An Aussie Valentine

“But…it's Valentine's Day, and I had plans!”

“I'm sorry, Buffy, but the world ending takes precedence, I'm afraid. Besides, Valentine's Day is almost a week away.”

Buffy screwed up her nose and turned her head to look up at him. “I need time to organise, well, things, and anyway, it's so old. How many times does the world have to almost end before I'm excused?”

Giles gave her 'the look' and she subsided a little.

“So what do I have to do this time? Dance naked by the light of the full moon? Give our firstborn child to Lurconis's brother? What?

He cleared his throat. “We um…don't have a first born child, and as much as I would enjoy you dancing naked by…what was it…the light of the moon? I don't think that's quite necessary…yet.”

Buffy's eyes flashed with mischief. “Well I'll have to see what I can arrange after this latest interruption.”

Giles finally grinned. “There have rather been a number of them, haven't there?”

“Too many,” she sighed and lifted her leg for him to slide the soapy loofah up and down.
“When do we get some time for us? I mean, like more than just the weekends. Why couldn't you get a job that lets you spend more time with me instead of lecturing about dead things at Oxford?” she pouted. “We could do lunch together, even…”

Giles rolled his eyes. “I'm only filling in temporarily for a very good friend…and I lecture about Archaeology, not dead things. He grinned to himself. “I rather thought 'dead things' were *your* specialty—oof.”

“And I bet you thought that was funny,” Buffy growled, retrieving the elbow she'd dug into his ribs, hard enough to make her point but not hard enough to do any damage.

“Well, as a matter of fact…” Giles teased.

“You're starting to hit below the belt way too often,” she complained then made a noise that became a little gasp as his hand slid over her hip and disappeared into the soapy water.

“That's not what I meant,” she purred. “You don't play…fair.”

“Sorry,” he said, grinning at the second little gasp he'd caused, and not in the least contrite.

“Are you going to tell me what this new Apocalypse-y thing is about or not?”

“Eventually,” he murmured, shifting position slightly and moving his arms to encircle her protectively. “I'm rather sick of impending doom, myself.”

Buffy leaned her head back against his damp shoulder, nestling in the hollow of it and sighing. “When do we get time for us? I mean, it's not like I've got forever to do the 'us' thing…” She trailed off.

Giles sighed heavily and tightened his embrace. “We'll make time. You've created a great many firsts as the slayer. You're just going to have to create a few more. I might…actually…eventually want to…”

Buffy raised herself a little and twisted in his arms so that she was kneeling between his knees and resting her arms around his neck.

“Might actually want to…what?” She prompted, knowing that he was feeling a little ahead of himself and not willing to let him get away with changing his mind about this one.

He touched her face. “Take you to Disneyland,” he offered blandly, and got his arm slapped for his trouble.

“Ow,” he complained. “Bully.”

“Yeah,” she breathed, catching his lips and kissing him slowly and passionately. “I'm a big bully.”

“Complete thug,” he agreed, kissing his way to her throat.

“Might actually want to what…?” She persisted between groans.

Giles drew back enough to kiss her parted lips again. “Might actually want to do something about that firstborn child one of these days,” he told her huskily.

A part of Buffy glowed with pleasure, but she didn't let him see. “Isn't there a flaw in your chronology there? See, I can do big words too, these days. I mean, I'm thinking, like a ring here and there, so my mother doesn't come back and haunt your ass off, for example?”

He used a forefinger to paint her nose with bubbles. “I have every intention of getting the order correct,” he assured her then paused to look at her lovely form. “Though strictly speaking…”

They looked at each other and their surroundings and both chuckled.

“I think I'm going to like being a Giles,” she said dreamily. “You've never mentioned Slayers getting married…”

For a moment the atmosphere grew very tense. Eventually Giles broke the silence.

“It has happened…once or twice, long ago…but in the past, particularly back then, such fraternization was frowned upon and the distraction inevitably lead to the death of the Slayer…”

Buffy leaned forward enough to rest her brow against his. “I'm not going to get distracted. I've had lots of practise, remember: Owen, Angel, Scott, Angel again, Parker, Riley for God's sake, and, well, after I came back…I managed to slay, bungle my finances *and* my sister's upbringing, not to mention sling burgers…all without getting killed. I even managed to squeeze another major mistake of the vampire kind in there pretty much for the duration…and I'm still here.”

He let his hands slide up and down her back comfortingly. “I know all that, but there's still the matter of history. We will have to make our own. We must…” His voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

It made Buffy shiver. She took his face in her soapy hands. “We will. You and me…what evil, big or little, ever had a chance against both of us, together?”

His eyes grew warm and he half smiled, turning his face to kiss one of her palms. “Silly girl,” he chided, but Buffy could hear the agreement and the love in his voice just before her head bent and they once again became lost in a world of two.


*******

“I still don't see why we couldn't just phone them and get them to FedEx them to us or something. Why do we have to sit on our butts for twenty-something hours in a plane?”

Giles wheeled the overladen baggage cart to the check-in counters and sighed at the multiple queues.

“Because they can't just give them to us. There are…conditions.”

“Conditions? Of which you haven't told me before now, because…?”

He ducked his head and moved the trolley forward in the queue as it snaked slowly toward the counter.

“Um, mostly because I wanted to actually get on the plane,” he admitted reluctantly.

“Give, Rupert,” she growled.

Giles' shoulders tightened defensively. Buffy rarely called him Rupert unless she was being particularly adversarial or very annoyed.

“Well, um, you…we…have to pass several tests, and we have to be deemed acceptable recipients of the stones.”

Aware of the proximity of the other passengers, Buffy kept her voice as low as his had been.

“Why do there always have to be stones or amulets or charms or spells or…why can't we, just for once, have an Apocalypse where all I have to do is fight this one great big bad guy, who just happens to have a couple of handy weaknesses…I mean, if it's good enough for Nintendo, why not the Slayer?”

“There just does,” Giles told her reluctantly. “The Isgoth Stones are incredibly old. Perhaps as old as the Slayer line, itself—”

“So why aren't we going to Africa? Everything else about the origin of the Slayer seems to be there…”

“Because the stones are in Australia.”

“Why?”

“Because they were carried there a thousand years ago.”

“I thought it was discovered after us…I mean, you know: Columbus et al.”

He tilted his head to one side. “The original inhabitants have been there for perhaps fifty thousand years or more, but none of this is relevant. It wasn't carried there by conventional means.”

“Duh,” Buffy muttered, realising that she'd let herself slip too much into a conventional mindset, because everything about preparing for the trip had been…normal… and fun, especially buying new clothes and revolutionising Giles' wardrobe for the trip. Being together was beyond wonderful…but it was dangerous. Giles was right. She was going to have to work doubly hard at staying alert. “My bad. I should have realised some big time mystical type was involved. We're talking said ancient 'somebody' zipping around the globe like Super!Magick!Giles when you rescued us from Evil Willow, right?”

“Something like that,” he agreed, amused by her terminology but growing more uncomfortable with their very public discussion. “The bottom line is that we have to go. I thought you'd appreciate a brief escape after all this time…”

“Yeah, well…I guess Will packs enough serious mojo now for any emergency. And I trust Xander to watch over Dawn while I'm gone. Especially since last I heard Spike was staying in Los Angeles, at least for the time being…”

Giles made a studied point of being entirely not interested in that news. “Are you going to fuss and fret for the whole trip, or are we going to try and enjoy as much of it as possible?” he asked, a little too quietly.

Buffy sobered, just as their turn came to step up to the counter. “I swear I'll love very single minute that I have you all to myself,” she promised as he handed over their paperwork and passports and piled their main luggage on the scale. “But I'm not fighting any crocodiles. That's Faith's baby, not mine. I have no intention of fighting anything with that many teeth and a brain that tiny.”

The middle-aged woman checking in their bags and doing their boarding passes looked up for a moment, her eyes moving curiously from one to the other, before dropping again when it became apparent that there would be no explanation for the bizarre conversation.

Buffy and Giles looked at each other and then had to hold in their respective chuckles and struggle to make straight faces before facing the counter again.

Buffy took little notice of the boarding passes as they headed off to find some coffee while they waited for their boarding call.

“You know, since I got to experience the joys of mystical travel to get to here in the first place…which, emergency or no emergency…let me say: not again in this lifetime…
definitely channelling Doctor McCoy, here…I've only actually travelled on a plane once before: in Coach…to see my Aunt in Cleveland. I didn't like it much. Too boring, too claustrophobic, no food and I got in trouble for pushing the paging button.”

“May one ask how old you were?”

“Five,” she told him.

The opening yawned. Giles resisted. “You will enjoy yourself this time.”

“If you say so.” She frowned at the café-style menu. “No mocha latté,” she grumbled as a waitperson arrived.

“Cappuccino,” Giles ordered, “and raisin toast.”

“Um…just a latté,” Buffy added.

When the bored young woman had moved on to another table, Buffy looked at him again and entwined her fingers in his.

“How could I not enjoy myself? An entire week of twosome-ness: not only still no annoying little sister, but no patrols, no endless parade of new slayers to worry about, and no Oxford monopolising my guy. That has to be worth a couple of tests…which reminds me…”

Giles sighed heavily, but returned a squeeze of her fingers before finally answering her question. “Basically a ritual test, where you'll be required to prove your worthiness as the Slayer. And we will both have to prove that we're worthy of being given guardianship of the stones.”

“And how prey do they expect us to do that?” She drawled, not as unfazed as she was trying to look.

“I haven't the faintest idea,” he said dryly. That part is really up to the Elder.”

“The Elder? Like a tribal elder? Tell me there are no sharp objects or disrobing of any kind involved in any of these rituals…”

Giles chuckled. “Not exactly. No.” He didn't elaborate.

First class on the Qantas jumbo was really something: just fourteen…very roomy…seats with a lot of space in between.

“I'm never travelling Coach again,” Buffy announced as she happily poked around, discovering there were no trays because they were stowed in the arm rest, and that the funny catches low on the front of the centre console were there to secure small television screens that swung out and up on arms so that a passenger had his own little TV for the flight.

“You can't leave that out now,” Giles told her, fastening his seatbelt and positioning his cushion in the small of his back.

Buffy folded the screen back into its slot. “Duh, Giles. Even in Coach you get the speech…place your trays in an upright…yadda yadda. This is so cool. Does it cost much?”

“You don't really want to know,” he told her, amused.

“That much, huh?”


*******

“Are we there yet?”

“You're doing that on purpose.”

“I'm bored.”

“Your movie isn't entertaining?”

Buffy looked down at the screen. “Robin Williams playing a weirdo, scary loner. Nope, I don't think so. I was looking for the funny, not the seriously disturbing. Maybe I'll go to the bathroom again.”

Giles shook his head. “It's only twenty hours, not forty. You even slept for six hours on the first leg. By my calculations we are only about two hours out from Sydney. Be patient. It won't be much longer.”

