little. The Englishman smiled at the sight - a quietly proud, loving smile that his tangle of beard did nothing to hide. Mostly because the smile started in his eyes - and, now that that shuttered, shattered look had left them, it seemed that he had very expressive eyes.

They spoke volumes, and all without a word.

"I guess I - I worried you a little. The other day." The young woman hugged the swords to her chest, reminding him again - for a moment - of the saint he'd thought her to be. "I -"

"No lass," he interrupted gently. "There's no need for explanations. The Sully is a place that offers sanctuary, and I can see you found it here. And you," he added warmly, turning to consider the Englishman with quiet amusement. "I said you wouldna find what ye were looking for, digging in the past. Hope and healing doesn't come from a grave."

"Actually," the man said, still considering the young woman with that soft and certain smile, "that's exactly where it came from, Mac. I hope you've brought milk. Buffy drank the last of it yesterday, and I have strong objections to drinking tea made with that god awful dried stuff."

"I have it with lemon," she smirked, earning herself a momentary glare that made the old man smile. He glared just that way at his Janet when she teased him, and for much the same reason.

"Aye, well, I prefer a drop of the 'uisge beatha' myself. But that's not for the like of you, lass. And the man here - drinks one or the other, but never mixes the two."

"I should think not," the Englishman noted, sounding slightly scandalised. Mac grinned. He wasn't above a little teasing himself.

"I've the milk, the mail, the weekly shop and a few gifts for the lass," he said warmly. "I'd a mind she might be in need of a warmer thing or two, and Janet looked out some of our Morag's for me. She's- a - no need of them now."

An anxious look flitted across the young woman's face and she glanced at the man with some concern - but he smiled and nodded, knowing what lay behind that particular turn of phrase. "It can't be long, now, can it Mac? A month? Less than that? He's about to become a great grandfather," he explained, and the young woman looked relieved - and a little surprised.

"Really? I didn't think you were that old."

"Buffy." The man's admonishment was pained. "For heaven's sake. You've been spending too much time in Anya's company."

"Ah now," Mac chuckled, "there's no harm in honesty. And I'm flattered. They do say I'm as old as the hills and only a little younger than the sea. But what do folk know?"

"More than they think and less than they believe," came the answer, wrapped in quiet certainty. "Buffy, you should - um - get yourself inside. You'll catch a chill stood around like that. Mac and I can unload the boat and ... um ..."

" ... I'll go put the kettle on," she finished in mock martyrdom. Her half turn and flounce towards the croft was meant to be equally feigned high dudgeon - but she paused at the steps and turned back, the mockery and teasing replaced by a sudden and anxious concern. "You won't be long, will you?" she asked.

"No," the man assured her gently. "Not long. We'll be right back."

Her response to that was a grateful smile - albeit a slightly haunted one. "'Kay," she said and vanished into the croft, leaving the two men standing on the strand.

"She's a little ... fragile, right now," the Englishman explained. Mac nodded.

"Aye," he said. "There's a soul that's seen a storm or two. But give her safe harbour and time to repair - and she'll be ready to face even the roughest seas with confidence."
The Englishman smiled a little sadly behind his beard. "I hope so," he sighed. "I just wish she didn't have to."

They turned and walked down the beach together, the Englishman with his hands thrust into his pockets and the old man watching him from the corner of his eye. He hadn't given up his burdens, but he was carrying them with greater confidence, walking with a firmer step and standing a little straighter under their weight. Miracles happen, but rarely overnight - and there was, Mac suspected, still a long road ahead for both the man and the young woman who had sought refuge at his side. But they would be walking it together - and together, he surmised, there was very little that they wouldn't be able to overcome.

The end of a tale - or a new beginning ...

He'd wondered back then, which it was he might be witnessing. Wondered, as he ferried a pale ghost to this place of sanctity, whether he took her to her final rest, or to find a second chance at life. He knew now that it was both - and neither. That this was just a pause in a much longer tale, the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. The man at his side was the kind they used to write sagas about, back in the days when Isolde was young - and the woman? The woman, if not Isolde herself, was still cut from that same holy cloth, chosen to serve the world.

They had both been wounded in a war he had no way to measure - wounded to the heart and seared through to the soul. The Sully had given the man sanctuary - and with it, a place where she could come. A place of safety.

And now she was here, perhaps they could both begin to heal.

END