She snuggled close and ran a finger along his jaw. “We could join the mile high club...” She leaned over and looked at his screen. “Which has to be better than whatever that is. What is that?”

“A cooking show; a British cooking show. It's called 'Two Fat Ladies'. They're amusing and entertaining and they cook food the way my mother used to…before everything became low-fat and no taste…at least they did, until the smaller one passed away…”

“AS I was saying,” she reiterated, blocking old ladies riding motorbikes, artery hardening, mouth-watering cooking, and food in general from her thoughts.

He grinned. “As enticing as the concept might be in theory and in one's fantasies, I'm afraid I'm far too old…not mention too large…to indulge in the kind of contortions required to perform in one of those restrooms, and I am most certainly not going to make love to you in these seats, no matter how good, under a wholly inadequate blanket.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Spoilsport.”

“Wait until we've landed,” he said in a tone that sent a small thrill down her spine.

She suddenly realised something. “You didn't say where we'd be staying tonight. Are we going straight through to wherever this test is going to be held or checking in to somewhere decadent to rest first?” She uncurled and stretched in meaningful fashion.

“Wait and see,” he said smugly, and popped the right earphone back into his ear.


*******

Buffy leaned against Giles' arm as they wandered down the jet-way, or air-bridge, as the Aussies called it. “You know, I could get used to this First Class stuff. Not having to wait for, like, three hundred people to get off first, is even better than the roomy seats and the linen dinner service.”

“Well, don't get too used to it. This is, more or less, a business trip. We're not always going to be able to travel in such luxury.”

Buffy happily allowed Giles to handle customs and baggage, since it seemed almost second nature to him, and followed him through the final area, pleased that they were able to pass through the 'nothing to declare' lane while eyeing the growing queue on the other side. It was going to be heaven to get out of the terminal and back into the real world. The oppressiveness of the heavy security surrounding all flights and the sheer length of the trip were mind-numbingly tedious and boring: a boredom extended slightly while Giles did the paperwork and picked up the keys for their rental car, a process considerably longer than Buffy expected it to be, putting her in a predictably irritable mood by the time they headed out.

They emerged into bright sunshine and picked their way through to the bays of rental cars, until Giles found the one that corresponded to the number on his paperwork.

She grinned happily. Having passed row after row of ordinary small and medium sized cars, they came to a halt in front of a red convertible BMW.

“Nostalgia?”

Giles nodded, smiling to himself. “I had to go through four rental agencies before I found one. I hope you approve.”

She turned and threw her arms around his neck. “Totally. I'm sorry I've been such a bitch since we landed. It's just…I'm tired…and not just from the trip. I'm just…you know…*tired*.”

He nodded. “I know. We both are. It has been a long journey for both of us these last few years, and neither of us has been allowed to rest, not even now that the world is full of Slayers.”

“Least of all now,” she said into the curve of his throat. “Just for a little while I'd like us to just be…*us*. I'd even like us to actually talk about stuff…I-I think I'm ready even to talk about Evil!Buffy and what that was all about, you know?”

Giles looked down at her for a long moment, contemplating her expression, the wistfulness in her voice. They'd come a long way, and although they'd had some superficial discussions…even arguments…as well as numerous spontaneous declarations of apology about the things that had happened to, not to mention between, both of them after Buffy's resurrection and during the battle against the First, neither had been willing to truly address their deepest wounds, for fear of endangering their unexpected and fledgling relationship. The moment in London, when they'd been working together to bring in a particularly difficult potential Slayer, and both realised they really didn't want to go back to separate hotel rooms, had been as low-key as the realisation that they not only loved each other dearly, but were *in* love, had been world-and-mind shattering.

Finally, he nodded and let a ghost of a smile touch his lips, before turning his head slightly to press them to her temple. “When it's time,” he said softly, “we'll deal with all of it.”

*******

“You know, we've passed about four hotels already,” Buffy observed as they moved with the traffic, on the still unfamiliar, for Buffy, left-hand side of the road.

“True, but I didn't really think you'd want to stay anywhere with a view of Sydney Airport, as impressively clean and ordered as it looks, compared to some.”

“Do I need to navigate?” She asked as Giles took a turning that had a sign indicating a number of weirdly named suburbs, but nothing resembling the word 'Sydney'.

“Not unless you want to. I studied the route in the street directory, while you were asleep.”

Soon after that Buffy felt into a fitful doze until they reached the city proper and Giles mentioned as much in a voice calculated to rouse her. She looked around blearily at the car filled streets and collection of heritage and brand-new architecture.

“Kinda small for the country's capital.”

“It's not the capital. The capital is Canberra. Bloody Americans.”

Buffy poked out her tongue. “I still expected it to be bigger.”

“Doesn't need to be. Part of its charm is in its blend of old and new, masonry and trees…and of course, the sea.”

“Aussies are big with the trees…and the grass,” she observed as they skirted a park with huge trees and a big war memorial, people sitting on park seats and on the grass, and lots of seagulls and other weird, black-headed birds wandering around, which Giles informed her were a type of ibis.

“We keep passing hotels,” she mused. “We're not going to the 'Y', are we?”

“Very funny,” he drawled as they stopped at yet *another* set of lights and the ubiquitous gaggle of pedestrians straggled across the road. “Patience.”

As it turned out Buffy only had to wait a few more minutes before they turned into the elegant entrance of their hotel. None-the-wiser as to why this particular hotel, other than the looming presence of both the Opera house and the bridge, she followed Giles inside after he spoke to the doorman, signed something, and handed him the keys. After all the time they'd spent on the road in England, she was used to the whole drill and not even particularly distracted by the impressive décor of the lobby, only bone-weary and looking forward to relaxing. She asked no questions until they were alone in the elevator. Even then there were no words, just silently turning to look up at her lover, who smiled down tenderly and responded to the invitation in her eyes, gathering her in his arms and kissing her lingeringly as the lift continued to climb.

The room was several levels more splendiferous than Buffy expected, based on the hotels they'd stayed in driving across Europe. She looked up at Giles and quirked an eyebrow as the baggage arrived, pushed into the room on a cart and off-loaded by a laid-back looking bellboy…or whatever the local equivalent was.

He indicated the window. “There's a balcony,” he said, before turning to thank the young man and offer him a tip.

Buffy drew the curtains back and slid open the glass door. The view took her breath. Now she began to understand what it was about Sydney. No city had a right to this kind of beauty. Cities were, in her experience, either old and cramped like the European ones, or concrete jungles, like a lot of American cities: stark and often cold and dirty, especially in the dead of night when she generally got a chance to experience them...

In the bright summer sunshine, the harbour was almost painfully blue, fringed by a mixture of buildings and trees and dotted everywhere with sailboats, powerboats, even a hydrofoil or two. Nearby there was a plaza area around the water with people wandering to and fro, but it was the harbour itself that captured her…peaceful, beautiful and oblivious to darkness, chaos and the kind of pain they were both still emerging from.

Her eyes grew very bright as she continued to watch the ordinary, uncomplicated, movement of life…all of which continued without fire falling from the sky, demons suddenly springing up from nowhere, or friends dying around her…or people knocking on her door to tell her the world was about to end, yet again.

Eventually she felt his presence behind her and leaned back against the rock that was her lover, friend, and mentor. “Are we ever going to be allowed to be like them? Will it ever end?”

He slid his arms around her and drew her even closer, resting his chin comfortingly on her hair.

“I don't really think I need to answer that. We can, however, make our own small oases of peace and even happiness, if we want it badly enough.”

At that Buffy freed herself from his embrace and turned to face him. “You still have doubts?”

He shook his head. “Do you?”

Her expression was serious. “None. For the first time in my life, there are no qualifiers. Just…none…whatsover.”

He answered with a slow growing smile then bent his head for a long, sweet kiss, before sweeping her up, giggling, and carrying her the short distance to the bed, where he kissed her into silence again. Clothes fell away with the ease of lovers who know each other too well, and caresses fanned flames their tired bodies weren't ready to embrace.

After yet another passionate kiss, Buffy lifted her head and looked down into the now smoky green eyes.

“Much as I love you, I can't do this without at least a week's sleep, preferably after a long shower. Do you know how long it is since we last showered?”

He rolled his eyes at her and caressed long strands of tangled blonde hair away from her eyes. “Are you insinuating that I smell?”

She giggled. “We probably both do. Come with me?”

The bathroom was luxurious, the bath king-sized, but Buffy was intent on a shower, the longer, the better. Giles followed her under the generous blast of steaming water and drew her back against his chest, both their heads getting very wet. They closed their eyes and let the heat permeate tired and still-kinked bodies from hours of sitting in the same position, or trying to sleep in their seats on the plane despite all the modern comforts.

When they finally stirred, Buffy turned to slide her arms around him and lay her cheek against his chest.

“God, I'm tired. I wish we could just go somewhere…just you and me…and all we'd have to do is eat and sleep and make love. No fighting, no evil, no pain…no planes, even…just the two of us…together.

“As we are right now?” He asked softly, caressing the shell of her ear with his lips.

She groaned and turned to arch her back against him again. “Kinda…if there weren't any special stones or elders or rituals waiting around the corner…”

Giles' fingers played expertly over the lithe body, finding all of her favourite spots, small, sensitive places, behind a breast, near her ears, in the sensitive skin of her wrists, before finally cupping the creamy flesh of her full breasts, unable to resist a smile of pleasure that her figure had returned to its former glory, the fashion imperative to starve to the point of emaciation and flat chest, thankfully no longer in vogue. He'd missed that about her…the healthy fullness and curves of a womanly body…one she had once been more than amply blessed with and which he hoped she'd want to retain enough now to take rather more care of herself. With a Slayer metabolism, night air and frozen yoghurt simply weren't enough…

“Mmm…you trying to wake me up?” she growled.

He smiled. “If I was awake myself, I might be able to answer that question,” he replied ruefully.

Buffy turned, ignoring the lusty blast of spray, and snuggled against him, enjoying the strong bands that were his arms closing around her once again.

“You are so in trouble when we wake up,” she sighed, and felt the movement of his chest as he chuckled and reached for their towels.

They slept deeply for several hours longer than they intended and woke to a breath-taking sunset.

True to her word, Buffy moved over her lover and kissed him awake, amused to see the confusion in his eyes as they focused.

“Afternoon.”

He squinted at the gap in the curtains, and the fiery sky beyond. “Apparently. Or later,” he agreed and shifted to make the contact between them even more intimate. “To what, um, do I owe the pleasure of your,” his hands slid down her back, “company?”

“Would you believe I'm here to repossess your car?”

His hands continued to roam. “Hmm…not remotely.”

Buffy groaned and arched. “Avon calling?”

He snickered and ran the tip of his tongue around the inner shell of her ear, making the groan into a whimper as well.

“Would you believe I'd just like you to have these two free magazines…?”

He slapped her rump playfully and rolled her over before kissing her until she could barely breathe. Soon she was kissing him back with the same ferocity, making his nerve endings surge as her Slayer drive called to him in that most primitive of ways.

When he responded, their lovemaking exploded into a frenzy of mutual demand, each of them starving for every touch, every taste of each other, diving in at will to drive each other mad with tongues and fingertips and lips, until finally Buffy moved to take Giles in her mouth, hungrily devouring him to the point where he was vocalising enough to make her bless the sound proofing.

He arched his back as the velvet lips once again closed in vice like fashion to move up and down his length in torturous provocation, and growled low and deep in his throat, making Buffy, who knew what was coming next, smile.

In moments he'd lifted her and thrown her back against the mattress as he moved between her thighs. Her body surged in anticipation as strong hands slid around her hips to cup firm globes and pull her hips forcefully up to meet his desire. She opened herself even wider and cried out her wanton pleasure as his rock hard member unerringly found and imbedded itself in her heat, and her thighs closed possessively around him.

They both began to move then, matching each other's desire and abandoning themselves to the wild, animal pleasure of it, coupling and uncoupling, licking, kissing, touching, and coupling again, until finally Buffy moved from Giles' expert tormenting of her sex, to her knees, moving them slightly apart as she laid her head on the bed and slid her hands back over her buttocks, smiling at his raggedly indrawn breath and the feel of his fingers irresistibly drawn to touch and to trail over her tender, beautifully displayed…just for him…flesh. Then it was her turn to gasp as, without warning, he shifted, his tongue sliding across her opening and up to caress her throbbing centre.

He smiled at the sound as he straightened and moved to slide back inside her, barely able now to hold back the tide, as she immediately thrust back against him, demanding wantonly to service and be serviced. It was time. Kneading the soft creamy curves, he began to move faster and faster, driven by her calls, and the wild gyrations of her body as he pounded into her.

In front of him, Buffy's conscious mind had taken a sabbatical, leaving her aware of little else but the overwhelming pleasure and wantonness that was surging through her, the feel of her lover taking her in such a way, the crazy-making stimulation of his manhood slamming against her heat as they struggled together towards ecstasy. She shifted her hips one last time to change the angle just enough to…

Then all conscious thought fled once again.

“Oh...Oh God, Giles! Please, yes…oh…” The rest of her sentence lost in inarticulate gasps, she writhed frantically as wave after wave of exploding pleasure rolled out from the deepest core of her being, and hurled outward through every nerve ending in her body…

Giles roared as she began to spasm, the sound of ecstasy in her cries and the sensations of her pleasure bringing his own orgasm from his toes…The world went red as he arched violently into her still writhing, still demanding, body, and came over and over until he was breathless.

Finally, he kissed her shoulder blade, prompting her, as always, to turn over and snuggle into his chest as he lay beside her and passed a handful of hotel tissues. They stayed curled together for a long time, content, as ever, after their lovemaking, but also ever in awe of the power of their shared passion.

Giles had always known that Slayers had extraordinary sex-drives when unleashed, but until Giles, Buffy had never found a Human lover who could match the Slayer, power for power and need for need. It took her breath away…to know that she could truly love… truly want…someone without ever having to deny who she was again.

Buffy followed her final thought through and pushed up on to one elbow so she could look at his face. His hair was a mess from her fingers dragging through it, and she played with it idly while studying the face and the eyes looking back up at her.

“What?”

“Just trying to convince myself it isn't a dream. That, not only am I so happy it's almost weird, but you're happy. Giles, I never talked about it before, but I never believed I could make anyone truly happy. In case you hadn't noticed, everything I touched in the last seven years either broke, died or turned evil.”

He traced the curve of her throat with a forefinger. “Well, I don't seem to be in danger of doing any of those things…though that position earlier, where…”

“Giles!” she giggled. “I never would have thought you were that flexible either. I was impressed…” Her face gradually grew serious again. “But you know what I meant.”

“I know,” he said softly. “And for the most part, I know why. You are only just beginning to discover who you really are, to understand that you are not defined by someone else…but by what is in you to be.”

“But…Spike…” She blurted, unable to stop herself.

His expression grew dark, but his eyes remained gentle. “Yes. Spike.”

She shrugged. “At first I just wanted the emptiness to stop…then…what he said I was…what he wanted…the darkness…the rage…it just all came out and I almost let it take me. It scared me but he...he loved it…”

“Of course,” he said quietly, easing himself into a sitting position, so that Buffy also sat back. “It was his essence…and his triumph: reshaping you into his perfect mate…pulling you…pulling the Slayer…ever further from the light…and the truth.”

She frowned. “Maybe talking about Evil!Buffy wasn't such a good idea, after all. I mean: he got a soul, Giles…”

“When he realised he couldn't hold you any other way. You were an obsession, Buffy. And you mistook that for…well…you thought he could give you something the demon in that body could never truly give anyone. When he thought there was no other way to 'win' as it were, he did the only thing he could, played the only card he had left…but don't ever think he did it for anyone but himself. And he proved over and over that in essence he was little better afterward than he was before.”

“Except at the end,” she said tonelessly, indicating to Giles that she still hadn't really come to terms with that part of her life.

“Yes. Except for the end. At some point in our lives we will all have a choice like his…granted perhaps not quite as spectacular…to make. In a no win scenario he made the only choice I would expect Spike to make. In point of fact, when he accepted the amulet from you he didn't even know that he would be making the ultimate sacrifice, only that being the 'champion' would impress the hell out of you.”

She closed her eyes momentarily against that particular item. “But we did win.”

“He didn't. Ultimately, either way, he couldn't have you. Either he didn't use the amulet…or let it use him…and you died with everyone else that day…and he loses, or else…”

She frowned. “He does…did. Same result. I get what you're saying, but he was…he did have good in him. I know he did. That's why I—”

“Why you supported him even when the rest of us believed you were very wrong?”

She looked away. “He had a soul.”

“He's not Angel, Buffy,” Giles said quietly, but the words rang through the elegant room.

Her eyes flicked up to his.

Giles sighed. “Your only way of dealing with what Angel was…what he is…and what he did to you…to all of us…when he was turned again…was to hold on to the belief that his soul sets him apart…somehow makes him truly human and not demon, and therefore worthy. But even Angel is not human, and Spike is not Angel. Angel spent almost a century defining his 'humanity' if you like, and evolving into the person we know…the person I…w-we trusted. And he did that despite being ensouled, basically against his will, twice. Spike, on the other hand, showed vanishingly little progress after he got his soul back, despite every opportunity to demonstrate otherwise. You were, in effect, still his only agenda. ”

“I-is that why you helped Robin?”

He stared at her for a long moment. “I want you to think, Buffy, and then I want you to tell me why I did what I did that day.”

She stared at him for a long moment, then dropped her gaze. “Well it *was* kind of stupid to tell me about it while we were patrolling.” She bit her lip and looked him in the eye. “At the time I thought you'd given up on me. I thought …”

“That I betrayed you,” he said softly.

Buffy nodded. “Now…now I know you didn't…give up on me I mean…but I don't…” She seemed to drift away for a long moment, then return suddenly. “You weren't doing it to punish him. You were doing it to protect the others. You thought I was going to screw up again,” she announced, her tone half annoyed, half surprised at how easy it was to see now, so long after the event, things she should have seen a long time ago…

“Partly,” he conceded. “In simple terms Spike was a time bomb with no possible way to defuse him. Eliminating him was not the only option at the beginning…but it became the only one when you refused to even consider the safety of your sister and everyone else around you. That situation need never have occurred if you had made different choices.”

“Story of my life,” she muttered. “I did what I thought was best at the time. I grant you, some of those decisions seem incredibly stupid now, but I thought…I thought…”

“You thought what? That the First's trigger would go away by itself?” He half-snapped: the first indication that his patience was beginning to falter, or that the scars were still way too raw.

Buffy's eyes flicked up to his, both anger and regret in them. For a beat it looked as though she was going to yell back at him, but they'd played that scene before, each pouring out the months of unresolved anger and disappointment in each other, knowing that they could not move into an intimate relationship without it. She never wanted to go back to that place…of yelling, rage, and hurting…again.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” she said slowly, in vaguely Gump-ish intonation. “I don't know why I thought I could take care of it, or that he could control it. The more I think about it now the more it makes my head hurt. We…you and me…we hurt each other a lot after I came, y'know, *back*, thanks to Will…most of which we've already talked about, I know,” she added quickly. “But I don't have to be Einstein to know that in some ways it way worse for you last year, and that it was my fault. The sad part about it is I have no idea why, other than at the time…after you took Willow back to England, and things started to change…then the First…I felt like I was totally on my own…like I just couldn't stop…couldn't see what was happening to me…to all of us. I was so *blind*. I must have the I.Q. of a Cheeto.”

Giles slid an arm around her shoulders and drew her close as she rested her head against throat.

“I think we proved with your SATs that you're not *quite* an idiot, regardless of the empirical evidence,” he said, deadpan.

“Remind me to get you for that later,” she muttered against his warm skin. “I did get pretty close, though, didn't I?”

He sighed a long, meaningful sigh. “You are certainly capable of much better judgement than you showed through that period.”

“The only good judgement I've shown since Mom died was trusting you…”

Giles opened his mouth to remind her bitterly about the gaping flaws in her statement, and paled instead.

When he returned to Sunnydale after her resurrection, she had, indeed, trusted him implicitly…until he walked away. The reason for his departure was one issue they'd avoided dealing with almost completely after their relationship had changed. Even before that, the only real acknowledgement of the strong feelings she had about that time had been occasional jokes and sarcastic comments. The notion that her hurtful subsequent rejections of him during the fight against the First might have been born out of…

“You didn't trust my judgement in leaving,” he finally ventured, aloud.

“You were wrong,” she said quietly. “So wrong.”

“Was I? Was I, really? Do you really think you'd have stayed away from Spike if I hadn't left? I believe Angel is an example of how well that works. In all likelihood the difference would have been that I would have become Dawn's full-time keeper and you would have continued to rely upon me financially while still pursuing that…that…”

Buffy's face was sullen as she pulled away. “You know, I hate how we always seem to do this…every time something's really, really, good, we seem to end up back in the same place again.”

It was Giles' turn to look away. “Perhaps because, like infection, if the hurt's not entirely excised, it won't heal.”

Her shoulders dropped then. “Yeah, I know. And it's really my fault we're talking about it, anyway. I was the one who said I was ready to talk. It's just…” She turned her head back to meet his gaze. “It's just…it's not like there's any high ground for me, outside of the job. When I came back, I was horrible…and I kind of stayed that way. I know that. I just…I just couldn't deal and then I didn't want to…and…have you ever felt like you dug yourself in so deep in something that you're never going to get out, so you get mad, and you hurt people, and you do stupid things…anything except admit that you're wrong?”

The soft green eyes turned as dark as stormy ocean and his expression became very distant. “Oh yes,” he said softly.

Her expression changed from open curiosity to comprehension.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Not long enough to forget how it felt.”

“And it doesn't make what I did right.”

“No, it bloody well doesn't,” he agreed sharply. “I had hoped you'd never be that damned stupid…but you may have surpassed even my youthful idiocy.”

“Oh you don't know the half of it,” she was surprised into shooting back.

He didn't look up. “If you're talking about 'the incident' with Spike…I already know.”

Buffy lost all colour. “You never said…who told you?”

“It doesn't matter,” he said quietly, but the steel in his voice spoke volumes about his true feelings on the subject. “Did it teach you nothing?”

Her fists clenched. “Obviously not enough.”

“No. Not enough.” He finally looked up at her. “I almost stopped believing in you.”

Buffy looked as though she'd been hit in the stomach. “A-almost?” She whispered.

He nodded. “When you chose him…again…over all of us, despite…I couldn't respect you anymore. And later I couldn't even like you anymore…”

The moisture slid down her cheeks. “So what stopped you from going all the way? Everyone else stopped believing in me. You even let them kick me out of my own house.”

His large hands closed tightly. “I thought it would make you realise exactly what you were doing. What you'd become. Of course it was ludicrous for Dawn, or any of the others, to be expelling you from your own home, but who better to make you face yourself, and the consequences of your actions? You certainly wouldn't have listened to me.”

“I was doing what I thought was right. With the safety of the world at stake, I didn't think *we*… you, me, the others, mattered a damn, only the mission.”

“You thought Spike mattered…and was apparently all that mattered…more even than any of us…more even than your own sister,” he said quietly. “At every turn.”

Buffy opened her mouth, but no words came out. After several beats she exhaled with a great weariness of soul, unable to argue with the bitterness in his voice.

“My instincts were right,” she said quietly, dragging a hand over her face. “We needed him. No matter how much of a bitch I was, or how stupid, I was right.” The errant moisture, untidy and uncontrolled, continued to obscure her view.

Giles' voice trembled. “You didn't trust us. You didn't trust me…but you were willing to put your life…*your life*, and everyone else's, in the hands of that…that vampire!”

Buffy blinked and scuffed more dampness from her eyes and her cheeks. The silent rage in his voice…a kind of incredibly controlled emotional violence, stunned her.

“T-trust? Trust who? *Willow*?” She shot back through her teeth. “The SITs? Dawn? Or maybe you mean my loyal protector…?” Her voice continued to harden, and then to shake with anger. “The guy who was sworn to me until I died the usual grisly Slayer death…you know him…the guy who said he'd never leave me…the one who used to lecture me about *my responsibility*, *my destiny*?”

And then the slender shoulders dropped and her voice dropped almost to a murmur. “The one who took one look at the train wreck Willow dragged out of that coffin and caught the first plane to as far away as possible.” Her voice shifted from hardened anger to plain hurt and misery. “Why, Giles?”

Giles didn't move for a long moment, then he spoke quietly, flatly. “I couldn't do it any more.” He held up a silencing hand when Buffy made a disbelieving sound and moved to ask the obvious question. “I was tired. How many years had we been together?” He tried to half smile and failed. “And then I lost you…my Buffy.”

“But I came back,” she whispered.

He nodded. “You came back. There you were…and yet…”

Buffy frowned. “I-I don't…?”

“The girl I found…the one Willow had so cruelly plucked from her rest…was not the Buffy I lost.” His knuckles were white with the effort to get those words out.

Grey-green eyes widened in shock. “I'm not…you don't think I'm the real Buffy Summers?”

His gaze locked with hers. “I think a part of you was lost and that it took a very, very long time for you to find her again.”

Her eyes flashed. “You thought I was broken, so you left?”

Irritation creased his features. “Did it ever occur to you that so many years of putting the pieces back together, of being picked up and discarded by the lot of you on a whim, was more than enough for any man? I thought nothing could break my heart as much as Willow's utter contempt, but watching you essentially give up…watching you slip away…again…watching you drifting toward that…that…” He looked away.

“You knew.” It was a statement, quiet but definitive.

He nodded. “Even then. Rather well equipped to recognise the signs, actually.”

The reference to Angel was quite pointed, but Buffy chose to ignore it. “You want me to say I'm sorry again? You don't get any more messed up than I was. I hated being dragged back…I hated what they did to me…so much so that I nearly went under. Most of all I hated how alone I was…after. Not to mention…everything was such a damned mess. Willow…don't get me started on Willow, and Dawn…” She shook her head. “I dig myself out of my own grave to find out all the money's gone, my sister is a mess, you're nowhere to be found and my so-called friends can't even look me in the eye because of what they did, *but*…and get this…I was supposed to be grateful…thrilled, even, that they helped me out of heaven and into a buried coffin. The one person who actually understands how I feel…who actually *gets* it because…hey, been there…and wants to be there for me, and isn't judging me, and you want me to tell him to take a hike? Yeah, the old Buffy would have kicked his butt, but hey…not the old Buffy, remember? Besides, apparently I was so broken I wasn't even the 'real' Buffy, anyway,” she added, throwing his words back at him, “which is why I guess everyone, even you, bailed on me.”

“That's not fair.” The words were torn from him. “When I came back after…after…” He swallowed. “I tried to reach out to you. I did everything…everything to try to help you, to connect with you…and all you did was walk away. It was as though I didn't exist.”

She shrugged. “Giles, I was a rutabaga. When you came back my nightly entertainment was re-runs of waking up buried alive in a very dark box six feet under the ground, and my life was in chaos. Nobody was helping me. I was supposed to deal, to raise Dawn, magic up money out of thin air…even get the house fixed, all by myself. My God, Willow even wanted me to worship her for bringing me back…for leaving me in that box…” Her voice shook. “Total rutabaga,” she repeated. “If you *were* my mother, it probably still wouldn't have been any different. Didn't you ever feel so empty…like nothing mattered anymore…like there was no point…that just waking up in the morning was a punishment, without having to get through another day as well?”

He looked at her helplessly.

She shook her head. “I wanted to let go, to go back…I just wanted to make it all go away. But I had to keep trying to deal…over and over until I thought I was going to go insane. So what if I leaned too hard on you? Everyone was leaning on me. I was back from the dead for five minutes and everyone had their name on my ass. What did you all think was going to happen? That I'd wash the dirt out from under my nails, sing the hallelujah chorus, and make it all better…the bills, the demons, Dawn, the plumbing, all of it, with a snap of my cute little Slayer fingers?” She wriggled them expressively and was sorry when she saw in his eyes that he was still back with her in that dark coffin. “Never mind,” she said quickly.

Giles sighed. “So…what? So…you should have turned to me then, instead of almost allowing yourself to be swallowed whole by…” He shook his head. “Why wouldn't you let me in? Just answer me that. After everything we'd been through together…all those years. Why him, and not me? Why a bloody vampire…again?”

“Because I needed someone who was on my side.”

“Buffy! I've *always*…!”

She shook her head. “No. I know you, Giles. Maybe better than you know yourself. You're always on the side of what's right, no matter how much badness it involves. Always. You were right about sacrificing Dawn and you were right about sacrificing Spike. Hell, 'he did the right thing' is probably going to be your epitaph.” He was about to retort vehemently but she shook her head. “I was wrong…but that doesn't stop me needing someone to be there with me…not to be wrong, exactly, but to be there, on my side, no matter what.”

A thousand retorts and angry denials leaped to his lips, but Giles spoke almost eerily quietly. “I've always been there, Buffy, regardless of right or wrong. You've just chosen not to notice most of the time.”

Buffy slid out of bed and paced to the window, suddenly edgy. “Not always.”

He sighed a long, slow sigh. “Is my decision to leave always going to stand between us?” He asked sadly.

The harried, unhappy features flashed at him again. “You mean like my stupidity? What do you think? Is it too much? Angel, the Initiative…Spike…” She started to pace again, faster than before. “God, Giles, why are you even here now? What if this is just another one of my 'errors of judgement'?”

“You don't really believe that.”

“I don't know what I believe,” she rasped. “No matter how many stupid mistakes I've made, I keep having to make decisions I don't want to make, choices I don't want to even think about. And I just keep getting it wrong, even when I'm right. Giles, I love you so much…what if I get it wrong again…what if I hurt you again?”

“None of us can guarantee not to make mistakes. All of us have faltered badly on more than one occasion since we've been together…but we all go on.”

She almost smiled a little, her expression wry and a little wistful. “Yeah, well, I guess it is true that I haven't actually tried to *destroy* the world yet, and I generally stick to one love interest at a time…and there's the handy plus that I haven't actually raised any badass demons lately…un…less you count Angelus…and I haven't exactly jilted anyone lately either, so I guess I'm still in the game, even if I have kinda 'faltered' more than everyone else put together, huh?”

At that he did finally smile a little. “Nobody ever said we weren't quite flawed in our own ways…all of us.”

Buffy's eyes dropped. “Yeah, but not going to change anything, huh? It's still me…the former 'One', now the mostly lame-o 'One of many'…and yet…so far the only Slayer who couldn't decide whether to slay'em or lay'em,” she finished disparagingly, rolling her eyes but continuing to regard her feet.

His smile widened further. “Also very good points. One would hope, however, that a decision about 'laying them' has been well and truly taken by now.”

She made a face at him. “Absolutely, on my soul: No…More…Vampires, *ever*. I've decided that at the very least I'd like my lovers to be room temperature…and have a pulse.”

“Lovers?” His tone was teasing and dry, but the question was loud and clear.

The momentary amusement faded as her eyes locked with his.

“Lover…person I love. Figure-of-speech. No plurals…just you, and only you…if we get through this in one piece. Giles, there's never going to be anyone…” She frowned profoundly, searching for the right words. “As we've just established, getting things wrong seems to be my field of expertise. Well, I got things wrong…a lot of things, about us, about love.” She reached up and touched his face. “Now I've finally got something right…so right that if anyone tried to take it away I'd probably stake them on the spot. Giles, until *us*I didn't have a clue who Buffy Summers really was, or what real love could be. For the first time in my life I know what it's really supposed to feel like…be like…and…and it's warm and sweet...and strong and powerful…and sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it's harsh, but I want it…I want you…for always. If I lost you again...”

The green eyes darkened almost to the colour of the patch in one of them, sadness making them painfully bleak.

With the hurt in them, came gradual awareness for Buffy of the import of those last five words from his perspective. Slowly, she reached up and touchedf his cheek again. “I know,” she said softly. “But I won't ever go away again, I promise…at least, not if I have any choice…”

He drew her into his arms. “Then we must make certain you always have a choice.”

After a tense silence, Buffy spoke. “You mean like I have a choice about these stones?” She asked dryly.

Giles kissed the top of her head. “Of course,” he smiled at last. “Your choice is to win.”

Buffy snorted and pulled away gently to look up at him. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

He tilted his head to one side. “I must say I'm having trouble remembering…”

She looked almost comically disappointed.

Giles chuckled. “I think you might have mentioned it a time…or ten…in the last few weeks. And I think perhaps the whole building might have heard your appreciation when we tried that lovely posit—” He couldn't speak anymore for the lips that crushed his into silence.

As always, within moments a thrill went through his body, repeated when her soft one arched against him and they were once again swept away on a tide of passion…


*******

“Don't tell me…the Crocodile Hunter is really a Gorag demon, right? That would explain everything…”

Giles chuckled. “One wonders.”

Buffy stretched and smiled. “I can't believe how good it feels to actually wake up and look forward to the day…all day…and all night. It's been so long I really can't remember what it was like, y'know? I think there was ice-skating involved, and possibly the buying of clothes…”

“Possibly,” he agreed dryly, well aware of her former clothes obsession and the often unlikely, even ludicrous outfits she would appear in to train or go on patrol.

“What would you like to do today?”

“You mean I don't have to go fight the good fight for these stones of yours today?”

He slipped another piece of melon into her mouth and another into his own, before picking up his tea again.

Buffy swallowed. “Do you want your toast?” Giles shook his head and watched as she moved it to her own plate. “So we can do anything we want today?”

He nodded. “Anything, even shopping, if that's what you really want to do.”

She looked up from pouring milk on her muesli. “What about you? What do you want to do?” She frowned then. “God, that felt so weird, which is really, really bad. I can't believe you put up with the three of us all these years. I mean, I can't remember any one of us ever asking you that…not even once. “

“Well it was excusable when you were all still children and preoccupied with effort of addressing your approaching adulthood—”

“Not to mention addressing approaching vampires, demons, monsters, gobl—”

“…AS I was saying,” Giles interrupted, “I understood. And I knew you all cared, for all that. On the other hand later on, it became more and more difficult to tell…”

“Points for subtlety there, Rupert,” she drawled, sliding a strawberry over his impossibly sensual lips and watching him draw it into his mouth.

He inclined his head as he chewed the fruit. “Thank you. I thought so.”

“So…tell me what you want to do today. I think I'd like to do that, whatever it is, more than anything.”

Giles leaned forward and trailed another strawberry over lips, her chin, down her pale throat to her cleavage and traced circles around the soft globes, and the small pink nipples already standing erect and dimpled.

“Oh, I don't know,” he said idly and trailed the small, chilled, piece of fruit down to her navel, circled it lazily then continued downward. “I can't really think of a thing…”


*******

“Did I mention how glad I was that I let you choose what we were going to do today?”

Giles watched his companion stretch and turn her face up to the bright, late afternoon sun. “Then you didn't mind not leaving the hotel room until after lunch?” he teased.

Buffy's eyes danced and her voice dropped to a provocative tone. “I wouldn't have minded not leaving at all.”

He laughed a little at that and smiled. “I suppose we could have made do with room service…”

“Of course that would mean that we weren't sitting here drinking…what is this? Oh, yeah…Tropical Itches…” She paused again at his expression and wrinkled her nose. “Okay, so you're drinking boring old beer…but look at the view…how many sunsets do we ever get to see…and how many of 'em look like this?” She swept a hand expansively across the view of the bow of the catamaran they were on, toward the fiery sunset and its reflection on the waters of the near-windless harbour. They'd passed under the bridge and glided past the unlikely, but truly beautiful opera house, cruised lazily around the harbour and were now on their way back, towards the end of their adventure.

Giles watched her for a long moment. “You've changed. And there's nothing boring about Australian beer.”

She looked at him over her drink, with what Xander would call a 'duh' expression on her face, and a question in her eyes.

He answered. “Not so long ago you wouldn't have been able to sit still, let alone appreciate the view, or the moment, particularly at this hour…”

“Not so long ago I was all there was…it needed me and I needed it…the patrolling—the hunting, the world-saving… Now…”

“Now…?”

“Now it doesn't need me anymore and somehow, I don't seem to need it so much anymore, either. Think that might have to do with how happy and content a certain someone makes me feel?”

He grinned again and deliberately slipped into his 'Watcher voice'. “Very likely. The drives of a Slayer are very powerful and you frequently had no outlet for those…er …drives… other than the act of the hunt, itself.”

She stopped sipping at the large green drink and smiled widely. “Now my drives can hardly keep up with their new 'outlet',” she purred and touched his hand, to have hers engulfed by his elegant fingers.

“Are you really happy?”

She returned the pressure and replied, strong emotion in her voice, “I'm whole, Giles.”

Their eyes held for a long time then he nodded.

Buffy raised her cocktail. “To love…the forever kind.” Her grey blue eyes grew bright with both emotion and the smouldering edge of passion. “To us.”

Giles touched his glass of Carlton draught to hers, his green ones darkening in reply.

“To us.”


*******


“I thought we were going to end up in the desert, or wading up a crocodile-infested creek or…”

“I said the stones were brought here a very long time ago. I did not say that where we were going would be in the least primitive, nor did I say the conditions would necessarily be harsh. You were the one who immediately assumed it would be some kind of…rather unpleasant…tribal rite.”

“Yeah, like the first thing thousand year old mystical stones call to mind is a water taxi ride across Sydney harbour to a to-die-for house overlooking the water.”

Giles rang the doorbell.

Just when Buffy had decided that things were looking decidedly normal, the door opened and an Isgoth demon peered down at them from its statuesque seven foot six height, it's almost crystalline blue eyes appraising them beneath fine white eyebrows and a flowing silver mane barely tamed by a beaten silver or pewter clasp.

“Hey there,” Buffy said brightly, only to be elbowed, albeit gently, by Giles.

“Hello, Rogan.”

“Greetings, Rupert.”

“Rogan D'Aignoth Var K'Zah'klel, I would like you to meet Buffy Summers. Buffy, this is Rogan, Keeper of the Stones.”

“Rogan?” Buffy asked, holding the glittering blue gaze with her bemused grey one.

“Through the millennia I have travelled this dimension, I have found it best to choose a name that is comfortable in the mouths of those with whom I must deal.”

“I get that,” she empathized, secretly envying the almost translucent and impossibly perfect blue-white skin.

“I invite you into my home.”

Buffy frowned and then looked up at Giles.

“You're being invited to enter. Rogan doesn't think you're a vampire. It's just his people's custom. No Isgoth demon would enter another's home without a formal invitation.”

“Oh.” She turned back to the demon, whom she could now swear was trying to suppress amusement. “Well, thanks.”

They made their way into the immaculate home, and through the normal, if incredibly expensively furnished, living room, down a corridor and through a door to…

She blinked. “We're not in Kansas any more, Toto.”

“Ah, no,” Giles agreed as Rogan's impressive bulk sort of slowly faded out until they were left alone in the eerie, bluish silver world.

“Let me guess. The Isgoth dimension, right?”

“More or less.”

“More…Or less?

Giles cleared his throat. “Less. Actually, it's complicated. This is…well, it's rather like a dimensional hermit shell. As you can see, Rogan's real environment bears very little resemblance to ours. This enables him to essentially stay sane when travelling for prolonged periods of time outside his own dimension.”

After a few moments to digest that, Buffy sighed. “So I guess we're going to be doing the test thing after all, huh?”

“Um, yes. Right now, in fact.”

At the sound of a shrill whistle, Buffy turned swiftly, but rather than ferocious beasts or vampires about to attack them, she found a small Isgoth child, about her own height, but quite obviously a juvenile, blinking at her with huge violet eyes.

“Hey there,” she said quietly, every nerve screaming as she stood down from attack mode as fast as her body had locked into it in the first place.

The child appeared to begin to smile self-consciously, then disappeared.

“Oo-kay.”

“Yes, fascinating,” Giles agreed soberly, scanning the area carefully. “Behind you.”

She wheeled again as a truly huge four-legged, gun-metal grey beast, the like of which she'd never seen before, leaped out of the darkness toward Giles, four rows of razor-sharp shark-like teeth bared. In the time it took her to turn, Buffy hurled herself in front of it and stopped its forward momentum with her own body. It crashed to its knees, then scrambled up and lunged at her. Still shaking her head and catching her wind from the force of the impact, Buffy was forced to think quickly, grabbing the creature by its reptilian head to keep it from taking s'mores out of her hide.

“Buffy!” Giles roared, trying to find something, anything in the way of a weapon that would help. As always, he carried a concealed stake, and cross…neither of which was going to do very much good against that hide. With a small noise he dove into his inside pocket, under his wallet, and pulled out the penknife…not so much a weapon as a utility device, and pulled open the small blade.

By that time Buffy and the beast were rolling on the ground, the creature trying to rake Buffy's back with its talon-like claws, her grunts revealing the strain she was under just from holding back the powerful head.

Without thought for his own safety, Giles launched himself into the fray, getting as close to the creature's rump as possible, knowing that its heart was far more likely to be located there than in its chest.

Aware of what he was doing, the creature swiped at him several times and swung away as he closed in, but that only gave Buffy the opportunity to throw it off balance and roll so that she was no longer pinned, though still anchored to the fearsome head.

At the height of the confusion of the roll Giles took his chance and plunged the blade of the pocket-knife into the lizard-like flesh of the left rump all the way to the hilt. The beast screamed in outrage, but seemed barely affected by the injury in terms of strength and power. It took a little longer to retrieve the blade, but Giles persisted, this time choosing a traditional target. It shrieked and yowled and threw its head back, finally wrenching it from Buffy's hands as it tried to dislodge the blade from its eye.

The distraction was enough for Buffy to finish the job, using Slayer Strength to swiftly break the creature's neck. She looked up as it slid to the floor and vanished, then scrambled to get to Giles' side. He was breathing hard and holding a long slice that had shredded his left shirtsleeve and soaked it with blood.

“It's all right; not too deep,” he said hoarsely, between breaths, as she fussed.

The area suddenly grew very bright, and both of them looked around urgently for more trouble. Instead, a large portal had appeared.

Through it they could both see…of all things…Sunnydale High School. The past. And the past was flashing by, ridiculously like a fast-frame DVD search, starting with Buffy's romance with Angel, and Giles with Jenny, through the horror of Angelus, including the night Buffy spent with Angel and his transformation in the morning. On and on until Giles couldn't mute a strangled noise of pain as he watched Angelus despatch Jenny at the school. Buffy's legs gave out, leaving her on her knees as she watched the aftermath and the true horror of Angelus' cruelty, at Giles' apartment.

Next to her Giles stood, silent and frozen, but for the trembling of hands that would not be stilled.

Still kneeling, Buffy lost all colour and expression when the procession of their personal history reached the vision of Giles, wounded, broken, tied in a chair and contorted in agony as Angelus toyed with the broken fingers on the bound hands, and laughed. When it didn't stop, she longed to turn away, but couldn't, held captive now by sorrow as she finally faced the truth about that day and the choices she'd made. When Angelus opened a cloth and spread out the same set of instruments Faith was going to use on her, Buffy sobbed, but by then she not only could not, but would not, look away.

They both watched in silence, only Giles' rasping breathing and her jagged intakes of breath punctuating the silence. On and on it continued until the rescue, and Xander taking Giles away while Buffy fought on. It was Giles' turn to make an anguished noise as he watched his charge struggle with the choice to consign an ensouled Angel to hell forever before the sword, once again, plunged downward.

The perspective immediately switched to the hospital and Xander finally leaving Giles' bedside in the early hours of the morning in the belief that the older man had drifted off to sleep, despite the obvious discomforts of the drip and the splinted and boarded fingers and hand.

Not until Xander had been gone for several minutes did that Giles' eyes open again, a look of such despair, such pain in them.

Next to Buffy, Giles looked away, but she could not, her insides twisted and screaming as she watched those strong, steady eyes gradually fill with moisture and the broken, battered body curl agonisingly into a foetal ball as he began to weep in earnest: racking, lonely sobs that no one would ever hear, no one would ever see. Buffy's hands curled into fists and her mouth set in an angry line, unaware of the moisture that had tracked down so far it was slipping from her jaws and dripping untidily onto the front of her blouse.

Then, suddenly, the scene changed again and a small noise from Buffy made Giles turn back. He watched in silence, his expression dark, as the younger version of his lover discovered the returned vampire and hid him, helped him, and struggled with the choices she had, to ultimately make the wrong one, yet again.

Buffy yelped as the vision filled with Gwen Post's almost fatal assault on Giles, then swore, using an epithet he never thought to hear from her lips, when she saw the paramedic at Giles' side and recalled her words: 'You want him to live? Get out of the way…'

Then they were watching Giles, in the hospital, alone. This time not even Xander stood by his side…just a single lonely nurse, sitting quietly in a corner watching the monitors, his drip, listening to the monotonous beep of the monitor as she waited while he hovered between life and death.

Giles sighed. He had been grateful afterward that they hadn't had to operate to relieve pressure beneath the wound. Hospitals were bad enough for one or two days, let alone the time needed to recovery from neurosurgery.

Buffy watched when it was time for Giles to be discharged, still with none of them there to help, sitting on the side of the bed, gingerly trying to dress himself before the nurse returned with a wheelchair to take him through to a waiting cab. By now her heart had constricted into a tiny ball, the pain in her chest as relentless as the ache in her soul.

Then the scene was changing again and Giles saw himself, replete in robe and flourishing a whisky glass, and the look of surprise when Olivia appeared, then the stunned betrayal on his Slayer's face when he dismissed her. The vision prompted him to remember how much he'd enjoyed confronting her with the idea that he was actually a man, and not some aged eunuch retainer, and then hit him with the seeming indifference with which he'd cast her loose, his calculated effort to force her to embrace her independence as foolishly ill-timed as his departure after her return from the grave.

Both of them suffered through more memories as Riley slid by, Joyce's death, and a plethora of other hurts…shared and otherwise, before they were confronted by themselves, angry and frightened, shouting at each other, raging about the coming battle with Glory.

Giles' heart felt fit to burst. He didn't know if he could bear to relive that period, and he certainly couldn't bear Buffy to find out about Ben this way…or to see the way they all fell to pieces after her death…

Neither of them, however, was spared a single detail. Giles heard the rattle of Buffy's disbelieving gasp when his younger self smothered the pathetic Ben to prevent him from trading the entire world for his own existence.

The silence continued as they were both forced to relive the aftermath of Buffy's death, and worse, the horror of her resurrection…through her eyes. Then, finally, there was their reunion. Buffy found the pathetic, emotionally crippled wreck that she was then, almost impossible to look at, let alone understand how she could have been so blind…as time and again Giles tried to reach out, only to be pushed away, and Spike hovered, always with the right word, the right gesture…waiting…waiting.

For his part, Giles remained silent, angry at having to relive not only his grief after her death, but the humiliation of her repeated rejections just when he'd thought he had her back…when he thought perhaps…just perhaps…he'd been given a second chance…only to find that what Willow had resurrected no more resembled the fiery, determined Slayer he'd once known and loved, than even the most perfect silk imitation resembled a rose…

The montage continued relentlessly.

Both cringed at the raw pain and hurt in the exchange between them when he announced that he was leaving, neither of them grasping what it really was that was driving them apart.

As Buffy physically made herself smaller, while the train-wreck that was her relationship with Spike flashed by…making both of them almost physically sick at times, Giles began to wonder why this was happening to them: what purpose could possibly be achieved by making them confront or relive all this abject misery, humiliation and pain. He knew that Buffy was going to be as haunted by the revelations about him as he was by those stark images of her descent into darkness…so much heartache and despair and no one to save either of them, except each other.

And both of them too stubborn and too stupid to realize it before now…

Before the montage was anywhere near over, they pulled away almost simultaneously, turned from each other as, behind them, a lonely Giles returned to a cold and silent Bath flat, unlocking the door and padding across a darkened room to slump despondently in an armchair next to its empty mate, while a moment later an equally lonely Buffy returned from Slaying to a darkened, silent Sunnydale house, padded across the living room and curled up in her mother's chair without turning on the light.

The real Buffy and Giles withdrew even further from the portal, so that it stopped, as though a living link had severed. Neither of them noticed at first, so engulfed were they by the enormity of their past, in all its flaws, its brilliance…and horror, and what lay, until now, just beyond the façade they presented to each other.

The silence dragged on. It was impossible to know where to start…even more impossible to move, to make numb bodies turn or pale faces meet.

Finally, as though in silent concert still, they turned together, began to speak…together.

“Buffy, you don't …”

“Giles, you can't…”

And fell silent again…together.

The blue-grey eyes rolled up to look at his drawn, tired face and to try unsuccessfully to meet the familiar green gaze.

“If Alan Funt steps out now, can I stake him?”

Giles' gaze flew, almost against his will, to hers then.

Their eyes locked, both near to tears again; both angry, humiliated, embarrassed and finally…full of sorrow.

“Not if I get to him first with this,” Giles said through his teeth, comically flourishing the tiny knife.

And then the weave, drawn to breaking point, began to unravel, both of them starting with a snicker, and rapidly devolving into a near-histrionic roar of laughter, soon punctuated by chokes, and then by tears.

Still laughing, and weeping, they staggered into each other and finally sank to the floor together, the guffaws giving way to sobs as they fell into each other's arms and held on; held on against the tide of recrimination, self-hatred and fear.

“Please…don't hate me,” Buffy whispered when they finally quieted. “I'll go away…anything. Anything but that.”

Giles' voice was strong but wrung by emotion, and as sad as hers. “There is nowhere we can go that's far enough away from what we are.”

“Yes there is,” Buffy reminded him quietly.

Giles closed his eyes, his voice harsh. “No. Not again. Not on my watch.” A moment later he opened them again, captured and held her gaze. “I could never hate you, Buffy. Despair, yes; even despise, at times…but I could never…I cannot…hate that which I love with all my heart.”

A fresh sob caught in her throat, making a terrible noise and almost choking her, as she swallowed it back down. “You can't do that…how can you do that? You saw…you saw it all…what I am…what I did…”

“And so did you.”

Buffy stared at him for a long moment. “I saw a good man beaten down by the hand he was dealt…by me…pretty much.” Her trembling voice dropped to an unsteady whisper. “I may hate what you did to Ben…but not as much as I hate myself for making you do it…forcing you to have to make that choice so I didn't have to.”

Giles' eyes widened at the self-loathing in her voice.

“I know,” she said, watching him. “I know. I'm supposed to be tearing you to shreds right now, yelling excuses and the kind of sanctimonious garbage I used to justify bailing on you then, and how many other times when I couldn't deal any other way? Ben shouldn't have had to die, but someone had to end it…or it would all have been for nothing…and way more innocent people would have paid. I should have known that…should have understood what had to be done….” She half smiled, but it died on her lips. “Funny, even dying never gave me this kind of clarity…unless you count an absolute certainty that I AM going to be cremated next time and scattered somewhere open and preferably pretty…” She paused for a moment, then added: “and that M&Ms were never meant to have peanuts in them…”

It was Giles' turn to almost smile. Buffy would always be Buffy… But it faded just as quickly from his lips as the attendant baggage closed in to crush them both down again.

“I'm sorry…about Ben,” he said quietly, half a lifetime of words on the tip of his tongue, but no desire left to say them.

“I know.” She dropped her gaze. “I'm sorry too.”

The awkward silence returned.

“We aren't good at this, are we?” Buffy finally said without looking up.

“Bloody hopeless,” he agreed just as uncomfortably, also without moving his gaze from the ground.

Finally Buffy took a deep breath and raised her head.

“Bitch.”

Giles raised his then, surprised but unruffled by the gesture. He nodded.

“Bastard.”

Her eyes lit up and she nodded back, but did not move. The next few seconds were the longest and most agonising of her life. And then it happened.

Slowly and deliberately, Giles opened his arms.

Her legs turned to jelly and she almost literally didn't make it.

For a time they simply held each other, before seeking each other out, mouths merging into a kiss that didn't end until reality unravelled around them and they found themselves back in the house.

They broke apart and shuffled backwards, away from each other.

“Did we fail?” Buffy asked warily, brushing hair out of her eyes, oblivious to her pale face and completely ruined make up.

Giles shook his head and looked around warily, not looking very much better. “I have no idea.”

The fair eyebrows frowned again. “Your arm…?”

Giles lifted his bloodied arm and drew the shredded fabric back. All that remained of his wound was a fine, scabbed line the length of the original site. He dropped it again and shrugged.

Just then Rogan appeared as if from thin air, which perhaps he had.

He smiled. “You have completed the trials successfully.”

“We have?”

The taciturn Isgoth turned to her. “You would become the Guardians of the Stones. To prove that you were worthy of the task…that such a burden could be entrusted to you…” His eyes moved from one to the other. “We had to know who you truly were.”

Buffy dragged a harried hand through her hair, grey eyes flashing with consternation.

“I don't get it. That portal thingy just showed you how horrible I am…how much badness there was…even that monster didn't prove…I mean, that's just what I do…”

Rogan smiled and flicked a glance toward Giles. “Ask him,” he said, handing Giles a black velvet bag tied with a silver thread, and sealed with what looked like a twisted ring of fresh herbs, blue and grey and aromatic, before vanishing once again.

Giles stared down at the bag for a while, as though he'd forgotten what they'd come for in the first place.

“So,” Buffy finally prompted, her voice betraying still frayed nerves.

He looked up slowly, enlightenment glowing in his eyes.

“The first test wasn't about strength or courage. It was about character…and judgement. You were in full attack mode. At that point, most warriors would not have stopped to consider that it was a juvenile, or meant no harm. You did. Not only that, but you were genuinely concerned and showed kindness despite being in a state of agitated readiness to fight.”

“In other words …I passed.”

He nodded.

“The second test was also less about strength than about courage and loyalty…and about the bond between us. We were, essentially, ready to die for each other but, united, we were able to overcome.”

“That's two ticks for us,” she smiled, though it was only a shadow of her usual grin. “But I should have had a huge 'Reject' stamp across my ass after that last one. You saw. I saw. It was pretty obvious…and it *wasn't* pretty.”

Giles rolled his eyes at the play on words. “No, it wasn't. But they weren't judging us on what we saw. They were judging us on how we dealt with it. Do you think you can tell me why we passed, now?”

Buffy frowned, looking more fragile than she had since that day he'd first laid eyes on her after her return from the grave. She shook her head. “I really don't know. Of course I know why they'd pick you, but honestly…even I wouldn't pick me after that.”

He couldn't stop a chuckle, which didn't endear him. “I'm sorry, love,” he said ruefully, at her mildly affronted expression, and then made an effort to sober up again. “I was thinking about it the whole time Rogan was talking to us. They showed us the darkest parts of ourselves…the things we'd never show or confide to each other. It was a test of us…of the strength of the bond between us…our love, if you like…”

“So…if we'd had a fight about it, or ended up hating each other, or even just plain made each other sick…or never wanted to speak to each other again…they would have failed us?”

“Something like that,” he said quietly.

“So is that it?”

He stirred from his thoughts. “Um…yes…I believe so.”

“And Rogan's gone? What about his little hermit shell?”

Giles smiled. “It was never really here, and neither was he.”

Buffy looked down at the pouch in his hands and the blood on his sleeve. “Yeah, right. And I'm in Hawaii getting a tan right now.”

He chuckled. “He just borrowed a little piece of our reality for a while and put it in physical terms that our minds could understand. Rogan can go home now. He's found a new keeper of the stones and he won't be required to return until it's time to pass them on again.”

Tired and drawn, Buffy looked up at him with unexpected ferocity. “You lied to me,” she said crossly. His eyes widened, but he waited patiently for an explanation. “There was no impending apocalypse…no world saving.”

“Ah…but that's where you're wrong. The power of these stones in the wrong hands could easily bring about the end of this world, or any other. That is why we were chosen to undertake the test, and now to guard the stones until the next guardians are called.”

“So why not take them back with him? Wouldn't that be the easiest way…?”

Giles shook his head. “The stones belong here. They would cease to exist in Rogan's true reality…and the magick would be unleashed…probably with catastrophic consequences.”

She subsided and closed her eyes. “Oh. I'm sorry…it's just…”

Only too aware how tired they both were of being 'chosen', he trailed his fingers down her cheek and smiled when she leaned into them.

“I know,” he said softly, a myriad of meanings in those two words.

Buffy's eyes opened slowly, and looked up at him with a depth of emotion that moved him more than he could say, and spoke with an intensity that shook both of them.

“I love you, Rupert Giles. With everything that I am, and everything I have. I love you, even though I don't deserve it…and I've never deserved you.”

Still holding her gaze with burning eyes, he stared for the longest time, then leaned down and brushed her mouth with his. “Let's go home,” he said softly.


*******

Buffy roused and blinked at the light streaming into the room, then rolled to find an empty space where her lover should have been.

“Giles?”

“Here,” came the echo from the bathroom.

“Did I have a bad dream last night?”

“Um…depends whether that's a commentary on our love-making or a reference to our adventures across the harbour.” A groan from the other room made him grin.

He emerged from the bathroom wiping the last of his shower from his neck and shoulders, Buffy watching appreciatively as he sauntered across the air-conditioned room.

The previous night's urgent, possessive lovemaking had been about more than sex, or even romance. It had been about rebuilding, and reaffirming…and most of all about letting go.

“You look good enough to eat,” she teased. “And you smell nice.”

“It's that Jovan stuff you bought for me. Personally, I'm not really a musk…”

“It turns me on.”

“Ah. Then it's perfect,” he twinkled, making her giggle.

“Are you okay?”

The smile faded and he came and sat on the bed. “I will be,” he said honestly and reached out to touch her face again. “It's going to take a little time…for both of us.”

She nodded then smiled uncertainly again. “One bright side: suddenly we don't have any secrets left, or issues to fight about…”

“We could, of course, re-cycle old ones,” he suggested, picking up on her mood. “Like the toothpaste cap I found on the floor in the shower…for example…”

“Or not,” she mock-pouted and kissed him on his minty mouth. “What's for breakfast?”

“I rather hoped *you* were,” Giles growled playfully. He kissed her back, drawing her into his arms and chuckling at her 'ick, you're still all damp' and half-hearted squirming before surrendering to the kiss completely, and in fact pushing him onto his back on the bed in one smooth movement.

The large arms went around her and appreciative hands slid down the smooth back and over the inviting curves below it, making her growl with delight and arch against them as the impassioned sharing of mouths, lips and tongues continued.

Giles revelled in her body, the sense of power beneath silken softness, the lithe suppleness of her form, the breasts once again full and female after being gone so long, and the sweet, full curves of her well-shaped buttocks. He could feel himself burning once again with the need to be inside her, to again know the feeling of losing themselves in each other, of the sheer joy of their union...

Joy had been so rare in his life…almost non-existent, in fact, that now, when it had come so close to being taken away from him again, he couldn't get enough of the precious gift he'd been given…they'd been given.

Buffy groaned as he found and pressed himself against the warm, moist folds, and moved to torment him by caressing his length with her heat, over and over until he didn't think he could hold out much longer, and then she moved to break the contact.

Giles made a noise, which Buffy recognised and smiled to herself. She was gone for just seconds, but to Giles it felt like a lifetime. When she came back, it was with something in her hand. A moment later he felt cool drips of something on his almost painfully hard erection. Whatever it was, it was terribly viscose, sliding awfully slowly down his length.

“Buffy…?”

But before he could say more he shuddered. “Jeesss…s'ssss,” he moaned as Buffy set about retrieving those drips of unused Yellow Box honey from the previous day's breakfast tray. It was astonishing what she could do with her tongue while those talented lips moved with such inspiration up and down his throbbing shaft…

And that was his last coherent thought for a while, until, just when he was arching off the bed, chasing her tormenting tongue yet again, Buffy moved, swinging her body back to replace lips and tongue and honey with another hungry place and a very different kind of nectar.

“Giles,” she moaned appreciatively as she guided him in and slid slowly down, growling and moaning much as he was, until she had claimed all of him.

“Yes, my love,” he whispered, clasping her hips just before another groan was torn from him as she began to move, the power of her inner muscles deliberately and deliciously tormenting as she took him with demanding, powerful strokes.

“Deeper,” she growled almost to herself, as her movements grew faster and more frenetic. Giles made a noise in his throat when Buffy seemed to open herself wider and tilt her pelvis so that he could feel himself bumping her cervix, and the urgency of her hunger for the new sensation.

“Please…Oh God, Rupert…please!” She finally cried, and he knew that it was time to begin thrusting back…to give her what she wanted. Moments later he, too, was lost in the tidal wave of pleasure that was rapidly setting his body alight.

Then suddenly Buffy was gasping and her movements became frantic and uncontrolled, her ecstatic cries filling the room. It lit a fuse along the length of his entire body and he felt himself rise up and explode as the lithe body in his hands continued to thrust itself against him again and again until both of them were completely and utterly spent.

Still breathing hard, Buffy leaned forward and kissed him tenderly before looking contentedly into his eyes. “They always say to watch out for the quiet ones.”

He smiled back contentedly. “Now you know why…not that either of us is even remotely quiet when…”

She giggled and shifted. “Hold that thought. I think our timing is off today.”

His face screwed up. “Oh, Lord. Go and start the shower. I'll be right behind you.”

“But you already had a shower this morning…won't you get all pruny?”

“I'd rather be pruny than…oh…for goodness…did you *have* to use honey? It's every where, including some highly inappropriate places…”

“Then we'll put the sign out when we go to dinner,” she called back. “New sheets tonight.”

“It wasn't the sheets I was worried about,” Giles muttered. He got out of bed awkwardly, doing an impression of a bandy-legged bronc-buster for a few seconds before deciding that there was nothing for it and striding to the shower and blessed relief.

Ultimately it was a more than pleasant experience, Buffy taking it upon herself as her personal responsibility to restore things to their previous order. He discovered she was also rather good with a soapy washcloth, good enough to provoke a partial erection by the time she was done.

“Are we done?” She asked playfully when she finally straightened. “Or would you like me to check every square inch again, personally?”

Giles cleared his throat and began soaping her shoulders and back before moving lazily to begin tracing soapy circles around the soft breasts.

“I think we're making good progress, but I'm not quite done yet.” The soap moved south and Buffy gasped as he proved he was nothing if not thorough.

“Mmm…Now I think we're done,” she told him, confiscating his soap before he started to enjoy himself just too much. Now that the intense strain of the last twenty-four hours was finally starting to abate, more basic impulses were starting to become insistent. “I'm starved.”

“So much for the joys of romance,” he grumbled, his errant hands still doing things to her back and buttocks that were making it awfully hard to concentrate on food.

“Rupert, I love you, and I'd happily spend all day in bed with you…as long as there's food. Ohhh…”

Giles smiled as she groaned and pressed against him when he slid his fingers back over her hips and down the sensitive trail to her silky groin, and the now hypersensitive flesh beyond.

“You're not playing…fair,” she breathed, pushing against his provoking touch, before sliding her arms around his neck. “But I still love you. Of course, I'd love you even more if I wasn't so *hungry*.”

“Is that so?” He teased. “And how do I feed this…hunger?”

It was difficult for Buffy to speak while Giles was caressing the sex he'd so expertly inflamed once again.

“Okay,” she breathed, arching back to allow him even better access, “so you can take me out to dinner instead…”


*******

“When I said 'take me out to dinner' I didn't really envision being on the street in somewhere called Wool..Woolo…whatever…at something called 'Harry's Café de Wheels'” Buffy pointed out, carefully enunciating every syllable as she stared at the brightly lit trailer and the harbour beyond.

“Woolloomooloo,” Giles provided. “And Harry's has been here in one form or another since at least 1945. It's an institution, and a famous one. Surely you can't tell me that smell doesn't make you ravenous?”

Buffy made a small sound of capitulation and slid her arm through his. “Okay. Feed me,” she told him cheerfully.

When Giles returned it was with two parcels. Buffy eyed the concoction in his right hand. “What *is* that and should I be afraid?”

“This…this is my dinner,” Giles announced with genuine relish. “I've dreamed about these for years.”

“You've been here before?”

“Well, um, yes. Council business. Not exactly the conversational kind, and over twenty years ago, actually, but I never forgot the smell or the taste of one of these…”

Again, Buffy eyed what looked like some kind of mini pie with mushy peas piled on it, and ketchup over all that, as though it might explode.

“Tell you what,” Giles proposed. “You try this and if you don't like it, I've brought you a hot dog with the lot…as American as they could make it for you.”

He was so genuinely pleased, so uncharacteristically kid-like and happy with his weird Aussie food that Buffy relented. She was starved and it smelled glorious, regardless of how it looked.

Giles watched her take a big mouthful, pies, peas, and meat and gravy filling and caught the edges as they fell apart, as Aussie meat pies were wont to do, then grinned as her expression went from extreme wariness to surprise to comical pleasure, to sheer bliss.

“Mm…oh, God, this is…you never said. Giles, this is...Mm…” She retrieved gravy and peas from her chin with the tip of her tongue. “Do I have to eat the 'dog?”

Amused, and obviously pleased, Giles shook his head and handed her the rest of the 'Pie and Peas,' before disappearing for several moments and returning with another one for himself.

When they were done, and sharing a soda, Buffy looked up at him, and watched the sea breeze lifting the salt-and-pepperish locks and caressing a flushed and contented face. He looked so different…at peace.

“You didn't tell me that mushy peas and ketchup are like…the food of the Gods,” she teased, enjoying this small moment, when for the first time in all their years together, she was seeing a glimpse of what Rupert Giles might be like without the weight of the world on his shoulders…

He looked down at her and grinned crookedly, remembering the pleasure on her face after her first taste. “They are absolutely brilliant, aren't they?”

“Totally,” Buffy agreed, wishing their vacation could last forever.

The walk back to their hotel room was a long one, and Buffy was relieved and pleased to find not one vampire or demon on the way, only the silence of perfect companionship, leaning against Giles' warm side, his arm protectively around her as they ambled back, enjoying the beautiful night.

The magic seemed to fade away when they stepped into the relatively harsh lights of the lobby, and a slightly more subdued pair rode the elevator and let themselves in to their room.

Buffy went to the window and drew the curtains right back without turning on the lights. The night ocean view was quite breathtaking, and somehow made it feel a little magical again.

Giles came and slid his arms around her, smiling as she leaned against him. “It's Valentine's Day…as of about twenty-five minutes ago.”

She tensed, obviously surprised, for a moment or two, then relaxed into his arms again. “Not exactly where or how I planned to spend it. Besides, I'd have sworn it was tomorrow…”

“Well it is, more or less, in the US…international date line, and all that.”

“Oh.” The note of disappointment was fleeting. There would soon be another chance to give him her gift, but it would have been nice…she sighed. “Well there's always next year.”

Buffy turned in his arms, wrapped hers around him, hugging him tightly and sighing contentedly when he returned the bear-hug with one of his own…warm and engulfing and just about one of her most favourite things in the world.

Giles kissed the top of the blonde head. They'd come so far; overcome so many obstacles. He found it almost impossible at times to grasp that it was real…that it wasn't all some sort of mirage…or hallucination…that he wouldn't ultimately wake up alone yet again, to a nightmare realisation that it had been nothing more than dreams and mirrors…

“Actually I do have something for you,” he said eventually.

Buffy pulled back enough to look up at him speculatively. “You do?”

“Well, yes. I'll just…”

While Giles went to his suitcase and undid the combination lock, Buffy slipped around her side of the bed and picked up her make up bag, slipping a small box from it and returning to the window just before he did.

When she realised he'd brought the soft black velvet bag Rogan had given him with the stones in, she wondered if she'd made a mistake. She was even more puzzled when he removed the protective amulet and undid the cord that drew the top of the bag closed.

She slipped the package in her hand into her jacket pocket, preferring to wait until she knew what he was up to. At least, she told herself, she would finally get to see what they'd done all those tests for and why they'd come halfway round the world to do it…

“Happy Valentine's Day, love,” he said, surprising her again, before setting first one piece, then another and another on the glass top of the small breakfast table in front of the window.

Buffy stared. There were trillion cut earrings, a teardrop pendant and a bracelet set with six brilliant cabochons of the same stone, all set in exquisite white gold. The stones were the most intense, beautiful blue colour and when turned slightly, red and violet lights danced in their depths, entrancing her.

“The gem is called tanzanite, though it's actually a form of zoisite, but you won't find any specimens anywhere to match these. ”

Buffy looked up at him fondly, used to his tendency to lapse into academic jargon, and waited for him to finish.

“Millenia ago, in what is now Tanzania, two powerful sorcerers, one Isgoth and one of the 'Old ones' who used to walk this Earth, fought an apocalyptic battle over its very survival. At times incredibly intense bursts of powerful magical energy missed their target and hit the earth itself. These gems were cut from stones that were struck by that energy. The colour is not only from the intense heat, but from the magicks that remain locked in them.”

“You mean they're actually evil? I knew there'd be a catch.”

Giles sighed. “In a manner of speaking, since the power contained within them in the wrong hands could be catastrophic. However, in the right hands they're no more dangerous than ordinary rubies, emeralds or diamonds.”

Buffy picked up the pendant and turned the stone to catch the light, watching the fiery red and purple flashes in the intense blue-violet of the stone. “So they're mine, to have and to hold, and to keep away from the bad guys, forever and ever?”

He smiled fondly. “When Rogan informed me that we had been chosen as the next Guardians of the Stones, I asked him as personal favour to me, to have the Isgoth Mages arrange to fashion the uncut stones into these. Only they could produce strong enough wards to allow the cutting of the stones without drastic consequences.”

“And…they didn't mind? I mean, I love them, Rupert, but I'm guessing they didn't love the idea of making something that dangerous pretty just for me…”

“Ah, but you see, when I discussed the idea of cutting them with Rogan he saw immediately the value of hiding something in plain sight. Tanzanite is no longer unusual. In fact, you can even buy it on the internet these days.” He rolled his eyes. “The plan is that these are to be yours for as long as you live, and it was agreed that the best way to make them 'invisible' while in your possession, was to do the previously unthinkable…”

Buffy looked down at the magnificent stones. “It didn't spoil them, did it? Make them less than they were before?”

Giles shook his head. “There was always that possibility, but as you can see, they're quite magnificent and unlikely to be matched anywhere. The power also remains firmly locked within them. The Isgoth Mages and their craftsmen are obviously of the highest calibre. Nothing was overlooked. The settings even contain lapis-lazuli for additional protection.”

Buffy turned the pendant over.

“You see,” Giles pointed out. “The fine design in the metal…contains crystals of lapis-lazuli to enhance its protective qualities.”

All Buffy knew was that the pieces were exquisite and that, as if it wasn't already, this Valentine's Day was continuing to turn out to be one she would never forget.

“I'm glad they weren't spoiled. I think this is one job as the Slayer that I'm going to really enjoy doing.”

Giles chuckled. “I thought that might be the case.”

And then, unexpectedly, he drew something from his pocket.

With a combination of fear and excitement, Buffy allowed him to place the item gently in her palm before looking down very slowly.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “It's beautiful.”

The smallest, but most spectacular Tanzanite gem of all was an oval set above a circlet of fiery diamonds, on a band of the same design and material as the other pieces, except that tinier diamonds were also inlaid in the shoulders of the ring.

She looked up very slowly.

He cleared his throat. “I…um…well, we don't want your mother 'haunting my arse off' do we?”

Her eyes grew very bright and she passed him the ring, extending her hand and allowing him to hold her fingers as he slid it on. It fit perfectly, as she knew it would.

“So…” she said softly.

“So…” he agreed, not relaxing until she smiled…a slow burning grin that glowed even more brightly than the sparkling gems on her fingers and on the table.

“So…does this mean I'm going to have to dance naked by the light of the moon, now?”

Giles flushed red, something he did occasionally, not because he was truly embarrassed by much of anything anymore, but simply because he was Rupert.

A rush of love for this man who loved her like no other, and who could still be momentarily caught by surprise and blush so adorably, or be driven to giggle fits even in the middle of the most serious research, by something genuinely funny or whimsical, almost overwhelmed her.

“I was hoping,” he admitted in a serious voice that convinced her for all of a few seconds…at least until the look of alarm on her face sent him into one of those infamous fits of giggles.

It wasn't long before Buffy joined him. It was some time before either of them could look each other in the face without starting up again.

“Oh…God…I can't believe we've made it this far. We should have either died or killed each other by now,” she wheezed, finally able to get the words out.

“I can,” Giles managed, coughing, and banishing the giggles with equal difficulty. “I've had fifty years to get it right. I was willing to concede you a half dozen or so to catch up.”

Buffy's cheeks flamed, despite the teasing tone of his voice. She had needed every one of those years, and far too many apocalypses, ill-fated love affairs, not to mention *deaths* before coming anywhere near getting it right.

“Well, now that I'm closing in, maybe we could speed up the next stage so we can get to planning the one after that? I was kinda thinking sooner, rather than later…?”

Giles' jaw dropped, almost literally. Buffy was still young…and still very much Buffy. He'd always been certain it would be a very long time before she would want to consider the possibility of children, much less the less attractive aspects of child-bearing.

She moved very close to him and cupped his face with her hands. “Oh, don't worry: you're going to have to deal with me when I'm eight months pregnant and the stretchmarks are like train-tracks, the potty breaks are out of control, my boobs hurt and I can't lie on my stomach anymore…and those are just the ones I can think of right away…” She paused, a mildly appalled look on her face, then remembered what the point of it all was and smiled again. “You really will probably catch hell for all those, but there is nothing I want more than to spend the rest of my life with you and to make a small Giles and a small Buffy…in no particular order and not really caring who looks like who…”

Giles was still staring at her with wonderment as her arms moved around his neck. “I gather that this means you will marry me, then?”

Buffy kissed the tip of his nose, then his mouth. “Marry you, have your babies, help you find and train all those future Slayers…and have great sex until we're a hundred…ish,” She confirmed. “I can't guarantee I can change overnight, but want to learn how to be better…to take care of you as much you've taken care of me. I'll probably make lots of horrible mistakes…but I will *never* stop loving you…if you still think you can put up with me, that is…”

Giles half smiled, then looked deep into her eyes. “And you're sure?”

Buffy stared back at him for a long moment, trying to fathom the lingering doubt that could spawn a question like that even now. And then she pulled the small box from her pocket and gave it to him.

Mystified, he opened it and stared at the contents. “Buffy…”

“Well, hey, you know me…not so good with the waiting. I figured if you weren't ready to do it, I would.”

Giles lifted the heavy gold band from the velvet box, examining its finely worked design and bevelled edges, and reading the Latin engraving on the inside, courtesy of a protection spell from Willow. He didn't know what to say, so he simply handed it to her, and waited while she slid it on his finger. It fit perfectly.

Buffy beamed, her joy infectious. “We'll need it for the ceremony, but it looks kinda great there, doesn't it?”

Slowly, Giles grinned too, years slipping away, shadows disappearing as the truth sank in and the shape of his future unfolded before him.

“Yes, it does,” he said softly, his voice charged. “It truly does.”



* * *